The Jewish People left Egypt and slowly made their way to the Promised Land. But the Promised Land had been settled already, and the Jewish People had to do some planning, so they sent scouts.
When the scouts got back from Canaan, they delivered a bleak report about the battles that lay ahead, and 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.
The wrongdoers in the story are the scouts, who conspire to paint the Land of Israel as an impossible goal when it’s not. But while that’s the catalyst for the story going off the rails, the Torah is explicit that God’s punishment is not directed at the scouts but towards their audience:
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)
The people believed the scout report, coming as they did from established and trusted leaders, that the task ahead was impossible. The scouts ought to have known better, but how should the people have reacted to their leaders saying they were doomed? Bad news is bad! When people hear bad news from reputable sources, it is quite normal – expected, even – to react negatively. That’s why it’s called bad news!
Even if we say they overreacted and took it too far, how does the punishment fit the crime?
There have been many empires, nations, and states. Many had come before this story, and many have come since.
But the Jewish People are not just another member of that category; the Jewish People are in a class by themselves and unique in at least one respect.
The Jewish People in the Land of Israel, observing the Torah and living in the Divine Presence, are 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 call us to build something that no one had 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 severity of this misstep. Not believing in their great mission was a failure they could not recover from, and the result was a catastrophe.
Building a new model for a Torah society cannot happen by itself, or it would! Then and now, it requires pioneers with hope and vision.
If that’s the attitude and perspective it takes to achieve the goal of establishing the Jewish People in the Land of Israel, how could these people ever hope to succeed?
They weren’t ready, but maybe their children could be.
To accomplish something that 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 before you can achieve.
Who can do it? The people who want it badly enough.