Delayed Reaction

Here’s a question that ought to strike anyone who’s ever studied the parsha of the meraglim: After the spies return from their tour and tragically slander the Promised Land, Hashem punishes them and the entire nation with one year in the desert for every day the spies walked the land. They commit a single sin—albeit a huge one—but they get punished for all the time leading up to it. Why?

Rav Yeruchum Olshin suggests the following. The decision to slander Eretz Yisroel was no spur-of-the-minute thing. It was not a spontaneous impulse. Those ten men were not the victims of a surprise ambush by their evil inclination. They came to the people with their story in hand, ready to orate, to judge and to condemn. They had their argument well-prepared in advance, eager to “prove” that the Jewish people had no chance of conquering such a well-defended place. It was not a hastily-cobbled-together tale. The argument was forty days old.

The sin, says Rav Olshin, came long before the actual crime. With every step the spies took in the land of Canaan, they were busily cataloguing its deficiencies. With every sight they saw, they added to the list of negative impressions they could use to try to convince their fellow brothers to relinquish their trust in Hashem. So the spies’ sin actually spanned all forty days; measure for measure, their punishment spanned an equal number of years.

As this sorrowful historical example so poignantly demonstrates, negativity does not spring up in a day. Like anything enduring, it must be nurtured. Like anything toxic, it must reach a critical mass to be effective.

The meraglim spent forty days building up their critical mass of slander against the land that Hashem had promised His children. How much time do we spend cultivating the tiny minnows of negativity in our souls… until they shock us by appearing as full-grown and nasty as a school of man-eating sharks?

I hate to say this, but we, too, often walk around cataloguing all the deficiencies we note in the people around us. The meraglim came to the Land prepared to disapprove. Don’t we sometimes do the same? I’ll give you an example.

Suppose you have a co-worker who has grated on your nerves from her first day in the office. Even worse, you feel threatened by her presence. The boss praises her work, which makes you feel overlooked and underappreciated.

Having made up your mind (or, more accurately, your heart) to dislike her, you have no trouble at all adding to your list of grievances as time goes by. Virtually everything your colleague says and does finds its way onto the list. You are pre-programmed to find fault, and you do the job with admirable thoroughness.

The same can apply to a difficult relative, an annoying neighbor, or anyone with whom you regularly come into contact. Having placed the individual in a negative category, you go on to build a rock-solid case against him or her. Their every word and action is grist for the mill that you are predisposed to grind. It all falls ever-so-neatly into a pattern that you have drawn in advance. Given these premises, the outcome is inevitable. In such a climate, negativity and hatred will sprout with abandon.

It all starts with an emotion. In the spies’ case, we are told that they were afraid of losing their respected positions within Klal Yisroel once the nation was settled in the Land. Their fear of losing the honor they craved set the stage for their terrible sin. When we allow ourselves to become pre-disposed to dislike someone, it usually emanates from an emotion, too. Fear when a colleague seems to threaten our job security; envy over someone else’s success; anger at being slighted, or plain old resentment over the injustice of it all. Emotions that fill us with negativity the way drops of water from the sky fills up a rain barrel. It’s such a natural process: all we need to do is open ourselves up to the elements.

In the third parsha of Kriyas Shema, we are adjured not to stray after our hearts and after our eyes. We would expect the order to be reversed. After all, don’t we first see something, which then gives rise to an emotion that may lead us astray? Apparently not. It seems that we first adopt certain attitudes in our hearts, which then color the way we see things afterwards. In other words, the feeling in our heart predisposes us to see things a certain way. If we feel negatively, we will see negatively… which, in turn, gives birth to even more negativity. And so the sorry tale goes on.

Imagine a pot of delicious soup simmering on the stove. Suppose someone were to come along and add a drop, just a drop, of vinegar to the pot. No big deal, right? But suppose someone were to come a long and add a drop of vinegar every hour on the hour, seven days a week? The buildup of acidity would eventually render the soup inedible. It can make a once-delicious dish taste very bad indeed.

The buildup of acidity in our hearts can leave us with a bad taste, too.

The trick, of course, is to prevent this from happening. This is not as easy as it sounds. Emotions have an inevitable feel to them. When you’re in the grip of a powerful feeling, you can’t imagine not feeling that way. Your mind may be telling you to take a deep breath and chill, but your heart is insisting that this is life or death.

There are ways to repel negative emotion. As my son’s rosh yeshivah once taught, it helps to picture jealousy as a door that you simply refuse to walk through. Alternatively, you can picture negative feelings as a fly that you shoo away. You can do whatever works for you. The point is, you have to do something. Because negative emotion is vinegar in the soup of your life. You don’t want it there.

What if the negativity doesn’t sprout from strong emotion? Suppose you don’t like someone simply because he annoys you? In other words, because of a sense of superiority. A feeling of, “I don’t have to put up with this!” A sense of arrogance… which is often the child of insecurity.

Clearly, the outcome can be just as damaging. Even “cold” decisions emanate from opinions dictated by the heart—in this case, the idea that it is imperative that I feel superior to the other guy. So we must employ similar tactics to shoo the negativity away. Whatever it takes. Whatever works. Because this is life and death.

“Who is the man who desires life? Ohev yamim liros tov.” Rav Olshin suggests that the key is “liros tov”—to see good. To have an ayin tova toward others. Such an attitude will preclude our thinking negatively about other people, which removes the danger of speaking ill of them. Lashon hara, like the spies’ slander, does not sprout up from nowhere. It is the product of long, careful nurturing in the hidden recesses of the heart. It is the result of a long simmering in the dark, a soup that was once savory and fragrant but now seethes with bitter acid. It is a ticking time-bomb, waiting to erupt.

In other words, the sin we finally commit, either in slandering others behind their backs or hurting them to their faces, is only the last stage in a long, invisible process. A delayed reaction to the first fateful decision we made to allow negativity in.

We have to open the windows of our soul and let the negativity fly out. And, at the same time, let in the fresh air of “liros tov.” An ayin tova, a positive way of viewing those around us, is our best defense against becoming bitter, negative people. With that attitude in our arsenal, we can re-introduce the sweetness we were born with, which will lead to peace, love, harmony and all that good stuff.

Not to mention the geulah sheleimah, when we will all stand together as friends, with our Father shepping a world of nachas from each and every one of us.