study based on Rashi and the Shla
We saw in the preceding parashiot
how the camp of holiness (kedusha) was organized and how
it was governed by rules of holiness and purification,
through the division of the people into three groups and
functions: Moshe, Aaron and Miriam, the Levites who symbolize
the ideal states of man, and the benei Israel, the children
We also learnt the method of interpretation based on semikhut, juxtaposition of the parashiot, a technique where meaning
emerges through continuity. Chapter 12 of the preceding
parasha described the episode of Aaron and Miriam who
erred when they spoke ill of Moshe's wife. Following the
exodus from Egypt, and the supreme revelation of the Torah
- a time of great spiritual elevation - we now come to
one of man's greatest trials, lashon hara. In this parasha,
we will see it develop not just among the greatest elite
(Moshe, Aaaron and Miriam), but even more among the leaders
of the tribes and the people themselves. We will understand
the nature of this plague which afflicts society so much
and is so prominent in the politics and debates of modern
Themes of the parasha
Chapter 13 describes the mission of the spies (meraglim)
who were sent to survey the land of Kanaan (Canaan), which
we will deal with later.
Chapter 14 describes the dramatic
story that ensued, the complaints of the people, Moshe
and Aaron falling on their faces before all the people,
the brave intervention of Yehoshua and Caleb who risked
being stoned. The wrath of Hashem, the intercession by
Moshe, the punishment of the people who perish in the
wilderness. Those who fomented the rebellion by speaking
ill of the land died from plagues: they admitted their
error but they continued in the same path and led the
people to defeat by the enemies.
Chapter 15 describes
--- the offering made on entering the land of Israel,
--- the setting aside of the hallah,
--- the offerings for the atonement of unintentional sins,
--- excommunication of those who sin intentionally,
--- the stoning to death of Shabbat-breakers.
The parasha ends with the
injunction of tzizit, the fringes won by Jewish men on
their tallit, prayer garment, and permanently on a small
undergarment tallit, to remind them of their duties to
Hashem and the 613 mitzvot they must keep.
The final verses stress the aim of the tzizit, as a symbol
of the role of the Jews:
"that ye may be holy
(kedoshim) unto your God
Viheyitem kedoshim lelokekhem,
I am the Lord, your God who brought you out of the land
Ani Hashem Elokekhem asher hotzeti etkhem meeretz mitzrayim
to be your God
liyot lakhem leElokim
I am the Lord your God
Ani Hashem Elokekhem."
These verses are recited,
several times a day, at the end of the Shema Yisrael.
The emphasis is placed repeatedly on the word "your."
The mitzvot of the parasha
The parasha defines:
--- two positive mitzvot (the setting aside of hallah
and placing tzitziot on the four corners of a garment),
--- one negative mitzva (not to be deceived by what we
see, velo tahuru ahare einekhem).
We will see that these mitzvot are connected to the other
themes of the parasha.
The first mitzva: hallah
Rashi elaborates on the injunction to set aside hallah
(verse 15, 20):
--- once in the land of Israel, the children of Israel
had to set aside from the dough of five grains (wheat,
barley, rye, oat, and buckwheat) a measure of 1/24 for
an individual and 1/48 for a baker;
--- this does not apply to dough that is dried in the
sun or cooked in water;
--- the portion is remitted to the cohanim for their use;
--- this mitzva was continued by the rabbis, as an educational
tool, even when the Jewish people did not live in the
land of Israel: instead of being remitted to the cohanim
the portion was burnt (see Sefer HaHinukh, 385).
The blessing for the hallah, the separation of the dough,
Barukh ata Adonai Elohenu Melekh haolam asher kideshanu
bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehafrish hala (Blessed art thou,
Hashem Elokenu, King of the Universe, who hast sanctified
us with thy commandments, and commanded us to take the
portion of the dough.)
According to the method of
study of these commentaries, the Shla, basing himself
on Rashi, elaborates on the inner meaning of a mitzva.
His commentary is based on verse 6, 23 of Proverbs ("For
the commandment is a lamp and the law is light; and reproofs
of instruction are the way of life, ki ner mitzva ve Torah
or vederekh hayim tokhehot musar"): first study the
mitzva, then understand its inner meaning, and finally
learn the lessons it teaches us for life. It is the Shla
who formulated these 3 stages in the traditional method
The example of the first mitzva
--- The Shla notes that the hallah is taken before baking,
so that it will retain its pure nature and be impregnated
--- Adam was destined to be the hallah of humanity;
--- before the journey into the wilderness, this generation
was chosen to be the holy hallah of the future children
of Israel (the Shla then develops the concept of Israel
as reshit - the beginning --, just as Rashi did in regard
to the first verse of Bereshit). We can take this further
and venture to say that our generation of Jews is the
holy hallah which is beginning to prepare in the land
of Israel for the holiest days to come;
--- we are in many ways collectively a portion taken from
the mass of people and individually a portion taken from
our own families. Let us learn from the example of the
generation of the wilderness and from those, like Yehoshua,
Caleb, Yokhebed and the women of Israel who succeeded
in overcoming the trials that faced them. Let us learn,
like all generations, the meaning and value of this land
which is the goal of our journey: like Israel On High,
it is the place of residence of Hashem and the place of
his covenant with His people.
The second mitzva: tzitziot
--- The second mitzva of the parasha, the tzitzit, concerns
only garments with four corners (verse 15, 38: asu lahem
tzitzit al kanef vighdehem), made of wool or linen.
--- The wearing of tzitziot for other garments is governed
by rabbinical jurisdiction. The commandment only concerns
men but some rabbis have authorized them also for women
with or without berakha (see the writings of Rabbenu Tam
in the Tossafot of Tractate Rosh Hashana 33a). This is
a very complex subject which must be understood from more
than just a feminist perspective.
--- Verse 15, 39, which is included in the text of the
Shema, defines the function of the tzitziot: to remind
Jews of all the commandments of God (ureitem oto uzekhartem
et kol mizvot Hashem); note that the gematria for the
word tzitzit corresponds to the 613 mitzvot (600 for the
word tzizit, 8 for the number of threads and 5 for the
number of knots).
--- The color tekhelet (sky blue) of one of the threads
corresponds to the unbrokern line between the blue sea
below and the blue skies above, and to the blue stone
which adorns the throne of glory (Tractate Hulin 89b and
Tractate Menahot 43b).
The Talmud demonstrates that this capacity for the sublime
linking and elevation of things rest solely on the humility
of Avraham. It is this which will renew the hope, if one
can say that, of Hashem Himself during the oppression
in Egypt, as Rashi says of Shemot 24, 10: "they saw
the God of Israel, and there was under his feet as it
were a paved work of sapphire stone, and as it were the
body of heaven in his clearness." Rashi writes: hi
hayeta lefanav bisheat hashiebud, lizkor tzaratam shel
yisrael she hayu meshuebadim bemaasav, it was before him
during the time of the oppression, to remind him of the
sufferings of Israel who were in slavery in the sweatshops
of stone. Witness the glory of the Torah which unites
together the land, the heavens, the emotions, nature,
social problems, aesthetics, intimacy and unity.
The third mitzva
After the first two mitzvot which relate to food and garments,
the third mitzva (verse 15, 39), velo taturu ahare levavkhem
ve ahare einekhem, relates to the injunction against being
led astray by one's heart and one's eyes.
The Sages note that the eyes are directly linked with
the heart and desire (the word for eye in Hebrew, ayin,
also means source) and it is very difficult to combat
what enters our eyes, for it enters deep into our hearts
as well. This relates to feelings that are easily awakened,
the tendency to erupt in anger, immodesty and idolatry.
We must therefore be vigilant in this regard, for these
tendencies are always in us, in all of us, and we do not
have a protective shield on our eyes.
Judaism is also extremely suspect of testimony based on
visual certainty (see Tractates Makkot and Sanhedrin).
It is written that the Mashiah will "have quick understanding
in the fear of Hashem and he shall not judge after the
sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of
his ears; vehariho beyirat Hashem velo lemare einav yishpot
velo lemishna oznav yokhiah" (Isaiah 11, 3).
Lashon hara, slander
The strange episode of the spies (meraglim) caused the
Sages to apply their great wisdom to understand what the
Torah wants to teach us here: because the text is not
easy to understand, this gives us the opportunity to discover
how the Sages uncover the meaning of the Torah.
Elaborating on Midrash Tanhuma,
Rashi finds the meaning in the position of the episode:
it comes after that of Miriam. Rashi describes the princes
of Israel, who did not learn the tragedies that can be
caused by slander, as reshaim (evil) and his words are
based on the midrashim and their description of the disappointment
and anger of Hashem in the face of the lack of trust shown
in His promises. What follows is similar to the story
of Pharaoh; because of the extent of the sin, Hashem cause
the sinners to persist till they perish.
Rashi draws our attention to the great responsibility
we have in directing the history of mankind towards evil
or towards good: he explains this when of verse 13, 20
("whether there is wood therein, hayesh ba etz")
he writes: "if there is among them an adam kasher
who watches over them and protects them through his qualities
(im yesh baem adam kasher shemagen alehem bizekhuto).
The tactics of slander
We find in Tractate Sotah, pages 33a to 35, a lengthy
analysis of the behavior of the spies, the meraglim, to
which we refer.
with regard to verses 27 and 28 ("And they told him,
and said: 'We came unto the land wither thou sentest
us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey, and this
is the fruit of it. Howbeit the people that dwell in the
land are fierce
' " )
Ribbi Yohanan writes in the name of Ribbi Meir: "kol
lashon hara she ein bo devar emet bitehila ein mitkayem
besofo, if true things are not said first before engaging
in lashon hara, the process is ineffective" (Tractate
This precise and correct analysis is a moral lesson which
urges vigilance in everything we say or which others say
that can be the beginning of lashon hara.
Our Sages add that lashon hara is often justified in the
name of deference and necessity!
(Method: we have written in
Hebrew the phrases which are fundamental to Jewish scholarship,
so that they can be learnt by heart: this is one of the
basic methods of Jewish study).
The victims of lashon hara
The episode of the spies illustrates lashon hara, which
the Sages will later succeed in defining precisely: "it
kills three people: the one who pronounces it, the one
who hears it, and the victim" (lashon hara horeget
shelosha: haomero, vehamekabelo vesheneemar alav, Devarim
Rabba 8, 10; Shoham Tov 12, 2; Tanhuma Hukat 4).
Lashon hara, by itself, is
equivalent to avoda zara, to the shedding of blood and
to sexual abominations (Arakhin 15b).
It does not kill only where
it is expressed, but also at a distance (Bereshit Rabba
98, 3) in time and space. And it does so more destructively
than murder which sheds the blood of a victim, incest
and idolatry (kashe mishefikhut damim u migiluyot arayot
u me avoda zara, Tanhuma, Metzora 2).
It is the greatest Sages themselves
who taught us this moral lesson, otherwise ordinary men,
such as ourselves, could maintain that it relates only
to the most evil of men. On the contrary, this episode
teaches us that the closer we are to holiness, the greater
the danger of lashon hara.
Ribbi Yaakov Abuhatzera similarly
interprets the order given to the spies to "see the
land" (ureitem et haaretz, 13, 18): he writes that
the more there is kedusha, holiness, the more its shield
is thick, and more tumea, impurity, accumulates around
it. This is evident today: the holiness of Israel and
the land of Israel are the butt of constant accusations
and all those who describe Israel as holy are subjected
to an array of scornful adjectives (mystics, fanatics,
There is a constant double
standard with regard to Israel: it is praised in one breath
and denounced in another. Israel is also the butt of incessant
campaigns of misinformation aimed at making it like all
other countries. But this nation, the object of attacks
for 3300 years and the bearer of its deed of origin, has
remained true to itself.
Within Israel too, the constant
cry is heard: let us give in, the other nations are too
strong and we cannot afford to antagonize them. It is
essential to read verses 13, 27-32. This is not a political
platform; this is the Torah, this is about Israel and
its relations with other nations, and most of all this
is what is demanded by Hashem since the revelation 3300
years ago and it has been inscribed in writing. The same
challenge exists today; just like the spies, the meraglim,
opponents say: conditions today are different, we must
give in to the other nations. But for centuries we have
witnessed the tactics of lashon hara and we have 33 centuries
of loyalty the Torah by our ancestors. The prophets of
our time are worth little, even if they believe they are
powerful because they dominate the media.
Ribbi Yaakov Abuhatzera also
teaches us that, in order to overcome the husk that surround
us, we must clothe ourselves with great strength (the
word koah has a very high level of meaning) just in order
to live in the land of Israel, which is the first level
of mitzvot and asia. This is just the first stage; when
we rise higher to live in holiness in the land of Israel,
we have to overcome another 3 levels, as in the morning
prayer. And the husks will become more and more difficult
to overcome. This is why Yehoshua is told, at the beginning
of the book of Yehoshua, that he will have to be strong
in order to enter the land and lead the people.
The light will struggle to
emerge, as at the fall of night. We are still, all of
us, like the spies in the wilderness, uncertain of the
real light which is our country.
We are not like Yehoshua who received the light and was
wholly pure. We argue like the spies and look to the ideologies
and gods of other nations. The Talmud says that we inevitably
absorb the "gods" of the places we inhabit:
"to live outside the land of Israel is like serving
foreign gods" (Ketubot 111a). This is also the case
when one lives in the land of Israel but views it just
like any other country. Those who wish to distort Israel
from afar do so also by imposing on this land the values
of other nations, of other lands.
It is precisely because Moshe
was sun, and completely bathed in the light of the land
On High, says Ribbi Yaakov Abuhatzera, that he could not
enter the land where the light is dim. He saw "all"
the land (in its fullness), Devarim 34, 2. Only Yehoshua
suited this half light, like that of the moon which illuminates
only by reflection. This is why he was chosen to enter
with the people.
The question of commitment
to the land of Israel
The story of the spies is
so full of questions that we could almost ask in today's
jargon "What's going on?"
(method of study: we will
see that in order to resolve a problem of comprehension,
the Sages first draw up a list of difficulties (kushiot)
presented by the text. This method is respectful of readers;
it is the opposite of simplistic electoral slogans which
portray everything in black and white. It is even unparalleled
by Greek democracy which pitted philosophers against each.
In Jewish study, one reflect, and considers. )
The Shla lists the kushiot
of the great commentators:
1. What sin did the spies commit by asking to be sent
to survey the land, since Moshe himself gave them a list
of tasks to accomplish and points on which to report (13,
2. Can they be accused of making a frightening report
when Moshe asked them to report exactly as things were?
3. Can they be accused of making a report which demoralized
the people, when Moshe himself said similar things in
Devarim 9, 1: "Hear O Israel, thou art to pass over
Jordan this day, to go in to possess nations greater and
mightier than thyself, cities great and fenced up to heaven.
A people great and tall
4. In what way did these men sin, since Hashem seems to
have sent them intentionally so that they would fail in
5. Why is it written only in Devarim 1, 22 that it was
the people who asked for the spies to be sent and not
6. Why did Moshe send 12 spies and not just two as in
the survey of Jericho?
7. Why are different verbs used to describe their mission
in the verses (laregel, latur, lahkor)?
8. Why and how did these men, who were great Sages of
Israel, become as they appear in this story?
9. If the verbs in verse 13, 26 vayelkhu, vayavu ("And
they went and came to Moses, and to Aaron") indicate
that they came back as evil as they left, how was such
corruption possible from the start and how is it that
it was allowed to continue? Especially as the spies are
presented as the most eminent of the children of Israel
(rashei benei Yisrael)?
10. Why, if Moshe judged them worthy, did he pray only
11. Why did he pray only for Yehoshua, and not for Caleb?
12. Why does the Torah repeat twice: "these are the
names.." (13, 4 and 13, 16)?
13. How can one accept the idea that they preferred to
stay in the wilderness, even when one knows that a sinner
sins purely because of some madness that has overtaken
The list of questions drawn
up by the Shla is impressive and it teaches us that the
understanding of human and holy questions requires:
--- acknowledgment of many complex parameters,
--- understanding of the relationship between these parameters,
--- cautious and extensive examination of the questions.
The list of possible answers
is equally impressive
The answers teach us about
the responsibilities of those charged with reporting and
influencing opinion in society; this was clearly noted
1. The report of the spies
was absolutely correct; but it is the stress they put
on certain facts which falsified the report in the eyes
of the people. This is a popular tactic used by the media
to distort the facts, particularly in regard to Israel,
both at home and abroad. The meraglim did not just report
that the people in the land were strong, they preceded
their description with the word efes (zero, nothing) to
indicate that absolutely "nothing" could be
done against them. This is what demoralized the people.
(Note: Beware, for the Ramban notes that the same reproach
could be said of Moshe in Devarim 9, 1).
2. The author of Akedat Yitzhak
says that the meraglim should have simply made a report
and not draw conclusions, interpretations or recommendations
(one learns from this the importance of respecting each
persons's role and the proper functioning of society,
something that is rarely done today, for under the pretext
that democracy gives rights to everyone, everyone believes
they have the right to say whatever they want; this is
anarchy, not democracy). The conduct of the spies was
a sin, even if they had not used the extreme word efes.
The author clearly differentiates between objective information
and biased opinion.
3. The use of the word efes
influenced the people to believe that, in spite of the
promises of Hashem, He would be defeated by the "hard
reality" on the ground. This was the sin of the spies.
Instead, they should have believed and said what is written
in Devarim 7, 17-18 (refer to it): If thou shalt say in
thine heart, These nations are more than I: how can I
dispossess them? Thou shalt not be afraid of them: but
shall well remember what the Hashem thy God did unto Pharaoh,
and unto all Egypt." In this context, the sending
out of the spies, by Moshe, with the authorization of
Hashem, can be understood as an educational exercise to
train the people to discover hard realities and to overcome
them through true faith, emuna. I is on this very point
that these great leaders of Israel failed. We have thus
been given a warning of what can happen to the best of
men and to all individuals. The Shla demonstrates that
this is caused when there is a discordance between the
heart and the mind, which is symbolized in the word veyaturu,
literally, "that you will wander" (13, 2).
4. The spies also erred by
analyzing the objective reality, without taking into consideration
the "objective" reality that Hashem makes miracles
for his people
.when the latter keep his commandments.
5. Ribbi Hiya bar Abba (Tractate
Sotah 34b) interprets the names for the spies as signifying
that their sole aim was to find fault with the land of
Israel (while the people simply wanted to know if the
negative things that had been said were true). Many Jews
do the same today in regard to the land of Israel"
they join its enemies by find fault with Israel, in order
to justify their non-presence in the land that is their
inheritance. We shall see how this trait is common in
Jews today and in our political and spiritual leadership.
6. The aim of the spies was
to prolong the stay of the people in the wilderness, and
the time before they settled the land of Israel. They
were princes in the wilderness but, most probably, they
would not have continued to be princes once the Temple
was constructed. Bemidbar Rabba 16 interprets this episode
as such, on the basis that they were leaders "at
this hour and this time only" in the wilderness.
The same phenomenon is seen today on the political scene,
when leaders and generals switch parties and ideological
allegiances simply in order to ensure themselves positions
of power. The faults of men were described long ago in
7. The Zohar says that even
before leaving on their mission, the spies wanted to find
obstacles in order to justify later their reason for not
entering the land, like phony journalists. This teaches
us to what extent human ambitions can corrupt the most
noble people and their noblest qualities. These leaders
were influenced by their prejudices, their "pre-judgments,"
and they returned just as they had left, with the same
negative preconceptions. How many journalists write the
same article, whether they go to a particular place or
not, for they usually write it in their minds beforehand
and are rarely influenced by the reality on the ground.
One should read Psalm 15. The motive which, above all,
caused these leaders to err, was their honor, as was the
case with Balam.
8. The Shla demonstrates here
that Satan does not incite men to commit "monstrous"
sins consciously, but subtly corrupts our highest ideals
and these subtle changes then lead us to commit grave
errors without vigilance or self-examination on our part.
9. In contrast, the words
which open the parasha, shelah lekha (send thou), indicate
that Hashem knows Moshe's intentions are pure and that
a mission could be sent out which would bring back rich
10. In the same context, Moshe
asks himself, through their names, whether the spies possess
the same pure character and when he begins to have doubts,
he is assured that Yehoshua comes from a lineage that
will not deviate from the true path and will be preserved
in the name of Y-A, just as this name was used in the
battle against Amalek (Bemidbar Rabba 16, 9). Ribbi Yaakov
Abuhatzera also demonstrates that the function of Yehoshua
is similar to that of the Levites for the people of Israel.
The Levite has no possessions and represents the best
qualities of Israel, living in a state of total trust
with Hashem. Thus Yehoshua is the moon, and has no light
of his own except for the light he receives from Moshe's
sun, which is the whole light. Where the other spies fall,
the moon of Yehoshua receives all the light that belongs
to the pure roots of the other tribes. When Yehoshua and
Caleb return and do not betray Hashem like the others,
they speak in the name of the pure roots of the people
and affirm "we should go up at once and possess it
(read 13, 30). They do not say this just in their own
names, or for their own tribes and families, but in the
name of the whole people, for Hashem and for His Torah,
and for the good of creation according to the divine plan.
11. The role of Caleb is now
clearer: it is he who interrupts the report of the spies,
not Yehoshua who could have been suspected of wanting
to be the leader of the people.
12. The spies also erred in
portraying the merits of Canaan as greater than that of
Israel - an argument which is still used today by Jews
and non-Jews alike regarding Israel. It is this argument
which Yehoshua and Caleb denounce (14, 9).
13. The spies went so far
as to say that the inhabitants of the land were stronger
Hashem himself (mimenu, than Him, 13, 31).
(Note on the method of study:
the commentary of the Shla proves how the rigorous analysis
of every word of the Torah by our Sages enables us to
discover the complex meaning and moral lessons the text
provides for the Jewish people, its leaders, us as individuals
and all human relations. The Torah is a guide for life.)
In Magid Mesharim, Rabbenu
Yosef Caro asks these questions:
14. Was it not Hashem himself who sent out the spies on
15. Were we to understand that, in light of a negative
report, Moshe would have proposed not to enter the land?
16. Is it not the very fact of asking for a report that
caused doubt to spread among the people?
Rabbenu Yosef Caro concludes that the people of Israel
tested Hashem so many times that they earned the punishment
of being forbidden entry to the land of Israel. Hashem,
in his benevolence, tried to find a way reviving their
good ways; this is why Moshe sent out the best men among
the people, but the mission failed for the most part.
Only Yehoshua and Caleb saved the day. A loyal minority
is enough to save a nation.
It is impressive to see to what critical examination our
Sages submitted the texts and the episode describing the
difficulties in entering the land of Israel. Yet they
themselves did not have the opportunities we have of coming
From time immemorial the Sages knew the importance of
this question and that it does relate to just one period
in history, but occurs in every generation.
Knowing our strengths
Having studied the first level, we now proceed with the
Shla to a higher level of understanding and examine some
The aim of the spies'mission was not simply to teach
us about lashon-hara or about trust.
It was essential in order to teach men to recognize the
strengths they possess. For this two components are necessary:
--- on the one hand, they must look squarely at reality
and assess it both in respect of their positive and negative
strengths and they must use intelligence and courage in
making their preparations;
--- on the other hand, after they have done this, and
only then, as is stressed by Rabbenu Behaye in his introduction
to the parasha, they must put their entire faith in He
who rules the world for only He can ensure success.
It is this last point which
the spies failed to recognize, because they feared they
would lose their positions as princes once the people
entered the holy land, for then the Kohanim and Leviim
would take over as leaders.
The spies were aware of the
ultimate aim: to reach the land chosen as the terrestrial
paradise and holy dwelling place with Hashem. The bunch
of grapes which they bring back expresses this vision:
it is a symbol of the wine that was preserved since the
first days of creation, the yayin hameshumar. The grapes
are suspended on a pole and carried by two people.
The commentary of Ribbi Menahem
The Shla presents the commentary
of Ribbi Menahem Azaria which describes the meaning of
this famous scene. The pole (mot) is a word made up of
two letters (mem, tet) which correspond in Hebrew to the
number 49 and the letter vav.
The number 49 is apt for this episode: the children of
Israel have left the 49 levels of impurity of Egypt, and
they must now transform them into levels of purity by
attaining the 50th level, which can only be acquired through
the addition of Hashem who is 1. This is the time when
the trust of the people in Hashem is to be tested, for
these men knew their traditions and the miracles through
which they were saved by Hashem.
The above is expressed in
the Hebrew lettering:
The number 1 is represented by the letter vav, whose full
form is vav alef vav.
Since the letter vav is the sixth letter of the alphabet
and has the numerical value of 6, then the meaning becomes
the spies should have been 12 like the double vav, and
they should have returned not just as one vav consisting
of just themselves (vav vav, 6 + 6=12) but as a complete
vav (vav alef vav) united with Hashem, which is the inner
and invisible (alef) element that unites all things (vav
(Explanation: the number 13 represents the 13 divine qualities
of Hashem, and is the numerical value of the word ehad
which defines Hashem, and of the word ahava for which
He is the sole source; identify these words in the verses
of the Shema Yisrael and note the first word that precedes
it and the first word that follows it: ahava and veahavta.
Since we are made in this image, we should think with
the 13 rules of reasoning of Ribbi Yishmael.)
Thus, in their report, the
spies recounted what they had seen but omitted to describe:
--- the presence of Hashem which protected them during
their journey and the vision they had that the inhabitants
had lost, through their conduct, their right to the land.
They deliberately suppressed this message which Hashem
had sent them, and, in doing so, they suppressed Hashem
himself from history, and the people followed them and
rebelled against Him. This debate is still relevant to
Jews living in Israel today, for many find it difficult
to assume the identity of a holy people who follow the
Torah in His land. We are all affected by these debates,
and even making aliya to Israel does not completely resolve
By suppressing Hashem, the
meraglim suppressed the source of life and they became
the victims of their own machinations: because they moved
away from the source of life, they perished. The Hebrew
word for death (mot) also means "weakening, collapse."
The divine protection which intervenes to save the people
is so evident that Rashi writes in the names of Caleb
"Hashem is with us, thus let us ascend and even if
we have to ascent with ladders till we reach the heavens,
we will succeed,"
alo naale; afilu vahasmayim vehu omer asu sulamot vaalu
Rashi implies that "it is Hashem who will lead us."
Rashi in Troyes said this; this is the beauty of Jewish
Let us acknowledge the unique gift which we, unlike other
generations, have been given of carrying out the divine
Through their ill deed, the
meraglim shattered the equilibrium between our world and
Hashem, which existed before the fall of Adam, and which
they could have restored.
This was the meaning of Moshe's
question: "whether there is wood therein?" This
meant, is there the tree of life as in paradise ; just
as by Abraham's side there was a tree which revealed the
quality of those who passed by it. Go, Moshe told the
spies indirectly, and this tree will tell you that the
inhabitants of this country have already lost their shade
(their vital forces) and will reveal your true essence.
History has proved it: the
Land of Israel always reveals the true nature of man and
the true nature of the world. As is written in the text:
"it is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof,"
which means that it destroys masks and reveals the truth.
The difference between the
report of the spies (do not enter this land and you will
have peace) and that of Yehoshua and Caleb (this is a
difficult land because many claim it, but we are linked
to it through the proofs and promises given to us and
because Hashem is faithful) is now very clear and reveals
their different characters.
The Shla also compares this
episode with the conduct of the spies who were sent to
survey Jericho (Yerikho), which we will not study here,
but readers can refer to the page devoted to Jericho on
The function of the mission
of the spies was to show 1) that there is unity between
the world below and the world above and 2) that this unity
is more powerful than natural laws. . The people of Israel
acknowledged that their destiny would continue to depend
on the will and benevolence of Hashem which he manifested
in the past.
Ten out of leaders of the
children of Israel erred but history continued and soon,
in Jericho, the two emissaries of Yehoshua will atone,
by their exemplary conduct, for the errors made by the
two are enough to make reparation;
this should not be forgotten.
1. Memorization exercises for the second level:
The development of memory is an essential part of Jewish
One technique is to learn a verse by heart, every day,
until you master it completely.
Select from this commentary the Hebrew expressions which
you care for most and learn them by heart.
2. Stimulate discussions in
your own entourage -- with your spouse, family, friends
or community - on the themes of this parasha.
Halakha, musar and lashon hara
--- halakha: rules governing conduct and daily life which
are based on the Torah and formulated in the Mishna and
--- musar: morality
--- lashon hara: slander or malicious gossip.
Why is so much emphasis placed on the dangers of lashon
hara in Judaism? Is it because this is a common phenomenon,
or because Jews often disagree? Is this an indispensable
social law, or part of children's natural education (it's
not nice to gossip or tell tales)?
I will try and answer these
questions according to the method of Modia, which bases
itself on the sources, the links between the Torah, our
emotions and daily life, and the teachings of the Sages,
in particular, the Hafetz Hayim.
The subject has two aspects: lashon hara or malicious
gossip which consists in speaking ill of someone, and
rekhilut which consists in hawking the gossip around.
Who is a hawker of gossip? Someone who says negative things
and goes from one to another saying: someone said this
about you: ezehu rakhil? Ze she toen devarim ve holekh
meze la ze veomer: hakh amar ploni alekh.
The Torah and lashon hara
--- Note: the references cited below which are drawn from
the Torah are not meant to be seen as proof but as tools
for analyzing and understanding our actions.
--- If the Torah teaches us about lashon hara, this means
that the subject is of immense importance and is not just
about social manners. The Torah is not a book of morality.
But what is this important subject?
--- If the Torah shows that the greatest men erred in
this respect, how much more likely are we to err?
--- Torah of life, and of divine life shared with man,
it teaches us that lashon hara is a dangerous phenomenon
that affects the very source of things, and that a solution
to the problem is critical for society.
--- We shall learn to understand what is lashon hara,
how to overcome it, and the consequences it entails.
Examples from the Torah
1. The problem began from the beginning of creation, with
the serpent who invented the process: falsify somewhat
the facts, hawk them around, spread doubt and destroy.
If the problem exists from the very start of creation,
this means it is a fundamental human problem, which will
continue and have grave consequences. Indeed, the state
of grace was destroyed in this way, the relations between
men and women have been affected ever since and stamped
with misunderstandings, our relations with the creator
have been damaged, and man has floundered ever since.
Tractate Arakhin 15b of the Talmud defines the consequences:
lashon hara kills three people, the person who spreads
the slander, the victim and the person who hears the slander.
2. Sara is reproached with having spoken ill of Avraham,
her husband when she stressed his advanced age and thus
attributed to him their difficulty in having children
(Bereshit 37, 2).
3. Joseph is strongly reproached with causing hatred to
erupt as a result of the slander he committed (Bereshit,
4. Miriam became leprous because of her sin of lashon
hara even though its intent was noble and for the good
of the community (Bemidbar ch. 12, parasha Behaalotekha).
5. The spies (meraglim) spoke ill of the land of Israel
and caused considerable harm to the people and to history
(Bemidbar ch. 14, parasha Shelah Lekha). They delayed
the entry into Israel and their whole generation died
in the wilderness because of their sin, except for Yehoshua,
Caleb and the women who have been always, in this case
too, wrongly accused of gossiping. Following the evil
path of the serpent, the spies began a plague which that
has persisted ever since -- uttering untruths about the
land of Israel. Today the untruths spoken about Israel,
its mission and its people, have become huge distortions
as a result of the lies perpetrated by political and theological
The mitzvot of the Torah
Lashon hara is a defined transgression both of the positive
commandments, mitzvot ase, (action which must be carried
out) and of the negative commandments, mitzvot lo taase
(action which must not be carried out). These precepts
should be understood both in the literal and figurative
The Hafetz Hayim lists and
analyzes the negative mitzvot which relate to speaking
ill of others (in the book Hafetz Hayim and in the book
--- Shemot 22, 21: kol almana veyatom lo teannun, Ye shall
not afflict any widow or fatherless child.
--- Shemot 23, 1:lo tissa shema shav, Thou shalt not raise
a false report.
--- Vayikra 19, 14: lo tekallel heresh, Thou shalt not
curse the deaf.
--- Vayikra 19, 14: lifne iver lo titen mikhshol, nor
put a stumbling block before the blind.
--- Vayikra 19, 16: lo telekh rakhil beamekha, Thou shalt
not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people.
--- Vayikra 19, 17: lo tisna et ahiklha vilevavekha, Thou
shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart.
--- Vayikra 19, 17: lo tisa alav het, nor suffer sin upon
--- Vayikra 19, 18: lo tikom ve lo titor, Thou shalt not
avenge, nor bear any grudge.
--- Vayikra 22, 32: lo tehalelo et shem kodshi, Thou shalt
not profane My holy name.
--- Vayikra 25, 17: lo tonu ish et amito, Ye shall not
oppress one another.
--- Bemidbar 17, 5: lo yiye keKorah ukheadato, be not
as Korah and his company.
--- Devarim 6, 12: hishamer lekha pen tishkakh et Hashem
Elokekha, beware lest thou forget Hashem your God. (This
is a warning against abusive language.)
--- Devarim 19, 15: lo yakum ed ehad beish lekhol avon
u lekhol hatat, One witness shall not rise up against
any man for any iniquity or for any sin.
--- Devarim 24, 8: lishmor meod, observe diligently.
Then the Hafetz Hayim lists
and analyzes the positive mitzvot, transgression of which
constitutes lashon hara:
--- Shemot 20, 12: kibed et avikha vet et imekha, honor
thy father and thy mother (the word et indicates that
this relates to a category of people, not just to a particular
--- Shemot 23, 7: midevar sheker tirhak, Keep thee far
from a false matter.
--- Vayikra 19, 18: veahavta lereakha kamokha, love thy
neighbor as thyself.
--- Vayikra 19, 15: vetzedek tisphot amitekha, in righteousness
shall thou judge thy neighbor.
--- Vayikra 19, 17: hohheah tokhiah, thou shalt surely
rebuke thy neighbor.
--- Vayikra 19, 32: vehadarta pene zaken, honor the face
of the old man.
--- Vayikra 21, 8: vekidashto, thou shalt sanctify him.
--- Vayikra 25, 35: ger vetoshav vahaimakh, a stranger
or a sojourner that he may live with thee.
--- Devarim 10, 20: et Hashem Elokekha tira, Thou shalt
fear Hashem they God (the word et indicates a category,
not just a particular person).
--- Devarim 24, 9: zakhor et asher asa Hashem Elokekha
lemiriam baderekh, Remember what Hashem thy God did unto
Miriam by the way.
--- Devarim 28, 9: vehalakhta bidevarav, walk in His ways.
In addition the Torah writes:
--- Devarim 27, 24: arur make reehu basater, Cursed be
he that smiteth his neighbor secretly.
Below are examples from the
Talmud and the Midrashim that should be added to the lists
of the Hafetz Hayim:
--- Berakhot 18a: those who speak ill of others, Hashem
will destroy them even when there is peace with Israel.
--- Pesahim 87b: Yeroboam, King of Israel, was judged
worthy of pertaining to the kings of Yehuda for he refused
to listen to the calumnies perpetrated against the prophet
--- Pesahim 88a: even in a generation that curses fathers
and does not bless mothers, one must not speak ill of
a servant to his master.
--- Pesahim 118a: he who creates lashon hara, spreads
it, listens to it, or bears false testimony merits being
thrown to the dogs for it is written: "ye shall cast
it to the dogs (lakelev tashlihun, Shemot 22, 30)"
and then "thou shalt not raise a false report"
(lo tisa Shema shav, Shemot 23, 1). The same is written
in Makkot 23a. This is the interpretation rule of juxtaposition,
--- Yoma 22b: Rav believes that David listened to calumny
and was punished for it. When he said: thou and Ziba divide
the land, tahleku et hasade, a voice from heaven spoke:
Yeroboam and Roboam will share your kingdom, II Samuel
30. (This illustrates the extreme gravity of lashon hara.)
--- Taanit 7b: the stopping of the rains is due solely
to he who spreads lashon hara, ein hageshamim napatserin
ela bishvil mesape lashon hara.
--- Zevahim 15b: anyone who spreads lashon hara increases
sins till they reach the skies, he deserves to be stoned,
magdil avonot ad hashamayim, raouil lesoko beaven.
--- Ketuvot 8a: if someone hears something he should not
be hearing, let him block his ears.
--- Baba Batra 164b: one must not say good of one's kin
for, by this way, one will speak of them
not preserved from three sins every day, nitzol mehem
among them lashon hara
steal, rov begezel, and a minority have forbidden sexual
relations, umiut bearayot, but all engage in lashon hara,
vehakol belashon hara.
--- Zevahim 88b: the robe of the cohen hagadol (which
bore a row of bells) serves to atone for sins of speech,
meil mekhaper al lashon hara, yavo davar shebakol veyekahper
--- Arakhin 15a: he who speaks is punished more severely
than he who acts. He who speaks lashon hara, let plagues
fall upon him, negaim baim alav, as it is written: "those
men that did bring up the evil report upon the land, died
by the plague before Hashem (Bemidbar 14, 37).
--- Arakhin 15b: he who spreads lashon hara will have
no reparation of his sin, siper ein lo takana.
--- Jerusalem Hagiga 2: hamitkabed bikelon havero, ein
lo helek leolam haba, he who speaks ill of his friend
will have no part in the world to come.
--- Midrash Bereshit Rabba: he who speaks evil is himself
the serpent who made lashon hara about the creator, ish
lashon ze hanahash she amar lashon hara al borea. (This
is the crux of the problem; through speech we unite with
Hashem, altering it is to directly harm Hashem himself).
--- Vayikra Rabba 10: for lashon hara, there is no atonement,
--- Bemidbar Rabba 19: why is it called "three,"
because it kills three people; he who says lashon hara,
he who hears it and its victim, lama nikra shelishi she
hu horeg shelosha, haomero, vehamekabel, veneemar alav.
--- Sifri 275: Miriam's error was not to speak face to
face with Moshe, ma Miriam she lo dibera ela she lo befanav
--- Avot of Ribbi Natan: our fathers committed 10 sins
against Hakadosh Barukh Hu and he did not punish them
except for the sin of lashon hara, ela al lashon hara.
(This emphasizes the power of verbal behavior).
How to keep the injunction
against lashon hara
How is the injunction kept in practice? What measures
can one take to avert lashon hara?
The Hafetz Hayim summarizes the halakhic points on this
question and lists when lashon hara must be suppressed:
--- even when it consists in truths (afilu al emet), and
if one knows that it is true (afilu yodea she hu emet),
and even when one has no intent to incite hatred (afilu
ein mitkaven baze lehaknis sinea).
--- even if there was a true conflict, or shameful deeds,
or if one was the victim.
--- even if someone who refuses to say calumnies is threatened
with humiliation, attacked or risks losing his employment
and all his possessions (hayav liten kol asher lo velo
--- whether it is said orally or in writing, by letter
(al yede mikhtav), or by simple allusions (al yede remez).
--- whether it is said face to face (befanav), in public
(bifne rabbim), or anonymously or jokingly (derekh tzhok),
or mockingly (lealig), or deceitfully (ramaut), even when
one cannot guess who is targeted (af she lo yuvan klal
mi hu), even when no harm would come to the victim (afilu
im lo yagiya shum raa lifloni), even if it says nothing
new (afilu ein megale lo davar hadash), and even if it
is something that has already been said (she ehad kvar
--- even if it concerns reprehensible and repugnant acts,
or if it is aims at commercial gain.
--- if it relates to a person's ancestors (bemaase avot),
his kin (kerovav), or to a per son's former actions (maase
harishonim), or to dead people (asur levazot et hametim).
--- if it bears on someone's deficiencies (mi tzad hesron
shlemut hamaalot), his weaknesses (halush), his poverty
(ani), his wealth (ashir), or his possessions (hafatzav).
--- one must even guard against being suspected of engaging
in lashon hara (hayav adam lishmor atzmo she lo yiye neheshad
limesaper lashon hara).
--- it is forbidden to live in an environment where lashon
hara is spoken (din issur dira bishekhuna baale lashon
--- it is forbidden to have a regular synagogue seat close
to where people engage in lashon hara (din issur keviat
makom beveit hakneset etzel baale halashon).
--- in the presence of lashon hara, it is forbidden to
listen to it even in public or in a group of people (bifne
rabbim), and even if it is uttered by many people (afilu
im Shema ze heharbe anashim, or even if it is included
among good things that are said (rekhilut al yede sipur
--- it is forbidden to read lashon hara (issur keriat
Those people who are charged
with examining the actions of others and drawing up reports
or judgments (judges, reshut le beit din lesaper) must
still study the halakha, despite these very detailed laws,
in order to fully adhere to them.
One must also guard against
expressions that can have double meanings (dibur she yesh
lo shnei panim).
Now that we have learnt what the Torah teaches us on the
fundamentally evil, destructive and irreparable nature
of lashon hara which can kill and which cannot be repaired
at any internal, external or celestial level,
and now that we have studied the teachings of the Sages
and the examples they set out, we can see that the most
common forms of lashon hara today are the political attacks,
slander and gossip about peoples'intimate and sexual
lives which we read, hear and see in our media. All of
this constitutes lashon hara, even if it has become part
of our daily lives and we take perverse pleasure in it.
The greatness of Judaism is
that it knows how to distance itself from the destructive
behavior and values of the masses: "Get thee out
lekh lekha," God said to Avraham.
In this we are helped by the teachings of the Torah and
our Sages, and through them, we can help to better the
world around us in our own small way.
The injunction against lashon
hara goes even further. Rashi says that on Shabbat it
is not enough not to work, or speak of work or business
affairs; one must not even think about these things. Similarly,
there is a prohibition against even thinking lashon hara
(din issur mahshevet lashon hara). Our vigilance must
therefore be "complete" and "forceful"
(shemira meula ve hazaka).
It must consist in not saying anything bad or evil (shelo
ledaber lashon hara urekhilut veshum davar ra). These
verses from the Torah teach us this:
--- netzor leshonekha mera usefateikha midaber mirma (Psalm
--- shemor pithe pikha (Mikha 7, 5).
In all times, Jews have grouped
together to help each other combat lashon hara. There
is even one such group on the Web.
The heart of the problem
We are now much more aware of the dangers that lashon
hara can cause to society, to our relationships and to
us as individuals.
We said that these dangers stem from the fact that lashon
hara harms the very root of things and harms the word
of Hashem. The Sages demonstrate this by analyzing with
great sensitivity the meaning of our "tongue"
(lashon): it is the central, intimate part of us which
is in union at all levels with Hashem. The numerical value
of the word when written in full corresponds to the same
"number" as the holy name Elokim (300). The
Torah itself is called leshon limudim, the tongue that
teaches knowledge. A man who, instead of studying Torah,
wastes his time in futile conversation (siha betela) is
called a letz (buffoon), and a man who uses his tongue
for lashon hara commits a sin graver than idolatry (avoda
zara), incest or forbidden relations, for he has truly
killed someone, he has shed the blood of a person and
he has extinguished the light of the shekhina in the world.
A Jew knows the importance
of this question: he is a realist, a social and thinking
person who has learnt that all levels of life are interconnected.
By harming this level, one harms all the others; by improving
one area, one improves the world, bringing it closer to
the state of grace and enabling the realization of the
A true and sincere word creates unity in life, for all
time. Everyone knows this.
A hurt through words should never destroy true love.
So it is with the words of God to man.
So is in Hebrew where every letter as a particular meaning
within a word, like the molecules of nature.
He who discovers the meaning of these letters discovers
something unforgettable and will see the Torah as a myriad
of living letters, each one bearing messages of light,
sound and taste - the teamim.
So we say:
ma ahavti toratekha, kol hayom hi sihati
how I love thy Torah, it is my meditation all the day
(Psalm 119, 97).
The whole of this Psalm describes the relationship of
love, through words, with Hashem.
Who is the Hafetz Hayim?
Rabbi Yisrael Meir ben Arie
Zeev haCohen, of Radin in Poland (1839-1933) was given
the name Hafetz Hayim from Psalm 34, 13-15 because of
his great qualities and great works. The Psalm says: "mi
haish he hafetz hayim
..? What man is he that desireth
life and loveth many days, that he may see good. Keep
thy tongue from evil and thy lips from speaking guile.
Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it."
He personified these verses.
His works testify to this: Ahavat hessed (love of goodness),
Kuntress ahavat Yisrael (Booklet on the Love of Israel),
Hafetz Hayim and Shmirat halashon (guard one's tongue)
which defines and explains the mitzvot that relate to
slander(rekhilut or lashon hara) and hatred in all its
forms. He founded a yeshiva (Radin, 1869) to disseminate
his teachings. He was admired by every stream of Judaism
-- by both the rival hassidim and mitnagdim. He studied
with Rabbi Yisrael Salenter who founded the movement based
on musar, morality, and who was a great talmudist and
author of brilliant commentaries on the Talmud.
The Hafetz Hayim also wrote Mishna Berura, the Mishna
Made Clear, a book which explains and comments on halakha
according to the Ashkenazi tradition and is based on the
section of the Shulkhan Arukh which is called Orah Hayim.
His influence was and still is immense. His writings are
an essential part of every Jewish library.