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Parshas Bamidbar (5768)

The M-Word

Do you remember the old riddle we used to tell as kids?
Q. Why did the ketchup close the refrigerator door?
A. Because it didn't want to see the salad dressing!

Well, I found a similar idea in the last words in this week's Torah portion, which wasn't so funny.

The Torah talks about the Tabernacle that the Jews erected in the desert and is giving specific orders as to how the various vessels are to be carried and transported when the Jews journey to a different place. And the Torah commands the Levites who were to carry the Holy Ark with the Two Tablets inside it on their shoulders, "But they shall not come and look as the holy is inserted, lest they die" (Numbers 4:20). This means that only after the Ark had been fully covered were the Levites to take it, but they were forbidden from gazing upon the "uncovered" Ark.

Now what is that supposed to mean? Does the Ark (or the salad, for that matter) get embarrassed when people see it without clothing on? What is so bad about gazing at the Holy Ark in its uncovered state?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leader of German Jewry in the mid-19th Century and the author of a wonderful commentary on the Torah, explains as follows: The effect of this prohibition is that the Ark and other holy objects remain to their bearers as symbolic objects, subjects for the mind, for thoughts, not so much as actual tangible objects, and so all the more fill their minds with thoughts of their meaning. And this keeping constantly in their minds the true meaning of the holy objects entrusted to them would be an essential factor of their duty to which gazing at them in their uncovered, tangible state would have a disturbing effect.

In plain English, what the Rabbi is saying is that there is much more to the Holy Ark than meets the eye. It has tremendous symbolism, and represents the word of G-d and the great message of His holy Torah. So that if we were to see it uncovered, we might take it for a physical object of beauty and magnificence, losing sight of the depth that it truly represents. This is why G- d commanded the Levites not to gaze upon the Ark in the Taberancle in its "naked" state, and why, till the present day, we "cover" the Torah scroll with a velvet mantle, so as not to see it as a purely physical object of beauty.

This concept - the idea of defocusing the superficial in order to focus on the inner essence of the subject, thereby revealing its true essence, has a Hebrew name. We call it tznius (or tzniut, depending on whether you use the Ashkenazic or Sephardic pronunciation.)

Tznius is generally translated into English as - I don't know, should I say it, oh, what the heck, I'll say it - modesty.

There, I said the "m-word"! Whew! It wasn't easy for me, but I did it! I said the m-word, modesty. As unpopular as that English word sounds to the Western mind, it happens to be one of the cornerstones of the Torah, and - as we have shown from the end of this week's Torah portion - applies to Arks and Torah Scrolls, as well as to men, women, etc. The prophet Micah wrote (Micah 6:8): "What does G-d require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your G-d". So we see that modesty is one of the "big three", and applies to each and every one of us.

Tznius, or modesty, applies to any situation where the external and internal dimensions of the subject are at odds with each other. We thus cover up the external so that we and those around us can focus on the internal, which is its true essence.

For example, in the Western world, what a person does as a career, to a large extent defines the person. If we meet two people, and the one says that he is the CEO of a company and the second says that he is a male secretary, we naturally relate to the first person as being a person of greater worth, likely to make a greater contribution to the world. Yet, the CEO may have a temper, five divorces to his name, may go home and be horrible to his wife, and in spite of all that, generally commands more respect in the Western world than the other guy who, for all we know, controls his temper, is happily married, and is sensitive and caring to everyone he meets. (Ogden Nash once wrote that we really should have called America "Columbia" after its discoverer, Christopher Columbus; instead, we call it after the guy who made the maps, Amerigo Vespucci - the one who gave it publicity and prominence. That's the way it goes ...).

It seems that in Western society, it's the external and superficial that counts more than what's on the inside. And that's where modesty comes in. Modesty reminds us of our true self-worth, ensuring that we don't relate to ourselves and to others superficially, cheapening our true value by defining ourselves as less than we truly are. Modesty is empowering, not degrading; liberating, not oppressive..

Each and every one of us - man, woman and child - has such a deep and precious neshamah, or soul. Our personalities are so complex, our potential to change ourselves and the world around us is infinite, the depth of our connection to G-d is there inside us - yet we tragically sell ourselves short. We tend to focus and emphasize those parts of us that do not truly represent who we really are. Sure, we take care of our bodies, and should take pride in how we look. Sure we should aspire to great careers and to financial security. But make no mistake - we will always be so much more than a great body and a promising career - and tznius is the concept that serves to remind us of this truth at all times.

Tznius is not merely a set of rules as to how to dress and carry oneself. Tznius is an attitude towards what we do in life and how we truly see ourselves, and how we want others to perceive us. The salad in the fridge might not need it ... but the Ark does, the Torah scroll does, and we all need it too.


To learn more about this much-maligned and seldom understood concept, and how it applies to both men and women, I would like to suggest a modest, but important book for you to read. The book is called OUTSIDE/INSIDE: A Fresh Look at Tzniut by Gila Manolson (published by Targum Press) and is available at your local Jewish bookstore. The author of this wonderful book is a star lecturer in Jerusalem, and she presents the information in a straightforward and fascinating way. I believe that both men and women will enjoy this fresh look at a topic that many find quite difficult to even mention in polite company, let alone discuss!

Good Shabbos!

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