Strings and Shoe Straps
Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com
Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein
The first war documented in Tanach is recorded in Parshat Lech Lecha. Lot, Avraham’s nephew who had settled n Sodom after parting from Avraham Avinu, was taken captive in the war. Immediately upon hearing the news, Avraham armed himself, ran toward the battle, and almost singlehandedly won the war for the four kings, rescuing his nephew Lot. Following the protocols of war, the booty, including the people, rightfully belonged to Avraham. However, the king of Sodom had a request of Avraham, “Give me the people and the possessions take for yourself.” Avraham’s response is the subject of much discussion, “I lift my hand to God… if so much as a thread or a shoe strap, or if I shall take anything of yours! So you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Avraham rich,’ Far from me...”
Since the King of Sodom was part of the coalition that lost the war, the possessions were not his, and it would be obvious to everyone that it was not he who had enriched Avraham Avinu. Why was Avraham so adamant as to actually swear, to “raise his hand [to] God,” that he would take nothing from the booty?
Let us begin our discussion with Rav S. R. Hirsch who explains that Avraham’s raising his hand as an oath indicated that the power of his hand, as indeed all power, comes from Heaven above. Avraham chose to identify seemingly insignificant things from the booty to teach us that everything we have comes from Hashem, and we should shun even the most trivial things if they may adversely affect our reliance on Hashem. Further, of what significance are threads and shoe straps that these are the two items specifically mentioned? On the simplest level, the thread and the shoe strap are the two equally insignificant ends of the circle that encompass within them all other, larger things.
Mizkeinim Esbonan asks another question. Why was taking anything from the King of Sodom different from taking gifts from other kings, Pharaoh and Avimelech, from whom Avraham had accepted gifts? While Pharaoh and Avimelech were indeed not men of very good character, they were not such completely evil men as the King of Sodom and indeed the city that reflected his evil character. Avraham Avinu wanted to distance himself as completely as possible from Sodom in every way, especially since these riches were probably obtained through illicit means, opines Rabbi Wachtfogel.
For all these reasons, Avraham felt there was a possibility of a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, that perhaps even one person, the king of Sodom himself might say that it was not Hashem, but rather the king who had enriched Avraham, Avraham felt the extreme importance of negating that possibility, says R. Chasman. In this context, one must remember to be very careful in doing mitzvoth or performing chesed that we do not create any ill feelings or atmosphere that might bring negative aspersions on Hashem through our personal desires or agendas.
Rav Soloveitchick brings a perfect example from Tanach how a great kiddush Hashem was destroyed through personal greed. The Prophet Elisha had cured Naaman, general in the army of the King of Aram, from tzoraas, inaccurately translated as leprosy. When Naaman wanted to richly reward Elisha, Elisha declined, stating that it was God Who had cured Naaman. Naaman then promptly renounced his idols.
However, Elisha’s servant Gehazi, couldn’t bear to see all these riches leave. He pursued Naaman and, claiming Elisha needed some of the riches, accepted the wealth for himself. Elisha, through his power of prophecy, understood what had happened, and that Gehazi’s actions undoubtedly reversed Naaman’s desire to convert. In punishment, Elisha declared that Naaman’s tzoraas would now fall on Gehazi himself.
Let us now turn to the significance of threads and shoe straps, the two items Avraham specifically mentioned. Obviously, there is great depth and symbolism in these two items. As the Gomorrah tells us, Hashem rewarded Avraham’s descendents with the mitzvoth of tzitzit, the threads on a talit (large or small), and tefillin which are strapped on to a man’s head and arm. It is now important for us to explore the spiritual connections beyond the physical similarities between Avraham’s proclamation and these mitzvoth.
What is interesting to note, writes Rabbi Kofman in Mishchat Shemen, is that men wear the talit and tefillin only for the shacharit/morning prayers, the service established by Avraham Avinu who arose early in the morning. Additionally, Avraham was the first person to refer to Hashem as Adon/Master, signifying a personal relationship of Master and servant to Hakodosh Boruch Hu [Rav S. R. Hirsch], thus providing the impetus to placing Adon Olam at the beginning of our morning prayer. Rabbi Kofman cites Rabbi Lopian in stating that the purpose of Tefillin and Tzitzit is to remind us of Hashem’s ubiquitous presence so that we refrain from sin, just as the mezuzah on our doorpost reminds us to keep away from desecrating Hashem’s Name both as we enter and as we leave our homes. Avraham Avinu understood how easy it is to fall into the trap, and so he swears in order to strengthen his resolve.
Avraham’s refusal to take from man is at the core of his essence. He is satisfied with a little bit. He doesn’t look at others with envy at what they have, wanting and never being satisfied. When Avraham looks at others, he sees not what they have, but what they need, and always wants to give, writes Rabbi Lopiansky in Golden Apples. What others have does not diminish him, and he can be happy for them. Pirkei Avos defines this as an ayin tovah, a good, expansive eye, and it is one of the core qualities of the descendents of Avraham Avinu. This contrast with the descendents of Bilaam who was never satisfied, who saw what Bnei Yisroel had as diminishing himself.
Rabbi Lopiansky continues by connecting this trait to the people of Sodom. Pirkei Avot describes the overarching characteristic of Sodom as one who says, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” Sodomites never wanted to be beholden to anyone, preferring to hoard their own possessions, seeing what the other had as a detriment to themselves, and unwilling to be givers. “I’ve earned what I have and don’t need to share it,’ was their mantra, explains Mesillat Haneviim.
Every person has two perspectives, one is his relationship to himself and the other is his relationship to others. Avraham Avinu saw himself as always having enough, while looking at the other to see what he lacked so that Avraham could provide it. This is the ayin tovah/ the expansive eye of a giver. The one with an ayin horo looks at himself as always lacking, wanting more, and begrudges the other for having what he does not have. How one relates to Hashem directly relates to these two traits. The one with a “good eye” has complete faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu, while the one with the “bad eye” is a heretic who denies Hashem’s giving to each of us all that the individual needs. This was the trait of Sodom, and this was why the King of Sodom wanted Avraham to take from him, so that he could claim that Avraham was beholden to him, not that he owed Avraham for saving him. Avraham’s mindset was that his wealth comes from Hashem, but in relation to the world, he was a giver.
Rabbi Eisensberger notes how the Jewish People pride themselves on their giving nature, not just in financial contributions, but also in support in so many ways. Almost every Jewish community has at least one Gemach/charitable organiz3ation tasking itself with caring for the needs of the needy. Larger Jewish communities have Gemachs dedicated to all sorts of needs, from clothing to emotional support, to interest free loans and medical equipment Gemachs. Ramat Beit Shemesh, Rebbetzin Smiles’ hometown, has a lost child gemach, a drop off and pick up point for wandering, “lost” children, Our current situation due to Covid 19 has given most of us perspective and taught us to appreciate all that we have, the little things, even strings and shoelaces.
The wise King Solomon understood that a man’s desires end up corrupting him. The poor man is better than a liar. As a poor man, he resolves to do so much chesed if he were to become rich. Often, however, once he has a million dollars, those resolutions fall by the wayside, they become lies, as he now strives for his second million.
If we do not train ourselves to be happy with what we have, we will never be satisfied. Our acquisitiveness and materialism will rub off on our children who will become spoiled, always wanting more and more. This attitude grows until we start valuing people based on their financial worth instead of by their intrinsic worth as human beings. Only by training ourselves to be joyous with our portion in life and with what we have will be avoid this slippery slope that robs true meaning from our lives, writes Rabbi Perr in Step by Step.
But our needs are not only physical. They are also spiritual. Often one feels that he cannot achieve the spirituality and closeness to his Creator because of the limitations of his situation. “If only I went to a different yeshivah,” “If only I lived in a different community,” etc. However, writes Rabbi Lopiansky, we can achieve great heights from even the lowliest of circumstances. That is the lesson of the Tefillin and shoelaces. Certainly, the tefillin, like a crown, invest one with a certain spiritual aura, but how do the tzitzit help establish our relationship to Hashem? Rabbi Lopiansky takes us back to the original mitzvah as written in the Torah. The tzitzit were to have a thread of techeilet/blue amid the other threads. This blue thread was to bring us, one step at a time, from the image of the sea, to the sky, to the color of sapphire, to the brick of Hashem’s throne of glory. With the proper mindset, continues Rabbi Lopiansky, the most mundane of items can become a vehicle for deep spirituality. These mitzvoth were to become the antidote for unbridled materialistic desire. Avraham Avinu understood how powerful material desire can be, adds Rabbi Weissblum, and so he fortified himself with an oath.
Rabbi Weinberger in Shemen Hatov cites the Gerrer Rebbe in presenting a completely different interpretation to Avraham’s raising his hand. In this interpretation, Avraham Avinu is neither swearing, nor addressing the King of Sodom, but raising his hand to talk directly to his hand, and thereby to himself. He is telling his hand, “Don’t think you have accomplished this. It is the work of Hashem that has brought victory.” Avraham was afraid of becoming prideful and believing in the strength and power of his own hand, and therefore Hashem rewarded him with these two mitzvoth as a constant reminder of Hashem’s presence.
Avraham Avinu wanted no credit for this accomplishment. He wanted it to remain completely a kiddush Hashem/sanctification of God’s name. Taking anything, a shoelace or recognition, would diminish God’s glory. We do mitzvoth and acts of chesed, and it is human to want some recognition for our efforts. But it is greater to understand that mitzvah performance is not about me, but about God. Continuing this theme, Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz reminds us that all the gifts Hashem has given us are for the purpose of helping and giving to others, not to retain everything for ourselves and desire even more. Everything in Sodom was tainted with complete and utter selfishness and ego. Avraham wanted nothing to do with any of it. Therefore, Hashem would give him mitzvoth that would surround him externally with the talit and give him the internal mechanism with tefillin as constant reminders of His presence and thus added strength to avoid temptation.
Since the talit literally surrounds a man, it has become customary for a bride to gift her chatan with a talit, signifying that she too will surround the home they build together with an aura of sanctity that will enable him to keep the light of Torah in the home, continues Rabbi Weinberger. The groom buys himself the tefillin, to indicate that he will do the necessary internal work, raising his animalistic nature, to create a sacred home she is protecting from outside influences.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan provides greater depth to this symbolism. There is a total of 32 strings on the talit, numerically equal to lev/heart, thus the bride is telling her new husband that she is giving him her whole heart.
On an even deeper level, continues Rabbi Kaplan, the talit represents the marriage of Hashem to Bnei Yisroel at Sinai. The medrash tells us that at Sinai, Bnei Yisroel saw a vision of Hashem wrapped in a talit, and the Torah that Hashem gave us symbolized the ring. What was this spiritual talit? Hashem had wrapped Himself in the light of creation. Since the entire world was created on the premise that Bnei Yisroel would accept the Torah, with Bnei Yisroel’s acceptance, creation itself was now complete, and Bnei Yisroel “saw” Hashem wrapped in that creative light. Now, the bride, together with her husband, will continue the work of creation by building their own homes with the principles of Torah and kedushah, and creating new life in partnership with the Creator.
While the man needs the constant reminders of tzitzit and tefillin, the woman has these reminders intrinsically within herself. She is the mainstay of the bayit/house, just as the box containing the parchment of the tefillin is called a bayit. And the umbilical cord that connects her to creation is similar to the straps of the tefillin. The woman contains within herself the spirituality that man needs through external reminders. Together, the man and woman hope to build a life of kiddush Hashem, a life of giving and of ultimately bringing the light on creation and of Sinai into their home and to the world.