Table for Five: Parshat Shelach


“And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray.” Num. 15:39

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow
Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom
Excerpted from ReformJudaism.org
Like the proverbial string around one’s finger, tzitzit serve as a counterbalance to the forces of distraction or forgetting. The Torah portion begins with the scouts being led off course by what their eyes see and what their hearts fear. The commandment of tzitzit, at the end of the parasha, gives a strategy for avoiding such mistakes.

Sh’lach L’cha opens with God telling Moses to send 12 scouts to report on the Promised Land. All 12 come back describing its goodness; but 10 share their conviction that the Land “eats its inhabitants,” and moreover, is settled by giants whom the Israelites cannot hope to conquer. The Israelites believe them, and as a result, God condemns an entire generation to die in the wilderness.

You or I may rarely be faced with a challenge like that of the scouts. But there is something universally human about the risk of going off course.

That, perhaps, may be what the tztitzit help us to avoid. But what might they help us to achieve? One answer might lie in a little-noticed word. We translate kanfei big’deihem as “the corners of their garments.” Kanaf more commonly means “wing,” and often refers metaphorically to the wings of the Divine Presence, kanfei haShechinah. On an individual level, the experience of wearing a tallit can be like being wrapped in something holy, creating a sacred space for prayer. And on the communal level? Perhaps the tallit can be seen as Judaism’s big tent. Whether or not you wear one, there is room enough for us all.

What are tzitzit? They are a specially tied and knotted set of fringes that many male Jews and some women once wore on all their garments, and more recently on the ceremonial prayer shawl. They seem abstract, but not only is there a tradition of the meaning of the numbers of turns and knots, but as a gestalt the tzitzit honor and celebrate the fact that between individuals within a community there must not be high, hard fences but soft and fading boundaries. These fringes are a mixture of “my” cloth and “communal” air. In biblical tradition, this was affirmed by assigning the produce of the corners of “my” field to the communal needs of the poor, the stranger, the orphan. The field was “mine” (under God’s ultimate ownership), but its corners faded away into communal space. In the new pattern shaped by the rabbis, the fringes of “my” garment played this role. Just as the shared communal use of the corners of the field betokened God’s share in my property, so the communal fringes of the garment betokened God’s share in my identity.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Temple Beth Am

Thank you, Torah.  Thank you, book of Be-midbar/Numbers. For this gift. For this minuscule call to action that connects me to my obligations as a Jew. And which connects me to my child. For I sit in daily minyan, often deep in prayer, or far away in random ruminations. I rely on ritual to draw me back, as is so often the case in relationships. Between spouses. And friends. And parents to children. And between people and God. I wrap my fingers around the woolen threads as I begin to say the Shema. I kiss the fringes when I get to the word tzitzit in the third paragraph. And then I utter-mutter the words “that you may look upon it.” And I remember what I learned long ago, to pass the fringe before my eyes so that I actually do look at it. And be reminded of its meaning. And feel the tactile pull of a ritual garment and its dripping symbolism. And I turn to my 6-year-old son who sits next to me in morning minyan, whose osmotic learning will be as much an anchor of his Jewish identity as his didactic learning. I pass the fringe in front of my eyes. And then his. And we smile. And he giggles. And we are both reminded, wordlessly, how ritual and text can connect us to one another. And help us not to go astray, in all meanings of the word. But rather to listen to the murmurings of our own hearts. And of others.

Emunah Fialkoff
Teacher at Pacific Jewish Center

One of the verbs that jumps out in this verse is the verb “latur.” When we are commanded to place tzitzit on the corners of our garments, the meaning of this word seems to be “to go astray.” And yet in last week’s parsha, the same word appears in a different context. In Numbers 10:33, we are told that the Ark of God traveled three days ahead of the camp “latur lahem menucha” — to seek out for them a place for the Jews to camp. This word appears again repeatedly to describe the actions of the spies, as they “tur” the land of Israel. 

Seemingly, in allowing the Jews to send men to survey the land, God intended to encourage his people to do the same as he had done for them while in the desert. When the spies returned from their journey and elaborated on their task by casting judgment on the land, they profoundly abused this opportunity.

Tzitzit demand that we ask ourselves what motivates our seeking in life. Is it the commandments of God, and the memory of everything that he has done for us? Or is it “our hearts and our eyes which we pander to”? The most profound lesson in the use of the word “latur” is to remind us that often, God is providing us with an opportunity to emulate him and develop ourselves as godly people. Although we missed the mark in the case of the spies, tzitzit serve as an eternal second chance.

Rabbi Noam Weissman
Jerusalem U

The first two parshiot of Shema, Judaism’s greatest document of faith, seem to argue for two contradictory concepts. The first section contains a categorical imperative to love God, with nothing granted in return. The second chapter is called “consequentialist” by philosophers, meaning, “If I do X … then I get Y in return.” This relates to the two great concepts of faith and mitzvah observance in general — lishma and lo lishma. The ideal may be to fulfill mitzvot regardless of consequence and for intrinsic reasons. But, this is not to say that Judaism does not have room for doing mitzvot in some sort of transactional way. Yet, what emerges is that the purpose of faith is not in order to reap the rewards that follow, rather it is the faith itself.

These two ideas intersect at the mitzvah of tzitzit. Are we commanded to wear them because they protect us from sin? Or is wearing them valuable regardless of their function?

The assumption of the text seems to indicate that ipso facto, if I wear tzitzit, I am assured proper behavior by allowing my passions to sway me. Still, I believe reducing the value and intentionality of wearing tzitzit will not aid us in our pursuit to follow through on God’s commands.

And that is the challenge of all mitzvot. Simply engaging in the ritual is not enough. Simply engaging in the discussion of the value is not enough. Let’s marry the two and create a thoughtful, meaningful Jewish experience.

Rabbi Dov Linzer
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah
Excerpted from library.yctorah.org

Tzitzit come to serve as a corrective to the sin of the spies, encouraging us to see through the lens of the Torah. We may even, like the spies, have a mandate to seek out, to leave our sheltered existence. But it must be a seeking out that is directed by true religious motivation, not one that gives in to our weaker selves, be it our lusts and desires, or be it our fears and weaknesses.

The key to how we see the world is how we see ourselves. The power of tzitzit is not just that they serve as a reminder to our obligations, but that as a part of our clothing, they become part of our very identity. They help define who we are.

As such, tzitzit link to other garments that are central to one’s identity, in particular the bigdei kehunah.

Tzitzit can be seen to be a form of bigdei kehunah that can be worn by non-Kohanim outside the Temple. As such, they are a part of the larger theme of Sefer Be-midbar — how does one stay oriented to God’s presence when one travels away from Mount Sinai? Yes, there will be a Mishkan, but a person will often be distant from that Mishkan. The first answer is to have the Mishkan in the center, so that wherever one lives, the basic orientation and framing principle is the Mishkan and his or her relationship to it.

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