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Hanging by a Thread

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“‘You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God.’” — Numbers 15:39–40

The Torah portion for this week is Shelach, which means “send,” from Numbers 13:1–15:41, and the Haftorah is from Joshua 2:1–24.

This week’s Torah portion ends with a commandment for the Israelites to place tassels on the four corners of their garments. In those days, when men mostly wore tunics, the tassels were tied to the four corners of the tunic. Most of the shirts that are worn today don’t have four corners at the bottom, so the Jewish custom is to wear an undergarment called tzitzit in Hebrew. This undergarment is a small, lightweight, white four-cornered shirt with the traditional fringe (or tassels) tied at each corner. If you look closely at many observant Jewish men today, you will see this fringe hanging below their shirts, often almost to their knees.

An old Hasidic Jewish story is told about a Russian Cossack who encountered a Jewish Hasid traveling across Europe. The Cossack, notorious for being anti-Semitic, noticed the Jew’s tzitzit and asked abruptly, “What is that thing hanging down next to your leg?” The Jew turned to the Cossack and inquired, “What is that thing hanging down next to your leg?” The Cossack answered him, “It’s a sword, of course!” The Jew replied, “This is also a sword. Do you want to have a duel?” The Cossack agreed to the fight, and the legend goes that the tzitzit of the Hasid broke the sword of the Cossack.

Now whether this story is actually true is not the point. The lesson this story imparts is that our connection to God – which the tzitzit represent – is stronger and more powerful than anything else in the world.

I am reminded of the famous fight between the small and young David against the mighty giant Goliath. When Goliath caught sight of David, he couldn’t believe that such a powerless-looking young boy was coming to fight him. To Goliath, David must have seemed as unlikely to break his sword as tzitzit could have done. But as you probably recall, David declared fearlessly to Goliath, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty,” and then, “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves” (1 Samuel 17:45–47). David’s point: His connection to God was more powerful than any sword or spear.

It’s not by accident that the fringes on the tzitzit are made out of thread. Sometimes, our connection to God hangs by a thread. Sometimes our faith that He will see us through tough times hangs on a thread. But the message of the tzitzit is to hold on to that thread. Let us keep our connection to God strong, and God will help us overcome.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President


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