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Spiritual Growth for Jews

Drowning on Dry Land

Posted on | June 13, 2014 | By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz | 8 Comments

Why are so many segulos ineffective?
In particular why doesn’t fulfilling the Mitzvah of tzitzis transform us into spiritual supermen, as promised by the Torah?

These shall be your fringes and when you look at them, you’ll remember all the commandments of HaShem, and do them; and will not [continue to] go astray [following] after your own heart and your own eyes, which [have had the ability to this point of] leading you to immorality.  So that you will remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your Elokim.

—BeMidbar 15:39,40

 “So that you will may remember and do all My commandments.” This is comparable to one thrown into the raging waters to whom the ship’s captain flung a rope. The captain told [the man thrown overboard]  “grasp this rope in your hands and don’t let go for if you do  … you’re a goner.” Similarly, the Holy Blessed One told Israel: “as long as you hold fast to the mitzvos [you will live] [as it says] ‘And [only] you who cling to HaShem your Elokim are all alive today’ (Devarim4:4). And it says ‘Take fast hold of mussar-reprimands /moral instruction; don’t let go; guard her, for she is your life.’ (Mishlei 4:13)”

—Midrash Rabbah BeMidbar17:6

 In this allegory the life-preserving rope represent the strands of the tzitzis-fringes. Through them, we remember HaShem’s commandments and do not “drown” in the “raging waters” of malicious transgressions.

—Commentary of Rav Dovid Luria ibid

 Antigonus ish Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: “Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of receiving reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of receiving reward. And the awe of Heaven should be upon you.”

—Pirkei Avos 1:3

We live in an era when the ideal of serving HaShem with no ulterior motives has become almost passé.  As one wit put it “How did the Ahm Segulah become the Ahm Segulos?” It seems as though almost every worthy cause and endeavor is marketed as a “you scratch My Back and I’ll scratch yours” tradeoff kivyachol-as it were; with HaShem … Many people grow bitter and disappointed when, despite their best efforts at adhering to the segulah-prescribed practices, the promised yeshuos-deliverances; never come about.

Yet distinctions must be made between latter day segulos of unripened vintage and of dubious provenance and segulos that appear in the Gemara — or in the Chumash itself. For notwithstanding Antigonus ish Socho’s admonitions for completely selfless, non self-serving avodas HaShem-serving G-d; there are many mitzvah practices whose promised rewards are, in fact, guaranteed by the Gemara or in the Chumash.

Apart from the article of our faith that, in a general sense, observance of the Torah’s commandments reaps rewards (while transgressions evokes Divine retribution in the form of punishments); there is a lengthy causality list linking particular mitzvos and areas of Torah study to earning specific rewards: “Length of days” for honoring parents or shooing the mother bird away from the nest before taking the eggs or hatchlings, bountiful crops in the years preceding the Sabbatical and Jubilee years in consideration of scrupulous halachic observance of those years, wealth for proper tithing and offspring who are Talmidei Chachamim-Torah sages; in exchange for care and concern in the kindling of mitzvah lamps/candles — to name but a few.

Still another distinction must be made between activities that are mesugal- supposed to cause material benefits to accrue; and those that are mesugal for spiritual advances, greater intellectual acuity and / or ethical edification.  This last category comes a lot closer to Antigonus ish Socho’s paradigm than those segulos that promise temporal benefits.

Rav Shmuel Dov Asher Lainer, The Biskovitzer Rebbe, maintains that the mitzvah of tzitzis–ritual fringes on four-cornered garments; is a segulah for comprehensive tzidkus-righteousness/ saintliness. Moreover, this segulah is explicitly described by the Torah. After all, the pasuk says that when we see our tzitzis we recall all of HaShem’s commandments and, knowing that they are commandments, not non-compulsory suggestions, and that we are the commanded, how could we do anything but carry out our Divine orders? Thus, the pasuk concludes with the promise/ prediction … “and you will do them.”

The Biskovitzer then poses a very pointed, but rather obvious question.  Why doesn’t this segulah work? One would be hard pressed to find a self-described Torah-observant Jew who does not perform the mitzvah of tzitzis regularly. So why are true tzadikim-righteous/ saintly people; i.e. those who both recall and keep all of HaShems mitzvos and who resist all petty temptations, so few and far between?

This question is of far more than mere philosophical or exegetical interest. For if a Torah guaranteed segulah does not fulfill its promise it can bear the toxic fruits of disillusionment, bitterness and doubt.  To paraphrase Einstein; the definition of skepticism is repeating the same experiment that worked so well in the past over and over again without yielding the expected results.

A close reading of the Midrash , writes the Biskovitzer, provides us with the answer.

If we viewed tzitzis as the sage of the Midrash does the segulah of tzitzis would prove effective and deliver on its promise to make us righteous and saintly.  But, instead, we are willfully blind to the life-rope / breathing-tube that a Merciful and Paternal Providence flings our way providing us with the means to escape the clutches of sin-cum-death.

The paramount rule of Divine Administration of all creation is midah k’neged midah-quid pro quo. For good or for bad; for better or for worse; HaShems rewards and punishments are not merely just, but are informed by poetic justice.  So if we refuse to see the real nature of HaShem’s mitzvos, i.e. that they are the lifelines that tether us to Him  … the Life of all lives, then, in return, HaShem blinds us to the reality of the temporal world and its temptations. Instead of seeing raging cataracts of sin tossing us willy-nilly and threatening to inundate us once and for all, we perceive the world as safe, tranquil and secure natural-habitat.

If the man thrown overboard were delusional; if he continued to breathe easy — imagining that he was still on the deck of the ship in calm, windless waters, he too would reject the rope the captain flung him. Unaware of the danger and the means of escaping danger at his disposal we would, tragically, drown.

This, concludes the Biskovitzer, is why not everyone who wears a tallis metzuyetzes-a fringe bearing four-cornered garment; is, perforce, a tzaddik recalling and scrupulously observing all the mitzvos of the Torah immune to all of the attractions that lead people astray.

We do not lose faith in the segulah of tzitzis because it fails to work — it fails to work because we fail to believe in what the tzitzis truly are.

 

—Neos Deshe Parshas Shelach D”H Dahber

Bshalach 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
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Comments

8 Responses to “Drowning on Dry Land”

  1. SoMeHoW Frum
    June 13th, 2014 @ 9:30 am

    in exchange for care and concern in the kindling of mitzvah lamps/candles

    What is the source for this?

  2. Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
    June 13th, 2014 @ 9:50 am

    מסכת שבת כג ע”ב
    אמר רב הונא הרגיל בנר הויין ליה בנים תלמידי חכמים הזהיר במזוזה זוכה לדירה נאה הזהיר בציצית זוכה לטלית נאה הזהיר בקידוש היום זוכה וממלא גרבי יין

  3. Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
    June 13th, 2014 @ 10:01 am

    perhaps a more accurate translation would have been “in exchange for regularly kindling mitzvah lamps/candles”

  4. Bob Miller
    June 13th, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    Considering only the segulos based firmly on our best ancient sources:

    Could their efficacy be tied in with our attitude to their use? That is, if we use them expecting an automatic “magical” response, as if we are pulling the strings (no pun intended), doesn’t that make them less effective or even ineffective?

  5. SoMeHoW Frum
    June 13th, 2014 @ 11:19 am

    My point was that whereas the first 3 promises are Biblical, this one is not. I meant to ask if there is a Biblical source.

  6. Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
    June 13th, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    aser t’aser- aset bishvil shetisasher is also a droshas chazal and not explicit in the pasuk.

    As I emphasized in the post even a segulah of Talmudic origin is of much more ancient and noble provenance than some of the johnny=come-lately segulos bandied about today.

  7. SoMeHoW Frum
    June 14th, 2014 @ 11:27 pm

    Apologies. I read it too fast. I see now that you said Gemara or Chumash.

    Also, Aser T’easer is based on a Pasuk, whereas lighting candles has no Biblical source whatsoever.

  8. Alexander Seinfeld
    June 15th, 2014 @ 4:54 pm

    The post begins with the question “Why are so many segulos ineffective?” but it seems to me we need a clear definition of “segula”. By asking the question in this way the author seems to be equating segula with superstition. Who said a segula should be “effective”? What does “be effective” mean?

    I heard from HaRav Yitzchok Berkovitz that thinking of a segula as some kind of magic – just do this and you’ll get a reward – is borderline idolatry. That the intent of the Gamara and other sources is to use the segula action or object to direct one’s kavana.

    Moreover, the conclusion that “This, concludes the Biskovitzer, is why not everyone who wears a tallis metzuyetzes-a fringe bearing four-cornered garment; is, perforce, a tzaddik recalling and scrupulously observing all the mitzvos of the Torah immune to all of the attractions that lead people astray.” doesn’t make sense. No one observes all of the mitzvos of the Torah.

    Rather, defining segula properly resolves the original question.

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