If God could destroy the mighty Egyptian empire, it stands to reason that the inhabitants of Canaan should have been a piece of cake. So how could the generation that witnessed the miracles of the exodus forget what their own eyes had witnessed? Why were they afraid to enter the land? And perhaps even more troubling, how is it possible that the greatest men of that generation, the leaders who were sent to spy out the land, were the very ones who stoked that fear!
I believe that they actually had good reason to be afraid, but that their fear had nothing to with their belief in God or His ability to deliver the Promised Land. They simply knew that once they entered the Land of Israel, the rules of the game would be changed forever.
Jewish tradition teaches us that the Land of Israel is like no other land:
“For the Land to which you come to possess is not like the land of Egypt that you left, where you would plant your seed and water it on foot like a vegetable garden. Rather, the Land to which you cross over to possess it is a land of mountains and valleys; from the rain of heaven it will drink water; a Land that Hashem, your God, seeks out; the eyes of Hashem your God, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end.” (Devarim 11: 10 – 12)
According to the Torah, the Land of Israel isn’t subject to the predictable laws and cycles of nature that govern life in other lands. Instead, it falls under God’s direct providence, which means that rather than relying upon their agricultural prowess, the inhabitants of Israel must look directly towards heaven (i.e. – rain) as they work the land for their sustenance. This is why God’s eyes are “always upon it:” He is constantly scrutinizing the behavior of its inhabitants to determine if they are worthy of His blessing. When they are, the land responds by providing for them in abundance. But when they fail to live up to their calling as a nation, it becomes a land that literally “spits out its inhabitants.” (Vayikra 18:25)
This unique capacity of the land of Israel to literally reward and punish its inhabitants is so central to Jewish belief that we are required to mention it three times a day as part of the Shema:
“And it will be that if you hearken to My commandments that I command you today, to love Hashem your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I shall provide rain for your Land in its proper time … Beware for yourselves, lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve gods of others and prostrate yourselves to them. Then the wrath of Hashem will blaze against you; he will restrain the heaven so there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield its produce…” (Devarim 11: 13 – 17)
The greatest men of the generation were afraid to enter the land precisely because of their greatness. They more than anyone, could appreciate the level of moral excellence demanded of the Jewish people, and they, more than anyone, knew how unrealistic it was to expect that the people who worshipped the Golden Calf at Sinai would remain worthy of living in the Promised Land. In their eyes, God’s invitation to enter the land could only end in tragedy. But what they failed to understand is that underlying their “realism” was a cynicism that blinded them to the deeper truth: That regardless of the people’s shortcomings and failures, if God told them to inherit the land, it meant that they could. Which means that their true failure was not a lack of belief in God’s power. It was a lack of belief in themselves.
As a spiritual coach, one of the most common, debilitating and tragic tendencies I come across in my clients is a conviction that they are somehow unworthy of love and success. What’s ironic is that the source of this self-loathing is the very quality that drives them to be great: Their inner moral compass. The same sense of right and wrong that enables them to recognize their failures and shortcomings is also what leads them to mistakenly believe that they must beat themselves up, sometimes mercilessly, in order to motivate themselves to improve their ways.
Sadly, these people fail to recognize that their feelings of unworthiness and negativity are actually what keep them from improving themselves. Like the spies in our story, these feelings almost always lead to a paralyzing sense of hopelessness and despair that ultimately keeps them from even trying to change. And herein lies the greatest shame of all, because if they would just ignore that inner voice and take a step forward, they would see that their only real enemy is their own negativity and cynicism. As soon as they take that step, they will begin to understand that they are still worthy of all the goodness and blessing that life has to offer, regardless of their mistakes and shortcomings, precisely because they already have, and have always had, everything that they need to thrive and succeed in this world.