"Look at It and Remember All the Mitzvot of God"
Adapted by Dov Karoll
And it shall be for you as tzitzit, a fringe; look at it and remember all the mitzvot of God and observe them, so that you do not seek after your heart and your eyes, after which you go astray in your lustful urge. That you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God. (Bemidbar 15:39-41)
Tzitzit are meant to help remembrance, which would then stir one to proper observance of the mitzvot, and help one relate properly to the Giver of the mitzvot. Is remembrance, zekhira, simply an antonym of forgetting, shikhecha, viewed in black and white terms? Is this simply a question of recollection of facts? The "remembrance of God" which is commanded here is presumably much more than factual. One needs to relate to the mitzvot out of a relationship with God, with existential awareness of their purpose, not simply recollection.
The closing verses of the passage emphasize the application of this remembrance: "That you may remember, and do, all My commandments, and be holy to your God." Once you have accomplished this, you can relate to the final verse, "I am the Lord your God who took you … to be your God; I am the Lord your God." This is not merely recollection, but relating to the Almighty as "our God."
When we speak of zekhira, remembrance, we should think along the lines of the Zikhronot prayer (the second blessing added in the musaf prayer on Rosh ha-shana). With reference to God, "zikkaron" is clearly not a matter of remembrance; He does not forget anything. Rather, it means "pekida," accounting and taking to task, or paying attention. In human terms, too, zekhira of God and His mitzvot needs to involve focus and attention. It cannot be merely superficial, but needs to take on a deep, existential reflection and approach.
What is the context of the remembrance discussed here? To better understand this, let us examine other places in the Torah where remembrance is emphasized. In Parashat Va'etchanan, the verses that immediately follow the opening parasha of Shema (Devarim 6:10-14) speak of the entry of the Jewish people into the land of Israel. They will come upon wealthy cities, houses, wells, vineyards, and so on, and in this context, the Torah warns: "Beware lest you forget the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage." From reading the first verses here, one might get the impression that the concern is a lack of religiosity. But the verses continue, "You shall not follow other gods, of the gods of the people who surround you." When they come into the land and gain material wealth, there is concern that the people will turn away from God and turn instead to idolatry.
In Parashat Eikev (Devarim 8:11-18), we see a different concern:
Beware lest your forget the Lord your God, by not keeping His commandments, His judgments and His statutes which I command you this day. Lest when you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied and your silver and gold have increased, and all that you have has prospered - then your heart will be lifted up, and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage…. And you say in your heart, "My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth," remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you the power to get wealth…
Here the concern is man discounting God's role in his success, turning not to idolatry but rather to his own abilities.
In Parashat Vayelekh we also see concern for zekhira in contrast to abandonment (31:20):
When I bring them into the land which I have sworn to their fathers, one flowing with milk and honey, and they shall have eaten and filled themselves and grown fat; then they will turn to other gods, and serve them, and provoke Me, and break My covenant.
And in Parashat Ha'azinu (32:18) we read, "Of the Rock that begot you, you are unmindful; you have forgotten God Who formed you."
In the desert, forgetting God would be almost impossible. The Jewish people are surrounded by and dependent upon God for their sustenance, and are left with no alternative to the recognition of His presence. While they are capable of rebellion, that rebellion involves, to paraphrase the rabbinic statement about Nimrod (Sifra, Bechukotai 2, cited by Rashi, Bereishit 10:9), recognition of God's role, and conscious rebellion against Him.
When they come into the land of Israel, this feeling of direct dependence would dissipate. They would now need to build a society and a state, utilizing their own strengths and abilities to do so. It is in this context that the concern with forgetting God comes to the fore. And it is the problems that arise in this context that tzitzit are meant to counter, facilitating intense remembrance. It is quite a formidable task for a few strings.
In every generation there are challenges to "remembering God," and to applying this memory to one's service of God. The Torah is eternal and its message needs to be translated to relate to all times. In biblical times, the major religious concern was generally idolatry. Worship of idols was commonplace in the society where the Jewish people lived, and, correspondingly, the Torah dwells on this aspect.
But there is another aspect that is more relevant to us. In the modern world, the surrounding culture corresponds more closely with the problem described in Parashat Ekev: "My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth." It is true that in Third World, and even in Second World countries, starvation is a big problem, and it is said that most of the world goes home hungry at night. But in Western society, the perception of man's success is pervasive. Francis Bacon's aphorism, "Knowledge is power," has played itself out with widespread ramifications over the four hundred years since it was first stated.
The progress, growth and development that have taken place in western society have helped create an atmosphere where man's conquest has turned into an article of faith or a form of worship. Even in societies where people consider themselves religious, this problem of remembrance is quite serious. Some people attend synagogue and perform religious rituals, but when they are out in the street they are not focused on the service of God. They are certainly not heretics, but their lives are not built on commitment to Torah values, to Divine service. Even when they are engaged in religious activity, how intensive is it? Are they remembering their existential yearning to come close to God?
We need to internalize the message of tzitzit, of remembering God not only in a basic, intellectual, superficial way, but deeply and intensively, existentially and pervasively.
Look at it and remember all the mitzvot of God and observe them, so that you do not seek after your heart and your eyes after which you go astray in your lustful urge. That you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your God…. I am the Lord your God.
[The sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5762 (2002).]
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