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The Reminder of Tzitzit

The parasha this week is Shelakh-Lekha. In this parasha Moses, at God’s command, chooses one leader from each of the twelve tribes to serve as spies. Their mission is to enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and to bring back a report to the people. “See what kind of country it is….. [investigate its cities, people, soil, and forests and] bring back some of the fruit of the land.” They do bring back grapes and other fruits, but ten of the twelve spies also bring back a report that, though the land is flowing “with milk and honey,” it is filled with “giants,” large fortified cities and other dangerous inhabitants. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, bring back a positive report reminding the people that God is with them and so they can overcome any obstacle or enemy. Unfortunately, the people are carried away by the report of the majority and wonder why Moses brought them this far out of Egypt in order to die in the desert. As punishment for following the negative report of the ten spies God declares that the Israelites will wander in the desert for forty years until this generation dies. Joshua and Caleb will be the only ones of that generation allowed to enter the land.

The parasha also includes the story of a man who is discovered gathering wood in public on Shabbat and is summarily stoned to death for violating the Shabbat. It concludes with what is later to become the third paragraph of the Shema (“Vayomer”) which commands the people to wear tzitzit, fringes, on their garments as a reminder of the covenant with God and to prevent them from going astray after other gods or the “lusts of their hearts.”

At first glance it would not seem that there is much to connect these three sections of the parasha. However, I believe that there is. Following the story of the man stoned for breaking Shabbat with the commandment to wear tzitzit teaches us that if we do not have something to constantly remind us of our commitment to God and the mitzvot we may end up as did the man gathering wood. In addition, a large part of the his sin was that the man was gathering wood in public. Judaism has a long history of various transgressions which are considered more serious if they are performed in public. One reason for this is that each of us is meant to serve as an example to our fellow Jews, and our fellow human beings. We are each responsible for one another. If someone blatantly transgresses a law in public others may assume that it is permissible to do so. After all, if so-and-so can do it, why can’t I?

One might assume that this is only true for leaders of the community. That is the problem with the spies. In that case it is ten tribal leaders who act irresponsibly in front of the community and bring the rest of the community down to their level through their actions. As leaders they should have realized that they were responsible for helping the people prepare to enter the land and to remind them that God was with them. That is what Joshua and Caleb did. By giving such a negative report the other ten spies abrogated their responsibility and created panic among the people.

In the case of the man gathering wood, he was not a leader. This case is meant to teach us that each of us, no matter how insignificant we might believe ourselves to be, has a responsibility to serve as an example and to help the community reach for higher goals. We may not agree with the punishment meted out to him, but I agree with the message. We are each our brothers and sisters keepers. As Rabbi Hillel reminds us in the first century of the Common Era, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I?” We are all responsible for each other. And yet we are only human and so we need reminders. That is the role of the tzitzit worn on our ancestors’ clothing and now worn by many of us on our tallit (prayer shawl). They are to remind us that we can’t simply follow the dictates of our heart. We have responsibilities to God and our community. We must each try our best to live up to these responsibilities if we are truly part of a community. It is true here at each of our congregations, just as it is true in the other communities to which we belong all the way up to the greater American community. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” is simply a broadened and more contemporary statement of our ancient beliefs.

Whether or not we wear tzitzit we must each find something to remind us of our responsibilities as individuals to serve our communities and to set an example for others as well.

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