Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Devarim – Miriam And The Spies

Devarim, 1:1: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael, on the other side of the Yarden, concerning the Arabah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paranand Tophel and Lavan, and Chatseirosand Dizahav.

Rashi, Devarim, 1:1, Dh: Bein Paran“…and on what they did in the desert of Paran through the spies.”

Rashi, Devarim, 1:1, Dh: V’Chatseiros“…dvar acher, he said to them, ‘you should have learnt from what I did to Miriam in Chatseiros because of lashon hara and you spoke against the Makom [HaShem].

Rashi, Bamidbar, 13:1 Dh: Shelach: Why is the section of the Meraglim connected to the section of Miriam [with regard to her lashon hara]?  Because she was punished because of her speech about her brother, and these wicked people saw and did not take mussar.

In his opening words in Sefer Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu alludes to a number of sins that the Jewish people committed during their time in the desert.  He mentions a number of places that hint at the sin.  Paran alludes to the sin of the Meraglim because the spies were sent from there.  Chatseiros alludes to another aspect of the sin of the spies in that they did not learn from the punishment that Miriam received for speaking lashon hara, and instead, spoke lashon hara themselves.

The Maharal[1]asks why there are two places that seemingly refer to the same sin of the Meraglim – Paran and Chatseiros? He answers that there were in fact two separate sins that were committed by the Meraglim. One was the actual lashon hara that they spoke, and the other was the sin of not learning from the recent experience of Miriam’s punishment for lashon hara and applying it to their own situation.  We see from here that not learning from another persons’ experiences is a sin in and of itself.

Rashi speaks this point out in the beginning of Parshas Shelach, quoting the Midrash Tanchumah.  The Midrash states that the Meraglim were doubly guilty for their sin because they saw first-hand the results of speaking lashon hara but did not learn from this and apply it to their own situation with regard to speaking badly about Eretz Yisrael.  However, a question arises: It is clear that the spies were very learned men – they surely knew the intricacies of the issur to speak lashon hara – accordingly, even without the experience of Miriam, they certainly would not speak blatant lashon hara for no good reason.  Rather, as the commentaries discuss, they had seemingly good reasons as to why they were justified in their speech,[2] and surely believed that their speech constituted lashon hara l’toeles.  Consequently, why would the fact that they saw what happened to Miriam, prevent them from lashon hara when they could still rationalize that they had valid reasons for why their speech was permitted and even necessary?

The answer seems to be that the experience of Miriam’s punishment itself should have demonstrated to them that even when a person believes he is speaking l’toeles, there is a very good chance that he is incorrect in his calculations or has biases that are clouding his judgment.  As the Rambam writes, Miriam acted with totally pure motives, had no resentments to her brother, and Moshe was not hurt by her speech, and still, she was severely punished.[3]  The spies should have learned from Miriam that even if a person feels that he is justified in his speech, he should do intense self-analysis to see if that is really the case, because if it is not, then he will transgress the terrible sin of lashon hara

One may still ask another question:  Even with this lesson that a person must be very careful when speaking lashon hara l’toeles, the two cases seem incomparable.  Miriam spoke against Moshe Rabbeinu, whereas the spies spoke against the Land – maybe they reasoned that there was no issur lashon hara about the land, and so the example of Miriam did not apply to them?

Rashi on this week’s Parsha appears to answer this question[4]:  He writes, quoting the Sifri, that they spoke against HaShem – that the Meraglim’s speech was not just against the Land of Israel, rather it was against HaShem because by criticizing the Land that He so highly valued, and designated for the Jewish people, they were in effect, criticizing Him.  Based on this, it is very apparent why they should have learned from Miriam’s punishment – if she was punished so severely for speaking against a human being, all the more so, they should be careful not to speak against HaShem.

In addition to the obvious lesson about how careful one should be when speaking negatively about someone, even if he feels it is l’toeles, a more general lesson can be derived from these ideas.  When we discuss mussar we normally refer to reading a mussar sefer such as Mesillas Yesharim or we think about how the great Baalei mussar would repeat Torah concepts again and again in order to internalize them.  Of course, these aspects of mussar are essential, but we learn from Chazal that a basic aspect of mussar is learning from the mistakes of other people.  Nowadays, we don’t experience such direct consequences as in the Desert, but still, it is often quite evident how people’s mistakes can have negative results.  This can be in the realm of marriage, parenting, or general observance.  For example, if a person sees his friend falling in his observance because of an over-reliance on technology, he should take that to heart, apply it to his own use of technology and contemplate whether any changes are needed.

[1] Gur Aryeh, Devarim, 1:1.

[2] Such as that they knew Moshe Rabbeinu would die when they entered the Land, and so they wanted to delay his death; or that they did not want to relinquish the supernatural lifestyle that they lived in the desert.

[3] Rambam, Hilchos Tumas Tzoraas, Chapter 16, Halacha 10

[4] This answer is based on the Mizrachi al haTorah and Zichron Binyamin Zev on this verse.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Shelach – Fulfilling Hashem’s Mission

Last year, I received an invitation to the wedding of Shmaryahu Shulman to Mika BenArbon. Shmaryahu had learned in my shiur two years before, for a few weeks during the summer. After that, he learned full-time in other yeshivos, and occasionally we’d bump into each other. I wanted to go to his wedding, but the Lakewood venue meant a long drive. I was on the fence. A few weeks later at a bris, I saw Shmaryahu, who came over to me and introduced me to his kallah, Mika. They both asked me about coming to the wedding. The next week, I got a text message with an additional wedding invitation. It was clear now… I must attend this wedding!

Meanwhile, my daughter Aviva was set up on a shidduch to Yosef Keilson. They had gone out many times and it was getting serious. Aviva mentioned that for their next meeting, Yosef asked if she would like to hear him sing at a chuppah in Lakewood, and afterward they would go on their date. I told Aviva, “I’m going to a wedding that same night in Lakewood, so I could drive you!” Well, you guessed it. We were going to the same wedding! Divine Providence was on overdrive…

That special Lakewood wedding took place on Parshas Shelach, which discusses the mission of the meraglim (spies) and the journey of Bnei Yisrael. The opening midrash in Shelach equates the mission of the spies to someone embarking on a journey. The Sfas Emes quotes the Chiddushei HaRim, who says the word “shelach” means to “send on a journey/mission.” Every person has a shlichus—a mission—from Hashem with which he/she is sent to this world. If we live our lives with an important goal in mind, we have the status of shluchei mitzvah—agents to perform a mitzvah—who receive a measure of protection, as the Gemara says, “Shluchei mitzvah einan nizakin”—people on the way to perform a mitzvah are protected from harm.

The Sfas Emes explains the mission of the spies in this context. Klal Yisrael, on their own initiative, approached Moshe to send spies to scout out Eretz Yisrael. Not a good sign. Although Hashem saw the impending disaster, He told Moshe to go ahead and send the spies. Since the order came from Hashem, the spies would be agents of Hashem enroute to perform a mitzvah, so they would be protected from the error of giving a bad report. However, they had to carry out their mission as agents of Hashem, not agents of the people. This was the mistake of the ten spies. Only Yehoshua and Calev saw themselves as agents of Hashem. Only they merited protection from following the bad counsel of the other ten spies.

My trip to this wedding was clearly a mission from Hashem. At the chuppah, there was a card on each guest’s seat, written by the chasan. It read, “As we sit at the chuppah tonight, we have a quiet opportunity to reflect over the past year how many changes in the fabric of our lives have occurred…” The card listed various world events and continued, “There has been a song playing in my mind for the past few months, as various tragedies happened to our family… As we struggled again and again to use our limited minds to understand Hashem’s plan, I am reminded that although I do not understand the plan, that doesn’t mean there is not a plan. Ani ma’amin—I trust fully—that Hashem has created the world, oversees the world, and oversees each person individually. On this program there are no individual names of people listed who will be walking down the aisle. We are all walkers tonight. We are all on the same journey. Each of us is playing his or her role based on the script that Hashem has written and designed for us. My heartfelt wish now is that we all use this time as introspective moments to ask Hashem for help; not to try to understand Hashem’s plan, but rather to be blessed with guidance to understand how to navigate our personal journeys, as the chasan and kallah begin theirs.”

When my daughter came home that night, she told my wife and I that she was ready to get engaged to Yosef! Hashem sent very strong messages to get me to that wedding and to learn the lesson that Hashem is directing our lives, including sending us places, all the time.

May Hashem bless us to realize that we are all walkers, on our personal journeys, playing our roles based on the script which Hashem wrote for each of us.

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Shelach – Spying After Our Hearts

“And they will be tzitzis for you, and you shall see it and you shall remember all the commandments of HaShem, and perform them; and you shall not spy (loh sasuroo) after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray.” [1]  Parshas Shelach ends with the third paragraph of the Shema.  That paragraph discusses the Mitzvo of Tzitzit and continues with another fundamental Mitzvo – not to follow our hearts and eyes. The Sifri elaborates on the meaning of these words. It explains that following one’s heart refers to meenus (herecy), whereas following one’s eyes refers to immorality.[2]  The simple understanding of the Sifri with regards to following one’s heart, is that this is the source for the prohibition against espousing beliefs that are antithetical to Torah. 

My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits Shlita, points out that there is a great difficulty with this understanding.  Without the Mitzvo of ‘loh sassuroo’, there are a number of Mitzvos in the Torah that prohibit heretical beliefs:  In the first of the Ten Commandments, the Torah commands us to believe that HaShem is the only G-d, who is all-powerful, created and sustains the whole universe, and has no beginning or end.[3]  The next Mitzvo exhorts us not to follow any other gods, which means that we cannot attribute any independent power to any force in the world.[4]  In the Mitzvo of ‘Shema’, the Torah further commands us to believe in the oneness of HaShem.[5]  The attitudes that the Torah forbids in these Mitzvos are the main beliefs that represent heresy.  Accordingly, it would seem that the Torah has already sufficiently instructed us to avoid heretical beliefs.  What is the Mitzvo of loh sassuroo coming to add?      

Rav Berkovits answers that the other Mitzvos are instructing us to have basic philosophical ideas on an intellectual level; for example, a person must believe intellectually that there is one G-d who created the world.  However, an intellectual realization is not always sufficient to ensure that a person will adhere to the fundamental tenets of Jewish thought.  A person may intellectually recognize these truths, however, his emotions or his physical desires (taivas) may cause him to act in conflict with his beliefs.  In this vein, Chazal tell us that a person only sins when a ruach shtus (spirit of irrationality) enters into him.  This means that his actions contradict what he rationally knows to be true.  The Mitzvo of ‘loh sasuroo’ commands us to avoid this pitfall.  By telling us not to go after our hearts, the Torah is instructing us not to allow our emotions to cause us to act against what we intellectually know to be true.  This is not to say that the Torah views emotions in a negative light.  This is certainly not the case and there is great room for expression of emotions in Torah.  However, when emotions are not channeled through intellect, the consequences can be disastrous.  The Torah is the vessel through which we are supposed to mold our intellect and filter our emotions through a prism of the Torah outlook.[6] 

The incident of the spies provides us with examples of the correct and incorrect approaches with regard to following one’s heart.  Here too, the root word, ‘lasur’, (to spy) is utilized by the Torah.  HaShem instructed Moshe to send people to spy outthe land.   Moshe instructed the spies about which features to look for in the land.  Included amongst his instructions he told them to observe the produce of the land, in order to see whether it was fruitful or not.[7]  He further instructed them to take note if there was a righteous man in the land, whose merit could protect the people there.[8]  With these directives, Moshe was alluding to the spies that they should observe the land with a certain disposition, one that was based on Torah hashkafa.  He was telling them to view everything that they saw with spiritual eyes, so that large fruit would be viewed in a positive light, and that the significance of tzaddikim there was an important factor.

Sadly, the majority of the spies did not heed Moshe’s instructions.  They did indeed see large fruit, however they chose to interpret it in a negative fashion, and conveyed the message that this demonstrated that the land was strange in that it produced oversized fruits.[9]  They were guilty of a further misinterpretation when they saw a large number of funerals taking place in the land.  They used this to show that the land destroyed its inhabitants, when, in truth HaShem caused large numbers of deaths so that the people would be busy with funerals and not notice the spies.[10]  What was the cause of their skewed attitude?  They fell prey to the pitfall of following their emotions.  They lacked trust in HaShem, and therefore felt fear at the prospect of having to enter Eretz Yisroel.  Because of this flawed attitude they viewed everything they saw through a distorted vision.[11]  The only spies who overcame this test were Kalev and Yehoshua.  They viewed everything they saw in a positive fashion because they were strong in their trust in HaShem – this prevented them from allowing any fear they may have had, to overcome what they knew to be true. 

We have seen how the Torah connects the lesson of the spies to the Mitzvo of ‘loh sasuroo’.  Theten spies who sinned provide us with the example of how going after one’s heart leads to sin and ultimately heresy.[12] The Torah imparts a further lesson as to how to avoid the pitfall of interpreting what we see in a detrimental fashion.  In the very same verse in which the Torah tells us, ‘loh sasuroo’, it discusses the Mitzvo of tzitzis.  “And they will be for you tzitzis, and you shall see it and you shall remember all the commandments of HaShem and perform them; and you shall not spy after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray.”[13] The verse tells us that tzitzis will somehow remind us of the Mitzvos and this in turn will enable us to avoid following our heart and eyes.  What is the connection between tzitzis and ‘loh sasuroo’?  Rashi points out that Tzitzis remind us of the 613 Mitzvos because the gematria[14] of ‘tzitzis’ is 600; in addition, there are eight strings and five knots – the total of these three figures is 613. In this way, by looking at tzitzis a person is supposed to go through this sequence of thought that will bring him to connect the tzitzis with the 613 Mitzvos.  The obvious problem with this is that most people will see tzitzis and fail to make the connection that the Torah seems to expect they should make.  It would have seemed to be more effective to command that tzitzis say a big ‘613’ on them, so that everyone will automatically be reminded of the 613 Mitzvos when they see it!  The answer is that the Torah is teaching us that one must strive to be the kind of person who sees the world in such a way that a mundane item of clothing such as tzitzis will lead him to a sequence of thought that will remind him of the 613 Mitzvos.  When a person brings himself to this level, then, as a consequence he will be able to observe the Mitzvo of ‘loh sasuroo’ because he will not see the world in a skewed manner based on his emotions, rather he will see it with spiritual eyes. 

We have seen that a constant theme of the Parsha is that the way a person thinks, will play a decisive role in how he interprets what he sees.  It is no easy task to become the kind of person who sees everything with spiritual eyes, however the first stage is to strive to make one’s intellect and emotions in line with the Torah’s directives.  The more saturated a person is with the Torah’s teachings, the more he will be able to emulate Kalev and Yehoshua.  May we all merit to guide our emotions to bring us closer to Torah.

[1] Shelach, 15:38.

[2] Sifri, Shelach, 15:38.

[3] Yisro, 20:2.

[4] Yisro, 20:3.

[5] Va’eschanan, 6:4.

[6] See ‘The Six Constant Mitzvos’, Artscroll, Mesora, a sefer based on the shiurim of Rav Berkovits on the Six Constant Mitzvos for more on this topic.

[7] Shelach, 13:20.

[8] Rashi, Shelach, 13:20.

[9] Rashi, Shelach, 13:23.

[10] See Birchas Peretz of the Steipler Gaon, zt”l who explains why their interpretation was illogical.

[11] This is the simple explanation of the sins of the spies.  For deeper explanations, see Ramban, Sfas Emes and BenYehoyada (discussed in my other essay on Parshas Shelach).

[12] See Rashi, Shelach, 13:31 and 14:4, who demonstrates that the spies espoused heretical views and caused the people to do the same.

[13] Shelach, 15:38.

[14] Numerical value.