Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Cheit Hameraglim: Then and Now


"It flows with milk and honey, but the people that dwell in the land is powerful and the cities are very greatly fortified" (Bamidbar 13:27, 28). This initial, factual report of the spies seems to be a proper fulfillment of their mission. What was their sin?

Perhaps the initial statement was not sinful. However, when Calev interjected, "We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it" (ibid 30), the other spies responded, "We cannot ascend to that people, for it is too strong for us" (ibid 31). This was their sin.

The Shelah explains that the initial statement was the very point of their mission. Hashem wanted Am Yisroel to know that it was impossible to conquer Eretz Yisroel without divine assistance.

Indeed, in his parting message Moshe says, "Hear, Yisroel, you will cross the Jordan to drive out nations that are greater and mightier than you, cities that are great and fortified up to the heavens...you will know that Hashem, your God, He crosses before you, He will destroy them and He will subjugate them before you" (Devarim 9:13).

Thus, the purpose of the mission was to demonstrate that victory would be achieved only with Hashem's help. Calev, who believed, was sure they would prevail. The other spies responded that the enemy is too strong for us. Their lack of faith led Chazal to translate their words to mean that the enemy is to strong for Him (Rashi 13:31).


What is the reason that the Torah begins with Braishis? Because, "the power of His acts he told to his people in order to give them the estate of nations" (Tehillim 111:6). So that if the nations of the world will say to Yisroel, "You are bandits, for you have conquered the land of seven nations", Yisroel will respond, "The whole Earth belongs to Hashem. He created it and ... he gave it to us" -Rashi Braishis 1:1

Why can't every thief justify his theft in this manner? The Be'er Yosef answers that had Am Yisroel conquered Erez Yisroel by natural means, the charge of "you are bandits" could not be refuted. However, since the conquest was clearly a result of divine intervention, and even our enemies recognized that, we are clearly entitled to the land.

Indeed, the spies exclaimed, "we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes" (Bamidbar 13:33). Grasshoppers steal the grain of everyone (Rashi Bava Kamma 116b). Without belief in the divine promise of victory, the people did not merely reject Calev's advice not to fear (14:9-10), but also viewed themselves as thieves. As a result, the nations reached the same conclusion.

"All of the people we saw in the land were men of middos" (13:32). To buttress their subsequent claim of theft, the spies attributed good character traits, middos, to our enemies (Kli Yakar). Since they are just and righteous, we have no right to destroy them, and we will be vanquished. In reality, the Cana'anites were the most perverted of all the nations (Rashi Vayikra 18:3). Precisely because of their wickedness Hashem drove them away (Devarim 9:5).

The spies ignored this fact to support their claim that conquering Eretz Yisroel is theft. This claim enabled them to refuse to fight the enemy they feared. This fear was due to a lack of belief in Hashem.


The sin of the spies led to a forty-year sojourn in the desert, and the death of the sinners there (Bamidbar 14:32-35). It was not until forty years elapsed that the lessons of the events of the first two years could be properly understood (Rashi, Devarim 29:6).

Exactly forty years ago, Hashem enabled the Israeli army to achieve a swift and stunning victory over powerful enemies and very greatly fortified positions. The conquest of huge swaths of land in six days was clearly a result of divine intervention.

This conclusion was reached not only by observant Jews. Even non-observant Jews understood, leading to a teshuva movement unprecedented in modern times. Even non-Jews attributed the incredible events to supernatural forces, stating, "No natural cause can explain this awesome phenomenon" (see, for example, Hamodia, 13 Sivan 5767, page B14).

The dire threat to the safety of Am Yisroel by enemies who threatened to kill us was suddenly lifted. The return to the Old City of Yerushalayim led to a spiritual euphoria unforgettable for those privileged to experience it firsthand. The triumph of a beleaguered people over vicious enemies by Hashem's grace united Am Yisroel. Everyone realized that Hashem had allowed us to conquer our ancestral homeland, which, as Rashi teaches, He gave us in the first place.

Even in the murderous cities of Chevron and Shechem our enemies cowered at our mere presence. Israelis traveled Judea, Samaria, and Gaza fearlessly.


Alas, forty years later all this has changed. We fear our enemies. Some Israelis view our conquest as theft, and, as then, consider the Palestinians just and righteous, ignoring their murderous acts. Even observant, believing Jews have good reason to fear. After all, we have no divine guarantee of our security. Yet we must unabashedly state, to others as well as to ourselves, our belief in our Biblical right to Eretz Yisroel. And we dare not ignore the wickedness of our implacable foes.

Moreover, our tradition teaches that our conquest of Eretz Yisroel will continue uninterruptedly until the messianic era (see Rashi Eicha 4:22 and Double Consolation). Setbacks may be part of the redemptive process (see Shir Hashirim Rabba 2:9(3)). But patience, based on absolute certainty that we will prevail, is critical both religiously and strategically.

We do not know when or how we will prevail, but we echo Calev, who rejected the spies of then, as we reject today's pessimists and post-Zionists and exclaim, "We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it."

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