Have you ever noticed the Torah has some strange notions about corners?For example let me refer to two verses from this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim.
When you reap your land’s harvest, you must not completely harvest the corners of your field… You shall leave them over for the poor… (Vayikra 19: 9-10)
You must not crop [the hair of] the sides (corners) of your head to form a circle, nor destroy the points (corners) of your beard [by shaving]. (Vayikra 19: 26)
And then later in parshas Shelach…
God spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them to make for themselves fringes (aka tzitzis) on the corners of their garments through out their generations…” (Bamidbar 15: 38)
These commandments are pretty weird if you think about them. The corner of the field kinda makes sense in that it is similar to giving 10 percent of your income to the poor… but why the corners? Why not just 10 percent of your produce? But don’t shave the corners of your head and beard? Put fringes on the corners of your clothing?
These mitzvahs are taken so seriously that Jews not only do them, but go above and beyond, beautifying the mitzvah. Every seen those long curly locks sprouting from the temples of chassidem? Those are known as payos which literally just means corners. There’s no commandment to grow that hair out until you can twirl them with your finger, the chassidem just want to do the mitzvah with style. And for fringes on your garments? The rabbis elucidate the mitzvah to actually mean that if you decide to wear a four cornered garment, you must add the tzitzis. So today, Jews go out of their way to wear a four cornered undershirt just so they can get the mitzvah points. We do a lot of crazy things in the religion, but why should we care so much about corners?
This question has perplexed me for a while and I’ve found very little commentary on the topic. But in my research I did find the following ideas.
What’s Ours Isn’t Ours
There are those among us that think they are responsible for their success while others are the cause of their failures. This obviously characterizes a less than modest individual. A cornerstone belief of Judaism is that all of our success and wealth is distributed by God. Though we must make our honest efforts for God to bestow such success upon us, in actuality what we have ultimately belongs to Him. So as a reminder of this fact, we are commanded to leave these parts of our bodies, produce, and clothing to Him.
We might like to think, “It’s my body, I can do with it what I want.” But at any moment we might fall victim (God forbid) to illness, injury, or worse. Hopefully none of us will need to learn this first hand. Also as an interesting coincidence, I find it funny that the area of the head you’re not supposed to shave is known as the “temples.”
Another insight that came up was the idea that corners are something extra, or not part of the main thing. We’re all familiar with the term cutting corners, meaning taking the easiest, quickest, least expensive way of doing a task. Though the term refers to driving through a corner to save time and distance, it seems appropriate to extend the metaphor to all corners. How many books have you dog eared as a make shift book mark? Who wants to sit at the corner of a table? What’s the part of a car that’s most likely to have damage? What piece of lasagna does nobody want?
We all seem to understand that corners inherently have less value in most cases. With that tendency in mind, the Torah comes along to say these corners are not something to be disregarded, but they should be noted. So it highlights three areas to emphasize. Our body, our clothing, and our success. Three important expressions of our identity.
Our body is who we are in a physical sense. Aside from dieting or tattooing, there’s little we can do to shape and express our identity through it. With one notable exception. The hair. Cut it, dye it, curl it, the hair is a major factor of our visual identity. So it is fitting that that is the part of the body that a corner is given to God.
Outside of image is the work we do and the success it brings. Our self worth is often tied to our ability to produce good work and hopefully provide for ourselves and family. Though many of us are careful with our businesses and money, maximizing every possible profit isn’t always best. How many times have we seen recent stories of billion dollar CEO bonuses while hundreds of workers suffer layoffs? God is saying there’s something holy about not making as much money as possible. Let the corners go.
Finally we have where our physical expression meets our material success. How we dress. For this mitzvah in particular we are instructed that by attaching tzitzis to our garments, we will remember the mitzvahs. As if to say, when we choose how we present ourselves to the world, always remember there is a purpose beyond how we are seen.
By highlighting the corners of these three aspects, we show the world that we recognize that God is apart of our identity and in doing so elevate the mundane to the level of kadosh, or holy. And so maybe in recognizing the holy potential of these corners, we will realize the “unimportant”, i.e. the less fortunate, may actually be the most important ones among us all.