Tunnel Vision, Part II
Chapter 7, Law 6(b)
"All such people [discussed above] are [considered] speakers of lashon
hara (malicious gossip) in whose neighborhood it is forbidden to dwell, and
certainly [it is forbidden] to sit among them and listen to their words. The
[heavenly] decree against our forefathers in the desert was sealed only on
account of lashon hara."
Towards the end of last week's class, we began discussing the Rambam's final
point -- that the generation of the desert did not merit entry into the Land
of Israel on account of lashon hara (see Numbers 13-14). They accepted the
wicked report of the Spies and as a result were barred from entering the
Holy Land, instead being fated to die in the desert over the next forty
years after which their children would at last merit to enter.
Last week we asked several very basic questions on the story. I'll offer a
quick recap of them before we move on.
(1) Why was the sin of the spies considered "gossip" altogether? For the
most part, they actually spoke *favorably* of the Land. Their complaint was
not so much about the Land itself, but in their ability to conquer it from
the giants who then inhabited it. If so, why do the Torah and Sages
primarily fault the Spies with lashon hara -- and not with something so much
worse -- doubting G-d's ability to win their wars?
(2) During the earlier census taken of the Children of Israel, the tribe of
Levi was counted separately from all the other tribes. The reason was
because all those counted would be included in the decree to perish in the
desert, and G-d did not want Levi included -- as they did not take part in
this and in earlier sins. This, however, implies that being counted was
grounds for being implicated in the sin. But theoretically, had Levi been
counted but not sinned, wouldn't the decree have been on the sinners and
*not* on the counted, being that not all the counted sinned?
(3) The duration of the punishment -- 40 years -- corresponded to the 40
days the spies spent traveling through the Land. Firstly, the sin of the
nation was not the traveling, but accepting the report after. Why should
they have all been punished for the amount of time it took *the spies* to
travel? Second, even the spies technically did nothing wrong when they
traveled. At worst they *planned* to offer a negative report after. But the
Talmud tells us that G-d does not punish us for the planning to sin, only
for the actual sinning. If so, why should the punishment -- of an entire
nation -- correspond to the number of days a few of their number spent
planning to do something wrong?
I believe the Sages elsewhere provide us with an important clue to
understanding this episode. Immediately beforehand in the Torah is the story
of Miriam's lashon hara against Moses (Numbers 12). Miriam was Moses' older
sister. The Torah records how she complained to their brother Aaron about
Moses' separating from his wife -- ostensibly in order that he be in a
constant state of purity to receive prophecy from G-d. Miriam complained to
Aaron: Aren't they prophets too? They never separated from their spouses;
why did he? What makes him think he's so much better than they? G-d punished
her with tsara'as (typically translated as leprosy), a spiritual disease in
which white patches develop on a person's skin until he or she repents.
Moses subsequently prayed that G-d heal her, which He did, although He
decreed that she remain outside the camp seven day till her atonement was
The Midrash asks: Why does the story of the Spies immediately follow the
story of Miriam? It is an indictment of them: They saw what just happened to
Miriam for speaking lashon hara and even so did not learn their lesson
(Tanchuma 5, brought in Rashi to 13:2). We thus see an important parallel
between Miriam's sin and Israel's. I would therefore like to begin by
analyzing the sin of Miriam.
There is something very curious about the story of Miriam. Before G-d struck
Miriam with tsara'as, He came down to have a little talk with her and Aaron.
His words were as follows: "Hear now My words. If there is a prophet among
you, in a vision I make Myself known to him, in a dream I speak to him. Not
so My servant Moses. In all My house he is faithful. Mouth to mouth I speak
with him, in a vision and not with riddles, and the picture of G-d he
beholds. And why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?"
The basic sermon is very well taken. Moses is far, far greater than she and
Aaron, for all their greatness. She should have known better than to
question his behavior.
But something very basic is missing. Miriam's criticism of Moses was not
only presumptuous; it was outright wrong. G-d spoke to Aaron and Miriam very
rarely if at all. There was no reason for them to curtail ordinary married
life. He spoke to Moses constantly. Moses had to ever be ready for further
This in fact was hinted to Aaron and Miriam in the manner in which G-d
appeared to them -- "suddenly" (12:4), without warning. As the Sages
comment, they began screaming "Water! Water!" for they were impure from
marital relations (Rashi there). (Typically a prophetic state is achieved
only through rigorous advance spiritual and mental preparation. For Moses,
however, it was virtually effortless.)
Thus, in appearing to them, G-d hinted to Miriam a further objection against
her words. Moses *did* have justification for separating from his wife. Now
had I been G-d (something I suppose we all like to imagine every so often),
my address to Miriam would have been quite different: "You're *wrong*! I
speak to you rarely and to Moses every day! Your words are completed unfounded!"
Yet G-d only hinted this to her indirectly. His main lecture focused on
Moses' greatness and the audacity of speaking against him. And this,
although valid in its own right, seems to miss the point. It's true that
Moses was greater than she. Yet had he *not* experienced constant prophecy,
her criticism would have been founded, in spite of his greatness! And if he
*did* experience constant prophecy, then her criticism was unjust even if he
*weren't* greater than she! In other words, what G-d responded, though a
valid point, seems irrelevant to the issue at hand?
Let me finally bring this issue to a head. All of this sheds light on the
true evil of lashon hara. The issue is not whether my criticism is right or
wrong. It may very well be correct. What is truly wrong, however, is judging
another human being based on my own standards and perspective. The reason
Miriam felt *qualified* to criticize Moses is because she failed to
recognize his greatness. He's a prophet and she's a prophetess. He has no
right acting any differently than she! *That* is the root of lashon hara.
Once we impute our own standards on someone else, we will never see him in
his differences favorably. If *I* do not do that why should he? Who does she
think *she* is acting differently? The reason we do not accept others for
whom they are, even going so far as to speak against them, is because we
fail to see them on their proper light.
And this, by the way, works both ways. In Miriam's case, she failed to see
Moses' greatness -- and so she cut him down to her own standards -- and
found fault. (Of course no doubt she knew he was greater, but she perhaps
saw him as greater in degree, not altogether different in kind.) Often,
however, we do the same in the opposite manner -- we fail to be accepting of
others' shortcomings. We look down on them because they don't match up to
our standards, failing to appreciate that all people are different in
nature, abilities, background, and personal disposition.
Had, however, Miriam seen Moses in his true light, she would have realized
that certainly he must have good reason for behaving differently -- whatever
it may be. She might not know why, but she should have known that her own
standards are no fair criteria for judging *anyone* else, let alone the
likes of Moses. We should never be quick to criticize others just because
they are not like us. That, in a nutshell, is where all the problems start.
With this, the entire story of the Spies comes into clear -- and
awe-inspiring -- focus. This simply stated, was their sin -- seeing a land
as holy as Israel and failing to truly see it. We still have more ground to
cover, so G-d willing we will finish this up next week. Stay tuned!
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org