One of the strong tools for Tanach study is the identification of special expressions that appear in multiple places that link sections of Tanach to each other. This makes it possible to see a broader picture than any individual section would give us. This approach to textual analysis appears in Chazal’s exegesis of halachic elements of the Torah, and even more so regarding aggadic matter. This week we will look at the usage of an uncommon word: in our parasha, in our haftara, and in Parashat Shelach.
The end of our parasha tells of Bnei Yisrael’s complaint about lack of water. The Torah summarizes the episode as follows: "He called the name of the place Masa U’Meriva (Questioning and Quarrel), about Bnei Yisrael’s quarrel and their questioning of Hashem, saying: ‘Is Hashem amongst us or ayin (nothing)?’" (Shemot 17:7). This pasuk shows that the issue behind Bnei Yisrael’s complaint about water was an underlying lack of faith in Hashem’s constant assistance, which is an outgrowth of the prevalence of the Divine Presence.
This language is reminiscent of an incident in the haftara involving Yael and her invitation to the enemy general, Sisra, to enter her tent. After Sisra filled himself with milk, he commanded Yael to stand by the tent’s entrance and tell anyone who would ask if a man was inside: "Ayin."
A third pasuk using the word "ayin" is in preparation to the spies’ evil mission. Moshe told them to report on whether the land was fat or lean and whether there was a tree there or ayin (Bamidbar 13:17-20). Chazal, followed by Rashi, explain that the tree refers to an upright person in whose merit the people could receive protection from the arriving Israelites. Where does this innovative idea come from that the tree was a person? It is true that in the context of the prohibition on cutting down fruit trees, the Torah writes, "for man is the tree of the field" (Devarim 20:19), but it is difficult to see this as a prototype for other places in the Torah, that a tree refers to a person.
Putting these three p’sukim together, we can suggest the following. Moshe was not asking the spies to investigate something physical but something spiritual. He wanted to know whether the Divine Presence rested on the Canaanites. In other words, did they have noble people of a high moral standing to protect them through the shadow of the Divine Presence (see Tehillim 91:1) that accompanied them. The question of our nation’s chances against the inhabitants of the Land hinged on the relative level of Divine Assistance. The word ayin, when compared to the word in the context of our parasha, relates to the issue of recognition of the Divine Presence, thus indicating Moshe’s interest in the spiritual element. The pasuk from the haftara illustrates that ayin can also be a hint at the presence of a person, which, by association, can mean that the tree could be referring to a person. (During the upcoming Tu B’Shvat, we can contemplate the significance of this connection as well.)
Thinking forward, we can also realize the spiritual message for our time – the question of our rights to Eretz Yisrael also hinges on the question of whether we have a society in which people show the type of good midot that will make us worthy of Divine Protection.