When Sefer Bamidbar (literally, ‘in the wilderness’) begins, the Israelites are in the wilderness, having left Egypt and received the Torah, and are preparing to travel to Israel. They are preparing militarily, and hence the English name of this fourth book of the Bible is ‘Numbers,’ since it begins with a census in which they organize and count their ranks. At the same time, they are also preparing spiritually for their life as a nation, following the laws of the Torah in their ancestral homeland.
However, during the course of Sefer Bamidbar, the plan becomes derailed. The people complain, turn against Hashem and His servant Moshe, and arouse the anger of the Almighty. Instead of heading immediately into the land, they are sentenced to wander the desert for forty years. These people lost their chance to enter Israel; only the next generation would be given that opportunity. Hashem, Who is merciful and compassionate, suddenly cannot forgive them. What did the people do to deserve such a harsh punishment?
Jewish tradition teaches that the generation of the wilderness committed an inexcusable infraction, in that they rejected Eretz Yisrael. In Chapter 14, they cry out, “Why is Hashem taking us to that land to fall by the sword?” Instead of eagerly claiming their ancestral heritage and assuming their Divine mission, the people second-guess God, cynically call His will into question, and critically reject this greatest of all gifts.
The rest of Sefer Bamidbar continues to depict this downward spiral. In Chapter 16, they call into question the legitimacy and qualifications for leadership of Moshe and Aharon, and rebellion is launched against their leadership. Later, in Chapter 20, the people complain about the lack of water in the wilderness, and in yet another affront to Hashem, become involved in idolatry and immoral relations in Chapter 25.
This all started with a rejection of the land. In fact, Jewish tradition teaches that a lack of honor towards the Land of Israel is the source of many calamities throughout history, including the destruction of both Temples in Yerushalyim.
The lessons of the Bible are as relevant today as ever before. When studying Bamidbar, we must learn the lessons of the incident of the spies, in order to constantly re-evaluate our own relationship with the Land of Israel.