It was a stormy night, and a battleship was on exercise at sea. The captain stood on the bridge, peering into the foggy night ahead. Suddenly, he heard the look-out shout from the observation post. “There’s a light on the starboard side!”
“Is it steady or moving?” the captain asked quickly.
“It’s moving,” the lookout replied.
This meant that they were on a direct collision course with another ship. The captain immediately ran up and grabbed the ship radio. “We are on collision course!” he signaled to the other ship. “Change course 20 degrees immediately.”
The signal quickly came back, “Advisable for you to change course.”
Infuriated, the captain replied, “I am a captain. Change your course NOW.”
“I am a seaman, second class. You had better change your course 20 degrees,” came the reply.
By now, the captain was outraged. “I am a battleship. Change course or suffer the consequences!”
Back came the signal, “I am a lighthouse.”
The captain changed course.
As human beings, we have the remarkable ability to jump to conclusions, assuming that we know the truth of a situation when we, in fact, have completely misjudged it. One of the most powerful learning experiences a person can have is a paradigm shift — a shift in perspective that causes us to see something in a fundamentally new way.
The Sin of the Meraglim
When Moshe sends the Meraglim (spies) to scout out the land of Eretz Yisrael (Israel), with the exception of Yehoshua (Joshua) and Kalev, the Meraglim return with a negative report — attempting to dissuade the Jewish people from entering Eretz Yisrael. While we often think of their account as malicious libel, this does not seem to be the case when the story is read on a surface level. As the spies scouted the land, they witnessed many giants burying their dead, and upon return, the spies reported this to the Jewish People. Chazal (our Sages) explain that the Meraglim violated the prohibition of lashon hara (evil speech). However, they did not speak about people, only a piece of land! Does lashon hara really apply to inanimate objects? Furthermore, the Meraglim spoke the truth. They saw people dying, and they passed on that information. Was it not their job to report what they saw?
There are two levels of reality: The first is how things appear on the physical surface; the second is the meaning that lies behind that exterior. Correspondingly, there are two levels of sight: the first is physical sight, which allows you to see the physical surface of the object; the second is spiritual sight, the mechanism of giving meaning and depth to that which you see. Improper sight is seeing only that which is on the surface, without sourcing it back to its root, without seeing what truly lies behind it. When the surface no longer reflects a deeper truth, it becomes a shell of an object, lacking any internal meaning, like a body without a soul. If one were to look at someone's face and see only flesh and bone, without recognizing that there's a consciousness, a living soul, behind that surface, that would be an egregious corruption of sight. Their physical sight may be accurate, but the meaning they have given to what they physically saw is far from the truth. Similarly, when one witnesses an event, they have the opportunity to discern the meaning that lies behind it. If, however, they do not ascertain the truth that lies beneath the surface level, they are likely to project their personal feelings and perceptions onto the situation instead, twisting its true meaning to align with their subjective reality.
The Meraglim: Corruption of Sight
The Meraglim's physical sight was intact; what they lacked was spiritual sight. They physically saw giants burying their dead. But they interpreted this to mean that the “land consumes its inhabitants” (Bamidbar 13:32). In reality, as the Gemara (Sotah 35a) explains, this was a miracle that Hashem performed to aid the Meraglim in their mission. Hashem killed off the leaders of the giants in each city so that the dwellers would be distracted with their funerals, ensuring that the Meraglim could travel through Eretz Yisrael undetected. The death of the giants was the external reality; the Meraglim’s mistake lay in projecting faulty meaning onto it.
Similarly, the Meraglim reported to Klal Yisrael (the Israelite people) that when they came across the giants, "we were like grasshoppers in our eyes" (Bamidbar 13:33). They projected their fear and lack of faith onto the giants. In their own eyes, the giants viewed them as grasshoppers. They were no longer conveying an account of objective reality, rather, they were projecting their own spiritual and existential insecurities onto their experience. This was their two-fold mistake. The Meraglim not only misunderstood their experience, but they then reported this distortion back to Klal Yisrael. We can now begin to explain why this was a violation of lashon hara.
The Power of Speech
As we've explained previously, speech embodies the power of connection. As human beings, we are naturally isolated and separate from one another. We are individual beings, all living in our own subjective world, our own inner universe. We will never be able to experience life through anyone else's perspective, only through our own inner consciousness. We have our own thoughts and feelings, things no one else can see. We face our own hardships and tribulations, ones that no one else truly understands. This results in several difficulties. If I am trapped in my own inner world, how can I connect with other people? How can I know what's going on in their heads? How can I share my inner life with them? How can I overcome this infinite barrier between myself and everyone else?
This is the gift of speech. Speech is the mechanism that enables us to connect with other people, to overcome the barrier between us. You begin with your inner thoughts and experience. You then take a deep breath and use your throat to project your words outwards. You then use your tongue, teeth, and lips to form the specific words which will encase your thoughts as you give them concrete form. You then throw your words out into the world around you in the form of vibrations. If another person is nearby, their ears can pick up these vibrations and translate them into sound. These sounds form words, the words, sentences. If they speak your language, these words will take on meaning as well. They must then keep track of all the different words and sentences, holding on to them, and bringing them back from memory, while they try to recreate a complete picture of everything you said. Amazingly, this person can now experience your inner world inside their own mind. They now contain a piece of you within themselves. The barrier between your worlds has been eroded.
Lashon Hara: Corruption of Speech
Lashon hara takes the very tool of connection, speech, and uses it to disconnect people from each other. When you speak negatively about someone, you create a wall between the subject of your negativity and the person you are speaking with. The very tool of connection has been corrupted to achieve its opposite goal.
As the Ramban explains (Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), the famous 12th century scholar in Spain and Egypt — Ramban Al Ha’Torah, Bereishis 2:9), everything that the Meraglim said was "true" in the physical sense, but they failed to see what lay beneath the surface. This itself is the epitome of lashon hara: taking the truth and distorting it in order to create harm. Lying is a separate problem, violating the prohibition of “midvar sheker tirchak” (Shemos 23:7). The evil of lashon hara is not a fabrication, but a corruption of the truth. The Meraglim suffered from a spiritual disease of ayin rah (an evil eye). They had sight, but no vision; they saw, but were blind.
Through the mechanism of speech, the Meraglim disconnected Klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael. It therefore seems that the Meraglim’s sin of lashon hara was in creating a scission between Klal Yisrael and the land of Eretz Yisrael, an inanimate object. However, when taking into account the deep nature and role of Eretz Yisrael, this takes on great significance. Eretz Yisrael is the place where Hashem connects to the world and most intimately connects to Klal Yisrael. By using speech to disconnect Klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael, the Meraglim were separating Klal Yisrael from Hashem. In a deep sense, this was the most nefarious form of lashon hara imaginable!
The Potential of Sight
We all have our own unique paradigms: of ourselves, of the world around us, and of Hashem. We have the power of choice; we get to choose how we perceive reality and the meaning we give to our experiences. Many of us have sight, but only a few among us truly see. The goal of life is to embark on a genuine journey of shifting our paradigms, of aligning our spiritual sight with the true nature of reality. We will never achieve perfect spiritual sight, but we can get a little closer every day. May we be inspired to expand our horizons continuously, revolutionize and reconstruct our set paradigms, and build deeper eyes through which we see the world.