Positivity: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Vayotzi’u dibas haaretz (Bamidbar 13:32)

The first chapter of Eichah is written in the form of an acrostic, with each successive verse beginning with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Although chapters 2–4 follow a similar form, there is one notable exception. The verse beginning with the letter peh precedes the verse starting with the letter ayin, reversing their alphabetical order. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (104b) cryptically explains that this is because the spies sinned by having their mouths (peh) precede their eyes (ayin) and reporting facts which they didn’t actually see. How is this to be understood, and what lesson can we take from it?

Harav Moshe Shapiro, shlita, explains that in any encounter, a person is able to see or find what he is looking for. Even before he fully takes in and evaluates the new situation, he has already made up his mind. Not surprisingly, he proceeds to find evidence to support his conclusion, a phenomenon referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Harav Chatzkel Levenstein, zt”l,  explains that the primary sin of the spies was their character trait of “nirganus.” This refers to a person who is constantly full of complaints and has nothing positive to say about anything. Because the spies embarked on their journey already decided that they didn’t want to live in Israel, they interpreted everything they saw through negative lenses and returned with a report shaped by their biases.

The importance of how we view a situation and interpret events is illustrated by the following story. In the early 1950s, a large shoe company with stores across North America wanted to increase sales by expanding to new markets. They sent two salesmen to Africa to explore the prospects of opening branches throughout the large and untapped continent. Less than a week had passed when the first agent sent back a despondent telegram: “I’m coming home at once. No money can be made here. Nobody even wears shoes!” After receiving the bad news, the management felt that they had no choice but to explore other potential options for expanding their business.

Just as they were preparing to send agents to scout out another distant region, they received an important lesson in the power of perspective. More than a month after the first salesman despaired, the firm received an urgent cable from the second salesman: “Ship 15,000 shoes immediately to fill my five stores. Africa is a land filled with great opportunity — nobody has shoes, and everybody needs a pair!”

The Jewish people were punished (14:34) with an additional year of wandering in the wilderness for each day of the spies’ journey. Why were they punished for the entire trip and not just for the lone day on which the spies returned and spoke ill of the Land of Israel? Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, explains that the Torah is teaching that they sinned not just upon their return but each day of their expedition when they skewed everything that they experienced.

The Arizal teaches that each month is mystically associated with an idea that we are supposed to rectify during that month. Our mission in the month of Tammuz is to rectify the concept of re’iyah — how we view and interpret events and situations. Not coincidentally, Parashas Shelach is read just before this month begins, and it revolves around the tragic events which caused the mourning period which begins in Tammuz. The spies sinned by seeking out the bad in every encounter. Let us learn from their mistakes and adopt a perspective of seeking out the good in every life situation, which will in turn become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Parashah Q & A

Q:Moshe instructed the spies (13:20) to bring back fruits from the Land of Israel. As the fruits didn’t belong to them, why wasn’t it considered stealing from the non-Jewish inhabitants and forbidden to do so?

Q:Did the mitzvah of separating challah (15:19) apply to the manna that the Jews took into Israel and ate there?


A: Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, suggests that Hashem gave them permission to take the fruits on a one-time basis. However, he notes that the Midrash teaches that the wine-libations brought in the wilderness came from the grapes brought back by the spies, and he notes that even if they were given permission to bring back the fruits, it is unclear whether the fruits legally belonged to them so that they could be used as offerings in the Mishkan. The M’rafsin Igri quotes the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 53b) which teaches that the Land of Israel is legally considered an inheritance to us from the Avos, in which case the spies were entitled to take its fruits even before the Jews had entered and conquered the Land. Alternatively, Harav Yehudah Assad, zt”l, suggests that when Moshe told the spies “V’lakachtem mipri haaretz,” he wasn’t telling them to take the fruits, but to purchase them from their rightful owners.

A:The Noda B’Yehudah writes that even after the Jews entered the Land of Israel, they were not required to separate challah from the manna because it was not made from the five species of grain from which one
must separate challah. Similarly, the Chavatzeles HaSharon notes that the Ritva (Kiddushin 38a) explains that they were unable to fulfill their obligation to eat matzah on the first night of Pesach by causing the manna to taste like matzah since matzah must be made from one of the five species of grain.

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 oalport@Hamodia.com.