Food For the Soul
The majority is not always right
In the Parsha Shelach (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41) twelve spies are sent by Moses to the Promised Land. Only two of the dozen, Joshua and Caleb, remained faithful to their leader, to the purpose of their mission and to G-d’s assurance that it was a good land. The other ten spies went awry.
The spies were sent to determine how best to approach the coming conquest of the land of Canaan. Instead of doing what they were sent to do—to suggest the best way forward—ten of the twelve spies brought back a negative report that was designed to intimidate the people and discourage them from entering a ferocious “land that devours its inhabitants,” and which signed off with the categorical conclusion that “we cannot ascend.”
The people responded accordingly. They cried out to Moses, lamenting their very departure from Egypt. So G-d decreed that this generation was not worthy of His Precious Promised Land. G-d decrees that Israel’s entry into the land shall be delayed forty years, during which time that entire generation will die out in the desert.
Now, the question I’d like to pose here is: why did the people not follow the two good spies, Joshua and Caleb, instead of the others? The obvious answer: they were outvoted and outnumbered. Ten vs. two—no contest. Majority rules. Tragically, though, they backed the losers. And the result was an extended vacation in the wilderness for them, and a tragedy for all of us to this day.
So, although we may be staunch believers in the democratic process, clearly, there will be times when the minority is right. All too often it is the world that is stark raving meshuga, veering drunkenly out of control. It takes substantial strength of character to resist the pull of the drunken majority. May G-d aid us to be men and women of stature, of spirit. May we be inspired with the courage to stand up and be counted, even if it means being that lone voice in the wilderness. Otherwise, we may never get to our destination.
Adapted from an article by Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Egyptians Sue Jews
On this day in history (4th Century BCE) Egyptian representatives appeared in the court of Alexander the Great, demanding that the Jews pay restitution for all the Egyptian gold and silver they took along with them during the Exodus. Geviha the son of Pesisa, a simple but wise Jew, requested the sages’ permission to present a defense on behalf of the Jews. Geviha asked the Egyptians for evidence that the Jews absconded with their wealth. “The crime is clearly recorded in your Torah,” the Egyptians gleefully responded. “In that case,” Geviha said, “the Torah also says that 600,000 Jews were unjustly enslaved by the Egyptians for many, many years. So first let us calculate how much you owe us…”
The court granted the Egyptians three days in which to prepare a response. When they were unable to do so they fled on the following day and never returned. In Talmudic times, the day when the Egyptian delegation fled was celebrated as a mini-holiday. (According to some traditions, this event took place on Nissan 24.)
Mind Over Matter
Instead of working out the best way to approach the Holy Land, the [Twelve] Spies declared that the job could not be achieved. The message they brought back was “mission impossible…” Instead of saying “we will have to face this or that problem” they said: “Give up on the whole project!” This was their error. But it does not have to be ours. Our investigation into the ins and outs and the possibilities of the task ahead of us, based on all the advice of Jewish teaching, does not mean we should end up saying “mission impossible” and withdraw. If we look in a positive way at our task, knowing that G-d is helping us, we will see the optimum way forward.
From an article by Dr. Tali Loewenthal
Moses first fought the oppressor and only then taught his people to be free. Today, the oppressor hides behind a smile, a luxury, a social norm. Quite often, your worst oppressor is you yourself. That is why today we first need to teach people to be free so that they can recognize their oppression.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Have I Got A Story
My first Halachic question
I’d been on the job for just a few weeks when one of our members hesitantly approached me after services: “Rabbi,” he began, “may I ask you a question in halachah?”
Yes! I was ready! This was what I’d entered the rabbinate for. This was why I’d spent years attending international yeshivahs and studying for my semichah ordination. Ask me your halachic question, please.
“Rabbi,” he continued, “you know where I live, and you know how I get to shul on Shabbat. For the last few months, whenever I’ve come to shul, I have started to wear tzitzit under my shirt. Wearing them makes me feel good inside. However, this morning, as I was driving to shul, I started to wonder whether I wasn’t acting hypocritically. Should a Shabbat-breaker like me really be wearing such a holy garment as tzitzit? Rabbi, what do you think—should I stop wearing them?”
I’ve got to admit, at first I was a tiny bit disappointed. This was the halachic question I was waiting for? So much for my rosy vision of engaging in an in-depth analysis of some weighty issue of Jewish law. The answer seemed so obvious: of course he shouldn’t take his tzitzit off. Every mitzvah is an independent path to G-dliness, and the neglect of one commandment should not preclude the fulfillment of another.
However, one of the most useful pieces of advice I ever received in life was a favorite saying of my father’s: “Before you answer a question, ask yourself, ‘Why is this person asking you this question at this time?’” Thankfully, before I could blithely shoot off a response, I checked my initial impulse and gave his question the attention and respect it deserved. On reflection, I realized that he wasn’t really asking me “a halachic question”; he could have worked out the halachah easily enough for himself. He was really looking for an opportunity to explore his feelings of unease at his current unstructured approach to Judaism, and looking for reassurance that it was all right to take his own time and follow his own path to observance.
My new congregant and I spent a fair bit of time chatting with each other and trying to understand each other better. I learned far more about his past relationship with Judaism, as well as his current needs and desires, than I would have if I had just answered his question without giving him the time he needed to unburden.
One insight that seemed to give him some comfort was that the reason we wear tzitzit is so that “when you see them, you will remember all the commandments of the L-rd, to perform them” (Numbers 15:39). Wearing tzitzit is supposed to remind us of the other mitzvahs. You can even say they’re supposed to make us feel guilty. They’re doing their job!
Mitzvahs are addictive; if you do some, you’ll be tempted to do more. Obviously, it’s unwise and unhelpful to do too much too fast, but the natural temptation is to do more. What my friend was mistaking for unease at hypocrisy was really his conscience urging him to take the next step on his journey to Judaism, and stop driving to shul. You don’t stop wearing tzitzit because they’re doing what they’re supposed to; rather, you ready yourself to take the next step that you’re supposed to.
There is no shame in doing a mitzvah, and no reason to desist just because you’re not yet fully ready to take on another. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Every step is just another stage towards “performing all the commandments of the L-rd” and readying oneself to listen to G-d’s message when He calls.
Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum