Why did the spies have no excuse not to learn from what happened to Miriam?
(13,1) “And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Send for yourself men to explore the land of Canaan which I am giving to the Children of Yisrael, one man each for his father’s tribe you shall send, everyone a prince among them.”
It says in the Midrash and also in Rashi: Why is the section dealing with the spies juxtaposed to the section dealing with what happened to Miriam? Because she was punished for a matter involving speech - she spoke against her brother, and these wicked men saw what happened to her but did not learn a lesson.
In order to understand why the Midrash was careful in its wording and wrote “they saw” - if they had not seen, surely they heard! - let us first look at what it says the gemora in Berachos 5b, that negaim are not afflictions of love. The gemora asks on this: But it is taught in a baraissa that anyone who has one of these four appearances of negaim is an altar of atonement! The gemora answers that the baraissa is talking about where the affliction is in private - beneath the clothing, whereas the teaching of Rabbi Yochanan is talking about where the affliction is in public (on an uncovered part of the body) - that when it is in public they are not afflictions of love.
According to this gemora we now understand that if they had not seen what happened to Miriam we would not have been able to expound that the juxtaposition is teaching us that they did not learn a lesson from Miriam who was punished for matters involving speech, because anyone who slanders could argue that Miriam was a righteous woman, and therefore for her they were afflictions of love, and thus there was no lesson to be learned.
Because of this the Midrash was careful to say that “they saw” the affliction on an uncovered part of her body, and if so they were public afflictions and not afflictions of love, as we mentioned above. Thus the Midrash was rightfully astonished that even though they saw and if so they knew that she had been punished for matters involving speech, nevertheless they did not learn a lesson!
What argument did Moshe use with Hashem in order to save Yisrael from being destroyed?
(14,14) “They will say about the inhabitants of this land, who heard that You, Hashem, are in the midst of this people, that eye to eye You appear to them, Hashem, and that Your cloud stands over them, and with a pillar of cloud You go before them by day, and with a pillar of fire by night.”
It says in the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:6) that Moshe said: Master of the Worlds “eye to eye You appear to them”. What does “eye to eye” mean? Said Reish Lakish: Behold, the scales are level. You say “I will smite them (the Children of Yisrael) with pestilence and destroy them (14:12)”, and I say “please forgive [the iniquity of this nation] (14:19)”. Let us see whose word will prevail, as it says “And Hashem said: I have forgiven [them] in accordance with your word (14:20)”.
Behold, anyone who encounters this Midrash is astonished by its words - how did Moshe know that he would win his argument? But we can explain that Moshe’s argument was in the style of "whichever side you take".
Because behold, it says in the gemora Kiddushin 40a “אין מקיפין when there is a profanation of Hashem’s name”, and the gemora gives two explanations as to what this term means:
The first explanation is that the person who profanes Hashem’s name is not given any time before he is punished, like the expression חנוני המקיף - the shopkeeper that gives credit (allows one to pay later), but rather he is punished immediately.
The second explanation is that it is like the expression אין מקיפין בבועי - we do not compare swellings. Meaning, if the scales which are weighing a person’s good deeds against his bad deeds appear to be level, but amongst his sins there is the sin of profanation of Hashem’s name, the scales are not examined to see whether of not they are exactly equal, but rather this sin causes the scales to tilt towards the side of the bad deeds.
And behold, the commentaries explain that the word סליחה (pardon) does not mean that a person is pardoned completely and not punished, but rather it means that Hashem holds off on the punishment. Also, the gemora in Rosh Hashanah 17a teaches that one of the thirteen attributes of Hashem “and abundant in kindness” means that He tilts the scales to the side of kindness - He presses down the side of the scales of the good deeds so that they outweigh the sins.
Now we understand that Moshe correctly declared that since the scales are level, Hashem should tilt the scales to the side of kindness, as we mentioned above. What might be the argument against this - that here with the sin of the spies there was a profanation of Hashem’s name, and where there is a profanation of Hashem’s name the scales should be tilted to the side of the sins according to the second explanation that we mentioned above? If so, there is no choice but to “please forgive”, that is, to hold off on the punishment, because according to the second explanation even when there is a profanation of Hashem’s name, punishment is delayed.
Thus whichever side You take Hashem - if You hold like the first explanation then You must tilt the scales to the side of kindness, and if You hold like the second explanation then You can wait and not destroy the Children of Yisrael.