Shlach-Lecha: Connecting Prayer and Ethics

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

This week’s Torah portion is Shlach-Lecha, meaning
“send”, which tips us off that the big story of the portion is the
spies who were sent up to the Land of Israel and came back discouraged
and glum. That, in turns, sets off a bit of commotion which results in
the decree that the Israelites will stay in the wilderness until the
current generation has died- only their children will inherit the Land.

Towards the end of the parsha, we get the mitzvah of tzitzit-
“fringes”- to be tied on the corners of our garments:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people
and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of
their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to
the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and
recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you
do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you
shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to
your God. . . ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 15:37-40)

This passage is included in the third paragraph of the Shma, and is
the source for the practice of wearing a tallit or prayer shawl which
has the tzitzit attached to it. Sefer HaHinnuch, the “Book of
Education,” which is the medieval textbook of the mitzvot which we’ve
been referencing in the past year, points out that because this
passage mentions “corners,” the mitzvah of tzitzit only applies to
certain garments with corners, and only if those garments are actually
worn. So, for example, a bed sheet is a four-corned cloth, but doesn’t
need tzitzit because it’s not worn. If one made it into a poncho, then
one would tie tzitzit to it.

In other words, one could avoid doing this mitzvah entirely by never
owning and subsequently never wearing a four-cornered garment, just as
one could avoid the mitzvah of building a parapet around the roof of
one’s home by not having a flat roof, as such. (Cf.
D’varim/Deuteronomy 22.)

Yet tallitot- prayer shawls with tzitzit- are just about universal in
the Jewish world, even though it’s a “situational” mitzvah- that is, a
mitzvah which we only do if the conditions permit it. Typically worn
as a “tallit gadol” (big outer tallit) during morning prayers, or a
“tallit katan” (thin undershirt with tzitzit) throughout the day, the
tallit has come to represent the entire set of mitzvot, and thus is a
symbol of covenantal theology. Many commentators arrive at an equation
whereby the combined strings, knots, and windings add up to 613- the
number of commandments- so that the mitzvah of tzitzit is really about
being reminded of all the mitzvot, a outer sign of an inner commitment.

OK, here’s a question: doesn’t the paragraph above actually tell us
why we’re wearing the tzitzit: “so that you do not follow your heart
and eyes in your lustful urge?” [There are varying translations of
this verse, but you get the idea.] Isn’t that a bit different than
being reminded of the commandments in general?

Well, yes, and in fact, Sefer HaHinnuch and others list “not following
after one’s heart” as a separate mitzvah, a negative (that is, don’t
do this) commandment forbidding thinking certain kinds of problematic
thoughts or giving into sinful temptations and desires. We’ll leave a
detailed discussion of this mitzvah for another time, but for now,
please note how the rabbis have taken a very specific practice-
putting tzitzit on one’s garments- and expanded it from being a
reminder not to go astray to a more positive symbol of Jewish
commitment and spirituality overall.

That, in turn, helps us understand why a conditional mitzvah- putting
tzitzit on a garment with corners- became the important spiritual
discipline of wearing a tallit during prayer. If the tzitzit represent
all the commandments, then wearing a tallit during prayer is a
profound statement of the central insight that spirituality is not
primarily about what happens in synagogues or at minyan [prayer
quorum]. After all, most of the commandments are about what happens in
“real life,” as we talk, eat, buy, sell, plant, reap, give, take, and
love. Wearing a tallit during prayer makes an unbreakable connection
between our prayers and our actions, our rituals and our everyday
interactions, and “ties” them together in one Jewish covenant.

Shabbat Shalom,


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