We live in a society where we are taught that it is better to give help than to receive it. Yes, it is a mitzva to help others; but it is also a mitzva to receive help from others, to ask for it. Mitzva does not mean good deed, it means commandment. Therefore, we are commanded to accept help, and seek it out when necessary. One who does not accept help is not considered stronger; on the contrary, it may take more strength to ask for help than to not. The Shulchan Aruch, our code of Jewish law, 500 years ago, writes that whoever cannot survive without assistance, such as an old, sick or greatly suffering individual, but who stubbornly refuses to accept aid, is guilty of murdering him/herself. Pride can get in our way.
Once upon a time, there was a wealthy man who lost all his money. He told no one of his changed circumstances and eventually died of malnutrition. His community was horrified to learn that one of their neighbors had died and that no one had helped. Rabbi Israel Salanter said that the man did not die of starvation, but rather of excessive pride. Had he been willing to admit to his situation and ask others for help, he would not have died of hunger.
Now back to our torn clothing or black ribbon. We wear the torn garment as an outward sign of mourning. We are letting others know that we are in need of comfort. We are commanded to comfort them, and by their wearing of the torn garment, they are asking. My wife and I were once out to dinner and she saw someone sitting across from us in the restaurant wearing a torn ribbon. At the end of our meal she went up to this stranger and offered her condolences. Now that is what the torn garment is for.
According to Pirke Avot (The Ethics of our Ancestors), the smartest of us is not the one who knows everything, but rather the one who learns from all. And the strongest of us is not the one who does it all on their own, but rather the one who asks for help when needed. That is true strength. And that is the reason for the ribbon.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)