parasha

Shlach 5778

Memory in the Toolbox
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
The commandment to wear “tzizit” (phylacteries) appears at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Shlach, after the long story of the spies who tour the land of Canaan (the Land of Israel) and the dramatic events that followed their misleading report.
…they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments…and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God.
(Bamidbar 15, 38-40)

What is tzitzit? Any clothing that has four corners or more has four double threads tied on all four corners. (In the original commandment, one of the threads was blue. For generations, the exact blue was not available. In recent generations, there have been some theories regarding how to obtain the correct color and there are those who use it to fulfill the commandment.)
The reason for tzitzit is explicitly explained in the Torah: It is meant to serve as a reminder of the obligation of every Jew to keep the commandments, and through them to be “holy.”
Why do we need a constant reminder to keep the commandments? Couldn’t man be trusted to fulfill his obligations?
Let us return to the foundations of human existence described in the Torah. When man was created, it was said that he was made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1, 27). May explanations were offered for this unique phrase, but all commentators agreed that this was a positive description of all humans irrespective of the cultured person he becomes. However, if we continue reading further in the book of Genesis, we reach a verse that seemingly conveys a stance to the contrary. “For the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8, 21). So, what is the Torah’s position on human nature? Is it positive or negative? In other words, can man be trusted – in his traits and desires – to do the right thing or not?
If we examine the verses closely, we see that they don’t deal with the same topic. The positive statement in the words “the image of God” deals with man himself, whereas the negative one regarding “man’s heart is evil from his youth” does not deal with man himself but rather with “man’s heart”. What is the difference between “man” and “man’s heart”?
When man performs any kind of act, it is preceded by two conscious stages. The first is will: man wants to fulfill his physiological and emotional needs; the second stage is the choice of how to fulfill these needs. At this point, man examines – often subconsciously - the options before him and then selects the best one. This is the stage of the “heart” – the creation and actualization of abstract will. Man uses a certain “tool box”, and here is where the problem arises. The toolbox isn’t perfect. An effort must be made to choose the right way to actualize proper will.
We see this with children. When they need attention and love, they often choose a negative way to get it – breaking something, bothering someone to get the attention they want. The desire for attention and love is positive. But instead of attaining it in a positive manner, they choose the fastest and easiest route which ultimately gains them the attention but not the kind they wanted.
Man’s desires are always positive since he was created “in the image of God”, but the attempt to actualize desires is often done in a convoluted way that does not get man to where he wants to be.
This is where the commandment of “tzitzit” comes into play and adds the component of memory. Tzitzit reminds man of where he is, who he is, what his past is that he must not forget, and what the future is that he should strive to reach. Memory is the most important tool in the “toolbox”. It is not present there if we are not careful to include it.
For this reason, our sages said: This commandment is equal to all others… Seeing brings about remembrance, and remembrance brings about action.
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot page 43)

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