Sh’lach Lecha 5784

The third paragraph of the Shema is taken from the Maftir reading of this week’s parasha (Numbers 15:37-41), where the Children of Israel are commanded to wear tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of their garments, as a reminder of the commandments.

The importance of the tzitzit is to serve as a visual reminder of the mitzvot and our connection to them in any number of ways. When we recite the Shema during the Shacharit (morning) service, we gather the tzitzit together in the prayer leading up to the Shema and hold them in our hand until the third paragraph. Each time the tzitzit are mentioned, we kiss the tzitzit as a further sign of our connection to the commandments, especially since they are mentioned (three times) in that paragraph, taken directly from the Torah.

In verse 38 we read; “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner”. The cord of blue (sometimes also called a cord of purple) referred to is translated from the Hebrew פְּתִ֥יל תְּכֵֽלֶת (p’til t’chelet). We learn that this cord or thread of t’chelet (blue) was a sky blue, perhaps even azure. Blue is often associated with the sea, the sky, and ultimately with God’s presence.

In biblical times, it was known to be one of the colours that had a deep resonance with royalty. Rabbi Reuven Hammer z”l comments that this is related to the borders of garments that indicated nobility or special station in antiquity. He further states that since Israel was to be a kingdom of priests serving God in special ways, Israelites were entitled to this unique sign of their status.

More important than an association with royalty and status, the tzitzit also serve as a reminder of our connection to the mitzvot. The physical act of seeing the tzitzit elicits a mental and spiritual recollection of the commandments. The Talmud (Masechet Menachot) reflects that “looking at the ritual fringes leads to remembering the mitzvot, and remembering them leads to doing them”. The message is that it is not enough to merely remember, one must act on that memory. This connection between seeing and doing is crucial. It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day routine and forget our higher purpose and obligations. The tzitzit serve as a constant, physical reminder to live a life in accordance with our connection to our rituals and commandments.

Verse 40 epitomises the ultimate goal of the tzitzit: “Then you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God”. The act of wearing tzitzit reminds us of our duty as a mamlechet kohanim (a kingdom of priests), behaving appropriately and responsibly and serving as an example to others.

Finally, verse 41 underscores the core relationship between God and the Israelites: “I am Adonai your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am Adonai, your God”. Liberation from Egypt is a central narrative of our faith, symbolising God’s eternal commitment to us, and our dedication to God. We are again reminded that God took us out of the land of Egypt so that we could serve God. This ancestral and spiritual redemption strengthens our connection to God and the commandments, including the tangible mitzvah of tzitzit.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Sam Zwarenstein

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