A Professional Jockey
The bulk of this week's Torah portion is devoted to the tragic story of the
spies who reconnoitered the land of Israel in preparation for the nation's
entry into the Promised Land. The consequences of their damaging report were
to be felt for the next 40 years, during which the entire generation was
punished, and restricted from entering the land. Only the youth together
with the next generation were able to realize the nation's dream.
The Torah portion concludes with three seemingly unconnected mitzvos that
were given to the Jewish people. The first details the various rituals that
were to accompany all guilt and sin offerings in the Bais Hamikdash. It was
necessary to bring a flour offering and a wine libation with each sacrifice
in order for it to be efficacious. Secondly, the Jewish people were
instructed to tithe their dough each time they make bread, and to gift a
portion of the dough to the kohain. Thirdly, they were instructed with the
mitzvah of tzitzis, ensuring that the four corners of their clothes were
adorned with the strings and knots that were to remind them of their
What is the connection between these three seemingly disparate mitzvos, and
why were they given to the Jewish people immediately following the sin of
their heeding the spies' false reports concerning the Land of Israel?
The commentaries explain that the spies were of towering spiritual
greatness, but also struggled with a fundamental weakness-a fear of entering
the land and having to trade an openly miraculous existence for a life
governed by natural forces.
In the wilderness, their every step was guided by an open manifestation of
Hashem's protective "hand." They were led with a pillar of fire at night and
a cloud of glory during the day. They ate manna from heaven; their clothing
grew along with them, and the Divine intervention in their daily lives
afforded them a unique and intimate connection with their Creator. They knew
all this would drastically change upon their entry into the land, where they
would transition into a material life, engaging the material elements.
They were going to have to till the soil with the trust that the earth would
yield forth its produce. They would have to leave their homes each festival
to ascend to Jerusalem, trusting that no external enemy would seize the
opportunity to capitalize on the country's vulnerable borders.
The spies were afraid that the nation was not up to the task. So they
portrayed the land in material terms, amplifying the daunting challenge of
engaging the material hurdles that lay ahead. They wanted to remain in the
secure spiritual incubator that surrounded them in the wilderness. The
nation paid dearly for not standing up to the tough challenges of life.
In truth, our essential life's challenge is just that: to be engaged in a
material world and to harness it to the physical, while not fearing constant
failure. There is always the opportunity of a sin offering with which to
repair ourselves when we have erred. We are instructed to reengage the most
physical and material elements, wine and food, symbolized by the rituals
accompanying the sacrifices, and sublimate them to the service of the Divine.
We are instructed to make proper use of our clothing, symbolized by the laws
of tzitzis, that portray material success and represent the image of status
and beauty. Our clothes protect us from the elements. Yet we understand that
their deeper purpose is to connect the dots and recognize that all the gifts
and bounty in life flow from the Divine source. We are not to fear failure
for even if we slip, we can always return home.
A student of the saintly Yesod Ha'avodah complained bitterly to his
teacher, "Rebbe, I keep slipping and succumbing to temptation and desire. It
all seems so futile, I don't have the strength or courage to rise above my
The Yesod Ha'avodah responded, "I once saw a professional jockey riding his
magnificent stallion. I asked him, "Does the horse ever throw you off?" " Of
course," he replied, "even the most experienced horse rider is going to be
"So what do you do when the horse throws you?" I asked him. "I jump back on
as fast as I can!" he responded. "If not, the horse will run away and I'll
be left with nothing."
The message of the portion is clear. Like the spies of the wilderness, we
are all sent to the wilderness represented by the material world, where we
are to spy out the presence of G-d amidst the distractions, temptations and
moral pitfalls of our material environment. Our job is to stay on cue with
our mission and seek out our Creator in creation, by overcoming the
challenges that confront us. The stakes are extremely high. Success
guarantees our entry into the Promised Land. Aborting our mission, on the
other hand, may force us to take a long, circuitous route home.
May we take a lesson from the failure of the long-ago spies and arm
ourselves with the necessary spiritual tools to achieve our goals.
Wishing you a wonderful Shabbos.
Rabbi Naftali Reich
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.