An Unready Generation
As we know, there is a significant discrepancy between the story of the spies as recorded in our parasha and the narrative as recounted in Sefer Devarim. Our parasha tells us that "God said to Moshe: 'Send for yourself men…' and Moshe sent them" (Bamidbar 13:2-3). A simple reading suggests that Moshe does this willingly. Sefer Devarim, on the other hand, presents the initiative as arising from the nation, with Moshe acquiescing to their desire: "You all came to me and you said, 'Let us send men before us…' And the matter was good in my eyes" (Devarim 1:22-23).
Beyond the contradiction in the verses themselves, there is a further problem. Commenting on our parasha, the Sages (Sota 34b) teach that Moshe changes the name of his aide Hoshe'a to "Yehoshua" (13:16), to express his hope: "May God save you (yoshiakha) from the counsel of the spies!" If Moshe is fearful that the spies will exert a negative influence, why does he agree to send them in the first place?
One further question: on Yom Kippur, prior to the Ne'ila prayer, we repeat three times God's words, "God said: 'I have forgiven as you have spoken'" (Bamidbar 14:20). However, if we examine the verses in our parasha, we find that after God says this, He goes on (ibid., vv. 21-23) to decree that the entire generation will die in the wilderness! What is the meaning of "I have forgiven," if it is followed by a death sentence for the entire generation?
It seems that Moshe does indeed agree to send the spies, and to some degree he may even initiate the idea; nevertheless, he is aware of the dangers involved. Many commentators suggest that the request on the part of the nation to send spies arises from their desire to move from a situation of overt Divine guidance – the manna, the well, the protective clouds – to a natural way of life, suited to life in the Land of Israel. Moshe agrees with them: after all, in Eretz Yisra'el they will start to live an earthly existence, with God's guidance hidden in more natural garb. Nevertheless, he harbors doubts as to whether the nation has yet achieved a level that will make them worthy of such a reality. Therefore, he agrees to send the spies – but he is still wary of the report that the spies may produce. Ultimately, his concerns prove to be justified.
From this we learn that what we need to do is not always what ideally should be done; it is not always the ideal situation. Rather, we need to ask ourselves whether we are on a sufficient level to merit doing what we propose. Rav Yo'el Bin-Nun was once discussing the rebuilding of the Temple with a certain rabbi, and he said that he hoped that we would be worthy of it. The rabbi replied, "Worthy? But it's a mitzva!" What that rabbi failed to understand is that one has to be on a certain level in order to merit performing a mitzva. If one has not yet achieved that level, then performance of the mitzva is not worthwhile, and may even be detrimental.
In 19th-century Poland, there was a debate among religious Zionist leaders. Rav Shemu'el Mohliver wanted to re-establish the Temple, but Rav Yisra'el Yehoshua of Kutno told him that just building it would not help: the public, Am Yisra'el (the Jewish nation), in its present state, would not come to offer sacrifices. Rav Mohliver answered that this would not matter: individuals could offer sacrifices on behalf of the entire nation, thereby restoring the practice to its former glory. The Keli Chemda (Rav Me'ir Dan Plotzky of Ostrava) cites this discussion and concludes that Rav Mohliver did not understand Rav Yehoshua's reply. What Rav Yehoshua was trying to say was that if Am Yisra'el is not on the level of wanting to bring communal sacrifices, then having a Temple will not help. The technical act of offering a sacrifice is of no benefit if the nation itself is not on the level to offer sacrifices.
Rav Kook, in Part I of his Letters (20), explains that sometimes, when God sees that Am Yisrael is not worthy of a certain matter, He creates a situation where, technically, it is beyond the realm of possibility. To the extent that the nation's power or level is deficient, so its capability is lacking, and this lack of ability testifies to God's Will in this regard. Rav Kook goes on to explain that one of the ways in which God does this is through the nation's incapacity to accept the matter; citing the law of tokhacha (rebuke) that "it is a mitzva not to say words that will not be listened to" (Yevamot 65b), he teaches that sometimes the nation is not ready for a certain thing, and therefore this matter "will not be listened to" by the nation. This phenomenon in itself shows that God does not yet want this thing to come about because the generation is not yet worthy of it. Such obstacles are evidence of God's supreme Will at such times.
For this same reason, God tells Moshe that although He has forgiven Am Yisra'el, this entire generation must still die in the desert. Although they will not be punished for their sin, they have shown that they are not on a sufficiently high spiritual level to enter the land and to live under "natural" conditions. Thus, there is no choice but to let them die off in the desert and to look to the next generation. This is not a punishment, but rather the reflection of the fact that they are not worthy (in themselves, as shown by their sin) of entering the land.
There are many people today who talk about a "halakhic state" – a state that would operate in accordance with Torah law. However, the fact that today such an idea is unacceptable to the public means, de facto, that we cannot merit this form of rule, and God does not want us to behave in this way at this time. Rather, we must first work on repairing things that come first – in our private lives, as well as in our national life.
(This sicha was delivered at Se'uda Shelishit on Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5765 .)