Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, June 24, 2024

Fringe Benefits
          Sometimes, we all need a change of pace, if only as a matter of mental health self-care. A diet of front-page news can trigger episodes of depression. As a practical matter, too, a pause that refreshes may actually help. The endless preoccupation with the political, which is to say, with the dire news of the self-inflicted wounds we have inflicted on our distressed human and natural environments, can leave us without the equilibrium or the energy to tackle our problems.  Turning elsewhere may help us recharge, so that we can follow Henry V’s advice, “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more!”
            The editorial arrangement of the Bible reflects this same wisdom.  We are now in the narrative-rich section of Sefer B’Midbar Sinai, the Book of Numbers. It is mostly an account of failures and reframing objectives:
            The people commit one misstep after another. They descend lower and lower, from murmuring to mutiny and from doubt to despair. All the while, Moses attempts to summon the best within them, and even he is seen at the point of cracking. His chief allies, Miriam and Aaron, are likewise shown as flawed.  Ultimately, the solution that God imposes is for a generation to pass in relative calm, not attempting to enter the Promised Land but also not returning to Egypt. The generation of the Exodus remains for life in the Wilderness, raising a new generation that will finally have the self-confidence to follow God’s lead into the Promised Land.  It is the right decision, when looked at from the long view of Heaven, but an entire generation is forced to abandon its cherished dreams. Moses, too, is the captain who goes down with that ship, and the best he can do is to see the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo, across the Dead Sea from the Land of Israel.
             Still, the Bible is about God’s relationship with the People of Israel across the generations, not only at one point in time.  The Bible finds ways to remind us of that long view, even in the midst of the narratives of defeat and disillusionment.
             That is how we should approach the famous paragraph about the tzitzit, the fringes we are commanded to wear on the corners of our garments:
Illustration: One of a set of Tzitzit, attached to a corner of a tallit. Credit: Wikipedia
 
            The law of the fringed tassels is part of Numbers 15.  That chapter is a block of legal material between two narratives, the earlier one about the disastrous mission of the twelve spies and the later one about the rebellion of Korach.
            Commentators, both classical and modern, have pondered the editorial arrangement of this Biblical book. Here, we have an interesting convergence of insight.  Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, a giant among the rabbinic Bible expositors of the Middle Ages, explained the juxtaposition of the laws of chapter 15, including the laws of the tzitzit, with the narrative of the sentence passed upon the Israelites to remain in the Wilderness for a generation:
            “This section was juxtaposed to the previous because they [the ten scouts and their followers] had been cut down and the people were mourning, to comfort the sons by letting them know that they would come to the land.” (Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, comment to Numbers 15, quoted in Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, comment to Numbers 15:2)

 

Illustration: Ashkenazic and Sephardic styles of tzitzit knotting. Credit: Wikipedia
 
            How can the text function as a consolation? Notice its opening words: “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them: When you come to the land of your settlement that I am about to give to you…” (Numbers 15:1-2; 17-18)  And again-- “Speak to the Israelites and you shall say to them that they should make them tzitzit (a fringe) on the skirts of their garments for their generations….” (Numbers 15:38, emphasis added).
            Inserting these commandments at this precise place in the narrative is the Bible’s way of saying that the Divine judgment on the generation of the Exodus, ordaining that it would die in the wilderness, is not an end of the relationship of God with the people Israel. God is Israel’s God, and Israel is God’s People.  That will not end. The People Israel is not just a reality for one generation. It is the unbroken chain of generations, standing in covenantal relationship with its God.
            The modern anthropologist, Mary Douglas, has written perceptively about the Bible. In her book, In the Wilderness, she alerts us to the “ring structure” by which the Biblical Book of Numbers is arranged, with narrative and legal sections arranged carefully to bracket each other. In essence, she generalizes the point made by Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra and explains that the entire book, whose final editing she dates to the Babylonian Exile, deploys the narrative and the legal chapters to illuminate each other.  As in the rabbinic view, Mary Douglas is affirming that the Bible is intended to memorialize a covenant that is rooted in historical encounters but that remains open-ended in its effect.
            The Bible tells us that the fringes are intended to remind us of all of God’s commandments.   The Rabbis, fond of numerological games, connect the letters spelling the word tzitzit with the number 613. (Actually, the letters spell out 600, but a bit of rabbinic ingenuity gets us to the desired result of 613.)      If you are not a fan of numerology, you can still appreciate the basic point:  The tzitzit are for all time. They are akin to the wedding rings that adorn the finger of each spouse for every day of their wedded lives.
            The message of the tzitzit— In my successes, and no less in my failures, individually and as the member of my people, I still and always want to be enfolded in my connection to God. May this be God’s will! Amen.