Fighting the good fight- Parashat Shelach L'cha

In this week's parasha, (Torah portion) Shelach L'cha, we hear the story of how Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) sent spies into the land of Israel before entering the land to conquer it.  Unfortunately, other then Calev and Yehuoshua, the group of spies were scared off by the appearance of current inhabitants and did not have faith in God that God would help them conquer the land.  It is my pleasure this coming Shabbat morning to read Torah as my daughter becomes bat mitzvah, and I have been assigned the 2nd aliyah which is the exact aliyah which contains the story of the spies' complaints.  It is heartbreaking to me to read over and over again as I practice the reading the awful thing the spies said.  The Torah teaches:
And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.  And all the people of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness!  And why has the Lord brought us to this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? Is it not better for us to return into Egypt?  Numbers 14:1-3)
Personally, as I read this portion to myself, despite having read this story numerous times before I am honestly shocked and dismayed at the behavior of b'nai yisrael.  It may be that the practice of "practicing" the Torah reading becomes a spiritual "practice" of its own as I am forced to read the words over and over again while learning the trope.  How could we possibly have suggested that it would have been better to return to being slaves in Egypt?  Wasn't slavery horrible?  Didn't God just rescue us on eagles wings?  It gets worse as the Torah continues:
And they said one to another, Let us choose a chief, and let us return to Egypt.  (Numbers 14:4)
If I was shocked and dismayed upon reading of b'nai yisrael's suggestion that Egypt would be better than fighting the inhabitants of the land, it was even worse to hear of them actually suggesting a practical plan to get them back to Egypt.  They were not kidding around!  This was not mere rhetoric!   I can't really understate how upset I was as I practiced these lines over and over again.  Therefore, I did not find Moshe and Aharon's response at all over-dramatic.  We learn:
Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the people of Israel.  (Numbers 14:5)
As I read along, I was definitely satisfied that Moshe and Aharon expressed a satisfactory amount of dismay.  Although, as my daughter Hadassah pointed out to me regarding Moshe and Aharon falling on their faces, "They're always doing that."  So maybe it wasn't so out of the ordinary for them.  None the less, the Torah continues with the response of Calev and Yehoshua:
And Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Yephunneh, which were of those who spied the land, tore their clothes;  (Numbers 14:6)  
I fee sad but also reaffirmed in my sense of indignation.  Falling on one's face and tearing one's clothes--I am satisfied with the reactions of our leaders.  Then Yehoshua and Calev speak to the people:
And they spoke to all the company of the people of Israel, saying, The land, which we passed through to spy, is an exceedingly good land. . . .. But all the congregation said to stone them with stones. And the glory of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting before all the people of Israel.  And the Lord said to Moses, How long will this people provoke me? And how long will it be before they believe me, for all the signs which I have shown among them?  Numbers 14 (7, 10-11)
While my initial response to the spies' complaints and desire to return to Egypt is incredulity that they would ever want to return to such a horrid place,  God takes a more personal response.  S/He is fed up with not being believed.  And S/He has a point!  Despite Moshe Rabbeinu's plea on our behalf, the punishment to the entire generation that left Egypt is that they will not live to see the land, save Yehoshua and Calev.  The Midrash comments on b'nai Yisrael's suggestion that we should have died in the desert:
The matter may be compared to the case of a man who came for judgment before the king's tribunal . He condemned himself by letting something slip; and the the king, laying aside his own penal code, convicted him because of the words the man spoke. He said to the man: ‘I am going to give you the sentence which you yourself have spoken of. You will get what you said.’ The Holy One, blessed be He, in the same manner said to Israel: "As I live, said the Lord, surely as you have spoken in My ears, so will I do to you: your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness." (Num. XIV, 28 f.).1 Midrash Rabbah - Numbers XVI:21
Chazal (the sages) react very negatively to b'nai Yisrael's behavior as well, adding insult to the injury already spelled out in the Torah:   
Because Israel wept on the night of the ninth of Av, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: ‘You have cried for nothing before Me. Therefore, I am going to give you something to cry about permanently for future generations.’ At that hour it was decreed that the Temple would be destroyed and that Israel would be exiled among the nations. (Midrash Rabbah - Numbers XVI:20)
In this Midrash, chazal raise the bar of the punishment; not only is the generation of the spies punished through death, the entire Jewish people will pay for their sin forever.

After Calev and Yehoshua try to convince the people that the land can be conquered, we learn in the Torah that, "All the congregation said to stone them with stones." (Num. 14:10).  Chazal ask:
Who is "them?" Moses and Aaron.  [Immediately the Torah follows with], "When the glory of the Lord appeared. . . "  (ib.). This teaches that they cast stones, but the cloud received them. (Midrash Rabbah - Numbers XVI:21, referencing Sotah 35a)   
When I saw that chazal quoted the Talmud when suggesting that the "cloud" received the stones that Moshe and Aharon threw, I looked up the original selection in the Talmud to see what that meant exactly.  The Talmud teaches:
"But all the congregation started to stone them stone them with stones," and it continues, "And the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting." R. Hiyya b. Abba said: It teaches that they took stones and hurled them against Him Who is above.  Even those men that did bring up an evil report of the land died by the plague.  R. Simeon b. Lakish said: They died an unnatural death. R. Hanina b. Papa said: R. Shila of Kefar Temarthah expounded; It teaches that their tongue was elongated and reached down to their navel, and worms issued from their tongue and penetrated their navel and from their navel they penetrated their tongue. R. Nahman b. Isaac said: They died of croup. (Sot. 35a)
While I certainly was angry when hearing about the behavior of b'nai yisrael, I certainly did not expect to find the awful teachings about the punishments.  Chazal expand the punishment from mere death to an unnatural death--to death through incredible suffering.  Incidentally, I imagine that the croup is pretty terrible!  Never having had it, I am now certain that I do not want to get it if it is anything like having worms eat my tongue and navel.  Not that I actually know what feels like, either!

So what can we learn from this awful episode?  Personally, I think it illustrates just how scary change can be, even when we are fighting God's fight.  Even when we have seen God's miracles before us in the past.  War is scary and war can be a metaphor for any challenge we need to be a fighter to face.  Sometimes we want to return to our past ways of living that were not healthy (i.e. Egypt).  As a matter of fact, that is the most natural place for all of us to think about returning.  The known is usually more comfortable than facing the unknown, even a known that is really awful.   But we must have faith in God that S/He will see us through whatever we are facing and fight our fights along with us.