For Tu Be’Av & Parashat Va’etchanan: A new Book, a famous verse and a holiday (or two)

The Hebrew name of each one of the five books of the Torah has to do with speech, but each one of the first four describes only partial speech. Then comes “Dvarim” – Deuteronomy – and opens by saying, “And these are The Things…” implying wholeness, closure. Moses, in the last month of his life, organizes the Torah for the People. If until now things might have showed up in an order only G-d can fully know and understand, here it is – some repeat, some “new”, some expanded – through a human’s farewell speech. Wait, human? Would that mean that this book is not “Divine”?? but if it’s not, how come it’s in the Torah? One way to understand this is to think of it as if Moshe started speaking and G-d said, that’s exactly what I was going to say!! Or maybe, vice-versa…

But, Moshe & Dvarim?? Moshe is the one who started out his mission saying – לא איש דברים אנכי – For I am not a man of dvarim, words (Exodus 4:10) and he ends his life with a whole book named Dvarim?! Initially when he could not speak, Hashem had Aaron, his older brother, speak for him, but now Aaron has already died. How did Moshe turn from someone who can’t speak to someone who, forty years later, can just say a whole book of Divine words? What happened over these years? The Sfat Emet (Yehuda Aryeh Leib Aletr, 1847-1905, Hasidic rabbi, named so after the title of his main work) says that this is proof that the Torah and particularly what our tradition calls being mit’asek baTorah (busy with the Torah) has healing powers, especially when it comes to the ability to use speech.

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Tish’a Be’Av in India: people sitting on the floor, praying, reading, learning history and the stories of the churban (destruction), singing moving, emotional songs in a language many don’t understand for a Temple, none of us has seen, which stood thousands of miles away and thousands of years ago. How is this even possible? Who knows how many important buildings have been destroyed, collapsed, burned, damaged, disappeared throughout the world, throughout these years, and yet. Here we are. And I can’t help wondering. It’s 2019 – 5779, and people all over the world, Jews and non-Jews and not-yet-Jews are praying for the rebuilding of the Temple in a far away land; wishing for the peace and well-being of Jerusalem, Israel and her people. If this did not sound so…. I would say, we live in amazing times.

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And then, there’s the transition from a day of tragedy, mourning and sadness to joy and gladness. This Friday is Tu Be’Av, often wrongly translated – or described – as Jewish Valentine Day, but here, Thursday, August 15, is India’s Independence Day. In preparations, the balcony is decorated with homemade flowers and streamers of orange, white and green. The women are dressed in fine, festive sarees, some in the flag’s colors but others in every pretty shade of blue, gold, purple, yellow and more. It seems like there is no end to colors and their careful combination here – houses in orange, yellow, purple, green, blue, maroon and on and on, giant wall paintings in the streets, the food, too, gets to be bright and orange, red, green, and of course, scarves must be carefully matched to tunic and pants. In honor of the day, the students prepare speeches and dances, as “should be” on such a day. Words (familiar words, I might add) of patriotism and love of this great country are expressed sincerely, and the flag is waved proudly. More and more dancing, and photo opportunities.

People (by that I mean, the women) take turns having their picture with me. The atmosphere is casual and friendly. Suddenly, one lady, begins to approach me in an official, slow marching walk. True, it is hard to make hasty steps in saree, but she is doing so deliberately, her hand tight to her forehead, saluting. She is a little older and heavy set which all stands in contrast to her movement, and from my other side, I can see the students unsure how to respond. As she comes near me, I notice her tears. In a chocked voice, she speaks about the bond between India and Israel in their joint history with the British, gaining independence within the same 12 months, and the current strong relationships between the two countries, sharing growth in agriculture, technology and more (though I am guessing she doesn’t know about the thousands of Israelis who make this country their place of pilgrimage, which deserves another conversation-). She then proceeds to bless the two countries with all good wishes. None of this is in English, and my ten and a half words in the local language don’t include any of those spoken. It seems that at times, the power of words comes through even without the words themselves being understood.

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Shma Yisra’el, says Moshe in this week’s reading. Such famous, repeated, sung, prayed and yet, almost impossible to understand words. In order to command someone to listen (or do anything for that matter), to the commander has to be on the outside of the commanded. When Moshe says, “hear oh Israel”, is he implying he is not included in that? That he is on the “outside”? And what about the repetition of Hashem’s name twice within six words? Would it not be sufficient to say – ‘Hear Israel, Hashem our G-d is One’??

Rashi says that this verse conveys a dynamic statement: Hashem, the one who is our G-d, who is known by us, is going to be the One g-d known by all’. If so, it denotes progression and indeed, much later (than Moshe), this idea repeats in the book of Ezekiel (38:23) when the prophet says in Hashem’s name: “I will be exalted and known to many nations”.

There is a midrash that the first time this verse was uttered is by Jacob’s children, on his death bed: Hear Israel, they said to their father, we’re all in this together. At that time therefore, it meant unity of the people. During Moshe’s times, the verse came to mean – Oneness of Torah and the People: me, says Moshe, who might seem to you on the “outside”, who speaks with Hashem, who prays and attends to the Mishkan, who brings down the Torah, and you, the People, are all inside that same Oneness, a message still relevant today, when we have not yet figured out how to have less division between Torah and People. But one day, says the prophet, the whole world will see the Oneness of Hashem. This might sound foreign, crazy and oppressive in so many places, but it’s all over the place here. This is an incredibly religious country. In every corner there is a shrine, “idol”, temple, wreath of flowers around a statue, painting of an ancient mythology scene (colorful, did I mention?), and if it’s not Hindu, it’s a mosque, church, ashram and on and on. One day, say our prayers, we will all know, we are part of the same Oneness.

Shabbat Shalom.

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the market place – cell phone and advanced technology (even in flower basket)

 

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Finally – Matot – Masei –

My Kulanu fellowship in this Eastern India emerging community”, has settled into sort of a routine: 7:00am – 8:00am – introduction to Gemara; 9:00am – Hebrew; 10:30am – Jewish history and Land of Israel. Lunch and short break before another hour and a half of singing and dancing Israeli and Jewish songs, and later on, an evening program: twice a week – for women only, and once a week – for “everybody”. Then there is Shabbat and its learning. In between I insist on at least one hour afternoon walk. I finally – proudly – know how to get myself out to several places nearby, but, getting back through the small, crowded alleys is a whole different story, so one of the students has to accompany me. They ask me about Israel and the US, and tell me a little about “here”. Most conversations and classes are in English; at times, there is a translator. Considering English is not my first or second language, and neither is it theirs, we all speak with “an accent”, and, I think, understand each other quite well. It is actually amazing how few words one needs, and how much we say with intonation, head and body movements, which in itself is a fascinating and thought-provoking experience, about the limitations and power of speech.

This week’s Torah portion, a double one for those outside of Israel, makes me very happy: Diaspora and Israel are finally catching up so when Moses addresses the whole community next week, and later, when the 9th of Av will be commemorated, we will all be together. Is that why it begins with speech?

A whole tractate was written to expound and explain the opening of the idea of Vows (in the opening of Parashat Matot, Numbers 30). Vows are a strange as we are encouraged to enjoy and appreciate the gifts of this world. Talmud already wondered about this: “Is what the Torah forbade on you insufficient that you decide to add more?” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 89:5.1). To be clear, we cannot change negative commandments through a vow (i.e. one cannot vow to not to keep kosher, steal or murder -) but one can add prohibitions that the Torah did not provide (i.e. not to eat chocolate for a period of time :-).

The power of speech comes up again and again especially in times of transition: leaving Gan Eden; Moses and the Exodus, which results in the Hagadda, a book of telling for a holiday called Pe-Sach (literally can be translated as “speaking mouth”), and now, just before the closing of the Book of Numbers and the entrance to the Land. Initially unclear, it is also a beautiful concept: it means that within the confines of one’s religion, one can add an “elective”, a kind of “personal commandments”; one can be “in the image of G-d”: to create one’s own spiritual path through the power of speech. To be in a (sort of) two-way street with G-d as the commended becomes a commander.

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Two tribes approach Moses and ask to stay on the “other”, eastern side of the Jordan. They explain that they “owned cattle in very great numbers” (Numbers 32:1) and behold, the place is a “region suitable for cattle”. At first, Moses is dismayed: how can they even make such a request, not to go into the Land after everything the People have been through? We’ve just survived 40 years of delay in the desert because a group of leaders (the “Spies”) hesitated exactly about this topic. And now, again?? Moses asks bewildered: “Are you brothers to go to war while you stay here…. And now, you – תרבות אנשים חטאים – a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers to add still further to Hashem’s wrath against Israel”?

But they calm him saying, “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” – and what’s more – “We will hasten as a shock-troops in the van of Israelite until we have established them in their home…. We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelite is in possession of his portion”…. And with that Moses agrees, but adds two adjustments: even though the tribes said they need pasture for the cattle (first) and homes for the kids (second), Moses tells them to “build towns for your children (first!) and sheepfolds for your flocks (after) and do what you have promised” (32:24). Once he reminds them of the correct priorities, he also adds half of Menashe’s tribe, and not by coincidence: Menashe is Joseph’s son, who describes himself as Ivri (Hebrew) even in dire situation in Egypt, and Menashe himself is the great, great grandfather of Tzlofchad’s daughters, who stand up for their right for property in the Land. With this kind of connection, Moses feels better about the arrangement and allows it.

Reuven and Gad, the two tribes whose first letters make the acronym ger, convert or friendly foreign tribe – form a link between Israel and the nations of the world. The Eastern side of the Jordan was empty which means there could be a physical disconnect between Israel and the world, which this avoided. There is much for us to teach as well as learn. After Shabbat services here, everyone walks around the room purposefully, making sure they wish each and every person a heartfelt Shabbat Shalom, and I wish there was a way to bring back to our synagogues. Every time there is a class of any sort, almost no matter where, students, young and old (young and younger) bring their notepad and pencils to take notes. Every opportunity is a learning opportunity, and I love that too. Per my reading of the Torah, we do not want to disconnect completely; we do not want to approach “the other” through fear and intimidation. There is no meaning to be a “light unto the nations” if neither us nor the nations can see that light.

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History class: I give each group of students a Jewish hero from another time and place so slowly we can begin to see a timeline of events and names. One group get David Ben Gurion and chances upon a picture of him standing on his head. “Can you all stand on your head”? I ask. No, no, madam”. One tries softly: “maybe with wall, maybe”… they shake their heads quietly, giggling shyly. I realize: The Land of Yoga’s children learn about Jewish language, history and faith while the Land of Torah children’s go to India to learn yoga and eastern philosophy…

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And then, the summary of the journey (Numbers 33), where not just arrival, but each stop has meaning… may it be so.

Shabbat Shalom.

Support Kulanu through: https://sna.etapestry.com/fundraiser/KulanuInc/gtf/individual.do?participationRef=868.0.783006821

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The Daughters of Tzlofchad – Parashat Pinchas

My Indian “mother”, half my age and twice as determined as me, stands over me with a spoonful of rice: “just a little more”, she says, almost begs, her eyes on me as I struggle with the never-ending heap of food on my plate, “you want I make other food”? I love Indian food and yet, I put my hands together in prayer motion to sign, please please, no more food. Every day, when we break for lunch, two young mothers show up with pots and pans, settle on the colorful rug, and, using their skillful fingers, roll rice and veggies as they methodically pile balls of food into their children’s mouths. It turns out, that Indian mothers are Jewish mothers too.

The women of the community I’m visiting in Eastern India are amazing and a true inspiration. They are busy all the time, cooking, frying, sorting, cleaning, washing, and yes, learning. When I am away from my room teaching, little angels change my sheets, add bananas and dates, fill the fridge with bottled water they get just for me, and hang an ironed tunic dress. They come in and out unnoticed, tiptoeing barefoot on the stone floor, their scarves floating gently behind them in the all too light breeze. They do their tasks with pride and humility, not grudgingly with a puffed breath under their chin, but with grace and delight. It’s their honor to walk in Abraham and Sarah’s footsteps. What can be better than to be busy with the work of Hashem. They feel lucky.

They constantly move, but then, yesterday evening, they stopped. I was asked to show how to make challa. Ingredients were assembled based on the list I gave earlier in the week and set on a clean table; a new microwave-convection oven appeared and was connected respectfully in the main-room. Then the ladies, young and younger, adults and students, all changed into lovely dresses, each unique in its design and colors. They stood behind me curiously, singing heartfelt songs we learned this week for peace and the well-being of the Jewish people world-wide (yes, in Hebrew), while I was kneading and praying not to fail them. They on the other hand, didn’t care what will come out of this unusual creation of yeast and white flour in a world of rice and chapati. “Failure” was not an option Anything would be success, they told me. If it “doesn’t work, we would have learned how not to do it next time”. While the dough rose, they kept singing; then the students played games learned in history class earlier in the day. There is no TV not because we’re in “backwards” India; there is plenty of technology- cellphones, screens for learning, electrical musical instruments and more. But there’s a choice: to spend time with each other, with books, with learning, with Hashem and his commandments.

The students I am so very honored to teach, are incredibly bright, committed, studious and learned. They want to know and exactly, what happened when Zimri brought the Midyanite woman before Moshe; why could Moshe not answer; is there something in common to all the cases Moses could not answer and if so, is Pinchas related to Pesach Sheni (he is!). These daughters of Tzolfchad are polite, smart, and insistent: they don’t give up on their questions. In a society where dress code (for men and women) is pretty strict and different, and buses are separated as is the ball area in the stadium, the women nevertheless know they want to learn, and learning they will.

It’s warmer than 90F and the weather channel says it feels like 107F; humidity is in the 80-90%. No one says a word about it. It’s hot so it’s hot. But India is waiting for rain, a feeling I know after living in California and growing up in Israel. The monsoon season is delayed, and the summer sown crops are wilting in some areas due to the dry spell. We add prayers all too familiar to rain. Wherever you are too, may it be a Shabbat Shalom.

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Balak again! Shabbat Shalom from…

So I’m reading the Torah portion of Balak twice!! How did that happen??

Last winter, I responded to an email our yeshiva sent out: an opportunity to be a summer fellow through Kulanu, a US based Jewish organization “supporting isolated, emerging & returning communities around the globe”. Little could I guess that six months later I would be sitting and writing my blog in India, where I am to spend a month with an “emerging community”, teaching Hebrew, Torah, Jewish history and more.

Outside my room – built especially for the “guest from the west”, with its own, private, western toilet, shower, table for my computer and much needed fan over the bed, the women of the community are busy making Shabbat – cooking, cutting, grinding, sweeping, laundering, mixing, and even squishing and boiling grape to a home-made grape juice. This morning, there were just bags of potential, and now there are pots in a row, steaming, sending scents and smells into my room which was organized for Shabbat with white sheets, white curtain, white towel and a new set of Indian clothing so I can blend in better 😊 This evening we (we!) expect 80-100 participants of all ages to join for Kabalat Shabbat and dinner. Everything is bubbling with spices and veggies, rice and fish: “your food is over there”, they say to me, chuckling, giggling, pointing to another set of silver, covered dishes, “not too spicy, less pepper, ah”, they shake their head from side to side, which I learn means yes, even though it looks to me like no-maybe-not-sure.

Earlier I sat on a balcony along tall coconut trees. Firecrackers sounded from the streets which sent the local crows up high; Low jet airplanes cut the sky in what would be an illegal speed and distance in my previous homes; kids were moving around swiftly, sweeping the floor with short-handled, long-straw brooms, pouring water on the floor. In all this prep, no one raised their voice once. I was trying to think about this Torah portion, again, about the great power of words, as well as their limitations; about blessings and curses; and about our complex relationship with the nations around us. We are the be like dew on Just then, the mu’azin from the nearby mosque (by “nearby” I mean next door-) started to sing, pray and yell in what I feared is anger, but my hosts told me was ok, and need no worry.

Still, India is hard to comprehend, swallow, absorb. I asked if there is any one person who speaks all the languages spoken here and am answered with a laughter. 35 years ago, on my way East, visas were denied because Indira Gandhi was just shot (yes, I know, it is that long ago). Ever since, I kept wondering if India was ever going to happen. I could have not imagine it with that much greater color and depth.

Shabbat Shalom (pictures to follow).

 

 

 

 

 

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Chukat -Balak – not together!!

Chukat-Balak, two Torah portions that could connect on one Shabbat abroad to make up the difference between Israel and Outside Israel, but this year, don’t, extending the gap a little further —-

Chukat opens with the strange description of the Red Heifer: the priest takes a special, red, young cow, who hasn’t done any work, and burns all of it, mixing wood of a cedar tree, hyssop and crimson stuff (from a silkworm) and throw them into the fire consuming the cow (Numbers 19:6). The ashes of this mixture are later used to purify the “impure”, turning the impure to pure, while causing the one preparing it to become impure. This is one of the biggest riddles in the Torah. Commentators explain that in its core, it is the Torah’s objection to death.

We take death for granted, as if it is an absolute must of human reality. How can we even begin to imagine life without it? It is so much of our experience and pain; and so much defines our daily actions: if we thought for a moment that we live for-ever, we would treat life very differently! And yet, the Torah teaches that death is not an inseparable part of the human condition. Rather, it is part of life’s “impurities” which one day will be dealt with and gone.

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Balak son of Tzipor opts to fight the Children of Israel through blessings and curses; through speech. The whole Pesach story is folded into this encounter, like a bookend: Speech being the power that G-d reveals Himself in the world, and the aspect most challenging for Moses. Couldn’t G-d find someone who can just speak without hesitation? And Moses, he can do so, so many things, and yet he is challenged right where it’s toughest and most painful for him; and his struggle is so public, so hard; every move is documented; everyone can see, struggling; struggling with no “discount”; not for a minute does the Torah say, ‘oh Moses, let’s go easy on him, he has such a full schedule’…

Towards the end of the Book of Numbers, we learn that the midbar (desert) is the place where divine dibur (speech) is heard most clearly and where the one who’s speech is cumbersome, becomes a medaber. Soon, Moses will be the one speaking for the whole book of Deuteronomy, coming up very soon. Perhaps, this is his journey, to find his own voice. I’d like to imagine he learned Egyptian and Midyanite and other local languages in the palace and throughout his prince-hood, but speaking Gd’s language is a different skill. Perhaps that’s our journey too.

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 At the Jewish Peoplehood / Diapspora Museum in Tel Aviv there’s a humor corner for when we wish / need / are able to to use language for a little laughter. If you go there, you’ll be invited to sit on two happy gefilte-fish pillows

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Skipping, cracking open, gushing out — the Torah portion of Chukat (sort of)

So this is what happened: Due to the mysteries of the calendar, I am not going to read the Torah portion of Korach this year. If you fly between Israel and Chutz-La’aretz (not Israel) between Pesach and the week of July 28, 2019, you will either double up on or miss a Torah portion. This is because the 8th day of Pesach was Shabbat. For Israel’s Torah reading cycle, where it was not Pesach anymore, the reading resumed with the regular cycle on that Shabbat, while in “Not Israel”, it was still Pesach with its special holiday reading and the regular cycle resumed only a week later, introducing an imbalance which will be fixed only in about 4 weeks.

Aside from the practicality, it is painful to live in this disconnect. I don’t like it, and yet, find myself defensive when faced with angry voices: “Why are we still having 2nd day holidays anyway? we know the calendar! Let’s just stop this nonsense??” Ah, well, maybe, yes, some day. Meanwhile, we’re reminded that we don’t live in a perfectly harmonious world; that we’re still scattered despite the immense power (and illusion) of the internet; and that there’s still so much work to do.

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The Torah portion of Chukat looks like another Numbers – laundry list of ‘what shall we put in here’: the Red Heifer; Miriam’s death and Moses hitting the rock; the complicated relationship between Israel & Edom, and its surrounding nations; the Copper Snake and the Song around the Well. In a way, it’s about how the same thing can give both life, purity and good things, as well as death, impurity and troubles / “challenges”. The same purifying process of the Red Heifer cause tum’a (spiritual impurity) to those who administered it; the same water that brought life to the People, also beget Moses’ death; the same Copper Snake that reminded the people of G-d’s power later became a source of idolatry; things that seems rock-strong, crack open, while “soft” water, gush out. The Psalmist says in his own poetic words (118:22):

  אֶ֭בֶן מָאֲס֣וּ הַבּוֹנִ֑ים הָ֝יְתָ֗ה לְרֹ֣אשׁ פִּנָּֽה׃    The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

Last week – or two weeks ago, depending on where you are, we read about following “both our hearts” (Numbers 15:39). We have a good heart and a bad heart, suggests Rashi. We would think we should follow the “good”, but the Torah tells us that the same thing can be both good and bad, that it can go either way, and we can’t always figure those out.

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So Israel?? Yes. For-ever?? For now. That’s wonderful! You’re going home!? Well…. What did you miss most about Israel? That I can order ice-coffee and it’s sweet and soft (and not “ice-coffee at all), and that I can use my name, and not make up an easy to pronounce one, while I worry that my coffee goes to Michael, Mitchel and the like. Maybe, it’s symbolic of at least one a piece of my identity that’s in place and in peace here more than elsewhere.

Shabbat Shalom from the hills of the Shomron (for now :))

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On Mending Threads and Tying Knots – The Torah portion of Shlach

The endless wonders of the internet inspired www.KnottedHandkerchief.com, a reminders’ website, substituting the old custom to tie a knot in one’s handkerchief in order to not forget something important that might slip one’s mind. Tying a knot — and an “e-knot” — is still a way of communicating, both internally and externally.

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to instruct the Children of Israel to tie their tzitzit – specially knotted ritual fringes which are added to the corners of the garment – as a reminder of the obligation to observe all the commandments. The word tzitzit might be related to the root נ.צ.ה. n.tz.h., which is used for ניצן – nitzan, a budding flower, indicating an ornament of the garment which sticks out. As we say in our daily prayers, the Torah (Numbers 15:38-40) instructs us:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וְעָשׂ֨וּ לָהֶ֥ם צִיצִ֛ת עַל־כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם לְדֹרֹתָ֑ם וְנָֽתְנ֛וּ עַל־צִיצִ֥ת הַכָּנָ֖ף פְּתִ֥יל תְּכֵֽלֶת׃

Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.

וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְות ה׳ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָתֻ֜רוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.

לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְותָ֑י וִהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדֹשִׁ֖ים לֵֽאלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.

This mitzvah is complemented by another reference (Deuteronomy 22:12):

גְּדִלִ֖ים תַּעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֑ךְ עַל־אַרְבַּ֛ע כַּנְפ֥וֹת כְּסוּתְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּכַסֶּה־בָּֽהּ׃

You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.

We go through our lives, and even in our death, clothed. Clothing is especially interesting in the Torah from early on. The first humans were naked (Genesis 2:25). They had no shame and they had no evil inclination within them. But they also had no free will. Free will means having good and evil within us, struggling with both and making choices, which is an essential component in any real relationship.

After Adam and the Woman partake from the fruit, they hide, as it was no longer natural for them to roam around naked in the Garden. While they initially sewed for themselves loincloths from fig leaves (Genesis 3:7), their first “real” set of clothing was made then and given to them by God (Genesis 3:21). Rashi explains that it was an actual garment from the hair of hares, soft and warm, while Ibn Ezra suggests that the term   כתנות עור kutnot or – literally meant the skin that was put on their luminous, soulful body. Either way, it was an act of care, compassion and protection, but also of sadness and distance. The humans were no longer one with each other or with the Divine. Clothing symbolically began as expression of closeness, God’s kindness and empathy. They communicate identity and presence, yet they also stand for separation.

In Hebrew, “beged,” a garment, shares its root with “bagad,” betrayed. It turns out that clothes have little to nothing to do with the climate we might live in for even in perfectly comfortable weather humans wear something. Rather, clothes are a reminder of our original separation (and not “sin”!) from God. As we saw above, the commandment of tzitzit specifies:

וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ – That shall be your fringe; look at it

If we’re talking about fringes, it should have said –  –  אותםlook at them, in the plural! Why is it in the singular? The Talmud (Tractate Menachot 43:b) explains:

…תניא אידך וראיתם אותו וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’ שקולה מצוה זו כנגד כל המצות כולן

…The verse states: “That you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord”; this teaches that this mitzva of ritual fringes is equivalent to all the mitzvot of the Torah.

ותניא אידך וראיתם אותו וזכרתם ועשיתם ראיה מביאה לידי זכירה זכירה מביאה לידי עשיה ורשב”י אומר כל הזריז במצוה זו זוכה ומקבל פני שכינה כתיב הכא וראיתם אותו וכתיב התם (דברים ו, יג) את ה’ אלהיך תירא ואותו תעבוד

And it is taught in another baraita: The verse states: “That you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them.” This teaches that looking at the ritual fringes leads to remembering the mitzvot, and remembering them leads to doing them. And Rabbi Shimon bar Yoai says: Anyone who is diligent in this mitzva of ritual fringes merits receiving the Divine Presence. It is written here: “That you may look upon it [oto]” (Numbers 15:39), and it is written there: “You shall fear the Lord your God; and Him [oto] shall you serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13). Just as oto in that verse is referring to the Divine Presence, so too in this verse it is referring to the Divine Presence.

The singular form indicates that the mitzvah of tzitzit is equal against all the mitzvot and through it, one can merit ti receive the Divine Presence of the Sh’china.

The verse also interestingly states:“ … So you may not wander after your heart and your eyes to lead you astray” (Numbers 15:39). Why does the Torah place the heart before the eyes? Aren’t we attracted by what we see, and then “feel”?

Apparently not. The eyes are an agent of the heart and not an independent organ. According to what’s in our heart, so we see. This is easily tested when we look at something, or someone, at different times in our lives, and suddenly, “it changed.” Did it?

The very same Torah portion opens with the story of the “spies”: Twelve esteemed princes of the 12 tribes went to check out the Land of Israel before the rest of the nation would follow. Only two of them saw its potential, and the fact that God’s people need not worry. The 10 others saw an impossible place to conquer or live in, full of “giants,” fortified cities and inedible fruit. Why the different view of the same exact place? Interestingly, the Torah tells us they went “latur et ha’aretz,” to scout or “wander” the land, using the same root from the mitzvah of tzitzit. There it says “velo taturu,” don’t wander! Don’t go around aimlessly without first preparing your heart!

But the Torah knows that sometimes we forget.

It therefore gives us a sign: it asks us to tie a knot. Famously, the word “tzitzit”) in gematria (numerical values given to Hebrew letters) equals 600. Adding eight threads (one doubled over in each of the four corners of the cloth) and five for the double knots on each of these threads makes 613, same as the traditional number of all the mitzvahs. The garment’s four corners, five knots, eight threads and other elements have additional symbolic meanings.

Behind it all there is a fascinating idea: The Torah tells us that often that which separates us also brings us closer again. Like two sides of the same coin, what we wear is not only a divider. It is also a tool to reconnect. Our exit can be our point of re-entry and where we erred is where we begin to correct with each other and with the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom from Limmud Bay Area 🙂

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