Parshat Shlach ends with two short, seemingly unrelated, passages—one telling the story of someone who was gathering sticks on Shabbat, and was stoned to death for it, and the final passage of the parsha, giving the mitzvah of tzitzit (fringes on four cornered garments). A strange juxtaposition, which numerous commentators have tried to explain, largely based on the idea that the keeping of Shabbat and the wearing of tzitzit were two mitzvot that the Israelites of the time were shirking.
However, it seems to me there is another, more interesting relationship. Often, disturbing passages in Torah are followed by teachings that are a tikkun, a repair, on them. Two examples of this are in the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah: The story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Avraham and Sarah, which can be considered the root of the conflict between Arabs and Israelites, is followed by the story of Avraham and Avimelech who enact an excellent process of conflict resolution over the ownership of some wells. The very disturbing story of the binding of Isaac, often seen as causing him long term trauma, is followed by a short passage mentioning the birth of Rivka, who, as his future wife, can accompany his healing.
This disturbing story of the stick gatherer, which might be one’s worst nightmare of how others could behave—being stoned to death by one’s entire community—is followed by the mitzvah of tzitzit. So, the question then is what is the message of tzitizit?
The Slonimer Rebbe, 20th century Jerusalemite R. Shalom Noach Barzofsky, writes about the passage that ends our parsha, (and which, unlike the stick gatherer story, traditional davveners recite twice a day as part of the shma). The Slonimer asked what is so unusual about the mitzvah of tzitzit that the Torah says that you should see them, and remember all of my mitzvot and be holy to your God. He explains this by telling a story from the Talmud, about a person who was about to make a major transgression, and as he was on the verge of doing so, his tzitzit hit him in the face, and kept him from transgressing. Another midrashic commentary explains this by saying that tzitzit cause an increase in holiness. So the Slonimer asks what is so special about this mitzvah that it reminds us of all the other mitzvot and encourages us to do them, keeps us from transgressing, and adds to holiness. He’s explains this by citing another midrash, that says that this is like a person who was thrown into the water and the ship captain tosses him a life-rope and says “Grab onto this rope with your hand and don’t let go, because if you let go, you’re not going to live.” The Slonimer explains that the mitzvah if tzitzit is a rope that ties us to the blessed One, and as long as that rope is in our hands, we are alive. Further, he cites another midrashic teaching on the tzitzit, that says that fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitizit is as if one has fulfilled all 613 mitzvot. Numerologically, the word tzitzit, plus the threads and knots of the tzitzit, add up to 613, and before putting on tallit some have the custom of reciting a kavvanah “Behold, as I wrap my body in tzitzit, so may my soul, and 248 body parts and 365 sinews be wrapped in the light of the tzitzit, whose numerical value is [also] 613. The Slonimer points out that in other places in rabbinic texts, Shabbat and Torah study are each equated with keeping all the mitzvot, also. In these cases, it is a bit easier to understand what the connection is, as Torah and Shabbat both help us enact a deep connection with divine presence, but in the case of tzitzit, he still is not fully satisfied. So he looks to a commentary by the medieval Tosafot, who compare the tzitzit to the seal that would be worn by the servants of a king. Each king had his own symbol that would identify those serving him. The mitzvah of tzitzit is only for four cornered garments, because we are servants of the One who created and rules the whole world—all four directions. The tzitzit bear witness to us, for ourselves, and to all who see us that we have committed ourselves to be servants of the Holy One. And although there are many ways to tie tzitzit, one of the knots on each tzitzit, called the kesher elyon, literally upper knot, is essential, a mitzvah d’Oraita, or Torah-based mitzvah. The hebrew “kesher elyon” can also be understood to mean “knot that joins us to the Supernal”. The Slonimer teaches that the knot is that which ties us to the Holy Blessed One, therefore, whenever this life-rope is in our hands, we are in touch with the flow of life itself.
R. Adin Steinsaltz explains that Rashi comments [Sanhedrin 88b] on this upper knot of the tzitzit, teaching that threads are not tzitzit simply by being threaded through the holes in the 4 corners of a garment, rather they only become tzitzit when the are tied in a knot. It is the knot itself that makes tzitzit.
R. Arthur Waskow writes about the tzitzit:
Gazing at these fringes teaches us to look deeply into the world…
How? Because the fringes are threads of connection between each of us and the rest of the world. Our bodies, our hearts, our minds, our souls do not end at a clear, sharp boundary between our own self and the others. It is not good fences make good neighbors, but good fringes make good neighbors.As we gaze at the fringes of connection, we remember that if we look deeply at these connections…we see the ONE Who connects us all.
So this is the tikkun on the story of the stick gatherer. His stoning is a harsh reminder of our boundedness and separation from one another; the mitzvah of tzitzit, on the other hand, are a binding together, showing us the threads of connection joining all that is in a web of being. The story of communally perpetrated execution speaks of causing death; the tzitzit are a life saving rope, connecting us to the flow and source of life.
And interestingly, this theme is carried further in this week’s haftorah portion, Joshua Chapter 2. Rahav, the prostitute who lives by the city wall, protects the other, the Israelite spies who come to Jericho to check out the land, by letting them down on a rope, a hevel, the same word the midrash uses for the life rope thrown out by the ship captain to the person in the sea. And then the two spies make an oath with her, so she can save her family by displaying a crimson cord. Both Rahav and the spies are strange others to one another, and both protect the other with cords of connection.
Our Torah reading tells us to look at the tzitzit, and the rabbinic tradition asks us to do this every morning. We remind ourselves every day that we are connected. We gather the tzitzit together, hold the life rope in our hands, cleave ourselves to the Source of Life, then look at these connecting cords, and remind ourselves once again that committing ourselves to life means recognizing that we are all bound together.