By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
We tend to think of the mitzvos of the Torah as actions and deeds, which we perform with our hands, legs, and sometimes even our mouths. The mitzvah of tzitzis is unique, as it is a mitzvah that we also fulfill with our eyes and minds.
Let us take a moment to closely examine this mitzvah.
Each morning, in shuls across the globe, you can witness a similar scene. Yidden pause upon the dawn of a new day, before the frantic pace of the day’s work overtakes them, and freeze themselves in time as they wrap their tallis around their heads, ensconcing themselves in a cocoon of love and peace.
The tallis might have a silver atarah, or no atarah at all, black stripes or blue stripes or white ones, but it provides the same shelter and protection.
What goes through the mind of the Yid who begins each day with this comforting ritual? What does he contemplate as he says, “May the tallis spread its wings over them“? Does he think about anything at all? Or is he merely doing this action and saying these words because he did it yesterday and the day before and for as far back as he can remember?
The conclusion of this week’s parsha, whose central account is the tragic tale of the meraglim, offers a means with which we can be reminded to observe the mitzvos of Hashem and not go astray. This is accomplished by properly observing the commandment of placing tzitzis on the corners of a begged.
How do tzitzis serve as this reminder?
The posuk (15:39) says, “Vehaya lochem letzitzis ure’isem oso uzechartem,” which is usually translated literally as you will see the tzitzis and you will remember all the mitzvos.
Rashi quotes the Medrash Tanchumah which states that this is achieved because the gematria of the word tzitzis together with the eight strings and five knots equals 613. Thus, gazing at the tzitzis will remind a person of the 613 mitzvos. The Ramban argues with this calculation and suggests that the remembrance of the mitzvos comes from looking at the techeiles, as the Gemara states in Maseches Menachos (43b). The color of techeiles is similar to the color of the sea, and the color of the sea is similar to the color of the sky, and sky is where the Kisei Hakavod is located. Thus, when you look at the techeiles in the tzitzis, you will think of Hashem and you won’t sin. Certainly, each step in this process is replete with meaning and significance, but how many of us actually look at the tzitzis strings and think of the gematria, and how many look at the blue strands of techeiles and think of the Creator of heaven and earth? Can we train our eyes to connect the dots, to see blue strings and think about Hashem?
Perhaps we can explain that when the Torah says “ure’isem oso,” it doesn’t mean a simple viewing, but rather to see and to contemplate, much the same as the word re’eh at the beginning of Parshas Re’eh. The Torah there says, “Re’eh Anochi nosein lifneichem hayom brocha uklalah.” Hashem says, “Re’eh, perceive that there are two paths you can take in life, that of brocha and that of klalah. Consider your actions. Think about what you are doing and reflect upon which path you are about to set out.” Hashem isn’t merely telling us to look at the paths, but to contemplate them and to ponder the consequences of our actions.
So too, using the root of that word in the injunction “ure’isem oso,” the Torah is saying, so to speak, that when you are getting dressed in the morning and you put on the begged, don’t just throw it on in haste as just another layer of clothing. Take a few extra seconds and add meaning to your day and to your life. Think about what you are doing. Introspect and consider the two paths in front of you this day, with the opportunity to follow the path of brocha. [See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 8, 8]
How fortunate we are to wrap ourselves in a begged that carries within its folds a hint to the 613 mitzvos. The deep shade of blue as a reminder.
By instructing us to be ro’eh, the Torah is telling us to engage our hearts and minds in the process, and if we do the mitzvah with thought, it will protect us from sin. A person who lives in contemplation considers his actions and will not be taken in by the attraction and glitz of the yeitzer. If you will be ro’eh and zocher, then you will be a lo sosuru Yid.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe, the great mashgiach, would spend summer bein hazemanim in the beis medrash of Yeshiva Ohr Somayach, where the sincerity and determination of fresh baalei teshuvah inspired him.
He would often converse with the young men in that institution, and one day he was asked the following question. “I have just discovered Yiddishkeit,” said a new baal teshuvah, “and I cannot get enough of each mitzvah. I linger with tefillin on my head as long as I can. I relish the opportunity to give tzedakah and savor each word in tefillah. All around me, however, I see people tiredly putting on tefillin, as if by rote, davening listlessly, seemingly going through the motions. How can it be that I, a relative newcomer to observance, have so much more passion and enthusiasm than people who’ve learned Torah and have been religious all their lives?”
Rav Wolbe responded, “You came as a tinok shenishba (the term used by Chazal for an infant raised without an appreciation for the practices of Judaism). You were raised in captivity, amongst people who didn’t know and certainly didn’t believe. But the people around you are also tinokos shenishbu. Each one is a tinok shenishba bein anoshim she’osim mitzvos anoshim melumoda. They are captive amongst a society that does mitzvah by rote!”
Re’iyah doesn’t just mean to see. If you look deeper, if you contemplate the images that are captured by your eyes, then the continuation of the posuk, the assurance that seeing tzitzis will lead to “uzechartem – you will remember,” has new meaning and depth.
Zechirah means to live with a connection to it, similar to “Zachor es yom hashabbos lekadsho,” which doesn’t mean to simply remember to keep Shabbos holy. It means to observe the Lamed Tes melachos and protect Shabbos, keeping it holy and keeping yourself holy.
When the Yid takes the silver becher in hand on Friday night, gripping it tightly as he allows the kedushah of Shabbos to infiltrate his home and heart, he is fulfilling a mitzvas asei. From where do we derive the obligation to make Kiddush on a cup of wine?
In fact, when making Kiddush, we fulfill the obligation of remembering Shabbos. Chazal derive the chiyuv of Kiddush from the word zachor in the posuk of the first of the Aseres Hadibros which states, “Zachor es yom hashabbos lekadsho.” And while the rudimentary translation would be “Remember the Shabbos day to keep it holy,” Chazal remark, “Zochreihu al hayayin.” It doesn’t mean that the way we remember Shabbos is by drinking a cup of wine, but that we commemorate the gift of Shabbos, the meaning of the day that is an enduring testimony to creation, with this act of Kiddush.
In the haunting tefillah of Yizkor we ask Hashem to remember the souls of our departed loved ones. Is there a lack of memory in Heaven that we need to ask Him to remember? Is any act or any person ever forgotten Above? Why do we say, “Yizkor Elokim – Hashem should remember”?
We know that “Ein shik’cha lifnei Kisei Kevodecha.” Hashem doesn’t forget anything or anyone, so why would we be asking for them to be remembered if they are not forgotten?
Zechirah, obviously, doesn’t mean mere memory, but represents something much deeper. It refers to a form of connection.
Here, too, regarding mitzvas tzitzis, if the re’iyah is a tangible, vibrant vision, then the zechirah will have an impact upon us. Allegorically, we can say that just as Chazal learn from zachor “zochreihu al hayayin, we can say “uzechartem – zochreihem al yedei hatzitzis.”
There is a concept of Yiddishe oigen, a vision aligned with the true reality. See things with Yiddishe eyes – eyes wrapped in kedushah, suffused with Torah and mitzvos, and developed with tears of tefillah and Tehillim.
During one of the many periods of dread of impending war and attack by overwhelming Arab armies in Eretz Yisroel, there was widespread panic about what the coming days would hold for the people of Israel. As Rav Yechezkel Abramsky was sitting with his talmidim in Bayit Vegan speaking about the fearful military situation, he approached the window of the room they were in. He pointed to the magnificent view of the harei Yehudah surrounding the Holy City. As he did so, he quoted the posuk, “Yerushalayim harim saviv lah, vaHashem saviv le’amo mei’atah ve’ad olam.” Then he told his students, “Just as all of you see the harim saviv lah, the mountains surrounding her, I see the fact that Hashem is saviv le’amo the same way, with the same clarity.”
That’s what it means to see. That’s what re’eh means.
Velo sasuru acharei levavchem ve’achrei eineichem. People who don’t wear tzitzis, who don’t have 613 mitzvos, who are not chosen and whose actions have no consequences, go through life as if browsing in a mall or online, mindlessly treading water, passing time, surfing, falling for every lure and getting entrapped as a mouse does chasing a morsel of cheese without pondering the consequences of its desperation for a moment’s enjoyment.
Each morning, we slip that hallowed garment over our heads. Every day we daven and encircle ourselves with eternal folds and stripes, and as we do so, we listen to the tallis whisper to us, “You are meant for greater things. You are meant for gadlus. You are in the world for achievement. It’s in your DNA to reach for the heights.”
Generations of Jews gave up their lives in pogroms, in marketplaces across Europe, and in auto-da-fes because they were just a little different and saw the world differently. Our grandparents gave up everything because while the rest of the world saw everything in black and white, they saw it in color. Their vision was richer and brighter and they were ready to die for what they saw. They gave up their lives so that we would be able to see, perceive, remember, ponder and think, and not so that we should go through life as if we were mind-numbed robots.
We have a shared, collective memory bank, and in it we have memories, Yiddishe memories. Deep in our souls, we recall Yetzias Mitzrayim, Mattan Torah and the good times in Eretz Yisroel. And in that bank is another memory: kol mitzvos Hashem.
If we look the way our fathers looked, we will remember the memory that accompanied them through days and nights, defining their lives. We won’t be superficial, we won’t act superficially, and we won’t think superficially. We won’t just get through the day flitting about, occupying our time with matters of little or no consequence.
At the beginning of each day, we get a new chance to see. May Hashem open our eyes and bless us with the peace and happiness reserved for those who walk in the path of the blessed, who see the posuk of “Re’eh anochi nosein lifneichem hayom brocha uklalah” in front of their eyes at every turn and make sure they walk in the path of brocha.