Thursday, June 3, 2010

Don't Listen To Them - Know Who You Are!

This article appears in the Jewish Star

Parshat Shlach

In the last verse of their statement the spies say, "And there we saw the Nefilim, the sons of the [original] giant of the Nefilim. In our own eyes we felt like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes [as well]." (13:33)

How did they know how the Nefilim viewed them?

Rashi says they heard the Nefilim saying to one another, "There are ants (N'malim) in the vineyards that look like men."

Siftei Chachamim asks, if they were like grasshoppers, why would Rashi say they were like ants?

There are a few answers to this question.

Some super-commentaries on Rashi suggest that there are always two perspectives. The smaller person always thinks he is bigger than how the bigger person perceives him, while the bigger person always views the smaller person as even smaller than the smaller person perceives himself. Think of how you view houses when you are flying over them in a plane. The house might be huge, but from the plane it is tiny.

In some Chumashim, the text of Rashi includes the word they heard the Nefilim use to describe them in the Torah, Chagavim, in parentheses next to "N'malim" (ants). As such, there are differences of opinion as to what Rashi wrote, even though the standard text has Rashi using the word for ants.

Rashi is actually quoting a passage in Sotah 35a that says the spies were looking around, and when the locals spotted them, they hid in trees. At that point they heard the Nefilim say, "We've seen men that look like 'Kamtzei' hiding in the trees." According to the Jastrow dictionary, Kamtzei might be locusts, ants or snails.

Either way, Chizkuni says when the Torah uses the word "Chagavim" (grasshoppers) it is not a direct quote of what they said, because the term "Chagavim" is used elsewhere as well to refer to small critters. (Isaiah 40:22)

Does it matter how they were perceived? Grasshoppers, ants, locusts, snails? Who cares?

No matter how we translate the term, they were quoting others who said they looked like tiny creatures. The Kotsker Rebbe calls this statement one of the spies’ greatest flaws. It is one thing to come back with a negative report. It is another thing to say you view yourself as a lowly person in comparison to others. But what gives you the right, the Kotsker asks, to give any kind of consideration to how others view you? Why do you care what they think?

This is not just a lesson in avoiding being like the Joneses.

And this is more than just a lesson in being comfortable in your own skin.

In 1971, Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman z"l wrote the following thought in an article in a Zionist publication: "I am a Jew and a Zionist. For me the two commitments are one. Furthermore, I hold this to be the position of historic Judaism...I must firmly ask [non-Jews] to respect my religious convictions as I see them and not as they see them."

In this vein, Rabbi Rackman showed complete understanding of the message the Kotsker Rebbe extracted from this tale, which is a powerful lesson in personal and Jewish identity.

On a personal level, if we are to judge ourselves by the way others see us, particularly when those others are unhappy or negative people, it will be difficult to remove ourselves from the rut we are placed in. Some people experience this when dating, some when being fired from a job - or even while in an unpleasant work environment, some in their interactions with relatives, some in not standing up for themselves when they are insulted.

Others have an attitude that says, "Nobody talks to me that way." More than that sticks and stones and names won't hurt me, we don't have to accept the negativity that comes from others. Criticism and rebuke is one thing, when offered constructively, appropriately, and in a manner that is meant to be helpful. But when it is hurtful, we need not accept it.

As far as Jewish identity, it is high time we look internally not only for those who are not Jewish not to tell us what we stand for, but even in our own ranks to be able to distinguish between what is the letter of the law and what falls into the category of "v'hamachmir tavo alav bracha" (that the personally stringent should be blessed).

There is a distinction between black, white, and gray. Halakha has a range of activities and rulings that are mainstream and acceptable. It is time for all of us to grow more tolerant, and not to impose our personal stringencies on others when they are not in violation of the law. Halakha and observance can be a beautiful lifestyle. But it was never meant to be stifling or to paint people into corners.

And acting or feeling negatively towards other Jews who subscribe to your lifestyle is completely out of place. What gives you the right?

p.s. Everyone is talking about the flotilla sent to Gaza by the Turkish government. There are many parallels between the story of this flotilla, all the bad PR that resulted from it, and even the lesson developed above (which was actually written before the events transpired earlier this week). My sermon this shabbos talks more about this subject.

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