The Chafetz Chaim is famous for making the prohibitions of lashon hara more widely known. It is well known that the spies of our parsha spoke lashon hara about Eretz Yisroel. However one could search in vain through the Chafetz Chaim’s great work on the laws of lashon hara for any prohibition of speaking badly about earth and stones.
So what did the spies do wrong with regard to Eretz Yisroel?
Lesser known about the Chafetz Chaim is his role in an episode concerning the town of Vilna. In 1848 there was a deadly cholera epidemic making its way through eastern Europe. At the time, Rav Yisroel Salanter was the rav of Vilna and was considered one of the greatest scholars of his time. Yom Kippur arrived and the concern about cholera was at its peak. Rav Yisroel considered, in line with the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries, that the obligation to set aside Torah prohibitions in case of danger to life extended to prevention as well with regard to the cholera epidemic. At Kol Nidre that year he poured a cup of wine on the bima, made a special Kiddush, drank the wine and handed out cookies to the assembled to ensure that no one would be more susceptible to cholera due to their hungry, weakened state.
The other rabbonim of Vilna, on hearing of this, were decidedly unhappy at the lack of consultation before taking such a radical step in pushing aside the fast for the entire community. In the end, Rav Yisroel was deposed from his position and essentially went into galus, spending the rest of his life moving from community to community all around Europe.
Subsequently, things started to go wrong in Vilna. There were tragedies, young rabbonim died. People wanted to know what to do.
The Chafetz Chaim was consulted, and suggested that the grandson-in-law of Rav Yisroel Salanter (Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky) should be given a permanent appointment as the Rav of Vilna. This was done, and Vilna seemed to return to normal.
This story on the surface seems to be unrelated to lashon hara per se. However the type of response which caused Rav Yisroel’s departure is all too closely related.
Our parsha relates that the spies, on returning to Moshe and the people, produced ‘dibas ha’aretz’. The word ‘diba’ is unusual and difficult to translate. Significantly, it is also used about Yoseph where the Torah reports that he brought ‘dibasam ra’a’, about his brothers to his father. The midrash there understands that he told his father that they had transgressed the prohibitions on eating limbs from living animals and on sexual immorality. The commentaries discuss why Yoseph thought this and why he was mistaken.
The word ‘diba’ seems to be from a word meaning ‘to say over’ but the context is quite specific in both cases and means to create a scandal where, in truth, there was nothing wrong. This was the lashon hara which caused Yoseph to be punished for each of his negative statements, one by one, and this was the lashon hara of the spies.
Creating scandal, a falsehood designed to produce a scandalized reaction is the sin of the spies. That creates a supernal cloud of negativity which has terrible effects below.
It follows that the antidote is to create a supernal cloud of positivity by consciously refraining from finger pointing, negative comments and anything which may poison the communal atmosphere.