Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Now is a difficult time for a people that strives to hold on to a value system and remain focused on what is real and true.
Decency is under constant assault. Refinement and humility are seen as signs of weakness.
We live in an era when hubris is praised and cherished. People seek to cultivate tough-guy images to earn respect. The one who can best embarrass weaker people gains in popularity.
Character assassination and defamation have become an industry. Cynicism and negativity are in vogue, forcing good people to cower and refrain from involving themselves in public life.
In an election campaign, candidates invariably endeavor to churn out stories that arouse viewer emotions and distract them from real issues of substance. Candidates and their handlers attempt to push the real issues to the back of the public psyche, as anger, scorn and pessimism run amok. Accomplishments don’t always count. Nor does character. All is fair in political war. People engage in actions that are beneath them in order to usurp power. That’s just how it is.
Observers are sullied, making them smaller people.
Witness the current circus in Washington, as one party seeks to overcome its loss by targeting the president for destruction with baseless allegations combined with hearings and investigations into a contrived scandal that never happened. The media drills the narratives day after day, seeking to convince the populace of sarcastic lies and conspiracies to accomplish through deceit and propaganda what couldn’t be achieved at the ballot box.
The Torah remains the island of eternal and everlasting wisdom and truth. In its refreshing waters, we find life, a new connection with who we are and what we are meant to be doing. The parshas hashovua provides us with the perspective of what makes a leader.
The Chazon Ish would say that Klal Yisroel has a “chush harei’ach” for gedolim, an ability to sense who is a gadol baTorah and then to follow him. Our nation gravitates to quiet, righteous talmidei chachomim who seek anonymity and want nothing more than to be able to study and teach Torah, yet they welcome people who seek them out for answers to their questions as well as advice and brachos.
In this week’s parsha, we are introduced to the meraglim, the sad tale of great men who went astray, taking many of the Jewish people with them, causing an extended stay in the desert as well as our golus. Anoshim, the Torah calls them, and Rashi says that this means that they were great people. Leaders, visionaries, people of stature and respect. How did they all fall so rapidly? What caused them to go wrong in their mission?
The answer is found in the words of Chazal: “Lomo nismecha parshas meraglim leparshas Miriam?” The answer is that although Miriam had sinned and been reprimanded, these wicked people witnessed the incident and took no lesson from it.
Let us examine the sin of Miriam. At the end of last week’s parsha, we learn that Miriam spoke against her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu, and impugned his motives for something he had done that she didn’t agree with.
The Torah testifies in his defense, “Veha’ish Moshe onov me’od mikol ho’odom asher al p’nei ho’adamah – Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any other person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3).
To respond to the aspersions on Moshe’s character, the Torah doesn’t say that Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest leader who ever lived. It doesn’t say that he was the teacher of all of Klal Yisroel for eternity. It doesn’t discuss the dinei Torah he ruled on and the halachos he taught. It doesn’t say that he was an Ish Elokim, who was chosen to deliver Hashem’s Torah. It doesn’t say that he performed open miracles and that he was a baal mofeis.
Hakadosh Boruch Hu didn’t recount Moshe’s extraordinary birth and history. In order to refute what Miriam said about him, the Torah simply states that Moshe was the ultimate onov.
Apparently, the middah of anovah encompasses all else. The attribute of humility includes all others. Thus, the statement that Moshe was the consummate onov was the most effective answer to her lashon hora.
An onov recognizes his place in the world and his responsibility in life. An onov knows mah chovaso ba’olamo. He knows and recognizes what is incumbent upon him in every situation. He seeks not his own glory.
His decisions and actions are pure. It is never about him, but about what he can do for others.
Thus, the answer to Miriam was: “How can you doubt his motivations? He is an onov.”
When Hillel was asked to encapsulate the entire Torah in a single sentence, he chose the following answer. “De’alach senei, lechavroch lo sa’avid – What you would not want done to you, don’t do to others” (Shabbos 31).
Although that mandate, lofty as it may be, addresses the many laws that have no connection with interpersonal relationships, a person who lives according to the Shulchan Aruch knows that life is about giving, not about taking, pleasure and relaxation. A person who isn’t addicted to self-satisfaction is able to notice others and their needs.
Ehrliche Yidden have space in their heart and mind for other people, to listen and care and feel, because they don’t ask what man wants. They know what Hashem wants from them and they know that He desires that they act kindly with His children. Their hearts are large enough to encompass others. It’s not all about them.
The onov doesn’t see himself as being above other people. The greater the person is, the smarter he is and the more he knows and accomplishes, the more reason for him to be humble. The more he learns, the more he sees there is to know. The smarter he is, the more he realizes that there is so much he doesn’t understand. The closer he is to Hashem, the more he comprehends that all that he has – his life, his money, his wife, his children, his intelligence and everything else – is a gift from Hashem.
Hashem detests haughty people (Mishlei 16:5). The humble person doesn’t permit personal interests to interfere in his actions. He pursues the truth. Hubris is antithetical to growth in Torah. One who is consumed with himself will encounter difficulties during his studying. His attempts to resolve his questions will be tainted by his need to justify his original interpretation.
People hamstrung by ga’avah are unable to properly fulfill their obligations as good Jews and realize their missions in life.
Torah leaders don’t demand honor and respect. They are focused on Torah and mitzvos. We recognize their greatness and force honor upon them.
The greater the person, the humbler he is. The more gadlus he has, the bigger an onov he is.
Hashem’s answer to Miriam was meant to impart this message. An onov has a cheshbon and it’s never about him. He doesn’t live for himself. He lives for others, to accomplish for the greater good and to serve Hashem. Don’t doubt the purity of his motives, for he is humble.
The meraglim may have been great men, but they were consumed by gaavah. They were blinded in their judgment, because instead of considering the greater good, their decisions were based upon personal considerations. Fearing that they would be replaced when the people would enter the Promised Land, they looked at everything differently.
Therefore, wherever they went in Eretz Yisroel, Yehoshua and Kaleiv, true anovim, saw opportunity, while the others saw danger. Where the anovim saw blessing, the meraglim saw curses. Where the anovim saw the Yad Hashem, the meraglim couldn’t see past perceived impenetrable walls and invincible giants.
Had they learned the lesson of Miriam, they would have developed humility and seen things clearly, appreciating the value of the gift they were being given.
The meraglim suffered from the same deficiency as Korach, about whom we read in next week’s parsha. He complained that Moshe took the top jobs for himself and his family and passed on him. Korach was seemingly qualified. He was a known tzaddik and baal ruach hakodesh. It wasn’t without reason that many leaders of the Bnei Yisroel in the desert joined his cause.
But Korach suffered from a fatal flaw. He wanted a leadership position and fought for it. Someone who seeks the position does so because of conceit, as he is handicapped by his negiah, or interest, in kavod. He doesn’t seek to benefit the community, but rather to satisfy his own urges. Such a person is not worthy of leadership (see Mesillas Yeshorim, chapter 11, and the Steipler in Kraina D’igarta).
The meraglim were led astray because they didn’t learn the need to be humble from Miriam’s incident. Every one of us in our daily lives needs to remember that lesson. We have to inculcate humility and adopt its middah as our calling card. When confronted by others, when presented with a challenge, we have to remove our own self-interest from the equation and determine how to proceed based on the lessons of this week’s parsha and the previous one.
The greatest teachers of Torah are the most cognizant of the needs of those around them, because living in concert with Torah means being disciplined, above self-satisfaction, and thus more capable and attuned to others.
During my recent visit to Eretz Yisroel, I met Rabbi and Mrs. Yehoshua Tzivyon at the home of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Mrs. Tzivyon’s father. They presented me with a fascinating book she wrote about her mother, Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, at her father’s urging.
Mrs. Tzivyon writes that on Friday nights in Yerushalayim, her grandfather, Rav Aryeh Levine, would visit Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, who was his rebbi when he learned in Slutzk. They would speak in learning and reminisce about life back in Lita.
One week, there was a frantic knock at the door of Rav Aryeh’s home very late at night. It was Rebbetzin Meltzer. “Please,” she implored Rav Aryeh, “you must come back and reassure my husband. He’s inconsolable. He is so upset. From the conversation tonight, he deduced that you suffered from hunger when you were in yeshiva. He is distressed that he taught you Torah yet didn’t see your hunger. I beg you, Rav Aryeh, to join me and calm him down.”
Rav Aryeh returned to his rebbi to assure him that all was well. Only then was Rav Isser Zalman able to go to sleep.
Our great leaders minimize their own needs while maximizing those of other people. Humility creates the ability to see clearly. The great gaon and rosh yeshiva was inconsolable about something that may have happened decades prior to a young man under his watch.
There was a talented young person who worked for a short while for an organization under the direction of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach. Although he was not fired, the person sensed correctly that his work wasn’t appreciated and he quit. A few weeks later, he was summoned to a meeting with the rosh yeshiva. He arrived at the appointed time with much trepidation. He expected a strong shmuess from the leader of the yeshiva world, a lecture about where he had gone wrong.
He walked into the room and Rav Shach beamed at him and asked him to sit. Rav Shach immediately put him at ease. “Yungerman, I asked you to come because I wanted to know what kind of work you’re doing now.”
The young man told Rav Shach about his new job.
“How much do you get paid? How many children do you have? How much do you need to make ends meet each month?”
Rav Shach fired questions at his guest until he was satisfied. He then smiled broadly. “Good. I wanted to make sure that you have a proper parnossah.”
We are enjoined to remember the story of Miriam. When we analyze it, we note a side lesson as well, not just how to speak properly, but also how valuable and cherished every person is.
Miriam was punished for speaking lashon hora. She was afflicted with tzora’as and forced into seclusion. Yet, the Torah reports that the nation didn’t continue on their sojourn through the desert until Miriam was healed. Why the need to keep everyone waiting and why the need to record it for all time? It was to show that even though Miriam sinned, Hashem still loved her.
Often, people who err and slip lose their self-worth, feeling as though their indiscretion will somehow doom them. They become broken, sure that Hashem will turn on them because they did an aveirah. Sometimes, one small aveirah sets a person on a downward spiral, ending with a painful crash at the bottom of a deep pit.
The Torah reports that Am Yisroel waited in the desert for Miriam for several days in order to dispel that notion. We love the person who has fallen, and we stand by, ready to pick them up. The Torah is admonishing us not to give up on ourselves and not to give up on others, even though they have sinned. Miriam Haneviah spoke ill of her brother, transgressing the laws of lashon hora, and was punished for doing so, but she didn’t lose favor in the eyes of Hashem. She was welcomed back into Hashem’s embrace and into the embrace of Am Yisroel.
Perhaps when we fulfill the“zechirah” of ma’aseh Miriam, we focus on this as well: Every Yid is worth waiting for. Every yochid is valuable to the klal.
We all make mistakes and we all sin, but let no one permit that fact to interfere with their obligations in avodas Hashem. An onov does not look down at another person, for he sees himself as no better than the one who sinned. We must react with anovah to what we perceive as transgressions of others. We must look to find the good in others. We must work on our middos so that we adopt the middah of anovah.
When dealing with and judging others, we should embody the teachings of Moshe as the onov mikol odom. Epitomizing anovah will also fulfill the dictum of the novi Michah (6:8): “He has said to you, what is Hashem’s definition of good, and what does Hashem demand from you, but only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk with humility with your G-d.”
In a world conflated with fake news, even stories grounded in fact are fake, because truth isn’t found in an atmosphere of falsehood. We seek the truth, and along with it comes growth in Torah, kindness, humility, and every good middah.
Humility and acting justly, with honesty and loving-kindness, are outgrowths of walking with Hashem, as should be the desire and ambition of every frum person. If we would tread this path, there would be so much love, achdus and shalom in the world. There would be an abundance of kindness, justice and goodness, and Moshiach will be sent to end the golus.
May it come to pass speedily in our time. Amen.