Shlach-Lecha: Don’t Turn Astray

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach Lecha

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. (Bamidbar/ Numbers 15:39)

Good morning! This week’s Torah portion starts off with a grand narrative and ends up on with the small fringes on our garments- but these are not unrelated, as we shall see. The grand narrative is that of the spies going up to the Land of Israel, ten of whom came back discouraged and disheartened, and brought the people down with them into despair. Two spies tried to give the people hope, but it was too late, and that generation was condemned to wander until their children were ready to enter the Land.

Fast forward to the end of the portion, and we have the mitzvah of tzitzit, or attaching fringes to the corners of garments. The reason we do so is given in the verse above: these fringes will remind us of the commandments and then we won’t go astray. (Not that any of y’all would do that, of course.)

Now, what’s interesting is that one commentator, Sefer HaHinnuch [a medieval textbook of the commandments] actually lists “not following our hearts and eyes” as a separate commandment by itself. (Others disagree.) That is, rather than just understanding “not going astray” as the reason for the tzitzit, this source understands the tzitzit to represent an intellectual responsibility not to think about or follow false ideas or immoral things, an obligation we have regardless of what we are wearing.

Of course, that’s a high bar to set: we spend our whole lives seeking to discern truth and the world is full of distractions and temptations. I don’t believe anybody can “not go astray”- that’s not possible. Rather, I think enumerating this as a separate mitzvah simply means that we should have a spiritual practice of paying attention to what’s grabbing our attention. To wit:: if we’re paying attention to shiny things, we’re paying less attention to love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Rashi makes a wonderful allusion to this when he says that “the heart and eyes are spies for the body: The eyes see, the heart covets and the body sins.” The word he uses for “spies, “ meraglim, is the same as the word for “spies” in the first part of the portion- this can’t be an accident. I think Rashi is implying that just as the spies went up to the Land but got distracted internally (by fear, anxiety, and despair) from the true course of their journey, so too when we go through this life we can get distracted internally by meaningless things which grab our attention and play upon our insecurities. The good news is that we can also go through life with more intentionality ; the tzitzit represent the idea that we can learn to focus on that which is important, rather than ephemeral. Such a reorientation of the eyes and heart is neither easy nor simple, but such is the task of becoming the person we are meant to be.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.: for a very different interpretation of tzitzit, see this week’s commentary by R. Jonathan Sacks. It’s great.

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