By HaRav Shaul Yisraeli zt"l
based on Siach Shaul, p. 388-390 (address from 1988)
The spies were sent to find out, among other things, whether "… there is a tree or not" (Bamidbar 13:20). Rashi explains: "Do they have a proper person, who can shield them with his merit?"
Although the spies were seemingly asked to determine physical things, Rashi teaches us something different, which hints at the spies’ mistake. They did not realize that there are two sides to existence. Just as there is a need for a "kingdom of priests," so too there is a need and a possibility of a "holy nation." The nation has the ability to, at once, be involved in ploughing and sowing and not allow this to take them away from holy emotions. If they can preserve the connection between these two sides, they can deal with material matters and not become material themselves.
The Israelites were afraid that the inhabitants of Canaan were too strong for them (ibid. 13:31), [including in their spiritual impact on them], but this is a mistake. While it is true that we, as a nation, can fall very low and learn from corrupt nations instead of the more proper ones (see Sanhedrin 39b), if the scholars of our kingdom of priests do their job, we can survive.
The spies’ mindset finds expression in a social phenomenon that we are witnessing these days. We are witness to a throwing off of values, not only of the special level we reached at Sinai or of some present-day religious law, but, in general, of everything from the past that serves as a foundation of our national identity. The struggle is on the desire of many to create a "new nation," one which has no interest in preserving the traditions of previous generations and the treasures of our cultural past. They want to create new ones by assimilating into the nations of general civilization. They want a nation that is concerned only with the present.
Talk of democracy is just a front for a desire to erase our essence. "Let all do exactly what they desire." If it was only a matter of respecting each person’s divine image, they would react more positively to those who want to lead spiritual lives. In truth, it is what Bnei Yisrael cried about in the desert – "about families." They are appalled and embarrassed that some of their children have returned to Jewish observance. While we are surprised by this reaction, it has roots in the spies’ approach millennia ago. The reigniting of anti-religious activity is a direct result of the teshuva movement, which shakes those who have discarded the ways of their fathers. The movement shows that there is something in the Jewish soul that strives for more than the vanities of the physical world. Such Jews strive for light and internal renewal, and do not find it in the different games they see in society, but in sanctity. This is upsetting and challenging to those who have rejected sanctity.
We can understand the situation with security and serenity. We will be tolerant, not out of resignation, but with confidence that at the end, the light will come. We do not need to fight; Hashem will fight for us. We are just witnessing the last signs of life in a mortally wounded segment that rejects sanctity and is acting as one who sees his house collapsing.
"They saw all of them crying and Rabbi Akiva [who understood the ultimate silver lining] was laughing" (see Makkot 24b).