30-Day Tzitzit Challenge: Thanks for the Quandaries

From Pirke Avot 5:25 we learn that Ben Bag used to say: Turn it and turn it because everything is in it. Pore over it. Grow old with it. Stick with it. Nothing is better.

In the Torah passage about the tzitzit, the text never directs us to use a particular number of threads, nor a particular number of wraps and knots. It only tells us to make fringes on the corners of our garments, and it directs us to use one blue thread in each corner. How the rabbis got us from Numbers 15:38 to this awkward string of topological challenges, I don’t know. Seems like someone had to infer some facts. Someone had to extrapolate some findings. Seems like someone had to add to and subtract from this passage of the Torah in order to get us where we are today regarding tzitzit.

Humans are good at extrapolating. It’s our gift and our curse. It’s the source of storytelling and the source of propaganda. It’s the source of innovation and the source of repression. It’s the source of courage and the source of fear.

Before I began the 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge, what I extrapolated from seeing the tzitzit on other people was that the fringes made these people somehow more righteous. I couldn’t help it. Intellectually, I knew the fringes on a Chasidic man couldn’t automatically imbue a special righteousness not available to someone like Ruth Messinger, the president and executive director of American World Jewish Service. But, at an instinctive level, I ascribed something like magic to those tzitzit.

What I’m learning is that the tzitzit do only what they have been designed to do: they make me pay attention to my choices and measure those choices against the values taught in the Torah. And sometimes, the Torah has fallen short. The principles have prevailed, but not every mitzvah has measured up to the ideal of the whole body of 613 mitzvot.

Wearing these tzitzit convinces me that the Reform Jewish movement, a movement that my family has been part of for at least three generations, is the best religious movement for me. If I’m blessed with the ability to draw conclusions out of a morass of data, I’m also obligated to weigh the value of the mizvot, search earnestly for meaning in them, and reject those mitzvot that distract me from the larger commandment to live with compassion. Reform Judaism proposes that we can discern a meaningful and righteous path by engaging with the mitzvot, but not necessarily by following these ancient laws according to the letter of a people who were just starting to craft a new system of ethics for a new nation.

With that in mind, remembering that it is Thanksgiving week, and the week of my father’s Yahrzeit, I say, with great love:  מדה אני לפנך let us give thanks to God for the people who came before us. For my part, I give thanks to the people who participated and strengthened the Reform Movement: My grandparents, aunts and uncles, rabbis and teachers, and, especially, my parents taught me – sometimes by example, sometimes despite themselves – never to shy away from an idea just because it’s challenging. They taught me to turn it and turn it again, to stick with it because nothing is better.

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