Drash on Parashat Shlach 2018
Rabbi Kim Ettlinger
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, VIC
Triggering our relationship to Judaism
Picture this… You are driving ever so slightly above the speed limit. You see a police car in your rear-view mirror… What will you do…?
You slow down. Because we know that it is wrong to exceed the speed limit regardless of whether someone is watching or not. Numerous experiments have been conducted and we have learnt that the thought of being watch or being judged changes our behaviour…
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a few years ago, shared an anecdote about an experiment. Students who were given the opportunity to cheat in a test were more likely to do so in a dimly lit room than in a brightly lit one.
Let me share with you one more example …. In another study researchers placed a coffee maker in a university hallway. Passers-by could take coffee and leave money in the box. On some weeks a poster with watchful eyes was hanging on the wall nearby, on others a picture of flowers.
On the weeks where the eyes were showing, people left on average two to three times as much money as at other times.
Studies have taught us that watched people are nice people. Do we need to be reminded to be nice, to do the right thing?
This week’s parashah ends with a simple mitzvah, commandment…
This shall be your tsitsit and you shall see it and remember all God’s commandments and keep them, not straying after your heart and after your eyes, following your own sinful desires. Thus you will be reminded to keep all My commandments, and be holy to your God. (Num. 15: 39)
What is the psychology behind the mitzvah tzitzit in this week’s parsha?
The Talmud [Menachot 44a] tells the story of a man who, in a moment of moral weakness, decided to pay a visit to a certain courtesan. He was in the course of removing his clothes when he saw the tzitzit and immediately froze. The courtesan asked him what was the matter, and he told her about the tzitzit, saying that the four fringes had become accusing witnesses against him for the sin he was about to commit. The woman was so impressed by the power of this simple command that she converted to Judaism.
We sometimes fail to understand the connection between religion and morality. I believe it was Dostoevsky who said that if God did not exist all would be permitted. I agree with Rabbi Sacks that we have a moral sense. We know what is wrong. But we also have conflicting desires. We are drawn to do what we know we should not do, and often we yield to temptation. In the moral domain, it is what the Torah means when it speaks of “straying after your heart and after your eyes, following your own sinful desires.”
In the case of Judaism the purpose of the outward signs – tzitzit, mezuzah and tefillin – is precisely that: to assemble reminders, on our clothes, our homes, our arms and head, that certain things are wrong, and that even if no other human being sees us, God sees us and will call us to account. We now have the empirical evidence that reminders make a significant difference to the way we act.
One of the blessings and one of the curses of human nature is that we use our power of reason to act rationally, but we also use it to rationalize and make excuses for the things we do, even when we know we should not have done them. Perhaps this is one of the lessons the Torah when it comes to the 12 spies from this week’s parashah. Surely, the Israelites would not have been so fearful if they remembered what God had done to Egypt, bringing the Israelites out of slavery and all the plagues. But the spies were in the grip of fear. Strong emotion, fear especially, distorts our perception of reality. So, we need reminders to keep us on track. To keep us connected with our tradition, with our families and our community. What is our metaphorical police car in our rear-view mirror? I think they are the Jewish the symbols we bring to the forefront of our minds… for some, perhaps, it is seeing a tallit, with the tzitzit, or for others perhaps a mezuza, or for others lighting the Shabbat candles. Let’s ensure we have the positive reminders about our identity and our behaviour and practise.