Between the Lines—Shelah Lekha

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

במדבר רבה (וילנא) פרשה יז

למען תזכרו ועשיתם את כל מצותי משל לאחד מושלך לתוך המים הושיט הקברניט את החבל ואמר לו תפוש חבל זה בידך ואל תניחהו שאם תניחהו אין לך חיים אף כך אמר לו הקב"ה לישראל כל זמן שאתם מדובקין במצות (שם /דברים/ ד) ואתם הדבקים בה' אלהיכם חיים כולכם היום וכן הוא אומר (משלי ד) החזק במוסר אל תרף נצרה כי היא חייך.

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 shall you be reminded to observe all My commandments . . . (Deut. 15:39–40). This may be illustrated by the case of one who has been thrown into the water. The captain stretches out a rope and says to him: 'Take hold of this rope with your hand and do not let go, for if you do you will love your life!' In the same way the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: 'As long as you adhere to the commandments, then, "You that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day"' (Deut. 4:4). In the same strain it says, "Take fast hold of instruction, let her not go; keep her, for she is your life" (Proverbs 4:13).

The metaphor is wonderful: the man at sea is Israel, grasping the tzitzit, with God the Captain of the ship stretching out a hand, holding the other end of the lifeline. As with all metaphors, it is not to be taken literally. Most of us, as Conservative Jews, do not believe that the mitzvot (represented by the tzitzit) literally save us from trouble. The wearing of tzitzit—be it throughout the day as part of our regular attire or at Shaharit on a tallit—serves to remind us of that lifeline, to encourage us tangibly to hold on to that which sustains and nourishes us spiritually. The image of holding on for dear life, and that very act of holding on, gives us life as individuals and as a people. You that cleave unto the Lord are alive this very day. Take hold and do not let go, for she—Torah—is your life.