The Torah tells in Parashat Shelach (14:37) that the ten spies who frightened the people and convinced them to refuse to enter Eretz Yisrael perished in a plague brought upon them by God as a punishment. Rashi, based on one view cited by the Gemara in Masekhet Sota (35a), comments that the spies were stricken with a most unusual condition, as their tongues extended beyond their mouths and down into the navels. They were punished with their mouths, Rashi explains, because they sinned with their mouths, speaking negatively about the Land of Israel and convincing the people that they were incapable of conquering it.
The tongue is made to remain inside the mouth, where it serves its function of helping to facilitate chewing and speaking. Its biological roles are limited to the mouth, and so that it is where it belongs and where it should always remain. The image of the spies’ tongues extending outside the mouth to the center of the body perhaps symbolizes the essence of their mistake – extending beyond the role assigned to them. Before the spies embarked on their mission, Moshe gave them a list of very specific questions which their sojourn was to answer, and the specific instruction to bring back samples of the land’s produce (13:18-20). The spies erred in allowing their “tongues” to extend beyond the “mouth,” and reaching beyond the specific task they were asked to perform. They were to report on the quality of land and the types of cities in which the Canaanites lived. They were not asked for their military opinion, to determine how or whether Benei Yisrael would conquer the land. This was Moshe’s job, as the leader and prophet, to whom God assured that He would lead the nation to victory. Had the spies stuck to their assigned role, and not ventured beyond the parameters of their job, this calamity could have been averted. This, perhaps, is the symbolic meaning of their tongues extending beyond their mouths and “invading” a distant part of the body where they did not belong.
This might also be the intent of Rashi’s famous comments in introducing Parashat Shelach (13:2). Based on the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi writes that the scouts failed to learn the lesson conveyed by the punishment brought upon Miriam for speaking inappropriately about Moshe. Just as she was punished for her negative speech about her brother, the spies were likewise punished for speaking negatively about Eretz Yisrael. The Midrash draws an association between these two incidents – Miriam’s speech about her brother, and the sin of the spies – suggesting some degree of similarity between them. The explanation, perhaps, is that Miriam, like the spies, extended beyond her role, and voiced an opinion on a subject that was outside her jurisdiction, so-to-speak. Earlier (12:1), Rashi explained that Miriam wrongly criticized Moshe for separating from his wife, a drastic measure which Miriam incorrectly felt was unnecessary and thus improper. It was not Miriam’s place to decide whether Moshe was justified in separating from his wife. While it may have been understandable for her to have an opinion on the subject, it was wrong for her to go around criticizing Moshe’s decision. She did not fully understand the reasons behind Moshe’s decision, and thus it was not her place to voice opposition. In this sense, her sin resembled that of the spies, who extended beyond the role to which they were assigned and assumed the right to speak out on matters about which they were not asked or meant to decide.
These unfortunate incidents thus remind us of the importance of recognizing our limits, and knowing when voicing an opinion is inappropriate and arrogant. We must try to identify our particular roles, where our talents and skills can be best applied, and then focus our attention on those areas, rather than allowing our “tongues” to extend to places where they were never meant to go.