In Parshas Shelach we learn of the incident of the meraglim - spies - in which the spies sent to investigate the land of Israel returned with an evil report about the land. The Jewish people accepted this report and spent the night crying and bemoaning their fate. In the end, God condemned the people to remain in the wilderness for forty years, while the spies themselves died immediately in a plague.
What exactly was the sin of the Jewish people in accepting the report of the spies? God sums up the sin in His initial statement to Moses (Numbers 14:11), "How long will this people anger Me, and how long will they not have faith in Me, with all the signs that I have done in its midst?" The essence of their sin was their failure to have faith in God. After all that God had already done for them, with all the miracles of the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai, and their supernatural survival in the wilderness (e.g. manna, clouds of glory, the well of Miriam, etc.), the Jewish people were still not ready to wholeheartedly trust God.
As a rebbi (Torah teacher) teaching seventh and eighth grade students, when discussing this parsha, my students would often ask, "What was wrong with them? After everything they had seen with their own eyes, they still didn't believe?" The following is how I would address this issue when it came up in the classroom.
Clearly, the Jewish people believed in God. They knew God in a way that no later generation can even begin to comprehend. Yet, despite their knowledge, they were not yet capable of truly trusting Him. Trust is an emotion, and with all their intellectual knowledge of God, they were incapable of creating the emotion of trust within themselves.
The Jewish people had just experienced several generations of horrific abuse at the hands of the Egyptians. When they had first come to Egypt, they were welcomed, and they had been respected and productive members of Egyptian society. Suddenly, almost overnight and for no apparent reason, that ended and the Egyptians turned against them. The Jews were forced into dehumanizing servitude and became nothing more than property.
Unsurprisingly, this experience, which lasted several generations, deeply scarred the Jewish people. Not only had they been abused, but they had been abused by people who were once their friends! And not only had their friends turned against them, but they had done so for no reason!
Now along came God and rescued them from Egypt, bringing them into a wilderness where they are completely dependent on Him, telling them that He would bring them to a land "flowing with milk and honey". Everything looked wonderful -- yet, deep down inside, the Jewish people were waiting for the second shoe to drop. On some level, even with all that they knew of God, they still had an irrational fear that all of this was just a set-up for a betrayal. In the end it would go bad, because, after generations of slavery, they knew, on an almost instinctual level, that things always go bad.
With this understanding, much of the behavior of the Jewish people in the wilderness (from the sin of the golden calf to the complaints about the food) makes far more sense. While they certainly wanted to trust God, their insecurity in their relationship with God caused them to continually “test” the relationship and to overreact to every possible problem.
This is why, even after the people had repented, they still had to remain in the desert for forty years. The forty years in the desert wasn't really a punishment; it was therapy. The people needed to experience forty years of life in which God directly participated in the daily life of every single person. Only after those forty years would their relationship with God be strong enough that they would be ready to go on to a normal life in the land of Israel.
God certainly understood the internal struggles that the Jewish people were going through, and He knew that they were not truly ready for a healthy relationship. God knew from the beginning that the Jewish people would need to spend the next forty years in the desert. Yet, before this could be made “official”, it was necessary that the people should recognize this as well. Otherwise, the forty years in the desert would have appeared utterly senseless, and would have led to even greater problems. It was therefore necessary for the Jewish people to “sin” in such a manner that they too would recognize that they were not yet ready to enter the land of Israel.
This explains why God told Moses to send the spies, even though He knew what would happen. “Send for yourself men…” – in the end the spies revealed to the Jewish people far more about themselves than they did about the land of Israel.
This also explains why God had to “go through the motions” of “anger” and “forgiveness”, first threatening to destroy them and then, in response to the prayers of Moses, “forgiving” them. (Indeed, the Sforno (14: 20) understands God’s response to Moses’ prayer to mean that God had already forgiven the Jewish people before Moses had even begun praying.) This taught the Jewish people two vitally important lessons. Firstly, it made it clear that this kind of distrust was not acceptable in a proper relationship and that they needed to change. Secondly, it made it clear that even so, no matter what they did, God would ultimately forgive them.
This understanding of the incident of the spies teaches us several important lessons. One lesson we can learn from this is that there are times when God will send us a test that He knows we will fail. This can happen when we are unaware of a spiritual flaw that is impeding our spiritual development. When we fail a test that, by all appearances, we ought to have passed, we realize that we aren't really at the level that we thought, and, hopefully, we are motivated to find those hidden flaws and rectify them. (See Rav Eliyahu Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu I:165 and IV:186-187 for a discussion of this concept, based on the Pri Ha’aretz of R’ Menachem Mendel M’Vitepsk.)
A more basic lesson that we can learn from here is the profound connection between our relationships with others and our relationship with God. To the degree that our relationships with other human beings are dysfunctional, so will be our relationship with God, whether we recognize it or not. If our fellow human beings find us difficult to deal with, then the likelihood is that God feels the same way. Thus the Sages taught, “Anyone who is pleasing to his fellow men is pleasing to God, and anyone who is unpleasing to his fellow men is unpleasing to God.” (Pirkei Avos 3:10)
Along the same lines, this also brings out a profoundly important spiritual aspect of our interpersonal obligations. For when we hurt another person, we are not only hurting them physically and emotionally, we are also hurting them spiritually. Every time we betray a friend, hurt a loved one, abuse our authority, or do any of the other cruel things that human beings tend to do to one another, not only do we undermine our own relationship with our fellow human beings and with God but we also chip away at our fellow human being’s relationship with God. On the other hand, every time we do an act of kindness, when we keep our word, when we give of ourselves for the benefit of others, not only are we making the world a better place for ourselves and others, but we are also bringing the world a little bit closer to God.