Shelach means “send forth.” At the beginning of this portion, God allowed Moses to send twelve spies (meraglim in Hebrew) to gather intelligence about the land of Canaan. It was only at the people’s urging that spies were sent into the land, for God had already told them how good the Promised Land was, and that they would have His complete backing in conquering it.
After 40 days of reconnaissance, they returned. Ten of the spies came back with a disparaging report that the land would not be able to be conquered because its inhabitants were too strong and fierce, and their cities were too well guarded. They saw the inhabitants as giants, and themselves as grasshoppers.
The spies’ false, negative report tore down the confidence of the rest of the Children of Israel, and they all wept that night. The same Israelites who had beheld the great and awesome miracles of deliverance in Egypt, from the Ten Plagues to the Splitting of the Red Sea, as well as miracles of providence, provision, and protection in the desert, were now in despair, even saying that they wanted to return to Egypt. Even though God had promised to give them the Land of Israel, they no longer believed that He was powerful enough to do so.
However, Joshua and Caleb, the other two spies, contended that if the people had faith in God and His promise to their ancestors, they would surely overcome the inhabitants of Canaan. But the people would not listen, and even threatened to stone them. Because of their rebellion and disbelief, God decreed that they would wander the desert for 40 years—one year for every day of the spies’ expedition.