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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And how is the land - is it fertile or is it lean? Are there trees in it or not? (13:20)

Rashi comments that Moshe's reference to a tree is an allusion to a tzaddik, righteous person. He was teaching the meraglim, spies, that if a righteous person was living in the land, he would protect its inhabitants from attack. In his Sefer Simchas HaTorah, Horav Simcha HaKohen Sheps, zl, supplements Rashi with another reason for comparing an adam kasher to a tree. In addition to the shade which a tree provides and the fruit which it produces, a tree has a cleansing effect on the ecology. A tree purifies the air by its very existence. It balances the oxygen level in the air. Likewise, besides a tzaddik's righteous endeavors, his very being in a community has an expiating effect on the surroundings. Hashem sends a special shefa, spiritual abundance, to an area that is home to the righteous.

The following narrative, cited by Rabbi Paysach Krohn, demonstrates how far this effect reaches. When Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, the father of the Mussar - ethical behavior - movement, passed away, he was basically penniless. His surviving descendants inherited limited material possessions from his "estate." One man in Rav Yisrael's neighborhood had the good fortune to gain possession of Rav Yisrael's hat. This hat was not the kind that is worn today. It was old, creased and dilapidated from years of wear. Yet, this man treasured the hat as if it was worth a king's ransom. Every Shabbos, without fail, he wore the hat. At first, the people paid no attention to the hat, but after awhile people took note of how strange he looked wearing this decrepit hat. As frequently happens, people felt the need to ridicule him.

"How can you wear that thing on your head?" they asked disdainfully. "It is so dirty and tattered. You are being mevazeh, humiliating, the Shabbos and yourself by wearing that hat."

At first, the man ignored the derisive remarks. One day he finally responded, "Would you agree that there is a certain hiddur, extra beautification/refinement, in not speaking lashon hora, evil speech, on Shabbos kodesh?" "Yes," they agreed, "not speaking lashon hora on Shabbos certainly adds to the degree of reverence for the holy day."

"Then I must tell you, that when I wear Rav Yisrael's hat on Shabbos, I simply find it impossible to utter any form or defective speech. So great is the influence of his hat!"

If this was the effect of Rav Yisrael's hat, can we even begin to perceive the influence Rav Yisrael himself had on people?

, They brought forth an evil report on the land that they had spied… it is a land that devours its inhabitants…we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes. (13:32,33)

The spies returned from their mission and spread malicious lies about Eretz Yisrael. The land was made for huge and robust people, not for ordinary people like the Jews. They failed to realize that they were the beneficiaries of Hashem's favor. Wherever they went, they noticed funerals going on. Rather than realize that Hashem was sparing them by engaging the Canaanites in funeral preparations, they were quick to charge that it was a land that devours its inhabitants. They felt especially insignificant in the eyes of the giants that lived there. This statement was especially slanderous and pure conjecture. They had no right to consider how the people viewed them. Indeed, as the Kotzker Rebbe posits, this was the root of their sin. They were sent on a mission. All that should have been occuping their minds was the success of the mission. The people's attitudes towards them should not have concerned them. They were indeed looking for trouble - and they succeeded in their endeavor.

Slander, lashon hora, evil speech - regardless of the terminology - is one of the most destructive forces that confronts society. The first instance of this destructive form of speech takes place early in creation. This occurs when the serpent convinced Chavah to partake of the Eitz Hadaas, Tree of Knowledge. He convinced Chavah that Hashem forbade them from eating of the Eitz Hadaas because He was jealous of them. The serpent portrayed the negative, because he saw only negative. His jaundiced perspective was at the root of his malignant tongue. The same sin was repeated by the meraglim, Jewish spies. Instead of seeing the positive reason for the funerals; rather than realizing that Hashem spread disease among the inhabitants so that they would be preoccupied and too busy to notice the twelve Jewish spies, they perceived it to be a destructive land that devoured its inhabitants.

Lashon hora has it genesis in the way we look at things. When we see negative, we speak evil. The person who focuses on the negative becomes a negative, unhappy person. He literally consumes himself with self-hate. Such a person goes through life seeing only the negative, judging people through his distorted perspective, building mountains of hate on the foundation of his warped and bitter point of view.

Horav Yissachar Frand, Shlita, cites Rabbeinu Yonah in his Shaarei Teshuvah, who interprets the pasuk in Mishlei 14:9, "The fool pleads a fault, but among the upright there is good will"; a fool searches for another person's shortcomings and indicts him, while the wise man praises the one in whom a good thing is found.

The negative person is embittered, lonely and lacks any joy in his life - other than denigrating people. When he puts someone down, he thinks that he elevates himself. Little does he realize that by degrading others, he buries himself. Horav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zl, exemplified the character trait of respecting all people, of seeing the Divine Image in every Jew. He was once sitting in his Succah during Chol Hamoed, and he asked Rav David Finkel to bring him a pen and paper. Rav David was surprised that Rav Isser Zalman would write on Chol Hamoed. Rav Isser Zalman told him, "It is a matter of pikuach nefesh, life or death." He then proceeded to write the pasuk from Mishlei 4:25, "Let your eyes look opposite you, and your eyelids look straight before you" on the piece of paper.

When Rav David noticed this, he became increasingly perplexed. What about the pasuk could possibly create a matter of pikuach nefesh? Rav Isser Zalman explained that during Chol Hamoed, hundreds of people came to visit him. Not all of his guests were noted scholars. Among the people were two mentally challenged individuals with visible and some covert failings. Rav Isser Zalman wanted a constant reminder that when he greeted these people, he would concentrate only on their individual good points - rather than on their faults. He remembered the Netziv's rendering of the pasuk: "When you look at someone and discern a fault, turn your eyes inward and look at yourself instead."

Rav Isser Zalman seriously felt that this pasuk constituted pikuach nefesh for him. He understood that the key to life was the ability to focus on the positive traits of people, things and situations. Otherwise, one chances becoming a lonely, embittered person, lacking any joy in life. This is only one step away from death.

If we look around the world today, we see a society that has spawned evil despots that terrorize a world. Eretz Yisrael is surrounded by enemies who seek every way to destroy our people. This is only sixty years after Amalek incarnate destroyed six-million of our brethren. There are Jews who have, regrettably, given up. How can they maintain faith through all the darkness that has accompanied us through history? What they do not realize is that it is specifically our faith in Hashem that has maintained our sanity during those days of infamy. We know that we have survived only because it was the will of Hashem. If our enemies would have their way - none of us would survive.

We have been endowed with freedom of choice, the ability to choose between good and evil. It is up to us to see the good in what seems evil, to see the blessing amidst the curse. There is a poignant story that took place after World War II, between Horav Eliezer Silver, zl, and a Holocaust survivor. Rav Silver was one of the first American Jewish chaplains to arrive at the concentration camps. Representing the Vaad Hatzala, Rescue Committee under the auspices of the Agudath Horabbonim, he performed wonders and saved many Jewish lives. His words of wisdom and encouragement gave hope to many a broken Jew. The sight that confronted him was beyond description. Piles of dead bodies were strewn all around, while those who were alive were nothing more than breathing skeletons, so emaciated that they did not even cast a shadow. With tears streaming down his face, he went from survivor to survivor, speaking to them, encouraging them, attempting to raise their spirits and give them something for which to look forward. He infused life into those broken souls, and they offered gratitude to Hashem for delivering them from death. That is, most of them did - except for one man, who was visibly angry. "I have no use for rabbis." he exclaimed bitterly. "After what I have seen, I am finished with religion."

Rav Silver was patient. He understood the trauma which this man had sustained. "Would you care to share with me the experience that turned you off?" he asked calmly. "Sure, I will tell you," the man retorted. "There was a religious Jew in our camp who somehow managed to smuggle in a Siddur, prayer book. Do you know what he did with it? Do you want to know how he took advantage of his poor wretched brethren? If anyone wanted to pray from the Siddur, they had to give him their portion of bread. You should have seen all the people whose bread he took! After seeing that, I neither respect nor care for religious Jews any longer."

"My son," Rav Silver answered gently, "instead of focusing on the one man who demanded bread for every prayer, why do you not think about the special Jews who were willing to give up their morsel of bread so that they could pray to the Almighty?"

It is all a matter of perspective. One either looks at the positive and sees the praiseworthy aspect of a person or situation, or he falls prey to petty envy in order to justify his own cynicism and bitterness, seeing only the negative. We can look at one wretched, evil man and blame religion, or we can search for the spark of good, the aspect of G-d within each soul and discover the truth of what religion can accomplish.

And you shall not go astray after your heart and after your eyes. (15:39)

In the Talmud Berachos 12b, Chazal interpret the meaning of "straying after ones heart and eyes." "Straying after the heart" is a reference to entertaining heretical thoughts, and "straying after the eyes" alludes to permitting lewd thoughts to enter one's mind. The Torah enjoins us to distance ourselves from places or situations which will inspire such sinful contemplations. We are provided with the mitzvah of Tzitzis as a reminder of our obligation to exercise care in avoiding these spiritual hazards.

The Talmud Gittin 55b relates the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, two people in Yerushalayim with very similar names. A third man who was close friends with Kamtza sent a messenger to him, inviting him to a feast he was planning. By mistake, the messenger invited Bar Kamtza, who was the host's enemy. On the day of the party, when Bar Kamtza walked in, the host became enraged and ejected him from his house. Bar Kamtza tried everything to ward off the humiliation, but to no avail. He decided that since many members of Yerushalayim's rabbinic leadership had witnessed his humiliation and did nothing to prevent it, he would stir up trouble for the entire Jewish religious community. He went to Caesar and told him that the Jews were initiating a rebellion against him. To prove it, he suggested that Caesar send a sacrifice to the Bais HaMikdash and see if they would accept it. Caesar sent a healthy calf to be offered in the Bais HaMikdash. Bar Kamtza, who was the agent appointed to bring the animal to Yerushalayim, made a blemish in the calf, thus insuring that the Kohanim would reject it. The rest is history. This was the precursor of the siege that led to the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, observes an allusion to the concept of "guarding one's eyes" in the incident of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The blemish that Bar Kamtza inflicted was a small slit in the eyelid of the animal, which Chazal tell us is considered a blemish in regard to a korban, but is not considered a blemish by the gentiles in regard to their sacrifices. This was specifically why Bar Kamtza chose this type of blemish.

Rav Yosef Chaim interprets Chazal figuratively. The blemish in the eye signifies one's lack of control over his eyes. This constitutes a moral flaw for a Jew and is, hence, a blemish. The non-Jewish nations do not view a roving eye as a character flaw. Indeed, it is a way of life for them.

See the land - how is it? (13:18)

There is another u'reisem, "And you shall see," in the parsha. At the end of the parsha, regarding the mitzvah of Tzitzis, the Torah says, "And you shall look at them." (15:39) This implies, comments Horav Yissachar Frand, Shlita, that the meraglim, spies, failed to learn the lesson of Tzitzis. Tzitzis conveys the message that if one looks at them, he will be reminded of all the mitzvos. Chazal tell us that since the Tzitzis contain in them a thread of techeiles, blue-thread, a color which resembles the sea, which - in turn - reminds one of the sky, which calls to mind the Kisei Hakavod, Heavenly Throne - one will thus remember all the mitzvos. The lesson of Tzitzis, therefore, is that there is much more than meets the eye. What we see is superficial. There is much more beneath the surface.

The spies were told to see the land - its kedushah, holiness, its spiritual potential as a resting place for the Shechinah. They only saw what was in front of them - the large fruit, a land that appeared intimidating and frightening, a land that made them feel miniscule and insignificant. Their vested self-interest clouded their ability to see, to perceive Eretz Yisrael's distinctiveness. They ignored the lesson of Tzitzis - a lack of knowledge for which we are still paying today.


Everyone a leader among them. (13:2)

Degel Machane Efraim notes that the word Nasi - spelled nun, shin, yud, aleph - contains within it two words: yeish - yud, shin, "there is", and ein - aleph, yud, nun, "there is not." A Nasi who is humble and holds that he is ein, nothing, is really yeish, something. Conversely, one who holds himself to be something is really nothing.


They returned from spying out the land. (13:25)

During the great aliyah, when many Polish Jews left Europe for Eretz Yisrael, Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, Lubliner Rav, was asked why he did not also go to Eretz Yisrael. He responded, "I still have the strength to go to Eretz Yisrael. My problem is leaving. I think that once I get there, I will never be able to leave."


We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes. (13:33)

One perspective leads to another. Had the meraglim possessed the necessary self-esteem, they would not have viewed themselves as being inferior. Once they viewed themselves as mediocre, the Canaanites followed suit.


Yehoshua Bin Nun and Kalev ben Yefuneh, of the spies of the land, tore their garments. (14:6)

The meraglim were the distinguished leaders of the people. Apparently, they must have dressed appropriately, with their long frocks, clothes that bespoke their station in life. When they slandered Eretz Yisrael, they demeaned themselves and their position. Therefore, says the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, it was Yehoshua and Kalev who tore their clothes from them. There is no reason for enemies of Hashem to wear clothes of nobility.

Mazel Tov & best wishes to
Suzy & Jeff Goldberg -Jamaica Estates
Renee & Avi Herskowitz - Kew Gardens Hills
Upon the upcoming marriage of
Yehuda to Gitty
'Yehi Ratzon Sheyizku L'vnos Bayis Ne'eman B'Yisroel'
and may Klal Yisroel share in many more simchos


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