As the meraglim traveled through the Land of Israel, wherever they went, they saw the inhabitants burying their dead. Death and dying were all around. So they carried back with them a discouraging report of “a land that devours its inhabitants.”
Although at first glance, their account seemed honest and accurate, Rashi reveals to us that they weren’t just transmitting facts — they were editorializing.
True enough, the place looked like one big levayah; but not because the Land was malevolent or inhospitable. Rather, because Hashem arranged events for their benefit, to distract the attention of the inhabitants so that they wouldn’t notice the meraglim and capture them.
Theirs was a sin of interpretation, of wrong perspective.
Why didn’t they understand that, if Hashem had promised them the Land of Israel, no matter the obstacles, real or apparent, they would have their inheritance and it would be good?
The Zohar explains that the meraglim didn’t want to go into the Land because they feared that once there, they would lose their positions as leaders. The Malbim explains that they understood that in the wilderness, Hashem sustained them through miracles — the mann, the Pillar of Cloud and Pillar of Fire, the Clouds of Glory. But in Eretz Yisrael, life would go according to teva; miracles there would be, but not the kind of open miracles to which they had grown accustomed; in the Land of Israel the miracles would be hidden. That would require a new kind of leadership and a new set of leaders. So they saw things as they wanted to see them, interpreting the facts according to their own deep, hidden desires.
To be sure, the problem of perspective did not begin with the meraglim. At the beginning of Parashas Behaalos’cha (Bamidbar 11:1), the people complained that for three whole days they had traveled without rest, wearing out their feet in the wilderness. But there, too, Hashem intended it for their benefit; not to exhaust them, but to enable them to enter the Land as soon as possible. In fact, sooner than possible, He carried them forward “on eagle’s wings.”
With the wrong perspective, it is possible not only to see a half-filled glass as half empty; but to view a glass that is actually full as empty.
Chazal comment that there is no place in Scripture called Tofel or Lavan (Rashi, Devarim 1:1). Rather, it refers to their complaints about the mann. It was lavan, white, devoid of color. True, it fell from the sky and required no effort of cultivation or harvest, and it’s taste was whatever you liked; but they became fed up with “this light bread” (Bamidbar 21:5). Why did they call it “light”? Because it was completely assimilated in the body without any waste. A miracle, no? Yes — but what human being could survive such a miracle, soon to explode inside them?
The perspective of the complainer is such that nothing satisfies; behind every silver lining is a cloud. (K’motzei Shalal Rav, Devarim 1:1, quoting Lev Avraham)
Lest we think that the “generation of knowledge” alone was peculiarly afflicted with a wrong attitude stemming from ingratitude for the miracles and a lack of trust in Hashem, we should know that the problem is as old as creation.
The Gemara (Chullin 139b) asks: What is the source for Haman in the Torah? It answers: hamin ha’eitz (Bereishis 3:11). The sin of Adam and Chavah was that, instead of appreciating all the other trees in the Garden — which Hashem had permitted to them — they focused on the one tree from which they were forbidden to eat. That was the seduction of the snake, to get them to focus on the one thing they did not have, rather than all they did have. Not to see a garden full but a garden empty. (Chelkas Mordechai, Sdei Avraham)
Thus, the failure to interpret and accept events as expressions of Divine Will always and ever intended for our own good has led to churban.
Rectification must come from a correction of our perspective on life.
Chazal say (Bava Kamma 16a): “One who does not bow at Modim, his spine is made like a snake.” In other words, one who refuses to acknowledge the kindnesses of Hashem, as expressed in Modim, is acting like the Primordial Serpent. The Ben Ish Chai (Ben Yehoyada, Brachos 12b) explains that bowing at Modim in acknowledgement of Hashem’s kindnesses, rectifies the effect of the Serpent.
Admittedly, it sometimes requires the insight of a Sage and the attitude of a tzaddik to perceive the good in a world of evil. It took Rabi Akiva to perceive the future redemption in the ruins of Yerushalayim. He laughed while the other Sages wept. “A fox runs unharmed through the Holy of Holies, and how can you not weep?”
“That is precisely why I laughed,” he explained. “Now that we have seen the fulfillment of Uriah’s prophecy that Zion will be plowed like a field and Yerushalayim shall become mounds of destruction (Michah 3:12, Yirmiyahu 26:18), surely we will see the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy (8:4) that “the streets of Yerushalayim will be filled with boys and girls at play” (Makkos 24).
If even the “generation of knowledge” and Rabi Akiva’s fellow Sages couldn’t see things as Hashem intends them, how can we hope to?
The answer is that we have their examples from which to learn. The Torah reveals the catastrophic error of the meraglim; Rabi Akiva taught his colleagues and all the generations after that from then onwards the way was open for the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah. If only we will learn the lessons.
In our generation, too, we are beset with evil and suffering. Around the world, anti-Semitism is again on the rise. In Eretz Yisrael, we are witness to an unprecedented campaign against the Torah. It seems that Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash could not be farther away.
But if we look at events properly, from a Torah perspective, we will see reason for hope in the evil and suffering itself. As it says in the Mishnah in Sotah (49b): “In the days preceding Moshiach, insolence will prevail…the Torah will be despised…”
These are signs not of unending destruction, but of future Redemption.