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LIGHTING A FIRE

by Rabbi Yossi Lew    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

It was a journey long in the planning. Finally the rabbi was able to get away from his many obligations and commitments to visit his star pupil, who was himself a rabbi.

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It was a journey long in the planning. Finally the rabbi was able to get away from his many obligations and commitments to visit his star pupil, who was himself a rabbi. After spending some time, the rabbi observed that the religious devotion and commitment of his student was quite impressive. "It is interesting," commented the rabbi, "that you are able to maintain a high level of piety just like the old days, although the environment where you presently live is not exactly conducive to your spiritual lifestyle." Flattered, the student exclaimed, "You have taught me well. I learned from you how to immerse myself into my Torah studies and prayers which keep me in the warmth and spirit of our holy religion. All activities contrary to piety do not phase me." The rabbi, though, had noticed the way the student had secluded himself. He said, "When it is very cold, there are two ways to become warm. One is by putting on a coat; the other is by lighting a fire. The difference is that the coat warms only the person wearing it, while the warmth of the fire benefits everyone that comes near."

In this week's portion, the Torah relates how Moses sent spies to scout out the land of Israel. Moses was well aware of the colossal importance and responsibility of this task, and it comes as no surprise that he sent the best men he had. In the words of the Torah, "All of them men [of distinction and honor], heads of the Children of Israel" (Numbers 13:3). Upon their return, however, the spies led the Jewish people on a calculated campaign of denial regarding their ability to conquer the land. This catastrophic result could hardly have been expected from such honorable people. What makes this even more dumbfounding is the impact that they had on the nation. What happened to their faith in Hashem? They had personally experienced and witnessed such awesome divine miracles. As a matter of fact, they had eaten bread from heaven on that very day, washed down with water drawn from a traveling miraculous well in the desert!

Indeed, the issue was not lack of the nation's belief. To the contrary, it was precisely their piety and devotion, as well as their keen understanding of the responsibilities attached to the holy land of Israel, which led to their downfall. In the desert, food and water were miraculously supplied to them; even their clothing was preserved in a miraculous manner. This was the ideal setting for a perfect protected life of religious devotion with no earthly concerns to disrupt it. Contrast this to entering a land of their own. Here, in addition to not being furnished with a daily supply of miraculous provisions, they would have to busy themselves tending the land and being exposed to its many distractions. They were concerned that as the miraculous divine provisions and protections ceased, their uncompromising devotion would be jeopardized since they would be unable to confront all of the challenges on their own. That is why they said that the land of Israel was "a land that eats its inhabitants" (Numbers 13:32), implying that they would be "consumed" by the continued necessary involvement with "the land".

This was their mistake. The Torah was not given to angels who exist in an unchallenged atmosphere. It was given to human beings to serve Hashem while living in a physical world, challenged by an often hostile environment. Experiencing the "ideal situation" in the desert was a temporary state, bridging the gap between Egypt and Israel. Since they rebelled and were not ready to confront the challenges of the world, the nation had to spend the next forty years in the desert with the divine provisions, and their generation perished there. Their children entered the land instead.

There is an important lesson here. It is easy to insulate oneself from worldly influences that may be considered dangerous or corrupting, but it is not responsible behavior; that is simple protectionism. We must realize that as individuals we are a part of a larger community and are therefore responsible for each other. Of course we must first help ourselves by being properly educated and prepared. We must also make a determined resolution to remain connected with Hashem and the Torah, but we must not fear leaving a comfortable environment for a world that sometimes seems hostile. The challenges of a new situation usually draw out a level of determination one never knew he had. Simply, it means thinking about others by building a fire instead of putting on a coat.

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Rabbi Yossi Lew is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Tefilah, youth coordinator at Chabad of Georgia, and a teacher at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy Middle School.

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