Buried underneath the surface of this week’s parsha and of its signature story is a pair of mitzvot (commandments) which teach us an important lesson: challah and tzitzit.
What is challah? Most non-Jews call it “challah bread.” Challah, however, isn’t a recipe; it’s a process. Bread made from wheat, spelt, barley, oats, and rye can be made as challah. How? By taking the portion which is due to the Kohen, saying the appropriate blessing over it, and then baking it on the side of the rest or in the bottom of the oven. So you can have rye challah, focaccia challah, white or wheat or any other version, as long as it’s made with the appropriate grains, and the blessing has been said (contact me if you want to learn how…) One is then able, and required, to recite the blessing before eating it, and the Birkat Hamazon after.
The next one comes with strings attached; literally. The conclusion of this week’s parsha contains the mitzva of the fringes, Tzitzit. The strings which I wear (as my wife calls them) represent the totality of the commandments. The gematria (Jewish numerology) of “tzitzit” is 600. Then look at your tallis. 8 strings and 5 knots per corner brings us to 613, the number of mitzvot, commandments, in the Torah. Wearing Tzitzit, whether daily or on just on Shabbos, connects us to every mitzva in the Torah.
Both of these commandments share a single element in as much as they each take something ordinary and raise it to the level of the extraordinary. Bread is elemental; so much so that “bread” is used as a common euphemism for any type of food. Take ordinary bread and turn it into challah, and it becomes something holy. Tzitzit are the same. There is nothing which prevents us from tying fringes or tassels on our clothing. Doing so in a special way with the intent of performing a mitzva, however, brings all of the Torah’s commandments to mind, and allows us to hold and kiss them at the appropriate points of the service. Once again, something normal has become something special; a vehicle which can take us to the next level.
The fact that these two mitzvot serve to take something humble and transform it into something holy is the underlying message. If we are able to embody the Divine in something as simple as bread or a bunch of strings, imagine what we could accomplish by treating every commandment the same way. Not just the positive ones, either. By resisting the temptation to transgress a negative mitzva, we have, within our power, the ability to harness G-d’s holiness and turn the negative into a positive. How wonderful that on any given day, we have countless opportunities to do just that. As Ben Azzai taught in Pirkei Avot 4:2: “Pursue a minor mitzva as you would a major one, and flee from a sin; for one good deed leads to another, and one sin creates another. Thus is the reward for a mitzva another mitzva, and the consequence of sin is another sin.”
Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen