We learn Mesilas Yeshorim and Chovos haLevavos as mussar seforim; R’ Bunim m’Peshischa used to learn Sefer Devarim. Devarim is Moshe Rabeinu’s tochacha, his rebuke and criticism of Bnei Yisrael for their failings. It’s odd therefore that smack in the middle of his mussar shmooz Moshe Rabeinu pays Klal Yisrael what seems to be a compliment. He recounts that they asked him to send spies to scout out Eretz Yisrael and, “Va’yitav b’eini ha’davar,” (1:23) Moshe thought it was a great idea. Imagine someone giving you tochacha and in the middle saying, “Remember the time you came to R’ Chaim Kanievski with that suggestion and he told you ‘Great idea!’?” That’s tochacha? That’s a praise to be proud of!
Two approaches (both based on Sefas Emes) to what is going on:
1) There is a quote quite popular these days that says “People get the government they deserve and they deserve the government they get.” Our leaders reflect who we are. That is undoubtedly true in a democracy, where leaders can be freely chosen, but it is also true (perhaps to a lesser degree) for leadership in Klal Yisrael as well. The gemara in Sanhedrin lists Tanaim and Amaoraim who themselves were worthy of ruach hakodesh, but the gemara says it was not given to them because their generation was unworthy. We are all products of our environment and affected by our environment.
Sending the spies was an awful mistake, as evident from the tragic consequences. When Moshe Rabeinu said he thought it was a good idea, he was in fact chastising Klal Yisrael. Moshe was telling them that they had descended to such a low level that even he was dragged down with them, throwing off his judgment and leading to error.
Why we don’t have leaders today of the caliber which we had in previous generations? The question that we maybe should be asking instead is why we are not people of the same caliber as in previous generations. We get what we deserve, and we can pull down the greatest of greats with us.
2) A few pesukim earlier in the parsha Moshe describes how, overwhelmed by the burdens placed upon him by the people, he setup a whole system of judges and officers. There were people who oversaw groups of 10, groups of 100, groups of 1000 – a whole bureaucracy. While before every Ploni, Almoni, Berel and Shmerel had to wait for hours on line until he could speak to Moshe Rabeinu about his problems, now help was available just around the corner at a local beis din, with smaller lines, a shorter wait, and faster service (sounds like a commercial).
“VaYitav b’eini ha’davar” is the results of that system. For all the benefits that were gained, there was one major downside to the new system: Moshe Rabeinu was insulated from the people. Had he been more in touch with the pulse of the crowd, perhaps he would not have consented so easily, or at least not thought sending the scouts was such a good idea.
We need to be close to our leaders and our leaders need to be close to us. The gemara (Brachos 27) relates that when Rabban Gamliel went to make up with Rabbi Yehoshua after expelling him from the beis medrash, he was astounded to see Rabbi Yehoshua living in such poverty that the walls of his home were black from his work as a smith. Rabban Gamliel couldn’t believe it. R’ Yehoshua replied by saying woe to a generation whose leaders are so out of touch with reality. In a biography of a certain gadol there is a story of how this individual was asked a shayla about whether or how (I forget the details) to do tevilah on a mixer, or some other appliance, and this individual had no idea what they were talking about -- he didn't know what a common appliance was. The book was relating this as an illustration of the gadlus of that individual. My reaction exactly the opposite. Woe to a generation whose leaders are so out of touch with day to day reality. How can they relate to the struggles and issues which we all face? How can they properly gauge the pulse of the people?
In case I don't get to write anything about 9 Av, have any easy fast!