As I wrote at such length last week, I shall present here (also belatedly) only a brief teaching. As we enter the last quarter of the year, and the rather mysterious portions of the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers), I will depart a bit from my earlier practice, and bring some later Hasidic teachings as well as those from the first generations. One figure who has enjoyed a particularly impressive revival in our day is R. Mordechai of Ishbitz (Iszbica), regarded by some as perhaps the most theologically radical thinker in Hasidism, and as such popular among certain circles today. As we mentioned in passing in an earlier page, he was a disciple of both R. Simhah Bunem of Psyshscha and R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk—the latter a truly enigmatic figure, a kind of culmination of the quest for truth and rigorous self examination taught in the school of Psyshcha. The Izhbitzer, together with R. Yitzhak Meir of Ger (Hiddushei ha-Rim), is generally considered one of the two great heirs of the Kotzker heritage. The following teaching about tzitzit is taken from his main work, Mei Shiloah (Shelah Lekha; 1995 ed. B’nai Berak, Vol. I, pp. 152ff.):
“And they shall make themselves fringes…” [Num 15:38]. The reason why the portion of tzitzit is adjacent to that of the man who gathered wood [on the Shabbat; above, vv. 32-36] is that tzitzit allude to fear, as is said, “and you shall see them and remember [God’s commandments]” [v. 39]. And Shabbat alludes to the great time (godel tekufot), for it alludes to a day that will be entirely Shabbat. And then all fears shall be removed. As is stated in the midrash (Sifra; Behokotai 3.3), “I shall walk about with you in the Garden of Eden” and “mitzvot will be abolished in the future” [Niddah 61b]. And the wood gatherers thought that there was no need to make use of the attribute of fear on Shabbat. But in truth at this time, before the “sorting out,” one needs to make use of fear, and in particularly to perform acts.
The covert assumption here is that the mitzvot, and the “attribute of fear”—that is, the fear of Divine sanctions which provides a kind of lower-level motivation to observe the mitzvot—are in some sense temporary, limited to this world, to the present human condition. The Izhbitzer here anticipates an eschatology, a “great time” or “age of [spiritual] greatness,” when all rules and all behavior based upon fear of punishment—in a sense, perhaps, some of the sense of distance between man and God itself—will be abolished. This is of course radically opposed, e.g., to the Maimonidean idea, listed as the 9th principle of the faith, that the Torah as given will never be changed. Here, we hear echoes of the Kabbalistic ideas of the Torah as a mystical entity, assuming different faces and manifestations in different cosmic aeons. We find here a far-reaching eschatological vision, of a change in human nature itself.
“And they shall make themselves tzitzit.” The matter of tzitzit is also called gedilim. And tzitzit is indicative of fear, that a person should not be clever in his own eyes, to transgress the words of Torah even by a hair’s breadth. And he should take care to be clean also in the eyes of other people. And gedil [through a pun on gadol, “great”?] indicates the era when man need not be fearful of those who prosecute him with hatred, but he shall be firm in his mind against them.
The connection of tzitzit with yirah seems to be related to word-play between yirah, “fear,” and re’iyah, “seeing.” Seeing plays a unique role in tzitzit, whose entire function is to be seen (“that you may see and remember”), and which triggers a chain of visual associations. Thus, a well known midrash (Numbers Rabbah 17.5) has it that: “The blue is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the firmament, and the firmament is similar to the Throne of Glory…”
And in this portion there are six matters of which King David spoke in the Book of Psalms [19:8ff.] … “The ordinances of the Lord are upright, rejoicing the heart” [v. 9]. “The ordinances of the Lord”—that is, the edicts and proscriptions of God, even though they seem like [stern] edicts, are in their depths filled with compassion and love. And this corresponds to the passage of the wood gatherer. For even though regarding the Shabbat God, may He be blessed, ordered several proscriptions, of which it is said “those who profane it shall surely die” [Exod 31:14], this is because within the Shabbat there is a profound good, and He fears lest they not accept it in its wholeness. Hence the Holy One blessed be He warned not to lose this goodness, but to accept it in its fulness, just as a father chastises his son out of his love.
Here he addresses a certain tension within the idea of Shabbat: the seeming contradiction between the strictness of the rules of Shabbat, and the harsh sanctions attached to it—the sense of overwhelming detail, of there being so many rules to follow—and the concept of Shabbat as a day of joy and pleasure, a celebration of love between God and Israel. This is a familiar difficulty for many modern Jews who first begin to observe Shabbat, or may even be daunted from trying because of them. In his day the Enlightenment was already well under way even in Eastern Europe, and even the smallest shteitl had its local apikoris (“heretic”) who had thrown over the traditional strictures; hence, the modernist critique of Shabbat was not unfamiliar to him. His answer, based upon a kind of mystical consciousness, is that the numerous details are somehow part of the structure that makes it a source of blessing.
“The commandments of the Lord are pure, enlightening the eyes” [ibid.]. This corresponds to the chapter of tzitzit, for tzitzit are indicative of fear. And by means of the fear that a man has, by this God will enlighten his eyes. As it states (in the Midrash) [in b. Menahot 43b], “Whoever is careful about the commandment of tzitzit shall receive the face of the Shekhinah…”
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