NO STRINGS ATTACHED
Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein
The tragic affair of the spies is one of the most frustrating and perplexing events the Torah records. Frustrating, because as casual observers we sit with our hands tied as the story painfully unfolds, bringing with it such disastrous results whose shockwaves continue to haunt us throughout time.
The tragic affair of the spies is one of the most frustrating and perplexing events the Torah records. Frustrating, because as casual observers we sit with our hands tied as the story painfully unfolds, bringing with it such disastrous results whose shockwaves continue to haunt us throughout time. Perplexing, because it is almost unimaginable that a nation which had collectively witnessed the glory and might of Hashem's outstretched arm as He brought them forth from Egyptian bondage should question His ability to safely plant them in their Promised Land. How do we justify their loss of faith and of what consequence does it have for us in 1996?
The Torah portion closes with the commandment to adorn all four-cornered garments with the tzitzit strings. Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, dean of the illustrious Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, makes a fascinating observation regarding the Torah's description of the function of tzitzit. We are commanded (Numbers 15:39) to meditate on the tzitzit which remind us of the rest of the mitzvot, so that we should not be led astray by the passions of our hearts or by the desires of our eyes. Rashi (ad. loc.), the classic medieval commentator, explains that the heart and eyes require special protection since they are naturally inclined to lead one into sin. The sinning process, Rashi continues, first involves the eyes detecting an object of desire. The heart is then set aflame with a craving for this object, and together the eyes and the heart propel the body into action. Asks Rabbi Gifter: If the snare of sin is first laid by the eyes and then by the heart, as Rashi would have it, why then does the Torah write them in the opposite order, stating that tzitzit are first a prescription against following one's heart and then one's eyes?
Classically, we understand Man's hierarchical position as the last created entity as symbolic of the dominant role Mankind plays vis-à-vis the universe. The "stage is set"; all the raw materials are in order and Man is thrust upon the scene to harness the raw power, elevating it by putting it into his service. However, in a more metaphysical sense, perhaps the placement of Man is meant to indicate that all of creation itself has no reality whatsoever, that it is in a totally incomplete state until Man is at last created.
We humans are indeed peculiar. Have you ever shared an event or experience with another and, upon comparing notes, discovered that the two of you had radically different interpretations of what transpired? You felt enlightened, stimulated, and took full interest in the occasion, whereas your companion was "hung up" on the imperfect minutiae and found it to be trivial and boring. Reality is, in fact, quite elastic. It takes the shape of whatever interpretation we wish to ascribe to it. Our attitude and self-concept dictate the way we relate to external stimuli and what kind of value or meaning we attach to them. In the highest sense, Man is a partner with Hashem in creation because each and every one of us, according to our unique personalities and character composition, "create" our own world in which we live.
Rabbi Gifter explains: It's true that the eyes are the first to entice the individual to sin; however, the eyes will only see what the heart wishes to see! Tzitzit demand that we reflect upon our duties of the heart, that we question and challenge our values and clarify the way we view ourselves. The wearing of the tzitzit aids us in defining ourselves by identifying the greater cause to which we adhere to. Just as the bellhop at the posh metropolitan hotel is identified as belonging to its ranks (and indeed is accorded a great sense of dignity and honor) by the uniform and insignia which he wears, tzitzit serve to brand us as loyal servants of the Almighty Creator of the universe. They are the garments of royalty.
Out of their own mouths the spies reveal the underlying rot and decay which precipitated this disastrous event. In their report to the people, they interject a self-denigrating quip which would appear to be out of consonance with the tone and tempo of their story. In the midst of describing the land of Israel as a land whose climate produces nations of gigantic proportions, they add, "We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we were in their eyes" (Numbers 13:33). That the inhabitants regarded the Jews as puny insects would certainly evoke feelings of dread and fear. However, what of their own feelings of inferiority? What could they have possibly expected this remark to accomplish?
The answer is crystal clear: The Jewish people did not lose faith in Hashem; they lost faith in themselves! They lost the proper healthy perspective of what their true value was, of who they really were. Had they understood the great love which Hashem felt for them, they would have believed themselves to be worthy beneficiaries of the most precious of gifts, the land of Israel. Instead of looking at themselves as spiritual giants who would effortlessly crush the Cannanite tribes, they saw a nation of hopeless, miserable grasshoppers who did not deserve the love showered upon them.
The truth is, Hashem loves us more than we will ever know. Like a compassionate father, He wants only the best for us. It is our job to be His children; we have to only believe in ourselves and reflect upon the noble identity to which the tzitzit serve as a constant reminder. As long as we wear His "royal emblem", proudly calling ourselves His faithful children, then we are His children and He will open to us His boundless love. So indeed! Hashem's love comes with strings attached!
Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein, who grew up in Atlanta and is an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a member of the Kollel at the Talmudic University of Florida in Miami Beach.
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