One of the things I will remember most about lockdown is the Sir David Attenborough series, “Blue Planet”. Together with my kids, we have marvelled at his masterful tours through the oceans and the various fish and animals that inhabit them. Yet I have been struck by the fact that with all our discoveries and exploration, in truth, the sea remains a great unknown – we have barely begun to get to grips with its murky depths.
The mysterious nature of the sea is actually central to the mitzvah of tzitzit according to Rabbi Soloveitchik. This week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha concludes with what has become known as the third paragraph of the Shema which includes the commandment to wear tzitzit. In its fullest form, this mitzvah is fulfilled by having one blue string along with the white strings on each corner of one’s four-cornered garment although for many centuries we only wore white tzitzit because the tradition of how to make the blue dye was lost. In recent times, with much research, many claim that we have rediscovered the correct dye to use and fulfil the mitzvah in this way.
The Talmud describes how the techelet blue reminds us of the sea, the sky and the heavenly throne. It represents that which is incomprehensibly vast, deep and far – totally unreachable by humans. Just as we have barely begun to plumb the shadowy depths of the sea, there are elements of the human experience that remain elusive to our understanding – there are parts of life that we simply cannot explain, quantify or rationalise.
Yet the majority of the tzitzit are white. White, in Hebrew, in addition to its association with purity, connotes lucidity and rationality. From the Prophets to the Talmud, down to modern Hebrew the colour white, more than cleanliness, is linked to clarity and verification. It represents our ability to explain so much of our world and ourselves – the exceptional ability of human beings to make discoveries and manipulate technology.
As a unit, these two elements are crucial to blend together. Most of the time, we should try to inhabit the world of clarity – there is so much of our Torah that we can comprehensively understand with time and effort. Getting to grips with the parsha, halacha (Jewish law) and Jewish history are just some areas we are able to illuminate for ourselves. But on occasion, we will meet parts of our tradition that seem to go beyond simple comprehension and those are represented by techelet – the blue, obscure waters of the irrational and inexplicable. Just like the sea, the sky and the heavenly throne, they are incomprehensibly vast, deep and far – totally unreachable by humans. While we concentrate most of our efforts on the logical, coherent lavan (white), we endure with the lone thread of ethereal techelet.
The blue and white of tzitzit have also been incorporated into the modern flag of the state of Israel and, in many ways, Israel typifies this dichotomy. Hundreds of books and articles explore the various elements that make Israel the remarkable country it is today. At the same time, all the rational explanations leave out irrational thriving of a country and a nation against all odds.
This ‘blue and white paradox’ is at the centre of our Jewish identity – our commitment to lifelong learning that deepens out understanding of Torah, ourselves and the world combined with an appreciation and commitment to that which exists beyond the limits of our comprehension. In the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik, “Only a people sustained by techeles could be motivated to reconstitute a state after two thousand years of exile. Nations governed only by lavan mock us incredulously and derisively. We are sustained by techeles, even when it is only a vision and temporarily obscured. The garment of Jewish life will yet possess both blue and white, and our historical yearnings and sacrifices will be vindicated.”