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The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. This week’s d’var Torah is in honor of the forthcoming marriage of Tzvi and Gratzia Atkin and the marriage of Josh and Tani Rossman.

   Shelach lecha anashim. Rashi quotes Tanchuma that the story of the meraglim is juxtaposed to Miriam because the spies saw how Miriam was punished for slandering her brother yet did not learn from her transgression. What exactly was Miriam’s sin and how does it relate to the spies?


The Torah tells us to recall what happened to Miriam baderech b’tzeyschem miMitzrayim. The Torah is emphasizing that Moshe, the greatest prophet, had a unique relationship with Hashem and only he could have been appointed to speak on behalf of Hashem and taken us out of Egypt. Moshe was an indispensable part of the redemption process. We single out Moshe from the rest of the prophets. He was the father and greatest of all prophets, without equal or comparison. Even though they were poised to enter Eretz Yisrael, Miriam and Aharon overlooked the segula quality, the indispensable treasure aspect that distinguished Moshe. Miriam’s sin was overlooking the words lo kayn avdi Moshe. Miriam’s error in denying the uniqueness of Moshe was so great that it was incorporated by Rambam among the 13 fundamental principles of our faith.

While Moshe was the most unique prophet, he was also alone. As the segula prophet, no one could share his experiences. He had to separate from his wife, children and family. Here we find the cornerstone of Judaism: the idea of bechira. We believe that we are an am hanivchar, a chosen people, an am segula, a treasured people. Just as Moshe was unique and separate from all other prophets, the Jewish nation is unique and alone among nations. Anyone who denies bechira in general, and of Moshe or Israel in particular, denies Judaism.

Let us now turn to the puzzling episode of the meraglim. Why did Moshe send them? How did their actions diverge from their mission and result in such a harsh punishment? The Torah does not refer to their mission as rigul, spying, but rather latur, to follow. Rigul means to seek out the weak spots of a potential enemy. The spy collects strategic military information. They were charged with latur, simply exploring the land and reporting on a few characteristics: population, climate and farming conditions. The requested report was almost devoid of intelligence data. Moshe knew that their entry to the land depended on miracles anyway, so why did he send them? After all, they left Egypt without intelligence data either.

Moshe acted according to the halacha that one may not betroth a woman until he sees her, no matter how highly recommended she comes. The precedent is the story of Isaac, who did not take Rivka for a wife immediately. Before consummating the marriage, he brought her into the tent of Sarah. Is she a worthy successor? Will she restore the blessings that were present in Sarah’s tent? Rashi says Isaac married her after he was convinced that Rivka was a worthy successor to Sarah. Why didn’t Isaac trust Eliezer’s report about Rivka? Because marriage is not simply an ordinary transaction, a civil commitment or mundane partnership. It is an existential commitment, a covenant between two lonely people uniting souls and destinies to travel the same road together. In order to make such a commitment, man and woman must know each other. Therefore, firsthand knowledge was required and Isaac could not rely on Eliezer, no matter how loyal he was.

The Jews, with Moshe in the lead, were ready to conquer Eretz Yisrael. Entering the land was not simply the act of crossing the river or climbing hills. To Moshe it represented the marriage of people and land. It was the union of a people returning after centuries in exile with the rocky hills and sandy trails traveled by the patriarchs. Land and people were to be fused into one single existence with a common destiny, forever sharing victory and defeat. As Chazal say “kidsha (the term associated with betrothing a woman) l’shata v’kidsha leasid lavo,” an eternal marriage was to be consummated. They knew that it was a land of milk and honey but they had to experience it. The groom could not enter the marriage and unite destinies without getting to know the bride, the land, intimately. So, Moshe sent them to get acquainted with a land they were going to unite destinies with forever.

Why was it necessary for Moshe to instruct them as to their route, to go up through the Negev and up the mountain? They would have found the road on their own. We have to go back to Parshas VaYeshev to understand this.

Jacob sent Joseph from the valley of Hebron to check on his brothers. Rashi notes: Hebron is not in a valley it is on a plateau! Rashi saw in the word emek great symbolism. Valley here refers to the bris bayn habesarim and Patriarch Abraham. In a valley one is surrounded by mountains with a very limited field of vision. A person standing on top of a mountain has an expansive view. Rashi deduces from emek Chevron that Jacob accompanied Joseph down the hill and into the depression. He didn’t just send Joseph, he accompanied him along the way. When he came into the valley, Jacob bade Joseph farewell and sent him to his brothers in Shechem.

The hashgacha demanded that Jacob accompany Joseph, down to the valley. Jacob was completely unaware of the consequences of this mission. He descended from the mountain where he enjoyed clear vision, Ruach HaKodesh, to the valley where his vision became obscured. Jacob, with his decisive intuition intact, never would have sent Joseph to his brothers who he knew hated Joseph. Jacob did not realize he would lose Joseph for 22 years. The exile to Egypt began the moment he kissed Joseph goodbye and sent him to Shechem. Joseph was not being sent to Shechem, rather he was the first exile to depart Eretz Yisrael for Egypt. Jacob was the next.

Moshe told the 12 explorers to ascend from the south, to climb the same mountain where the covenant that united people and land was forged. Jacob precipitated the process of separating clan and land when he escorted Joseph down the mountain and sent him to see his brothers. Now Moshe was poised to reverse that and reunite them. He instructed them to climb the same mountain Jacob descended and survey the land. He thought that our generation will finally fulfill the promise made so many years ago. With one look, we will embrace the entire grandeur of the land and lay the foundation for our eternal relationship with it. From now on, we will suffer with the land when it feels the distress of foreign occupation, and the land will suffer with us in our times of pain and exile. Hashem, revealed to the patriarchs as Shakay, the G-d of potential, will now be revealed as the G-d of actualization, with the fulfillment of His promise.

The most outstanding quality of the land according to Chazal is that the Shechina dwells there. The task of the Jewish people is to be a nation of prophets. This can only happen in Eretz Yisrael. Moshe told the explorers to appreciate the union between the indispensable land that is a segula, with the indispensable people who are segula. This required first hand contact with the land, like the groom meeting his future bride. They will see and report that the land is worthy of our sacrifices, our longings and hopes, and the union is desirable.

The majority of the spies did not show interest to enter Hebron. They certainly did not go up the mountain that Jacob descended from. They missed the grandeur as seen from the top of the mountain. They did not understand the segula of the land or the people. If the land is dispensable, so are the people. To them, it was just a land. They never reported back to Moshe’s charge “U’riysem es ha’aretz ma he,” is it worthy of an eternal union with the people or not? Only Joshua and Caleb said that the land is worthy of us joining her in an insoluble union. We have no other land, our destinies are linked. That is why Tanchuma said the spies should have learned from Miriam. As she overlooked the segula element of Moshe, they ignored the segula of the land and they were both severely punished.

Segula appears in Judaism in situations where we prioritize. For example, Torah, Moshe, Moshiach, Am Yisrael, Shabbos, malchus beis Dovid have the element of segula. The prototypical definition of segula, as Rambam repeats many times, is Hashem, who is not only One, but He is the only One, singular. This is the great mystery of faith, of Ehye asher Ehye. On the one hand, Hashem is the origin of everything. Whatever exists is embraced by and exists with Hashem in the heart of eternity. There is unity between creation and creator. On the other hand, Hashem is alone, different in the ultimate sense from creation. Hashem not only created and sustains the world, He also negates the world. He is exclusive, a Yachid. If there is being, it is only the true being of the Almighty. No one can imitate Hashem or say that he shares in divinity. Consequently, our existence is a dreamy illusion, kachalom ya’uf.

Hashem supports the world and is close to it. On the other hand, Hashem is Yachid, only He exists. When the finite being comes close to Hashem, infinity, he ceases to exist. The paradox is that even though Hashem is the ultimate Echad, as the Zohar says “Kulo kman dlaysa dami,” from the standpoint of Hashem the world is as if it never existed, there is communication with man in this world.

Man, created in the image of Hashem, has a dialectic existence. He is part of the universal order and also a segula, an individual. Man may be compared with other creatures, but at the same time man remains an outsider with nothing in common with nature. He is at times both part of and in confrontation with the universal order. Man is commanded to practice chesed, to tear down the barriers separating the egocentric individual from his fellowman. On the other hand, man is also urged to guard his uniqueness. Man exists in two spheres. If man lives only in r’shus hayachid, his private domain, he becomes a self-absorbed egotist. If he lives only in the r’shus harabim, public domain, he loses his originality and inspiration, his segula element, and becomes an imitator.

In Judaism, leadership and heroism is measured by the leader’s willingness to suffer for the community. Moshe was prepared to sacrifice himself at the Golden Calf episode when he said “mecheyni na.” His life was public, open to all. He personified the hopes and dreams of the community. He suffered with them and rejoiced with them.

However, there was a lonely, unique segula element to Moshe that could not be shared with others. He had no peer with which to share his hopes and feelings. Moshe was two people, one in r’shus harabim and another in r’shus hayachid. In the former, he merged with the people. In the latter, he could communicate only with Hashem, in the Ohel Moed he erected outside the encampment.

Wherever the segula element is present we cannot rationalize events. For example, our faithfulness and attachment to Eretz Yisrael is incomprehensible. There is an element of the frighteningly strange, of the hidden and ineffable in the segula charisma. Why were we selected as the Chosen People? Why was Eretz Yisrael selected as our land and endowed with unique qualities? Why should we live in exile for so many years? When segula is revealed, such as Am Segula, Eretz Segula, Moshe Segula, enigma and mystery prevail. Segula must be accepted as an act of faith. We derive this from the episodes of Miriam and the spies.

The end of the parsha confirms this idea. A fringe of blue, t’cheyles, is included among the white strands of tzitzis. White symbolizes that which is plain and readily grasped by human understanding. It represents clarity and truth. Blue is indicative of the mysterious, boundless distance. Chazal said that t’cheyles is similar to the sea and the sea is similar to the heavens, which are similar to the heavenly throne. It represents what is remote from our reach, the segula quality. The paradoxical unfolding of our destiny is symbolized by t’cheyles.

The Jew is expected to focus on the white. The Torah encourages man to explore the phenomena of nature and science, to unite with Hashem where permitted and possible. However, man must realize that there are things, like Hashem, Moshe and Eretz Yisrael, that will always remain an enigmatic segula, distant and strange, remote as the sky and beyond our grasp. Our mission is to simultaneously view our faith in Hashem through lavan and t’cheyles: U’riysem oso u’zchartem es kol mitzvos Hashem.


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Rabbi Joshua Rapps attended the Rav's shiur at RIETS from 1977 through 1981 and is a musmach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan. He and his wife Tzipporah live in Edison, N.J. Rabbi Rapps can be contacted at [email protected].