Parshas Tetzaveh - Tightening Our Belts

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman
Posted on 02/23/24

Of all the garments discussed this week in the context of the 'glorious and splendorous' vestments the Kohanim were to wear in their service of G-d, there is one that seems to have a parallel in its significance, in our own daily wardrobe — the אבנט — the sash, or more colloquially, our belts.

The Avneit was a thirty-two amos long sash of embroidered material that girdled over the midsection of the Kohen above his heart.

We are taught that each vestment of the Kohen served to atone for various sins.

The Avneit amends for הרהורי עבירה — impure thoughts.

Each morning as we dress there are various morning blesses that focus on specific articles of clothing. The blessing we express praising G-d Who, אוזר ישראל בגבורה — girds Israel with strength, is associated with our donning of our belts that support our pants, that cover our lower extremity.

The belt is emphasized here, although our pants adequately cover our private parts, since it is the tightened belt that serves to prevent our 'hearts from viewing our nakedness'.

The simple understanding of this required separation is so that we remain conscious of the instinctive forces that often induce us to sin in defiance of our cognizance of the need to control those impulses.

This clearly reflects on the Avneit that wraps around our heart pledging allegiance to our heightened awareness of responsibility in quashing the impure thoughts that creep stealthily into our minds seducing us to sin.

It is fascinating to note that the very first article of clothing in the history of mankind appeared when Adam and Chava — after partaking from the Tree of Knowledge, and realized that they were naked — sewed together, עלה תאנה — fig leaves, and made themselves, חגורות — loincloths, but more literally as the Targum Unkelos translates, זרזין — belts, to which the leaves were suspended from.

Here too, the issue at hand was the newfound struggle with impulsive temptation and shame that was a consequence for the sin of consuming the forbidden fruit.

It would seem though that there is more to it than merely an exercise in self-control. The blessing we say each morning thanking G-d for 'girding us with strength' is clearly indicating that it is G-d who fortifies us with this strength, and not something attributed to our own initiative.

Why do we succumb to these impulses? Is it merely due to a lapse of consciousness?

The great fifteenth century Spanish sage, Rav Avraham Saba, who was expelled with his fellow Jews from Spain, losing all his assets, and rewriting from memory his epic work on Chumash, the Tzror haMor, notes the similarity of the word תאנה — fig, and תואנה — which means excuses. He interprets their sewing fig leaves, as metaphorically alluding to their sewing together all sorts of lame excuses for their errant behavior in partaking of the Tree of Knowledge.

Most often what leads us to sin is a feeling of failure and disappointment in ourselves, or our disbelief that we are equipped to fulfill what is expected of us. We write ourselves off, allowing ourselves to slide down the slippery slope of worthlessness, convincing ourselves that we are excused from any expectations of success. What difference does it make whether we sin or not, we try to convince ourselves.

Perhaps the halachic injunction that, אין לבו רואה את הערוה — the heart must not see our nakedness, means that we must not permit the emotions of the heart to be disheartened by our 'nakedness' — our coming up short. Because if we fall into this pit, we are bound to sin in dejection.

We must not repeat the error of Adam and Chava who in gloom over their weakness wove together strings of excuses for their behavior.

They immediately began their path towards correction by not simply covering themselves in shame, but 'tightening' their belts, creating a separation, committing to no longer allow the 'emotions' of their heart to contemplate their 'nakedness' and become despondent over their weakness. They 'girded' themselves with strength.

The Prophet Yirmiyahu conveys a powerful message from G-d, describing His boundless love and connection for His people.

For just as ידבק האזר — the belt cleaves to, מתני איש — the waist of a man, כן הדבקתי — so I have attached, אלי — to Me, the entire house of Israel… to be to a people to me, and for renown, for praise, and for splendor… (ירמיהו יג יא)

Perhaps the blessing we recite describing how G-d girds Israel with strength refers to this confidence G-d has instilled within us in this unusual but powerful depiction of His people being the belt that girds G-d in strength, counting on us to promote His Name.

It is this validation of our role and mission to serve as the vehicle for G-d's display of strength, that inspires us to never lose faith in ourselves, empowering us to carry on no matter the challenge, no matter if we may have faltered. 

The impure thoughts we are to ward off are not solely the promiscuous inclinations that tease us, but more significantly the obscured perception of our worthiness that leaves us susceptible and vulnerable to the influence of baser instincts.

Rabbeinu Yehudah Ben Yakir, a noted disciple of the Rashba, in his commentary on the Siddur, in explaining this blessing, directs us to a verse in Yeshayahu, where it states, והאמונה — and faith, אזור חלציו — the belt of His loins. (ישעיהו יא ה)

This he says is testament to G-d's faith in us that is reflected in our trust in Him.

Our גבורה — strength, in overpowering our physical enemies as well our spiritual demons, is contingent on maintaining this mutual display of faith. Accepting all the challenges we face with absolute faith will ensure that G-d will gird us in strength, fortifying this inseparable bond, giving us the courage to never falter.

In a remarkably inspiring interview with Rav Shmuel Yaniv, a legendary teacher of Torah, a lifelong student of Merkaz HaRav, and talmid muvhak of Rav Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook, who lost three grandchildren in the span of a year, Rav Yaniv exuded unfathomable peace and joy despite these terrible tragedies. Hallel and Yagil Yaniv, brothers, died together months ago in a terrorist attack in Hurawa in the West Bank, and their cousin, Yehonotan Lober recently fell while fighting in Gaza, hy'd.

He was asked how he has the inner strength to deal with so much loss and disappointment.

He recalled a penetrating anecdote to explain how he keeps his chin up despite the pain.

As a young man he already displayed greatness in his Torah studies and was a rising star. He was on a trajectory to become a Rosh Yeshiva at a young age. At the last minute, the hoped for appointment never materialized. He dejectedly went to his Rebbe and asked him with a broken heart "מה זה?" — "What does G-d want from me?"

His beloved Rebbe responded with a lesson in life that carries him till today.

"הבדיעבד שלך הוא הלכתחלה שלו!" — "That which you consider in life a lost opportunity and failed quest, is G-d's delight and greatest gift to you!"  It is exactly the circumstance you need to achieve your greatness.

He went on to add, "that if after the tragic deaths of Aharon's two children, Nadav and Avihu, they were described by G-d as בקרובי אקדש — in those closest to me I was sanctified, can I complain when my cherished grandchildren were elevated to such to stature to be, קדושים — the most sanctified?"

We must aspire to live our lives transforming all our moments of seeming neglect into flashes of greatness and exquisite connection!


צבי יהודה טייכמאן