Parshat Shelach: Beyond The Fringe

Our sedra ends with one of the great commands of Judaism – tsitsit, the fringes we wear on the corner of our garments as a perennial reminder of our identity as Jews and our obligation to keep the Torah’s commands:

“G-d spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the Israelites and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments for all generations. Let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe: look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not stray after your heart and eyes which in the past have led you to immorality. You will thus remember and keep all my commandments and be holy to your G-d.”

So central is this command, that it became the third paragraph of the Shema, the supreme declaration of Jewish faith. I once heard the following commentary from my teacher, Rabbi Dr Nahum Rabinovitch.

He began by pointing out some of the strange features of the command. On the one hand the sages said that the command of tsitsit is equal to all the other commands together, as it is said: “Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them.” It is thus of fundamental significance.

On the other hand, it is not absolutely obligatory. It is possible to avoid the command of fringes altogether by never wearing a garment of four or more corners. Maimonides rules: “Even though one is not obligated to acquire a robe and wrap oneself in it in order to tsitsit, it is not fitting for a pious individual to exempt himself from this command” (Laws of Tsitsit, 3: 11). It is important and praiseworthy but not categorical. It is conditional: if you have such a garment, then you must put fringes on it. Why so? Surely it should be obligatory, in the way that tefillin (phylacteries) are.

There is another unusual phenomenon. In the course of time, the custom has evolved to fulfil the command in two quite different ways: the first, in the form of a tallit (robe, shawl) which is worn over our other clothes, specifically while we pray; the second in the form of an undergarment, worn beneath our outer clothing throughout the day.

Not only do we keep the one command in two different ways. We also make different blessings over the two forms. Over the tallit, we say: “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” Over the undergarment, we say, “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the precept of the fringed garment.” Why is one command split into two in this way?

He gave this answer: there are two kinds of clothing. There are the clothes we wear to project an image. A king, a judge, a soldier, all wear clothing that conceals the individual and instead proclaims a role, an office, a rank. As such, clothes, especially uniforms, can be misleading. A king dressed as a beggar will not (or would not, before television) be recognised as royalty. A beggar dressed as a king may find himself honoured. A policeman dressed as a policeman carries with him a certain authority, an aura of power, even though he may feel nervous and insecure. Clothes disguise. They are like a mask. They hide the person beneath. Such are the clothes we wear in public when we want to create a certain impression.

But there are other clothes we wear when we are alone, that may convey more powerfully than anything else the kind of person we really are: the artist in his studio, the writer at his desk, the gardener tending the roses. They do not dress to create an impression. To the contrary: they dress as they do because of what they are, not because of what they wish to seem.

The two kinds of tsitsit represent these different forms of dress. When we engage in prayer, we sense in our heart how unworthy we may be of the high demands G-d has made of us. We feel the need to come before G-d as something more than just ourselves. We wrap ourselves in the robe, the tallit, the great symbol of the Jewish people at prayer. We conceal our individuality – in the language of the blessing over the tallit, we “wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” It is as if we were saying to G-d: I may only be a beggar, but I am wearing a royal robe, the robe of your people Israel who prayed to You throughout the centuries, to whom You showed a special love and took as Your own. The tallit hides the person we are and represents the person we would like to be, because in prayer we ask G-d to judge us, not for what we are, but for what we wish to be.

The deeper symbolism of tsitsit, however, is that it represents the commandments as a whole (“look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord”) – and these becomes part of what and who we are only when we accept them without coercion, of our own free will. That is why the command of tsitsit is not categorical. We do not have to keep it. We are not obligated to buy a four-cornered garment. When we do so, it is because we chose to do so. We obligate ourselves. That is why opting to wear tsitsit symbolises the free acceptance of all the duties of Jewish life.

This is the most inward, intimate, intensely personal aspect of faith whereby in our innermost soul we dedicate ourselves to G-d and His commands. There is nothing public about this. It is not for outer show. It is who we are when we are alone, not trying to impress anyone, not wishing to seem what we are not. This is the command of tsitsit as undergarment, beneath, not on top of, our clothing. Over this we make a different blessing. We do not talk about “wrapping ourselves in a fringed garment” – because this form of fringes is not for outward show. We are not trying to hide ourselves beneath a uniform. Instead, we are expressing our innermost commitment to G-d’s word and call to us. Over this we say the blessing, “who has commanded us concerning the precept of tsitsit” because what matters is not the mask but the reality, not what we wish to seem but what we really are.

In this striking way tsitsit represent the dual nature of Judaism. On the one hand it is a way of life that is public, communal, shared with others across the world and through the ages. We keep Shabbat, celebrate the festivals, observe the dietary laws and the laws of family purity in a way that has hardly varied for many centuries. That is the public face of Judaism – the tallit we wear, the cloak woven out of the 613 threads, each a command.

But there is also our inner life as people of faith. There are things we can say to G-d that we can say to no one else. He knows our thoughts, hopes, fears, better than we know them ourselves. We speak to Him in the privacy of the soul, and He listens. That internal conversation – the opening of our heart to Him who brought us into existence in love – is not for public show. Like the fringed undergarment, it stays hidden. But it is no less real an aspect of Jewish spirituality. The two types of fringed garment represent the two dimensions of the life of faith – the outer persona and the inner person, the image we present to the world and the face we show only to G-d.


One generous act can redeem a life.

In their screenplay for the film About Schmidt, Louis Begley and Alexander Payne weave a beautifully subtle tale of contemporary self-discovery. Warren Schmidt (played in the film by Jack Nicholson) is a 66-year-old assistant vice-president of an insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska who, following retirement and his wife’s death, is forced to confront the meaninglessness of his life, its petty deceptions and betrayals and the failure of his relationships with his wife and daughter. It is a film of closely observed humour, which makes bearable the intense sadness of its portrait of a mean-spirited man who has done nothing to earn a place in other people’s affections.

Its master-stroke involves the use of a minor incident which, until the film’s closing scene, seems no more than a narrative device. The one positive thing Schmidt has done in retirement is to answer a television appeal to adopt a 6-year-old child in Tanzania by sending a monthly cheque to pay for his treatment and schooling. Along with the cheque, he sends a letter telling the boy, Ngudu, about himself. This provides the film with its narrative voice, allowing its central character to reflect aloud on what is happening to and within him. In the final minutes, Schmidt is driving home after his daughter’s wedding, a match he tried but failed to prevent. Overwhelmed by a sense of failure, he writes Ngudu another letter, his requiem for an inconsequential life:

I know we’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things . . . What in the world is better because of me? Red . . . I am weak and I am a failure . . . there’s just no getting around it . . . Soon I will die . . . maybe in twenty years, maybe tomorrow, it doesn’t matter . . . When everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never even existed . . . What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of . . . none at all.
Just then he receives a note from Tanzania, from the nun who has been looking after Ngudu. Thanking Schmidt for his cheques and letters, she tells him about the boy. He cannot write, she says, but he has sent Schmidt a drawing instead. It shows two stick characters, obviously the boy and Schmidt. They are holding hands, and the sun is shining. Schmidt slowly realizes he has done one good deed in his life, after all. He really did help a child far away whom he has never met. He begins to weep – overwhelmed by the good he might have done but did not, and by the single act of charity he might not have done but did – and with that scene the film ends.

By contemporary standards it is a daring statement. One reviewer called it a ‘trumpet-blast of defiant non-irony’. But it is a moment of great cinematic and moral power. The sages had a saying for this idea: There are some who acquire their share of eternity in a lifetime, others who win it in a single hour. One generous act can redeem a life.

(From “To Heal a fractured World” Published by Continuum 2005 – Pages 226-227)