When the spies got back from Canaan and delivered their bleak report, the Jewish People were devastated. They rued the day they ever left Egypt, that the arduous journey had been a colossal waste. If they were just going to die attempting to take the land, the thinking went, they’d be better off going back to Egypt with a new leader who was a little more realistic.
The aftermath of their poor response was that this lost generation would aimlessly wander the wilderness for nearly 40 years. Once these adults had all died, their children would have another go at conquering and establishing a new nation in the Land of Israel.
But something doesn’t quite add up.
We ought to expect the conspiracy itself to be the crime, painting the Land of Israel as an impossible goal, but it’s not. While it’s the catalyst for the story going off the rails, the Torah is explicit that it was only the people’s reaction to the news that dooms them:
בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִפְּלוּ פִגְרֵיכֶם וְכָל-פְּקֻדֵיכֶם, לְכָל-מִסְפַּרְכֶם, מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה, וָמָעְלָה: אֲשֶׁר הֲלִינֹתֶם, עָלָי – “In this wilderness shall your corpses drop, all of you who were recorded in the lists from the age of twenty years up, you who have complained towards Me.” (14:29)
When people hear bad news, it is quite normal – expected, even – to react negatively. That’s why it’s called bad news!
The people believed the scout reports, coming as they did from established and trusted leaders, that the task ahead was impossible. Even if we say they overreacted and took it too far, how does the punishment fit the crime?
There are many nations and many states. Many had come before, and many have come since. But the situation in this story was unique, both before and since.
The Jewish People in the Land of Israel are not just one more on the list.
Correctly executed, it is fundamentally and qualitatively different, with goals and values unlike any other. It is the culmination of a centuries-old hope and vision, with many careful and deliberate stops along the way. From Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, through Canaan, Egypt, and Sinai, the Torah paves before us a winding path to build something new that no one has ever seen or done before.
Yet even after witnessing the events of Egypt, the Red Sea, Sinai, the clouds, the manna, and the water, cared for daily as much as anyone can be by the hand of God Himself; in the face of even the slightest adversity, their worst inclinations get the best of them, revealing that these people never really left Egypt at all. Here they are on the threshold of greatness, and they only want to turn around and go right back!
God is so let down, to the extent that God considers killing them all, even the children, illustrating the seriousness of this misstep. Not believing in their great mission was a failure they could not recover from, and the result was catastrophe.
Building a new model for a Torah society cannot happen by itself, or else it would; it requires pioneers with hope and vision. If that’s the attitude and perspective required to achieve the lofty divine goal of establishing the Jewish People in the Land of Israel, how could these people ever hope to succeed?
They just weren’t ready.
But maybe their children could be.
To accomplish something no one has ever done before takes a certain character, perspective, and resiliency; anyone who’s ever taken on something bold and ambitious knows it. If it were easy, someone else would have done it – but just because no one else has done it yet, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
A great vision can never come to fruition with half-hearted execution; you need to believe to achieve.
Who can do it? The people who want it badly enough.