After spending forty days spying Eretz Yisrael, the Meraglim returned with their negative report: claiming that the nations in the land were too powerful for Bnei Yisrael to conquer (13:29), the Meraglim discouraged Bnei Yisrael from entering Eretz Yisrael. Accepting the report, the people complained bitterly against Hashem and Moshe and announced that they will choose a new leader and return to Egypt. As punishment for this grievous sin, Hashem decreed (14:34), “BeMispar HaYamim Asher Tartem Et Haaretz, Arba’im Yom, Yom LaShanah, Yom LaShanah Tis’u Et Avonoteichem Arba’im Shanah,” “Like the number of years that you spied out the land, forty days, a day for a year, a day for a year you shall bear your sin, forty years.” For each day that the spies were in Eretz Yisrael, Bnei Yisrael would be punished, Middah Kenegged Middah, with one year of wandering in the desert. This punishment is difficult to understand – the Meraglim sinned only by speaking Lashon Hara for a few hours, perhaps one day at most; why were Bnei Yisrael punished for the days the Meraglim spent in their spying mission, when, on the surface, no sin was committed during that time?
Rabbi Yissochar Frand explains that there are two ways to view any event: one can “look on the bright side,” or one can take a pessimistic, darker view on the matter. Rashi (13:32 s.v. Eretz), explaining the Meraglim’s comment that Eretz Yisrael is “Eretz Ochelet Yosheveha,” “a land which devours its inhabitants,” writes that wherever the Meraglim went in Eretz Yisrael, they saw funeral processions. The Meraglim could have viewed this event in two ways. They could either have recognized that Hashem had performed a miracle – that many people suddenly died so that the residents of Eretz Yisrael would be occupied with the funerals and not notice the Meraglim – or they could take the negative outlook that the land must be uninhabitable. Because they took this latter view, they reported that the land “devours its inhabitants.” In essence, therefore, their sin of telling Lashon Hara about Eretz Yisrael began on the very first day they entered the land, when they first saw the funerals and concluded that the land was problematic. Ergo, the Meraglim actually spent forty days involved in the sin of Lashon Hara, and Bnei Yisrael were punished accordingly with forty years of exile.
If Lashon Hara really begins with viewing an event negatively, a strange Pasuk in Parshat Tazria also becomes clearer. In discussing Tzaraat HaBegged, Tzaraat that appears on clothes, the Torah dictates that a piece of cloth which has questionable Tzaraat must be “quarantined,” or closeted away with the affected area marked, for seven days. If the affliction remains unchanged after seven days, the cloth must be washed and quarantined again. If, after this second seven-day period, the Kohen sees that “Lo Hafach HaNega Et Eino,” literally “the affliction has not changed its eye,” the cloth must be burned (Vayikra 13:55). Rashi explains this strange phrase to mean that the Tzaraat has not changed color, interpreting “changed its eye” as “changed in his eye” (the eye of the Kohen). However, it is unclear from Rashi why this strange phraseology is used. Rabbi Frand explains that because Lashon Hara really starts with a negative view of an event, the Pasuk can be understood literally. The Tzaraat, which was likely caused by Lashon Hara, did not “change its eye” – the person did not change his negative outlook which caused the Tzaraat in the first place. The Torah is hinting that the problem in the person’s viewpoint has not been corrected, and the cloth must therefore be burned.
The Sefat Emet notes that the words “Nega” (affliction, the word used for Tzaraat), spelled Nun Gimmel Ayin, and “Oneg” (enjoyment), spelled Ayin Nun Gimmel, have the same letters. The only difference between them is where the Ayin is placed – at the beginning of the word or at the end of the word. The word “Ayin” is not only a letter, but also the word for eye. Thus, the only difference between being “afflicted” (Nega) and enjoying this world (Oneg) is where the Ayin, the eye, is placed. If one has a positive outlook, seeing the good side of things and judging others favorably, then he or she will truly enjoy this world. If, on the other hand, one has a negative attitude, concentrating on the bad in everything and speaking Lashon Hara, then he or she will be constantly “afflicted,” unable to enjoy life.
A powerful lesson emerges. The only way to avoid the terrible sin of Lashon Hara is to see the good in people and events. Judging others LeKaf Zechut, favorably, is so important and so difficult. With Hashem’s help, we should all merit to judge others favorably and thereby uproot the sin of Lashon Hara.