Paradise Lost, Twice1
We are never going to complain that mitzvos are redundant. The more kedushah HKBH wants to give us, the better. We would still like to understand why He asks us to connect certain parts of our lives with Him through formally constructed, visible symbols, while ignoring others.
Upon reflection, most of them make perfect sense to us – until we get to tzitzis. The other visible symbols attach to crucial parts of our inner and outer lives. Bris milah sanctifies the body; tefillin the mind, the heart and our capacity to change our environment with the actions of our limbs. The mezuzah literally brings kedushah to the personal domain of our homes, reminding us to carve out our own small fortress devoted entirely to His purposes.
Tzitzis, it would seem, follows the same pattern, and are meant to sanctify our clothes. Clothes? Are they really so important to require a mitzvah of their own, parallel to bris and tefillin? Other Torah considerations like tzniyus, humility, and kavod ha-Torah dictate what clothing is appropriate to the Am Hashem. Having complied with all those requirements, do we need further sanctification on the scale of a mitzvah with as ubiquitous application as tzitzis? The word itself hints at some important potential that resides within our clothing. It is related to the words for sprouting and blossoming. The tzitzis threads appear to sprout, divide and flourish from where the place they had all been tightly coiled together. They hint at some good that can be an outgrowth of our garb, when dedicated to the right purpose. Where is this taking us?
We can only answer the question by examining the role of clothing from the beginning of time. We quickly realize that clothing was a co-traveler on the road of moral development.
The Torah admonishes us lo sasuru acharei levavchem ve-acharei eineichem, “you shall not seek out after your hearts and after your eyes.” At the very dawn of human civilization, our forebears made a fateful mistake, for which we all still pay a bitter price. “She saw that the tree was good for eating, a delight to the eyes, and desirable to make one wise.” At that moment, Man’s discernment of the clear difference between right and wrong became crippled; Man’s determination of what is moral and just became subverted to what he saw, and how he processed that vision in accordance with his expectation of temporal pleasure and benefit. He had traded the gift of human reason for that of the animal, which knows of no yardstick to weigh its actions other than the desirability of what it sees in front of it. Quickly Man sensed this great change; he felt deep remorse for what he had done, because he could still detect the Voice of G-d within him. That contrast between the Presence of G-d at his core, and the animal-like arguments moving him in another direction we know as “shame.” Reacting to it, Man covered himself – and soon saw his instinct in this regard confirmed by Hashem Himself. Ushering Adam and Chavah out of the Paradise they had lost, G-d gave each of them special garments, to remind them of what they had lost in the descent to animal-like tendencies, and the crucial need to offset them by carefully listening to the Word of G-d.
Tzitzis, in effect, asks us not to repeat the mistake in our own lives, and to make use of the same gift that Hashem gave to Mankind when Adam and Chavah entered the world beyond the borders of Gan Eden.
In the eight strings of tzitzis we find allusion to the numbers six, seven and eight. Six represents the sum total of the natural forces written into the six days of Creation. Seven takes us to the higher, invisible, spiritual place that Man can choose to incorporate in his thinking and in his life through the gift of free will. With the creation of a Jewish people, all activity can start over on a new plane – in effect, an octave higher than what came before. This is the number eight, or the blue thread that encircles the others in the gedil, the thicker, wrapped part of the tzitzis. The first step in the reclamation of the moral high ground is for the six of the material world to give way to the encircling and restricting influence of what seven and eight represent.
Some would find such restriction stifling of their individuality. Tzitzis remind them that this is not the case. The wrapped, coiled, constricted gedil takes up only one third of the length of the tzitzis. Without obedience to the guidance of Hashem, Man is truly bound up and enslaved to his animal needs and their influence upon his thinking. Tzitzis instruct Man to determine of his own free will that he need limit the animal voice and respond to the human voice within that recognizes the Divine. When the “six” subordinate themselves to the spiritual and national aspirations of the “seven” and “eight,” all of them expand, grow and flourish, spreading freely from where they had been wrapped tightly together. All parts of life – the material six together with the others – participate equally in this growth.
At the moment that Adam and Chavah left Paradise, clothing immediately took on an additional meaning. Responding to the shame they felt after disobeying G-d had immediately necessitated clothing as begged, a covering of animal tendencies to remind Man of the higher ones. Leaving Gan Eden, they would now need clothing for protection, to cover and insulate their bodies from all sorts of hazards they would encounter in the uncharted unknown expanse if front of them. In Devarim, the word used for clothing is kesus, or covering. It reminds us of the Jewish mission to take the Devar Hashem to every conceivable place, in spite of all sorts of obstacles. Our section uses the word begged, but tells us to observe the mitzvah in all generations. Taken together, the two sections admonish us to heed the ancient idea of clothing in all places and at all times.
The drama of Adam and Chava was replayed years later, with tragic consequences once more. The meraglim were sent out as well lasur, to seek out the nature of the Land. Had they used their eyes properly, they could have regained the Paradise lost by their forebears by entering Eretz Yisrael and meriting a redeemed and spiritually elevated society. Once again, this did not happen. They too failed in their mission, which ended again with open defection from Hashem. They dragged down the nation with them, as Adam and Chava dragged down all of humanity. The rest of the parshah is a series of mitzvah-responses to their failure, culminating in the mitzvah of tzitzis, with its warning of lo sasuru. What else could this be, but a warning to each person not to fail as Adam, Chavah, and the meraglim had? We are repeatedly faced in the course of each day with the possibility of following our hearts, of allowing our eyes to twist the judgment of our hearts and turn evil to good.
Tzitzis warn us not to go down the path twice taken. Adam and Chavah followed their eyes and hearts, and denied G-d as the necessary Guide of all our actions. They were then given clothing as a reminder to listen to a different voice than the strengthened animal voice within. The meraglim followed their eyes and hearts, and denied G-d as the necessary Guide of our fate. They were given tzitzis on their clothing as a reminder to listen to a different voice than the one seeking safety and security in the wrong places.
Summing up the admonition, the parshah concludes with the admonition to right both wrongs: “I am Hashem who took you out of Egypt…I am Hashem your G-d.”
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Bamidbar 15:41
2. Bamidbar 15:39
3. Bereishis 3:6
4. Rav Hirsch follows here the approach of Rambam, who holds that the blue techeiles thread is a half thread of the four that are folded over in the hole in each corner, yielding seven uncolored threads, and only one blue one. Others disagree. Rashi and Tosafos assign two threads of the original four to the techeles, yielding four uncolored and four blue ones. The Raavad (followed by the Vilna Gaon) holds that one full thread is devoted to techeles, yielding after they are doubled over in the corner two techeles strands, and six uncolored.
5. Devarim 22:12
6. Bamidbar 15:41