Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Rabbi Yaakov Haber

The Cheit HaM’rag’lim and Three Mitzvot

After describing the calamitous episode of the m’rag’lim, whose evil report about the Holy Land led to a disastrous, Divine decree that the entire generation that left Egypt would die in the desert, curiously, the Torah commands three, seemingly unrelated, mitzvot. First, the commandment of nisuch hayayin or the wine libations to be poured on the mizbei’ach in conjunction with certain korbanot appears. This is followed by the commandment concerning challa, the separation of a portion of dough to be given to the kohein. The Torah concludes the parasha by describing the mitzva of tzitzis, the fringes worn on all four-cornered garments. Immediately following this last mitzva, the Torah returns to the narrative of the Jewish people’s sojourn in the desert. Is there any deeper connection between these three mitzvot, appearing as they do right after the narrative of the spies, and the sin of the m’rag’lim itself?

The Zohar indicates that the motivating factor driving the rashei ha’eida, the leaders of the tribes of Israel who were chosen as the m’rag’lim, to malign the land of Israel was the fear that after they would enter, they would be replaced by other, younger leaders. At first glance, this argument seems self-centered and not befitting of men of their stature. R. Chaim Ya’akov Goldwicht zt”l, the founding Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, explains that this motivation was reflective of a fear of the new spiritual reality with which the Jew entering the Holy Land would be confronted. The midbar experience was almost totally oriented toward direct elevation of the soul and spirit. Moshe taught the B’nei Yisrael Torah directly from Hashem. Heavenly, spiritual bread provided nourishment of only a quasi-physical nature (see Ramban to B’shalach 16:6), water was miraculously provided through a rock that traveled along with the Jews, and clouds sent from heaven, the ananei hakavod, shielded and guided the Jewish people in their travels through the danger-laden desert. In a word, B’nei Yisrael lived in a spiritual oasis; with all their physical needs provided for, they could focus whole-heartedly, without worldly distractions, on the study of Torah and elevating their level of Divine service.

Life in Eretz Yisrael for the average Jew would be quite different! Most of them would be farmers, extracting their very physical bread from the earth with the sweat of their brow. Water would have to be diverted from lakes and flowing rivers, and wells would have to be dug. Protection from the elements would have to be furnished by weaving clothing and building structures brick by brick, stone by stone. Of course, in living this more physical existence, the Jewish people would have the Torah as their guide so that all of these activities would be guided by the mitzvot haTorah. But even more so, the Jew would elevate every “mundane” aspect of existence by performing all of these activities “l’sheim shamayim” -- for the sake of heaven -- in order to have the physical infrastructure of sustenance and protection to enable them to utilize the rest of their time in the pursuit of Divine service. Thus, even the secular would be elevated to the level of the holy, fulfilling one of the main purposes of the creation of mankind. Such an existence -- so drastically different from life in the desert -- would require a new generation of leaders who grew up in this environment who would have to replace the leaders of the generation of the desert who lived a more purely spiritual existence. The concern of the leaders of K’lal Yisrael that they would be replaced did not reflect fear of a deflated ego, but a fright of the unknown, new, more physical existence which certainly would be filled with more spiritual danger than the sheltered environment of the Desert.

S’fas Emes, the first Gerer Rebbe, provides a fascinating further insight, answering our original question. After the failure of the earlier generation to trust in Hashem that if He had commanded the spiritual challenge of the new lifestyle of Eretz Yisrael, then, by definition, they would be able to succeed in it (see Ramban to VaYeira 21:1), Hashem showed B’nei Yisrael through the above-mentioned mitzvot that far from being an environment leading to a distancing from spirituality, life in Eretz Yisrael would enhance it. The basic staples of life: food, water, and protection had been provided miraculously in the Desert directly by G-d. In Eretz Yisrael, they would have to be developed through human effort. But, for each of these necessities, B’nei Yisrael were to sanctify them through the fulfillment of Divine commandments. Thus, the bread produced from the earth of the Holy Land would be imbued with holiness by separating a portion of the dough as a “t’ruma laShem” -- the challa -- which was then given to the kohein, a representative of that portion of the Jewish people, the members of which would wholly dedicate their entire lives to spiritual pursuits. Drink would be sanctified through the n’sachim of both wine and water poured on the mizbei’ach demonstrating recognition that only Hashem is the true source of all of the bounty enjoyed by the Land’s inhabitants. Finally, clothing, which, on the most basic level, provides protection, would be elevated through the placing of tzitzit on its corners reminding the wearer of all the mitzvot of Hashem. Hashem thus demonstrated that the more physical existence of Eretz Yisrael would also be saturated with spirituality and therefore, in reality, the spies’ fear was unjustified. The three gifts effortlessly received by the Jews would be replaced by three similar mitzvot which would reflect the new lifestyle of the Jews. Now they would be required to put in effort to raise the mundane to spiritual heights. By commanding these mitzvot, Hashem was calming their fears of their inadequacy concerning the new reality by precisely directing them regarding the immense potential for kedusha particularly in their new roles.

The Chasam Sofer further highlights the theme of the S’fas Emes in his comments on the second parasha of K’riat Sh’ma. There, we read that if we listen to Hashem’s commandments, “v’asafta d’ganecha v’tirosh’cha v’yitzharecha” -- “and you will gather your grain, your wine, and your oil.” In B’rachos (36b), R. Yishma’el proves from this text that, for the average Jew, a combined approach of Torah-study with a pursuit of a livelihood is the Torah-mandated norm. R. Shimon b. Yochai disputes this analysis claiming that the ideal is to engage in Torah study exclusively and constantly. The passage adduced by R. Yishma’el, according to R. Shimon, alludes to a time when “ein ‘osin r’tzono shel makom,” when the Jewish People are not fulfilling the will of the Holy One, for, if they would, their work in the fields would be done by others, freeing the B’nai Yisrael to devote all of their energies to Torah study. [See Bei’ur Halacha (156 s.v. “sofa b’teila”) for a crucial resolution of this dispute.] Chasam Sofer suggests that in Eretz Yisrael specifically R. Yishma’el’s position would be more relevant for precisely there, the gathering of the grain itself would be a fulfillment of the mitzva of yishuv Eretz Yisrael, of settling and building up the land of Israel. Thus, not only does the Jewish farmer (or accountant, doctor, or technician) of Israel elevate his task through the performance of related mitzvot, but the tasks themselves serve as a fulfillment of Divine command.

Whereas the Torah mandates that a section of K’lal Yisrael emulate the Kohanim and the L’viyim and follow the approach of R. Shim’on b. Yochai and dedicate all of their time to directly spiritual pursuits (see the famous words of the Rambam at the end of Hilchot Sh’mitta V’Yoveil) and thus be able to serve as the spiritual guides of B’nei Yisrael, the approach of the S’fas Emes and the Chasam Sofer highlights the immense spiritual potential inherent within even apparently mundane careers. Whereas this concept is true all over the world, surprisingly, it is all the more applicable in Eretz HaKodesh. As Rabbi Zev Leff noted once concerning the mitzvot of t’rumos u’ma’asros: in the land of Israel, even the fruit wear yarmulkes! May we merit the ability and will to rise to our challenging but ennobling task of dedicating all of our life’s pursuits for the sake of Heaven in fulfillment of the directive of “b’chol d’rachecha da’eihu” -- to know G-d in all of our ways.

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