This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama.
In this week's Torah portion we find out why the Jews ended up wandering in the desert for forty years before finally entering the promised land. And it's not because men don't like asking for directions.
In Parshat Shelach, we learn about the importance of guarding one's tongue from evil speech. How? G-d sentenced the Jewish nation to thirty eight years in the desert for speaking badly about Israel. A four decade time out is not something to sneeze at. Why did G-d take such strong action against a few negative words?
At this point in the desert saga (two years after our Exodus from Egypt) the Jews had already received the Torah, built the mishkan (tabernacle) and lived through the census: everyone was tensed for the entering into and conquering Israel. However, before Moshe could give the signal, he answered Bnei Yisrael's (the Jews') request for information first. Therefore, Moshe plucked, from the cream of the crop, meraglim (spies) for dealing with the task of stealing into the holy land and collecting tidbits on its topography, inhabitants and the defensive layout of its cities. "You shall see what kind of land it is and the kind of people who inhabit it: are they strong or weak? Are they few or many?" (Numbers 13:18).
When the nation heard their ten tribal leaders' words, instead of shouting with joy over what they had assumed would be good news, they raised their voices and wept. 'If we had only died in Egypt. If we had only perished in this barren desert! It's not too late; let us reappoint a leader and return to Egypt!" (Numbers 14:2-4).
One of the running themes in the Jewish faith is the power of words. For instance, in last week's parsha, Moshe's sister, Miriam, gets struck with Tzara'as (roughly translated as leprosy) for speaking loshon hara (a form of none too complementary speech) about Moshe. These two events, that of Miriam's punishment and the admonition Hashem gave the meraglim in this week's Parsha, are written in direct sequence to show us the seriousness of embarrassing our fellow man etc.
In addition, although Moshe is known for being the humblest being who ever lived, he was called G-d's, the king's, servant, and since an insult to the servant of a king is tantamount to insulting the king, G-d reacted to Bnei Yisrael's behavior accordingly. This principle can also be applied to the land of Israel. Every country in the world is under the supervision of an angel. Israel, however, is guided by G-d. Anyone who rags on Israel is insulting G-d. Ah, now one can understand why a slight made against his family or friends would sting. Guide your words with care.