Reality and Tzitizit

Bs”d Shelach 5780

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

the long story about the “meraglim” (Hebrew for “spies”) – twelve representatives of the nation who were sent to scout out the land, ten of whom returned with a terrible and frightening report – we get to the commandment of “tzitzit”: the commandment to tie fringes to a garment that has four corners.

This commandment is one of the special commandments in the Torah whose purpose is clearly written in a manner that cannot be ignored:

“This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your G-d.”
(Numbers 15, 39-40)

The purpose, then, is to remember the commandments and perform them. The tzitzit acts as a constant reminder to live a Jewish lifestyle and does not allow us to forget our commitment to act, as individuals and as a nation, in a manner that befits Jewish values.

Let’s look at the words of one of the spiritual leaders of the Jewish community of Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen (Lithuania 1843 – Latvia 1926). In his commentary on the Torah, Mesech Chochma, there are profound concepts. One of those appears in our Torah portion, Shelach, in relation to the commandment of tzitzit.

What is the meaning of the purpose “and you shall be holy to your G-d”? The author of the Meshech Chochma explains: Everything we as humans can say about G-d, the Creator of the Universe, is that He is absolute and perfect. We might have expected, then, that the reality He created would be perfect as well. But when we look around us, or at ourselves, we discover that reality is far from perfect. Human reality is also composed of impurity and sin, injustice and mistakes. The gap between the Creator of the Universe and the world He created can be explained based on the verse from Psalms (115, 16): “The heavens are heavens of the Lord, but the earth He gave to the children of men”. G-d created a reality that is not perfect because He gave it to humans to control and to determine whether or not it would reflect Divine values and thus become perfect, or, heaven forbid, the opposite.

 The way man is called upon to reflect eternal values within reality, emphasizes the Meshech Chochma, is not by disconnecting, by withdrawing from the world to focus solely on spirituality. To the contrary. If man lives his life properly within reality, reality itself becomes holier and blessed.

This description of reality in relation to the Creator is like a garment that hides and covers the body. When we look at nature, it is hiding and covering the existence of G-d. The orientation of Judaism is to direct man how to discover and reveal G-d within reality, by living a life of values and commandments.

It is no coincidence that the constant reminder to live a Jewish life is an item of clothing – the tzitzit, whose fringed strings are not sewn along with the garment. This is a tangible illustration of the imperfect reality, one in which we are demanded to repair – “you shall be holy to your G-d”!

The clear linguistic connections, between the section about tzitzit and the one about the spies, hint at the fact that the spies failed in this respect. They saw the problems in Canaan (the ancient name of Israel), but rather than understand that these issues were a call for repair and that the challenges they were going to face were the gate to a repaired and blessed reality, they were overcome by despair and desistance. The commandment to wear tzitzit reminds us not to make this mistake, but to remember that the role of repairing reality rests on our shoulders.

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