Parshat Shlach: On “Influencers”

Parshat Shlach is most known for containing the sin of the meraglim (spies). Yet, the entire generation was punished. What was their fault and what lessons can be drawn from this tragic story for our world today?

Biblical interpreters point out that the narrative of the meraglim did not occur in a vacuum. This is not the beginning of the people’s faithlessness. It is part of a series of stories of criticism and resentment in Bamidbar, which begins with small groups and spreads throughout the nation. Rashi teaches that the meraglim narrative follows the story of Miriam’s punishment for speaking lashon ha’ra to show that the spies should have learned the dangers of slander, yet they did not. The Ha’amek Davar sees the failings of the spies as going further back to the “mitonenim,” (provocateurs) who start a downward spiral of criticism which culminates with the spies who spread negativity among the nation.

However, these interpretations risk portraying the people as being easily swayed by the meraglim and therefore lacking some degree of agency. Caleb and Joshua rejected the negative reports and said “let us go up!” Why weren’t they listened to? Rabbi Yehuda Brandes suggests that the nation’s unmitigated support for the ten spies, complete disregard for the words of Caleb, and immediate cries of hopelessness, show that the spies were feeding off the fears and faithlessness of the people. Bnei Yisrael were not just swayed but had an active role in escalating the negative reports and were therefore punished severely. The people influenced the spies as much as the spies influenced the people.

In our era of digital connectivity, negativity and resentment can spread particularly rapidly. Complacency allows them to breed. The recent spate of violence against healthcare workers in Israel and of gun violence in the US are a call to spread positive and constructive voices in the world. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

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