June 5th, 2013


My dvar torah from last shabbat: Parshat Shelach Lecha

Shabbat Shalom. My dvar Torah today is l’zecher avi mori [in memory of my father, my teacher], Gershon Eliyah ben Avraham ha-Levi v’Raizel, whose second yahrzeit occurs this coming Thursday.

I also want to remember his mother, Raizel bat Yehuda Leib v’Chana, whose tenth yahrzeit will occur the following Monday; and, although I never met her, I would like to remember his grandmother Chana Grune bat Yosef ha-Levy v’Fanny, whose yahrzeit will be next Shabbat.

In today’s parsha, the meraglim [spies] return from touring Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel], and among their reports, they say:

הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ, אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא
The land which we have passed through to tour it, is a land that devours its inhabitants

My attention was caught by the phrase “a land that devours its inhabitants” What do they mean by this?

The meforshim [commentators] all say it means that the residents were dying.

Seforno explains this as a form of natural selection: This was because the giants were strong, “v’ha-shaar metim bah mipnei ro'a ha-avir.” (“and the others died there because of the harsh climate”)

Abarbanel explains that the meraglim were spying out the land during the summer months, when people usually die in greater numbers because of disease.

Rashi summarizes a midrash which is brought in full by the Torah Temimah from Sotah 35a:

ארץ אוכלת יושביה היא דרש רבא אמר הקב"ה אני חשבתיה לטובה והם חשבו לרעה אני חשבתיה לטובה דכל היכא דמטו מת חשיבא דידהו כי היכי דניטרדו ולא לשאלו אבתרייהו ואיכא דאמרי איוב נח נפשיה ואטרידו כולי עלמא בהספידא הם חשבו לרעה ארץ אוכלת יושביה היא
It is a land that devours its inhabitants. Raba explained: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I intended this for good but they thought of it for evil. I intended this for good, because wherever [the spies] came, the chief [of the inhabitants] died, so that they [the residents] would be occupied [with his burial] and not inquire about them [the spies].... But they thought of it for evil [as they said]: It is a land that devours its inhabitants.

So this verse seems to say that the meraglim reported that Eretz Yisrael is a land with a high mortality rate, which was an unjust slander of the land.

But I suggest that there’s a bigger sin here.

We already know from Vayikra, parashat Acharei Mot, that Eretz Yisrael has the following response to being inhabited by a nation of sinners:

וְלֹא-תָקִיא הָאָרֶץ אֶתְכֶם, בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר קָאָה אֶת-הַגּוֹי, אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם.
... that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.

The metaphor that we use with Eretz Yisrael is not one of devouring its unworthy inhabitants, but of spitting them out. By focusing on the deaths of the inhabitants, the meraglim completely missed the fact that this land is not like other lands; they blinded themselves to its kedushah [holiness] and its uniqueness.

And I would take it one step further. Up until now, the rebellious nature of the people has been kept in check. With the chet hameraglim [sin of the spies], we reach what would seem to be the climax: this generation has condemned itself to die before reaching Eretz Yisrael.

But in next week’s parsha, with nothing left to lose, Korach and his followers explicitly challenge Moshe’s leadership. And Moshe says “If Hashem creates a new thing, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, ... then you shall know that these men have spurned Hashem.” I find it significant that Moshe explicitly points out that the ground swallowing them would be a new thing.

If so, then the meraglim’s claim in our parsha of Eretz Yisrael devouring its inhabitants is, first, factually incorrect even if we take it to refer to burials; second, spiritually backwards and oblivious to the idea that Eretz Yisrael spits out those unworthy of it; and third, the introduction into this world of the idea for the very punishment that those who rebel against God are about to bring upon themselves.

The meraglim saw only the bad, not the good that Hashem was doing for them. They saw only the land, not the kedushah [sanctity] that pervades it. They saw only the here and now, and not Hashem’s promise for future generations.

My father and grandmother were proud Jews. They understood that what we see as setbacks are often the hidden hand of God working to our benefit, creating new opportunities. They understood the need for sacred space; each was instrumental in the founding and building of synagogues, mikdashim me'atim. And they both believed with complete faith that Hashem has a plan for Am Yisrael [the nation of Israel], and that each of us has a responsibility to advance the divine agenda.

They continue to be role models for me, and I pray that their memories be a blessing and inspire me and my children for many years to come.

Shabbat Shalom.