Rav Kook Torah

Shlach: The Third Passage of Shema


Every evening and morning, we say the Shema, Judaism’s supreme declaration of monotheistic faith. In the first passage, we accept upon ourselves the yoke of God’s sovereignty. And in the second, we accept God’s commandments.

Interestingly, the Sages added a third paragraph to the Shema — the passage commanding us to wear tzitzit (tassels) on the corners of our garments (Num. 15:37-41). Why did they decide to add this particular paragraph, out of the entire Torah, to the central prayer of Judaism?

Six Themes

The Talmud in Berachot 12b explains that the passage of tzitzit contains not one, but six major themes:

  • The mitzvah of wearing tzitzit on our garments;
  • The Exodus (“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt”);
  • Accepting the mitzvot (“You will thus remember and keep all of My commandments”);
  • Resisting heresy (“You will not stray after your hearts”);
  • Refraining from immoral and sinful thoughts (“and after your eyes”);
  • Eschewing idolatry (“which have led you astray”).

  • Is there a common motif to these six themes? Most are indeed fundamental concepts of Judaism, but what is so special about the mitzvah of tzitzit, more than the other 612 commandments?

    Spiritual Focus

    This mitzvah in fact does contain a fundamental message. It touches on the basic issues of life: how do we realize our spiritual potential? How can we truly fulfill ourselves as human beings?

    As Maimonides wryly noted, the philosophers composed numerous volumes and entire libraries trying to answer these questions. Despite their efforts, they failed to exhaust the topic. The Talmudic sages, on the other hand, succeeded in encompassing the subject by revealing its essence in one pithy statement:

    “Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven” (Avot 2:12).

    Human perfection is attained by establishing a worthwhile spiritual goal for all of our efforts and activities in life. Once we have set our spiritual focus, we need to direct all of our aspirations, wants and actions according to that objective. Then we will be complete in all aspects and levels of our existence.

    This is the message of tzitzit. The sky-blue techelet thread reminds us of the heavens and the Throne of Glory. The soul’s external expressions — character traits, emotions and actions — are like a garment worn on the outside, over the body. We need to connect all of these outer manifestations to our inner spiritual goal, our tachlit, in the same way that we tie our outer clothes with the special thread of techelet.

    The Exodus from Egyptian bondage expands on this theme. We are no longer slaves, subjected to physical and moral repression. A slave cannot set goals for his life and actions — they are not under his control. But we were liberated from slavery, are we are free to elevate ourselves and aspire towards our spiritual calling.

    The acceptance of practical mitzvot perpetuates the same message. All of our detailed actions should connect with our overall objective. Thus, we attain completion in all aspects of our existence: our intellect, emotions and conduct.

    Avoiding the Pitfalls

    While the first three themes in the passage of tzitzit teach us how to fulfill the maxim, “Let all of your deeds be for the sake of Heaven,” the last three themes deal with avoiding three obstacles to this guideline.

    The first pitfall is heresy. The fear of all-inclusive commitment, the desire to avoid moral responsibilities, can lead to denial of God or His Oneness. The path of heresy means abandoning elevated goals and rejecting ethical aspirations. Without a comprehensive objective and direction, the soul naturally seeks some other occupation. Lacking an overriding goal, the soul is tossed and flung like flotsam in the ocean, pulled by any internal or external lure. This leads to the second pitfall: attraction to base and corrupt actions.

    In the end, however, a self-indulgent lifestyle leaves the soul with feelings of horrible emptiness. The soul recognizes that a life without meaning is a contradiction to its very essence. But since it has already lost its rational beacon by rejecting the light of truth, the soul seeks purpose and meaning in foreign cultures. It tries to find spiritual sustenance in broken cisterns, in idolatrous worship.

    Thus, we see that this short passage includes the fundamental themes of Judaism. It describes that which gives our lives meaning and direction, and the major obstacles that can lead the soul astray. It is a fitting conclusion to our acceptance of God’s kingship in the Shema prayer.

    (Gold from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 70-71)