At the end of Shelach, this week’s Torah Portion, we read that God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to make for themselves fringes (in Hebrew, צִיצִת, tzitzit) on each of the corners of their garments. There we read:
’Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of Tekhelet. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray;that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God. (Numbers 15:38-41 )
From this we could learn that even today we are supposed to wear these garments, look at the fringes, recall the commandments, and observe them.
I have had tzitzit on my mind since the UJA-Federation of New York recently presented the findings from the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011. This was a comprehensive study of the world’s largest and most diverse Jewish community outside Israel. I have been thinking of two main issues. One is the diversity of identity markers of the contemporary Jewish community and the second is the rise of Orthodox population. It is obvious how thinking about the tremendous growth of the Orthodox community would lead me to think about tzitzit ( that is some great branding). To relate to the second issue I will have to deal with another question from this week’s Torah portion. What is this Tekhelet?
On this in the Talmud quotes Rabbi Meir as saying:
Why particularly Tekhelet [for the mitzvah of tzitzit] from among all other colored materials? Because Tekhelet is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Holy Throne. As it says, “And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity (Exodus 24:10),” and as it is written, “in appearance like sapphire stone was the semblance of a throne” (Ezekiel 1:26).(Sotah 17b)
So Tekhelet seems to be some shade of aqua sky blue. More important then it being a color it is color code for a set of references that go from the mundane string adornment of cloth all the way to God on high. Over the years we lost the snail from which we harvested the dye to get this specific color. Recently there are those who believe that they rediscovered this snail, but for many more this pigment is still understood to be lost. So we are left with just the white strings to remind us of God and God’s commandments. But still for most Jews, this entire custom is lost. And beyond this custom, for many this costume is alienating. Yes, tzitzit are identified as the garb of Orthodox Jews, but have the rest of us lost the thread of the idea? ( Sorry I just could not resist the pun.)
So we know that the Jewish population is growing. And while within that number the Orthodox population is on the rise, there are still many of us who are and will never be Orthodox Jews. So while tzitzit will not work for most of us, how do we identify ourselves? What are the visual cues in our lives that lead us to go from what we wear to a consciousness of big ideas to acting in service of our highest ideals? First we need to identify these big ideas. When we know that we can work our way down from that throne to other ways those ideas are represented in the world to what we wear on a daily basis.
The lesson of tzitzit is that we need to tether our lived lives to the big ideas or they will get away from us. It might have been easier to talk about an idea called Jewish identity then wrestle with the fact that our larger Jewish family does not share any common practices. If we want to educate the next generation of Jews we need to get over this fear and go back to this lesson of tzitzit. Good education is not just theory and idea or just practice and dress codes. Like tzitzit it needs to connect these factors. We need to train the next generation in specific practices that are linked to big ideas. We need to stop just talking about the nebulous concept of Jewish identity that is not manifest in behavior. And we cannot be content with practices for their own sake that are not in linked to big ideas. There is a tremendous opportunity for us to move past the old theoretical identity markers toward new-old real-life adornment that mark our highest ideals. What are going to be the next generation’s tzitzit?