by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"Send men for yourself, and they will spy out the Land of Canaan, which I
give to the Children of Israel, one man for each of the tribes of their
fathers shall you send, every leader in them." [13:2]
Our Torah reading relates the tragic story of the Spies, sent to travel
through the Land of Canaan in advance of its conquest by the People of Israel.
G-d told Moses, "send men for yourself" -- you, Moses, should personally
select the Spies. Should we imagine, given the disastrous results, that
Moses chose poorly, picking unreliable people for this important task? We
know that this is not so. The Torah itself says that those chosen "were
leaders among the Children of Israel." Even in the company of the Holy
Generation that stood at Mount Sinai, these twelve were exceptional.
They stood before Moses, handpicked representatives of the Jewish People to
go scout out their new homeland. Forty days later, only two returned to
discuss how wonderful this land was and would be. The other ten Spies told
the nation that the residents were unconquerable giants -- and besides, the
land was killing its inhabitants. The nation believed this evil report, and
sat down to mourn its fate. As a result, G-d decreed that this generation,
which mourned unnecessarily, would not be privileged to enter the land.
They would, instead, die in the desert.
These ten great men were recorded in the Torah not for their good deeds,
but for becoming an "evil congregation" and inflicting forty years of
desert wanderings upon the entire nation. Obviously they fell before a
destructive force of massive potential, yet one so devious in its influence
that they failed to see it.
In reality, what struck them down was a toxic mixture of an evil eye and an
evil tongue. One looks out for the bad side of every story, and the other
carries that tale to others.
The Spies entered Canaan, and met with a wonderfully fertile land. A single
cluster of grapes was so large that two of them had to carry it back,
hanging from a pole (as depicted in the logo of today's Israeli Tourism
Ministry). And as they toured the country, G-d arranged another miracle on
their behalf, timing deaths in various communities to coincide with the
Spies' arrival. The populace was so distracted by funerals that they did
not think to confront their visitors.
How did the Spies respond? They found the worst possible interpretation of
events. With fruits so large, the people were large as well -- and the
Spies discussed this as if G-d expected the nation to go in and conquer it
on their own, without His help. They confidently proclaimed that such
conquest was impossible. And furthermore, they viewed the funerals not as a
sign of Heavenly protection, but as an indication that the land was turning
upon those who lived on it, telling the nation that if they moved in, they
would be its next victims.
The Medrash asks why the story of the Spies occurs immediately after that
of Miriam, for whom the nation waited while she was cured of the spiritual
blemish of Tzora'as. The answer is that she was afflicted by this blemish
because of the same problem. Miriam was punished because she spoke badly of
Moses' wife, and the Jewish People saw that the evil of gossip can hit even
the most upstanding members of the community. Concludes the Medrash, "these
wicked men did not take the opportunity to learn ethics." They should have
learned from what happened to Miriam, but did not.
If the Torah has one goal for us, it is for us to learn ethics. It is for
us to see the devastating power of evil, and learn to pursue good. We
cannot afford to be like the Spies, who failed to take the opportunity that
lay before them.
Who can claim not to behave like the Spies? Who among us looks only for the
good in other people, refrains from repeating the latest gossip, and
attempts to change the subject when gossip comes their way?
There is no easy antidote for this poison. Fortunately, we in the Jewish
religious tradition have an extensive body of literature upon which to
draw, to learn to control our nearly-instinctive penchant for evil speech.
Just over a century ago, Rabbi Yisrael Mayer Kagen published a work on
these laws, called "Chafetz Chaim." Several derivative works are available
in English, and there is a section of our web site devoted to
gossip-controlling behavior: http://www.torah.org/learning/halashon/ .
We, like the spies, already know how destructive gossip is. If we judge
others more favorably, and refrain from spreading every harsh rumor, we can
hardly imagine the amount of good we can and will do for our families, our
neighbors, and our community.