By Rabbi Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Reconstructionist Jewish Communities
The Reminder of Tzitzit
The parasha this week is Shelah-Lekha. In this parasha Moses, at God's command, chooses one leader from each of the twelve tribes to serve as spies. Their mission is to enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and to bring back a report to the people. "See what kind of country it is..... [investigate its cities, people, soil, and forests and] bring back some of the fruit of the land." They do bring back grapes and other fruits, but ten of the twelve spies also bring back a report that, though the land is flowing "with milk and honey," it is filled with "giants," large fortified cities and other dangerous inhabitants. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, bring back a positive report reminding the people that God is with them and so they can overcome any obstacle or enemy. Unfortunately, the people are carried away by the report of the majority and wonder why Moses brought them this far out of Egypt in order to die in the desert. As punishment for following the negative report of the ten spies God declares that the Israelites will wander in the desert for forty years until this generation dies. Joshua and Caleb will be the only ones of that generation allowed to enter the land.
The parasha also includes the story of a man who is discovered gathering wood in public on Shabbat and is summarily stoned to death for violating the Shabbat. It concludes with what is later to become the third paragraph of the Shema ("Vayomer") which commands the people to wear tzitzit, fringes, on their garments as a reminder of the covenant with God and to prevent them from going astray after other gods or the "lusts of their hearts."
At first glance it would not seem that there is much to connect these three sections of the parasha. However, I believe that there is. Following the story of the man stoned for breaking Shabbat with the commandment to wear tzitzit teaches us that if we do not have something to constantly remind us of our commitment to God and the mitzvot we may end up as did the man gathering wood. In addition, a large part of the his sin was that the man was gathering wood in public. Judaism has a long history of various transgressions which are considered more serious if they are performed in public. One reason for this is that each of us is meant to serve as an example to our fellow Jews, and our fellow human beings. We are each responsible for one another. If someone blatantly transgresses a law in public others may assume that it is permissible to do so. After all, if so-and-so can do it, why can't I?
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