One of the most troubling questions that results from the mission of the spies to Eretz Yisrael in Parashat Shelach is what exactly is the Cheit HaMeraglim? The spies chosen by Moshe were distinguished members of Bnei Yisrael (BeMidbar 23:3; Rashi s.v. Kulam Anashim) and, as such, were expected to carry out their mission as it was given to them. As children, we are taught that the Meraglim are, “HaAnashim Motzi’ei Dibbat HaAretz Ra’ah,” “The people who spread the evil report about the Land” (BeMidbar 14:37). In fact, such a claim is not far off; this phrase is used as a description of the spies when the Torah discusses their deaths as a result of their sin. Many erroneously interpret this Pasuk, though, to mean that the spies are punished because they spoke negatively about Eretz Yisrael. However, it is clear from the guidelines of their mission to seek out, “HaAretz…HaTovah Hi Im Ra’ah,” ”The Land…is it good or is it bad?” (13:19). Part of their mission was to tell Moshe whether the land, its inhabitants and its cities are good or bad. Neither Hashem nor Moshe were asking for a dishonest report from the spies, asking them to “stretch the truth” in order to excite Bnei Yisrael about the Land. If the spies found the Land to be barren or its inhabitants to be strong, they were required to relay this information to Moshe. When looking later in the Perek, it appears as if the spies did exactly this: they included both positive and negative reports of the Land, just as Hashem had commanded (13:27-29). Clearly, the Dibbat Ra’ah which causes their deaths is not merely negative speech. This only further emphasizes the question of what sin the spies actually committed.
Ramban (13:27-28 VeGam Zavat Chalav UDevash Hi) explains that the spies’ sin lays in their use of the word, “Efes,””But” (13:28) as a bridge between their positive and negative report of the Land. Ramban explains that this one word negated all of the positive things the spies told Bnei Yisrael about the Land. Despite Eretz Yisrael being a Land flowing with milk and honey, the spies told Bnei Yisrael that they would be unable to go there due to the strength of the cities and inhabiting nations. Perhaps Ramban believes that the root of the spies sin was that they intentionally delivered a hyperbolic report by saying (13:28-29) the cities are “fortified and very great,” there was “offspring of the giant” and Amalek, the epitome of evil and baseless anti-Semitism, “dwells in the area of the south.” However, a different approach must be considered which analyzes what the Torah states regarding the spies: these men are described as spreading “Dibbat HaAretz Ra’ah.” The Torah does not describe them as speaking falsely or exaggerating anything about the Land, but rather the Dibbat Ra’ah itself.
To better understand the Dibbat Ra’ah, we must look at the only other time a similar phrase appears in the Torah. In BeReishit, the Torah states, “VaYavei Yosef Et Dibbatam Ra’ah El Avihem,” “And Yosef would bring evil reports about them to their father” (BeReishit 37:2). Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Et Dibbatam Ra’ah) explains that Yosef brought negative reports regarding Leah’s sons. He explains based on the Midrash Tanchuma that Yosef would report to Ya’akov any wrongdoings he saw Leah’s sons do without judging them favorably as we are told to do (Avot 1:6). However, all of these reports were, in fact, false. Nevertheless, we should not think that Yosef HaTzaddik spoke outright Leshon HaRa about his brothers; rather, as Gur Aryeh suggests, he had the purest intentions in telling this information to his father, but misinterpreted their actions.
We can now understand why the Dibbat Ra’ah that the spies spoke led to their ultimate deaths. These spies, the leaders of their Shevatim and role models for all of Bnei Yisrael, clearly had the purest intentions in relaying this negative information to Bnei Yisrael. They may have seen giants and huge, fortified cities. However, the spies, just like Yosef, had misinterpreted their various surroundings and the actions of the Land’s inhabitants. Rashi (BeMidbar 13:32 s.v. Ochelet Yoshvehah), for example, explains that when the spies say the Land, “devours its inhabitants,” (13:32) they incorrectly assumed that this was due to the dangerous atmosphere there. However, the real reason why so many people were dead in the land was really because Hashem had killed them in order to make the spies’ mission easier. Just like Yosef, the spies did not lie, and just like Yosef, the spies had the best intentions in mind. It was when the spies misinterpreted the different things they saw in Eretz Yisrael that they made their most flawed conclusion: Hashem would not be able to help Bnei Yisrael conquer the Land. All of their false impressions regarding the Land eventually led to their loss in Emunah in Hashem. Just as Yosef did not judge his brothers favorably, perhaps the Cheit HaMeraglim was that the spies did not judge Hashem favorably. From the Cheit HaMeraglim, it becomes clear that we must look at everything that Hashem does positively, understanding that everything He does has an ultimate purpose, in order to keep our Emunah in Him intact.