DEVARIM (Deuteronomy, 1:1-3:22)/Tisha B’Av — “Selective Memory”

The Book of Deuteronomy is known as Mishneh TorahReview of the Torah.  Many of the Commandments in Deuteronomy are repeated from other places earlier in the Torah.  Deuteronomy is Moses’ final sermon to the Nation of Israel before his death.  He reviewed many of the Mitzvahs, and gave them an overview of Jewish history.  He reminded them of where they had gone wrong in the past, and advised them to do better in the future.

Moses reminded them of, among other things, the sin of the Spies. (See “What Was Moses’ Last Name?” and “Fringe Benefits”.)  Twelve spies had been sent to scout out the Land of Canaan (Israel) and report back to Moses.  Ten men brought back a negative report.  Two men, Joshua and Caleb, brought back a positive report.  The Nation of Israel believed the majority, and rejected the Land.  As a result, because they believed the slander about the Land, the Israelites had to wander through the desert for forty years, until all the adults of that first generation had died.  (That event occurred on Tisha B’Av.)

When Moses reprimanded the Nation for their actions, (actually the actions of their now-departed parents) he didn’t pull his punches.  In fact, he SEEMS to have gone a bit overboard:

“I took from you twelve men, one man from each tribe.  They … spied it out … they brought back word to us and said, ‘The Land that G-d is giving us is good.’  But you did not want to go up, and you rebelled against the word of G-d.  You slandered in your tents, and said, ‘Because of G-d’s hatred for us He took us out of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us.’”  (Deuteronomy, 1:23-27)

In all due respect to Moses, he seems to have left out an integral part of the story.  “…they brought back word to us and said, ‘The Land that G-d is giving us is good.’  But you did not want to go up…”  The way Moses described it, it appears that the positive feedback from the spies was unanimous.  However, if we go back to Numbers, Chapter 13, where the entire episode is spelled out, we see a very different scenario:

They (the spies) came to Moses and Aaron and the entire assembly of the Children of Israel… and brought back the report “… the people who live in the Land are powerful, the cities are fortified and very great…we saw children of giants; Amalek lives in the south; the Hittite, the Jebusite, and the Emorite live on the mountain, and the Canaanite lives by the sea and on the bank of the Jordan.”  (Numbers, 13:27-29)

Scary stuff.  No wonder the people were afraid.  Only after the delivery of that negative diatribe, did Caleb and Joshua respond with, “The Land that we passed through to spy it out… is very, very good.”  (Ibid. 14:7)

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Did Moses give a fair description of the events as they actually occurred?  Based on Moses’ version, it seems as if the people heard only a positive report and rejected it.  In reality, as we see from actually reading about it, there was a spirited debate.  Ten spies said it was bad; two spies said it was good.  The people sided with the ten who said it was bad.

I can understand Moses’ criticism of the Nation’s acceptance of negative reports.  After all, it was really a question of ten men versus Caleb, Joshua, Moses, and G-D.  In view of all the miracles that G-d performed for Israel in and out of Egypt, He could certainly be trusted to keep His word and protect Israel from the inhabitants of the Land.  But why did Moses change the story?  Why did he imply that there had been no negative report at all?

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The answer, I believe, is that Moses was articulating a very important rule of Jewish Law.  Lashon HaRa, gossip, is a terrible sin. (Gossip is actually a very important thing for us to focus upon this week.  The first time we mourned on Tisha B’Av was when G-d punished Israel for believing that gossip about the Land of Israel.  The Second Temple was destroyed on Tisha B’Av because people gossiped.  One of the ways we will rebuild the Temple is by refraining from gossip.)

As is the case in every aspect of Jewish Law, there are specific rules pertaining to gossip:  1) We are not permitted to say negative things about other people.  2) We are not permitted to listen to other people when they say negative things about other people.  3)  More difficult than the first two rules, if you do happen to hear gossip about another person, YOU ARE NOT PERMITTED TO BELIEVE IT. (Obviously, easier said than done.)

Yes, the ten spies sinned by disparaging the Land of Israel.  Yes, the Nation did hear that slanderous report, delivered by those ten men.  And they heard Joshua and Caleb tell them that “The Land that G-d is giving us is good.”  According to Moses, the report from Joshua and Caleb was the only report worth hearing!  They were required, by Jewish Law, to totally disregard the defamatory comments of the majority.  They were expected to act as if they had never even heard them!  The only report that they were permitted to accept was “The Land that G-d is giving us is good.”

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In fact, Moses didn’t totally ignore the negativity of the majority.  He reminded the people that in rejecting the Land, the Nation had said, “…our brothers (the ten negative spies) have melted our hearts, saying, ‘A people greater and taller than we, cities great and fortified to the heavens, and even children of giants we have seen there!” (Deuteronomy, 1:28)

This was part of his reprimand.  “Why did you pay attention to that junk?!” The people were giving credence to statements that should have been ignored as unacceptable, evil words.

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Is this possible to do?  Can we really be expected to pretend that we didn’t hear something once we already heard it?  After all, trial attorneys have made this into an art form.  Get the witness to make a statement that the other lawyer will object to.  The judge instructs the jury to totally disregard what they just heard the witness say.  But, of course, the damage has been done.  The jury has already heard it, and they most definitely will NOT disregard it.  If I tell you not to think about pink elephants, what are you going to be thinking about?

Yet, that is the Law.  We are not permitted to believe gossip; we are supposed to assume that the speaker is lying.

Is that naive? Isn’t it foolish to pretend that the gossip we just heard isn’t true, even when we know deep down that it probably is?

Maybe it is.  But let me leave you with two questions:

If someone tells me some gossip about you, don’t you hope that I’ll assume it’s not true?

Seeing how difficult it is to disbelieve gossip that someone has already told you, wouldn’t it be easier to just walk away before he starts?

Have a Good Shabbos, and a meaningful fast.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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From the Archives

“Dropping Hints and Lifting Spirits” (2011)

… I have a question.  Why is Moses beating around the bush?!  What’s with the hinting?  Why doesn’t the Torah describe Moses coming out with a shotguns-blazing, Fire-and-Brimstone reprimand?   Why doesn’t he say, “Listen Israel, your behavior has been horrendous!   You complained about the lack of food.  You worshipped Baal Pe’or.  You displayed a lack of faith at the Red Sea.  You listened to the lies of the spies.  You complained about the Manna and supported Korach’s rebellion.  You turned all that gold into a Golden Calf.  YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES!!!!!” …

Read more.

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“Back to Normal?” (2009) 

…The people were concerned.  Sure, they had seen plenty of miracles.  But that was when Moses was around.  What would happen “post-Moses?”  Would the miracles still flow like the waters of the traveling well? Would Heavenly Bread still fall in front of their tents?  Would those pillars of fire and cloud still lead them?

Joshua was a fine student.  He was Moses’ best protégé.  However, to paraphrase  Senator Bentson:  “We served under Moses.  We know Moses.  He is a prophet of G-d.  Joshua, you’re no Moses!”…

Read more.

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“Wearable Clothes for Terrible Times” (2007)

… It must seem strange to envision people celebrating the Sabbath in a less-than-“Sabbatical” mode of dress.  Can you imagine sitting in Shul Friday night next to a carpenter in his overalls and the Roto-Rooter guy in his galoshes?

Actually, most people don’t follow that custom.  The Chofetz Chaim writes that the prevalent custom is that of the city ofVilnawhere they permitted the donning of Shabbos clothes on the Shabbos before Tisha B’Av …

One may be tempted to ask – Isn’t this rather superficial?  What difference does it make?  Why so much emphasis on what you’re wearing?  If you want to dress for Shabbos, dress for Shabbos!  If you want to wear weekday clothes, wear weekday clothes!  What’s the big deal?  And, as long as we’re on the topic, why don’t you rejoin the human race and take a bath?!!…

Read more.

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 “Torah Talk” (2006)

“Hey, how’d he do that?”

“How’d WHO do WHAT?”

“Didn’t you hear that speech?”

“Yes, of course, it was very inspiring.  But he is, after all, a great man.  So why are you surprised?”

Because he doesn’t know how to do that!!!”

It all started almost 120 years before.  The Talmud (Shemos Rabbah,1:26) describes how Baby Moses upset his adopted grandfather…

Read more.

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“Cry, O Zion …” (2005)

… “Cry, O Zion, and her cities, like a woman in the pains of childbirth, and like a young woman dressed in sackcloth, mourning for her young husband.”  (From the Tisha B’Av prayers.)

Imagine the agonizing physical pain of childbirth; what could be more painful?  Envision the emotional pain of a young widow; what could be more heartrending?…

Read more.

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“Selective Memory” (2004)

… Did Moses give a fair description of the events as they actually occurred?  Based on Moses’ version, it seems like the people heard a positive report and rejected it.  In reality, as we see from actually reading about it, there was a spirited debate.  Ten spies said it was bad; two spies said it was good… why did Moses change the story?  Why did he imply that there had been no negative report at all? …

Read more.

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 “How Did This Happen??!! (And How Do We Fix It?)”  (2002)

… In the book by that name, the prophet Jeremiah cries, “Eichah — how can it be that the city once filled with people has become like a widow…?”  (Lamentations, 1:1) Jeremiah stares with disbelief as he sees the once-great city ofJerusalem lying in ruins.  It is almost beyond comprehension that he sees that theTemple has been destroyed and the royal house of  Israel has been led, in disgrace, into captivity.

Jeremiah’s wail continues to this day.  Throughout the world, Jews will sit and read Jeremiah’s words and cry over the pains of our exile…  “Eichah,” how could it be that the Jews of  Warsaw were deported to Treblinka beginning on Tisha B’Av?  “Eichah,” how can it be that a world tolerates the wanton murder of innocent people by a nation that sacrifices its own children for the “Mitzvah” of killing Jews?  “Eichah,” HOW MUCH MORE CAN WE TAKE?!! …

Read more.

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“Tears of ‘OY’ and Tears of Joy” (2001)

… I had a very interesting experience this week … the prohibition of eating meat and drinking wine … doesn’t apply at a Bris… It was a strange inconsistency. On the one hand, we are in mourning for theTemple. On the other hand, we are having a party! Where is our concern for our people? Aren’t we supposed to remember our brethren who were burned at the stake inSpain?! Aren’t we supposed to lament the victims of the Holocaust and the Intifada?! How can we cry to G-d to rescue us from our anguish when we’re eating prime rib and parve ice cream?! …

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain inMonsey,New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on July 21, 2004 at 11:32 am  Leave a Comment  

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