Clothes Make the Man

Shelach 5769 – Clothes Make the Man

by Rabbi Russ Resnik

Years ago, when I worked as a salesman, our manager gave everyone a copy of the book Dress for Success.1 This was more than a fashion book. Rather, it was a study of how different styles and colors influenced one’s effectiveness. In one test, a man wearing a beige raincoat asked people passing by for handouts and collected a tidy sum. Later he did the same in a gray raincoat and came up empty-handed. The book abounds with examples like this. Apparently, at least on a human level, clothes do make the man.

The Torah turns this principle around-clothing cannot make us something we are not, but it can remind us what we are supposed to be. Moses instructs the Israelites “to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them” (Num. 15:38-39).

“Tassel” is tzitzit in Hebrew, and such tassels are worn by Jewish men to this day. Traditional Jews wear a four-cornered undergarment with tassels that either appear on the outside of their pants, hanging down from the waist, or remain under the outer clothing, out of sight. The traditional prayer shawl, or tallit, has a tzitzit at each corner, thus providing another way to fulfill the commandment.

In the ancient world, nobles wore garments with ornate hems as a sign of their status. “The more important the individual, the more elaborate the embroidery of his hem. Its significance lies not in its artistry but in its symbolism as an extension of its owner’s person and authority.”2 Thus, a husband would divorce his wife by cutting off the hem of her garment. A seer in ancient Mari would send his report to the king and include a lock of his hair and a portion of his hem to attest its authenticity. From this we understand the significance of David’s cutting a piece of the hem off the robe of Saul, why David’s heart troubled him after he did so, and why Saul took it as a sign that David would succeed him as king (1 Sam. 24:6, 20).3 Likewise, we see more clearly why a woman in need of healing grabbed the hem of Yeshua’s garment (Matt. 9:20).

“Thus the significance of the tzitzit lies in this: It was worn by those who counted; it was the identification tag of nobility.”4 In Israel, the Torah decrees, it is not only the nobles, but every Israelite who is to wear such fringes on their garments.

The requirement to wear a thread of blue among the other threads of the tzitzit heightens its noble quality. Blue is the color of nobility, largely because of the cost of the dye in the ancient world. Indeed, the dye was so costly that the rabbis of the Talmudic era decreed that the blue thread was no longer to be worn, and the fringe should be white, so that all Jewish men would enjoy equal dignity.5 Nevertheless, the original significance remains. Blue is the color of royalty, and therefore the color of the priestly garments and the tabernacle itself. The single blue thread of the tzitzit reflects the single blue thread that held the golden head plate of the High Priest, on which were inscribed the words kodesh l’Adonai, “Holy to the Lord” (Exod. 28:36). Just as the priestly garment was made of both linen and woolen strands-a combination forbidden to the ordinary Israelites-so the early rabbis ordained that the tzitzit contain both white linen and blue woolen strands. “Thus the tzitzit, according to the rabbis, are modeled after a priestly garment that is taboo for the rest of Israel!”6

It is clear, then, that the tzitzit not only reminds the Israelites to obey the commandments, but it also reveals that they receive these commandments as a holy priesthood. Obedience is not just a way to keep the Israelites in line. Rather, it expresses the holiness of their calling and the purpose of their redemption from Egypt. Hence, the Lord concludes the instruction of the tzitzit with the words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God” (Num. 15:41).

This is indeed a lofty calling. Yet, even more striking is its position in the text of Numbers. We are in Parashat Shlach L’kha, which opens with Moses sending twelve men, one from each tribe, to scout out the Land of Israel in preparation for its conquest. The story ends, of course, in disaster. Ten of the twelve scouts bring back an evil report. Only Joshua and Caleb encourage the people to take the Land. The people believe the majority, refuse to take the Land as God has commanded, and end up being condemned to perish in the wilderness. This incident is not the first trial Moses faces in the book of Numbers. In the chapter before we learned of the complaints of his own siblings, Aaron and Miriam, and the Lord’s chastisement upon Miriam. Finally, just before the ordinance of the tzitzit, we hear of a man who breaks the Shabbat and is condemned to be stoned to death.

After the ordinance is given, things do not improve at all. The following chapter tells of the rebellion of Korach, who joins with Dathan, Abiram, and others to challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron. The Lord puts down this rebellion in the most drastic way, with the earth swallowing up Korach and his family, and fire from heaven striking down 250 other rebels.

The way Numbers tells the story makes it clear that when the Lord clothes the Israelites as priests, he does so fully knowing their tendency to rebel. The holy garment is not a reward for faithfulness, because they have hardly been faithful. Instead, the tzitzit expresses the faithfulness of God. By it, he calls into being a holy priesthood out of the unqualified and unworthy.

Is it possible that God still views Israel as a holy priesthood, despite its corporate failure to acknowledge Yeshua as Lord and Messiah, and still has a holy destination in mind for the whole people? As Paul reminded the Gentiles who believed in Yeshua, “Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28-29).

Clothes make the man. The tzitzit not only reminds Israel of the irrevocable commandments of the Lord, but of their irrevocable calling as a royal priesthood and a holy nation.

In our day, we are seeing a great move of reconciliation between Christians and Jews. Despite the Jewish “no” to Yeshua, God still has a glorious plan for the Jewish people, a plan that will ultimately be fulfilled in this same Yeshua. As the tzitzit is a reminder to Israel of their holy calling, so may it be a reminder to Christians, after centuries of anti-Jewish attitudes and actions, to love and honor the Jewish people.

For the journey: God has an unchangeable purpose that brings together Jews and Christians. There are visible reminders of this purpose in the world around me. How might I display such a reminder, like the tzitzit, in my own life?

(This week’s commentary is from Rabbi Resnik’s book Creation to Completion, available here)

Stephanie Escalnate