Meditations on White

I’ve got white on my mind and for good reason: I have been shoveling for hours with a shovel suited for gardening, not snowstorms. My prize snow shovel, inherited from my buddy who made aliyah a few years before we did, was twice left behind in Passaic. Who would have thought that either of us would need it in Israel?

Toiling at liberating cars from their snow cocoons gave me the opportunity to ponder the color white. Attitude to the color white is overwhelmingly favorable, but there might be more to it than meets the eye…

Images of a snow-covered Jerusalem have been plastered on papers and media the world over. Beautiful, aren’t they? Snow fell on our community, Alon Shvut (south of Jerusalem but at a higher altitude), for three consecutive days (fortunately there is no such thing as a meteorological chazakah). When it finally stopped, our community emerged a wonderland, covered in a pristine and pure white snow, a snow unlike the snow I remember from Brooklyn which, though it may have started white in the heavens, during its fall from grace became somewhat sullied before blanketing the borough.

In The Psychology of Color: Effects and Symbols, author Eva Heller discusses the color white and its associations in different cultures. Throughout Western culture, white represents light when contrasted with darkness and is the color most often associated with innocence, perfection, goodness, honesty, cleanliness, beginnings, newness, neutrality, and exactitude. White is the color of virtue and purity and is worn by a bride on her wedding day. White in these and many other cases unquestionably represents goodness.

But in other cultures, white is merely potential, an absence of activity, an empty space awaiting a defining act. White can be a blank page of unlimited and undecided potential, to be covered by a determinative ink. What does its future hold? Will it have the zechut to be the page on which the pardon for Jonathan Pollard is finally penned, or will it be the paper on which Protocols of the Elders of Zion is printed? Will it be the ballot cast in a truly democratic election, or the false mandate for tyranny in the unfulfilled Arab Spring?

White can be the name of an official government position as in the infamous White Paper of 1939, the white flag signaling British cowardice and surrender to the Arabs, and an act of treachery to Jews denied entry into Mandatory Palestine through Britain’s punitive immigration quotas, effectively sentencing countless Jews escaping the Nazis, to their deaths.

White can be the color of a white lie or a whitewash — effectively the same thing, a concealment of truth.

White is the color of the White House, where that type of concealment occurs.

White can be a surname shared by the esteemed late Supreme Court Justice Byron White, a man of unassailable integrity, and in its Hebraicized version, Livni, as in Minister of Justice Tzippi Livni, who also serves as lead negotiator in so-called peace talks with the Palestinians. Livni’s reputation is far more like her name’s Biblical variation, Lavan. Both are known for duplicity, for saying one thing and doing another. I hope I am proven wrong, and that she favors the American White rather than the deceitful Aramean.

White is a color far from plain or simple in Judaism. In the times of the Beit Hamikdash, if the tefillot of the Kohen Gadol were accepted by Hashem, the crimson thread would turn white, indicating that Israel’s sins had been wiped away.

White on a person could indicate tzara’at, the physical expression of sin afflicting a person who has engaged in motzi shem ra, a transgression of the laws of speech by exaggerating a negative truth about another individual.  If, instead, the white patch covers the entire body, it does not indicate moral affliction.

White is a tricky matter to read. Man’s actions determine the destiny of white, whether it means Torah-true or treif.

The kittel, always snow-white, is worn by Jewish men to signify purity, holiness and new beginnings. Depending on minhag, it is worn on the solemn day of Yom Kippur, the festive night of the Seder, or under the chuppah as the groom’s parallel statement of piety to his bride’s white dress. A man’s kittel also enshrouds his body after he has passed on. Tachrichim (shrouds) are white. The kittel and its symbolic white perhaps best encapsulate the potential inherent in the color white, worn as we come before Hashem in prayer, under the chuppah, and before the Throne of Judgment.

The snow outside is melting, slowly. No doubt tomorrow I will be pressed again to shovel these white hills. It’s okay; the color fascinates me.


 

Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com.