High Strung

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Shelach
High Strung

Toward the end of this week's parsha, there is a lesson which applies equally to men and women. Ironically, this message stems from the mitzva of tzitzis. The verse tells us to place a thread of "techeles" (turquoise) on each corner of a garment together with the other white strings (Parshas Shelach, 15:38).

The Arizal (Sha'ar Hakavanos, Keriyas Shema, Derush 8) says that even when we do not have access to techeles, we should look at the tzitzis strings when we say the words "Ureh-isem Oso" (You must see it; Parshas Shelach, 15:39), and then focus on one string and imagine that it is blue.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that the reason why we are supposed to imagine the blue string is so that we remember that Hashem sits on the Throne of Glory. The techeles will remind us of the Throne because Rebbi Meir taught that Hashem chose techeles because it is similar to the blue of the ocean, which is similar to the blue of the sky, which is similar to the Sapphire blue that the Throne is made out of (Menachos, chap. 4, "Techeles", pg. 43b; Rashi there; Parshas Mishpatim, 24:10; Yechezkel, 1:26).

The question is, why are we supposed to be reminded that God sits on the Throne? What is the message behind this concept? How is it relevant to our lives? One answer will be understood after sharing the following story.

The Gemara (Yevamos, chap. 4, "Hacholetz L'yivimto", pg. 49b) relates that Yeshayahu Hanavi had a daughter whose hand he gave in marriage to Chizkiyahu Hamelech. Chizkiyahu and his wife had a son who they named Menashe. Menashe turned out to be such a wicked person that he was guilty of murdering his grandfather, Yeshayahu. Menashe claimed that Yeshayahu was a false prophet who deserved the death penalty.

To avoid being killed by Menashe, Yishayahu uttered a certain Name of God and magically disappeared into a cedar tree. Although Yeshayahu was completely absorbed into the tree, his tzitzis stuck out from the tree (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin, chap. 11, Halacha 2, pg. 51b). Menashe's soldiers found the tree, cut it down, and, under orders from Menashe, began chopping the tree into pieces.

When their axes reached the part of the tree which covered Yeshayahu's mouth, Yeshayahu died from the blow and blood spilled out from the tree onto the floor. Yeshayahu's death from an axe on his mouth was a form of punishment to Yeshayahu for speaking derogatorily about the Jewish people with the words, "I dwell among a people with impure lips" (Yeshayahu, 6:5). Since he sinned with his mouth (claiming that the Jews had impure mouths) he died from his mouth.

As fascinating of a story as this is, it begs us to ask why Hashem orchestrated that Yeshayahu was caught on account of his tzitzis?

The Ben Ish Chai, in his commentary on Talmud called Ben Yehoyada (Yevamos, pg. 49b), answers this question by citing a Midrash (Shocher Tov, Tehillim, 90:16) which says that the mitzva of tzitzis demonstrates that the Jewish people are called the Children of God. The Ben Ish Chai shares a hint which supports this notion. On the corner of a pair of tzitzis, there are eight strings and five knots. This means that there are thirteen parts on a corner of tzitzis.

Since there are four corners, the sum total of parts is fifty-two (13 x 4 = 52). The number fifty-two is propitious because it is the numerical value of the Hebrew word "ben" (son). Therefore, tzitzis alludes to the fact that we are Children of God.

It doesn't stop there. Hashem commanded us to have two corners in front of us and two corners behind us. The message behind these corners can be best understood in light of a Tannaic debate on the verse, "You are children to Hashem your God" (Parshas Re'eh, 14:1).

Rebbi Yehuda says that we are only considered to be God's children when we behave as children should and do the will of God. However, if we do not behave as children should by disobeying God's commandments, then we no longer have the status of God's children.

Rebbi Meir disagrees with Rebbi Yehuda and says that no matter what, whether we behave or not, we still maintain the status of God's children.

Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderes (known as the Rashb"a; 1235-1310; Barcelona, Spain) says that although the Gemara (Eiruvin, chap. 4, "Mi Shehotziyuhu", pg. 46b; Rebbi Ya'akov bar Idi in the name of Rebbi Yochanan) says that whenever there is a debate between Rebbi Meir and Rebbi Yehuda, the law is like Rebbi Yehuda, nevertheless, with respect to this debate, the law is like Rebbi Meir because there are verses that support his position.

Even a pair of tzitzis supports Rebbi Meir's view. This is because the front two corners represent the Jews who do God's will. A person can see the front two corners of his tzitzis. As such, they remind him to do the will of God, because the word tzitzis is numerically 600. When you add the five knots and eight strings, you get 613.

However, the back two corners represent the Jews who do not do the will of God. One cannot see those two corners. Therefore, he is not reminded to do God's will. Moreover, the back two corners represent the Jews who have thrown Judaism away, very much like a person who litters by chucking the garbage over his shoulder, behind his back.

Nevertheless, Hashem commanded that we wear tzitzis with two corners in the front and with two corners in the back because this teaches us that the law is like Rebbi Meir. How does this teach us that the law is like Rebbi Meir? The answer is that in order to arrive at the desired number 52, we must add the 13 parts of not only the front two corners, but, of the back two corners as well. This teaches us that whether we are doing God's will (represented by the front two corners), or, even if we are not doing God's will (represented by the back two corners), we are still called "ben" (a so or children).

Once we are called God's children, then Hashem is our Father. As such, teshuva works. Teshuva means repentance which pardons our sins without having to pay a penalty. This is because a parent has the right to forgo his honor and forgive just like that (Kiddushin, chap. 1, "Ha-isha Niknis", pg. 32a; Rav Masna in the name of Rav Chisda).

Therefore, tzitzis, with the front and back corners, teach us that we are always God's children. The four corners of tzitzis shows us that the law is like Rebbi Meir.

This explains why Yeshayahu Hanavi was caught by his tzitzis. When Yeshayahu criticized the Jewish people, he maintained that the Jews were not doing God's will. As such, Yeshayahu held that the Jews lost their status of God's children. If we are not God's children, then we are called God's servants. God is no longer our Father, but rather, He is our Sovereign.

Although it is a parent's prerogative to forgive and let things slide, a king may not do so. A king must uphold the law (Kiddushin, chap. 1, "Ha-isha Niknis", pg. 32b, Rav Ashi). From Yeshayahu's perspective, the Jews were merely God's servants. Teshuva will not help. They must be punished to be mended.

This explains why Yeshayahu was caught by his tzitzis. It is because tzitzis, with its front two and back two corners, teaches us that the Jewish people are always called God's children. Tzitzis proves that Yeshaya made a mistake. Therefore, he was caught by them.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that now we can understand why it is imperative to be reminded by the techeles that Hashem sits on the Throne of Glory. Since tzitzis reminds us that we are children (13 x 4 = 52 = "ben"), we can do teshuva. Teshuva is so powerful that it reaches the Throne of Glory (Yoma, chap. 8, "Yom Hakkipurim", pg. 86a; Rebbi Levi).

Therefore, by looking at the techeles, or by imagining the techeles, we are being reminded of the Throne from which our teshuva is accepted. This reminds us that all of us can repent, even the Jews represented by the back two corners. In other words, Hashem wants us to remember that we can always return to Him.

The Shvilei Pinchas points out that we now have two statements from Rebbi Meir on the table. 1) Techeles reminds us of the Throne and 2) No matter what we are God's children. These two statements compliment each other. Since we are God's children no matter what, we are instructed to look at the techeles to remind us that our teshuva will be accepted by Hashem's Throne of Glory.

This message is also reinforced by an incredible Divine intervention with respect to Menashe killing Yeshayahu. This Divine intervention begins with Yeshayahu being responsible for Menashe's birth to begin with.

The Gemara (Berachos, chap. 1, "M'aimasai", pg. 10a) relates how Yeshayahu visited Chizkiyahu when Chizkiyahu was deathly ill. Yeshayahu told Chizkiyahu that he (Chizkiyahu) would die in this world and in the next because he never tried to fulfil the mitzva of having children. Chizkiyahu never got married. Chizkiyahu responded that the reason why he refrained from having children was because he saw, with Divine inspiration, that he was going to have a wicked son. Since he did not want to bring wicked children into the world, he refrained from having children altogether.

Yeshayahu told him that his children being wicked or not was God's business. Our business is to do the will of Hashem. If Hashem says to be fruitful and multiply, we are expected to obey. Chizkiyahu accepted the rebuke and agreed to do teshuva. Chizkiyahu requested that he marry Yeshayahu's daughter. Who knows, maybe, between the compounded merits of the prophet and the righteous king, they would have good children.

Yeshayahu said, "It's too late, the Divine decree has already been issued." At that point, Chizkiyahu became agitated with Yeshayahu and told him to finish his prophecy and leave, because Chizkiyahu had a tradition, dating back to his great grandfather, Dovid Hamelech, which said that even when the sharp sword is on a person's neck, one should never stop asking for compassion, because the salvation can come in the bat of an eyelash.

Chizkiyahu turned towards the wall and began to beseech God in tearful prayer, begging Hashem to forgive him. Hashem told Yeshayahu to tell Chizkiyahu that his repentance had been accepted and fifteen years was added to his life. After recovering, Yeshayahu gave his daughter's hand in marriage to Chizkiyahu, they had a son named Menashe.

The Shvilei Pinchas points out that Chizkiyahu was not completely wrong when he suggested that he could possibly have righteous children with the compounded merits of the prophet and the king. Although Menashe was wicked, that was in the beginning of his life. However, Menashe spent the last thirty-three years of his life in teshuva and righteousness (Sanhedrin, chap. 11, "Cheilek", pg. 103a).

The story of Menashe's repentance is equally fascinating. The Assyrian Army had captured Menashe with hunting hooks. They bound him in chains and schlepped him all the way to Bavel (Divrei Hayamim 2, 33:10-11). The Yerushalmi in Sanhedrin (pg. 51b) cites Rebbi Levi who shares some of the details concerning Menashe's capture. The enemy put Menashe into a human size pot, filled it halfway with water, put the cover on, sealed it from the outside, and began cooking him alive.

Realizing the desperation of the situation, Menashe began to pray to all the other gods. When no salvation arrived, he remembered being a child when his father took him to shul and taught him the verse which says, "When you are in distress and all these (tragic) things have befallen you at the End of Days, you will return to Hashem your God and you will listen to His voice, for Hashem your God is a merciful God, He will not abandon you nor destroy you, and He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them" (Parshas Vaeschanan, 4:30-31).

Menashe said to himself, "What have I got to lose?" Menashe began to pray to Hashem for the first time in years. He said, "God, if You answer me, fine. If not, You are just as useless as all the other gods out there."

As this audacious prayer made its way to Heaven, all the angels began closing the Heavenly gates of prayer so that it should not reach the Throne of Glory. Sensing that Hashem wanted to accept Menashe's prayer, the angels asked Hashem, "How can you accept the prayer of a person who erected an idol in the Beis Hamikdash?"

Hashem responded, "How can I not accept his prayer? If I reject his prayer, I will be locking the doors of repentance from all ba'alei teshuva." Being that all the Heavenly gates of prayer were locked, Hashem punched a hole in the seat of His Throne, reached down through this tunnel, grabbed Menashe's prayer, gave it a hug and a kiss, and accepted it.

I guess this story supports the Gemara (Yoma, chap. 8, "Yom Hakkipurim", pg. 86a, Rebbi Levi) we mentioned earlier that says that teshuva is so powerful that it reaches the Throne of Glory. In this story, Menashe's teshuva literally reached the Throne!

Hashem saved Menashe from his enemies with a wind which magically carried him back to Yerushalayim where he was restored as king. Then Menashe realized that Hashem is God (Divrei Hayamim 2, 33:13).

The Zohar (Parshas Bereishis, pg. 39a) says that after Menashe did teshuva, he became the head of all ba'alei teshuva. As a matter of fact, in the lower Gan Eden, there are seven chambers. Ba'alei Teshuva spend their time in the fifth chamber. However, the person who greets all ba'alei teshuva into that chamber is Menashe. This demonstrates that Menashe is the chief of all ba'alei teshuva.

The Shvilei Pinchas adds that it is not arbitrary that Menashe was Chizkiyahu's son. When the "sharp sword" was on Chizkiyahu's neck on account of his illness, he did teshuva at the last moment and was rescued. This impacted Menashe tremendously, because when the "sharp sword" was on Menashe's neck, he did teshuva at the last moment and was rescued.

The Shvilei Pinchas adds that even Yeshayahu realized that he made a mistake when he was caught by his tzitzis. All his life, Yeshayahu thought like Rebbi Yehuda who said that when Jews misbehave they have the status of servants to a sovereign. As such, there is no tikkun through teshuva. Rather, the tikkun comes through paying the price of the penalty.

However, when Yeshayahu was caught by his tzitzis, he understood how to read into that event. After all, he was a prophet, and prophets are blessed with the ability of reading into current events. Yeshayahu realized that Hashem was sending him a message. The message was that even Jews who sin are still called God's children. This message was conveyed by the tzitzis with its 13 parts on 4 corners which equals 52, which is the gematria of "ben" (son), indicating that the Jewish people are always God's children.

As Menashe's soldiers were chopping the tree into pieces which resulted in dismembering Yeshayahu's body, Yeshayahu repented for his mistake. Menashe sensed his grandfather's teshuva which was also instrumental in helping Menashe do teshuva himself.

Chizkiyahu was right. Through the merits and efforts of both the righteous king and the holy prophet, they did wind up with a good descendant.

Practically speaking, for those who wear tzitzis, let us take all four corners into our hands during the recitation of the blessing right before the Keriyas Shema in the morning (Arizal, Sha'ar Hakavanos, Derushei tefilas Hashachar, Derush Aleph) and think about how all Jews are called "ben", even those Jews who have thrown their Judaism away, represented by the back two corners.

Then, think about how everybody can do teshuva. Then, look at the techeles string, or imagine that one of the strings is techeles, and be reminded that our teshuva is so powerful that it reaches the blue Throne of Glory.

For women, who typically do not wear tzitzis, you can encourage the men in your lives to do this practice with its thoughts.

But, besides that, this message is also completely relevant to women because, as one who wears tzitzis, I can tell you that I rarely see my own tzitzis because when I walk around, my eyes are concentrating on the path that I am taking. However, it is very common for me to see other people's tzitzis. To me, this teaches us that we do not wear tzitzis for ourselves. We wear them for each other.

One need not wear tzitzis in order to benefit from its message. Just by looking at them, we can be reminded of all the aforementioned ideas which can comfort us with the thought that, no matter what, we can do teshuva and return to Hashem.

So, may we, children of God, be blessed with the motivation and courage to do teshuva and return to Hashem a little bit more and a little bit better, and by doing so, may we shake the Throne of Glory to the core, in order that Hashem punch a hole in His seat and rescue us from our long drawn out exile, bringing back the day when our leaders will be righteous kings and holy prophets.