This parashah presents the story of the twelve spies whom the people of Israel sent from the desert into Canaan. They were to acquire information about the land in which the Israelites were to live as an independent people, especially regarding what enemies they might face. It was a common practice, already in those times, to send spies to gather information about potential enemies (Numbers 21:32, Joshua 2). When one compares this story of the twelve spies in this parashah with that found in Deuteronomy 1: 22-23, it appears that it was the people who proposed this mission to Moses. He accepted it and it was also pleasing to God.
Problems arose when the people heard the spies’ report. On the one hand, they spoke about the virtues of the land: they presented its fruits, among them a bunch of grapes so big and heavy that it required two people to carry it. On the other hand, they reported on the impossibility of overcoming the power of the people who lived in it. The people’s immediate reaction was to exclaim that they wished to return to Egypt, to the house of slavery. They preferred to be chained to misery than to accept the challenge of living fully in freedom. This expression of the people provoked the wrath of God, who punished them by not allowing them to enter into Canaan. That generation would die in the desert, in an inhospitable land, very close to the land where they could have built a new and full life, but not in it.
There are two great dramas that the people of Israel confronted in their wandering through the desert. These incidents revealed the weaknesses and cracks in their commitment to the values that the Patriarchs had bequeathed to them to define their identity. They are the golden calf and the story described in this parashah. By building the golden calf, Israel demonstrated its failure to identify with the spirit of who they were meant to be. Idolatry in all its forms is the opposite of the spirituality for which the Patriarchs worked. In this case, to tremble before the challenges they faced showed a lack of identification with the physicality of who they were meant to be as a people in this world. These two episodes represent the essence of the two dramas of the Jewish people throughout their history: assimilation and the Diaspora.