By Rabbi Mordechai Young
A rebbe of mine, Rabbi Yehoshua Kurland, a rebbe in Sh’or Yoshuv, noted author and chazzan, always makes Torah learning fun and enjoyable! He asked why yeshivas for bachurim don’t learn Tanach. Rabbi Kurland said there was once a student who looked through the English-translated Tanach and saw the book of Iyov and got scared off.
In this week’s parashah, we learn about the 12 spies scouting Eretz Yisrael before they were to enter it. Rashi teaches that the nation came to Moshe Rabbeinu requesting to send the spies before entering to conquer the land. Moshe asked Hashem, and Hashem responded that Moshe is not commanded to send them; however, he may choose to do so.
As we know, Moshe sent 12 spies, one from each tribe. The pasuk states that they were all “anashim” (men), which Rashi explains to mean they were important, and that at the time of their appointment they were all righteous. We know that 10 of the spies returned with a bad report of Eretz Yisrael and a warning that the mission to conquer the land was doomed. These were great men; how could they return with a bad report?
My father once told me a story that Rav Nachman of Breslov would recount. The king’s adviser heard that it was seen in the stars that the grain from the year’s harvest would be tainted; anyone who ate it would become insane. The king was worried. They could not destroy the crop because without it there would be no food to eat, so he asked his adviser what he thought they should do. The adviser responded they should put aside the good grain for themselves so at least the king and the adviser would not go insane. While it sounded like a good idea, the king disagreed. “If we remain normal and everyone is insane, they will see us and think that we are insane and they are normal. So we must eat the tainted grain as well. But we will put a mark on our foreheads that will serve as a reminder to each other that we are insane, and this is not how it should be.”
One summer I went upstate with a rebbe from yeshiva and about 25 bachurim, renting some space on JEP’s campgrounds. We had our own learning activities and trips and it was amazing, baruch Hashem. One Friday night I relayed the above story. My friend Aron Robbie was adamant that we figure out the nimshal to this mashal. A bunch of us sat around that Friday night discussing this story, and we came up with different possible explanations. One that I came up with, with some assistance, is to explain the parashah of the meraglim.
The meraglim saw how Hashem was taking care of all their needs in the desert. They were free to learn Torah and concentrate fully on serving Hashem. Entering Eretz Yisrael, as sweet as it would be, would mean working the land and being involved in so-called mundane activities. It could be that the spies had good intentions — to remain 100 percent involved in serving Hashem. Their words led the nation to believe the mission would not be a success, and then they would have to remain in the desert, fully concentrated on their avodas Hashem. The king in this mashal, representing Hashem, said that we must eat the grain. That means we must enter the land, and even though it does seem insane to be involved in the physical world, this is what needs to be done. To counter the problem of being “insane,” doing physical activities and work, we have the Torah and mitzvos to remind us of reality and what is really important: serving Hashem.
It is like the Gemara in Shabbos 33b: Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rebbe Elazar came out of the cave after 12 years of learning Torah and praying. When they saw people working the field, Rebbe Shimon could not believe people were forsaking spiritual activities for mundane, earthly ones. Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai was angry, and whatever he looked upon got burned. A heavenly voice, bas kol, told them to return to the cave, so they returned for another year. When they exited the cave this time, Rebbe Shimon saw an old man who was clutching two bundles of myrtles running home before Shabbos. They asked him why he needs the myrtles. He responded, “To honor the Shabbos.”
They asked him why he needed two. He answered, “It says in the Torah about Shabbos, shamor (guard) and zachor (remember), so one bundle for each.”
Rebbe Shimon said to his son, “Look how precious the mitzvos are to Am Yisrael,” and they were appeased.
We see that to all our actions, even the so-called mundane ones, we can bring kedushah.
R’ Mordechai Young is available as a remedial rebbe and tutor. He can be reached for comments at email@example.com.