June 12, 2015

Don't Slander the Land!

Rabbi Haber

beautiful landWhen describing the sin of the spies, the Torah uses a somewhat unusual term: “Vayotziu Dibat HaAretz” (Numbers 13:32).  While this is usually translated as “they spoke evil about the land” or “they slandered the land,” the word “Diba” appears only a few other times in the Bible, and there is only one other place where it is used in a narrative context[1] . In both contexts, its exact meaning is unclear.

I’m not sure of the precise definition of the word Diba, or the significance of its usage here (if anyone has any thoughts, please comment below!).   But I would like to point out that there is actually something quite unusual about the specific type of evil speech through which the spies sinned.

Jewish law describes several different offences in the area of evil speech.  What is typically referred to in English as “slander” is called Motzi shem ra.  This refers to a situation where a person spreads negative false rumors or lies about another person, group of institution.  There are other offences called Lashon HaRa (literally: “evil speech”) and Rechilut (sometimes translated as “gossip”) that cover situations where a person reveals negative true information about someone else.[2] Although sometimes it is permitted, proper and even required to reveal negative information, if not justified then defaming someone, even with the truth, is a crime.

So there are sins involving lies, and sins involving the truth.  In which category should we place the Dibat HaAretz of the spies?

On the one hand, a careful reading of the Numbers 13:17-32 makes clear that everything they said was true.  So it wasn’t the Motzi shem ra type of slander.

But it wasn’t Lashon HaRa either, since the information they revealed (that the inhabitants of the land were numerous and strong and that some were giants, that the cities were powerfully fortified and that the living conditions could be harsh) were not objectively negative things.  Indeed, the two dissenting spies who gave a favorable report did not dispute any of the facts revealed by the others.  On top of that, they had been specifically charged with the mission of reporting on these very matters (see particularly 13:18-20).  They cannot be blamed for telling the truth and they did not illegitimately revealing damaging information.  So it wasn’t Lashon HaRa.

So what, in fact, was the nature of this Dibat HaAretz?  In their case, the sin was simply about how they presented the information, and how they interpreted it.  The very same facts that could lead some of the spies to declare, “We can certainly accomplish it…the land is very very good!”  caused others to proclaim, “We cannot make it there…it is a land that consumes its inhabitants.” It’s simply a matter of perspective.

The minority report of Joshua and Caleb was infused with faith and optimism; the majority report of the other ten was poisoned with cynicism.  Tragically, the destructive power of cynical negativity was too great to overcome, and this led to an entire generation dying in the desert.  This was the sin of Dibat HaAretz.

There’s a powerful lesson in this, especially in the age of the internet and social media.

Here in Israel, we’ve recently completed an election campaign that was marked by negativity, shallow slogans and ad hominem attacks.  Similarly, across the Jewish world, as we debate various controversial issues, the same tendencies towards demagoguery and maligning others for easy advantage sometimes surface.  And to make matters worse, we’ve recently confronted a number of scandals involving criminal or inappropriate behavior by rabbis and other leaders, and these have provoked responses that at times go way beyond addressing the actual issues and malign entire communities, philosophies and institutions.

Do not misunderstand what I’m saying.  Criminals, evil people and those who harm others must be stopped immediately and brought to justice.  Genuine problems in our communities and our country must be exposed, confronted and overcome, and legitimate arguments must be debated.  It’s just that none of this needs to involve cynicism.

So as we read about the spies this Shabbat, let’s all resolve to work vigorously to fix whatever is broken, but not to slander (or “l’hotzi Diba”) our people, our brethren and our country.  Let’s join Joshua and Caleb proclaiming “The land (and its people) are very very good!”

[1]This is in relation to Joseph, who told his father something bad about his brothers: “Vayave Yosef et Dibatam ra’ah el avihem” (Genesis 37:2).  However, the Torah does not inform us of the content of Joseph’s report to his father, so it is unclear what the term actually means.

[2]The distinction between those two categories is not important here.

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