This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.
“Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make tzitzit for themselves on the corners of their garments through all the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the tzitzit of each corner. That shall be your tzitzit; look at it and recall all of God’s commandments and observe them… Thus shall you be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God… (Numbers 15: 38-41). “
Parashat Shlah concludes with these famous instructions to attach tzitzit (fringes) to the corners of our clothing as a reminder of and a directive to keep God’s commandments. The instruction of tzitzit is seen as a reminder of the entirety of religious practice. Our Sages believed that it was so important that they incorporated it verbatim into the Shema, one of the most central prayers in Judaism.
The Rabbis wondered why God commanded the inclusion of one blue thread among the white threads of the tzitzit. Tractate Menahot of the Babylonian Talmud reports Rabbi Meir asking “Why is blue different from all other colors?” and then answering, “Because blue resembles the sea, and the sea resembles sky, and the sky resembles God’s Throne of Glory…as it is written: ‘Above the sky over their heads was the semblance of a throne, like sapphire in appearance…'”
In other words, Rabbi Meir hypothesizes that the blue thread in tzitzit is meant to guide its wearers through a chain of associations beginning with immediate visualization of tzitzit and ending with the expansiveness of God. But why didn’t Rabbi Meir simply say that the color blue reminds us of God’s throne? Why do we first need to think of the ocean and the sky?
Rabbi Meir is alluding to the intimate connection between our religious actions and the real world. Our relationship with the Divine must also encompass a relationship with the world that surrounds us: the ocean, the sky, and the rich variety of life that dwells in between. We must learn to truly see, and thereby to know, the full world that God has created, from the depths of the ocean to the heights of the sky and the vastness of earth.
A Reminder for Action
Indeed, we are not permitted to merely contemplate the world–we must be part of it. Immediately preceding Rabbi Meir’s comment, the Talmud asks why we are told to look at tzitzit and remember God’s commandments. The Talmud offers the answer that “seeing leads to remembering and remembering leads to doing.”
Seeing or reading about tzitzit is meant to remind us to act. This is true as much today as it was when these words were written. Perhaps thinking of the blue of the ocean and the sky can serve as a reminder to care for the earth and make choices that lead to sustainable development. Perhaps remembering those who inhabit the expanse of land between ocean and sky, and recalling our communal redemption story, should remind us of our obligation to build a world that honors the dignity and equality of all people.
We can see the earth differently by traveling and interacting with a diversity of people, visiting the developing world, or simply walking down the streets of our own cities, eyes wide open, speaking with those who need help. If we look carefully enough, what we see may remind us, like the Shema does, of our ancient and modern family stories.
Ours are stories about slavery, poverty, immigration, environmental degradation, suffering, and, in many cases, redemption. Our stories can help us to see the stories of others and to act in ways that will bring about redemptive endings. As the Rabbis imply in their teaching about tzitzit and its place in the Shema, when we look around we are challenged to make empathic connections between ourselves and the world around us. These connections obligate us to act.
The color blue that reminds us of ocean, sky, and God’s throne also reminds of this connection. The particular shade of blue to be used in tzitzit is called tekhelet. Ramban (Nahmanides) suggests that tekhelet was chosen because its spelling is very close to the word takhlit, which means purpose or goal.
The relationship between the two words summarizes the Talmud’s teaching on tzitzit. The purpose of our religious rituals is to truly see and engage with the world and its people. This engagement with the world leads us into relationship with the Divine. Only then, as the end of Parashat Shlah tells us, we will be holy to our God.