This week we read about the tragic expedition of the spies into the Land of Israel. They returned with a bad report, briefly convincing the Israelites that they would be unable to enter their land. This is why the generation that left Egypt was not allowed to enter Israel, spending forty years (and passing away) in the desert instead.

Rashi explains why this episode is recounted by the Torah immediately following the People of Israel waiting for Miriam to recover from Tzara’as,  a spiritual blemish which a person received for speaking lashon hora, gossip. Rashi teaches, from the Medrash (Tanchuma), that she was punished for her evil speech against her brother, and the spies saw this and did not admonish themselves to do better. Instead, they too spoke gossip, about the Promised Land.

When listing the spies, one from each of the twelve tribes, we find something unique. As we know, there were twelve brothers, one of whom was Levi—but the family of the Levites and Kohanim is not counted together with the “twelve tribes.” Instead, Yaakov told Yosef that Ephraim and Menashe, Yosef’s two sons born before Yaakov came to Egypt, “like Reuven and Shimon they will be to me” [Gen. 48:5]. Ephraim and Menashe are counted as separate tribes among the twelve.

Yosef, however, is not forgotten or left out. At the beginning of the Book of Bamidbar, Numbers, when the heads of the tribes are listed, it says “For the children of Yosef, for Ephraim, Elishama ben Amihud; for Menashe, Gamliel ben Pedahtzur” [1:10]. Again, when taking a census, the Torah says “For the children of Yosef, for the children of Ephraim…  for the children of Menashe…” [1:32, 34]. Ephraim and Menashe are listed one next to the other, with Yosef mentioned before Ephraim.

In our case, however, the Torah does not mention Yosef together with Ephraim. “For Ephraim, Hoshea ben Nun” [13:8], it says. Only three verses later do we find “For the tribe of Yosef, for the tribe of Menashe, Gadi ben Susi” [13:11]. Why are Ephraim and Menashe separated here, and why is Yosef listed only in front of Menashe rather than before Ephraim, as if only Menashe were his son?

The Da’as Zekeynim miBa’alei HaTosfos commentary says that this was a punishment for Yosef. Remember that Yosef was described early on as childish, and “bringing a bad report” about his brothers to their father [Gen. 37:2]. Like Miriam and the spies, Yosef, too, had spoken lashon hora!

Hoshea, the representative of Ephraim, did not; he was one of the two spies who gave a good report. Moshe called him Yehoshua [see 13:16], and Yehoshua was the one who led the nation into their land forty years later, after Moshe’s passing. Gadi from the tribe of Menashe, however, was one of the majority, the ten spies who returned with a bad report. And this, the Da’as Zekeynim says, is why Yosef is mentioned here with Menashe, not credited with being the father of Ephraim or forefather of Yehoshua.

Yosef gossiped about his brothers from a place of immaturity, as the Torah says about him at the time. And he thought he was right to tell his father so that he would admonish the brothers. And, even if it is true that Yosef acted incorrectly, think of all that Yosef endured—being sold by his brothers to a caravan, then sold to another, then sold as a slave in Egypt, then falsely accused and thrown in jail for a crime he did not commit—all because of this one bad deed of speaking gossip about his brothers. Hadn’t he suffered enough?

But it was not simply an added punishment—it came about because the representative of Ephraim was Yehoshua, who passed the very test that Yosef did not. It would not have been right to mention Yosef together with Yehoshua, that he should “look good” by association with Yehoshua, in the very instance where Yehoshua had passed and Yosef had, in fact, failed. This is why Yosef had the extra punishment of being mentioned only later.

Hashem looks over even the smallest aspect of the smallest of our deeds, and (per Yevamos 121) is precise with those closest to him “like a hair’s breadth.” But it is one more example of how negatively the Torah views speaking gossip. 

Let us not, then, be like the spies. Let us read about the spies, connect their lashon hora with that of Miriam, see even how Yosef is not mentioned with Yehoshua, and, unlike the spies, let us admonish ourselves to do better in this area!

Image by karlyukav on Freepik

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