Slandering a land?

One who speaks Lashon Ha'ra is akin to one who denies the existence of Hashem, says Rabbi Yochanan.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Judaism This land is our land
This land is our land
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Rashi’s commentary on Parshat Shelach commences with the well-known words of Midrash Tanchuma: “Why does the story of the Meraglim (the Spies) appear immediately after the story of Miriam (being smitten with Tzora’at)? Because she was punished for slanderous speech against her brother (Moshe), and these evildoers (the Meraglim) witnessed it yet didn't take heed (and proceeded to speak slanderously as well)."

This explanation is at first glance extremely perplexing, for the object of the Meraglim’s slander, their Lashon Ha’ra, was the Land of Israel (v. Bamidbar 14:36) – an inanimate entity, which obviously cannot be offended or harmed by Lashon Ha’ra. Had Rashi (and the Midrash) here faulted the Meraglim for their offense against Hashem, by denying His promises of a successful takeover of Eretz Yisrael, it would have been one thing, but being that the Meraglim are being criticized for speaking Lashon Ha’ra regarding the Land of Israel, how are we to understand it? There is no such thing as Lashon Ha’ra against insentient lands and objects.

In order to properly grasp the words of Rashi and the Medrash, we must engage in a fresh evaluation of the sin of Lashon Ha’ra.

Lashon Ha’ra is not simply the relating of negative information; since the prohibition of Lashon Ha’ra pertains to sharing true (but uncomplimentary) information about others, there must be something deeper going on, as passing on incontrovertible facts and spreading the truth should seemingly not be problematic. What is the basis for this prohibition?

When one speaks Lashon Ha’ra, he paints the object of his speech with an overly simplistic brush, unfairly presenting that person’s actions without full context and any underlying particulars. Even assuming the person did indeed commit the wrongdoing related in the Lashon Ha’ra about him, maybe it was committed in error? Maybe it was a one-time action that the person thereupon immediately regretted and for which he repented? Maybe there were numerous other circumstances involved that would totally change the picture, were they to be known?

Despite these possibilities, the Lashon Ha’ra has portrayed the person in a negative light, omitting and disregarding the innumerable unknown factors that might comprehensively and favorably change one's understanding of the actions committed. Lashon Ha’ra presents superficial, surface-level and often shallow impressions, which are conveyed and/or understood to be the total story. Critical background and behind-the-scenes context are impossible to fully know and are perforce absent.   

This is precisely what the Meraglim did as well. They portrayed Eretz Yisrael from a surface-level, superficial standpoint, depicting a land that is very difficult to inhabit, nearly impossible to conquer, and extremely unwelcoming to newcomers. The fact that Eretz Yisrael would be supernaturally overtaken by the Jewish People as part of a spiritual mission assured by Hashem’s promises and effectuated by His miracles was absent from the Meraglim’s negative report. The Meraglim presented the narrative of Eretz Yisrael totally out of context and missing Divine involvement; they related only a limited and by definition myopic perspective, which did not contain a crucial spiritual component that would have fully negated their negative message.   

Lashon Ha’ra is based in misapprehension and misrepresentation, adopting the superficial appearance of matters and failing to delve deeper into the circumstances and the less detectable facets; even if the data presented is technically true, it is prone to grossly mischaracterize the object of the Lashon Ha’ra. 

This would appear to be the basis of a striking statement in the Gemara (Arachin 15b): Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Zimra: "One who speaks Lashon Ha'ra is akin to one who denies the existence of Hashem." What is the meaning of this stark declaration?

The answer would seem to be that just like the slanderer who spreads Lashon Ha'ra is only focused on the surface aspects of what occurred, not considering less visible and more profound information that could very well present a quite different picture, such is also the posture of the nonbeliever, who looks at the physical world and cannot perceive Hashem with his five human senses, thereupon concluding that there must not be a God. 

Viewing the world through an extremely narrow, shallow lens will lead to denial of anything that cannot be bodily detected; this is the way of the simpleton, irrespective of his scientfic degrees. Failure to consider that information may exist which is beyond our limited human perception is shortsighted and heretical, and such an approach, which only processes and conveys the external and cosmetic aspects of an event, is in truth that of the bearer of Lashon Ha'ra.

This is Lashon Ha'ra; this is the real sin of the Meraglim.