Shem miShmuel explains the troubling story of the spies from different perspectives. In one, he points out that the tribal leaders were misled when they first heard the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad, two Jews who reached high levels of spiritual attainment while still in the desert, at the end of the previous week’s Torah Reading, Beha'alotecha. They prophesied that Moses would die before taking the Jews into the Promised Land, and that Joshua would be the one to lead the Jews in.

This made the leaders of the tribes...nervous.

This made the leaders of the tribes – the same ones who were appointed as spies – nervous. They reasoned that the task of conquering the Canaanites would entail a fierce struggle, one which only Moses would be capable of leading. They knew that the fight would be essentially spiritual, because on a natural, physical level it wouldn’t be possible for the Jew to conquer the Canaanites. The leader of the Jews would, therefore, have to be on the highest level in order to draw upon the kind of spiritual energy necessary to win this fight, and the spies weren’t at all certain that Joshua was up to this task.

In order to get around the problem as they saw it, the Jewish tribal leaders decided to utilize a Torah principle called shelucho shel adam kemoto (literally, "one’s emissary is considered as oneself"). That is, if you appoint someone to perform a task for you, that person assumes your place, and takes on your qualities and responsibilities as if he were you. The spies arranged to be appointed by Moses as his emissaries. In so doing, they believed they were taking on some of the qualities of Moses himself.

Utilizing the spiritual light which they possessed as Moses’ emissaries, the spies intended to nullify the negative spiritual energy which existed in the land of Israel as a result of the idol-worshipping practices of the Canaanites. They would thereby enable the Jews to enter the Land with Joshua at their head. Even though he was on a lesser spiritual level than Moses (who was compared to the sun, while Joshua was compared to the moon), Joshua would be able to lead the Jews into Israel, because the spies (who were the heads of their tribes) had already weakened the negative spiritual energies of the place.

And we see that it worked. Upon the entry of the spies into the land of Israel, the most powerful and threatening of the inhabitants began to die in mysterious ways. The Talmud tells us that they were struck by a plague, and were so involved in burying their dead that they didn’t even notice the spies on their midst.

Shem miShmuel also points out that just as the Jews underwent a spiritual purification in Egypt, the land of Israel was spiritually purged during the time that the Canaanite nations occupied it. The Canaanites’ corrupt, idol-worshipping presence concealed the inner, spiritual nature of the land. But the arrival of the Jews on the border of Israel, fresh from their purification in Egypt, began to bring out the land’s hidden spiritual reserves. The land started to "vomit out" (as the Torah itself describes it) the iniquity within.

The result was that automatically, upon the arrival of the spies, the land of Israel began to effortlessly rid itself of the spiritual impurity residing upon it. The nefilim or "giants," who set a bad example for the rest of the Canaanites, began to die. The power of Moses, invested in his emissaries, caused impurity to disappear and prepared the way for Joshua to come in and complete the job.

So, given that they knew the land was good and that they saw upon their entry into Israel that the land began to rid itself of its bad influences and impurities, why did the spies come back with such a negative report? Why did they tell the rest of the Jews that they could not enter the Promised Land?

...the spies were confused when they saw that only the Canaanite leaders...were dying...

For this, Shem miShmuel offers yet another explanation. He writes that the spies were confused when they saw that only the Canaanite leaders — the "giants" — were dying, while the commoners among them remained untouched. They saw how spiritually corrupt the common Canaanites were and could not imagine that heir leaders could be worse. Therefore, they thought, the Canaanite "man on the street" must be "beyond salvation" – even in death. At least their leaders could be purified by capital punishment from above, which is why they were dying, but the rest were not even worth of that.

And if that were the case, wondered the spies, how would the Jews enter this place?

The worst sinners among the Jews were at least on the level of the Canaanite leaders who were dying. Therefore, the spies thought, the Jews would also die if they entered the land. They were not perfect, but they were high enough to be judged from Above. Coming into a land that "vomits" out wicked inhabitants, would probably cause these Jews to die, or so they thought.

Therefore, the spies brought back a negative report telling the Jews that Israel is a land that "consumes its inhabitants," and persuaded them not to go forward. Confused by the deaths of the Canaanite leaders, the spies sought to prevent a similar result among Jews and persuaded them not to enter Israel.

Of course they were wrong.

As Rashi points out in the very beginning of his Torah commentary, only G‑d decides to whom the land of Israel belongs. At this point in history, G‑d chose to bring the Jews out of Egypt and return them to the land of their ancestors, the land of Israel. The spies had no need to second-guess this decision. All they had to do was trust in G‑d, Who had just demonstrated His commitment and power with plagues and miracles.

But this is what the spies lacked.

As a result of their lack of trust in G‑d, the entire nation was condemned to wander for 40 years until the last of the slave generation had died. Only then could they enter the land.

But even then, a high level of trust in G‑d was needed, because life in Israel is dependent on spiritual efforts more than anything else. It is spiritual dedication, combined with physical labor that brings success in Israel.

That was the test that the Jews had to face then, and continue to face to this day. Only a high level of trust in G‑d allows the nation of Israel to succeed in the Holy Land.

[Excerpted from "Inner Lights from Jerusalem"]