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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shelach: Beware, are the glasses coloured?


G’d preferred that the Jewish people entered Israel without sending spies. Ten of the twelve spies felt like grasshoppers compared to the huge inhabitants. G’d orchestrated many funerals to keep the inhabitants busy burying their dead. Some view the glass half-full while others view it half-empty. The ways of G’d are straight. Angels never grow. Man’s purpose is to grow as much as possible. The righteous and the transgressors are not necessarily two different people: it all depends on the tint of their glasses. The ten spies left as righteous men and returned as wicked men. Their subjective fears tinted their perspective. The hunchback never sees his own deformity. If we examine our tint we may take the straight path to fulfill our potential.

The spies

In this week’s Torah portion, we read that G’d gave permission for the Jewish people to send spies into the land of Israel (Bamidbar 13:1). G’d would have preferred that the Jewish people trust Him to enter the land of Israel without sending spies beforehand. However, when Moses made the request on behalf of the people, G’d did not refuse.

Like grasshoppers

After forty days of spying out the land, the spies returned with their report to Moses, Aaron and the entire assembly of the Jewish people. Ten of the twelve spies gave an evil report that the land “devours its inhabitants”, and that the inhabitants were so huge that the spies felt like grasshoppers (Bamidbar 13:31-33). Only Joshua and Caleb brought back favourable reports.

Many funerals

Rashi explains that the spies referred to the land as devouring its inhabitants, because they were shocked by the unusually large number of funerals taking place all around them during their mission. Wherever they went, they found the inhabitants busy burying their dead. The ten spies who brought back the evil report assumed that the inhabitants were dying as a result of some harsh conditions of living in the land. However, the real reason for the presence of death everywhere was that G’d specifically orchestrated this so that the inhabitants would be too busy burying their dead to take any notice of the spies. This way they would not be detected as intruders.

Half-empty or half-full

Instead of thanking G’d for masking their presence, the spies focused on the large number of funerals in a very negative way. They assumed that the land was the cause of the funerals. This is like the famous saying about two people looking at the same glass of water with very different perceptions: one sees a half-empty glass; the other sees a glass that is half-full.

Walk straight or stumble

We find this lesson in the words of the Prophet Hoshea: “For the ways of G’d are straight; the righteous walk in them and the transgressors stumble over them” (Hoshea 14:10). Two people may set out on the same path. The righteous one will get to the destination without any problems. The transgressor will stumble and fall. It is not the path that causes the transgressor to stumble and fall. It is the mindset of the transgressor that causes the problem.

Man vs. angels

Our Sages teach us that man is constantly on the move, either up or down, as opposed to angels who just have jobs to complete, but neither grow nor fall. Man’s whole purpose in life is to grow as much as possible during our “walk” on the path of life in this world. We constantly develop our minds and continue to grow physically and mentally. However, in which direction this takes us is our challenge and choice.

Tinted glasses

The righteous and the transgressors are not necessarily two different people. When we look at a situation objectively without a bias, when we forget our own personal interests for a greater good, we are righteous in our attitude. When we look at a situation subjectively from our own little platform of ambitions filled with envy and jealousy, when we distort our perceptions by focusing on our own desires we are transgressors. The objective mind will grow and the subjective mind will stumble. This is like putting on a pair of coloured glasses; our view will be effected by the colour of the glasses. If the glasses are tinted green, we will see green. If the glasses are tinted red, we will see red. As long as we wear the tinted glasses, we will not see the real world. A righteous person sees through objectively clear glasses. A transgressor sees through subjectively tinted glasses.

The spies’ glasses

When the spies first set out on their mission, the Torah describes them as “men of distinction” (Bamidbar 13:2). At the time, all of the spies were very righteous people, leaders of their generation. When they returned from their mission, the ten who brought the unfavourable report were referred to as wicked people. It appears that a major change occurred during their mission. However, the Torah states that “they went and came to Moses” (Bamidbar 13:26). Rashi asks why the Torah says that they “went” since by that time the spies had already returned from the land of Israel. Rashi teaches us that this means that there was some flaw in their character from the outset. Before they left for their mission, the ten spies had some tint in their glasses. Even men of distinction can have a flaw.

Subjective fears

In Path of the Just, Rabbi Luzatto writes that the ten spies had subjective fears of losing their positions once the Jewish people entered into the land of Israel. It is quite possible that they were not even aware themselves of their fears. This fear tinted their glasses and caste everything in the land of Israel in a negative light so that the ten spies could not see all the beauty of the land and its great opportunities. If they had been able to see the land of Israel objectively, like the other two spies, they would have appreciated the miracle that G’d performed for them by causing so many inhabitants to die.


“Jealousy, lust and seeking honour drive a person out of this world” (Perkei Avot 4:28). It takes a lot of self-scrutiny to make sure we look at something objectively and not infect our perspective with bias for our own personal interests. Many times we are critical of others for deficiencies within ourselves. Only with self-scrutiny are we able to objectively see how much tint is on our glasses.

The hunchback

Sometimes one hears of a person who makes a complete U-turn and becomes Torah observant overnight. It is interesting to observe how friends and relatives often claim that “this is not good”. “The person is moving too fast, it is better to take one’s time and do things step by step.” “Psychologically it can be harmful to make such a major change in such a short time.” Although there might be some merit to their objections; however, if they were honest with themselves they would see that often the real issue is not the speed that this person is changing, but how that change affects them. The hunchback never sees his own deformity.

Examine our tints

The spies were great people who were chosen for their greatness and honesty to be the ones to spy out the land of Israel. No one but G’d could have known that deep inside ten of the spies there was a tiny grain of insecurity, waiting to surface. No matter how great any of us are, if we are not careful to examine the tints through which we view life, we will not be able to see the world objectively. The more tint, the more we will stumble and fall. The less tint, the straighter our path will take us to the fulfillment of our potential.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel