Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
It's Not What You Want - But How You Ask
"The most admirable intentions, if not accompanied by
respectful behaviour, are doomed to failure."
In parshas Shelach we first encountered the Meraglim, the spies
whom the Jews sent out to scrutinize the Land and assess its
vulnerability to conquer. Hashem, it appears, was angered by their
request (see Rashi, Bamidbar 13:2), and vows to leave the Jews
"room to err" through the spies' report. In this week's sidrah, parshas
Devarim, the Torah rehashes the Meraglim incident at length,
reviewing with a nation now ready to enter the Land, the events that
caused their fathers' downfall forty years earlier. Moshe tells the Jews
"And all of you approached me and said, 'Let us send men ahead
of us and they shall spy out the Land, and bring word back to us:
the way with which we should ascend, and the cities to which we
should come.' The matter was good in my eyes, so I took from
among you twelve men..."
The question is self-evident: Moshe had "made a career" out of acting
as Hashem's faithful messenger to the Jews. As our Sages put it,
"The Holy Presence spoke from the throat of Moshe." How is it
possible then, that while Hashem was apparently angered by their
request, Moshe seems to have been pleased, declaring unabashedly,
"The matter was good in my eyes." (See Rashi to 1:23 who is indeed
disturbed by this question).
It is told that the holy Rebbe R' Bunim of Parshischa zt"l once said
to his disciples, "In truth, I could, if I wished, bring Mashiach (the
Messiah). But why - you ask - do I refrain from doing so? I'll tell you:
The holy Apter Rebbe is a great and revered tzaddik who is many
years my elder. Now how would it look if, when Mashiach would
come, and the holy Apter Rebbe went out to greet him, people would
ask: 'Tell us, after all these years, after all our prayers and
supplications, who finally caused you to come and reveal yourself to
the world?' And Mashiach would point to this young man - to me -
how do you think the Apter Rebbe would feel? So I refrain..."
I do not claim to fully understand this story and its implications. I will
not attempt to decide whether it is meant to be taken literally or
allegorically. One thing however is certain: R' Bunim was teaching his
disciples a powerful lesson in sensitivity and respect for others,
especially those in a position of authority: Even an accomplishment
as momentous as bringing Mashiach - if achieved by a lack of respect
causing pain and emotional distress to others - is not worthwhile.
Abarbanel, commenting on this week's account of the Meraglim
incident, muses, "There are times when one may be making a most
noble request... yet he spoils everything by the way he chooses to
ask." Rashi comments on the Torah's expression, "And all of you
approached me," that the entire people approached Moshe in a
disorderly, disrespectful manner. Young and old pushed and shoved
with one another, neither showing respect for the nation's leaders who
were among them. Sforno further notes that such an important
proposal should have been put forward solely by the leaders, not by
a chaotic communal demand.
It is noteworthy that Moshe responded by saying, "The matter was
good in my eyes." He did not praise their request - for it was put forth
with reckless audacity and was deserving of no praise. Indeed, where
there is no respect, the approach must be suspect. The matter - the
idea - however, was a good one [Abarbanel].
The most admirable intentions, if not accompanied by respectful
behaviour, are doomed to failure. Pinchas, before killing Zimri and
Kozbi for their licentious act (see Bamidbar chapter 25; see also Olas
Shabbos 12-39), approached Moshe Rabbeinu. "Brother of my
father's father, did you not teach us, upon your descent from Mount
Sinai, that one who cohabits with an idolatress, zealots may kill him?"
(Sanhedrin 82a) Pinchas was the zealot. He was in a state of extreme
agitation and zeal, and was preparing to take drastic measures to
avenge the honour of Hashem at all costs, yet he did not forget his
manners. When he addressed Moshe, who had for the moment
forgotten this halachah, he did so out of deep respect and sensitivity.
Indeed, Shulchan Aruch rules (Yoreh De'ah 240, 242) that even if
one sees one's Rebbe or parent making an halachic error, he should
not criticize them openly, but should rather attempt to correct them
by posing a question, much as Pinchas did: "Rebbe/Father, didn't you
teach me the following..." (Needless to say, it is critical that we teach
our children these halachos of derech eretz (proper behaviour) and
respect. They will not assimilate them without our direction.)
Many times, in a rash moment of controversy - especially when we
perceive we are acting out of righteousness and pure intentions - we
forget ourselves, and present our arguments and positions in a
manner not befitting the nobility of the ideal we are attempting to
convey. Temperatures rise, the flame of righteous indignation is
ignited, and things are said which may later be regretted. How crucial
it is to remember the insightful words of our Sages: that even the
most worthy ideals, when imparted with impudence and lack of
respect, are doomed to failure.
Text Copyright © 1999 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.