According to how most commentators understand the passage summarizing the incident with the spies (Devarim 1:25-28), Moshe would seem to be giving unfair rebuke to the Jewish nation. Putting aside that Moshe is blaming them for the actions of the previous generation, he makes it sound as if the spies had given a positive report (“It is a good land that the Lord, our God, is giving to us”) and that the Jewish people chose to rebel in spite of it, and not – as we would have gathered – because of it.
In a brilliant and yet difficult resolution of this problem, Malbim suggests that Moshe cited only what the spies said that was relevant to their mission – and that was the only thing they should have listened to. As for the rest, Malbim tells us, “regarding that which they said, ‘the people are powerful,’ they were not sent about this.”
While one could argue with Malbim on several grounds, I believe his main point to not only be correct but extremely insightful: When we listen to people, it is of course appropriate to listen to everything they say. Yet we know that in almost all speech, some words are more important than others. However, Malbim’s reading of Moshe goes further than this, by saying there are some words that should not only be weighed less, but should be discounted altogether. Malbim gives us additional assistance by helping us identify these types of words. If you ask a question and you are truly interested in the answer, first listen to that answer and nothing else. For that something else usually indicates an agenda. An agenda – as we will discuss – may be good, bad or indifferent, but it must be recognized as such and treated with caution.
Inserting this back into the story, the Jews were held accountable for bad listening. That is to say that they should have known better than to have given much – really, any – worth to the unsolicited information of the spies. Unless we fool ourselves, agendas are self-evident. If we choose to listen to them, it is because we are predisposed that way. The proof of the pudding is that we easily recognize an agenda that we oppose and dismiss it as such. Yet though we should theoretically be just as able to recognize an agenda for something with which we agree, we somehow let it pass uncritically.
And so if the people became hysterical after listening to the spies’ report, it was only because they were predisposed to doing so. Had they possessed the correct mindset, they would have easily recognized the negative agenda that it contained for what it was, and dismissed everything except for the recognition that the land was good. And that is what Moshe was saying here.
While Moshe and/or Malbim may be setting the bar very high, there is an important takeaway for all of us. And that is that there is an important ethical component in how we collect information. Since reports can never include every single detail of what transpired, they are necessarily subjective. But even if that is the case, there are two things that we are expected to notice. The first is whether the speaker is speaking in an informational or in a persuasive mode. The second – and perhaps even more important – element is to know whether the persuasion is towards something positive or negative.
Regarding the latter, for example, when we hear a sermon or mussar talk, we can generally assume that the persuasion is towards something positive, and so we can allow ourselves to adopt the speaker’s agenda. We may still want to retain some awareness that because the presentation is in persuasive mode, there may be some components of the talk that require more scrutiny later. But it is not only acceptable; it is even desirable to allow the speaker to persuade us with his or her words.
What we are being taught here is that we should actually make efforts to be conscious of the choices that we make as listeners. Moshe’s seemingly selective presentation is to teach us that the blame of the spies in this story is irrelevant. From such a perspective, we are made to understand that blaming others as the source of our mistakes is ultimately as meaningful as blaming the weather.
And don’t forget to listen to this week’s related podcast, Was Moshe a Postmodernist?