Devarim 5782 – Making a Beeline for Good

It’s been a while…

Towards the beginning of Parshat Devarim, the verse (1:44) reads “And the Emorite who dwells on that mountain went out against you and pursued you as the bees do…” At first glance, it seems a bit odd. When one describes an attack or battle and wants to convey a sense of power and might, there are plenty of other descriptors that one could use. Bees? What is the reason for this seemingly strange comparison? 

Rashi comments on this verse that just when a bee strikes someone by stinging them it dies immediately thereafter, so too the Emorites, after attacking the Jewish nation, also died (or were killed) immediately. Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveichik, the Brisker Rav, helps us understand this idea even further. What would be considered to be more malicious: harming a weaker target who will not retaliate at all or going after a much stronger individual who will surely strike back with much greater force? It may be “easier” to pick on a target that you know you can subdue but it shows a greater amount of disdain for your enemy when you know they’ll wallop you after your initial blow. The Brisker Rav says that although the bees know they’re going to die right after they sting, they adamantly sting nonetheless. This is similar to the Emorite nation, who showed such hatred to the nation of Israel, and knew they were going to ultimately lose anyway, went forth and attacked. 

The Brisker Rav continues that this insight regarding bees can help us comprehend psukim in Tehillim that we recite as part of Hallel. “Kol goyim svavuni, beshem Hashem ki amilam, sabuni gam svavuni beshem Hashem ki amilam, sabuni k’dvorim…” or “All nations surround me; but in the name of the Lord I will cut them down! They surround me; indeed, they surround me; but in the name of the Lord I will cut them down! They surround me like bees.” The Vilna Gaon ponders why the Psalmist uses the phrase “surround” so many times. The Gra continues that when a city is under siege and surrounded by enemy forces, the attackers may sense a weak point in their army and send reinforcements to produce a second line of defense. Not only will this provide further protection, but it will prove to their advantage again by having more soldiers ready to pillage and plunder once the city siege is underway. Yet, we see from the words of Tehillim that it is we who will yield triumphant, even staring down such daunting foes with vicious battle plans. Even if the assault will prove to soon be fatal for our foes.  

When dealing with an adversary with nothing, or everything, to lose, this type of ambush can be more demoralizing than a battle against a stronger opponent. Think back to Amalek as they bombarded the nascent Jewish nation as they left Egypt. Bnai Yisrael had just seen the most incredible miracle, something that the rest of the world was both mesmerized and terrified over. The very end of Parshat Ki Teitzei reminds us of how Amalek “happened” upon us here, picking specifically on the weak and weary stragglers, with no regard for the Jewish people or their God. The word for “happened upon you,” “karcha”, can also mean to cool down. Rashi explains that Bnai Yisrael were like a hot bath that no one would want to attempt to enter for fear of being burned. Amalek knew they would be scalded, but they took the approach of trying to “cool down” the Israelites for another nation to ultimately attack and overpower them. This is precisely the sort of attack referenced by the bees in Parshat Devarim. 

I’d like to take this approach further still, with something beyond the words of Rashi and the Brisker Rav. Generally, people do not like bees. There are indeed exceptions to this “rule,” but most often people will run in the opposite direction from these creatures. When one feels their sting it’s of little comfort that this bee will soon die and not harm them again. Dealing with the effects of the sting are painful at best and can be fatal at worst. Furthermore, why do I care if this bee dies? There are plenty more where that one came from! 

Years ago, while not doing research about bees or this Dvar Torah but watching a TV show about invasive pest removal, I learned something fascinating about these insects. Remember learning about pheromones in 6th grade biology, those chemicals you give off when you’re around other people? Other animals give them off as well, including bees. When they sense that there’s trouble with their hive or from a predator, they give off pheromones that alert other bees that they’re in trouble. In your quest to vanquish one lowly bee you may suddenly wind up with an entire swarm out to contend with. 

I think the above approaches about bees can help us take action during the current time period on our calendar as well. There is no shortage of calamities, both ancient and even contemporary, that have befallen the Jewish people in the three weeks from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av. We know that the resentment of the Emorites is likened to bees, meant to tell us of the singular focus of that hatred no matter the cost. We must use that exact singular focus in redoubling our efforts of loving and helping one another. Using the approach of the Gra, look for the “weaknesses,” the potential circumstances that will leave people susceptible and vulnerable, and help shore up those gaps. Like the bee that stings with reckless abandon knowing that it will bring upon itself its own demise, we must give to and help those around us. We have Tehillim WhatApp groups, Meal Trains and CaringBridge pages and other ways to alert the masses that there are those who need our support. Oftentimes people don’t know what to do to connect to the sense of loss that we’re supposed to feel over the Temples we’ve lost. But there is plenty of loss around us today, and not only should we sense it, but can help transform it into positivity, which can lead to the ultimate hope: the geulah shleima.

This Dvar Torah is written in memory of my grandfather, William Radman (Akiva ben Yehoshua). Although I’ve heard so much about him, as you can likely surmise, I am named for him and was never privileged to meet him. I cannot, therefore, confirm or deny any thoughts of his pertaining to bees or other winged, stinging insects. But as his yahrtzeit falls today, 7 Av, I am left thinking that his approach to bees would be more in line with “don’t bother them and they won’t bother you” and with regard to helping others, to do so as much as possible. 

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