Fringe element: The ties that bind Jewish people to G-d

Rabbi Craig Marantz

By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Shelach — Numbers 13:1-15:41 

I find Shelach very inspiring. Among several significant lessons, the portion closes with G-d’s commandment to wear the tzitzit. And, as many of you know, these tzitzit, or fringes, serve as a daily reminder of the mitzvot and the importance of observing them.

As an illustration of their significance, the Midrash tells one of my favorite stories about the tzitzit. A person is thrown from a boat into a rough sea. The captain stretches out a rope and tells the imperiled person to grab hold as though his life depends on it.

The Sages tell us that the rope is the tzitzit, the drowning person is Israel, and the captain is G-d. And, according to this interpretation, our adherence to Torah, as represented by the fringes, is the G-d-given or divinely inspired lifeline to which we hold on dearly, especially when life’s stormy waves crash upon us.

To what extent is Torah your lifeline? Does a ritual item like tzitzit link you closely to the power of Torah to pull you (and us all) upward–of the loving strength of G-d to sustain us in both times of trouble and of blessing? If not, is there some other Jewish practice that does?

I first learned about the importance of tzitzit as a Bar Mitzvah. As I prepared for my important life passage, my mother approached our rabbi, Edgar Magnin, a man larger than life to me. She wished to honor my grandfather’s request that I wear his tallit.  Rabbi Magnin said: “No.” For the Rabbi, the tallit was a trapping of the past, and so that was that. An old, perhaps apocryphal story has it that when someone asked Rabbi Magnin about the ritual committee, he said: “I am the damn ritual committee!” My mother did not persist with her request.

And, for sure, as a quiet and newly minted teenager, I was not prepared to challenge my rabbi, either. On one hand, my Jewish community did not view wrapping ourselves in the tzitzit as a halakhic responsibility, so no one else did the mitzvah, either. On the other hand, I did not need the tzitzit to help define my connection with my grandfather. He was alive and close-by; he was proud to be a Jew. I could not be more grateful for his presence at my Bar Mitzvah, bearing witness and linking my rite of passage with his own–creating lasting memories together in real time and through shared experience.

But, I also knew how special it would be to wear his tallit.  And, while I knew even as a young teen that the tzitzit were not something magical, they could be no less transformative–converting my mostly secular connection with my grandfather into something a little more Jewish and a little more sacred. And so, in my heart, while I did not require the tallit to make the moment matter, I desired it. Yet, I too let the request rest.

My grandfather was a highly assimilated, Yale-trained Jew and small-business owner—a proud haberdasher. He was never a man to affiliate with a congregation. He did not need to pay a synagogue to prove his Jewish commitment. He didn’t go to services; he didn’t keep Shabbat. And yet, my grandfather bore a facial scar from a fight he had in his youth with an anti-Semite. His Jewish pride was fierce; his loyalty, true and enduring. And while he wasn’t one to talk about G-d or engage in ritual, my grandfather was very enthusiastic when my brother and I when began Bar Mitzvah training, And, as my life passage approached, he saw his tallit as a bridge between us–the tzitzit pulling us together, linking us a b’nei mitzvah. Not an official, halakhic motivation to wrap ourselves in the fringes, as much an authentic and intentional desire to fulfill the mitzvah (which for us, even as modern, liberal Jews and with all due respect to Rabbi Magnin and other Reform leaders of his generation) went well beyond the stuff of mere, historical trappings.

And looking at my practice now, which sometimes freely includes wrapping myself in my grandfather’s long-lasting tzitzit, it empowers me to remember him as a blessing. I remind myself of my grandfather’s strength that often served as a lifeline in the rough waters of our lives. The tallit and its fringes do pull me closer to his legacy, and they also help me appreciate that I stand before the Holy One of Blessing, dedicated to a lifelong learning process that informs my Jewish responsibilities and choices.

And, looking back, just as I tried to show respect for my rabbi and his views, my family’s desire for me to don my grandfather’s tallit was an effort to show our patriarch respect as well through the mitzvah of kibbud z’keyn, honoring our elder. After all, we learn from Rabbi Yosei the Galilean: “A zaken… has acquired wisdom.” (BT Kiddushin 32b). Because of his wisdom, my grandfather had earned our kavod and deserved a greater say in the outcome.

And finally, in his physical absence, my grandfather’s tallit and tzitzit now stand for something critical to my Jewish understanding (as informed both by my narrative and the perspective of Reform architect, Rabbi Abraham Geiger and his inspiration, the Pharisaic rabbis): that traditions and practices, even those halakhically mandated, flow from a legal tradition that has evolved over time as we have changed, as well. Moreover, essential to my own faith-consciousness is my capacity to bear witness to how these traditions and practices have shifted and brought meaning and purpose each step of the way. Such witness requires effort, study, and discipline, such that when my rabbi tells me a ritual is a vestige of the past, a halakhic mandate or something else, I am able to make an informed choice about my Jewish practice.

Some of us may wonder why ritual is important. When it helps us understand that how we act in the world matters and what we do counts, its nice to have whatever reminders religious rituals can bring. And when the waves of life are crashing over us, it’s comforting to believe that G-d will throw us a line. And whether that lifeline takes the form of tzitzit or some other shape like an ethical mitzvah or a wonderful role model or something else as sacred, all will serve to help us find our place in a Judaism that brings us blessing.

Rabbi Craig Marantz is the rabbi of Emanuel Congregation (Reform).

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