Rehabilitation and Reframing

Discussing two difficult questions regarding the punishment for the sin of the spies.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Prior to their scheduled entry into Eretz Yisroel,, the Land of Israel, the Children of Israel asked Moses to send spies to reconnoiter the land promised to them. The result of that expedition is well known. Ten of the twelve spies with the exceptions only of Yehoshua bin Nun (Joshua) and Calev ben Yefuneh (Caleb) returned with a negative report, causing the Children of Israel to despair, cry and fear going forward into the land. We know the result of that night of crying. Not only did Hashem decree that that night would be a night of crying from generation to generation, a date upon which both Temples would be destroyed among other tragedies, but also that the Children of Israel would not enter the land immediately. Instead, the Children of Israel were destined to wander in the desert for forty years, one year for each day of the expedition, until this entire generation had died and their children could go forward and inherit the land of the Emori.

Two related questions may trouble us. First, decreeing a full year for each day the spies were on their mission seems harsh. Further, the actual sin was in speaking negatively about the land, a sin that was only committed on the last day. Why was the Children of Israel punished for the full forty days?

Rashi ties the sin of the spies to the sin of the golden calf, saying that this decree was also in partial expiation for the sin of the golden calf. Further, as Mizrachi explains, the decree was not so much a punishment as a consequence, for the peoples reaction to the report proved they were not ready for Hashem to lead them into the land. If this were a punishment, the people would have died prematurely. Instead, Hashem prolonged their sojourn in the desert by forty years so that all males who were already twenty years old would live a full life to age sixty.

Nevertheless, we are still left with the question of the seeming severity of the decree. Rabbi Egbi in Ohr Hamatzpun addresses this question with an explanation that covers so much of human existence. Our human understanding and perspective are limited, explains Rabbi Egbi. We cannot know the full effect of our words or actions down trough time. Only Hashem can see into the future and know the eternal ramifications of one word, one sin, or one good deed. One day can indeed affect a whole year, and even longer, and requires proportionate expiation. For example, a teachers encouraging word or dismissive gesture can have a permanent influence on a student, even though the word took only a moment and the teacher forgets it immediately.

So too did the effects of the spies report have an everlasting effect on the Jewish people. The despair in the cries of the Children of Israel at that time reverberated in the despair of our people throughout the generations, on every Tisha bAv. We must learn to be careful with what we do and what we say, with every sin, not dismissing something we consider minor as no big deal, for we can never know the long term consequences of todays words or actions.

Positive actions can also have long term effects. Rabbi Yaakov Hillel in Ascending the Path notes that the reason Hashem did not lead the Children of Israel immediately into Eretz Yisroel through the land of the Philistines was because it was close. Rabbi Hillel quoting chazal interprets this to mean that the Philistines had earned a longer stay in their land, because they gave honor to Yaakov as his funeral procession passed their land. This respect earned them an additional forty years generations later. Therefore it [the time] was too close and the Children of Israel had to go around their land.

Rabbi Kofman in Mishchat Shemen cites the Chatam Sofer in approaching this question from another perspective. Referring to the Prophet Amos, Rabbi Kofman tells us that Hashems purpose in enslaving us for 400 years was to purify us so that we would merit inheriting the land of the Emori (and the other six nations). The people left Egypt on a spiritual high, having witnessed the miracles that Hashem did for them. However, when the spies came back with their report, they undid the process of 400 year of enslavement, and the Children of Israel again lost faith and despaired. Ten spies multiplied by forty days is indeed equal to 400, equating one year of the enslavement for each man/day of the spies mission. It would take forty years to regain the purification, the temimus that the people had achieved through their oppression in Egypt, forty being the traditional number for rebirth, as in the Flood. If in this short time, the entire purification process within the cauldron of Egypt was nullified, how careful must we be with our words and our actions, as an entire world can be either built or destroyed in one moment?

The Parsha ends with the mitzvah of tzitzit. When one looks at the tzitzit, one should remember not only to perform the mitzvoth but also to be careful not to fall.

Rebuilding takes time, as did the initial 400 years of building. Restoring the faith the Children of Israel lost at the spies report would take forty years. The Netivot Shalom reminds us, however, that the process is not one of constant moving. The Torah tells us that the Children of Israel both traveled and camped in the desert, teaching us that when one is growing and learning, one requires some down time as part of the process to allow for contemplation and integration of the lessons and the level one has already reached.

Rabbi Munk offers an additional reason for Hashems decreeing such a long stay in the wilderness. He posits that had the Children of Israel gone directly into the Land, they would have become involved with working the land, and the Torah would have been forgotten. the Children of Israel needed the forty years to learn the Torah and to establish the Torah within themselves before entering the Land. Therefore, according to Rabbi Dinner in Mikdash Halevi, the forty years in the desert was not really a punishment but an opportunity to invest in Torah learning and in Torah teaching.

An important point to consider, writes Rabbi Lugassi in BYam Derech, is that the forty years in the desert was not so much a punishment as a consequence of the Children of Israels reaction to the report of the spies. The crying proved that the Children of Israel was not yet ready to witness the miracles Hashem would perform and partner with Him properly in the capture of the Land. As is written in the Mechilta, the purpose of miracles is to elevate (nes lehitnoses) the witness and strengthen his faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu. When the Children of Israel became fearful of entering the Land, it was clear that in spite of all the miracles Hashem had performed for them in Egypt, the people still lacked the faith to trust Hashem to bring them into the Land safely. Therefore, it would be left for their children to inherit the Land.

The prerequisite to witnessing great miracles is struggle. The work is necessary before the miracle happens, and the greater the struggle, the greater the ensuing miracle. Rabbi Lugassi offers this thought as a comfort to us during this long and bitter exile, for we are preparing for the arrival of Moshiach. Rabbi Lugassi encourages us. In the end, all is good; if we do not yet see the good, it is not yet the end. To the extent that we prepare ourselves, so will be the miracles we will witness with the arrival of Moshiach.

Believing is not the sole province of religion. We exhibit faith in all areas of daily life. We willingly await the arrival of a late serviceman, for example, however frustrating, assuming he had a challenging previous job that took longer than expected. We understand that there is a bigger picture than what we are privy to. Can we not take that patience and ability to judge others favorably and extend it to G-d, Hakodosh Boruch Hu? Can we credit Him with the daily miracles of our health, marriage, sustenance, children, and all else He provides for us and believe that when we lack something, when Hashem is late in providing what we desire, we are not seeing the big picture? Just as the generation of the wilderness needed to work on their faith, so do we.

We are still left with our second question. On simple observation, it would appear that the actual sin was the spies speaking loshon horo (evil gossip), negatively, about the Promised Land and the Children of Israels crying. This sin took place only the last day. Why was the Children of Israel punished for a full forty days? Rabbi Asher Weiss explains that the sin actually began at the outset of their mission. When they left, they were already predisposed to viewing the Land with a negative eye, and therefore whatever they saw they interpreted negatively. Darwin looked at nature and saw the cruelty of survival of the fittest, while Rabi Yochanan observed what we can learn from each animal, such as modesty from the cat. We see what our heart wants us to see.

Rav Schwab echoes this idea, and points out that indeed everything the spies reported was in fact true. However, they were reporting with their mouths what their physical eyes saw, rather than with a spiritual eye that would have seen the holiness of the land and interpreted everything in spiritual terms. The spies would have felt the sanctity of a Mount Moriah and would have seen more than a mere mountain, much as Abrahams servant saw nothing sacred about the Place upon which Isaac was to be bound. Therefore, Jeremiah, in writing Megillat Eichah lamenting the Temples destruction, puts the letter peh (mouth) before ayin (eye) in the last three chapters of Eichah, even though the verses are in aleph bet order. Therefore, posits Rabbi Schwab, the generation of the churban (destruction of the Holy Temple), were also guilty of viewing the land from a physical rather than from a spiritual perspective.

Ones perspective is actually the root cause of all loshon horo, writes Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz in Mizkeinim Esbonan. Loshon Horo begins not with speech but with our first interaction with another when we form our first opinion. If we predispose ourselves to interpreting what we see in a positive light and giving the benefit of the doubt even when we see something negative, if we assume we do not have all the details or that we may misunderstand what we are seeing, we will not fall into the trap of speaking loshon horo. Conclusions could easily be wrong, even after many observations, writes Rabbi Pliskin.

The negative commandment against speaking loshon horo is, Lo telech rocile beamecha Do not go as a peddler of gossip among your people. The problem does not begin with the speech, but with the going, the approach we take to any person or situation. When you see something negative, find an explanation and reframe the negative into a positive light.

When our faith lags, it is our responsibility to strengthen it. We must remind ourselves of the good that Hashem does for us on a daily basis, the small miracles as well as the open miracles, and when we suffer challenges, we must remember that in the end all is for the good.