Parashat Shelach records the unfortunate episode of the ten spies’ negative report about Eretz Yisrael. Bnei Yisrael apparently committed a grave sin by accepting this pessimistic view of the unassailability of the inhabitants of the land, and were accordingly punished with forty years of wandering in the desert. Simply put, they should have had more faith in Hashem’s promise that they would certainly be able to conquer the land, as Yehoshua and Kaleiv implored them to believe. Why, in fact, did Bnei Yisrael fail to trust Hashem? To any believer, Hashem’s word is worth more than that of ten humans. What great temptation did Bnei Yisrael have to disbelieve Hashem?
To answer this question, we must first understand the root of the Torah prohibition of accepting Lashon HaRa. In the context of laws related to Beit Din, the Torah states, “Lo Tisa Sheima Shav,” literally translated as “Do not accept a vain report” (Shemot 23:1). What exactly is a vain report? The simple explanation is that this prohibition goes together with the one mentioned in the Aseret HaDibrot in Parashat VaEtchanan, “Lo Taaneh BeReiacha Eid Shav,” “Do not serve as a vain witness against your fellow” (Devarim 5:17). The Ramban and Chizkuni understand this to be an injunction against giving useless testimony, such as that someone has acquired an object but has not yet performed a Kinyan (Halachic act of acquisition). The Gemara (Pesachim 113b) records that Rav Papa administered lashes to someone for violating a similar prohibition. Accordingly, the interdict against accepting a vain report would proscribe Beit Din from accepting such useless testimony. In fact, this appears to be how Rashbam reads this verse.
Onkelos, however, translates this injunction as “La Tikabeil Shema DiShkar,” “Do not accept a false report.” Onkelos seems to have changed the type of speech which we are forbidden to accept from “vain” to “false.” How can Onkelos make an equation between two seemingly disparate terms? A simple answer would be that the Torah seems to equate them. In the version of the Aseret HaDibrot which appears in Parashat Yitro, the Torah’s formulation is, “Lo Taaneh BeReiacha Eid Shaker,” “Do not be a false witness against your fellow” (Shemot 20:13). By contrast, as previously mentioned, the version in Parashat VaEtchanan has the word “vain” instead of “false.” Although Ramban and Chizkuni maintain that the two versions mean two different things, Onkelos disagrees and translates both versions as “La Tas’heid BeChavrach Sahaduta DeShikra,” “Do not give false testimony against your friend.” (This may reflect a broader dispute between Chazal and Ramban regarding the disparities between the two accounts of the Aseret HaDibrot. Chazal consistently attempt to reconcile the two versions and explain how both in actuality say the same thing, while Ramban feels that the simple reading of the text in Devarim indicates that Moshe was adapting and extending the Aseret HaDibrot.) A plain reading of Onkelos would thus indicate that there is a prohibition for Beit Din to accept falsehood as fact. While this seems obvious based on the prohibition to pervert justice (VaYikra 19:15), the Torah sometimes prohibits things multiple times in order to make one who violates such an interdict Chayav many times (see Rashi to VaYikra 11:3 s.v. Otah). In fact, several commandments regarding judicial procedures are repeated, such as the prohibition to discriminate in favor of the poor (Shemot 23:3 and Vayikra 19:15).
Nevertheless, Chazal interpret “Lo Tisa Sheima Shav” as a prohibition to accept Lashon HaRa rather than to accept falsehood. This, however, creates a difficulty. How is Lashon HaRa automatically considered false? In fact, Lashon HaRa, by its very definition, is a true, yet derogatory, statement. Rav Yitzchak Berkowitz explains that the falsehood inherent in Lashon HaRa is not the statement itself. Rather, the falsehood refers to the speaker’s attempt to incriminate the subject of the statement and form a negative impression of him in the listener’s mind based on one or two isolated events. Consider an example. Someone walks into a non-Kosher restaurant, purchases a meal and eats it. Any onlooker would confirm that the person has eaten non-Kosher. However, does that onlooker know why the person ate non-Kosher? Has he considered the possibility that this person has a medical condition which necessitates his consumption of non-Kosher food? In most cases, the answer is no. If someone would say that this person has consumed non-Kosher, he would certainly be correct. But in his attempt to characterize the action as forbidden and brand the person a sinner, he might very well be mistaken. This is the falsehood embedded in most Lashon HaRa; the failure to fulfill the positive commandment to give others the benefit of the doubt (VaYikra 19:15, vide Rashi there). Yet Hashem recognizes that there is a latent desire in humans to be judgmental and propound their often unfounded views of others.
In fact, in this sense, Lashon HaRa is also vain (Shav). Of what use is it to characterize someone as a sinner or ignoramus based on an isolated incident in which a host of mitigating factors may exist? Such judgment is surely a waste of time and could very clearly be labeled “vain.”
With this background, we can answer our original question. Bnei Yisrael’s temptation was the tendency entrenched in human nature to judge based on superficial or unsubstantiated reports. It is in this vein that Chazal comment that the spies’ error was that they saw many funerals in their travels throughout Eretz Yisrael, and, instead of recognizing that Hashem was distracting the natives from noticing the spies, erroneously concluded that Eretz Yisrael was a polluted and inhospitable land. The spies made a superficial judgment of the nature of Eretz Yisrael, and Bnei Yisrael similarly fell into the trap of forming unfounded opinions based solely on the spies’ personal interpretations of the situation without considering any other possibilities.
Many people wonder how the Torah can demand that we refuse to give credence to Lashon HaRa. Doesn’t the Torah seem to be demanding naiveté? The answer to this challenge is quite simple. More often than not, there are extenuating circumstances or background information which completely changes the story. Entire books have been devoted to stories containing actions which on the surface appear to be in violation of the spirit or letter of Halacha yet in reality are correct or even meritorious. While Halacha allows and in fact requires that we consider the possibility that the Lashon HaRa is completely accurate and take attendant precautions, it concomitantly mandates that we judge the subject of the statement favorably and not form a negative opinion of him. So doing, we can avoid the pitfalls of accepting Lashon HaRa and the terrible consequences this sin can bring.