A close friend of mine is the head of an out-of-town yeshiva high school. One day, one of the parents sponsored a “tzitzis project” so the boys could learn to tie their own tzitzis. When the supplies arrived, the tzitzis strings were already attached to the garments! The rosh yeshiva quickly switched gears. The new plan was now for the boys to decorate the tzitzis garments, each in their unique style, since the Gemara Shabbos says one should have beautiful tzitzis, which Rashi explains is a nice garment for the attachment of tzitzis. It was a huge hit! Even the boys who were reluctant to wear tzitzis were now wearing them proudly.
Hashem instructs the Bnei Yisrael with the mitzvah of tzitzis at the end of Parshas Shelach. This mitzvah was given to Bnei Yisrael as a reward for the actions of their great-grandfather Shem. When Noach became drunk and was standing unclothed in his tent, Shem and Yefes took a blanket and covered their father. Rashi says that in reward for clothing their father, they both received a “type of a covering” in the future. Yefes will be rewarded in the final war of Armageddon, where all his descendants who perish will be buried and not lay as corpses in the fields. Shem was rewarded with his grandchildren (Bnei Yisrael) being given the mitzvah of tzitzis. Chom, who ridiculed and degraded his father and did nothing to cover him, was punished with his descendants becoming slaves.
Why was the reward for Shem and Yefes different, since they both acted to clothe their father? Rashi notes that Shem initiated the idea to clothe their father, as is hinted in the word vayikach—and he (Shem) took, rather than vayikchu (pl.)—and they took (since Shem and Yefes both carried the blanket together). And why specifically are Shem’s descendants rewarded in their lifetimes with the mitzvah of tzitzis, as opposed to Yefes, whose descendants will be rewarded with respect in a specific instance after their demise?
The Shem Mishmuel enlightens us on the three sons and their differences. Chom was unfazed and unabashed by his father being unclothed, as he related to man no differently than to an animal. Just as animals do not wear clothing, neither do humans need clothing. Therefore, he was punished to be a slave to serve his fellow man, just as animals function for the service of man.
Yefes recognized the beauty and dignity of man and felt it was out of place for man to be unclothed. Therefore, his reward was to be accorded the proper respect for men to be buried and not lay as carcasses in the open field.
Shem recognized something deeper. Shem saw the neshama (soul) inside man and his inner spiritual beauty. He recognized that the body of a human is like a garment to the soul. Not only was it undignified for Noach to be unclothed, and a disgrace to the holy neshama that’s inside, but he also recognized that the body itself is holy and needs to be covered. This prompted him to jump and initiate the covering of his father. Therefore, Shem was rewarded with a garment that not only clothes his body, but also has the dimension of a mitzvah. The tzitzis transforms and gives a new life to the garment, recognizing that the body-soul relationship adds sanctity to the body itself.
Chom, Yefes and Shem’s view on the human being is alluded to in their names. Chom is rooted in the word cham—heat. Chom connected to the base urges and desires of man as an animal. Yefes means yafeh—beautiful—as he recognized the beauty and dignity of man. Shem means “name,” which defines the essence of something, as Shem recognized the spiritual essence of man.
The mitzvah of tzitzis reminds us of the reality that we are a neshama that is clothed by a body and that our body itself is therefore holy and special. The strings attached to the garment elevate the garment to be a mitzvah; it not only clothes a person, but gives him eternal reward. The Torah says, “One shall see the tzitzis and remember all the mitzvos of Hashem.” The tzitzis have the ability to remind us of all the mitzvos, as they are the reward for Shem’s recognizing the spiritual essence of man and how it elevates man’s body. This recognition is to be expressed in the way we act, talk, walk and dress.
Let us always realize that we were created to be holy and elevated. Every action we take and every word we utter can have sparks of kedusha (holiness.) This awareness will ensure that our behavior reflects our refined status.
This week’s parsha deals with the story of the meraglim, where several of the great leaders of klal Yisrael went into Eretz Yisrael to scout out the land only to return with negative reports. Only Kalev and Yehoshua returned with messages of hope and bitachon.
The meforshim ask, how could the meraglim sin this way? This was the dor hamidbar, the generation which saw countless miracles with their own eyes! If HaShem said that they would go into the land and it would be safe, how could the meraglim return with reports which warranted a desire to return to Egypt?
I once heard an idea from one of my rebbeim which I think answers this question. Every single day of our lives, we make decisions. It’s feasible that there isn’t a soul on earth who spends one day without making any decisions. Even an inmate in prison whose freedom is basically removed makes decisions.
The question isn’t so much as to what the decisions are, rather what inside of us makes the decision. When a person decides to do anything in life, there needs to be a form of justification in order to act. It could just be a thought of “this will give me pleasure,” yet nevertheless, every decision has some form of reasoning.
I remember once when I was in middle school and was called into the principal’s office for doing something wrong. At the time, I had dealt with authority enough to know that the only way to truly win is to throw a curveball. The principal is always expecting the child to walk in and start arguing his case; how he’s not the real culprit rather the victim. Those are the kinds of kids who get suspended or even worse. I would walk in and say “I’m sorry Mr. Principal, I know what I did was wrong. I just wasn’t thinking. You can trust me, I won’t do it again.” That kind of answer would freeze principals. They wouldn’t know how to react! But in reality, was I truthful? Did I really never think about these things before acting? Maybe not consciously. But every time I would do something silly, there would always be a thought process. It was normally, “If I do this, people will think ‘x’ about me, and I want that…” There was a subconscious cheshbon for no decision is made without a root.
So what is it that makes the decision? On a basic level, a person is comprised of two parts, the guf and the neshama. Each one has a say, each makes a cheshbon. The question is, which one do we listen to? Do we make our decisions based on the desires of the guf, or the counsel of the neshama?
This was the meraglim’s problem. They became too focused on the externals, on the guf, and they failed to see within. The failed to see the depths, the neshama of the matter, that even though the situation looked bleak, HaShem was looking over us. Their guf had taken over, and when a person is looking at the world through the lenses that the guf provides without the neshama’s influence, the decisions made can be disastrous, even sometimes going against known truths!
This is also the reason why the story of the meraglim is in the same parsha as tzitzis. Tzitzis comes from the word “tzits” which means to look. The meforshim say that the yesod of mitzva’s tzitzis is to always look deeper. That even something so chitzoni like a shirt still has ruchniyus to it, the tzitzis. The sin of the meraglim was that they focused on the exterior too much. As a result, we learn about the mitzva’s tzitzis to remember to always look deeper.
The Chovos Halevovos in Sha’ar HaBitachon says this idea. He says that a person’s issues and hardships in life stem from a lack of recognition of HaShem. The same thing constantly applies to us. How often do we remember HaShem in our chitzonius-dik lifestyles? It’s a tremendous avodah, but one which is quintessential to yiddishkeit; to be able to grow in our recognition of HaShem, and as a result always make decisions with the proper state of mind.
Towards the beginning of the parsha, the Torah describes that Aharon lit the Menorah, just as he was commanded. Rashi says l’hagid shevacho shel Aharon she’lo shina, this teaches Aharon’s greatness that he didn’t deviate .
Would we suspect for a moment that Aharon would fail to fulfill Hashem’s command or that he would distort the proper lighting of the Menorah? Why do we need to be told that Aharon didn’t change?
The Sfas Emes suggests that Rashi isn’t telling us that Aharon didn’t change from the command, but rather that Aharon attitude didn’t change. The enthusiasm, joy, excitement that Aharon brought to that first kindling remained each subsequent lighting and didn’t diminish at all.
Perhaps we can suggest another interpretation. The pasuk is revealing Aharon’s greatness she’lo shina , Aharon didn’t change. He was elevated to the status of Kohen Gadol, distinguished, prominent, prestigious and yet it didn’t have an impact on him. Aharon remained the same humble person he was before. His status, stature and prominence didn’t change him.
No matter our accomplishments or achievements, our roles or titles, the friends or following we have online or offline, like Aharon, we must remain humble, authentic and at our core, the same person we always were.
Avi was sitting in a Jerusalem restaurant with a group of Israelis who had recently committed to keeping Torah and mitzvos. The waiter brought watermelon for dessert. One of the men picked up a watermelon slice and very loudly recited “Baruch atah … shehakol nihiyeh bidvoro” and took a big bite. Avi said to the man, “That was such a beautiful blessing. Thank you for allowing us to say ‘Amen’ to the bracha.” Avi then said, “I’m not sure you’re aware that since watermelon grows from the ground, the correct bracha is ha-adamah.” The man replied, “I know, but let me tell you a story. I was in the Six-Day war. My platoon was surrounded by Syrian tanks. We were low on ammunition and on soldiers. There was no way out. The commander said we should recite a prayer to save us from this very big danger. I did not know any prayers, but for some reason I knew the bracha of ‘Baruch atah … shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro,’ so I screamed the words as a prayer, placed a mortar in the cannon, shot and blew up a Syrian tank! Upon seeing what just happened, another soldier got up, said the same bracha shot his cannon and had another direct hit on the enemy tanks. This repeated itself over and over. I said to myself just now, if the blessing of shehakol was good enough for a Syrian tank, it’s good enough for a watermelon!”
It doesn’t exactly work that way. In Parshas Beha’aloscha, the Jews complained about missing the fish, squash and watermelon they freely ate in Egypt. How could they complain they ate fish and other delicacies when they didn’t even receive straw to make the bricks? Rashi quotes the Sifri who explains that their complaint was not about the food. The issue was that they now felt bound by the Torah’s mitzvos, whereas in Egypt, they were free of any commitments.
Rav Wolbe cautions that it is hard for us today to comprehend the complaints of the lofty generation who received the Torah. They weren’t looking to be free to do whatever they pleased. Rather, their complaints related to the mun. Delivery of the mun to individuals was very revealing! The midrash tells us the mun fell in different areas, depending on the person’s connection to Hashem. For the extremely righteous, the mun landed on their doorstep; the righteous – a few meters away from their house; the least righteous – outside of the camp. This made for a daily, very public display of where each person was spiritually! Many wanted to be free to eat their mun without their shortcomings being on display for everyone to see.
Indeed, one of the greatest gifts Hashem gave us is the ability to exercise free choice (bechira chafshis) to follow Hashem’s Torah. Although we are always bound and obligated to perform mitzvos, when we exercise our free choice to do so, this connects us to the Torah in a deeper way and makes the reward much greater.
We can also relate to the concept of free choice through Yom Kippur. We hopefully achieve high spiritual standards by the conclusion of Yom Kippur, but it’s hard to maintain these standards all year. As weeks pass, we don’t have the clarity and focus that we achieved on Yom Kippur. If we commit a sin and are not punished on the spot, that’s part of Hashem’s plan to give us free choice. The fork in the road is always there for us—good or bad—it’s our free choice.
My rebbe, Rabbi Elefant of the Mir Yerushalayim, says most of our daily decisions are not an exercise of free choice. Deciding which ice cream or flavored coffee we want is not exercising free choice. Real bechira is deciding to do a mitzvah or holding back from doing an aveirah (sin.) For example, we may restrain ourselves from saying a derogatory comment. Intellectually, it’s an easy choice. But in the moment, for some, it’s a big challenge! Or like our soldier earlier, do we use our own emotional approach to mitzvos and say “shehakol” on the watermelon, or follow the Shulchan Aruch and say “ha-adamah?”
How do we help ensure that we make the right choice?
Reb Yisrael Salanter suggests we study a topic of Torah a few minutes a day, specifically in an area we want to strengthen or perfect. For example, we may study the laws of kedusha (sanctity) of a shul/bais medrash, to help us refrain from talking during davening.
The mun was there for the Jews in the desert and its delivery method provided immediate spiritual feedback. We have free choice, but usually without immediate feedback. It’s our gift…and our opportunity for spiritual advancement.