Perception is Everything
by Miri Korbman
The sin of the spies is, perhaps, one of the most troubling and terrible events in Jewish history, with far-reaching consequences. As a result of the spies’ slander about the Land of Israel, the Jewish people were punished severely - the entire generation received the death penalty, the whole nation was sentenced to wander for forty years in the dessert, and calamities continue to befall our people for generations on the day the spies came back with their report, including the destruction of both Batei Mikdash. Furthermore, and even more disconcerting, the twelve men that Moshe sent were the princes of the tribes, who had only recently brought special sacrifices to inaugurate the Mishkan! These were not “Average Joe” Jews; these twelve men were the cream of the crop! How could they have erred so grievously and fallen so far?
Regarding the second verse of the Parsha, “shelach licha anashaim - send for yourself spies,” (Bamidbar 13:2) Rashi asks: Why is this story of the spies juxtaposed with the last story we read at the end of Parshas Behaaloscha, that of Miriam’s Lashon Hara about Moshe and her subsequent punishment? Rashi explains that this teaches us something fundamental about the nature of the spies’ sin. The entire nation waited for Miriam to return from her seven-day banishment; everyone, including these twelve spies, knew that Miriam had spoken Lashon Hara about Moshe – “u’rishaim hallalu ra’u v’lo lakchu musar,” and these “evil men” saw what happened to her, but did not learn from it.
What is it that the spies saw and did not take to heart? Furthermore, not only did these great and righteous men sin, but Rashi goes so far as to call them “rishaim,” evil people! What did they do to deserve such a label?
Let us turn back briefly to last week’s Parsha and the story of Miriam’s Lashon Hara about Moshe. The Pasuk (12:1) says that Miriam spoke ill of Moshe’s wife, and Rashi explains that the actual content of her speech was regarding the fact that Moshe separated from his wife. Miriam saw this act of separation as something negative, and therefore spoke ill about her brother.
Returning to our Parsha, what exactly was the nature of the spies’ sin? What was the content of their Lashon Hara regarding the Land of Israel? When the spies return, they say call Eretz Yisrael a “land that eats its inhabitants” (13:32). Rashi explains that the spies witnessed many funerals taking place on their journey, and drew the unfortunate conclusion that the land was inherently dangerous. This was a mistaken perception, as in fact God had performed a miracle for the spies that the inhabitants of the land were busy making funerals and therefore did not detect their presence.
The mistake – and sin – of the spies was in their perception of the land, and of everything they saw, as negative. One of the most colloquial concepts regarding the psychological power of perception is about viewing the glass as half empty or half full. Optimists see the glass as filled halfway, while pessimists see the glass as lacking half its contents. The power of perception is life changing and carries tremendous consequences.
Rav Wolbe explains that the root of Lashon Hara is actually having an Ayin Ra, a negative outlook on others, and on the world. This was the root of Miriam’s Lashon Hara about Moshe. Moshe’s separation from his wife was a fact, an event that occurred; Miriam’s perception and evaluation of that fact was that it was a bad thing, and it was this negative outlook that led to her Lashon Hara. The sin of the spies was also rooted in what they saw, and the conclusions they drew based on their negative interpretations of what they saw, which then led them to speak Lashon Hara, as well.
The mistake of the spies in not learning from Miriam’s fate was that they did not learn this fundamental lesson about the power of perception. Two people can see the exact same thing, a glass containing water, and yet one’s perception is that it is half empty, and the other’s is that it is half full. One’s perception shapes his worldview, and subsequently how he thinks and acts, and crucially how he speaks about others and the world. The lesson that Rashi says the spies overlooked, with devastating consequences, was that one can experience a neutral event, stumble upon a single fact, encounter a person, and perceive positively or negatively - the choice in how to view a situation, event, or person lies with the individual. The spies saw the land, its giant fruit and people, and perceived Eretz Yisrael as dangerous, deadly, and terrible. They also perceived themselves as small, as they reported “va’nihi b’eineinu k’chagavim, v’kein hayinu b’eineihem,” - and we were like grasshoppers in the eyes [of the inhabitants]” (13:33).
Perception is, in fact, everything. The way we see the world and all the people in it has important implications for the way we think, feel, act, and speak, and our thoughts, feelings, actions, and speech can have far-reaching effects. We see the critical importance of this concept in the fact that Rashi calls the spies “rishaim,” evil-doers, when describing how they did not take a lesson from Miriam’s Lashon Hara about Moshe. Perceiving the negative in life is called having an “ayin hara,” an “evil eye,” because it is at the root of much evil, including evil speech. When we see the bad in others, we tend to mistreat them, or speak ill of them. Moreover, when we see God, or Judaism, or Torah as negative, or as a burden, we tend to disregard religious and spiritual beliefs and pursuits.
The most vivid example of this is found in the Hagaddah, when we discuss the four sons. Famously, the second son we speak about is known as the Rasha, the wicked or evil son. Why does he, like the spies, deserve this label? The Rasha asks, “what is this work that you have to do?” He views the Karban Pesach, and perhaps all of Torah Judaism, as work, a burden to be cast off. His negative perception of the Mitzvos is what earns him the unfortunate name of “Rasha,” just as the spies’ negative perception of all they saw on their journey earned them the same undesirable designation.
The good news, however, is that we can choose to perceive others, or Torah and Mitzvos, in a negative light, but we can also choose to reframe the way we see things, and to perceive others, and their actions, or the things that happen in our lives in a positive, optimistic light. This week let us harness our Ayin Tova, our good eye, and exercise the muscle of seeing the good in others, in the world, and in ourselves. Just as negative perception can be disastrously powerful, so our ability to see the good, the positive, the half-full in the world and people around us can have tremendously positive consequences. When we train ourselves to see the good, we can think better, feel more empathically, and speak more positively, and this can have untold beneficial ripple effects for us all.