Living in the present is hard. Even when humans have a plan for the future, we crave knowledge of what benefits and obstacles we will encounter. The more we believe we know about what lies ahead, the more secure we feel—unless the new information makes us panic.
The Israelites reach Kadesh Barnea, on the southern border of Canaan, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). God tells Moses to send scouts to bring back advance knowledge for the people.
“Send for yourself men, veyaturu the land of Canaan which I am giving to the Israelites. Send one man for each tribe of their fathers, each a leader among them.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:2)
veyaturu (וְיָתֻרוּ) = and they shall scout out, reconnoiter, wander around and investigate. (A form of the verb tur, תּוּר.)
God does not say what aspects of the land the twelve representatives should investigate. Moses gives them more detailed instructions, addressing first the people’s insecurity about how hard it will be to overcome the indigenous population, then their insecurity about how well they can live in Canaan.
And Moses sent them latur the land of Canaan, and he said to them: “Go up this way through the Negev, and you shall go up into the hill-country. And you shall see the land: what it is and the people who are dwelling on it. Are they strong or feeble, are they few or many? And what is the land where they are dwelling? Is it good or is it bad? And what are the towns where they are dwelling? Are they open camps, or fortified places? And what is the land? Is it fat or is it thin? Are there trees, or none?” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:17-20)
latur (לָתוּר) = to scout out, reconnoiter, wander around and investigate. (Also a form of the verb tur, תּוּר.)
All twelves scouts return with glowing reports about the fertility of the land, but ten out of twelve describe the towns of the hill-country to the north as large and fortified, and its residents as mighty giants. These ten scouts frighten most of the Israelites and their fellow-travelers into abandoning the commitment they made when they followed the God of Moses out of Egypt, and calling for a return to Egypt.
Then the scouts Joshua and Caleb say:
Only do not rebel against God, and you need not fear the people the land, because they are our food!1 Their protection has left them, but God is with us. Do not fear them! (Numbers 14:9)
The crowd reaches for stones to throw at the two scouts. They stop only because God’s glory appears (probably as cloud or fire, the usual manifestations). God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for another 39 years. When they decide to cross into Canaan anyway, perhaps hoping to change God’s mind, they are defeated in battle. (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.)
The Torah portion closes with God giving more instructions about animal offerings, declaring a death sentence for a man gathering wood on Shabbat, and ordering the Israelites to wear fringes on the corners of their garments. According to some modern scholars, these three passages were written by different scribes and inserted into the main story by a later redactor.2
However, I believe the teaching about the fringes offers a solution to the human tendency revealed by the story of the scouts. When potentially adverse information makes our plan look iffy, we refuse to move forward with it, because we do not trust ourselves, our fellow humans, or “God” (which might mean the mastermind of the universe, fate, the deep soul, or something else). Instead we tend to panic and clutch at a less reasonable alternative plans—especially if they are seductive, like the Israelites’ false memories of security and plentiful food in Egypt.
At the end of the Torah portion, God tells Moses:
Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves tzitzit on the kenafayim of their begadim through their generations, and place on the tzitzit of the kanaf a thread of tekheilet. And it shall be a tzitzit for you, and you shall look at it and you shall remember all the commandments of God and you shall do them; and lo taturu after your heart or after your eyes, after that which seduces you. Thus you shall remember and do all My commandments, and you shall become holy to your God. (Numbers 15:38-40)
tzitzit (צִיצִת) = fringe(s), tassel(s), tuft(s). (From the same root as tzitz, צִיצ = flower, bud; the gold medallion on the high priest’s forehead. See my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.)
kenafayim (כְּנָפַיִם) = plural of kanaf (כָּנָף) = wing, corner, edge, hem, skirt.
begadim (בְּגָדִים) = plural of beged (בּגֶד) = clothing, garment, outer wrapping; unfaithfulness, treachery.
tekheilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail. (The cord fastening the tzitz to the high priest’s forehead is dyed tehkeilet, as are parts of the curtains of the Tent of Meeting, and cloths that cover the holy ark, table, lampstand, and incense altar when they are moved. See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)
lo taturu (lo, לֺא = not + taturu, תָתֻרוּ = another form of the verb tur, תּוּר.) = you shall not scout out, reconnoiter, wander around investigating.
On a simple level, God asks people—from the Israelites on the border of Canaan down through the generations to Jews today—to attach fringes that include blue threads to the corner hems of their clothing. We must look at them, and remember all the divine rules we are supposed to follow. Then instead of carrying out whatever fantasy pops up in our hearts, or succumbing to whatever temptation we see in the world, we will remember God and follow the rules, thereby becoming holy people.
On a more poetic level, God asks people to make flowers of thread reminiscent of the flower of gold on the high priest’s forehead. Each thread flower must include a thread dyed the same blue as the cord around the high priest’s head and the cloth used for the sanctuary. These reminders of holiness shall be like wings, lifting us away from our outer covering of unfaithfulness to our God. When we look at our tzitzit, we shall want to become holy people, so we shall follow God’s rules instead of straying after temporary seductions.
When I pray the morning service, I look at the tzitzit on the corners of my prayer shawl when I first put it on, and at several points in the daily prayer service when holding up tzitzit is customary. Following Jewish tradition, I kiss my tzitzit when I read out the passage from Numbers 15:37-41, from the end of this week’s Torah portion.
Is this reminder enough to make me faithful to God? Maybe not to the God of Israel, since I do not follow most of the rules that observant Orthodox Jews follow. But looking at the tzitzit does remind me not to panic when I receive upsetting information regarding the possible future. It reminds me to move forward anyway, keeping my commitments to myself, to my fellow human beings, and to the “God” that I am grounded in. It reminds me that what happens to me is not as important as how well I behave.
May we all find more ways to be mindful, so that when panic threatens we will remind ourselves of the deep commitments that give our lives meaning, and rise toward the holiness of being steadfast in our dedication to the good.
1 “They are our food” is an idiom meaning: They are helpless against us, we can eat them up as a predator eats its prey.
2 One example is Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 203, pp. 266-268.