Truth – Falsehood’s Foothold
In parshas Devarim, Moshe rehashes a number of pivotal events that took place during the Jewish journey through the Middle-East desert. Noteworthy is his description of the Meraglim, the “spies” story:
All of you approached me and said, “Let’s send men ahead and let them spy out the Land and bring word back to us…” The idea was good in my eyes, so I took from you twelve men… They took from the fruit of the Land and brought it down to us. They brought back word and said, “The Land that Hashem, our G-d, gives us is good!” But you didn’t want to go up, and you rebelled against the word of Hashem. [1:22-26]
There seems to be a major discrepancy between the Torah’s description of the events in parshas Shelach and Moshe’s description here. The familiar version of the Meraglim episode goes that 10 out of the 12 spies came back with negative accounts, and only Kalev and Yehoshua were in favour of entering Israel (Canaan). Here, Moshe seems to say that “the spies” brought back word that “the Land Hashem has given us is good,” implying they all did. But, “you didn’t want to go up” – refusing to accept their affirmative report. In parshas Shelach the Torah is quite descriptive of the ten spies’ negative account; there is no disputing that they successfully discouraged Bnei Yisrael from continuing, so why does the Torah here write that they brought back good words?
Rashi resolves this problem by explaining that the “they” who brought back good words were in fact only Yehoshua and Kalev. Even though they were outnumbered by the naysayers, Moshe still rebukes the nation for not following them, since they were the ones corroborating Hashem’s promise, while the others were refuting it (Ramban). Still, it seems unfair for Moshe in his criticism here to make things appear as if there were only good things to be heard, when in fact the majority of spies were not in favour. Normally in Jewish law, majority rules (ibid.).
Ramban and Seforno note that in truth, all the Meraglim began their reports with positive news about the Land:
They returned from spying out the Land at the end of forty days. They came to Moshe and Aaron and the entire assembly… they showed them the fruit of the Land. They said, “We came to the Land to which you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit… ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 13:25-27)
After which the slander began. It is to this element of their report that Moshe refers when saying, “They brought back word and said, ‘The Land that Hashem, our G-d gives us, is good!'” Still, the bulk of their reply was not affirmative, so why does the Torah only describe their introduction?
Why indeed did the Meraglim begin their disapproving narrative by first pointing out the Land’s positive points? Rashi (13:27) explains that every lie needs a bit of truth to make it believable. By starting off in praise of the Land, they were actually making their subsequent slander more credible.
The holy Admor of Bobov, R’ Ben Zion zt”l, whose yohrtzeit (4 Av)is this Shabbos, once said the following parable about truth (emes) and falsehood (sheker):
Sheker once said to emes: “I’m so much more powerful than you. After all, the whole world is full of lies and falsehood! The most prominent people – kings, noblemen, and judges – they all manipulate and distort in order to increase their power and their honour. The rich lie to the poor, and the poor to the rich. The teacher lies to the student in order to get his message across; and the student lies to the teacher to get himself out of trouble. I even bring peace among men – where truth and accuracy would only lead to strife and contention!”
“Don’t you admit, however,” said emes, “that all liars must spice up their lies with bits and pieces of truth in order to make them credible?! Nobody falls for a straight-out lie! To the contrary, you – sheker – only accomplish what you do by donning the cloak of emes, and portraying yourself as if you’re it! Of course I’m more powerful – you’re just always trying to steal my show!”
Sheker, the Rebbe zt”l explained, proves its own unworthiness by always portraying itself as “the truth.” It’s not simply that the Meraglim spiced up their lies with some truth here and there. They used and abused the little bit of truth in their words to convince the nation that they were bearers of the genuine story!
Chazal, our Sages, say that, “Sheker ayn lo raglayim – falsehood has no feet. (Shabbos 104a)” Literally this means that the Hebrew letters which form the word sheker – shin kuf raish – are all one-footed at their base; wobbly letters. Conversely, emes – alef mem sav – are all broad-based letters; they are free-standing and firmly rooted. Symbolically, falsehood may at times have its moment in glory, but in the end truth prevails. Sheker will ultimately trip up and tip over its wobbly feet; emes is eternal. This, perhaps, is why the Torah only recounts the small bit of truth that glorified their slanderous report, for the truth within the sheker is the only thing real about it – the rest of their words were just fluff and empty airspace.
A young girl once approached a woman who had taught her the year before. “Mrs. Ploni,” she said, “do you remember how you always told us the importance of telling the truth; that you can’t lose by being honest, and you have to be truthful even when it hurts or you’re embarrassed. Well, this is what happened: Three other girls and I played a mean trick on our teacher. She was very upset. When she asked who did it, I was the only one to own up. Eventually, the teacher found out who else was involved. Since I told the truth, I wasn’t punished. The other girls, because they lied, were suspended! So you see, you were right – it really does pay to tell the truth!”
“Yes,” the teacher responded, “you must always tell the truth – sheker doesn’t pay. But I want you to know that even when you tell the truth, it doesn’t always work out so neatly. Understand that you might have been punished and the other girls never been caught. Even so, you would have done the right thing, and they the wrong. That’s what’s important. Lies might prevail in the short run, but in the long run the only person you ever fool is yourself.”
Perhaps this is why, immediately following the chapter of the spies both here and above, the Torah describes how the Jews proceeded to delude themselves into thinking they could conquer the mountain (the other side of which lay Eretz Yisrael) on their own, despite Moshe’s warnings. Once they had submitted to the mistruths and distortions of the spies, it was only a matter of time before they deluded themselves.
Mind you he’s a wily, crafty character – that sheker. He rears his head in the most inconspicuous of situations, and before we know it he’s got us believing our own fabrications. In the short run, bending the truth might seem like a viable and even desirable solution to a difficult situation. Eventually, though, sheker catches up with its proponents, and their castle of cards crumbles upon its own shaky foundation. May we have the moral fortitude to cleave and adhere to the tenets of truth and honesty.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week’s publication has been sponsored by Mr. Yosef Marmorstein, in memory of his father R’ Avraham Yehudah ben R’ Yosef HaLevi.