We would think that Torah is so vast that no one individual mitzvah can symbolize all the 613 “components.” Surprisingly, the Torah designates one mitzvah as an icon for the entire system of commandments. The mitzvah of tzitzit activates our imagination and attunes us to the entire system of mitzvot. Somehow, a glance at the tzitzit evokes the entire range of mitzvot. The mitzvah of tzitzit is the only commandment described as a “memory-trigger” for all other commandments.
Most are familiar with Rashi’s well-known explanation for this “trigger mechanism.” The gematria or numerical equivalent of the word tzitzit (600) combined with the number of strings and knots of the tzitzit (13) computes to a grand total of 613. This “tzitzit calculus” assures that a quick glimpse upon tzitzit stokes a fuller awareness of all the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.
The Gemara in Menachot suggests a very different “trigger mechanism” for tzitzit. The blue dye of the tzitzit strings sparks our imagination and enables sustained mitzvah adherence. The blue techelet dye is very similar to the color of the ocean, the sky and the earth’s atmosphere. Browsing these strings and appreciating their color draws our hearts upward toward Heaven and toward the presence of God. The color lures our imagination heavenly toward a more profound awareness of God and greater mitzvah adherence. Tzitzit serve as a gateway to Heaven.
However, the blue techelet doesn’t merely fasten us to Heaven. In the process, we ponder the vastness of the ocean, the expanse of the sky and the mystique of the upper atmosphere. All these elements emit a bluish hue. The blue strings of tzitzit bridge our imagination to the vastness of our world, and meditating upon this immensity braces our religious commitment. The immensity of our universe provides “proportion” to our own lives, and this proportion steadies our overall religious experience. The ocean and the sky are larger than “human experience,” and when we ponder them we see our own lives from a different and broader perspective. For example, when we return home on an airplane flight, we look down, from 10,000 feet up, upon the buildings, roads and cars that form our daily reality. Seeing our lives from a different vantage point forces us to reimagine ourselves and our experiences. Proportion in life provides perspective; perspective anchors healthy and balanced religious life.
Every religious letdown is a product of the contraction of our imagination and the ensuing loss of perspective. If we only understood the unfortunate consequences of our flawed decisions, we would certainly choose more wisely. Instead, we shrink into the “here and now” and think only about the “moment” and our immediate needs, rather than larger and broader consequences. Every sin is a tragic “barter” of eternity for current and fleeting needs. It is a ludicrous trade, a folly caused by loss of perspective. Sin and failure are products of small-mindedness; sadly, sin makes us even smaller. Restoring proportion between our small lives and the larger reality within which we live, between a shrunken present and a vast eternity, can avert this sad exchange. Tzitzit is a “proportion restorer”—drawing our imagination to G-d—but also to the scale of the ocean and the breadth of the sky. If our imaginations soar, we are less likely to fall victim to the narrowness of sin.
The mussar movement was founded by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter in the early 19th century. Aware of a rapidly changing modern world, he stressed the importance of developing moral character. No longer could it be assumed that pious behavior would evolve naturally from persistent Torah study; piety must be independently cultivated. One of the pupils of Rebbi Yisrael, Rav Simcha Zeisel Broide, established a yeshiva upon the cornerstones of the mussar teachings. Annually, in his yeshiva, as Yom Kippur approached, a group of mussar devotees would voluntarily adopt joint practices to generate a heightened religious tone. In 1880 the talmidim dedicated themselves toward daily “pondering of eternity.” Contemplating eternity would generate religious discipline. They understood the value of proportion.
It is ironic that as our world rapidly expands, in many ways it becomes smaller, more narrower and with less self-perspective. Perspective demands seeing ourselves “in light” of something different and something larger than our current experiences. Our world has itself become too large and it is becoming more challenging to cast our experiences and ideas within anything larger than our already too-large reality. The more we have the more difficult it becomes to imagine what we don’t have. Ironically, the world around us is large but perspective about that world has shriveled. As our experiences become more complete and our reality more cohesive, it is more difficult to stream our own “space” through the perspective of something different or beyond our world. The universe has expanded but we have diminished.
Healthy proportion in life doesn’t only deter the tragedy of sin. When we face adversity or hardship, proportion helps us avoid panic or excess anxiety. The spies of Parshat Shelach can be excused for their honest reporting—as depressing as their intel may have been. However, their gloomy panic and their cowardly dread wrecked Jewish history. Proportion provides a larger view, it allows emotional equanimity and it prevents the overreaction that panic incites.
Additionally, proportion counterbalances unhealthy social pressures. Social trends exert a heavy influence upon our decisions and behavior. Trends come and go but sometimes they feel fixed and unchangeable, and we sheepishly succumb to them. Proportion helps us contextualize these seemingly powerful forces: not every society behaved this way or thought this way. Social conventions shouldn’t define us, and we should assemble our lives based upon eternal or absolute values and not upon fashions or fads. Without proportion, society is becoming extremely vulnerable to trendiness and social conformity.
Furthermore, proportion encourages intellectual honesty. Our passion convinces us that our views and perspectives are superior. We become so attached to those views that we can’t imagine different perspectives. We often speak foolishly about the “logic” of the “righteousness” of our personal approaches while deriding other perspectives. Proportion reminds us of our true size and of the unknowability of the larger parts of our world and of course of God Himself. Standing in front of that abyss, we tend to speak more humbly and with less overconfidence.
My Rebbe, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, quoted Matthew Arnold, the 19th-century British author who spoke of seeing life “steady and seeing life whole.” We are at our religious and personal best when we “see life whole.” The blue strings of our tzitzit assure that we “see it whole.”
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.