In the final verse of Parashat Shelach, the Torah concludes its discussion of the mitzva of tzitzit by reminding us about the Exodus: “I am the Lord your God who took you from the land of Egypt.” Rashi presents several reasons for this conclusion, including the explanation given by the Gemara in Masekhet Bava Metzia (61b), which interprets this verse to mean, “I am the One who distinguished in Egypt between the drop [that produced] a firstborn and the drop [that produced a child] who was not a firstborn, and I will, in the future, distinguish and punish one who affixes kala ilan to his garment and says it is tekehelet.” The Gemara views this verse as a warning against those who sought to avoid the expense entailed in obtaining tekhelet – the special dye with which one string tzitzit used to be dyed – by using the far cheaper kala ilan dye, which resembled tekhelet. The Torah warns that just as on the night of the Exodus God knew which Egyptians were their father’s firstborn, even in cases of those born out of wedlock who did not realize they were firstborns, He is likewise capable of determining which dye is tekhelet and which is a cheap imitation.
How might we explain the significance of this association between the firstborn of Egypt and the attempt to “deceive” God by using kala ilan in place of tekhelet?
The situation in Egypt, where boys who assumed they were firstborns in fact were not, and some who did not realize they were firstborn were, illustrates the fact that God knows us better than we know ourselves. There are many things about ourselves of which we are unaware but are clear and evident to the Almighty. And this might be the point of connection between the firstborns of Egypt and those who wear kala ilan instead of tekhelet. The Gemara perhaps utilized this case as a symbol for the broader phenomenon of people who convince themselves they are something they are not. Often, in an effort to feel accomplished and proud without having to invest the time and work needed to truly achieve, we substitute “tekhelet” – sacrifice and effort – with “kala ilan” – something cheap that outwardly resembles religious devotion. While this is sometimes done for the purpose of deceiving others, we at times use “kala ilan” in an effort to deceive ourselves, to feel “religious” and “spiritual” without having to put in the work that true religious devotion and spirituality requires. The Gemara here warns us that God is fully capable of distinguishing between a “firstborn” and a “non-firstborn” even when we aren’t. Even if we succeed in convincing ourselves of our own stature of greatness, that our “kala ilan” – the cheap, easy measures we take to appear and feel “religious” – are real and genuine “tekhelet,” God knows the difference between them.
If so, then the Gemara here reminds us of the need for brutal honesty in our religious commitment. It is easy to fool ourselves with “kala ilan,” with shallow and cheap expressions of religiosity that allow us to feel spiritually accomplished with relative ease. We must remember that avodat Hashem requires genuine “tekehelet,” hard work and sacrifice, for which there is absolutely no substitute.