Classic Questions

Why does the story of the spies appear here? (v. 13:1ff)

Rashi: Why does the section dealing with the spies follow the section dealing with Miriam? Because she was punished for being preoccupied with speech, for speaking about her brother, and these wicked people saw [what happened to her] but did not learn a lesson.

The Rebbe's Teachings

Miriam and the Spies (Rashi v. 1)

In his comment on verse 1, Rashi explains why the Torah places the section dealing with the sin of the spies immediately after the account of Miriam’s sin. This prompts the following questions:

  1. The spies were sent out on the 29th of Sivan (Rashi on Devarim 1:2), immediately after Miriam’s period of quarantine was complete, on the 28th of Sivan.1 So why does Rashi ask, “Why does the section dealing with the spies follow the section dealing with Miriam”? Surely, the reason is obvious, because one event occurred straight after the other.
  2. Why does Rashi write that Miriam was “punished over matters of speech,” and not simply, “punished for loshon hara (slander)”?

The Explanation

Rashi was not troubled here by a specific problem with our verse, but rather, with a general question regarding the sin of the spies, at the literal level. And this question can be answered, explains Rashi, through understanding why the sin of the spies is recorded immediately after the sin of Miriam.

(Of course, the reader will only have this question after reading the entire section dealing with the spies, and not here at the beginning of the parshah. Nevertheless, Rashi chose to address the matter here, because it is here that the solution is to be found. )

Rashi was troubled by the general question: What sin did the spies commit? They were commissioned to explore the Land and report what they saw, and that is precisely what they did. Even when they reported that the inhabitants of the Land of Israel were extremely powerful, and they could not imagine how the battle could be won, they were telling the truth, as we see from the fact that they were not accused by Calev of lying. 2 Why, then, were they punished?

Rashi answers that this matter can be clarified by addressing another question: “Why does the section dealing with the spies follow the section dealing with Miriam?”

Although the sin of the spies followed immediately after Miriam’s sin—which is a good reason for one to follow the other in Torah—in this case, however, it would have been more appropriate to record some other event between them. For by describing two sins of a similar nature one after the other, the reader may be left with the impression that Miriam’s sin was similar in severity to the sin of the spies (and she only received a lesser punishment because she did not cause others to sin too). So Rashi asks: “Why does the section dealing with the spies follow the section dealing with Miriam,” when there is no comparison between the severity of these two sins?

Rashi answers: “Because she was punished for being preoccupied with speech, for speaking about her brother, and these wicked people saw [what happened to her], but did not learn a lesson.” In other words, while it is true that “these wicked people” committed a sin of immense proportions, whereas Miriam’s oversight was relatively minor, nevertheless, the Torah records both of them together to explain why the spies’ sin was indeed so severe—because they should have learned a lesson from Miriam. While the two sins differed greatly in gravity, they did represent a similar mistake of judgment; so having witnessed Miriam’s sin, and her subsequent punishment, the spies were tremendously irresponsible in allowing themselves to repeat a similar mistake.

What was Miriam’s sin? It was not speaking badly of Moshe, for Rashi writes explicitly, “She did not intend to speak negatively about him” (Rashi to Bamidbar 12:1). Rather, her mistake was, as Rashi writes here, “she was punished for being preoccupied with speech.” If Miriam could not understand why Moshe had separated from his wife, she should have asked him, and not discussed the matter openly with others. Thus, her “sin” was not an intentional slander of Moshe, but something much more subtle: Her willingness to speak openly about sensitive issues that are prone to be misunderstood.

And this too, was the sin of the spies. They did not intend to disparage the Land of Israel, and they had a valid concern regarding how the Land was to be conquered. Their mistake was that they did not express their concerns privately to Moshe, but rather aired them in public, thus providing the “fuel” for a major rebellion. And this was a particularly grave error, being that they had seen Miriam commit an identical mistake immediately before their mission began. Thus their punishment, explains Rashi, was severe because they “saw [what happened to her], but did not learn a lesson. ”

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 18, p. 141ff.)