The cheit meraglim, the sin of the spies, is one of the most dramatic and tragic episodes in the entire Torah.
However, a close reading of the text reveals a fundamental question: What, exactly, did the spies do wrong? Where was the sin? In the beginning of the parsha, Moshe commands them to bring back a detailed report about the land and its inhabitants. And that seems to be exactly what the meraglim do—they return and give an honest assessment—which includes positive aspects of the land as well as several negative aspects. Everything they mention appears to be the truth, at least their perspective. Why was this so problematic?
The Ramban, on this episode, suggests that the sin of the spies lay not in the content of what they said, but in the way that they presented it. While it may be true that all the details the spies told the nation regarding the land were factually true, they were deliberately told in a way that would dishearten Am Yisrael.
There is one word, suggests the Ramban, that is the key to understanding their sin. The spies begin their report on a positive note, confirming that the land is in fact flowing with milk and honey, and has beautiful fruits. But the very next word undoes it all—“efes, however, the nation is strong, and the cities are fortified, and giants live amongst them,” The word “efes” typically means “zero” or “nothing.” In our context, it is taken to mean “but,” or “however”—and as the Ramban notes, the deliberate use of the word “efes” is meant to connote a sense of hopelessness and despondency—that despite everything that has been said so far, there is no chance they will be successful.
With this word, says the Ramban, the meraglim flip the entire narrative on its head—the entire atmosphere of the conversation shifts. They go on to outline a number of negative aspects about the land, and by the end of the report, the main feeling that the nation is left with is one of despondence and hopelessness. All the positive aspects of the report are forgotten, and the nation has no confidence in its ability to conquer Eretz Yisrael.
Therefore, while it may be that everything the spies say is factually true, the way that it was presented was misleading and deceptive. It showed that the spies had a clear agenda—to discourage the nation from conquering the land—and they therefore presented the facts in a particular way. By starting with the positives but then transitioning to the negatives using the word “efes,” they ensured that the lasting impression that the nation received from their report was pessimistic and gloomy. That, according to the Ramban, was the crux of the sin of the spies.
There is an important lesson that we can glean from this understanding of the Ramban—an important lesson in all relationships, but particularly for parents. When giving positive feedback or encouragement to our kids—which is something we should do often—it is important that the feedback not only starts on a positive note but ends on a positive one. We should not combine it with negative feedback as well. If we praise our child about something, and then continue with “but…,” that “but” will often undo any of the positive comments that were said beforehand. Our child will mostly hear the negative comments and feel criticized, not even remembering the initial praise that we started with.
Of course, there is always a place for negative feedback, and sometimes even criticism—as we all could benefit from hearing about areas where we could improve. However, such feedback must be given with sensitivity and in the right way. Otherwise, it may hurt more than help.
As understood by the Ramban, the sin of the spies lay not in what they said, but in how they said it. By combining the positives and negative together—but starting with the positive, and then declaring “but…” as they transitioned to the negatives, they left Am Yisrael with a sense of despondence and negativity regarding their mission. We, as parents, must also think about the way that we relay messages and feedback to our kids. It is crucial that our praise and encouragement by our kids be experienced as such, rather than be swallowed up by any criticism that follows.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!
Rav Yossi Goldin is the menahel tichon at Yeshivas Pe'er HaTorah, Rebbe at Midreshet Tehilla, and Placement Advisor/Internship Coordinator for the YU/RIETS Kollel. He lives with his family in Shaalvim and can be reached at [email protected]