Our parsha begins with the story of the meraglim, those who went to spy out Eretz Yisrael and who ultimately came back delivering a negative report about the land. Rashi (8:2) picks up on the fact that last week’s parsha ended off with the story of Miriam who spoke negatively about her brother Moshe, and thus explains the connection: “Miriam was afflicted since she spoke negatively about Moshe, and these wicked people [the meraglim] saw that and yet did not take mussar from it [i.e., they didn’t learn from it].
It’s perhaps evident from Rashi, an incredible novelty, that the root of the meraglim’s transgression perhaps stemmed from the fact that they experienced something dramatic and did not learn from it to become better people.
We can ask, however, even if that’s true, why does Rashi specify that the meraglim “saw,” i.e., experienced, Miriam’s punishment, thus pinning much of their negligence to the fact that they “saw” but yet did not act upon such an experience properly. Indeed, Rashi seems to imply that if theoretically the Meraglim did not “see” or at least be part of the experience of what happened to Miriam, then perhaps they wouldn’t be taken to task so intensely for their ultimate transgression!
We can perhaps therefore indicate from Rashi that it’s specifically because they experienced Miriam’s consequence that it was expected of them to take mussar from it and reach a greater level. But had they not experienced it, perhaps their misdeed wouldn’t have been looked upon with such severity.
Two parshiyot ago in Naso, we read about the incident of the sota, which is immediately followed by the discussion of the nazir. Rashi (6:2) similarly explains the connection between the two, saying that whoever sees the disgrace of what occurs to the sota should become a nazir from wine, since wine leads to impermissible relations. Here as well, Rashi seems to imply that if this same person were not to have experienced the incident of the sota, it perhaps wouldn’t be expected upon him to become a nazir. It’s thus specifically one who “saw,” one who experienced it, who is expected to take on this higher measure of living.
The question on both of these Rashis thus is: Why does experiencing something henceforth carry an expectation to become different and try to change for the better, as opposed to someone who lived in a different time and simply learned about what happened to Miriam or to the sota, which perhaps may not carry an equal expectation?
We can suggest that living through a time where something dramatic occurs profoundly differs from one who just learns about it a while later in retrospect. One who lives through a dramatic time or moment is emotionally gripped and moved by what occurred. It becomes something that personally affects one and tugs at his moral conscience, leading one to ponder the meaning of what occured: Why did this happen, how could it have happened, what are we supposed to take from this?, etc.
Reading historical moving events may pique one’s curiosity, but nevertheless its impression starts off as academic and intellectual. But seeing such an event, or living through it, grabs at the heart, and thus its impression starts off as emotional. And it can therefore bring out a much greater motivation to do something—something better for ourselves and for others. Hence, if someone (especially people like the meraglim who were wise and originally were righteous people) sees the sota or what happened to Miriam, he is greatly moved and is thus expected to grow and reach a higher level.
During the extreme period of slavery in Egypt, Moshe was still an outsider from it all. Born and raised in the lap of luxury, he was comfortably sheltered from the horrible conditions affecting his brethren. Yet, at one point Moshe broke through, and the pasuk indeed says that “Moshe went out...and saw their painful state” (Shemot 2:11). Why does the pasuk need to say that he “saw” their pain? Rashi explains that Moshe was actually being proactive, for he went to see—i.e, focus—on their pain in order to empathize and take part in their sorrow. We perhaps see from this Rashi that if Moshe didn’t experience and make an effort to “see” Bnei Yisrael’s difficulties, he wouldn’t have necessarily empathized with them. Rather, it was the act of experiencing it together with them that enabled him to be proactive and carry their burden together with his brethren.
This idea of how seeing motivates and ultimately translates into doing for the better is perhaps the essence of the mitzvah of tzitzit that is introduced in the conclusion of our parsha. The pasuk says, “and they should make tzitzit...and you will see it, and remember all the mitzvot of Hashem, and perform them” (15:38,39).
Here as well, why the emphasis on “seeing” the tzitzit? The pasuk thus seems to emphasize and therefore indicate that seeing the tzitzit is imperative in drawing one toward doing mitzvot.
Shlomo Hamelech says, after all is said and done, at the end of the day, it comes down to having “yirat Hashem and doing His mitzvot” (Kohelet, 12:13). We can ask, if life is ultimately all about doing mitzvot, why doesn’t Shlomo leave out yirat Hashem and say doing good deeds is what it all boils down to?
“Yirah” is related to the word that means “to see.” Perhaps we can therefore explain that the goal of attaining yirat Hashem is so that Hashem’s presence becomes experiential for us, as if we “see” Him everywhere we go, and in all that we engage in. Hence, without “seeing” and experiencing Hashem’s presence we might not be as proactive in mitzvot as we could be. But once we live with the awareness of Hashem’s Presence, seeing Him with us, this can translate into “doing His mitzvot.”
Living through turbulent times and experiencing compelling moments penetrates the heart of a person. Yet, what we do after that is still within our choice. The message of one who sees the sota and the meraglim who saw Miriam come not only to acknowledge that we are directly impacted by what we see and experience, but they also come to teach that this powerful motivation creates a significant and unique opportunity for personal growth if translated into positive action.
Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He currently learns in Eretz Yisroel, and is the author of the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus' weekly Torah Talk. He can be reached at [email protected]