Archive for Shlach-Lecha

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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Shlach-Lecha: Big Ideas, Small Reminders

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach Lecha

This week the Israelites get very close to the Land- but are afraid of what they might find there, and are condemned to spend a generation in the wilderness. Laws of offerings are taught and the parsha concludes with the mitzvah of tzitzit, or fringes.

Greetings one and all!

So much is going on in the world- sometimes people ask me if I’m going to address the crisis of the day in my d’var Torah, and the answer is, usually not. There are millions of words of political analysis out there, and this is a small sanctuary of Torah study (at least  most of the time.) To put it another way: if I write about the latest political crisis, then me and the New York Times and Fox News will all have covered it- but none of us will have written anything about the Torah portion.

With that. . we’re on the portion Shlach-Lecha, which is mostly about the spies sent up to the Land of Israel but concludes with the laws of tzitzit, or fringes on the corners of the garment. This passage is recited daily as the third paragraph of the Shma:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: ‘ Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. 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. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.  I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God.’ ”  (Bamidbar 15:37-41)

You might reasonably ask: if the Shma is about Divine Unity, the One Foundation of the cosmos. . . uh, what do little tassels on the garments have to do with that? Talk about moving from the sublime to the ridiculous!

To which I might respond: yes, but Judaism usually takes big ideas and distills them into particular actions. For example, we take the idea that spiritual growth must be given weekly precedent over economic activity- and we practice Shabbat. We take the idea of moving from constriction to freedom, from bondage to true spiritual service, and we make a Pesach seder. We take the idea that God is One- and therefore each moment is an opportunity to make manifest the sacred values of Divine compassion and justice, and we turn that into tzitzit, fringes, which are a visual reminder of the ever-present challenge to “set God before me always.” (Ps. 16:8)

We can’t always live at the highest spiritual levels: although God is One, we are embodied human beings, who get busy, get caught up in things, have our ups and downs, and need to work every day on integrating our ideals with our actions. Tzitzit bring the Shma down to earth, as it were- by including this paragraph in the Shma, the ancient rabbis acknowledged that we will sometimes get distracted from the big spiritual teachings. We sometimes need reminders, because the big spiritual ideas live in ordinary busy people. That’s as it should be: who could reach the level of Shma if we had to get it right the first time?

Tzizit remind us to get back on the spiritual path when we stray; they also remind us that the Torah was not given to angels- but to us.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shlach Lecha: Living On the Edge

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

Dear Friends: with all the rain we’ve had around here, it feels more
appropriate to be studying the Torah portion Noach rather than
Shlach-Lecha, but nevertheless, it’s the season to talk about spies
and their clandestine reconnaissance. Fans of James Bond, take note:
the Torah portion tells the story of the spies who went up from the
desert to scout out the Land of Israel and came back discouraged,
while the haftarah tells of a much more successful mission 38 years

To wit: after Yehoshua [Joshua] led the Israelies across the Jordan
river to begin their conquest of the Land, he sends two men up to
Jericho, where they enter the city and are saved from discovery by a
harlot named Rachav, who has heard about the wondrous miracles of
Israel from Egypt onward and so believes their victory is inevitable.
They make a deal with her: if she lets them escape, they’ll save her
and her family when the town is conquered in the coming battle.

Rachav is an interesting character: on the one hand, she’s a
prostitute and disloyal to her king and people, but on the other hand,
she is more “God-fearing,” in the most literal sense, than the tribal
princes sent by Moshe in the Torah portion. She is also, quite
literally, someone on the margins of society: she lives up against or
perhaps in the wall of the city, which allows her to let the spies
escape through the city wall from her dwelling. (Cf. Yehoshua/Joshua

A recurring theme of the Bible is that insight and inspiration often
come from the poor or powerless- in fact, much of the spiritual
leadership in Biblical narrative comes from those without formal
power, status, wealth or authority. For example, the haftarah for the
Torah portion Metzorah tells the story of four “metzorim,” or men
afflicted with ritual impurity, who are outside the gates of the city
and thus able to see things that the king and his advisers cannot.
(Cf. 2 Kings 7.) A third example might be the haftarah for the first
day of Rosh Hashana, in which Hanna, the childless woman, shows the
officiating priest the meaning of true prayer. (1 Samuel 1)

The story of Rachav contrasts the king of Jericho- sitting at the
center of the city, physically and politically- who can’t see the
truth nearly as clearly as the prostitute living right at the outer
wall. Taken together with the stories mentioned above, perhaps the
message is this: leaders must listen to the people on the edges of the
community- they may have something important to teach, something
visible only from the margins of power or status. As ancient sage Ben
Zoma taught: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.” To
learn from all people requires both openness – to remember that the
harlot at the gate may be wiser than the king on the throne- and
humility, to accept wisdom where it may be found.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shlach-Lecha: Connecting Prayer and Ethics

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

This week’s Torah portion is Shlach-Lecha, meaning
“send”, which tips us off that the big story of the portion is the
spies who were sent up to the Land of Israel and came back discouraged
and glum. That, in turns, sets off a bit of commotion which results in
the decree that the Israelites will stay in the wilderness until the
current generation has died- only their children will inherit the Land.

Towards the end of the parsha, we get the mitzvah of tzitzit-
“fringes”- to be tied on the corners of our garments:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people
and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of
their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to
the fringe at each corner. 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. Thus you
shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to
your God. . . ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 15:37-40)

This passage is included in the third paragraph of the Shma, and is
the source for the practice of wearing a tallit or prayer shawl which
has the tzitzit attached to it. Sefer HaHinnuch, the “Book of
Education,” which is the medieval textbook of the mitzvot which we’ve
been referencing in the past year, points out that because this
passage mentions “corners,” the mitzvah of tzitzit only applies to
certain garments with corners, and only if those garments are actually
worn. So, for example, a bed sheet is a four-corned cloth, but doesn’t
need tzitzit because it’s not worn. If one made it into a poncho, then
one would tie tzitzit to it.

In other words, one could avoid doing this mitzvah entirely by never
owning and subsequently never wearing a four-cornered garment, just as
one could avoid the mitzvah of building a parapet around the roof of
one’s home by not having a flat roof, as such. (Cf.
D’varim/Deuteronomy 22.)

Yet tallitot- prayer shawls with tzitzit- are just about universal in
the Jewish world, even though it’s a “situational” mitzvah- that is, a
mitzvah which we only do if the conditions permit it. Typically worn
as a “tallit gadol” (big outer tallit) during morning prayers, or a
“tallit katan” (thin undershirt with tzitzit) throughout the day, the
tallit has come to represent the entire set of mitzvot, and thus is a
symbol of covenantal theology. Many commentators arrive at an equation
whereby the combined strings, knots, and windings add up to 613- the
number of commandments- so that the mitzvah of tzitzit is really about
being reminded of all the mitzvot, a outer sign of an inner commitment.

OK, here’s a question: doesn’t the paragraph above actually tell us
why we’re wearing the tzitzit: “so that you do not follow your heart
and eyes in your lustful urge?” [There are varying translations of
this verse, but you get the idea.] Isn’t that a bit different than
being reminded of the commandments in general?

Well, yes, and in fact, Sefer HaHinnuch and others list “not following
after one’s heart” as a separate mitzvah, a negative (that is, don’t
do this) commandment forbidding thinking certain kinds of problematic
thoughts or giving into sinful temptations and desires. We’ll leave a
detailed discussion of this mitzvah for another time, but for now,
please note how the rabbis have taken a very specific practice-
putting tzitzit on one’s garments- and expanded it from being a
reminder not to go astray to a more positive symbol of Jewish
commitment and spirituality overall.

That, in turn, helps us understand why a conditional mitzvah- putting
tzitzit on a garment with corners- became the important spiritual
discipline of wearing a tallit during prayer. If the tzitzit represent
all the commandments, then wearing a tallit during prayer is a
profound statement of the central insight that spirituality is not
primarily about what happens in synagogues or at minyan [prayer
quorum]. After all, most of the commandments are about what happens in
“real life,” as we talk, eat, buy, sell, plant, reap, give, take, and
love. Wearing a tallit during prayer makes an unbreakable connection
between our prayers and our actions, our rituals and our everyday
interactions, and “ties” them together in one Jewish covenant.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shlach-Lecha: Making Judaism Beautiful

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach Lecha

Greetings! Long before the world knew the names James Bond or Maxwell
Smart, the most famous spies in history were the 12 men sent by Moshe
to scout out the land of Israel; their story is the major part of this
week’s Torah portion, Shlach Lecha. After their mission and report to
the people – which didn’t work out so well- the Torah turns to
various rituals and laws of religious service, including the
instruction to tie tzitzit, or ritual fringes:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: ‘Speak to the Israelite people
and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of
their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to
the fringe at each corner.. . . ‘ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:37-38)

From this passage (recited daily as part of the three paragraphs of
the Shma) the rabbis learned that tzitzit, or fringes, were tied on
garments that had “corners,” (four of them, as it turns out), and thus
we get the practice of wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, which is
always a four-cornered garment upon which we can tie tzitzit in order
to fulfill this commandment. The tzitzit are visual reminders of the
mitzvot [commandments] but wearing a tallit during prayer is often
much more than that- getting wrapped up or draped in a special garment
worn during prayer is a way of achieving kavannah [focus/intention]
during prayer, a tactile and visual way of moving our bodies and minds
into greater spiritual openness and connection. [Many Jews also wear a
special undershirt with tzitzit attached so they can do this mitzvah
all day, but that’s different than the “outer” tallit one wears during
morning services.]

Personally, I love putting on a tallit, and I even have several
different ones for Shabbat, weekdays, and holidays. That’s probably a
bit over the top for some people, but for me, wearing a differently
colored tallit on Shabbat than during the week helps me experience
Shabbat as a special and holy day, one which I honor by doing things a
bit differently and with extra attention to aesthetics and “hiddur
mitzvah,” or “beautifying the commandments.” This is an important idea
in Judaism, going back to Biblical days, and can be applied to many
areas of Jewish life, including ritual objects, books, decorations,
dress, how we set our tables for Shabbat and the holidays, and so on.

What’s interesting to me is that “beautifying” the commandments
necessarily involves the application of personal, subjective standards
of taste and individual preference- a beautiful tallit for one person
might be one with purple stripes but another person would care more
about the quality of the fabric or the decorations on the atarah
[“crown” or band right behind the neck, which is often decorated.] In
other words, a “commandment” – like celebrating Shabbat or wearing a
tallit- is something we do as part of a community, but making the
commandments beautiful- “hiddur mitzvah”- is something we do as
individuals within that larger system of teachings and practices.

That’s why I think it’s such an important step of Jewish growth to own
one’s own talllit; by choosing the color, style, fabric, and size of a
tallit, one fulfills the mitzvah in a way that is personally pleasing,
which in turn helps one have kavannah while wearing it. Taking a
tallit “off the rack” when coming to synagogue is fine, but going to
the trouble of choosing one’s own is way of bringing our whole,
individual selves, with our tastes and preferences and styles- into
the community of prayer.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- here’s a bunch of links to follow up on the discussion above.

First, here’s a page which goes into greater depth explaining the idea
of “hiddur mitzvah,” or “adorning the commandments”:\

Here’s another take on it, from an Orthodox rabbi, who explores the
balance between aesthetics and communal concerns:

Here’s a history and full explanation of the commandment of tallit-
but please note, in egalitarian synagogues, the mitzvah is open to
women as well as men:

The spiritual significance of tallit:\

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Shlach: Bread and Surfeits

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

Greetings from (occasionally) sunny Massachusetts ! This week’s Torah
portion is Shlach-Lecha, which means “send for yourself,” words which
occur in the first sentence of the portion and begin the story of the
spies who are sent up to the Land of Israel. Well, that didn’t go so
well, but afterwards, the Israelites received various laws concerning
agricultural offerings, how to make atonement, the Sabbath, and
tzitzit, or ritual fringes.

Many of us think of challah as the braided bread eaten on Shabbat and
festivals, but the word “challah” (also sometimes transliterated as
hallah, but it’s really a guttural “kh” ) actually signifies a mitzvah
performed in the preparation of the bread, not the bread itself. Among
the various offerings discussed in the latter part of Shlach-Lecha is
the law of separating out a bit from our “baking:”

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the Israelite people and
say to them: When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of
bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to the Lord: as
the first yield of your baking, you shall set aside a loaf as a gift;
you shall set it aside as a gift like the gift from the threshing
floor. You shall make a gift to the Lord from the first yield of your
baking, throughout the ages.’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:17-21)

The rabbis understood the phrase “first yield” to mean you separate
out a bit while it’s still in the first stages of baking- that is, the
dough. There are various laws which specify how much and when and
under what conditions this mitzvah applies, but for now, suffice it to
say that it’s still a rabbinic law to separate out a little piece of
dough from kosher bread. We can’t give it to the priests anymore,
since their aren’t any, so this little bit of dough is simply
separated and discarded. Thus, “challah” has become a label which
means “bread from which challah has been taken”- that is, bread which
has had this little piece taken from the dough (assuming it’s a kosher
or observant baker.)

If you’re baking at home, you do the same thing- you take a little
piece of the dough and just toss it in the back of the oven, then
discard it later. You might hear this called “taking challah,” and
applies today as a reminder of Biblical practices and a connection to
the special blessings of the Land of Israel.

OK, so it’s nice to remember the past, and it’s certainly important to
remember the special blessings of the Land of Israel, but does taking
a bit of dough out of my nice Cuisinart bread machine mean more than a
remembrance of something ancient and far away? (Not that remembering
things ancient and far away aren’t in themselves part of spiritual
growth.) Well, as I see it, the mitzvah of taking challah is directly
connected to the idea of “when you enter the Land,” in the first verse
of our passage above. The “Promised Land” wasn’t just a safe haven
from slavery, it was also a place where the Israelites could enjoy
material blessings and prosperity.

Precisely because the inheritors of the Land would be the descendants
of traumatized slaves, it’s powerful to me that there are so many
agricultural, Israel-based mitzvot which teach us to appreciate that
we have enough (bread, fruit, oil, wine, animals, money) to give away.
One legacy of trauma and deprivation is a constant fear that there’s
never enough- taking just a little piece of challah is another
reminder that the inheritors of the Land would in fact, have enough.
What was true then is true now- we, too, need reminders that we
usually have more material abundance than we truly need, and must
therefore give some away in order to live a spiritually meaningful
life, a life which is not ruled by fear or greed, but is increasingly
generous and giving.

To that end, the mitzvah of challah seems to be based in the principal
that feelings follow actions- that is, one might not feel generous or
blessed, but in the very act of giving, come to appreciate the
sufficiency of one’s blessings. In AA, this is sometimes called “act
as if”- that is, act as if you have enough to give away, and you will
almost certainly come to learn that you do. (At least for most of us
in modern day North America.) Separating out a little bit of dough is
another way that Judaism teaches us that we are given in order that we
may give, and in the very act of giving, we come to appreciate the
gifts that life has afforded us. Challah a small piece of dough, but
teaches a major principal of the spiritual life.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- the text of the portion is here:

and a summary and further commentary can be found here:

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Shlach-Lecha: Fringes and Faith

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

It’s officially summer, a season for travel and exploration. That’s
also the a main theme of this week’s Torah portion, Shlach-
Lecha. Most of the parsha this week is the story of the 12 spies
who go up from the desert to “case out” the Land of Israel; ten
come back discouraged but two have faith and urge the people
to ascend to the Promised Land. Following the story of the
spies, there are rules for agricultural offerings and Shabbat

The parsha concludes with the commandment to put tzitzit-
fringes- on the corners of our garments. (Cf. Bamidbar/Numbers
15:37-41.) Our teacher Rashi explains that this mitzvah
[commandment] only applies to a four-cornered garment, and,
following the Torah text itself, he strongly links the meaning of
the tzitzit to the Exodus from Egypt. The passage also says that
we should look at the tzitzit and remember the commandments-
they are a sign of the overarching relationship between our
people and our Liberator.

The idea of “ritual fringes” might seem strange if we’re not used
to seeing them, but remember, people wear objects which have
symbolic significance every day, from a wedding ring to a college
logo sweatshirt to a baseball cap. What we wear often makes a
statement about who we are connected to, what our
commitments are, and how we identify ourselves.

When thinking about the meaning of tzitzit, it’s also important to
remember that it is, ideally, an every-day practice. Many Jews
only see tzitzit on tallitot [prayer shawls] on Shabbat, but many
other Jews wear an undershirt with tzitzit every day, or at least put
on a tallit as part of regular morning prayers, in order to fulfill this
mitzvah on a daily basis.

Ideas abound in Jewish literature about the spiritual significance
of the tzitzit- the number of knots, the blue thread (see below), the
“corners” of the garments, etc. We’ll leave most of that for
another time, but one teaching in particular strikes me as
profound, and that’s Rashi’s interpretation of the eight threads in
each set of fringes. Rashi links these eight threads on each
corner of the garment to the eight days between the first night of
the Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Sea, which was
Israel’s first real moment of safety and complete liberation.

Think about it: the Israelites left their homes in a hurry on the
night of the first Passover, but it wasn’t until eight days later
(according to this reading of the story) that they could finally sing
a joyous song on the other side of the sea. It was eight days
from leaving slavery to feeling like they’d <really> left Egypt, eight
days until they felt that they had <really> been brought out of
oppression. We don’t think about that eight day period very much,
but it seems to me that it’s a powerful metaphor for the “in-
between” nature of our lives as we, too, go forward on our

In Hebrew, Egypt is Mitzrayim, which has a literal meaning of the
“narrow” or “constricted” place. Egypt, in spiritual terms, was the
place where we were controlled by external forces, ruled by fear
and worked to the bone for no truly meaningful purpose. It’s a
metaphor or image for all those times when we find ourselves
constrained from being our best and truest selves, when we
stuck in one of life’s inevitable “narrow places.” So there is a
recurring theme in later Jewish thought which says that we are
all, always, leaving Egypt in one way or another- or at least given
the chance to, with the hope that we’ll take it.

On the other hand- it’s hard to feel like we’ve <really> gotten to
the place we want to go, where the external forces or internal
fears which drive us are left behind- cast into the sea, as it were.
Sometimes we feel those moments of great liberation and
personal redemption, but sometimes it’s hard to feel progress –
and that’s where faith comes in.

Faith isn’t just a matter of belief, but of movement, of openness,
of change, of willingness to go forward, to put one foot in front of
the other in the service of a higher cause. Our ancestors left
Egypt to serve God in the wilderness without really knowing the
whole plan of what lay ahead- but then, do we ever really know
what lies ahead?

So if the tzitzit represent those eight days between liberation and
salvation, they also represent what it takes to keep going
forward: attachment to higher purposes, a remembrance of our
sacred history, a discipline to bring holy values into a long life’s
journey. That’s why we look at the tzitzit in order to “remember the
commandments” – it’s about being reminded of our higher goals
and a greater hope. Our ancestors may have had Pharaoh
behind them and the sea dead ahead, but somehow they kept
on going. If they did it, so can we, with the promise of liberation
from what oppresses us just as real to us as it was to them.

As always, you can read the full text of this week’s parsha here:

Here’s a general overview of tallit and tzitzit:

Finally, here’s an interesting history of the “blue thread”
mentioned in our passage, written by my good friend Baruch
Sienna, one of the most grammatically correct people around:

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