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Parashat Shelach

To our dear mother, Debbie Rahmey. Your kindness, warmth, exemplary middot, and love of Torah values are an inspiration to us. We wish you a lifetime of happiness, health, success, and nachat from your children and grandchildren.

Love, Rochelle & Ami, Claire & Aviran, Ilana & Manny, and all the grandchildren.

Parashat Shelach

The Spies and Lashon Hara

In this week’s parasha, we learn about one of the most important episodes in our history, which still affects us today. The spies spoke lashon hara about the Land of Israel. As Rashi points out, they did not learn their lesson, even after witnessing what happened to Miriam after she had spoken about Moshe.

Miriam’s fundamental mistake was that she viewed Moshe like any other prophet, but Moshe was different. He had to be available to talk to Hashem face-to-face at any time of day or night. Aharon and Miriam, as prophets, also communicated with Hashem, but through dreams and visions at limited times. Miriam and the spies made the same mistake. The spies assumed that the Land of Israel was like all other regions.

Stop Complaining

Hashem said to Moshe, “Shelach lecha anashim veyatru et eretz Canaan asher ani noten leB’nei YisraelSend out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Children of Israel (13:2).” Rashi, following Midrash Tanchuma, comments on the word “lecha — for yourself,” explaining that, “Hashem said to Moshe, I am not commanding you, but if you wish, you may send spies.”

The Israelites had asked Moshe to send men ahead of them, and the rabbis explained that his consent was one of the reasons that Moshe was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel. In what way was Moshe at fault for letting the twelve spies, who were leaders of their tribes, scout out Canaan?

The fact that the people wanted to send spies to check out the land was disrespectful to Hashem, Who had just saved them from the hands of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Hashem split the sea for them, defended them when Amalek attacked, led them to Har Sinai, and gave them the Torah. He then protected them through all the years of wandering in the desert, sending them the maan for food and the Clouds of Glory to shield them. So how could B’nei Yisrael ask Moshe to check out the land? How could they harbor suspicions that the land could be harmful or dangerous?

The Zohar explains further that the spies were biased and did not give an accurate report because they worried they would lose their leading positions once the people entered Canaan. Therefore, they felt compelled to find fault with the land.

While scouting the land, many of the local people were dying. The spies looked at this negatively, as if the land was killing its inhabitants; however, Hashem distracted the Canaanites with funerals so they wouldn’t notice the Jewish spies.

It’s All How You Look at it

Hashem said, “You shall bear your punishment for forty years, corresponding to the number of days—forty days—that you scouted the land: a year for each day (14:34).” Hashem made B’nei Yisrael wander in the desert for forty years to correspond to the forty days the spies scouted. Rabbi Frand cites a question from Rav Asher Weiss on this issue.

The actual sin of the spies occurred when they returned and delivered their negative report on that infamous eve of Tisha B’Av. The message was delivered in at most one day. For the previous 39 days, they did not report anything. They were merely gathering information. How then do we understand this correlation of 40 years for 40 days?

Rav Weiss answers that the sin of lashon hara is not a sin only of the mouth. It is also a sin of the eyes —how one perceives things. Two people can see virtually the same thing and view it differently. The punishment was “a year for each day” because, for 40 days, the spies looked negatively at Eretz Yisrael. Everything they saw was perceived with a distorted view. It was 40 days of misperception, 40 days of cynicism, 40 days of being negative, and 40 days of lashon hara. The punishment for that was 40 years of wandering—a year for each day! Lashon hara is referred to by Chazal as ena bisha—a bad eye. That is where it all starts. It all begins with perception.

Beyond Our Hearts and Eyes

The parasha began with the sending out of the spies, using the word “veyaturu—send them to scout.” It ends with the mitzvah of tzitzit, using the same root with the terms, “velo taturu acharei levavchem veacharei enechem—and you shall not stray after your hearts and eyes.” The Torah seems to be hinting to us that the spies had abandoned the correct path by following their hearts and eyes. They paid attention only to what they felt and saw rather than remaining steadfast in their faith and trust in the Almighty.

By ending the parasha with similar wording, we learn that the purpose of the mitzvah of tzitzit is to inspire us to have bitachon and to put our trust in G-d. Bitachon is a fundamental concept in Judaism, and because the spies lacked it, we recite this paragraph every morning and evening in the Shema.

At an event in Brooklyn, Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, a Chabad shaliach for Beijing told the following story about something that occurred in his shul in China about a man who found his faith in Hashem once again.

“A lot of people come to visit our Chabad House for Shabbat. Well, one Shabbat evening a few months ago, an older man, maybe about eighty years old, who didn’t look very religious, appeared in the company of a younger man in his forties.

“The old fellow found a seat and just minutes after we began the prayers, he put his face in his hands and began to cry. He kept it up for almost an hour; he would calm down for a few minutes, dry his eyes and blow his nose and then begin again. I quietly approached him and asked him if everything was all right. He told me not to worry. After the prayers, he and his friend joined us all for the Shabbat evening meal.

“There were over fifty people there. I sat him next to me and after he calmed down, he asked if he could speak. He wanted to explain the reason for his weeping.

“‘My name is Sam Katz (pseudonym*),’ he said. ‘The last time I was in a Synagogue was over sixty years ago in Poland. I was a young man when the Germans came and took the entire Jewish population of my city to Buchenwald. I was there for four years, and in that time, I lost everyone; my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, my friends, all killed, some of them before my eyes. But I survived, and when the war ended, I spent a few years searching for family or friends with no results. Finally, I moved to Australia.

‘I was totally alone and angry at G-d. I managed to succeed in business and make a lot of money and to marry and have children. But my wounds and anger were so deep that I swore to never go into a Synagogue or have anything to do with Judaism again. Nothing!

‘But then just yesterday I came to China with my friend, and he said we should visit the Chabad House. At first, I didn’t want to come, but he said that he’d been here before and the food is good, and anyway there was no better alternative, so I shrugged and agreed.

‘But as soon as the prayers began, everything suddenly came back to me. I remembered how good it is to be a Jew; how proud and happy my father and mother were. Suddenly it was as if a wall of ice just melted. That’s why I cried. I thought I’d never forgive G-d again, but now I feel like a small child that just wants to be home. All thanks to this Chabad House and the Rabbi here.’

“The crowd clapped, wiped tears from their eyes, and congratulated him for the beautiful story. One woman stood up and asked, ‘Tell me, Mr. Katz. If you were in Buchenwald until the end, maybe you knew my father. His name is Naftali Kogen (pseudonym*); he was also in Buchenwald.’

“Mr. Katz’s jaw dropped, his eyes were wide open, and he held his head in wonder. ‘Naftali Kogen?! What? Naftali is still alive?! We were the only two Kohanim in the camp and we were always together. We risked our lives for each other, and not just once. We were like brothers! Oy! Naftali! We were put in different recovery camps and got separated. I searched for him for a long time after the war but finally, I gave up. I thought he was dead. Now you say he is alive, and you are his daughter? It’s a miracle!!’

Rabbi Freundlich finished his story by saying that after Shabbat a meeting was arranged between the two old friends, and this is only one example of the miracles that happen in Beijing thanks to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

At that point, much to everyone’s surprise, a head of a yeshivah in the Satmar community by the name of Rav Yaakov Kaplan (pseudonym*) who had listened intently to the story, called out. He stood slowly, his face pale and his eyes staring wildly at the ceiling. Those seated near him rose to help him, but he came to himself. He stood up to his full height and yelled aloud to all those present, “Tell them that Yaakov is still alive!”

“There weren’t just two Kohanim in Buchenwald, there were three! Sam Katz, Naftali Kogan, and me too!”

“We stuck together like brothers…. more than brothers. But just a few days before the end of the war I was moved to another camp. They probably thought I was dead, and I almost was, and I was sure that they were. I never considered it possible that they could still be alive even now!”

Soon after this story, there was another joyous reunion.

The Benefit of the Doubt

When scouting Eretz Yisrael, the spies neglected a critical concept: giving the benefit of the doubt. They went in with preconceived notions about the land and cast judgments quickly. We must be aware of our tendency to judge others and the consequences of this tendency. First, we judge, and soon enough, we feel the need to relay it to others. It is then an easy next step to humiliating the object of criticism in public. The woman did not hesitate to complain about the girl in front of a crowded bus. She was so sure of her judgment, so confident that she was right. Because of her, the others joined in on the harsh criticism.

One of the Baal Shem Tov’s most famous teachings is, “Your fellow man is your mirror.” He explained that people see purity in others when they are pure. On the other hand, if one sees a blemish in another, he is encountering his own imperfection. “Whoever judges his fellow, whether for the good or the bad, simultaneously reveals his own verdict.” Perhaps the woman saw selfishness because that is a quality of hers that she needed to work on.

May we learn to appreciate all Hashem gives us and know that whether we perceive it as good or bad, it is always good. May we also build up our children, so they have healthy self-esteem and can ultimately be valuable contributors to society and Am Yisrael! May we also be careful not to prejudge any situation, like the spies, and understand that if we see someone with a fault, we should look inward.

Discussion Point:

  • Is there a time when your faith in Hashem was challenged? What brought it back?

Etz Haim

Shining Light on the Parasha

is available to purchase at

Eichlers, Mekor Judaica, and Tehilat Yitzchak in Brooklyn.


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