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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


They arrived at the Valley of Eshkol and cut from there a vine with one cluster of grapes…They named that place the Valley of Eshkol because of the cluster that Bnei Yisrael cut from there. (13:23,24)

Geographically, Nachal Eshkol, the Valley of Eshkol, is near Chevron, as indicated in the parsha. It was there that Avraham Avinu's three close friends, Anar, Eshkol and Mamre, lived. One would think that just as Mamre's "home" was called Elonei Mamre, the Plains of Mamre, Eshkol's "home" would similarly be called Nachal Eshkol. The pasuk seems to imply this: "They arrived at the Valley of Eshkol." In other words, when they arrived, it was already known as Nachal Eshkol, not because it was there that the meraglim, spies, cut a vine with a cluster of grapes.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, writes that he posed this question to his rebbe, Horav Shlomo Breuer,zl, who gave the following insightful response. He cites the Midrash that relates how when Avraham asked advice from Anar, Eshkol and Mamre regarding his upcoming Bris Milah, Eshkol attempted to dissuade him. He asked, "Why perform a procedure on yourself which will forever mark you indelibly for your enemies?" Eshkol felt that Avraham's descendants would no longer be able to hide themselves from their enemies. Wherever they would go, they would be "marked" people. It did not seem appropriate that a place in Eretz Yisrael, the land inexorably bound up with the Jewish People, should be named after a person who did not understand the significance of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, in the life of a Jew. A Jew who is prepared to conceal his Jewishness is, at best, a coward. Self-sacrifice is a Jewish character trait that flows in our veins - or at least it should.

When Moshe Rabbenu instructed the spies to "strengthen yourselves and take from the fruit of the land," however, despite all of their malevolence and lack of integrity, they carried out his instructions and cut down a vine and carried it back. They did so even though this put their lives at great risk. Thus, they indicated a proclivity towards mesiras nefesh. We can now revert to calling Nachal Eshkol by its original name. The act of self-sacrifice which the meraglim -- Avraham Avinu's descendants -- performed, was a true example of marking themselves before their enemies. They corrected the earlier "taint" which had for so many years soiled this place.

We arrived at the land to which you sent us…and this is its fruit. But the people that dwells in the land is powerful. (13:27,28)

The meraglim saw wondrous, magnificent fruit. Yet, it had a negative impact on them. Chazal describe how they interpreted the many miracles that took place on their behalf in a similarly negative manner. Why? Because their attitude was wrong from the beginning. They did not want to see the inherent good in the land.

They only sought to disparage, to degrade. When people look with such a skewered and negative perspective, is it any wonder that their reports would not be consistent with reality?

Looking for the inherent good in a person is more than an attitude: it is a requisite for success in life. Parents should look for the good in their children, even when they are hurt by them. Educators must seek out the positive in their students if they are to successfully reach out to them. I recently read a compelling story by Rabbi Abraham Twerski M.D. who employs this attitude in his unique treatment of alcoholics and drug addicts. He explains that the key to success in the field of treatment is the belief in the inherent goodness of every client - regardless of his background.

Indeed, it is difficult to recognize this good in a person who has led a destructive lifestyle for decades, someone whose abuse of alcohol and drugs has caused great suffering for himself and so many others. Yet, each individual's integrity is always there, lurking beneath a veil of miscreancy. Just give it a chance, and it will emerge.

Rabbi Twerski tells a story about Avi, an ex-convict, who was in recovery from substance abuse and was enrolled in an Israeli rehabilitation program. Addressing the group of "freshmen" who were joining the program, Rabbi Twerski spoke of the importance of maintaining one's self-esteem. Suddenly, Avi interrupted and asked, "How can you talk to us of this? I have been a thief since I was eight years old. When I am not in prison, I am out of work, and my family wants nothing to do with me. What kind of self-esteem can I have?"

Responding to this compelling question, Rabbi Twerski countered, "Have you ever walked by a jewelry shop and noticed the beautiful diamonds in the window? You know, those diamonds were not always so beautiful. In fact, when they come from the mine, they are nothing more than ugly lumps of dirty stone. Only a professional who understands the diamond can take the shapeless mound and transform it into a brilliant stone. He is able to bring out its intrinsic beauty. That is what we do at the recovery center. We look for the diamond in everyone. We enable the soul to emerge in all its true beauty, as we polish it until it gleams. You, Avi, are like that dirt-covered stone. Our function is to find the diamond within you and polish it until it glows brilliantly."

Two years elapsed, and Avi graduated from the program. He took a job as a construction worker. One day, the young woman who managed the halfway house where Avi had been a resident during his rehabilitation, received a call from a family whose matriarch had recently passed away. They desired to donate her furniture to the halfway house. She called Avi and asked him if he could possibly oblige and pick up the furniture. Avi quickly agreed. When he arrived at the house, he immediately saw that the furniture was not really worth picking up. Yet, he did not want to insult the family, so he took it anyway.

While Avi was toiling to carry the shabby sofa up the stairs to the halfway house, an envelope fell from the cushions. Avi brought in the couch and retrieved the envelope -- in which he discovered five thousand shekalim. Here was a man who had served time in prison for burglary, a recovered drug addict who, a few years earlier, would have broken into a home if he thought it would net him twenty shekalim. Avi was different now. He called the halfway house and told them about his discovery. They immediately called the family who had donated the sofa and notified them of their added contribution. The family was so appreciative of the integrity which Avi and the members of the halfway house displayed that they contributed the entire sum of money to the halfway house. As a result, the halfway house was able to purchase another bed and provide room for one more person in need. One more thing - Avi no longer perceived himself to be a thief!

Avi relayed the entire incident to Rabbi Twerski in a letter. He wrote, "When I used drugs, I would get high - temporarily. After a short while, I felt miserable and depressed - worse than before. It was a never-ending cycle of highs and lows. Now, it has been three months since I found that money. Every time I think of what I did, I feel great all over again. How different is this feeling from a temporary fix."

About a year went by, and Rabbi Twerski returned to the halfway house where Avi's good deed had set off a wonderful chain of events which led to the addition of another bed - and client. There was a new sign hanging over the entrance. It read: DIAMONDS POLISHED HERE. The diamond in the rough had finally emerged.

It is a land that devours its inhabitants. (13:32)

Wherever the meralgim, spies, went, they saw funerals. This clearly demonstrates that this land was a dangerous place to live. Otherwise, why was there so much death? Had they used their heads to look for the positive instead of searching for the negative, they would have realized that Hashem caused this in order to distract the population from the unwelcome Jews. What is the meaning of ocheles yoshvehah? Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, explains this with an analogy. A simple-minded individual once went into a house in which all of the windows were shut. It was impossible to breathe in there. Immediately, the fool began to rant and rave, "How can I live in here? I cannot breathe. How will I survive?"

His friend, who was a bit more "erudite", said, "If you look around, you will see that the house is large and roomy. The view is excellent, and the location is perfect. The only problem that you have found is the home's stuffiness and lack of air. If that is the case, just open up the windows and let in some air. This house is fine - you are the problem!" A similar response may be applied to the case of the meraglim. Let us first focus on a pressing question: The meraglim returned from their ill-fated mission and disparaged the land that Hashem had promised to Klal Yisrael. This was no ordinary land - this was Eretz Yisrael! This was a land about which Hashem Himself had attested to its superiority over all other lands. Yet, this did not deter the slander espoused by the spies and the ensuing ridicule which the people expressed in support of the spies. How did the Dor Deah, the generation that had such profound spiritual knowledge, who had experienced Revelation with its accompanying miracles, react so. How could they "fall" for this maligning of Eretz Yisrael? Rav Neiman explains that, indeed, Eretz Yisrael was a land that devoured its inhabitants. It was a land that had a low tolerance level for evil. Ein tov ela Torah, "There is no good other than Torah." When Hashem said that Eretz Yisrael is an eretz tovah, good land this means, that, through Torah observance Eretz Yisrael becomes good to its inhabitants. It protects and preserves them. Just as a home whose windows remain sealed shut will suffocate its inhabitants, so, too, does Eretz Yisrael not show mercy towards those who have no place for the Torah. When Klal Yisrael enter the land with the Torah as an inexorable part of their lives, its windows will open up and and the fresh air will enter. Torah is the air of Eretz Yisrael, without which we cannot endure. True, there are many who live in the Holy Land who are far from observant. There are, however, many who are committed Jews. They are the ones who open the windows and sustain the others.

Bearing this in mind, we now have a new perspective on galus, exile. It is no longer a punishment for our past sins. It is a chesed, kindness, from Hashem. Eretz Yisrael's air is of a highly refined spiritual nature. It has a low tolerance level. Chutz la'aretz, the Diaspora, on the other hand, has "natural" air which permits one who does not observe the Torah to endure - for awhile. When we sin in exile, we are punished by Hashem. Since, however, the nature of Hashem's response is that of punishment, He can be lenient and delay the punishment. In Eretz Yisrael this is not the case. There, as soon as one sins, there is no delaying the response. It is immediate.

There shall be a single teaching for them… (15:29)

One Torah - for everyone. One halachah - for everyone. The Torah is immutable and timeless. It is an absolute truth, and its laws apply equally to all Jews. Alternatively, we may say that the Torah is emphasizing its indispensability to everyone. In other words, regardless of who one is, where he comes from, his station in life or his illustrious pedigree - the Torah is the source of life from which we are nourished. Without Torah, we cannot exist. Horav Moshe Mordechai Schlessinger relates the following story to emphasize this point.

One of the great Torah leaders of Hungarian Jewry, Horav Hillel, zl, Mi'Kulmayh, studied in the great yeshivah of Pressburg as a young man. During those days, it was common for the yeshivah students to eat teg, days. They would receive their daily meal at the home of one of the members of the community. Rav Hillel was assigned to the home of a certain Jew who was a stickler for punctuality. He insisted on eating his meals at specific times every day. Rav Hillel, accordingly, made every effort to adhere to his benefactor's schedule. One time, regrettably, he was late.

It happened that Rav Hillel had become so engrossed in his Torah study that he did not notice that he had passed dinnertime. As he became aware that he was late, at first he decided to skip dinner. Life was different in "those days" - it did not revolve around food. Then he realized, however, that his baal ha'bayis, householder, would be concerned about him. He decided that it would be best if he went and apologized for his tardiness in the hope that the baal habayis would understand.

He was mistaken. Punctuality was more than an attitude to this person - it was a character trait. He viewed someone who was not punctual as being character deficient. When Rav Hillel arrived at the home, he was met by his stern-faced baal ha'bayis who lashed into him for his negligent behavior and character deficiency in not showing up for his meal on time. During the entire tirade, Rav Hillel remained silent, accepting the rebuke with humility and dignity.

As soon as the man finished speaking, Rav Hillel looked up and said, "Everything that you said is true. There is no question that I should have been on time and it was a serious infraction on my part to have neglected your daily schedule. This is true only according to the premise that you are supporting me. That is, however, where you are grossly in error. I am not eating by you; rather, you are eating by me!"

The baal ha'bayis immediately understood the penetrating meaning of his response. He stretched out his arms, embraced Rav Hillel and kissed him. After begging his forgiveness, he invited him into the house and personally served him a scrumptious meal.

There is a compelling lesson to be derived from this story. We look around and see many people involved in secular pursuits: working, building, creating. They seem to be the builders, developers and sustainers of the world. We see another group: people, engrossed in Torah, in what seems an interesting pastime, but surely not as consequential as the first group of "builders." We derive from the above that not all is as it seems. Without limud ha'Torah, the study of Torah, the world would be on a collision course of self-destruct. Everybody is dependent on Torah study: either by virtue of his own study or by virtue of his connection and support of those who do study. Indeed, those who study Torah are the true sustainers of the world.

Questions & Answers

1) In regard to the meraglim, why is Yosef's lineage traced to Menashe, while usually it is Efraim with whom Yosef's name is connected?

2) Why did the people turn against Moshe and Aharon, when, in fact, they claimed that it was Hashem who was against them?

3) What was Calev's purpose in silencing the people?

4) Calev received his personal share of Eretz Yisrael as reward for supporting Moshe. Why does the Torah not mention Yehoshua's reward?


1) Yosef's troubles began as a result of his speaking against his brothers. Menashe, his grandson, also spoke disparagingly about Eretz Yisrael. Efraim, whose representative was Yehoshua, did not speak ill of the land.

2) In keeping with Chazal's dictum that shlucho shel adam k'moso, a messenger of a person is considered to be as he is, Moshe and Aharon acted as Hashem's messengers. They were fair target for the people's complaints (Sforno).

3) Calev silenced the people, so that Moshe could defend himself (Sforno).

4) The Torah does not mention Yehoshua's reward since he was to become Moshe's successor. It would have been disrespectful to Moshe to mention it at this point (Ramban).


Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

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