Shelach Lecha: God’s Tallit

The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God. (B’midbar 15:37-41

We see that God unfurls the light – the pristine swathe
of pure white silk He wraps around the world, and likewise
we aspire to enrobe ourselves in holiness.

He strings the clouds over azure sky: we peer
between the cracks and seek to understand;
our eyes cannot discern what our heart might hold is true.

Yet as He stretches forth His shawl – great shimmering folds
of light, arrayed across the heavens,
He beckons us to shelter in the shadow of His wings.


Parashat Shelach Lecha contains several seemingly disparate themes, starting with the tragic episode of the spies who went to see what the land looked like, and returned with a negative report, and ending with the instruction to the children of Israel to attach blue-threaded fringes to the corners of their garments, as a visual prompt – a reminder to recall the mitzvot and observe them. In a commentary on the Parasha called The Depth of Sight, from 2013, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/shelah-lekha/5773/depth-sight Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz notes that the narrative of this Parasha is “bookended by sight”. He observes that at the very beginning, Moses tells the scouts to go up and see what kind of country it is (B’midbar 13:18). He adds that sight closes the Parasha, as we are instructed to attach blue-threaded fringes to the corners of our garments, to see them and remember to keep the mitzvot (B’midbar 15:39). He notes “In the first instance, sight becomes a stumbling block for the spies as this all important sense triggers fear and panic; while, in the second instance, sight is meant to spark memory and to encourage observance. How may we understand the depth of sight — especially in relation to tzitzit, a commandment the Jewish People continue to observe faithfully in the modern day?” Rabbi Berkowitz brings a teaching from the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, who writes, “The word tzitzit (fringe) is interpreted by Rashi as coming from the verse, “He peers between the cracks” (Song of Songs 2:9). The purpose of this mitzvah is to open a Jew’s eyes. That is why the Talmud teaches that “one who is careful about the commandment of the fringes merits greeting the Divine Presence,” since it says, “and you will see Him.” Tzitziyot are mentioned three times in this passage, parallel to the three times in the year when Israel were to “be seen” (the Three Pilgrimage Festivals) . . . We are God’s witnesses, and of a witness it is said, “If he sees or knows” (Leviticus 5:1). Knowing is higher than seeing; knowing is the rung of Moses himself. Perhaps that is why they were given the commandment of fringes. When they fell from their rung by no longer fully accepting Moses’ leadership, they would have need of this “seeing,” a step lower than knowing.” (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, The Language of Truth, 241–242).
Rabbi Berkowitz concludes, “Seeing is multivalent: for it is not only a physical sense to which the Torah refers, but also a spiritual and interpretive dimension. Unlike the experience of the spies at the beginning of the parashah, Israelite “seeing” should open both the eyes and the heart. It is a seeing that should lead us to embrace a deep, rich, and resonant truth; and it should bring us a step closer to becoming “God’s witnesses.” The negativity engendered by seeing at the opening of our parashah becomes redeemed and “repaired” through the blessing of tzitzit. The knotty texture of the fringes combined with the stark contrast between the blue and white should remind us all of the nature of our spiritual and worldly treks — the challenges that one encounters along the journey to “acquire” observance, as well as the eternal challenge of “acquiring” the Land of Israel.”

Certain verses are recited by some, before and after donning the tallit, the fringed prayer shawl. If we examine these, we obtain an insight into some midrashic thoughts which bring the analogy of God wearing a tallit. Before putting on the tallit, the following verse is recited, “Bless the Lord, my soul. Lord my God, You are very great; You are clothed with splendor and majesty. The Lord wraps Himself in light as with a garment; He stretches out the heavens like a curtain…” (Tehillim 104:1-3) In the midrash on this verse in Tehillim there is the following discussion: “He wraps Himself in light as with a garment” – Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotsedek asked Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachmani: How did God create the radiant aura? He said to him: He wrapped Himself in a white tallit and illuminated the world with its light. And in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (Chapter 3) it is brought: From which place were the heavens created? From the light of the raiment of the Holy One Blessed be He, that He was wearing, He spread it like a robe, and stretched it out…[and made the heavens] as it is said, The Lord wraps Himself in light as with a garment; He stretches out the heavens like a curtain…
The choice of this verse before donning the tallit hints at a desire to be enlightened by God’s light. The verse said after putting on the tallit speaks of a yearning to be sheltered under God’s wings and to see by the light He shines on the world: “How great is Your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings. They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house; and You water them from the river of Your delights. For with You is the fountain of life: in Your light shall we see light. O continue Your lovingkindness unto those who know You; and Your righteousness to the upright in heart.” (Tehillim 36: 7- 10)
In the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 17) we also encounter the theme that the rabbis bring, of God wrapping Himself in a tallit. On the verse in Shemot (34:6) “And the Lord passed by before him and proclaimed...” R. Johanan said: Had this passage not been written, it would have been impossible to have said it, for it teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself, as does a shaliach tsibbur [prayer leader] who recites the prayers for a congregation, and pointing out to Moses the regular order of prayer, said to him: Whenever Israel sins, let him pray to Me, after this manner, and I shall pardon him.
So the moments of closeness and forgiveness on Yom Kippur, when this verse and the subsequent ones enumerating God’s attributes of mercy are said repeatedly) are interpreted by the sages as a time when God is wrapped with us in a tallit as the shaliach tsibbur of the people. And the Maharsha* connects between these two tallitot saying that he found in an old Kabalistic tome the following teaching, “ God is wrapped in the the same white tallit in which He was wrapped at the creation of the world, when it says, “He wraps Himself in light as with a garment.” ” so, he teaches, we join the Holy One Who wears the white tallit of mercy and shelters us under His tallit of light.

*Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer HaLevi Eidels (1555 – 1631) was a renowned rabbi and Talmudist. He is also known as Maharsha, a Hebrew acronym for “Our Teacher, the Rabbi Shmuel Eidels”.
The Maharsha was born in Kraków, Poland. His father, Yehuda, was a Talmudist and both parents were descendants of rabbinic families – his mother Gitel was a cousin of Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal of Prague. From early childhood, the Maharsha’s remarkable talents were evident. When he came of marriageable age, the Maharsha was offered many prestigious shidduchim (marriage partners), but he rejected them, asserting that he wanted to devote himself solely to Torah study. He married the daughter of Edel Lifschitz of Posen and the late Moshe Lifschitz, rabbi of Brisk. He then moved to Posen and established a yeshiva there. For twenty years, all the expenses of the yeshiva were assumed by his mother-in-law. In appreciation of her support he adopted her name. After her death, he served as rabbi in the following prominent communities: Chełm, Lublin and Ostroh. He authored Chiddushei Halachot – an incisive and analytical commentary on the Talmud, Rashi and Tosafot together, with a focus on Tosafot. It is said that if one grasps the Maharsha, then one has understood the Tosafot. This commentary was quickly accepted and was printed in almost all editions of the Talmud. Chiddushei Halachot is based on Maharsha’s teaching in his yeshiva.
The Maharsha also wrote an extensive commentary on the aggadot of the Talmud known as the Chiddushei Aggadot reflecting a wide knowledge of philosophy and Kabbalah.

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