Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Download the PDF of the Parasha Sheet

The parasha of tzitzit which closes parashat Shelach seems decidedly out of place. However, there are two key words which tie it back to the beginning of the parasha: lirot, to see, and la’tur, to spy out, or to seek. The purpose of tzitzit we are told is u’ri’item oto, and you shall see them, and you will remember all the mitzvot of God and do them, v’lo ta’turu acharei li’vavkhem vi’acharei eineikhem, that you should not seek, taturu, after your hearts and your eyes. Exactly these two actions – to seek and to look, were what the spies were commanded: “Shelach li’kha anashim, send out men, vi’yaturu, that they shall seek out the land of Canaan.” And what were they to do when they entered the land? “And you shall see the land, u’ri’item et ha’aretz, what is it, and the people that dwell therein, are they strong or weak, few or many.” (Bamidbar 13:18).

The spies’ sin began before they gave their report to Moshe. It started with seeing. How they were seeing and what they were seeing. Consider their report that they saw giants and “we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (13:33). How did they know how they were perceived? Clearly, this is a case of projection. Because they saw themselves in a certain way, because they were grasshoppers in their own eyes, they also assumed that this was how others were seeing them as well. Their own assumptions, perspectives, fears and faith, shaped what they saw.

Tzitzit, then, come to serve as a corrective to the sin of the spies, encouraging us to see through the lens of the Torah. We may even, like the spies, have a mandate to seek out, to leave our sheltered existence. But it must be a seeking out that is directed by true religious motivation, not one that gives into our weaker selves, be it our lusts and desires, or be it our fears and weaknesses.

The key to how we see the world is how we see ourselves. The power of tzitzit is not just that they serve as a reminder to our obligations, but that as a part of our clothing, they become part of our very identity. They help define who we are.

As such, tzitzit link to other garments that are central to one’s identity, in particular the bigdei kehunah. The Torah, of course, devotes many chapters detailing the exact fashioning of the priestly garments, and it is only when wearing them that a kohen can serve in the Temple. More than that, the Talmud teaches that eyn bideihem aleihem, ein kehunatam aleihem, if their priestly garments are not on them, their kehunah status – at least in all matters that relate to the Temple – is not on them (Zevachim 17b), and they are seen, and treated halakhically, just as a non-Kohen would be treated.

Tzitzit can thus be seen to be a form of bigdei kehunah that can be worn by non-Kohanim outside the Temple.  As such, they are a part of the larger theme of Sefer Bamidbar – how does one stay oriented to God’s presence when one travels away from Mt. Sinai? Yes there will be a Mishkan, but a person will often be distant from that Mishkan. The first answer is to have the Mishkan in the center, so that wherever one lives, the basic orientation and framing principle is the Mishkan and his or her relationship to it.

But it is so hard to maintain this perspective. The verse immediately after the departing from Mt. Sinai reads: “And the people began to murmur…” (11:1). Tzitzit offer a solution. By wearing the tzitztit the Torah tells us that we will be kedoshim leiloheikhem, holy to God, we will maintain that sense of holiness even distant from the Temple.  

It goes beyond that.  For there is a counterpart to being a holy people. We are told not only that we should be a goy kadosh, a holy nation, but that also we should be a mamlekhet kohanim, a kingdom of priests.  Tzitzit allow us to achieve this.  Tzitzit become a type of a priestly garment, and by wearing them, we will see ourselves as a type of kohen and our sphere of religious, God-oriented activity to be the world at large. 

The Mishkan may be where God’s presence is most intensely felt and where the actual kohanim serve. But God’s presence can be found in the outside world as well, and it is there that we all can serve as kohanim, serving God and striving to actualize God’s presence and God’s Torah.

The universal nature of tzitzit extends to the people who wear it as well. For while the possibility of women being obligated in tfillin is not given much play in the Gemara, the Gemara (Menachot 43a-b) seriously considers the possibility that women are obligated in tzitzit. Rambam even rules that, while not obligated, women can wear tzitzit if they so choose (Laws of Tzitzit 3:9).  In fact, the possibility that women are obligated is stated specifically in a Tannaitic source into which the Gemara reads the implied comparison of tzitzit to bigdei kehunah. Tzitzit, as our bigdei kehunah for the larger world, are a truly universal garment.

The connection to bigdei kehunah occurs in multiple other ways in the Talmud. In Menachot 43, for example, we find the possibility raised that Kohanim would be exempt from wearing tzitzit since they anyway wear the bigdei kehunah.  In addition, Tosafot (Menachot 40b, s.v. Techelet) quotes Rabbenu Tam as stating that if a garment is shatnez because of the addition of tzitzit strings, that the a person would never transgress shatnez by wearing such a garment, even if it was worn at a time when the mitzvah did not apply, like at night. Tosafot states that this should be compared to the bigdei kehunah regarding which a Kohen does not transgress shatnez even if he is not doing the service. Tzitzit, like bigdei kehuna, are exempt from the restrictions of shatnez. In other words, a garment with tzitzit functions like bigdei kehunah!

In this regard, it is worth noting that in the Talmudic discussions of tzitzit, the Gemara constantly refers to two special garments: the ketonet, linen tunic, and the cloak which is fully techelet, sky-blue. Both of these present special problems – the linen tunic, because placing the wool techelet strings will make it shatnez, and the cloak which is fully techelet because the two "white" strings will now have to be the same color as the techelet strings. Nevertheless, it is unusual the degree to which the Gemara keeps on circling back to these two garments, and in particular, it is unusual that the Gemara does not just refer to the latter garment as a techelet garment, but specifically as a garment which is kulo techelet, fully techelet.

The reason for this, I believe, is that it is exactly these two garments - the simple tunic worn on the body, and the outer cloak - which directly parallel the two primary bigdei kehunah which the Kohen wears on his entire body. The ketonet, the simple tunic, is worn by all Kohanim, and it likewise is linen. Then there is the me’il, the outer cloak.  It is worn by the Kohen Gadol, and regarding which we are told: “And you shall make the cloak of the ephod, fully techelet.” (Shemot 28:31).  The Talmud’s cloak which is fully techelet is none other than the me’il of the Kohen Gadol.  

To wear tzitzit is to redefine our identity and to redefine our engagement with the larger world. We will see them, and that seeing will have an impact. It will transform how we see ourselves, and how we see the larger world.

The idea of framing our activity in the larger world as a taking of the service and the sanctity of the Temple and bringing it to the larger world, is echoed by the Rashba in reference to the ritual hand-washing that we do every morning:

Therefore, we must also sanctify ourselves with God's sanctity and wash our hands from a vessel, just like a Kohen who would sanctify his hands from the laver before he would begin his service in the Temple.

Responsa of Rashba 1:191 

We begin each day looking at the world as our Temple.  We begin each day with a ritual hand-washing before we enter into the holy space that is the world. We put on our tzitzit which are our priestly garments. And we begin our day serving in the Temple, which is the entire world.  This is what it means to see oneself differently. This is what it means to see the world differently. To seek out, guided by God, and to see as God would have us see.

Shabbat shalom!

A Thought on the Parasha

Shelach is a story of leaders as much as it is a story of the people. It is a story of poor leaders and of good leaders. The poor leaders—10 of the 12 spies—saw the challenges that confronted them in the land of Canaan and ran: “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.” (Bamidbar 13:31) The good leaders—Yehoshua and Calev—saw these challenges and pushed forward: “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” (13:30) What accounts for this difference?
The answer is fear. Why did the leaders sin, and why did Bnei Yisrael sin? They saw the hand of God in Egypt, at Har Sinai, and in the Wilderness, and yet they were unable to believe that God would save them. Their reaction was the same as the people’s reaction at the Red Sea. Even for a people who have seen all the miracles, who have all the reasons to believe in God, faith will falter when confronted with fear. When a person is afraid all he can see is the object of his fear. Fear is irrational. Fear paralyzes. Because of fear, the people prefer to go back and be slaves. The people prefer to stay in the Wilderness, or better, to go back to Egypt, rather than to confront their fears.

The answer to fear is faith. Fear sees only obstacles. Faith sees opportunities: “We are able to overcome it!” This is what separates good leadership from bad. A leadership based on fear is no leadership at all. Good leadership must be based on faith: faith in God, faith in Torah, faith in others, and faith in one’s self. A leadership of faith takes one into the Promised Land.

In many ways, this is what distinguishes Modern Orthodoxy. In many ways Orthodoxy has become a religion of fear: fear of the outside world, fear of asking hard questions, fear of delegitimization, fear of being honest with ourselves about our own shortcomings. It is much safer, some say, to reject the outside world and to protect ourselves in a cloistered environment.

There is so much to be afraid of in the larger, outside world. There is fear of what will happen if we confront postmodernism, archeology, science, history, philosophy, academic Talmud, Biblical criticism, feminism, and homosexuality. There is fear of what will happen if we honestly confront spousal abuse, rabbinic sexual abuse, alcoholism, and drug abuse; a fear of genuinely addressing the marginalization of single mothers, converts, the developmentally disabled, those suffering from depression, and children with special needs. Many in the Orthodox community have chosen to look at these challenges and say: “We cannot go up, for they are stronger than we!” The response is to put up walls. The response is to stay in the desert.

It is not just a fear of the outside world. It is a fear of losing full control, of granting the people a degree of autonomy. It is scary for some to imagine individuals and communities—or even local rabbis—thinking for themselves. For some, the answer to this is to have communal issues decided by a Gadol and his da’as Torah, to say: “Is it not better for us to return to Egypt? Perhaps we were slaves in Egypt, but everything was secure and predictable. In Egypt, someone else did the thinking for us.”

This is a leadership of fear. This is a yiddishkeit destined to stay in the desert and never go into the Promised Land.
Calev was a different leader. He had a ruach acheret, a different spirit. He saw the formidable challenges, and most certainly experienced fear.  But he did not give into it.  He responded to the fear with a reaffirming of his faith.   

And so must we do.  We must trust in God.  And we must rust in the Torah.   Trust in its ability to confront the real challenges of life.  Trust that it can be taken out of its shell, that it can be brought to bear not just on pots and pans, but also on theological struggles, on the economy, and on injustice.   We need to have enough faith in the Torah that we can honestly face up to the challenges of aggunah, of homosexuality, of universalism and particularism.   Trust that it can honestly confront archeology, science, history, and feminism, not by rejecting them, but by embracing them and showing us a larger truth, a deeper truth.

We need religious leaders who can trust not only in the Torah, but also the people. Leaders who do not withhold information or misrepresent halakha, out of a false belief that the people can’t handle the truth. Leaders who value the expertise and the voices of every member of the community, respecting them and including their voices in its psak and its decision process.

A leadership and a Torah that is based on faith, not fear, will be open to hear other voices, even opposing voices. The natural response is to try to shut these voices down, as even Yehoshua did when Eldad and Meidad were prophesying in the camp: “My master, Moshe, restrain them.” It requires a great leader to resist this response, to recognize that we as a people will only be richer, only be wiser, if we can listen to and respect visions that are different than our own. It is a rare leader who has enough faith in himself that he can welcome challenge.

What we most desperately need are religious leaders who have enough faith in the people. Religious leaders whose deepest desire is not to lead the people, but to empower them. Such leaders know that they only truly succeed not when everyone follows their vision, but when they have inspired each individual to find his or her own unique vision and to follow it with a passion. We need leaders who can say: “Who would give that all the nation of God would be prophets, that God should give God’s spirit upon them!” We need leaders who will take us into the Promised Land.