Shelach Lecha: nudged along the path to beyond ourselves

“And the ETERNAL spoke to Moses, saying:  ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.  And it shall be to you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the ETERNAL, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray;  that ye may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your God.   I am the ETERNAL your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the ETERNAL your God.”

It is, maybe, one of the earliest educational strategies – a visual aid to constantly remind one of something important, to teach a constant and immediate awareness of God and of the covenant relationship we have whose conditions – mitzvot – inform every aspect of our lives.

The thread of colour commanded in the mitzvah of tzitzit has long since gone in most ritual garments, since we cannot be sure exactly how to make the dye to create this tekhelet, the blue colour (although in recent years it has made a partial return as some think they have cracked the identity of the chilazon, source of the most expensive colour dye of the ancient world). But the fringes remain – though for most Jews not on their everyday garments, but on the shawls we wear, the tallitot, when we want to make space in our life for prayer.

The idea of the fringes on our clothing is that we will always have with us a reminder of God and of the commandments that we are obliged to fulfil – indeed the fringes are knotted in a particular way to remind us of the number 613, to echo the idea that there are 613 commandments said to be in Torah, so that every time we see them we will remember the covenant and our part in it.  Judaism is a religion of the every day, it is through ordinary mundane quotidian activities that we create the Jewish people, develop Jewish identity.  The fringes on the corners of the garments, the tzitzit, were designed to reinforce this. Whatever we see, whatever we do, there is a Jewish edge to the action, a perspective of obligation and commandment. We are reminded always of the foundation of who we are – we are a covenanted people whose life and behaviour is shaped by the encounter at Sinai, when we agreed to a relationship with God that was to be expressed in how we act in the world.

In the Talmud in a discussion on tzitzit, and on the tekhelet colour mandated in bible, we are told that: “Rabbi Meir used to say: How is tekhelet different from all other colours?  Because tekhelet is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky is like [God’s] throne of glory as it says: “Under God’s feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of heaven in purity.” (Shemot 24:10)  (Menachot 43b). 

It is a curious teaching. For Rabbi Meir is linking the reminder of the tzitzit not only to the commandments, but also to a sense of God. And he does so by inserting stages of a journey so to speak – He doesn’t talk about tekhelet only as colour, but as the colour first of the sea and then of the sky, and only then of the hidden place of God. He seems to want us not just to associate the colour with God, but to think about the connections between us and God – the sea is a place we can reach and touch, a huge swathe of our world, but ultimately finite. The sky though is untouchable for us, and apparently infinite, and only then do we move on to the “throne of glory” – the exaltedness of God. By making us work, stage by stage, Rabbi Meir is teaching us that we can reach up beyond ourselves to gain some sense of connection – not making a comment on the colour of the universe, or a simple mechanistic connection between the colour on the tallit and the strange description of the sapphire pavement found in the book of Exodus. By making us think, by moving us from the tangible and visible, to the intangible visible, to the invisible infinite, we are being taken on a process and a progression that allows us to think beyond ourselves, beyond even what we can normally imagine.

There is in our tradition another version of this statement of Rabbi Meir’s, which makes the idea of progression even clearer. In Midrash Tehillim we read that the tekhelet “resembles the sea and the sea is like the grasses, and the grasses are like the trees, and the trees are like the firmament, and the firmament is like the radiance, and the radiance is like the rainbow, and the rainbow is like the [divine] image” (90:18).

I like this version because it causes us to not only reach beyond ourselves and our world, but to do so slowly, taking our time, looking from sea level to ground level to tree level to sky and beyond. And in this account there is a punch line:  “Rabbi Hezekiah taught: When the children of Israel are wrapped in their prayer shawls, let them not think that they are clothed merely in ordinary blue. Rather, let the children of Israel look upon their prayer shawls as though the glory of the Presence were covering them.” (Midrash Tehillim 90:18).

When we look at the fringes of the tallit, and we remember the original instruction here in parashat Shelach Lecha, we begin to understand the powerful effect of that colour of tekhelet (which has, incidentally remained with us in a sort of echo form in the variant colours of the stripes of the tallit which can range from almost black to a turquoise-ey sky blue, as can the dye from the chilazon, dependent on the age of the mollusc), and which has progressed from the tallit to the flag of Israel.  By using the thread of tekhelet – and then by using a reminder of the thread and the colour and what it makes us think about– we are bridging a gap between our world and the heavens, between ourselves and God. The radiance we are encouraged to think towards becomes like a rainbow – the perpetual sign between God and us that we are under divine protection – takes us to an almost magical link between the worlds.

When we put on our tallit for prayer and wrap ourselves in the fringes we are, so to speak, putting on the seatbelts, checking the mirrors – readying ourselves for a journey towards God. We are land animals, made of earth, adamah – which root is the origin of the word for the colour red – edom. We are physical beings made from the stuff of our ground says the bible, yet our souls yearn for more – the look to connect to more than the material physical world of now. The tekhelet prescribed in our tradition is a recognition of that yearning, and the offer of a way towards what we want – we can look through the natural world around us and from studying it and appreciating it, we can find a way to the creator of all that we see.

This is how Jewish tradition shapes us and forms us – it takes the everyday and makes us notice more. We are asked not to skim through our lives but to examine them, to consider what we are doing, to aspire for more.  It expects mindfulness and it gives us methods and tools for us to achieve this. But on the way to mindfulness it gives us a more pragmatic approach – the commandments are sets of behaviour that will shape us without us even thinking about it – in effect if we behave like a mensch even without thinking about the ethical imperatives or the spiritual growth, but just because that is what is expected from us, we can live our lives and look back and realise we have become a mensch.  The spiritual journey does not have to be too self reflective, we are nudged along the path with reminders to do, to be, to act – and so, in time, to understand and to become.

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