Shelach 5778

The wrong kind of humility[1]

אלה שמות האנשים אשר-שלח משה לתור את-הארץ ויקרא משה להושע בן-נון יהושע
These are the names of the men who were sent by Moshe to scout out the land. Moshe called Hoshea the son of Nun: Yehoshua[2]

When the Jews had almost arrived at the land of Israel, they had the idea to send spies to scout out the land[3]. They wanted to know not only about the landscape, but about the inhabitants[4]. Were they a conquerable force, or not? Twelve men, one for each tribe, was selected for the task. One of them was Moshe’s faithful student[5], Yehoshua. He was originally called Hoshea, but Moshe as a form of prayer added the letter yud to his name, making it Yehoshua. Moshe was concerned that the spies had evil intentions, and would falsely give a negative report. He therefore added a letter from G-d’s name to Yehoshua’s, pleading that Hashem should save Yehoshua from the council of the spies[6]. What prompted Moshe to give this name change to Yehoshua? One explanation[7] is that Moshe saw Yehoshua’s great humility, and thus felt he needed this prayer[8]. What does one have to do with the other?

There’s another story[9] where humility was the cause of a major catastrophe. A wicked person during the end of the Second Temple period, named Bar Kamtzah, wanted[10] to get the Jews in trouble with the ruling Roman government. He told them that the Jews were rebelling against them. His word alone wasn’t sufficient, and they wanted proof. He dared them to bring an offering to the Jewish Temple, and assured them that the Jews would refuse to offer it. The Romans complied, and on the way Bar Kamtzah gave the animal a blemish. The type of blemish he gave was one that for non-Jewish offerings isn’t a problem, but is a problem for offerings brought in the Temple. The Sages were in a bind: if they follow the halacha, the Romans would be infuriated, but if they appease the Romans, they’d have to break the halacha. What should they do?

The Sages were considering offering it anyways, to avoid the potential loss of life which would result from angering the Romans. However, a Rabbi named Zecharia ben Avkulis protested. He said that people will think that it’s permissible to bring offerings with a blemish. The Sages accepted his concern. They then considered killing Bar Kamtzah, to stop him from telling the Romans what had happened. Rabbi Zecharia protested again, saying that people will think it’s a capital crime to give an offering a blemish. In the end, the Sages heeded Rabbi Zecharia’s words, and the offering wasn’t brought. Bar Kamtzah informed the Romans, who then began their siege on Jerusalem. It wasn’t long until the Second Temple was destroyed, thousands were killed, and the survivors exiled until this very day. Rabbi Yochanan commented that it was Rabbi Zecharia’s great humility which caused all of this to happen. What does humility have to do with what happened?

Rashi explains[11] that the humility here is referring to Rabbi Zecharia’s great savlanut, which in Modern Hebrew means patience. However, it really means tolerance. Rabbi Zecharia was overly tolerant. We see[12] this from his personal practice with regards to the laws of Shabbos[13]. If a person has leftover bones and shells on their plate, how should they dispose of them? Beis Hillel say simply take them off the table and throw them out. Beis Shammai disagree, and say to pick up the plate and shake them off into the trash[14]. The reason for Beis Shammai is they rule that these items, which are unfit for consumption, are muktzeh, prohibited to move on Shabbos. Therefore, they need to be disposed of indirectly[15]. Whereas Beis Hillel, who agree they are unfit for consumption, allow their direct disposal. This is because they are considered disgusting, and are allowed to be moved for the sake of removing them[16].

However, we are taught[17] that Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulis didn’t act like Beis Hillel, or like Beis Shammai. He agrees the bones and shells are unfit for consumption, and are thus muktzeh. However, he doesn’t feel these items are considered disgusting. Because of his great tolerance[18], what for most would be considered garbage, for him was perfectly fine. Since he had no excuse to move them, he would have to leave them on the table[19]. So too when it came to Bar Kamtzah; even though Bar Kamtzah was a very wicked person, who wanted to destroy the Jewish people, Rabbi Zecharia was tolerant of him. He didn’t think he was so bad. He was therefore unable to see the danger with following the halacha and not bringing the Romans’ offering[20]. His incorrect judgement was what led to the destruction of the Temple and the current exile.

This is what Moshe saw in Yehoshua[21]. He was a very humble person, but this was exemplified with great tolerance. The spies who were chosen had evil intentions, and were plotting to mislead the Jewish people. They would cast the land of Israel in a negative light, to persuade everyone to abandon conquering the land. Yehoshua, due to his great tolerance, wouldn’t think these spies were so bad. He would join together with them, and help them in their plot. Therefore, Moshe changed his student’s name to Yehoshua, as a form of prayer that he shouldn’t be swayed by the spies. He should recognize their evil plot, and distance himself from it. Thankfully, this is what happened.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on a shiur by Rabbi Elimelech Reznick given in 5774. See for a similar discussion of misplaced humility

[2] Numbers 13:16

[3] Deuteronomy 1:22

[4] Rashi to Numbers 13:18, with Minchas Yehudah

[5] See Exodus 24:13 with Rashi

[6] Rashi to Numbers 13:16

[7] Targum Yonasan ad. loc.

[8] One could understand the Targum to be saying that since Yehoshua was so humble, he was worthy of this prayer. However, many of the commentaries understand it means Yehoshua needed the prayer, due to this humility

[9] Gittin 55b, 56a

[10] See earlier in the story for the reason why

[11] ad. loc.

[12] The Chasam Sofer to Gitten 56a s.v. ענוותנותו makes this connection

[13] Tosefta Shabbos 17:4

[14] This part appears in Shabbos 21:3, although with the rulings attributed to the opposite people

[15] Rashi to Beitzah 2a; cf. Tosafos ad. loc.

[16] Pnei Yehoshua ad. loc. s.v. בתוד”ה מגביהין, employing the concept of גרף של רעי

[17] Tosefta loc. cit.

[18] This is the Chasam Sofer loc. cit.’s explanation

[19] The Chasam Sofer doesn’t explain why Rabbi Zecharia didn’t act like Beis Shammai and move them indirectly. I guess Beis Shammai also need the excuse that they are considered disgusting, they just don’t take it as far as Beis Hillel

[20] The Chasam Sofer doesn’t quite say this the way I presented it, see there

[21] This is Rabbi Reznick’s innovation: connecting the Chasam Sofer to our parsha

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