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D'var Torah - Perashat Shelach

06/07/2018 05:00:14 PM


Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla

"The Lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to the children of Israel and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner." (Numbers 15:37-38)

Most of this portion of Shelakh deals with the story of the twelve spies sent into the Holy Land, the ten who brought back an evil report, and the punishment of forty years of wandering. However, at the very end of the portion, the theme changes. Various laws are given, with the law of tzitzit (ritual fringes) at the very end. The paragraph about tzitzit became the third paragraph of the sh'ma, read by Jews every morning and every night.

The law says that Jews should put ritual fringes on the corners of a four-sided garment. They should look at those fringes and remember all of God's commandments. Some Jewish men wear a ritual four-cornered garment with these tzitzit under their shirt at all times and all wear a Tallet during services.

But there is one part of the law that is usually ignored today. The Torah says that the tzitzit must contain a thread of blue (tekhelet). Traditionally that thread of blue came from a sea creature known as a chelazon. When the identity of this creature was lost, Jews stopped putting on the blue thread. Today some groups have claimed to have rediscovered the identity of the chelazon, and have begun making blue die for a thread of the tzitzit. You can buy a tallit with a thread of blue on the tzitzit in Israel. This is on my “bucket list” of things to do next time I visit Israel. The more interesting question is, why a thread of blue? The Torah does not say. But later rabbinic law asks the question, when can we begin our morning prayers. Although various answers are given, the first teaching of the Mishnah is that we can begin "when one can distinguish between white and blue." (Berachot 1:2) In other words, as dawn is approaching, when we can distinguish between the two color threads on our ritual fringes, it is time to begin the prayers. Morning is a time of learning to distinguish.

The morning prayers actually begin with words praising the rooster for its ability to distinguish between night and day. Before the alarm clock was invented, it was the rooster who woke people up for their prayers and to go to work. If the rooster, a mere animal can make distinctions, how much more so should we humans be able to make distinctions?

In fact, the Hebrew word for morning - boker, comes from a Hebrew root b k r meaning "to distinguish." With the rising of the sun we are able to make distinctions. Compare this to the Hebrew word for evening - erev, which actually means confused or mixed up; at night no distinctions are possible.

To be a human being is to have the ability to make distinctions. We begin our prayers when we can distinguish a thread of blue from the other threads of white. Like the rooster, we can distinguish light from darkness, day from night. And to be a human is to rise above the rooster, rise above the animal within us. To be a human being is to have the ability to make distinctions between good and evil. Perhaps the tzitzit symbolize the fact that we humans are able to discern right from wrong, and to make the proper choices as we go through life.

Shabbat Shalom

Thu, August 6 2020 16 Av 5780