June 5, 2018
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1121, Parsha Thought, Shlach


When Moses sends the spies and gives them his directives he states:

“And see the land, what is it…”

Commentators point out that the phrase “what is it” (mah hi) can be found in three other places in the Tanach.

In chronological order, the first appearance of the phrase “mah hi­-what is it” is in B’Reishis (Genesis 8:14), where the Torah discusses Abraham’s negotiation with Ephron about a burial place for his wife, Sarah. Ephron says, “400 shekel between me and you mah hi-what is it?”

The second reference is the one in this week’s parsha, mentioned above, where Moses instructs the spies about their surveillance of the Land of Israel.

The third citation is in the Psalms (Psalm 39:5), where King David beseeches G-d: “Let me know, G-d, my end; the measure of my days mah hi-what is it?”

A fourth occurrence is in the Prophet Zecharia (5:6), where an angel shows the prophet a vision of something emerging from the Beis HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. The prophet asks the angel, “mah hi-what is it?” The angel answers that it was the image of an eifah-measure, in which a woman was sitting; this symbolized the wickedness of people who used false measures.

On the surface, these four occurrences of the phrase “mah hi-what is it” have absolutely no connection to each other. They cover four distinct subjects: a) purchase price of Sarah’s burial plot; b) surveying the quality of the Land of Israel; c) the measure of King David’s days; and d) the vision of a false measure. What do these four disparate themes have in common?

Upon deeper reflection we see that they all relate to the idea of truth and falsehood.


When Ephron said to Abraham “what is it?” concerning the 400-shekel price tag for the burial plot, he did so to trivialize the amount, as if it were insignificant, when in reality it was exorbitant. Ephron was a master dissembler.

Our Sages point out that Ephron was guilty of promising a lot but delivering very little. At first, the “magnanimous” Ephron offered to give Abraham the plot gratis. In the end he charged him an exorbitant price; 400 silver shekels. This was in stark contrast to Abraham, who offered his guests a modest amount of food but in the end served them a lavish gourmet meal.

To add insult to injury, not only did Ephron overcharge Abraham by this astronomical amount, he also trivialized it, acting as if it were nothing. He covered up his duplicity by suggesting that his demand was not extravagant.

This “what is it” is a symbol of his dishonesty. By his smooth-talking approach, Ephron was able to conceal the true import of his demand.


Ephron’s ability to cover up one’s assessment of a situation was reversed by Moses.

When Moses told the spies to scout the land and see “what it is,” he meant that they must not mischaracterize what they saw. Moses stressed that he wanted them to report to him “what it (truly) is.”

Moses was acutely aware of human nature. While he personally selected these 12 spies, choosing people he knew to be decent, law abiding and spiritual people, he wasn’t sure of the subconscious feelings they might harbor for the Land. He realized that if their subliminal feelings were negative, they would view the Land negatively, without realizing that their perception of it was influenced by their negative subconscious feelings. They might actually believe that their assessment was objective when in fact it was based on a deep-seated antipathy towards the Land.

On the other hand, superficial people will see only the surface. He thus admonished them to see what it is, beneath the surface. They should not be misled by what their eyes behold.

Moses, therefore, tells them not to allow any external or internal influences to distort their judgment of the Land. He tells them to see the Land “what it is;” meaning they should give a totally honest and objective analysis. They should not allow any subjective leanings, conscious or subconscious, color their judgment.

Ephron used those very words, “what it is,” to obfuscate; he was engaging in a cover-up of the true value of his demand. By contrast, when Moses uses the same words, he asked the spies to see the Land in its full character and not be deceived by the external view or allow their subliminal attitudes distort their assessment.


King David wanted to know the measure of his days. He didn’t ask how long he would live. He wanted to know the true value of his life. When Abraham died, the Torah describes him as one who has “come with his days.” Commentators explain that Abraham’s every day was filled with good, so that every day of his life counted. Even if we accomplish much in our lifetime, we may still have squandered days of our life, days which we did not live to the fullest. We would then not have come with all of our days.

In addition, we can lead a beautiful and productive life but not realize our full potential. We have so many more resources beneath the surface that are waiting to be actualized. King David wanted to know the true measure of his life. Not only did he want to be assured that every day counted, but that every one of those days counted for his ability to realize his true potential.


The Talmud relates that when the great Sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was on his deathbed he stated that he didn’t know in which direction he would go.

The question is asked, how could a man who devoted his entire life to the study and teaching of Torah and saving Jewry at the perilous time of the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash, think that his soul was not destined to go to Gan Eden-Paradise? How could he entertain the notion that his soul needed to go through the cleansing process known as Gehinom? And if he said this only to be humble, why is this expression of uncertainty about where one’s soul will go in the afterlife restricted to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. Why did other humble Sages not express such doubts about their future?

The Rebbe answers that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was so preoccupied with saving Jewry at the time of the destruction of the Temple that he never had a moment to reflect on and discover “what was the measure of his life?” He never had a chance to probe what lurked beneath the surface. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai thought, “Perhaps, deep down, my soul was in a bad place and I was never aware of it. Perhaps I possessed so many more talents that I could have exploited to good use and have failed myself.”

We must ask ourselves King David’s question. While our chronological age may be 70, 80 or even 120, our actual age may be much less. We must ask ourselves what is the true measure of our lives? Have we lived every day to its fullest? Have we mined the sub-strata of our souls to elicit its treasures, or were we content with our superficial accomplishments?


The fourth reference to “mah hi-what is it” is the converse of King David’s situation. It refers to the cause of Galus-exile, which is false measures. The Torah forbids using or even possessing false weights and measures. But in this instance, the Torah may also be alluding to the spiritual equivalent of false measures. In Zecharia’s vision, our commentators explain, the woman in the measure is a metaphor for the Jewish people who were sent into exile because of their false measures.

As we stand on the threshold of the Final Redemption, we must find ways of getting out of our internal exile.

The internal exile can be described in terms of false measures. When we sell ourselves short, we are in Galus. When we follow Ephron and trivialize the value of something important and holy and use the refrain “what is it?” to devaluate it we are in Galus.

When we reject the path of the spies, who did not follow Moses’ instruction not to permit external and internal considerations to color their measuring of the Land, we defy and emerge from Galus.


When we ask ourselves the question of King David, Moshiach’s ancestor, “What is the measure of my days?” we break through the internal Galus that holds us back from realizing our full potential.

Moshiach is capable of bringing the Geula because he is following in the path of his ancestor, King David. Moshiach is always asking himself that question and sees to it that he realize his full potential. There is, however, one potential power Moshiach has that he cannot realize without our help.

As much as Moshiach is pained by every moment he cannot redeem the Jewish people from exile, as the Talmud states, he cannot reveal his full potential until we do our part in accepting his leadership as Moshiach and, following in his footsteps, realize our own G-d-given potential to the fullest.

The Rebbe stated that every time we exclaim Yechi HaMelech-Long Live the King, we give life to Moshiach. This means that we empower him to fulfill his mission. In the terms used in this essay, we enable Moshiach to actualize the last vestige of his potential: his ability to usher in the Geula Shleima – the true and complete Redemption!

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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