Thursday, June 22, 2006

Speaking Ill Of The Land (Shelach 5766)

The majority of the Sedrah deals with the story of the spies, who brought a negative report of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. Although the people who believed them were allowed to live (although they would now die in the desert), the spies themselves died a gruesome death:

And the men, whom Moshe sent to spy out the land, and who, when they returned, made all the congregation to murmur against him, by bringing up an evil report against the land, even those men that did bring up an evil report of the land, died by the plague before the Lord. But Yehoshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Yephuneh, remained alive of those men that went to spy out the land. (BeMidbar 14)

The nature of the plague is not specified by the text, although the Talmud has a tradition as to its nature:

The spies had no share in the world to come, as it says: the men who spoke evil of the land died in a plague. They died - in this world, in a plague - in the world to come. (Sanhedrin 109b)

The men died who spoke evil of the land in a plague - said Rebbi Shimon ben Lakish: they died an odd death. Said Rebbi Chanina bar Popa: Rebi Shilo from the town of Tamrata expounded: to teach that their tongues extended and fell on their navels and worms emerged from their tongues and entered their navels and from their navels they entered their tongues. Rav Nachman bar Yitzhok said: they died from croup. (Sotah 35a)

In the plague - from the fact that it doesn’t says: in a plague, it implies that it was special, and they deserved it measure for measure. (Rashi)

Following Rashi’s lead, many of the commentators attempt to link their wrongdoing with their grisly deaths:

The prophet Ezekiel describes the Land of Israel as the ‘navel of the earth’ (38), since it is the focal point of the physical world. The fact that the spies spoke (with their tongues) against the Land (the navel) is clearly related to their punishment:

This absolutely measure for measure, as they spoke evil with their tongues about Eretz Yisrael, which is in the navel of the world, as it says in Yechezkel - upon the navel of the earth. The Radak explains there that Eretz Yisrael is called the navel of the world because it is in the centre of the world, like the navel is in the centre of the body. Therefore they were punished in this manner. Also the reason of Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak who explained that they died of croup, for this illness begins in the mouth and finishes in the intestines, which is the navel at the top of the intestines. (Iyun Ya’akov to Sotah 35)

Rashi, in his Talmud commentary, makes a similar observation. The Kli Yakar offers a slightly different explanation:

It writes: The wicked are estranged from the womb; the speakers of lies go astray as soon as they are born. When the child is inside its mother, then the navel takes the place of the mouth, for its mouth is closed and its navel is open. Since even in the womb the speakers of lies go astray, it is as though even in the womb their mouths are open to speak lies and falsehood, where the navel is in the place of the mouth. Therefore their tongues extended to their navels for with each mouth they consumed and destroyed the land with their falsehood, so the punishment was in both these places, which is the place of the sin. (Kli Yakar loc. cit.)

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