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Parashat Shelah

November 5, 2014

Rabbi Isaac Mann

The opening Rashi of this week’s Parashah (Numbers 13:2) addresses himself to the question of what is the connection between the story of the twelve spies sent by Moses to scout out the Land of Canaan and the end of the previous sedra (Beha’alotkha), which recounts the incident of Miriam speaking against her brother Moses. In answer to this question, Rashi quotes the Midrash that explains the connection on the basis of both stories involving speaking ill of someone or something, or what we would call lashon ha-ra. In Rashi’s words – “…for she [Miriam] was punished for speaking ill of her brother, and these wicked people [ten spies] saw it [the punishment meted out to Miriam] and didn’t take it to heart.” In other words, the ten spies who claimed that the Israelites would not be able to conquer the Land and disparaged it as well (“a land that devours its inhabitants” – 13:32) should have learned from Miriam’s chastisement by G-d not to speak badly of the Land that G-d promised to the Jewish people. Lashon ha-ra is lashan ha-ra. 

The equation between negative comments about an individual and the same directed to a piece of land might seem somewhat specious, but the Torah itself uses the expression “va-yotziu dibat ha-aretz” (they spoke ill of the land” – 13:32; see also 14:36) in describing the speech of the ten. However, one could still argue that the punishment of death that was dealt out to them (14:37) was not due to their slander of the land per se, but rather to their discouraging the people from going forward and to the near rebellion against Moses that their negative speech caused.

Even more to the point, the main message of these spies was that the Canaanites were too strong a match for G-d. Whether this was conveyed directly or indirectly depends on how we interpret the word mimenu (ki hazak hu mimenu – “for they are stronger than us/Him” – 13:31). Mimenu in its plain sense means “us” in this context, but can just as well be an allusion to Him, namely, to G-d. Thus, their blasphemous intimation that G-d was too weak to overcome the indigenous inhabitants of the land was what resulted in their sudden demise. And, of course, the ultimate punishment that was meted out to the people to wander another 38 years in the desert and die therein flowed from their uncritical acceptance of the spies’ downplay of G-d’s power despite all of the miracles they had beheld.

Returning now to the notion that negative speech was the connecting link between Miriam and the spies, one can suggest that there may not be an actual equation between speaking ill of land (even the Land of Israel) and disparaging another human being. But what we can learn is that lashon ha-ra can lead to unforeseen consequences. Miriam’s downplaying of Moses led to a diminishing of his authority among the Israelites even though G-d defended him and promoted him – and punished her. Her comments perhaps resonated with others and despite all efforts to contain the damage she caused to his reputation, what was done could not be completely undone.

With Moses’ star somewhat dimmed, it became easier to challenge him and question his ability to lead the people against mighty nations. All the people needed was a negative report from a cluster of spies who stood up to Moses – and ultimately to G-d Himself – and the seeds of rebellion were planted. Had Miriam, Moses’ own sister, not spoken negatively of her brother, his leadership would have remained intact and perhaps no spy or group of spies would have been able to frustrate his mission – to bring the people into the future Land of Israel. The Israelites would have remained loyal to their leader and their faith in G-d would have been left intact. The ultimate lesson: lashan ha-ra can be and is often devastating in unforeseen ways.


 Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.