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Rabbi Doniel Staum, Parshas She'lach 5773 "In the Eyes of the Beholder"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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In his incredibly inspiring memoir, Out of the Depths, Rav Yisroel Meir Lau shlita recounts his experiences as the youngest surviving inmate at Bergen-Belsen. He relates that just before she was separated from him for the final time, Rabbi Lau’s mother told his older brother Naphtali to always take care of Lulek (as Rabbi Lau was then called). Somehow Naphtali managed to remain near his younger brother for most of the war. But as the Allies closed in on the Nazis the Nazis decided to relocate the inmates. Naphtali was convinced that he would never be coming back. He snuck over to his younger brother’s barracks to speak to him one last time:

“Lulek, they are taking me. I hope, but I can’t be sure, that we will see each other again sometime. There is no way back from where they’re taking us. You’re a big boy now; you’ll be eight in a few months. I can’t and I won’t hide the truth from you. I see no chance of being saved from this hell. It’s the end of the world. We have no father, they took Milek as well, and I don’t know what happened to Mother. She probably thinks and talks about us all the time, but I’m not sure she’s alive. Now they’re taking me too, and you’ll be alone. I see that you have friends here… Maybe there’ll be a miracle and you’ll stay alive, and all this will end sometime. I’ve come to tell you that there is a place in the world called Eretz Yisroel. Say ‘Eretz Yisroel’ – the Land of Israel. Again. Repeat after me.

“Eretz Yisroel is the home of the Jews. The foreign nations exiled us from there long ago, and we must return. This is the only place in the world where they do not kill Jews. If you stay alive, you will surely meet people who will want to take you with them to other places, because you’re a nice kid. But you aren’t going anywhere else. Remember what I say, only Eretz Yisroel![2]

The spies had returned from Eretz Yisroel and the nation eagerly awaited their official report. The results were catastrophic and history-altering. “The entire assembly raised its voice; the people wept that night.[3]

The gemara[4] states that the night the spies returned and delivered their negative report was Tisha B’av eve. G-d said to them, “You cried a cry for nothing, and I will enact for you a cry for generations.” The sin of the spies was a root-cause for the destruction of both Batei Mikdash.

The gemara there also notes that in the first, second, and fourth chapters of Megillas Eichah[5], the first letter of each verse is written according to the order of the Hebrew Alphabet. However, in the second and fourth chapters the letter פ (Peh) appears before the letter ע (Ayin). This is to demonstrate that the flaw of the spies was that they spoke about things they didn’t see[6].

Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt’l[7] asks that the gemara’s condemnation about the spies report doesn’t seem justified, for every word they related was indeed what they had seen. While scouting out the land they had seen giants who made them feel puny and inferior.

Rabbi Schwab explained that our perception is based on our emotions. It is well known that ‘a person sees what he wants to see’. Two people can view the same situation and yet have radically different perspectives and conclusions about what they saw.[8] When a person gazes at something with a spiritual perspective he will see it far differently then one who is merely perusing for aesthetic pleasure.

The sin of the Spies was that they were viewing Eretz Yisroel from a physical perspective. Had they entered the Land searching for the holiness invested there, the Land the Patriarchs had traversed and were buried in, the Land where the Akeidah occurred, the Land of the Future of Klal Yisroel, a place where “Living souls compose the air of your Land[9]”, they would never have been able to say anything negative about the land. Instead they would have returned to the nation and passionately preached about the holiness of every inch of the Land, and they would have fueled the excitement in the hearts of the nation to arrive there as quickly as possible.

The tragedy was that they sought the physical qualities of the Land and therefore they truly saw its trees, fruits, and stones. But looking at the Land through physical eyes is not really seeing it at all. They were charged to report back about the essence of the Land, which can only be realized if one is viewing the Land with spiritual eyes. Therefore, they were justifiably accused of speaking about what they had not seen. True, they had seen it with their eyes. But “they had seen the mountain and did not see the Divine Presence resting above it.”

The tragedy of Tisha B’av is rooted in our viewing the world through physical eyes, by not recognizing the Hand of G-d in every thing that occurs in the world, and in every facet of our lives. A Jew is charged with viewing life through a spiritual prism, in which he tries to see the hidden Hand of G-d behind the concealment of nature. One who does not live his life in such a manner may see with his eyes, but he surely is not seeing with his soul.

The final gemara in Kesuvos[10] relates the great passion and love that the Amoraim had for Eretz Yisroel: “Rabbi Abba would kiss the stones of Akko; Rabbi Chanina attended to the obstacles along the road; Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi used to stand up (during learning) and move from the sunlight into the shade and from the shade into the sunlight (so they shouldn’t feel the need to complain about the heat of the sun or the chill in the shade). Rabbi Chiya bar Gamda would roll in its dust to fulfill the verse[11] “For your servants desire its stones, and in its dust they will find favor.”

Strangely, in his commentary there, Rashi records the verse from Tehillim without a heading[12]. Rashi’s objective is always to elucidate and clarify the words of the gemara. What is the point of recording verbatim the verse which was just stated in the gemara?

A teacher must sometimes work hard to foster feelings of love for a challenging student because the teacher knows that is the only way he can properly educate him. Parents on the other hand, don’t love their child because it is the only manner in which they can educate their child; that love is truly genuine. Parents love their children because that love is deeply rooted in them.

Ba’al Shem Tov explains that Rashi is explaining the extent of the love and passion that the aforementioned Amoraim felt. The gemara states that Rabbi Chiya rolled in the dust to fulfill the verse which speaks about how the dust of the land finds favor in the eyes of the nation. Rashi is saying that Rabbi Chiya (as well as the other Amoraim) did not do what they did merely to fulfill a verse, but because they truly felt that sense of internal love and passion for the Land.

In our time, as it has always been, Eretz Yisroel is a far cry from Dr’ Suess’s Solla Sollew, the land where “they never have problems, at least very few.” But it all depends how one views the Land. If one sees Israel as a country in the Middle East, riddled with politics, disunity, and disappointment, and surrounded by virulently dangerous enemies, one feels that the Spies were, G-d forbid, justified in their assessment that “it’s a land which consumes its inhabitants[13].”[14]

But if one is able to see the land as it truly is - a Land which only produces for its own people, which cannot tolerate sin, touches hearts and ignites souls, corresponds to Torah and where Torah comes to life, they will see a miraculous Land of eternity, which traverses time and defies natural law.

“In its dust they will find favor”

“Remember what I say, only Eretz Yisroel!”

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L’zecher nishmas Ephraim Mordechai ben R’ Moshe Yitzchok Hakohain Yarmush a’h, a dear friend whose yahrtzeit is this Shabbos, 23rd of Sivan.

[1] Based on derasha given at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shelach 5772

[2] In the end, Naftali miraculously escaped and survived

[3] Bamidbar 14:1

[4] Sanhedrin 104b

[5] ‘Lamentations’; read on Tisha B’av eve. It was authored by the prophet Jeremiah prior to the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash as a warning to the Jewish King Yochoniah of what would transpire oif the nation didn’t repent. Tragically his words fell on deaf ears.

[6] The word ‘Ayin’ means eye, while the word ‘Peh’ means mouth. By placing the letter Peh before the letter Ayin the prophet was demonstrating that the spies – who were the initiators of all the future tragedies of Tisha B’av – had related their negative report about Eretz Yisroel, even about things they had not seen.

[7] Ma’ein Bais Hashoeivah

[8] As an example, Rabbi Schwab notes that when Avrohom arrived at Mount Moriah along with Yitzchok, Yishmael, and Eliezer in order to perform the Akeidah, he asked the trio what they saw atop the mountain. Yitzchok replied that he saw the Divine Presence, while Eliezer and Yishmael replied that they saw nothing unusual.

[9] "חיי נשמות אויר ארצך" – Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Kinah (Tzion halo tishali) Tisha B’av

[10] Kesubos 102a-b

[11] Tehillim 102:15

[12] i.e. without a ‘Divrei Hamaschil’. Rashi’s comments are always based on words of the Gemara. But here peculiarly, Rashi quotes the verse without it being based on any particular part of the text.

[13] 13:32

[14] This is indeed a very serious problem in which many secular Israeli youths fail to appreciate why they need to deal with the vicissitudes of the Land and would rather escape it. That vital sense of idealism on which the Land (and the State) were founded, is severely lacking from much of today’s youth.

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