Life is messy. I don’t like messy. I like neat. But neat takes work. Not that messy is so easy. A messy desk and I can’t find a document. A messy calendar and I am missing appointments. And anyone who has been to my home for Shabbat dinner knows that my kitchen is a “bit untidy” (so says my South African friends). Given my predilection toward the transcendent I ask can there be a spiritual side of messy?
Torah gives us the study guide for this. Numbers Chapter 15, verses 38 and 39 tells us: “Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a thread of blue. And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, which incline you to go astray;”
I understand fringes a bit differently than Torah, but I come to the same conclusion. The fringes on my tallit (prayer shawl) are messy. They are not cut to exactly the same length. They aren’t plush like a tassel or decorative like a 1930’s lampshade. No, the fringes Torah instructs us to wear are untidy or even scruffy and appropriately so.
Fringes evoke a sense of pushing boundaries. Cowboys in the west had fringes on their jackets as they rode out into the unmapped plains. The defiant and flamboyant flappers of the 1920s were known for the fringes on their dresses, which swirled as they danced the Charleston. Hippies in the sixties had long fringes on their clothes that swayed around their bodies as they moved to psychedelic rock. Fringes on clothing are a symbol of expansive thinking and exploration.
Truth be told, I have a fringed distressed leather jacket stored in a back closet. I won’t part with it even though I can no longer fit into it. When I wore that jacket I felt rebellious and cool.
I also am the owner of at least a half dozen talesim – one talit from my bar mitzvah, another from my ordination ceremony, and assorted others acquired on trips to Israel or collected from those no longer using a talit. When I don my talit, I bring holy awareness to the moment. I swirl the talit above my head and as it drops to my shoulders I say the blessing and ask God to give my family good health. And then I drop into the prayer service, sometimes engaged, sometimes withdrawn.
The messy fringes of the talit should remind me that prayer should be boundary pushing. I should be using prayer as a springboard to change the world or argue with God or make myself a better person. The undisciplined motion of fringes on a garment is a reminder to expand the edges of my life so I can achieve greater meaning and live a purposeful existence.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the renowned theologian of the 20th century, demanded that prayer be a call to action, a rejection of stasis and a radical awakening to the potential of living. Beginning a prayer service with a talit on my shoulders and fringes flying, should serve as a reminder that we construct a better world when we bind up the loose ends into knots of strength and character.
R’ Evan J. Krame