In the Torah portion of Shelach we encounter the episode of the spies who scouted out the Land and returned with an evil report. The nature of this terrible sin, and the motivation of the spies, is difficult to understand. There are so many different levels of meaning, and the whole episode seems to defy our understanding.
There is an opinion expressed by some of our sages, that the spies were motivated by their mistaken notion, that entering into the Land and applying the Torah to the physical world in everyday life, would somehow be a degradation of the Torah. In other words, they thought that the Torah is only something ‘spiritual’ which cannot be applicable to a physical world.
While in the desert, this generation lived on a very high spiritual plane, and enjoyed a special relationship with G-d. They grew accustomed to eating the Manna, ‘bread from Heaven,’ and thought it would be a letdown if they have to ‘descend’ to the world of physical reality to apply Torah to a life of deeds and service of G-d. They thought that service of G-d was only spiritual and did not understand that the very reason that a person is sent to this world…is to fulfill this very purpose: to live physical lives in this world that Hashem created, but to live according to G-d’s will. For what other reason would Hashem have created man? He has no shortage of angels whose entire essence is spiritual.
The holy Sefat Emet shares a beautiful idea: He teaches that in our parasha, after the incident of the spies there follows three sections, one after the other: The commandments of the libations, the separation of challah, and the commandment of tzizit. He opines that the reason for the juxtaposition of these three commandments at this point in the Torah, is to show that Hashem wanted to deepen the recognition within Israel’s consciousness that their mission is to empower their lives with Torah and that from this point on the three Divine, supernatural gifts which Hashem had given them in the desert, namely, the manna, the well, and the clouds of glory, would now be replaced by three tangible examples, devices, of how to make the Torah manifest in our everyday lives: the challah in place of the manna, the libations in the place of the well, and in the place of the clouds of glory which surrounded them and protected them in the desert, their bodies would now be surrounded by the tzizit.
The spies did not want to ‘descend’ from their high level to have to deal with settling the land. As the Baal Shem Tov explains, when they declared that it is ‘a land that consumes its inhabitants,’ they were saying that they would afraid they would become physical. They were afraid that they would not have the power to be able to bring forth holy sparks from their physical service of G-d. This was their big mistake. The task of a person, while yet remaining a physical person in our physical world, is to rise ever in our service of G-d, combining both our physical and spiritual natures through the power of the Torah. And as we learned in parashat Naso in regard to the Nazirite -- not through asceticism and separation. The spies were reacting to their apprehension of taking responsibility for the performance of Torah and mitzvoth in this physical world. But Torah teaches us that to live life as a human being in this world can be an exercise in holiness. Hashem crated a person with human nature and gave us all the task of ascending, through everyday human endeavor empowered by Torah.