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PROJECT ETIQUETTE

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In this week's Torah portion Moses rebukes the Jewish people for their participation in the tragic sin of the spies. Because they took the bad report about the Land of Israel seriously, and since they cried upon hearing the false and exaggerated account, they were forced to wander in the desert for 38 years until the generation of the Exodus had died out completely.

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In this week's Torah portion Moses rebukes the Jewish people for their participation in the tragic sin of the spies. Because they took the bad report about the Land of Israel seriously, and since they cried upon hearing the false and exaggerated account, they were forced to wander in the desert for 38 years until the generation of the Exodus had died out completely. However, our rabbis teach us that the punishment did not end there. Since the Jewish people cried for no good reason, Hashem responded in perfect parental fashion that He would give them a good reason to cry, one that would last for generations. And in fact we have been crying on that same date for more than two thousand years as both Temples were destroyed on the anniversary of the spies' return, Tisha B'av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av), which we will be mourning this Saturday night and Sunday.

In repeating the story of the spies to the people in our Torah portion, Moses elaborates on various aspects of the sin which were not articulated as clearly in the Torah's first depiction of the events in Parshat Shelach. Many important details and lessons can be uncovered by carefully comparing this second telling of the story with the first. The opening verse of Moses' narration states, "And all of you approached me and said, 'Let us send men ahead of us and let them spy out the Land. . .'" (Deuteronomy 1:22). The way in which Moses describes the people's initiation of the episode sounds a little strange. Why did he find it necessary to mention that "all of you approached me" -- that detail does not appear to be relevant. This is supposed to be a rebuke of the people for their participation in the sin of the spies. What is negative about the fact that "all" of the people had requested that the spies be sent?

Rashi, the great 11th century French commentator, explains that Moses was making reference to the fact that when the people originally asked him to send the spies, they had done so without displaying the requisite derech eretz (proper manners). The entire nation had approached Moses, all of them together, in a disorderly and altogether inappropriate manner, with the children pushing the adults aside, while the adults themselves pushed the leaders out of the way. Moses was therefore rebuking them for their lack of derech eretz.

However this explanation raises a much more fundamental question. At first glance this problem of respect seems to be so minor when juxtaposed with the devastating sin that they committed by listening to the spies' bad report. What sounds worse? Not believing in Hashem's ability to help the Jewish people conquer the Land and thereby refuting one of the Torah's fundamental precepts, or simply not showing proper respect to their elders in one isolated incident?

Rabbi Yitzchak of Volozhin, a Rosh Yeshiva (dean) of the 19th century Lithuanian Yeshiva of Volozhin, answers that their lack of derech eretz was not a separate problem, but rather it was directly related to the sin of the spies. He explains that the Jewish people could have reasoned that their sin was solely the fault of the evil spies and their slanderous claims about the Land of Israel. They could have claimed that had the spies returned with a positive report about the Land, everything would have turned out fine. However Moses taught them that just the opposite was true. Beginning the entire process in an inappropriate manner set a negative tone which lasted through-out the episode of the spies. By not displaying proper respect at the outset, the Children of Israel showed that their intentions were not in the right place. Moses was therefore teaching us that it is absolutely necessary to begin every project with derech eretz; that is the only way to ensure that the entire undertaking will be successful.

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Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, will be attending Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore this Fall.

You are invited to read more Parshat Devarim articles.

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