We read in Parashat Shelach of the spies who returned from their excursion in Canaan and concluded, “We are unable to rise up against the people [of Canaan], because they are stronger than us” (13:31). The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (35a) offers a startling interpretation of this declaration, noting that the word “mimenu” (“than us”) can also be read to mean “than him.” Accordingly, the Gemara explains that the spies here denied God’s ability to vanquish the Canaanites, and told the people, “Even the Owner is unable to remove His belongings from there.” Meaning, although God was the “owner” over the land, He lacked – in the view of the spies – the power to remove the Canaanite peoples from the land so Benei Yisrael can take possession of it and settle there.
The Chafetz Chaim (Shemirat Ha-lashon 2:19) suggests a novel reading of the Gemara’s remark, which he presents as part of his general approach to the story of the spies, viewing the spies’ mistake as rooted in their lack of spiritual self-confidence. According to the Chafetz Chaim, the spies did not doubt God’s power to drive the Canaanites from the land. After all the miraculous events Benei Yisrael had witnessed, they knew with absolutely certainty that God was capable of performing the most unlikely miracles. However, the spies determined that Benei Yisrael were unworthy of a miracle of this nature. They assumed – perhaps rightfully so – that God, the land’s “owner,” would remove His “belongings” from the land only to bring in higher quality “belongings.” Just as a person replaces his old furniture and clothing with higher quality furniture and clothing, similarly, God would replace the inhabitants of Canaan only with people who were more righteous. The spies asserted that Benei Yisrael had no reason to believe they were worthier of residing in the land than its current inhabitants, and thus they successfully persuaded the people that the Almighty would not remove the current inhabitants for their benefit.
On this basis, the Chafetz Chaim explains Yehoshua and Kaleiv’s retort to the other ten spies: “Only do not rebel against the Lord!” (14:9). On the surface, it appears that Yehoshua and Kaleiv here warn the people not to betray God by refusing to proceed to the Land of Israel (which is, tragically, what actually happened). The Chafetz Chaim, however, understands these words differently – as expressing reassurance. Yehoshua and Kaleiv were telling the people that although they had indeed failed on numerous occasions, and although they were certainly far from perfect and had angered the Almighty several times since leaving Egypt, nevertheless, they were worthy of His assistance as long as they do not outright rebel against Him. Benei Yisrael thought it pious to declare themselves undeserving of God’s assistance and thus refuse to proceed into Eretz Yisrael as He wanted them to do, but Yehoshua and Kaleiv insisted that this perspective is actually sinful. Even if we are far from perfect, and even though we have made grave mistakes, we still deserve the privilege of serving Him, and we are still required to do so. Guilt and shame, genuine as these feelings may be, must not be used to absolve oneself of his or her religious obligations. Recognizing our failures and shortcomings should motivate us to continue trying to serve God to the best of our ability, rather than allow us to excuse ourselves from trying.