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COOL COALS

by Rabbi Elie Cohen    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

At the beginning of the second of this week’s Torah portions, Parshat Masei, the Torah presents a list of the places where the Jewish people camped during their stay in the wilderness.

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At the beginning of the second of this week’s Torah portions, Parshat Masei, the Torah presents a list of the places where the Jewish people camped during their stay in the wilderness. Listed among their journeys, we are told, "They traveled from Chatzeirot and they encamped in Ritmah" (Numbers 33:18). Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, points out that the name Ritmah actually alludes to an event which occurred in that place, the evil report of ten of the twelve spies sent to spy out the land of Israel. Ritmah, Rashi explains, shares its root with a word used in Psalms to describe slander: "Hashem, rescue my soul from the lips of falsehood, from the tongue of deceit. What does it give to you and what does it add to you this tongue of deceit? It is like the sharpened arrows of a warrior with the coals of broom-wood (retamim)" (Psalms 120:2-4). Since the verse compares slander to retamim (broom-wood), suggests Rashi, the name Ritmah hints to the spies’ sin of lashon harah, slander against the land of Israel.

At first glance, this interpretation of Rashi seems difficult to understand. Even within the verse in Psalms, the main point apparently is to compare the harmful words of slander to hot coals! The fact that the coals are from broom-wood seems to be a minor, perhaps even insignificant detail! Why, then, would the Torah choose such an indirect reference to slander to allude to this historical event of the spies slandering the Holy Land?

Examining Rashi’s commentary to the verse in Psalms, however, helps us find a solution. Rashi points out that coals of broom-wood are unlike any other coals. Most coals, once they have extinguished and cooled down from the outside, lose all of their heat and are snuffed out internally as well. Coals of broom-wood, on the other hand, can sometimes be extinguished on the outside, yet maintain a significant degree of heat on the inside.

Of what relevance does this have to the spies? It is simple. A cursory glance at the section of the spies leaves us stunned. According to Rashi, Moses had to offer a special prayer to save Joshua from the evil council of the spies, even though Joshua was so great that he would eventually become the next leader of the Jewish people. The other spy who successfully avoided the pitfalls of the group’s bad report was Caleb, Moses’ brother-in-law (Miriam’s husband), and he succeeded only because he prostrated himself in Chevron upon the graves of the forefathers, praying to Hashem that he not be convinced to follow the other spies. When the ten spies finally give their negative report, some of the greatest scholars lose faith in Moses. How could all this happen?

Even without fully delving into the nature of the spies’ slander, we can make one conclusion. Their words were logical, convincing, and did not appear sinful. Perhaps this is the meaning of the name Ritmah "coals of broom-wood." Their words appeared to be "extinguished" harmless on the outside, but within them were burning dangerous ideas. In fact, this is not a minor detail. It encapsulates for us the very secret of their slander.

Let us all heed to the Psalms’ immortal words regarding slander, "What does it give to you?" Instead let us embrace the words of the Torah, about which it states in the book of Jeremiah (23:29), "‘Behold, are My words not like fire?’ says Hashem."

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Rabbi Elie Cohen, who hails from Atlanta, is an educator at the Columbus Torah Academy in Ohio.

You are invited to read more Parshat Mattot & Masei articles.

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