A reminder to participate in, and not just observe, the world around us
Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
When I close my eyes to picture my grandfather, he is standing beside a long olive green bookcase, swaying and shokeling [swaying in prayer], his slight frame enfolded within his tallit, tefillin protruding from his forehead and wrapped about his arm, deeply engaged in conversation with God. At those moments, it always seemed that he had been transported to a different place and time. Perhaps it was that magic cape, I thought, the one with the strings attached.
As a little girl, I yearned to wear a tallit, and so it is no surprise that some of my fondest childhood memories are of sitting with my grandfather in shul on Shabbat and sharing his tallit. Throughout the service, I would play with the tzitzit, enjoying the feel of the fringes as they slipped between my fingers, methodically adding new knots and removing them again before the conclusion of the service, each knot a blessing for myself or my family. My grandfather was a humble man, dedicated to his store, his family, and his God. He embodied a love for education and humanity. I knew that those cornerstones of his existence were somehow bound up within those carefully constructed knots.
It was not until some years after my grandfather's death that I learned the third paragraph of the Shema, recited twice each day, morning and evening, and found in this week's parashah, Shlah, commanding us to wear the tzitzit.
"Adonai said to Moses as follows: Speak to the people of Israel and tell them to make for themselves fringes, tzitzit, on the corners of their garments throughout their generations; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all of Adonai's commandments and observe them so that you do not follow your heart and eyes and be seduced or led astray. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I, Adonai, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, Adonai your God" (Numbers 15:37-41).
God is clear, the tzitzit are not an adornment set aside for special occasions. They are a necessary part of our daily existence throughout time. Designed to help us remember, to keep us connected, the tzitzit challenge us to actively engage in our story as Jews so that we might become holy. One of the first steps towards that sense of kedushah, holiness, is a willingness to set ourselves apart, to distinguish ourselves as Jews.