Rabbanit Shira SmilesShira Smiles is a sought-after international lecturer, popular seminary teacher and experienced curriculum developer. A well-respected former Los Angeles teacher, she now lives in Israel, where she teaches at Darchei Bina Seminary and leads a number of women's study groups. Shira also trains Torah teachers in special workshops all over the world.
Moshe Rabbenu (Moses) sends twelve spies with specific instructions to reconnoiter the land Hashem has promised Bnei Yisroel (the Jews). When the spies return, ten of them issue a very negative report, frightening the nation. Joshua and Caleb then try their best to calm Bnei Yisroel and allay their fears. They tell the people, “… the land is very, very good,”urging them to trust in Hashem and not be afraid.
As we know, Joshua and Caleb were not successful.
All twelve of these spies were great men, yet ten of them sinned and caused others to sin. How could they have fallen so low, and how were the words of Joshua and Caleb an appropriate, albeit ineffective, response to the words of the other spies?
One of the warnings of the spies was that the inhabitants of the land were men of great stature. Rabbi Schrage Grossbard writes in Daas Shcrage quotes the Targum Yonaton explaining that the spies were not talking only of physical stature, but perhaps more importantly of the overwhelming intensity of their sinfulness and negative attributes, their middos.
The spies’ concern was that the environment of Eretz Yisroel, the Land of Israel, intensified these natural human tendencies and was instrumental in creating these evil people. While it was true that the power of the land could magnify one’s natural attributes, this power would be just as effective in intensifying the holiness and spirituality that Bnei Yisroel would bring to the land. The spies understood this, but chose to present only a half truth, a fear of corruption from the power of the land’s energy.
In fact, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah, the Canaanites in the land at the time were extremely wicked, and the spies were negatively influenced by the energy of their environment. It would take tremendous steps to withstand this influence. Joshua had Moshe’s special blessing and Caleb had gone to the burial plot of our Patriarchs to pray for their merit to help him accomplish his mission successfully. The other ten spies were immersed in this environment without any spiritual protective armor.
Locations emit an unseen energy, much like an x-ray. When one suddenly feels a strong positive energy, continues Rabbi Rabinowitz, one should pause, reflect, and somehow try to absorb some of that positive, spiritual energy. On the other hand, when one senses a negative, evil vibe, one should move away from that place as quickly as one can.
How do the words of Joshua and Caleb offer a response to the incitement of the other spies? Rabbi Shnuer Zalman Pardes in Hashir Vehashevach informs us that any time the Torah, or even our Sages, want to emphasize extremes, it doubles the word “meod – very”. The spies so quickly moved the people from optimism to such pessimism that Joshua and Caleb needed very strong language in praise of the land to counter their influence.
What Joshua and Caleb were trying to say was that indeed the land was “very”. It had an extraordinary effect on people. In the spies it brought out their negative feelings, but, given the right people and circumstances, it could bring out tremendous holiness instead. The Canaanites were extremely evil, exacerbated by the energy of the land, and so Hashem would remove them from this land. When Bnei Yisroel would enter the land, they would plug into its energy and become extremely holy, connecting to Hakodosh Boruch Hu in ways impossible in no other lands.
The Torah has one goal, to connect Bnei Yisroel to their Creator. To achieve this goal, writes the Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom, Hashem created three special pockets of holiness, in time, in space, and in spirit and soul. We can easily relate to the spiritual island of time in the weekly Shabbat. We can also understand that the Torah and Mitzvoth are a way for our souls to connect with our Maker. The spiritual haven of spirituality is in the Land of Israel for, although one can come close to Hashem anywhere in the world,
His presence is hidden in the olam, in the world of concealment, whereas it is palpable in our holy land. Therefore citing the Sforno, the Netivot Shalom writes that when Avraham reached Shechem, he saw with his inner, spiritual eye the land to which Hashem had sent him without designation, merely telling Avraham to go to the land which “I will show you.” When Hashem brings us to Eretz Yisroel, He is bringing us to His own home, where His presence resides, symbolically as a groom brings his bride home, and there we have the ability to be ever closer to Him.
But in order to access Hashem, you have to let Him in. To do this, you must make room for him, as our Sages say in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, “Be very, very humble,” again using the doubling of the word meod - very - for emphasis, for God does not coexist with the haughty
The spies failed in their mission, continues the Netivot Shalom, because they lacked the necessary humility for their task and were thus unable to live comfortably with the presence of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, Hashem, that would have enabled them to see the goodness of the land.
Rabbi Moshe Goldstein takes this idea one step further in Shaarei Chaim by comparing the failed mission of these spies with the mission of the two spies Joshua sent forty years later. Hashem loves nothing more than someone who devotes himself completely to his assigned mission. When the two spies went on their mission, they went furtively, disguised themselves as potters, shouting about their wares, but totally mute about themselves, and totally erasing their personal identities. They were focused exclusively on the mission at hand and completed it successfully.
These spies, on the other hand, inserted their own opinions into their mission rather than sticking completely to their instructions. Thus their lack of humility caused them to see the land with the human eye rather than with the spiritual eye Moshe had hoped for.
Looking at these events from a different perspective, Rabbi Zilberstein in Sichot Hitchazkut urges us to emulate Hashem Who is all good, Who recreates the world daily from His goodness, and Whom we praise regularly, for He is good and His chessed is forever. Our challenge is to see that goodness in everything, to see the positive rather than the negative. God gave man this ability, but when Adam sinned, good and evil were intermingled, and it became difficult to discern the good in everything from the evil. We tend to see the negative, the one black dot, rather than the positive, the entire sheet of white paper.
Chazal tell us that although there are seven names for the yetzer horo, the evil inclination, this is the main name by which it is known, for its function it to make us see negativity and act accordingly. But we as Jews are called upon to see the positive and the good, to recognize Hashem’s goodness even in our challenges. The spies didn’t see the goodness of the land, and they therefore spoke loshon horo, slander, about the land, for Psalms tells us that he who desires life must see good, and that perspective will keep him from loshon horo, negative speech.
Rabbi Pincus, in Tiferet Shimshon points out how the spies focused on the negative, saying it was a land that devoured and killed its inhabitants, and ignored the positive in the situation, that the inhabitants were too busy with their dead to pay attention to them. Such may be the case with every situation and every person we encounter if life. If we are to refrain from speaking loshon horo, we must learn to reframe our negative images so they become positive. We can view someone older as one with more experience and someone younger as less filled with sin. We must train ourselves to see always the glass as half full rather than as half empty, to find the good in our fellow man and in every situation.
What we see is tempered by what we consider important, points out Rabbi Roberts in Through the Prism of Torah. The ten spies, as great as they were, could not shake themselves free of their physical experience and oppression in Egypt. They saw the difficulties this land would present and became fearful.
Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, were focused on the spiritual aspects of the land and recognized the potential for spiritual growth this land offered. Everything that the others saw as physical challenges, they viewed as coming from a Divine and loving hand. What we speak about and how we speak will reflect our attitude. Those whose hearts were already concerned with the physical allowed their eyes to see the physical problems capturing the land might present; those whose hearts were concerned with the spiritual, saw the spiritual energy of the land.
It is on this basis that Rabbi Reiss explains the severity of the punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert, one year for each day of their expedition. The sin culminated in their speaking loshon horo about the land to the people, but it began with their first steps of their journey as they looked for the negative every day of that journey.
We are commanded to look for the good in Yerushalayim, Jerusalem. Our love for Eretz Yisroel, continues Rabbi Reiss, must be so overwhelming that we see the good even when superficially things appear bad. If we cannot feel awakened by the holiness of Eretz Yisroel, the fault lies within ourselves, not with the land, much like the proverbial elephant which cannot appreciate the fragile beauty in the china shop.
Rav Asher Weiss provides an astounding juxtaposition to reinforce this point. He discusses a German philosopher who wrote that we must observe the world of nature and emulate it. As in the animal kingdom the strong kill the weak without mercy, so must man kill and subjugate the weaker among them This was the philosophy that spawned Hitler.
But the Tanaim in the Gemarrah also viewed nature, and Rabbi Yochanan saw the other side of the animal kingdom: Learn modesty from the cat, faithfulness from a dove, and so on. Two people observing the same natural world. The one with evil in his heart will see the evil in the animal kingdom, while the one imbued with holiness will see the positive traits he can emulate.
If we can learn to see others through inner beauty and grace, writes Rabbi Shlomo Kluger in Asicha Bechukecha, others will relate to us also with beauty and grace. Let us train our hearts to seek the beauty and goodness in the world, in others, and especially in Eretz Yisroel. We will then be able to avoid the sin of loshon horo, and we will emulate Hashem in seeing and bringing more goodness to the world.