This week’s Torah portion, Shelach, contains the account of the twelve spies sent to scout out the land of Israel. Upon their return they announced, “We will not be able to go against the people, for they are stronger than we – mimenu.”
Our Sages explain that the Hebrew word “mimenu” may also be interpreted “than him” – than Him! The spies insisted that the Canaanites were even more powerful than G-d, Who had promised the land to the Jews.
How could they have made such a statement? The 12 spies were men of distinction and piety. Furthermore, the entire Jewish people had just witnessed the greatest open miracles – the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea and the manna from the sky. Why wasn’t the spies’ report simply discounted, instead of being given such credence?
When the spies insisted that the Land was too well fortified to be conquered, Calev stood up and calmed the people. “Don’t worry,” he insisted. “The same G-d who performed all these miracles for us will continue to guard His people. Let us go up at once, without fear!”
“But,” countered the spies, “there we saw the nefilim, the sons of Anak!” Who were these nefilim, that their mention threw fear into the hearts of the Jews? The great commentator, Rashi, explains that the nefilim were people of gigantic stature, descendents of two angels who had descended to earth many years before during the generation of Enosh. Their very name – “nefilim” – attests to their descent, from the root word meaning “to fall.”
Yes, conceded the spies, G-d is certainly more powerful than mere mortals. But can G-d prevail against the nefilim and their higher level of spirituality? The nefilim had even survived the great flood which destroyed the rest of the world. These two angels, who came down into the world with the best and holiest of intentions, were unable to withstand the lure of the material world. They and their descendents ended up degraded and debased. If angels, the spies contended, have failed, how much more so will we if we even attempt to conquer the Land. Let us simply reject the material world and remain in the wilderness!
To this, two of the spies, Joshua and Calev, replied, “No, this is not G-d’s plan. G-d wants us to live in the physical world, performing physical mitzvot (commandments). ‘Do not fear…for G-d is with us’.” Angels may not be equipped to deal with this world, but we are even higher than the angels, for we possess a G-dly soul in a corporeal body. We have the power to fuse the physical with the spiritual, by performing concrete mitzvot which bring holiness into the world and make it a dwelling place for G-d. Thus, we can withstand any negative force, not only emerging triumphant, but transforming those very forces into instruments of good.