It is mind-boggling to contemplate the abrupt about-face on the part of the Jewish people. At the beginning of the parsha, they were planning to enter and miraculously conquer the land of Israel, where they would be able to settle and live out their lives. Indeed, they had a mitzvah to do so. Nevertheless, upon hearing the negative report of the spies, they abandoned their dreams and their plans, despairing of the possibility of ever conquering the fierce inhabitants of the land. They expressed their desire (14:2-3) to die in the wilderness or even return to Egypt rather than attempt to enter the land of Israel. They refused to accept the refutations of Calev and Yehoshua, to the point of wanting to stone them (14:10) for their positive report about the land until Hashem stopped them . Yet upon hearing Hashem’s decree that they will be forced to wander and die in the desert without the ability to ever see or enter the land of Israel, they immediately changed their attitude and expressed their plans to ascend to the land of Israel. They were so strong in their newfound convictions that they even attempted to do so over the warnings of Moshe, ultimately paying the price for their efforts with their lives (14:44-45). How can this radical change in attitude be understood?
The Alter from Kelm, as quoted in Darkei Mussar, answers that the nature of humans is to rebel against authority and commands. Rav Yaakov Emden explains that it is for this reason that the Gemora in Kiddushin (31a) states that a person who performs a mitzvah he is obligated to do will receive more reward than somebody who performs the same mitzvah but isn’t required to do so. Because the former knows that he must do the mitzvah regardless of his desire to do so, he will feel constrained and will encounter much more internal resistance in his attempts to perform the mitzvah than will the latter, who knows that he is free to opt out of the mitzvah at any time. If the former nevertheless succeeds in overcoming his internal opposition and performs the mitzvah, he is indeed deserving of a greater reward. Similarly, Hashem gently asks Moshe (Shemos 11:2) to please instruct the Jewish people to borrow gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors prior to the Exodus. The Alter from Kelm explains that although they would be getting rich in the process and Moshe would therefore naturally want to tell them to do so, nevertheless Hashem merely requested it of him, almost as a favor, in order to teach that even an action which is clearly in one’s best interest may cause one to rebel against it as soon as it becomes a command.
We may therefore explain that in the beginning of the parsha, the Jewish people knew that they were commanded to enter and conquer the land of Israel. As excited as they were for the ultimate conclusion to their redemption from Egypt, they nevertheless harbored frustration and resistance to the fact that they were commanded to do so. As soon as they had an excuse to believe the spies’ negative report and rebel against Hashem’s instructions, they were only too eager to do so. However, upon hearing that Hashem not only wouldn’t make them go to Israel but in fact decreed that they must die in the wilderness, effectively forbidding them from entering Israel, the exact same dynamic which had caused them to rebel against the command to go to Israel now caused them to want to defy the new instructions and enter Israel immediately. He concludes that it is for this reason that the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (10:3) states that the generation which died in the desert won’t be resurrected in the Messianic era, as when they hear Moshiach and Eliyahu HaNavi commanding them to arise and be revived, their internal resistance to authority will be so great as to cause them to announce that now that they are required to do so, they refuse to be resurrected!

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