Mordechai Soskil

Theological Pretzels

One of the great enigmas of Parshas Shelach, and in fact in Sefer Bamidbar in general, are the hard transitions from narrative sections to sections of law. The main part of this weeks parsha is, of course, the story of the spies that bring back a bad report, the reaction of the Jewish people, the reaction of Hashem to their reaction, and the reaction of the Jewish people to Hashem’s reaction to their reaction with the incident of the Mapiliim – the group of Jews who try to invade Israel despite being told that it won’t work by Moshe. But then we have this hard transition to a section of law without any attempt to soften that transition with a segue of some kind. The first set of laws in this section is about Nesachim – the offerings of flour and oil and the wine libation that accompanied almost every Korban.

So what’s up with that?

As you probably know, a dvar Torah usually fits one of a few formats, one of which is:

  • Quote from the parsha
  • Some question
  • An answer that will be rejected
  • A new source or contemporary anecdote
  • Explanation how that new source/anecdote better answers the original question
  • Some practical takeaway in faith or middot or something.

This Dvar Torah won’t fit that pattern because I have neither a definitively better source nor a practical takeaway. (You’re probably wondering, “So why are you writing, Mordechai?” Yeah, me too.) I have an insight I want to share but I’m not sure it’s true yet. I’m curious what you think.

The answer I’ll “reject” (though that’s entirely too strong a word) is the common thought that these laws are here as an assurance to the Jewish people that despite the set-backs in this week’s misadventure they will still reach the Promised Land where these laws apply.  Ok, but why THESE laws? There are a lot of laws like that. Why not Shemita/Yovel or Ir Hanidachas?  [In case you’re keeping track, I have checked #’s 1,2, and 3 off that Dvar Torah Format Checklist.]

To start this insight we need to take a trip, [Yay! Road Trip! You get the snacks, I’ll pick the music!] all the way back to Eden. You’ll no doubt recall that Adom and Chava are kicked out of The Garden for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  From this story I want to share two points. The first is that the Gemorah in Sanhedrin has a discussion about what type of fruit that was. Two of the more unusual answers suggested are wine/grapes and wheat. The evidence the Gemorah offers for wine is, “Is there any fruit that has done more damage to mankind than wine?” Just like we see wine destructive now, we can conclude that it must have been the agent of destruction back then. For wheat the Gemorah offers the thought that we see wheat cursed along with Adom just a few verses later (with that whole sweat-of-the-brow-to-eat-bread thing) and if wheat is caught up in the punishment it must also have been part of the sin.

The second aspect of the Adom/Chava/Snake/Tree story I want to bring to mind is the discussion of the philosophers and mystics regarding WHY Adom sinned. Cutting this deep and interesting discussion into a Buzzfeed headline sized insight, Rav Dessler suggests that Adom sinned because it would help him serve G-d better. Let me unpack that a tiny bit. The nachash was the evil inclination, right? So Adom didn’t have an internal drive for physical pleasure the way that you and I do. If you think the text says that they saw the treat was beautiful and tasty and so they ate from it, then you need to stop reading the children’s comic version of the Torah they gave you in kindergarten and read the actual text.  וַתֵּ֣רֶא הָֽאִשָּׁ֡ה כִּ֣י טוֹב֩ הָעֵ֨ץ לְמַאֲכָ֜ל וְכִ֧י תַֽאֲוָה־ה֣וּא לָעֵינַ֗יִם וְנֶחְמָ֤ד הָעֵץ֙ לְהַשְׂכִּ֔יל וַתִּקַּ֥ח מִפִּרְי֖וֹ וַתֹּאכַ֑ל וַתִּתֵּ֧ן גַּם־לְאִישָׁ֛הּ עִמָּ֖הּ וַיֹּאכַֽל׃

She saw that the tree was good for eating and a desire to the eyes, but she didn’t take it yet.  Because Chava was not a base character chasing after every luxurious pleasure she saw advertised in Mishpacha magazine. But when she realized that it was a desirable source of wisdom, she took it. And Adom ate as well, but not because it was featured in Wisk. So if it wasn’t a physical desire that tripped them up it was an intellectual error. Rav Dessler explains Adom’s thoughts like this. If a person is always righteous and does G-d’s word, does that demonstrate G-d as King? Sure. If a person is a sinner though, and he leaves his sin in order to demonstrate through hard work and self-abnegation that he has to show fidelity to the law, doesn’t that show G-d even MORE as king? It surely would because it’s more work! Therefore, he ate the fruit in order to serve G-d from “far away.”  The error of course is, G-d doesn’t want you to twist yourself into a theological pretzel to serve Him. Just do what you were asked.

Until now, two aspects of the Garden; what the fruit was and why Adom sinned.  Okey dokey.

There is another story I want to bring to mind. Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring a “foreign fire” before Hashem during the Mishkan’s inauguration and they are killed for it. Immediately after that story the Torah makes a [somewhat less] hard transition to law and discusses the prohibition for a Kohen to serve in the Mishkan/Beit Hamikdash after they drank wine.  What was the sin of Nadav and Avihu? Rav Dessler quotes 14 answers to that question in Chazal. Rav Dessler teaches a yesod – whenever you see Chazal with so many different answers to something like this, they aren’t arguing exactly. They agree on the main idea but are expressing it in different ways. In the case of Nadav and Avihu, they wanted to do MORE than what was commanded for them to do. Whatever the specifics of that are, they wanted to express themselves personally in the service. In and of itself that doesn’t sound so bad, BUT the Mishkan is a place of accepting Hashem as King and Creator, and if we add to the law then who is really in charge? There are times when we can say our own prayer and decorate the succah in our own style, but in those days of dedication of the mishkan, especially in the wake of the Golden Calf, those were days of obedience and not creativity. They may have thought that they can do an even greater service of Hashem by adding onto His word, and that it would be even better because they thought of it themselves and didn’t speak to Moshe for approval. But then who was really in charge of that service, them or Moshe?  One of the lessons is that Hashem doesn’t want you to think yourself into a theological pretzel, just listen.  And right after that we have a mitzvah connected to wine.  In this case it’s a “don’t do something with wine” mitzvah.

Then in our parsha, everyone is told that as a result of the way people dealt with the spies report they would not be permitted to enter The Land (except for the exceptions.) And the next day a group of Jews decide that they are going anyway. Moshe says, “Don’t go! It won’t work. I’m not there, you don’t have the aron, G-d isn’t with you and you are violating His command.” But they go and unsurprisingly they are decimated. Why would they go through with this “Picket’s Charge” level of military ineptness? My suggestion is they thought that the sin of the spies was that they didn’t have faith. And now they are going to fix that by having faith. And even though Moshe said that it won’t work, that just gives them the chance to prove HOW MUCH faith they had! They had so much faith in Hashem that even though He said it won’t work, they have Super-Faith to believe that it will work. In fact, their violating of the word of Hashem is itself the highest degree of faith that they can have! And maybe that’s the biggest theological pretzel we’ve met so far because what Hashem wants is for us to listen to Moshe and the Torah and not whatever hubris tainted calculations we come up with.

And immediately after that story we get a mitzvah about wine. And in this case, a mitzvah of flour too. And these are “do something” with the wine type mitzvah.

And that maybe checks off #4 from the Dvar Torah Format Checklist.

The problem is that I’m not at all sure that this is true. Maybe I just wanted to write the words “theological pretzel” so I’m seeing them everywhere.  And even if it is true, I’m not 100% sure I can explain why these stories are followed by wine laws. I’m just thinking that maybe since these are all aspects of the first sin of Adom that they also need a “tikkun” of sorts using the object of that first sin. So I’m really unsure if this is a #5 from that checklist.

And in terms of a #6 – a practical lesson from this new source – who am I to say what is a legitimate use of your personality and creativity and what is theological pretzel making?  One thing that has helped me stay [mostly] away from giving in to the Dark Side has been speaking with a rebbe and [mostly] listening to my wife. But I’m sure it’s pretty easy to sit two seats to the right of me and say that I’m no better than one of those misguided if well meaning Jews that charged forward without G-d’s presence. And I know that I’m not immune from those judgements of others as well.

That’s why I think this isn’t a particularly good Dvar Torah. But it’s kinda interesting, right? What do you think?

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.
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