Monday, June 11, 2007

Looking Bad(ly)

Last week we read the Torah portion of the spies. They were punished for bringing back a bad report about the land of Israel. As a result of this report and its acceptance by the people, the Israelites had to wander in the desert for 40 years (corresponding to the 40 days the spies were spying out the land) until that generation had died and the new generation, their children, were finally able to enter the land of Israel.
R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz asks why they were punished for 40 years if the sin was only the speaking and acceptance of the evil report about Israel. In other words, why were the spies punished for doing their job of scouting out the land? And why were the people punished for doing nothing during those 40 days?
R’ Matis Weinberg points out that the Hebrew words for speaking evil, lashon hara, don’t actually means ‘bad language/ tongue’ (that would be ‘lashon ra’ah, since lashon is a feminine word). Rather it means ‘the language of evil’. The real sin of lashon hara is not causing damage to someone else, or offending them, but is more fundamental. It is the sin of seeing the world in a way that everything looks bad. Speaking about the bad things that one sees is just the consequence of viewing the world in this way. R’ Matis also points out that Rambam puts the laws of lashon hara in the book of ‘de’os’, which talks about perfection of character traits, rather than in a section of forbidden speech or damages.
The main prohibition of lashon hara is viewing the world in a certain way, where everything looks bad. This was the sin of the spies – for 40 days they only saw the negative aspects of the land of Israel. All the miracles that G-d did for them while they were there, and all the Divine protection they received, they managed to twist into seeing how bad the land was.
Similarly, the people who were so keen to send the spies were not looking at the positive aspects of Israel. They wanted spies who would seek out the negatives and allow them to remain in the desert, or even return to Egypt, rather than having to fight a war to enter the land. The whole enterprise was therefore doomed from the outset. This is why they were punished for 40 years. Moshe realized that things were going wrong from the beginning, which is why he prayed for Yehoshua that he should be saved from this wicked counsel.
I always wondered how people could view Israel in such a negative light that they were punished with 40 years of exile. Sure, there are some things in Israeli society, mentality or geography that I complain about from time to time, but how could the whole country be viewed so negatively? What about the daily miracles of survival and blessing? What about the homeland for the Jewish people? What about the ingathering of the exiles?
Luckily I have found the answer to my question – from the ostensibly unbiased news service of the BBC (I say ostensibly, because the Arabs in Britain complain that their news service is biased in favor of Israel – bear that in mind as you look at this article!).
Just to clarify – they don’t tell too many outright lies. But they manage to distort the facts to see only the negative side (from the Israeli/ Jewish perspective) of every main area of the modern political situation in Israel.
So, if you have the stomach to read what might have come directly from the words of the spies (and you will need a strong stomach) – here is the summary of the Middle East story, and obstacles to peace, by the BBC:

Obstacles to peace: Moveable frontiers
Obstacles to peace: Refugees
Obstacles to peace: Water
Obstacles to peace: Jerusalem

And for a final stomach wrenching personal account:
Samia Zaru, Palestinian refugee sculptor living in Jordan

Or perhaps you don’t agree with me. If you think these are fair and honest reports please leave your comments at the bottom of the page. And if you think they are seeing the real picture and I am wearing rose colored glasses, please let me know.

(cross posted from

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