A reminder to participate in, and not just observe, the world around us
It is our responsibility to that world that helps explain the meaning of these verses within the context of this week's parashah. The parashah opens with instructions to the 12 spies, leaders in the community, "la-tur et ha'aretz," to check out, spy, or tour the land. The men return after visiting a land flowing with milk and honey. Ten of the spies then share their fear and determination that the people of the land, who are giants, mitigate the success of future missions. The spies are presented as fulfilling their assignment; they spied out the land. Observers, tourists, they returned with snapshots and souvenirs, photos for their albums, but no confidence in their ability to take ownership of that space, no commitment to making a future in that land.
At the conclusion of the parashah, we are commanded to look at the tzitzit, and to remember and observe God's commandments, "v'lo ta-tu-ru," so as not to become tourists, passively engaged in Jewish life. Rashi reminds us that the heart and the eyes are the body's spies (Numbers 15:39). We constantly scout out our surroundings, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. When faced with challenges, it is tempting to ignore the potential the future holds, falling back instead, on what is comfortable and familiar, and focusing on the fear of the unknown. It is up to us to use the tzitzit to point us in the direction of the future.
In one Talmudic discussion, our rabbis teach that all Jews are obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit, including those who have chosen Judaism, women, household workers, etc. (Babylonian Talmud Menahot 43a). From this perspective, tzitzit become a symbol of community participation. In addition, a mathematical rendering of the word tzitzit reveals the number 613, making the fringes a visual reminder of the mitzvot. This suggests that one who dons a tallit proclaims, "I am a Jew. I understand and embrace the values and traditions of our people and commit to carrying those blessings with me as I move forward in life."
The tallit encourages us to involve ourselves in Jewish life through every action--seeing, feeling, and doing. The tzitzit provide the means for us to face our world as participants, setting an example, making a difference, and becoming part of our history.
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