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Keeping the Faith in Chutz La-Aretz

By: Rabbi Yitzchak Lerner

Rav Yitz Lerner

Just after Bnei Yisrael lose their chance to enter Eretz Yisrael for not refuting the report of the Meraglim, we find a very unusual episode in the Torah: the story of the “mekoshesh etzim,” a man found transgressing Shabbat, apparently by carrying sticks in the public domain. His fate was capital punishment for desecrating Shabbat.  What does this have to do with the story of the spies?

A few weeks from now, we will read Parshat Pinchas, which includes the story of the daughters of Tzlofchad, five sisters who did not have a brother and requested to inherit their father’s portion in the Land of Israel. “Why should the name of our father be left out? Give us his portion in the Land of Israel,” they argued to Moshe. God agreed that they were correct and instructed that they receive the land. 

Who was Tzlofchad, the father of these women? Rabbi Akiva tells us (Shabbat 96) that he was none other than the “mekoshesh etzim,” the stick carrier of Parshat Shelach. Rabbi Yehuda objects strongly: “Why did you identify the mekoshesh etzim? If you’re mistaken, you are transgressing “Motzei Shem Ra,” spreading a pernicious falsehood; and even if you’re right, the Torah itself does not tell us who this person was, so what gives you the right to reveal his identity?

Perhaps the answer to this question may be found in a midrash cited by Tosfot (Baba Batra 119). The Medrash asserts that the mekoshesh etzim was not simply a Sabbath-breaker – instead, he was acting “le-shem Shamayyim,” for the sake of heaven. Before the episode of the Spies, the Jews had been destined to enter Israel immediately, and they thought that of the Torah as applying to us only to be kept inside the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael. Once they were condemned to spend the next forty years in the desert, the Jews thought that the Torah did not have to kept, since we were not going to be entering the Land! They were heartbroken at the thought that the Torah would not have relevance in their lives.

This man, the mekoshesh etzim – a man, who according to one opinion in the Talmud, just carried a few sticks – wanted to show the people that Torah is still relevant and still must be kept even outside Eretz Yisrael. He was willing to sacrifice his life by carrying in the public domain just to get this message across. By naming the mekoshesh, Rabbi Akiva was not defaming him, but quite the opposite, giving him recognition for his great self-sacrifice.

It can be easily argued that the survival of the Jews through this long and bitter diaspora in which we find ourselves is due to our diligence through the years in keeping Torah and mitzvot even in Chutz La-Aretz. This is what kept us Jewish and stopped us from being absorbed into the larger culture of the world around us. It was Torah and mitzvot that gave us the longing to return to Eretz Yisrael after two thousand years. The ultimate goal, of course, is for Jews to be keeping Torah in the Land of Israel, but one should never underestimate the power of Torah in every place we find ourselves.  Good Shabbos!




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