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Parshas Shelach (5768)

Tzitzis: The Mitzvah With Strings Attached

Around ten years ago today, the scientific world accomplished a truly amazing feat. Witness the following article written at the time:

Jun 26 2000 10:53AM ET
LONDON (Reuters) - Researchers announced Monday that they had completed the working map of the human genome, giving scientists a genetic blueprint that will transform medical care in the 21st century. Researchers will use the three billion letters that make up human DNA to identify the estimated 60,000 to 100,000 genes in humans and to find where they are located on chromosomes and how they contribute to disease. "Over the decades and centuries to come, this sequence will inform all of medicine, all of biology, and will lead us to a total understanding of not only human beings but all of life," said Dr John Sulston, the lead British researcher who sequenced one third of the genome. [Copyright 2000 Reuters Limited]
This got me thinking a lot about genes and identity – and about who exactly is the real me.


In his book Endless Light, Rabbi David Aaron explores the “search for self” that many people are plagued with in our times. He writes:

It is quite common these days to hear of someone we know who is having a sort of identity crisis in which he is "looking for himself". What a strange concept! How do you look for yourself? If you are not here, then where are you? How many times have you heard people say, "I don't like myself"? What does that mean? How do you not like yourself? How can you be both the subject and the object of the sentence? Who exactly is the "you" that doesn't like "yourself"?

The Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) explain that we all know on some level that there is the "me" that is the body and the personality, and then there is some higher level of consciousness that is distinct but has a relationship with the body and personality. For example, we all talk to ourselves. When you do that, whom are you talking to? You know you are not two people. There is one you, and yet within your oneness, there is an internal relationship between those parts you call "me", "myself" and "I". So I can talk to myself. I can dislike myself. And I can even look for myself.

Most people, at least once in their lives, have asked themselves the question, "If my mother would have married another man, who would I be?" If you have asked yourself this question, it is because on some deep, intuitive level you sensed you could have been somebody else. You sensed that your inner self would be the same you, but it would be playing a different character.

I know that I am playing the character who is a rabbi, who lives in Israel, who is married, who has kids, etc. I know the "me" who is this character. But my "self" transcends this kind of conscious knowledge. When I describe myself, I am not really describing my self, I am actually describing "me" - my persona, the character I play. I have a character, but I am not my character.

To try to keep this straight, let's define our terms. There is "me" - the character I play. That is the ego - the persona with its psychological clothing, like thoughts and feelings - and the body with its physical sensations. This is the character I play. And then there is my "self" - what the Kabbalists refer to as the "soul". This is the conscious self, the knower, the experiencer, the actor who plays the character.

So we see that from a Torah perspective, the human being with the soul at its core is much, much deeper than is evident on the surface. And when the scientists crack the complex code of the human genome - helping us to understand how our bodies and minds work and hopefully enabling us to cure many diseases - while it is indeed a massive accomplishment on par with the lunar landing and other worthy human endeavors, it is hardly the full picture. The mapping of the human DNA cannot give scientists a "total" understanding of human life (as the doctor in the above article claimed) - because what is encoded in the human genome is only the "me" of my self. It holds within it the secret code to the persona of man - his physical characteristics and psychological tendencies - but does not cover the “self” - that area known to us as the soul. And it is the soul of the human being that ultimately defines him.

The problem is that since the soul is hidden away inside us, we often think of ourselves as purely physical beings. What all of us could really use is a constant reminder of who we truly are. (Okay, maybe the women don’t need it as much, as they are generally far more in tune with their “selves” than we men are). Enter the tzitzis ...


In this week's Torah portion, we find the Biblical commandment for men to wear tzitzis, or fringes, on the four corners of their garments. (The reward for this commandment is that you receive "fringe benefits"!) The Torah states, "It shall constitute tzitzis for you, that you may see it and remember all the commandments of G-d and perform them; and not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray." (Numbers 15:39) Now we have to ask ourselves .... how exactly does that work? When was the last time you heard of someone who was about to cheat on his wife, and at the last minute recalled that he was wearing tzitzis, and said to himself, “Wait! I can’t do this! I just remembered the Seventh Commandment!” It doesn't usually happen that way! So what then does the Torah mean?

The answer to this question talks to the essence of who we are, what we wear, and how we choose to identify ourselves. Permit me to explain. Let's say you see a man running down the street wearing a blue uniform with a badge. You would be safe in assuming that he is a policeman. The garment indicates the role he is playing, but not who he is. He might go home, put on some sweatpants, and go out running again; now he is an athlete. Your garment is never your essence. The clothes you wear are not you, they are on you. Similarly, your character is not you. So you must never confuse the two. The self is the soul. You have a persona, the character you play, but you are a soul.

In your search for your true identity and self-worth, the key questions you must answer are: What do I choose to identify with? Do I identify with my ego, my character, my persona - me? (When people ask you to describe yourself, do you say, "I am a doctor"?) Or do I identify with that which is truly me - my soul, the spark of G-d inside me, my connection to the transcendent? Unfortunately, it is quite easy for us to confuse the two.

Which is where the mitzvah of tzitzis comes in. Garments are our means of playing a role in this world, of presenting ourselves to the world as we would like to be perceived. But in order that we don't fall into the trap of thinking that "we are what we wear" - that the roles we play in life and the physical and psychological characteristics that are encoded in our DNA define our essence - the Torah bids us to attach fringes to our garments, and to thus “consecrate” our garments with reminders of G-d, so that we remain cognizant of our true essence, our souls.

With this message embedded in our clothing, and in our hearts, we are being reminded constantly not to "explore after our hearts and after our eyes after which we stray" (Numbers ibid.). The tzitzis are there to help us avoid making bad decisions in life - decisions which only deal with our "me", our hearts and eyes, but neglect to take into account the impact these decisions will have on our "selves", our G-dly souls.

Tzitzis is the mitzvah with strings attached - strands that carry within them the message of our true spiritual makeup.


Do you remember in university when your philosophy teacher taught you all those abstract and seemingly irrelevant, mind-wrenching ideas from philosophers with funny names like Plato and Nietzsche? Well, folks, I have found one of those philosophical teachings in particular to be extremely useful for our times - it is known as Pascal's Wager. And it goes something like this: We might as well believe in G-d. Because if we believe in Him, and He doesn't exist - well, then, we've gained nothing but we've also lost nothing. But if we don’t believe in G-d and it turns out that He does truly exist - boy, are in we in trouble!!!!

So I say the same in regards to the Biblical commandment for men to wear a four cornered garment with fringes on it at all times (in addition to wearing a Tallis, or prayer shawl, during the services in the synagogue).

The Torah promises eternal reward in the Hereafter for every second (!) that we wear the tzitzis on our garments. So why not go out to the local Jewish bookstore and pick up a pair for about $25?

Either way, you can't lose! If the Torah is (G-d forbid) not true - then you have been wearing this weird, four-cornered garment under your clothing - where no one even knows you're wearing it – all for nothing (Ok, you don't have to wear it to the gym where the guys might laugh at you when you take off your shirt!), but you have also lost absolutely nothing. Except twenty-five bucks, of course.

And if what the Torah says about tzitzis is true - then in addition to the benefit that the tzitzis will have served to remind you of who is the true "you", you will also receive a great heavenly reward for all the time that you had those fringes on! And that's not a bad deal after all!

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