There are some important, but also subtle lessons, in the sending forth of the twelve spies.
“Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, saying to them, ‘Ascend here in the Negev and climb the mountain.'” (Num.13:17)
The spies are sent out in secret. They want to learn of the land and its inhabitants, but they wish to do so undetected. The goal is to survey and then return to the place from whence they came. In a sense, it was almost inevitable that this would end badly.
You cannot expect to gain a positive benefit from a journey to a strange mysterious place full of wonder, when your intention is to retreat back to where you started. To try to extract benefit and bring it back to the place and people you came from can only cause one to lose the proper context and spoil the blessing. You must have a positive faith that what you discover is yours to take ownership of and to dwell there.
It is noteworthy that the part of the Promised Land that the spies explored was the Negev, the poorest part of the land. Moses sent the spies into perhaps the least desirable of the areas that they could explore. As the Midrash comments;
“Get you up here in the south, and go up into the mountains.” In the same manner as merchants show their inferior wares first and afterwards display the best. (Numbers Rabbah 16:12)
It is also noteworthy that this land was inhabited by the Amalekites, the notorious enemy and antagonist to the Jewish people.
What is the meaning of sending spies into the very place most hostile to Israel’s presence?
According to the Zohar, when Moses says “ascend here in the Negev,” he is referring to the spiritual forces attached to the Promised Land. In it, Rabbi Shimon benYochai is quoted as saying, “When he says, ‘ascend here in the Negev’, he is echoing HaShem’s encouragement of the people to ascend and understand the Torah. (courtesy: Rabbi Elie Munk)
Therefore, as is implied, the arid, rocky expanses of the south part of the land, as well as the presence of a strong, hostile enemy, parallels the daunting task of the attainment of Torah. The Talmud speaks to this as well.
Rabbi Yitzhak says: One who wishes to become wise should face south, and one who wishes to become wealthy should face north. And your mnemonic for this is that in the Temple the Table, which symbolized blessing and abundance, was in the north, and the Candelabrum, which symbolized the light of wisdom, was in the south of the Sanctuary. And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: One should always face south, as once he becomes wise he will subsequently also become wealthy, as it is stated with regard to the Torah: “Length of days is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor” (Prov.3:16). (Talmud, Bava Batra, 25b, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
Taken from Rabbi Elie Munk’s excellent commentary, we find this:
“The Zohar continues with an inspiring message: to acquire the land, it is necessary to struggle with the material world and not be daunted by its difficulties. The Land of spirituality is a land of contrasts, of oppositions between giants and ordinary people, mirroring the contrasts existing in the Torah between purity and contamination, permitted and forbidden, reward and punishment. If one refuses the struggle, failure is assured. But HaShem helps us to overcome the difficulties, and enables us to reach the very heart of this kindgom – a magnificent land flowing with milk and honey.
The phrase, ‘ascend here in the Negev’, is thus an allusion to the Torah and its mysteries, for the words of the Torah are sweet, flowing like milk and as honey to the taste. The person who digests the Torah’s contents well and makes it part of himself will find that its spiritual secrets are his and that they are like milk and honey (Chagiga 13a; HaEmunah VeHaBitochon).” (Rabbi Elie Munk, “Call of the Torah: Bamidbar”, Artscroll)
If the Zohar is correct, then what was wrong with the 10 spies who gave the “evil report” about the land? Were they being intentionally rebellious? Were they desiring to be the architects of their generation’s demise? The answer is found in the text.
“They went and came to Moses and Aaron and to the entire assembly…” (Num.13:26)
This means that they returned the same way they came. They returned cynical and negative because that is how they viewed the endeavor from the beginning.
This concept is expressed in the Talmud:
“R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai, It compares the going to the coming back; as the coming back was with an evil design, so the going was with an evil design.” (Talmud, Sotah 35a)
This is something we must learn. In our study of scripture and the teachings about scripture, we will discover a great many wonderful things that we would love to carry back to the people back home, as the spies did with the clusters of grapes that had to be carried on long poles with multiple men.
However, if our intention is not to take possession of the land, these mysteries will prove to be a stumbling block for us and for others.
The riches and delicacies of Torah are only mined through the dirty, scarred hands of those who have fought the unseen battle against the forces which seek to make mundane the deeper concerns of the heart and of the godly soul. For the unspiritual, everything is physical. Everything is utilitarian. For the spiritual, everything carries weighty spiritual significance. However, the spiritual cannot be obtained, ultimately, void of a physical tenacity to overlook the discouraging physical reality and seek the treasure that lies hidden within.
Yeshua taught similar things in his ministry. He said the following:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matt.13:44)
What the Master says is contrasted by what he doesn’t say: ‘The striving of fools is like a treasure hidden in a field, which the fool finds and attempts to steal from its place, resulting in ruin.’
When the spies bring back the clusters of grapes from the Promised Land, instead of inspiring the people with courage to obtain them for themselves, they fed the flames of the inherent fears of the people, causing discouragement and rebellion.
The place is called “Eshkol”…and is characterized as a place where fears of future enemies would discourage a person from doing the right thing today…We must therefore allow that they had an uneasy feeling about their mission. (Munk, IBID)
The Torah, and the place of blessing that it promises to bestow upon those who take hold of it, is the possession of the fierce, the determined, the resolute. It eludes the grasp of those who are unsure of their desire for it. For these, all they see are obstacles. Life is always so busy. There’s no time to study.
But for Joshua and Caleb, they saw the spiritual reality at hand:
“Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us.” (Num.14:9)
The obstacles, in the minds of these faithful men, were the meal that would sustain the people on their way to their destination.
The same elements that many used as excuses for not embarking on the journey, these saw as the very catalyst for the transformation they sought.
Such boldness of spirit requires humility, or one will not see it.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt.5:3)
The poor in spirit are not those who are lacking spiritual wealth. Rather, they are those who recognize that they are on the journey to attaining something which is worth far more than what they currently own.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.” (Heb.11:1-2)
Whether we are speaking of the mystical application, and the obtaining of Torah, or the straight, literal reading, and the occupation and conquering of the land of promise, the fact remains that Caleb and Joshua had the “conviction of things not seen”. They saw the obstacles just as easily as the other spies, but their paradigm was one of faith towards God, not the fear of men.
If we lack faith, then even the riches we discover will do nothing but provide the backdrop of an evil report. But for the one who has faith, they are the delicacies that make the journey worthwhile.