Fast Cars and Spies
The Rules of the Road According to Parashat Shelach
by Aharon Levi and Braha Bender
Late one Sunday morning, two women left the Kinar resort, got into a blue Peugeot, fastened their seatbelts, and prepared to drive home from an Arachim seminar. Nonetheless, the car sputtered to a stop just a few meters down the road. Dana turned off the motor and tried to restart. Then she tried again. And again. Nothing was working.
Eventually both women got out of the car. Dana sighed and rested her head in the palm of her hand. She knew why her car had broken down. The question was whether she would do anything about it.
Her companion, a rebbetzin, had just finished teaching at the seminar. Dana had participated as a student and the two had enjoyed a dynamic Shabbos together. Now the rebbetzin wondered why Dana looked so upset. Sure, this was inconvenient, but Dana seemed to be experiencing something beyond just mild annoyance.
“What’s wrong?,” asked the rebbetzin.
Dana shot her a sidelong glance. “You know the story of Yona (Jonah), right? You’re a rebbetzin, you must know it. Well, the story goes that Yona got on a boat to try to sail away from a mission that God had commanded him to perform. He was in the middle of the ocean when a storm hit and threatened to sink the ship. So Yona didn’t skirt responsibility. He admitted to the captain and other passengers that the ship was being delayed because of him.”
Dana paused. “I’m no Yona the prophet, but I have to admit that I know exactly why this car isn’t moving right now.”
The rebbetzin cocked her head to one side. “Go on,” she said curiously.
“See, this isn’t the first time I have attended an Arachim seminar,” Dana explained. “The last time I was at a seminar, I learned information that I never even knew existed. I said to myself, ‘Dana, honey, there’s nowhere to hide. Looks like this whole Torah thing is for real. You know that if you don’t make a decision now then it just won’t happen, so what are you going to do about what you learned? What’s one thing you are going to commit to from now on?’
“As I got into my car, this same car right here, I decided that I was going to start covering my hair. I mean, I don’t want to sound dramatic, but I was really going to try to cover my hair from that day on for Hashem Yitbarach (the Almighty, may He be blessed). The thing is that when I got home I unpacked all of my luggage but left that decision in the car.”
Dana, who had been examining her nails as she told her story, looked up at the rebbetzin with chagrin. “I think He wants me to unpack that decision right now.”
“What decision?,” asked the rebbetzin.
“I think Hashem wants me to start covering my hair,” Dana replied frankly.
The rebbetzin did not know what to say. On the one hand, thought the rebbetzin to herself, good for Dana. Committing to act on what she knew to be true would be an act of integrity. On the other hand, agreeing with Dana’s strange story might be the wrong decision. The car might not cooperate either. You can’t read signs from broken cars. The rebbetzin finally shrugged her shoulders and smiled supportively. This was Dana’s process, not hers.
But Dana was resolute. Standing with her eyes closed and her head tilted downward, Dana declared quietly, “Master of the World, I know what You want so I am giving You my word and following through.” Reaching into the shoulder bag slung across the backseat, Dana pulled out a pretty, multicolored headscarf, pulled her long hair into a low bun, and wrapped the headscarf over all of her hair.
Turning to the rebbetzin with her hair covered, a smiling Dana whispered, “I brought it with me. I thought that at this seminar it might finally happen. Nu, better late than never.” Pride and happiness splashed all over Dana’s radiant features. The two women cried and embraced, moved to tears by the poignancy of Dana’s achievement.
A few minutes later, Dana suggested they get back into the car and continue home. Once again, the rebbetzin didn’t know what to say. Should they call a mechanic? Nonetheless, curious as to what the outcome would be, the rebbetzin sat down in the passenger’s seat next to Dana, fastened her seatbelt and waited.
“Maybe we should say a few chapters of Tehillim (Psalms) before we try running the motor again? Seems like we’re hoping for a miracle here,” the rebbetzin quipped with a grin.
“No need to say Tehillim,” replied Dana breezily. “The miracle already happened. I covered my hair.” Turning the key in the ignition, the Peugeot strummed to life and off they were once again, car rolling along like nothing had happened at all.
But What About This Guy?
He ascended the stage at the Arachim seminar in Beit Kay, Nahariah. Speaking into the microphone, the middle-aged man’s voice bounced over the crowd.
“It wasn’t easy to get here, you know. And I don’t just mean spiritually. I mean, yeah, my wife and I were a little scared about what would happen if we found out that Torah was true, but we decided that, hey, we’re not babies. We’ll go, and if we don’t like it, we’ll go home. Then we found out that it was going to be raining on our way up, and we come from Be’er Sheva, so that made us think twice, but we decided to come anyway. No problem. So, we’re all ready to go and then what? The car breaks down. And this is a new car, yes? The car breaks down…”
Laughter had filled the auditorium. The man was a good speaker with excellent comic timing.
He continued, “Anyway, I’m a mechanic, so no big deal, I get out and it’s raining but I figure it out, the car needs a new part, and I’ve got some spare parts. So what do we do? I fix it! And, good, we’re off again. No problem, right? We’re not babies.”
He paused. “Then the tire goes out.”
By now the audience was rolling.
“So, you know, we put on the spare tire and we keep driving six hours in the rain and we get here and you know what? You know what?! It was worth it! It was an amazing weekend! My wife and I have a lot to think about! But now, right now, the car won’t start again. So here’s the thing. Earlier this morning, Rabbi Aharon Levi told us a story about a lady whose car broke down, so she told God that she was going to start covering her hair. And what happened? The car started working again.”
The crowd was hanging on his words. What was this guy going to say next? “Me, I’m going to do the opposite. I’m telling God right now that if He makes my car start working again then I will start laying tefillin. If not, no deal. We’ll see. If the car doesn’t work then I might start laying tefillin or I might not, but I’ve got to get home somehow!”
The man exited the stage to an applause punctuated by appreciative laughter. Nonetheless, the crowd felt the ambiguousness of his message. Was he going to start laying tefillin? Was he not? What had the Arachim weekend meant to him? It wasn’t clear. Fortunately, Rabbi Levi himself got to hear the end of the story the very next day when the man called to tell him about it.
“Rabbi, hi, how are you? I’m just calling to ask you one question. Why didn’t it work for me? Even after my whole speech on the stage, my car did not start!”
Rabbi Levi listened as he continued. “That lady got her car to work, so why couldn’t I? We had to leave our car in Nahariah and get home by bus with all of our stuff! It looks like she interpreted God’s message correctly but maybe I got it wrong. When you look at the events of your life, how do you know what God is trying to tell you?”
Rabbi Levi nodded sympathetically and gave the man an answer that he would never forget. Then he sat down and wrote this article.
So What Do I Do When My Car Breaks Down?
Don’t we all have that question? “How do I correctly interpret the situations that God sends me in life?” “What does God want of me?” “How do I know when I’ve got it right and when I’ve got it wrong?” We all want to interpret things correctly and get the car to run. But how?
One of the ultimate tests of judgment and perspective took place about three thousand years ago when the Jewish People sent twelve spies to scope out the Promised Land. Two came back with rave reviews. Ten came back so thoroughly disgusted and alarmed that they had the entire nation in tears.
In fact, the reports of the ten spies had the Jewish People so terrified of entering Israel that they cried that entire night. The Jews wailed that they wanted to return to Egypt. They cursed Moshe (Moses) and all he stood for. Due to the negative reports of the ten spies, the Jews rejected the Almighty’s Promised Land from the depths of their hearts, but completely.
That night was Tisha B’Av. The consequences of the Jews’ tears of mistrust and rejection were forty years of wandering in the desert, as well as all the future tragedies that were to happen on Tisha B’Av throughout Jewish history. And the biggest tragedy of all was that they could have chosen differently. They could have listened to the two positive reports instead of the ten negative ones.
What led to such differences of perspective between the positive spies and the negative spies? Why did the Jews choose to listen to the negative reports? And what can that teach us about interpreting the events of our own lives?
Let’s get this car on the road.
Rule of the Road Number One: Listen to What He Has to Say
First the facts: Moshe asked God whether he ought to send spies to check out the Promised Land before they entered it in battle. What was the Almighty’s response?
And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, “Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father's tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst.” (BaMidbar-Numbers 13:1-2)
But any actor, writer, or psychologist knows that text is meaningless without intonation and context. Rashi, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, reveals the juicy subtext:
“Send out for yourself”: According to your own understanding; I am not commanding you. However, if you wish, you may send.
Okay, that’s kind of weird. What led to this?
Because the Jews had come [to Moshe] and said, “Let us send men ahead of us”, as it says, “All of you approached me…” (Devarim-Deuteronomy 1:22), Moshe took counsel with the Almighty. He [the Almighty] responded, “I told them that it is good, as it says, ‘I will bring you up from the affliction of Egypt…to a land flowing with milk and honey.’ (Shemos-Exodus 3:17) By their lives! Now I will give them the opportunity to err through the words of the spies so that they will not inherit it.” (ibid Rashi)
In other words, God had already said the land was good! Now the Jews wanted to go and check out whether He was right. What does that say about the relationship? It’s pretty simple. They obviously didn’t trust Him. What did they think, that God is some sort of used car salesman? He was trying to pull a fast one?
This was the God who had just moved heaven and earth to miraculously redeem these people from slavery in Egypt! This was the God who had split the sea for them! They had all literally heard him speak at Sinai just a few weeks ago! This was the God who made water flow out of rocks and manna fall from the sky! This was the God who surrounded them with clouds of glory by day and led them with a pillar of fire by night! This was the God who… Need I go on?
Their first and worst mistake was not trusting God. The reason why the ten spies’ and the Jews’ interpretation was so off in regards to the Land of Israel was that they didn’t take God at His word. He said the land was good. They shouldn’t have doubted Him.
Rule of the Road Number One: Listen to What He Has to Say. Find out what He said in His Torah about your situation and take it seriously.
“But come on, rabbi. Sometimes life is not that simple…”
Really? Let me tell you about not simple. Watch this.
Rule of the Road Number Two: See Through Torah Glasses
So, the spies should have trusted God when He said that the land was good and not bothered spying it out at all. Okay. Given.
But now that they entered the land, people were dying everywhere! Plague and sickness were killing off all the locals! All over the place, funeral after funeral! It was morbid!
Imagine you entered a foreign land and all you saw was sickness, death, and endless funerals. Wouldn’t you be just a little bit put off?
If you said “yes” to the above question, you are forgetting Rule of the Road Number One: Listen to What He Has to Say. Here was the real deal about all the funerals the spies witnessed in Canaan:
Rabba explained [that] HaKadosh Baruch Hu said, “I planned for [their] benefit, and they considered it to their detriment. I planned for [their] benefit – [I sent illness into the midst of the Canaanites so that] many would be dying [when the spies visited Canaan] and they [the Canaanites] would be too busy burying their dead to ask who these foreign visitors were. [Yet] they [the ten spies] considered it to their detriment [since they interpreted these many deaths as] ‘a land that consumes its inhabitants’.”
Don’t you feel bad for God when you read that? He’s like that guy who sends his wife flowers and she freaks out because she thinks she is being pursued by a stalker. Poor paranoid lady, those were flowers from your husband. Don’t throw them away!
So, yes, there were funerals everywhere, granted. But that was totally meant for the Jews’ benefit. And those ten spies had to go and mess it all up.
It all goes back to Rule of the Road Number One: Listen to What He Has to Say. See your situation through that lens. Did He say it was good? Then pop on the rose-colored glasses! He isn’t lying to you. Again, when it comes to God, there is no used car salesman in sight.
Which all leads straight to Rule of the Road Number Two: See Through Torah Glasses. There are any number of ways to interpret what you experience. Make a conscious choice to interpret through the lens of Torah.
“Well, okay, rabbi, I guess that makes sense, but what if Torah has nothing to say about my situation?”
It’s hard to imagine a situation where Torah would have nothing to say. Torah is pretty broad. However, even in situations where Torah does not provide explicit guidance, you can always learn from experience. That is, other people’s experience. People like Miriam the Prophetess…
Rule of the Road Number Three: Learn From Other People’s Mistakes
Even if the Almighty had not explicitly stated that the land they were about to enter was flowing with milk and honey, and even if they hadn’t seen that the natives were being distracted in order to help the Jews with their mission, they still could have held their tongues for the sake of Miriam.
Why Miriam? Because just a few weeks ago, Miriam the Prophetess made a mistake. And the entire Jewish People found out about it:
Why is the section dealing with the spies juxtaposed with the section dealing with Miriam? Because she was punished over matters of slander, for speaking against her brother, and these wicked people witnessed, but did not learn their lesson. (Rashi, Midrash Tanchuma Shelach 5)
Miriam made a mistake. We all make mistakes. Her mistake was a comment in poor taste about her brother Moshe. The difference between our mistakes and Miriam’s mistake is that Miriam got what she deserved in both senses of the word. On one hand, she was punished with tzara’as for several days. On the other hand, the entire nation of Israel literally camped out and waited until Miriam was well enough to continue with them on their journey. At the same time as Miriam was being punished for her mistake, she was also being rewarded as a wonderful, deeply beloved person.
The bottom line for the spies, however, was that they couldn’t have missed this. Even the great Miriam was punished for slander! The nation waited days upon days for her to recover from her tzara’as. Everybody learned, spies included, how serious the consequences of destructive speech can be. Or at least they should have learned.
But they didn’t. They went ahead and made the very same mistake but about a million times worse. Miriam’s lightly mistaken comment brought about a three-day delay in the national proceedings. The spies’ mistake brought about forty years’ delay along with all the tragedies that have taken place on Tisha B’Av. Couldn’t they have just gotten the hint the first time?
Rule of the Road Number Three: Learn From Other People’s Mistakes. Why? So that you don’t have to make you own. Because guess what? If you have to go so far as to make the same mistake even after seeing how badly it turned out the first time around, chances are that you’re going to make it a lot worse the second time around.
Rule of the Road Number Four: Clear Your Work Surface
So, alrighty, here we have a group of fellows who ignored God’s explicitly stated opinion that the land is good, who interpreted everything that saw in the land as against them instead of for their benefit, and who ignored the lesson about slander that they should have learned from Miriam. The basic question all this leaves us with is, “Why?” Why did they choose to think so crookedly?
The simplest explanation would be to just write them off as a bunch of fools and losers. There are such people in the world, people who choose not to think, not to make intelligent decisions, and not to do anything particularly constructive with their lives. Most of the civilized world is somewhere in between angry at, bored with, and sorry for them.
However, the strange thing is that the Torah does not describe the ten spies as such people. At least not to begin with:
All of them were men of distinction; they were the heads of the children of Israel. (ibid 3)
Whenever [the word] anashim [is used] in scripture, it denotes importance. At that time they were virtuous. (ibid Rashi, Midrash Tanchuma 4)
No, far from being losers, these men were the leaders of the tribes of Israel. As listed before, they really had experienced miracles leaving Egypt. They had met the presence of God at Sinai. These truths had left them changed. They were not fools, they were actually incredibly righteous, spiritually put-together people.
The question changes. Now what we need to know is, what brought such elevated people down?
Turns out the secret is held in the Zohar:
All of them were righteous and leaders of Israel, but they picked for themselves a bad direction. Why did they pick this direction? They said [to themselves], “If we [the Jewish People] enter the land we will conclude our leadership, and Moshe will appoint different leaders, because it makes sense that we merited leadership in the desert but in the land we will not merit. And because they picked this bad direction for themselves, they died, and so did everyone who received their words.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato adds in his classic Mesilas Yesharim, The Path of the Just:
It was their desire for honor that, according to our Sages of blessed memory, led the spies to slander the Land [of Israel], this bringing death upon themselves and that whole generation. This was brought about by their fear that their honor might be diminished upon entering the Land of Israel because other might replace them as Israel’s tribe leaders. (Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 11)
Were they evil people? No. They were helpful, kind, wise, wonderful leaders. That is, until their desire for honor got the better of them. It wasn’t that they set out intending to mess everyone up with evil, paranoid reports about the Promised Land. It was just that they chose to make their honor a priority and everything fell like dominoes from there on in.
Did the spies even realize that this was the judgment call that they were making? Or did their lust for honor blind them to even their own twisted intentions? We don’t know.
What we do know is that before setting out to make a decision about something, you had better examine yourself first. Rule of the Road Number Four: Clear Your Work Surface. Look at your own emotional drives. Are they pushing and pulling your way of looking at the situation? Could they lead you to perceive things through a particular lens? Is that lens congruent with Torah?
Before making decisions, try to take an honest look at the clutter in your own mind. Then clear it away. Don’t let yourself get pushed around by subjective, mistaken emotional agendas like the ten spies did. After all, look where it got them. Their car got stalled for forty years.
Jumpstart the Engine
So when our car doesn’t run properly, should we take it as a “sign”? Well, that sure looks a lot like the spies did. And, buy, were they mistaken.
There is a halacha, a Jewish law, that it is forbidden to follow “signs”. The whole topic is discussed under the rubric of hilchos nichush, the laws of superstition. Following signs and being superstitious is a very serious transgression. We Jews are all about using our minds, and that’s no accident. God commanded us to be critical thinkers over 2,000 years ago.
When it comes to interpreting the events of our lives, superstition and superficial thinking isn’t going to get us very far. Worse still, it will get us to destructive places. Accurate judgment requires Torah study, intelligent application of Torah perspectives, and good, clear thinking. Using a challenge such as your car breaking down as a springboard to start performing a mitzvah like covering your hair is an excellent choice, but is it sure to cause the car to start running again? It might or it might not. Turns out that the bottom line isn’t the car. The bottom line is you.
Manipulating our cars, and our lives, to run exactly the way we want it isn’t really in our hands. Like the man who drove to an Arachim seminar in the pouring rain, your challenges might be the most shining display of your integrity. How would that man have shown the depth of his commitment if it hadn’t been raining?
Circumstances come and circumstances go, but the real question isn’t whether you can get the car to run. The real question is who you choose to be.
It so happens that living with Torah integrity leads to all sorts of practical benefits. The car usually runs pretty well. Peace of mind, a well-organized life, healthy families, happiness – these are the kind of results Torah often leads to. But the real reward of thinking and acting with integrity is not outside of you. When you follow the “Rules of the Road”, the reward is not just your happy family or your successful career. The real reward is the person that you see when you look in the mirror.
That’s who Dana saw when she got home after her car breakdown adventures. That’s who our man in Be’er Sheva will see when he starts laying tefillin without laying any conditions on God. That’s who the Jewish People eventually learned to be after forty years of figuring themselves out in the desert. And that is who you and I can choose to be right now.
So get that key in the ignition. We have a long way to go.