The final verses of Parashat Shelach discuss the mitzva of tzitzit, the requirement to affix strings to the corners of a four-cornered garment which one wears. This command includes the specific obligation to include on each corner one thread dyed with tekheilet – a product extracted from a certain species of snail. As indicated by Megilat Ester (1:6), which mentions tekheilet in its description of the extravagant tapestries which adorned Achashveirosh’s feast for his servants, this dye seems to have been relatively expensive and difficult to obtain, and thus signified royalty.
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 61b and elsewhere) relates that there was a cheap imitation of tekheilet called kala ilan – commonly identified as indigo – which some unscrupulous individuals would use instead of tekheilet. In order to avoid the cost and difficulty entailed in obtaining tekheilet, they would instead dye the tzitzit threads with the cheap, readily-available kala ilan material, and present themselves as devout Jews wearing tekheilet. The Gemara warns that God punishes those who wear kala ilan pretending it is tekheilet.
The Gemara’s comment, as many have noted, reflects the severity of false displays of piety, of intentionally projecting a false image of devoutness without sincere dedication. Wearing kala ilan is but one example of the general phenomenon of religious charades, of people making a point of appearing committed without actually being committed.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, citing Rav Avraham Chen (Be-malkhut Ha-yahadut, vol. 2, p. 161), observed the opposite phenomenon – of people wearing “tekheilet” but appearing to wear “kala ilan.” He writes:
God not only will punish the hypocrite who passes off the artificial as genuine, but He also dislikes the coward who disguises the authentic as the inauthentic. In other words, there is a strong, neurotic tendency for some people to have the courage only of other people’s opinions -- but not their own! They are afflicted with a moral weakness: they are ashamed of their elementary decency, they are apprehensive lest they have too good a reputation; they are fearful lest their virtue prove anti-social.
Rabbi Lamm proceeds to give several examples of people who are too insecure to show their devoutness, to affirm their commitment to God’s laws. Fearful of being ridiculed, challenged or disdained, they hide their “tekheilet” – their sincere religious convictions – and misrepresent their mitzva observance, giving false “excuses” for their acts of mitzva observance, so they would not be “accused” of being religiously committed. Rabbi Lamm writes: “…it is a blasphemy and a desecration of the Divine Image to disown your own innate nobility, to deny your inner genuineness. We must, by all means, show our true colors.” We must be proud of our “tekheilet,” of the goodness within us, and never be embarrassed to allow it to shine.
Just as it is wrong to project a false image of religious devotion, so is it wrong to hide our genuine religious devotion out of shame. Of course, we should not be going out of our way to display our virtues. But neither should we be going out of our way to conceal them. We should conduct ourselves with pride and confidence in our religious beliefs and lifestyle, and not feel a need to misrepresent our “tekheilet,” our genuine commitment, as “kala ilan,” as something cheap and superficial.