Chapter 13

1 Moses knew that it was not necessary to spy out the land: On another level, however, Moses knew that despite God's promises of supernatural assistance, it was proper to approach the entry into the Promised Land in a natural way, for there is never any guarantee that miracles will occur, or to what extent.1 By preparing ourselves maximally in the natural way, we pave the way for God to bless our efforts in a miraculous way, and even elicit this Divine favor. In this context, Moses approved of sending out spies to see how the land could be conquered naturally.

Furthermore, Moses knew that God wants us to fulfill our Divine mission with our own understanding, not just out of pure faith. When we understand the particulars of what God wants us to do, we do it with greater enthusiasm and involvement. He therefore thought that it was proper to send men both to report on the land's quality and to spy out how to conquer it, for that way, the people would be more enthused about entering it and more confident that it could be conquered.

This is also why God left the final decision of whether or not to send spies up to Moses. By doing so, the whole venture became an expression of this ideal of letting the people take the initiative rather than having them rely solely on God's express instructions.

The spies' error, in this sense, consisted of going beyond the scope of their mission and drawing conclusions. They were not being deceptive: Moses had asked them to see how the land could be conquered naturally, and they felt it could not. But they should have recalled that Moses only asked them to see how the land could be conquered, not if.

The lesson for us is that even when we employ our own understanding, we must remember that we are doing so because God wants us to, that we are doing so on His behalf. This way, we can be sure that we are using our intellect to arrive at the objective truth, not to supply us with evidence that bolsters any subjective perspective.2

2 You shall send one man from each tribe to represent his father's tribe: The Land of Israel is divided into twelve portions, corresponding to the twelve tribes. Each tribe's territory is particularly suited to its unique spiritual path within the overall path of the Torah.3 And through the efforts of the twelve tribes in elevating the twelve parts of the Land of Israel, the entire world is elevated, since the Land of Israel is a microcosm of the whole world.4

By traversing the entire land, the delegates prepared the land for the mission their tribe would fulfill: transforming the land to holiness.

The fact that each one walked the length and breadth of the whole land, not merely his tribe's specific territory, reflected the intrinsic unity of the Jewish people that transcends their division into twelve tribes. This unity derives from the common Divine mission shared by every Jew: to make the world into God's home. The division into twelve tribes stems from the reality that there are many ways in which this one goal must be accomplished, and each individual is given specific powers and characteristics that suit the part of reality he is charged by Divine providence to transform. The person performing his tribal or individual mission requires a much more focused and limited Divine consciousness than the greater, more abstract and all-encompassing Divine consciousness shared by every Jew. Although the general mission is more fundamental and more sweeping, it must be reduced and applied to specific situations in order to be fulfilled by individuals acting in a pluralistic world.

Yet, the individual goal must never lose its context within the greater goal of the entire nation. By traversing the entire land together, the delegates expressed and evoked this transcendent consciousness. At the same time, the fact that all twelve tribes were represented signified that this transcendent unity should and would eventually permeate the level of reality where there are differences in purpose and approach.

This promise was realized in the spies that Joshua sent to spy out Jericho 40 year later.5 These spies were only two, not twelve, because they expressed the unity of the Jewish people as based on the unity of their mission to make reality into God's home—which is divided into the two overall objectives of avoiding evil and doing good. Furthermore, these spies specifically scouted out only Jericho, one city that acted as the "key" to the entire Land of Israel, expressing the unity that underlies plurality.6


[2] Send out men: Allegorically, conquering the Canaan and transforming it into the Land of Israel means conquering the body and animal soul, sanctifying them and transforming them into holy entities.

The espionage mission spoken of here is the first of such operations recorded in Scripture. The mission of the spies sent by Joshua is the third.7

There were two basic differences between the two missions. Firstly, while Joshua's mission was dictated by God,8 Moses' mission was left to Moses' discretion. Secondly, Moses' spies canvassed the entire land, while Joshua's were sent specifically to Jericho. These differences reflect the spiritual variations inherent in the two missions.

The seven nations that inhabited Canaan signify and embodied the seven basic emotions. God does not command us to "spy out" and conquer our seven emotions, since the average person is not able to completely control and transform his seven emotions, i.e., his inner self. Such a mission can only be undertaken on Moses' discretion, since it can only be accomplished by someone whose Divine consciousness is on the level of Moses', a tzadik.

The average person has complete control only of his outer self, i.e., his soul's means of expression: actions, words, and thoughts. These means of expression are signified by the city of Jericho. Jericho means "scent," and scent is an external aspect of a person's being; it therefore signifies his behavior—thought, word, and deed—which are external in contrast to his emotions.9 The soul's means of expression are its "garments": we can change our modes of thinking, talking, and acting, just as we can change our clothes. Joshua's mission, therefore, "canvassing Jericho," is appropriate for all, since anyone can examine and rule over his "Jericho." Thus, God directly commanded Joshua to send spies to Jericho.

The account of Moses' mission is relevant for the rest of us in that we must also strive to achieve Moses' level of Divine consciousness. The more we meditate on the futility of materialism and the awesomeness of God, the more we develop ecstatic love for God and antipathy for anything that opposes Divinity. To the extent we succeed in this, so may we inspect and conquer our seven emotions, as well.

Nonetheless, our primary task is to inspect and conquer our modes of expression. This is in fact the key to our ultimate conquest of our emotions (the seven nations) and intellect (the additional three nations), just as Jericho was the "key" fortress that "unlocked" the way into the Land of Israel.10 This is because the source of expression is deeper in the soul than is intellect or emotion, and therefore, harnessing our modes of expression and reorienting them toward holiness indirectly affects our emotions and intellect in the same way, just as our choice of clothing affects our self-image and perspective on life.11

16 Moses prayed for Joshua, "May God save you from the counsel of the spies": Even though the other delegates were righteous men with good intentions, Moses sensed that extending the scope of their mission to spying out the land would ultimately lead to their downfall. He knew that spying entails deception, an unholy quality. Even if it is being used for a noble cause, special precautions must be taken to ensure that the person who uses it is not adversely affected. This being the case, deception should be used only when absolutely necessary. Indeed, years later, Moses himself sent men to spy out the city of Ya'zer,12 and Joshua sent men to spy out Jericho.13 But in the present case, Moses was sure that the Jewish people's entry into the land would be miraculous, and therefore would not require the use of deception. He therefore feared that using it would lead to disastrous results, as indeed it did.14

18 Are they strong or weak? Moses stated first the possibility that they are strong, for the Jews must be willing to go to war and conquer the land even if their enemies are mighty.

Furthermore, even if the enemy is strong, the Jews' self-sacrifice and willingness to attack them will weaken them. Thus, the verse can be read as saying, "Even if they are strong, they will become weak."15

30 We shall surely ascend: According to the Talmud,16 Caleb said, "Even if our destination were the heavens, and Moses would tell us to make ladders and ascend, we would succeed in all that he instructs."

Both Joshua and Caleb equally defied the doubt of their colleagues and declared that the people could conquer the land. However, a close look at their words shows a subtle difference between them. Firstly, when both of them spoke, the entire nation wished to stone them; but when Caleb alone spoke, he quieted the entire nation, including the spies. Secondly, when both of them spoke they used logical reasoning: "do not fear the people of the land, since their protector is gone" (meaning that the righteous among them had died17), whereas Caleb himself, in addition to presenting logical arguments, said that they could accomplish even the logically impossible when following Moses' command and "ascend to heaven."

These differences reflect an essential distinction in the way Joshua and Caleb resisted the influence of their colleagues: Joshua received inspiration from Moses, who had prayed for him before he left for Canaan. Caleb, on the other hand, sought inspiration on his own. While in Canaan, he prayed at the graves of the patriarchs in Hebron. Joshua's resilience was a gift, while Caleb's was selfmade. Because Caleb's resilience was the product of his own efforts, his faith had a stronger impact: he was able to silence the doubts of all the people, even the spies. Furthermore, because God desires our effort,18 He grants us access to His boundlessness when He sees us doing our best. Thus, Caleb, who had fought doubt with his own efforts, reached this boundlessness, where impossibilities do not exist and "the heavens can be ascended."19

Moses instructed the spies to check on two important pieces of information: the enemy and the land. "The people that dwells in it—is it strong or weak? Is it few or numerous? And how is the land in which it dwells—is it good or is it bad?… Is it fertile or lean?"

The spies returned with their report. "The land flows with milk and honey. But the people that dwells in the land is very powerful…."

Upon hearing this report, Caleb immediately silenced them. So far, all that they had done was to answer the questions Moses had asked. Yet, Caleb already sensed that their approach was not right.

Moses had commanded the spies first to first check the people—the details necessary to wage the war—and only afterwards to ascertain the extent of the reward, the fertility of the land. Their reply, however, dealt first with the wealth that awaited them.

As soon as Caleb realized that their focus was upon the reward, he silenced them. He understood that when we serve God merely because of the promised incentives, we are only prepared to expend effort commensurate with the perceived value of the prize. The spies' focus, therefore, was certain to lead to the eventual result: their declaration that under the circumstances it was not worthwhile to attempt to enter the Land.

Caleb knew that Moses' directives must be followed to the letter, for even the smallest digression can lead far astray.20

33 Shamchazai and Azael: The Midrash relates that—although their original intentions were good—these angels eventually became more corrupt than the humans of their generation.

By referring to these fallen angels, the spies bolstered their argument that living a holy life in the corporeal world is impossible. After all, look what happens when even angels enter the earth: they become corrupt, fallen angels.

To this Caleb and Joshua answered, "If God desires us"—if God wants us to sanctify the physical world, then "He will bring us to this land and give it to us"—He has given us the power to do this. We have an advantage over the angels: the soul is "literally a part of God,"21 and, like its Creator, stands beyond the dissonance of heaven and earth.22

Chapter 14

3 Our…children will be spoils of war: It would seem that the spies chose to stress the plight of the young children in order to arouse the sympathies of the people. However, the fact that God's answer also stresses specifically the "young children" (rather than simply "the children," "the younger generation," or the like) proves that somehow the infants are really the crux of the discussion.

The first reference to young children (taf) in the Torah is when Joseph sent bread to his brothers "according to the children."23 Our sages comment that he sent enough to provide even for the young children, "who crumble more than they eat."24

Spiritually, our "bread," or staple, is the holy Torah. It is consumed differently by various groups of people: The "adults," those who are fully developed in their appreciation of Torah, do not waste any of it or any opportunity to learn it. They devote the bulk of their time to Torah study, and fully assimilate it into their lives and beings. The "children," on the other hand, those who are weak in knowledge and spiritual maturity, "crumble more than they eat." The bulk of their time and energy is expended on mundane matters. Furthermore, even the little bit of Torah study and observance that they do find time for is mingled with other concerns and motives, and thus more of it is "crumbled" rather than internalized.

The complaint of the spies, as explained in the overview, was that they felt they were better off in the wilderness, unfettered by the bothers of a material world. Their main worry was about the "children"—those who would undoubtedly lose focus when faced with the realities of the physical world and fritter away their time on mundane irrelevancies.

God's reply, however, was that they were completely mistaken. "On the contrary," He said. "My primary satisfaction is not from the intellectual greats of the generation of the wilderness. It is these simple 'young children,' the ones who will deal with the distractions of the physical Land of Israel, who bring Me the greatest joy. For when a person is challenged—either just beginning to learn or facing the obstacles of having to earn a living—and yet manages to overcome these challenges and devote some of his time to Me; that little bit is most precious, and brings Me the greatest joy."25

7-8 The an exceedingly good land. If God desires us, He will bring us to this land:

As mentioned before, the spies wished to remain in the desert, where they could devote themselves properly to the intellectual pursuit of Torah study, unencumbered by the trials and tribulations of the mundane life they would face in the Promised Land. Joshua and Caleb gave them a twofold answer:

  • The land is very, very good. Studying the Torah is good, but elevating mundane reality by performing God's commandments is "very, very good," for in this way we can reach an even higher spiritual level.
  • If God desires: Secondly, entering the Promised Land is also God's desire, and we should fulfill it with no second thoughts.26

9 Do not fear: Since time immemorial, those who aspire to do what is right have faced opposition and even ridicule. Yet, the Code of Jewish Law begins with the instruction: Do not be embarrassed by the mockers. When God is with you, there is no reason for fear.27

For they are our bread: By referring to the inhabitants of the land as "bread," Joshua and Caleb implied two things:

  • Bread is the archetypal human food, produced specifically for human consumption. Similarly, said Joshua and Caleb, there is no reason to fear the people, for the Land of Israel was designated specifically for us, for Jewish settlement.
  • A lot of hard work is required to make a loaf of bread, from tilling the land and planting it all the way through grinding the flour and baking it. Yet, when the labor is complete, the end product is a form of food that is both a pleasure to eat and satisfies us for a long time. For these reasons, there is a special blessing recited only on bread.

The same is true of the work required to conquer both the physical and spiritual Land of Israel. "There is no doubt that there will be hardships," declared Joshua and Caleb, "but eventually you will thank God even for the difficulties, for through them you were able to settle the Land of Israel."28

12 I must…annihilate them: God does not punish in order to exact revenge; He punishes in order to enable a person to reach the next level of his spiritual development. By failing to meet the challenge he was presented with, the person demonstrated that he is unwilling to reach this next level on his own.

If a person's punishment is death, it means:

  • that he has shown that he is unwilling to fulfill his purpose on earth altogether. Removing him from this life is therefore to his benefit, for living a life of blessing is predicated on fulfilling one's Divine purpose; were this person to stay alive, it would only be torture for him.
  • that his death will serve as an atonement for him so that he can live in peace in the afterlife.

So when God threatened to kill off the Israelites—and eventually did so over forty years—it was not a merciless massacre, but the only way of taking them where they needed to be.

(Moses alluded to this by referring to the way God would kill of the people as "slaughtering." By using this unexpected, jarring term, he implied that even the Egyptians understood that if God ends the lives of His people it is not a "massacre" but a "ritual slaughtering," an elevation for those being killed, just as ritually slaughtering an animal elevates it to a higher level of existence: being fit for human consumption.)

Therefore, when Moses argued to spare the Israelites, he did not argue, as he did after the sin of the Golden Calf, that God should spare them for their own sake. For their own sake, they should be killed, since they had proven themselves unwilling to fulfill the mission set out for them. By doubting God's power for the tenth time, they demonstrated that they were not interested in achieving on their own the level of faith required of them.

Therefore, Moses' only qualm was with what the Egyptians would say: that God was unable to take the people into the land, so He had to "slaughter them in the desert." Moses said to God: You want to end the lives of the Israelites because of their lack of belief, but if you kill them in the desert, You will only succeed in diminishing humanity's belief in Your power.29

22 These ten times: Despite their exalted spiritual level, the generation of the Exodus did not work hard enough to internalize the profound significance of the Divine miracles they witnessed, and therefore remained subject to their "slave mentality," the assumption that reality is enslaved to the laws of nature, and that God is unwilling or incapable of overriding them whenever He chooses. Because they could not overcome this way of thinking, they lost the privilege of entering the Promised Land where heightened Divine consciousness was to prevail.

The lesson here for us is that we must take special care to internalize the implications of all the Divine miracles we have witnessed, both throughout Jewish history and in our own, personal lives. Then, we will be mentally and spiritually ready to experience our own miraculous return to the Promised Land, led by the Messiah in the final Redemption, and to lead lives permeated by the highest levels of Divine consciousness.30

27 This evil congregation: The "evil congregation" is the ten mistaken spies. From this verse it is derived that an "assembly" is defined as a minimum of ten men, since God refers to the ten misbehaving spies as an "assembly." Thus, those prayers (such as kaddish) that may only be recited in the presence of an assembly require the presence of at least ten men.31

It seems rather strange that the source in the Torah for the idea of a minyan—the quorum required for reciting exceptionally holy prayers—would be from the condemned spies!

The explanation is that, as we have noted, the spies were not evil in the literal sense; indeed, they were on an extremely lofty spiritual level. What they did would not be considered a sin for the average person. It is only because of their sublimity that they were judged so severely. So it is actually quite fitting that the definition of a minyan, a holy assembly, is taken from the ten "evil" spies.32

33 Your children shall wander in the desert with you for forty years: If God's intent was only to punish the Jews for their reluctance to enter the Land of Israel, there was no reason to keep them wandering in the wilderness. It would have been sufficient to force them to live for forty years in some other settled area, as long as it was outside the Holy Land.

As we have mentioned previously,33 their wanderings served an added purpose. The desert is an inhospitable place, full of harmful and dangerous creatures. It symbolizes the realm of reality that lies outside the realm of holiness. Wherever the Jews traveled with the Tabernacle, the desert was transformed to an inhabitable, even hospitable place. Their wanderings thus prepared them for their entry into the Holy Land, teaching them how to transform darkness to light and to spiritualize the material.34

For forty years: Although the spies' sin only added thirty-nine years to the Israelites stay in the desert—the affair took place in the second year of their journey—the Torah refers to decree as being for forty years.

This alludes to the effect and purpose of their stay in the desert. The number 40 is associated with the ability to understand.35 A student is considered to have fully assimilated the teachings of his master only forty years after studying them.36 Similarly, the incident of the spies demonstrated that the Jewish people did not yet fully "understand" the message of the Torah, as explained above. The forty-year stay in the desert, which was an intensely spiritual experience, brought the Israelites to this level of "understanding." After these forty years, they would be able to enter the earthliness of the land and accomplish their mission there.37

Your children shall wander: Punishments are administered to correct the wrong committed. But what kind of punishment was it for the generation of the desert to receive what they wanted, namely to stay in the Divine atmosphere of the desert, protected by the clouds of glory and provided for by the manna and the well of Miriam? How did giving them what they asked for correct their mistake?

As we explained above, their request was not evil per se; it was merely based on a mistaken premise. By expressing their preference for the spiritual life of the desert, they showed that they were not yet ready to deal with the physical world. They proved that they indeed needed another forty years of spiritual sustenance and nurturing before they would be able to safely descend into the "real" world.38

37 These men...died: The sages derive from this verse that the spies do not have a portion in the World to Come.39 The Kabbalistic interpretation of this statement is that the lofty spiritual level that the spies experienced transcends the revelations of the World to Come.40

40 We have repented and are ready to go up to the Land of Israel: The people had refused to proceed toward the Land of Israel because they believed that it was impossible to conquer it, even with God's help. What changed? Moses did not show them any great miracles,41 and God did not appear and perform some heavenly exhibition of His strength. So what caused the people to suddenly change from skeptics to fervent believers?

Our sages point out that every Jew inherently believes in God.42 So even while the people were voicing their skepticism, they still believed; their belief was just temporarily overridden by a fleeting insanity. Therefore, as soon as God rebuked them and confronted them with the harsh severity of what they had done, they awakened from their stupor. The rebuke broke through the coarseness of their animal materiality, and the inherent purity of their souls shined once again. They did not have to be convinced of God's abilities; they just needed to be shaken awake.

The same is true of many of the doubts that we suffer from. Our questions are often due to no more than the dominance of the material perspective in our lives, while deep within our hearts we indeed believe in God. In such cases, the proper method of dealing with our doubts is not to attempt to answer them directly but simply to reawaken the pure faith that burns within our souls.43

41-44 It will not succeed: These Jews had repented from the sin of the spies and now declared their readiness to ascend to the Holy Land. Yet, Moses told them that their endeavor would not succeed. Why? We know that nothing ever stands in the way of repentance.44

True, the Land of Israel was promised to the Jewish people, and God had instructed them to conquer it. Yet that could only be done if the ark and Moses led the way. Repentance could erase the sins of the people but it could not change the procedure necessary to acquire the land. Since these people were unwilling to submit to Moses' leadership and wanted to conquer the land on their own, their initiative was rejected.

The same is true in our day. However deserving we may or may not be, there is a prescribed procedure for the Redemption, as described by Maimonides45: "A king will arise from the house of David, learned in Torah and observant of the commandments as was David his father, according to the teachings of the Written and Oral Torah. He will influence all of Israel to follow and strengthen it, and he will fight the wars of God…. He [and only he] will build the Temple in its proper place, and gather the exiles of Israel…and he will rectify the entire world so that they serve God together…."46 Any attempt of ours to bypass steps in the redemptive process is doomed to failure; hastening the Redemption, as success in any endeavor, is possible only if our approach is based on submission to God's plan.47

Chapter 15

2 When you arrive in the land: Following the incident of the spies, God instructed the Israelites regarding the libations that would accompany certain sacrifices. These laws would not apply for another thirty-nine years, when the Israelites would enter the Land of Israel—the sacrifices they offered in the desert were brought without libations. Yet, God gave them these laws here in order to comfort the second generation and assure them that He intended to bring them into the land.48

On a deeper level, God gave these laws here because the concept of the libations is the antithesis—and therefore a rectification—of the spies' mistake.

There is a basic difference between the sacrifices and the libations: the sacrifices were consumed by a heavenly fire and ascended, whereas the libations were poured down (into two pipes that led beneath the altar underground).49

In other words, sacrifices transform the mundane into the holy, while the libations infuse holiness into the mundane. Thus, following the affair of the spies, God instructed the Israelites concerning the libations, as if to say: the time of (relative) transcendence in the desert will come to an end. The entrance into the Land of Israel will mark the true descent into earthliness, signified by the libations.50

This idea also explains the statement of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan that a person who recites the Shema while not wearing tefilin is like someone who offers sacrifices without libations.51

The main theme of the Shema is that God pervades and controls all reality, and that this awareness should be so real to us that we are willing to give up our life for God because of it. This is why the Shema has always been on the lips Jewish martyrs throughout history. Thus, the Shema epitomizes transcendence, the readiness to transcend the world and the physical body.

Tefilin, on the other hand, draw Divine awareness into our mind, heart, and even the lower aspects of life. The head tefilin draw Divine awareness into the mind; the hand tefilin draw Divine awareness into the heart and actions. The straps of the head tefilin are required to descend past the navel,52 drawing the Divine awareness into the lower aspects of one's life.53

20-21 The first of your dough: The commandment of giving challah (a loaf) is very straightforward. A part of the dough is set aside to be holy, to be given to the priests, while the rest remains non-sacred and may be eaten without any particular restrictions.

The Torah's ways "are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace."54 It would seem that the way to peace is equality, while this commandment, like so many others, emphasizes the differences between us. Creating elitist classes encourages jealousy. The priest is different than a Levite, who is himself distinguished from the average Jew. We are fermenting division within every bowl of dough!

The lesson here, however, is that true unity can only be achieved when clear distinctions are made between those who fulfill the various offices of society. Harmony is possible only when every cog of the machine, every unit of the army, knows its proper place and performs its unique function. If there are no separations and distinctions, the result can only be anarchy.

Of course, all Jews have the same inherent value and equally deserve our love and assistance. However, when we are dealing with the question of who is a "priest"—a rabbi and authority—we must realize that there are clear rules and distinctions. Only someone who has truly attained the requisite level of knowledge, is truly God-fearing, and observes all the dictates of the Torah can aspire to that title. If someone wishes to spread the title of rabbi more liberally under the cry of pluralism, inclusiveness, and unity, he is actually destroying rather than building, and separating rather than uniting.55

The first of your dough: According to the sages, the commandment of challah was given to women as a way to correct Eve's wrongdoing in the Garden of Eden.56 The sin of the Tree of Knowledge was caused by misplaced good intentions. Adam wanted to add a safeguard to God's command not to eat from the tree and so instructed Eve not even to touch it. This gave the serpent his opening and ultimately caused the sin. As our sages commented, "He who adds, subtracts."57

True, the Torah instructs us to add safeguards to protect ourselves from wrongdoing. In fact, we are told that it is necessary to avoid one hundred measures of the permitted in order to avoid one measure of the forbidden. Yet, Adam's zeal was misplaced. He was in the Garden of Eden, where no evil was possible. In that situation, safeguards were unwarranted and uncalled for.58

This is corrected by setting aside challah. As noted, valid concerns—equality, peace, and harmony—seemingly contradict the spirit of this commandment. Unity and love of a fellow Jew are indeed all-important, and they would seem to preclude the divisions implied by giving challah. However, when we give some of the dough to the priest despite these valid concerns, we are showing that everything has its place; that pluralism and equality when applied improperly and in contradiction to Jewish law are destructive and harmful. By setting things in perspective and ensuring that good intentions are only applied when and where they belong, we are able to right the wrong committed by Adam and Eve.59

The first of your dough: The word for "dough" in this verse can also mean "crib" or "bed." In that context, the verse means that our first thoughts, words, and acts when we wake up in the morning should be "raised as a challah offering," i.e., directed and devoted to God.60

The first of your dough: Adding water to flour and turning it into dough serves as a parable for the effect of the Torah on mundane physical reality. Flour consists of thousands of small and independent pieces, but when water is added, these pieces become a solid mass of dough. Just as water serves to make a unified reality out of the unconnected particles of flour, so does the Torah allow us to see the underlying unity and harmony of all existence. Every created thing serves a unique purpose, but these purposes can often seem at odds with one another. The Torah illuminates physical reality, allowing us to realize the ultimate purpose of creation as a whole and the specific contribution of each created thing toward the overall purpose.

According to Jewish Law, the flour that remains in the bowl after the dough is made is not considered part of this batch of dough; when we remove the challah-portion from the dough, the leftover flour is still under the obligation to have challah taken from it. This teaches us that even if we have illuminated certain aspects of reality with the light and holiness of Torah, we must not forget about the areas we have not yet touched.61

22 If you should…commit the sin of idolatry: According to our sages, the commandment of challah is juxtaposed to the discussion of idolatry because someone who fulfills the commandment of challah is considered to have helped nullify idol worship, while one who ignores it is regarded as if he has perpetuated idol worship.62 Even though challah seems like a relatively minor ritual, the nullification or perpetuation of idol worship— the very foundation of our faith— hinges upon its observance!

This is because bread is the most basic staple of human sustenance. The reality of our physical world is that we have to work hard to satisfy our needs. Because of this, it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling that our material success is dependent on the brutal laws of nature: the more and better we work, the more we earn. It is easy to feel that God is not involved, even if we acknowledge that He determined the rules and set them in motion. Although this a common enough assumption, it actually borders on idol worship.

Idolatry is not limited to a denial of God's existence. In fact, the intentions of the first pagans were actually pure and altruistic: they felt that since God runs His world through the intermediaries of nature, such as the sun and the moon, etc., these intermediaries, too, deserve to be honored and revered. Eventually, they forgot about God and paid homage only to the forces that they considered to be the direct sources of their sustenance.63 Their mistake was in attaching any importance at all to the intermediaries of nature, for in truth, these are only tools in the hands of the master Craftsman; they have no more influence on the world than a craftsman's tools have on his work. Thus, any consideration given to any entity other than God, whether it be a false deity or the laws of nature, is essentially idolatrous.

In order to avoid this misconception, we are enjoined to set aside some of the very first of our dough as a portion for God. This reaffirms our faith that it is indeed God who has granted us all that we have and that He is truly the source of our sustenance. In giving away the loaf of challah, we do not give away something that is ours, but rather merely return to God some of what is His. This simple action destroys the very premise of idol worship and precludes the errors that we could make that could lead to its subtler forms.

This also explains allegorically why a private person must give a greater share of his dough as challah than a baker. A baker, being a businessman, is in a position to observe God's constant providence in his daily life, and therefore does not need such a great reminder that he owes everything to God. A private person, on the other hand, is not as openly exposed to Divine providence, and therefore his reminder must be relatively greater.64

32 And they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath: According to the Midrash, this occurred immediately after the incident of the spies, and the wood-gatherer did this for religious motives. The people were saying, "Since it has been decreed that we will not enter the Land of Israel due to the deeds of the spies, we are therefore exempt from performing the commandments." The wood-gatherer desecrated the Sabbath on purpose, in order to show the others, through his death, the gravity of observing the commandments.65

Why would the people think that the decree God imposed upon them after the incident of the spies implied that they were exempt from the performance of the commandments?

As mentioned above, the focus of life in the desert was learning the Torah, a primarily spiritual occupation that engages only thought and speech, not action. Only after entering the Land of Israel was life's focus going to shift toward performing the commandments. (It was precisely this preference for the spirituality of learning over the physicality of the commandments that led to the spies' mistake in the first place, as we have mentioned.)

Therefore, it is entirely reasonable that the Jews felt that the decree to stay in the desert accentuated the dominance of Torah study and detracted from the need to perform physical commandments.66

38 They shall make for themselves a tassel: We saw above that all twelve spies traversed the entire land together, expressing how transcendent Divine consciousness must permeate non-transcendent consciousness; how our common unity of purpose and approach should inspire and direct our particular pursuits, where we each have different purposes and approaches.

This explains the connection between the spy mission and tzitzit. Tzitzit is one of the "general" commandments that in a certain way include all the others. As the sages say, "Tzitzit is equal to the entire Torah." This means that tzitzit expresses the all-encompassing, transcendent aspect of the commandments, rather than any particular effect the commandments have on us. Yet this transcendence permeates all of the individual and different commandments that the tzitzit recall.67

The Ba'al Shem Tov said that even the archangel Michael, the greatest of all the angels, would gladly trade all of his Divine service and recognition of Divinity for one of the four tzitzit worn by every Jew.68

There are several possible explanations as to why the Ba'al Shem Tov chose specifically tzitzit to express the advantage of our ability to serve God over that of the angels:

  • The original blue coloring of the tzitzit was a reminder of the heavenly Throne of Glory.69 Since the angels reside before the heavenly Throne, their direct view of it is obviously much greater than any reminder. Yet, the value of a person's fulfilling God's commandment, even though it is merely a reminder, is far more valuable than their entire service.
  • The four corners of the tzitzit correspond to the four "beasts of the chariot" that carry God's throne. One who wears tzitzit is therefore regarded "as if he has prepared a throne for God."70 The angel Michael is one of the four constant components of the Heavenly chariot.71 The fact that Michael, who is part of the actual throne, would want to exchange his place for one of the tzitzit that are merely a reflection thereof underscores the unique value of our fulfillment of mitzvot.72

39 You will remember all the commandments: We are told in the Midrash that Moses said to God, "What's the point of giving the Torah to the Jewish people? They live in a material world. They'll forget it all immediately." God replied, "I will give them the commandment of tzitzit, through which they will remember all of My commandments."73

Granted that we need the tassels to remind us of the 613 commandments, but why do we need the tallit—the garment upon which the tassels are hung? Why not just carry the tassels themselves?

The answer lies in the allegorical significance of garments. The difference between clothing and food—our two main necessities—is that food becomes a part of us when we eat it, while clothing always remains outside of us. Food is therefore an allegory for the aspects of the Torah that we can comprehend and digest, while clothing is an allegory for whatever is beyond our grasp.

The instruction to attach the tassels to a garment indicates that it is not sufficient simply to remember the commandments. We must also remember that the basis of the Torah and its commandments is suprarational, for they originate in God's wisdom, which transcends the limitations of human intellect.74

This tassel shall be for you to look at: The Talmud75 derives from this phrase that we need not wear tzitzit at night, since we cannot see clearly at night. Nevertheless, the Arizal maintains that we should wear tzitzit at night, even when sleeping,76 since in addition to serving as a visual reminder of the commandments, tzitzit have an inner, spiritual effect on the person, regardless of whether or not they can be seen.77

You shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you go astray: Everything was created for a purpose, including our eyes. If we use them in improper ways, by looking at forbidden or undesirable things, we forfeit their use; we are at that moment effectively blind.78

41 I am God, your God, who took you out of Egypt: There are those who complain, "The way of Torah just doesn't work in the real world. The Torah demands that we observe the Sabbath and the holidays, but we have to compete with people who don't. The Torah demands that before going to work in the morning we pray and study a little bit. In the afternoon, right in the middle of the workday, we have to stop and pray again. When we finally get home in the evening, there's still one more prayer to be recited. At work, we have to be careful to stay away from dishonesty or illegal business practices. We are not even allowed to open direct competition to someone else's business under many circumstances. How can we possibly live with all these rules?"

God replies, "I am your God, who took you out of Egypt. Until then, not a single slave had ever managed to escape from Egypt. Yet, I took several million of you out, and ensured that each one of you left with no less than ninety donkeys laden with gold and silver.79 So you see, I am not bound by the restrictions of nature. If you fulfill all of My directives, disregarding the limits of reason and rational thought, I will reward you supernaturally and ensure that you have an abundance of everything that you need."80