Rectifying the sin of the spies

Parashat Shelach begins with the words, “Send yourself men to survey the land of Canaan….” What was the purpose of this assignment? There is obviously no doubt that the Jewish people were intent on entering the land of Israel, as God had promised Abraham, and had told Moses at the Burning Bush (where Moses received his own mission: serving as the Jewish people’s redeemer). There is also no doubt that the land is good, “A land flowing with milk and honey” (as Moses was told on that same occasion), and that it is the most fitting place for the Jewish people to live. Why then, was it necessary to send men to examine the land’s quality?

Some commentaries explain that nonetheless, the main purpose of the spies’ assignment was to see that the land was good, and by doing so to increase the people’s motivation and joyfully raise their spirits as they came into the land. The Ramban (Nachmanides) writes,

Moses—knowing that the land was fertile and good, as he was told that it was “a good and expansive land”—told the spies to pay attention to this point so that they could convey it to the people. The people would then rejoice, regain their strength, and enter the land joyfully. This is why Moses told the spies, “Be strong and take of the land’s fruit,” so that they would see the land’s worth with their own eyes .

Moses himself did not need this, because he fully believed in God’s promise and could envision the goodly land in his mind’s eye, but not everyone was on such a high level; the people required a visual confirmation of the land’s fruitfulness for it to make an impression on them.

Joy and pleasure in the land

This answers our first question concerning Moses objective in sending the spies, but it leaves us with another. Why was it so important to enter the land of Israel joyfully? Obviously, we are commanded to, “Serve God with joy,” but, usually this refers to joy while actually performing a mitzvah. However, in this case, the joy stems from the land of Israel’s physical goodness, and from the benefits we gain from the land.

Moreover, a general principle regarding all the mitzvot is that someone who performs a mitzvah for personal fulfillment is missing the point of what a mitzvah is. The emphasis should be on obediently performing the mitzvah solely because the Almighty commanded us to do so, thereby accepting the yoke of Heaven. In halachah, there is an iron rule, that “mitzvot were not given for one’s benefit.” The performance of a mitzvah is not meant to benefit us. Therefore, for example, if Reuben vowed to not receive any benefit from Shimon, Shimon is still able to fulfill Reuben’s obligation regarding a particular mitzvah by performing it on his behalf. In spite of Shimon having performed Reuben’s duty for him, Reuben is not considered to have received any benefit from Shimon. Of course mitzvot should be performed with joy. The joy accompanying a mitzvah is what adorns our observance of God’s commandments (so much so, that the reason for the exile is, “Because you did not serve Havayah your God with joy and good heartedly”). But this joy is spiritual in nature. In contrast, performing a mitzvah for personal gain might blemish the act, categorizing it as a mitzvah performed shelo lishmah (out of ulterior motives).

It follows then that the mitzvah of settling the land of Israel is unlike other mitzvot. Even if inheriting the land is considered one of the 613 mitzvot—an opinion held by a number of great poskim (first and foremost, by the Ramban)—it is unique in that its performance certainly includes the benefit and joy gained from living in the land. This is already apparent from the language God used to command the first Jew, Abraham, “Go for yourself from your land… to the land that I will show you.” As Rashi explains, the use of the uncommon word “for yourself” indicates that fulfilling God’s command will be for Abraham’s own benefit and pleasure. The form of the command given Abraham, “Go for yourself” (לֶךְ לְךָ) is identical to the one given Moses at the beginning of our parashah, “Send for yourself” (שְׁלַח לְךָ), suggesting once again that entering the land of Israel inherently involves the benefit and pleasure the land will give the Jewish people.

One illustration of the difference between the mitzvah to inherit the land of Israel and all other mitzvot can be seen in the words of the greatest posek, the Rambam. Even though the Rambam does not enumerate conquering the land of Israel among the 613 mitzvot, in his legal work (which is usually relatively dry) he does include halachot that refer to loving the land and cherishing it. For example, he writes,

The greatest of the sages would kiss the borders of the land of Israel and kiss its stones and roll in its dust, as it says, “For Your servants desire its stones and they favor its dust.”

As if to say that a true Jew, without a doubt, loves the Holy land. Surely, you enjoy being in the land of Israel, and when you deplane at the airport, you will naturally kiss the ground.

Torah and mitzvah

To better understand the unique place held by the land of Israel among other mitzvot, let us consider how the commandment to learn Torah differs from other mitzvot. Although learning Torah is one of the 613 mitzvot (according to all opinions), it is special in regard to the issue of receiving benefit from it. Above, we mentioned the halachic rule that “mitzvot were not given for one’s benefit.” However, the Taz glosses on the Shulchan Aruch states that this rule is not at all applicable to learning Torah. Therefore, if Reuben forbade Shimon from receiving benefit from his book, it is forbidden for Shimon to learn Torah from that book, indicating that without question, learning Torah with this book is providing Shimon with some benefit. More specifically, the Taz writes,

Because the Torah certainly rejoices the heart… therefore this mitzvah is unlike other mitzvot about which it is said that, “mitzvot were not given for one’s benefit” because an individual does receive pleasure from this.

This point is beautifully expounded upon by one of the greatest chassidim, the author of Avnei Nezer. He writes,

The principal element of the mitzvah of learning Torah is that one should be joyful and happy and enjoy his learning. Then the Torah’s words are absorbed into his blood, and since he enjoys learning Torah, he clings to the Torah… Learning [Torah] because it is a mitzvah and taking pleasure in the learning is considered learning lishmah (without ulterior motive) and is all consecrated, because pleasure is part of the mitzvah.

From the deeper perspective of the Torah’s inner dimension, the Torah and the individual learning it actually unite: God’s wisdom, which is the Torah, is simultaneously both contained in the mind of the person learning and surrounds his mind, as explained in Tanya (see Tanya chs. 5 and 23), a unification with the Divine that cannot occur even in the spiritual worlds. Therefore, the enjoyment and pleasure experienced in Torah study are not an incidental, confusing factor, and cannot be considered an ulterior motive. Quite the opposite: the consummate fulfillment of the mitzvah of Torah study occurs only when the individual experiences pleasure in his learning; then, even his pleasure is part and parcel of the mitzvah. Obviously, as the Avnei Nezer emphasizes, this does not apply to an individual who studies Torah for intellectual pleasure alone (there are people who are distant from Torah observance, but still enjoy the intellectual challenge in studying Talmud). But, when an individual learns in order to follow God’s command with earnest obedience, the Torah permeates his blood and soul so much that he enjoys the learning.

Joyfully receiving the gift

Having seen this novel notion regarding Torah study—that intellectual pleasure is positive and can become an integral part of the mitzvah—we can now understand that the same is true regarding the land of Israel. In fact, the benefits gained from living in the land of Israel are even more an integral part of the mitzvah because the land of Israel is a material gift from God, given to us so that we may, “eat from its fruit and be satisfied with its goodness.” The land of Israel was given to us so that we enjoy it and benefit from it.

Just as the Torah is our life, without which we would be like fish out of water, so the land of Israel is our “land of the living.” Just as the individual learning Torah unites with it and therefore his pleasure and enjoyment from the learning become a part of the mitzvah, so too a Jew who enters the land of Israel unites with the land. The connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel is indeed compared to the union of a groom with his bride (Isaiah 62:5): “As a young man marries a virgin, so your sons will marry you.” It follows then that the preparations before entering the land of Israel are similar to those before learning Torah. Every day, before learning Torah, we bless God for having given us the Torah, and make a request that we will find it pleasantly palatable, “May You sweeten the words of Torah in our mouths.” Likewise, before entering the land of Israel, it was necessary that the Jewish people’s hearts be motivated to enter it joyfully and with high spirits. As God commanded Abraham, Lech lecha—Go to this land, for your own enjoyment and benefit.

Pleasure as a result of selflessness

However, this very point—that the settling of the land of Israel is beneficial and pleasurable—introduces a certain hazard. To perform any other mitzvah, an individual must set aside his self and perform it solely for Heaven’s sake, without regard for his own personal pleasure and benefit. As a consequence, ideally, there is little need to worry that personal bias, self-interest, or other ulterior motives will taint our minds, or lead us into the trap of self-aggrandizement.

But, entering the land of Israel requires our total personal involvement. We should savor the pleasant tastes of the “land flowing with milk and honey,” enjoying it and rejoicing in it. Therefore, in this case, there is a definite danger that we will place our self in the center, declaring that it is, “My power and the strength of my hand that has made me successful.” Personal involvement leaves room for mistakes in judgment. This is readily apparent in the report given by the ten spies. The spies were asked to relate their impression of the land, “Whether it is good or bad… fat or lean.” Could they help it if their impression was that, “the land consumes its inhabitants” and what could they have done about feeling like insects in comparison to the giants that dwelt in it? Where indeed did their sin begin? How could they have guarded their judgment?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains in Likutei Sichot (v.23, pp. 92ff.) that the spies’ sin stems from their lack of nullification to Moses who had given them their mission. Absolute devotion and dedication to Moses would have united their consciousness with his. When receiving pleasure or benefit is part of an experience, we should suspect that they might play off our unrefined ego. In fact, the Hebrew words for “benefit” (הַנָאָה) and “ego” (אֲנִי) share the same numerical value, 61. This is exactly what happened to the ten spies. Their judgment was tainted by their egos. This helps explain the opinion that Joshua and Caleb did not carry any fruit back (the fruit representing the benefits of the land), even though Moses had commanded it, because they understood that by doing so they would in fact act against Moses’ implicit intentions.

The spies should have nullified themselves completely before Moses, “the humblest of all men” (as we read in the previous parashah) who himself was absolutely nullified before God. Had the ten spies been totally faithful to Moses (as Joshua and Caleb were) they would have been able to experience the benefit and great joy associated with entering the land of Israel, while simultaneously remaining selflessly connected to Moses and the Almighty.

To this day, the spies’ sin has not yet been completely rectified. In order to inherit the land of Israel, we must learn to hold onto both ideas: enjoy the “precious land that is good and wide” and at the same time, nullify ourselves before Moses—Moshe Rabbeinu; every generation has its own Moshe Rabbeinu. In this way we will merit to “eat from its fruit and be satisfied with its goodness.”

Every Jewish individual should cherish the land of Israel and come to it from the ends of the world with great desire, like a child running to its mother’s embrace… All those living outside the land, be it near or far, should yearn for it and desire it. Because, just as He chose them [the Jewish people], so He chose the land of Israel and set it aside for them. And, they are only referred to as “one nation,” when they reside in it (Sefer Charedim).

excerpted from a farbrengen from Shabbat Parashat Shelach, 23rd Sivan 5770, Elon Moreh