Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.
שְׁלַח-לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים, וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת-אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, אֲשֶׁר-אֲנִי נֹתֵן, לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו, תִּשְׁלָחוּ–כֹּל, נָשִׂיא בָהֶם.
Send forth for yourself men and let them spy out the Land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel; one man each from his fathers’ tribe shall you send, every one a leader among them. (Numbers 13:2)
Before Moses sent the scouts to report back on the land of Israel there was a sensitivity training of sorts, on the proper way to speak. Rashi observes that the spies are sent right after the incident of Miriam, who was punished for the way she spoke against her brother. Rashi notes, “these wicked ones saw [what happened to her] and yet didn’t learn from it.” The phrase that Rashi uses to describe their failure is the lack of “taking mussar-וְלֹא לָקְחוּ מוּסָר”, often translated as rebuke, and speaks to one’s capacity to become more aware of a better way of being and to then to grow into that better person.
Our ability to break cycles and patterns of negativity is generally contingent upon our optimism and hopefulness in achieving a different outcome. If we can’t see the positive potential that exists, it is much harder to try and actualize it. Lashon hara, speaking badly about another, at its core is highlighting the worst, and not the potential for improvement.
The Talmud, Arachin 15a, offers the incident of the spies as the prooftext for the severity of lashon hara. “If one who defames the wood and rocks [of Israel] received such [a severe punishment], then one who defames another person, all the more so.” From the Talmud’s perspective, it seems that we are meant to learn from speaking badly about the land, that doesn’t have feelings or a soul, to know not to treat people that way. However Rashi, quoting the Medrish, blames the spies for not learning from speaking badly about a person to apply it to the land. The punishment of wandering in the desert for forty years seems quite excessive for not being about to intuit this a fortiori!
Nachmanides implies that the essence of the sin of the spies was a lack of faith in G-d providing safe passage. Rashi (in Deuteronomy) explains that before this sin, they could have gone in peacefully without weapons and settled the land, but because of their lack of faith, they would eventually need to engage in the natural way of fighting for the land.
Indeed the word “שלח” “sh’lach” is an anagram of חלש meaning weak. They only needed to scout out the land because their faith in G-d’s ability to guide and protect them was deficient. They couldn’t imagine a different version that prioritized the spiritual over the physical.
When they spoke out about the land, they could have focused on the positive, but chose not to. This is no different from the root of Miriam’s claim to Moses, assuming that he was like other prophets and therefore should have remained married.
Rabbi E. B. Finkel points out that Rashi understands the problem with the spies not as one of a technical issue of speaking badly, but for not learning the lesson and working on themselves. A person, who speaks lashon hara is negatively affected when they diminish the Divine image in another person, and even the holiness of an object. He quotes R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz that the punishment of 40 years is not for the one moment of speaking badly, but for the entire 40 days where they were carrying these negative views.
Perhaps this is why Rashi uses the language of “taking mussar.” It is not enough to learn or study in a proscriptive way, but a person needs to proactively deliberate and take the lessons, even if no one is giving them, to best know how to act. The Medresh (Mishlei 22:1), teaching about the value of חן, explains that the source of good, in grace, is in taking a truth and applying it to new situations.
We find similar advice in the Sefas Emes (Parshas Noach) who encourages us to guard and protect against anything that comes to minimize the Divine Image in humanity, because it is that image that produces grace. G-d’s expectations of us extend beyond our actions, to the root of our desire to learn from the world around us. Being able to appreciate the holiness of the land requires us to first be sensitive to the even greater holiness of people, and the potential for a peaceful coexistence.
By R. Mike Moskowitz.