Tzitzit and Spies

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Shelach

Seeing tzitzit will remind a Jew of all the mitzvot of the Torah, the verse says, without explaining how. Kli Yakar offers two options, each interesting. His first requires two pieces of background, one better known than the other.

The Similar Colors of Tekhelet, Seaand Sky

Menachot 43b more famously says tekhelet—the bluish string we are to include with the white ones, whose identity was lost for centuries but, thank God, seems to have been found in our times–is similar to the sea, the sea to the sky, the sky to the kisei ha-kavod, I think usually translated as Throne of Glory.

Kli Yakar dismisses the possibility these colors fully match, because tekhelet certainly doesn’t match the sky exactly, although I don’t know how he was so sure. My guess is he was more confident the sea wasn’t sky-blue, it was reminiscent of sky blue. Similarity draws our attention to those parts of the world; looking at tekhelet turns our attention to the sea, from there to the sky, but so what?

The Sea and the Sky, Serving God in Fear and Love

He offers another Midrash to explain. Sifrei, also cited inYalkut Ha’azinu 542, envisions Hashem having Moshe tell the people to look at the sky Hashem had created to serve them. It never changes its dimensions, the sun never rises in the west. The Midrash quotes a verse to show the sky is happy to do it. [I’ve pointed out before: tradition portrays nature as a whole and parts of it as having consciousness, will, and choices.]

The sea also sticks to the realms given it, only here tradition inferred submission to a Greater Will, staying in its area out of yir’a, fear or awe [I think because waves crash against the beach, as if the sea would love to have more space]. If they do so, when they have no deep understanding, all the more should we, the Midrash says.

As we look at our tekhelet, Kli Yakar thinks the two sources teach us, we remember the sea, remember to serve God out of fear, instilling a deep care and concern with not going wrong. From there, we move to thinking of the sky, serving out of love (a service Kli Yakar says will translate into enjoying the component actions of service, not only the avoidance of doing or going wrong).

From those two, we progress to thinking of God directly, fear and love reading us for the highest service. A process sparked by the tekhelet’s blue.

Mitzvot Bring on Mitzvot

Alternatively or perhaps additionally [I just like that phrase], tekhelet might remind us of mitzvot based on Kohelet 9;8’s metaphor of clothing for our mitzvah observance. Most garments need many strings woven together, says Kli Yakar, but a “garment” for the soul can start with just one string, one mitzvah.

Avot 4;2 says mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one mitzvah causes another, a phrase Kli Yakar is sure indicates a covenant, by which I think he means something metaphysical, God has guaranteed us that taking on one mitzvah will put us on a path to more.  Adding to his claim, he says the one performance, since it has the potential to expand, counts as if the Jew has already fulfilled them all, at least in terms of the experience of seeing the tekhelet string.

The one string alerts us to the power of every mitzvah, any one able to move us from being spiritually bare to being fully clothed, one bringing all, in potential.

Two ways the tekhelet starts us on the road to all the mitzvot, the “reminder” Kli Yakar takes the verse to intend.

When and What God Forgave

After the sin of the spies, God commits to forgiving kidvarekha, as Moshe had said; Chatam Sofer relates it to a discussion of Tosafot Yevamot 72a. The Gemara there said the Jews did not merit the healing north wind (and did not circumcise their children) all the time in the desert because they were nezufim, shunned/excommunicated from God. Rashi says the sin of the Golden Calf led to this state, surprising Tosafot, because God seemed to forgive the Jews.

[Tosafot say God said salachti, I have forgiven, in response to the sin of the Golden Calf, although the Torah never actually says so; in the verses, Moshe asks for God to forgive them, ve-salachta la-avoneinu, you shall forgive our sins, but Hashem only says He was going to make a covenant with the Jewish people, to do miracles and more for the people. Tosafot seems to read that as forgiveness, because Hashem then has the Jews build the Mishkan and invests the Divine Presence there.]

They instead argue the Jews were shunned after the sin of the spies, in our parsha.

The Meaning of “Lekha, To You”

Of course, Chatam Sofer points out Hashem actually did say salachti kidvarekha, like your words, in our parsha, Bamidbar 14;20. Chizkuni argued Hashem was here forgiving the sin of the Golden Calf fully, without explaining why Hashem would refer back to that sin. Chatam Sofer has a theory.

Moshe defended the Jews in our parsha by arguing that punishing them as they deserved would backfire, would sacrilege God’s Name by giving the impression God had taken the Jews out of Egypt only to destroy them, “unable” to follow through on the promise to bring them to Israel.

The theory founders on first words of our parsha, shelach lekha, understood to mean Hashem made it Moshe’s choice, God was neither commanding nor prohibiting, leaving no way to “blame” it on God. On the other hand, perhaps lekha is just how the language works, in which case the Jews would be again safe.

Unfortunately, Moshe had previously protected the Jews from the full consequences of the sin of the Golden Calf with that very argument. According to Shemot Rabba 47;9, Moshe had said the Jews could not be blamed for worshipping the Golden Calf because the Aseret Ha-Dibberot said lo yihye lekha, you shall not have, a word Moshe argued applied to him alone.

Salakhti kidvarekhaChatam Sofer suggests Chizkuni would read, means I forgave the sin of the Golden Calf based on your reading of lekha, it means you alone. Applied to shelach lekha, means it was the Jews’ choice, and there can be no worry for chillul HashemTosafot could say they were nezufim, in excommunication, because of the sin of the spies, despite God’s apparent statement forgiving them.

Some sin of the Jews left a mark throughout their time in the desert. For Rashi, it was the Golden Calf, despite Hashem having them build the Mishkan and enshrining the Divine Presence there. For Tosafot, it was the spies, because, says Chatam Sofer, lekha is “to you,” God having in no way endorsed sending them.

Or, It’s the Difference Between Natural and Not

Ha’amek Davar offers another way to deal with “lekha.” He starts with the insistence shelach must mean a command. Yet Moshe presents the story in Devarim as if it was the Jews’ initiative, so Ha’amek Davar needs to reconcile the two.

Ramban starts him off, by articulating a valid reason to send spies, the ordinary human need to know how to conquer a land most effectively (the version in Devarim does not have the Jews asking whether the land is good or not, Ramban pointed out, it asked for the ways and routes to take to conquer the land). Such information is indispensable if the Jews are conquering Israel naturally (with God’s help, but within the laws of nature). Were the Jews going to continue to enjoy supernatural protection from God, as they had throughout their time in the desert, the spies would be unneeded.

Ha’amek Davar thinks the last three stops on the Jews’ travels had daunted them, made them aware of their precarious situation, how any time they complained against or about God it would be directly in His ears, as it were, could bring immediate and serious punishment.  Unable or unwilling to bear the pressure, they chose to shift to natural conquest, needing spies.

He adds an idea I find very intriguing. Moshe had told the people God spoke to them panim be-panim, literally face to face, but Netziv says it also means God promised to deal with them the way they chose. They could choose more direct providence, with its advantages and dangers, or the natural version of providence. [He adds a stimulating idea about Eldad and Medad, that their prediction Yehoshu’a would bring the Jews into Israel had to come true, and therefore necessitated a switch to the natural course of events. It would take us too far afield to study it fully.]

Tzitzit take us in a good direction, in one of two ways, and there were two possibilities about how the lekha of the second word of the parsha shaped our understanding of the sin of the spies, sandwiching this parsha with insight of Kli Yakar, Chatam Sofer, and Ha’amek Davar.

About Gidon Rothstein

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