The sea, the sky, the Throne of Glory

Posting a Shelach Lecha commentary in February? That’s odd! But one way of working with the sadness that accompanies the news that the tallit which was the inspiration for this d’var torah seems to have gone missing. I’m bummed about losing an item that I’d grown pretty attached to over several retreats and lots of sweet mornings in between…and absolutely aware that it’s totally replaceable. 

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As for the stones on the beach, forget it.
Each one could be set in gold.

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s poem, “This World,” takes its readers on a tour of natural phenomena (as so many of her poems do). It invites them to notice just how extraordinary the seemingly everyday really is. Tulips, peonies, birds, aspens, even stones, all bear witness to the world’s complexity (what the poem deems its “fanciness.”). And all poems, however ordinarily they might begin, ultimately find the morning sun glimmering everything (Why I Wake Early, p. 27).

Sometimes, we can look at something which is, at first glance, nothing special, but see in it something deeper and more meaningful. This is what’s behind the ritual of tzitzit, the fringes which are prescribed for our garments near the end of this week’s parashah, Shelach Lecha:

YHWH said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; see it and remember all the commandments of YHWH and do them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I YHWH am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God:I, YHWH your God(Num 15:37-41).

For the Sages (BT Menachot 43b), the progression of actions occasioned by the presence of the tzitzit was central: “Seeing leads to remembering, and remembering leads to doing.” Just having the fringes in one’s field of view is beneficial. When we see them, we remember.

But remember what? That’s where the blue comes in. From the same page of Talmud: “It is taught that Rabbi Meir said, ‘Why is blue different from all other colors? Because it is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky, like the Throne of Glory.'” Just as the fact of the tzitzit sets in motion a process (see=>remember=>do), so does the particular quality of the tzitzit set in motion of chain of awareness (sea=>sky=>Throne of Glory).

And isn’t that mindfulness? Noticing the very fact of something, inquiring into its nature and quality, and paying attention to what arises in the wake of the noticing and inquiry? Ultimately, when we’re at our best, the noticing and remembering lead us to act in ways that bring more compassion into the world, and to alleviate suffering.

I have a small, well-worn stone that I keep close at hand. It comes from the shoreline by Nahal Achziv, in northern Israel. When I see it, I remember so much. I remember picking it up on the last day of my 2007 summer sabbatical. I remember how connected I felt to my family in that moment, as my three young children combed the beach for smooth stones and shells while my wife and I stood at the water’s edge, reflecting on the months we’d spent living in Israel. And I remember the blueness of the water, and of the sky. It was a moment of wholeness and blessing. And all it takes to return there is a look at that stone, or the feel of it between my fingers.

Perhaps it’s not for nothing that a memento of the Achziv shoreline prompts those associations and memories. Literary sleuthing and archeological research alike point to Israel’s northernmost coast as the likely habitat of the chilazon, the animal from which the blue dye was extracted in Talmudic times. Experts identify the chilazon as the murex trunculus snail, and evidence of robust dyeing operations along the northern coast are an important piece of puzzle. Today, convinced by the evidence that we have the right source and the right formula, many talit-wearers are bringing the blue fringe back.

For some of us who wear tekhelet, the blue string serves as a powerful mindfulness tool. I began wearing tekhelet a few years ago, and have found that it adds great meaning to my practice. I’ve spent the last few weeks watching with pride as my oldest child (who collected shells and stones at Achziv all those years ago) designed and created her own tallit in honor of her Confirmation. Her tzitzit arrived from Israel yesterday, and she’ll tie them during the week of Shelach Lecha. May they serve her well.

A stone on the beach. A thread of blue string. Stars in the sky. A breath, rising and falling. Wherever our attention rests, careful investigation of what arises can yield happy results. As I sit, and pray, during the week of Shelach Lecha, may my seeing lead to remembering, and my remembering lead to action. May I find the morning sun glimmering all that I meet.

May it be so for me, for you, and for all of us. 

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