Saturday, June 24, 2006


This week, in Parshas Shelach, we encounter the tragic episode of the meraglim sent by Moshe Rabbeinu to spy out the land of Eretz Yisroel, and the timeless lessons embedded in the story.

We would imagine that Moshe selected the best candidates for the mission, and in fact the posuk testifies that they were all great men. The mission ended in disaster, however, with ten of the twelve spies erring terribly, causing much pain and suffering to befall the Jewish people.

For all time, these individuals are remembered with derision. We wonder how handpicked messengers of Moshe Rabbeinu could have gone so wrong. How were they able to convince the entire nation that their trek to the Promised Land was doomed?

How was it that the people who experienced Yetzias Mitzrayim and Kriyas Yam Suf lost their faith? The very people who should have absorbed the lessons of the eigel and internalized the message of the slov, following their complaints about the mon, still doubted the ability of Hashem to fulfill his promise to them. How can we understand this?

The first Rashi in the parsha holds the key to understanding this enigma. Quoting from the Medrash Tanchuma, Rashi explains that the parsha of the meraglim follows the parsha of Miriam because Miriam was punished for the gossip she spoke about her brother Moshe and although these wicked people witnessed this, they failed to learn anything from it.

The common explanation of this is that witnessing the painful consequences of Miriam’s lashon hara should have deterred the meraglim from speaking lashon hara on the Land of Israel. Many commentators ask, how can one extrapolate from Miriam’s episode that speaking ill of a country is as sinful as speaking ill of a person?

Perhaps we can understand this by examining the root of lashon hara, commonly understood to mean gossip. The roots of this sin, however, are far more destructive than gossip would appear to be at first glance.

At the end of Parshas Beha’aloscha (12:1-2), the posuk states that Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe concerning his wife. “And they said, ‘Did G-d only speak to Moshe? He also spoke to us!’” The posuk does not tell us what they said about his wife, but it says that they minimized their brother’s greatness. They compared themselves to Moshe, as if to say, “What’s the big deal? Who does he think he is? G-d also talks to us; He doesn’t just talk to him.”

That is the essence of lashon hara - minimizing the accomplishments of other people. People will admire someone for being special or having accomplished something good and one fellow will come by and throw a damper on it by saying, “What makes you think he’s so great? He’s really no different than you and me. He also has failings, don’t be taken in. Don’t think that what he did is so exceptional.”

These kinds of disparaging remarks lower esteem for the person. They discourage people from carrying out good deeds by casting those deeds as insincere or politically motivated. A mesaper lashon hara cools off people’s enthusiasm for a fellow Jew by casting aspersion on his motives and downplaying his accomplishments.

Such a person is an “equal opportunity” destroyer. He will wreck anyone’s reputation, if only to justify his own incompetence and lack of accomplishments.

The meraglim should have learned from Miriam what happens to someone who disparages greatness and minimizes it. They failed to learn that negativity and cynicism are not compatible with greatness. They should have seen that such activity is not sanctioned and is frowned upon by Hashem. For even if the facts are true, since it diminishes the subject’s esteem in another’s eyes, he has committed lashon hara.

At the root of lashon hara is a desire to destroy the respect one person holds for another.

At times, lashon hara is an attempt to devastate a relationship, as, for example, when a person tells someone else that his friend acted in a way that is detrimental to the other party’s interests. The intention - and effect - is to drive a wedge between two people.

The one who initiates the conversation and mocks someone else makes his partner in the crime feel as if it is acceptable to knock the other person. Had the baal lashon hara not come along, the first party would have continued believing that his friend was beyond reproach, but thanks to the belittling remarks from the baal lashon hara, his friend is knocked down a few rungs off the high pedestal upon which he formerly stood. The second fellow now feels comfortable chiming in with deprecating remarks of his own.

And thus begins the chain of evil which is at the root of the churban Bais Hamikdosh and the reason we have not yet merited to be redeemed.

[The Gemara in Yoma, 9b, states that the second Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because of sinas chinom, commonly translated as unwarranted hatred. The Gemara goes into a discussion which is not relevant to this column. It cites, as an example of sinas chinom, people who ate and drank together and acted friendly towards each other and then stabbed each other with the daggers of their tongues. The Chofetz Chaim, in his introduction to his sefer Chofetz Chaim, writes that this refers to lashon hara. It is thus evident that sinas chinom and lashon hara both have at their core a baseless jealousy and hatred which seek to separate people from each other and negate their positive attributes. They both have the same outcome, as well, and lead to divisiveness and churban.]

If you read the first Rashi in Parshas Shelach carefully, you should have a question. You will notice that Rashi refers to the episode of Miriam and Aharon talking ill of Moshe as “the parsha of Miriam.”

Shouldn’t it be called “the parsha of Miriam and Aharon?” The pesukim in Parshas Beha’aloscha (12:1-2) state clearly that both of them spoke ill of Moshe: “Vatedabeir Miriam V’Aharon b’Moshe… Vayomru…” Why, then, is it referred to as the parsha of Miriam?

Rashi (ibid) states that Miriam’s name is quoted in the posuk prior to that of Aharon because she was the one who initiated the conversation.

Perhaps, since the root of lashon hara is that it seeks to minimize the accomplishments and positive attributes of another person, the one who began the conversation is singled out as the key perpetrator, since he is the one who opened the door to a negative portrayal of the person.

Therefore, it is referred to as the parsha of Miriam and the Torah relates that Miriam was punished and does not discuss whether Aharon, too, was held accountable. Aharon and Miriam were tzaddikim on a high level of avodah and it is not for us to criticize them or their speech or actions. The Torah relates what took place only in order for us to learn from the episode to avoid the temptations to diminish anything.

The downfall of the meraglim, who were handpicked by Moshe for this shlichus, was their failure to learn this lesson not to belittle and badmouth. They badmouthed the Land of Israel which Hashem had praised. They said it was an “Eretz ocheles yoshvehu,” it eats its citizens. Then they said that the people who live there are very strong and would cause problems for the Jews upon their entry into the land. They said the fruits there were too large for people to carry home and eat.

They minimized the greatness of the Land and the promises of Hashem. They drove a wedge between Moshe and Am Yisroel. They caused the nation to have doubts about the greatness of G-d and whether He could bring the Chosen People to the land of milk and honey He had promised them since the days of the Avos.

For all eternity these individuals will be referred to as reshoim.

Such acts are similar to the acts of Amaleik, a nation held up as a paradigm of evil because, as the posuk relates, “Asher korcha baderech,” they caused the Jews to lose their enthusiasm on the way to Eretz Yisroel. After Matan Torah, when all the nations of the world saw the splendor of Hashem and feared Him, Amaleik attacked us. Amaleik tried to dissipate the fear of Hashem that had begun to spread across the world. They tried to show that G-d could not really protect the Jewish people.

Their crime emanated from the same shoresh as the crime of lashon hara and thus they both cause churban.

To reinforce the concept that lashon hara and Amaleik are rooted in the same shoresh of evil, perhaps we can cite the Gemara in Maseches Megillah, 13b, which quotes Rava as saying that there was no one who knew [how to speak] lashon hara as Haman did. This arch villain minimized to Achashveirosh every positive attribute the Jews possessed. As is well known, Haman was a progeny of Amaleik and he was well-versed in that evil nation’s ways.

Haman said that the Jewish people are “mefuzar umeforad bein ha’amim.” He sought to bring out that the Jews lacked unity.

Another indication of this idea is evident in the peirush of Rabbeinu Bachayei on Chumash. In Parshas Shemos (2:14) the Torah relates the first episode involving Moshe and Doson V’Avirom. Moshe saw the two of them fighting and said to them “Rasha lomo sakeh rayeicha.” To which they responded, “Who made you for an ish, minister and ruler above us? Will you kill me the way you killed the Mitzri?”

Moshe Rabbeinu responded by saying, “Now the matter is known.” Rashi brings the Medrash which explains the statement to mean, that now Moshe understood why the Jews deserved to be enslaved. Rabbeinu Bachayei, quoting the Medrash takes it a step further and says that the reason they were in Mitzrayim and not yet redeemed was because they had amongst them baalei lashon hara.

But they had not told lashon hara, they did share with anyone the information they had that Moshe killed the Mitzri, they let Moshe know that they had witnessed what he did, why is that referred to as lashon hara?

It may be that Moshe Rabbeinu’s comment was going on their statement questioning Moshe’s standing, “Mi somcha l’ish…” It was their attempt to minimize him and his greatness, to which Moshe was referring when he said that the reason they were still in Mitzrayim was because of lashon hara. Bitul is a cause of golus and impedes geulah.

Lashon hara is compatible with destruction, for that is ultimately what it leads to - churban. Constant bitul leads to churban. As long as we are divided among ourselves and cynical of each other’s motives, we cannot live in peace with one another or with anyone else. We are mefuzar umeforad bein ha’amim as long as there is peirud between us, and there is nothing that causes peirud as does lashon hara.

At times, relationships dissolve because people falsely accuse each other or impugn one another’s motives. The Yeitzer Hara always seeks to drive a wedge between people and break up friendships, as Chazal state, “Letaavah yevakeish nifrod.”

Different guises are employed, always with the same end goal. At times, we are at the receiving end of someone’s pure act of chesed, and the response should be one of immense gratitude, but too often it is not. Too often, the Yeitzer Hara lulls us into a negative mode of thought in which it is easier to be critical instead of grateful.

To effect peirud and assuage our feelings of guilt and inadequacy, he causes us to cast doubt on others’ accomplishments and good deeds on our behalf. Instead of returning the favor, we begin to develop a dislike for them.

When we see people take public stands on issues facing our people, and when we see people rise to assist the downtrodden, the abused, the poor, and tzaddikim or talmidei chachomim in need of assistance, some of us are quick to attach impure motives to their acts of tzedakah and chesed. We do that to calm our pangs of guilt; we sit by and do next to nothing. We do that because Amalek has not yet been totally destroyed and some of his poison is still around, infecting us.

The cheit of the meraglim’s lashon hara caused the Jews to wander in the desert for forty years; our chatoim of lashon hara have caused us to wander even longer. Let us all be more careful about how we speak. Let us seek to look at our friends and people we come in contact with b’ayin tovah. Let us try to attach laudatory motives to people who rise to aid the community.

Let us eradicate any remnant of Amaleik from among us so that we can merit the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh and the geulah shelaimah bimeheira. Amen.


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