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Far Away, So Close

By Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

How the commandments bridge the unbridgeable gap between God and man.


Of course, prayer is not the only means of ensuring that God remains ever-present in one’s consciousness. There are other commandments designed to serve as a perpetual reminder of the Jew’s connection with God, such as the obligations to affix the mezuza to one’s door, to lay tefilin, and to wear tzitzit.
The mitzva of the mezuza is an excellent example of how Judaism strives to mark the presence of God in one’s daily life. The mezuza, which contains a parchment scroll on which is written the biblical passages, “Hear O Israel” and “If you hearken,”24 is affixed to the doorframes of the Jewish home in order that they may remind its occupants of their commitment to the Holy One, as it is written, “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy arm, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them on the doorsteps of thy house, and on thy gates.”25 The visibility of this symbol ensures that both those who live in the home in question as well as those who visit it will always recall their link to the eternal. As Maimonides explains:
A person should pay heed to the precept of the mezuza; for it is an obligation perpetually binding upon all. Whenever one enters or leaves a home with the mezuza on the doorstep, he will be confronted with the love due to God and will be aroused from his slumbers and his foolish absorption in temporal vanities. He will realize that nothing endures to all eternity save knowledge of the Ruler of the Universe. This thought will immediately restore him to his right senses and he will walk in the paths of righteousness. Our ancient teachers said: He who has phylacteries on his head and arm, fringes on his garment and a mezuza on his door may be presumed not to sin for he has many monitors-angels that save him from sinning, as it is said (Psalms 34:8), “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him and delivereth them.”26
In his trademark rationalistic fashion, Maimonides describes the mezuza as a symbol intended to stir the believer’s religious and moral consciousness.27 As other sages see it, however, the power of the mezuza, like that of prayer, lies not only in its subjective, psychological component; it is also seen as providing protection to those who dwell in homes to which it is affixed, because it invites divine intervention.28
Whereas the commandment to affix the mezuza applies to a man’s dwelling, the commandments of tefilin and tzitzit apply to an even more intimate space: The human body. In laying tefilin, the Jew binds upon his head and arm a declaration of the absolute authority of the Holy One. As such, his entire being is infused with divine inspiration. As Rabbi Judah Halevi writes in The Kuzari, the believer uses the tefilin as a means of connecting with what Halevi calls “the divine influence”:
[He] connects his mind with the divine influence by various means, some of which are prescribed in the Written Law, others in tradition. He wears the phylacteries on his head, on the seat of the mind and memory, the straps falling down on his hand, where he can see them at leisure. The hand phylactery he wears above the mainspring of his faculties, the heart. He wears the tzitzit lest he be entrapped by worldly thoughts, as it is written (Numbers 15:39), “That ye may not go astray after your heart and after your eyes.” Inside the phylacteries are written [verses describing God’s] unity, reward, punishment, and the “remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt,” because they furnish the irrefutable proof that the divine influence is attached to mankind, and that Providence watches them and keeps record of their deeds.29
Rabbi Judah Halevi attributes an identical role to the commandment of tzitzit, which, like tefilin, prompts the wearer to strive to transcend his sensory impressions and to keep his base physical impulses in check. Here, the “numinous” experience is accomplished by means of the garment’s blue and white fringes, a reminder of the colors of the firmament that houses God’s throne:
The blue is like that of the sea. And the sea resembles the grasses. And the grasses resemble the firmament. And the firmament resembles the throne of glory. And the throne resembles the sapphire. As it is written (Ezekiel 10:1), “Then I looked, and behold, on the firmament that was over the heads of the cherubim there appeared above them something like a sapphire, in form resembling a throne.”30
According to R. Meir, the tzitzit is not merely a piece of clothing, but an instrument that allows us a “glimpse” of the divine world-or at least a sense of its closeness. A similar notion is expressed in Midrash Tehilim: “R. Hezekia said, When the children of Israel are wrapped in their tzitzit, they will not consider that they are wearing blue, but will only look upon the tzitzit as though the glory of the divine presence were upon them.”31
Of course, we must not make the mistake of identifying the mezuza, the tefilin, and the tzitzit with the supreme power itself; such identification is akin to idolatry. We must always take care to differentiate between the signifier and the signified, recognizing that the physical aspect of each commandment is but a medium through which our attention is directed towards that which lies above and beyond ordinary sensory perception. And yet, so long as we can fulfill this purpose through them, the mitzvot open before us a window onto the otherworldly, and allow us mere mortals to feel that we stand before the very presence of the Holy One himself. It is at such moments, writes Rabbi Avraham Isaiah Karelitz (the Hazon Ish), that “a new world is revealed, because in it a man can be for a moment like an angel and bask in the holy splendor, and all the pleasures of this world are as naught compared with the pleasure of man’s affinity with his Creator.”32


Unlike the ritualistic nature of the commandments discussed above, all of which serve as a constant reminder of God’s presence in the material world, the mitzvot that endeavor to bring man closer to God are more abstract and intangible. They are primarily carried out in the realm of man’s interaction with others and with his environment; yet, they too are considered a profound expression of devotion, since their purpose is ultimately to bring about an identification with the Holy One.
First, however, it must be made clear that, in contrast to corporeal materialization of the sort in which pagans and Christians believe, or spiritual unification of the kind sought after by mystics, the notion of identification with God extolled by Judaism is not synonymous with becoming identical to God. As noted earlier, Judaism is clear in its insistence that the difference between man and God cannot be abrogated. Nor, for that matter, should the uniqueness of man dissolve into the infinite divine. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the twentieth century’s greatest Jewish scholars, stated:
First, it is impossible to talk about the unity of man with God, only about the cleaving of man to God; second, man does not cleave to God by denying his real essence; but, on the contrary, by preserving his essence. The actual personality… approaches its God when it lives an independent, multi-colored, original life, replete with direction, initiative, and activity, and frees itself from the semblance of overweening and impertinent independence. Then and only then does it begin to have a divine existence.33
Man’s cleaving to his Creator does not require him to relinquish his sense of self. On the contrary, insists Rabbi Soloveitchik, man was not created to be a doormat. Thus, while he should avoid “overweening and impertinent independence,” which is a kind of defiance of the heavenly, he cannot hope to “have a divine existence” if he does not initiate, work, and create. Only in so doing does he fulfill his potential as someone created betzelem, “in God’s image.” A similar notion is expressed in Midrash Leviticus:
R. Yehuda Ben Rabbi Simon began his discourse with the text (Deuteronomy 13:5), “After the Lord your god shall ye walk.” Said R. Yehuda Ben Rabbi Simon, But can a man of flesh and blood walk after the Holy One, blessed be he, the one of whom it is written (Psalms 57:20), “Thy way was in the sea, and thy path in the great waters and thy footsteps were not known”? Yet you say, “After the Lord your God shall ye walk!” And unto him shall ye cleave. But can flesh and blood go up into heaven to cleave to the shechina, the one of whom it is written (Deuteronomy 4:24), “For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire,” and of whom it is written (Daniel 7:9), “His throne was fiery flames,” and of whom it is further written (Daniel 7:10), “A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him”? Yet you say, And unto him shall you cleave! But in truth the Holy One blessed be he, from the very beginning of the creation of the world, was before all else occupied with plantation, as is proved by the text (Genesis 2:8), “And the Lord God planted a garden in the first instance in Eden,” and so do you also, when you enter into the land [of Israel], occupy yourselves first with naught else but plantation; hence it is written (Leviticus 19:23), “And when ye shall come into the land, then ye shall plant.”34


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