“…they were all distinguished men; heads of the children of Israel were they.” (Bamidbar 13:2)
On the threshold of the Holy Land, the People of Israel approached Moshe and demanded that he send spies on a reconnaissance mission to survey the land they were about to conquer. Moshe agreed and Hashem permitted him to follow through by selecting 12 men to do the job. Rashi points out that they are referred to as “anashim — men,” which generally indicates distinguished people. He explains that although they would later sin, at that time, i.e., when they were sent, they were honorable. Harav Yaakov Kanievsky, the Steipler Gaon, points out that in passuk 26, it says, “They went and they came” and Rashi comments, “What is the reason ‘they went’ is stated? To equate their going with their coming. Just as their going was with evil scheme, so, too, their coming was with evil scheme.” The contradiction is apparent.
The Steipler explains that, in truth, before they were selected, they were humble, righteous leaders of their tribes. On that basis Moshe selected them and Hashem approved of our leader’s choices. However, once appointed to this new position of honor, gaavah — conceit — began to surface and their view of themselves and their role in the mission was transformed.
At first, they were to go and see the Land and report back specific answers to Moshe’s inquiries. Unfortunately, once they were designated, they thought they were going with the intention of deciding whether the people should go to the land of Canaan. In other words, they no longer saw themselves as messengers sent to determine the facts and report what they saw, but, rather, as judges to decide and determine if we would be able to conquer the inhabitants or, chas v’shalom, perhaps not! This view of themselves was a wicked perversion of reality prompted by conceit. To believe that the decision was theirs to make was the “evil scheme” that entered their minds once appointed to a new level of importance.
On the day Yosef stood before Pharaoh and interpreted his dream, Yosef seemingly made the same error. He was rushed out of prison to interpret the monarch’s disturbing dreams, not to serve as a royal advisor; yet, as soon as Pharaoh was satisfied with Yosef’s analysis, Yosef offered his plan for the Egyptian government’s success. “And now, let Pharaoh proceed and appoint overseers on the land and he shall prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance…” (Bereisheet 41:34). Pharaoh did as Yosef suggested and, in fact, appointed Yosef to do the job. Pharaoh’s response might have been, “I brought you to interpret my dreams, not to run my empire!” There are those who explain that the words “And now?” were spoken by Pharaoh and “let Pharaoh proceed…” was Yosef’s response to the king’s request. He was truly humble and the epitome of trust in Hashem and emunah that everything comes from the One Above. The spies, on the other hand, demonstrated a flaw in their emunah, prompted by the character deficiency of conceit and love of honor.
Less-than-perfect faith is easily undermined by conceit. The spies began to see the world as a place where they themselves make decisions that truly effect outcomes even in the face of a promise from Hashem. They are called wicked because they should have accepted the promise of Hashem to Avraham and his offspring as an immutable decree. They should have remained true to their mission and reported just facts, not opinion. Once gaavah leaked into their psyches, they were subject to the wicked error of saying “In my opinion.” Jews are expected to live in simple faith by the word of Our Maker.