Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Shelach


Vayotzi’u dibas ha’aretz asher taru osah el B’nei Yisroel leimor ha’aretz asher avarnu bah lasur osah eretz ocheles yoshveha hee (13:32)

The first chapter of Eichah is written in the form of an acrostic, with each successive verse beginning with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Although chapters 2-4 follow a similar form, there is one notable exception. The verse beginning with the letter “peh” precedes the verse starting with the letter “ayin,” reversing their alphabetical order. The Gemora in Sanhedrin (104b) cryptically explains that this is because the spies sinned by preceding their mouths (peh) to their eyes (ayin) and reporting facts which they didn’t actually see. How is this to be understood, and what lesson can we take from it?

Rav Moshe Shapiro explains that in any encounter, a person is able to see or find what he is looking for. Even before he fully takes in and evaluates the new situation, he has already made up his mind. Not surprisingly, he proceeds to find evidence to support his conclusion, a phenomenon referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rav Chatzkel Levenstein explains that the primary sin of the spies was their character trait of “nirganus.” This refers to a person who is constantly full of complaints and has nothing positive to say about anything. Because the spies embarked on their journey already decided that they didn’t want to live in Israel, they interpreted everything they saw through negative lenses and returned with a report shaped by their biases.

The importance of how we view a situation and interpret events is illustrated by the following story. In the early 1950s, a large shoe company with stores across North America wanted to increase sales by expanding to new markets. They sent two salesmen to Africa to explore the prospects of opening branches throughout the large and untapped continent. Less than a week had passed when the first agent sent back a despondent telegram: “I’m coming home at once. No money can be made here. Nobody even wears shoes!” After receiving the bad news, the management felt that they had no choice but to explore other potential options for expanding their business.

Just as they were preparing to send agents to scout out another distant region, they received an important lesson in the power of perspective. More than a month after the first salesman despaired, the firm received an urgent cable from the second salesman: “Ship 15,000 shoes immediately to fill my 5 stores. Africa is a land filled with great opportunity – nobody has shoes, and everybody needs a pair!”

The Jewish people were punished (14:34) with an additional year of wandering in the wilderness for each day of the spies’ journey. Why were they punished for the entire trip and not just for the lone day on which the spies returned and spoke ill of the land of Israel? Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that the Torah is teaching that they sinned not just upon their return but each day of their expedition when they skewed everything that they experienced.

The Arizal teaches that each month is mystically associated with an idea that we are supposed to rectify during that month. Our mission in the month of Tammuz is to rectify the concept of re’iyah – how we view things. Not coincidentally, Parshas Shelach is read just before this month begins, and it revolves around the tragic events which caused the mourning period which begins in Tammuz. The spies sinned by seeking out the bad in every encounter. Let us learn from their mistakes and adopt a perspective of seeking out the good in every life situation, which will in turn become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dabeir el b’nei Yisroel v’amarta aleihem ki savo’u el eretz moshvoseichem asher ani nosein lachem … v’asisem isheh l’Hashem … v’yayin l’nesech revi’is hahin ta’aseh al haolah o l’zevach l’keves haechad (15:2-5)

The tragic episode of the spies is immediately followed by a section detailing the laws of the meal-offerings and wine libations which accompany certain offerings. The portion begins by stating clearly that it is only applicable after the Jews enter the land of Israel. Immediately after decreeing that the Jewish people would die in the wilderness and never merit entering Israel, wasn’t it tantamount to rubbing salt in their wounds to give them a mitzvah which may only be performed there?

Further, the Medrash (Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu 29) explains that Hashem specifically instructed Moshe to teach them this section in order to comfort them with words of Torah. This is even more difficult to understand. In what way were they able to find comfort in a mitzvah that reminded them of their unfortunate fate? Moreover, the Medrash continues and relates that a dispute immediately erupted among the Jews regarding whether converts are required to bring wine-libations with their offerings. Of what relevance was this to them after they realized that they would all die in the wilderness?

Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro derives from here an inspiring lesson. The Jews of that generation were so intense in their love for Torah that any new sugya (topic) which was presented for them to study was so valuable that they were able to “lose themselves” in plumbing the depths of its understanding to the point that they were able to completely forget their own personal suffering. They became so involved in their attempts to fully comprehend this new mitzvah that it didn’t even occur to them that it would never be applicable in their lifetimes. It mattered not what the content of the subject at hand was, but the mere fact that they were now able to engage themselves in studying a new Torah topic was the greatest comfort that Hashem could give them.

V’haya lachem l’tzitzis ur’isem oso uz’chartem es kol mitzvos Hashem v’asisem osam v’lo sasuru acharei l’vavchem v’acharei eineichem asher atem zonim achareihem (15:39)

Rashi writes (Bereishis 9:23) that in the merit of Shem’s alacrity in covering the nakedness of his drunken father (Noach), he merited that his descendants – the Jews – would receive the mitzvah of tzitzis. As we know that Hashem rewards people for their good deeds measure-for-measure, Rav Moshe Meir Weiss points out a number of fascinating parallels between the actions of Shem and the mitzvah of tzitzis.

When reciting the Priestly Blessing, the Kohanim wrap themselves in a tallis. This is because we merited receiving the mitzvah of tzitzis through the actions of Shem and of Avrohom (Sotah 17a), both of whom were Kohanim (Nedorim 32b). Shem acted quickly to cover his father and protect him from being disgraced and humiliated. Interestingly, the minimum size for a four-cornered garment to be obligated in tzitzis is determined by whether it is large enough to cover enough of a person’s body so that he would be willing to wear it outside in public without being embarrassed (Mishnah Berurah 16:4).

When approaching their drunken father with a garment to cover him, Shem walked backward and turned away his face so as not to see or even face his father’s nakedness. As a result, the first thing one does when donning a tallis is to wrap it around his face so that he cannot see. Additionally, the Torah specifically writes the prohibition against lusting after the immodesty viewed his by eyes in the section containing the mitzvah of tzitzis. Not surprisingly, the Gemora in Menachos (44a) tells the story of a man who was about to sin with a harlot when he was saved from his immoral plan by his tzitzis.

Mitzrayim was a son of Cham (Bereishis 10:6), who had the audacity to either castrate or sodomize his passed-out father (Yalkut Bereishis 61). Not surprisingly, the Medrash in Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu (7) teaches that the Egyptians were the most immoral and depraved people in the world. As a result, the section in the Torah containing the mitzvah of tzitzis also contains the mitzvah to remember the Exodus from Mitzrayim, as the mitzvah of tzitzis represents the triumph of morality and decency.

Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     When else in history did Moshe send Calev as a spy, and where did he send him? (Targum Yonason ben Uziel 21:32)

2)     The Torah records (13:33) that the spies said that they overheard the giant inhabitants of the land of Israel referring to them as being as small in their eyes as grasshoppers. The Gemora in Sotah (35a) teaches that the spies were punished for viewing themselves as trivial and unimportant. As they were merely repeating the words of the inhabitants of the land of Israel, why were they punished? (Amud HaEmes)

3)     What did the Jewish people do wrong in believing the negative report of ten of the spies over the positive report of two of them when the rule is that in legal matters we follow the majority? (Ramban and Maharil Diskin Devorim 1:25)

4)     Did the spies repent their actions before they died? (Beis Yosef Orach Chaim 580)

5)     One of the traditional preparations which are made for Shabbos is the baking of challos in order to perform the mitzvah (15:19) of separating challah (Rema Orach Chaim 242). If a woman has a small family which is unable to consume a large amount of challos, is it preferable for her to bake a small number of challos each week in order to honor Shabbos on a weekly basis or to periodically bake a large number of challos and freeze them in order to perform the mitzvah of separating challah? (Rav Chaim Kanievsky quoted in Likras Shabbos, Shu”t Shevet HaKehasi 4:81, Shu”t Shraga HaMeir 6:16, Bishvilei HaParsha Parshas Beshalach)

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