By Rabbi Abe Friedman
Parshat Shlah Lekha
I was 17 when I started wearing tallit katan — the thin, four-cornered undergarment worn in order to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit — and I went to great lengths to hide my tallit katan from my parents: washing it by hand late at night and drying with rolled towels, slipping it between folded T-shirts when I put it away at night, carefully tucking in my shirts so it wouldn’t show.
In the grand scheme of things teenagers hide from their parents, this is not front-page news. Still, it’s strange that I tried so hard to keep them from learning about my tzitzit. I had no reason to think my parents would be upset — on the contrary, my parents sent me and my sisters to Jewish day schools, youth groups and summer camps and, quite likely, would have supported my decision to take on this mitzvah.
Tzitzit originate in this week’s Torah portion, Shlah Lekha. At the very end of our parshah, God tells Moses, “Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them that they should make them a fringe on the skirts of their garments … and you shall see it and be mindful of all the Lord’s commandments and you shall do them” (Numbers 15:38-39). From this passage, familiar to many as the third paragraph of Shema, we get the widespread practice of wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) during services and the prevalent but less-widely-observed custom of wearing a tallit katan under one’s clothes.
But tzitzit feature only in the last five verses of Shlah Lekha. Most of the parshah focuses on the 12 spies who are sent to the land of Israel, the demoralizing report they bring back and the grave consequences the Israelites face for believing the fearful lies over Caleb and Joshua’s faithful report. I’m curious: Of all the places in the Torah, why does the mitzvah of tzitzit appear here, right next to the story of the spies?
A common theme throughout our Torah portion is the act of seeing. The spies are sent to look at the land and see whether it is good; they see the strong, powerful natives and report back that they “looked like grasshoppers in their eyes”; the Israelites are condemned to 40 years in the wilderness so that they will not see the promised land; and finally we are instructed to wear tzitzit so that when we see them we will remember the mitzvot.
More subtly, the parshah plays with the differences between what we see when we look outside of ourselves and what we see when we look within. The 10 faithless spies look outward, comparing themselves to the fierce Canaanites, and feel like tiny little bugs. Caleb and Joshua visit the same places and take in the same sights, but they look inward and ask whether, in their hearts, they believe that the Israelites, with God’s support and protection, have the fortitude to overcome the challenges of settling the land of Israel — and they conclude that it is possible.
With tzitzit, we find a similar interplay between seen and seeing. Reading carefully, the Torah emphasizes that the purpose of tzitzit is to remind us of the mitzvot and our covenant with God when we see them. It doesn’t matter if others can see our tzitzit or not — secretive teenage me with the hidden tzitzit still saw them when I got dressed, sensed them under my clothes as I moved around throughout the day, and they kept my attention on living right: Beyond the formal practices of Judaism, I thought differently about how I spoke and how I behaved. Tzitzit helped me keep my attention within — on the values that I wanted to express into the world and the kind of person I wanted to be.
All too often, when our attention turns outward, to what others have that we feel we lack, wondering how the people around us perceive us, our behavior turns away from our best selves. Kids, teenagers, adults, seniors — it doesn’t seem to make a difference. People tend to make very poor decisions when we focus on wanting others to approve of us.
The opposite holds true as well: When we focus inward and consider what kind of person we want to be, how we ideally want to live, these questions often help us align our actions with our values. Whether your current practice of Judaism includes wearing tzitzit in some form or not, the emphasis in this week’s parshah on where we focus our attention and what we see can help each of us live our best each day.
Rabbi Abe Friedman is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.