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Two Strategies For Life

Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )

by Rabbi Menachem Weiman

This Torah portion speaks about one of the monumental events that changed life for the children of Israel for future generations: The Jewish people wanted to send spies to check out the land of Canaan before entering. Even though they had been promised the holy land and they were commanded to go in, still they felt fearful and may have preferred to remain in the desert.

Upon returning from their mission, the spies spoke ill of the Land of Israel. The people accepted their report, thus displaying a lack of trust in the Almighty.

Life has many situations like this where we are expected to trust God, but circumstances cause us to be fearful or revert to our comfort zone.

What is curious, is that the nation had recently witnessed so many miracles. The spies were all top-notch leaders and righteous individuals. How could they make a mistake and not trust God?

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Spirituality can be confusing. We can view the positive as negative, and vice versa. Sometimes the seemingly "spiritual" thing to do is actually not the moral thing to do. Sometimes the more "spiritual" path ahead of us is actually not the challenge that will cause us more growth, but part of our comfort zone.

If you're mad at your friend, should you meditate to calm yourself down, or should you confront your friend with her wrongdoing? Which path is easier? Which will cause you more growth? Should you do both? Is this a time for rebuke or a time for forgiveness? A time for war or a time for peace?

The spies and the nation made a mistake, because the choice was not between right and wrong, but between right and more right. Once you are on a spiritual path, it's very difficult for the "yetzer hara" to test you with outright transgressions. You are already avoiding the obvious transgressions. Sure, once in a while the yetzer hara can convince you, trick you into a real transgression, but usually you're on your guard. The yetzer hara is the part of you that steers you away from God and spirituality. It is not the real you; it is a foreign element inside you.

So the yetzer hara has no choice but to come to you in disguise. "What a mitzvah you will do by helping the neighbor put together his pool table for two hours on Sunday!" A kindness for your fellow man? Never mind that your wife has been asking you to fix the screen door for weeks.

Right thing to do, wrong time.

The yetzer hara has two types of strategies: straight on, or in disguise. We need to be on the lookout for both. That's why in the evening prayer service, we ask the Almighty to protect us from the "Satan in front and behind." Satan "in front" is when it comes straight on trying to entice you to do what you know is wrong; "from behind" is when it comes disguised as a mitzvah.

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We find a curiosity in the Torah regarding Moses' treatment of Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who passed the test and came with a good report. It seems that Moses prayed for the welfare of Joshua, but not for Caleb (Rashi commentary on Numbers 13:16). Why would Joshua need Moses' prayer, but Caleb not? After all, Joshua was closer to Moses, as his prime student, so if anyone would need a prayer to help pass the test, it should be Caleb.

It must be that it was a prayer for Joshua's physical welfare, not his spiritual welfare. Joshua and Caleb had two different styles or personalities: Joshua went straight on; when there was something he believed in, he said it loud and clear. Caleb was more subtle. He could play along with the spies until he got back to camp where he was safe, and then dispute their mistaken assessment. Joshua, in being "up front" with his viewpoint, might have been killed by the other spies as a rebel. He needed prayer for his physical safety.

We all have a choice to make in different situations. At times, we need to be like Joshua, and at times we need to be like Caleb. At times we need to confront the opposition, and at times we need to go with the flow until we can safely oppose. Right is right, but there is a time and a place to express it.

We see from here that the same two strategies the yetzer hara uses on us, are strategies for life!

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Actually, you can even use the same strategy on the yetzer hara itself. Sometimes we can fight the yetzer hara head-on, and sometimes we need to be sneaky. When it's late at night and the yetzer hara tells you to go to sleep, rather than read a page or two of Torah, you can try to face it head on and say, "I will not go to sleep!" Or you can say, "Well lets just stay up a minute or two to have a few pretzels." And then slip in a page or two of Torah study while your yetzer hara is busy with the pretzels.

Through trial and error, you will gain a sense of what type of strategy will work best for different situations. But win you must.

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Spiritual Exercise:

Find one small spiritual challenge to face head-on, and find one test to be sneaky with.

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