I remember learning about optical illusions in school. We were shown a picture that looked like an old lady, but if turned upside down, it looked like a young girl. Another page had an image with multiple boxes and colors, yet when the light in the room was dimmed, numbers seemed to pop out from the page. Optical illusions manipulate the difference between what our eyes see and what the brain perceives. What you “see” you do not always correctly perceive.
Parshas Shelach is all about perception. The Jewish nation heard Eretz Yisrael was special, but they wanted to “get eyes on it.” So they sent meraglim (scouts/spies) to view the land. “V’yasuru es aretz,” which means, “You shall scout out Eretz Yisrael.” The Gemara says one can’t compare hearing to seeing. Human nature wants us to “see” things with our own eyes; hearing isn’t enough.
Ten of the meraglim came back with a bad report about Eretz Yisrael. While they agreed with Kalev and Yehoshua (two of the spies) that the land “flowed with milk and honey,” their perception was that it couldn’t be conquered because the cities were too fortified, the inhabitants were giants, and the land “consumes its inhabitants” (based on all the funerals they saw, which Rashi indicates were caused by Hashem to distract the people from the spies’ mission). Kalev and Yehoshua saw the same fortified cities and giants, yet they said, “…the land is very, very good. If Hashem desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us….” Same things viewed but different conclusions…based on their perception.
As we read about the meraglim, we wonder: Where was their emunah (faith) in Hashem? They witnessed the 10 plagues, they experienced Krias Yam Suf (splitting of the sea) and many other miracles in the desert, including the daily munn food and the Clouds of Glory. They were leaders; how could they misinterpret so badly?
The end of Parshas Shelach discusses vision and perception. Hashem instructed the Bnei Yisrael to place tzitzis (strings) on the corners of any four-cornered garment they wore, and to gaze at the tzitzis to remind them of their connection with Hashem and to help them perform the mitzvos. The pasuk concludes, “Lo sasuru acharei l’vavchem v’acharei eineichem… Don’t stray after your heart and your eyes.” Rashi notes the word sasuru has the same root as the word “lasur,” which was used to describe the scouting mission of the meraglim. The Torah is teaching us that each person has his own personal “spies/meraglim.” The eyes and the heart are the spies of the body and can help cause a person to sin. The eyes see, the heart desires and the body acts.
Rashi notes that the word tzitzis comes from the root word tzitz—to gaze. The mitzvah of tzitzis is given specifically to help calibrate our eyes to perceive the world with the lens of emunah, which is the way Hashem wants us to see the world. The clothing we wear can remind us to align our body’s agenda with that of our soul. Gazing at our tzitzis reminds us to view the world through the lenses of emunah and mitzvos, and to comply with Hashem’s will.
One of the strings on the tzitzis was initially colored with techeiles—a blue/greenish color. Rashi tells us that the blue of the techeiles is to remind us of the blue of the ocean, the blue of the sky and the blue of the throne of Hashem. Someone once asked the Gerrer Rebbe, “What kind of association is this? I look at my tzitzis and they don’t remind me of these things!?” The Gerrer Rebbe asked the individual, “There is a halacha that a man should not gaze at women’s clothing. Do you understand this halacha?” “Sure,” the man replied, “it is to prevent people from thinking inappropriate thoughts about women.” The Gerrer Rebbe replied, “So why do you understand that association, but refuse to understand the association of tzitzis with our closeness to Hashem? It’s because your mind chooses its associations.”
The same is true for us. Sometimes we are quick to interpret a comment, email or text as an insult. But if we would read it with different punctuation or tone or attitude, it might really be a compliment. A rebbe of mine once told me that if you ever think your wife made a comment or did something to purposely upset you, just remember that your wife loves you and would never want to do anything to hurt you. This advice helped me see so many situations differently. The same is true regarding our relationship with Hashem. Hashem loves us and has only our best interest in mind even though it may not appear to be so in specific instances. If we use our “emunah lenses” to view life’s events, we will experience so much more joy and success in our lives!
Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch, where he leads a multi-level Gemara-learning program. PTI has attracted adult Jews of all ages from all over northern New Jersey for its learning programs. Fees are not charged but any contributions are always welcome. Beyond PTI, Rabbi Bodenheim conducts a weekly beis midrash program with chavrusa learning in Livingston plus a monthly group in West Caldwell. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected] For more info about PTI and its Torah classes, visit www.pti.shulcloud.com.