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Healthy Milk and Honey
by Rabbi Heschel Greenberg

In this week’s parsha the Torah recounts the episode of the spies that were sent to the Land of Israel to scout the land and return with a detailed report about all aspects of its populace, its agriculture and its defenses.

They returned with a scurrilous report about the land, denouncing it as a land that cannot be conquered. The Jews cried that night and, as a result, those who over the age of twenty years and who had participated in the mutiny were destined not to enter the Promised Land.

What was so powerful about the spies’ presentation that persuaded and “brainwashed” a sophisticated people? This generation—to whom the Torah had been given—is identified by our Sages as a “Dor Dei’a,” a knowledgeable generation; a generation nurtured by overt miracles and Manna from heaven, who had heard G-d speaking to them directly at Sinai. How could they be so easily convinced by these rebellious spies?

A partial answer to this question is suggested by Rashi’s comment on the opening words of the report of the spies: “We came to the Land to which you sent us. It is flowing with milk and honey, and this is the fruit!”

The obvious question here is: If their intention was to slander the land, why did they praise it as a land of milk and honey?

In response to this question, Rashi answers: “Any lie which does not begin by saying a bit of truth cannot be sustained in the end.”

The intention of the spies was not to praise the Land of Israel but to denigrate it. However, if they had begun with negative words, their words would not have been taken seriously. They lied with the power of truth.

When a person sees sincerity and truth in the words and tone of a speaker, the listener will become receptive to his message. The challenge is to ensure that the balance of the talk is also consistent with truth because the audience has become a “captive audience.”

Upon deeper reflection, Rashi’s words seem to suggest that the lie is sustained if there is truth in the beginning. But that is hardly what happened in the spy saga. In the end, the spies’ lies were exposed for everyone to see. The spies died in a plague. The Jews who cried when they accepted the spies’ report died in the desert before the age of sixty. When the Jews finally entered the Promised Land, they saw the truth about the Land of Israel.

How, then, can we say that their lies were sustained in the end? Rashi should have stated, “Any lie which begins by saying a bit of truth will be believed.” By stating “Any lie which does not begin by saying a bit of truth cannot be sustained in the end,” it implies that in the end the lies were sustained!

The answer is that in the final analysis, the spies’ distortion of the truth was, indeed, sustained. Their lie was that the Land was unconquerable. That was true insofar as that generation was concerned. They could not conquer the land because, as Chassidus teaches, the generation of the spies belonged to the world of thought. They belonged in the desert. They could not translate their lofty spirituality into the world of action.

However, the ultimate truth emerged for those who entered the Promised Land. They witnessed how conquering the land was within reach and that there was no dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical. This perception of ultimate truth will be fully manifest in the Messianic Age at which time even those Jews who remained in the desert will arise and, with Moses at their head, enter the Promised Land (Midrash Rabba, Chukas).


 

 


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