Sh'lah-L'kha: Avoiding "The Jewish Disease"

“The Jewish Disease” label has been applied to a variety of aliments at various times in our history.  To name just a few, Tay-Sachs and Crohn's (by geneticists), diabetes (by physicians), mental illness (by psychologists), and syphilis and plague (by our enemies).  

In one sense, though, it might be correctly said that illnesses that impair the memory are most destructive to Jewish health.  Not because Jews are more susceptible to these, and obviously not because Jews “cause” them, but rather because memory is so integral to Judaism.  

Each time we say the Sh'ma, for example, we recite these words that conclude this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lah L’kha: 

G-d said to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they are to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout the generations.  And they are to attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. And it shall constitute for you tzitzit that you may look at it and remember all the commandments of G-d and perform them, and not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urges, so that you will be reminded to observe all my commandments and be holy to your G-d.  I the Lord am your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d; I, the Lord your G-d.    

Despite reciting this -- while holding the fringes of our prayer shawls -- most of us do not wear visible fringes on the corners of our garments.  We therefore ar not frequently reminded to observe mitzvoth and to “be holy.”  

For some, including myself, the full-time wearing of a kippah (yalmulke) serves this purpose.  Although I can’t see it, I do feel it and am aware that others see it, which reminds me (or should remind me) to behave.  Although that certainly doesn’t always work, it sometimes does.  I am able to stop myself from saying or doing something that I shouldn't, so I consider it important and worthwhile.  

Recounting a tale from his youth, my Talmud professor told our class that his group of acquaintances once decided to steal something from a neighborhood store.  As the youngest, he was assigned to distract the clerk. He approached the counter and nervously but unconsciously put his hand up to his head.  Feeling his yalmulke, and then suddenly ashamed, he ran out of the store.

The Talmud itself recounts a similar story (Shabbat 156b).  Astrologers told a woman that her son would become a thief.  She therefore insisted that he always keep his head covered, to remind him of G-d's presence.  However, once, while sitting under a tree, (evidently his headcovering fell off and) he suddenly felt an urge to eat fruit from the tree.  He climbed the tree and ate some of the fruit, which was forbidden to him since it belonged to someone else.  The story suggests that our Talmudic tradition, as well as Biblical text, teaches that physical reminders of the need for proper behavior can overcome our “evil inclination.” 

I don’t expect that you, as a result of reading this D’var Torah, will feel inspired to begin wearing a tallit katan (lightweight undergarment with tassels) or yalmulke in public, although I would be delighted if that happened.  But I would like to suggest that you consider adopting one or more practices for the same purpose.  

These might include:

•    Adding a short strand of white or blue wool to your key ring.
•    Wearing a necklace or ring with an appropriate Hebrew verse or symbol.  
•    Carrying a card or note in your wallet and/or on your car dashboard that you will see frequently.  
•    Taping a decorative Torah verse to your mirror.  
•    Typing or downloading an appropriate screen saver for your computer and/or smart phone.  
•    Placing a prayer on your refrigerator (other than, or in addition to, “G-d, help me resist the temptation to overeat!).  
•    Wearing a kippah at home – perhaps while sitting at the computer, as a reminder against gossiping on Facebook or via email! 

Of course, saying frequent blessings and prayers are also intended as frequent reminders to act better.  But using physical cues to “see and be reminded” is also a powerful (not to mention “commanded,” or if you prefer, “longstanding ritualized”) method for behavior modification.  

Although Judaism does not teach that we are innately evil, it does acknowledge that we are constantly tempted to act in ways that aren’t “holy.” Our tradition recognizes that we need constant reminders to behave better. That’s why I consider “forgetting” our obligations to be better Jews – better people – as a “Jewish disease.”  

Taking steps to remind ourselves is important to Jewish health.  This might even be one reason why this Torah portion begins with a reflexive command: Shelach-l'cha (send to yourself).  We also need to remind ourselves.  

If this D’var Torah does inspire you to do something(s) to help remind yourself to behave better, I’d love to know about it.  That may inspire me to do more to remind myself, too.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.   

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb