Parshas Shelach: Blue and White – The Interplay Between Mystery and Clarity

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Shelach, we are instructed regarding the mitzvah of tzitzis: And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל-כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם, לְדֹרֹתָם; וְנָתְנוּ עַל-צִיצִת הַכָּנָף, פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת, speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them, to make for themselves tzitzis on the corners of their garments, for generations; and they shall place on the tzitzis at each corner a thread of turquoise, וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְות ה’, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם, and it will be for you tzitzis, and you will see it, and remember all the mitzvos of Hashem, and do them (Bamidbar 15:37-39). 

What is the color of the techeilis?  Rashi (ibid) teaches: תכלת. צֶבַע יָרֹק שֶׁל חִלָּזוֹן – Techeilis is the green color of the chilazon

Opinions vary as to the exact identity of the chilazon, but it was (is) some kind of sea creature, from which the techeilis dye was (is) extracted. 

What does the inclusion of techeilis in the tzitzis teach us?  Chazal explain (Menachos 43b): מה נשתנה תכלת מכל מיני צבעונין? מפני שהתכלת דומה לים וים דומה לרקיע ורקיע לכסא הכבוד – in what way does techeilis differ from all other colors (Rashi – that it should be included in the mitzvah of tzitzis)?  Because techeilis resembles the sea, the sea resembles the heavens, and the heavens resemble the Kisei ha’Kavod (G-d’s Throne of Glory). 

When we ponder the turquoise color of the techeilis, it reminds us of the sea, which reminds us of the firmament of the heavens, which reminds us of G-d’s Throne of Glory, and His sovereignty and dominion over all.  Hence, seeing the tzitzis, with the פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת, reminds us of all the mitzvos of Hashem, וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְות. 

Rav Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת – A thread of blue.  Techeilis and lavan, blue and white, represent two approaches of man to himself and to the world outside.  In classical Hebrew, lavan signifies the color white, but it also signifies clarity, distinctiveness and openness.  It denotes rationality, simplicity and truthfulness, something which is obvious to everybody as an elementary truth.  A Jew is expected to focus his glance on the white and attempt to understand the world.  The Torah did not want people to live in obscurity.  It encourages man to explore all the phenomena of nature, to use his mind and make discoveries, to be scientifically oriented and technologically minded.

Techeilis is just the opposite.  Our Sages said: ‘Techeilis resembles the sea, and the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles the celestial throne.’  They associated blue with distance and inapproachability.  The blue sky is very distant; the blue sea is wide and endless.  And, of course, the throne of G-d is beyond the universe.  Whatever we cannot reach, whatever is outside of our control, whatever suggests mystery to us, is considered by our Sages as techeilis

“Man sometimes meets with mystery, with something numinous and awesome, something beyond the bounds of the rational and intelligible.  Everything becomes distant and strange, remote as the sky and distant from our minds. 

“But we have been trained to accept both (white and blue, clarity and mystery).  If the experience is understandable (represented by the lavan, the white), then our intellect interprets the experience.  If the experience is not understandable (represented by the techeilis, the blue), unintelligible, we interpret it through an act of faith” (Siddur Koren Masoret HaRav, p.274-277).

The journey of Am Yisrael through history, our national destiny, is a confluence of lavan and techeilis, white and blue, sensible and nonsensical, clarity and mystery, understandable and confusing… At times our lives make sense, our national movement through history is clear, and we interpret the world through our intellect.  And at other times, may Hashem have mercy upon us, when nothing makes sense, we remember the techeilis, and we interpret the world and its goings on through an act of faith.

R’ Yisrael Meir Lau shlita writes that on June 2, 1945 (at the age of eight years old, and one of the youngest child survivors of the Holocaust), he was amongst the first to leave Buchenwald on the train to France.  “Naphtali (R’ Lau’s older brother) and I took a bag of candy and food and left Buchenwald forever.  Before we left, an American soldier gave me a small old suitcase from the army’s supply.  This suitcase had accompanied me always.  It went with me to Eretz Yisrael, and to various educational institutions. 

“By the time I got married, the suitcase was worn out and my wife wanted to throw it away, but I resolutely refused.  ‘This is my home,’ I explained to her as I squirreled it away in the ceiling storage space.  ‘G-d willing,’ I added, ‘my children will lack for nothing.  But if, someday, one of them should complain that he lacks for something, I will have that child climb the ladder, reach a hand up into the storage space, find this suitcase, and take it down.  Then I will say, ‘This was your father’s home for many years and in many places.  You must not complain, because I never did.’  My wife understood my thoughts, and like me, she guarded that tattered suitcase like a precious jewel. 

“Although the suitcase exists no longer – Tel Aviv’s heat and humidity caused it to disintegrate – a photograph of it occupies a place of honor in my living room… Every time I look at the photograph, it tells me: Israel Meir, you have a mission – to justify your survival and your existence; to serve as the messenger of your murdered father, mother, and brother; and to continue the dynasty” (Out of The Depths, p.79-80). 

As many generations of Jews have known, our destiny is a mixture of white and blue.  When nothing makes sense, we continue to view the times of techeilis, and our story, through faith, emunah, for techeilis resembles the sea, the sea resembles the sky, and the sky reminds us of G-d’s Throne of Glory.

בברכת בשורות טובות, שבת שלום, וחודש טוב,


1 Comment
  • Sharon F
    Posted at 08:18h, 18 June

    Beautiful Michal. When I see blue & white I think, of course, of our flag💙 Hashem Yishmor Shabbat Shalom