Techelles in the Minds Eye
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Associations are enormously powerful. When looking at any given object, we generally do not take into account the object alone, but a wide array of free-ranging associations delivering a bevy of emotions and thoughts to touch upon our relationship with it. Children become attached to a particular doll or blanket symbolizing security. Adults become attached to certain objects, colors, and styles symbolizing a wide array of values we hope to incorporate into our lives: love, an honorable social standing, an identification with a particular group.
The power of association played an important role in the garments worn by the Kohen Gadol (high priest) in the Beis Hamada’s (temple). The Talmud tells us that the coat worn by the Kohen Gadol atoned for the Jewish People’s sins of destructive speech. “HaKadosh Baruch Hu said: Let that which is vocal -- the bells sewn on to the hem of the Kohen Gadol’s priestly coat -- come and atone for that act which is done with the voice --destructive human speech.” (Talmud Erechin number,a).
The sight of the priestly coat made us stop and reflect on our involvement in sins of destructive speech such as gossip. These reflections would naturally lead to feelings of embarrassment over the absurd lack of self-control that allowed such thoughtless speech habits to define our persona and our relationships. Our embarrassment, and subsequent regret, was the first step towards teshuva, the Jewish process of self-improvement ending in complete renewal and atonement. Triggered by the priestly coat, our associative process led us directly back to our own lost purity.
But the obvious question is how seeing the priestly coat evoked such a process. Why did seeing the coat inspire reflection specifically about the issue of destructive speech? The Talmud in Menachos 33b leads us through an associative labyrinth into the center of our greatest human potential.
The Talmud explains that the priests coat was died entirely in a color called techelles, a strident light blue. “How is techelles different than all the other colors? Because techelles is like the sea, and the sea is like the heavens, and the heavens like the Throne of Glory.”
The first link in the associative chain was the sea. Step out on to an empty beach in your mind. Do you see the wind, the waves, the endless expanse of liquid blue spread wide at your feet? The fences hemming in the teeming cities of our minds melt away at the sight of the free, open sea. Encountering the boundless horizon expands our minds. Our spiritual perception benefits no less from the grace of our renewal and expansion.
But man’s perception widens even further when he turns his gaze up at the even greater expanse of the heavens. Catch a glimpse of the infinite. The heart so refined as to maintain the glorious, fragile faith that defines a relationship with the Almighty may even have a taste of the infinite expanses of G-dliness poised just behind our physical reality, a G-dliness the Talmud refers to as the Throne of Glory.
It was this perspective, the techelles-inspired perspective, that invited us to step outside of the normative strictures hemming in man and his G-dly spirit. It still does today. In contrast, however, engaging in destructive speech cripples us with the exact opposite: a dangerous narrow-mindedness. What effect does a picayune obsession with the behavior of our peers have on society? Driven to judge them and find them wanting, we are left with a false sense of superiority freeing us to distend their reputation with gossip however we would like. What if our perspective on the other were as expansive as the ocean, as the heavens, instead?
A wider-lens view might take into account the motivations behind the other person’s actions, the difficult background or childhood that might have led to the other person’s behavior, the challenging situations he or she is going through right now, and many other mitigating factors. The Ethics of the Fathers teaches us to “Judge every man in a favorable, meritorious light” (1:6). Truthful judgment of another human being must include an accounting of all aspects of his personality and situation. When the entire personal situation of another individual is taken in to perspective, a very different picture usually emerges, a picture that no longer gives any false license to gossip and destructive speech about the individual.
The verse emphasizes that the priestly coat was entirely colored in techelles: (Exodus 28:31). No other color marred the stream of consciousness the techelles was meant to evoke. The brilliant expanses of the sea rippled in our minds eye right up to the infinite depths of the heavens. Suddenly, nitpicking another human being with our roving tongues no longer seemed so very engaging or important. The infinite worth of every human being was just a hop, skip, and a jump away.
The message that seeing the coat of the Kohen Gadol in the Beis HaMikdash conveyed to us spoke not only about seeing the infinite worth in others, but about appreciating the infinite G-dly potential waiting to be unlocked inside of ourselves.