Friday, June 17, 2011

Shlach: Depth Perception

The beginning of this week’s Parsha chronicles the less-than-pleasant story of the Meraglim, spies, who were sent out LaSur, to check out Eretz Yisrael. As we know, they brought back and convinced the nation of a terrifying report about land; condemning the entire generation to death. The end of the Parsha deals with something completely different. In the last few Psukim we are introduced to the concept of Mitzvas Tzitzis - the Torah commandment to tie a combination of white and blue fringes each of the corners on a four-cornered garment.

As Chazal have taught us, all of the topics within one Parsha are unified by a single theme. HaKadosh Baruch Hu broke up the subject matter of the Torah in such a way that there is always a meta-theme, a grand unifier that keeps the Parsha fluid and coherent. This being said, what in the world connects the Meraglim and their downfall to Tzitzis?

In order understand the powerful lesson that the Meraglim/Tzitzis relationship provides we need to analyze each one separately and only from there will the connection become apparent.

Let’s begin from the end and discus Tzitis first – and to do so we need to address a whole series of questions. Let’s explore.

The most first and most obvious question is very much also the most overlooked – what does the word mean? If we are to figure out the spiritual nature of these mysterious tassels we need to learn about the most basic level of its identity, its name.

Secondly, the Psukim say, “U’Re’isem Oso, U’Zchartem Es Kol Mitzvos Hashem Va’Asisem Osam.” – ‘You will see the Tzitzis and you will remember and carry out all of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s commandments.’ What about seeing the Tzitzis will make me do the Mitzvos? The Passuk says that that’s the way it works, but it doesn’t tell us how!

After telling us of the spiritual benefit of wearing Tzitzis the Torah sends us a warning in the form of a Mitzvas Lo’Sa’aseh, a negative commandment against looking at and thinking about inappropriate things. “V’Lo Sasuru Acharei Levavchem V’Acharei Eineichem” – ‘Don’t wander off with your heart and eyes.’ Why is this moment, the discussion of Tzitzis the appropriate time to deliver the message of V’Lo Sasuru?

And while we are on the subject of V’Lo Sasuru, we need to address Rashi’s connection of these words to the down fall of the Meraglim: In the same way that the spies went out LaSur, to scope out the terrain, so to the eyes are scouts of the body and they can make us fall in the same way, thus the Torah commands us V’Lo Sasuru - coming from the same root as LaSur. What is the dynamic of the relationship between these two things?

Finally, whatever it is that Tzitzis are coming to teach us, why is it that the commandment is to specifically tie them to our clothes? Why not put it next to the Mezuzos on our doorposts, or attach it to our wallets or fridges? What is it about the essence of Tzitzis that necessitates its placement on our clothing specifically?

We can begin to answer all of our questions by analyzing yet another factor of Tzitzis - the Techeiles-strand, the blue string among the white ones that all Tzitzis should ideally have.

Techeiles, as Chazal teach us in Menachos is supposed to be used as a sort of divine form of an association game. When one looks at the blue of the Techeiles his mind should be automatically drawn to the blue of the Yam, the sea. Once the mind is brought to the blue of the ocean his free flowing thoughts can be pulled upwards to the blue of the Raki’a, the sky. And once his thoughts have traveled to the heavens they can be brought from there to the blue of the Kisei HaKavod - God’s Throne of Glory.

What is this Gemara telling us? The transition from the Techeiles to the ocean is understandable, and from the ocean to the sky is understandable as well. This is really an association of recognizing the source. The Chilazon - the animal from which the Techeiles is produced – is a sea creature. Thus the blue of the Techeiles is a product of the sea. And it’s a matter of scientific fact that the fact that the ocean is blue is a reflection of the sky above it. Thus the blue of the Techeiles is drawn from the blue of the ocean, whose source is the blue of the sky.

But then there is a leap. The Techeiles is here in this world. I’ve seen the ocean and I’ve certainly seen the sky. I can relate to those degrees of association. But the Kisei HaKavod? Who has seen that? How am I supposed to make that connection?

We are therefore forced to say that the goal of meditating upon the Techeiles and the Tzitzis is to train my mind to perceive that there is a deeper reality beyond the surface-level that my eyes are able to see. To take my mind to its physical limits and then cross the threshold into more divine realms of conceptualization. The Tzitzis are guiding my mind to become accustomed to more profound levels of existence. In as much as I know that the Techeiles is drawing from its source in the sea, which in turn is drawn from its own root in the skies; so too are we being taught that the world at large, that boundless skies themselves are emerging from a deeper reality. The entire background of the reality around me – as far as my eyes can see – there is yet more depth to life than that.

It’s from this headspace, this mindset that Tzitzis get their name. The root of Tzitzis comes from Le’ha’tzitz, to gaze at or focus upon. When the Midrash describes the beginning of Avraham Avinu’s relationship with Hashem it says there that Hashem was Meitzitz Alav, He fixed His attention on Avraham and saw our forefather through tunnel-vision, so-to-speak. Or like the Passuk inShir HaShirim says, “Meitziz Min HaCharakim” - peering through the fences.

This form of intense focusing, the spiritual depth perception that the Tzitzis are giving us stands diametrically opposed to the sin of the spies. They reported to the people that when they entered the land they saw big tall giants, intimidatingly sized fruits and no feeling of God being with them. The simple reality dictated that Am Yisrael's entrance into the land would certainly spell their death.

But obviously this was a perfunctory and shallow observation of the situation. While it is true that simple logic dictates that the Jews, former slaves and untrained soldiers stood no chance against gargantuan enemies who awaited them inside Eretz Yisrael - the world doesn’t run on simple logic alone. There is a deeper, less obvious side of the universe filled with godliness and providence, and with that in the picture nothing would stand in Am Yisrael’s way of conquering of the land. The lesson of the Tzitzis is nothing less than a direct response to the sin of the Meraglim. Depth versus shallowness.

Now we can understand why Rashi connects the sin of the spies who went LaSur to V’Lo Sasuru. The meaning of LaSur is to wander with ones eyes, to glance over, to check out, to get a basic sketch. The shallowness of LaSur stands in direct opposition to the way we explained Le’ha’tzitz. The sin of the spies and the person who lets his eyes pull him to inappropriate places are both a result of the same shortcoming: shallowness. An obsession with the superficiality of flesh is a direct outcome of a lack of appreciation for meaning and substance. Thus, it is the during the moments where we connect to Tzitzis - and thereby moments of cerebral penetration - that are the most opportune to strengthen ourselves against the pettiness of looking at things too shallowly – and thus it is specifically at this point that we are introduced to V’Lo Sasuru. The Meraglim and he who does not guard his eyes are one in the same – and Tzitzis is the answer to both.

With this is mind we can also understand why Tzitzis are placed specifically on the clothing. When it comes to the way that I come across to the world, it is my clothing that is most external. Before my actions, history and personality – the clothing I wear defines me on the most basic level. This, as modern culture has taught us, can be tremendously dangerous. We can produce tremendously shallow images of ourselves based on what we wear. For this reason we attach Tzitzis, the very manifestation of depth and meaning to contrast and elevate that which can be the first pitfall to superficiality.

Most relevantly, we can now understand what it means when the Passuk says, “U’Re’isem Oso, U’Zchartem Es Kol Mitzvos Hashem Va’Asisem Osam.” – ‘You will see the Tzitzis and you will remember and carry out all of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s commandments.’ Let's bring home why this is so.

If I perceive the world in a shallow fashion then all of the Mitzvos cease to make sense. What in the world does putting a Mezuza on my door accomplish? Nothing! What mighty cosmic energies are being shifted as I shake Lulav? None! Of what consequence is it if I mix wool and linen? Zero! But when I begin to let the meditative properties of my Tzitzis teach me how to be more spiritually attune and aware then the answer to all of those questions flips immediately.

All the Mitzvos are here to make me more spiritually aware. By internalizing the lesson that Tzitzis teaches, I am opened up to a world where everything is so much more meaningful. If reality doesn’t end at the sky, if there is yet the influence of the Kisei HaKavod, if the world around me is truly deeper than my fleshy eyeballs allow me to perceive then all of the Mitzvos become infinitely more relevant and applicable to my life, because now I’m in tune with the fabric of the true nature of the universe! “U’Re’isem Oso, U’Zchartem Es Kol Mitzvos Hashem Va’Asisem Osam.” – ‘You will see the Tzitzis and you will remember and carry out all of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s commandments.’

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha to attain such lofty levels of spiritual sensitivity. We should have the inspiration to be constantly seeking to attain more and more of a profound relationship to the godliness that surrounds us all the time. If we can truly activate this place within ourselves, if we can tap into the headspace the seeks out the deeper levels of spirituality in our lives then there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and Shleimus moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!

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