Shmuel Reichman
Inspire Yourself to Inspire Others

Sight, but no vision: The sin of the spies (Parshat Shelach)

Sight, But No Vision

It was a stormy night, and a battle ship was on exercise at sea. The captain stood on the bridge, looking into the foggy night ahead of him. Suddenly, he heard the look-out shout from the observation post, “There’s a light on the starboard side!”

“Is it steady or moving?” the captain asked.

“It’s moving,” the lookout replied. This meant they were on a direct collision course with the other ship. The captain quickly ran up and grabbed the ship radio. “We are on collision course!” he signaled to the other ship. “Change course 20 degrees immediately.”

The signal was quickly came back ‘”Advisable for you to change course.”

Infuriated, the captain immediately replied ‘”I am a captain. Change your course NOW.”

“I am a seaman second class. You had better change your course 20 degrees,” came the reply.

By now, the captain was outraged. ‘”I am a battleship. Change course or suffer the consequences!”

Back came the signal, “I am a lighthouse.”

The captain changed course.

Human beings have a remarkable ability and tendency to jump to conclusions, assuming that we know the truth of a situation when, in fact, we have completely misjudged it. One of the most powerful learning experiences a person can have is that of a paradigm shift- a shift in perspective whereby we learn to see something in a fundamentally and entirely different way. This concepts links to an essential insight in this week’s parsha, Shelach.

The Sin of the Miraglim

In parshas Shelach, Moshe sends miraglim-spies- to scout out the land of Eretz Yisrael. With the exception of Yehoshua and Kalev, the Meraglim returned with a negative report about the land- attempting to dissuade the Jewish people away from entering Eretz Yisrael. While we often view their account as malicious libel, this does not seem to be the case if one reads the story at the surface level. As the spies scouted the land, they witnessed multiple giants burying the dead, and upon return they reported this to the Jewish People. Chazal explain that the Miraglim violated the prohibition of lashon hara – evil speech. However, they did not speak about people, only a piece of land! Does lashon hara really apply to inanimate objects? Furthermore, the miraglim spoke the truth. They saw people dying, and they passed on that information. Was it not their job to report what they saw?

There is an enigmatic Gemara in Sanhedrin 104b, which notes that although the verses in Megilas Eichah- Lamentations- run in alphabetical order, in most chapters the verse starting with the letter peh appears before the verse that starts with the letter ayin, counter to their alphabetical order. The Gemara explains that this reversal is due to the fact that the Miraglim put their mouth- “peh”– before their eye- “ayin”. What does all this mean?

Proper Sight

There are two levels of truth: The first is how things appear on the physical surface, the second is the meaning that lies behind that exterior. In the same sense, there are two levels of sight: the first is physical sight, whereby you see the physical object itself; the second is spiritual sight, whereby you give meaning to that which you have seen. Improper sight is seeing only that which is on the surface, without sourcing it back to its root, without seeing that which truly lies behind it. When the surface no longer reflects a deeper truth, it becomes a shell of an object, lacking any internal meaning, like a body without a soul. For example, if you were to look at someone’s face and see only flesh and bone, without recognizing that there’s a consciousness, a sentient being, behind that surface, that would be a gross corruption of sight. Your physical sight is correct, but the meaning you have given to your physical sight is far from the truth. Similarly, when you witness an event, you have the ability to understand the meaning that lies behind the event. If, however, you don’t ascertain the truth that lies beneath the surface level, you are likely to project your own personal perceptions onto the situation, twisting its true meaning to align with your subjective reality.

The Miraglim: Corruption of Sight

The Miraglim’s physical sight was perfect; what they lacked was spiritual sight. They physically saw giants burying their dead. They, however, interpreted this to mean that the land kills its people and “consumes its inhabitants.” In reality, as the Midrash explains, Hashem performed a miracles to aid the Miraglim in their mission. Hashem killed off the leaders of the giants in each city so that the dwellers would be distracted, ensuring that the Miraglim would not be discovered. The death of the giants was the surface fact, the spies’ fault lay in the meaning they projected onto it.

Similarly, the Miraglim reported to Klal Yisrael that when they came across the giants “we were like grasshoppers in our eyes” (Bamidbar 13:33). They projected their fear and lack of faith onto the giants. In their own eyes, the giants viewed them as grasshoppers. They were no longer transmitting an account of objective reality, rather, they were depicting and projecting their own spiritual and existential insecurities onto their experiences. This was their two-fold mistake. They not only misunderstood their physical experiences, but then projected their misunderstanding onto the report they brought back to Klal Yisrael. We can now begin to explain why this was considered a violation of lashon harah.

The Power of Speech

As we’ve explained before, speech reflects the power of connection. We are naturally isolated and separate from one another. We are separate beings, all living in our own subjective world, our own inner universe. We will never be able to experience life through anyone else’s perspective, only through our own inner consciousness. We have our own thoughts and feelings, things no one else can see. We face our own hardships and tribulations, ones that no one else truly understands. This results in several difficulties. If I am trapped in my own inner world, how can I connect with other people? How can I know what’s going on in their heads? How can I share my inner life with them? How can I overcome this infinite barrier between myself and everyone else?

This is the power of speech. Speech allows us to connect with other people. You start with your own inner thoughts and experience. You take a deep breath and then use your throat to project your words outwards. You then use your mouth, tongue, teeth, and lips to form the specific words which will encase your thoughts as you give them concrete form. In essence, you then throw your words out into the world around you in the form of vibrations. If another person is nearby, their ears can pick up these vibrations and translate them into sound. Those sounds will form words, and those words sentences. If they speak your language, those words will take on meaning as well. They must then keep track of all the different words and sentences, holding on to them, and bringing them back from memory, in order to form a complete picture of everything you said. Amazingly, this person can now experience your inner world inside their own mind. They now contain a piece of you within themselves. The barrier between your worlds has been diminished.

The Danger of Lashon Hara

Lashon hara is taking the very tool of connection, speech, and using it to disconnect people from each other. When you say something negative about someone else, you have created a conceptual wall between the subject of your negativity and the person who you are speaking with. The very tool of connection has been corrupted to achieve its opposite goal

The Miraglim

Through speech, the Miraglim disconnected Klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael. Because their sin was lashon hara, it seems possible to suggest that they violated this prohibition even though the scission was between Klal Yisrael and an inanimate object, the land of Eretz Yisrael. However, if we take into account the deep nature and role of Eretz Yisrael and the Beis Ha’Mikdash, this can be understood on a much deeper level as well. Eretz Yisrael is the makom- place- where Hashem connects to the world and most intimately connects to Klal Yisrael. By using speech to disconnect Klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael, the Miraglim were effectively separating Klal Yisrael from Hashem. Thus, in the deepest sense, this was the most nefarious form of lashon hara imaginable!

As the Ramban explains (Bireishis 2:9), everything the Miraglim said was “true” in the physical sense, but they failed to see the depth beneath the surface. This itself is the epitome of lashon hara: taking the truth itself and distorting it in order to create harm. Lying is a separate problem, violating the prohibition of midvar sheker tirchak. Lashon hara’s evil lies not in a fabrication, but in a corruption of an actual truth. The Miraglim suffered from a spiritual disease of ayin rah- an evil eye. They had sight, but no vision; they saw, but were blind.

Peh Before Ayin

The Marahal (Netzach Yisrael 9) uses these principles to explain the above mentioned enigmatic placement the peh before the ayin. Proper speech requires first developing and connecting yourself to a deep root of truth and spiritual thought, and then using speech as the mechanism of revealing that truth into the world. The third and final stage is the revelation of that truth through the form of concrete and finite words. When Moshe transmitted the Torah, he revealed the essence of spiritual truth in the form of concretized words. The speech and ensuing words were a loyal reflection of the truth.

The letter ayin can be literally translated to mean eye. As we have developed before, the spiritual concept of seeing and sight reflect the concept of truth. When you see something, you see it as it is, in a static state, lacking any movement. When you look at a picture, you grasp it instantaneously, all at once. There’s no process of constructing or building the picture in your mind, everything is just there, at once, without any effort. Your eye is also the organ that most loyally reflects who you are. If you are spiritually sensitive, then when looking into someone’s eyes you can peer into the depths of that person and see who they truly are.

The word ayin is also connected to the word ma’ayan- wellspring, something whose surface reveals an endless depth beneath it. One can draw forth water- the source of life- by going into the depths of the wellspring. Ayin therefore clearly reflects the concept of reaching that which is hidden, higher, and transcendent.

The letter peh can also literally be translated to mean mouth. The reason the ayin comes before the peh in the Aleph Beis is to portray the ideal order of spiritual speech. First, one must connect themselves to the ayin, to the transcendent truth. The goal of the peh, the mouth of speech, is to then take the ayin– the truth- and express it down into this world through the medium of speech. Thus, speech is meant to be a loyal reflection of something deeper, of spiritual truth.

A corrupted ayin– eye- doesn’t reflect anything deeper. It sees only the physical world- disconnected from anything spiritual and transcendent. A corrupted peh– mouth- is a mouth that speaks without reflecting a higher ayin– a higher truth. This is what it means for the peh to come before the ayin. In such a case, the peh comes first, speaking without first connecting to anything deeper, unwilling to source it back to its spiritual root. As a result, the ayin– eye- no longer reflects the spiritual truth. This corrupted eye sees only the surface, and projects itself onto this physical surface. This was the sin of the Miraglim, a corrupted eye and a corrupted speech. They were unable to see past the surface, unable to see the truth depth that lay beneath the surface of Eretz Yisrael. While in truth, this was the place where Hashem most potently connects to this world, all they saw was a physical plot of land. As a result of their corrupted sight, their speech reflected nothing other than their own ego. Their speech was lashon hara, speech that disconnected Klal Yisrael from both Eretz Yisrael and Hashem Himself.

Tzitzis: The Correction of Sight

At the end of this week’s parsha, after the sin of the Miraglim, the Torah introduces us to the mitzvah of tzitzis. Why does the Torah introduce us to the mitzvah of tzitzis specifically at this point? Is there any connection between tzitzis and the sin of the Miraglim? To understand the connection, we must first recall an important principle.

The Bent Path and the Straight Path

Imagine you are walking along a straight path. At any point along the path, if you turn around, you can see where you came from. However, say that the path suddenly takes a sharp turn, bending away from its straight course. Now, if you turn around, you can no longer see the starting point of your journey. The same is true of the physical world in which we live. Originally, the physical world loyally and perfectly reflected its spiritual root. When you looked around, you saw and experienced Hashem, and knew that He created the world; it was like looking back down a straight path. However, after Adam sinned, the entire world fell. The world became a bent path, whereby it is no longer clear where we came from.

The Secret of Tzitzis

This is the secret behind Tzitzis. The Miraglim bent the straight path, refusing to connect the physical world to Hashem, refusing to see past the physical surface. Tzitzis are only required on a cornered garment. It is only when the garment ends, and begins to bend, that are obligated to put tzitzis on those corners. The straight lines of the tzitzis straighten the bent path of the garment. Thus, the tzitzis represent our ability to source ourselves back to Hashem, even on a bent path. The many details of tzitzis beautifully reflect this idea. We wear ticheiles, strings dyed a beautiful ocean blue color, to trace ourselves back to sea, then to the heavens, then to the kisei ha’kavod (Hashem’s throne), and ultimately to Hashem Himself. The gematria of tzitzis is 600, and when you add the eight strings and the five knots you get 613, corresponding to the 613 mitzvos that we use to connect ourselves to Hashem. [Food for thought: Moshe’s straight mateh which turned into a bent snake, the mitzvah of mezuza (which lies bent on the doorpost), and the copper snake on the straight mateh which overcame the plague in the midbar are all connected to this topic, but are beyond the scope of this article.]

The Potential of Sight

We all have our own unique paradigms, the way we see ourselves, experience the world around us, and think of Hashem. The goal of life is to embark on a genuine journey of paradigm shifting. We all have the superpower called choice- we get to choose how we perceive reality and the meaning we give to our experiences. Many of us have sight, but only a few among us truly see. May we be inspired to continuously expand our horizons, revolutionize and reconstruct our set paradigms, and build deeper eyes through which we see the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an author, educator, speaker, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah thought, Jewish medical ethics, psychology, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah. After obtaining his Bachelors degree from Yeshiva University, he received Semikha from RIETS, a Masters degree in Jewish Education from Azrieli, and a Masters degree in Jewish Thought from Revel. He then spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Exchange Scholar. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. To find more inspirational content from Rabbi Reichman, to contact him, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website:
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