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Fake News, Real Consequences

This week, we consider the Sin of the Spies in Parashat Sh’lach (Num.13:1-15:41), when twelve of Israel’s best and brightest are sent on a reconnaissance mission to the Promised Land. One man is chosen from each tribe, except for Levi, since they were exempt because of their priestly duties. The phrase, "Send for yourself," reveals that it was Israel that wanted to take such action. HaShem allowed it so that it would expose, to the scouts, what was in their own hearts.

In light of the events in last week's parasha, misadventures for Israel were definitely trending. We can see a hint of the disaster that was to come when HaShem changes the name of Hoshea, son of Nun to Joshua. According to Rashi, the new name can be roughly translated as, “May God save you from the evil counsel of the spies”

(Talmud, Sotah 34b).

Out of the twelve sent, only Joshua and Caleb returned with a glowing description of the bounty of the land and firm assurances that with G-d's help, the land was for the taking.

Despite showing the people huge boughs of grapes and other abundant native produce taken from the land, the other ten could only offer utter despair as they spoke of a,“land that devours its own” and some inhabitants so large that the spies viewed themselves as grasshoppers compared to these giants they called Nephilim, the very same beings who existed on the earth before the Flood of Noach.

Hopelessness spread throughout the camp of Israel, eliciting wailing and doleful expressions of resignation

The report of the ten is considered evil speech because it spread falsehoods about the very land G-d promised to Israel. Throughout their journey from Egypt, Hashem repeatedly emphasized the beauty, abundance, and blessings of the land He promised to give to the Israelites. For example, in Exodus 3:8, God tells Moses, "I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey."

God brought them out of bondage, destroyed Egypt with Ten Plagues, and Split the Sea, but somehow in the minds of the ten Spies, they only saw a land ripe with insurmountable challenges. They had fallen prey to their own imagination. This mindset betrays a deeper problem for the Spies and their followers. Faced with leaving the comfort and protection of the Clouds of Glory was too much reality. They were not ready to face the full-time responsibilities of of a bountiful region that was fraught with everyday challenges. They gave into their insecurities and their lack of trust in HaShem. Rather than fill their hearts with faith, they look to their imaginations for excuses.

This is the essence of Idolatry: rejecting HaShem's words and replacing them with one’s own illusions. In fact, the Sages characterize the Sin of the Spies as being worse than the Sin of the Golden Calf because the damage done by the words of the spies was more far reaching in its impact, keeping the nation out of the Promised Land for forty years. It eventually resulted in deaths of all who rejected God's promises, choosing the lies. And they would never see the Land.

This national hysteria ensued on Tish B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, a date marked by tragedy, ever since. For example, the destruction of the First and Second Temples occurred on that day.

The Sin of the Spies reveals a centuries-old problem that began in Gan Eden. Would it be appropriate to say that their response is called Evil Speech because it's tantamount to the blasphemous question asked by the nachash,"Hath G'd really said?"

The nachash distorted God's command to Eve. The fatal flaw of Adam and Eve was not discerning between the world of truth and the realm of illusion. The latter results in being led astray by what you think you see or want to see.

In this same portion of the Torah we encounter an incident which, on the surface seems out of place. It is the tale of a man gathering wood on Shabbat.

“They brought him near, those who found him picking up wood, to Moshe and to Aharon, and to the entire community; they put him under guard, for it had not been clarified what should be done to him. The Lord said to Moshe: The man is to be put to death, yes, death; pelt him with stones, the entire community, outside the camp! So they brought him, the entire community, outside the camp, and they pelted him with stones, so that he died, as G-d had commanded Moshe.” - Numbers 15:33-36

Rashi points out that within the context of the original Hebrew, it is clear that this was a deliberate and very public act of desecrating Shabbat. Though the man was warned of the possible consequences, he continued and subsequently put to death.

One obvious take away from this episode is that the Creator wants His people to understand that the observance of Shabbat is literally a matter of life and death for Israel. This recalls the words of Nehemiah who served as governor who led the restoration of Jerusalem when the nation returned from the Persian captivity. Nehemiah called on the people to recall the effects of not keeping Shabbat:

“I censured the nobles of Judah, saying to them, “What evil thing is this that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day! This is just what your ancestors did, and God brought all this misfortune on this city; and now you give cause for further wrath against Israel by profaning the Sabbath!”

- Nehemiah 13:15-22

Reading the account of the man publicly desecrating Shabbat is followed immediately by the command to wear tzit-tizit, the fringes on the garment of a Jewish male.

We can see a deliberate connecting thread between these two teachings. The arrangement of the strings, cords and knots of the tzit-tzit is a tactile and visual representation of the Torah. These fringes are always there. When the wearer drops his hands to his sides, the fringes remind the wearer not to stray after their own impulses and imaginations. In addition, wearing the tzit-tzit is also a very public demonstration that the wearer is an Observant Jew, keeping G-d’s holy commandments.

The mitzvah of the tzit-tzit is a daily reminder that a Torah observant life will guard one from being led astray. Someday soon, a fully observant Jewish presence in eretz Israel will, B’esrat HaShem, negate the effects of Tish b’Av. Here we can see the potential for a rectification of the Sin of the Spies in a deeply prophetic way when the nations will hear glowing, hope-filled reports of a land and its people living lives wrapped in holiness:

"Thus said GOD of Hosts: In those days, ten people from nations of every tongue will take hold—they will take hold of every Jew by the corner of their cloak and say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” - Zechariah 8:23

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