Many Truths and a Few Lies
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read the well-known story of the twelve spies. Before starting the conquest of the land, the Israelites need to know what kind of country it is, and what kind of people live in it. So, Moses sends twelve spies to scout the Land of Canaan, one for each tribe. After traveling the land for forty days, they return and split themselves into two groups. The smallest group, consisting of Caleb and Joshua (from the tribes of Judah and Ephraim respectively), give an encouraging report about the land and its inhabitants. The second group, consisting of the other ten spies, provides a very negative report about the inhabitants of Canaan. They describe them as giants, and they affirm that the Children of Israel will not be able to defeat them in war. Upon hearing this discouraging report, the people cry out, publicly expressing that they wish they had died naturally in Egypt instead of having to die at the hands of these giants. Ultimately, God punishes this generation, condemning it to die in the desert and not allowing them to enter the Land of Canaan.
The sages have traditionally understood that the harmful report given by the ten spies was the cause of the popular crisis that ended with God’s famous punishment. Some commentators think the ten spies lied, while others argue that they didn’t necessarily lie, but expressed themselves in a way that sought to provoke anger and anxiety in the people.
Regarding the question of whether the spies lied or not, there is a very smart comment by Rashi, who actually quotes the Midrash. The commentary is based on the fact that the ten spies began their report with a positive assessment of the land, and only after that did, they talk about its tremendously strong inhabitants: “They told him [Moses] and said, We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant” (Numbers 13:27-28).
At first sight, it seems that the ten spies are providing an honest report, as they begin praising the promised land. Nevertheless, they quickly change the focus to the giants who inhabit the land, who would be impossible to defeat in battle. If the ten spies’ intention was to convince the people about how bad an idea was to try to conquer the land, why did they bother describing the positive aspects of the land first? Rashi’s answer: A lie that does not begin with some truth, will not be heard! According to Rashi, when someone wants to cheat another person, he will start his speech with a little bit of truth, so the second person pays attention and judges the speaker as a truthful person. Only after that the cheater will introduce his lies.
It is easy for us to listen to an honest person who tells only the truth. It is also easy to reject a person who speaks all lies. However, it is hard for us to judge a clever person who is trying to cheat us, even when it seems that most of his arguments are true. That was the skill the ten spies mastered.
What is the moral here? That we have to listen very carefully, judging the other person’s arguments individually and carefully, to avoid being cheated by “many truths and a few lies.” The Children of Israel fell in that trap, and they had to pay a high price for it. Let’s be wiser than that!