This week, in Parshas Shelach, we study the tragic episode of the meraglim sent by Moshe to spy on the land of Eretz Yisroel. The Jews wanted to send spies to the Promised Land to ascertain whether it would be difficult to take it over. Moshe acquiesced and chose twelve leaders of Klal Yisroel for the mission, one from each tribe. Ten of those men went on to err terribly. The Jews were severely punished for the actions and words of the errant messengers, and though there was a certain measure of forgiveness, we have suffered throughout the ages because of the incident.
There are many timeless lessons embedded in the story.
We wonder how messengers of Moshe Rabbeinu could have made such a terrible mistake. And, assuming that the meraglim were misled because of some personal negiah, how does that explain their ability to convince virtually the entire nation that they would never make it to the Promised Land?
How was it that the people who experienced Yetzias Mitzrayim and Kriyas Yam Suf lost their faith in the G-d who promised them that He would care for them and lead them to the land that had been promised to their forefathers and about which they had heard ever since they were born?
The first Rashi in the parsha holds the key to understanding this enigma. Quoting from the Medrash Tanchuma, Rashi explains that “the parsha of the meraglim follows the parsha of Miriam, because although these wicked people saw that Miriam was punished for speaking gossip about her brother, they failed to learn any lesson from it.”
The common explanation of Rashi is that witnessing the painful consequences of Miriam’s lashon hora should have deterred the meraglim from speaking lashon hora about 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 understood as gossip. The roots of this sin, however, are far more destructive than gossip.
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 tell us what Miriam and Aharon said about Moshe’s wife, but it does say that they minimized their brother’s greatness. They compared themselves to Moshe, as if to say, “Who does he think he is? Hashem doesn’t only talk to him. He speaks to us as well.”
In fact, it seems that what lies at the essence of lashon hora is an intent to minimize the accomplishments of other people. People admire someone for being special or having accomplished something good, and one fellow will come by and throw a damper on it by saying, “What makes you think he’s so great? He’s really no different than you and me. He also has failings. Don’t be taken in. Don’t think that what he did is so exceptional.”
These kinds of disparaging remarks serve to lower public esteem for the victim. Remarks such as these also discourage people from engaging in good deeds by casting those deeds as insincere or politically motivated.
A mesaper lashon hora cools off people’s enthusiasm for a fellow Jew by casting aspersions on his motives and downplaying his accomplishments.
Such people seek to wreck the reputation of anyone good, if only to justify their own incompetence and lack of accomplishments.
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 activity is frowned upon by Hashem, for even if the facts are true, talk that serves to diminish the subject’s esteem is lashon hora.
At the root of lashon hora is a desire to destroy the respect people have for someone or something else.
At times, lashon hora is an attempt to devastate a relationship, as, for example, when a person tells someone else that his friend acted in a way that is detrimental to the other party’s interests. The intention – and effect – is to drive a wedge between the two people.
When two people engage in conversation and one begins to speak negatively about someone else, the person he is speaking to feels comfortable piling on more negative stuff about the victim. Had the baal lashon hora not come along, he might have continued believing that his friend was beyond reproach, but thanks to the belittling remarks from the person who initiated the conversation, the victim has been knocked down from the high pedestal upon which he formerly stood. The second fellow now feels comfortable chiming in with deprecating remarks of his own.
Thus begins the chain of evil that is at the root of the churban Bais Hamikdosh and the reason we have not yet merited to be redeemed.
[The Gemara in Yoma (9b) states that the second Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because of sinas chinom, commonly translated as unwarranted hatred. The Gemara cites as an example of sinas chinom people who ate and drank together and acted friendly towards each other and then stabbed each other with the daggers of their tongues.
Rav Yisroel Meir Hakohein, in his introduction to Chofetz Chaim, writes that this refers to lashon hara. It is thus evident that sinas chinom and lashon hora both have at their core a baseless jealousy and hatred that seek to separate people from each other and negate their positive attributes. Both ills have the same outcome and lead to divisiveness and churban.]
If you read the first Rashi in Parshas Shelach carefully, you should have a question. You will notice that Rashi refers to the episode of Miriam and Aharon talking ill of Moshe as “the parsha of Miriam.” Shouldn’t it be called “the parsha of Miriam and Aharon”? The pesukim in Parshas Beha’aloscha (12:1-2) state that both of them spoke ill of Moshe: “Vatedabeir Miriam v’Aharon b’Moshe… Vayomru…” Why, then, is it referred to as the parsha of Miriam?
Rashi (ibid.) says that Miriam’s name is quoted in the posuk prior to that of Aharon because she was the one who initiated the conversation.
Perhaps, since the root of lashon hora is that it seeks to minimize the accomplishments and positive attributes of another person, the one who began the conversation is the key perpetrator, since he or she is the one who opened the door to a negative portrayal of the person.
Therefore, it is referred to as the parsha of Miriam and the Torah relates that Miriam was punished, and it does not discuss whether Aharon was also held accountable for the words expressed in that conversation. Aharon and Miriam were tzaddikim on a high level of avodah and it is not for us to criticize them or their speech or actions.
It should be noted that the Torah relates what took place only in order for us to learn from the episode to avoid the temptations to minimize others.
Everything that takes place in this world should serve as a lesson for us how to conduct ourselves. The meraglim paid no heed to the whole parsha that transpired with Miriam and her very public punishment. They are therefore referred to by Rashi as resho’im, wicked people: “v’resho’im hallalu ra’u velo lokchu mussar.” People who aren’t on the lookout to improve themselves by analyzing the world around them are not just not good. They are wicked.
The downfall of the meraglim was their failure to learn this lesson not to belittle and disparage. They badmouthed 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 very strong and would cause problems for the Jews upon their entry into the land. They said that the fruits there were too large for people to carry home and eat.
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 and whether He could bring the Chosen People to the land of milk and honey He had promised them since the days of the avos.
For all eternity, these individuals will be referred to as resho’im.
Such acts are similar to the acts 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 the nations of the world saw the splendor of Hashem and feared Him, Amaleik attacked us. Amaleik tried to dissipate the fear of Hashem that had spread across the world. They tried to show that Hashem could not really protect the Jewish people.
Their crime emanated from the same root as the crime of lashon hora, and thus they both cause churban.
To reinforce the concept that lashon hora and Amaleik are rooted in the same shoresh of evil, perhaps we can cite 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 was well-versed in that evil nation’s ways.
Haman said that the Jewish people are “mefuzar umeforad bein ha’amim.” He sought to bring out that the Jews lacked unity.
Another indication of this idea is evident in the peirush of Rabbeinu Bachya on Chumash. In Parshas Shemos (2:13-14), the Torah relates the first episode involving Moshe and Doson v’Avirom. Moshe saw the two of them fighting and said to them, “Rasha lomo sakeh reiyecha.” To which they responded, “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 the statement to mean that now Moshe understood why the Jews deserved to be enslaved. Rabbeinu Bachya, quoting the Medrash, takes it a step further and says that the reason they were in Mitzrayim and not yet redeemed was because they had amongst them baalei lashon hora.
But they had not told lashon hora. They did not tell anyone that Moshe killed a Mitzri. They simply let Moshe know that they had witnessed what he did. Why does the Medrash refer to that as lashon hora?
It may be that Moshe Rabbeinu’s comment was going on 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 they were still in Mitzrayim was because of lashon hora. Bittul is a cause of golus and impedes geulah. They said to Moshe, “Mi somcha l’ish? Who do you think you are? Who gave you power to lord over us?” They minimized the person who had come to help the Jewish people. That is lashon hora.
Lashon hora is compatible with destruction, for that is ultimately what it leads to – churban. Constant bittul leads to churban. As long as we are divided among ourselves and cynical of each other, we cannot live in peace with one another or with anyone else. We are mefuzar umeforad bein ha’amim as long as there is peirud between us, and there is nothing that causes peirud as does lashon hora.
To affect peirud and assuage our feelings of guilt and inadequacy, the yeitzer hora causes us to cast doubt on others’ accomplishments and good deeds on our behalf. Instead of returning the favor, we begin to develop a dislike for them.
When we see people take public stands on issues facing our people, and when we see people rise to assist the downtrodden, the abused, the poor, and tzaddikim or talmidei chachomim in need of assistance, some are quick to attach impure motives to their acts of tzedakah and chesed. We do that to calm our pangs of guilt. We sit by and do next to nothing. We do that because Amaleik has not yet been totally destroyed and some of his poison is still around, infecting us.
The sin of the meraglim’s lashon hora caused the Jews to wander in the desert for forty years. Our chato’im of lashon hora have caused us to wander even longer. Let us all be more careful about how we speak. Let us seek to look at our friends and people we come in contact with b’ayin tovah. Let us try to attach laudatory motives to people who rise to aid the community.
There was a time when we could disagree without seeking to destroy each other. The golden Jewish ideal of achdus means that we can disagree on legitimate matters of fact, or philosophy, or hashkofah, yet remain friends. There is no reason for radicals or pacifists to hate each other. They can have different perspectives on the world, yet argue amicably and peacefully. The rancor that is all too prevalent in our world is not only senseless and needless, but destroys us and keeps us enslaved in golus.
What excuse do we, who see what happened to Miriam, who see what happened to the meraglim, and who have studied Torah from great rabbeim, have to be cynical and negative? What excuse do we have to mock others and engage in public battles? What excuse do we have not to follow in the path of Torah, whose path is that of calmness and peace – “derocheha darchei noam vechol nesivoseha shalom”?
Just because others rip each other apart and seek to destroy opponents doesn’t mean that we should adopt their ways. Just because politicians perfect the science of destroying people they don’t like does not mean that it is the way for bnei Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov to deal with people. Just because there is a business known as “opposition research” in which people sit all day and look for lashon hora they can fling on people they don’t like, or whom they disagree with, does not mean that it is something we should do.
We have enough enemies who seek to undermine and destroy us. We shouldn’t be doing that to each other. Look at the election campaign now going on in Eretz Yisroel and see how parties seek to win the premiership by promising to destroy the frum community. It is not a time to be petty and myopic. It is a time to lock arms and see what needs to be done to turn around their evil plans.
Now is not the time for lashon hora and machlokes. Actually, it never is.
Look at the incendiary plans of the left in the United States and ponder what will happen if they make more gains in 2020. Perhaps the right is not perfect, but they sure are better for us and our interests than the left.
Iran seeks to battle Israel and America. Think when reading the news and realize that eis tzorah hee l’Yaakov. It is a time of real danger for the Jewish people. Our reaction when observing a $100 million American drone knocked out of the sky should not be to mock and question the president, but to pray that he is granted the wisdom and courage to act correctly in turbulent times. Our reaction should be to seek achdus among our brothers, along with kedusha and maasim tovim.
Let us get to work so that we can merit the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh and the geulah sheleimah bimeheirah.