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On one of my trips to Israel, I decided to take a tour of the numerous wineries in the country’s northern region.  Israeli wines have been regularly winning international awards, competing with the finest wines from France and other countries, and I was interested in learning about this fabulously successful industry.

My tour guide himself was a wine producer.  I was intrigued by the fact that he brought me around to the various other wineries in the region – who were all, of course, in competition with him. 

When I asked him about this, he said, to my astonishment, “None of the wineries can produce enough wine to meet the demand.  Everything they produce is sold immediately.  There is a huge market for this wine.  And so there’s no competition.”

I proceeded to ask what the secret was.  Why are Israeli wines so good?

My guide explained that everything about the conditions in the region are perfectly suited for growing grapes.  The climate, the ground, the temperatures, the humidity – everything about the area is tailor-made for the production of wine.

“In fact,” he said, “you’d have to be an expert to produce anything less than perfect wine here.”

I present this exchange as an introduction to the story of the spies, which we read in the Torah this month – and, in truth, as an introduction to the summer vacation period, which begins this month.

Albeit inconspicuously, Israeli grapes seem to be a big part of the tragic story of the spies, who were sent to assess the Land of Israel and expected to bring back an exciting report about the great quality of the land.  Unfortunately, they did just the opposite – telling the people that the land was uninhabitable and that the native population was too powerful to defeat.  Grapes are mentioned early on in this story, when Moshe instructed the spies to collect samples of the land’s fruit.  He told them, “Vehithazaktem ulkahtem miperi ha’aretz – You shall be strong and take from the fruit of the land.”  The Torah immediately interjects: “vehayamim yemeh bikkureh anavim – and the days were the days of the first ripened grapes” (Bamidbar 13:20).

On the simple level, the Torah here is explaining to us why Moshe needed to urge the spies to be “strong.”  As the grape harvest was underway, the spies would be putting themselves at risk as foreign visitors taking some fruit while the native farmers were collecting their produce.  Moshe therefore reassured the spies that they had nothing to fear, as Gd would protect them during the risky operation they were asked to perform.

One Midrashic passage, however, seems to accord deeper significance to the season of the spies’ excursion.  The Midrash Peliah, a compendium of especially cryptic comments by the sages, remarks that the spies’ mission failed specifically because it occurred during the time of the grape harvest.

What does this mean?  What does the grape harvest have to do with the tragic failure of the spies?  How would this affect their reaction to the land, and their decision on how to report their findings?

The “Dark” Summer Days

The answer is provided by the great scholar and mystic Rav Shimshon of Ostropoli (d. 1648), who was martyred during the deadly Chmelnytsky massacres in Poland.  Drawing upon Kabbalistic teaching, Rav Shimshon explained that there are two periods during the year when the Satan possesses special power and thus poses an extra grave spiritual threat.  The first is during the month of Tevet, when there is little sunlight, the nights are long, and the weather is cold and dreary.  The second period is the opposite end of the seasonal calendar – the months of Tammuz and Av, the summer months.  These weeks are bright, sunny and warm, but are especially vulnerable to spiritual darkness.  This is a time when Satan is empowered and can more easily succeed in entrapping and luring us to stray from the proper path of behavior.

It is no coincidence that the greatest tragedies in Jewish history occurred during these two months.  Our annual period of mourning for the destruction of two Bateh Mikdash, as well as for other calamities that befell the Jewish Nation, is observed from the middle of Tammuz through the beginning of Av.  These months are a time of grave spiritual danger, and it is thus during this period when Satan has, unfortunately, enjoyed the greatest success.

Now the Torah tells us that the spies spent 40 days scouting the land, and according to Talmudic tradition, they arrived on Tisha B’Av – the ninth day of the month of Av.  This means, Rav Shimshon notes, that they embarked on their mission on the final day of Sivan, and the remainder of their mission took place during the two dangerous months of Tammuz and Av.

On this basis, Rav Shimshon explains the aforementioned Midrashic passage.  The spies fell prey to the Satan because they embarked on their mission during the period when Satan is most emboldened – the period of Tammuz and Av. 

This might explain, incidentally, why Rashi writes in his commentary to this story that at the time the spies left on their mission, they were righteous.  They departed, as mentioned, on the final day of Sivan – just before the onset of the month of Tammuz.  The period of the Satan’s empowerment had not yet set in, and so at that moment, they remained righteous.  They fell prey to the Satan’s lures afterward, once the dangerous summer period got underway.

Rav Shimshon adds that the letters of the word “anavim” (“grapes”) – ayin, nun, bet, mem – are preceded in the alphabet by the letters samech, mem, alef, lamed – the letters that spell the name of the Satan.  (This name is customarily not pronounced as written, and is referred to simply as “samech-mem.”)  The period of the grape harvest is associated with the Satan, because this is the time when the Satan has special power and is particularly dangerous – and for this reason, the Midrash Peli’a attributes the failure of the spies’ mission to the fact that it occurred during the “dark” summer days, when Satan is at the height of its strength.

This interpretation sheds new light on Moshe’s instruction to the spies: “Vehithazaktem – You shall be strong.”  Moshe realized that the spies were embarking on their mission during a time of spiritual challenge, and so he urged the spies to “be strong,” to prepare themselves for this danger, to commit themselves to avoid the pitfalls that would present themselves.  Tragically, the spies failed, leading to one of the great catastrophes of Jewish history.


The question remains, why would the Satan be associated with grapes?  Why is it specifically during the period of “bikkureh anavim” – the grape harvest – that Satanenjoys special power, and why is Satan’s name alluded to specifically in conjunction with the word “anavim”?

This question is addressed by the Keli Yakar(Rav Shlomo Efrayim of Luntshitz, 1550-1619), commenting to Parashat Vayishlah.  He explains that Satan’s name (which, as mentioned, is spelled samech, mem, alef, lamed)is derived from the root s.m.a., which refers to blindness.  This is Satan’s name because it perfectly captures the crux of Satan’s objective – to blind us. 

After all, what else is a sinful impulse, if not a form of blindness?  When we feel tempted, we are blinded to the evil of sin, and see it as something enjoyable and beneficial.  The Satan – our evil inclination – distorts our vision, presenting bad as good and good as bad.  It shows us that things like indulgence, laziness, pettiness and anger are good for us, and that things like restraint, self-sacrifice, flexibility and patience are bad for us.  It shows us that Shabbat observance is boring, outdated and unimportant, whereas forbidden Shabbat activities are fun or profitable.  It shows us that accumulating wealth is the ultimate goal, and that religious devotion just gets in the way.  It shows us that dishonesty in business is necessary because “this is how it’s done,” and scrupulous honesty is a ticket to failure.

This is what the Satandoes best – it blinds us to the truth.

Therefore, the Keli Yakarexplains, there is no more accurate symbol of the Satanthan the grape – from which wine is produced.  The Satanintoxicates like wine.  Alcohol dulls our senses and prevents us from seeing things rationally.  It makes us see things the wrong way.  It makes strange behavior seem normal, and normal behavior seem strange.  And this is exactly what the Satandoes – it intoxicates our senses, preventing us from seeing things the right way.  It makes us see vice as virtue and virtue as vice. 

Avoiding “Intoxication” in All Its Forms

Back in the Book of Beresheet, we read that right after the flood, Noah planted a vineyard, produced wine, drank, and became inebriated, eventually disgracing himself.  The Midrash relates that as Noah went to plant the vineyard, a certain shed (“demon,” or harmful spirit), one of Satan’s minions, approached him and said, “Let’s make a partnership.”  The shedthen warned, “But be careful not to cross into my territory – because once you do, I will hurt you.”

The Midrash means that when a person wishes to enjoy wine, he must exercise extreme care.  The joy of wine amounts to a risky “partnership” of sorts with the forces of evil.  If appropriate boundaries are not maintained, a person can get hurt.  Once a person crosses over the line, he falls into Satan’s trap, and becomes blind.  He doesn’t see properly.  He can no longer differentiate between right and wrong, between proper and improper, between good and evil.

There are many different kinds of “wine” that can blind us.  Of course, there are the familiar addictions that resemble alcoholism, such as drugs and gambling.  Once a person crosses over the line, he is trapped, as unfortunately happens all too often, devastating lives.  But there are also other types of “wine” that impair our vision.  Wealth and luxury, for example, can be “blinding.”  They turn large homes, expensive cars and fancy vacations into the end goal, with everything else relegated to secondary importance.  Social standing can blind us by convincing us that whatever the group values must be good, and so anything that wins their approval and admiration is appropriate.  Just as alcoholics ruin their lives in their frantic, unrestrained pursuit of drinks, so do many people ruin their lives by pursuing things like wealth, social approval and prestige at the expense of things which are so much more valuable and so much more important.

These are some of the types of “wine” to which we can fall prey, the tricks used by the Satan to ensnare us and lead us away from the true goals we ought to be pursuing.  And at no time are these tricks more effective than the summer weeks.

Confronting the Modern-Day Summertime Satan

The truth is, even before I read this illuminating piece by Rav Shimshon of Ostropoli, if somebody were to have asked me when Satan has the greatest power, I would have guessed the summer months.  Actually, it would have been a no-brainer.

It’s not at all hard to see the Satan’s special summertime power in our day and age.  For one thing, it is always around the beginning of Tammuz when the yeshivot close.  Thousands of impressionable children, who throughout the schoolyear are exposed to the sacred teachings of our Torah each day, are sent away from their studies for the two months of Tammuz and Av.  The hot weather of these months leads to drastically lower standards of modest attire.  The enjoyment of swimming leads to inappropriate interaction between the genders.  The vacation season leads people to travel to places where they have no access to shuls or kosher food.  The generally laidback atmosphere results in a laidback attitude towards religious observance. 

Summertime is Satan’s dream come true, and it is no coincidence.  Centuries ago, our rabbis taught us that Satan is very powerful during the summer.  And this power is on full display in our generation, each and every summer.  I have seen with my own eyes, to my great dismay, how people who are devoutly committed to proper religious standards throughout the year drastically lower their standards during the summer.  The Satan, it seems, might be no match for these people at other times during the year, but when the summer comes along, it gains the upper hand.

How do we deal with this challenge?  What can we do to overpower the Satan when it comes at us with all its might during the summer weeks?

The natural place to look is the two spies who avoided the Satan’s trap – Yehoshua and Kalev, who dissented from their peers and reportedly positively about the Land of Israel.  By revealing the secret to their success, we could perhaps find the key to our success in confronting our summertime Satan.

As for Yehoshua, the rabbis teach that before the spies left, Moshe uttered a special prayer for his beloved disciple, Yehoshua, asking Gd to protect him from the pressure of the other spies.  This is the first strategy we need to employ – prayer.

We must always be praying for our and our children’s spiritual wellbeing.  But in situations of danger, prayer becomes especially vital.  As the summer rolls around, we need to pray, and to pray earnestly, from the depths of our heart, that we and our precious children will remain strong and steadfast, and not succumb to the temptations presented by the summer months.

Kalev, we are told, went to Me’arat Hamachpelah in Hevron, the gravesite of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov.  He went to draw strength from these remarkable personalities, who serve as inspiring role models for maintaining our commitment under pressure.  Avraham stood against the entire world in promoting the belief in one Gd.  Yitzhak was prepared to sacrifice his life to fulfill Gd’s command.  And Yaakov endured great hardship for most of his life, yet all throughout he never doubted Gd and remained wholeheartedly devoted to continue his work of building the Jewish Nation. 

We, too, can draw strength and inspiration from our forebears, from the religious commitment of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who remained true to their faith under very difficult conditions.  Just as they overcame the challenges that stood in their way, so are we able to overcome our own challenges, and continue living the right way despite the pressures and lures that we face.

It is no coincidence that Parashat Shelah, the story of spies, is read every year just before the summer.  We, no less than the spies themselves, need to hear Moshe’s command, “Vehithazaktem,” to be strong, to be steadfast, to be firm, to be resolute, and not to fall prey to the temptations of the “grapes of summer.”