Pride is the Source of All Sin
Parsha Shelach recounts the sin of the spies, men who spoke derisively of Eretz Israel. We know that they did this primarily because of pride, for they wanted to remain in the desert and continue leading the Children of Israel. The spies knew that if they were to settle in Eretz Israel, new leaders would be appointed and therefore the spies would lose their status. This is why they slandered the land, as it is written: “They brought forth to the Children of Israel an evil report on the land that they spied out” (Numbers 13:32).
We know that the role of a leader consists, above all, of encouraging Jews to serve G-d. If leaders carry out this task, good and well, but if instead they seek only to profit from the honors accorded them, they risk provoking a spiritual fall among Jews. This is because honor, far from belonging to man, is the privilege of the holy Torah, and between them there exists the same difference as between a king and a Tzaddik. True honor attaches to a Tzaddik, not to a king, for the honor of a Tzaddik is internal – it is that of the Torah – whereas the honor accorded a king is external and replete with deceit and flattery.
The Tzaddik, who possesses true honor, directs it to the Holy One, blessed be He, because pride and honor belong to G-d, as it is written: “The L-RD has reigned. He had donned grandeur” (Psalms 93:1). In the case before us, the spies sought authority and power for themselves, which is alluded to by the words shelach lecha (“send for yourself”), whose numerical value (including letters and words) is equal to that of the word shilton (“government”). Consequently, in their hearts they obviously wanted to dominate others and be glorified. However the Torah said, “send for yourself,” which means: “Send back power and honor from yourself”. This is only possible when a person humbles himself before the Tzaddik, and even more so before the Holy One, blessed be He.
This is why the Mishnah says: “Sages, be careful with your words” (Perkei Avoth 1:18). Sages should avoid acquiring power, for afterwards their disciples will not humble themselves before them, and they will also seek out power due to pride and a love of honor, which is completely forbidden. The Torah should not be used for personal ends (Perkei Avoth 4:8; Nedarim 62a), such as seeking out honor because of what one has studied, for studying itself is what confers dignity to a man (Perkei Avoth 6:3).
In reflecting upon this, we see that this is precisely what happened to the spies. Moses sent them to explore the land, which is expressed several times by the word latur (Numbers 13:17), meaning like a tourist (tayar), who looks at every little thing and for whom everything is important. However the Children of Israel said to Moses, “Let us send men ahead of us ve’yachperu [and let them spy out] the land” (Deuteronomy 1:22). In other words, they went to explore (the word chaphar can also mean to dig) – meaning to break, destroy, and wreak havoc, both spiritually and materially – because they desired power. Hence they were the cause of the Children of Israel’s tears for all the generations to come (Sotah 35a). The pride that controlled them was what harmed them. True, the Sages have said, “The air of Eretz Israel bestows wisdom” (Bava Batra 158b), yet in no way were the spies influenced by the air of Eretz Israel and its holiness, since they entered it in a spirit of pride and domination.
This situation is similar to that of a man who is filled with boastful pride and goes to visit a Rebbe for his blessing. The Tzaddik cannot help or bless him, for he cannot have an influence on someone who considers himself to be greater than he. However in not receiving a blessing, this proud person leaves and speaks ill of the Tzaddik, who in reality can do nothing for him. The fault lies not with the Tzaddik, but with the person himself: His immense vanity prevents him from benefiting from the influence of the Tzaddik.
We find the same thing with Korach and his supporters. It is written: “And Korach took…” (Numbers 16:1), which the Sages explain as meaning that he placed himself apart to arouse controversy in the community concerning the priesthood (Tanhuma ibid. 2). This means that his entire sin consisted of pride and a desire for power, for in reality he wanted to be the High Priest. Instead of drawing a lesson from the incident of the spies, who had taken a position against Moses – and who were the cause of the tears for the generations to come, and who lost their portion in the World to Come – Korach actually followed their example and through his pride he quarreled with the Tzaddik of the generation by demanding honors. This is why his punishment was also very severe, for he ended up with no part in the World to Come, and instead he inherited Gehinnom (Sanhedrin 109b).
Such was not the case with Moses, about whom the Torah states: “The man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). He directed every honor that he received to the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Torah fittingly testifies about him: “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the L-RD had known face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).
We learn from here that pride is the source of all sin, and that the Torah only survives with a person with humility (Taanith 7a). Moreover, the subject of humility arises in several places in the book of Numbers (Bamidbar), for the Torah only remains with a person who makes himself into a desert (midbar), in humility and simplicity (Midrash Aggadah Chukat 21:19).
It is true that pushing humility too far risks leading a person to despair, for the evil inclination will come and say: “You’re unimportant in the eyes of the Holy One, blessed be He. The mitzvot that you perform have no meaning whatsoever,” which can lead a person to stop performing mitzvot completely. This is why in Parsha Nasso the Torah tells us, “Nasso et rosh [Take a census] of the sons of Gershon” (Numbers 4:22), meaning that if the evil inclination comes and tells you such things, you should nasso (literally “elevate”) yourself and feel worthy, as in the verse, “His heart was elevated in the ways of the L-RD” (II Chronicles 17:6). Hence “Gershon”: You must garesh (expel) the evil inclination from you once and for all.
Actually, in Parsha Beha’alotcha we also find that a person who lives in spirituality should direct his heart to the ways of Hashem. If he performs a mitzvah, he should rightly feel within himself that he had done something valuable. For example, if he gives money to the poor, he should realize and sense that his body has accomplished the mitzvah of Tzeddakah, an act of great importance (see Bava Batra 10a), and that this will elevate him. As for his soul, it too will be elevated when he performs the mitzvah of loving his neighbor as himself, which is what constitutes “When you kindle the lamps” (Numbers 8:2). The word beha’alotcha (“when you kindle”) can be read as B ha’alotcha, meaning: “Twice shall you elevate” (i.e., when you perform mitzvot, you elevate both body and soul).
If the evil inclination tries to convince a person to commit a sin, we know that he should reflect upon the day of his death (Berachot 5a). And before doing that, he will have studied Torah and recited Shema, as it is written: “Tremble and sin not. Reflect in your hearts while on your beds and be utterly silent.” (Psalms 4:5). We also find an allusion to this in the words “toward the face of the Menorah” (Numbers 8:2), meaning that a person must realize that time passes quickly and he will eventually have to stand before G-d (represented by the Menorah), and give an accounting to Him. Reflecting on that will lead a person to humility. The words el mul pnei hamenorah (“toward the face of the Menorah”) have the same numerical value as the expression zot ha’anavah (“this is humility”). A person will then experience good in this world and in the World to Come.