The Spies' Plague


Moshe Ben-Chaim


In parshas Shelach (Num. 14:37) Rashi quotes down an odd Medrash, describing the punishment of the ten, evil spies who spoke against the land of Israel right before they were about to inherit it. Rashi states, “With that death suitable for them, measure for measure. They sinned with their tongue, (so) their tongues were extended to their navels and worms exited their tongues and entered their navels.”


How do we understand such a Medrash?  From a standpoint of methodology, one must first define all elements: what do “tongue”, “navel” and “worms” represent? We see clearly that Rashi says they sinned with their tongues – their sin concerned evil speech. So tongue represents speech. But what do navel and worms represent? A person’s navel has a singular distinction over all other locations of the body: it is traced back to the umbilical cord, as the navel is the scar of that previous appendage. The navel recalls that which supplied the infant sustenance while in the womb. What do worms represent? They represent lowliness and that which one abhors. Something disgusting. We can now interpret the Medrash.


The tongue – over all else – is said to have been the culprit. Thus, speech was the sin. What type of speech? “Wormy” or disgusting talk. Thus, worms indicate this aspect. Finally, the tongues extended to the navel. Meaning, their speech (tongue) affected something to do with their navel, or rather, their sustenance. Israel was to be a land where God provided sustenance for the Jewish nation, besides being their homeland. The spies’ foolishly voiced their insecurities and removed their chance to gain this source of sustenance. In other words, “their tongues affected their navel with something wormy”. This punishment was meted out to the spies, as God always desires man to recognize his sin and improve. Such a bizarre punishment causes those affected to reflect.