Israel, Evil Speech, and the Spies
There is a curious moment in this week’s Torah portion. Moses sends 12 scouts to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. Their mission is twofold: to assess the strength of the nations that inhabit the land—”Are the people who dwell in [Canaan] strong or weak?” . . . Are the towns they live in open or fortified?” (Num. 13:18, 19)—and to report on the quality and fertility of the land itself—”Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” (verse 19). When the scouts return they do exactly this, praising the land’s fecundity (verse 27) while also making clear the formidable challenge of conquering its powerful inhabitants. To this presentation, Caleb, one of the scouts, responds, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of [the land], for we shall surely overcome it” (verse 30). The other scouts had not in fact stated that it was impossible to defeat the peoples of Canaan, yet Caleb seems to have understood this as being the import of their words. Why so?
The key to solving this conundrum is the word efes (however), which is positioned between the report on the land itself and the description of its inhabitants. This term implicitly lends more weight to the report concerning the inhabitants of Canaan than to the initial description of the land as one “flowing with milk and honey” (verse 27). For however, like the word but, indicates that what has been said previously is about to be canceled out by what follows. The scouts are saying, in effect: while it is true that the land is fertile, this datum is irrelevant because we will be unable to conquer it in any case. It is to this implicit message that Caleb reacts.
Our Sages tell us that it is forbidden to speak negatively about others even when what we say is factually correct. The name given to this forbidden form of speech is lashon hora, often translated as “evil speech” but better translated as “harmful speech.” The question has often been asked: what is wrong with speaking the truth? The answer is that there is a distinction to be made between the factual and the truthful. A statement may be truthful in the narrow sense of being accurate, but it may often distort our perception of a person or a situation.
Let us imagine, for example, that I hear disparaging remarks about someone I hardly know. The immediate result will be that I form a negative image of this person, one that will be hard to erase even as I come to know him or her better. Even if I know the person well, given that it is human nature to focus more on the undesirable qualities of others rather than the positive ones, a negative image will be created. The conveyor of the lashon hara is generally aware of the effect his words will have; in many cases that is his primary intention in sharing the information. Thus his intention, or in any case the consequence of his words, is not to enlighten me but rather to prejudice me against the target of his remarks.
It is for this reason that Rabbi Meir Ha-Cohen, author of the renowned work Hafetz Hayyim, cautions that when one is in fact obligated to share negative information about someone else that it be done in a way that is least likely to cause undue detriment to the person’s reputation. For example, if I know that my friend is considering entering into a partnership with someone who, unbeknownst to him, was convicted of embezzling money from a firm by which he was employed, I am duty bound to report this. What I may not say to my friend, however, is that the person in question is dishonest. To say so would be to infer from a particular incident a person’s general character. What were the circumstances surrounding his crime? Was he in heavy debt? Was he being pressured by others to come up with funds that he did not have? Was this act part of an ongoing behavioral pattern, or is this person’s professional reputation generally very positive? In any case his act is indefensible and reprehensible, but it does not necessarily make clear the character of this individual as a whole. Supplying the information, and no more, allows the hearer to do his own investigation and assessment rather than automatically bowing, as is likely, to the interpretation of the informant.
The scouts were guilty of exactly such distortion. They did not simply provide information. They crafted their presentation of facts tendentiously, hoping to discourage the people from attempting to conquer the land of Canaan. In this they were successful, with tragic results for them and their fellow Israelites. Caleb’s plea that the facts be seen as challenges to be met rather than confirmation of the impossibility of conquest was not heard.
This insight is highly relevant to contemporary discourse about Israel. It is a truism that Israel is a flawed nation in numerous ways. That having been said, how these flaws are reported and framed has an indelible effect on how Israel is viewed. There is inequality between the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel; that is not a reasonable basis for calling Israel an apartheid state. Israel has been unwilling to dismantle most West Bank settlements; to see this as the sole or even primary barrier to peace without noting Palestinian unwillingness to uproot the delegitimization and even demonization of Israel from its educational institutions is to misrepresent the degree of Israel’s responsibility for the stalemate in peace talks. The very fact that the world, and the UN in particular, responded swiftly and loudly to Israeli attacks on Gazan Palestinians during Operation Cast Lead but had little or nothing to say about the rocket attacks against Israel originating in Gaza that preceded it—attacks that continue to this very day—reflects a generally one-sided perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the world at large.
I say none of this by way of suggesting that Israel can do no wrong. The Israeli policies and actions mentioned above should concern us, and we should take seriously the obligation to speak out when we think that Israel has erred. At the same time, we must be sensitive to the larger imbalance in the global discourse concerning Israel and the Palestinians. As a consequence of this distortion we are sometimes put in the difficult position of either speaking out and thereby providing, albeit unwillingly, support for the portrait of Israel as an inherently unjust entity, or keeping silent, thereby betraying our own conscience and failing to do what we can to set Israel on a better path. There are no easy solutions when we are faced with this dilemma. What is crucial is that we honor both our commitment to honest evaluation of Israel’s actions and our obligation to put the larger truths about Israel before ourselves and the world.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.