Why did the Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years?

Because a man was leading them and he wouldn’t ask for directions.

 Jokes are usually effective because they bear a grain of truth concealed within the joke’s interior. We might wonder why Moshe, the greatest leader in all of Jewish history, had such a difficult time leading a community along a route which would require three weeks of travel, even allowing plenty of time to stroll and stop for breaks. The answer is before us in this week’s Parshah.

     12 scouts are dispatched from the main encampment and each scout surveils a specific region of the Promised Land. Upon their return the scouts announce their findings. “It’s a land flowing with milk and honey and here are some of the delicious fruits which we found there.” Ten scouts continue by describing the land as “inhabited by giants and Amalek is in the land.” The 10 scouts who deliver the negative report intentionally incite fear by name-dropping ‘Amalek’, the warrior tribe which had mounted a sneak attack against the weak and vulnerable Israelites shortly after the Exodus about year before. Terrified, the Israelites call out “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt”; in effect rebelling against Moses and blaspheming God. They are punished and wander for 40 years; a punishment of one year for each of the 40 days of the scout survey mission.

     We mighty ask why the Israelites bought into the pessimistic report of the Ten Scouts and ignored the optimistic report delivered by Calev and Joshua. It’s simple- like any snake oil salesman there was a grain of truth in the report upon which lies were built. The 10 scouts who lacked self-confidence openly declared the land was “flowing with milk and honey” echoing sentiments of Moses and God. Only after gaining the trust of their neighbors did they ramp up the falsehood and plant fear in the hearts of others by coloring the truth. The most influential lie begins with a kernel of truth.

     The entire community lost its way and wandered for 40 years until the people died out. Concealing lies within truth threatens us all and we all become vulnerable to losing our way. Even in the 21st century we are prone to the same vulnerability of being taken in by leaders who hide lies behind truths. Let us be careful to not to lose our way. Let us be confident in ourselves just as Calev and Joshua were.

Shabbat Shalom

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June 2 - Parshat B’ha-a-lotecha - pp. 821 – 826

This passage describes the occasional journeys of the Israelites as they followed the pillar of cloud. Clouds are ephemeral. 

What might be conveyed by the observation that people followed something as insubstantial as a cloud? 

Are there occasions in your life when you uproot yourself from a reality because

of something immaterial?

Haftarat B’ha-a-lotecha - pp. 837 - 839

The high priest Joshua, living 750 years after Aaron, is described as wearing dirty garments.

Who changes his garments? 

What do you see in this deed?

Why would such a dramatic change be necessary?

June 9 – Parshat Sh’lach - pp. 845 - 850

The main element in this Parshah is the report of the

12 spies. How many spies originally traversed the

land? How many ultimately entered the land? Who


Haftarat Sh’lach - pp. 857 – 859

The Haftarah comes from the SIXTH book of the Bible (the Book of Joshua). What is the connection between the Book of Joshua and this passage in


June 16 - Parshat Korach - pp. 863 – 869 Read verse 16:21. What is God’s attitude toward Korach? Then read 16:2. What are Moses’s and Aaron’s attitudes? Haftarat Korach - pp. 877 – 879 The Haftarah speaks of Samuel who was a significant leader about 200 years after Moses and the man who eventually anointed the first king of Israel (Saul). Why is Samuel the object of the Haftarah’s attention? June 23 - Parshat Chukat - pp. 883 – 889 Herein we read the famous scene of “hitting the rock.” Why are Moses and Aaron punished? Haftarat Chukat - pp. 910 – 913 A leader named Jep-tha ruled Israel. He was mighty and courageous.  Did he make any mistakes in judgement?  Why is this episode paired with the incident of striking of the rock? June 30 - Parshat Balak - pp. 899 – 903 King Balak has contracted with magician Balaam to curse the Israelites (so Balak would be able to easily destroy them). How does God respond to Balaam? See p. 900 verse 4-5. Haftarat Balak - pp. 915 – 917 This Haftarah is very important to our Shul. Look at the last verse. Do you recognize the phrase in verse 8? Why does this phrase stand out?  What does it represent?

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You shall strengthen him and he shall live beside you

From time to time you and I travel by airplane. While announcing the emergency protocol, flight attendants remind us to place the oxygen mask upon our own faces before helping other people. I have never been comfortable hearing this instruction. My first response, as a husband and a father, would be to care for my wife and my children prior to myself.  I understand the logic of the flight announcement;  let everyone take care of himself or herself with the majority of the passengers being safe and flight attendants would presumably be able to tend to the needs of as many as possible. Logically, the announcement makes sense; emotionally, it very much misses the mark.

It reminds me of short story shared in the Talmud. Imagine two men walking in the desert.  One man has a flask of water and it is apparent that the water is sufficient for only one person. Shall the man with the water share his limited water with the other person in which case both will die? (Bava Metzia 62a).

It is a terrifying quandary. None of us would wish to be in such a situation. A sage by the name of Ben Ptorah taught that the water should be shared. Undoubtedly, Ben Ptorah knew the Jewish perspective of the importance of one life, any life, every life. Perhaps his thinking was that both people deserve at least some chance of survival- even if both will ultimately perish.  One generation later the well-known teacher Rabbi Akiva disagreed and taught that the man with a bottle has the right and perhaps even the duty to drink the water, knowing his colleague would certainly die. Even though it is absolutely forbidden to take someone else’s life, I am not required to sacrifice my own life to save someone else. My life is just as important as his.  I wonder if Rabbi Akiva developed his own emergency protocol for the sake of preserving one life just as flight attendants are trained to do.

A verse from this week’s Parshah is at the center of this Talmudic discussion “If or when your brother sinks low (into poverty) and his hand falters beside you, you shall strengthen him and he shall live beside you.”(Lev. 25:35).  It’s a safe bet that the original Torah verse was directing each of us to care for neighbors who had no safety net, neighbors without traveling companion and perhaps no attendants nearby. The crux of the verse is to care for someone in need and to make him a part of our own lives.  Financial support comes first but the follow-up to caring for someone is to offer emotional support and stability (‘and he shall live beside you.’)

1,000 years after the Torah, the Sages of the Talmud reinterpreted the verse and added a layer of meaning; the ‘lifeboat dilemma’. Leave it to our Sages to delve deeply into the meaning of every word of Torah.

For us, in our world, we, too, must reinterpret Torah to our needs. May we continue to learn and may we grow in our abilities to safeguard ourselves and each other. And may we never be faced with having to choose whom we help at the expense of another.

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