Conventional wisdom about the spies tells us that their main issue- through one angle or another- was a lack of faith in Gd. Interestingly, however, there also exists an alternate tradition, particularly among Chassidic commentaries, that give the spies the benefit of the doubt. Some go as far as to say that they are actually meritorious, whereas others say that they made an honest, religiously-authentic mistake. Some of the basis for this position is seen through Midrashim which explain the need for forty years in the desert with reasons independent of the spies’ actions. Of course there are nuances in the verses that would need clarification according to these approaches, but one nuance in particular provides a profound insight.
The main thrust of the spies’ report was the sheer size of the land and its inhabitants: “All the people that we saw in it are men of great size” (13:32). The hebrew form of this phrase says “anshei midot”. While most translations explain this to be a measure of size, many are familiar with another translation of “midot”, namely ‘character traits’. The Shelah HaKadosh (Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, 7th Century), actually believes this to be its true meaning. He explains that, in truth, the spies presented a legitimate concern: ‘While Israel looks like a plush and fertile land, the people’s good character may influence us to assimilate into their belief system’. According to this approach, we find that the spies were teaching a very important lesson: When weighing future accomplishments -geographic, financial, even religious- we must also take into account the ancillary sacrifices it brings and whether those sacrifices outweigh the benefit.
According to the Shelah, the spies knew full well what benefit they stood to gain by conquering the land of Israel. And yet, that gain wouldn’t be worthwhile if it meant assimilation. We often find decisions in life that are to be considered “good” or “bad”, as if they are to be made in a vacuum. In actuality, all of our decisions affect other, non-related areas of life, and oftentimes detrimentally, even if that decision was “good”. Staying longer at work to bring more money home may sacrifice valuable time with the family; Taking extra time to converse with someone may sacrifice the opportunity to daven at shul in a timely manner; Giving too much charity may sacrifice your own well-being. Decisions have consequences even beyond the literal choice. The spies knew, that even with all of the blessing that Israel would provide, it wouldn’t outweigh the threat of assimilation. Even when the choice might be right, the result can still be wrong.