SALT Parashat Shelach 2015/5775

  • Rav David Silverberg

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Motzaei Shabbat

The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (34b) states that the names of the twelve meragelim (scouts) listed in the Torah in Parashat Shelach were not their actual names.  They were used “al sheim ma’aseihem” – as allusions to what the scouts did wrong when they returned from their mission and dissuaded Benei Yisrael from entering the Land of Israel.  Rabbi Yitzchak, as the Gemara cites, claimed that only one of the twelve names can be deciphered – the name of Setur ben Mikhael.  This name, Rabbi Yitzchak explains, refers to the fact that this man denied (“satar”) God’s power and considered him “makh” (feeble).  Rabbi Yochanan, however, disagreed, and claimed that there is also another name that is decipherable – Nachbi ben Vafsi.  According to Rabbi Yochanan, this individual “concealed” (“hichbi”) the Almighty from sight, and “stepped over” (“pasa”) His qualities.

            What is the significance of these descriptions, and how might we explain this debate between Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Yochanan?

            Rav Alexander Zusha Elishewitz, in his Le-ameinu U-le’dateinu (20), suggests that these two Sages point to two different origins of cheit ha-meragelim – the tragic sin of the scouts.  Rabbi Yitzchak claims that the root cause was “satar ma’asav shel Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu” – outright rejection of belief.  The scouts simply denied God’s ability to protect the nation and lead them to victory over the formidable Canaanite armies, and argued that He was “feeble.”  This was a theological stance that the scouts took, rejecting the possibility that God could help Benei Yisrael take possession of the land.  Rabbi Yochanan, however, argued that there was also another element.  Some of the scouts may not have outright rejected the belief in God’s unlimited power, but they “concealed” this belief.  We have the capacity to conveniently ignore truths that we fundamentally acknowledge, in order to pursue our self-interests and desires.  And thus not all the scouts necessarily denied God’s ability to bring the nation victory.  Some of them simply “concealed” this fact and “stepped over it,” without pausing to reflect upon the belief in God’s omnipotence.  Whatever motivated the scouts to decide against proceeding to Eretz Yisrael, they pursued this goal either by denying God’s ability to vanquish the Canaanites, or by just ignoring this belief.

            Rabbi Yochanan’s comment reminds us that belief does not necessarily translate into action.  As much as we believe, internal or external pressures can lead us to conveniently ignore and “conceal” even our deeply-held convictions so we can act in opposition to them.  As such, there is no substitute for self-discipline and restraint, because simply knowing something is wrong does not preclude the possibility that we will do it.



            In the opening section of Parashat Shelach, the Torah lists the names of the twelve scouts, noting that each of the twelve tribes supplied one scout.  Interestingly, when introducing the scout from the tribe of Menashe, the Torah makes mention of Yosef: “From the tribe of Yosef – from the tribe of Menashe, Gadi the son of Susi” (13:11).  By contrast, several verses earlier (13:8), in stating the name of the scout from Efrayim – Yosef’s other son – the Torah simply states, “From the tribe of Efrayim, Hoshea the son of Nun.”  Whereas in regard to Menashe the Torah mentions Yosef, no such mention is made in reference to the tribe of Efrayim.

             A clever explanation for this discrepancy is suggested by Rav Shimon Moshe Diskin, in his Mas’at Ha-melekh commentary to the Haggadah (p.230).  He notes that the scouts were dispatched for two distinct purposes.  First, in preparation for Benei Yisrael’s conquest of the land, the scouts were sent to collect information about the terrain, roadways and the indigenous population that would help Benei Yisrael in waging battle.  Secondly, they were told to gather information about the quality of the land and its different regions, in preparation for the land’s distribution among the twelve tribes.  Now the two tribes from Yosef – Menashe and Efrayim – were treated as two separate tribes with respect to the land’s distribution, as each received a separate territory, but the Gemara (Horiyot 6b) records a debate among the Sages as to whether they were also treated as separate tribes with regard to other matters.  According to the view that they constituted a single tribe for matters other than their allotted portions of the land, we can understand the way the Torah introduces the spies from these two tribes.  With regard to the scouts’ mission to examine the land in preparation for its distribution, Efrayim and Menashe constituted separate tribes, and therefore sent two different scouts. With regard to the scouts’ other mission, however, to prepare for warfare, there was only a single tribe of Yosef, which was led, apparently, by Gadi ben Susi of Menashe.  Therefore, in introducing him, the Torah noted that he represented both the tribe of Menashe – with regard to preparing for the land’s distribution – as well as the tribe of Yosef – with regard to the preparations for warfare.

            Rav Diskin adds that this approach may perhaps explain the response of Yehoshua – the representative from Efrayim – to the events that transpired upon the scouts’ return.  The Torah tells that the majority of the scouts frightened the people by describing the large armies and fortresses in Canaan, whereupon Kalev dissented and insisted that with God’s help, Benei Yisrael could easily conquer the land.  Yehoshua did not join Kalev in opposing the other scouts until later, after the scouts spoke negatively about the land, and Kalev and Yehoshua together proclaimed, “The land is very, very good” (14:7).  When it came to the issue of the Canaanite nations’ military capabilities, Yehoshua did not speak out, because he was not sent for the purpose of gathering military intelligence.  His role was limited to assessing the qualities of the various regions of Eretz Yisrael in preparation for the land’s distribution, and thus it was only when the other scouts began disparaging Eretz Yisrael that he spoke up and joined Kalev to oppose them and affirm the greatness of the Land of Israel.



            We read in Parashat Shelach of God’s decree in the wake of cheit ha-meragelim (the sin of the scouts), condemning that generation to die in the wilderness, where the nation would remain for the next forty years.  God had initially decided He would eradicate Benei Yisrael, but Moshe interceded on their behalf.  In response to Moshe’s plea, God announced that although He would allow the nation to survive, this generation would perish in the wilderness.  God introduced this decree by proclaiming “chai Ani” – “by My life” (14:21), which is understood as an expression of an oath.  The Gemara, however, in Masekhet Berakhot (32a), interprets this term to mean, “hechiyitani bi-dvarekha” – “you have revived Me through your words.”  According to this reading, God was saying that Moshe’s prayer had a “reviving” effect on Him, as it were.

Rashi, commenting on the Gemara, writes, “In the eyes of the nations.”  The Maharsha explains that according to Rashi, the Gemara’s comment relates to the content of Moshe’s prayer.  In petitioning God to spare Benei Yisrael, Moshe noted the impression that Benei Yisrael’s annihilation would give, as the nations of the world would conclude that God killed them because He felt powerless against the mighty armies of Canaan.  God responded to Moshe’s prayer by saying, “You have revived Me,” meaning, that Moshe succeeded in preserving God’s reputation in the world as an omnipotent Supreme Being.  If Moshe had not prayed, God would have annihilated the people and the nations would have claimed that He knew He could not defeat the armies of Canaan.  And thus through his prayer, Moshe in effect “revived” the Almighty’s reputation in the other nations’ eyes.

Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, explains the Gemara’s comment differently.  He suggests that the term “hechiyitani” should be understood to mean comfort and solace.  The Torah describes that after Yaakov discovered that his beloved son Yosef was alive, his spirit was “revived” (“va-techi ru’ach Yaakov” – Bereishit 45:27), meaning, he finally felt comforted and was able to experience joy.  In a somewhat similar vein, Rav Ginsburg suggests, the Gemara comments that God was “comforted” by Moshe’s prayer.  God reacted with fury to the sin of the scouts, when the people mistrusted Him and decided to return to Egypt, and, as mentioned, He sought to destroy the entire nation.  He found comfort, so-to-speak, in the fact that Moshe prayed on the people’s behalf.  The Torah relates that after Benei Yisrael heard the spies’ frightening report about Eretz Yisrael, “The entire congregation said that they should be stoned” (14:10).  While the plain reading of the verse (as Rashi explains) suggests that they sought to kill the two dissenting spies – Yehoshua and Kalev – the Midrash explains that they wanted to kill Moshe and Aharon (Bamidbar Rabba 16:21, Tana De-bei Eliyahu 29).  Yet, even after the people rejected Moshe and even tried to kill him, he nevertheless pleaded with God on their behalf.  This is what brought God “comfort” – to whatever extent we can speak in such terms – after the grave incident of cheit ha-meragelim.  When He sees us acting in a forgiving, patient and tolerant manner, and deeply caring about and devoting ourselves to even those who have wronged us, He is prepared to forgive and tolerate our wrongdoing.  And thus God told Moshe, “Hechiyitani bi-dvarekha.”  Through his words, by pleading on behalf of those who tried to harm him, he brought comfort to the Almighty during this otherwise difficult point in His relationship with His nation.



            The Torah in Parashat Shelach tells the story of the mekoshesh eitzim – a man who was found publicly violating Shabbat, for which he was put to death (15:32-36).  The obvious question arises as to whether there is perhaps some connection between this episode and the story of cheit ha-meragelim – the sin of the scouts – by which it is preceded.

            Rav Amnon Bazak (Shabbat Be-Shabbato, Parashat Shelach 5769) suggested that the story of the mekoshesh eitzim may actually signal a ray of optimism after the tragedy of the spies.  The story of cheit ha-meragelim is one where a small group of ten men succeeded in influencing the entire nation, dissuading them from proceeding to Eretz Yisrael.  The ten spies used skillful rhetoric and fear tactics to frighten the people and convince them that they cannot possibly defeat the Canaanite nations, and that even if they could, the land is not desirable in any case.  The story of the mekoshesh eitzim perhaps demonstrates that the people learned the lesson of God’s harsh punishment for cheit ha-meragelim, and refused to allow a lone “weed” to spread and ruin the nation.  The moment the mekoshesh was seen publicly desecrating Shabbat, he was forcefully brought before Moshe, who was then told by God how the man should be punished.  Significantly, whereas during the story of cheit ha-meragelim the nation sought to stone those who opposed the ten spies (14:10), in the story of the mekoshesh eitzim, it was the public violator who was stoned, by the command of God.  Cheit ha-meragelim showed Benei Yisrael’s vulnerability to the negative influence of a small group of instigators, but the incident of the mekoshesh revealed the nation’s capacity to resist such influences and work to oppose those who threaten to lead the people astray.



            The Torah in Parashat Shelach tells of the mekosheih eitzim – the man who publicly violated Shabbat and was subsequently put to death.  Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel (15:32) comments that this man decided to violate Shabbat in order for the people to recognize that Shabbat desecration constitutes a capital offense punishable by sekila (stoning).

            The Maharsha, in his commentary to Masekhet Bava Batra (119a), cites Targum Yonatan’s comments, and raises the question of why it would be permissible to desecrate Shabbat for this educational purpose.  He answers his question by advancing a surprising theory, claiming that Shabbat desecration for this purpose falls under the category of melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah.  This term is commonly defined as an activity which is forbidden on Shabbat, but which one performs for a purpose other than the purpose for which it is normally done.  The classic example discussed by the Gemara is when one digs because he needs the earth.  The Shabbat prohibition of digging refers to creating a hole; if one digs because he needs earth, he performs this melakha (prohibited activity), but he does so for a different purpose than that for which the melakha is normally intended.  Rabbi Shimon, as the Gemara cites on numerous occasions, maintains that performing a melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah does not violate Shabbat on the level of Torah law.  Although it would be forbidden by force of rabbinic enactment, one does not transgress the relevant Torah prohibition in such a case.  The Maharsha extends this rule to a case of a person who performed a melakha not because he had any need for the melakha, but for some other purpose – such as in the case of the mekoshesh eitzim.  Since he transgressed Shabbat not because he was interested in performing this particular activity, but rather to teach Benei Yisrael about the consequences of Shabbat desecration, his act constituted a melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah.  As such, it was not forbidden on the level of Torah prohibition.

            Of course, the Maharsha’s comment gives rise to the question of why the mekoshesh eitzim was put to death.  If he did not commit a Biblically-prohibited act of Shabbat desecration, then he was quite obviously not liable to capital punishment.  Why, then, did God instruct Moshe to have the mekoshesh put to death?

            The Maharsha explains that the mekoshesh eitzim was put to death because the Beit Din must judge suspected sinners according to their actions, not their motivations.  Since he committed the forbidden act, he is liable for Shabbat desecration as far as the human court is concerned.  From the perspective of the Heavenly Court, he did not desecrate Shabbat, since he committed the act for a “higher” purpose, but this consideration lies outside the purview of a human court.  Therefore, although he did not violate Shabbat from the perspective of the Heavenly Court, he was nevertheless guilty from the perspective of the human Beit Din.

            The Maharsha’s theory gives rise to several questions, and we will iy”H discuss this subject further tomorrow.



            Yesterday, we noted the Maharsha’s surprising remarks in his commentary to Masekhet Bava Batra (119a) regarding the mekoshesh eitzim – the man who publicly desecrated Shabbat while Benei Yisrael encamped in the wilderness.  Midrashic tradition teaches that this man committed the act in order that he would be put to death and thereby show the people the punishment for Shabbat desecration.  The Maharsha comments that since this melakha (forbidden activity) was motivated by external considerations, and not because the violator had actual interest in this melakha, his act falls under the category of melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah – an act forbidden on Shabbat which was not done for its usual purpose.  According to the generally accepted view, a melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah does not constitute a Torah violation, and thus the mekoshesh was not – technically speaking – guilty of Shabbat desecration.

            The Maharsha’s comments bring to mind a similar theory advanced by the Maharik (137), who writes that when somebody forces a Jew to commit a forbidden act on Shabbat under threat, the act qualifies as a melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah.  Since the person commits the act not because he has interest in the melakha, but rather to save himself, this constitutes a melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah and thus does not violate a Torah prohibition.  This position was followed by several Acharonim, including the Peri Megadim (Mishbetzot Zahav, 328:4), who addresses the case of a Jew who is forced under threat to commit one of the three sins for which one must surrender his life (adultery, murder and idolatry), but he can avoid the situation by violating Shabbat.  This case differs from a standard case of piku’ach nefesh (threat to life), where Shabbat desecration is allowed, because in this instance, the forbidden act will not directly save the person’s life, but will rather enable him to a avoid a situation where he would be halakhically required to sacrifice his life.  Nevertheless, the Peri Megadim writes that one may – and should – desecrate Shabbat to save his life in this case, and one of the reasons given is that the act would constitute a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah.  Since the person violates Shabbat in order to save his life, and not because he actually wants to perform this act, it falls under the category of melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah and thus does not constitute a Torah violation.  The Maharsha seemed to follow this line of reasoning, regarding the act committed by the mekoshesh as a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah, since it was driven by external considerations, and not by any interest in the act he committed.

            By contrast, Tosefot, in Masekhet Shabbat (72b) write explicitly that if one violates Shabbat out of fear, he is liable for a capital offense (unless, of course, his life was in danger).  As opposed to the aforementioned sources, Tosefot clearly assume that performing a melakha because of external pressure does not qualify as a melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah, despite the fact that the person was not truly interested in the melakha he performed.

            Rav Asher Weiss, in his Minchat Asher (Shabbat, 81:3; and Parashat Shelach, 27), notes that Tosefot’s position appears more compelling.  A clear distinction exists between the classic cases of melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah and the situation of the mekoshesh or of a threat to life.  As mentioned yesterday, the classic example of a melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah is where a person digs a hole not because he needs a hole in the ground, but rather because he needs the earth.  In such a case, the act’s objective was not the purpose for which the melakha is normally done.  (Or, as Tosefot famously explain in Masekhet Shabbat 94a, the act was not done for the same purpose for which this melakha was performed during the construction of the Mishkan.)  The status of melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah is determined by the nature of the act, not by the motivation behind it.  There is a clear difference, for example, between digging because one needs dirt, and digging because one is forced to dig a trench at the threat of death.  In the latter case, the act was done for the standard purpose of this melakha, but the motivation to achieve this goal – making a ditch – was self-preservation.  This is quite different from digging to retrieve dirt, where the objective is not even to dig a hole.  The status of melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah relates to the direct objective of the act, and not to the overall motive behind this undertaking.  Thus, even if one is motivated by a concern for his life or other external factors, if the act was done for its usual purpose, it stands to reason that this would not qualify as a melakha she-einah tzerikha le-gufah.



            The Torah in Parashat Shelach tells of Benei Yisrael’s panic upon hearing the spies’ report of the formidable armies of Canaan, and that “they wept that night” (14:1) over the prospect of having to confront the Canaanites.  They angrily shouted at Moshe and Aharon, and expressed their desire to return to Egypt (14:3-4).

            The Gemara in Masekhet Ta’anit (29a) famously comments that this night was the night of Tisha B’Av, the date on which the two Batei Mikdash would later be destroyed, and which we have observed for millennia as a day of mourning.  In response to the people’s weeping, the Gemara says, God said to them, “You wept an unwarranted weeping – and I will establish for you weeping for generations!”  Chazal here draw an association between the sin of the scouts and our nation’s exile, noting that the latter served as a punishment for the former.

            Rav Reuven Katz, in his Duda’ei Reuven (Parashat Shelach), explains this connection by noting Benei Yisrael’s to desire to return to Egypt.  They “wept” over the responsibilities and challenges of establishing a sovereign nation in their own land, and expressed their preference for living as foreigners in Egypt.  The gravity of this mistake would be felt centuries later, on Tisha B’Av, when the Jewish Nation lost its sovereignty and was driven into exile, where it would struggle to survive and retain its identity as persecuted, homeless foreigners.  The temporary challenges of conquering and settling Eretz Yisrael pale in comparison to the never-ending challenges of living as perennial outliers, denied basic rights and subject to ongoing persecution.  And thus Benei Yisrael wept an “unwarranted crying,” lamenting the temporary challenges which needed to be overcome in the process of settling Eretz Yisrael.  Rav Katz writes:

You wept an unwarranted weeping.  You were afraid to go and possess the land, so that your wives and children would not be taken captive – because you did not appreciate the concept and tenet of freedom and independence, of the land, the homeland.  In the future, you will know and recognize that this was an unwarranted weeping, when you will go into exile with the destruction of the land and the Temple, and you will be subjected to the other nations and to the tragedies and calamities that they will bring upon you.  Only then will you appreciate the value of the land and statehood, and the unwarranted weeping which you wept in this wilderness.

            This lesson, which Rav Katz discusses in the specific context of modern Zionism, in truth applies to all areas of life.  We should never “weep” over the temporary challenges entailed in pursuing a lofty goal.  The road to achievement is often fraught with complexities and hardship, but it is nevertheless a road worth traveling.  When we confront difficult obstacles as we endeavor to achieve, we must try to avoid “unwarranted weeping,” and should instead work to overcome these challenges, beseeching the Almighty to assist us throughout the process.