Towering Tree

 Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Bnei Yisroel were approaching the land Hashem had promised them. In anticipation of entering the land, Moshe sends spies to reconnoiter the land. Moshe gives the spies specific instructions on what to look for, from the strength of its inhabitants to the fertility of the land itself, concluding with, “Hayesh boh eitz im ayin/Is there a tree within it or not,” before instructing them to bring back some of the fruit. Then the Torah adds that this was the season when the grapes ripened.

These instructions begin quite clearly, but the final question appears puzzling. If the spies are to bring back fruit, certainly there must be trees in the land. Oddly, are the spies to look for a single tree, as a straightforward reading of the text suggests, or is this a collective noun?  Finally, what does all this have to do with the ripening of the grapes?

On the simplest interpretations, we can say, as Rav Hirsch z” does, that Moshe was instructing them to see if there were forests, seen as a collective for building and manufacturing, as well as individual trees. Or perhaps as Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh suggests, see if every species of tree is in the land, as this is a land with everything in it. Or perhaps, as the Alshich suggests in Torat Moshe, perhaps the Canaanites were so fearful of the upcoming invasion from this nation that had left Mitzrayim so miraculously that they cut down all their trees lest the enemy benefit from the fruit. If that were the case, Bnei Yisroel need not fear, for they would easily conquer the land.

But the Ozhorov Rebbe z”l takes a completely different perspective on our question. He posits that since this is the final question the spies are to look into, the question must be a spiritual question rather than a physical question. Basing this idea on Rashi, the Ozhorov Rebbe z”l suggests that the “tree” here referred to must be a righteous man whose merit will protect the land. After all, the Torah does compare Man to a tree of the field.

This was indeed Moshe’s concern. If there were to be one such righteous person in the land, such a towering tree, writes Rabbi Ezrachi in Birkat Mordechai, then no strategy nor merit of our forefathers, nor current leadership, nor the Torah itself would be enough to grant us victory over the inhabitants of the land even if the rest of the people themselves were not deserving of salvation.

What kind of person would this one man need to be, asks Hegyon Levov z”l? After all, Avraham Avinu stopped praying for the salvation of Sodom if there were fewer than ten righteous men there, and Noah could not save his generation from the destruction of the flood. But there is a difference between someone who may be righteous as ruled not guilty of transgression versus a righteous person whose stature is such that his aura protects those around him. While the not guilty man may avoid punishment, his righteousness is not enough to protect others. [Somewhat similar is a judgment of “not guilty” versus truly innocent. CKS]

Nevertheless, a truly righteous man may exist even among the gentiles, for Iyov/Job was such a man. Rabbi Schwab z”l cites the Gemarrah Yerushalmi in saying that Iyov lived in the days of Moshe. Iyov lived in the land of Utz, alluded to in the phrase, “Is there an eitz/tree,” just as we often refer to a rebbe by his city, like the Bostoner Rebbe, or the Lubavitcher Rebbe. According to this interpretation, if Iyov, the Utz man, is still alive, his merit may protect the inhabitants from harm just as a tree offers protective shade to those in its vicinity.

Using verses from Tehillim, Rabbi Scheinerman explains the tree metaphor. In 92:13, the verse says, “Tzadik katamar yifrach/a righteous man will grow like a date tree,” and in 1:3, the one who has not sinned is blessed to be “k’eitz shasul al palgei mayim/as a tree deeply rooted alongside brooks of water.” Rabbi Scheinerman tells us that if the talmid chacham is worthy, and especially if others “eat and enjoy” his Torah, not only will he be protected and protect others, but Hashem will care for him and “water” him so that he can continue to grow and offer his influential fruit and protective shade to others.

According to the Satmar Rebbe, Moshe was instructing the spies to look not only if there was a tzadik in the land, but also if there were pockets of righteous people in the land, symbolic fruit of the sage tree who were influenced by that righteous person. One can determine the true nature of a man not by how he presents himself personally to the world, but on the character of the students he produces. After all, people learn more by what they see you do than by what you say.

We feel vulnerable when a righteous person dies, for we sense that his righteousness offered us protection, writes Rabbi Lopian z”l. With every one of his actions, a tzadik thinks about others and how he can benefit them. He prays for us and cares for our welfare. The more the tzadik cares for others, the more Hashem will take care of him.

How does the tzadik come to have the power to nullify decrees? Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensik explains that a tzadik’s mouth is always involved in speaking words of Torah. He has mastery not only of the written Torah but also of the Torah sheBa’al Peh/oral Torah. As such, he has become the ba’al/master of his peh/mouth, and the oral supplications of his mouth can turn the words of the evil decree back to their heavenly source and avert them down on earth.

The Shvilei Pinchas takes this idea one step further. Since the decree comes down from heaven as letters forming words, the tzadik who is “master of the mouth/language” can rearrange the letters to form a blessing, or at least an innocuous decree. For example, tzarah/misfortune can be an anagram for ratzah/desire. Even more, Hashem has granted the tzadikim the power to change the decree of death to a decree for riches by inserting the letter ayin and creating maot from mavot. [It works in the Hebrew letters.] This gift Hashem gave to the tzakidim for their constant involvement in uncovering more of the ayin/seventy aspects of Torah study and understanding. As it says in Proverbs, speaking of the wisdom of Torah, “Length of days is at its right [he avoided death/mavot], at its left, wealth and honor [maot]. This ability may be retained in the souls of the tzadikim even after their death, giving rise to the custom of praying at the graves of tzadikim.

While we have used the term tzadik in this discussion, Rashi actually uses the term Ish kasher/an upright person, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinovitz in Tiv Hatorah. This is a crucial difference, for anyone at any time may be an ish kasher, and we have no way of knowing who it is from people around us. In fact, Rav Biederman citing the Sanzer Rebbe notes that when we refer to the 36 hidden tzadikim (the lamed vovniks) in whose merit the world continues to exist, these are not permanent tzadikim, but alternating, upright men among all the people who have overcome their yetzer horo. Therefore, each of us has within himself the characteristic of a king who is responsible for others as well as for himself. Rabbi Brazile writes, citing Rabbi Nachman of Breslov z”l, that each of us is a mini world ruling over all the limbs and organs of our bodies. When we allow Hashem to rule over us, He rules over our entire personal world and the world of those around us. In fact, when a boy becomes a bar mitzvah, his responsibility extends beyond himself to how his actions affect others. When a Jew serves God with all his strength, he creates paths for others to follow. Alternately, when a Jew misses the mark, there may be dire consequences.

To stress this point Rabbi Brazile relates an episode that had tremendous historical repercussions. A gentleman once came to the Chofetz Chaim z”l to ask for his blessing. The Chofetz Chaim z”l uncharacteristically started yelling for someone to remove him. The Chofetz Chaim z”l never wanted to see him again, for he had killed thousands of Jews. When the gentleman asked what the Chofetz Chaim z”l meant, the Chofetz Chaim z”l asked him if he was ever a Rebbe in a particular cheder. When the gentleman acknowledged that he had been in that position, the Chofetz Chaim z”l reminded him of a young boy in the school. This was a brilliant boy who was not learning. Instead of using his influence to improve the boy, this man had expelled the boy from the school. This boy was Leon Trotsky, one of the main fathers of Russian socialism/communism.

New we can explore our next question. Why does the Torah inform us that this was the season of the ripening of the grapes? Oznayim Latorah tells us that this phrase refers to a season for partying. Iyov’s children would go out partying every night, and each day, Iyov would then offer a sacrifice to Hashem and pray for atonement if his children had sinned the night before. He was the “tree” that protected his children. Each of us also has the ability to be a tree and pray for others. Was Iyov alive whose merit could protect others? Or, from a slightly different perspective, writes the Ohel Mosheciting the Zohar, was there someone who while living in the physical world could elevate it? If the spies themselves would have been worthy, writes the Chidushei HaRi”M, these grapes could have been elevated to inaugurate the bringing ofbikurim/first fruits offering.

Beginning with the concept of these two realms, we can expand our understanding to include the idea of an outer, visible, physical world that interacts with its surroundings versus an inner, invisible world that is more effective and concerned with the inner life, and doesn’t need the physical world to connect to Hashem. This is the duality the Tallelei Chaimexplores. By seeing what the spies brought back and what their report would be, Moshe would be able to determine if Bnei Yisroel were ready to live in the natural world after living in the spiritual bubble of the desert where all their needs were being filled miraculously.

To further explore this dichotomy, the Tallelei Chaim refers to the first description of our Matriarchs, Rachel and Leah. The verse tells us that, “Leah’s eyes were soft, while Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance.” Why does the Torah focus only on Leah’s eyes while seeming to give a fuller description of Rachel? The Tallelei Chaim then explains that these descriptions were meant to give us an insight into the persona of each of these women. Leah, whose eyes are windows to the soul, represented the person who found her mission within herself, in perfecting the inner world, while Rachel found her mission in interacting with the outside world and perfecting it.

Moshe and the desert generation, living as they did in a spiritual bubble, represented the world of Leah, while Rachel’s descendents were those who grappled and interacted with the outside world. Yosef, who went down to Egypt and became prime minister over that alien nation was Rachel’s son. Joshua, who would lead Bnei Yisroel into the Land and conquer it was a descendent of Rachel from the Tribe of Ephraim. These descendants of Rachel would dominate other nations, while Judah, son of Leah, was destined to rule over a relatively small state, Israel. Further, the spiritual aspects of the nation were mostly in the domain of Leah’s descendants, the Levites and the teachers of Issachar.

When Moshe asked the spies if there was a tree there, Moshe wanted to know if they would find the eitz hachaim/Tree of Life in the land. Would they be able to find God in the concealment of the physical world when their experience had always been to find God in the miraculous world. Even the terminology of this question echos a similar, earlier question. Here Moshe asks, “Hayesh boh eitz im ayin/Is there a tree within it or not.” After Bnei Yisroel had left Egypt, after miraculously receiving the manna and water from the rock, they asked, “Hayesh Hashem bekirbeinu im ayin/Is Hashem within us or not.” The two questions are really one: Can we relate to Hashem only when He reveals Himself to us, or can we relate to Him even when He is concealed in the natural world. That first question brought the attack from Amalek; the wrong answer her led to forty years of wandering in the desert.

All the spies could see was grapes on poles, the physical aspect. Only Yehoshua and Calev could see the Eitz Hachaim/the Tree of Life beyond the Eitz Hadaas/Tree of [physical, material] knowledge. But Calev, descended from Leah did not have the skills to lead the nation. That role was left for Yehoshua.

Hashem wants us to find His concealed presence in the physical world. He has implanted spirituality into the physical. The Torah in Genesis writes, “These are the products of the heaven and the earth behiborom/as He created them...” In the Hebrew text, the letter heh is written smaller than the rest of the text. Our Sages derive great significance in this detail, deducing that Hashem created the world with the symbolism of the letter heh. [Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is constructed from other letters, imbuing each with symbolic meaning. For example, the very first letter, aleph, is written with two yuds, one right side up and one upside down. These are connected with a diagonal vov. When adding the numerical valuation of these three components, we get 26, the numerical equivalent of the four lettered name of Hashem. CKS] Rabbi Feldman in The Juggler and the King explains the significance of this interpretation of the verse. The heh is constructed with a daled and a yud inserted at the bottom. The daled is formed by two perpendicular lines, forming an axis representing the physical world. The yud is basically just a point, representing the point of spirituality entering each aspect of the physical world. This indeed was the purpose if creation. Hashem wants us to put the yud into the daled.

But it is easy to fall out of this construct, for the opening at the bottom of the heh is quite large. Once one has fallen out of the spiritual aspect, it is much more difficult to climb back up into the small opening at the upper part of the heh. The spies, and subsequently Bnei Yisroel, were afraid that if they ventured out of their spiritual bubble, they would fall away from their connection to Hashem and would find it very difficult to climb back up to the spiritual window.

It is sometimes difficult to recognize Hashem’s presence in the world around us, but if we persist, Hashem will help us find and connect with Him. Each of us has the ability to be a tree, strong in our own right and capable of influencing others.