Parshat Shelach Lecha is one of the most fascinating parashot. Moshe sends 12 spies to scout the Land of Israel before the Jewish people enter it, a representative from each tribe, the elite leaders of the entire nation. Unfortunately, upon their return there was tremendous disappointment. Two spies were for entering the land and 10 against! We know that in a democracy the majority decides, but in this case, regarding a religious and cultural ruling, the majority was wrong.
Because of Am Yisrael’s crying and moaning that night, our Sages tell us that the spies’ sin continued to accompany Am Yisrael for forty years in the wilderness and even accompanies us until today. This is because this occurrence wasn’t a one-off mistake but a sin that has a past, present and future.
What does all this mean? What really happened with the spies? How did they fall so low and what does it mean that their sin exists until today?
This parsha provides us with a revolutionary definition of a rasha, a wicked person. Outwardly, it’s hard to differentiate a rasha from a tzaddik, a righteous person, since they can appear similar to each other. So, can we tell a rasha just from his actions?
Rashi asks, “Why is the section dealing with the spies put in juxtaposition with the section dealing with Miriam’s punishment? To show the grievousness of the spies’ sin: because she (Miriam) was punished on account of the slander which she uttered against her brother, and these sinners witnessed it and yet they did not take a lesson from her.”
When Miriam was punished for speaking lashon hara (slander) against her brother Moshe and his wife Tzipporah, she was punished with leprosy. The entire camp knew about Miriam’s sin, prayed for her recovery and waited for her to heal before they moved on. It was big news at the time! This episode had barely passed, and certainly was not yet forgotten when the spies sinned with their report from Eretz Yisrael, once again with the sin of lashon hara. What’s going on here? How is it possible that the spies sinned with lashon hara, exactly the same sin for which Miriam was severely punished, when they knew and saw all she experienced?
So, who is a wicked person? To quote Rashi above, it’s someone who “witnessed it and yet they did not take a lesson from her.” When things occur around us, we need to look deeper and ask ourselves how it affects us? Not from the egotistical point of view of “what do I feel?” but rather “how can I improve myself and my surroundings after seeing this?” If one sees wicked actions one must make sure not to fall into the same pit. Conversely, if one sees good actions one has to ask oneself, “how can I relate to this and play my part?” We cannot allow events to pass us by and remain apathetic without internalizing what’s happening.
The two tzaddikim (righteous people) in this parsha, Yehoshua and Calev, were successful in their mission as spies since they acted in the exact opposite way to the wicked.
They saw what was going on around them but chose to stand up against the majority, against the crowd. They wanted to do what was right, not what the majority wanted to hear.
With their words טוֹבָה הָאָרֶץ מְאֹד מְאֹד, “the Land is an exceedingly good Land”, they actually saved the Jewish nation. Instead of returning to Egypt or dying off in the wilderness, they saved our legacy. In their merit, the Jewish nation entered the Land of Israel, the exceedingly good land, where, with God’s help and grace, we live and prosper to this day.
Sivan Rahav-Meir is the World Mizrachi Scholar-in-Residence and an Israeli journalist and lecturer.