When the meraglim returned from Eretz Yisrael with their report, their first detrimental declaration was, “However, the people who dwell in the Land are very powerful, the cities are fortified and very large…” (Bamidbar 13:28). Whereupon Kalev responded, “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely subdue it” (ibid 30). The response of the meraglim to that was, “And those who had investigated the Land gave an evil report to Bnei Yisrael, saying, ‘The Land through which we have passed… is a Land which devours its inhabitants!’ ” (ibid 32). Ramban (ibid) explains the back-and-forth thusly (based on the sudden insertion of the phrase, “to Bnei Yisrael”): “After Kalev spoke up in favor of ascending to the Land, the other spies left the proximity of Moshe and Aharon and began privately telling the people in their tents that it is a Land that devours its inhabitants. For at first they said to the people in the presence of Moshe Rabbeinu that the Land flows with milk and honey, only that the people there are powerful. And Kalev said, ‘No, we can conquer it!’ The people were then ambivalent, some of them frightened, some trusting in their own might, some trusting in HaShem. At that point, seeing that their words did not have the desired effect, the spies issued their ‘evil report’ about the Land (that it devours its inhabitants) when the people were by themselves.” In pasuk 33 Ramban states, “When a Land is bad… it does not produce large people! On the contrary, its people would be thin or bloated from hunger, of short stature and lacking strength. However, the evil report of the spies implied that the Land possessed a strange, potent, air and was of a weighty nature, and that its water and fruit were thick and heavy; the constitution of average, normal people cannot tolerate them, but only giants who are mighty and powerful, immense people. And so the Land produces giants, but kills “normal” humans…” And so, even were Bnei Yisrael to be victorious in battle, it would be impossible to live in the Land.
Ramban explains further: From the fact that Bnei Yisrael said to Moshe, “Why is HaShem bringing us to this Land to die by the sword?” we understand that the people did not want to mention to Moshe the evil report they had heard from the spies (that the land was uninhabitable); rather, they wanted to hide it from him, for the spies wanted it kept secret, as they knew that Moshe would try to refute that report, saying that HaShem had promised a “Land flowing with milk and honey.”
Ramban in Devarim (1:25) actually says that Moshe Rabbeinu did not address the claim of “it is a Land which devours its inhabitants” because he did not know that the spies had said that! On the other hand, we do find that Kalev and Yehoshua said (14: 6,7), “The Land is very, very good,” and Ramban says there that this was stated to refute the claim of the meraglim that the Land was deadly. So why did Moshe not know about this claim, but Kalev and Yehoshua did?
There are different verbs used to denote “spying.” Let us talk about lasur and lachpor.
Ramban (13:2) explains that there were two possible purposes in sending out spies. “Klal Yisrael wanted them to go in the manner of all people about to wage war in a foreign land, when people are sent ahead to get to know the roads and approaches to the cities. When such people return, they are placed at the head of the army to guide the soldiers… and scouts are also sent to advise regarding which city to battle first and from which direction the war should be waged to make it easiest to conquer the land… That was Klal Yisrael’s intention… and that it why it found favor in the eyes of Moshe, as HaShem does not want us to rely on miracles, but commands us to arm ourselves, to lay ambushes, etc… And so were Moshe’s instructions to be interpreted… And that would be more fitting with the verb veyachperu, which implies a searching of the roads for matters pertaining to the conquest of the land… But HaShem then said veyasuru, which means to investigate, the connotation being investigating an item like those who wish to buy something and examine it first, HaShem’s purpose being to excite and gladden the people’s hearts about the Land, to realize how it is ‘the most splendorous of lands’ and they would thus ascend it with joyous hearts and great enthusiasm.”
When the meraglim returned, they brought back and showed the wondrous fruits of Eretz Yisrael; they said, however, that it would be impossible to wage war there and be victorious. Thus, they addressed the lachpor aspect of their assignment. Whereupon Moshe Rabbeinu said not to fear, for HaShem was with them, and Kalev further gave strength and fortitude to the people: “aloh na’aleh” — and we will conquer them!” When the meraglim then saw that the nation was vacillating, they started their verbal onslaught from the lasur perspective — that it is actually an abnormal Land, and it is impossible to inhabit it and lead normal lives there. And the pesukim start using the words “lasur” and “hatorim es ha’Aretz.” Yehoshua and Kalev, who were also charged with being “tarim es ha’aretz,” spoke in praise of the Aretz hakedosha they were poised to enter (tova… me’od me’od). And the meraglim were, well, meraglim, from the root word meaning rechilus, lashon hora, and spoke derogatorily of the Land, how it was uninhabitable and unlivable.
Yehoshua and Kalev, having been in the company of the others for this mission, knew their intention. Since they, too, were part of the mission, they spoke against this lashon hora, the change from lachpor to negative lasur. Thus they refuted that claim, saying, “Tova ha’Aretz me’od me’od,” for even if they did not hear the explicit lashon hora, they knew about the negative lasur intention, whereas Moshe Rabbeinu did not. And this is why the “sin of the meraglim” is better known as lashon hora, rather than a flaw in their emunah.
We, who baruch HaShem do live in Eretz Yisrael, would do well to make sure we combat not only the lachpor report (Isn’t it dangerous to live here? Aren’t you scared of terrorism?), but the lasur one as well (How can one manage there?). We resoundingly affirm, “Aloh na’aleh veyarashnu osah!”