All the Children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, and the entire assembly said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this Wilderness! Why is Hashem bringing us to this Land to die by the sword? Our wives and young children will be taken captive! Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?” (Num. 14:2-3)
It is a mitzvah, a Divine decree, that we must live in Eretz Yisrael under G-d's dominion, sanctifying His name, in order to create a holy state and society which clings to mitzvot completely and properly, uninfluenced by the alien, false culture of the nations. At the same time, it is an unforgivable, loathsome sin to refuse to live in Eretz Yisrael, and to prefer the depravity of the exile and foreign rule. It is a chilul Hashem, and Israel are, thus, exposed to the influence of the nations and their abominations.
G-d, therefore, was angry at our ancestors in the desert when they refused to go up to Eretz Yisrael and called out, “Let us appoint a new leader and go back to Egypt” (Num. 14:4). Surely the spies Moses sent out were prominent and righteous, as our sages said (Tanchuma, Shelach, 4): “Send out men” (Num. 13:2): This is in line with, “He that sends a message by the hand of a fool, severs his own feet and imbibes damage” (Prov. 26:6). Were the spies fools? Surely the Torah said, “Send out men (“anashim”),” and “anashim” always refers to righteous persons... Rather, they were called fools only because they slandered the Land... All the same, they were great men who made themselves into fools.
[As Rabbi Meir Kahane puts it in Peirush HaMaccabee – Shemot, Ch. 3]: Incidentally, this also teaches the bitter lesson that even the greatest of men can become a “fool” in the Torah sense of the word, if he lacks faith. As the Talmud says: What can cause the tzaddikim to have less than their full share in the World to Come? –Their lack of faith (Sotah 48b). Here, their lack of faith caused the spies to put out an evil report of the Land of Israel, and G-d therefore said: For how long will this nation fight against Me and for how long will they refuse to believe in Me? (Numbers 14:11). The leader of the generation has to be perpetually on guard, to ensure that his fear of heaven is greater than his wisdom, because without fear of heaven, his wisdom will not endure. He has to work to ensure that his faith is securely anchored in his fear of heaven. And we all have to be aware that even a leader of the generation can err – especially in matters of faith. Likewise, Num. 13:3, “All the men were leaders of the children of Israel,” was rendered by Targum Yonatan as, “All were wise men who had been appointed heads of the children of Israel.” Thus, they were great and righteous men, yet they sinned in turning their backs on Eretz Yisrael and wishing to settle down in the exile, in Egypt. As King David said, “They scorned the Desirable Land, they believed not His word” (Ps. 106:24).
Ostensibly, they had a good argument, pikuach nefesh, i.e., they wished to prevent loss of life. The spies said of the Canaanites, “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight” (Num. 13:33). They were certain that the war against the Canaanites would be severe, and it would be hard to defeat the giants. Moreover, even if they defeated them, a few Israelites would fall. After all, we do not rely on miracles. For that reason, these great and righteous men rendered a halachic ruling that pikuach nefesh overrides all areas of Eretz Yisrael; it overrides Eretz Yisrael in its entirety. They certainly did not intend to abandon G-d's Torah, but rather to return to Egypt and keep it there. This, however, was their sin, because G-d had decreed that it was forbidden for them to dwell outside the Land, and that only in Eretz Yisrael could they sanctify His name and live in the isolation of Torah. For that reason, no danger to the nation overrode Eretz Yisrael, the only place the Jewish People could keep the Torah completely and properly. A war over the mitzvah of living in and conquering Eretz Yisrael is a milchemet mitzvah,which no danger to life overrides. Quite the contrary, this mitzvah overrides such danger, as Ramban wrote in Sefer HaMitzvot, Ibid., Mitzvah 4): This is what our sages call milchemet mitzvah. In the Talmud (Sotah 44b) Rava said, “ Joshua's war of conquest was an obligatory duty according to all opinions.” One should not make the mistake of saying that this mitzvah only applies to the seven nations we were commanded to destroy... That is not so. We were commanded to destroy those nations when they fought against us, and had they wished to make peace we could have done so under specific conditions. Yet, we cannot leave the Land in their control or in the control of any other nations in any generation. Fear of the nations is just one dismal reason the Jewish People treat the Desirable Land with contempt (longing for the good life is another). Precisely because of this delusion that the exile is safe but Eretz Yisrael is dangerous, G-d became angry and decreed death in the desert for the generation that left Egypt, adding, “You said your children will be taken captive, but they will be the ones I will bring there, so that they will know the land that you rejected” (Num. 14:31). Those who feared that they and their children would die in Eretz Yisrael died precisely in the desert, whereas their children entered the Land and lived. This teaches that the only security for the Jewish People is in Eretz Yisrael, whereas the exile is their burial place.
Our sages said (Torat Kohanim, Bechukotai, Ch. 1): “'You will live securely in your land' (Lev. 26:5): In your land you will live securely, but not outside it.” Likewise, Obadiah said (v. 17), “Upon Mount Zion there shall be deliverance.” In other words, in Zion but not in the exile. G-d, Who knows His people's mind, knew, as well, that Israel would always prefer the non-Jewish life of the exile, whose abominable depravity is so sweet to the sinner among us. As King Solomon said, “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Prov. 9:17). G-d, therefore, decreed that Israel would never find safety and security in the exile. Bereshit Rabbah 33:6 teaches: “He sent out the dove... I t could find no place to rest its feet” (Gen. 8:8-9): “Had it found a place to rest, it would not have returned. Just so, it says, 'She dwells among the nations; she finds no rest' (Lam. 1:3); and; 'Among the nations you shall have no repose; there shall be no rest for the soles of your foot' (Deut. 28:65). If Israel found rest in the exile, they would not return.”
Thus, G-d decreed that Israel would never find permanent rest (“manoach”) in the exile, and whoever says that they really can find it is an “ignoramus” [in Berachot 61a, R. Nachman calls Samson's father Manoach an “ignoramus”]. Not in vain did our sages (Mechilta, Bo, 1) compare the exile to a cemetery, for if Israel refuse to dwell in Eretz Yisrael, if they spurn it for the depravity of the exile, they have no future, but suffering, tragedy and annihilation.
Compiled by Tzipora Liron-Pinner from “The Jewish Idea" and "Peirush HaMaccabee- Shemot" of Rabbi Meir Kahane, HY”D