In his effort to transmit a lasting imprint on the generation entering the Promised Land, Moshe reminds them of some of the events that defined their nationhood. Among these was the episode of the Spies, with its tragic consequences: 40 years in the wilderness, to die there and not enter the Promised Land.
Our Sages teach us that that this was decreed on the Ninth of Av, an unfortunate day for the Jewish people.
And yet Moshe is strangely mysterious in his depiction. In Devarim 1:23-26, Moshe declares that “the idea to send the twelve men was good in my eyes. They went up until the Eshkol riverbed, and spied the space. They brought back samples of fruit and told us ‘the land G-d is giving us is good.’ But you did not agree to go up, and you rebelled against the Lord your G-d.”
This is the first time the action of the spies is referred as ragel, as in meraglim. In Parshat Shlach they are referred to as anashim, men, who go latur, to scout, the Land.
Even more interesting is Moshe here references either the opening positive comment of the Spies (Bamidbar 13:26-27), or the words of Kalev and Yehoshua (14:6-9). The Spies’ blistering negative report is not mentioned here. And yet, the consequence of the incident is relayed. One who is unaware of what actually happened in Bamidbar might read this report by Moshe and wonder, “What is he talking about? What went wrong?”
The Seforno’s comment is most instructive. Moshe speaks here not about the spies, but about the reaction of the people. The spies themselves are long dead, punished for their negative reports. But their positive report, that the land is flowing with milk and honey and has wonderful fruit, was ignored by the people.
Seforno essentially explains that Moshe meant: “You revealed your wickedness at that time. Your intent in sending spies was to see if you could conquer, which demonstrated that you did not believe in G-d and in His promise to give you the land. Once the spies indicated that the nation in the land was strong, you did not want to go up.”
Moshe digs in further. “The land being good was irrelevant. G-d’s real intent, you surmised, was to take you out of Egypt and have other nations wipe you out. Egypt had an economic interest in your survival, as you were their slaves, and your deaths would have destroyed their economy. A different nation, on the other hand, would lose nothing in destroying you.”
Moshe’s proof that the people did not trust G-d was their constant pining for Egypt. Their feeling was that Egypt was a very good land and that if G-d really wanted to help them, He could have given them Egypt! This, of course, is a complete rejection of the kindness G-d did in taking them out of Egypt and promising them Israel.
In other words, Moshe is suggesting that the only reason the people ignored the good report of the spies was because they did not trust in G-d’s promise. They were at fault for accepting the negative report, and it was their actions that were the source of any problems they faced.
Perhaps Moshe was teaching a few important lessons.
First, if the wicked are dead and buried, we need not recall their negativity, as it is only destructive. We can focus on the good they shared, while leaving out the bad. (The people had already seen under Moshe’s leadership that powerful leaders such as Sichon and Og can be vanquished.)
Second, if there is a problem that hasn’t been properly addressed, it needs to be addressed directly. Moshe’s point — that the 40 years in the wilderness was because of the people’s reaction more than the spies — demonstrates that lack of faith plagued the people even in Moshe’s time, which is why he focuses much more on the people’s reaction than on the spies’ report.
When we consider the first Tisha B’Av as having a negative outcome because of the undue crying of the people, consider that Tisha B’Av remains a day of sadness due to our remaining, in some form, unworthy.
In those days, the people didn’t adequately trust that G-d’s promises would be fulfilled. They didn’t believe that the Land G-d had promised was good enough for them, partly because they were afraid of the people living there.
Would the Messiah come, would the exile end, would the Temple be built, if all the Jews in the world picked up and moved to Israel? Would such a move herald the Final Redemption? In either case, are we all ready to do that?
Tisha B’Av is upon us. May we merit for this to be the last time it is not a holiday.