The last paragraph of the Shema concludes a dramatic parashah that begins with Moses sending 12 spies to scout the land of Israel. It is not clear why they are being sent, but judging from God’s furious reaction on their return with negative reports, God may have been expecting something more positive. The people are condemned to wander 40 years and only the children of the generation liberated from Egypt will enter Israel.
If it is not evident why their report merits such catastrophic punishment, what exactly was their terrible sin? Some commentators see the spies’ report as a rejection of the Land of Israel. It remains an agonizingly topical consideration: is it sinful for a Jew to spread an evil report about the state of Israel? Enough non-Jews spread such reports. Is it wrong for us Jews to add to the chorus?
Rabbi Lisa Gelber makes a lovely connection between this question and the command about tzitzit. The command to look at the tzitzit, to remember and observe, is, she says, a symbol of community participation. Tzitzit is the quintessential representation of mitzvot— actions.
The spies sought to be passive observers. Their report was an exhortation against community participation, against active engagement to enter the land. Seeing tzitzit encourages us to involve ourselves in Jewish life.
I cannot feel it is sinful for a Jew to criticise Israel. Perhaps, though, if we must criticise, we should simultaneously explore (or “spy into”) our motivations. How committed to the existence and necessity of the state are we? Do we feel part of the community, and are we willing to back up words of criticism with actions of commitment?