The talis, or talit (prayer shawl), with its tzizit fringe strings hanging down from its four corners, is one of the most well-known Jewish symbols. In Biblical and Talmudic times, the talis looked considerably different. Six of the eight strands were the natural off-white wool color, like all of the strands on ours. Their remaining two strands were dyed with techeilet, a type of bright turquoise that made those two strings stand out starkly from the rest (the tradition of how to make the dye was then lost for centuries, but after extensive research it is now being revived). Although the Torah itself doesn’t explain the purpose of these techeilet-colored strings, the sages of the Talmud do give an explanation. They said that the techeilet thread is similar to the color of the sea, the sea to the sky, the sky to a sapphire stone, and a sapphire stone to the Almighty’s Throne of Glory (which is described in a verse in the book of Ezekiel as similar to a sapphire stone). The idea is that no matter what one becomes preoccupied with in his mundane, day-to-day life, he will see the strings, and the techeilet in particular, and be reminded of the Almighty and spirituality. But this explanation seems convoluted. Why does the Torah decree a lengthy chain of items and phenomena to remind us, only eventually and in a roundabout way, of the Throne of Glory? If the Torah wants people to recall and be mindful of that metaphoric Throne, it should cut out the seemingly unnecessary two intermediate steps. There should be a few sapphire-colored tzitit strands which could directly remind one of the Throne of Glory. Why does the Torah need the extra steps of the techeilet, the sea, the sky, and the sapphire stone?
In his book First Things First, Stephen Covey distinguishes between two approaches to change. When a problem doesn’t need a long-term solution, like cramming for an exam, quick fixes can sometimes work. But in a natural setting, as on a farm, there is no way to cheat the system. If one is too lazy to plant in the spring and summer, there is no way to make up for lost time in the fall. There will be nothing to harvest. One can make the mistake of thinking that like passing a test, spirituality is attainable via shortcuts.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895 – 1986) suggests that the sequence of reminders from the techeilet to the Throne of Glory addresses methods of achieving personal growth and attaining spirituality. In these areas, there are no quick fixes. A person must ascend in gradual steps until he or she finally reaches the Throne – genuine spiritual connection and accomplishment. If steps are omitted, the resulting shortcomings inevitably and eventually catch up with a person, and the result is frustration, despair, and setback. True spiritual-religious achievements, much like muscle building, must be developed slowly and incrementally and cannot be pursued impulsively based on momentary inspiration. They involve changing bad habits, developing good ones, and most important of all changing the way one thinks about oneself and the world. A couch potato cannot get into shape by running all day right before a marathon. Long-lasting spiritual depth can only be reached by slowly walking the road of toil and great effort; changes and attempts at growth that a person makes without walking that road will ultimately not last. The message of techeilet is that like on the farm, true spiritual growth is not a sudden metamorphosis but rather a slow going and gradual evolution.
This article appears in the July 1 edition of Jewish News.