Parashat Shelah

אמר ר' מאיר: מה נשתנה תכלת מכל מיני צבעונין? שהתכלת דומה לים וים דומה לרקיע ורקיע דומה לכסא הכבוד שנאמר ״ויראו את אלהי ישראל ותחת רגליו כמעשה לבנת הספיר וכעצם השמים לטוהר„ (שמות כד י)… ״וראיתם אותו„ (במדבר טו לט) אותו ולא אותה כשישראל מסתכלין באותה ציצית של תכלת נראה להם כאילו שכינה שרויה ביניהם. ״וראיתם וזכרתם„ הראייה מביא לידי זכרון וזכרון מביא לידי מעשה שנאמר ״למען תזכרו ועשיתם„ למה? ״כי לא דבר רק הוא מכם„ (דברים לב מו).

R Meir said, “Why is tekhelet different from all other colors? For tekhelet resembles the ocean, and the ocean resembles the sky, and the sky is resembles the Throne of Glory, as it is written ‘They saw the Gd of Israel, and under His feet was a like a working of sapphire brick, as the essence of the sky in purity.’ (Exodus 24:10) “You shall see it.”  (Numbers 15:39) This is in the masculine and not the feminine. [It says ‘you will see Him’, meaning Gd so to speak, not the expected ‘you will see her,’ meaning the expected feminine string] When Israel gazes at this strand of tekhelet, it will appear to them as if the Shekhina dwells among them. “You will see, and you will remember.” The sight will lead to remembrance, and remembrance will lead to practice, as it is says “So that you remember and do.” Why? “For it is not an empty matter for you.” (Deuteronomy 32:46)

The Gemara in Bava Batra states that after the sin of the spies, Gd cut off all communication with Moses, and it remained cut off until the entire generation died off. No commandments were given during that time. This is why in the coming weeks we will see that there is a time gap, where the Torah suddenly skips ahead all the way to the last year in the Desert. It was as if Gd had nothing more to do with the people. So heavy was the sin of the Spies.

But before He cut off contact entirely, He gave the commandments at the end of our parasha. According to the Midrash Tanhuma, after sentencing the people to never see the land of Israel, Gd wanted to console them a bit by giving commandments specifically relevant to the produce of the land. Thus they would at least know that eventually the people would be forgiven, and their children would indeed inherit it. This explains most of the parasha, but it does not explain the very last commandment, to fasten tassels to the corners of garments. Why did tzitzit merit to be the last thing said to the generation?

One connection is immediately evident. The Torah says that the purpose of tzitzit is to prevent straying after the eyes and heart, but rather to stay focused on Gd. Looking at them is a reminder of the commandments. The Akedat Yitzhak suggest this is even the meaning of the word tekhelet, it is related to the word takhlit meaning purpose. When one looks at the string, they are reminded that their ultimate aim of life is service to Gd. This was the exact sin of the spies. This group of all men were supposed report back on the land, but they strayed after their desires and failed to include Gd in the final calculus. Therefore, it was clear that the men of the nation needed a constant reminder of Gd and the Torah to keep it on task.

But there are other, more hopeful symbolisms for tzitzit as well. Tzitzit is blue and ultimately symbolizes the Heavenly Throne. The Midrash writes that one will look at the tzitzit and see a reflection of Gd, and it will appear as if the Shekhina dwells in Israel. Why as if? Does the Shekhina not actually dwell in Israel? It seems to me that the Midrash is talking about during periods of exile, such as we are in now and such as the people were in the Desert after Gd stopped speaking of them. In those times, the actual presence of Gd is not felt, but that doesn’t mean Gd is absent. We can still connect with him through the commandments. This was the message to the people in the Desert. They may have sinned. They may be under a ban. But they are still Gd’s people, and they can still connect with Him.

Secular scholarship tells us that tassels on garments were a symbol of nobility in the Ancient Near East, as was  the color tekhelet, the royal blue. If this were so, then wearing a fringed shawl is a sign that one is in Gd’s nobility. This, too, is a lesson the spies sorely needed. The Midrash Tanhuma writes that when the spies said they felt like grasshoppers compared to the inhabitants of Israel and were sure that the inhabitants similarly viewed them as insignificant, Gd was enraged. “How do you know what I made you in their eyes? Who told you I didn’t make you like angels?” The spies diminished themselves and their importance. They saw their mission as impossibly beyond them, and so it was. Grasshoppers had no chance of going into the land of Israel, but angels would have succeeded. Therefore the tzizit is a constant reminder that one has intrinsic worth as a servant of Gd. Never again, should we give up on a task for being too weighty.

Our aim in life is to serve Gd and fulfill his commands. But in the course of life, we often fall short of our goals. We may end up sidetracked by our desires, devoting our time to worldly pleasures rather than our eternal task. When that happens, we need a reminder of who we are to stay on task. We are Gd’s people. We do not stray after our desires. Other times, we may assume it is impossible to be Gdly. We feel so far from holiness that we assume nothing we do will make a difference. The commandments speak to us then also. We are not worthless. Gd put us on Earth to create holiness in the world, and He is with us in our endeavors. Again, the tzizit serve as a reminder of worth and purpose.

The parasha ends by saying “I am your Gd who took you out of Egypt to be a people for Gd.” We say every Shabbat how we still long for the time when those words will be said again. Sforno states that Gd is saying with everything that happened in the desert, through all the rebellions and sins, Gd is still Gd and His original purpose for the Jewish people remains unchanged. I do not think it is a coincidence that the color of the string directly hearkens back to what was seen on that first vision on Mount Sinai, before the Spies, before the endless complaints, before the Golden Calf. Through it all we are Jews, and we have our mission. Gd has not forgotten. Let us not forget either.