"Clothes make the man," said Shakespeare (Hamlet I:iii). Jewish tradition couldn't agree more.
This week's Torah portion (Shlach) brings a mitzvah (command) to tie fringes to our clothes. This is the derivation of the Jewish tallit (prayer shawl) tied with tzitzit (fringes). Torah records God to tell Moses (Num. 15:37-40): "Speak to the Israelites and tell them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages, then attach to the fringe at each corner a cord of blue. You will have fringes; looking at [them], you will recall all of God's commands and do them, so you won't turn after your hearts and eyes to prostitute yourselves. Thus you will be reminded to do all My commands and be holy to your God."
Tradition wisely understood that we distractible humans need physical reminders – like strings tied around the finger – to rivet attention, jog memory and shift behavior toward holy living. The first of Judaism's physical reminders was clothing: tzitzit were ancient spirituality's fashion sense.
Sense for what? This week's portion is named for scouts that Moses sent (shlach) to investigate the land that the Israelite wanderers were about to enter. The scouts returned afraid of the land's native inhabitants and feeling tiny compared to them – like grasshoppers beneath a giant. God and Moses rebuked them for false fears, and many died in the ensuing struggle. Only after that painful story do we encounter Torah's teaching about blue tzitzit to focus our attention.
Fear comes to every life. Our fears can lead us astray; we might feel small compared to our challenges or adversaries. Torah reminds us that we can shift our focus so that our small fears won't dominate us, and that we can use what we see – even the clothes we wear – to shift our focus. The tallit evokes God's light: we imagine God to be clothed in light (Ps. 104), so we wrap ourselves in a garment of light. Onto those vestments evoking holy light, we tie threads to remind us of this week's story of scouts who felt too small. We wear this garment as a protective cloak against fear and unholy distraction. Whatever your fashion sense, make in your life a visible reminder that you come clothed in light and strength. Wear that garment grandly, and do not fear.
Rabbi David Evan Markus