Shelach 5778

Parshas Shelach

Humility and Positivity

This week’s parsha begins with the narrative of the sin of the meraglim (spies). The first Rashi in the parsha quotes the Medrash [1] that says that the reason why the sin of the meraglim is reported immediately following the story of Miriam at the end of last week’s parsha is that Miriam was punished for speaking lashon hara (slanderously) against her brother Moshe. These wicked spies saw what happened to Miriam, but they did not take heed of the lesson and they spoke slanderously against the Land of Israel.

At first glance the insight that they should have gained from what happened to Miriam doesn’t seem to have been applicable to their situation. Miriam’s transgression was that she spoke out against Moshe – a human being with feelings and emotions. It is understandable that it is wrong to slander another person, more so one as great as Moshe. Miriam was rightfully punished for doing so.  The spies, on the other hand, spoke negatively about the features of the Land of Israel which, after all, is only earth and stones and, in essence, completely insensate. Why should they have taken a lesson from what happened to Miriam?

The pasuk in last week’s parsha [2] read “והאיש משה עניו מאוד מכל האדם אשר על פני כל האדמה – and the man Moshe was most humble, above all men on the face of the earth.” The Gemarah [3] says “that which is stated in scripture regarding Moshe’s humility is more significant than that which is stated regarding the humility of our forefather Avraham. For whereas in regard to Avraham the pasuk reads [4] and Avraham said ואנכי עפר ואפר – ‘I am but earth and ashes,’ while regarding Moshe it says [5] ונחנו מה – ‘but what are we’?”

The simple meaning of this is that Moshe’s words are indicative of a greater degree of humility than the words used by Avraham. While earth and ashes both are matters of substance, “what are we?” is the statement of the quintessential equivalent of nothingness.

This is alluded to by the pasuk itself when it says, “and the man Moshe was most humble, above all men, (even) on the face of the earth.” This shows even greater humility than the one (Avraham) whose humility was synonymous with “earth and ashes” both of them being materials that lie on the face of the earth. Moshe’s humility is synonymous with something even less then matter, i.e., “nothingness.” This is precisely what the pasuk is telling us.

We can now appreciate the words of Rashi that the spies should have learned their lesson from Miriam (who was reprimanded for slander against Moshe). As we have deduced from his words, Moshe was, in his own eyes, even less worthy then the ground. Therefore ill words and feelings toward him obviously did not hurt him in the least. Certainly the spies should have been careful about how they spoke of the Israel which is land, not something of lesser value than land, i.e., nothingness.

A story is told of the Chofetz Chaim [6].He was once on a train traveling home to Radin. Opposite him sat an elderly, simple Jew who was not privy to the Chofetz Chaim’s identity. The Chofetz Chaim inquired where he was traveling to, to which the man replied that he was traveling to Radin to meet the great tzaddik of the generation, the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim answered him, “I live in Radin and I know the Chofetz Chaim personally. I can attest to the fact that he most certainly is not such a great tzaddik as they say.” Hearing such a brazen remark the simple Jew immediately slapped the Chofetz Chaim across the face and said, “How dare you talk thus about such a holy man!” The Chofetz Chaim accepted the rebuke and did not reply. He remained quietly in his seat for the rest of the journey.

The next day this elderly Jew came to the house of the Chofetz Chaim for an audience with him. As soon as he saw the Chofetz Chaim’s face he fainted realizing that this was the very same man that he had slapped on the train the previous day! When he was revived he cried and begged to be forgiven. “But,” the Chofetz Chaim said, “you do not need to be forgiven, and indeed I need to thank you for teaching me a very important lesson.”

“I taught you an important lesson?” the man asked in astonishment.

“Yes. You taught me that one should not speak lashon hara even about one’s self!”

There seems to be at least two reasons why one should not speak lashon hara about oneself. One is simply that by doing so it denigrates one’s self esteem inviting all sorts of negative influences. This might be the meaning of the Mishnah [7], “ואל תהא רשע בפני עצמך” – do not be a rasha/wicked person in your own eyes. The second reason is that it causes a person to see all things in a negative light. A person must be positive to properly serve Hashem as it is written in the pasuk [8],“את ה’ בשמחה עבדו” – serve Hashem with joy). It is this second reason that applies to what we discussed in this parsha. Moshe was not at all hurt by anything said about him. But by merely speaking negative words about someone, we are focusing on negativity and deserving of rebuke. So too, speaking badly about the land is considered negative speech with the similar affect of lashon hara and likewise deserving of severe punishment.

The second Rashi in this week’s parsha tells us, “שלח לך אנשים” – send for you people [9] of your own accord [for I, Hashem, have not commanded you to send spies; however if you, Moshe, want, then send spies].

The Zohar HaKadosh [10] states that the sin of the meraglim (spies) was caused by their concern for the future of their positions. They knew that once the nation would enter the land, they would no longer be in positions of leadership. They therefore formulated an evil plan that would keep them in the desert, and they would thus be able to hold onto their positions. Alternatively, this does not have to be understood literally. It could be explained that although this reasoning did not actually rise to the level of their thought processes, they were nonetheless subconsciously driven by this ulterior motive. This tainted their perception of what they saw in Eretz Yisrael, and what they reported back to Moshe and the rest of the people.

The Ba’al Shem Tov [11] is quoted [12] as having understood a deeper insight into the previously mentioned Gemarah. The words used as the source of distinction about Avraham are the words he quoted “anochi (I am) [dust and ash]”, and concerning Moshe the term used is “v’nachnu (but we) [are nothing]”. Moshe did not see himself as an individual, but rather as just a part of the nation; a spoke in the wheel, so to speak. Although he is the most important component, nonetheless, he is still only a part of the big picture. Avraham, although great in his humility, still saw himself as his own self. The reason behind this difference might be that Avraham was the only Jew in his generation and had no contemporaries that were anywhere near his level and with whom he could feel a connection. Moshe, on the other hand, had an entire holy nation with whom to connect. He therefore was able to consider himself as a part of the collective “we.”

The meraglim should not have only learned from Miriam’s punishment, but also from Moshe’s humility; which was due in part to his considering himself merely a member of the entire nation and not having any importance at all outside of that context. The spies, on the other hand would not apply this to themselves. They were thinking only about their own future while giving little, if any, consideration for the benefit of the nation. Moshe was completely unconcerned about his own interests; his thoughts were focused on the welfare of Am Yisroel.

This is the intent of Rashi – send people of your own accord, meaning of your ilk; people who like you are so humble that they feel themselves merely a part of a great nation, not as important individuals. You should send only such people for they certainly will not succumb to selfish motivation.

Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Dovid Sochet

[1] Medrash Tanchuma chapter 5
[2] Bamidbar/Numbers 12:3
[3] Tractate Chullin 89A
[4] Bereishes/Genesis 18:27
[5] Shemos/Exodus 16:7
[6] Rabbi Yisrael Meir (Kagan) Poupko, 1838 – 1933. Known popularly as “The Chofetz Chaim,” after the name of the sefer he wrote on the Laws of lashon hara entitled, “Shmiras Halashon” (The Guarding Of The Tongue).
[7] Tractate Avos 2:13
[8] Tehillim/Psalms 100:2
[9] Bamidbar/Numbers 13:2
[10] 3:158A
[11] Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov 1698-1760. He was the founder the Chassidic movement. Although he did not author any books, many of his teachings were disseminated by his disciples in both lectures and in published form.
[12] See Sefer Teshuos Chein, by Reb Gedaliah of Linitz (d. 1803)