The whole episode of the spies which dominates this week’s parsha is one of the most troubling sections in the Torah. The explanation of exactly what happened and why has been a subject of intense debate ever since the incident occurred. In short, the Jewish people demanded to send spies on a reconnaissance mission prior to conquering the land of Israel. This alone seems strange given that G-d had already assured the Jewish people that He would ensure their success in the impending military battle. Moshe, having attained G-d’s approval, then hand-picked twelve of the spiritual leaders of the generation to carry out this mission. This also seems strange – one would assume that the twelve greatest rabbis of the generation would not necessarily constitute the most able spies to gather military information! Ten of these twelve then totally betray the Jewish people by returning with a highly negative (and largely false) report about the land and the feasibility of conquering it . The Jewish people then (once again) rebel, and argue that this whole Divine plan of entering the Land of Israel is nonsensical. The end result is that the Jewish people are forced to spend another 40 years in the desert to allow for those guilty to die rather than enter Israel, and only then do the next generation conquer the land. The most fundamental question that emerges is – what were these spies thinking? How could these hitherto moral and spiritual role models suddenly become dishonest and immoral leaders of a rebellion against G-d Himself? What was their motivation? In order to begin to understand the spies’ actions, some historical background is necessary. The Jewish people, as a Divine people living with the Torah – G-d’s instructions for living – were still very much in their most fragile infant stages. Since our inception around one year earlier we had literally been mothered and pampered by G-d, like a new born baby by a mother. Our food, the manna, had quite literally fallen into our laps from heaven. We were provided with constant rotection and direction at all times; by a pillar of cloud by day and heavenly fire by night. Our interaction with G-d was both direct and frequent; the presence of the Mishkan in the middle of the Israelite camp meant we were, quite literally, living with Gd.
Such an existence was anything but natural. Every element of our physical existence lay totally outside and beyond the realm of nature. The abnormal was the norm, and we had never experienced any different.
The impending entry into Israel was to herald a radical departure from this ‘norm.’ The Jewish people were now ready, at least from G-d’s perspective, to be weaned from the Divine pampering that they had experienced since birth. We had reached the point of maturity where we were ready to face the challenge of reality. Entering Israel would, to a limited extent[1], represent a move into the natural world of normalcy.
As has been discussed previously, our task in this world is not to desist from physicality but to elevate it. Entering Israel would, for the first time,force that challenge upon us. This challenge carried extreme dangers. Food would no longer fall from the lofty heavens, but would arrive only from lowly earth. Even this would entail hard labour to sow and harvest the crops. Having to work within nature and invest our own time and effort in the agricultural process created the very real danger of losing sight of where and from Whom the true source of our ivelihood came. Forgetting G-d was, for the first time, a real danger.
The spies were acutely aware of the danger that lay ahead. They felt the challenge of interacting with reality was one that the Jewish people could not face. They craved the permanence of the spiritual bubble of the desert, and saw the challenge of excelling within an essentially physical and ostensibly mundane world as a lower form of existence for which they had no motivation or confidence to engage in. Ultimately the spies totally missed the point with disastrous ramifications. The miraculous and abnormal ‘normalcy’ of the desert was necessary, but also necessarily temporary. This abnormal miracle-filled reality was necessary in order to provide the Jewish people with sufficiently solid spiritual foundations which were necessary precisely in order to face the testing realities of this world. Yet they were necessarily temporarily as they were only a preparation for that reality – a day to day existence in a world characterised by nature and order – which lay ahead.
The failure of the spies provides us with an invaluable insight of practical relevance. The spies were correct in their analysis of the dangers of the seemingly mundane and anything but spiritual realities of day-to-day life. It was precisely for this reason that the birth (giving of the Torah) and early childhood of the Jewish people necessarily took place in the spiritual bubble of the desert devoid of physical distractions. At times the key to our own spiritual growth requires a withdrawal from the norms of everyday life to give us the opportunity to think and grow in a healthy and uninhibited way.
Yet at the same time, this is only ever temporary. Ultimately a truly complete spiritual existence entails a truly integrated existence, where one is able to engage with reality and elevate oneself, and that reality at the same time.
[1] Even the ‘normalcy’ experienced in Israel would only be partial. There is a concept that, even now, the reality of living in Israel is significantly different to any other place in the world. Israel is the most spiritual place in the world, and naturally therefore a place where G-d’s Presence is most easily seen through the façade of nature.

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