Imagine a plumber who puts on a white robe and a surgical mask, places a stethoscope around his neck, and walks into the operating room to perform open-heart surgery. Or a heart surgeon who picks up a tool box, walks into someone’s home and gets under the sink to repair a pipe.
Once we realize the absurdity of these scenes, we can begin to understand the mistake made by the ten spies sent by Moshe, as we read in the Torah this month.
Doing the Wrong Job
Before Beneh Yisrael were to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe sent twelve men into the land to see what it and its inhabitants were like. Upon their return from their excursion, ten of spies frightened the nation, claiming that the Canaanite armies were too powerful to be defeated, and there was no chance of capturing the land. Only two spies – Yehoshua and Kalev – insisted on trusting in Gd’s promise that He would help Beneh Yisrael capture and settle the Promised Land. The people panicked, and declared that they would not proceed into the land where they would – according to the ten spies – be routed by the native Canaanites.
Gd reacted angrily, killing the ten spies, and decreeing that Beneh Yisrael would wander through the desert for 40 years before entering the land.
There are numerous important lessons to be learned from this tragic episode, but I would like to focus on one particular aspect of the story.
The Torah says about the 12 spies, “kulam anashim,” which Rashi explains to mean that they were distinguished, righteous men. Moshe chose for this mission people of the highest caliber. Yet, they failed – because they did a job they weren’t asked to do, and weren’t supposed to do.
Their job was to get the people excited about the land, to tell them about the special qualities of Eretz Yisrael, about what a unique land it is. They were not asked to give an opinion as to whether Beneh Yisrael had the military capabilities to defeat the Canaanites. This was already assured by Gd, and was not something which they or anyone else had to decide. But the spies assumed for themselves this role – the role of military analysts, who were to give their assessment about the prospects of capturing the land.
In other words, they walked into the operating room to perform surgery without having gone to medical school.
Understanding the psychology underlying this mistake is crucial for learning the lesson of this tragic story. What happened to the spies is that their ego got in the way of their job. They wanted to feel important, and so they assumed for themselves a role which they were not meant to fill. They wanted to experience the power of decision-making, of determining
national policy, rather than humbly accept the role they were given, to report on the land’s greatness. It was this quest for honor and distinction that led to the spies’ tragic downfall.
The Lesson of Earthenware
This unfortunate episode directly contrasts with the successful spy mission carried out 39 years later, just before Beneh Yisrael crossed the Jordan River into the Land of Israel. As we read in the haftarah for Parashat Shelah, Yehoshua (Moshe’s successor) sent two men – identified by our Sages as Pinhas and Kalev – into the city of Yeriho (Jericho), the first city which Beneh Yisrael would conquer, to get a feel for the city and its population. This mission was successful, with the two spies learning that the people of Yeriho were petrified of Beneh Yisrael and realized that they would soon be vanquished.
The Midrash teaches that the two spies entered Yeriho disguised as potters – merchants selling earthenware utensils. (This is alluded to by the verse which tells of these men being sent “heresh – secretly.” The word “heresh” can be punctuated such that it is read “heres – earthenware.”) Of all the many different disguises which they could have chosen, they dressed themselves specifically as potters. The commentators explain the significance of this particular disguise based on a unique halachic feature of earthenware utensils. Functional utensils are susceptible to tum’ah (halachic impurity), but the way earthenware utensils attain tum’ah differs from the way all other utensils become tameh (impure). Other utensils become tameh when a source of impurity (such as a human corpse) touches its surface. An earthenware utensil, however, becomes tameh only when the source of impurity enters its space; if the source of impurity touches its exterior, it does not become impure. The reason is that other materials are intrinsically valuable; metal, for example, is a valuable commodity even before it is made into a utensil, and thus touching the metal brings impurity. Earthenware, however, is made from earth; the material itself has no value. The utensil’s value stems solely from its having been made into a receptacle, such that it serves a functional purpose. Hence, it is defiled not when a source of impurity touches it, but rather when a source of impurity enters the space of the receptacle, which is what gives it its value and worth.
The human being, like an earthenware vessel, is made from earth, as the Torah tells (“afar min ha’adamah” – Beresheet 2:7). A person’s value lies not in his physical being, but rather in his “functionality” – his serving the purpose for which he was created. If we are not “functional,” living our lives for the sake of fulfilling the mission for which we were sent into this world, then we are just “earth,” with no worth or value.
Unlike the ten spies sent by Moshe, the spies sent by Yehoshua fulfilled their mission without allowing their ego to get in the way. They went to Yeriho as “potters” – understanding the lesson of earthenware utensils, that their value lies solely in the fulfillment of the job assigned to them. Their mission succeeded because they did not try to extend beyond their mission. They humbly adhered to the job assigned to them, without seeking to usurp a role that was not theirs to perform.
Doing Our Job
In our Rosh Hashanah prayers, we fearfully acknowledge that on this day, Gd judges “ma’aseh ish ufkudato – a man’s actions and his mission.” This has been explained to mean that we are not simply judged, but we are judged in relation to the mission assigned to us. We are all brought into the world with certain talents, skills, strengths and capabilities. No
two people are born with the precise same skill set, because each person is given a unique, individual mission that nobody else can fulfill except him. We are to humbly accept our mission and make an effort to fulfill it to the best of our ability.
Unfortunately, as in the case of the spies, the ego sometimes gets in the way. Instead of sticking to the job assigned to them, people start looking to do other jobs which they feel will bring them more fame and prestige. They focus not on fulfilling their role, but rather on earning the esteem of other people. They thus betray the purpose for which they came into the world in the vain, foolish pursuit of honor and notoriety.
What a shame it would be if we fail to fulfill our Gd-given mission because we want to be noticed and respected.
Let us imagine that the leading rabbi of the generation would ask us for a simple favor, such as to buy for him a pack of tissues from the grocery store. Would any of us refuse to do the job, viewing it as beneath our dignity? Of course not! No matter how simple the favor was, we would be thrilled and honored to fulfill the request of a Torah luminary.
Well, Gd Himself has asked each of us to do a job. We all have certain natural skills, and certain activities to which we are naturally drawn, which can be channeled productively in the service of Gd, of the Jewish People, and the world. The very fact that Gd commissioned us for this job suffices to make the job honorable and the greatest possible privilege.
Certainly, it is not always easy to determine what our unique mission is. We do not have prophets to reveal to us our special role. We need to figure it out on our own, based on an honest assessment of our individual skills and interests. What we must never do, though, is make this determination based on ego, choosing the path that we feel will bring us fame and honor. We were not brought to the world to earn popularity and draw attention to ourselves; to the contrary, the desire for popularity and attention distracts us from fulfilling our mission.
The reason this is so challenging is because we have an ingrained misconception that importance is measured by fame and popularity; we intuitively feel that the more people know about us and about what we’re doing, the more important we are. But this is entirely incorrect. What makes us important is our fulfilling our mission in the world, regardless of how many people know about it.
If we want to make the most of our limited time on earth, we need to get our ego out the way. We need to live the life we are supposed to live, and not the life that will earn us popularity or make us famous. Let us, then, stay focused on our mission, and not on the vain pursuit of fame and recognition, realizing that there is no greater privilege than doing the work that Gd wants us to do.