I Had A Long Talk With Myself, Thoughts On Tzitzit

We all live in (at least) two worlds, which I’d like to distinguish here as the spiritual and the practical. My nature draws me to the spiritual/speculative, but I’m constantly dragged back “down to earth” by the practical. In many areas this is truly a blessing since the “practical” includes my children and extended family and other people I love. Likewise, my need to make a living has led me to become a freelance Torah teacher as well as an artist.

When it comes to Judaism my attention is also torn in two. My primary focus is Torah and Mitzvot and how to better understand, practice and teach them. Although there is a political element, especially in inter-denominational politics, my not being a shul or other institutional rabbi pretty much saves me from that. Eretz Yisrael, of course, since the days of Avraham Avinu, four thousand years ago, and Yerushalayim, holy to us for three thousand years, are and have been central to the Jewish People. Exiled for two thousand years in Rome’s attempt to wipe out Judaism, our survival and return to establish in 1948 a sovereign state there, later reunifying Jerusalem in 1967, is nothing less than miraculous. Unfortunately, a world heritage of anti-semitism coinciding with the emergence of jihad-unleashed barbarism, forces a too-strong political component, impossible to ignore, on my love for Israel .

At the very least, I admit to my own inability to not get drawn in. When we’re under attack, especially from people and institutions (both from without and, more hurtfully and damaging, from within our faith) that have historically been our allies, my pain and outrage boil over. On the one hand, to remain silent is immoral, but it’s easy to go overboard. Additionally, bombarded by constant attempts to undermine our legitimacy, many of our people need and deserve reassurance that we are the victims, not the exploiters and that our legal, spiritual, historical and moral claims are just. But again, I often let myself get carried away.

All this distracts not only from my own preference and “area of expertise”, but also from my responsibilities to teach Torah and not to lecture on politics. It’s important to be able to distinguish between the two. It’s easy to miss opportunities to inspire while focusing on condemnations instead and it’s easy to discourage even when meaning to encourage.

Because of the tragic consequences of the main theme of Parshat Shelach (Bnei Yisrael is condemned to wander 40 years in the desert rather than enter The Land after the scouts (meraglim) deflate The People’s confidence with their slander of Eretz Yisrael and their emphasis on threats rather than on promise) other themes are often overlooked. This parsha, however, ends with the chapter of ציצית (Tzitzit), mitzva of “fringes” (actually eight strings) attached to each corner of our clothes.

These few verses (BaMidbar 16:37-41) are so central to our observance that they are included as the third of only three chapters of the קריאת שמע (K’riyat Sh’ma), the twice daily recital of God’s Unity and the centerpiece of our daily meditations. They are also significant halachically. First, they contain the mandate for the mitzva itself, וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל־כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם, “And you shall make “fringes” (strings) on the corners of your garments” (verse 38), followed by וְנָתְנוּ עַל־צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת, “And you shall put a blue thread (P’til T’chelet) on the fringes”. (Actually, until very recently we’ve only observed this mitzva in a symbolic way since the proper blue dye was lost for 1300 years, leaving us only the white threads.)

The very next verse (39) contains the commandment, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ, “And you will see it (the P’til T’chelet, blue thread)” which is halachically significant in how we define morning, at least in terms of when we can first recite the קריאת שמע (K’riyat Shema), which the Mishna (Berachot 1:2) defines as when we can distinguish between (the) blue (thread) and white (the other threads on each corner), in other words when there is enough light in the sky to begin to perceive color. Another opinion (Rabbi Eliezer) in the same Mishna says that we need to be able distinguish between t’chelet (blue) and karti (green), a more subtle contrast requiring a few minutes more daylight.

Rashi (Sota 17a, quoting Tikkunei Zohar 126b) explains that t’chelet (blue) resembles the sea which resembles the “firmament” which resembles the Heavenly Throne. Seeing the t’chelet thread leads us to contemplate God which inspires us to proclaim His Majesty and Unity. Rabbi Eliezer‘s opinion is based on another association–karti is the Aramaic translation of the word chatzir (BaMidbar 11:5), meadow-green, pointing our attention to the earth. In other words, according to Rabbi Eliezer we should wait until we can distinguish between Heaven and Earth in order to proclaim God’s unity.

The distinctions between Spiritual and Practical are very real and must be recognized. But once we see honor both it’s time to recognize God’s presence transcending all.

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2 Responses to I Had A Long Talk With Myself, Thoughts On Tzitzit

  1. Peter Margolis says:

    Harry, don’t shortchange the spiritual that is inherent in the practical. Jerusalem is not sacred to עם ישראל because of the holy things that happened there; rather, holy things happen there because Jerusalem is the declared and defended sacred space of the corporate and political entity עם ישראל. We recently celebrated 48 years of the liberation of Jerusalem. That collective transcendent event depended on the practical tasks of greasing tank treads, oiling weapons, distributing battle rations, providing water and gasoline, rolling bandages – you get the idea. As the Zen saying has it: Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. We Jews are chopping and carrying our way to ירושלים.
    Regards, Peter

    • I don’t think I’m minimizing it. I’m kvetching about my getting too wrapped up in the political, not saying that it’s isn’t important. But for me it’s become a distraction. As to those who are actually greasing the tracks, oiling the weapons,not to mention doing the actual fighting, I have nothing but respect. I also have respect for those who fight in the halls of diplomacy and those who fight in the arena of public opinion. It’s just that I’m exhausted and distracted by those aspects.
      Also, I believe it’s Yochanan Ben Zakkai who said that if you’re planting a tree and someone tells you the Mashiach is here, finish planting the tree and then go greet him.

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