TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE
To an outsider, the sin of the spies would seem quite odd. At this point, the Jewish people had traveled through the desert for some time, and throughout it all G-d had sustained them through one miracle after another, and all His promises had come to fruition.
To an outsider, the sin of the spies would seem quite odd. At this point, the Jewish people had traveled through the desert for some time, and throughout it all G-d had sustained them through one miracle after another, and all His promises had come to fruition. Israel was a land that G-d had promised them, and they were about to enter. Hadn't the Jews learned to trust G-d by this point? Throughout, G-d continually promised that the Jews would dwell in Israel, their homeland. Why should the Jewish people have been wary of entering?
A basic human tendency is to forget the lessons of the past as soon as they are learned. "In one ear and out the other," parents often remark. The Jewish people are no different. In the previous Torah portions we read of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, punished for speaking lashon hara about Moses. Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, explains the reason these stories are written back-to-back in the Torah. The entire Jewish people saw Miriam's punishment for her sin, and learned the lesson of not speaking lashon hara. However, as soon as they learned the lesson, they immediately forgot it. Due to the fact that they did not learn from Miriam's mistake, the spies made the same mistake. Just as Miriam spoke ill about a person, so too, the spies spoke ill about the land of Israel.
Hold on! Is there really a similarity? Miriam's act was directed against a fellow human being, one who could feel hurt at hearing her remark. Does the land of Israel have ears with which to hear the barbs thrown at it? How could it be wrong to speak about an area of land? Rabbi Yisroel Ordman, of the famous Telshe Yeshiva in Lithuania, provides an answer to this question. Rabbi Ordman explains that one must strive to see the good qualities in everything. While it seems like a minor act to find fault with an inanimate object, such an act leads to the classic, proverbial slippery slope. By finding faults with objects that cannot feel it, we will eventually begin to find fault with other human beings who can feel our barbs. Therefore, it is important to notice the good in everything in life, no matter how inanimate or inconsequential the object may be. Every event happens for a reason, and if one strives to always find the good in events that happen, that person will lead a happy and fulfilling life, absent of lashon hara.
This answer, while interesting, does not provide the entire answer to the sin of the spies. The Sfas Emes, an influential 19th century Torah scholar and leader of Polish Jewry, provides a corollary answer. In spying out the land, which would seem like a mundane task, the spies had the opportunity to do a mitzvah and to excel in their activities. They had an opportunity to convert a normal scout mission into a holy and sacred event. However, they overlooked the root of the mission, and instead viewed the mission through the lens of their own motives and feelings.
We, as Jews, have a similar mission and opportunity. Every action we do, while seemingly mundane, provides the chance to do a holy act. Our physical drives and needs for nourishment, sleep, and stimulation are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are means to a greater purpose. We sleep and eat and use our energy to do mitzvot. Similarly, we recite a blessing over food items, and over many actions which we do, to transform the seemingly mundane action into a holy act.
This answer is interesting, but also does not completely explain the situation. The spies, all leaders and all respected for their strength of character and righteousness, should have known that their mission had a higher purpose. So why did they still view the land with a negative eye? For this answer we need to turn to the last part of this week's Torah portion, to the description of the mitzvah of tzitzit (fringes on four-cornered garments). This last section comprises the third paragraph of the fundamental Shema prayer. The Torah explains that if we wear tzitzit, we will remember the commandments of G-d, and will "not explore after your heart and after your eyes which you stray" (Numbers 15:39). With this end of the Torah portion, Parshat Shelach begins and ends with the same message, that of exploring and scouting out. The ten spies traveling through Israel expected to find it full of threats and inhospitable conditions. Therefore, that is exactly what they found, as they let their eyes and heart stray. However, Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who returned with an honest picture of Israel, went into their mission with optimism and with the knowledge that they would find a good, rich land. They were able to control their eyes and hearts, the "spies" of the body, and therefore saw Israel as it truly was.
The lesson of the tzitzit helps to explain the sin of the spies. By not letting our eyes and heart tempt us to view events in a negative light, we need to remember to have a face of optimism when encountering any new event. Through the lesson of Miriam, we need to strive to find the good in everything, and therefore refrain from the sin of speaking lashon hara about people. Through the teaching of the Sfas Emes, we need to have a similar view of any opportunities which befall us, and need to view each one as a chance to do a holy, sacred act.
By combining these lessons we find the root of the spies' sin and a positive lesson for ourselves. We need to pause for a moment before beginning anything. In this one moment we need to view the new experience or object before us with clear, unbiased eyes. We need to see the positive qualities in it, and the opportunity it provides us to do a sacred act. In this way we will not be tempted by our eyes, but will instead view everything as what it is a chance to do good in this world. By remembering this lesson we will finally be able to return to the land we could not enter because of the sin of the spies. By learning from their mistake, we will soon merit to return to the beautiful land of Israel.
Michael Gros is a recent graduate of Emory University, and plans to learn in the fall at Yeshivat Darche Noam in Jerusalem. He dedicates this d'var Torah as a small symbol of his appreciation for all that the Atlanta Jewish community has done for him and for Emory.
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