Signposts Remind Us Why We’re Here (Eruvin 15)

The Children of Israel had been in Egypt for 210 years. The exile had taken its toll on them physically and spiritually.  The people cried out to the Almighty for salvation. Suddenly, Satan appears before the heavenly tribunal and begins to present the case for not redeeming the Hebrew nation.

“I hereby present the evidence, O Supreme King of Kings,” Satan declares.  “The Israelites that you see before Your eyes today are not the same Children of their patriarch, Israel.  They have become assimilated into the foreign culture of Egypt and are no different to any other people.  They are not worthy of Your salvation.  They have descended to the 49th level of impurity.  I submit that it’s too late to rescue them from their own undoing.”

Just then a small voice is heard from the back of the celestial courtroom.  “May I say a few words, Master of the Universe?” begs the tiny angel.

“Permission to address the court,” the Almighty replies.

“Look at the Hebrew people,” the angel announces, “they’re not like the Egyptians around them.  They might not be spiritual superheroes.  But one thing’s for certain.  They know exactly who they are.  They’re proud of their Hebrew identity.”  And with that the angel produces three irrefutable pieces of evidence: our names, our dress, and our language.

“Look at these, I beseech Thee, Almighty.  These are the symbols that they have not forsaken You.  These items are the three signs the Hebrews employ constantly to remind them of their special heritage.  They have kept their Hebrew names.  They have maintained special items of clothing that identify them as Israelites.  And they continue to speak in the language of their ancestors.”

As it descended upon the heavenly bench, the powerful sound of the Almighty’s gavel reverberated throughout the heavenly kingdom.  “The Children of Israel will be redeemed in the merit of their names, their dress, and their language.”

אִיתְּמַר: לֶחִי הָעוֹמֵד מֵאֵלָיו, אַבָּיֵי אָמַר: הָוֵי לֶחִי, רָבָא אָמַר: לָא הָוֵי לֶחִי.
בִּמְחִיצוֹת כּוּלֵּי עָלְמָא לָא פְּלִיגִי דְּהָוְיָא מְחִיצָה, כִּי פְּלִיגִי — בְּלֶחִי. אַבָּיֵי לְטַעְמֵיהּ דְּאָמַר: לֶחִי מִשּׁוּם מְחִיצָה, וּמְחִיצָּה הָעֲשׂוּיָה מֵאֵלֶיהָ הָוְיָא מְחִיצָה. וְרָבָא לְטַעְמֵיהּ דְּאָמַר: לֶחִי מִשּׁוּם הֶיכֵּר, אִי עֲבִידָא בְּיָדַיִם הָוְיָא הֶיכֵּר, וְאִי לָא לָא הָוֵי הֶיכֵּר.

Concerning a side post that stands by itself (i.e., a side post at the entrance to a cul-de-sac that was not put there for the express purpose of permitting one to carry on Shabbat), Abaye says, ‘It is a valid side post.’ Rava says, ‘It is not a valid side post.’  With regard to partitions, all agree that a partition that stands by itself is a partition, despite the fact that it was not erected for that purpose. Where they disagree is with regard to a side post.  Abaye follows his reasoning, as he said that a side post serves as a partition, and a partition that stands by itself is a valid partition. And Rava follows his reasoning, as he said that a side post serves as a signpost. Therefore, if it was constructed intentionally for that purpose, it is considered a signpost; and if not, it is not considered a signpost.

Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (Dh”Tz) interprets this Gemara allegorically.  You come into this world on a mission from Heaven.  Your Divine embassy is situated in a spiritual cul-de-sac.  Your task is to impact the world without becoming influenced by the world in such a way that would compromise your mission.

There are two ways to partition off the cul-de-sac in order to create a distinct domain.  Either you could completely partition it off.  Alternatively, you could place a single post on the open side.  What is the purpose of the post?  According to Abaye, it creates the beginning of an invisible fourth wall.  The mere positioning of one post is sufficient to establish the presence of an entire wall.  According to Rava, the post serves merely as a signpost, a reminder that this area has been demarcated as a distinct, holy domain, an oasis separated from the rest of the physical world.

Every person is different.  For some, in order to remain spiritually intact, you need to create boundaries between yourself and the influences of the physical world that threaten to compromise your spiritual potential.  For others, all that’s needed is spiritual signposting.  You don’t need to be completely removed from the world.  Rather, you need signposts to remind you constantly of your mission, so that you don’t become overwhelmed by the pressures of the world around you.

Our Sages have provided us with some of these reminders.  They include items of clothing such as yarmulke, tzitzis, and guidelines around modest attire.  Some may debate whether these are mandatory, but they’re missing the point.  These garments serve a vital purpose.  They remind us constantly of why we’re here on Earth, so that we’re not led astray by the temptations of this world.

The same thing goes for Hebrew names.  They’re really not necessary.  You could give your child any name you like and it would be acceptable for the purposes of Jewish rituals.  On the ketuba, ‘Fred’ would be written fay-reish-daled.  ‘Liz’ would be written lamed-yud-zayin.  No need for specific Hebrew names.  But we give our children so much more than a mere name when we bestow their Hebrew names upon them.  We give them an identity, a reminder that they have a unique mission in the world.

Every individual was created different.  Only you know what kind of boundaries you need to establish around yourself in order to keep your Divine mission intact.  Whether you create partitions or signposts, may you maximize your potential here on Earth!

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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