Former Shaliach in New York
Our commentators have devoted much space to interpreting Am Yisrael’s terrible sin of the meraglim (spies). Each of the meraglim were tribal leaders and, presumably, unique men of stature. They were sent to check out the Land for multiple purposes. Forty days later, the meraglim returned, petrified and profoundly shaken to their very souls. As they began describing the Land of Israel, their terror and fear were clearly evident to the rest of the nation, who reacted in kind.
Yet, how could Am Yisrael have been expected to respond otherwise? Their reaction seems to have been justified. After all, the leaders insisted that panic and dread were the orders of the day. Why should the masses have thought otherwise?
Rav Meidan focuses on one of the nation’s statements. In his opinion, it was this sentence that sealed their fate:
“And each man said to his brother: ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.” (Bamidbar 14:4)
This is the first time that Am Yisrael explicitly requested to go back to Egypt. Previously, they had complained that Hashem (and Moshe) took them out of Egypt, but they had never before suggested actually returning to Egyptian slavery.
The main problem with going back to Egypt is the fact of Egyptian slavery. Clearly, Am Yisrael was not talking about a physical place called Egypt. Rather, they were expressing their desire to go back to their previous way of life – namely, Egyptian slavery.
More specifically, they wanted to return to Egyptian slavery in order to nullify their service of Hashem. HKB”H liberated them from Egyptian slavery and made them into a nation – so that they could serve Him.
“I am Hashem, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Shemot 20:2)
In other words, serving Hashem is conditional upon leaving Egypt. Thus, wanting to return to Egypt is, in effect, equivalent to wanting to cease serving Hashem.
Am Yisrael perceived going back to Egypt as a realistic option. Put differently, they viewed the upcoming conquest of the Land as an elective war. They felt no overriding, uncompromising commitment to fulfill Hashem’s will that they enter the Land. If they had been convinced that the conquest was their only option, they would have managed to find the necessary strength and courage to overcome any crisis.
The Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 6:7) rules that cities must only be besieged on three sides; the fourth side should be left open as an escape route. The very existence of this escape route weakens the city dwellers’ resolve and thereby helps Am Yisrael conquer the city. However, without an escape route, the city dwellers would bravely fight to the finish, because they would have no other choice.
When they were in the desert, Am Yisrael had not yet internalized the idea that they were to go only forward – to Eretz Yisrael. The fact that they even considered returning to Egypt indicates that they were not yet prepared to enter the Land. Since they did not view the conquest as an inescapable and unavoidable war, they easily changed their minds about entering the Land when faced with potential danger. Their great sin was that they were not permanently and irrevocably committed to Eretz Yisrael, and their punishment was midah kineged midah (literally, measure for measure): they did not merit entering the Land.
We, too, must take care in order to avoid repeating Bnei Yisrael’s sin in the desert. Even today, internal and external voices claim that our settlement in the Land and our dominion over it comprise an “optional” war. Some people insist that it would be preferable to return to “Egypt” and thus avoid the many difficult challenges of life in Eretz HaKodesh.
Yet, we must negate these assertions and, instead, follow the path of Yehoshua bin Nun and Calev ben Yefuneh:
“If Hashem desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.” (Bamidbar 14:8)