Parshat Shelach deals, in the main, with the twelve spies and their report of the land. There are a couple of other passages mentioned in the Parsha as well. Most notably, the Parsha concludes with the passage of Tzitzit, the third paragraph of the Shema prayer. There is a common thread which links the two unrelated passages, which we will explore.
The spies were selected from the most pious of the nation. Knowing that this trip was fraught with the danger of losing faith, Moses mitigated the peril by sending only those who had the highest chance of making it through without losing faith. Nonetheless, 10 of the spies returned, reporting the land to be impregnable and impossible to defeat. Only Joshua and Caleb maintained their faith, urging the nation that the Lord would fight the battle for them and would successfully settle them in the land.
The people capitulated to the hype of the 10 spies and they cried that night, which was the 9th of Av, a day that started the trend in history for tragedy to befall at that time.
How was it that these most pious people succumbed to such fears and lost their faith? After experiencing the last two years, including the wondrous plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the sea and the miraculous existence in the desert, could there be room for even entertaining that God would leave them to be slaughtered by the powerful inhabitants of Canaan?
“…we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes!” (Numbers 13:33) The spies expressed their profound insecurity with these words, highlighting their fears of being at the mercy of the local inhabitants.
There must be explanations for this turn about in the faith of the people, and indeed the commentators address this, although one is left unsatisfied even after the commentators’ notes.
The passage of Tzitzit instructs us to put fringes, tassels, on the four corners of our garments (if we are wearing such garments with four corners). The passage continues, “It shall constitute Tzitzit for you, and you shall see [the tassels] and you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and you will fulfill them. And you will not stray after your hearts and your eyes after which you are misguided.” (Numbers 15:39)
What about the tassels will inspire us to observe the commandments of the Lord? How, pray tell, will the tassels deter us from following the base desires of our hearts and eyes?
What sets a Jew apart from others in society? What makes him look different? The tassels.
Western dress is only centuries old. Garments were typically a bolt of cloth wrapped around the body, draped perhaps as a Tallit. Who had strings hanging from the corners? Jews did! And it was visible. A Jew is not permitted to wear a four cornered garment without the Tzitzit on each corner. It was always there, in our faces, reminding us who we are. It also reminded everyone around us who we are.
As righteous as one might be, one is always susceptible to slip, to be tempted. A tzadik is not immune to the challenges and trials that sweep all of us. But there is one foolproof shield, which guarantees pious behavior in all of us. One is never tempted when one’s reputation is on the line, not when someone else is watching. I may eat off the floor when no one is around, but I’m not going to pick up the cookie crumbs when other people can see. I will not compromise my dignity to satisfy some momentary urge. All persons of prestige who are caught abusing their power have done so only because they thought they would not be caught. There is nothing more humiliating than one who has the respect of others and loses it because of something like petty theft.
The spies knew that the people would back them, that they had the ear of the nation. No one would fault them for losing faith. They were able to follow their agenda with impunity, whether it was for political advantage or simply lack of faith.
These were pious men selected for this task, who failed in their mission. I am not undertaking here to provide a satisfactory explanation of their failing, I just want to shed a little light on one element of their trial.