One of the Torah’s most dramatic episodes is found in this week’s Torah portion: the story of the twelve spies and their evil report on the Land of Israel:They are a mighty nation that dwells in the Land, and the cities are heavily fortified”. (Num. 13:28)

There were two spies who opposed the other ten and spoke in defense of Israel and G‑d. One of them, Caleb, responded that the Jews would indeed be able to conquer the Land. Rashi states that Caleb began to list many of G‑d’s miraculous deeds for the Jews—all to demonstrate that nothing can hinder G‑d’s will.

The ten spies continued their attack:We will not be able to conquer the people, because they are stronger than us [in Hebrew, mimenu]”. (Num. 13:31) The Levush explains that the word mimenu can also be pronounced “mimeno,” meaning, “than Him” — referring to G‑d. These spies implied that G‑d would be unable to conquer the Land of Israel. This claim seems surprising, considering that all the Jews had witnessed G‑d’s miraculous victories over the Egyptians—and yet they were persuaded by the spies!

The desert represented a spiritually oriented lifestyle...

What did these spies say to cause such doubt in G‑d’s abilities? They spoke of having seen the nefilim in Israel (Num. 13:33). Who were the nefilim that they instilled such panic?

“Nefilim” comes from the Hebrew word nafal, “to fall.” These nefilim were originally angels who “fell” from Heaven to dwell among humans at the time of Enoch, 235 years after the creation of the world. They were extremely powerful angels who came to the physical world in that corrupt era before the Flood to prove that temptation and evil could be resisted. Unfortunately, they fell further into spiritual corruption than their mortal neighbors, and eventually led rebellions against G‑d. The Jews understood that physical barriers were no obstacles for G‑d. However, these spiritually charged nefilim seemed to pose a real threat.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the inner reason for these spies opposing the entry into Israel. The desert represented a spiritually oriented lifestyle; the Land of Israel denoted physical reality. The spies were the leaders of the Jews, and were concerned for the people’s spiritual welfare. They saw how very lofty angels, the nefilim, had tried and failed to overcome the potent lure of materialism. These pure beings “fell” from spiritual heights to the most base depths. A fortiori, the assumption was that if angels couldn’t make it, how much more so we humans would not be able to pass the test, standing up against the odds of a physical existence in Israel.

We are more capable than the angels...

In Israel the Jews would be compelled to work the land, engage in business, cook, sew, do laundry, etc.—time-consuming mundane tasks they did not perform in the desert. The spies saw the desert as ideal for spiritual pursuit. Entering Israel and tending to physical matters could be of spiritual harm and a temptation to the Jews—so, if possible, better to avoid it completely.

(Ultimately, the Jews were punished for believing the spies. It was decreed that they all wander—and the men perish—in the desert for the next forty years.)

Joshua and Caleb recognized the mistake of the other spies and answered, “...Do not fear the nation of the Land”. (Num. 14:9) We are more capable than the angels. G‑d has placed a G‑dly soul within each Jew, thereby giving us the ability not only to withstand the temptation of physicality but also to instill the world with spirituality. This is what Joshua and Caleb knew: that every Jew is not only strong enough to overcome the lowest physical elements, but can even transform them to vessels for serving G‑d.

May each and every one of us succeed in making the factors of our life—including the smallest details—vehicles for holiness, and may this lead to the immediate redemption.

Shabbat Shalom, Shaul

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