When the eye-doctor subs for the ear-doctor, he opens his class with: the ear is a very different organ from the eye. Let me tell you about the eye… I think about this silly little story countless times, and again last Sunday. It’s the first time I’m on call at my new chaplaincy internship, when the phone rings: the psych patients on the 18th floor are bored and want a little spiritual something. Would I come up?
I am the eye-doctor, knowing only my stories. The people in the room are Christian, Chinese, Muslim and of no religion at all. I have no idea what they are expecting. I can’t do anything but tell them about the parasha. I share briefly the story of the spies (Numbers 13). I ask them what they think about checking up on G-d, if G-d promises you a Land of milk and honey, should you believe blindly, or still send someone to check once again what’s going on before schlepping 2 million people in.
Their vote is unanimous: definitely check again. But, I try to push-back, what if G-d told you to go? Ah, they wave me off with a smile, here we all hear G-d telling us things all the time. G-d doesn’t decide for you. You do. G-d gives you options, good and bad. You need to figure things out for yourself.
Now this story will never look the same.
Long ago and far away, people used to tie a knot in their handkerchief to make sure they didn’t forget something important. Today, while tying a “Kleenex” is pretty much impossible, there is a website called “KnottedHandkerchief” that sends reminder email before an event.
Why do we need reminders? Why do things slip our mind? And how these knots supposed to help?
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to instruct the Children of Israel to tie knots on their garments as reminders of the obligation to observe all the commandments. A mitzvah for our clothing??
The first humans were naked (Genesis 2:25). Initially, they had no shame and they had no evil inclination within them. They also had no free will, and thus no ability to see choices and make decisions, all essential components in a real relationship.
After the “fruit”, it was no longer natural for them to roam around naked in the Garden, and thus, they “hid”. Their first set of clothing was made and given to them by G-d (Genesis 3:21). It was an act of care, compassion and protection, but also of sadness and distance since the humans were no longer one with each other or with the Divine. Clothing symbolically expressed closeness, G-d’s kindness and empathy, yet also separation. Indeed, from before birth till after we pass, we’re clothed, shelled, divided – and yet, connected. Through our clothing we communicate who we are and check who is another, like soldiers who recognize a member of their unit, a member of another army (this can be a “dangerous” and not very PC metaphor, so just work with it for as long as it works and toss when no longer useful).
Hebrew plays with us a bit, because “begged”, a garment, shares its root with “bagad” and “bgida” which mean – betrayed and betrayal. It turns out that contrary to what we think, what we wear has little to nothing to do with the climate we might live in for even in perfectly comfortable weather, where we would be fine in nothing at all, humans wear something! The Torah teaches that clothing are a way for us to communicate; they are a reminder of our original separation (and not “sin”!) from G-d and each other. This is why we can use them to reconnect.
The commandment of tzitzit specifies: “…so you may not wander after your heart and your eyes to lead you astray (Numbers 15:39)”, and by the way, “lead you astray” is a PG translation to the Torah’s blunt language literally saying “which you prostitute after them”.
Why does the Torah place the heart before the eyes? Aren’t we first attracted by what we see, and then ‘feel’? Apparently not. The eyes are an agent of the heart and not an independent organ. The heart leads, the eye follow. 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 all of a sudden, “it changed”. Did “it”? How about the familiar phenomena that when we’re pregnant, so is everybody, and when we’re looking for college, so is everybody, etc. Is that objective “seeing”?
This very same Torah portion also opens with the story of the “spies”: Twelve esteemed princes of the twelve tribes are sent to check out the Land of Israel before the rest of the nation would follow. Only two of them, seeped in trust in God, saw the Land’s potential! The ten 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 were sent “latur et ha’aretz”, to scout or “wander” the land, using the same root from the mitzvah of tzitzit where it says “velo taturu”, do not wander! Don’t go around aimlessly without first preparing your heart! In this regard, the heart is just like any other muscle. We hopefully wouldn’t run a marathon “cold”; likewise, we should not send our heart out to decide our life for us without some prep. It too needs some training, some “reminders”.
And there is maybe a little comfort: The Torah tells us that often that which separates us also brings us closer again. Just like what we wear is not only a divider, but also a tool to reconnect, so too, our exit door can be our point of re-entry, and where we erred is where we begin to correct – with each other and with the Divine.