This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Shlach (5762)
This week our Torah portion deals with the shameful story of the 'spies'.
For over two hundred years the Jews had suffered in Egyptian slavery with only one hope in their hearts; to be free and inhabit the Land that G-d promised to their forefathers.
And finally the moment arrived.
G-d personally freed them from Egypt with great miracles, personally gave them His Torah at Sinai and now brought them to the very border of the Promised Land.
But then something went wrong.
Moses, sent an expeditionary group known .of twelve Spies (me-rag-lim) to check out the land for 40 days in order to assure an easy takeover; but when they returned everything turned over!! All of them save two convinced the Jews NOT to enter! To refuse!!! (Y'hoshua and Calev remained loyal to Moses).
This made G-d and Moses angry; the spies died an immediate and bizarre death and the people were sentenced to 40 years of wandering in the desert.
What happened? After all the miracles they saw … how could they doubt G-d's power and refuse to enter Israel? What went wrong?
But before we judge them too harshly let us remember that the Jews never heard the command to enter Israel directly from G-d only from Moses.
And the spies did return with EYE WITNESS reports that it was suicide to enter Canaan while Moses had neither set foot in the place nor even seen its awesome inhabitants.
So the Jews were just following COMMON SENSE: they reasoned that by entering the land they were not only risking their lives they were risking their spiritual welfare! In the desert they could learn G-d\s Holy Torah uninterruptedly; there G-d provided them with Manna, water, protection and peace of mind. While in Israel they would have to work hard and even fight battles in addition to the myriads of distractions and temptations.
So the question is reversed; why were they so severely punished for doing what seemed so right physically and spiritually. Indeed, why was Moses so insistent that they enter Canaan immediately? Also, why didn't Calev and Y'hoshua agree with everyone else?
This brings us to another two questions;
Who was Moses? Why did the Jews need him? Aren't Jews supposed to connect directly to G-d?
And finally, Is all this relevant today now that we already have Israel?
I want to explain with a story about a well known Lubavitcher Chassid called Rabbi Mendel Futerfass.
Rav Mendel was born in Russia in the late 1800s. His father died before he was born and his mother shortly afterward. So he was a double orphan and was raised by his Aunt.
At that time, Rebbe Shalom Dov Ber, the fifth Rebbe of Chabad, was the leader of Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidic Jewry, and when Rav Mendel was six years old his aunt decided she wanted to take her little nephew to him for a blessing. Usually this would not be an easy matter but she was good friends with the Rebbe's wife. So one morning she took little Mendel, dressed in his best clothes, to the Rebbe's wife who took him to her husband, the Rebbe.
The Rebbe was preparing to begin his morning prayers with his prayer shawl over his shoulder. He took a look at the child, asked his name and blessed him:
"You should have long healthy years and be a Chassid."
Some forty years later Rav Mendel was arrested by Stalin's secret police for subversive (religious) activities and sent to Siberia. Cold, hunger, backbreaking work, murderous guards and prisoners and anti-Semitism were his daily portion. Death was lurking around every corner and each moment he remained alive was nothing short of a miracle.
But Rav Mendel paid no attention to all this. In his mind all this was not happening TO him, but FOR him; to give him the opportunity to serve the Creator and become a better Chassid. There are many stories about the deep lessons he learned. But in my mind one of the most outstanding is the following:
In his seven years of exile he never hid his identity as a Chassid or compromised his Judaism and Torah observance in any way. This made life difficult but because the Russians respect sincerity, it won him the unsolicited admiration of some of the inmates.
But one time it almost cost him his life.
Rav Mendel would not eat the food cooked in the prison vessels. Rather he lived from food that he cooked himself "bought" with cartons of cigarettes that his wife sent to him by mail every month.
One cold winter month, when the work was unusually hard and grueling, for no particular reason his package did not arrive when it was supposed to. Little by little his food ran out and with no cigarettes to trade he was soon left with nothing to eat.
After the first day he couldn't work anymore, after two he had trouble getting out of bed and after the third day he felt he was dying.
One of Rav Mendel's acquaintances in camp was a Jew who had been brought up in a religious home and had even learned in "Yeshiva", but, as did myriads of his Russian Jewish brethren, left it all for Communism. The reward he got for his idealism was a 15 year "correction" in one of Stalin's "work" camps.
When this Jew saw Rav Mendel's predicament; how he was starving, he brought him a bowl of meat soup and begged Rav Mendel to save his own life and drink it. "I know what it says in the Torah" he adjoined. "According to the Torah you cannot endanger your life because there is no kosher food. If you refuse this soup it is nothing short of suicide which the Torah forbids!"
When Rav Mendel told the story years later he quipped that the soup was so watered down that it possibly was permissible according to Torah law (The guards stole the meat and bones, and then added so much water that there remained virtually no forbidden taste.) But he nevertheless refused to eat.
Rav Mendel looked up from his bed and explained. "When I was six years old I received a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe for long life. Of course that doesn't mean that I can go jumping off of buildings; I have to make myself a 'vessel' for the blessing to be fulfilled.
"But," he continued, "it can't be that even a remotely forbidden thing can be the vessel for the Rebbe's blessing."
He didn't eat the soup but somehow he made it through the night and, miraculously enough, the next morning his package arrived.
In other words, the job of a true Jewish leader is to inspire the Jews to true self-sacrifice. And without such self-sacrifice we can survive and even succeed…. But the blessing of G-d won't be brought into the world. And that is the purpose of the Jews: to make this physical world a blessed place.
This explains the answer to our questions.
Moses was G-d's spokesman TO the ENTIRE Jewish people, (in fact to the entire world) and there can be ONLY one such person in every generation. Without such a leader there can be no Jewish people; they are like stray sheep (Num. 26:17). And without the Jews the world is unstable (see Rashi on Gen. 1:1)
Moses wanted to inspire the Jews (as the Rebbe inspired Rabbi Mendel in our story) that self-sacrifice is the very essence of Judaism (that is why Abraham is called our Father) and that the only way to genuinely fulfill the Torah is with this self-sacrifice.
But the Jews, after hearing from the spies about the formidable challenges awaiting them in Canaan, decided to opt out for a more comfortable Torah life …. A life without Moses and his message of self-sacrifice.
That is why the punishment of the Spies was so severe. The Jews, on the other hand, were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in the desert (Which was exactly what they wanted until they realized their mistake.)
This explains two more things; why Kalev didn't agree with the spies, although he saw the same frightening things they did, and why Moses, when he sent the spies, prayed that Joshua shouldn't follow them (see Rashi 13:16).
Kalev was an example of a Chassid (like Rav Mendel in our story). He learned not to follow his own nature …… even his own "religious" nature. Even though it meant denying what he saw with his own eyes, sacrificing the spiritual comfort and pleasure that he would gain by remaining in the desert, and risking his life by disagreeing with everyone. But that is what a true follower of Moses (or the Moses of every generation) must do.
The reason Moses only prayed for Yhoshua (Joshua) was that he knew that Yhoshua would be the next leader of the Jewish people and a leader must be different. He cannot follow his normal senses, he must love every Jew even the biggest sinners (as Moses did in this week's section and by the sin of the Golden Calf) never tire from believing in them and NEVER think of his own spiritual welfare…. As the spies did.
This is very relevant to us today.
Even though we do have the land of Israel, but spiritually we are just leaving Egypt. Jewish identity is at an all time low but things are turning around.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that ours is the generation of the final redemption; the generation of Moshiach. We must not misinterpret what we see and hear all around us and become pessimistic or self-centered as the spies did, but rather think of how to benefit all mankind and do all we can that Moshiach should come even one instant earlier.
Like the generation that entered Canaan; it all depends on us! One more good deed, word or even thought can tilt the scales and bring.
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