Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 20

All for One and One for All!

June 19, 2020

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope this communication finds you doing well and in good health.

We pray for all those impacted directly and indirectly by the COVID-19 virus. We thank our first responders and essential workers from the bottom of our hearts. Please let us know if you need any assistance or outreach.

Growing up in Toronto, I was exposed to many dynamic Jewish educators, who influenced my life in a most meaningful and profound manner. Sometimes, due to my professional calling, people will ask me if I attended Yeshiva or Jewish Day School. The fact is that there was not really an established infrastructure for Conservative day schools at that time. Rather, my brother and I attended a supplementary synagogue-based school five times per week (not including the expected participation on Shabbat at Junior Congregation services). We were blessed.

In this week’s Torah portion of Shelcach Lecha, we read of one of my favorite commandments, the Mitzvah of Tzitzit (the four-corner fringed garment). After my Bar Mitzvah, one of my teachers presented me with my first pair of Tzitzit. Often called the Arbe Kanfos (meaning again, four corners), my first pair was made of a heavy wool, well suited to the frigid climate of Toronto winters. Aesthetically, I loved the pair because they had what we referred to as “black racing stripes” across the bottom.

The commandment to wear Tzitzit is a curious law. How can a stringed garment remind us of God and His commandments? Why does the commandment of tzitzit appear in this week's Torah portion, after a narrative about the laws of Shabbat?

A proper pair of Tzitzit are made with a specific number of strings and knots and understanding the reason for these numbers can answer our questions. Both the wearing of the Tzitzit and the physical Tzitzit themselves remind us of the 613 commandments. Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, points out that the Tzitzit's arrangement hints at the 613 commandments. He notes that the numerical value of the word Tzitzit is 600. Add the 8 strings that are tied to each corner of the Tzitzit, plus the 5 knots that are tied in each set of strings, and we get 613. By wearing the Tzitzit, we literally envelop ourselves in a garment reminiscent of all of the 613 commandments, which is intended to attenuate our focus on observing all of the commandments.

The commandment of Tzitzit appears in this week's Torah portion, immediately after the story of a man who was caught gathering wood on Shabbat (a violation of the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat). What is the reason for this juxtaposition? The Vilna Gaon, the eminent Torah sage of the 18th century, points out a fascinating parallel between Tzitzit and Shabbat. The Mishnah in Shabbat 7:2 enumerates 39 Melachot, actions which are prohibited on Shabbat. The Vilna Gaon explains that these are equivalent to the 39 coils on each of the individual Tzitzit. As the Vilna Gaon explains, the laws of Tzitzit are “wound up” with the laws of Shabbat. The strings on a pair of Tzitzit, or on a Tallit, often get twisted or torn. It is therefore common to see people in synagogue checking their strings for tangles or tears and making certain that all the strings are separate before putting it on.

The Arizal, a leading 16th century Kabbalist, stresses the importance of this custom by pointing out that the word Tzitzit can also be an acronym, for the phrase "Tzadik Yafrid Tzitzvotai Tamid" - a righteous person constantly separates his Tzitzit (Mishnah Berurah 8:18). Separating the Tzitzit is symbolic of considering not only all of the Mitzvoth, but trying to treat each one respectfully and independently, so they are not “one big hodgepodge”.

To this day, I feel that wearing Tzitzit with the right frame of mind, can have a substantial impact on a person's life. While we must consider all the Mitzvoth all of the time, ideally, we must remember that we can only potentially perform each, one at a time. Each is as important as the other and I guarantee that you will never do all unless you begin with one.

In the same way, I believe this consideration of ALL of the Mitzvoth, and each one by itself, points to the consideration of both a macrocosmic and microcosmic way of approaching our lives. Yes, we must consider our family unit, however, we must be attentive to each family member individually. Yes, we must consider communities, however, we must be sensitive to each subset of the entity. Both, and all, deserve our attention, love, empathy, sympathy, and respect. Tzitzit reminds us to consider the whole and the sum of its parts!

While I believe this is the lesson of these interpretations of Tzitzit, I am interested in hearing your interpretations too. Also, while the Mitzvah of Tzitzit may be my favorite, what’s yours? If you have never given it any thought, please do and then drop me a line to tell me about it.

Have a great Shabbat and I look forward to seeing you, “as a whole” and “individually” on Zoom. And, in the words of Robin Hood, “One for all and all for one!”


Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD
201 562 5277

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