The Torah in Parashat Shelach tells the tragic story of the spies who were sent to scout Eretz Yisrael, and upon their return successfully persuaded the people that they should not proceed into the land. In response, God decreed that the nation would wander in the desert for a total forty years, during which time the entire current generation would pass on, such that only their offspring, the next generation, would enter Eretz Yisrael. In issuing this decree, God told Moshe that the forty-year sentence corresponded to the forty days which the spies spent on their scouting mission. Since they sojourned for forty days in the Land of Israel, Benei Yisrael would have to sojourn for forty years in the wilderness before finally entering and settling the land (14:34).
The implication of this correspondence, seemingly, is that the forty days spent by the scouts in Eretz Yisrael were themselves sinful. If God saw fit to punish the people for each day spent by the spies on their excursion, we must assume that their sin was committed already then, during those forty days. Whereas we would have considered their betrayal to have occurred only once they returned, when they spoke with the people and the people sinfully accepted their recommendation, in truth, it appears, the sin of the spies transpired already during the forty days of scouting.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explained that the forty days of scouting were themselves sinful because the spies looked at the land from a negative perspective already then. Rather than focus their attention on the great benefits offered by the Land of Israel, they focused instead on its negative qualities. This is reflected by the famous comment of the Gemara (Sota 35a), cited by Rashi (13:32), that God brought a deadly plague upon the Canaanites during the period of the scouts’ excursion, to ensure that they would not be noticed. The scouts, however, saw funerals taking place and concluded that Eretz Yisrael is a land that “consumes its inhabitants.” The point being made is that from the outset, the spies approached their mission with a negative outlook, looking to find fault in the land, rather than appreciate its many blessings. And thus the punishment corresponded to the number of days the spies spent scouting the land, because they sinned by surveying and assessing the land with a jaundiced eye, with the intention of finding fault and criticizing.
With this in mind, we can perhaps understand more clearly the connection drawn by the Midrash Tanchuma (cited by Rashi, 13:1) between the story of the spies and the story of Miriam’s inappropriate criticism of Moshe. The Midrash explains that these two accounts are juxtaposed in the Torah because the spies failed to learn the lesson of Miriam’s punishment for speaking negatively about her brother, and they likewise spoke negatively of Eretz Yisrael. Many have addressed the question as to the precise point of connection between these two episodes – Miriam’s disrespectful censure of Moshe, and the spies’ discouraging report about the Land of Israel. The answer might lie in the negativity expressed by both Miriam and the spies. Just as Miriam looked to criticize Moshe, failing to speak of him with the respect and reverence he deserved, likewise, the spies went into their mission looking to find fault. The two stories teach us of the importance of living with a positive outlook on the people in our lives and the circumstances we confront, to try as much as possible to find all that is good about the people and things around us, rather than focusing on all that is wrong. Rather than looking to complain and find fault, we should instead be looking to appreciate and feel grateful for all the many blessings we have been granted.