Rabbi David Walk
Every week during the Pirkei Avot season, we recite the same Mishneh with a verse before we begin our study of this ethical material and its partner Mishneh and verse at the end. Before the study we proclaim: Every Israelite has a share in the World to Come, as it is stated (Isaiah 60:21): "And your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever. They are the branch of My planting, the work of My hand in which to take pride (Sanhedrin 10:1)." And at the end we declare: Rabbi Chananiah ben Akashiah said: "The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to make the people of Israel meritorious; therefore he gave them Torah and mitzvoth in an abundant measure -- as it is written (Isaiah 42:21): 'God desired, for the sake of its (Israel's) righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious (Makkot).'" The introduction states that Jews are innately good, and, therefore learning ethics is about who we are. The epilogue asserts that our system of Torah study and mitzvah performance enhances our righteousness. In other words: you're really good; follow this program and you'll be even better. Judaism is an advanced curriculum for the spiritually gifted. Welcome to training camp for the big leagues.
But can we break this system down to determine what benefits accrue from the study (Torah) and what advantages ensue from the activities (Mitzvoth)? I think that we can find some guidelines in our parsha for at least one side of the equation. Our Torah reading this week ends with a paragraph describing the mitzvah of Tzitzit. It has been said many times and many ways that this precept of placing strings or tassels at the corners of our clothing is meant to represent our commitment to the entire Mitzva program. The most famous method of describing the connection between Tzitzit and the entire edifice of mitzvoth is a well known Gematria. Remember Hebrew letters are also used as numbers. It goes like this: The Gematria or numerical value of the five letters in the Hebrew word Tzitzit is six hundred. Then there are eight strings hanging down in each corner, and there are five knots tying these strings together, which total thirteen. When you add the thirteen to the six hundred you get a sum total of six hundred and thirteen, or the traditional number representing the total number of mitzvoth in our Torah. It may not be logically compelling, but it does show a certain relationship of Tzitzit to the mitzvoth.
Rabbeinu Bechaye (ben Asher, 1255-1340) points out another approach. He explains that there is a tradition which he describes as a wonderful secret (sod nifla), in which those wearing Tzitzit are transformed into the holy angels who give life and movement to God's chariot in the vision of Ezekiel (Ezekiel, chapter one). The theory behind this idea is based upon the four sided appearance of the marvelous vehicle for transporting God around and above our realm. The reason for this analogy, of course, is the four sided nature of the garment requiring Tzitzit. It's as if we animate this article of clothing to make God manifest in our world. And when we do this we are the life force (chayot, a genre of angels) behind the apparatus for God's presence. So, if we can assume that Tzitzit represent all of the mitzvoth, then the role of mitzvoth is to bring God into this world. When we perform mitzvoth we're giving God a ride down our pathways.
Okay, that's cool, but Rabbeinu Bechaye gives a hint to another approach to the problem. The great rabbi says that the word Tzitzit really means to see. It is related to the verse: He is peering (mei'tzit) through the lattice (Song of Songs 2:9). Here we have a beautiful allusion to the Tzitzit as an instrument for inspecting this world. If we follow this metaphor, it's almost as if when we put on Tzitzit we step out of our environment and look back upon it as if gazing at a scene from the outside. It could be like a microscope looking at the minutiae of our neighborhood, or like a telescope scanning the infinitely big picture surrounding us. It could be either or both, depending upon the situation and perspective.
Now we can look back at the context of the mitzvah in the verses. It says: This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray (Numbers 15:39). Tzitzit help you to remember the mitzvoth. This remembering is not just cognitive. It's like the remembering of Zichronot in Rosh Hashanah prayers. There the memory is the catalyst for action. It urges and prods me to perform mitzvoth and to do them better. But there's another aspect almost as important. The Tzitzit also prevent me from losing my focus and straying onto another more dangerous path. In the best of circumstances, Tzitzit propel me into the proper path, and then I'm traveling in the company of God's earthly presence, as described by Rabbeinu Bechaye. But as a fall back, they prevent me from using a different compass, and following another system, not heaven based, but based on human ideas and desires, thoughts and appetites.
So the mitzvoth, represented by the Tzitzit, are a guide to moving in the correct spiritual direction, helping us to come closer to our moral objective. It's a very complex landscape out there, and achieving our ethical targets isn't easy. If the whole mitzvah system is the road map, then the Tzitzit are the GPS. It's a visual rather than an audio technique. When we look at our Tzitzit, they remind us that we're either on the right route or that we must adjust our direction. We've got so many Mitzvoth because life presents us with so many options that we need constant updates. At frequent intervals we need these reminders of 'continue on present route' or the always popular 'recalculating.'
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