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 Korach - Part I: “…to teach us about all the mitzvot...”

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daniel eliezer

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Posts : 82
Join date : 2011-12-01
Location : Beit El, Israel

PostSubject: Korach - Part I: “…to teach us about all the mitzvot...”   Sun Jun 09, 2013 8:28 am

For those who have difficulty with the transliterated Hebrew and who don't have access
to Jewish libraries, most transliterated Hebrew can probably be found through Google.
If the word is critical to what I'm saying, then it is explained.

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Korach - Part I: “…to teach us about all the mitzvot...”

What’s Mt. Sinai…Torah…the Stone Tablets, the Ten Commandments, all about?

Mitzvot [plural] – commandments…right. We really can’t learn it any other way, can we. Mt. Sinai, Torah, and the Stone Tablets come to teach us about mitzvot – commandments. There’s no avoiding it. There really isn’t.

Naturally, then, we’re asking, “what is a mitzvah [singular] – a commandment? Does it…do they…really mean anything…do anything…make any difference?”

Without any doubt there are mitzvot – commandments that, as the Torah commentator Rashi explains, are self-evident. What society can live with murder, violence, theft, incest, etc., things that are endemic to communal living. And certainly as society becomes more refined, correspondingly the guides for communal living will also become more refined. Observing Torah…even if we will distance ourselves from the mitzvot that relate strictly to religious ritual and practice…there nevertheless remains within the Torah tremendously subtle and intricate sensitivity to life and communal living.

But what do we do when we’re confronted with a mitzvah like the mitzvah of tzitzit, which is taught at end of last week’s Torah reading, ‘Sh’lach L’cha? What purpose can tzitzit - a trivial piece of string - serve? Is there really meaning in it, or is some kind of fundamentalism for the sake of fundamentalism, maybe even some kind of superstitious practice? Who knows?

So that we all can a more together understanding, the mitzvah of tzitzit is the commandment to tie ‘strings’ or ‘fringes’ on the corners of a four-cornered garment that we wear. We are all familiar with tzitzit, because ‘tallitot’ - Jewish prayer shawls - all have tzitzit (please God) on their four corners. The mitzvah of tzitzit only applies when one wears a four-cornered garment, and since for many, many generations Jews have attempted to stop being less noticeable as Jews, Jewish haberdashery no longer demands the mitzvah of tzitzit.

Additionally, the tzitzit are four strings doubled over, which means that on each corner there are eight tzitzit, eight strings or fringes. Of the tzitzit, there is a separate mitzvah that one of these tzitzit has to be dyed a unique color called t’chelet - turquoise. When the mitzvah of tzitzit is done fully and entirely, on each corner of a four-cornered garment there are eight tzitzit: three white and one t’chelet, which when doubled over becomes six and two.

Somewhere in the course of time, in order that the mitzvah of tzitzit could still be fulfilled (i.e. of wearing tzitzit constantly) a garment called a ‘tallit katan’, a little tallit, was made to be worn underneath outer garments. The tallit katan has four corners, which means that one is obligated to tie tzitzit to it, and in the Orthodox and Chassidic world it is worn religiously. Today, in Israel, it is commonly seen, because the mitzvah of tzitzit is such that while the garment is worn underneath, nevertheless the tzitzit, the fringes, themselves are worn on the outside.

But, still, who cares? What difference does it make, and why would anyone want to manufacture a need to wear tzitzit? If there ever is a mitzvah that seems solely for the sake of doing a mitzvah and nothing else tzitzit surely seems to be that mitzvah!?

I, Daniel, care. I really do. Tzitzit do make a difference and there is a need. I know this all too well. Not wearing tzitzit very nearly got me killed!?…a story which goes like this.

If memory doesn’t fail me too much, I was already wearing both a tallit for praying in and a tallit katan even before I converted more than 36 years ago, and they have been an inseparable part of my life ever since. If anyone thinks that I knew then anything more about wearing tzitzit other than ‘that’s what Orthodox Jews do’….well, I didn’t. How much of anything that I and we do is done because ‘that’s what we do’, i.e. this is what being a Jew is all about. If we would wait until we would know exactly why we are doing everything before we did it, we’d never do anything except be a perpetual spectators.

Thus is was that wearing tzitzit was a part of my life when I came to Israel, and, with the exception of maybe having been bedridden, I don’t remember a day in my life as a Jew when I didn’t wear tzitzit. Even during the hottest days of the year and even when I was working construction, they never came off…or come off. Ever! Well, almost…

In the early 1990s, I was working for a company that was importing American metal-frame housing and building homes in Israel. Because the U.S.S.R. had crumbled, there was a massive influx of Russian Jews, and the housing market was booming. Instant wealth!…and everyone wanted to get in on the act. The homes this company was building were good, but Israel lacks the necessary infrastructure of knowledgeable tradesmen in frame housing (here it’s concrete and steel). The management’s thinking was to hire a few knowledgeable and experienced people like myself and build these houses using intelligent but inexperienced workers. Since the method of building is so seemingly simple, the expectations were that after a few houses these ‘inexperienced workers’ would already be capable of being job foremen.

It’s not true, but go convince the ‘I’ll be rich’ of that!

So, as job foreman, building these houses was incredible amounts of aggravation. Any learning process is, but this was compounded by many factors, of which ‘the need to build a house that had some integrity’ against the attitude, “just knock them out” provided a lot of friction between me and my employers. (For those who don’t know, when you know what you’re doing, you can always do it faster and more efficiently when you do do it right, than you can when you don’t know what you’re doing or you’re trying to cut corners.)

Things had been building for a long time, I was feeling a lot of pressure and responding to it by really pushing to get work done, despite the limitations. In may ways, the job allowed me to use a lot of my talents and to a degree I really took off. It became clear to everyone that I knew what I was doing, and mostly they left me alone to do it. On one particular house, there were a lot of company-caused delays, and, since the owners were paying as we built, I knew that the owners were paying when they shouldn’t have been. But I had no control over it other than to push as hard as I could to get done.

The day finally came when it all more-or-less came to a head. It was a hot summer day, and the frustrations of job delays, inexperienced workers, and trying to get on top of what was the best way of building these homes under the limitations of doing so in Israel finally got to me. A visiting American, who had come to work with us, had the experience I had, and, realizing that I had chance to ‘finally do some work as it should be done’, I decided to lay roof sheeting with him and ‘show these guys how it’s done’.

Of course, every Joe-Rambo carpenter strips to the waist, which is what I did…tzitzit and all, grabbed my tool-belt, power saw, screw gun, power cords and climbed up on the rafters. The two of us arranged ourselves, and then told the others to start feeding us the 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood sub-roofing. I took the leading and he the trailing edge, as we laid sheet-after-sheet, catching each sheet with only a few screws (to be finished fastening later). Since it was a hip-roof, when we got to the hip ridge I was cutting off the extended-in-air surplus with a power saw. The laying was going quickly and smoothly, and when I got to the end where a bottom course reached the hip ridge, in order to finish the cut I had to brace myself by placing my foot blindly under the extended-in-air end of sheeting.

Since the cut on the hip ridge is a long, diagonal-cut across the plywood. On the bottom course, it was only when I progressed through the cut that I could reach the point where I could reach with my foot under the extended end to plant my foot in order to complete the cut. As my foot touched the brace, I shifted my weight forward while still cutting to give myself support against the weight of the cut piece when I would cut it through.

It never happened….“I’m falling!” screamed my shocked mind as I catapulted into the air, still holding on to the 9” power saw…and … as my mind registered the shocking reality….not even knowing what had happened…but knowing that the perimeter of a house under construction is always littered with debris…my immediate thought was, “DON’T FALL ON YOUR BACK!!”… I flipped over in midair, scarcely fractions of seconds ahead of hitting the ground on all fours.

By some incredible miracle, the ground was free of the anticipated debris, buy my cheekbone couldn’t refrain from hitting the side of a boulder. Stunned by the blinding speed of what had happened and from having the wind knocked out of me, for long seconds I remained there, but the stab of excruciating pain brought me staggering to my feet, uncomprehendingly looking around at everyone and wanting to know what had happened!? No one moved; everyone was frozen in shock. Alive but more pissed-off than grateful, I called out a few accusations and cursing freely shouted, “Close shop. We’re going to the hospital.”

So much for taking my tzitzit off.

It IS hard…very, very hard…to think that not wearing tzitzit is what knocked me off the building, isn’t it? Could it really be as if God kind of wiggled an eyelash saying, “Fool’s playing with fire. Let’s see if he’s any good at flying.” There surely are no lack of people who’d believe it. I’m not one of them, nonetheless I absolutely know that not wearing tzitzit is what caused me to rediscover, “gravity works!” A decidedly uncomfortable way to reawaken to the realities of life, but God’s gotta work with what He’s got. There ain’t much other choice.

Okay, as most of us know and even a few of us are willing to admit (at least privately), the tzitzit themselves, whether I was wearing them or not, had nothing to do with keeping me on…or dropping me off…the roof. Even if the tzitzit would somehow be strong enough to take my weight, the cloth itself would have torn at the point where the tzitzit are tied to it. As a safety belt, they are not highly recommended. So what do I mean in saying that ‘not wearing them caused my fall’?

It isn’t the tzitzit, per se, that caused or didn’t cause. It’s how I related to them that did.

As I’ve recounted, the job had reached a point that I was filled with myself. There was no one over me who knew more about what I was doing than I did in terms of actually building the houses, and there certainly wasn’t anyone under me. Whatever the job threw at me, as aggravating and unnecessary as a lot of it was, I was dealing with all of it and houses were getting built. I had almost unlimited responsibility and authority, I was working long, arduous hours under trying conditions (and succeeding), even taking plans home to pour over them at night to help get the work to flow more smoothly

When I stripped to the waist on that afternoon, the only thing of importance that existed at the moment was me; I was answerable to no one and to nothing. In some way, I’d lost all rational, all perspective. Where I thought that I was at the point where ‘I saw everything’, it was at that point that I was ‘most blind’. I had lost my ability to see, not physically, of course, but definitely literally. As careful a worker as I was and am, and even then I was, and as skillfully and as sure-footed as I worked ( a roof, right), on that afternoon on that roof I was as reckless as the worst of them. In casting my caution to the wind, I had cast my fate to the wind – another self-righteous fool just asking for it, and, as we see, getting it.

Mitzvot – commandments, even seemingly meaningless ones like tzitzit, can and do serve purpose for many things. In this past week’s Torah portion, ‘Korach’, we encounter where one of the most talented and knowledgeable leaders of the generation rises up to challenge Moshe Rabbainu. Curiously, the Midrash, in listing some of Korach’s arguments against Moshe’s seemingly seizing single-handedly the leadership, quotes Korach as saying [see the commentary of Rashi], “If in the mitzvah of tzitzit a single strand of t’chelet [the color turquoise] is sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah of making a four-cornered garment kosher to wear, how much more kosher should a tallit be that is woven entirely of threads of t’chelet - even without tzitzit.

Korach was the head of the Sanhedrin, head of the Jewish Supreme Court, and because he was he was an incredibly knowledgeable and exemplary Jew. There is no question that Korach had complete command of everything that is required and which is necessary to fulfill with exactness all that Torah requires and to be as complete a Jew as is possible. It is in this that Korach challenged Moshe, “Every one of us is [equally] Kadosh, Holy. Why do you place yourself above us?”

What do the mitzvot of tzitzit and t’chelet have to do with Korach’s argument?

Korach said, “A pischeleh Yid [Yid. a little Jew] like Daniel, one mitzvah, one tiny little mitzvah like tzitzit & t’chelet is all that he’s capable of doing in his lifetime. How much can he really know and really do? But someone like me, someone who’s as big and knowledgeable as me…I’ve done so much, fulfilled unbelievable kinds and amounts of mitzvot…fulfilled them in the most complete and fullest way! I’m that big that I don’t need to color one mitzvah…one measly dangling thread of my garment with t’chelet to show what I’ve done. My entire tallit…my entire garment…is woven only and entirely with threads of t’chelet.”

“So you know what, Moshe Rabbainu, there isn’t any difference between your being Kadosh [Holy] and between our being Kadosh.”

It’s a good argument, no? Who among us hasn’t thought about it or used the same argument. Let’s reverse the words so it’ll sound more familiar. “Who are you to think that I’m not Holy?!” We’ve all been there, haven’t we.

But Korach was wrong. He didn’t come to include; he came to divide. Like Joe-Rambo the carpenter, Korach made the same mistake: filled-with-myself-self-righteousness; not with ‘humble fullness of self.

The mitzvah of tzitzit & t’chelet…just like every other mitzvah…is not about me or us.

When Torah teaches about the mitzvah of tzitzit & t’chelet it says, “…u’r’eetem ohto” - and you shall see Him, using the masculine pronoun ‘ohto’ for him [God], not the feminine pronoun ‘ohta’ for tzitzit. [BaMidbar 15:39] The purpose of doing even as seemingly inconsequential a mitzvah as tzitzit & t’chelet is in order that we should never lose sight…“u’reetem…” – “and you shall see”. It is not about us; it’s about another and about our ability ‘to see’. But it’s even greater than this.

Torah is teaching us that even the seemingly most insignificant and inconsequential mitzvah…the one that is no larger than a gossamer strand of thread…contains within it the ability to allow us to see the Divine…to comprehend that the incomprehensibly challenging gulf that separates us from the Divine is no greater than a gossamer strand.

In the Talmud, it teaches that when we leave this world that we’ll be brought before a Heavenly tribunal, and there we’ll be provided the opportunity to confront our Yetzer HaRa, our Evil Inclination, who incited us to all we did wrong.

The Tzaddik, the truly Righteous Person, will be shown a mountain, and he’ll stagger saying, “my whole life I struggled against that!?” and pass out.

The rasha, the evil person, will be shown a thread, hardly more than a pencil scratch in size. He’ll fall to the ground in disbelief crying in agony, “That’s all that it was? That’s all?! I couldn’t overcome that?! I wouldn’t even try?!”

For both of them, though, it’s exactly the same thing. Whether Tzaddik or rasha or all of us who fall in between, it is never more than ‘a thread, hardly more than a pencil scratch in size’. Each and every day every single one of us is confronted with ‘a thread, hardly more than a pencil scratch in size’. When we cross over it…overcome it…it is placed aside, and, as we continue to do so again and again and again, each additional ‘a thread, hardly more than a pencil scratch in size’ is, in turn, added to the pile. The mountain that the Tzaddik sees reveals the accumulation of a lifetime of achievement.

What’s important for us, however, is that every single day we start again. On the one hand we’re given another challenge, and on the other we’re given another chance. Every single day God is giving us an opportunity to return, an opportunity to be closer – closer to God and closer to ourselves.

We conclude Shabbat with the mitzvah of Havdalah, the mitzvah where we recognize the difference between the Divine and the profane, between that which describes all that is holy, unique and distinct, and between that which isn’t yet holy. We say in the Havdalah blessing, “…HaMavdil…who distinguishes”…is all the difference.

Havdalah, where “HaMavdil” - the One who differentiates - is all the difference. In seeing the difference, we see, which is what the mitzvah of tzitzit comes to teach us about all the mitzvot. Do we see the difference? It matters little whether we’re wearing one strand of t’chelet of turquoise, like Daniel or whether our entire garment is woven entirely of t’chelet like Korach. Does our doing mitzvot bring us to seeing, or do we remain stumbling blindly along as to what it’s all about.

Shabbat Shalom,
Daniel Eliezer

* * *
What I write doesn't invite comments within the topic, but I do want you to know
that all are welcome to write me should you have any questions or comments.
I can be reached at: d.e.ben.eitan@gmail.com.
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