When the minority gets it right

When the minority gets it right

Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel

Parshat Shelach Numbers, 13:1-15:41

This week’s Torah portion is Shelach, the story of the 12 spies, sent by Moses to explore and learn more about the Promised Land — this land G-d had promised our forefathers and referred to as a land flowing with milk and honey.

In democracies, as in Jewish Law, the majority rules. A beit din (court of Torah law) must always consist of an odd number of judges, so that there should always be a majority opinion. But the fact is, sometimes the majority gets it wrong.

This week’s Torah reading is a case in point.

Only two of the dozen, Joshua and Caleb, remained faithful to their leader, to the purpose of their mission and to G-d’s assurance that it was a good land. The other 10 spies went awry.

The spies were sent on a reconnaissance mission to determine how best to approach the coming conquest of the land of Canaan. Instead of doing what they were sent to do — which was to suggest the best way forward — 10 of the 12 spies brought back a negative report that was designed to intimidate the people and discourage them from entering a ferocious “land that devours its inhabitants” and that signed off with the categorical conclusion “we cannot ascend.”

The people responded accordingly. They cried out to Moses, lamenting their very departure from Egypt. So G-d decreed that this generation was not worthy of His precious Promised Land. Furthermore, this day of weeping, on which they cried for no good reason, would become a day of tears for generations. Indeed, our sages explain, this occurred on the Ninth of Av, the day that would become a day of mourning for the destruction of our Holy Temples and many other national calamities throughout history.

The question here is: Why did the Jewish people — who had witnessed so many miracles — not follow the two good spies, Joshua and Caleb, instead of the others? The obvious answer: They were outvoted and outnumbered. Ten vs. two — no contest. The majority rules.

Tragically, though, they backed the losers. And the result was an extended period of time in the wilderness for them, resulting in tragedy for all of us to this day.

Although we may be staunch democrats and believers in the democratic process, clearly, there will be times when the minority is right.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of blessed memory, whose 22nd yahrzeit we mark next Shabbos (3rd Tammuz — July 9), would stress that every one of us is an emissary of G-d to transform his environment into a “holy land.”

We too face discouraging “reports” from our own evil inclination. In some, it induces the fear that one’s environment is not conducive to study or adhere to the mitzvos, more so than anywhere else; one’s surroundings are therefore uniquely inimical to the spread of Torah (“the inhabitants of the land are mighty”).

In others, the evil inclination evokes a feeling that one is unqualified to pursue so sacred a mission (“mentioning Amalek”); while to yet a third, the inclination makes it appear that there are hindrances to prevent even the approach to the object of his life’s mission.

Our response to the evil inclination is clearly indicated by Caleb’s reply. Though the environment may seem unconducive to Torah study and observance, regardless of where we find ourselves, though we are not perfect and have sinned, though there are extraneous distractions and hindrances, the Almighty nevertheless gives us — individually and collectively — the strength to break all barriers, overcome all obstacles and fulfill our life’s mission, no matter where we are or the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel is executive director of The Aleph Institute-North East Region. This column is ​provided by the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.