The Evil of Misrepresentation

Rabbi Richard Borah

 The parsha of Shelach describes the report of the twelve princes of Israel (one from each tribe) who went to scout out the land of Canaan. Ten of the twelve who went, returned with a description that brought fear and despondency to the Jewish people. Only Yehoshua and Calev did not participate in this “evil report” and attemptef to dispel the negative impact of the others. The Torah states in Bamidbar 13:31-33:

But the men who went up with him said, "We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we. They spread an [evil] report about the land which they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, "The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes. 

The evil report of these 10 princes of Israel, and the Jewish people’s fearful response to it, was the cause of the Jewish people’s remaining in the desert for 40 years until the generation leaving Egypt died, although the journey to Canaan should have only required a few weeks to complete. The Torah states in Bamidbar 14:22-23:

That all the people who perceived My glory, and the signs that I performed in Egypt and in the desert, yet they have tested me these ten times and not listened to My voice,  if they will see the Land that I swore to their fathers, and all who provoked Me will not see it. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik (“The Rav”), describes the misrepresentation of these 10 princes in the text “the Rav Speaks” by Abraham R. Besdin. He explains that the 10 princes did not accept the nature of the unique relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. It was this failure that made these princes, and those that followed them, unfit to inhabit the holy land and it was for this that they were condemned to die in the desert.  The Rav states:


Jewish destiny is linked with this land; we have no other. Only in this land, our Sages say, does the Shekhinah dwell and only therein does prophecy flourish. This segulah (a unique positive quality-RB) attribute of the land is no more rationally explicable than the segulah of the people. These are qualities certified by our faith, and history has corroborated the singularity of both people and the land. (page 120).


The 12 princes who scouted the land made the error of assessing the land in a standard manner; in a sense, comparing it to other lands for its inhabitability and military characteristics. The Rav explains that since the land of Israel is the unique, singular land for the Jewish people and at the center of purpose role and destiny, the scouting party’s function was not to assess or compare the land with other lands, but to only acquaint oneself with the land and experience its qualities in a direct manner. The Rav relates this to the Jewish law that a Jewish man is required to meet and to know one’s bride before making the marriage commitment.  The Rav explains:


…the reason Moses was told to send scouts into the land (was) not to gather intelligence, but to have the distinguished heads of each tribe explore the land bring back reports of its singular character. The instructions Moses gave them defined their mission, viz. to make the acquaintance of the land. By entering the land, the people were being wedded to it and, despite Divine assurances of its quality, they had to experience it through their princes before the commitment could be deeply rooted and irrevocably assumed. (page 122)


The Rav explains that the sin of the spies was that:


Their report was that of spies, not that of scouts; they balanced debits against credits and declared the entire enterprise hopeless. With grandeur looking down on them, all they could see was the mundane. (page `123)

The marriage of the Jewish people and the land of Israel was a fait accompli, as an agreed upon union described in the Torah, which the children of Israel had voluntarily accepted.  Also, to assess that God's creating of this shidduch (match) was a disastrous one, showed a lack of reasonable faith in God who has  so miraculously redeemed and cared for them to this point.  The Rav explains that the Jewish people were tasked with experiencing the land directly or at least through their princes before the marriage could be completed. But to now view the bride "under the chuppah" and notice some qualities you find unappealing such that you refuse to marry her is not the proper order of things, to say the least.


Maimonides (“The Rambam”) has a very different understanding of the “evil report” of the 10 spies. He views the incident as a necessary event by which God justified to the Jewish people their 40 year journey through the desert. This period of time, according to the Rambam, was required for the inevitably slow development to take place and transform a slave nation into one that was capable of fulfilling its noble role in the land of Israel. The Rambam states in the “Guide for the Perplexed”:


It was the result of God’s wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness till they acquired courage. For it is a well-known fact that traveling in the wilderness, and privation of bodily enjoyments, such as bathing, produce courage, whilst the reverse is the source of faint-heartedness; besides, another generation rose during the wanderings that had not been accustomed to degradation and slavery. (“Guide for the Perplexed”: Friedlander translation: Book 3: Chapter 32)


The Rambam explains in this chapter that this process of gradual change is found throughout God’s interaction with the Jewish people and explains the structures of many Jewish laws by which a people who began as idolatrous slaves were transformed into a courageous, holy nation. The Rambam also brings examples from nature by which organisms develops and grow through gradual steps in development. From the Rambam’s explanation we can see the spies' evil report of the land and the mass rebellion it caused as an expected event that revealed that the people were not ready to enter the land so shortly after the redemption from slavery. Had the Jewish nation been denied entrance into the land for 40 years without the incident of the spies, it would have been perceived by them as unnecessary and unjust. However though the incident of the spies, it was made clear that the gradual development of the desert was necessary to prepare the next generation to conquer the land. 

Taking Maimonides perspective of the necessity for the gradual transformation in the desert, one could ask the question of why the report of spies and the Jewish people’s response was portrayed as such a great sin and one that resulted in the death of the spies and punishment of the Jewish people. One might answer this by saying that although the gradual development of the people from slaves to conquerors is the normal way things occur, with the unique experience the Jewish people had through their redemption from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah, there was an opportunity for them to accelerate this development and take a bold step of total transformation. Our history has many examples of individuals who change it seems, in an instant to a different person. Elisha left all things of his life in a moment of great decision to follow Eliyahu. Rabbi Soloveitchik at the conclusion of his great essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith” describes Elisha’s transformation. He states:

While he was engaged in the most ordinary, everyday activity, in tilling the soil, he encountered God and felt the transforming touch of God’s hand. The strangest metamorphosis occurred. Within seconds, the old Elisha disappeared and a new Elisha emerged. ( p. 112)


The unprecedented revelation of God’s might and providence that had brought the people to this point of decision was negated and defeated by the lashon hara of the spies. The plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna, the awe and the enlightenment of Sinai were all swept away by a few words of discouragement. It is a cautionary tale of the power of speech to destroy and change the destiny of a person or a people. It is certainly true, what the Rambam states in the Guide regarding “gradualism” being the natural course of change. But the Jews had been given a unique opportunity to make a “quantum leap” and transform without the normal course of time and development. This flash of transformation did not occur for the Jewish people and they were relegated to the “normal way of things” by which they would gradually develop over years and generations into the nation that was capable of conquering the land.