By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
In this week’s parsha, we encounter the tragic episode of the meraglim sent to scout Eretz Yisroel. The posuk relates that the perpetrators were all great men. The mission ended in disaster, with ten of the twelve spies erring terribly, causing much pain and suffering for the Jewish people.
For all time, these individuals are remembered with derision. We wonder how ten great men, chosen by Moshe Rabbeinu to conduct a review of the land Hashem had promised to the Avos, could have gone so wrong. What lies at the root of their sin, and how were they able to convince the nation that their trek to the Promised Land was doomed?
How was it that the people who experienced Yetzias Mitzrayim and Kriyas Yam Suf lost their faith? The same people who recently experienced the tragedy of the Eigel and begged forgiveness, who complained about the monn and were plagued by the slov in last week’s parsha, still doubted the ability of Hashem to fulfill His promises. How are we to understand that?
The first Rashi in the parsha holds a key to comprehending this. Quoting from the Medrash Tanchuma, Rashi explains that the parsha of the meraglim follows the parsha of Miriam because Miriam was punished for the gossip she spoke about her brother Moshe, and although these wicked people witnessed this, they failed to learn anything from it.
The common explanation of this is that witnessing the painful consequences of Miriam’s lashon hora should have deterred the meraglim from speaking lashon hora on the Land of Israel. How, many commentators ask, can one extrapolate from Miriam’s episode that speaking ill of a country is as sinful as speaking ill of a person?
Perhaps we can understand this by examining the root of lashon hora, commonly explained to mean gossip. The roots of this sin are more destructive than simple chitchat.
At the end of Parshas Beha’aloscha (12:1-2), the posuk states that Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe concerning his wife. “And they said, ‘Did Hashem only speak to Moshe? He also spoke to us!’” The posuk does not recount what they said about Moshe’s wife, but it says that they minimized their brother’s greatness. They compared themselves to Moshe, as if to say, “What’s the big deal? Who does he think he is? Hashem also talks to us. He doesn’t only speak to him.”
The essence of lashon hora is minimizing the accomplishments of other people. People will admire someone for having reached some level of accomplishment. The baal lashon hora throws a damper on it by bringing up a tale whose message is that the person is not really great. He also has failings. If we wanted to, we could succeed just as he did.
The meraglim should have learned from Miriam what happens to someone who disparages and minimizes greatness. They failed to learn that negativity and cynicism are not compatible with greatness. They should have seen that such behavior is frowned upon by Hashem. For even if the details are true, nevertheless, since it diminishes the subject’s esteem in another’s eyes, he has spoken lashon hora.
At the root of lashon hora lies a desire to destroy the respect one person holds for another.
Thus began the chain of events that is at the root of the churban Bais Hamikdosh and the reason we have not yet merited redemption.
Aharon and Miriam were tzaddikim on a high level of avodah and it is not for us to criticize them or their speech and actions. The Torah relates what took place not for us to pass judgment on them, but so that we can learn from the episode to avoid the temptations to diminish anyone or anything.
The downfall of the meraglim, selected by Moshe for this shlichus, was their failure to learn not to approach matters with a negative view. They spoke against the Land of Israel, which Hashem had praised. They said that it was an “eretz ocheles yoshveha,” a land that eats its citizens. Then they said that the people who live there are strong and would make life difficult for the Jews.
They minimized the greatness of the land and the promises of Hashem. They drove a wedge between Moshe and Am Yisroel. They caused the nation to have doubts about the greatness of Hashem. Therefore, for eternity, these individuals are referred to as resho’im.
Such acts are similar to the conduct of Amaleik, a nation held up as a paradigm of evil because, as the posuk relates, “asher korcha baderech,” they caused the Jews to lose their enthusiasm on the way to Eretz Yisroel. After Matan Torah, when all the nations of the world saw the splendor of Hashem and feared Him, Amaleik attacked us. Amaleik tried to dilute the fear of Hashem that had begun to spread across the world.
Amaleik’s crime emanated from the same root as the crime of lashon hora, and thus they both cause churban.
Reinforcing the concept that lashon hora and Amaleik are rooted in the same shoresh of evil is the Gemara in Maseches Megillah (13b), which quotes Rava as saying that there was no one who knew [how to speak] lashon hora as Haman did. This arch villain minimized to Achashveirosh every positive attribute the Jews possessed. As is well-known, Haman was a progeny of Amaleik and well-versed in that evil nation’s ways.
Haman said that the Jewish people are “mefuzar umeforad bein ha’amim.” He sought to depict the Jews as lacking unity.
Another indication of this idea is evident in the peirush of Rabbeinu Bachya on Chumash. In Parshas Shemos (2:14), the Torah relates the first episode involving Moshe, Doson and Avirom. Moshe saw the two of them fighting and said to them, “Rasha lomo sakeh reiyecha.” They responded, “Mi somcha l’ish… Who made you for an ish, minister and ruler above us? Will you kill me the way you killed the Mitzri?”
Moshe Rabbeinu responded by saying, “Now the matter is known.” Rashi cites the Medrash, which explains that with their statement, Moshe understood why the Jews deserved to be enslaved.
Rabbeinu Bachya quotes the Medrash and says that the reason the Jews were still enslaved was because they had baalei lashon hora amongst them.
Why was their sin considered lashon hora? They did not tell anyone other than Moshe himself that they had seen him kill the Mitzri.
Perhaps we can explain that Moshe Rabbeinu’s comment was in response to their statement questioning Moshe’s standing: “Mi somcha l’ish…” It was their attempt to minimize him and his greatness to which Moshe was referring when he said that the reason the Jews were still in Mitzrayim was because of lashon hora. Negativity and calling into question the greatness of leaders or other people are causes of golus and impede geulah.
The meraglim set out to map the land that Hashem had promised to their forefathers generations before. Twelve leading men of the Bnei Yisroel were given a mission to appraise the Promised Land. They could have approached every sight with the perspective that they were meriting to finally be in the land of destiny, where Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov had lived. It was the country their forefathers had fought and prayed for, the eternal home of the Jewish people.
But they didn’t look at Eretz Yisroel as being gavoah mikol ha’aratzos. They didn’t view Chevron and Yerushalayim as being different than other cities and towns in countries around the world.
They traversed the Holy Land as if it were Greenland. They looked at the fruits for which Eretz Yisroel is praised as if they were the products of a simple agrarian state. They didn’t hear Hashem’s promises reverberating as they traveled throughout the land. Instead, they found fault in everything they saw.
They spoke poorly of the land because they viewed it as just another country. Their sin was two-fold: They denied the greatness of the land and they denied the Divine promise. They were thus resho’im.
A rosha seeks to tear down great people and bring them to his level. An ish builds people and raises them. A rosha sees people trying to build something and mocks their efforts; he can only discourage. An ish offers encouragement to strengthen others for the challenges that inevitably lie ahead.
A rosha is a naysayer. An ish says, “Let’s do what’s proper and we will succeed.”
A rosha says, “Don’t bother trying.” An ish says, “Let’s make our hishtadlus. Hashem will do the rest.”
The lesson of the meraglim calls out to us in our day as well. When you see people struggling to grow, encourage them. When you see people working on a project for the communal good, strengthen them. When called upon to assist noble individuals, worthy projects, yeshivos and communal endeavors, respond as Calev did and say, “Yachol nuchal lah.”
When you assess a situation or a person, do so through the periscope of Torah. When dealing with other people, recognize that they were created b’tzelem Elokim and possess a nefesh and neshomah. When you see a student failing, imagine how great he can become and treat him that way. He will grow and succeed.
Treat people the way you want to be treated. Concentrate on the positive and not the negative.
Chazal derive from the posuk (Vayikra 19:15), “B’tzedek tishpot amisecha – to judge your fellow justly,” that we are to judge every person favorably. The teaching is difficult, for if we are commanded to judge truthfully, how can we always judge a person favorably, there are times when people are wrong.
The Chidushei Horim answers that the main obligation of the posuk is to be just and refined; a person who is, will inevitably judge others favorably.
Rav Gershon Kitover, the Baal Shem Tov’s brother in law, was going to live in Eretz Yisroel. On the way, he stopped off in Turkey. While there, people suggested that he visit a local tzadik. As he approached the home of the tzadik, Rav Gershon noticed that the neighborhood was populated with people of a low spiritual level. Upon meeting the tzadik, he asked how he was able to live among such people.
The tzadik answered quite simply that he didn’t know how someone could think that he is at such a pure level that he can take his mind off working on himself and look at others and find fault with them.
Thus we understand the posuk, “B’tzedek tishpot amisecha,” when you are convinced that you are just, you can judge others.
Rav Elchonon Wasserman taught that an indication of a person’s greatness and appropriateness for a public position is the degree of his selfishness. The greater a person is, the less selfish he is, and inversely, the smaller a person is, the more selfish he is.
He explained that this is why Moshe Rabbeinu, who the Torah describes as the greatest man of all time, was also the humblest of all men.
When choosing a public servant, it is necessary to find a person whose primary goal will be to enhance the community and not to further his own personal situation.
The meraglim, though great men, succumbed to selfish desires. They reasoned that if the Bnei Yisroel would enter the Holy Land, they would lose their current positions, (Mesilas Yeshorim, Chapter 11). Therefore, perhaps subconsciously, they interpreted everything they witnessed in a twisted manner.
As bnei and bnos Torah, we must be able to analyze a situation without any personal biases. A person who arrives at an issue with prejudice cannot be expected to think clearly and will offer bad advice. Let us be unselfish and selfless in all we do. Let us have faith, emunah and bitachon in our daily lives, so that we feel fulfilled and content, not viewing others jealously and with negativity.
Let the promises of the Torah and nevi’im ring in our ears as we go about our daily tasks, so that we may all be blessed to be brought to Eretz Yisroel with the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu bekarov.