Bnei Yisrael, a wandering nation of six hundred thousand people, were about to take on a war with thirty-one extremely powerful countries living in Eretz Canaan. According to the rules of nature, victory was absolutely impossible. Thus, it was very likely that the spies would return with an ominous report. Therefore, when Moshe was choosing spies, Hashem told him to choose tzaddikim. Tzaddikim would have a better chance of succeeding in their mission, and returning with a positive report. Indeed, at least for Yehoshua and Kalev, this plan succeeded. The Kli Yakar adds that Hashem told Moshe to send the people whom he perceives were tzaddikim, because Moshe had ruach hakodesh and knew who was truly a tzaddik and who was merely pretending to be a tzaddik. The Kli Yakar writes, "You shall look with your ruach hakodesh if they are kosher for this mission, because most people are fooled by the people who pretend to be righteous…" Hashem set another criterion for the spies as a precaution, so that they could succeed in their mission. Hashem told Moshe to choose people who believe that everything they do is by Hashem's decree, and who are aware they can't do anything on their own. When such people will see the giants in Eretz Canaan, they will not be afraid. They will say, "Anyway everything is always from Hashem, and Hashem can help us win these battles too." However, the people who aren’t aware, and think that they do things by their own strength, they will be frightened by the mighty people of Eretz Canaan. They are likely to bring back a report that it’s impossible to conquer the land, because indeed, with a person’s strength it’s impossible. Hashem said to Moshe, "If you think sending spies is a good idea, go send them. I am not commanding you. If you want, send." But these words also hint that Moshe should send people who know that Hashem does everything. Hashem said, "Those people who are always saying, I, I, 'I did this, I did that,' I am not commanding you to send such people." They will be frightened by what they see in Eretz Canaan. Hashem wanted Moshe to send spies who know that everything is from Hashem, because no matter what they will find in Eretz Canaan, they won’t fear, and they will know that Hashem could save them. Unfortunately, they also failed.
The prophet Zecharyah foresaw a great mourning in the future, as it states, "On that day, there will be a great eulogy in Yerushalayim…" (Zecharyah 12:11). The Gemara (Succos 52.) says they will be mourning and eulogizing the yetzer hara who will be slaughtered in that era. The Gemara describes that moment: "Hakadosh Baruch Hu will slaughter the yetzer hara in front of the tzaddikim and in front of the wicked. To the tzaddikim, the yetzer hara will appear like a tall mountain. To the wicked the yetzer hara will appear like a strand of hair. The wicked and the tzaddikim will both cry. The tzaddikim will cry and say, 'How were we able to conquer such a tall mountain?' The wicked will cry and say, 'Why couldn’t we conquer this strand of hair?'" Why will the yetzer hara appear different to the tzaddikim and to the wicked? The Sfas Emes (5637, Re'eh) answers that the yetzer hara comes to a person looking like a hair. If one passes the test, he’s confronted with another test. Each test is called a hair. These hairs accumulate until they become a mountain. The wicked, however, never overcame that first challenge, that first hair. Therefore, to the wicked the yetzer hara appears like a hair, and to the tzaddikim, the yetzer hara appears like a huge mountain. As the Sfas Emes writes, "The yetzer hara is always a hair. When the tzaddikim conquer it, they are confronted with another hairsbreadth of a yetzer hara. This goes on and on until the hairs accumulate and become a mountain. But the wicked are static; they don’t fight the yetzer hara. We should therefore do a good deed, then another one, and then another, because these good deeds will end up a being mountain of goodness. They remain with the first yetzer hara, which was the size of a hair…"
A lit cigarette fell in the attic of the Sfas Emes's beis study hall, caught fire, and burned the entire study hall down, G-d forbid. The Sfas Emes exclaimed, "If a small spark can create such a fire, how much good can come from a word of Torah and mitzvos that a Jew says passionately, with fire."
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Devarim 863) teaches, "A person shouldn’t say, 'How can I learn the entire Torah and keep all the mitzvos? The Torah is so vast…! We can compare this to a king who had a bottomless pit. He told some workers to fill the pit with earth. When the workers came to the site, they realized that the mission was impossible. The foolish workers said, 'How can we ever fill this pit?' The wise among them said, 'Why should I care. I get paid for each day I work. I’m happy I have a job…' Similarly when one sees the length and breadth of the Torah, he despairs of ever knowing the entire Torah or of ever keeping it properly. Hakadosh Baruch Hu says to him, 'Why should you care? You are a hired worker, and you will be paid in Olam HaBa for each day that you work. Do your day’s work!'" The Midrash states that this lesson is hinted to by the words (we say in Shema), "These words that I am commanding you today…" (Devarim 6:6). The verse is hinting that you should focus on today. You probably won't finish the entire volume today, you might not even finish the page. It’s possible that you will only understand a few lines. But why should that bother you? Hashem, as it were, hired you to work for the day, and you will be rewarded for your work today, regardless whether the job is finished or not. All you have to do is focus on knowing as much as you can today, and you will be rewarded for that. In addition, the little amount of Torah that you learn each day will accumulate and become a lot. So learn a little bit of Torah today, and learn a little bit of Torah tomorrow, and in the end you will discover that you made great strides in Torah.
Improvement of one's character traits and habits also occurs by the accumulation of many small steps. For example, if a person has an anger problem, by overcoming anger once, and then a second time, and then a third time, he will eventually eradicate that nature, since a change of character is the product of many small steps towards improvement. But the problem is, how do we encourage people to take so many small steps? The path toward change is so very long. Even after taking several steps towards improvement, one often finds himself in the same spot as he began. He doesn’t see any signs of growth. This causes people to think that they will never change, so they don’t want to continue the long process of accumulating good deeds that lead to their improvement. How can we encourage them to persevere on the long and often disappointing journey of change? The answer is, they must know that Hashem has a lot of pleasure with each step they take towards improving their character. With that in mind, one is willing to take all those small steps. Although he doesn’t see growth initially, he will persevere because he knows that each encounter with the yetzer hara and each step he takes towards improvement is precious to Hashem. And then, a year or two later, he looks back and sees the many good deeds accumulated and that he is now in a completely different place.
The Chovas HaLevavos concludes, "Don’t ask, my brother, why I am rousing you to teshuvah, when I myself, haven't done teshuvah for a very long time, because I’m not only speaking to you; I’m speaking to myself as well. Therefore accept the truth from whoever says it, and don’t run away from it. Thank Hashem that I am rousing you to matters that you weren't aware of. Don’t use [my faults] as an alibi that also the person who s rousing you isn't paying attention to his obligations… because this claim is from the yetzer hara's tricks... May Hashem place us among those who are swift to do teshuvah, with a complete heart, amen."
The ma’apilim (the people who went up to Eretz Canaan, without Hashem's permission) intended well. They said to Moshe, "We are ready, and we will go up to the place Hashem spoke to us about, because we sinned" (14:40). Rashi writes, "We sinned when we said (14:3) 'It would be better to return to Mitzrayim.'" They recognized that they sinned and they wanted to correct their mistake and to go to Eretz Canaan with mesirus nefesh. This was a high level of mesirus nefesh indeed, as they were a small group. Moshe told them not to go, and clearly told them that they would die, but they went anyway. Despite their good intentions they sinned, because after Moshe explained to them that this wasn’t Hashem’s will, they should have accepted his counsel. The Chasam Sofer zt'l however teaches that the ma’apilim were tzaddikim, and they were correct for trying to go to Eretz Yisrael. The Chasam Sofer proves this from the following Gemara (Shabbos 96-97) which discusses how Tzelafchad died: Reb Akiva says that he was the mikoshesh eitzim (mentioned in this week's parashah [15:32]. This means that Tzelafchad was carrying wood, or cutting wood, or gathering wood, on Shabbos — three opinions stated in the Gemara — and therefore he was punished with death.) Reb Yehudah ben Beseira said to Reb Akiva, "Akiva, regardless of whether you are correct or not, you will be punished for your explanation. If you are right — the Torah concealed his name (and didn’t tell us who the mekoshesh eitzim was, to honor him) and you revealed his name. And if you are wrong (and Tzelfchad wasn't the mikoshesh eitzim) you are motzi laz [falsely slandering] this tzaddik.' "So how did Tzelfchad die? [Reb Yehudah ben Beseira answered]: He was one of the ma’apilim." He was from the people who brazenly tried to go to Eretz Yisrael. This Gemara clearly indicates that the ma’apilim's act wasn't a sin. Otherwise, we can ask Reb Yehudah ben Beseirah the very same questions he asked Reb Akiva: Why are you revealing Tzelafchad's sin, when the Torah concealed it? And if you are mistaken, you are slandering this tzaddik. So, it is evident, that the ma’apilim didn’t sin. On the contrary, they were doing a positive deed. They were trying to repent. Though Moshe Rabbeinu told them they may not go, they weren't necessarily obligated to obey, since they wanted to do teshuvah, and no one can prevent someone else from doing teshuvah.
The Chasam Sofer elaborates: The Gemara and Shulchan Aruch (170 Magen Avraham 10) teach, "A guest must obey everything his host (baal habayis) requests, except for when the host asks him to leave." The Shlah HaKadosh teaches that this also applies to avodas Hashem. We must listen to everything Hashem (the Baal HaBayis of the world) tells us, except for when Hashem tells the person to leave. This means, when Hashem tells a person it’s too late to repent and he can never come close to Hashem again, one doesn’t have to listen. One can always repent. The ma’apilim were trying to repent, and when Moshe Rabbeinu told them not to, they didn’t have to listen.