Parashat Shelach: We See What We Want to See
When the scouts returned from Eretz Yisrael and reported about their findings, they told the nation that the land is "Eretz Ochelet Yoshebeha" – "a land that consumes its inhabitants" (13:32). The Gemara explains that everywhere the spies went, they saw funerals. People were dying throughout the time the spies spent in the land, and they therefore concluded that Eretz Yisrael must be a dangerous, deadly place that kills its inhabitants. In truth, however, as the Gemara relates, G-d saw to it that people would die during the scouts’ sojourn so that the inhabitants would be preoccupied with burying and mourning their loved ones and would thus not notice the foreigners. The large number of funerals was actually a sign of G-d’s kindness, yet the scouts interpreted it as a sign of His disdain for His people, that He was bringing them to a "land that consumes its inhabitants."
The Steipler Gaon (Rav Yaakov Kanievsky, 1899-1985), in Birkat Peretz, observed that people see what they want to see. Two people can witness the exact same event, or look upon the exact same sight, and see two entirely different things. Our vision is affected by our mindset and attitude. The scouts embarked on their mission with an interest in dissuading the people from entering the land, realizing that they would likely lose their leadership positions once the nation entered Eretz Yisrael. And thus when they saw the funerals in Canaan, they saw an "Eretz Ochelet Yoshebeha." They did not see G-d’s Providence protecting them, but rather a dangerous land that should not be inhabited.
The Gemara in Masechet Gittin (45a) tells the story of a Rabbi named Rav Ilish, who was once imprisoned. One day a raven flew by and began chirping. Rav Ilish turned to his cellmate, who understood the language of birds, and asked what the bird meant. The man said that the bird was exclaiming, "Ilish escape, Ilish escape," indicating that the time had come for the Rabbi to make his escape from the jail. Rav Ilish felt that ravens were not trustworthy, and so he refused to escape until a dove came and began chirping. The man interpreted the dove’s chirping, too, as bidding Rav Ilish to escape, and so he fled. Rabbi Akiva Eger (1761-1837) cites a source claiming that Rav Ilish himself understood the language of birds, and he notes that this claim seems very difficult to accept in light of the Gemara’s account. If Rav Ilish understood the language of birds, then why did he have to ask his cellmate to interpret the raven and dove’s chirping? Didn't he understand the meaning of the chirping himself?
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (1901-1978) answered this question by suggesting that Rav Ilish indeed understood birds’ language, but in this instance he did not trust his interpretation. He obviously wanted to flee prison, and was thus naturally inclined to interpret the birds’ chirping as advising him to do so. Rav Ilish realized that people hear what they want to hear, and he was thus prone to deceiving himself by interpreting the chirping to mean that he should escape.
This is the one of the lessons we can learn from the story of the spies. We often approach matters with a jaundiced eye, with a predisposed mindset that does not allow us to understand things correctly. In order to properly understand the world around us, we need to recognize ourselves and our natural instincts, and try to view things from a true, objective perspective.