It was a stormy night, and a battleship was on exercise at sea. The captain stood on the bridge, peering into the foggy night ahead. Suddenly, he heard the lookout shout from the observation post. “There’s a light on the starboard side!”
“Is it steady or moving?” the captain asked quickly.
“It’s steady,” the lookout replied.
This meant that they were on a direct collision course with another ship. The captain immediately ran up and grabbed the ship radio. “We are on collision course!” he signaled to the other ship. “Change course 20 degrees immediately.”
The signal quickly came back, “Advisable for you to change course.”
Infuriated, the captain replied, “I am a captain. Change your course NOW.”
“I am a seaman, second class. You had better change your course 20 degrees,” came the reply.
By now, the captain was outraged. “I am a battleship. Change course or suffer the consequences!”
Back came the signal, “I am a lighthouse.”
The captain changed course.
As human beings, we have the remarkable ability to jump to conclusions, assuming that we know the truth of a situation when we, in fact, have completely misjudged it. One of the most powerful learning experiences a person can have is a paradigm shift – a shift in perspective that causes us to see something in a fundamentally new way.
The Sin of the Meraglim
When Klal Yisrael was getting ready to enter Eretz Yisrael, Moshe famously sends the meraglim (spies) to scout out the land. With the exception of Yehoshua and Kalev, the meraglim return with a negative report, attempting to dissuade the Jewish people from entering Eretz Yisrael. While we often think of their account as malicious libel, this does not seem to be the case when the story is read on a surface level. As the spies scouted the land, they witnessed many giants burying their dead, and upon return, the spies reported this to the Jewish People. Chazal explain that the meraglim violated the prohibition of lashon hara. However, they did not speak about people, only a piece of land! Does lashon hara really apply to inanimate objects? Furthermore, the meraglim spoke the truth. They saw people dying, and they passed on that information. Was it not their job to report what they saw?
In Megillas Eicha, the verses in the first four perakim are written in alphabetical order. However, in most chapters, the verse starting with the letter peh appears before the verse that starts with the letter ayin, counter to their alphabetical order. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 104b) enigmatically explains that this reversal is due to the fact that the meraglim placed their mouth (peh) before their eye (ayin). [The Hebrew word “peh” literally means mouth, and the Hebrew word “ayin” literally means eye.] What does this mean, and what is the connection between Eicha and the sin of the meraglim?
There are two levels of reality: The first is how things appear on the physical surface; the second is the meaning that lies behind that exterior. Correspondingly, there are two levels of sight: the first is physical sight, which allows you to see the physical surface of the object; the second is spiritual sight, the mechanism of giving meaning and depth to that which you see. Improper sight is seeing only that which is on the surface without sourcing it back to its root and without seeing what truly lies behind it. When the surface no longer reflects a deeper truth, it becomes a shell of an object, lacking any internal meaning like a body without a soul. If one were to look at someone’s face and see only flesh and bone without recognizing that there’s a consciousness and a living soul behind that surface, that would be an egregious corruption of sight. Their physical sight may be accurate, but the meaning they have given to what they physically saw is far from the truth. Similarly, when one witnesses an event, they have the opportunity to discern the meaning that lies behind it. If, however, they do not ascertain the truth that lies beneath the surface level, they are likely to project their personal feelings and perceptions onto the situation instead, twisting its true meaning to align with their subjective reality.
The Meraglim: Corruption of Sight
The meraglim’s physical sight was intact; what they lacked was spiritual sight. They physically saw giants burying their dead, but they interpreted this to mean that the “land consumes its inhabitants” (Bamidbar 13:32). In reality, as the Gemara explains, this was a miracle that Hashem performed to aid the meraglim in their mission. Hashem killed off the leaders of the giants in each city so that the dwellers would be distracted with their funerals, ensuring that the meraglim could travel through Eretz Yisrael undetected (Sotah 35a). The death of the giants was the external reality; the meraglim’s mistake lay in projecting faulty meaning onto it.
Similarly, the meraglim reported to Klal Yisrael that when they came across the giants, “We were like grasshoppers in our eyes” (Bamidbar 13:33). They projected their fear and lack of faith onto the giants. In their own eyes, the giants viewed them as grasshoppers. They were no longer conveying an account of objective reality, rather, they were projecting their own spiritual and existential insecurities onto their experience. This was their two-fold mistake. The meraglim not only misunderstood their experience, but they then reported this distortion back to Klal Yisrael. We can now begin to explain why this was a violation of lashon hara.
[While there are various explanations regarding the meraglim’s motivation to deliver a negative report, this is not the focus of our article. In brief, here are some of the opinions:
- They wished to keep Moshe alive (as they knew that upon entering Eretz Yisrael, Moshe would die).
- They were scared that they would not be able to overpower the giants.
- Ego: They wished to maintain their elevated status. (The meraglim were Nesiim, and they feared that upon entering Eretz Yisrael, they would lose their positions of honor.)
- They feared losing the constant miracles of the midbar. [They knew that upon entering Eretz Yisrael, Hashem would no longer miraculously intervene, as He did in the midbar. They did not want to transition to a world of teva (the natural), losing the constant miracles such as the Ananei HaKavod (clouds of glory), manna, and Be’er Miriam (Miriam’s wellspring).]
Lashon Hara: Corruption of Speech
Speech embodies the power of connection. It is the mechanism that enables us to connect with other people and to overcome the barrier between us. Lashon hara takes the very tool of connection, i.e., speech, and uses it to disconnect people from each other. When you speak negatively about someone, you create a wall between the subject of your negativity and the person you are speaking with. The very tool of connection has been corrupted to achieve its opposite goal.
As the Ramban explains, everything that the meraglim said was “true” in the physical sense, but they failed to see what lay beneath the surface (Ramban, Bereishis 2:9). This itself is the epitome of lashon hara: taking the truth and distorting it in order to create harm. Lying is a separate problem, violating the prohibition of “mi’devar sheker tirchak” (Shemos 23:7). The evil of lashon hara is not a fabrication but a corruption of the truth. The meraglim suffered from a spiritual disease of ayin hara (an evil eye). They had sight, but no vision; they saw, but were blind.
Through the mechanism of speech, the meraglim disconnected Klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael. It therefore seems that the meraglim’s sin of lashon hara was in creating a schism between Klal Yisrael and the land of Eretz Yisrael, an inanimate object. However, when taking into account the deep nature and role of Eretz Yisrael, this takes on great significance. Eretz Yisrael is the place where Hashem connects to the world and most intimately connects to Klal Yisrael. By using speech to disconnect Klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael, the meraglim were separating Klal Yisrael from Hashem. In a deep sense, this was the most nefarious form of lashon hara imaginable! In our next article, we will delve deeper into this fascinating topic and try to understand the sin of the meraglim on an even deeper level.