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“Out of sight, out of mind” is a very truthful line. Anyone who has gone through a breakup might remember how seemingly impossible it feels to stop thinking about your ex all the time, seeing them either in person or in your mind. But when you stop seeing them physically, you start seeing them less in your mind, and eventually the preoccupation subsides.
This week’s Parashah, Sh’lach, teaches us how to do the opposite for Hashem, how to keep Hashem always in mind, even if He is, in some ways, always out of sight. We need to reveal the concealed, bring Hashem to our awareness as we move throughout the day. This is the power of the mitzvot and the brachot (blessings), elevating what’s created back to its creator, its Source. This act also connects us to our Source. I always found the Leshem Yichud verse– “For the sake of the unification…”– very powerful. Sephardim and some Chassidim traditionally say some form of the LeShem Yichud prior to doing any mitzvah. Chabad say it before Baruch Sha’amar, and that is meant to apply throughout the day.
לשם יחוד קודשא בריך הוא ושכינתיה, בדחילו ורחימו ורחימו ודחילו, ליחדא יוד ק”י בוא”ו ק”י ביחודא שלים (ה’)
For the sake of the unification of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Presence, in fear and in love, to unite the Name Yud-Kei (the masculine part of the Divine), with Vav-Kei (the feminine part of the Divine) in perfect unity, in the name of all Israel.
Last week, we touched on the Zeir Anpim and the Nukvah. This verse is meant to speak out their unification. As a result of our spiritual exile, we are far removed from the Edenic state and our Godly souls. And so the Shechina is not in a state of proper union with Z’eir Anpin. Reciting this verse with pure intention is meant to rectify the disunity and concealment. The verse’s power is filled with the reality of the entire purpose of the Torah, which is “for the sake of the unity of the Holy One, Blessed Be He (Z.A.), and His Shechina (Nukva) – the bride of Z’eir Anpim and the Aramiac for the Hebrew word ‘nekavah’, meaning feminine.
As it says in Tehillim (Psalms), גַּל־עֵינַ֥י וְאַבִּ֑יטָה נִ֝פְלָא֗וֹת מִתּוֹרָתֶֽךָ Open my eyes, that I may behold the wonders of Your Torah.1 We need to be actively aware. It’s not just by thoughts, or speech, it’s also by action that we become holy.
As Big Sean raps on Justin Bieber’s seminal album, “Believe”, “the grass ain’t always greener on the other side. It’s green where you water it.”2 It’s like this with anything— our relationship with our partner, with life, and just the same or even more so with our Source, the Light of Infinite. We need to open our eyes and align with the present and have that presence manifest concretely. The pesukim (verses) below contain so much wisdom on how to open our eyes. The deep kabbalistic and mystical power of tzitzit are a part of it. The other is understanding human nature and how to elevate oneself to Divine consciousness.
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וְעָשׂ֨וּ לָהֶ֥ם צִיצִ֛ת עַל־כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם לְדֹרֹתָ֑ם ….וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְו֥ת יְהֹוָ֔ה וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם
Speak to the Israelites and have them make tassels on the corners of their garments for all generations….and when you see them, you shall remember all of God’s commandments so as to keep them. You will then not stray after your heart(s) and eyes, which [in the past] have led you to immorality.3
In this verse, we are commanded to perform the ritual of tzitzit: to see them, and, in seeing, to remember Hashem’s commandments and, in seeing and remembering, to keep them. It’s their being “in sight” that reminds us and brings us to action.
Judaism is a religion that’s built on action. Love without loving actions grows stale and often leads to a distancing from what once felt unbreakable. The Hebrew word for love, אהבה/ahava (ah-ha-va), has the root word of ‘hav’ which means ‘to give’. Love is synonymous with giving. Our faith is tied with action because action is giving of oneself, and it is through the mitzvot and other Jewish rituals that attachment, clarity, unification and love manifest themselves.
We have 613 mitzvot. The word tzitzit (צִיצִ֛ת) has the numerical value of 600, and the tzitzit themselves have eight strings and five knots, totalling 613. So, the mitzvot that we are commanded to remember and to follow are contained in the tzitzit. As it’s written, “And you shall see it and remember all the commandments of God.”4
The “corners of the garments,” kanfei big’deihem ( כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם ) represent Kanfei Nesharim (כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים), the Eagles’ Wings with which Hashem spirited the Jews out of Egypt.5 The Zohar teaches that the eagle represents compassion, which is synonymous with da’at (higher perception), and that the most effective da’at is tied to protecting against immorality. So, by wearing and seeing the tzitzit a person merits mortality. Kanfei Nesharim is a concept that transcends time and space, just as the four-cornered garment of the tzitzit is meant to elevate a person to the concepts that transcend time and space.
All of the Torah’s commandments are meant to take physicality and elevate it to spiritualize “reality”. It is only when we act with the intent to unify ourselves with Divine consciousness that we can unify the animal and Godly souls within ourselves. The tzitzit are said to gather the exiles toward redemption, which is why we gather their four corners into one hand prior to reciting the Shema, which of course includes this very paragraph on tzitzit from our Parashah. Mitzrayim (מִצְרָיִם, Egypt) reflects Meitzar (מֵיצָר, a narrow constricted place), which is the definition of exile– spiritual narrowness and constriction. Mitzrayim is referred to as ervat haaretz, “the nakedness of the land”,6 which is, of course, referring to the immorality that was rampant within it. Reb Natan of Breslov explains that exile and immorality are bound together, because the further one moves away from Godliness and holiness (which are beyond space), the more the person becomes entangled in space, i.e. exile. To serve and connect with Hashem, each person has to rise above immorality and transcend exile. That is the purpose of tzitzit.7
The Lubavitcher Rebbe in his Likkutei Sichot asks the question: if the tzitzit are to remind us of the mitzvot, wouldn’t it be sufficient to have the tzitzit themselves and not have it required only if wearing a garment (tallit)? The Rebbe goes on to explain that the tallit is makif, i.e. it encompasses a person. Unlike food that is taken internally, a garment encompasses from without. So, the tallit signifies a reality beyond comprehension, as it’s external and surrounds the person; it’s beyond the person. So, we see that the 613 mitzvot that the tzitzit remind us actually come from the tallit, something that transcends intellect. The mitzvah of taking tzitzit is only applicable with a tallit and not on its own. The mitzvah is only when tzitzit are suspended from the all-encompassing tallit, to remind us that all of Torah and mitzvot derive from a Source beyond our comprehension.8
To Look At A Spiritualized Reality
Jumping back into the verse and the power of sight, the word tzitzit (צִיצִ֛ת) is related to the word lehatzitz (לְהָצִיץ), which means ‘to look’. The idea is to be mindful of what one looks at, so that sight, memory, and action are all connected to holiness and not impurity.
As we covered two weeks ago, what we look at becomes images in our mind, stored in our subconscious. So, we need to be careful what we look at and use our conscious mind, our intellect, the Nefesh Hasichlit, to color our subconscious towards good, because even when our intentions in our conscious thoughts are for the best, our subconscious can sabotage them. The reason for this is because our subconscious doesn’t actually work with reason or logic, but with images and emotions. So, if we understand in a given situation that there is nothing to be afraid of, but our subconscious mind pulls from past images stored in our subconscious mind, we will feel afraid nevertheless. Since the part of our brain that our subconscious mind sits in takes up more (97%) than the part that colors our consciousness (3%), we need to be that much more careful to replace negative imagery with positivity. This is what will balance our conscious and subconscious and bring us closer to a space of tranquility, which brings blessings.
The Shema prayer that contains this verse from our Parashah is a declaration of our faith. It is said multiple times a day and has been fervently recited by our people since we were told its meaning over three thousand years ago. The powerful verse reads, שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל ה’ אֱלֹקֵ֖ינוּ ה’ ׀ אֶחָֽד “Listen, Israel, God is our Lord, God is One.”9 The five knots of the tzitzit correspond to the first five words of the Shema (our declaration of faith). The sixth word of the Shema is echad, ‘one’, which represents the unity of Hashem.
We deepen the lesson of “not straying after your heart and eyes” during the ritual of Shema, as we cover our eyes with our right hand when we recite the first verse. The hebrew word for ‘eye’, ayin (עַיִן), sounds like the letter ayin (ע), which has a numerical value of 70. A person’s eyes can lead them to the roots of the Torah, which are associated with the 70 members of Yaakov’s household,10 or they can lead a person astray, toward material desires, like that of the archetypal 70 nations of the world. Kabbalah explains that there were 70 Nefashot (souls) who descended to Egypt, which counter the 70 ministers of the other nations. The numerical value of the Kabbalistic concept of Sod (secret) is 70, which represents the lower seven sefirot (i.e. chesed, gevura, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod, and malchut) included within the ten sefirot. So, when we close our eyes and meditate on speaking out this mantra of Shema, we are reaffirming our faith and transcending material desires towards a unification with Divine consciousness.11
In the verse above and in the Shema, you may have noticed when it says heart – לְבַבְכֶם֙ (hearts), it’s actually plural. Each person has two conflicting inclinations, which the “two hearts” in this verse allude to. We all have a Yetzer Tov, our Godly soul, that wants to connect to the Light of the Infinite, gratified only through Godliness and, on the other hand, we have the Yetzer Hara, our animal soul, the part that is tied to the physical, that is connected to the finite, that wants to immerse itself in all the pleasures of this world, gratified only through the self.
The Hebrew word for world is Olam, which etymologically is related to the word helem, meaning ‘concealment’. Our bodies and the sitra achra (‘side of impurity’) find pleasure in conquering elements of this world, but our yetzer tov reaches beyond this world of concealment and only wants to unify with the truth and to elevate the concealing darkness by revealing the light within it.
Rabbi Chaim Vital wrote in Sha’ar Hakedushah that every Jew, whether righteous or wicked, possesses two souls. As it says in Isaiah, “And the neshamot (souls) which I have made”.12 As is stated in the Tanya, one soul is the Nefesh HaElokit (a piece of God, literally) which is located in the right chamber of the heart, and the other soul is the Nefesh HaBehamit (Animal Soul) located in the left chamber of the heart. This soul originates from the Kelipah (shell, or peel): just as the peel conceals the fruit, Hashem conceals the Godly life-force within the shell of everything in creation. 13
Our task is to unify our hearts and souls, to serve Hashem with both our yetzer tov and yetzer hara, to make our animal soul subservient to our Godly soul. With everything in creation we have a choice which soul we will approach it with. Our animal soul can use sex to try and satiate lust, or our Godly soul can use it to connect with a partner and, ultimately, emulate Hashem by creating life itself. We can eat food in a similar fashion to other creatures, or we can elevate the food by meditating on it, saying a blessing on it, realizing how incredible it is to be able to have what we need, using the strength the food gives us to continuously connect and learn and inspire others– all to bring light and truth into the Olam, pushing away concealment bit by bit.
The Alter Rebbe teaches in Tanya that the Shema prayer in particular is an opportunity for focused meditation that can bring a mochin de-gadlut (expanded consciousness) of the Supernal mind. It’s a time when we can connect to our three intellectual powers of Chochmah, Binah, and Daat, translated as wisdom, understanding and knowledge, which are an acronym for the word ChaBaD. By being mindful of this while reciting and meditating on the Shema prayer, we can fill the right chamber of our heart, where our Divine soul manifests emotionally, with love, thereby creating a dveykut (clinging) to Hashem with the mitzvah out of love. This has been expanded upon by many Rabbinic sources and breaks down as a three-fold process: 1, focus meditation on the Light of Infinite, which leads to 2, emotional arousal, which leads to 3, a renewed connection and commitment to observe the mitzvot, all of which is spelled out in the prayer itself. Meditation: “Hear, Oh Israel, God is our God, God is One.” Emotional arousal: “And you shall love God, your God.” And observance of the mitzvot: “Bind them as a sign on your hand… Write them on the door-posts of your house, etc.” This meditative-emotional arousal is also the goal of the tefillah that precedes the Shema. The Alter Rebbe explains that in this time, the yetzer hara that resides in the left chamber of your heart, where the animalistic soul manifests, is temporarily subdued by the good which has spread to the right chamber by the ChaBaD in your brain. It is in this meditation that, when focused on the Light of Infinite, we can receive the mochin de-gadlut of the Supernal mind.14
The Elation of Elevation
Growing up as a Yemenite Jew, I learned to form my hand into a shin (שְׁ), the first letter of the Shema, by placing my thumb and pinky together, leaving my index, middle and ring fingers upright. Once I had this formation, I would close my eyes and place my pinky on my left eye and my thumb on my right. As I got to the last word of the Shema, ‘echad’ (אֶחָֽד/’one’), I would bring all the fingers together, forming one unit and a sort of daled (ד), the last letter of ‘echad’. Then I would kiss my fingers and raise them to the heavens and grab my tzitzit to hold throughout the rest of the Shema. It is a powerful ritual, one of connection and transcendence.
Tzitzit is an interesting mitzvah, as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out. It isn’t a mitzvah in its own right, like Tefillin, but is actually only applicable if a person is wearing a four-cornered garment, as discussed above. But our clothing is always meaningful, and how we can even elevate what we wear is important. Only humans wear clothing, and even the most remote societies and people tend to cover their sexual organs. Clothing, even at its most skimpy, is still tied to modesty. The tzitzit are a way to understand the potential in the most mundane: a piece of clothing meant to cover parts of your body can also be elevated as a physical object that contains all of Torah. It’s that potential of elevating physicality into holiness that each person is meant to be mindful of when they see the tzitzit, remember the mitzvot, and take inspiration to act in alignment with their Godly soul, their yetzer tov.
Jumping back to the verse from Tehillim— “Open my eyes, that I may behold the wonders of Your Torah.” The reason that King David asked Hashem to open his eyes to see the “soul” of the Torah through the “body” of the Torah is because the purpose of the giving of the Torah (and the creation of the entire world) is that the Jews should use their own God-given abilities (their “eyes”) to “discover” Him and His Torah within the physical world. This ultimate purpose is realized more through the performance of mitzvot than the learning of Torah, because mitzvot are more focused on the transformation of the physical world into a Godly place. In order for a mitzvah to achieve the full transformative effect, the “body” (action) of a mitzvah must be done according to “body” of the Torah (Halacha/law), and the “soul” (intent) of a mitzvah must be done through learning the “soul” of the Torah (chassidut).15
To elevate earth to a place of heaven is to elevate the body and physicality to a place beyond limitation. As physical creatures, we can’t fully defeat the forces of fate; we’re constricted by time and space. But our souls– the parts of us that are infinite– can reach beyond these constrictions. It’s only when we choose with our souls to surpass our limitations that we can connect to the true unification and bring the redemption that is currently concealed in physicality.
I’m praying for peace, revealed good, an abundance of blessings, and the final redemption!
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Notes & Sources
- Psalms 119:18
- “As Long As You Love Me” song by Justin Bieber featuring Big Sean
- Numbers 15:38-39
- Numbers 15:39
- Exodus 19:4
- Genesis 42:9
- Likutei Halachot I, p38a-76
- An Anthology of Talks, Likkutei Sichos p. 115
- Deuteronomy 6:4
- Genesis 46:27
- Likutei Moharan I, 36:3
- Isaiah 57:16
- Tanya, Chapter 1, p. 45
- The Practical Tanya, The Book of the Inbetweeners, Chapter 12, pp 140,141
- The Rebbe’s ma’amar in 5738 (1978) on Shabbos Parshas Emor, based on a ma’amar from the Rebbe Maharash