On Mending Threads and Tying Knots – The Torah portion of Shlach

The endless wonders of the internet inspired www.KnottedHandkerchief.com, a reminders’ website, substituting the old custom to tie a knot in one’s handkerchief in order to not forget something important that might slip one’s mind. Tying a knot — and an “e-knot” — is still a way of communicating, both internally and externally.

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to instruct the Children of Israel to tie their tzitzit – specially knotted ritual fringes which are added to the corners of the garment – as a reminder of the obligation to observe all the commandments. The word tzitzit might be related to the root נ.צ.ה. n.tz.h., which is used for ניצן – nitzan, a budding flower, indicating an ornament of the garment which sticks out. As we say in our daily prayers, the Torah (Numbers 15:38-40) instructs us:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וְעָשׂ֨וּ לָהֶ֥ם צִיצִ֛ת עַל־כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם לְדֹרֹתָ֑ם וְנָֽתְנ֛וּ עַל־צִיצִ֥ת הַכָּנָ֖ף פְּתִ֥יל תְּכֵֽלֶת׃

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.

וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְות ה׳ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָתֻ֜רוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.

לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְותָ֑י וִהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדֹשִׁ֖ים לֵֽאלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.

This mitzvah is complemented by another reference (Deuteronomy 22:12):

גְּדִלִ֖ים תַּעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֑ךְ עַל־אַרְבַּ֛ע כַּנְפ֥וֹת כְּסוּתְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּכַסֶּה־בָּֽהּ׃

You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.

We go through our lives, and even in our death, clothed. Clothing is especially interesting in the Torah from early on. The first humans were naked (Genesis 2:25). They had no shame and they had no evil inclination within them. But they also had no free will. Free will means having good and evil within us, struggling with both and making choices, which is an essential component in any real relationship.

After Adam and the Woman partake from the fruit, they hide, as it was no longer natural for them to roam around naked in the Garden. While they initially sewed for themselves loincloths from fig leaves (Genesis 3:7), their first “real” set of clothing was made then and given to them by God (Genesis 3:21). Rashi explains that it was an actual garment from the hair of hares, soft and warm, while Ibn Ezra suggests that the term   כתנות עור kutnot or – literally meant the skin that was put on their luminous, soulful body. Either way, it was an act of care, compassion and protection, but also of sadness and distance. The humans were no longer one with each other or with the Divine. Clothing symbolically began as expression of closeness, God’s kindness and empathy. They communicate identity and presence, yet they also stand for separation.

In Hebrew, “beged,” a garment, shares its root with “bagad,” betrayed. It turns out that clothes have little to nothing to do with the climate we might live in for even in perfectly comfortable weather humans wear something. Rather, clothes are a reminder of our original separation (and not “sin”!) from God. As we saw above, the commandment of tzitzit specifies:

וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ – That shall be your fringe; look at it

If we’re talking about fringes, it should have said –  –  אותםlook at them, in the plural! Why is it in the singular? The Talmud (Tractate Menachot 43:b) explains:

…תניא אידך וראיתם אותו וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’ שקולה מצוה זו כנגד כל המצות כולן

…The verse states: “That you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord”; this teaches that this mitzva of ritual fringes is equivalent to all the mitzvot of the Torah.

ותניא אידך וראיתם אותו וזכרתם ועשיתם ראיה מביאה לידי זכירה זכירה מביאה לידי עשיה ורשב”י אומר כל הזריז במצוה זו זוכה ומקבל פני שכינה כתיב הכא וראיתם אותו וכתיב התם (דברים ו, יג) את ה’ אלהיך תירא ואותו תעבוד

And it is taught in another baraita: The verse states: “That you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them.” This teaches that looking at the ritual fringes leads to remembering the mitzvot, and remembering them leads to doing them. And Rabbi Shimon bar Yoai says: Anyone who is diligent in this mitzva of ritual fringes merits receiving the Divine Presence. It is written here: “That you may look upon it [oto]” (Numbers 15:39), and it is written there: “You shall fear the Lord your God; and Him [oto] shall you serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13). Just as oto in that verse is referring to the Divine Presence, so too in this verse it is referring to the Divine Presence.

The singular form indicates that the mitzvah of tzitzit is equal against all the mitzvot and through it, one can merit ti receive the Divine Presence of the Sh’china.

The verse also interestingly states:“ … So you may not wander after your heart and your eyes to lead you astray” (Numbers 15:39). Why does the Torah place the heart before the eyes? Aren’t we attracted by what we see, and then “feel”?

Apparently not. The eyes are an agent of the heart and not an independent organ. According to what’s in our heart, so we see. This is easily tested when we look at something, or someone, at different times in our lives, and suddenly, “it changed.” Did it?

The very same Torah portion opens with the story of the “spies”: Twelve esteemed princes of the 12 tribes went to check out the Land of Israel before the rest of the nation would follow. Only two of them saw its potential, and the fact that God’s people need not worry. The 10 others saw an impossible place to conquer or live in, full of “giants,” fortified cities and inedible fruit. Why the different view of the same exact place? Interestingly, the Torah tells us they went “latur et ha’aretz,” to scout or “wander” the land, using the same root from the mitzvah of tzitzit. There it says “velo taturu,” don’t wander! Don’t go around aimlessly without first preparing your heart!

But the Torah knows that sometimes we forget.

It therefore gives us a sign: it asks us to tie a knot. Famously, the word “tzitzit”) in gematria (numerical values given to Hebrew letters) equals 600. Adding eight threads (one doubled over in each of the four corners of the cloth) and five for the double knots on each of these threads makes 613, same as the traditional number of all the mitzvahs. The garment’s four corners, five knots, eight threads and other elements have additional symbolic meanings.

Behind it all there is a fascinating idea: The Torah tells us that often that which separates us also brings us closer again. Like two sides of the same coin, what we wear is not only a divider. It is also a tool to reconnect. Our exit can be our point of re-entry and where we erred is where we begin to correct with each other and with the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom from Limmud Bay Area 🙂

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