from the heart of jerusalem

Sin of the Spies was a compounded error


Many years ago, an elderly man approached me following a lecture on the topic of emunat chachamim (the faith we are meant to have in our sages).

“Do you know why I am no longer religious?” he asked. “It’s because when I asked the greatest rabbi in our town whether I should avail myself of an opportunity to leave Poland and join the pioneers settling the Land of Israel in 1935, I was told to stay in Poland because the Torah centers of the Jewish world were in Europe, and Jews who left for Palestine would die a spiritual death.”

He explained that he followed the advice of his rabbis and stayed in Poland, ended up in the camps, and lost his most of his family. A friend of his who never asked the rabbis made it to America in the early 1930s and got most of his family out.

My response, which some might consider blasphemous, was simply this: even Moshe did not know everything; one of the painful lessons of the Holocaust was that even the greatest rabbis make mistakes. That does not diminish the fact that they were great rabbis, it simply means they were human.

This week’s parsha, Shelach, which includes the painful story of the terrible mistake of the Spies, is an obvious example of this idea.

We have written previously on what exactly the mistake of the Spies was; the Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that they were in such a holy environment in the desert they were afraid to leave, for fear of the spiritual impact conquering the Land would have on the people.

But there is an interesting side note to this question that bears thought. For whatever the reason, 10 of the 12 tribal leaders felt it was a mistake to enter the Land of Israel, suggesting that its inhabitants were too strong and that the Jewish people would not be able to conquer it. And they succeeded in convincing the people of exactly that. The people murmured and cried in their tents and were unwilling to enter the Land, even suggesting it would be better to return to Egypt.

As a result, G-d wants to destroy the Jewish people, until Moshe intervenes and succeeds in gaining forgiveness for them. Indeed the Torah tells us that Hashem forgives the Jewish people as Moshe had asked.

And yet, that is not entirely true. G-d obviously does not destroy the Jewish people, but that generation is nonetheless doomed to die in the desert and they will ultimately wander in the desert for 40 years as a result of the 40 days the Spies toured the Land. So what does the Torah mean when it suggests that Hashem does indeed forgive the Jewish people?

In truth, a careful perusal of the story reveals that the sin of the Spies was not one simple mistake, but rather a combination of two different issues. One issue was the fact that the Jewish people did not trust sufficiently in Hashem to enter the Land on faith alone. But there was a second issue, alluded to by the language of the verse: that they slandered the Land. In fact, Rashi points out (13:2) that the story of the Spies immediately follows the story of Miriam’s maligning of her brother Moshe precisely because they did not learn the lesson implying that at the root of the problem here was that they slandered the Land of Israel.

But can one slander a land?

Maimonides, in his Hilchot Deot (7:6), goes so far as saying that the decree on the generation of the desert (that they were doomed to wander and die in the desert) was only sealed because of their slander of the Land. It seems that the Jewish people were forgiven their distrust of Hashem but not their distrust of the Land!

Let’s consider what is really going on here. Most people think that the central issue when we slander someone is the impact such evil speech has on the object of such derision. But no less significant is the impact it has on the slanderer. Indeed, when Miriam (at the end of last week’s parsha) speaks ill of her brother Moshe (albeit with good intentions), who was really affected? 

Moshe was a great leader before he was maligned and remained so after the event; no less than G-d came to his defense. The real impact was on Miriam, who was consequently afflicted with tzaraat, similar to leprosy. And why does Hashem come to Moshe’s defense? Not for Moshe’s sake, but because of the impact such slander would have on the Jewish people’s perception of Moshe. 

G-d is not affected by what we believe or think, so the fact that the Jewish people lack faith in Him is not an undermining of G-d and can be easily rectified and forgiven. But when the Spies malign the Land of Israel, then the Jewish people’s perception of the Land changes and that is much harder to fix. A nation with that kind of baggage regarding its mission cannot undertake it and thus can never enter the Land. 

Indeed Maimonides points out (Deot 7: 3) that are there three parties to slander:

•The slanderer

•The object of the slander

•Those who hear the slander

Maimonides suggests that slander “kills” all three, but the listener most of all, perhaps because his viewpoint has been changed forever, and it cannot be fixed. 

• • •

After the episode of the Spies, the Jewish people can never fully reimagine a positive image of the Land Israel, such that their ability to enter and conquer the Land properly was forever changed and they would no longer be the ones to enter it, something that would now await the next generation. 

All of which leaves us with two things to think of:

More than a century ago, a significant portion of the Jewish people invested a significant amount of effort maligning not only the Zionists, but even the Land of Israel. In doing so, they changed the perception of a generation of Jews and sealed their fate. And while it goes without saying that the rabbinic leaders of European Jewry were obviously not responsible for the Holocaust, they did make the same mistake that many others made in not seeing that it was coming.

Less important than whether Europe’s gedolei hador (greats of the generation) in the 1920s and early 1930s were mistaken in not urging the Jewish people to enter the Land, stands the question of whether they are erring in not doing so today.

After 2,000 years, we have come home  — and while we have a long way to go, we have certainly been blessed by Hashem to have taken the first major steps in the process of redemption. The largest Jewish community on the world is now in Israel. There is more Torah being studied in more yeshivot in Israel than at any time since the destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago, not to mention the fact that we have a Jewish army in an independent state which is, baruch Hashem, an economic powerhouse.

So why aren’t more of today’s gedolei hador advocating to their constituencies that it is time to come home? Never mind the mistake of the Spies 3,000 years ago, why is the Jewish leadership of the diaspora — particularly the rabbinic leadership — not telling its students and congregants that it is time to come home? Where is the push for a mass aliyah of choice? What will our great-grandchildren say regarding our generation when they discuss this question 75 years from now?

Here is a chilling thought: The Zohar (III: 158:1) suggests that the princes of the tribes were actually hesitant to encourage the Jews to enter the Land, fearing that once the people were in Israel Moshe would appoint new leaders. In other words (perhaps subconsciously?) they were concerned for their positions.

Indeed Rav Teichtal, in his landmark Eim Habanim Smeicha (written during the Holocaust and published in 1943 by the great Munkatscher rebbe), roundly castigates the Chareidi rabbinic leadership of the time and particularly Agudat Yisrael for not supporting Zionism and for not settling the Land of Israel. It was clear to the Munkatscher that they had all made a terrible mistake in the years prior to the war.

Rav Teichtal says clearly that “there are many rabbis … in our time, this one with his court and that one with his followers and good livelihood, and if they leave for the Land of Israel will obviously weaken their position.”

While it is not for us living here in Israel to judge individuals, communities, or their leaders overseas, it is certainly a question every Jewish leader, if not every Jew living in the diaspora, must at least struggle with, and this Shabbat would be a good time to start.

Published in 2017.