CHECK IT OUT Sh’lakh l’kha – Numbers 13-15 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

CHECK IT OUT Sh’lakh l’kha – Numbers 13-15


You get a call from your friend, or an employee, or a member of your family, advising you of an opportunity. A home for sale in a neighborhood you like. You are interested. So you suggest: check it out.

Depending on how that person goes about checking out the prospective purchase, you may or may not want to make an offer on it. For example, here’s one kind of report:

The house looks solid enough. Roomy, too. It has a big yard
with fruit trees. In fact, we picked a couple of lemons and this
avocado — not bad, eh? Can’t get in to see the inside because

the agent demands an accepted offer first. It’s been painted
recently, so the price is very firm. Questionable neighborhood.
Right down the street we saw some grafitti. Kids

wearing their hats backwards. May be gang infested.

And here’s another:

Got talking with the lady next door. Found out the owner is
very anxious to sell. Open to any offer. Just modernized the
kitchen and redecorated, and then got transferred to the east

coast. So he has no cash on hand to put down on a home there.
Anyone with a large down payment can write their own ticket.
Neighborhood Watch is very effective; no major problems.

Are these two people talking about the same house? Sure they are. Just as the two groups of spies we can read about in this Torah portion, and in its Haftorah, the corresponding prophetic reading in the book of Joshua. They were both talking about the same country.  An important difference is how they “checked it out.”

The 12 spies Moses sends out are princes.  Executives.  Commissioned officers.  They follow accepted procedures – sample the fruit, assess the strength of the fortifications, take note of the appearance of the local population.  If they only had video, maybe they could bring back picture and sound to back up their report of 50-foot-high walls and men of giant size.  By a vote of 10 to 2, they convince the people that Canaan can’t be conquered.

The 2 spies Joshua sends are different. One is 80-year-old Caleb – the only other surviving member of the original checker-outers and one of the dissenting minority (Joshua himself being the other dissenter). The second spy is a youth of 18. One chosen for courage, the other for wisdom. They don’t take notes and they don’t bring samples. They spend the night with Rahab, whom the Talmud identifies as one of the four most beautiful women in history. Her occupation is innkeeper, providing accommodations to travelers. From the Hebrew word zonah we gather that she provides other comforts too.

Either way, she has ample opportunity to gauge the spirit of the population. She trades her inside information for a guarantee of safety, and the two spies return with a message: Piece of cake. Chances are, neither report is 100% accurate. But the contrast is phenomenal. The negative report here brings on 40 years in the desert. The positive report in the Book of Joshua empowers the people. They proceed to take over Jericho in a week.

How do we go about checking out our opportunities? Do we suffocate them by overanalyzing the difficulties? And does that make them look insurmountable?

Am I too old to learn to use a computer? After all, I’m not even a good typist, and computer science is as foreign to me as Swahili. I don’t have money to spend on computer software that can become obsolete in half an hour — let alone all the furniture that goes under the equipment! I’d better stay in the lead pencil desert for another 40 years.

Do I have the discipline to change my health habits? After all, those exercise machines are really no better than a good walk around the block, are they? Didn’t you hear about the fellow that lost big pounds and built up his muscles – and died anyway? I don’t trust these diets either. I’d better stay in the Aspirin and Alka-Seltzer desert for another 40 years. 

Can I really patch things up with my sister? So much time went by. She’ll consider me stupid for trying. Whatever happened between us isn’t even the issue any more. We just have different lives now. We build 50-foot walls between us. Our antagonism is too gigantic. Better stay in the breygez (angry) desert for another 40 years.

Let’s take another look. Check it out again. Maybe we can turn part of our future around. Take a message from your friendly “innkeeper:” A computer is just a tool, and a few simple functions of it can make your life easier and more interesting. The first cream puff you forego, and the first stationary bike ride you take, can be the first step to feeling better. And as for your sister, maybe you and she can both conclude that time wounds all heels. Take the first step.

Like Joshua at Jericho, blow the shofar loud enough and the walls come tumbling down.

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Collapse? By Rabbi Baruch Cohon


During nightly riots kicked off by the death of one George Floyd in Minneapolis, some leaders in foreign countries spoke of the “collapse of the United States.”  Viewing news coverage of the disturbances, it could look that way.  Was it?

Frustrated by COVID19 restrictions, and in pain from resulting unemployment and bankruptcy, many Americans needed a good excuse to get out of the house and vent their anger. Seeing the TV video of a police officer killing a man he was arresting for allegedly passing counterfeit money was enough to start loud protests in the street – not just in Minneapolis but in cities throughout the country. 

Do “black lives matter?” Of course.  All lives matter.  Would George Floyd be alive today if he was white?  Maybe, maybe not.  Either way, his death at the hands of law enforcement was a crime.  Protests started immediately.

Marching in the protest crowd were demonstrators with a variety of causes.  Some were truly dedicated to justice for black Americans; others had quite different interests.  Political extremists like Antifa and Jihad used the protest movement for their own purposes – including vandalizing synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses in several cities.

Petty criminals grabbed the opportunity to join the night marchers and break into local stores to loot them for liquor and jewelry and drugs.

Violence and victimhood can look like national collapse.  But the America I know can recover from it.  G-d willing, medical scientists will yet cure coronavirus, law enforcement will implement firm standards, and our economy will once again lead the world to some prosperity.

And most important, we can all once and for all realize that whoever we are – black or white, Jewish or Latino, Asiatic or Hawaiian, Navajo or Eskimo — we are one nation. Significantly, in his memorial to George Floyd, his brother Terence called for our unity. 

Let’s all make whatever effort we can to reach that goal. 

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As happens every year, on the eve of the Shavuot festival we had a nighttime learning session.  Subject matter was Jewish law, since Shavuot celebrates our ancestors receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.  This year being lockdown time, our learning was conducted via Zoom.  But “virtual” participants still asked questions, volunteered relevant information, and – guess what – argued.

Then came two days of celebration, complete with some memorable cheesecake, and now it’s the day after.  One subject we discussed online sticks in my mind.  How does today’s life style relate to religious law?

Many of us conduct ourselves by moral principles.  We accept Divine law as we understand it.  We don’t murder, we don’t steal, we don’t testify falsely.  We may even honor our parents and take one day off every week as a Sabbath.  Those laws are 3,000 years old.  What about today’s sexual standards?  Do we accept “same-sex marriage”, even though the Torah defines it as a capital offense called perversion? 

And if a male and female want to live together and maybe have children, do we consider them a family whether or not they bother to have a wedding?  No doubt about it, the family institution is in trouble in many parts of the world.  All through human history the basic unit of any civilization – from tribal to industrial – is the family, consisting of one man, one woman (in most places, but as many as 4 women in other societies), and one or more children.  Not reliable lately. The number of conventional families in the U.S. is in serious decline. 

Current protests raise a similar question.  If a police officer kills someone he is arresting, that action certainly breaks the law, both civil and religious.  And when other people stage violent protests and set fire to homes and public buildings and ransack the nearest stores, are they not breaking the law? 

Here, to my view, is the bottom line.  If and when my standards of conduct conflict with the laws of my religion, one of us is wrong.  Usually, if not always, I’m it.

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This generation seems to produce more organizations than it does children. How far left do you want to go? If the leaders of the club you are in look too mild, don’t just differ with them as fellow members. Resign and organize a group that’s more extreme. Same holds true on the right, of course.

It also can hold true in reverse: if your group leaders look too extreme, resign and form a more diplomatic organization.

That is one way organizations multiply. True both in the nationwide population of our country, and specifically in the Jewish community.

Religiously, American Jews were long considered to belong to 3 categories: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. This generation also counts Reconstructionist, Renewal, Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, Secular, and no doubt more that don’t come to this writer’s mind.

Politically, too, we are just about as divided as our Gentile neighbors. Even in the foreign policy field, we promote all shades of policy, from pro-Israeli to pro-Arab.

The old expression “Two Jews, three opinions” is far from describing our reality. It’s more like “Ten Jews, fifty opinions” these days.

Facing a national election, it takes no genius to see the development of an overdiversified campaign, and voters who cannot confidently select any candidate they really agree with. Seeing Israeli elections fail, one after another, and the country continuing to function “without a government,” we might well wonder if that could happen here.

More of us need to analyze our plight. Disband about 75% of our squabbling organizations, and let’s promote basic targets – freedom, security, peace. It could be done.

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