One of the great mysteries of all time is the story of the Meraglim.
How could ten honorable and praiseworthy men, handpicked by Moshe Rabbeinu, suddenly veer so dreadfully from the truth? How did people who personally witnessed the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea lose their emunah is such a terrible fashion? How is it possible that even the Sanhedrin — the great men who had been chosen as judges — wept bitterly, and along with most of Bnei Yisrael declared, “Would that we had died in Egypt”?
Though we have no concept of the greatness of that generation, the following explanation, based on the words of the Chofetz Chaim, has much to say that is relevant to us.
When Moshe Rabbeinu sent the twelve spies to survey the land, he told them what to look out for. They were to ascertain whether it was a land that produced mighty people or weak ones. He gave them signs: Did the inhabitants lived in fortified, walled cities or did they live fearlessly in the open? Also, was it a productive land that fostered population growth? Were there springs and deep wells there? And most important of all, was there a tzaddik living among the inhabitants whose merit could protect them from being conquered?
The spies found a well-populated land, where fruits grew that were many times larger than any they had seen before. These were signs of a geographical paradise, a land with the promise of growth and prosperity. Their reaction should have been pure joy — after all, Hashem had promised them this wonderful Land, and He would certainly keep His word!
Tragically, however, doubts crept into the minds of ten of the spies. They began to reason that in order to defeat the mighty giants then in control of the land, they would need zechuyos that they felt they did not have.
They started to interpret all the positive signs as insurmountable barriers to acquiring the Land. Because of the might of the people living there, they assumed they could never conquer it and would therefore never have the opportunity to enjoy its blessings.
This, of course, was the work of the yetzer hara; it is a tactic he uses regularly, with great success.
Arrogance is a despicable trait and a trap frequently used by the evil inclination to try to distance a person from Hashem. But the same yetzer hara often tries the opposite approach. When he sees a Jew preparing to perform a good deed, an action that would bring honor to Hashem, he cloaks himself in the righteous garb of a loyal and very “religious” ally and tries his best to rob the Jew of any vestige of self-esteem and to fill his heart with doubts.
“Such an undertaking is not for a person on a low level of avodas Hashem,” the yetzer cunningly insinuates. “It is for the holy ones of the generation, not for small people like you.”
He reminds the Yid of his past spiritual missteps, but his goal is not teshuvah; it is depression. The fact that a person has already done teshuvah for those mistakes eludes him in the face of an all-out attempt to stifle his growth.
So it was with the Meraglim. In his typically sly way, the yetzer reminded them of the sin of the egel and of the misonenim. They forgot that they had already wept bitterly over these lapses; instead, they began to think that sinners such as they could not possibly have enough merit to enter Eretz Yisrael.
Kalev ben Yefuneh temporarily silenced the others by saying, “Is this alone what the son of Amram has done to us… But did he not split the sea for us and bring down the mann…”
Kalev meant to say that if Bnei Yisrael had been judged by their own deeds, they would never have merited the splitting of the Yam Suf or the miracle of the mann. Rather, he implied, it is clear that Hashem was treating them with the attribute of kindness alone, independent of their worthiness. Therefore, they had nothing to fear.
Tragically, Kalev’s words went unheeded at the time, but the lesson remains ours to learn. Each of us has potential for growth. Each of us has his own challenges and obstacles to overcome, and his particular mission in life. All too often a lack of self-confidence prevents us from growing in ruchniyus.
One’s recognition of the gifts Hashem has given him and his concomitant responsibilities should never be mistaken for arrogance. Nor should the attitude “I am not on such a lofty level, so this is not for me” be mistaken for humility.
The vision of mortals is limited, but that of the Ribbono shel Olam is not. He distributes rewards based on effort, not just accomplishment. As we navigate the rocky road of life, we should bear in mind the advice of the Ahavas Yisrael of Vizhnitz on taking steps in avodas Hashem: “A little is never too little, and a lot is never too much,” he said.