“Finding Meaning in the Rituals”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, Parashat Sh’lach, concludes with the well-known third paragraph of the Shema prayer concerning the mitzvah of tzitzit, fringes.

The first paragraph of the Shema, an excerpt from Deuteronomy 6:5-9, speaks of the love relationship between G-d and the People of Israel and the People of Israel and G-d. The second paragraph of the Shema, an excerpt from Deut. 11:13-21, speaks of the relationship of responsibility and accountability of the people of Israel toward G-d. The third paragraph of the Shema is an excerpt from our current parasha, Numbers 15:37-41, and speaks of the actual implementation of the first two relationships, that by the observance of the ritual mitzvot; in this instance the example given is the tzitzit, fringes, with which we indicate that the first two relationships are indeed valid.

It’s one thing to profess love for another person, and accept responsibility and accountability, but the bottom line is tachlis, as we say in Yiddish, how we behave, how we perform, how we act toward the one whom we profess to love. That is why this third paragraph of the Shema is so crucial for our relationship to G-d.

One of my favorite Talmudic stories appears in Menachot 44a. The rabbis there discuss the nature of the reward for the performance of mitzvot. Rabbi Nathan says that there is not a single precept in the Torah, even the slightest, whose reward is not enjoyed in this world, and, he adds, there is no way of knowing how great the reward will be in the future world to come. As an example, Rabbi Nathan cites the precept of tzitzit and tells the following story:

Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the precept of tzitzit, heard of a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted 400 gold dinars for her hire. He sent her 400 gold dinars and made an appointment with her. When the day arrived, he came and waited at her door. The maid came and told her: “That man who sent you 400 gold dinars is here and is waiting at the door.”

She replied: “Let him come in.”

When he came in, she prepared for him seven beds — six of silver and one of gold, and between one bed and another there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and laid down upon it, removing her clothes. In his desire, he too went up after her, disrobed, and sat with her, when all of the sudden the four fringes, the tzitzit of his garment, struck him across the face.

The young man slipped off the bed and sat upon the ground. The woman too slipped off the bed and sat on the ground and said: “I swear by the Emperor of Rome, that I will not leave you alone until you tell me what blemish you saw in me!”

“I swear by the Temple,” the young man replied,” never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you. But, there is one precept which the Lord our G-d has commanded us — it is called tzitzit. And with regard to it, the expression ‘I am the Lord your G-d’ is twice written, signifying that I am He who will exact punishment in the future, and I am He who will give reward in the future. Now the tzitzit appear to me as four witnesses testifying against me.”

She said, “I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, and the name of the school in which you study the Torah.” He wrote all this down and handed it to her.

Thereupon, she arose and divided her estate into three parts, one third for the government (so they would allow her to convert to Judaism), one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand. The bedclothes, however, she retained. She then came to the Bet Midrash of Reb Chiyah and said to him: “Master, give instructions about me that they may convert me to Judaism.”

“My daughter,” he replied, “perhaps you have set your eyes on one of the students?” She thereupon took out the script (upon which the young man had written his name and house of study) and handed it to him.

“Go,” said he, “enjoy your acquisition!”

Those very bedclothes which she had spread for him in an illicit manner, she now spread out for him lawfully. “This,” said Rabbi Nathan, “is the reward for the performance of precepts in this world. As for its rewards in the future world, I know not how great it is.”

This Talmudic story is not only delightful and intriguing, it also underscores the preciousness of the performance of mitzvot. We really do not know what value G-d ascribes to our actions, good or bad, and what implications these actions have for our ultimate destiny in the World to Come. Surely, the temptations are there before us every single day, and those who choose to do battle with the temptations are certain to be rewarded handsomely.

Perhaps there is also something to be said about how a Jew dresses: The yarmulka is supposed to remind a man that G-d is hovering above him at all times and create a sense of humility. The woman who dresses demurely, not only projects physical modesty, but also reflects modesty of thought and attitude. Furthermore, Jewish law has a highly developed idea of avoiding Chilul Hashem, of not disgracing G-d through the violation of Mar’it Eyin — that we should not even appear to be doing something improper, let alone really do something improper!

Clothes do indeed reflect the human being. The fireman, the policeman, and the lady of the night all wear garments which reflect their professions and their objectives. The ritual of tzitzit, like the ritual of mezuzah, reminds us of G-d’s presence, which hopefully dwells with us at all times. The tfillin underscore our desire to give our strength, our minds and our hearts to G-d. Eating kosher food underscores the preciousness of animal life and the sacredness of food.

Rituals work! Rituals really do work! And each of the rituals of Israel have profound lessons to teach us. But it is important for us to master the meanings of the rituals, rather than to just perform them by rote. Once we master their meanings, we will appreciate the profundity of their messages. Tzitzit are not just G-d’s strings, they actually bind us to G-d, they help us communicate with G-d, they help us remember G-d, especially at those very challenging moments of potential compromise.

May you be blessed.