I just got back from a conference at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. In the Fall of 1991, I started my rabbinic training on that very campus (when it was still called the University of Judaism). It almost made me feel like that young rabbinic student again.
The ten participating rabbis were all pretty far away from our congregations or organizations. So, we all showed up to the classes dressed pretty informally. Our shorts, t-shirts, sandals and such clearly took one of the instructors by surprise because she started her session by saying, “You guys really don’t look like rabbis!”
After we all finished chuckling, I couldn’t help but think about this week’s Torah portion in which we read the final paragraph of the Sh’ma in its original location. God said to Moshe: “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of their garments throughout the ages…That shall be your tzitzit; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eye… (Numbers 15:38-39).”
One can be Jewish without wearing tzitzit just as one can be a rabbi without wearing formal clothing. So, why did God give us this mitzvah, this symbol, this reminder?
God knew then – and God knows now – that we human beings have the capacity to forget what we know at crucial moments and act on an impulse. So, even after witnessing the plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and the provision of mannah in the desert, the ten spies still came back from Canaan saying that they did not believe enough in God to go forward into the land.
They got scared. They got lazy. They reverted to the fear of being a slave, rather than embracing the confidence of being free human beings. And so God created a physical symbol to remind us – tzitzit.
Some Jews wear tzizit every day. Some wear tzizit under their clothes. Some wear tzizit once a week. And some wear tzizit less often than that. Whenever we put on our tallit, however, it is designed to be a reminder to do the right thing, to include God in our lives.
It is the equivalent of tying string on our fingers, putting notes on the refrigerator door or leaving a voice mail message for ourselves. We do whatever we have to do to remember something important. So, what is it that God wanted us to remember?
It’s not necessarily in our nature to do God’s mitzvot. We have to make an effort. We have to remind ourselves to do them. However, we can infuse our lives with holiness anytime anyplace if we set our minds to it, if we remind ourselves to do it. We can perform mitzvot at home, at the office, on the street, in a store… anywhere. It’s up to us to remember that instead of simply following our eyes and hearts.
So, the next time you walk by that tallit rack or see your tallit bag, I hope you’ll choose to put on a tallit and think about all the ways that you can infuse your life with holiness and make the world a better place.