Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Humble Redemption

One beautiful spring day, a chossid of the Chiddushei Harim is said to have come to the rebbe complaining that he was depressed. “Rebbe,” he cried, “the parshiyos the past few weeks have been too much for me to bear. One week we read about the misonenim, the complainers. Then we learn about the meraglim. Then we read about Korach and his followers. Rebbe, I can't take it all. It's so disheartening.” Week after week, we read of the challenges facing a new nation struggling to come to terms with the reality of its own existence. We read the stories, we study them, and we wonder how people who were so smart, so gifted and so blessed, and who had witnessed and experienced unprecedented miracles and salvation, had strayed so far off course.

In fact, it is a mark of heightened spiritual sensitivity for our moods to be influenced by the weekly parsha. However, even those of us not on that level perceive that there is a common theme running through these tragic parshiyos.


Since there is an obvious connection between the stories, Chazal wonder about the placement of the account of the meraglim in this week’s parsha of Shelach. They ask. what the tale of spies dispatched to tour and report on the most splendid country on earth has to do with the story at the end of last week’s parsha pertaining to Miriam?


Parshas Beha’aloscha ended with the story of Miriam, who was punished for speaking ill of her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu.


Chazal explain the connection between the two stories as follows: “Reshoim halalu ra’u velo lokchu mussar – The wicked ones saw what happened to Miriam and didn’t learn a lesson from it” (Rashi, Bamidbar 13:2, quoting the Tanchumah).


On a simple level, the lesson they should have learned from Miriam’s experience relates to the aveirah of lashon hara. Miriam was punished for speaking negatively about her brother. The meraglim were unaffected by her punishment and spoke lashon hara about the land.


Upon further examination of the twoparshiyos, another pattern emerges, adding a deeper dimension to the connection between Miriam’s sin and that of the meraglim.


Themeraglim were leaders, prominent and sincere people who apparently set out to do good. They returned with graphs, maps and demographic details that were factual and accurate. Their reports regarding the land were correct and were not disputed by Yehoshua and Kaleiv.


What, then, was the taanah on them? What did they do wrong? Where did they err? They were given a mission and completed it to the best of their abilities. Why were they and the entire nation of Klal Yisroel who accepted their findings punished so severely?


Miriam had spoken to Aharon and questioned their brother Moshe’s decision to separate from his wife. “Al odos ha’ishah hakushis asher lokach…ki ishah kushis lokach.” The conversation continued and they said that Hashem had spoken to Miriam and Aharon as well and they remained married, so why did Moshe think he was different? What Miriam said was true. There were no lies in what she said and no fictitious defamation. So where did she go wrong?


The Torah comments on their conversation, stating, “Veha’ish Moshe onov me’od mikol ha’adam asher al p’nei ha’adamahAnd the man Moshe was extremely humble, more than any person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3).


Addressing Miriam’s mistake, the Torah says that the Ribbono Shel Olam himself addressed her, admonishing, “Umadua lo yereisem ledaber be’avdi beMosheWhy were you not afraid to speak about my servant Moshe?” (Bamidbar 12:8).


The complaint against her was not that she spoke untruths and not that she fabricated a scandal about Moshe, but, rather, that she lacked the requisite humility, reverence and awe when discussing the gadol hador, the k’dosh Hashem, the av hanevi’im.


The monumental mistake of the meraglim was similar. They spoke in a most cavalier fashion about Eretz Yisroel, the land whose properties are intangible. The land whose every four amos carry within them sublime segulos. The land described by the Master of the World as “flowing with milk and honey.” Sure, it may well be that what they said was true, but it was the way they reported their findings – without reverence for the land, without fear of insulting G-d’s paradise, without awe and respect – that they were held to account for.


The family of Rav Mordechai of Chernobyl inherited from him a bottle of wine from Eretz Yisroel that a wealthy chossid had presented him. The bottle was displayed in a place of honor and treated with reverence because it was blessed with the holiness of the land. The bottle remained unopened for years, reserved for the right occasion; one deemed holy and special enough to merit the participation of this treasure. When the rebbe passed away, he left behind eight sons, each one a rebbe in his own right. The bottle remained in the family, unopened, waiting for the proper occasion.


There was a family simcha that brought the eight rebbes together. Amidst the excitement of the reunion, it was decided that the time had come to open the bottle from Eretz Yisroel. A shamash brought it to the table and, with great kavanah, poured some wine into each brother’s cup. As he was about to empty the bottle into the cup of the youngest brother, Rav Yochanan of Rachmastrivka, he quietly shook his head and motioned to the shamash that he didn’t want any of the wine. His brothers looked on in surprise. They had waited for years to open this bottle and partake of its spirits. Now, finally, the time had come. Why was he rejecting the opportunity to partake in the treasure?


The Rachmastrivka Rebbe explained, “I appreciate wine and I am aware of the quality of the wine I drink. I am worried that if I sip this wine from Eretz Yisroeland I have a thought, however brief, that its quality is inferior, I will be guilty of the sin of the meraglim. One isn’t permitted to think negatively of Eretz Yisroel. I’d rather forgo the opportunity than be faced with that aveirah.”


The Rachmastrivka Rebbe understood that when discussing the land, it isn’t about truth or fact, but about reverence and respect. It is Hashem’s chosen land, and just as one is careful when speaking about holy people, one has to be cautious when discussing holy places and things.


In pre-war Baranovitch, there was a group of Jewish teenagers who had “proudly” thrown off the observance of their fathers, feeling that the dictates of Shulchan Aruch were too difficult, irrelevant and not for them.


They formed a social group and began hosting myriad anti-Torah events, eventually holding a public mixed dance in the town of Baranovitch. The bnei hayeshiva were offended by their brazen display of prikas ol. As the dance got underway, some bochurim arrived at the hall. Standing at the doorway, they protested aloud, dissuading some participants and causing aggravation for the organizers.


The next day, in the middle of seder, a large group of secular teenagers burst into the bais medrash as the bochurim sat learning to exact revenge for disturbing their dance. The youths were brawny and threatening, walking up and down the aisle of the bais medrash,clearly looking for a victim. The bochurim were scared that when they would find the protesters, they would beat them.


The leader rolled up his sleeves when he identified one of the protesters and approached menacingly. At that moment, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, walked into the bais medrash and positioned his tall frame directly in front of the leader.


With a mocking jeer, the fellow looked at Rav Elchonon, the gaon and kadosh, mechaber of Kovetz Shiurim and Kovetz He’aros, and said, “Choneh, nisht mit hent (not with your hands),” suggesting that the rosh yeshiva was about to engage in a physical altercation with him.


Rav Elchonon stared at him, not responding. Eventually, the leader gave up and turned to leave, with the rest of the young men following behind him. Those in the bais medrash breathed a sigh of relief.


A few hours later, a harried messenger rushed in to Rav Elchonon. Breathlessly, the messenger blurted out to the rosh yeshiva, “The young man, the leader of that group, is unable to move his arms. Please help him.”


Throughout the day, many others came to inform the rosh yeshiva that the fellow who had brazenly called out, “Choneh, nisht mit hent,” was in agony, his hands locked in place.


Rav Elchonon went to visit the young man and concluded that he had learned his lesson. Rav Elchonon told him that he was mochel the slight to his honor. Immediately, the young man experienced relief. As his hands moved and he gained a new respect for the power of Torah and gedolei Torah; and a new appreciation for the warning of Chazal in regard to antagonizing talmidei chachomim:“Hizharu begachaloson shel talmidei chachomim shelo tikaveh – Beware of their coals, so that you don’t get burned.”


Offending talmidei chachomim is, literally, playing with fire.


Rav Elchonon Wasserman was asked about the permissibility of voting for Jewish representatives who have displayed a hatred for religion. He responded that it is not only forbidden to do so, but that to do so would be wasting one’s vote.


The most effective measure of a person’s greatness and suitability to serve in a position of responsibility for the community is to gauge his humility. The greater the person is, the more humble he is. The smaller the person, the more he is consumed with self-importance.


In order to be an effective public servant and really effect change and make a difference, the shliach tzibbur must put aside his own wishes and needs and practice complete self-negation. If it becomes all about him, he won’t be able to accomplish anything. To vote for shlichim whose primary motivation is to benefit themselves and their own agendas is a total waste. Instead of subjugating themselves to the public, they subjugate the public to their cause.


The quintessentialshliach for his people was Moshe Rabbeinu, about whom the Torah testifies that he was onov me’od, free of personal ambition and calculations. Perhaps it was this that made him the most effectiveshliach and leader the Jewish people have ever been blessed with.


Rabbi Moshe Sherer presented a dilemma before the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and presented two possible resolutions. He had spent much time preparing for the meeting and forcefully supported a certain course of action, making a detailed presentation before the gedolim and explaining the many reasons he thought they should advocate a certain position.


The assembled gedolim listened and then ruled that the other option was better, directing him to follow the course he had advocated against. He walked out of that meeting and seemed particularly happy. His assistants were surprised. They expected him to be upset, as his carefully prepared presentation had just been shot down. One of them asked him about it and Rabbi Sherer explained: “This is a happy day for me, because this is the reason we have a Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. When they rule in a way that I understand, I’m still working with self-interest, because I agree. It’s when they overrule my opinions that I work purely to carry out the will of my meshalchim, those who sent me here.”


He was a most effective shliach because it wasn’t about him.


In the middle of the parsha of Miriam, the Torah informs us that Moshe Rabbeinu was “anav me’od mikol odom asher al p’nei ha’adomah,” the embodiment of humility and modesty. The mention of Moshe’s anavah seems to be unrelated to what transpired; why is it here?


The Ramban explains that the reason the Torah testifies about Moshe Rabbeinu’s humility after relating what Miriam had done is “lehagid ki Hashem kinei lo ba’avur anvasanuso.Knowing that Moshe wouldn’t speak up in his own defense,Hakadosh Boruch Hu defended him.


As we read Parshas Shelach this year, we are under assault from many individuals who openly denigrate and disagree with our gedolim and our way of life. With smug smirks of hubris, they speak and write cunningly, alleging that they come to help us, offering statistics and studies to support their plans of change. With unabashed demagoguery, they malign the entire community of Torah observers, painting us all as dishonest, unschooled leeches, parasites and abusers. They freely smash laymen, talmidei chachomim, rabbonim, roshei yeshiva and gedolim. Anybody who displays fidelity to the traditional way of life is fair game for mockery and in need of their remedial assistance.


The arrogant, patronizing haters would be well advised to step back for a moment of humble contemplation. Yes, there are issues that need to be addressed, but how dare they attack the Torah, its leaders and its followers with wide smiles on their faces. How do they pontificate in all varieties of media, promoting their own political futures by bashing shomrei Torah umitzvos? How are the religious among them not embarrassed to stand alongside scoffers as they lampoon gedolim as being parochial, provincial, out of touch confused old men?


We say to them, “Madua lo yireisem ledabeir be’avdi beMoshe?”


How dare those small people and their followers mock luminaries whose Torah lights up the world, such as Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, a man divested of the pleasures of this world who spent decades far from the public eye toiling in learning.


Who do they think they are to poke fun of Chacham Ovadia Yosef, whose enduring image is one of him hunched over a sefer, whose joy in life comes purely from Torascha sha’ashuai, a prince among his people who spent decades learning mitoch had’chak until all of the Torah was subsumed in his being.


How can anyone not fear ridiculing Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who has inhabited the four amos of halacha since he was a child, son of the holy Steipler, raised on the Chazon Ish’s knee, a man who is famously familiar with kol haTorah kulah, who lives for the Torah and the klal, and whose brachos and advice are sought after by tens of thousands of Yidden.


Those who consider it prudent to challenge this caliber of person in the pursuit of personal agendas of so-called “equality of burden” would do well to heed the words of the Ramban: “lehagid ki Hashem kinei lo ba’avur anvasanuso.”


Madua, we wonder, lo yireisem to deride avdi Rav Aharon Leib, avdi Chacham Ovadia, avdi Rav Chaim, and the other gedolim whose teachings and rulings you disrespectfully scorn. Haven’t you learned the lessons of the history you claim to cherish?


All through the ages, we have suffered from small people who have attempted to aggrandize themselves at the expense of lomdei and shomrei Torah. Throughout our history, we have been victimized by small people who have sought to ingratiate themselves with the governing powers by vilifying Torah observers. They rose and then they fell, forgotten, eventually banished to the ash heap of history.


When Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion established the state he needed to have all of Israel’s Jews on board with the proposal. He promised the religious community that their interests would be protected with a status quo arrangement pertaining to all matters of religion and the draft in the state. Ever since that agreement, our community’s enemies, seeking our demise, meet, plot, speak, vote, legislate and pontificate, but it is all for naught.


To no avail, our secularist foes have tried to accomplish their goals with laws, imprisonment, punitive financial edicts, and a double standard in governmental support and legislation. And now they are back at it, once again with the assistance of religious parties, representatives and leaders.


They would do well to remember the mistakes of those who, armed with facts and figures, lost their reverence and respect for our most important institutions.


They should learn the lesson of this week’s parsha and ponder the fate of those who spoke against the land that Hakadosh Boruch Hu chose, and the people He has marked with greatness and nobility.



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