A fringe of blue…

Shelach Lecha - A fringe of blue...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

Behaalot’cha: Numbers 8:1-12:16

"That they make them… fringes" (Numbers 15:38)

The question of the week is far more pragmatic than usual. In this section, we are commanded to make fringes – with a single thread of blue – and attach them to the corners of our garments. In a style more typical of Talmud, the questions arise about the color, the number, and so on. But from all this emerges some poetic interpretations. And then I’ll take us a little further! The midrash begins by wondering about the color blue. Listen:

R. Meir asked: Why is blue distinguished above all other kinds of colors? Because blue resembles the sky, and the sky resembles the Throne of Glory; as is borne out by the text, And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone and the like of the very heaven for clearness (Ex. 24:10). And it shall be unto you for a fringe (Lev. 15:39). This implies that the fringe must be such as can be seen. (The root of the Hebrew word for fringe, tzitzit, signifies "to look.") That ye may look upon it (ib.). This serves to exclude from the law a cloak used as a covering at night. Or perhaps this is not so, and it serves to exclude a blind man? Scripture says further that ye may remember (ib. 40), thus ordaining both seeing and remembering: remembering for him who cannot see, and seeing for him who can see. That ye may look upon it, for if you act in accordance with the law it is as though you look upon the Throne of Glory, which is blue in appearance. That ye may look… and remember (ib.). The looking leads to remembering the commandments, and remembering leads to performance; as it says, that ye may remember. And do (ib. 40). Why should they do it? For it is no vain thing for you (Deut. 32:47).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XVII:5

Let’s begin with the basics: why should we be commanded to wear a fringe on our garments, and why should it have a single strand of blue (the word for this color is techelet, which is a very specific shade of blue).

At the time of our wanderings, nomadic tribes had a custom of identifying which group they were a part of through their clothing, just like today you can tell which branch of Hassidism someone belongs to by the way he dresses, or your political proclivities in Israel by the type of kippah (yarmulke) you wear. The method that every tribe used was to create a "marker" of fringes, with specific colors used to identify your tribe. So our "identifier" was a set of white fringes with a single blue thread: by wearing this arrangement, we would announce to the world that we were one of b’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. This was, in a sense both very literal and very modern, our "colors."

Of course, such a simple explanation is never enough for our Sages, so they went further by asking questions, the first being, Why blue? Such a sweet and simple answer: because we associate G!d with living in the heavens, and we associate the heavens with the sky, and on a clear day the sky is blue, so what could be more natural? A sweet, almost childish simplicity to the answer; but it will return to us, more deeply, you can be sure.

The next series of questions establish that the fringes must be worn in such a way that they can be seen. Why? So we can look at them. Why? So that when we look at them, we will remember. What should we remember? The laws we were given. And why should we remember them? So that we will do them!

What began as a way of identifying ourselves to each other becomes a way of encouraging us to keep the commandments by providing us with a constant reminder of who we are. M’ Shoshannah shares a snippet of a lovely story about the magic of tzitzit to do just that; if you’d like the whole story, email me and I will share it with you.

But it’s not that the tzitzit themselves protect us, and it’s really not that they remind us directly of who we are and what we are obliged to do (although that they do this is true).

The tzitzit also provide a visual reminder of who we are to everyone else. And suddenly we are not just an individual walking down the street, one of the anonymous crowd, but someone who has chosen to make it clear to the world that they are a Jew. In so doing, every action they take becomes representative of all Jews everywhere.

What an amazing and challenging burden – and opportunity! What would it be like to live your life as if every thing you did not only brought honor or shame to you, but to everyone you were close to? Everyone in your neighborhood? And beyond?

It’s not that by wearing these tzitzit we are reminded to look up to G!d, but we are reminded that we are acting as a beacon. And what is it that we wish to shine forth from us?

Let us each step up to the challenge of living a life, not of transparency, but of illumination, whatever our religion may be: illumination of the best we have to offer. Just imagine how bright and beautiful the world will be!


What about that blue?

On September 5, 1977, the deep space probe Voyager 1 was launched on a mission to photograph the solar system, and then to travel out into deep space, carrying a message from planet Earth to whoever (whatever?) might find it. The message had been designed under the leadership of the renowned astronomer, Carl Sagan, of blessed memory.

On February 14, 1990 Voyager left the boundaries of the solar system. Responding to Sagan’s long-standing urges and dreams, NASA issued a command to Voyager 1 to turn back and "look" upon our planet from a distance of roughly 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles). This is the picture it returned to us: what Sagan called "a pale blue dot." You can read his extraordinary commentary here.

I like to imagine that the Holy One, Ha Kodesh Baruch Hu, smiles at the techelet color of our home…

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