By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA President
The most devastating event of the early history of the Jewish people is recounted in this parsha. Some might say the Golden Calf was worse. But for a people to be condemned to watch their “carcasses drop in the wilderness” for forty years seems harsher, in many ways, than the battle where the Levites killed the rebels who instigated the worship of an idol.
All the more so when, from a human perspective, one can quite well understand the situation faced by the people. We are shocked that the Jewish people could gather round to worship an idol a mere forty days after hearing G-d speak the words forbidding that very action. But listening to a frightening report from spies chosen by Moshe himself, and then being reluctant to go out and fight – we can empathize. Ten of the spies say no, two say yes – it hardly seems reasonable to go to battle, even when the two urging the people to move forward are Joshua, Moshe’s right hand, and Caleb who according to one midrashic tradition was the husband of Miriam.
While it would turn out by the end of the book of Bamidbar that the Israelites were formidable fighters under astute leadership, at this stage they were unsure of themselves, and they balked.
But more was at stake than pre-battle anxiety. If we examine the progress of the reports and arguments, we can see what must have happened. First came a fair and balanced report from all the spies: the land was indeed “flowing with milk and honey,” but the people were fierce and the cities fortified. They named the tribes dwelling in the various segments. The recounting seems to have caused some grumbling, for Caleb “stilled the people toward Moses,” but then he spoke up strongly: “We should go up and possess it, we are very able to do it.” However, the others now retorted: “We are not able to go up against the people, they are stronger than we.”
Significantly, public debate seems to have ended with that stalemate. Instead, the ten spies “spread (vayotz’iu, caused to go out) an evil report of the land,” a land that eats up its inhabitants, with all the people being of great size. Objective reporting had been replaced by fantastic exaggeration, including the famous “we were in our eyes like grasshoppers, and also in their eyes.” The people tormented themselves all night, crying and weeping, and next morning announced they would appoint a captain to take them back to Egypt.
If the Golden Calf incident violated the commandment not to make idols, this event demonstrates another major sin: not to bear false witness. Although the original 9th commandment specified “against your neighbor” and referred primarily to testifying in court, the report of the ten spies about the land, spread in whispers during the night, was equally devastating. Breaking ranks, they cast doubt on Caleb and Joshua and devastated the people’s morale. Failing to speak truthfully and with full transparency, they put the entire enterprise at risk. And only a short time before, they had seen their beloved Miriam suffer because of casting aspersions on her brother.
Caleb and Joshua together made one last appeal: “They are bread for us! Their defenses are removed from them, and the Lord is with us. Don’t fear them!” But to no avail. G-d recognized that the hearts of the people had been poisoned by loshon hara and issued his decree.
Much of the trouble of the Israelites in the wilderness comes from evil talk, murmuring, complaining, arguing, claims and counter-claims. The wilderness is midbar, which can also be read medaber, the one who speaks. Our words can bring inspiration, or they can fling us into the wilderness of confusion and despair. May we measure our words so that they reflect truth, fairness and compassion.