I had an interesting “vision” the other day as I was reading a text written by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. While discussing what it means to live as a Jew, Heschel wrote:
“Our blossoms may be crushed, but we are upheld by the faith that comes from beneath our roots.”
The Earth Is The Lord’s, p. 109.
Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, as clear as if being held before me, were tzitzit and they looked astonishingly like . . . ROOTS!! It was as if I never before had truly “seen” tzitzit — the knotted portion is flexible, yet firm, like a stem, and those fringes dangling from the bottom, if fanned out a bit, actually look like roots!!
My next thought was two verses in Jeremiah 17, which were part of my bat mitzvah haftorah:
7 Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is the Lord.
8 For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not see when heat comes, but its leaf shall be green; and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit.
Jeremiah and Rabbi Heschel are discussing the same concept, which is that a person who embraces Judaism and lives by its values can come to understand that this year’s blossoms are just that — only this year’s blossoms. New blossoms will arrive again next year and, in the meantime, although we can’t produce fruit this year, we can enjoy the sunshine, strengthen our roots, trunk, and branches, and be grateful for what we do have. We need not panic when an unexpected setback arrives; we simply need to hold onto our faith that better days are ahead of us and enjoy the little blessings as they arrive.
And, what might this have to do with strings attached to the four corners of a garment and tied in such a way that they have 613 knots representing 613 commandments???
Ahad Ha’am, a Cultural (i.e. secular & atheist) Zionist who lived from 1856-1927, is quoted as having said: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” And, it seems to me, the truth expressed by Ha’am’s statement is equally true for some of the 612 remaining commandments.
While many modern Jews have rejected the notion that G-d “gave” those commands or that G-d will “reward” or “punish” us based on how frequently we follow those commandments, maybe the origin and external consequences aren’t what matters. Perhaps “something else” about the doing of the commandments helps us in some intangible way . . . just as Ha’am noted about Shabbat.
I have found that simply by acknowledging that many of the acts I already engage in are commandments – by loving G-d, praying, affirming there is only one G-d, celebrating holidays, caring for others, etc – so that I approach them with the proper intention, I have been able to:
(1) connect myself to 3000 years of tradition — which can remind me that today (even if it is a truly horrible day) is just a brief tick in the eternal clock;
(2) say a number of blessings each day acknowledging the “simple moments” in life — which reminds me that I am surrounded by beauty and reasons to be grateful;
(3) celebrate the cycle of the day, week, month, and year — which shows me that time keeps moving, so any new setback will pass; and
(4) attach myself to a community — which can provide emotional support during difficult times.
In these ways, performing a few commandments can help a Jew develop an unshakable belief that somehow, sometime, everything will be just fine. And tzitzit, through the commandments they represent, are a conduit for developing that belief because they connect us to the timeless, mysterious, awesome force that pervades all of existence. Tzitzit are the ROOTS that allow us to soak up all the nutrients in the fertile soil that is Judaism.