In this week’s parasha, Shelach, we continue a theme begun last week in Parashat Beha’alotcha. At the end of theparasha, Miriam shares with Aaron something personal about their brother, Moses, which is not true. Even though she loved Moses and meant to help him correct something she thought was an error on his part, God punished her for saying something untrue about another person.
This slander is one form of lashon hara, evil speech, which includes saying something hurtful or embarrassing about a person even though it may be true. Another form of lashon hara is speaking the truth about certain facts, but drawing a conclusion from the facts that is not true. This happens in Parashat Shelach.
The Children of Israel were just a few days march away from the Land of Canaan. Moses sent out meraglim(“spies” or “scouts”) to look over the land and learn about it, then bring back a report. Each of the 12 tribes sent one of its distinguished men to serve on this mission, including Caleb ben Jephunnah, who was Miriam’s husband, and Joshua ben Nun, who was Moses’ student.
The meraglim traveled throughout Canaan for 40 days. They returned laden with grapes, pomegranates and figs. The cluster of grapes was so large it took eight men to carry it, and the pomegranates and figs were each carried by one man.
When the meraglim arrived, they told the people the land flows with milk and honey, as God had foretold, and showed the people the bountiful fruit. The meraglim also told the people that the land is inhabited by the children of giants who live in well-protected cities.
Then ten of the meraglim went beyond the facts and said that the land and the people living there cannot be conquered, saying “It is too strong for us.” Caleb and Joshua disagreed. Caleb urged the people, “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it.”
The people became afraid. They had forgotten the signs and wonders God showed them in bringing them out of Egypt, and the miracles God performed in keeping them safe during the many months in the Wilderness.
God became angry with the people, and told Moses the Israelites would be killed. God prayed for the people to be forgiven, and God relented, but decreed that, except for Joshua and Caleb, all the adult Israelites 20 years old and older would die during a 40 year journey in the Wilderness rather than enter the Land of Israel.
So by speaking incorrectly, the meraglim made the people afraid and caused them to lose the chance to dwell in the promised Land. We must be careful in speaking and writing and not jump to conclusions that may not be true. With the vast network of social media, anything we write can be spread as fast as lightning and influence others to do the wrong thing – a good reason to always be Trustworthy in what we say and write.
You wouldn’t want anyone to wander in the Wilderness for 40 years because you said something untrue.