Need to remember to be close to God Just tie a little knot


Numbers 13:1-15:41

Joshua 2:1-2:24

Long ago, men would tie a knot in their handkerchief to remind themselves of something. Today there is a website called KnottedHandker that sends you an email before an event. Tying a knot — and an “e-knot” — is still a way of communicating, both internally and externally.

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to instruct the Children of Israel to tie knots on their garments as reminders of the obligation to observe all the commandments. It’s a bit peculiar: We can understand that people have commandments and a long list of do’s and don’ts, but why should clothing?

Clothing is important in every culture, but its significance is especially interesting in the Torah. The first humans were naked (Genesis 2:25). They had no shame and they had no evil inclination within them. But they also had no free will. Free will means having good and evil within us, struggling with both and making choices. This is an essential component in any real relationship.

After Adam and the Woman partake from the “fruit,” they hide. It’s no longer natural for them to roam around naked in the Garden (Genesis 2:25). Their first set of clothing was made and given to them by God (Genesis 3:21). It was an act of care, compassion and protection, but also of sadness and distance. The humans were no longer one with each other or with the Divine. Clothing symbolically began to express closeness, God’s kindness and empathy, yet also separation. Indeed, from before birth till after we pass, we’re clothed.

In Hebrew, “beged,” a garment, shares its root with “bagad,” betrayed. It turns out that clothes have little to nothing to do with the climate we might live in for even in perfectly comfortable weather humans wear something. Rather, clothes are a reminder of our original separation (and not “sin”!) from God.

The commandment of tzitzit specifies: “ … So you may not wander after your heart and your eyes to lead you astray” (Numbers 15:39). Why does the Torah place the heart before the eyes? Aren’t we attracted by what we see, and then “feel”?

Apparently not. The eyes are an agent of the heart and not an independent organ. According to what’s in our heart, so we see. This is easily tested when we look at something, or someone, at different times in our lives, and all of a sudden, “it changed.” Did it?

The very same Torah portion opens with the story of the “spies”: Twelve esteemed princes of the 12 tribes went to check out the Land of Israel before the rest of the nation would follow. Only two of them saw its potential, and the fact that God’s people need not worry. The 10 others saw an impossible place to conquer or live in, full of “giants,” fortified cities and inedible fruit. Why the different view of the same exact place? Interestingly, the Torah tells us they went “latur et ha’aretz,” to scout or “wander” the land, using the same root from the mitzvah of tzitzit. There it says “velo taturu,” don’t wander! Don’t go around aimlessly without first preparing your heart!

But the Torah knows that sometimes we forget.

It therefore gives us a sign: it asks us to tie a knot. The word “tzitzit”) in gematria (numerical values given to Hebrew letters) equals 600. Adding eight threads (one doubled over in each of the four corners of the cloth) and five for the double knots on each of these threads makes 613, same as the traditional number of all the mitzvahs. The garment’s four corners, five knots, eight threads and other elements have additional symbolic meanings.

Behind it all there is a fascinating idea: The Torah tells us that often that which separates us also brings us closer again. Like two sides of the same coin, what we wear is not only a divider. It is also a tool to reconnect. Our exit can be our point of re-entry and where we erred is where we begin to correct with each other and with the Divine.

Michal Kohane
is the director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She has served in leadership roles throughout Northern California and holds advanced degrees in studies of Israel, psychology and education. Contact her at [email protected].