Seeing Life in 3D
Last Sunday, in honor of his seventy-fifth birthday, my father invited his eight grandchildren and their parents to join him on a guided visit of Ellis Island. Toward the conclusion of our tour, having taken in the key sites, we gathered outside, just beyond the stairs that led millions of immigrants from the processing hall and medical examinations to the ferries and barges that took them to Manhattan and beyond. At that spot, my dad shared with his grandchildren the story of his grandfather’s arrival in America, 110 years prior: in 1899, Nathan Mendelsohn, an eleven-year-old native of Iasi, Romania, traveled by ship from Rotterdam to New York.
With those spare facts—along with rather colorful tales of Grandpa Nathan that Dad entertained us with throughout the day—a Sunday afternoon in the park transformed itself into a purposeful, moving, and profoundly personal journey for all eighteen members of my father’s family. Deftly and beautifully, Dad tied present, past, and future together into one coherent and emotionally rich package. With very few words, all directly from the heart, my father gave us, his children and grandchildren, a life lesson that we will all carry with us well into the future.
My dad’s message finds eloquent echo in Parashat Sh’lah L’kha’s artful framework of lore and law, all focused on the theme of purposeful journeys. Sh’lah tells the tale of a dozen scouts sent by Moses to explore the land of Israel in advance of the Israelites’ arrival at their hoped-for destination. Moses’s instructions to the scouts begin with a directive to u’r’item et ha’aretz mah hi (see the land for what it is) (Num. 13:18). Clear vision, it turns out, is not so easy to come by. Ten of the twelve scouts see what lies before them; tragically, however, they lack an appreciation of the past’s imprint on the land, along with any ability to imagine a fruitful future in that place. They describe what they see with precision and accuracy, but their vision remains limited to the present, superficial view. Void of depth and context, the ten scouts see the land as tourists might, taking in the sites—and the sights—but not absorbing their deeper meaning.
Joshua and, most notably, Kalev exhibit an entirely different level of perception. They see what the majority see, but they know that there truly is more there than meets the eye. Their vision has the depth that emerges from a serious understanding of the past and from a creative ability to imagine the future. Picking up on an anomaly of syntax in the Torah’s wording, the Talmud Bavli (Sotah 34b) depicts Kalev separating himself, physically and spiritually, from the majority and camping at the graves of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Hebron. For Kalev, the land consists of more than a collection of data that describe present circumstances. The land sustains, and is sustained by, the spirits of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah.
A teaching attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, commenting on the Bavli’s expansion of the Torah narrative, pushes the idea further still. By spending time at the ancestral grave, Kalev engages in itdabkut ruha b’ruha (the connecting of one to another, soul to soul) with the matriarchs and patriarchs. For the Baal Shem Tov, Kalev’s act of remembrance is more than an intellectual exercise: it is simultaneously a physical and a spiritual act of attachment and connection as well. Kalev can envision the future precisely because he embraces the past and thus can see beyond and beneath the present moment. He perceives levels of reality that don’t even make it to the majority’s radar. Kalev teaches the lesson of what it really means to see.
The famous legal passage that concludes Sh’lah, the law of tzitzit, which serves as the final paragraph of the Shema’, teaches that very same lesson. In its key verse, the passage explains the purpose and anticipated effect of tzitzit: u’r’item oto u’z’chartem et kol mitzvot Adonai va’asitem otam (look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them) (Num. 15:39). I suggest that we read the pattern of verbs—u’r’item, u’z’chartem, and va’asitem—as an effort to combine a sense of the present with an awareness of the past and a commitment to the future. The Torah calls upon us to see what exists before our eyes, to contextualize it by remembering what has come before, and then to move forward with proper action. To be sure, the Torah presents this schematic as an approach to mitzvot. I’d like for us to read it as a statement of life posture as well. The Talmud Bavli (Menahot 43b) has just this notion in mind when it claims that “sight leads to memory and memory leads to action.”
The Torah calls upon us to see in three dimensions. Ten scouts fail at that task; Joshua and Kalev succeed. For Kalev the visual reminder of the graves of the ancestors deepens his vision. For us the tzitzit serve that very same purpose, providing a visual reminder that triggers memory followed by committed, devoted action. For my family this past Sunday, the sights of the Statue of Liberty and the main hall at Ellis Island offered up visual reminders to recall and recount our personal history and the past of our people and, I hope, step purposefully and effectively into the future.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.