Weekly Torah Portion: Shlach (Numbers 13-15) Beauty and the Yeast

Imagine getting a phone call from your a beloved aunt who tells you she is sending a gift. When it arrives, you call the bomb squad to make sure it is safe. This scenario seems absurd but something even more ludicrous happened to the Jews while they were traveling in the desert. They sent twelve spies, on a reconnaissance mission to check out the Land of Israel, but not ordinary spies; each one was a tribal leader. G-d, the One who liberated them from the most powerful and secure nation at that time and protected them during their desert sojourn, told them He was going to gift them a luscious land that would become their homeland. If it seems absurd to be suspicious of the gift your beloved aunt sent, it is even more absurd to suspect G-d concerning the land He was going to give to them. Merely suspecting G-d was wrong but when they came back from their reconnaissance mission with a negative report and stated that it was not wise to proceed–and the Israelites believed them, they had gone too far and the entire generation never made it to Israel. The people should have realized that the same G-d that altered the laws of nature for them would also make it possible for them to enter the Land of Israel. How is it that the same people who had witnessed 10 plagues, the splitting of the sea, manna, and constant miracles could think that the inhabitants and terrain of the Land of Israel would overpower them?

Messilas Yesharim (18th century classic on character perfection) explains in the name of the Zohar that because each spy was a tribal leader, they realized that they would lose their positions of leadership when they entered Israel. They were qualified to lead in the wilderness but, explains the Zohar, the Land of Israel bestows wisdom and others there would surpass them and take the mantel of leadership. This vested interest caused them to view the Land in a negative way. However, these leaders were not just run of the mill politicians, they were great men with track records of not only of leadership but also of being noble and honorable representatives.. Surely, such people would not intentionally rebel against G-d by speaking negatively about the Land the Almighty had gifted them. Even if it was not intentional, they were not blameless either; what actually took place?

Their vested interests caused them to become superficial. They reasoned that if G-d permitted them to send spies, it must be that it is neither obvious nor unequivocal that entering Israel at this time is a good thing. Therefore, they were at liberty to decide whether or not the entire nation should proceed there; it would entail war and they might lose.

Their desire to remain in positions of leadership blinded them and caused them to think in a superficial way. It might have been subtle or subconscious but once a person loses the ability to think in a straightforward logical fashion, s/he is doomed. They claimed to have the best interests of the Jewish people in mind but their vested interests prevented them of the simple realization that G-d had demonstrated (1) His love for the Jewish people (by taking them out of Egypt and giving them the Torah) and (2) His power (by changing the forces of nature for the plagues, sustaining them in lifeless desert, and splitting the sea). At that point, the Jewish nation was unstoppable, but that did not prevent some of their leadership from being blinded by the vested interest of wanting to remain in their leadership positions.

Whenever one is in a position of authority s/he must realize that potential danger is constantly hovering over. For example, when a teacher has charisma it is a wonderful thing because students will be attracted to him or her and s/he can use it to reach students who might otherwise not be engaged in the subject. That teacher can connect to and encourage a student to pursue his or her passion. However, if that teacher is not vigilant in analyzing his or her motivations, s/he will fall into the same trap of shallow thinking that plagued the spies. For example, a teacher with charisma might attract students who, consequently, they have excellent test scores because they do not want to let their teacher down. The teacher’s standing in the school continues to grow and s/he seems to be totally dedicated to the students. One day a student came late to a statewide test, the results of which will determine the teacher’s future for the following year, As a result of the lateness, the student only completed half of it. Here is the litmus test: if the teacher thinks, “I feel so sorry for him or her; the poor test result will affect college admission and class standing I hope he is alright.” If the teacher is frustrated at the student or let down, s/he is more concerned with his or her standing as a teacher and not as a transmitter of knowledge for the benefit of the students. “How could you do this to your classmates; how could you do this to your school” seem like objective comments coming from a teacher perceived as being totally devoted to his or her students but there might be another motivation that the teacher is not even aware of. “My anger is the anger of the class and school” s/he thinks but it is actually a frustration at potentially losing the position of the most effective and best loved teacher in the district.

The mission of a teacher is to present knowledge to students but the popular and charismatic teacher might turn inward toward his own agenda. If he does not constantly monitor himself, the job will be all about him when it should be what he is supposed to do for his students. There is nothing wrong with charisma or any other gift but the person who has it must realize the great danger that accompanies it. His need for self -realization, character development, and setting up a system of checks and balances with a colleague, rabbi, or friend to keep himself true and focused is more necessary than for the average person. Our ego is a powerful motivator and we must always realize that more personal gifts (charisma, brains, athletic ability, beauty) means more danger.

The Talmud uses yeast as a metaphor for the yetzer hara (evil inclination) because when a person thinks he is the most important thing, everything else becomes insignificant. The same way that yeast puffs up dough, so too does our yetzer hara puff us up. (As people say, “he’s full of himself.”) What’s the antidote? Good looks can cause one to think s/he is superior but when s/he realizes that s/he is merely one of G-d’s creations and that there are billions of others, all of whom are special and have their place in the world, s/he will cause the ‘leavening’ in the ‘yeast’ to decrease. We rarely think of G-d as a way to get in touch with ourselves but when we don’t, our ego takes over and we live in a delusional world that cannot see or understand anything or anyone that does not see things our way. For some, the first step in becoming great is to realize that you aren’t.

(Sources: M’roshei Emunah pp. 257-259; Mesillas Yesharim ch. 11; Zohar 3: 128,1)