Knowing How to Tell the Difference

Shelach lecha anashim (Bamidbar 13:2)

Parashas Shelach revolves around the sin of the spies who were sent by Moshe to scout the Land of Israel. They returned with a discouraging and pessimistic report about their findings which discouraged the rest of the Jewish people from wanting to enter the Land. Rashi writes that Parashas Shelach is juxtaposed with Parashas Behaalos’cha to hint that the spies should have learned a lesson about the ill effects of negative speech from seeing what happened to Miriam, who was punished at the end of last week’s parashah for speaking critically about her brother Moshe.

This comparison is difficult to understand. There are two entire portions in the Torah — Tazria and Metzora — which discuss at length the evils of speaking disparagingly about others and the punishments for doing so. If the spies are to be criticized for not properly learning about the negative effects of gossip and slander, they should be censured for their failure to study Parashas Tazria and Parashas Metzora. Since the episode involving Miriam and Moshe is not the primary source in the Torah for the prohibition against speaking lashon hara, why does Rashi specifically invoke it in his criticism of the spies?

Harav Dov Weinberger explains that Miriam made two mistakes. Her first error was to speak negatively about her brother Moshe, but the Rambam writes (Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas 16:10) that she additionally erred in equating the level of Moshe’s prophecy to that of other prophets such as herself and Aharon. In other words, even though Miriam did not intend to disparage Moshe, she still made the mistake of not understanding his greatness relative even to her and Aharon and failed to understand that Moshe was not just another ordinary prophet, as Hashem explained in response to her (Bamidbar 12:6–8): “If there shall be prophets among you, in a vision shall I Hashem make Myself known to him; in a dream shall I speak with him. Not so is my servant Moshe; in My entire house he is the trusted one. Mouth to mouth do I speak to him, in a clear vision and not in riddles. At the image of Hashem does he gaze; why did you not fear to speak against My servant Moshe?”

In this light, Rav Weinberger suggests that we can appreciate that this was the same complaint Hashem had against the spies. Just as Miriam erred in not appreciating that Moshe was different and mentally equating him to others, so too did the spies make the mistake of viewing the Land of Israel as essentially comparable to other lands, when in reality it is unique and in a league of its own. The spies judged and evaluated Eretz Yisrael using traditional measures and assessments instead of appreciating that, just like Moshe, it is extraordinary and incomparable, and this is what Rashi was referring to when he criticized the spies for not learning the lesson of Miriam.

Along these lines, Rav Weinberger adds that he is appalled by the contemporary use of the word Holocaust in reference to anything other than the unprecedented and unparalleled systematic extermination of six million people in an attempt to annihilate an entire nation. The increasingly common use of this term to describe other perceived injustices degrades and insults those who endured the true Holocaust by attempting to equate that which cannot be equated.

Rabbi Frand adds that Harav Meir Shapiro once commented that the difference between the Jews in America and the Jews in Europe is that those in America know how to make Kiddush (sanctify), but only those in Europe also know how to make Havdalah (distinctions). American society and media constantly bombard us with moral equivalencies that are completely absurd, failing to recognize that not everything is equal and able to be compared. Just as Moshe cannot be mentioned in the same breath as other prophets, and just as Eretz Yisrael is completely separate from all other lands, so too do we need to understand when concepts and items can be compared, and when they are fundamentally different.

Q: The Torah records (Bamidbar 13:33) that the spies said that they overheard the giant inhabitants of the Land of Israel referring to them as being as small in their eyes as grasshoppers. The Gemara in Sotah (35a) teaches that the spies were punished for viewing themselves as trivial and unimportant. As they were merely repeating the words of the inhabitants of the Land of Israel, why were they punished?

Q: On what date did the spies die?

A: The Kotzker Rebbe answers that by repeating the statement of the giants, the spies revealed that they cared about how others viewed them and talked about them. In reality, a person’s sole focus should be on doing what is right, and as long as he does so, he should ascribe no significance to the opinions of others.

A: The Tur writes that some people have the custom to fast on 17 Elul to commemorate the death of the spies on that day. The Rosh questions how this is possible, as the Torah implies that they died immediately on 9 Av. The Gemara in Sotah (35a) explains that the spies died through their tongues (which spoke negatively about Israel) extending to their stomachs. The Beis Yosef suggests that this occurred on 9 Av, but the spies suffered ongoing pains until 17 Elul, on which they actually died.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email