The Mishna in Arachin stresses the serious nature of lashon hara (gossip) because of the sin of the Spies in speaking badly about The Land of Israel. It states that of all the sins that the Jewish people committed in the desert, it was the sin of the Spies that sealed their punishment to not enter the land.
The Talmud asks how the Mishna knows that their punishment was because of lashon hara given that the Spies committed seemingly more severe sins involving kefira (heresy) when they said that the inhabitants of the land were stronger than HaShem. The Talmud answers that when the Torah discusses their sin it mentions their bad speech, not their kefira, indicating that their punishment was primarily because of lashon hara.
The question arises as to why it was the sin of lashon hara in particular that brought about such a severe punishment. The Chofetz Chaim explains that when a person sins by committing a forbidden action, an accusing Angel is created; this is a spiritual force that derives its life force from the sin which created it. It stands as a prosecutor of the sinner in the Heavenly Beis Din (Courts), and is the cause of the punishment that one receives for his sin. However, since this Angel was created by an action without speech, it in turn is unable to speak. Without this ability to articulate the person’s sin, the Angel cannot accuse him of his sin and he remains unpunished.
The sin of lashon hara is different because it involves speech. Therefore, the Angel created by it receives the power of speech. This gives it the ability to verbally express the nature of the lashon hara that the person perpetrated; but the Chofetz Chaim goes further and says that this Angel also enumerates all the hitherto unmentioned sins that the person committed. Thus, speaking lashon hara opens the floodgates for punishment of numerous other sins.
This explains why the fact that the spies spoke lashon hara – and many members of the Jewish people accepted it – resulted in the tremendous suffering they endured as a result. It is particularly noteworthy that the lashon hara that was spoken was not even about a human being, rather about The Land of Israel.
The Talmud in Kesubos stresses how far the Amoraim (Talmudic Sages) would go to avoid speaking negatively about the land. It states that if they were learning in a hot place they would move to a more pleasant, shaded place in case one of the students would utter anything negative about the land, even something as mundane as the weather.
The Ben Ish Chai derives from here that one must be very careful to guard one’s speech from denigrating even one Amah (Biblical and Talmudic units of measurement) in The Land of Israel, with regard to the air, the weather, the fruit, and even the buildings. He adds that this even applies when the land is in the hands of the non-Jews (as it was when he wrote this) and that one should not even denigrate the non-Jew’s houses. He concludes that all this is to avoid being in the category of ‘Motsi dibas raah al The Land of Israel – it is interesting to note that this is the exact language used to describe the spies.
The following story drives home how far Tzaddikim went to avoid any trace of negativity about the Holy Land. There was a Jew in Czarist Russia named Rav Mendel, who was fantastically wealthy. He supported poor Jews in the Land of Israel. One of the people he supported sent him a bottle of wine from The Land of Israel. This was a time when for the Jews in Russia, the Land of Israel was a far off dream. Despite his great wealth, the bottle of wine from The Land of Israel was Rav Mendel's most precious commodity.
When Rav Mendel was about to die, he told his son, “Here is my most precious possession – this bottle of wine from The Land of Israel. When there is a special occasion, I want you to open the wine, but not before.” It so happened that a day arrived several years later when the eight sons of the Chernobler Maggid visited this little village. Each and every son was a tzaddik in his own right.
The eight sons came to the village and held a Chassidic ‘Tish’ for all the Jews in town. The son of Reb Mendel said to himself, “This is a special occasion!” He arrived at the Tish with his bottle of The Land of Israel wine and passed up the bottle from the back of the room towards the head table where the eight Rebbes of Chernoble were sitting. He called toward the front of the room “Wine from The Land of Israel; Wine from The Land of Israel.”
Reb Aharon Chernobler, the oldest son, opened the bottle, poured himself a glass, recited the blessing, and tasted the wine. “Ummm! Delicious!” he said. He praised the wine profusely and passed the bottle to his brother Reb Moshe of Koristchev. Reb Moshe poured himself a glass, recited the blessing, tasted the wine, and likewise praised the wine. The bottle was then passed down the table to the next brother, Reb Yakov-Yosef of Cherkass and the process was repeated.
The protocol continued with each of the brothers – Reb Menachem Nochum of Makarov, Reb Avraham of Trisk, Reb Dovid of Talne, and Reb Yitzchak of Skvira. Until finally, the bottle reached the youngest brother, Reb Yochanan of Rachmistrivka.
Reb Yochanan received the bottle. He did not pour himself a glass. He did not taste it. He passed the bottle down to the next person. The eldest brother, Reb Aharon, said to his youngest brother, Reb Yochanan “What is the matter with you? – you don't taste the wine from The Land of Israel?” Reb Yochanan responded to his brother: “You know that I am a wine connoisseur and that as soon as I taste wine, I can immediately detect its quality. I was afraid that I would taste the wine and that for a split second, it would not satisfy my refined pallet and I would think evil of The Land of Israel. I don't want to be guilty again for the sin of the Spies of not appreciating The Land of Israel!”
This is of course a very exalted level, but the practical lesson for us all is obvious – Baruch HaShem unlike these great people, many of us have merited to visit or even live in the Holy Land and there can be the tendency to take it for granted. Moreover, there can be times when one is frustrated by various aspects of life in The Land of Israel, including the weather, interactions with certain people, bureaucracy and so on, and it is not unheard for a person to complain about such things.
The lesson of the spies and the Ben Ish Chai’s derivation from Talmud in Kesubos teach us how, just like we must strive to avoid negativity about our fellow man, we must also avoid negativity about the Holy Land.