“Deranged Individuals” Parashat Shelach 5776

It was a classic case of the question being much better than the answer. But first, some background.

Parashat Shelach tells the story of the “Stick Gatherer”, a strange story about a strange person who committed a strange deed [Bemidbar 15:32-35]: “The Children of Israel were in the desert and they found a man gathering sticks on Shabbat. They brought him, those that found him, to Moshe, to Aharon, and to the entire assembly. They left him in jail because it was not clear what should be done to him. Hashem said to Moshe ‘Take the man outside of the camp and stone him…’”. Who is this “stick gatherer”? The Torah does not divulge his identity. Why was he gathering sticks on Shabbat? It is unclear. And what is the Halachic problem with gathering sticks on Shabbat? It is clear that it has something to do with the desecration of Shabbat but it is unclear under which of the thirty-nine categories of prohibited activities (melachot) “gathering sticks” falls. The whole episode is one big question mark and the commentators have spent the last couple of thousand years trying to explain precisely what happened.

Rashi, commenting on the first verse of the episode, sheds some light. Quoting from the Midrash, he says “This verse speaks to Am Yisrael’s detriment – that they only kept [as a nation] the first Shabbat they were given, and this man came along and desecrated the second Shabbat”. Here’s where the question comes in. Rav Yishai Chasida, writing in “Karmei Yisrael”, asks why Rashi is being so antagonistic towards Am Yisrael. At the end of the day, it was only one “deranged individual” who desecrated the Shabbat. As soon as he was captured he was thrown into jail and one day later he was summarily executed. One would think that the reaction of Am Yisrael was laudable. Where are the accolades?

Rav Chasida answers by quoting the Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva [3:4] who says that a person should always look at the world as if it is on the precipice of destruction. If he sins, the world will be destroyed and if he does not sin, the world will be spared. For this reason, even one sin of one person can have catastrophic results. With all due respect, Rav Chasida’s question still remains largely unanswered. I’d like to offer an alternate path.

The Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra [119b][1] brings the story of the Stick Gatherer, not as a stand-alone episode, but in reference to another question: Who was the enigmatic Tzlofchad, a man who [Bemidbar 27:3] “died in the desert” leaving four righteous daughters who wanted to inherit his portion in the Land of Israel[2]? The Talmud brings a number of suggestions, one of which is that Tzlofchad was the Stick Gatherer. The Talmud spends the next page or so showering praise upon the Daughters of Tzlofchad. Tosafot [D”H Afilu], quoting from the Midrash[3], suggests that the episode of the Stick Gatherer occurred shortly after the episode of the spies, in which Am Yisrael were sentenced to forty years wandering in the wilderness. According to the Midrash, the Stick Gatherer desecrated the Shabbat “for the Sake of Heaven”. Imagine the state of mind in the camp after they receive what amounts to a death sentence. They will never enter the Land of Canaan. They are doomed to spend the next forty years essentially waiting to die. The leading emotion is despair. We’re all gonna die. Why bother living? There was a clear and present danger that in their despair Am Yisrael might possibly jettison Torah and mitzvot. And so the Stick Gatherer publically desecrated Shabbat, knowing that he would be put to death, just so that his death could serve as a wakeup-call to the rest of the nation[4]. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

It is clear that Moshe Rabbeinu was aware of the threat of Am Yisrael leaving Torah and mitzvot by the wayside: Who were the people who found the Stick Gatherer and who brought him to Moshe? The Midrash explains that Moshe appointed people to enforce the laws of Shabbat. Their job was to find and to root out Shabbat violations. I suggest that this Midrash is connected to the Midrash quoted by the Tosafot. Precisely because there was a clear threat that people might become estranged from Hashem and His mitzvot, Moshe made certain that there were people whose job it was to prevent such an occurrence.

Now we can return to Rav Chasida’s question. Rashi’s antagonism towards Am Yisrael is not arbitrary – it is firmly based in logic. Moshe knew that the nation was in complete and utter despair. He suspected that Shabbat observance would be the first mitzvah to go[5] and he set up a mechanism to pre-empt such an occurrence. The Stick Gatherer was overwhelmed by the extent of the people’s apathy, and considered the danger of a complete spiritual breakdown so great that he was willing to give his life so that the others would receive a jolt that they would not soon forget. The Stick Gatherer was not a lone gunman. His actions brought to the fore the dire state of affairs in the camp of a nation on the verge of collapse.

The world is scared stiff of the Islamic State (IS)[6]. These are people who will stop at nothing to create an Islamic Caliphate that will eventually, or so they hope and pray, dominate the world. The past eight months have seen spectacular terrorist attacks orchestrated and carried out by IS around the world: Paris in November, San Bernardino in December, Brussels in March, and most recently, two weeks ago in Orlando. It’s interesting how differently people are reacting to these acts of terror. The Europeans are trying to lock the barn door after the horses have bolted. After years of unfettered immigration and a willingness to bend over backwards to accommodate Islamic extremism, the Europeans are bringing out the gendarmerie, cracking down on illegal immigration, and trying to locate sleeper cells. The Europeans have a problem and they know it. Angela Merkel was quoted as saying “The strongest response to terrorists is to carry on living our lives and our values as we have until now – self-confident and free, considerate and engaged. We Europeans will show our free life is stronger than any terror.” Her response might be simplistic, but it acknowledges the problem.

Across the Atlantic things are different. This week President Obama said that the massacres in San Bernardino and Orlando were conducted by “deranged individuals warped by the hateful propaganda that they had seen over the Internet”. The answer, asserts the President, is in gun control. Keep the guns away from the deranged people and this nastiness will all go away. The President would have us believe that had somebody gone out and cleaned the street of sticks, then the Stick Gatherer would never have been able to perform his pernicious act of public Shabbat violation. Rashi would disagree. Rashi would point at the September 11 attacks, the explosive growth of Islamic extremism, and the repeated calls for the destruction of “The Great Satan”. He would have suggested that had the sticks been cleaned up then the Stick Gatherer would have found some other way to publically desecrate the Shabbat. Syed Rizwan Farook and Omar Mateen might have been “deranged individuals”, but they were not “lone gunmen”. They are the face – today – of a much deeper malaise, a malaise that unless it is recognized and addressed, could be terminal.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.

[1] See also the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [86b].

[2] See Bemidbar [Chapter 27].

[3] Tosafot rarely quote from the Midrash. This is a big deal, here.

[4] Sinning so that another can live seems to run counter to the normative halacha, which rules that your life is nearly always more important than anyone else’s life, and that you cannot die so that he might live. Further, a person who desecrates Shabbat not to benefit from his desecration (melacha she’ayna tzricha legufa) is not completely desecrating Shabbat, at least not in a way that warrants the death penalty. These questions are interesting, but not relevant to our shiur.

[5] Historically, when Jews have left Judaism en masse, the first ritual to go is usually Shabbat.

[6] ISIS, ISIL, Da’esh, whatever…

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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