Do Not Feed a False Fire: When to Confront, When to “Lay Low”

Of the twelve meraglim dispatched to scout the Promised Land, only Yehoshua and Caleb escaped the unforgivable sin of disparaging the land promised by God Himself. It would not be unreasonable to measure their righteousness and their merits equally, both faithful, but the Chofetz Chaim notes real differences in manner and approach between the two. 

Most obvious, Moshe changed Yehoshua’s name. “Moshe called Hoshea son of Nun, ‘Yehoshua’” (13:16) Why? Rashi understands the name change as a form of prayer. Yah Yoshia-cha. “May Hashem save you.” Save you? From what? From the plot of the meraglim! Moshe suspected the meraglim mission would end tragically, but he allowed them to go for that was their desire. Even so, he prayed fervently for his dearest and most committed disciple, Yehoshua. But there were two who remained faithful! Why did Moshe only pray for one?

Here, we come to the heart of the Chofetz Chaim’s insight. We read that, unlike Moshe praying for Yehoshua, Caleb prayed for himself. Vayavo ad Chevron – “And he arrived at Chevron.” (13:22). The singular form suggests that only one went to Chevron; that only Caleb went to pray at the Mearat HaMachpela – the Tomb of the Patriarchs – and ask to be spared of the conspiracy.

The Chofetz Chaim asks, “What about Yehoshua? Why didn’t he join with his chavrusa in prayer?” And what, he wonders, has this to do with the posuk at the end of this tragic episode – ve’avdi Caleb – “But my servant Caleb, because a different spirit was with him and he followed Me wholeheartedly…” (14:24) 

Where is Yehoshua’s mention?

We live in a time of fiery passions. The question is always, do those passions burn hot for righteousness and God, or do they burn hot for something else?

The Chofetz Chaim explains that there are two approaches to those who stand against God, His Torah and tradition. One, to oppose directly, arguing loudly against false ideas and disproving them one by one or, two, to remain reserved initially, to not attract attention and then, when the time is right, when his listeners are ready for the message that they’ve been taken in by “false prophets”, speak honestly and respectfully.

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages.

“Biding one’s time” is fraught with danger because it gives false ideas time to settle and take hold. Certainly, we understand that danger today, with non-stop social media platforms and cable news spewing out falsehoods. When is the right time to respond? Is there ever a right time? The only sure benefit to remaining quiet is that you are saved from physical danger. With your actual position unknown, you are not a target.

The one who attacks immediately does not allow falsehoods to simmer. His own position is clearly understood. He might place himself in danger however – to his livelihood, his social standing, even his physical well-being. After all, those who present lies as truth have little patience with real truth-tellers!

Moshe Rabbeinu understood the neshamot of Yehoshua and Caleb and knew well the dangers each faced. He knew that when the spies gathered during the mission, Caleb would remain quiet in order to learn the fullness of their stratagems and the better to be able to defend Moshe later. Yehoshua however would most certainly speak up and oppose the spies, which would put him in immediate danger.

He needed Moshe’s prayers. Caleb did not.

It’s fair to ask, Why did either need prayers? After all, both were firm in their faith.

In answering, Rabbi Dr Abraham J. Twerski cites R’ Simcha Zisel of Kelm who says that this teaches that even the greatest tzadik should not be overconfident in a sinful environment. Remember, the ten other spies were anashim – men of stature. Yet look where they ended.

We all know too many who have started in observant, committed Torah environments and have fallen off the way as a result of their environment. We know that there can never be enough prayers to protect ourselves, our children and grandchildren from the “spies” all around us.

Moshe knew Yehoshua could never tolerate falsehood, not even for a moment. He would immediately and forcefully oppose anyone uttering such things. Moshe also knew that such a reaction would put his life in danger. Therefore, he prayed that no harm should come his way by the meraglim.

Caleb, however, possessed a “different spirit”. He could “lay low,” biding his time. Therefore, he was in no immediate physical danger. Still he did need to gird himself against falsehoods. He did this with his prayer.

In doing so, he provides a vital model for our own times. Despite the various “walls” we erect to protect ourselves and those we love from the influence of the outside – the communities we participate in, the yeshivot we support, the parental controls we place on our computers, on our children’s phones – the “spies'” presence and influence is constant. We must turn to prayer to protect them and our inner selves from the lies and filth swirling around us every day.

No different from Yehoshua and Caleb, we each face challenges individually and collectively, challenges to our faith, our hashkafah, our derech. We hear, see, read, smell these challenges every day. They are challenges to our practice, our observance, our faith and community. Whenever we use our phones or our computers, we are vulnerable to “spies!” After all, it’s not called “spyware” for nothing!

Our conflict is how best to stand up to these challenges. Do we behave as Yehoshua and rage directly against them or do we act like Caleb and “ride the wave,” biding our time until the moment is right to confront directly?

The truth is the answer is that no one size fits all.

Rav Itzel Volozhiner, Rosh Yeshiva of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, would give individual guidance and hadracha to each student leaving the yeshiva for communal rabbinic positions based on his assessment of the student’s strengths, personality and – equally important – the type of community the student was best suited to lead (as quoted in Artscroll’s Limud Yomi I). One student, Rav Mordechai Yaffe, was headed to a community with mixed elements and levels of observance.

The guidance he received is relevant to our own contemporary, challenged and challenging Jewish community.

Rav Itzel counseled him, Remember the plague of tzefardea – frogs – in Egypt.

Chazal tell us the plague began with one large frog exiting from the Nile, “…and the frog ascended” (Shemot 8:2). Rashi, citing the Midrash, tells us one frog emerged, and then the Egyptians struck it again and again, until it split into swarms of frogs, inundating the entire land.

What would have happened, he asks, had the Egyptians not struck it?


Had they not attacked, that single frog would have remained one poor, lonely frog. But because they beat it, it multiplied over and over until it was out of control.

Referencing this plague provided the advice the wise Gaon Rav Itzel Volozhiner gave his student – overcoming challenges is not always best accomplished by public debate and attack. Sometimes such an approach only creates more "frogs." By attacking, a weak challenge can be transformed into a relentless and insidious one. After all, it is not the foolish, childish or wicked tweet that damages. It is the retweets, the endless “likes,” the viral metastasizing on social media that causes the most pain.

We live in an absurd age when people can be – and often are – famous for being famous. Imagine what would happen to these individuals if they were not given attention; their fame would dissipate like a fog. They would be merely people, no more nor less than anyone else.

The wisdom then is that it is sometimes best to simply let the challenge tire itself out. 

If a challenge does require confrontation, there is great wisdom in waiting for the exact, right moment. David would not have brought Goliath down had he thrown his stone too soon! Yes, there are times when an immediate and forceful response must occur. This is the eternal lesson of Pinchas, whose passion was blessed by God Himself. Still, let us recall that in God’s response He gifted Pinchas with a covenant of peace.

Passion and peace.

If we were only wise enough to know when and how to use these unique gifts, when our passion and righteousness needs to be given voice, and when we are wisest to watch and wait.