The Challenge of Change


naphtali-hoffBy Rabbi Naphtali Hoff

Parshas Shelach introduces us to the meraglim, the twelve spies who were sent into Eretz Yisrael and charged to report back about the land and its populace. These men, all leaders of personal distinction (see Rashi to Bamidbar 13:2), returned from their forty-day whirlwind trip with a slanderous report about the Promised Land, claiming that we would be unable to capture it, even with Hashem’s help and protection. It was a doomsday report that the Jewish people widely accepted, despite the many open miracles which Hashem had continuously wrought on their collective behalf, from well before the Exodus until that time.

Of course, this was far from the Jews’ only lapse in basic faith. A few months prior, Bnei Yisrael were forced to wage war against Amalek, a struggle which chazal pinned on a lacking in their basic emunah. Soon thereafter, they participated in (or at least tolerated) the eigel hazahav, one of the most tragic and far-reaching incidents in our long, storied history. In this case, lack of trust in Moshe as Hashem’s true messenger was clearly evident. Later, Bnei Yisrael displayed a strong propensity towards complaining rather than trusting, even about such petty matters as their cuisine.

All of this begs the obvious question. How it is that the Jewish people could have witnessed all of the great miracles of this period and still have committed these many numerous transgressions? Why were they unable to internalize the clear messages of Divine Providence that had been presented to them and avoid such basic failings?

There are a number of answers to this question. One is that true, sustainable faith does not emerge from open miracles. In fact, the exact opposite is true (see Rambam, Yesodei Hatorah 8:2). The constant use of miracles implies that the necessary conditions for a natural, enduring divine presence are absent, that Hashem must assert Himself in this world in order to be recognized. In contrast, real, genuine belief emerges from a deep sense of care for a personal relationship with Hashem, a desire to connect with Him out of pure love, not due to his overwhelming power or open presence.

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zatzal (see Sichos Mussar, 5733, pp.47ff), similarly maintained that miracles alone do not intrinsically transform people into loftier, nobler individuals.

In support, R’ Chaim cited the famous Mechilta, which states that maidservants witnessed more during the experience of kriyas Yam Suf than did many later neviim during their entire careers. Rav Chaim took special note of the fact that they were referred to as “maidservants” even after their great experience, one in which they could directly point to and identify Hashem. He explained that the reason for this designation stemmed from the fact that they remained as maidservants, on the lowest spiritual stratum, despite all that they had observed, and did not achieve a recognizably higher level of inspiration or commitment. Indeed, this problem existed for the nation as a whole, which permitted them to perform these sinful acts despite the many miracles that they had witnessed firsthand.

A person can experience the most inspiring event, but if it does not lead him to elevate his behavior, it is of little consequence. It is not enough to know what is correct. Rather, one must take that information and internalize it, making it part of their character and actions. Only then has he truly achieved the desired objective as described in the posuk that we recite thrice daily in Aleinu, “You are to know this day and return it to your heart that Hashem is the only Hashem, in heaven above and on the earth below. There is none other.” (Devarim 4:39).

If we are inspired to make significant changes in our lives, it is necessary to remove such thoughts from the realm of the conceptual and concretize them, by taking meaningful steps towards achieving them. Otherwise, the inspiration will quickly dissipate. And while this is true for all behavioral changes, it is certainly the case with regards to spiritual matters, as detailed by Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, zatzal, in Mesillas Yesharim.

It is obvious that a person does not concern himself with what does not occupy a place in his mind… For sentiments of saintliness, fear and love of Hashem, and purity of heart are not so deeply rooted within a person… In this respect they differ from natural states such as sleep, hunger… and all other reactions which are stamped into one’s nature… There is no lack of deterrents which keep saintliness at a distance from a person.

Yet another approach relates to the brief duration associated with this entire chain of events. As with many things in life, spiritual transformations take time, at least if they are to become ingrained on a more permanent level. Despite their supernatural experiences and elevated status within the Jewish community, the meraglim were still merely weeks removed from a lifetime of physical and spiritual servitude in Egypt. Sufficient time had not elapsed for them to integrate what they had witnessed into perfection of character. In a time of intense stress (the Zohar tells us, these “heads of Bnei Yisrael” (Bamidbar 13:3) were concerned over losing their positions of importance upon arriving in Eretz Yisrael), their latent shortcomings surfaced. Had they undergone more rigorous training over a longer period of time, perhaps they could have overcome their inherent personality flaws.

In order for change to be both positive and meaningful, it must be driven by true sincerity, and must also be given the time to grow and develop, so that its primary agents can themselves internalize all that it requires, for the collective benefit of the nation.

Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and president of Impactful Coaching and Consulting ( He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at

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