“A land flowing with milk and honey”
Sivan 18, 5779/June 21, 2019
“Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel.” (Numbers 13:2) Thus begins the watershed moment in the life of the nation of Israel, the moment which would indelibly change forever Israel’s history, Israel’s psycho-spiritual makeup, and the very wording of Torah itself, and which would ‘compel’ G-d to re-calibrate His intentions for Israel. The sin of the spies, the twelve tribal notables who were sent via the mandate of the people, with the consent of G-d, to enter into the land of Canaan in order to gain a glimpse of the promised land and report back to the people its beauty and potential, but who instead, spending forty peaceful days in the land, which, by their own admission “is flowing with milk and honey,” (ibid 13:27), was to return to Israel’s desert encampment only to deliver an evil report about the land, (dibah al ha’aretz in Hebrew). What went wrong? And why was G-d’s anger so unassuagable?
Much has been written by our sages as to why the spies, who spent forty days unnoticed and unmolested by the local inhabitants, while they traveled the breadth and the length of the land, harvesting its fruits and taking in its breathtaking vistas, proceeded to do an about face when they spoke to the people, and shared with them a tale of terrifying giants, of impregnable fortified cities, and of Israel’s arch-foe, the Amalekites, who “dwell in the south land.” (ibid 13: 29) Had they grown accustomed to their coddled lifestyle in the desert, in which G-d fed them with manna from heaven, kept their clothes from becoming threadbare and guarded their feet from the wear and tear and the perils and of the desert floor? Men of stature, did they fear that, once in the land, they would lose their privileged status as the tribes each settled into their appointed inheritances? Or, conversely, did they recoil from the notion that they would be burdened with the extra responsibility of having to lead the battles yet to be waged in the promised land? Whatever underlying fears drove them to their evil report, their fate, and the fate of the nation, was not sealed until their calumny provoked the people to respond: “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!” (ibid 14:4) G-d’s rebuke was swift in coming.
This was not the first time that the children of Israel had experienced a mass ‘panic attack’ in the wilderness. Their sudden cravings for food, while angering G-d, were, at the same time, satisfied by G-d. Their periodic complaints about G-d’s prophet Moshe, while kindling G-d’s wrath, did not inspire in G-d the response that the sin of the spies did. Even Israel’s greatest blunder to date, the sin of the golden calf, a direct violation of the ten commandments which Israel had only just received, while pushing G-d to the limits of His patience, was quickly forgiven, and G-d and nation moved on. What was different about the sin of the spies? Why, despite the protest and the inspired words of Calev ben Yefunneh and Yehoshua bin Nun, did G-d not grant them respite, allowing His anger to recede, call upon Moshe to appoint new tribal leadership, and carry on with the original plan to enter into the land on schedule?
Concerning the debacle of the golden calf, as incriminating as the cry “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!” was, the people did not cry out to abandon the goal of the land of Canaan and to return to Egypt. Ultimately, the sin of the golden calf was an indictment of the people who still suffered from a spiritual immaturity, having so recently left Egypt. The G-d they experienced at Sinai expressed His presence via lightning and thunder, smoke and fire. They were quite terrified of G-d. But the sin of the spies occurred only after G-d had already shown forgiveness to His people, and called upon His children to make for Him a sanctuary, so that He could dwell in their midst forever. The sin of the spies occurred only after G-d had made it abundantly clear, time and again, that their final destination was the land of Canaan, and that G-d would guarantee their safety and prosperity in the land. Even in G-d’s call to “Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan” He states unequivocally, “which I am giving to the children of Israel.”
Dwelling in the land of Israel is an imperative, not an option. G-d’s plan for the children of Israel, inherent in creation itself, is to dwell in the land of Israel. Easily half of the Torah commandments can only be observed while in the land of Israel. G-d’s chosen place to cause His presence to dwell forever, the unassailable gateway which connects heaven to earth, is in Jerusalem, the beating heart of the land of Israel. This is why G-d visited ten plagues upon Egypt. This is why G-d split open the Sea of Reeds and drowned the army of Pharaoh. This is why G-d fed and clothed and coddled His people during their desert trek to the land of Canaan. In short, the land of Israel is the physical and metaphysical reality by which G-d manifests His presence in man’s world, in the history of humankind. To shamefully turn tail and ‘opt out’ of the eternal commitment to dwell in the land of Israel is not an option. To die ignominious deaths in the wilderness, forever cut off from the land of Israel, is not a punishment or expression of G-d’s retribution. To deliver an evil report of the land and to call upon the people to forever abandon the land is not a blaspheme against G-d, which G-d can readily forgive, but a blaspheme against G-d’s greatest desire for His people Israel, an existential offense, which G-d cannot abide. Etched in our hearts forever are the immortal words of Calev and Yehoshua: “The land we passed through to scout is an exceedingly good land. If HaShem desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey,” and “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it.” (ibid 14:7-8, and 13:30)
Originally published by The Temple Institute