They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there.” — Numbers 13:27–28
The Torah portion for this week is Shelach, which means “send,” from Numbers 13:1–15:41, and the Haftorah is from Joshua 2:1–24.
Maimonides, a preeminent rabbi of the Middle Ages, explained that the spies discussed in this week’s Torah reading went wrong with just one word: “but.”
After scouting out Canaan, the 12 spies returned to Moses with the following report: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.” Omit that one word, and we are left with an honest account of what the spies saw, which was the purpose of their mission. However, that one word transformed their objective statement into a subjective one, one that led to grief, confusion, and a loss of faith.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word used in the verse that means “but” is the word efes, which also means “zero.” The Jewish sages explain that this is the power of the word “but.” It turns everything positive into nothing at all. All the good becomes zero, nothing. The fact that the Promised Land was flowing with milk, honey, and abundance meant nothing to the children of Israel after the spies insinuated that conquering the land would be dangerous and improbable. That one little word changed the entire value of the statement, and consequently, the trajectory of the Israelites’ destiny.
Not much has changed when it comes to the power of that one word in our lives. We make the same mistake all the time. When we say things like, “I got a new job, but it’s really hard,” we devalue our new job and our gratitude to have one. When we say, “My son gets good grades, but he is no good at sports,” we diminish the value of our loved ones, shifting our focus to their weaknesses instead of their strengths. That one little word can undo so many of our blessings.
The sages teach that Joshua, one of the two spies who did not participate in the bad report about Canaan, composed a prayer 28 years later after finally leading the people into the land. This prayer, which is still recited every day, contains the phrase efes zulato, which means “there is nothing but Him (God).” It’s not by accident that Joshua used the same word that got his colleagues into so much trouble. He was teaching us that there is one time when we can use the word “but” — when we say “there is nothing but God.”
Try saying this phrase this week. It transforms anything negative into a positive – there is nothing but God, and so anything is possible.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President