Parashat Shelah: Understanding the Sin of the Spies
Rashi, commenting to the beginning of Parashat Shelah, draws a connection between the story of the spies, which is told in this Parasha, and the story of Miriam’s Sara’at (leprousy), which is told in the final verses of the previous Parasha. Miriam was punished for speaking negatively about her brother, Moshe, and the spies should have learned from her punishment the gravity of Lashon Ha’ra (negative speech). Tragically, however, they did not learn this lesson, and they spoke Lashon Ha’ra about the Land of Israel. This, Rashi explains, is the reason why these two stories are juxtaposed to one another in the Torah.
How are we to understand this connection? Miriam was punished for speaking critically of Moshe Rabbenu, the greatest prophet who ever lived. How were the spies supposed to learn from her punishment that they should not speak negatively about a land?
The Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) explained by analyzing the essential nature of the sin of the spies. When the spies returned from their excursion, they described the large size and great strength of the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael, and how small they, the spies, felt in comparison. In this context, they said that they felt like "Hagabim" – "grasshoppers," or locusts (13:33). The significance of this comparison, the Ben Ish Hai explained, can be found in a verse in the Book of Mishleh (30:27), where King Shlomo teaches, "Melech En La’arbeh" – "The locust has no king." Locusts have no authority figure; they swarm and consume without any restraint or semblance of order. They are not under anyone’s control or authority. This, the Ben Ish Hair writes, is the meaning of the spies’ comment. They felt they had no competent leader. As they stood in fear observing the powerful Canaanites, they started asking themselves, "What kind of leader sends his people to such a dangerous place?" They thus concluded that they had no leadership. Moshe was not responsible, they believed, and could not be trusted.
This was the crux of the sin of the spies – they distrusted Moshe Rabbenu. He received an explicit prophecy from G-d that He would lead them to a good land and would grant them victory over the people of Canaan. The spies did not accept his prophecy, and did not trust him. This is why their sin was so severe. Once the people mistrusted Moshe regarding Eretz Yisrael, they would mistrust him regarding everything else, as well, and they would then reject the entire Torah.
This explains the connection between the story of the spies and the story of Miriam. When Miriam spoke about Moshe Rabbenu, she did not intend to undermine his authority, or to denigrate him in any way. However, her negative comments led to the next stage, when the spies questioned Moshe’s credentials as leader and prophet. The first step was Miriam’s mild criticism, and the next step was the spies’ general mistrust of Moshe.
Unfortunately, the process did not stop there. The next Parasha, Parashat Korah, tells how this process unfolded one step further, with Korah leading a frontal, all-out assault on Moshe’s authority. The spies had stopped short of openly opposing Moshe’s leadership, and dismissed only his prophecy regarding the Land of Israel. But this led to the next step, which was Korah’s all-out revolt against Moshe. What began as an unintentional slight to Moshe’s honor by Miriam evolved into a full-blown rebellion against Moshe’s authority. Although she did not intend any harm, and did not seek to challenge Moshe’s authority in any way, it triggered a process of gradual decline in the people’s esteem for Moshe Rabbenu, a process that culminated in an all-out rebellion.