Seeing Divine everywhere, in the fringes and beyond

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Shelach Lecha

Numbers 13:1-15:41

Joshua 2:1-24

Sometimes a piece of commentary can completely transform even the most familiar biblical text, changing our relationship to it forever. I encountered such a source this week, in the Sefat Emet's commentary on Parashat Tzitzit, the teaching of the fringes, at the close of this week's parashah.

"God said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes [tzitzit] on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; You shall see it [ur'item oto] and remember all the mitzvot of God and observe them, so that you do not follow the lustful ways of your heart and eyes. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all my mitzvot and to be holy to your God. I, Adonai, am your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, Adonai, am your God" (Numbers 15:37-41).

This paragraph, whose source is in our parashah, is best known as the third paragraph of the Keriat Shema. We recite it so frequently that its many meanings may elude us. Listen to how the Sefat Emet brings this text to life in riveting ways:

Seeing God: "'You shall see it' [ur'item oto, with 'it' referring to both the fringe and to God] is read by the Sages to mean that you shall see God's presence, for 'Whoever fulfills the commandment of the tzitzit merits greeting the Shekhina.' Thus we may look at the glory of God's kingdom, which exists in every thing, as it says: 'The whole earth is full of God's glory.' But it is hidden, and a truly wholehearted act of self-negation allows one to see God's shining glory. Such is the meaning of wrapping oneself in fringes, to 'look at God,' [ur'item oto] meant in the simplest sense, to desire only to see and come to know the glory of God's name."

The Sefat Emet's analysis is grammatically simple, and spiritually breathtaking. The biblical text says, "You shall see it," using the Hebrew direct object, oto, which means both "it" and "Him." The simple meaning of the verse is clearly, "You shall see it — the fringe." But the rebbe asks us to look more deeply at the mitzvah, asking us to see God in the tzitzit, in everything, in every moment. For before the creation of the Earth, there was only God. God made space in the world for creation, but divinity still resides in everything, still actively breathing life into us moment by moment. All of creation, including the tzitzit, pulsates with Divine Presence. If we can only see it, we can respond to the Presence of God in the moment.

Seeing the signs of the Divine: "This too is the meaning of 'You shall see it' [ur'item oto] — you shall see God's sign [ot]. This refers to the sign that is within each thing, bearing witness to our blessed God."

Here, the Sefat Emet notices that "oto" can also mean "God's sign." The Torah tells us that a palpable sign of the Divine inheres in particular aspects of life: in the rainbow God sent in the time of Noah (Genesis 9:12), in the practice of circumcision (Genesis 17:11), in the Shabbat (Exodus 31:17), in the tefillin (Exodus 13:9) and in many signs of God's power during the Exodus. The rebbe takes this theology many steps further, suggesting boldly that the ot, the sign of God's Presence, is to be found everywhere and always. We need only look.

If life is so glorious, so full of radiance and divine energy, why do we so often miss it? For the Sefat Emet, there are two reasons. One is that the Divine Presence is hidden or veiled, and so it takes a specially practiced eye to see it (hence the mitzvot). The other problem is that to see life in this way, we must, as the Sefat Emet puts it, "self-negate" — get out of the way, see things not only as they affect us, but from a much larger perspective. Particularly for us, living in a culture of individualism, narcissism and self-absorption, this is so very difficult. But the reward is very great.

This week, as we contemplate the tzitzit once again, may we see not only an opportunity to join our people in a beautiful mitzvah. Let us try to look deeply enough to see in the tzitzit a sign of God's Presence, to see the Divinity that breathes in the mitzvot, within us, and in everyone and everything around us.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at