By: Rhonda Goodrich-Rawis
Parashat Shelach –
Shalom ladies! As Arnold would say, “I’m back!” I apologize for the “pause”, and I thank you for your patience. This week I want to tell you a personal story and some amazing insight based on the teachings of Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum in his Torah commentary “Peninim on the Torah”.
To begin we need to ask why the story of the meraglim (spies) is juxtaposed to the incident of Miriam speaking lashon hara against her brother Moshe. So, I am going to take this opportunity to go back to that story and tell you mine. Last week, I had a lot going on, so although I read the Torah portion, I really didn’t take the time to study it. And it was not until I was sitting in the synagogue last Shabbat listening to the Maftir chanting that all the pieces of my story fell into place. You know, I had one of those “a-ha” moments, and it filled me with shame, awe and gratitude all at the same time. Here’s my story: One day last week I was making hard boiled eggs in my amazing egg cooker, which I have had for about 20 years. I love this thing, and after all these years it continues to make perfect hard or soft boiled eggs without fail every time. There is a small hole in the lid where steam is released. I was moving close to the cooker, but it wasn’t like I held my arm over the steam, yet I felt the instant sting as if someone had pinched me really hard, and thought to myself, “that’s weird, how in the world did that burn me?” A few minutes later when I had a very visible red spot and the pain was increasing, I showed my husband and he asked me what happened. My response was, “the steam leaped at me.” I was joking, well sort of, and yet I could not figure out how this had happened. Keeping this in mind, lets fast forward now to Shabbat morning. Just before we were leaving to go to Shul, I made a “not very nice” remark about someone, and my husband said, “oh, please don’t get yourself upset and angry on the Shabbat”. I shrugged my shoulders, knowing he was right. Then just as we were going out the door, I said another “not so nice” comment about something someone else did that irritated me (but it had happened several weeks earlier). My husband just looked at me with a rather confused look on his face, and I remember saying, “wow, why did I tell you that? Why am I talking badly about other people?”. His answer hit hard. He simply said: “I don’t know, but you have been doing it all week.” I kept repeating his statement over and over in my head and I realized he was right! What in the world was going on I wondered? Then came the answer, as the Maftir chanted from Beha’alotcha.
“Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe……incensed with them, Hashem departed………there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales!” (Bamidbar 12:1,9,10)
Miriam had slandered her brother and paid the price for her words in her flesh. I remember thinking, “how come I didn’t know this story was in this week’s portion?” I had read it, hadn’t I? Why was I surprised? That’s when it hit me, I had been living Miriam’s story on the very week we were reading it. Wow! And that is when I bumped my sore arm and realized that I too had suffered the consequences of my speech in my flesh. Again, all I could think was “wow!” This is where the shame, awe and gratitude came flooding at me, all at once. I was so ashamed of my behavior and my negligent use of my amazing gift of speech, but I was also in awe of what I now understood to be Hashem’s subtle and sometimes, not-so-subtle, messages of love, intended to help me correct my error. For that I could do nothing but whisper words of gratitude that He loves me enough to help me correct a bad character trait.
“So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted.” (Bamidbar 12:15)
Now, back to this week’s sidra. Rashi explains the juxtaposition of the story of the meraglim to the incident of Miriam speaking lashaon hara as follows: When Miriam was punished it was publicly known. The entire nation was prevented from going forward until she was allowed back into the camp. The spies, Rashi points out, would have done well to reflect upon Miriam’s punishment and its cause. If they had only internalized the message, they would never have spoken ill against the Land of Israel.
“If the snake bites because no spell was uttered, no advantage is gained by the trained charmer. A wise man’s talk brings him favor, but a fool’s lips are his undoing.” (Kohelet 10:11)
R’ A.L. Scheinbaum in the name of R’ Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi explains that a man’s tongue (his power of speech) is like a snake charmer & his snake. They are both morally responsible for the damage caused by their tongue/snake. The Talmud in Taanit 8a compares a snake’s bite to a slanderous tongue. When any other animal bites it benefits by devouring its prey. But When a snake bites it derives no benefit from doing so other than the awareness that its victim has been hurt. Likewise, when we slander others, we receive no personal benefit other than the knowledge that we have hurt another person with our “bite”. Other than knowing our victim has been hurt and disgraced, we derive no other pleasure from speaking lashon hara.
“The ba’al lashon hara (master of evil speech) is one who is sustained by another’s disgrace, humiliation, and ridicule. It is his (or her) bite that comprises his entire pleasure. Just as a snake that ingests nothing into itself, gaining its pleasure simply by inflicting pain on others. So, too, does the slanderer derive pleasure by disparaging others.” (R’ A.L. Scheinbaum, Peninim on the Torah, Vol. 10)
It doesn’t matter if our victim is a person or a place of dirt and stones. Once the words have left our mouth, and we have “bitten”, we have received our pleasure and enjoyment by maligning another. We have caused shame and degradation to somebody or something.
“He who guards his mouth and tongue, guards himself from trouble.” (Mishlei 21:23)
In his introduction to the Siddur Shaar Hashamayim, R’ Yehezquel Italqi D’Avino explains, regarding the concept of “shimrat ha’lashon” (guarding one’s speech):
“Impairment of this power (of speech) deprives the soul of its essential quality to function in the image of G-d.”
Do we ever stop to think about the fact that what we are about to say could actually be detrimental to our spiritual growth? I don’t think any of us want to deprive our soul of its ability to function in the image of G-d, yet we do so far too often, by the very words we choose to speak. And yes, the words we utter are our choice!
R’ Scheinbaum explains another concept that hits home with me – the concept of one little word: “Efes” (but). The meraglim agreed with Moshe that the land truly was flowing with milk and honey, “but” they couldn’t leave well enough alone. This one little word undermined their previous optimistic report. With one word, all the positive information they had previously shared no longer carried any merit.
“They went straight to Moshe and Aharon and the whole Isralite community at Kadesh……..This is what they told him: ‘we came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Efes, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large, moreover, we saw the Anakites there…….we cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” (Bamidbar 13:26,27,28,31)
This word, “but”, far too often represents the exception we take to living a life that is virtuous and decent. You fill in the blanks: “I know I should ____________, “but”, _______________.” With this one little word we attempt to justify our wrong doings and rationalize our sinful behavior. We legitimize what is wrong. The “but”, we think, allows us an “out”. We use it to justify our sinful behavior, and all too often our sinful speech. Is anyone besides me guilty of saying, “I don’t want to speak lashon hara, but, do you know what she did?” And our “but”, whatever it is, somehow justifies our slander? Sorry, if it quacks like a duck and it looks like a duck, it’s probably a duck! No “but” will absolve our moral weaknesses & spiritual lapses. Actually, this little word can be extremely dangerous, sinking us deeper into the abyss of sin. The path of teshuvah begins with recognition. If we don’t recognize our wrong doing, allowing our “but” to conceal the truth, we take ourselves further and further from Hashem.
Maintaining a Torah lifestyle is difficult, but it is especially difficult in our non-Torah oriented society. We are not immune to bad influences, we are all affected by slanderous speech, and no “but” can truly justify our bad behavior or speech.
Of the 12 meraglim, there were 2 who didn’t slander, Yehoshua and Calev. Moshe prayed for Yehoshua, knowing full well that he was going into battle. But what about Calev? What do we know about Calev and why didn’t Moshe pray for him too? Remembering that Calev had a son by the name of Chur (Hur), who stood up fearlessly at Har Sinai to confront the perpetrators of the golden calf, and was killed Al Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying Hashem’s Name), Calev is a remarkable man. His emunah and bitacon were even stronger because of this experience, and he accepted Hashem’s decree, not seeking revenge or verbally insulting the people who killed his son. Rather, he risked his own life, with Yehoshua, to try and convince them not to listen to the slander of the meraglim. He didn’t harbor bitterness in his heart against the people, and yet, he was not overly self-confident either. He was quick to seek out the resting place of the Patriarchs and to prostrate himself in prayer over their graves. He realized, that no matter how strong he might be, or how high his spiritual level, no challenge could be taken lightly. He needed help through the merit of the tzaddikim who had gone before him, if he was going to overcome the challenges of the meraglim.
Ladies, I am humbled as I tell you all this, because I realize just how fragile I truly am. I can never let my guard down, and I must work daily on my character traits, strengthening the good ones, and fighting against my many flaws. I cannot ever afford to think I have overcome any bad character trait, because I am weak and frail on my own. That is why it is so important that we remind ourselves daily to guard our precious gift of speech, and not to try to justify our bad behaviors and manners of speech with our “buts” and excuses. Instead, like Calev, I pray we have the good sense to cling to the merit of the tzaddikim to give us the strength to overcome our challenges.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. He will remove every branch in me that does not produce fruit, but whatever produces fruit he will purify, to make its fruit abundant. You are already purified through my word that I have spoken to you. Stay in me and I in you. Just as the branch does not produce fruit on its own if it does not stay on the vine, it is the same for you if you do not stay in me. I am the vine and you are the branches. One who stays in me and I in him will produce fruit in abundance. For without me, you will not be able to do anything. One who does not remain in me will be cast outside like a branch and wither. People will gather them and cast them into the midst of the fire, and it will be consumed. If you stay in me and my words are in you, then you may ask according to whatever you desire and it will be done for you. With this my Father is honored, when you produce fruit in abundance, and you will become disciples to me” (Yochanan 15:1-5)
As my burn is healing, I find myself praying that Hashem allow it to leave a visible scar, as I think I will benefit from the reminder. Our real challenge is to internalize the lessons of the Torah in such a way that we will instinctively do the right thing whenever life’s challenges confront us. I pray we will guard our tongue, and truly live as disciples of our Rebbe, by emulating his Torah lifestyle, and producing fruit in abundance.
Be blessed and be a blessing,