Parashat Shlah

Fringe Story

A reminder to participate in, and not just observe, the world around us

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In the most obvious way, the tallit is an external sign of our place within a larger history. It is a marker of our commitment as individuals to the needs of our community. Each morning, as we recite the berakhah [blessing] which introduces the Shema, we physically gather the tzitzit from the four corners of our tallit, demonstrating our hope that God bring us in peace, safety, and wholeness from the four corners of the earth, and lead us with uprightness, and dignity, to our land. Here, we not only articulate our prayers for the future, we engage with our symbols, reminding us of our role in reaching out to others, in defining the boundaries of community, and in moving forward with respect for ourselves as individuals and as a people. While our knowledge and level of practice may differ, the tallit reminds us of the potential within each of us to connect to a past that can strengthen our sense of self within a larger history.

By utilizing the tzitzit, either intentionally, as has become the custom for morning recitation of the Shema, or for meditation throughout the service, they become an educational tool, integrating thought and action. They are the means by which we demonstrate our commitment to the mitzvot [commandments]. We don't merely think about the tzitzit, God instructs us to look at them, to examine their composition, to remember God's mitzvot, and to do them. With regard to this verse, our rabbis tell us, "Seeing leads to remembering, remembering to doing" (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot, 43b).

The tallit calls us to attention. It is a physical reminder of our responsibilities and our commitments, a signal of the actions incumbent upon us as Jews (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot, 43b).

Perhaps that is why we must wear the tallit, placing the tzitzit on our person, making them part of our identity, using them to define who we are, for ourselves, and for those around us. In the bracha designated for putting on the tallit, we acknowledge the opportunity given by God to create holiness in our lives, with the attending responsibility and expectation that we will wrap ourselves in the mitzvot.

No wonder the rabbis held that the mitzvah of tzitzit is equally important as the commandments. By enclosing ourselves in the tallit, we are making a statement that we have, or are in search of, a relationship with God. As one of my former students wrote, "Wearing a tallit is a way to set myself apart from distractions and focus on my time with God. When I put on my tallit, I feel as if I am in a separate place surrounded by the presence of God. It makes my time in prayer more intimate ... and gives me a feeling of protection and the embrace of God."

A sign of safety and a symbol of God's presence, the tallit reminds us that struggle with and adherence to the commandments is an expression of our evolving conversation and dialogue with God--a dialogue that, in turn, enhances both our world and our place in the world.

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Rabbi Lisa Gelber

Rabbi Lisa Gelber is the associate dean of The Rabbinical School at The Jewish Theological Seminary