Just twenty days shy of a year from the Jewish people’s arrival at Mount Sinai, they began their journey to the promised land, Israel. During that time, the nation had received the Torah, built the Tabernacle, and each tribe had received its individual mission via its unique flag and the position that it occupied surrounding the Tabernacle. The prophet Yechezkel many years later describes the exodus from Egypt as the birth of the Jewish nation. Now, however, they are a mature and focused entity, poised to begin their mission: to establish Hashem’s Kingdom on this earth, the chosen place for which was the land of Israel, and entering and occupying it would complete the plan.
Israel was just a three-day journey from where they were, but before they were about to enter Israel, the entire Jewish nation appeared before Moshe with a request (Deuteronomy 1:22):
(כב) וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי כֻּלְּכֶם וַתֹּאמְרוּ נִשְׁלְחָה אֲנָשִׁים לְפָנֵינוּ וְיַחְפְּרוּ לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְיָשִׁבוּ אֹתָנוּ דָּבָר אֶת הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר נַעֲלֶה בָּהּ וְאֵת הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר נָבֹא אֲלֵיהֶן
22) All of you approached me and said, “Let us send men ahead of us and let them spy out the Land, and bring word back to us: the road on which we should ascend and the cities to which we should come.” (We should plan our attack, and have a strategy as to how we will conquer the land.)
What was their purpose? The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 642) relates the following story.
אמרו ישראל משה רבינו נשלחה אנשים לפנינו, אמר להם למה, אמרו לו שכבר הבטיחנו הקב”ה ואמר לנו שאנו נכנסים לארץ כנען ויורשין כל טוב שנאמר ובתים מלאים כל טוב, והרי שמעו שאנו נכנסים והם עושין בהן בתי מטמוניות אם מטמינים הן את ממונם ואנו נכנסין ולא נמצא כלום נמצא דברו של הקב”ה בטל, אלא ילכו מרגלים לפנינו, ויראו לנו את הארץ אין כתיב כאן אלא ויחפרו לנו ילכו ויעמדו על מה שחפרו בארץ, כיון ששמע כן נלכד בידן שנאמר וייטב בעיני הדבר
The Jewish people said to Moshe Rabbeinu, “We want to send in people before we go in!” He said to them, “Why?” They said to him, “Hashem promised us that when we enter the Canaanite land, we will inherit all their wealth. But they have heard that we are coming and they are hiding their wealth! When we come in, we won’t find anything, and Hashem’s promise will not be realized! We need to send in spies to see where they are hiding all of their wealth so Hashem’s promise will be fulfilled!” Moshe was fooled by their words and agreed to their plan.
Their motivations seemed so noble – to save Hashem’s honor! – But it was really a cover-up for their reticence to enter the land. They lacked trust in Hashem. They felt that they should pursue a more hands- on approach rather than to rely exclusively on Hashem’s miraculous intervention. This agenda may have been hidden even from them, as they didn’t consciously realize that the request stemmed from an inner fear that they did not want to confront. Phrasing it in these terms allowed them to accomplish their goal without exposing their inner fear. It was, after all, a matter of Hashem’s honor, not their own shortcomings.
Moshe had a suspicion that something was amiss when he said (verse 22 above), “All of you approached me and said.” Rashi comments that it was in a jumble, young people pushing the elders and the elders pushing the leaders. This signifies a problem. Why aren’t the younger people respecting the elders and the elders their leaders? What’s burning? It must be that there is a personal agenda being asserted at the expense even of proper etiquette.
When selected, all of the twelve spies were righteous. Moshe chose them from among the people who approached him to be sure that they were of like mind with their senders and thus would properly represent them.
In the Torah there is a concept called שלוחו של אדם כמותו – a person’s messenger is just like the person himself. This is a legal concept very similar to a power-of-attorney. When given the power-of-attorney from someone, one may legally represent him in all legal transactions as if the delegating person was there conducting the business himself. In the same sense, the messenger of a person can execute legal transactions for his sender as if the sender himself executed them. Since a messenger is empowered by his sender, the sender’s thoughts and intentions have a profound effect on the messenger. Here, because the people’s intentions in sending the spies were not pure, they would perforce negatively influence the mission’s outcome. Because they were afraid to enter the Land of Israel and would have been happy with an excuse not to go in, they subconsciously maintained a bias against seeing the good of the land before their messengers even went in.
Our Sages teach that a personal bias also influenced the ten spies. The spies, who were princes of their tribes, had prophetically seen that once the Jewish nation entered the Land of Israel, there would no longer be a need for princes, causing them to lose their prestigious positions. Subconsciously, they also did not want to go into Israel either. This bias colored their vision and prevented them from seeing things in a positive, correct light.
Had the Jewish people been completely pure in their motivations for sending the spies, despite the spies’ personal bias, if they would have been loyal messengers who took their job to represent their senders seriously, they could have accomplished their goal. But the combined biases of the Jewish people, with that of the spies, doomed the mission from the onset. The spies wanted to see the bad in the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people wanted an excuse not to go in.
The results, of course, were disastrous. After touring the Land for forty days, the spies, with the exception of Yehoshua bin Nun and Kalev ben Yefuneh, all announced that the land was impossible to conquer. It was a death trap. Extremely powerful giants lived there in fortified cities, and the land itself is inhospitable. Moreover, people were dying all over the place with funerals going on constantly. The land’s fruits are so large that they kill you! Apparently, the land is toxic even to its strong and hardy inhabitants; there is no way we could survive there!
Upon hearing their report, the entire Jewish nation accepted the “lashon hara” -bad report – about the holy land of Israel, and started to cry and complain. “Why did Hashem take us out of Egypt and put us through all this just to kill us in the end in the land of Israel? Let’s go back to Egypt!”
Hashem was very upset by this reaction. What did He have to do to prove to them that He was out for their best interests and would take care of all the “problems” in a cinch? Didn’t He prove His might and prowess in Egypt when He extracted them from the midst of the world’s most powerful nation? Didn’t He prove His control over all aspects of nature through the ten plagues that beset the Egyptians and destroyed them? Hadn’t He provided them with food from heaven, manna, water from a stone, and protective clouds for the almost a whole year? What more could they want to see? They are just a group of ingrates who will never put their complete trust in Hashem.
In response to Hashem’s frustration and desire to wipe them out and start over with Moshe, the latter intervened on their behalf and presented a claim to Hashem that He had to grant. Moshe said, “When the nations of the world hear that you wiped us out like one man, they are going to say, ‘Hashem couldn’t follow through and bring them to the promised land so He wiped them out instead.’ It will be a great embarrassment to Your Holy Name.”
Hashem conceded to Moshe’s point, but still decreed that they would have to wander in the wilderness for forty years, one year per day that the spies were in Israel, so that all men between 20 and 60 years of age would all die in the desert and not enter the land of Israel.
We still suffer today from the sin of the spies. Had the Jewish people gone into Israel straight from Egypt and Mount Sinai, they would never have had to leave. Exile from the land would have been impossible. The process of taking the Jewish people out of Egypt would have come to its natural conclusion: the Jewish people settling in the land promised to Avraham our Forefather, fulfilling their mission on this world. The entire process would have been inexorable.
But when only the children of those who left Egypt entered the land, a disconnect was created between the Egyptian exodus and the entrance into Israel, the result of which was, that we can, and have been, exiled from there. Entering Israel was no longer the culmination of the original exodus; it was an event unto itself. This is why we observe the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av as fast days in mourning of the two Holy Temples, which were respectively sieged and destroyed on those two days.
What happened here? What went wrong?
Our Sages attribute the entire debacle to “lashon-hora” – evil speech. How is that?
Our Sages teach us, “Lashon-hora kills three! The one who spoke it, the one who accepted it, and, of course, the one about whom it was said.” In other words, it is equally as bad to accept lashon-hora heard from another as it is to speak it outright. Why is that? What did the listener do? All he did, after all, was listen.
The answer is that when one speaks lashon-hora about another, he is really throwing that person under the bus to artificially elevate himself. What he is saying is, “Did you hear what so and so did? He did this and that,” the implication being, “But, I am much better than he; I don’t do those things!” Even though he is no better now than he was the moment before sharing his juicy piece of gossip, he feels a little better about himself because he tells himself that he is not at all like that guy. In reality, though, he is no different now than he was before speaking the lashon-hora, but, nevertheless, this gives him a false sense of superiority.
One who accepts the gossip is doing the same thing. He is accepting the other person’s deficiencies, but, since “I do not do those things,” I am a better person than he is. With that mindset, he is guilty of the same offense as the one who actively spoke the lashon-hora.
We are not allowed to accept lashon-hora because we are not permitted to accept that a fellow Jew has done something wrong. Jews are good people who for the most part only want to do good things We may not accept and assume that they have done wrong so as to denigrate them. But why do we want to eagerly accept that someone has done something wrong? This low behavior is, as noted above, done to artificially boost our own ego. “I don’t do that!”
If this is true about any Jew, how much more so should we not accept lashon-hora about Hashem! Yet that is exactly what the spies did. They alleged that Hashem had conspired to take them into a death trap. After all that Hashem had done for them, how could the Jewish people who heard them tolerate such an absurd allegation? They should have lynched the spies for saying such blasphemous things about the loving and caring Hashem Who had miraculously taken them out of Egypt, protected them from their enemies, and given them manna, water, and shelter for almost a year. How could anybody believe that He wanted to destroy them?
But, unfortunately, they accepted the lashon-hora as true. That they cried about their plight indicates how deeply they believed it.
Had they given Hashem the benefit of the doubt, they would have easily seen how all of proffered negative “evidence” was really designed to help them. The land’s inhabitants were involved in funerals so that they would be preoccupied with their dead and not pay attention to the roving spies. Hashem was also showing them that He could kill all their strong people without any problem. The fruits grew especially large to demonstrate the bounty of Israel and the plentiful blessing that Hashem would provide for them.
We must bear in mind that Hashem is only good, and does only good things for humanity. His methods may seem harsh at times, but we must know that “כל מאן דעביד רחמנא לטב עביד” Everything that Hashem does, He does only for good. Everything. There is no bad in Hashem. Therefore, we must give Hashem the benefit of the doubt and understand that what He is doing is for our best interests. We may not understand it, but who are we to understand Hashem’s ways anyway? He is keeping track for thousands of years. When we finish our lives on this earth, we will see how blind we were to Hashem’s kindness and how everything that He did was for our benefit.
A student of Nachmanides fell ill. When Nachmanides came to visit him, he realized that his student was not going to make it. He told the student that he had a job for him when he passed away.
“There is a world in heaven called “כסאות למשפט,” the Chairs of Judgment. All judgments of this world emanate from that world. I am going to write you an amulet that will open the doors of all the lower worlds and let you through to that upper-most world. When you get there, I would like you to ask them these awesome and difficult questions that I have.” With that, he gave the student the amulet and the paper with the questions written on it.
A while later, Nachmanides was sitting near a window studying Torah when the image of his deceased student appeared before him. The student said, “Rebbe, you should know that the amulet you wrote me worked perfectly. With it, I was able to go through the doors of all the spiritual worlds until I reached the world of כסאות למשפט – Chairs of Judgment. But when I got there and opened the paper to ask your awesome questions, the questions were suddenly not questions. Everything was resolved.”
This is the reality. There is a perfect answer to every question. In Hashem’s world, there are no questions; everything is resolved. We must never accept lashon-hora about Hashem (or anyone else) no matter how difficult it may seem, because, everything that Hashem does is for the good.