Sunday, June 03, 2007

Parshat Shelach Lecha

Looking for the Divine in the natural

The Torah reading ends with the commandment to place tzitzit on the corners of our garments. The Talmud (Menachot 43b) explains its significance: Rabbi Meir used to say, "Why was the colour techeilet (a green/blue dye derived from a sea snail) chosen [by G-d] to be the colour on the tzitzit? Because techeilet resembles the sea, and the sea is the same colour as the sky. The sky is similar in colour to G-d's Throne of Glory, as the verse says 'And beneath His feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of the heaven in purity ...". The Talmud also points out that the Mitzvah of tzitzit is equivalent to all the other Mitzvot: "You shall see them, and remember all the Mitzvot, and you shall perform them..." (Numbers 15; 39). Seeing brings to remembering, and remembering brings a person to action. (Menachot ibid.). Furthermore, Rashi explains that tzitzit correspond to all 613 commandments. The numerical value (Gematria) of the word tzitzit is 600, and there are eight strings and five knots, making a total of 613.
All of these statements lead to the question that if we need a reminder of the commandments why did G-d not give us a simpler, more direct reminder. Wouldn't placing a bumper sticker on our cars saying "I love G-d", or "Remember the 613" have been more effective? And why did Rabbi Meir lead us through a list of blue reminders, rather than simply saying that techeilet is the same colour as the sapphire which is under the Throne of Glory?
These questions can perhaps be answered by looking back to the opening of the Portion. When the ten spies returned with their evil report about the Land of Israel one of their claims was "It is a land which devours its inhabitants" (13; 32). Rashi (based on the Talmud Sotah 35a) explains that wherever they went throughout the land they saw funerals taking place. They thought that the Land of Israel caused premature death, and were therefore frightened to enter into it. What they failed to realise was that G-d purposely caused many Canaanite people to die while they were touring the land, in order to divert the inhabitants' attention from the unwelcome Jewish visitors. Rather than seeing the hand of G-d in what they witnessed, they saw only the negative side of Israel. Yehoshua tried to counter the claims of the spies in front of the nation, "If G-d desires it He will bring us into this Land and give it to us ..." (14; 8).
The generation of the desert had a far greater level of trust in G-d than we can fathom. Every night they would go to sleep without any provisions for the morning. They were miles away from the nearest source of water or food, and were totally dependent upon G-d providing Manna the next morning. Yet their mistake was that they thought that G-d could only relate to them in a miraculous way. When the spies entered the Land of Israel they didn't realise that G-d was also present in natural events. So when they saw the funerals taking place they misunderstood what was really happening. It didn't occur to them that G-d could be causing this for their benefit.
Tzitzit is a partial correction of the sin of the spies. Thus the Torah says, "Do not explore after your heart and after your eyes..." (15; 39). Tzitzit comes to teach us to see G-d not only in the miraculous, but also in the natural events that occur. This is why Rabbi Meir goes to such lengths to describe the different steps of remembering the Throne of Glory. If we see the techeilet we remember that G-d is also present in all natural phenomena, and in this way we come to recognise G-d. That is why it is precisely through the complicated mathematical formula that we learn the message of the tzitzit, not through slogans or empty phrases. We wear a constant reminder that G-d is present everywhere and in everything.

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