Tacked onto the end of this week’s parashah, Shelach-Lecha, following the dramatic story of the spies sent to reconnoiter the Land of Israel and the people’s calamitous response to their report, and after another round of commandments concerning sacrifices, is the instruction concerning tzitzit, which is is the third paragraph of Shema in the prayerbook:
The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people, telling them that they shall make themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments throughout their generations; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. They shall be tzitzit for you, and you shall see it [alt. Him] 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 be holy to your God. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God. (Numbers 15:37-41)
This simple passage has given rise to a great deal of imaginative interpretation. I’ll share two very different interpretations with you this week, both of which focus on but a phrase for their insight.
The Sages of the Talmud noticed that Torah, envisioning the tzitzit as a reminder of the mitzvot—like a red string tied around one’s finger—adds the colorful note that this reminder will serve to prevent the Israelites from following their heart and eyes toward things that atem zonim achareihem “you lust after them,” but quite literally, go whoring after. This phrase gives rise to a most provocative story found on BT Menachot 44a concerning a young student if R. Chiyya who, quite literally, lusted after the most famous and expensive prostitute known. After waiting months for an appointment and paying (in advance) a fortune, he is finally ushered into her boudoir where he ascends a ladder to the top of seven beds she has prepared for him. There she lies naked awaiting him. As the young man prepares for what he has dreamed about for months, his tzitzit fly up and strike him across the face, reminding him that what he has yearned for and which is now within reach, is forbidden. The young man climbs down from her bed. Astounded, for no doubt no one has ever refused her before, the woman inquires why he has. He explains the mitzvah of tzitzit to her. This woman, whom the story makes clear is strikingly beautiful, extremely wealthy, and unquestionably powerful, is so taken by the strength the young man possesses through his tradition that she closes up shop and appears shortly afterward at the Bet Midrash (school) of R. Chiyya asking to be converted so she can marry him. The story ends romantically: “Those very bedclothes that she had spread for him for lust she now spread out for him for sanctity.” The Sages, having brought this story as an example of the reward for keeping the mitzvah of tzitzit tag on this comment: “This is the reward [for obeying the commandment of tzitzit] in this world, and as for its reward in the world-to-come, I do not know how great it is.” Between the story and the tag line, they have told us that keeping the mitzvah of tzitzit is empowering and rewarded.
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh of Nadvorna (1740-1802) provides a very different approach to interpreting the mitzvah of tzitzit. His perspective, found in Tzemach Ha-Shem LiTzvi, comes from the world of hasidut. His focus is also on a few words, in this case the phases they shall make themselves tzitzit and they shall be tzitzit from Numbers 15:38 and 39. Perhaps a review of these two verses would be helpful:
Speak to the Israelite people, telling them that they shall make themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments throughout their generations… They shall be tzitzit for you, and you shall see it [alt: Him].
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh begins by pointing out that the word lahem (“for themselves”) is superfluous. Had Torah said, “Make fringes on the corners of your garments” we would have understood the commandment:
Why is the word לָהֶם (“themselves”) needed? “They shall make fringes on the corners of their garments” would have been enough. This hints that the intention is that they should make themselves see the Blessed One, as Rashi interpreted, [Behold He stands behind our wall] gazing [through the latticework] (Song of Songs 2:9). This is in order to experience awe in the Blessed One because the letters of the word יראה (“awe”) and the word ראיה (“seeing”) are the same. And therefore if you lay down in a box [a piece of clothing], it is exempt from [the requirement of] tzitzit [BT Menachot 41a], because the essence of the mitzvah is precisely in להם…
Hirsch tells us that tzitzit can serve as a reminder of God, that is to say the unity of all things in the universe. In the world of Kabbalah, the ultimate reality beyond our physical experience in the world is the knowledge of the unity and interconnectedness of everything. When that awareness is forefront in our minds, our values and priorities are aligned quite differently from when we are immersed solely in our physical experience and concerned with our own needs. The tzitzit—simple fringes dangling from our clothing—can serve to help us focused on the truth underlying the distractions of life.
But Hirsh goes further. The word lahem having been explained, he notes that Torah then expresses the commandment a second time, though somewhat differently: They shall be tzitzit for you and you shall see it [alt: Him]… and from this second expression we can learn something more.
First, it says: they shall make themselves tzitzit (“see-ers”), which means that they shall make [it possible] for themselves to see [God]; and afterward it says, they shall be tzitzit for you, signifying that they [i.e., the Israelites] should make themselves vehicles for seeing [God].
Here, Hirsh goes much further, saying that one should not only see beyond the mere physical nature of the universe to the ultimate unity of all, but that one should make oneself a vehicle by which others can see God, as well. In other words, we should strive to live in such a way that others learn through our example that there is a higher purpose and unity in life. The two ideas are linked, of course, because one who lives with the consciousness of God will be such a vehicle for others. Perhaps what Hirsch is suggesting is that knowing that others will benefit from our own spiritual elevation is even greater motivation to make the effort. It’s a win-win.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman