If the most easily identifiable mark of a male religious Jew is the yarmulke, then a close second might be tzitit. Tzizit, which today consist of a four-cornered garment with a set of eight white strings attached to each corner, are worn by many with their strings hanging out of the waist of their pants. In Biblical and Talmudic times they were even more noticeable with the two turquoise strands of techeilet standing out from the other six white strands on each corner. Although the Torah itself gives no explanation of the reason for this aspect of the commandment of tzitzit, the sages of the Talmud do give an explanation which raises a difficulty of its own. They said that the tcheilet thread is similar to the color of the sea, the sea to the sky, the sky to a sapphire stone, and a sapphire stone to the Almighty’s Throne of Glory (which is described in a verse in Ezekiel as similar to a sapphire stone). The idea is that no matter what one becomes involved with in his mundane, day-to-day life, he will see the strings, and the techeilet in particular, and be reminded of spirituality. Upon even a cursory examination, the sages’ explanation seems convoluted. Why does the Torah decree a lengthy chain of items and phenomena to remind us only eventually of the Throne of Glory? If the Torah wants people to recall and be mindful of that metaphoric Throne, it should cut out the seemingly unnecessary two intermediate steps. There should be a few sapphire-colored tzitit strands which could directly remind one of the Throne of Glory. Why does the Torah need the extra steps of the techeilet, the sea, the sky, and the sapphire stone?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895 – 1986) suggests that this sequence of reminders teaches a fundamental lesson about self and spiritual growth. A person must ascend in gradual steps until he or she finally reaches the Throne of Glory. Spiritual achievements, much like muscle building, must be developed slowly and incrementally and cannot be developed impulsively based on momentary inspiration. Permanent depth of character can only be reached by slowly walking the road of toil and great effort; changes and attempts at growth that a person makes without walking that road will ultimately not last.
Although this principle applies equally to making changes in one’s paradigms, habits, or spirituality, from a particularly Jewish perspective it has special relevance to making religious changes. It is not uncommon to see people with non-observant backgrounds become religious quite quickly but then after a year or two or even after many years give it all up. There is a Hebrew book entitled Lad’at Ba’aretz Darkecha (Jerusalem, 1996) that is a guidebook for Jews that become observant later in life (also known as ba’alei teshuva). It points out that adoption of an observant lifestyle that runs counter to one’s background is usually extremely difficult for many obvious reasons. Nevertheless, when people become exposed to aspects of Judaism or the Torah that they were previously unaware of, they can often become so deeply excited and inspired that they are able to overcome the many obstacles and hurdles that they encounter. These changes are sustainable if they are made gradually and accompanied by the difficult work of thorough exploration of the Jewish worldview and how it fits with one’s own innermost beliefs, values, and aspirations. It seems that if the changes are adopted too abruptly and this exploration is neglected, the inner-self will eventually, sooner or later, reject and throw off all or some of those changes. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the person was insincere or a phony; rather, it may mean that the person lacked the experience or self-awareness that would have enabled them to make changes that would effect them so deeply in a healthy and effective way. (It seems that this is what reggae-star Matisyahu has struggled with; see my previous article here.) The Talmud and its explanation of techeilet urges us to be constantly aware of the need for slow growth that faces the difficulties as we develop ourselves, our character and our spirituality throughout our lives.