Parashat Shlah

The Blue of the Ocean, the Sky, and the Tzitzit

Our relationship with the Divine must also encompass a relationship with the world that surrounds us.

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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.

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Elizabeth Richman

Elizabeth Richman is a rabbinical student at JTS.