The final verses of Parashat Shelach discuss the mitzva of tzitzit, which requires affixing strings to the corners of a four-cornered garment. The Torah tells us that the purpose of this obligation is to remind us of our religious duties: “…you shall see them and remember all the commands of the Lord and perform them, and you shall not stray after your heart and your eyes after which you would [otherwise] be led astray” (15:39). Without a regular reminder of our obligations to God, we would naturally follow our sinful instincts, the desires of our heart and the lustful sights beheld by the eyes. The tzitzit serve as reminders of our subservience to God, which ensure that we do not follow our natural impulses.
Rashi explains (based on the Midrash Tanchuma) that the word tzitzit in gematria (the system of numerical values assigned to letters) equals 600, and when we add the eight strings and five knots on each corner, we arrive at a total of 613. Thus, looking at the tzitzit string reminds one of the mitzvot. The Gemara (Menachot 43b) explains differently, suggesting that tzitzit reminds us of the mitzvot through the requirement to dye one of the strings in tekheilet – a dye whose color resembles the color of the sea, which reflects the color of the heavens, which brings to mind God’s Heavenly Throne. In this way, seeing the tzitzit reminds a person of his responsibilities to God.
Many later writers legitimately questioned whether this reminder is truly effective. Is it really possible to expect a person who sees his tzitzit strings to reflect upon the number 613, or the Heavenly Throne?
It has been suggested that the message of tzitzit is precisely that we must avoid superficial perspectives, and look beneath the surface to see things the way they really are, and not the way they appear to be. The word tekheilet might be understood as a derivative of the word takhlit – “purpose,” or “end goal.” The message of the tekheilet string is that our attention must be directed toward the “takhlit,” the ultimate goal and purpose for which we live. The point is not that the color actually brings to mind the Heavenly Throne, but that we must look beyond the superficial appearance of things. In life, we are so often lured and tempted by that which is either harmful or wasteful. Sin and vanity both have a way of seeming attractive and appealing, as something valuable for us to pursue. The message of the tzitzit string is that we need to view the world around us with a “takhlit” perspective, seeing the true essence of all things, and not be misled by false appearances.
This might possibly mark a point of connection between the mitzva of tzitzit and the story of the spies, which is told in this parasha. The spies – and then the people, whom they influenced – looked at the Land of Israel from a superficial viewpoint. They saw impressive volumes and quality of fruit, but they also saw large, powerful armies, and instinctively concluded that the campaign to capture the land could not possibly work. If they would have assessed their situation more thoroughly, they would have looked beneath the surface and seen before their eyes God’s explicit promise to lead them to victory over the nations of Canaan. They would not have been misled by the intimidating appearance of the challenge which lay ahead, and would have instead seen the reality of their situation, which differed from its outward impression. The response to this tragic mistake is tzitzit – the mitzva which teaches us to avoid superficiality and simplemindedness, to avoid the pitfalls of external trappings and to perceive things the way they truly are, and not the way they outwardly appear.
(Based on Torah Ve-hora’a, Parashat Shelach, 5777)