Shlach-Lecha: Fringes and Faith

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

It’s officially summer, a season for travel and exploration. That’s
also the a main theme of this week’s Torah portion, Shlach-
Lecha. Most of the parsha this week is the story of the 12 spies
who go up from the desert to “case out” the Land of Israel; ten
come back discouraged but two have faith and urge the people
to ascend to the Promised Land. Following the story of the
spies, there are rules for agricultural offerings and Shabbat
observance.

The parsha concludes with the commandment to put tzitzit-
fringes- on the corners of our garments. (Cf. Bamidbar/Numbers
15:37-41.) Our teacher Rashi explains that this mitzvah
[commandment] only applies to a four-cornered garment, and,
following the Torah text itself, he strongly links the meaning of
the tzitzit to the Exodus from Egypt. The passage also says that
we should look at the tzitzit and remember the commandments-
they are a sign of the overarching relationship between our
people and our Liberator.

The idea of “ritual fringes” might seem strange if we’re not used
to seeing them, but remember, people wear objects which have
symbolic significance every day, from a wedding ring to a college
logo sweatshirt to a baseball cap. What we wear often makes a
statement about who we are connected to, what our
commitments are, and how we identify ourselves.

When thinking about the meaning of tzitzit, it’s also important to
remember that it is, ideally, an every-day practice. Many Jews
only see tzitzit on tallitot [prayer shawls] on Shabbat, but many
other Jews wear an undershirt with tzitzit every day, or at least put
on a tallit as part of regular morning prayers, in order to fulfill this
mitzvah on a daily basis.

Ideas abound in Jewish literature about the spiritual significance
of the tzitzit- the number of knots, the blue thread (see below), the
“corners” of the garments, etc. We’ll leave most of that for
another time, but one teaching in particular strikes me as
profound, and that’s Rashi’s interpretation of the eight threads in
each set of fringes. Rashi links these eight threads on each
corner of the garment to the eight days between the first night of
the Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Sea, which was
Israel’s first real moment of safety and complete liberation.

Think about it: the Israelites left their homes in a hurry on the
night of the first Passover, but it wasn’t until eight days later
(according to this reading of the story) that they could finally sing
a joyous song on the other side of the sea. It was eight days
from leaving slavery to feeling like they’d <really> left Egypt, eight
days until they felt that they had <really> been brought out of
oppression. We don’t think about that eight day period very much,
but it seems to me that it’s a powerful metaphor for the “in-
between” nature of our lives as we, too, go forward on our
journeys.

In Hebrew, Egypt is Mitzrayim, which has a literal meaning of the
“narrow” or “constricted” place. Egypt, in spiritual terms, was the
place where we were controlled by external forces, ruled by fear
and worked to the bone for no truly meaningful purpose. It’s a
metaphor or image for all those times when we find ourselves
constrained from being our best and truest selves, when we
stuck in one of life’s inevitable “narrow places.” So there is a
recurring theme in later Jewish thought which says that we are
all, always, leaving Egypt in one way or another- or at least given
the chance to, with the hope that we’ll take it.

On the other hand- it’s hard to feel like we’ve <really> gotten to
the place we want to go, where the external forces or internal
fears which drive us are left behind- cast into the sea, as it were.
Sometimes we feel those moments of great liberation and
personal redemption, but sometimes it’s hard to feel progress –
and that’s where faith comes in.

Faith isn’t just a matter of belief, but of movement, of openness,
of change, of willingness to go forward, to put one foot in front of
the other in the service of a higher cause. Our ancestors left
Egypt to serve God in the wilderness without really knowing the
whole plan of what lay ahead- but then, do we ever really know
what lies ahead?

So if the tzitzit represent those eight days between liberation and
salvation, they also represent what it takes to keep going
forward: attachment to higher purposes, a remembrance of our
sacred history, a discipline to bring holy values into a long life’s
journey. That’s why we look at the tzitzit in order to “remember the
commandments” – it’s about being reminded of our higher goals
and a greater hope. Our ancestors may have had Pharaoh
behind them and the sea dead ahead, but somehow they kept
on going. If they did it, so can we, with the promise of liberation
from what oppresses us just as real to us as it was to them.

As always, you can read the full text of this week’s parsha here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

Here’s a general overview of tallit and tzitzit:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/daily_life/Prayer/Ritual_Garb/
Tallit.htm

Finally, here’s an interesting history of the “blue thread”
mentioned in our passage, written by my good friend Baruch
Sienna, one of the most grammatically correct people around:

http://www.kolel.org/pages/parasha/torah.shtml

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