By R’ YY Bar-Chaim
“And they should make for them(selves) fringes On the corners of their garments,
Throughout their generations…
And you shall see it And you shall remember all the Mitzvos of G-d and do them”
~Num. 15 ~
My youngest recently had his Bar-Mitzvah and was proud to mark the occasion, among other things, by wearing his tallis katan (garment to which we attach the tsitsis fringes) above his shirt. It was particuIarly sweet for me to see him take on this Mitzvah with such uninhibited demonstrativeness, since the following Torah portion ended with that Mitzvah, as quoted above. Still, I cautioned him to not get too attached (no pun intended) to wearing the entire garment out since it will probably become a magnet for filth.
“Oh, Abba – really!”, he grunted. “I’m not a little kid.”
“No question,” I reassured, “but the nature of the beast is that outer garments get dirty quickly. Besides, just like your older brothers wore their bigdei-tsitsis in until Yeshiva, and like Abba does during the week, so too do I think it’s davka a grown-up consideration to do like your elders.”
“But Abba, that will seem sooo strange!”, he cried. “We’re Chassidim now, and that’s what most Chassidim do…”
“EXCEPT for a few, with me among them!”, I retorted. Then as a compassionate afterthought: “Still, I do respect that you’ve grown up in this community, in contrast to me and your brothers, for most of your life. So if you’d like to try and keep it clean, I’ll consider letting you wear it out. But if not, you’ll have to wait til Yeshiva.”
I think he decided that it would be strategically wise to not say more, because he quickly slipped away with a knowing smirk. As in saying, “alright Abba, I’ll lay low and you’ll probably forget all about it!” Indeed, with the other boys I probably would have pursued the debate til we got mutually clear on the right thing to do. But this one is different. He’s five years younger than the “first generation” and respectively has fallen into an entirely different role in the family. I have also aged, of course, and gotten past the keen sense of being a newbie in this holy community and the attendant fear of deviating.
Still it bothered me to not be seeing eye-to-eye with my son.
I was thus pleased, a couple of days later, to have another opportunity to address the issue. I had just spied numerous “decorations” on his tallis katan, which he had tried to keep out of sight by draping the front part over his shoulder but which now came clearly into sight as he bent over.
“Alright kid,” I funlovingly chided, “it’s time to face the facts. HOW many stains have you managed to get?”
“NU Abba. What do you expect?”
“Precisely that,” I smiled. “It’s totally normal. But that’s why I’ve been preparing you.”
“But you CAN’T make me tuck it in!”, he protested, with a vehemence that pinched the core of my paternity. “They’ll laugh at me. It will be sooo embarrassing…”
“More than walking around with a filthy cape?”
“YES. EVERYone tends to get it dirty…”
“Ah, THAT”s what I feared. It’s for that reason that I DAVKA want you to tuck it in. You don’t have to be one of the crowd in EVERYthing, after all, no matter how holy they generally are. Aye, we didn’t make all those sacrifices to enter such a holy community for you to take on all their vices…”
I could hear myself guilt-tripping. The plug holding back my long-held anxieties about the “dirty bathwater” in which the “baby” of our Yiddishkeit was sitting had now been pulled. I surely didn’t want to throw the baby out, but I’d be damned if I was gonna let my kids get comfortable in that bathwater!
“Your RIGHT, Abba,” he suddenly said, jolting me out of my reservations.
“What? You agree?”
“No, not exactly. I just said you’re right that it’s not the best part of this derech (pathway of piety) that boys walk around with filthy talleisim ketanim. Still, I ask you to let me keep it out, because the embarrassment of being different will be worse!”
Whew. Now THAT’s one honest child. It certainly stymied the flow of my reproach. Could it be that I was also right and also wrong? And was the right part tainted by my own, projected horror at the possibility of living a life of stained holiness? I mean, perhaps the thought of holiness equaling cleanliness is one big fantasy schlepped over from the Xn culture in which I was raised??
These are questions I haven’t yet resolved and I’d be most pleased to hear some thoughts on the matter from others who’ve grappled with it.