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FRINGE BENEFITS

by Joshua Gottlieb    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"do not explore after your heart and after your eyes which you stray. So that you may remember and perform all My commandments and be holy to your G-d" (Numbers 15:39-40).

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"do not explore after your heart and after your eyes which you stray. So that you may remember and perform all My commandments and be holy to your G-d" (Numbers 15:39-40).

At the conclusion of this week's portion, the Torah discusses the obligation of attaching tzitzit (fringes on four-cornered garments). The primary objective of this commandment, we are told, is to remember all of Hashem's mitzvot and perform them. If we do this, we will become "holy to your G-d." The verse above further relates that before we can attain such a level of spirituality, we must overcome our basic human instincts which are drawn to follow the desires of the heart and eyes.

Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, writes that the language of the verse "taturu explore" is etymologically related to the word "tur spy" used at the beginning of the Torah portion with regard to the spies. The most basic connection between these two ideas is that the heart and eyes act as "spies" for a person, in that the eyes see something, the heart desires it, and the body then follows this desire into sin. A closer reading of Rashi, however, reveals a formidable discrepancy. The order listed in the verse is that one will first pursue his heart and then his eyes. Why then does Rashi reverse the order and contend that it is sight, followed by desire, to which the Torah is referring?

The answer, many commentators explain, is that Rashi is dealing with the sequence of events immediately preceding one's descent into sin. This process is signified by the information collected by one's senses being translated into desires which may then overtake one's morals and lead one to sin. The verse, conversely, is considering how one's sense of sight could initially lead one astray. This occurs only when the heart improperly deciphers what the eyes have seen.

Although this category undoubtedly includes a plethora of sins, a prime example of such a deficiency is symbolized by failure to judge people and events favorably. Even when all evidence seems to indicate that a wrong has indeed been committed, one is still obligated to search for a possible meritorious explanation. This requirement applies both when judging one's fellow man as well as appraising G-d's role in the world.

This, then, is a more profound connection between the commandment of tzitzit and the episode of the spies. In their report to the nation, the spies noted that the land of Israel is a "land that devours its inhabitants" (ibid. 13:32). Rashi cites the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 35a) which explains that Hashem had, in fact, intended this measure favorably so that the inhabitants would be preoccupied with caring and grieving for their dead, thus paying no heed to the intruders in their land. However, the spies failed to judge the circumstances favorably and thus concluded that the land to which they were being brought was inhospitable to life. This constituted a serious shortcoming in their assessment of G-d's role in the world, and contributed, in a large part, to their overall sin.

Two episodes in the Talmud clearly illustrate the extent to which one is required to judge people and events favorably. The Talmud (Tractate Berachot 60b), discusses the obligation incumbent upon every individual to not only bless G-d when calamity and misfortune befall him, but even to accept such events with joy and the knowledge that this was ultimately intended for his well-being. The Talmud then relates a story involving the sage Rabbi Akiva, as he was traveling on a journey. He arrived at a city just before nightfall and endeavored to find accommodations for the night. However, he was refused lodging and was instead forced to sleep in the fields outside of town. At the time, he had with him a rooster to wake him up in the morning, a donkey to carry his belongings, and a candle to provide light. These items were soon taken from him as a gust of wind extinguished the candle, and wild animals devoured the rooster and donkey. Still, Rabbi Akiva resolved that all of these incidents were intended for his benefit.

During the night, an army came and took the entire town into captivity. Had Rabbi Akiva found lodging in the town, or had his animals or candle produced noise or light, he would surely have been captured as well. Thus, Rabbi Akiva concluded that one should never doubt Hashem's ways, despite the way they may first appear. Rather, one must simply accept any developments with the understanding that they are the most beneficial for him under his present circumstances.

The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 127b) recounts another story which gives us great insight into one's responsibility to view the actions of one's fellow man in a favorable manner. The Talmud explains that a person who consistently judges his friend favorably is himself judged likewise in the heavenly court. The Talmud then relates a story about a laborer who was working away from home for three years to earn a living and support his family. The day before returning home, he approached his seemingly affluent employer and asked him for his wages. The employer replied that he had no money. The laborer next asked to be paid in fruits, but once again the employer replied that he had none to offer. The laborer then asked for land, animals, and even bedding, but received the same response each time; the employer had nothing to give. The laborer returned home sullen and empty-handed.

Several days later, the employer came to the house of the laborer and paid him in full. He then asked the laborer what he had thought when he heard that the employer had nothing with which to pay. The laborer replied that he had assumed that the employer's money was tied up in investments, his fruits were untithed, his land and animals were rented to others, and that when he refused to pay with bedding, he had assumed that all of the employer's property had been consecrated. The employer responded that he had, in fact, consecrated all of his property and only now had his vow of consecration been retracted. The employer concluded with a blessing that G-d should judge the laborer favorably just as the laborer had judged his employer.

The lesson we must derive from here is unequivocal. Putting strings on our garments is not a true observance of the mitzvah of tzitzit, as it does not intrinsically bring us closer to G-d. It is only when we realize that the heart must guide the eyes in every situation, that we can strive to circumvent our innate wants and desires. Only then, can we truly become "holy to your G-d."

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Joshua Gottlieb, who hails from Atlanta, is a graduating senior at the Ner Israel High School in Baltimore.

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