October 20th, 2021

Inspired Living

Sight, but no vision: The sin of the Spies

Rabbi  Shmuel Reichman

By Rabbi Shmuel Reichman

Published June 4,2021

Sight, but no vision: The sin of the Spies
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 Spies

In Parshas Shelach, Moses sends the Meraglim (spies) to scout out the land of Eretz Yisrael (Israel). With the exception of Yehoshua and Kalev, the Spies return with a negative report --- attempting to dissuade the Jewish people from entering the Holy Land.

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. The Sages explain that the Spies 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?

In Megilas Eichah (Lamentations), the verses in the first four perakim (chapters) are written in alphabetical order. However, in most chapters, the verse starting with the letter peh appears before the verse that starts with the letter ayin, counter to their alphabetical order. The Talmud enigmatically explains that this reversal is due to the fact that the Meraglim placed their mouth- "peh"- before their eye- "ayin". What does this mean, and what is the connection between Eichah and the sin of the Spies?

Proper Sight

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 Spies: Corruption of Sight

The Spie'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".

In reality, as the Talmud explains, this was a miracle that Hashem performed to aid the Spies in their mission. The Divine killed off the leaders of the giants in each city so that the dwellers would be distracted with their funerals, ensuring that the Spies could travel through Holy Land undetected. The death of the giants was the external reality; the Meraglim's mistake lay in projecting faulty meaning onto it.

Similarly, the Spies reported to the Hebrews that when they came across the giants, "we were like grasshoppers in our eyes". 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 Spies not only misunderstood their experience, but they then reported this distortion back to the Israelites. We can now begin to explain why this was a violation of the laws of gossip and tale bearing.

Corruption of Speech

As we have previously explained, speech embodies the power of connection. It is the mechanism that enables us to connect with other people, to overcome the barrier between us.

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 (d, 1270) explains, 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". The evil of lashon hara is not a fabrication, but a corruption of the truth. The Spies suffered from a spiritual disease of ayin rah (an evil eye). They had sight, but no vision; they saw, but were blind.

Corruption of Speech

Through the mechanism of speech, the Spies disconnected the Israelites from Holy Land. It therefore seems that the Spies's sin of lashon hara was in creating a scission between the Hebrews and the land of Israel, an inanimate object.

However, when taking into account the deep nature and role ofHoly Land, this takes on great significance. Eretz Yisrael is the place where the ivine connects to the world and most intimately connects to the Jewish nation. By using speech to disconnect Jewry from the Holy Land, the Spies were separating Jewry from the Divine. In a deep sense, this was the most nefarious form of lashon hara imaginable!

Peh Before Ayin

The Marahal {d. 1609} uses these principles to explain the placement of the peh before the ayin in The Book of Lamentations. Proper speech requires first connecting yourself to a deep root of truth and spiritual thought, and then using speech as the medium for revealing that truth into the world. This revelation of truth is performed through the use of tangible, finite words. When Moses transmitted the Torah, he revealed the essence of spiritual truth in the form of concretized words. The speech and ensuing words were a loyal reflection of the truth.

The letter ayin literally means "eye". As we have previously developed, the spiritual concept of seeing and sight reflects the concept of truth. When you see something, you see it as it is, in a static state. When you look at a picture, you grasp it in its entirety, instantaneously. There's no process of constructing or building the picture in your mind, everything is just there, all at once, without any effort. Your eye is also the organ that most loyally reflects and reveals who you are. The eyes are the window to the soul; one can see the inner depth of a person through their eyes. The word "ayin" is also connected to the word ma'ayan, a wellspring, a surface that contains endless depth beneath it. Ayin therefore reflects the concept of reaching that which is hidden, higher, and transcendent.

The letter peh literally means "mouth". The reason ayin comes before peh in the Aleph Beis is to portray the ideal process of spiritual speech. First, one must connect themselves to the ayin, to the transcendent truth. The goal of the "peh", the mouth of speech, is to then take the "ayin"- the truth- and express it into this world through the medium of speech. Thus, speech is meant to be a loyal reflection of something deeper, of spiritual truth.

A corrupted "ayin" (eye) does not reflect anything deeper. It sees only the physical world, disconnected from the spiritual and transcendent. A corrupted "peh" (mouth) is a mouth that speaks without reflecting a higher "ayin"- a higher truth. This is what it means for the peh to come before the ayin. In such a case, the mouth speaks without first connecting to anything deeper, unwilling to source itself back to its spiritual root. As a result, the "ayin" (eye) no longer reflects the spiritual truth. This corrupted eye sees only the surface, and projects itself onto this physical surface.

This was the sin of the Spies, a corrupted eye and corrupted speech. They were unable to see past the surface, unable to see the true depth that lay beneath the surface of the Holy Land. While in truth, this was the place where He most potently connects to this world, all they saw was a physical plot of land. As a result of their corrupted sight, their speech reflected nothing more than their own ego. Their speech was lashon hara, speech that disconnected Jewry from both the Holy Land and the Almighty Himself.

This is why it is specifically in Lamentations that the peh comes before the ayin. Lamentations laments our loss of the Holy Temple, our diminished connection with the Divine in the Holy Land. In a deep sense, Lamentations laments the actualization of what the Spies attempted to achieve: a disconnect between the Jewish People and Israel, a disconnect between us and Him.

The Bent Path and the Straight Path

Imagine you are walking along a straight path. At any point along the path, if you turn around, you can see exactly where you came from. However, if the path suddenly takes a sharp turn and bends off its straight course, then if you turn around, you can no longer see the starting point of your journey. The same is true of the physical world in which we live. Originally, the physical world loyally and perfectly reflected its spiritual root. When you looked around, you saw and experienced the Lord, and you knew that He created the world; it was like looking back down a straight path, directly back to the Source of the world. However, when Adam sinned, the entire world fell. The world became a bent path, and it is no longer clear where we come from. When we look around, we no longer see a universe that clearly and loyally reflects its Godliness.

The Potential of Sight

We all have our own unique paradigms: of ourselves, of the world around us, and of the Divine. 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. The more we attach ourselves to the truth, the more our peh will become a genuine expression of our ayin.

May we be inspired to continuously expand our horizons, revolutionize and reconstruct our set paradigms, and build deeper eyes through which we see the world.

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Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self — Mastery Academy (, the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self — development. He is also the founder of "Think. Feel. Grow.", a platform from which he shares inspirational Torah videos that have reached hundreds of thousands of people. You can reach him and find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from his website.