During the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert, Moses sent spies to the Land of Israel so that they could report on the situation there and give the Israelites the opportunity to form a strategy for the conquest of the land. Twelve spies were sent to Israel and ten of them reported that the people living in the land were too strong and their cities fortified well and that the Israelites would be destroyed as soon as they attempted to enter the land. The people believed the ten spies and cried.
The Talmud (Taanit 30b) recounts that this event took place on the ninth of Av and that God declared that since the Israelites cried for nothing, the ninth of Av would become a day of crying for all history. The ninth of Av (which falls out on Thursday, July 30 this year) was the day of the destruction of the First and Second Temples and is a day of mourning and fasting until today.
According to the Book of Numbers, the punishment for the sin of the spies was that the Israelites were forced to wander in the desert for 40 years before entering the Land of Israel. Forty years and the destruction of two temples is a pretty harsh punishment. Why did this sin in particular warrant such a harsh punishment?
Rashi explains that the punishment for the sin of the spies was a cumulative punishment which also included the punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf. In order to understand the punishment, it is first necessary to understand the sin. The sin of the spies seems to have been problematic in two ways. First, the Israelites demonstrated a lack of faith in God’s promise to give them the Land of Israel. Secondly, they did not show love for the Land of Israel, instead looking for ways to criticize it. (In today’s world, people who leave the Diaspora to come to Israel to live must take a big leap of faith and have an ingrained love of the country. Things haven’t changed much.) The sin of the Golden Calf showed a lack of understanding of the proper way to worship God — directly and not through any physical manifestation.
So what do these two sins have in common? Both of them show the lack of understanding of the role of the physical in the lives of Jews. The creation of the Golden Calf was an attempt to bring the physical into a place where it did not belong. The sin of the spies was a misunderstanding of the role of a physical place (Israel) in Jewish life. Life in the desert, centered entirely around spirituality, is not in fact the ideal. Life in Israel, with all its physical and material challenges, is.
Why is that?
The role of the Jewish people in the world is to sanctify the physical. This is accomplished by living in Israel — a physical place — and making it holy by keeping the Torah. It is also accomplished by engaging with the outside world, professionally and culturally, while still leading a life committed to the Torah. A person who immerses himself completely in spirituality while ignoring the outside world is not reaching his full potential. The Torah is called a Living Torah , because Torah should pervade every part of life.
Holiness of a physical place is an important value in Judaism. Israel is considered to be the holiest country, with Jerusalem as its holiest city. The Temple Mount is holier than Jerusalem, then the Temple itself, and then the holiest place of all — the Holy of Holies, considered to be the gateway to heaven.
Settlement in the Land of Israel, either in the time of Joshua or today, is important because the Torah can be kept in full only in the holiest land. Even in a desert (literal or figurative) one cannot reach the spiritual height reachable in the Land of Israel.
The Temple in Jerusalem is the ultimate place where the physical is infused with the spiritual. Much has been written about how to reconcile the idea of animal sacrifice with modern mores. However, it is clear that the sacrifices are a way of taking the most mundane physical item and imbuing it with spirituality so that it becomes an act of prayer.
Before the destruction of the Temples, the Jews lost touch with the meaning of the Temple. Prior to the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews sinned by allowing their physical side to take over and ignoring the spiritual altogether. They sinned by engaging in idol worship, murder and illicit sexual relations. The Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hate. The story of Kamza and Bar-Kamza recounted in the Talmud (Gittin 55) is a story where the attempt to be more religious than the next guy caused great harm to a person’s feelings. The Talmud relates that this incident set off a train of events which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple.
Punishment is often about more than teaching somebody a lesson. Sometimes it is an expression of reality. The Israelites in the desert demonstrated their lack of readiness to take on life in the real world just yet. Although Israel became a nation during the exodus from Egypt, it had not understood how to live a life which combines the physical and the spiritual and imbues the physical with spirituality. It took 40 years of wandering in the desert to reach that point.
So too, when the Jews living in Israel forgot this important value they were no longer deserving of the existence of the Temple. Since they had abandoned the Temple and its core value it was destroyed. The challenge of Jews in today’s world is to try to bring back that important value, by bringing holiness into every aspect of daily life.