Rabbi Noah Farkas
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Shlach, we find one of the most famous paragraphs of liturgy:
“God 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 God.” (Numbers 15:38-41).
Central to this portion is the notion of tzitzit, the knotted fringes at the corners of a tallit, or prayer shawl. The reasoning behind the commandment to wear the tzitzit is to serve as a reminder that each of us is a Jew, part of an ancient people who have a dynamic history and relationship with God. When we gaze upon the fringe we are reminded of the commandments. The tzitzit is the quintessence of Jewish spirituality. A shawl is just a shawl until it has the fringe, then it becomes holy. For many, these knotted strings represent tradition and community. In our congregation, we wrap our babies in the fringes when we give them their name in community. We give boys and girls their own tallit at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. We bless our children beneath the tzitzit upon their graduation, spreading a tallit the size of a football field over their heads. God willing, each of us can find our way to be married beneath the fringes when our tallit becomes the roof of the chuppah or wedding canopy. Finally, in many communities, we wrap our dead in their tallit as we lay them to rest.
So central is the fringe to our Jewish lives it behooves us to take a deeper look at the meaning behind fringe Judaism. Maimonides, the great scholar and rabbi, reflecting on the nature of the tzitzit, says that the clothes we wear are meant to project an image. A king, a judge, a jester, a soldier, and business person, wear a kind of uniform that projects who they are in the world. Our clothing proclaims something and says, “treat me in a certain way.” A business person wearing sweatpants might be treated differently than when they are wearing a suit or dress. A king or queen dressed in gym shorts might be seen differently than if they are dressed in their finery. A clown who wears no makeup is suddenly serious. When the police dress in uniform and wear their shield, they accrue a certain sense of authority.
Clothing is also a disguise, a mask. It might project who we want people to think we are, but do our outer shells project out inner lives? What kind of clothes - and what kind of behavior - do we exhibit when no one else is looking? Who are we really? Do we bear our suffering to others? Do we show them our vices? Do we let ourselves be vulnerable?
The deeper symbolism of the tzitzit is that they are no disguise, no mask, but a window. The fringes of Judaism are not a projection to others of how we wish to be seen, but help us to see who we really are. The tzitzit are not costume, our suits are a costume. The commandment to wear them is not to show other people that we are Jew, but to show ourselves. It’s countercultural; they reveal what we intuitively want to hide - that at our core each of us is wrapped up in a spiritual drama that extends beyond our projected self into our past and into our future.
To wear the tzitzit is to live beyond history, to show our inner selves in an outer world. This is a powerful statement to ourselves. This is a message that reveals more than it conceals. This is fringe Judaism.