By Rabbi Naftali Schiff
Poised to enter into the Promised Land, the children of Israel seem to try to do the sensible thing and send out a reconnaissance mission to decide how best to conquer the land of Canaan. Of course, things are not straightforward and instead of bringing back a favourable report with a viable plan of action, they cause the people to lose hope as they speak negatively about the oppressive nature of the land and its inhabitants.
This was one of Jewish history’s great missed opportunities as the Israelites are forced to wander in the desert for 40 years as a consequence of their actions. Moreover, this tragic event took place on 9 Av and is at the root of all subsequent events that have taken place on that dark day. The rabbis of the Talmud say the spies had a pre-set agenda, they weren’t looking for the truth, rather they were interested in muckraking.
This negative thinking ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, they saw what they wanted to see and reported on the basis of that. Pre-judging a situation was at the core of the monumental sin of the spies and the negative report was a foregone conclusion. Such an attitude is antithetical to Judaism as we read in Pirkei Avot, “be deliberate in judgement” and “don’t judge another until you have stood in his place”. Similarly, the method and process of Torah study is meant to be an objective one, ridding ourselves of preconceived notions and clarifying the topic at hand from all angles to be able to arrive at the truth.
Sinat chinam, the needless hatred that ultimately was the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple on that fateful day, 9 Av, is also largely about sticking to preconceived notions instead ofconstantly reassessing and re-evaluating people and situations as they arrive.
The effects of such an attitude are clearly harmful on a micro and macro level. May we merit to learn positive lessons from this story, and realise that the best conclusions come from an open and inquiring mind, rather than trying to interpret events around preconceived notions.
• Rabbi Naftali Schiff is the executive director of Aish UK