The book of Deuteronomy is Moshe’s last testament to the Children of Israel, spoken the month before his passing. One of the things Moshe rebuked the nation was for the sending of spies to scout out the Land.

The Talmud teaches that the spies returned to the nation on Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of Av. It was on that day the people were frightened and cried that they no longer wanted to inherit the Promised Land. The Almighty was angry and promised that this day would be a harbinger of future tragedies, such as the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, 490 years apart from each other. Until today, Tisha b’Av remains a day of mourning for the Jewish people.

It is not clear, however, what went wrong with the sending of spies. At the time Moshe seemed to agree with the mission. When the scouts returned, they reported what they had seen – a nation of powerful warriors and a land that seemed to devour its inhabitants. They were understandably afraid. Why were they faulted, and why was the sin considered to be so severe?

A closer look shows that the sin was more in the attitude than in the substance. When the people were afraid to hear the Ten Commandments directly from G-d, they asked if Moshe could relay it to them instead. The Scripture says “The heads of your tribes and the Elders approached me, and said, ‘Behold, G-d has shown us His glory …’” (Deuteronomy 5:21) They asked respectfully, in an orderly fashion, and their request was accommodated.

When they asked to send scouts, however, it says “You all approached me and said ‘Let us send men before us ...’” (Deuteronomy 1:22) They converged upon Moshe like a mob, with no respect for one another. Although Moshe may have agreed with their actual request, the manner in which they came showed an insolence that foretold trouble afterwards. That attitude prevented them from seeing the Land from the Almighty’s perspective, instead leading them to conclusions drawn from a purely natural angle. The people were strong? Nothing that G-d could not handle. People were dying? That was G-d’s way of ridding the Land of their enemies!

With an improper approach a valid request can yield tragic results, and the greatest blessing can become a curse.

That is something to think about in the current political climate. Without proper respect, valid ideologies and viewpoints can result in far worse consequences than if an opposing ideology would prevail.


Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum is co-founder of Jewish Learning Connection based at Waxman Torah Center in University Heights.