Judaism’s reminder to love


This week’s Torah portion is Shelach Lecha, Numbers 13:1 – 15:41.

I frequently get asked by my students about tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of a garment, especially tallitot, prayer shawls. Why are they there? Why are they tied in a certain way?  I usually answer by telling them that they remind us to obey the mitzvot, the commandments, much as the Torah explains:

“You shall see it [the fringes] and remember all the mitzvot of God, to do them” (Numbers 15:39).  I often also cite Rashi’s explanation, that using gematria, a system of replacing the Hebrew letters with numbers, the word tzitzit equals 600, and by adding the eight pieces of thread and the five knots of each, you get 613, the number of mitzvot.

While that is the great, classic, technical answer, it did nothing to help me feel any better over the last couple of weeks, when four people were killed in a shooting in Tel Aviv and 49 people were murdered in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.


As I heard the stories of the victims and the sorrow at the loss, my own heart broke with their suffering.  Gematria was not going to put that back together.

Reb Tzvi Hirsh of Nadvorna, an early chasidic preacher, had a different interpretation for the tzitzit.  He taught that they should lead us to humility and to fulfill the mitzvah of “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

“When a person fulfills the mitzvah, we understand that it means that you should love your neighbor as if that person is you,” he wrote. “One does not want one’s friend to be humiliated, just like he/she does not want to be humiliated.”

The tzitzit remind us of the mitzvot by reminding us of the foundational mitzvah of the Torah—that we should treat other people with love, as if that person were ourselves.

Perhaps the reason this mitzvah is considered central to the Torah is because it is so difficult to observe.  We human beings are emotional and often struggle to provide a proper outlet for those emotions, particularly negative ones. When someone else hurts us, we instinctively hate them for doing it. When someone has something we want, we hate them for having it. When we feel scared, insecure or vulnerable, we find someone — anyone — to hate so that we do not have to live with those feelings.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, told us, “Judaism’s response to hatred has always been to redouble our efforts at love. … Love is the antidote to hate.” When we are tempted to hate, the Torah commands us to love. When we are confronted with hate, we are likewise commanded to love.

It is the kind of empathetic love that the Torah commands which motivates us to seek out justice, to stand up for what we believe is right, to fight for human rights when we see them being violated, to heal the wounds of those suffering because of hate. The only way we can ever hope to defeat hate in this world is to love stronger, longer and more wholeheartedly than those who hate.

Every time we put on a tallit to pray — or see others put on theirs — and look at our tzitzit, may we remember our commandment to love others and may our actions reflect the love we have in our hearts.

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