LTTN med xp logoThe Sin of the 'Spies' and the Lessons of Tisha B'Av

by Rabbi Chaim Richman

1995 Light to the Nations, Rabbi Chaim Richman - All Rights Reserved
Reprinted from The Restoration newsletter, July, 1995 (Tammuz/Av, 5755)


The Challenge in Every Generation

One of the principles for understanding the Torah’s message for every generation is a concept known as “that which transpired to the forefathers, is a sign for their children.” This means that invariably their descendants will find that their experiences, and all that which they must go through, are a re-play of what happened in previous generations. For history does repeat itself, because G-d expects us to learn from the past for the benefit of our children’s future. This is true both on the individual and national levels... and like every other challenge in a life of true commitment to G-d, the real question is: Will we have the courage, the integrity, and the sensitivity to learn from our history and do what is incumbent upon us to rectify mistakes of the past... in short, will we have the strength to dedicate ourselves to Hashem, the L-rd, in every aspect of our lives?

A Mourning Period of Three Weeks

At the time of this writing, the Hebrew month of Tammuz is approaching, and will have arrived as you read these words. This means that we will soon be starting a special three-week period of mourning, beginning with the 17th of Tammuz and culminating with the 9th of Av. The 17th day of Tammuz was designated a fast day because of five tragedies befell the Jewish people on this day:

1). Moses descended from Mount Sinai, and upon finding the people reveling in the midst of the Golden Calf, he broke the first set of tablets.

2). During the time of the first Holy Temple, the two daily sacrifices were suspended.

3). Prior to the destruction of the second Holy Temple, the enemy penetrated the walls of Jerusalem on this day.

4). The wicked Roman ruler Apostumos burned the Torah.

5). An idol was erected in the Holy Temple.

Although both the first and second Holy Temples were burned on the 9th of Av, the tragedies leading up to the destruction of both began on the 17th of Tammuz.

What is the Purpose of a Fast Day?

The purpose of fasting is to stir our hearts in order to motivate us towards the path of repentance, and to serve as a reminder to us of the failings of our own actions as well as those of our forefathers... for it is these iniquities which are responsible for the events which befell our people. Remembering these tragedies should lead us to examine our own conduct, and return to G-d with all our hearts.

Abstinence from Food is Not Enough

It is a total mistake to think that simply by not eating and drinking, one has fulfilled the requirement of a fast day. One who assumes this is completely missing the point of what it means to fast. When the sinful city of Nineveh repented, the verse tells us “G-d saw their actions” (Jonah 3:10). The commentaries emphasize that wearing sackcloth and fasting alone would have been meaningless, if it did not influence them to change their evil ways. Thus we see that the true purpose of a fast day must be evidenced in the improvement of all one’s deeds.

What Occurred on the 9th of Av?

This period of mourning culminates on the 9th of Av. On this day as well, five distinct tragedies occurred:

1). The spies which had gone to report on the situation in the Promised Land returned, and because of their lack of faith, they gave an evil report and greatly discouraged the Jewish people, until convincing them that they could not conquer it. (Numbers 13-14). The people spent the night crying, and the Rabbis comment that G-d said: “Because you spent this night crying for no reason, I will see to it that you always will have a reason to cry on this night.” G-d then decreed that this entire generation would not be allowed to enter into the Land of Israel, but would die in the desert.

2). The first Holy Temple was destroyed on this day.

3). The second Holy Temple was also destroyed on this day.

4). The city of Betar, last Jewish stronghold against the Roman invaders, was captured. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed.

5). The Roman officer Turnus Rufus plowed the site of the Holy Temple. More recently, the entire Jewish community of Spain was forcibly exiled - rather then accept conversion - by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on the 9th of Av, 1492. It is amazing to note that the First World War also began on the 9th of Av.

The Destruction of both Holy Temples and All the Other Tragedies - All Began As a Result of the Spies

The nation of Israel is no stranger to tragedy. We can see that this period commemorates a number of calamities which befell our people throughout history, but the main focus of this period is the destruction of both Holy Temples. Since its destruction, the Holy Temple has been the focal point of Jewish longing and yearning, since we know that the Jewish people - and for that matter, the entire world - can only reach its optimum state when the Holy Temple is standing and the Holy One allows His Shechinah (Presence) to dwell there once again.

And so we have existed in exile for nearly 2,000 years. And the reason for this exile was born on that very first Tisha B’Av, when the Jewish people listened to the evil, faithless report of the returning spies, and spent the evening crying - over nothing. Despite the efforts of Calev and Yehoshua, the people refused to take heart, and refused to be comforted. Thus, this date was established by G-d as a day which will be fit for crying in every successive generation... for this was a sin which He could not forgive.

The Severity of the Spies’ Sin

When we reflect upon all which transpired from the time the Jews left Egypt until this first Tisha B’Av, we can begin to realize just how serious the sin of the spies was - and why. After all, Israel constantly showed a lack of faith in the L-rd from the very beginning - even after all the signs and miracles which they witnessed in Egypt, after G-d delivered them from there, while yet on the shore of the Sea, they doubted that He would help them. And after all which He did for them, leading them from slavery to freedom and bringing them to the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, just forty days after this revelation, they commit the gravest transgression of all: idolatry in the form of the golden calf. But G-d was ready to forgive these sins, even the sin of idolatry. Yet when it came to speaking malicious gossip about the Land of Israel - and the people believing it - even though G-d was ready to forgive the sin of idolatry, he was not able to forgive the sin of speaking against the Land. He decreed that this generation that doubted its goodness would not merit to enter. It was decreed against them to die in the desert, and only their children, about whom they wailed “our children will fall to the sword” - only they merited to enter into the Promised Land. From this we see that while He is prepared to forgive sins against Himself, He will not tolerate sins against the Land!

The Lesson for Our Generation - Here and Now!

It is well known that the earlier generations of Zionist pioneers who founded the State of Israel were not all dedicated to G-d and His Torah; on the contrary, some did not believe in G-d altogether, and intended to uproot religion from the Jewish people. Yet despite this, because of the immense dedication which these valiant men and women had for the Land of Israel, preparing and defending the Land for their Jewish brethren at great personal cost, even risking death - this demonstrated the great inner holiness which these Jews possessed. For if they believed in nothing else, they still believed in the redemptive capacity of the Holy Land of Israel itself... and in a sense, it was the redemption which they sought to bring about through their struggle for the Land. The Land itself, for these brave pioneers, was a connection to the G-d of Israel... their last connection.

Our generation, however, is now confronted with a denial and a historical revision of these basic Zionist values. Israel’s present government should learn this lesson from the spies, and refrain from committing treason against the Land... for we have seen that G-d was able to forgive those who did not believe in His Torah, or even in Him. But when it came to turning against the Land... that is the final straw. The question which we must ask ourselves is: if one does not even believe in the land... what is left? Indeed, let us see to it that history does not repeat itself...