Moshe prepared the twelve scouts for their mission by asking a series of questions which they were to answer over the course of their excursion. One question was whether the nations of Canaan were “weak” or “feeble” (13:18), and another was whether they lived in fortified cities or open cities (13:19). Intuitively, we might have assumed that if the Canaanite peoples lived in fortified cities, this indicated their military might, and the difficulty that Benei Yisrael might have in conquering the land. And if they lived in open towns, this meant they were weak and vulnerable. Indeed, when the spies returned and tried to discourage the people from proceeding into the land, they frightened the people by describing the enormous fortresses protecting the Canaanites (13:28), viewing these fortresses as a reflection of the Canaanites’ military superiority. Rashi (13:18), however, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, writes that this perspective is incorrect. To the contrary, he explains, the large fortresses built by the Canaanite nations signified fear and weakness, not strength. If the Canaanites had felt secure and confident in their military capabilities, they would not have constructed large walls to protect them. An elaborate fortification system points to a lack of confidence, to the Canaanites’ realization that their capabilities were inferior, thus requiring them to live within the protection of tall, thick walls.
Rav Elya Meir Bloch (cited by Rav Yissachar Frand) observed that the same can be said of the “barriers” we erect to shield ourselves from negative influences. Intuitively, we might assume that those with greater spiritual “strength” are the ones who manage to isolate themselves, withdrawing from society and limiting their interaction with people with different values and beliefs, whereas engagement with different people is a sign of weakness. In truth, however, it is isolation that signifies weakness and a lack of confidence in one’s inner commitment. The more a person withdraws, the less secure that individual feels in his or her devotion to Torah. Those who feel more confident will feel less of a need to isolate themselves from other people.
The point being made, seemingly, is that withdrawal and seclusion cannot substitute for genuine and firm resolve. Clearly, it might be necessary or appropriate to erect “walls” and avoid certain situations and certain forms of interactions that could influence us the wrong way. Ultimately, however, even when “fortresses” are warranted, what matters most is the strength of our faith and our convictions. Barriers offer limited protection that cannot take the place of self-discipline and a genuine devotion to our beliefs and lifestyle. No matter how many “fortresses” we build, we will always face religious tests and challenges of one form or another, which we can overcome only through a fierce, passionate commitment to God and to observing His commands.