Rabbi Twerski once recalled how in his childhood, there were some in his community who wore the Tekhelet threads produced according to the great Hasidic Rebbe, Gershon Henokh Leiner (1839-1890), scion of the Ishbitz-Radzyn dynasty. In a bold attempt to restore the neglected biblical commandment recited daily in the Sh’ma, the Rebbe had proposed the cuttlefish as the source of ancient Tekhelet. Some agreed with his efforts and many disagreed.
A saintly and greatly revered relative of the Twerski family, Rav Mottel, chose not to wear the Radzyn Tekhelet, and that was enough to dissuade the young Rabbi Twerski from looking any further into the matter. If Rav Mottel did not feel the need to buck tradition, which for 1,300 years had gone without Tekhelet, and take upon himself this new practice, then neither would he. And yet, 30 years ago when Tekhelet from the Murex trunculus sea snail became available, Rabbi Twerski was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters and a great supporter of our organization, Ptil Tekhelet, which produces Tekhelet strings for tzitzit. Rabbi Twerski wrote often about tradition, he lived tradition, it was of primary importance to his fundamental outlook on religion, yet he did not blindly apply tradition, wholesale, unqualified, indiscriminately. He took a more nuanced position. Rabbi Twerski often said that when weighing how to behave in a given halakhic situation, one should never ask, ‘what did my father, my teacher, or my Rebbe do?’. Rather the relevant question is what would they have done in my position, given my life’s experience and context, with the information that I now have available that they may not have had. Tradition rightly understood means having a deep appreciation for the values of one’s forebears, but not necessarily mimicking their particular actions when circumstances have changed.
Indeed, there is much “new information” to be considered with respect to Murex Tekhelet, and as a man of science Rabbi Twerski well understood the strong case advocating for indentifying it as authentic Tekhelet. Proof abounds; the archeological record, linguistic evidence, classical Greek and Roman citations, ancient coins, recently discovered manuscripts of Jewish texts – all these build a very strong case for the Murex sea-snail as the genuine source of Tekhelet. Rabbi Twerski believed that the evidence is at least strong enough to create a safek, a doubt, and even the possibility that one may fulfill a Biblical commandment engenders the requirement to make that effort.
Given the robust reasoning in favor of wearing Murex Tekhelet, along with the fact that numerous prestigious Rabbis and poskim indeed wear it, Rabbi Twerski was puzzled at the relative lack of adherents among the rank and file. To be sure, there are arguments to be made opposing the wearing of Tekhelet, some particular to Murex, others of a more philosophic-halakhic nature disputing the claim that any Tekhelet might resurface through natural, historical, or scientific means. Typical of his bounding love of Torah and effusive passion for keeping mitzvot, Rabbi Twerski chose to wear Tekhelet – while recognizing the possibility that he might be mistaken. He remembered his first thoughts regarding Tekhelet, “I was so excited. We will have the opportunity to fulfill a Mitzvah D’eoraysa!” But apparently others were more cautious when presented with this unique opportunity.
Sometimes however, such excessive cautiousness may be less a function of intellectual deliberation, and more what might be, to borrow a term from Rabbi Twerski, a lack of ‘religious self-esteem’. Perhaps sometimes it’s easier to conform, to adhere to a status-quo, rather than to take stand or stand out, to adopt any change. Hasidic masters long railed against what the prophet Yeshayahu called “mitzvat anashim melumadah”, commandments performed by rote, without intention or attention. The 17th century commentator Malbim describes the all too familiar scenario: “…They do not keep the mitzvot based on a command from God, but merely because that is what their fathers and forebears commanded them.” Rabbi Twerski lamented the fact that today, there is sometimes a lack of pride in our service of the Almighty. He advocated for greater spiritual self-confidence and enthusiasm, characteristics he believed were symbolized by the regal nobility of the Biblical blue strands of Tekhelet.
Throughout his life, Rabbi Twerski worked to help those who struggled with addiction, and substance abuse, but later he focused on inappropriate Internet use and pornography. Shemirat eynayim, guarding one’s eyes was of paramount importance, and the mitzvah of Tekhelet and Tzitzit resonated with this charge. Eyes and seeing figure strongly in the Torah’s presentation of that commandment: “And you shall see it”, says the verse, – a visual reminder to remember the mitzvot; the word Tzitzit – rings of the word “meitzitz” – which means peering (as the beloved peers through the cracks in Shir HaShirim); the golden Tzitz, suspended on a Ptil Tekhelet, hung just above the Kohen Gadol’s eyes. Rabbi Twerski believed that this mitzvah had a special ability to aid in the struggle against the visually inappropriate.
The Torah portion of Shelach ends with the mitzvah of Tzitzit and Tekhelet, while it begins with the story of the twelve spies. There is a connection between the two, that also pivots on the notion of seeing. “We were as grasshoppers in our own eyes,” the ten spies lamented, “and so we were in their (the inhabitants of the Land) eyes.” One need not be a psychiatrist to understand the spiritual low self-esteem which led the spies to project their diminutive self-perception onto the enemy’s field of vision, and believe they could not enter Eretz Yisrael.
There is another connection between the spies and Tekhelet as well – the use of the word LaTur. The Torah warns us through the Tzitzit – VeLo Taturu – sometimes translated as don’t be led astray – by your eyes and heart. The spies were sent LaTur et HaAretz – to scout out the land. In terms of treating addiction, Rabbi Twerski famously promoted the Twelve Steps AA system. He felt the practical nature of the program and its call for action, for concrete changes in behavior was more in line with the Torah’s approach than cerebral, passive psychoanalysis. The word LaTur in modern Hebrew means to sightsee, as a tourist. By definition, a tourist comes to see but not to change; he is a spectator not a player. According to the famous verse in Sh’ma, tzitzit can be seen as a “Three Step Program”: Ureitem Oto – one must look at the string of Tekhelet; Uzechartem et kol mitzvot Hashem – one must remember and internalize the message; Va’Asitem Otam – one must perform the mitzvot. Without that last step, the whole point has been missed and we are merely passive spectators in our religious lives. To act requires courage, especially if that action goes against the tide. But to act as God has commanded, is ultimately the point of a Torah life. Velo Taturu – a religious experience that contains only seeing and remembering is the hallmark of a spiritual tourist. Rather, the Sh’ma concludes, VaAsitem otam… Veheyitem kedoshim – a higher level of sanctity is conditioned upon cognition that inspires decisive action, for it is only through transformative behavior that true holiness can be achieved.
Dr. Baruch Sterman is co-founder and CEO of Ptil Tekhelet ( www.tekhelet.com ).