Rabbi David Walk
Do the clothes make the man? Or woman, for that matter? I've never felt that way, and that may explain why I'm sartorially challenged. But the Torah, seems to make a case for the importance of clothing a few times. For example, in the long descriptions of the priestly garments, but that could be explained away as a necessity of office, quite common in the premodern world (and still true in some countries). There are other halachic qualifications for clothing, like the prohibition of wearing fabric which has linen woven with wool, or the ban on cross gender dressing. Again, those laws are about philosophic separation of certain biological categories. However, this week's Torah reading makes a daring fashion statement. The mitzvah of tzitzit is a big deal, and gets tremendous coverage in our Sages and tradition. It's hard to avoid the importance of this precept since we read about it every evening and morning. So, let's take a fresh look at this critical concept.
First of all we can't hide from the famous idea that the mitzvah of tzitzit hints at the entire corpus of 613 mitzvot. Even though I believe that this principle is contrived, gematria of tzitzit is 600, plus 8 strings hang down and there are 5 knots. C'mon on, that's just forced! And the tradition of 5 knots isn't from the Torah anyway. Nevertheless, the fact that our Sages make a point of it, means that they saw something crucial in the wearing of tzitzit. Perhaps, because these strings can remind us of our mitzvah obligations, like tying a string to our finger reminds us to buy bread at the supermarket (or not, but it can't hurt).
However, I think that there's something deeper going on. Let's begin with the word begged. This Hebrew word for clothing is related to the word for traitor. Remember the short confessional prayer begins: ashamnu, bagadnu. That doesn't mean we are guilty; we have worn clothing. It means that we acted treacherously. A boged is a traitor. We call clothing begged, because they conceal; they don't reveal. From the beginning of the fashion industry, namely Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the intent is to hide. When clothing reveals reality we call it levush (or promiscuous), but that's a discussion for another time (the curious can check out Psalm 93).
So, let's look at our command: Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel (Numbers 15:38). We begin with an article of clothing, whose job is to cover and conceal our body. Then we turn our attention to the very edge of the garment. From there we're off the clothing itself and discussing the tzitz or tassel, which is normally an ornament or decoration, not a necessary part of the whole. Finally, even the fringe has an added, extraneous part, the single blue dyed thread. The precept is drawing our attention further and further afield. Rav Shimon Klein wrote: In the Midrash, the thread of blue invites the imagination to sail beyond the sea, to the blue of the sky and to the Throne of Glory. It is as if the thread of blue comes from a different world and not from the districts surrounding man (http://etzion.org.il/en/occurrence-space-study-section-dealing-tzitzit). This mitzva pulls us from the mundane towards the ethereal. It hints at a superiority of the holy over the profane. And specifically, it influences our eyes (verse 39) which are focused on this transition. Why?
The answer, I believe can be discerned if we just read the preceding material carefully. Let's go back to chapter 10. Moshe is pleading with his father in law, Chovav (aka Yitro) to stay with the Jews as they travel the desert. Moshe tells him that he will be their 'eyes' (10:31). This can mean that he will guide them, because he understands the dangers of the desert. That section also introduces the most telling word in this week's parsha. Verse 33 says that when the Jews set out without Yitro they spent three days scouting (latur) a place for rest. That term latur appears in our parsha as the instruction to the 12 men who were going to Israel and is repeated seven times. It usually means to scout but has been translated as search, spy, explore reconnoiter, investigate, and travel. In modern Hebrew it means tour, just like it sounds. Misrad HaTayarut is the Ministry of Tourism.
Now let's go back to the section of tzitzit. We're told: This will be your fringe. You will see it and remember all the Lord's commands and do them. Then you won't go exploring the lusts of your own heart or your eyes (15:39). And, of course, you guessed it, the 'exploring' in the verse is taturu. When we look and inspect the world around us it must be through the prism of the blue fringe on our garment. Otherwise, many false assumptions and conclusions can be arrived at. We don't have to stray from God and the mitzvot, because the mitzvot themselves open horizons far broader than any found in normal earthly exploration. It's sort of like Dorothy said, 'If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard.' You can find amazing things without leaving your garment or environment.
The section of tzitzit ends with the reminder that, 'I am the Lord your God, who took you out from the land of Egypt (verse 41). Mitzrayim (Hebrew for Egypt) means the land of narrow straights. By taking us out from the land of constriction, God granted us infinite possibilities. Ten of the twelve scouts thought they were still bound by the norms of nature and history. The mitzva of tzitzit is to remind us that there are no limits to Jewish destiny. The Torah doesn't limit, it opens limitless possibilities. We just need to constantly remind ourselves of that reality by tying a string to our clothing.