Don’t Let Go of Your Lifeline!
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber
At the end of last week’s Torah reading, an episode transpired in which Miriam spoke disparagingly about her brother Moses, and was subsequently punished with Tzara’as (a unique skin disease). This week’s Torah reading begins with the story of the Meraglim (The Spies). As the Jewish nation was nearing the Land of Israel, they sent spies to advise them as to the best way to conquer the land. Ten out of the twelve spies came back with a negative report, badmouthing the land. They said that the Promised Land is impossible to conquer and is of inferior quality. This was a grave sin on their part. Since God had promised the Land of Israel to the Jews as a most wonderful and supreme land, their words contradicted that of the Almighty in a most negative way, and they were punished accordingly.
Our sages ask (see Rashi), “Why did the Torah place this story specifically right after the story with Miriam, [instead of following the sequence of events]?” The Medrash answers that the Torah wants to highlight the severity of their conduct. Despite the fact that these people had witnessed Miriam being punished for speaking inappropriately, they did not take Mussar (lessons in character improvement and ethical behavior) from what they saw. They did not apply to themselves the lesson that they should have learned from her experience. The Medrash (Tanchuma, 16) describes the importance of incorporating Mussar in a most dramatic way. The Medrash compares it to one who falls into the sea, and the ship captain throws him a rope and says, “Don’t let go of the rope! If you let go of the rope you will not survive!” This is the significance that Mussar has to man, as the verse says (Proverbs 4:13), “Hold on to Mussar and don’t let go, guard it for it is your life.” One who does not pay attention to Mussar will drown spiritually. The only hope man has to rise above spiritual deterioration is by learning lessons of Mussar. The Spies were very great men, but they fell enormously because they did not apply Mussar to themselves.
A professor once conducted a study about millionaires. He assembled a team to research two hundred and fifty millionaires, to learn what was the secret that set them apart from the others. The results of the study showed, that to these people, almost everything and anyone became insignificant if they stood in their way of attaining their goal of amassing wealth. Understandably, they were all involved in lawsuits – except for one. There was one single person who was not involved in any lawsuits and got along well with all his employees and family members. The team was curious about this one exception. They arranged an interview with this individual, and posed their bewilderment to him. “The truth of the matter is that I used to be just like them,” answered the man. He then proceeded to tell the tale of how he changed. He had gone with other businessmen on a business trip to a few countries, including Israel. In addition to the business they conducted, they also went touring. On their last day in Israel, their tour guide brought them the Mir Yeshivah (a school for Talmud study). The group was amazed at what they saw. There were about six thousand students studying diligently on a relatively small campus, with only a few dozen faculty members. Moreover, they were surprised to learn that the entire operation was overseen by a single individual – the Rosh Yeshivah (dean), Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel. The tour guide then proceeded to take them to meet the Rosh Yeshivah. One of the businessmen asked the Rosh Yeshiva, “We all run large corporations, and we don’t understand how you run such a large school in such limited space and with such few members of authority. How do you do it?” Rabbi Nosson Tzvi responded, “What’s the difference between an animal and a human being? The difference is that when an animal has an urge, the animal will do whatever it takes to get what it desires, without consideration of anything that’s in its way. Man on the other hand, can consider the feelings of others, and even put the desires of others before his own. In our school, everyone cares for the needs and desires of others, and that is the key to efficiency.” That was when this rich man realized that his whole life he was wrong. He took the Rabbi’s words to heart, and from then on he decided to be a man, not an animal, and prioritize respecting others over making money.
Learning and applying lessons of Mussar is the only way to keep ourselves from sinking into the temptations and the unethical views surrounding us in this world. Ideally, one should set aside time on a regular basis to study Mussar teachings. Throughout life, there are many Mussar lessons that we can learn from various experiences. We can ill afford to not pay attention to them.