G-d does not force us to live in a certain way. He guides us and shows us how to distinguish between the correct and incorrect path. He ultimately holds us accountable for our actions, but we have the freedom to choose them, even if that means making mistakes. And the more we are able to grow and learn from our mistakes, the closer we become to G-d.
People make mistakes all the time. It’s part of what it means to be human. Interestingly, Torah law deals extensively with what happens when mistakes are made, detailing the implications of those mistakes, and how one should proceed as a result. Because we have free choice and because we have limited insight, mistakes are inevitable. Sometimes things seem so clear to us, but in the end, we see we were wrong all along.
What is particularly interesting is that G-d gives us the space to make mistakes. One of the most amazing Divine gestures G-d made to us is the gift of free choice – the ability to choose between good and evil. The Rambam says that free choice is the foundation on which everything else in Judaism rests. The Torah – a comprehensive system of G-d-given commandments and directives on how to lead our lives – is premised on the fact that we are living, breathing, dynamic human beings, able to choose right from wrong, and not automated, pre-programmed robots.
G-d does not impose Himself on us and force us to live in a certain way. He guides us, directs us, shows us how to distinguish between the correct and incorrect path. He ultimately holds us accountable for our actions, but we have the freedom to choose them. To be a human being is to be genuinely free.
When the Rambam says that free choice is the foundation of everything, he is really telling us that we have to make choices all the time. And the moment there is the option of choice, there is the option of making a mistake. Our sages have a principle: “In the path a person wants to take, he is guided.” In other words, if a person wants to refine themselves and become elevated and holy, G-d will give them the guidance and strength to do so; by the same token, if a person wants to pursue a path of negativity and sin, then G-d lets them do that too. G-d supports our decisions.
In this week’s parsha, Shelach, the children of Israel are standing at the edge of the land of Israel and about to enter. More than a year after having left Egypt, and a number of months after having stood at Mount Sinai, where we received the Torah, the Jewish people were on the brink of the fulfilment of G-d’s Divine promise: “I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession.”
And on the verge of this moment of triumph, what happens? They send in the spies. A group of twelve men – great leaders, royal princes of their tribes – go into the land of Israel to bring back a report to the people. As is well known, ten of the spies come back with a report that is negative; they report that although the land is prosperous and beautiful and fertile, it is inhabited by fearsome tribes that make it unconquerable. Two of the spies – Joshua and Caleb – return with a positive report, urging the Jewish people to have faith that G-d will enable them to conquer the land. The people accept the negative report of the ten spies and disaster strikes. They want to go back to Egypt. They cry that night, and then G-d reveals to them the error of their ways, decreeing as punishment that that generation would not enter the land of Israel. They would wander the desert for forty years, and only the next generation would be worthy of entering the land of Israel.
The sin of the spies is regarded as one of our great historical calamities. According to tradition, it happened on the night of Tisha B’Av – the 9th of Av. The mistake that was made that night would set in motion a long-running sequence of disastrous events that would echo throughout Jewish history.
And yet, it could have all been different. The question is, why did G-d allow the spy mission to take place? Why did Moses facilitate it? If G-d had promised them the land – that this was where they were going to end up, regardless – why did they need to find out whether the land was good or fortified? Given the problematic nature and ultimate calamitous consequences of their request, why wasn’t it dismissed out of hand and the people simply led straight into the land of Israel in accordance with the original Divine plan?
Furthermore, Moses was aware of the dangers of the mission. How do we know? Just before the spies went in, Moses gave a new name to his beloved disciple, Joshua. His original name was Hoshea, meaning “saved”, and this was changed to Yehoshua – “He will save you”. Rashi, based on the Talmud, explains this to mean: “May Hashem save you from the evil counsel of the spies.” Moses foresaw that trouble was coming, or at the very least, the enormous risks that such a spy mission would entail. It wasn’t as if he thought everything would turn out fine. He was so concerned that he even considered that his disciple, Joshua, might be swayed by the negative reports of the other spies. So why did he agree to it?
Why did G-d, Himself, agree to it? We see later in the account of the spies, recounted in the Book of Deuteronomy, that the request to send spies came from the people. And it was only after the people had put in this request that Hashem seemingly endorsed their decision, saying: “Shelach lecha…” – “Send for yourselves…”.
Why did both G-d and Moses allow the people to send the spies? Moses suspected that this idea would end in disaster. G-d knew that it would end in disaster. So why did they allow it?
Living with the consequences
The first part of the answer is obvious – free choice. If free choice is something real and meaningful, then whether the choice is right or wrong, it must be allowed to stand and be taken to its logical conclusions. If the Jewish people chose not to put their faith and trust in G-d – in the fact that He would help them conquer the land, and ensure what was necessary to happen, happened – then that choice had to stand. If they decided to spy out the land of Israel for themselves – to understand the nature of the land, the fortifications and the people who lived there – then that was their decision. Even if it demonstrated a lack of faith in G-d.
This is the dramatic importance of free choice – G-d gives us the agency to forge our own moral path in life, even if it means making mistakes, and sometimes very serious mistakes, with devastating consequences. The generation of the spies never saw the land of Israel. They spent forty years wandering in the desert. The mistake was catastrophic. But free choice means you are free to make mistakes – and that you have to live with the consequences.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of our great rabbis of the twentieth century, approaches the question from a slightly different angle. He asks, why is it that the people lacked faith in G-d? These were the same people who had witnessed the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. They had seen the manna fall from heaven. They had heard G-d’s voice at Mount Sinai. They had seen all of this, and now, suddenly, on the verge of entering the land – and completing the final stage of their great journey to redemption – they started to doubt G-d? Granted, there were thirty-one kings ruling the land of Israel with fearsome fortifications and a violent disposition. But surely they knew that if G-d had promised them they would conquer the land, He would deliver on that promise? In the same way He had sent ten plagues to break a major world power like ancient Egypt and the might of King Pharaoh’s army, surely G-d would be able to help them conquer a land with thirty-one kings? Where did their lack of faith come from?
Rav Moshe Feinstein outlines a very important principle of human nature. All of the revelations they had been privy to had come too easily to them. The ten plagues, the splitting of the sea – there was no struggle involved. And this is human nature – you have to work something through yourself, and struggle with it and really think about it deeply, before it becomes a part of you.
The faith of the Jewish people at that time was superficial; it was limited to the faith that whatever G-d had done in the past, He had done. But there was no faith that He could or would do any more. And that’s why they kept on testing G-d in the desert. Of course, they were being tested by G-d. But in their minds, they were testing G-d, as if to say: “Well, G-d, are You able to do this? Are You able to do that?” Their faith was superficial and shallow because it wasn’t something they’d worked through and struggled with; it wasn’t something that had been ingrained into their psyche, integrated into their personalities, seared into their souls.
Learning from your mistakes
Unfortunately, the only way to deepen their faith was to learn from their mistakes. So G-d had given them the space to make this mistake. He said: “Shelach lecha” – send your spies, come back with negative reports. Make the mistake of not going into the land. And then your faith will be deepened. And that’s what happened. Immediately after G-d told them they were being punished for not having the faith to enter the land, they started to cry. They realised that they had made a terrible error, but it was too late. They had to go through the pain and process of learning – wandering for forty years in the desert, most of which was spent delving into Torah, integrating Divine wisdom, building faith.
In a way, to have entered the land of Israel a year after the exodus from Egypt may have been rushing things. To us, it seems like the perfect plan for them just to walk in. But Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that if they had entered Israel at that point, it would have been on a very superficial level of faith. They had to be given the space to make the choice, to make the mistake, to live with the consequences of their mistake and to accept their punishment. They needed to grow through this process, so that with time, contemplation and the pain of this experience, their faith would be deepened.
In life, we go through challenges and difficulties and complex experiences that allow us to deepen our relationship with G-d. Our faith in Him becomes part of who we are. Through this free choice that G-d gives us, and through making mistakes, we are able to then rebuild and reinforce who we are. This is based on a passage in the Talmud, where it records the following statement of Rabbi Yitzchak: “If a person tells you, ‘I’ve worked hard but did not find’, don’t believe him; if he says, ‘I’ve not worked hard but found’, don’t believe him; but if he says, ‘I’ve worked hard and found’, believe him.” [Tractate Megilla, page 6b] The effort and the “finding” are two sides of the same coin. We have to work for something in order for it to become part of who we are.
This principle relates to everything – and certainly to interpersonal relationships. Rav Eliyahu Dessler is famous for demonstrating that the conventional wisdom about love is incorrect. It’s not the more you love someone, the more you will give to them. It’s the other way around. The more you give to a person, the more you will love them. The more effort you invest in a relationship – in a marriage, in your children, in a friendship – the more you will grow attached. Effort is what produces that deep attachment.
Of course, this applies to our relationship with Hashem – which is why the Jewish people, who had taken their faith for granted, were not ready to enter the land. They had not yet endured a struggle that would deepen their faith.
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, the great Mir Rosh Yeshiva, cites the idea that according to Talmudic tradition, a simple handmaiden present at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds had a higher level of revelation of prophecy than the greatest of prophets in generations to come. But what became of this mass of people who witnessed split seas and great plagues and the Voice of G-d? They ended up wandering the desert, and didn’t achieve true greatness until their faith could be integrated.
That deep connection and integration can only come from exercising and struggling with free choice as independent beings. And that takes time and tremendous will and effort. G-d gives us the space to choose, to make mistakes, to learn from our mistakes.
This is what the people needed in the desert. More time. Greater effort. It was all too much of a rush. They left Egypt, saw amazing miracles, heard G-d speak at Mount Sinai – and then made mistakes, because they needed time to integrate and to absorb all that they had been told. They needed time to reflect on what they had witnessed. So G-d had to give them the space to choose and not to block their request to spy out the land. He gave them the space to make their mistakes and to face the consequences of those mistakes. But, through those mistakes – grave though they were – and through forty long years of hardship in the desert, they absorbed the deep truths of their faith and made it a part of who they were.
Growth and learning in life come about through step-by-step challenges – making mistakes, living with consequences, taking responsibility for our decisions. And then learning from our mistakes. And in time, through effort, we will become more deeply connected to G-d, His Torah, the people around us and all of the good things in life.