Rabbi Elana Kanter

Parshat Sh’lach Lecha, Numbers 13:2

The Midrash Rabbah on Parshat Sh’Lach teaches: “There is none more beloved before the Holy One as a messenger of mitzvah, who gives her soul in order to be successful in her mission.” So why did the spies, who were messengers of mitzvah, go so wrong?

We find the answer in the words of the spies when they report about their journey: “ … in our own eyes, we were like grasshoppers, and so we must have looked to them.” They have no way of knowing how others saw them, but their diminished perception of themselves leads them to assume that the rest of the world shares in their view. In the language of the third paragraph of the Shema, they let their “hearts and eyes” distract them from their purpose, and they lose their sense of self in the process.

The mitzvah of tzitzit is seen as an antidote to that distraction: “so you will not go astray after your heart and after your eyes,” so you won’t be misled by them, like the spies were misled by theirs. Why does the Torah say first your heart and then your eyes? Because how the heart feels is how the mind sees. When we feel bad, when we have a diminished sense of self, the world looks smaller and more bleak. When we feel good, when the heart is open, the world looks better. Our inner state impacts our vision.

The Sfat Emet teaches: “ … we are all messengers of mitzvah, sent by God into this world to fulfill His mitzvoth … for in everything there is holiness … And mitzvoth are called lights, that shine with the power of Torah on all things, and there is no deed that doesn’t have a mitzvah within it. It’s just that at the outset, a person has to give his soul to the mission … ”

Where the spies went wrong was that their mission was not to fulfill their own desire to see how good the land was; it was not about them. The mission was about the desire and the preparation to do what had been commanded, that “he give his soul” to the task at hand.

In our life journeys, if we set out in order to find the divine light in all things, we will indeed find it. What determines the success of the mission is what we bring to it, whether we “give our soul to it,” and do the will of the Creator in everything we do. Whether we are going to the supermarket or going to shul, we are always messengers of mitzvah, and there is always the potential to do a mitzvah.

So how does the tzitzit help us keep our hearts open and seeing clearly? The Talmud in tractate Sotah 17a, teaches: “Why is techelet (the blue tzitzit thread) different from all other colors? Because the techelet is like the color of the ocean, and the ocean is like the color of the heavens and the heavens are the color of the throne of glory.” The blue of the tzitzit is to remind us to keep our horizons wide, like the ocean or the sky. It reminds us to always try to see the big picture, the view closest to the way God sees.

The tzitzit remind us to be conscious of our purpose in everything we do, so we don’t get lost in wrong perspectives and small-mindedness. If we remember that every action we take in this world has mitzvah potential, when we remember why we do what we do, then our journeys, wherever they take us, will take us to a “promised land.” JN

Rabbi Elana Kanter is the founder and director of the Women’s Jewish Learning Center and co-rabbi of The New Shul.

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