> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > What's Bothering Rashi?

Outward Appearances


Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )

by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek

This parsha tells of the serious sin of the Spies and its fateful consequence – that the nation would wander in the Wilderness for a whole generation, so that none of those who had left Egypt would be privileged to enter Eretz Yisrael.

Understanding the comparison in s'michot parshiyot give us an insight into the Spies' sin.

Numbers 13:2

"Send for yourself men who will search out the Land of Canaan which I am giving to the Children of Israel; one man each from the tribe of his fathers, send each prince among them."



Send forth for yourself - RASHI: Why was the section of the Spies placed in juxtaposition to the section about Miriam? Because she was stricken on account of slander, which she spoke against her brother, and these sinners witnessed [what happened to her] and yet did not take a lesson from it!

[Note: For a discussion of the concept of s'michos parshiyot, (two sections placed near each other in the Torah) see the Shemot volume of What's Bothering Rashi? page 98.]



On the basis of the idea of s'michos parshiyot, Rashi quotes a Midrash that criticizes the Spies. They should have learned the evils of slander from the fact that Miriam spoke slander against Moses, her brother, and was punished by God. But as you think about the comparison between the Spies' behavior and Miriam's slander, you should have some questions. Are they comparable cases?

Your Question:



A Question: Miriam spoke slander against Moses; the Spies gave an evil report about the Land. Since when is saying something bad about an inert object, like land, considered slander? Another point that could be made: Miriam spoke against the "man of God," Moses, the master of all prophets. How can the evil report of the Spies begin to be compared to Miriam's audacious act? Considering the differences between the two situations, one wonders why the Spies should have seen the connection and learned a lesson from Miriam's sin.

Do you see any comparison between the two parshiyot?

Your Answer:



An Answer: If we look again at the section about Miriam and we look closely at Rashi's words, we can gain a better understanding.

Miriam and Aaron spoke about the Cushite woman whom Moses took for a wife. A Cushite is, according to simple p'shat, a woman from Cush, a country whose natives are black-skinned. This is the only aspect of this woman mentioned in the Torah. Rashi mentions that Miriam was stricken and her punishment for her slander was "and behold Miriam was afflicted with leprosy like snow" (12:10).

Perhaps by understanding Miriam's punishment we can understand the deeper meaning of her sin. The Torah tells us that Miriam's skin was white as snow when she had leprosy; the Chushite woman's skin was black. A paradoxical situation existed, as the Cushite woman was pure "on the inside" although she was black on the outside. While Miriam, on the other hand, was "pure" (white) on the outside even though she had sinned and was impure on the inside.



The lesson is: Don't judge by appearances. What looks "pure" on the outside may be problematic on a deeper level, and contrariwise, what looks "black" on the surface may be quite pure and beautiful on the inside.

See that Rashi emphasizes Miriam's punishment, more so than her sin, when he says, "she (Miriam) was stricken on account of slander." Her punishment was the symbolic "white as snow" appearance of leprosy.

Do you see how this ties in with the sin of the Spies?

Your Answer:



An Answer: The Spies also judged by outward appearances and drew incorrect conclusions from outward appearances. What evidence is there of this?

Your Answer:



An Answer: Moses told them to "see the Land ... and the cities they dwell in; if they are open (non-walled) or fortified" (Numbers 13:19). On 13:19 Rashi says that Moses gave them a sign: "If they live in open cities, they are strong ... but if they live in fortified cities, they are weak." This is the opposite of what we might have thought. We would have thought that based on appearances, a fortified city would be harder to conquer, but Moses told them otherwise. In effect, he said "Don't judge by outward appearances."

With what report did the Spies return? They said, in their most damning sentence: "However, the nation is mighty, the people that dwell in the Land. And the cities are greatly fortified to the utmost" (Numbers 13:28). They drew the exact opposite conclusion than Moses had instructed them. They are strong ... because they dwell in greatly fortified cities! They fell into the perceptual trap of judging by outward appearances.

Clearly, they had learned nothing from the experience of Miriam, who was punished for judging by appearances.


Shabbat Shalom,
Avigdor Bonchek

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