Rashi, commenting to the beginning of Parashat Shelach (13:3), famously writes (citing Chazal) that all twelve scouts sent by Moshe to explore Eretz Yisrael were righteous at the time they embarked on their mission. This comment, of course, gives rise to the difficult question of how ten pious men could fall so quickly, to the point where just forty days later they questioned God’s ability to defeat the armies of Canaan. If they were, indeed, men of prominent religious stature, then how could they turn so evil within a period of under six weeks? Many writers have cited and discussed in this context the startling remark of the Zohar that these men, whom the Torah identifies as the leaders of their tribes (“rashei alfei Yisrael” – 13:3), realized that they would lose their positions once Benei Yisrael entered the Land of Israel. In Eretz Yisrael, the leadership structure would be fundamentally altered, and these leaders would no longer occupy positions of stature. They therefore devised a plan to dissuade the people from entering the land so they would remain in the wilderness and the leaders would retain their positions of prominence.
The Zohar’s comments, however, seem to only exacerbate the question. How could people described as “righteous” commit such a grievous crime against God and His people simply to retain their positions of leadership? How is it possible for pious men to plummet to such depths of arrogance and evil?
The Klausenberger Rebbe (without addressing this question directly) explained that the scouts assumed that nobody other than they were capable of leading. Their motives were sincere, as they believed their roles as tribal leaders were indispensable for the nation’s success. Once they viewed their positions in this light, they were prepared to do whatever was necessary to retain their leadership roles. Strange as it might sound, they betrayed God in their misguided effort to “save” His people. They felt so confidently that Benei Yisrael needed them in their leadership roles that they rejected the destiny that God had planned for the nation.
The Rebbe’s insight reminds us of the delicate balance that needs to be struck between bold confidence and humility. On the one hand, in situations where our involvement is truly needed and indispensable, we must proceed with conviction rather than excuse ourselves with false humility. But on the other hand, we must avoid presumptuously viewing our role as indispensable when it isn’t. If we fail to recognize our talents and potential, and the extent of the contribution we can make, then we will lazily sit at the sidelines rather than invest ourselves in areas where we can truly make a difference. But at the opposite extreme, as in the case of the meragelim, if we exaggerate our capabilities and potential, and view our work as more urgent than it really is, then we are liable to resort to illegitimate extreme measures. We must carefully assess our talents and the needs of Am Yisrael and be prepared to get involved where we can contribute, while at the same time keeping our work in perspective and not overstating the importance of our roles.