Constant Reminders

Friday, 19 February, 2016 - 6:34 am

Nowadays we don’t see too many people walking around with strings on their fingers. But we do have many modern-day equivalents.  Our goal may not be the superstitious paranoia of yesteryear, but we are desperately trying to remember things.  Alarms, smartphones, family and friends may often serve this role.

In Judaism, we have always relied on tactile reminders. In contrast to modern gizmos of efficiency, Jewish aides don’t simply serve as tools.  Rather, they are the keys to our souls.

Wearing tefillin and lighting Shabbat candles are physical rituals; palpable cues that we can see, feel and touch. But, their role is not simply to remind us about our history and tradition.

The taste of bitter herbs on Passover can transport us back to a time of harsh slavery.  The four cups of wine may stimulate our mood of liberation.

However, there is more to these multisensory media than reminding us of our past, duties or values.


In this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, the Torah spends a great deal of time and space teaching about the specific clothing that the kohanim (priests) wore in the Bait HaMikdash (Holy Temple).  This was, of course, their ritual uniform.  It only makes sense that in a space as sacred and a task as important as serving in the Bait HaMikdash, a dress code should be in place.

The mystics, however, are bothered by the seemingly endless verses describing each piece of clothing. Wouldn’t it suffice to state that they must be in uniform while officiating? Why all the detail? And why these specific outfits?

Rather, the mystics argue, the Torah is not simply emphasizing decorum and efficiency.  Each vestment serves as a conduit to Divine energy.  Every garment has physical characteristics – one is soft and another is rigid; one is red and another blue. These characteristics correspond to their spiritual characteristics.

You see, we have it backwards when we search for the spiritual significance of something physical. We look at a tallit, for example, and wonder what the meaning behind this four-cornered, fringed garment might be.  But, in reality, it works the other way around.  A sacred, specific energy exists in the spiritual dimension.  In its pure form, it is lacking any physical configuration.  But, as it is converted to physical reality, it requires shape, color, texture, etc. 

We look at a candle and ponder the symbolism.

In Heaven, they look at the soul and wonder what physical vehicle can express something so precious and sublime. Ah, a candle will have to suffice.


Taken from this perspective, the kohanim were not wearing garments merely to conform to a standard. Quite the contrary, their garments were part of their Divine worship. It was critical because each garment was, in essence, drawing a spiritual energy into the physical realm.

For example, the sash was worn at the waist. The Chassidic Masters explain its significance as separating the base, lower elements of the body from the emotions and intellect – one’s higher self. But it isn’t solely a prop to remind and assist. Rather, the mystical separation between the lower and higher realms is manifest in the embodiment of the sash. That heavenly dimension is captured through the physical form and dimension of the sash. That’s why it happens to be such a useful reminder.

And the same holds true for all mitzvot in the Torah.  Matzah isn’t merely an aide-mémoire of the Exodus due to its texture and taste. Rather, the spirit of the Exodus and true freedom joins us at our Pesach Seder in the form of matzah.

Wearing Tefillin is not simply a visceral reminder of G-d’s presence. It’s a conduit for the sacred energies that our souls need and crave.


We may have numerous replacements for the string on the finger. But nothing can replace Divine energy imbuing our lives through the act of a mitzvah.

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