Shlach-Lecha: Big Ideas, Small Reminders

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach Lecha

This week the Israelites get very close to the Land- but are afraid of what they might find there, and are condemned to spend a generation in the wilderness. Laws of offerings are taught and the parsha concludes with the mitzvah of tzitzit, or fringes.

Greetings one and all!

So much is going on in the world- sometimes people ask me if I’m going to address the crisis of the day in my d’var Torah, and the answer is, usually not. There are millions of words of political analysis out there, and this is a small sanctuary of Torah study (at least  most of the time.) To put it another way: if I write about the latest political crisis, then me and the New York Times and Fox News will all have covered it- but none of us will have written anything about the Torah portion.

With that. . we’re on the portion Shlach-Lecha, which is mostly about the spies sent up to the Land of Israel but concludes with the laws of tzitzit, or fringes on the corners of the garment. This passage is recited daily as the third paragraph of the Shma:

“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.  I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God.’ ”  (Bamidbar 15:37-41)

You might reasonably ask: if the Shma is about Divine Unity, the One Foundation of the cosmos. . . uh, what do little tassels on the garments have to do with that? Talk about moving from the sublime to the ridiculous!

To which I might respond: yes, but Judaism usually takes big ideas and distills them into particular actions. For example, we take the idea that spiritual growth must be given weekly precedent over economic activity- and we practice Shabbat. We take the idea of moving from constriction to freedom, from bondage to true spiritual service, and we make a Pesach seder. We take the idea that God is One- and therefore each moment is an opportunity to make manifest the sacred values of Divine compassion and justice, and we turn that into tzitzit, fringes, which are a visual reminder of the ever-present challenge to “set God before me always.” (Ps. 16:8)

We can’t always live at the highest spiritual levels: although God is One, we are embodied human beings, who get busy, get caught up in things, have our ups and downs, and need to work every day on integrating our ideals with our actions. Tzitzit bring the Shma down to earth, as it were- by including this paragraph in the Shma, the ancient rabbis acknowledged that we will sometimes get distracted from the big spiritual teachings. We sometimes need reminders, because the big spiritual ideas live in ordinary busy people. That’s as it should be: who could reach the level of Shma if we had to get it right the first time?

Tzizit remind us to get back on the spiritual path when we stray; they also remind us that the Torah was not given to angels- but to us.

Shabbat Shalom,


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