The Torah reading of Sh’lach opens with a story that stands out in the Bible – the story of the sin of the spies. Their sin in bringing an evil report following their scouting of the land of Israel leads to a rebellion among the Israelites – and, the ultimate result is that the generation who escaped out of slavery in Egypt are punished by wandering in the wilderness for 40 years without entering the land of Israel. At the beginning of the story, Moses is given an order by God to spy out the land of Canaan as a preparation for the Israelites entering the land (Numbers 13, 1-2) – “And God spoke unto Moses, saying, send for you men that they may spy out the land of Canaan”. Each of the spies is according to the command of God (Numbers 13, 2) to be a prince – and, a prince from each of the 12 tribes of Israel is selected (Numbers 13, 4-15). The spies are given by Moses instructions for examining the land from a military and agricultural point of view (Numbers 13, 17-20).
The spies do not bring back a purely factual account of what they saw. This, though, is not a sin, and not even a problem at all – for, they were given a mission to scout the land and its people. In my view, it is assumed that bringing back a report of what they saw will include not just factual observations but also their opinions based upon what they saw. The text tells us that their sin is the bringing of an evil report (Numbers 13, 32), and the phrase in Hebrew (ויוציאו דיבת הארץ) actually means that they slandered the land of Israel.
Slander is a part of the laws of the “evil tongue” (לשון הרע) in the Jewish tradition, which are among the most severe in the Jewish tradition. Far more important in the Jewish tradition than what goes into our mouths (dietary laws) is what comes out of our mouths (laws of the evil tongue). The laws of the evil tongue are a moral issue concerning our relationship with our fellow human beings far more important than dietary laws that are a ritual matter. If a Jew violates the dietary laws of Judaism that are of a ritual nature, no harm has been caused to anyone else – but, a violation of the laws of the evil tongue is a form of moral and spiritual murder of a fellow human being. The Talmudic rabbis compared the evil tongue to murder – just as a murderer cannot bring back to life the victim – so, too, one who speaks with an evil tongue cannot return the hurtful words that have been spoken and cannot repair the damage.
The evil tongue, which includes slander, is characterized by two things. First, that one speaks in a disparaging way about someone or something (like the land of Israel); second, that what one says, which is disparaging, is true. Often people speak disparagingly and justify this by arguing that what they have said is true. However, this is exactly what constitutes the evil tongue – that what is said is disparaging and true. If what one says is disparaging and a lie, then this is even worse than the evil tongue, and is known as the giving of a bad name (מוציא שם רע).
I also want to add that the spies are not wicked; they were good people who were leaders (princes) of the Israelites, and their intentions were not evil. They were given a mission to scout the land and bring back a report of what they saw – and, they reported the truth as they perceived it. The problem is in the way they expressed their truth as they perceived it. Incidentally, the text also tells us something very interesting that in my view constitutes the reason for the spies committing sin by speaking slander – a problem of insecurity reflected in their report in the verse “we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13, 33). The spies then were not wicked people and not evil intentioned but suffering from a problem insecurity (especially as former slaves) that led them out of fear to give an evil report of the land of Israel.
The question that arises in the story of the spies is – in what way does their report constitute the evil tongue and slander? On the face of it, they did exactly what they were instructed to do – to give a report based upon what they saw. They do indeed express their opinion in saying that the people of the land of Israel are too strong to conquer – but, are they to withhold such an opinion when they were asked to scout the land in order to determine whether it can be conquered?
The sin of the spies of slander is reflected in one small phrase (אפס כי), which means “but” or “however”, in the middle of their report (Numbers 13, 28) – “But, the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified”. They are not lying in their report – the people of the land are indeed very strong with fortified cites. Their use of the word “but” reflects perspective, and a negative perspective in which their focus is upon the negative rather than the positive. They begin by praising the land of Israel, and then insert the word “but” followed by their reporting of how strong the people are with fortified cities, which reflects a negative perspective of viewing the cup as half empty – and it is this negative perspective that weakens the faith of the Israelites. If they had begun by pointing out problems, and then were to insert the word “but” followed by praise of the land of Israel – they would have created a positive report in which the emphasis is upon the positive (the cup half full), which would have strengthened the faith of the Israelites without covering up problems that may be encountered in conquering the land.
One of the most important Talmudic sources, in my view, is a source (Pirkei Avot 1, 6) that reflects a very profound understanding of psychology, which according to a literal translation says – “judge the entire person favorably” (הוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות). But, the usual translation is “judge every person favorably” (and it is usually understood this way even by Hebrew speakers). This Talmudic teaching is based upon a commandment in the Bible – “judge your neighbor in righteousness (or justice)” (Leviticus 19, 15) – and, the sin of the spies in their report is that they judge unfavorably, not in righteousness, violating the Biblical command. In a technical sense the command to judge in righteousness applies regarding a fellow human being, and the same is true regarding the Talmudic teaching to judge favorably, which applies regarding a fellow human being – and, the spies were giving a report about the land of Israel in which they judged unfavorably. But, in a spiritual sense their sin is nonetheless in judging unfavorably and thus not in righteousness – and, their judging unfavorably and unjustly leads them to speak with the evil tongue in their report.
In the Talmudic teaching to judge favorably, the Hebrew expression favorably (כף זכות) implies an image of scales of justice that we are to tip in favor of the person rather than against the person. That is, in viewing the entire person we will see in our eyes both positive and negative qualities and actions, and the teaching requires of us to focus not on the negative but on the positive in tipping the scales of justice in favor rather than against the person – in order to judge in righteousness. The teaching requires of us to portray our fellow human being in a positive and favorable light. In the case of the spies, their use of the word “but” reveals their focus in their report upon the negative after they had begun by praising the land of Israel. After initially praising the land, the spies say “but” shifting the focus to the negative that follows their initial praise of the land – and, the picture that emerges from their report then is negative thus weakening the faith of the Israelites to conquer the land.
The direct result of judging unfavorably is the evil tongue. The sin of the spies then is not that they lied, as they expressed the truth as they perceived it – and, they were not wicked people but intended to fulfill their duty to give a report regarding the land as they were commanded. But, out of their fear and insecurity (“we were in our own sight as grasshoppers”) they gave a report in which they were guilty of violating the laws of the evil tongue thus weakening the faith of the Israelites leading to a rebellion among the Israelites.
Implied in the laws of the evil tongue in the Jewish tradition is that peace between people takes precedence over our personal conception of truth. Truth is not a value without limits, and truth can cause great damage if we express our truth in a negative and unfavorable light. Judaism then demands that we be sensitive and considerate in the way we speak, and careful in our choice of words in expressing our truth.