A Philosophical Rebel
In its very first recorded case of mutiny, the Torah recounts the story of a Korach who publicly challenged the authority and integrity of Moshe.
Traditionally, the story of Korach has been read as a story of revolt motivated by a power struggle and vices like greed and status-seeking.
But upon closes analysis, we encounter a more nuanced Korach who’s issue with Moshe was more philosophical than political.
The Midrash recounts the backstory to the public showdown between Korach and Moshe:
Korach took two hundred and fifty magistrates…They came and stood before Moshe and asked him: “If a garment is made entirely of blue wool, what is the law as regards to it being exempted from the obligation of tzitzit?” Moshe answered them: “It is subject to the obligation of tzitzit.”
Korach further challenged Moshe: “If a house is full of Torah scrolls, what is the law? Does it need a mezuzah on its doorpost or not?” Replied Moshe, “It is obligated.” Said Korach: “The entire Torah, consisting of 275 chapters, does not absolve this house, and the [two] chapters in the mezuzah absolve it?”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of sainted memory, once explained the depth of Korach’s argument and Moshe’s response.
Essentially, the function of Tzizis and Mezuzah are one and the same: they both serve as constant reminders (among many others prescribed by Judaism), one on our person the other on our home, of a higher force in our life to whom we are answerable.
Does G-d not trust us to internalize our faith in Him to the point that we no longer need so many constant reminders of His presence?
This, explains the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was the essence of Korach’s argument.
“If a house is full of Torah scrolls, what is the law? Does it need a mezuzah on its doorpost or not?”
In other words, if one is so knowledgeable in Torah that they can be compared to a house which is full of Torah scrolls, why would they need to be reminded of the specific passages contained in the Mezuzah?
Furthermore, he argued: “If a garment is made entirely of blue wool, is it not exempted from the obligation of tzitzit?”
That is, if someone is so spiritually infused with Divine consciousness that they “resemble the divine throne” do they still need to be reminded of G-d’s presence?
Moshe’s response was: Yes. Even someone who knows much of Torah and believes in G-d can lose touch with their knowledge and belief unless they regularly engage in physical rituals and encounter tangible symbols of their knowledge and belief.
Alain De Botton put it well when he said:
“In the secular world we tend to believe that if you tell someone something once, they’ll remember it. Sit them in a classroom, tell them about Plato at the age of 20, send them out for a career in management consultancy for 40 years, and that lesson will stick with them. Religions say, “Nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. Otherwise, our minds are like sieves. Religions, he concludes, are cultures of repetition. They circle the great truths again and again and again.”
Put differently, what makes the difference to the way we behave is not simply what we believe, but how regularly we are reminded of those beliefs.
Take the following example:
Professor Deepak Malhotra surveyed the willingness of Christians to give to online charitable appeals. The response was 300 per cent greater if the appeal was made on a Sunday than on any other day of the week. Clearly the participants did not change their minds about religious belief or the importance of charitable giving between weekdays and Sundays. It was simply that on Sundays they were more likely to have thought about God on that day. A similar test was carried out among Muslims in Morocco, where it was found that people were more likely to give generously to charity if they lived in a place where they could hear the call to prayer from a local minaret.
Wittgenstein once said that “the work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders.”
In the case of Judaism the purpose of the outward signs – tzitzis, mezuzah and tefillin – is precisely that: to assemble reminders, on our clothes, our homes, our arms and head, that we are constantly accompanied throughout our lives by the loving presence of G-d who cares deeply about the behavior of His children.
In this context, and in the lead up to the 3rd of Tammuz, the 28th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of sainted memory, it seems fitting to share the following reflection.
One of the great contributions of the Rebbe was the vast network of Shluchim and Shluchos he inspired to take up the call of “Lech Lecha” and leave the relative material and spiritual comforts of their homes, families, and communities in order to enhance Jewish life and establish Jewish communities in literally every corner of the globe.
One might say that the over 5,500 Lubavitch Shluchim families who have built Chabad houses in over 100 countries around the world, serve as virtual mezuzos; as embodiments and living reminders that G-d is present in such “G-d forsaken” places like Vladivostock, Russia, Pnom Pen, Cambodia, and Tasmania, Australia.
Like the Mezuzah, the Shluchim are committed to the physical and spiritual safety and wellbeing of the Jewish people wherever they may be.
I will never forget the day I arrived in Cusco Peru the day before Pesach to help the local Shliach with a Seder that would be attended by 900 Israeli backpackers, except that he was still not in Cusco because he had gone to help locate the Jewish bodies of Israel backpackers who had tragically died in a bus crash in La Paz, Bolivia.
And then there are the Mitzvah mobile homes or “Tanks” as they are often called, which one can encounter driving through busy city centers, bringing Yiddishkeit to those who didn’t even know they were looking for it, serving as a very visible reminder that G-d is present at the Western Wall and on Wall street alike.
Like Mezuzot, the young rabbinical students, who offer Jews the opportunity to do a mitzvah on the go, de-compartmentalise the street from the synagogue, demonstrating that Hashem is everywhere at all times.
I am reminded of a moving story I heard from a Shliach who helped build up Jewish life in St. Louis, Missouri. As a young Rabinic student he once travelled with a friend to the suburbs of Long Island where they walked from door to door seeking out local Jews. Imagine their shock when after being welcomed into the home of one Jewish resident he told them unsettlingly: “It’s because of your colleagues that I committed the gravest sin of my life.”
Taken aback, they asked the fellow to explain, hoping that they might be in a position to help rectify an unfortunate mistake from the past.
“At the time I was working in Manhattan and was rushing to my office one day when I bumped into a nice yeshivah student who asked me innocently if I was Jewish.” Not wishing to enter into a longer discussion I mindlessly responded, “No, I’m not Jewish” and I went on my way. And that was the biggest mistake I made in my life. The entire day I couldn’t stop thinking about how I could have allowed myself to deny that I was Jewish.”
When I got home that night, my wife saw that I was beside myself and when I told her why, she too became aggravated, shocked that I could deny my Jewishness, even if mindlessly.
The two of us spent a sleepless night, deep in discussion about matters of Jewish identity, and by the time it was morning, we had decided that we would place our children who were not in Jewish schools at the time, in a Jewish day school, so that they never come to repeat my mistake even inadvertently.
“So you see,” he concluded, “It was because of your colleagues that I committed the greatest sin of my life – and here he added with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of pride – “it was because of your colleagues that I performed the most important Mitzvah of my life.”
So as we mark the Rebbe’s 28th yahrzeit, and honour the Rebbes life and legacy this Shabbos, let us resolve to do more than affix mezuzos on the doors of Jewish homes, let us each become a living and loving Mezuzah for others in our orbit and sphere of influence, embodying Hashem’s Presence, Purpose, and Providence wherever we go, and with whomever we interact.