This parshah is the pivotal section of the Book of Numbers. Moses sends leaders from the tribes to reconnoiter the Promised Land: ten of them return with tales of a fearsome land full of giants and great fortresses. Full of fear and anxiety, the generation of the Exodus are doomed to die in the Wilderness.
How is this possible? These are the very people who witnessed the defeat of the most powerful empire in the world. The small city-states of Canaan were political satellites at the periphery of that empire.
Following the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Sacks argues that the Israelites were not really afraid of being defeated by the Canaanites. They were afraid of winning and becoming truly free and responsible. They preferred the dependency and narrowly structured life of the Wilderness: they were protected by God, provided water and food with minimal effort, and experienced a visible relationship with God in the desert tabernacle. In the Promised Land, they would be responsible for building their world. with all of the risk that entails.The punishment — being forced to live out their lives in the Wilderness — was, ironically, their secret wish.
The Israelites were ready to be redeemed, but they were not ready to be free.