Parashat Shlah

Fringed With Faith

The tzitzit (fringes) and tallit (prayer shawl) serve as physical reminders of our connections with previous generations and of the faith that sustained them and us.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

This week's Torah portion, Shlah, contains several seemingly disparate stories. It begins with the story of the 12 scouts sent by Moses to survey the land of Canaan, and concludes with the commandment of putting tzitzit (fringes) on garments. Is there a connection between the two?

The parasha begins with the 12 scouts sent to Canaan. Ten of them return quite apprehensive about what they saw in the land. After hearing these fearful reports, the Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron, pining for their days back in Egypt. Needless to say, as leaders with a vision of moving forward, Moses and Aaron are dismayed.

Two of the scouts, however, appear to share Moses' and Aaron's vision. Joshua and Caleb quickly come to the leaders' rescue, aided by "another spirit." Joshua and Caleb remind the Israelites of God's promise to bring them to the land of milk and honey. Moses asks God to pardon the Israelites for their delusions of going back to Egypt. But God is angry, promising death by plague to the scouts who brought back the negative view of Canaan, while sparing Joshua and Caleb because of their faith.

The final paragraph of the parasha also comprises the third paragraph of the Sh'ma prayer. In this paragraph, God tells Moses to speak to the Israelites about putting fringes on the corners of their garments.

The commentator Rashi was struck by the placement of the paragraph about tzitzit at the conclusion of the parasha featuring the scout story. He explains the connection between these two seemingly incongruent pieces through an interpretation of a line in the tzitzit paragraph, which states, “v'lo taturu…” "and you should not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge."

It's as if this line is a reminder of the problematic report issued by the 10 scouts who lost their faith in God's promise. The scouts followed the fear in their hearts, prompted by the enormity they saw with their eyes, and thus lost their faith and were ready to retreat to Egypt. Conversely, it was the brave actions of Joshua and Caleb that saved Moses and the rest of the Israelites by returning the focus to God's promise. The tzitzit are a physical reminder of God's promise and presence.

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Melanie Kohler Levav

Melanie Kohler Levav is the director of Jewish education at the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst.