One of my projects right now is making a new prayer shawl for the warmer weather. The prayer shawl that we wear, called a tallit, is distinguished by its elaborately tied fringes on the four corners.
It happens that the biblical instruction from which we derive this custom appears at the end of last week's Torah reading: "God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves tsitsit (fringes) on the edges of their garments.... Look at it, and recall all the commandments of God, and observe them, so that you do not follow after the desires of your heart and your eyes."
So originally the instruction was to wear these tsitsit all the time, on one's garment where they could be looked at. Nowadays, you may have seen Orthodox men with tsitsit visible. (Others keep them tucked in.) I also know some non-Orthodox men, and even a few women, who wear them every day too, because of this ancient commandment.
All of this reminds me of the other meaning of "fringe." Our children are growing up at a time when Jews in the United States don't live on the fringe at all - especially here in the Northeast. The integration of Jews into the life and culture of the United States is an awesome wonder which our ancestors could not have imagined even just a couple of generations back. It is an awesome wonder which our children largely take for granted.
But there is still a way in which we Jews are called upon to stay on the fringe of society, to stay counter-culture and to share our counter-culture message with others. Listen again to the biblical instructions about tsitsit: "Look at it, and recall all the commandments of God, and observe them, so that you do not follow after the desires of your heart and your eyes."
This great culture in which we live in the United States is too much about desire and the manipulation of desire. It is about wanting, and getting, and buying buying buying, and seeking power and control over things and over other people.
But Jewish tradition suggests another path, a path of wisdom - and the tsitsit are symbolic of the need to remind ourselves over and over again of that path of wisdom.
Most of us don't wear tsitsit every day - so what other physical signs do we have in our homes that could provide us with the daily reminders to stay consciously on the fringe of the dominant culture, and to remember what really matters in life?
For the good of our children, for the good of the world, we all need these reminders.