July 19, 2024
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Originally, the meraglim were among the greats of Am Yisrael. Indeed, they were honorable, important people (Rashi, 13:3); they were wise and righteous (Ba’al HaTurim, 13:2). They were heads of the nation—they were Nesiim, leaders of Am Yisrael; they were Gedolei Ha’Dor! Furthermore, the beginning of our parsha lists them by name, and according to Ramban (13:4), they are listed according to their level of personal eminence, with the one greatest in wisdom and stature being listed first, etc. Ramban would thus seem to imply that some of the meraglim were greater than even Yehoshua and Kalev (the two who did not commit the evil of slandering Eretz Yisrael)!

Yet, as we know, despite their eminence and greatness, the meraglim turned to become reshaim, wicked people. How could such a decline have happened? How could they have come to commit such a terrible evil of slandering Eretz Yisrael? Additionally, as Rav Chaim Shmulevitz further notes, they also expressed heresy! (see Rashi to 13:31). Thus, Rav Chaim ponders, how could it be that they committed all of this, and moreover, that this decline occurred within such a short span of time—just a forty-day period!

Rav Chaim explains by quoting the Mesilat Yesharim (Chapter 11) who, in his discussion about the craving for honor, says, “This—[the desire for honor]—is what, in the opinion of our Sages, of blessed memory, caused the meraglim to express slander about the Land, thus causing [a] death [sentence to be decreed] upon themselves and the entire generation. They did this out of fear that their honor would be diminished when they entered the Land, [for they were concerned] that they would not be Nesiim for [Am] Yisrael [any longer], and others would replace them.”

Says Rav Chaim, this shows us that the pursuit of honor is what caused the meraglim to do what they did. For the desire for honor is like poison, and thus, those who pursue it, even those of tremendous personal eminence and stature, can be affected by its influence.

Rav Chaim reveals the extent of the potentially harmful effects of the desire for honor by honing in on the exact degree of honor that the meraglim so desired. He points out that according to the Ba’al HaTurim (13:3), the meraglim were heads of merely fifty (people?)! Yet, even this measure of honor was still so impactful on them. This, derives Rav Chaim, can teach us that even a slight threat to one’s honor can potentially have such an adverse influence on one’s judgment, decisions and actions (see “Sichot Mussar,” Shelach).

Interestingly, although in this context Yehoshua wasn’t influenced by the desire for honor, it may be possible that in a different context Yehoshua could have been potentially driven by honor. In last week’s parsha (Beha’alotcha), in response to Moshe’s complaint that he could not carry the nation alone, Hashem had him select seventy elders who would constitute a Sanhedrin. According to the Sifri quoted by Rashi (11:25) these elders prophesied only on one day, afterwhich prophecy ceased from them.

However, even after they ceased to prophesy, two of these elders, Eldad and Meidad, still continued to prophesy, which seemed to have perturbed Moshe’s loyal servant and student, Yehoshua (perhaps because he felt it was an affront to Moshe’s honor to have other people prophesying in Moshe’s proximity). Yehoshua thus exclaimed to Moshe, “Kilaeim!” According to Rashi, Kilaeim can connote either: 1) “Obliterate them” (by placing upon them the responsibility to attend to the needs of the community, and as a result of such a position, they will become worn away—obliterated—by themselves); 2) “Incarcerate them.”

At first glance, it might seem that Yehoshua was being genuinely zealous for Moshe’s sake, for Moshe’s honor. Yet, Moshe responded to Yehoshua, saying, “Are you being zealous for my sake?” What did Moshe mean to say? The K’tav Sofer explains what Moshe was essentially responding to Yehoshua, based on the Gemara (Shavuot, 46) that says, “A servant of the king is [respected] like the King.” (In this case, Moshe would be considered the king, and Yehoshua the servant). Thus, the greater Moshe becomes, would, in turn, cause Yehoshua—the servant—to become more important and respected. If so, continues the K’tav Sofer, it could be that Yehoshua’s zealousness wasn’t for the sake of Moshe’s honor, but rather for Yehoshua’s own honor! For if there would be more prophets besides just Moshe, Moshe wouldn’t be considered as important as if he was the only prophet, and as a result, Yehoshua also wouldn’t be considered as important. Thus, what Moshe was essentially questioning Yehoshua’s zealousness was whether it was for the sake of Moshe’s honor, or for the sake of Yehoshua’s own honor.

R’ Binyamin Luban points out that this shows us that it was possible that even Yehoshua could have potentially been influenced by the desire for honor. And we may see to what extent, where theoretically, this potential desire could have made him believe that it was justified to have Eldad and Meidad incarcerated, or obliterated!R’ Luban further observed that even if we grant that Moshe’s honor would have been diminished by Eldad and Meidad prophesying, it seems that it wouldn’t have been diminished significantly at all, but only slightly, and by default, also Yehoshua’s; furthermore, it would seem that the threat to Yehoshua’s honor was less here than in the context of entering Eretz Yisrael (in the case of the meraglim), and yet, here—although a context involving a seemingly lesser threat to his honor—it was possible that he could have been affected by it.

In relation to the insight of Rav Chaim where he derived that even a slight threat to one’s honor can cause one to trip in one’s judgment and affect a person’s decisions so vastly, we perhaps see from this observation and understanding of R’ Luban an even greater extent of this concept.The desire for honor didn’t just affect the meraglim or could have possibly affected Yehoshua; it influenced major decisions and actions of great people in our history, ultimately leading to their downfall. As the Mesilat Yesharim says, “On account of this [the craving for honor], many [great people] stumbled and were destroyed”; and he continues to relate that this desire is what caused Yeravam to forfeit his opportunity to have a share in Olam Haba; it’s what caused Korach and his entire congregation to be destroyed; it’s what caused King Shaul to persecute David HaMelech; and it’s what caused Yoav to murder Amasa.

We can perhaps see how important it is to be aware of and in control of the desire for honor. The Mesilat Yesharim says that the desire for honor “is more [potent] than the desire for wealth … it’s what drives the heart of man, more than all the [other] yearnings and cravings in the world … it is one of the greatest stumbling blocks for a person.” Furthermore, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz seems to say that this desire remains with a person throughout his life, and as other desires wane and lessen as one ages, the desire for honor strengthens and becomes even more acute (see “Sichot Mussar,” Balak). And as seen, this desire can cause even people of great eminence and stature to trip up in their judgment and decisions, and this can occur even where the desired honorable position and the threat to one’s honor isn’t necessarily of the greatest level.

Thus, no matter where we are holding in our spiritual level, age or what the degree of honor is, it is perhaps imperative to introspect whether the judgements and decisions we attempt to make are sincere and objective, or whether they are being adversely driven by the desire for honor lurking in the background.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

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