It was a stormy night, and a battleship was on exercise at sea. The captain stood on the bridge, looking into the foggy night ahead of him. Suddenly, he heard the lookout 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 that 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 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 parshah, Sh’lach.
The Sin of the M’raglim
In Parshas Sh’lach, Moshe sends m’raglim – spies – to scout out the land of Eretz Yisrael. With the exception of Yehoshua and Kalev, the M’raglim 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 M’raglim violated the prohibition of lashon ha’ra – evil speech. However, they did not speak about people, only a piece of land! Does lashon ha’ra really apply to inanimate objects? Furthermore, the M’raglim spoke the truth. They saw people dying, and they passed on that information. Was it not their job to report what they saw?
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 M’raglim: Corruption of Sight
The M’raglim’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 miracles to aid the M’raglim in their mission. Hashem killed off the leaders of the giants in each city so that the dwellers would be distracted, ensuring that the M’raglim 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 M’raglim 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 they 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 ha’ra.
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 that 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, his ears can pick up these vibrations and translate them into sound. Those sounds will form words, and those words sentences. If he speaks your language, those words will take on meaning, as well. He 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 his own mind. He now contains a piece of you within himself. The barrier between your worlds has been diminished.
The Danger of Lashon HaRa
Lashon ha’ra 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 whom you are speaking with. The very tool of connection has been corrupted to achieve its opposite goal.
Through speech, the M’raglim disconnected klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael. Because their sin was lashon ha’ra, 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 HaMikdash, this can be understood on a much deeper level, as well. Eretz Yisrael is the makom – the 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 M’raglim were effectively separating klal Yisrael from Hashem. Thus, in the deepest sense, this was the most nefarious form of lashon ha’ra imaginable!
As the Ramban explains (B’reishis 2:9), everything the M’raglim said was “true” in the physical sense, but they failed to see the depth beneath the surface. This itself is the epitome of lashon ha’ra: taking the truth itself and distorting it in order to create harm. Lying is a separate problem – violating the prohibition of mi’d’var sheker tirchak. Lashon ha’ra’s evil lies not in a fabrication, but in a corruption of an actual truth. The M’raglim suffered from a spiritual disease of ayin ra – an evil eye. They had sight, but no vision; they saw, but were blind.
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.
By Shmuel Reichman