Jun 16 2017

The Eye of the Beholder

When Moshe sent the spies into the Land of Israel, he did not anticipate two wildly disparate reports regarding what they would find. An argument breaks out between the spies upon their return: only two of them, Kalev and Yehoshua (Joshua), say that Israel should enter the land. The other spies insist that it is a hopeless effort.

The spies concede that the Promised Land is a “land flowing with milk and honey,” [13:27] and bring back huge fruits to demonstrate the bounty they found there. But, they say, it is all worthless, because the occupants are strong giants. Although Kalev says that Israel can surely succeed, the others push back and insist it cannot be done. They repeat that the population are giants, so much so that they saw the Israelites as if they were locusts. For this reason, the spies insist that it would be better for Israel to turn around and return to Egypt.

At that point, Yehoshua and Kalev stand up and say, “the land through which we passed, to spy it out, is a very very good land!” [14:7] And then they go on to say that if Hashem desires to bring them to that land flowing with milk and honey, then none should rebel against Him, nor should they fear.

What was the point of starting off by telling the people that it is a “very very good land?” The other spies agreed that this was the case! They were the ones who first called it a land flowing with milk and honey, and came back carrying huge fruits. In an argument you focus upon the areas of disagreement, so why should Kalev and Yehoshua underscore how good a land it is?

The truth is that the rest of the spies had digressed from their mission in the first place. At the outset, Hashem told Moshe that he may send spies into the “Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel.” [13:2] The spies were supposed to see the land, and decide tactically how to enter. Questioning whether it was possible wasn’t part of the mission statement, because G-d said this is the land “I am giving.” There is no question of whether it was possible. Given that they had digressed, Kalev and Yehoshua realized that they needed to first get the nation to focus back upon the value of their goal, and then tell them to rely upon Hashem’s promise.

They understood that having a “good eye” isn’t merely about how you judge what you see, but what you choose to focus upon. They knew that if the people paid attention to what giants the occupants were, they would be afraid to enter their land. But if Kalev and Yehoshua could convince the nation to pay attention instead to how wonderful a land it was, then the people would be receptive to the message of G-d’s promise that they would inherit it.

We are told to judge every person favorably, to see every person with a good eye. Sometimes, this is best accomplished not by trying to see a particular act in the best positive light, but by looking at the totality of the person. The same individual who got angry and acted out in a particular situation might also be the same person who is incredibly generous with both time and money when someone needs his help. A community cannot be judged by the behavior of a few bad actors, not because we can justify how those individuals behaved, but because those individuals do not represent the community.

Part of the harmful effect of Lashon Hora, gossip about others, is that it inevitably focuses our attention upon a single bad action, rather than the totality of the individual. Our obligation is to look at the bigger picture, seeing that the person cannot be judged by a single misdeed, even if true. When we look at others this way, we inevitably find that we live in a much better world!

May 25 2017

Entering Fifty Gates

When G-d begins to speak to the Jews at Mount Sinai, He says, “I am Hashem your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

Commentaries ask, why is the Exodus from Egypt important in this context? If G-d is trying to establish His Identity and explain why Israel is now obligated to serve Him, would it not be more appropriate to say “I am Hashem your G-d, Who Created you?”

The Ohr Gedalyahu notes that the Exodus, meaning the specific phrase “going out of Egypt,” is mentioned 50 times in the Torah (as found in the Vilna Gaon, Aderes Eliyahu). This corresponds to fifty spiritual “Gates of Understanding.” When the Children of Israel were in Egypt, they descended through forty-nine “Gates of Impurity,” and G-d brought us out through each one of them.

Our Sages say (Talmud R”H 21b) that Moshe was given all fifty Gates of Understanding, save one. The Vilna Gaon adds that similarly, Moshe understood why the Torah had to mention the Exodus forty-nine times, but not this fiftieth time.

In this way, the Ohr Gedalyahu answers the question of why the Exodus is mentioned here. According to the Gaon’s interpretation, this phrase was not added in order to explain to Israel why they were obligated to serve Him, but because the Exodus itself reached its final conclusion at the moment G-d said, “I am Hashem your G-d.”

It also corresponds to the one level of understanding that none of us, not even Moshe, can truly attain.

On Shavuos, we receive the Torah anew. We realize that it is this which has set us apart as a distinct nation from the days of the Exodus, and that its greatest secrets will always remain beyond our understanding. Yet what we have in our hands can keep the greatest of minds busy for a lifetime, while elevating us to the highest heights a human being can attain.

May 19 2017

Suicide Pact

Either the Author of the Torah knew what He was doing, or He wanted to starve the Jews.

The Torah Commands the Jews to observe a “Sabbatical of the Earth,” a full year in which farming is prohibited. No planting means no reaping, no crops to sell.

Now, you might think that this was simply a matter of understanding crop rotation, knowing that leaving the fields to lie fallow for a year is beneficial to them. Prior to modern fertilization, it was practically mandatory to do so.

But those who rotated their crops did so in stages, in order that there be food to put on the table each year. They also knew that the fields were at their best immediately after lying fallow, and then deteriorated each year until the next time they were left out.

What does the Torah tell people to do to prepare for the Sabbatical Year? Nothing!

Still worse, it makes a promise: in the sixth year, you’re going to see abundance. You’ll have such a blessing that you’ll have food for three years, not just two. Don’t worry, everything will be fine.

For how long do you imagine this went on before the Jews recognized that something was wrong?

“Hey, Abe, how are your fields?”

“Umm… lousy. I’m not seeing a triple crop, I’ve got half what I got five years ago! Yours?”

“Same. Do you think we’re doing it wrong?”

This is exactly when you would expect the Torah to use precisely this escape clause: it’s your fault. This is why you’re not seeing a blessing, you’ve been doing something wrong.

That’s also what the Torah doesn’t say. Instead, it says that if the Jews fail to do as they should, then they will be exiled off the land, and then the land will enjoy its rest.

Was the Torah a Suicide Pact? The Jews themselves provide the answer. On the contrary, we are the eternal nation: our civilization is still here, while others have come and gone. It seems we did not starve, after all!

May 11 2017

More than a Bonfire

In Judaism, our holidays are never mere celebrations or commemorations — they are opportunities for spiritual growth. In the case of Lag B’Omer, there are two key lessons for all of us, found in the two stories behind this rabbinic holiday.

Lag B’Omer gets its name from being the 33rd day of the Omer count. All Hebrew letters express a numerical value — “ל‎”, “Lamed”, is 30, and “ג‎”, “Gimel”, is 3. Thus we get the acronym “Lag” (pronounced “lahg”).

The Talmud tells us that during the time of the great teacher Rebbe Akiva, a plague raged through his yeshiva, his rabbinical school, during the Omer. He lost 24,000 students during this time; even the great schools in Babylonia, and those of today, are not as large. Rebbe Akiva went on to teach five more students, and it is they who transmitted much of Jewish tradition on to future generations — so one can only imagine what was lost because those 24,000 other students passed away. This is why many observe customs of mourning during the Omer period, except on the 33rd day when the plague ceased.

One person who did pass away on Lag B’Omer was one of Rebbe Akiva’s five key students: Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the work of revealed Kabbalah. Defying Roman persecution, Rebbe Shimon and his son Elazar hid in a cave to learn Torah together — for twelve years! The custom of lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer celebrates the incredible light of Torah which Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai gave the world.

Why were all of the 24,000 scholars lost to us? Our Sages say that considering their spiritual level, they showed insufficient respect and love for each other. So throughout the Omer period, it is not sufficient to mourn by not shaving or listening to music; we must think about our obligation to show love and respect for every other person. And on Lag B’Omer in particular, we should celebrate — and ponder — the incredible light that one person can share.

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