“I’d like to use my lifeline, Regis.” With these words, a contestant on the hit TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire can phone a friend, ask the audience, or narrow the choices from four to two and “stay alive” in the game. The show’s creators picked an interesting term for these helping tools: a lifeline.
A quick Google search of the term indicates that it is now used in a variety of contexts–an emergency medical alerting system, affordable phone service, an adoption agency, a suicide prevention hotline, or a crease in the skin of the hand used by palm readers–among others. But the original meaning of the term comes from aquatics. A lifeline is a rope used to rescue someone who has fallen overboard a ship.
Judaism also has a rope that serves as a lifeline, though it may not seem to be made of such strong threads. It’s the tzitzit, the fringes to be placed on the corners of our garments to serve as visible reminders of God’s mitzvot. And so the midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 17:6) teaches: A parable: to what is this comparable? To one who is cast into the sea. The captain extends the rope and says, “Take it by the hand, and don’t let go, for if you let it go, you won’t survive.” Similarly, the Holy One said to Israel: As long as you are attached to mitzvot, it will be said of you (Deuteronomy 4:4): “You who cling to the LORD your God are all alive today.”
Tzitzit are intended to be a visual reminder, which is why they were to have been a special color, worn during daylight hours, and surrounding us on all sides. But when one is drowning, one can’t only be rescued by what one sees. One has to reach out and grab the rope, and allow oneself to be brought to safety by holding on firmly to the lifeline.
Though I am actually allergic to wool, I love the sensation of my tzitzit wrapped around my fingers when I gather them to say the Shema and to kiss them during the third paragraph, the passage that appears in this week’s parshah. Thin though they may be, they are a lifeline. However anxious I may be in the morning, when I reach for my tzitzit, I feel anchored–another marine metaphor–by my relationship to God and mitzvot. When one is adrift, one cannot make a difference. When rescued by the lifeline, our potential is unlimited. So let us all, men and women alike, take hold of tzitzit, and let the Captain pull us to safety.