How to avoid blindness
Do you want to preserve your eyesight? Mishna Berura (24,7) quotes an ancient custom that will prevent blindness. Passing the tzitzit over our eyes when reciting the third paragraph of the shema will guarantee that we don’t lose the ability to see. How are we to understand this blessing?
The final passage of this week’s Torah reading teaches us the mitzvah of tzitzit, the fringes we are instructed to attach to the edges of four-cornered garments in order to remember all of Hashem’s commandments. After spelling out the details of the laws of tzitzit, the portion concludes with a seemingly unrelated reminder that Hashem took us out of Egypt.
Egypt is actually the embodiment of the polar opposite of remembering. This was the country that forgot all about Joseph and all the blessings he had brought upon the land, saving them from a certain famine. A generation later, his erstwhile VIP family, who had been invited to settle in Goshen as the king’s preferred subjects, were enslaved and committed to hard labour. This was a blatant display of ingratitude – a total lack of appreciation for Joseph’s contribution.
Instead, the Egyptians turned a blind eye to the plight of the Hebrews around them, never objecting to the injustices decreed upon them by Pharoah. This explains why one of the ten plagues was darkness, a physical manifestation of their ingrate sightlessness. The Hebrew word for this plague is choshech, which is written with the three letters chaf-shin-chet, letters which also spell the words shachach (forgot) and kichesh (denied).
The precept of tzitzit is about remembering – the antithesis of the Egyptians’ behaviour. Hashem took us out of that land, physically and spiritually, removing us from and from us the evil of ungratefulness. The tzitzit, on the contrary, are all about gratitude, a reminder of the 613 commandments given to us after the exodus. (The numerical value of the word tzitzit, 600, added to the number of strings, eight, and knots, five, that make up each of the four fringes, serves as a mnemonic of these obligations.)
Hence, the custom to pass these fringes over our eyes each time we call out the word tzitzit when reading the third paragraph of the shema every morning. This will ensure that we aren’t struck with the blindness of the Egyptians. And, please G-d, the merit of the mitzvah will also preserve our physical eyesight.
Moving from tumah to tahara
This week’s parsha introduces us to the detrimental spiritual effects of tumat met, the impurity that comes from being in contact with the dead and the requisite process of purification through the mechanics of the sprinkling of the ashes of a red heifer – the para adumah.
Tumah (ritual impurity) is a prevalent topic in the Torah and in many instances, we are warned to distance ourselves from numerous sources of tumah.
But what is it anyway? The English translation does it no justice (as is the case with most English translations of Hebrew concepts).
I have heard rabbis and teachers try and compare tumah to a type of “spiritual radiation”, which can affect anyone who comes close to its source.
Another idea which I read a while ago describes tumah as deviation from an object’s designation, while tahara (the opposite of tumah) is the return or recalibration of an entity to its purpose and goal. For example, a dead animal is by definition tamei (impure) while an animal shechted in accordance with halacha, is tahor (pure), and can be eaten by the holiest and most pure Jew around – apologies to all the vegans out there. A human corpse carries the highest form of tumah, as he can no longer fulfil his purpose in this world, namely living and sanctifying Hashem’s name in the world.
But I think the best explanation is that tumah is the erroneous sensation that Hashem has abandoned us. Hashem is all of reality. (The ineffable name “havaya” talks to this concept.) The truth is that Hashem is always everywhere and intimately involved in our lives. When we perceive and appreciate this, we live on a lofty level of tahara and kedusha. However, when we don’t perceive Hashem’s presence because of a death or being in contact with certain spiritually tainted objects, we are labelled as being tamei.
It’s for this reason that a mourner, someone who by definition came into contact with a relative who passed away and mistakenly felt that Hashem had abandoned him, has to recite kaddish publicly in shul and re-infuse himself with kedusha – sanctity and the realisation that Hashem was always there and would never forsake him.
Quarrels and Korach
I remember once being peripherally involved in a community dispute (a rare occurrence in Jewish life to be sure) some years ago. Discontent had been bubbling for a while, but it all boiled over around this time – parshat Korach. As support was being mustered, one party approached me during the week and asked, “Are you with me, or are you with Korach?” About a day later, I was speaking to the other party, who raised the dispute and asked me, “Are you on my side, or that of the other party, who is clearly Korach?”
In the end I was able, more or less, to stay clear of it (thank G-d), but the nature of that interaction is indicative of the challenge of learning the lesson from our parsha generally. Is the lesson that we should be confident in our position, invoking the wrath of G-d to strike down those who are clearly in error since they disagree with us? Obviously not. Is the lesson that there’s no right and wrong, and it all just depends on your perspective? I don’t believe our Torah is compatible with such moral relativism. The parsha can teach us how to engage in such difficult situations through two-fold analysis of a situation, as we can see with the Korach dispute.
First, look at the merits of the arguments raised by each side. Korach is claiming that Moshe has claimed power for himself, without divine mandate, in order to rule over the Jewish people. Moshe is claiming that he has no personal desire for power, he’s simply doing what G-d instructed. We, the astute readers of the Torah, know that Moshe is correct, that in fact, he shunned leadership at the burning bush, and accepted the position only at Hashem’s insistence. Besides, all of the Jewish people have seen that Hashem entrusted Moshe to deliver the ten commandments, and that he succeeded in achieving atonement for us after the sin of the golden calf. Is it more logical that such a man would attempt a power grab, or that the troublesome former slaves needed a leader with a firm hand on the wheel?
Second, look at the approach of each side. Korach begins by wheeling and dealing – mustering support, putting spin on his position, and using soundbites to signal his virtue. Moshe appeals for de-escalation, reaches out to other disputants Datan and Aviram, and asks for trust based on his history of dedication to the people.
Our cognitive biases, particularly what’s known as the “halo effect”, nudge us to prejudge people and situations and to take sides based on who we like better. But, before deciding who is Moshe and who is Korach, we would be well served by applying these parsha lessons.
We have a responsibility to be inclusive
How many times have you heard this sentence (and be honest): “He/she is lovely, smart … but he/she doesn’t look Jewish.”
Our weekly portion, B’haalotecha, teaches us about Miriam and Aaron as they speak out against Moses’ life choices: “He married a Cushite woman.” (Numbers 12:1) Our sages identify this woman as either Tzipporah, Moses’ wife in Exodus, or a different wife from Egypt. In any case, the argument is clear: the non-Israelite woman is an outsider, she looks different, and how she could even think that she is worthy of marrying into our exclusive club? We don’t know if it was her religion, skin colour, or some other “fault”, but this “otherness” is too much for Miriam and Aaron to accept.
G-d punished Miriam with leprosy and during her struggle with this disease, she learned about vulnerability and what it was like to be banished from the camp for seven days. A week is a short time, but for Miriam, it was long enough to get a new perspective.
“Looking Jewish” isn’t what makes us a Jewish people. We must seek truth in our world, and not be afraid to live according to those truths. And we mustn’t be afraid to speak up. Our responsibility is to include, not judge, all who wish to be part of our community.
I often think about the power of language. No less than 12 of the 44 lines of the Al Chet confessional prayer recited on Yom Kippur refer to sins relating to the misuse of words. Equally, I have all too often seen the pain of those who have felt excluded from the Jewish community.
In the world we live in, our choices matter. We all have the power to change someone’s life. And it’s that critical choice of being inclusive rather than exclusive that’s available to us all.
Personal change and growth can be so scary, that sometimes people would rather be stuck in something bad than go forward into the future. We might think of a person stuck in a bad work situation, or an abusive relationship, or an addiction, or unhealthy grief, even though it’s “Egypt”, a place of unhappiness, sometimes it’s more comfortable than the hard personal choices G-d lays before us.
Miriam and Aaron had trouble with this. They were alarmed by this Cushite woman, and spoke out against her, but G-d admonished them for it. Moses was the forgiving one. He prayed for his sister to be healed from her leprosy. He understood that our community needs more forgiveness and openness, more empathy and acceptance to get us to the promised land. This is why Moses is considered our greatest prophet.
May each of us shine light on one another, ennobling ourselves as we strive to introduce understanding to a world that prefers to look the other way. May each of us recognise our capacity to touch another soul with love and inclusiveness.
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