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Monday, 11 July 2016

Standing up for Heaven's Honour

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 40


Prior to entering the land of Canaan, Moshe sends twelve spies to survey the routes and navigate the most expedient and strategic approach to the takeover.  Unfortunately, however, the spies overstep their authority; instead of returning with a military strategy, they present an entirely negative view of the Israelites’ ability to execute a successful conquest.

They’re in the midst of engendering a revolt against Moshe’s leadership, when suddenly one lone spy speaks up.  Calev declares, “If Hashem has desired us, He has brought us to this land and given it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey!  But do not rebel against Hashem and ye shall not fear the people of the land!”

What a risky move.  Calev, together with Moshe’s assistant Yehoshua, finds himself surrounded by angry Israelites holding rocks, ready to hurl at these optimists.  But at the eleventh hour, sure enough, they are saved, and Calev is promised a special portion in the land that he so courageously stood up for.  The other spies are punished immediately; and those who followed their skepticism are condemned to wandering for forty years, and ultimately perishing, in the wilderness.

The Rabbis taught: If one borrowed an ox assuming it to be tame, but it ended up being wild and causing damage, the owner must pay half the damages and the borrower must pay half the damages.
The Gemara asks: Why should the borrower pay anything?  He should simply say, ‘I borrowed an ox, I didn’t borrow a lion!’

Our Sages tell us, “One must always be like a yoked ox.”   An ox simply accepts the yoke placed upon it, no questions asked.  It goes along the path it is being directed upon, without veering to the right or to the left.

Likewise, we are enjoined to accept the yoke of Heaven upon ourselves and perform the bidding of our Master.  Sometimes we understand what we are doing; other times we put our head down and accept the will of our Creator.  In fact, according to the Kabbalists, the highest level of spiritual achievement is when we perform the ‘rational’ mitzvos with the same subservience to the will of G-d as we perform those mitzvos we don’t comprehend!

At the same time that we must be like an ox, however, Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima, in Pirkei Avos, instructs us that we must “be as mighty as a lion . . . to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”  What does he mean?

Although our general approach should be to put our head down, accept the yoke of Heaven, and get on with the task of serving G-d; sometimes we are called upon to stand up for what is right.  Sometimes when the honour of Torah and the glory of Heaven are under attack, we must be willing to pull our heads out of the yoke of unthinking subservience, and become the king of the spiritual jungle!

And yet, not very many are prepared to do that.  When the going gets tough, most people turn their eyes Heavenward and exclaim, ‘I borrowed an ox, I didn’t borrow a lion.’  It’s much easier to look down and continue ploughing away.  You simply say to yourself, ‘I’m here to do my job.  I’ll place blinders on to the world around me and not get distracted.  It’s really not my problem.’

But when Hashem’s honour is at stake, looking away is not an option.  The mighty lion roars and proclaims the truth, as unpopular as such a stance may be.   Calev could have just opted to ‘go with the flow.’  But he knew that Heaven was under siege.

And you know what?  When you take that important stance for Heaven, you become a leader and others will follow.  There’s a reason why oxen are not called the kings of the field, but the lion is the undisputed king of the jungle.   Leaders take courageous positions; followers put their heads down and wait to see which way the wind will blow.


Calev took an unpopular stand for the Land of Israel.  In the end he was rewarded with a special portion in the land in his lifetime and for all eternity.  May you put your head down and accept the yoke of Heaven when that is the appropriate for course of action, but may you find the courage to roar like a lion when the glory of Heaven is under attack!