By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
23 Sivan 5764 - June 11, 2004
The Children of Israel were meant to enter Eretz Yisrael
during the second year after the Exodus. So, Hashem tells Moshe to send out an
expeditionary group to survey the land and report back to the people:
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, “Send for yourself men, and let them
explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Children of Israel; one
man each from the tribe of his fathers shall you send; every one a prince
among them. And Moshe sent them from the Wilderness of Paran by the word of
Hashem… (Bamidbar 13:1-3).
Tragically, ten of the scouts return with a disheartening report of what they
saw, which demoralized the people. As a result, Hashem decrees that the
generation of the Exodus should pass away, and that only the next generation
would inherit the land.
Rashi’s first comment in our portion (based on Bamidbar Rabbah 16:5 and
Tanchuma here) raises a question about the sequence of Torah passages:
“Why is the passage about the spies placed next to the passage of Miriam?
—Because she was punished due to the slander that she spoke against her
brother. However, these wicked people saw but did not learn the lesson.”
Let’s see what Rashi means. In the section immediately preceding the episode
of the scouts, Miriam spoke ill of her brother Moshe to Aharon. Rashi explains
there (12:1) that since Moshe needed to be in a mental and spiritual state of
readiness to receive prophecy at any time, he had separated from his wife
Tzipporah. Tzipporah disclosed this in a moment when her guard was down, and
Miriam learned about it. Miriam complained to Aharon that Moshe was
“Was it only with Moshe that Hashem has spoken? Has He not spoken with us
also?” And Hashem heard. And the man Moshe was very humble, more than any
person on the face of the earth was (12:2-3).
Hashem spoke unexpectedly to Moshe, Aharon and Miriam and chastised the latter
two for speaking behind their brother’s back. When the cloud of Hashem’s
Presence departed, Miriam was left leprous. Moshe prayed for her recovery, but
Hashem commanded that she be quarantined outside the camp for seven days. Only
then did the people travel, encamping in the Wilderness of Paran.
Miriam’s punishment demonstrates the severity of speaking ill of others (lashon
hara). Moshe was very humble, so he would not have been insulted if he had
heard Miriam’s accusation. In addition, there is no question that she loved
her brother. Consequently, the people waited for her, just as she had lovingly
waited by the Nile to see what would become of the baby Moshe in his basket (Shemot
2:4; see Sotah 9b). Also, Miriam’s concern for her sister-in-law’s home life
may have been justified. Despite all this, Hashem punished Miriam with
leprosy, because she should have confronted Moshe directly.
Rashi says that Miriam’s penalty could have been an object lesson to the
scouts to avoid all lashon hara, but they refused to pay heed. And while it is
true that the scouts were sent “from the Wilderness of Paran” — the last
location mentioned after the episode of Miriam — the Torah did not have to
place the two incidents consecutively. Many mitzvot could have been interposed
that might have “softened the blow” between these two catastrophic events.
Besides, it is possible that Korach’s rebellion (chapters 16-17) may have
occurred before the episode of the scouts. Hence, Rashi’s question, and
As the mishnah (Arachin 15a) teaches, despite the fact that the people tried
Hashem ten times, it was the sin of the scouts, a sin of lashon hara, that
determined their fate to die out in the wilderness and not enter the Land.
The scouts were guilty of speaking lashon hara about the Land of Israel.
It is taught: R. Elazar ben Parta said, “Come and see how considerable is the
power of lashon hara. This is seen from the spies: If the spies, who slandered
trees and stone were so [punished], then one who slanders his friend all the
more so!” (ibid.; see also Tosefta Arachin, chapter 2).
But, as explained by R. Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966), in “Oznayim LaTorah,”
this a fortiori comparison (kal vachomer) raises a question on Rashi’s
comment. It is a novelty to suggest that there can be lashon hara even against
the land of Israel. After the episode of Miriam, could not the scouts have
been excused for thinking that lashon hara applies only to people, but not to
the “trees and stones” of Israel?
R. Sorotzkin’s answer combines two elements. First, Moshe’s humility was
extreme to the point of self-nullification:
Greater is that which is said about Moshe and Aharon than that which is said
about Avraham. Whereas regarding Avraham it is written (Bereishit 18:27), But
I am dust and ashes, regarding Moshe and Aharon it is written (Shemot 16:7),
But what are we? (Chullin 89a).
Secondly, the land of Israel, in R. Sorotzkin’s words, behaves “like a living
thing.” The land does not tolerate sin, and spews out sinners, of whatever
nation (Vayikra 18:27-28). The land is provided with a year of rest, Shemittah
(Vayikra 25), and if the people do not observe the Shemittah, then the very
land will demand its rest by expelling the people (Vayikra 26:34).
Furthermore, one who does not acknowledge his connection to Israel does not
deserve to be buried there (see Devarim Rabbah 2:5), because the land is
Thus, says R. Sorotzkin, the land of Israel, including its “trees and stones,”
is a living entity that is less tolerant of an affront than is Moshe. The
scouts should have learned that if it is lashon hara to speak against the
unassuming Moshe, it is all the more so to speak against the noble Land of
Each of us is an emissary of the Land of Israel, and we should defend her
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
The commentators are quite perplexed as to the precise nature of the
spies' wrongdoing. Didn't Moshe send them with explicit instructions to
see whether the people of the land are strong or weak, whether the land
itself is good or bad, and whether the cities are fortified or open to
attack? Should they have lied about what they saw? What then was so sinful
about their report which seems to have consisted of nothing but the truth?
There are many answers to this question, but perhaps the most significant
is the resolution offered by Nachmanides, the RaMbaN. He argues that the
spies’ report was essentially not sinful. Their terrible wrongdoing
consisted of only one small segment of their account. They stated: “Efes
ki az ha’am,” “But the people are strong (BaMidbar 13:28).” RaMbaN
understands that the word “efes” implies impossibility, that is to say, we
cannot possibly overcome the mighty people of the land. Perhaps, in fact,
it would be difficult, or even logically inconceivable, but IMPOSSIBLE??
That word does not apply to the Jewish people, for it is God who guides
This idea governs our present situation as well. Many aspects of our
contemporary plight may be perceived as difficult to overcome, and it may
be illogical to assume that we will be successful. Yet we constantly
overcome the most difficult obstacles that lie before us, because for the
Jewish people, who place our trust in God, absolutely nothing is truly
impossible, for He continues to guide our destiny.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Sosevsky
Har Nof, Jerusalem
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Roness , Exec. Dir., Aloh Naaleh,
At the OU Center, 22 Keren HaYesod
Tel.(02) 566-7787 ex. 254