Vaeschanan – Reality Check About Honesty

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The gemara in Rosh Hashanah 21b relates that there are 50 gates of bina, understanding, and all except for one were given to Moshe Rabbeinu, as it says “You give him dominion over Your handiwork, You placed everything under his feet” (Tehillim 8:7). Yet in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vaeschanan, when Moshe is praying and beseeching Hashem to be allowed to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe says, “My Lord, Hashem Elokim, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand… Let me now cross and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon” (Devarim 3:24-25). 
One of the lessons the Ralbag learns from these pesukim is that “it is befitting for a person to not glorify himself with his wisdom and understanding though he has attained so much of it. Rather it is better to view oneself as if one is greatly lacking, for in this way one will be quicker to beseech perfection. For don’t we see by Moshe Rabbeinu with all the power of understanding he had reached, he still considered himself very much lacking, to the point that he said he was just beginning the path of reaching perfection and for this reason he said, ‘Hashem, Elokim you have begun to show Your servant Your greatness etc.'” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 We must put into perspective the situation. Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest prophet to have ever lived. He is referred to as the father of all prophets. The levels of spirituality and knowledge of Hashem is unfathomable, and to get a glimpse of what that means one should read the obscure medrish, Medrish Kitapuach Bi’atzei Haya’ar, which depicts Moshe’s ascent through the 7 Heavens when he went up Mount Sinai. Does this mean Moshe was lying when he said he has only begun to understand Hashem and His ways?

Granted Moshe is known in the Torah as the humblest person on earth, but even so, my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Henoch Liebowitz zt”l, in a shmuz on this concept (Chiddushei Halev Bamidbar 12:3) says, ” humility is defined as recognizing one’s special advantages and strengths and therefore understanding his purpose in life, but nevertheless feeling that people are better than him. Moshe recognized all his advantages; he knew he was humble and more perfect than any other person. He also understood that his purpose in life is to be the greatest leader of the generation for the Jews, and still in all he felt that all the Jews are better than him, because they have advantages that he does not have.”

This does not sound like he is lying to himself; so why does it seem like he is lying to himself here and saying he is only beginning to know Hashem, if in fact he was really so close to Him already and on levels of wisdom and understanding that we can’t even fathom?

In fact, the Ralbag, in his first lesson on these pesukim refers to Moshe as perfect: “Those that are perfect only choose this physical existence in order to add on to their perfection. For this reason, Moshe told Hashem that the reason why he is requesting from Hashem to cross the Jordan to see the land was because Hashem had already started to show him His greatness and His mighty hand. For this reason, Moshe chose to enter the land which was known to be the choicest and most influential by Hashem, in order so that he can add perfection to his perfection and behold Hashem’s greatness and mighty hand more than what he has already seen until now. And he did not choose this in order to eat from the fruit of the land as fools have thought.” 
We see from this Ralbag that Moshe in fact recognized his perfection, that he had fulfilled his potential in the desert, but he wanted to reach higher and greater heights of the infinite levels of perfection one can attain, and that is why he desired to enter the Land of Israel. If so, then why in the very next lesson does the Ralbag depict Moshe as thinking he has just started to gain understanding of Hashem and His ways; isn’t that not true?

However, it seems clear, and if one thinks about it, it makes a lot of sense, that no matter how smart one might be, and no matter how holy or close to Hashem a person has attained, it can be levels unfathomable to the normal human mind, still in all, to truly understand Hashem Himself, His ways, intentions and infinite wisdom is so vastly impossible that in fact Moshe was telling the truth when he said he has just started learning and understanding about Hashem and His greatness.

All the more so we have to never be satisfied with our spiritual and mental growth and always strive to gain more heights and reach more levels of understanding Hashem, His ways, and doing His will.

The Negiah: The Power of a Bias

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This week’s Torah portion is Shelach, which discusses the incident of the spies. This dvar Torah is based on a shmuz given by Rav Moshe Chait zt”l, who was Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim Yerushalayim. It shows the power and extent a bias corrupts without defining what the bias of the spies was. For an explanation of the exact bias of the spies please click here and here and here for the Rosh HaYeshiva of the entire Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim network, Rav Henoch Liebwitz zt”l’s shmuz found in Majesty of Man.

A major theme in the Torah portion of Shelach is the count of the meraglim, the spies. The Mussar Giants say this is an example of great people succumbing to mistakes which appear be obvious to other people, but to the individuals involved in the matter there was some kind of negiah, bias, that distorted their deductions.

The Yalkut Shimone says that the spies were righteous. In the opening pasuk of the portion it says: “Send for you men,” “Shelach licha anashim;” and whenever the Torah says “anashim,” “men,” it is refering to righteous people.
The selection of these people were approved by both Moshe and Hashem. Nevertheless, on this pasuk Rashi says that Hashem told Moshe ‘they are being sent on your command, not Mine.’

Really, Moshe couldn’t understand the request of the Jewish people, because Hashem promised them a land flowing with milk and honey. So there was already a doubt as to whether their request was authentic or not; Hashem had assured them, so they shouldn’t have any doubt in the land.

In fact, at the end of his life, Moshe warned the people to not do like their fathers did and mess up when they were about to go into the Promise Land. Moshe reminded them, “And all of you approached me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead of us so that they will search out the land for us and bring us back word by which route we shall go up, and to which cities we shall come’” (Devarim 1:22). Rashi there says that when the Jews came to ask for the spies the younger folks were pushing the elders and the elders pushing ahead of the judges. This was a lack of courtesy which Moshe now admitted he didn’t pick up on at the time but should have noticed and rejected their request. In the next pasuk, “And the matter pleased me; so I took twelve men from you, one man for each tribe,” Moshe even admitted that he thought they had a good idea. It is hard to admit you are wrong. But “Derech Eretz Kadmah liTorah,” good manners precede the Torah; it is the beginning and ending of the Torah. A slight lack of courtesy could destroy even a sincere and devoted motivation to do something. A lack of good manners is not being so meticulous in Jewish law, halacha, in general, and specifically in character development, mussar.

As a result, while Moshe hand-picked the spies and Hashem approved, he still had his suspicions and blessed Yehoshua, as well as prayed for him, that he would be saved from the influence of these bad people.

Once in the land, “They went up in the south, and he came to Hebron” (Bamidbar 13:22), Calev only went to Chevron to pray by the tomb of our forefathers. Calev at that point was aware that there was something wrong and prayed to not be corrupted. When the spies returned to the camp Calev had to stop the people from stoning Moshe and Aharon. He had to first act like he was against Moshe and Aharon to get the Jews to listen to him and then convinced them otherwise, that they were making a bad decision in following the rest of the spies. However, with all his bravery and conscientiousness, he still had to pray to Hashem to not fall to the influence of the spies. He might have thought that when he is in the company of all the great Jewish leaders he might be great himself, but if he is acting on his own, it is hard to feel that one can overcome the danger by himself. Therefore he turned to Hashem to ask for assistance. Based on this it would seem that both Yehoshua and Calev acted by themselves, not together, as it says that for their own deeds they merited to inherit a part in The Land.

To understand the extent of the spies’ bias and how far they went in going against Moshe, we see that they came back on Tisha B’Av and they went from tent to tent crying that ‘we will never see each other again’ and ‘destruction is imminent if we enter the land.’ Then all of the Jewish people, men, women, and children started to cry. Because of this bias they could not enter the land and there was then a real reason to cry, for all generations, until the Final Redemption, may it come speedily in our days.

The lesson we see from here is that even if one knows he is doing the right thing, but everyone else is doing the wrong thing, he still might be able to fall into the evil inclination’s trap. So one cannot rely on oneself but rather should pray for Divine Help as we see that Calev left the spies, though he might have put himself in a dangerous and compromising position, in order to pray to Hashem by the tomb of our forefathers. He couldn’t pray where he was but had to go to his forefathers, as he knew Hashem would accept their prayers to save him. Yehoshua, also, had Moshe pray on his behalf so he felt a little more comfortable since Moshe prayed for him.

There are times we feel a little too confident about ourselves, at those times we must turn to Hashem to pray to Him that He removes any bias that we can give in to when making decisions, for example, yeshiva guys sometimes feel too confident that they are always in yeshiva and don’t have to worry about any outside influences but the truth is they still have to pray for Hashem’s help to not stumble. So to, everyone else in the world, with their own circumstances should always turn to Hashem for Divine Assistance in making proper judgement calls.