By Rabbi Joshua (uprightly known as The Hoffer) Hoffman [z"l]
When the Torah first refers to the tribal heads, who were to serve as spies to scout out Eretz Yisroel, it says that they were all “anashim”, or distinguished men (Bamidbar 13:3). Rashi, citing the midrash, comments that the term “anashim” is always an expression of importance, and that they deserved to be called “anashim”, because, at that time, before they began their mission, they were all honorable. Further on, however, commenting on a verse that refers to the return of the spies from their mission (Bamidbar 13:26), Rashi cites the Talmud (Sotah 35a) which says that the verse compares their coming back from their mission to their going. Just as they came back with an evil intent, so too did they go with an evil intent. How can we reconcile these seemingly contradictory comments?
One explanation, that I heard many years ago from Rabbi Yehoshua Eichenstein of Chicago, is that even though the spies had bad intentions in mind from the very beginning, they still had the status of distinguished people, because they had not yet brought their intentions to fruition, and, as the Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) teaches us, God does not punish a Jew for evil intentions, but only for evil actions. The one exception to this rule is the case of idolatry, for which evil thoughts are also punished. Perhaps that is why the entire nation was punished for the sin of the eigel, even though only a small minority participated in the actions involved. Since they acquiesced in their hearts, as the Ramban explains in Parshas Ki Tisa.
A more common answer given to the seemingly contradictory comments about the spies is that they only began to have evil intentions once they already started on their mission while they were referred to as “anashim” only before they set out on it (see Maharsha to Sotah 35a). According to this explanation, however, we need to understand why they changed their intentions at that point. Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, zt”l, suggests, that as long as they were in the presence or proximity of Moshe, they were influenced by his humility to such an extent that they would do nothing to act against God’s will. Such, says Rav Abramsky, zt”l, is the influence of a great man on his environment. Once the spies started out on their mission, however, they were away from that level of his influence, and began to think, presumptuously and haughtily, that they could thwart God’s plans for their own purposes.
Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frimer, Hy”d, known as the Kozoglover Rebbe, gives a similar explanation in his Eretz Tzvi, with a bit of a Chassidic twist. He says that while in the presence of Moshe, the spies nullified their personalities to that of Moshe, in the sense of how Chassidim are instructed to do so to that of their rebbe. The danger of adopting that kind of approach to life, however, is that once they leave the presence of their rebbe, they are apt to lapse into bad behavior, because they have not trained themselves to develop their own inner qualities. This explains, says Rav Frimer, Hy”d, the comment of the Targum Yonasan ben Uziel, who says that when Moshe saw the extreme humility of Yehoshua, he prayed that God should save him from the counsel of the spies. What this means is that Moshe saw that Yehoshua’s humility was independent of his own influence, and, in this way, he was different from the other spies, and would be able to stand up to their future arrogance. Moshe, therefore prayed that God should help Yehoshua in his effort to resist them.
Perhaps based on the explanation of Rav Abramsky and Rav Frimer we can better understand Rashi’s explanation of the juxtaposition of the episode of the spies and that of the sin and punishment of Miriam. The spies, he says, should have learned from what happened to her when she spoke against Moshe, that they certainly shouldn’t speak against Eretz Yisroel. Moshe, however, was a human being, and Eretz Yisroel is an inanimate area of land. So what is the comparison? The answer, perhaps, is that, as we explained last week, Miriam’s criticism and consequent punishment came from a certain sense of arrogance, however slight. If that degree of arrogance could exist even while still in Moshe’s presence, the spies should have reasoned, how much more so could it prevail once they left the camp and were outside of his sphere of influence. They did not, however, learn from Miriam, and ended up leading the Jewish nation to one of its greatest tragedies.