We hope you enjoy this selection of short divrei Torah, presented to family and guests at our Shabbos table as a springboard for discussion. Each one is followed by a question. The responses shared at our table are enlightening, entertaining, and always thought-provoking.
Please share them at your own Shabbos table, and send us your most interesting responses. A selection of the best will be posted on the website, and eventually, included in a book.
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Parshas Shelach #1
“Very, Very Good”
“And Yehoshua bin Nun and Kalev ben Yefuneh, among [the spies] who had investigated the land, tore their clothes. And they spoke to the entire congregation of the children of Israel saying, the land we passed through to investigate… is very, very good” (Bamidbar 14:6-7).
Moshe acquiesced to the request of the Jews in the desert, and sent a delegation of twelve spies to investigate conditions in the Land of Canaan before the nation set out to conquer the land. When the Spies returned from their mission, they threw the nation into turmoil with their frightening report. They cried and complained about Moshe, Aharon, and the terrifying “Promised Land,” claiming that Hashem was bringing them there to die. Only two of the twelve, Yehoshua bin Nun and Kalev ben Yefuneh, were positive and optimistic, praising the beautiful land Hashem was giving them (Bamidbar 13-14). The Jews in the desert were severely punished, and our people would suffer the consequences of this tragedy long into the future.
What is our own attitude towards Eretz Yisrael? Our starting point should always be that of Yehoshua and Kalev: “the land is very, very good.” Faultfinding is easy; that does not mean it is right. Despite the problems, even now there is much about Eretz Yisrael and the Jews who live there that is beautiful and unique.
Meeting the President
A story related by Rav Aharon Feldman, rosh yeshivah of Ner Israel in Baltimore, gives us a glimpse of what is so special about Eretz Yisrael.
A Jerusalem youngster was enjoying a treat: his grandfather, visiting from abroad, took him out to eat. Their outing became even more interesting when President Bill Clinton, also visiting Jerusalem, stopped in unannounced at the same restaurant for a quick snack! The restaurant was suddenly flooded with Secret Service men, CNN reporters, and the entire presidential entourage. In a moment recorded for posterity by many cameras, President Clinton ordered a bagel with lox and bit in. Then he noticed the boy and his grandfather seated at a table, and came over to say hello.
“My name is Bill Clinton,” he told the youngster. “What’s your name?” The boy introduced himself, and they spoke briefly. After everyone left the restaurant, the grandfather said, “Do you know that you just met the president of the United States?”
“Yes,” said the boy, “but I still haven’t met Rav Elyashiv!” (Rabbi Yissocher Frand, “Only In Israel”)
Question for Discussion:
David HaMelech said, “Hashem will bless you from Zion, and see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life” (Tehillim 128:5). It is a blessing to be able to see only the good in Eretz Yisrael. What do you think makes Eretz Yisrael unique even today? What story do you know of that could only have happened in Eretz Yisrael?
Jake Leibovitz, originally from New York, in Israel for over twenty years, recounted a story heard from a friend in shul. The friend’s son, “Yaakov,” is a commander in an elite special operations unit in the Israeli Air Force. All members of the unit are on call 24/7, for assignments in or out of Israel. The commander summons any members needed by means of a special communications system and they respond promptly, with no prior knowledge of the mission at hand.
One day, a blind man asked Yaakov to help him cross a street in Jerusalem’s Shaarei Chesed neighborhood. Yaakov was happy to help, and insisted on walking him all the way home. The blind man said that he was fine on his own, but Yaakov took him up to his apartment.
As soon as the door opened, Yaakov saw that the apartment was a disaster. Because of his condition, the blind man was unable to keep his home clean on his own, and he had no one to help him. Years of accumulated grime and garbage were everywhere, filling the apartment with a very unpleasant smell.
Yaakov did not just shake his head sadly and walk away. He summoned the members of his unit who lived nearest to Shaarei Chesed, and within minutes, there was a group of men in front of the building, awaiting instructions. The assignment was probably the most unusual in the history of the unit: Yaakov and his elite air force commandos all got to work scrubbing the blind man’s apartment until it shone! Only in Israel…
Parshas Shelach #2
“And the entire congregation rose up and raised their voices, and the nation cried that night” (Bamidbar 14:1).
The Jews in the desert were terrified by the alarming report brought back by the Spies, and they wept bitterly on the night of their return from the Land of Canaan (Bamidbar 13:28-14:1). Chazal tell us, “That night was the Ninth of Av. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, ‘You cried for nothing, and I will establish for you weeping for all generations’” (Taanis 29a).
Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), citing the Gemara in Taanis, points out that “that night” – the Ninth of Av – in fact became a time of national tragedy (Bamidbar 14:1). Many terrible events in our people’s history had taken place on Tisha B’Av by the time Rav Hirsch wrote these words, among them the destruction of both Batei Mikdash, the fall of Beitar, the onset of the First Crusade in 1095, the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, and the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Twenty-six years after Rav Hirsch’s death, the First World War broke out on Tisha B’Av, 1914. This war, devastating for Jewish civilians and soldiers alike, is considered by historians to have paved the way for the Second World War and with it, the Holocaust.
The Book of Eichah read on Tisha B’Av provides insight into the sin of the Spies. For the most part, the pessukim in Eichah are in alphabetical order: the first passuk in every chapter begins with an alef, the second passuk with a beis, and so on, continuing to the end of each of the five chapters. There are only three exceptions: in the second, third and fourth chapters of Eichah, the letters peh and ayin are reversed, with the peh coming before the ayin, out of order (Sanhedrin 104b).
Chazal explain these three exceptions as an allusion to the Spies, who put their peh (literally, “mouth”) before their ayin (literally, “eye”). The first instance is the verse, patzu alayich pihem, “they opened their mouths against you” (Eichah 2:16). Rashi writes that the Spies spoke with their mouths what they had not seen with their eye (Sanhedrin ibid.). In other words, writes the Etz Yosef, they had already made up their minds to speak negatively about Eretz Yisrael even before they arrived.
A witness testifies to what he saw – his “eye” comes before his “mouth.” The spies reversed the order, and testified falsely about Eretz Yisrael.
The Torah does not recount this tragic incident as a history lesson, but to teach us something about ourselves. What shapes our view of people, events, and the world around us? Do we look at the facts as they are, or through the lens of our own personal preferences and preconceived notions? It can take a great deal of effort to put our own “ayin” before our “peh,” and take an honest, unbiased view of the world, but if we do so, we may find that things are actually much better than we imagined.
The story is told of a milkman who was less than honest in his business dealings. He sold his customers watered-down milk, lowering the quality of the product while increasing his profits. One year in Elul, the sound of the shofar announcing the upcoming Day of Judgment made him stop and think. He went to the rav, told him his story, and asked how he could do teshuvah. The rav told him that he first had to stop diluting the milk he sold. After that, they would talk about teshuvah.
The milkman returned a few days later, and reported that he had lost his customers! He had followed the rav’s instructions, and started selling unadulterated milk. The customers complained that it didn’t taste right, and stopped buying from him.
The rav told him to go back to selling them the product they wanted. It was not pure milk and the quality was poor, but it was what they were used to, and anything else tasted odd… Drinking adulterated milk had so distorted their taste and their judgment that they had come to prefer the watered-down variety.
The same is true of our perceptions. Once we become accustomed to a skewed perspective of life, we may not know how to appreciate truth and clarity.
Question for Discussion:
We can learn from the Spies to be open-minded and objective, and not prejudge people, places, or opportunities. Where do youfeel that you are too quick to judge, and would do better by being more accepting?
“Yehudah,” a secular Israeli taxi driver, told me how he was penalized because of unfounded blanket assumptions about “everyone” in his profession.
The Israeli tax authorities claimed that over the past five years, Yehudah had used his cab for personal use in excess of his allowable annual kilometers. The fine was steep: over 23,000 NIS (approximately $5,750).
Yehudah knew that the fine was unjustified. He never asked a passenger to agree on a price in advance, without the meter, because he did not want to risk overcharging; every last fare he took was recorded on his meter. At a meeting with a tax authority supervisor, the supervisor asked Yehudah if he really always entered all the fares on the meter. This information would allow them to calculate a breakdown of personal vs. business use of the car. Yehudah answered – truthfully – that he did. The supervisor did not believe him, and actually shouted at him that he was a liar. Even worse, the supervisor who accused him was obviously a very observant, bearded Jew.
Yehudah was shocked; he knew that he was not a liar. He stepped outside the office to calm down, and then returned with the printouts from his meter, which clearly showed every day’s fares. The supervisor refused to even look at them. He maintained that it was impossible that any taxi driver would accurately record all of his fares, related income, and use of his car.
Before Yehudah had ever walked into his office, this supervisor had already decided that all taxi drivers were liars who cheated on their disclosures. He was so sure of himself that he was not prepared to consider any evidence to the contrary.
Unfortunately, many of us tend to judge, or misjudge, entire groups of people; Israelis, Americans, chassidim, misnagdim, and other sectors of our society are too often dismissed or disliked simply because of who they are. In Yehudah’s case, he was labeled a liar only because of his profession.