Parshat Shelach contains the famous tragic story of the Meraglim, the spies, who scouted out the land of Israel for 40 days. Due to the unfavourable reports brought back by the spies and the resistance to entering the land from the people of Israel in the desert, they were not permitted to be the generation to merit entry into the land. Instead, after 40 years of wandering the desert, a new generation entered the land of Israel.
While this week’s Parsha contains one of the most famous stories in the Torah, somewhat less known is that this week’s portion also contains the Mitzvah (commandment) of Tzitzit. This commandment requires fringes to be attached to all corners of garments worn.
The famous commentator Maimonides teaches that Tzitzit are should be connected to garments that have three main features. Firstly, it must have more than four corners, secondly, it must cover a majority of the torso and thirdly it must be made of wool or linen. While men are commanded to specifically wear Tzitzit, Maimonides notes that women who wish to wear them can do so, but are not obligated and should do so without a blessing if they so choose.
Using clothes to identify one’s belief or belonging to a group is common. Schools use a uniform as both an equalizer and an identifying technique for their students. Similarly, businesses have a code of dress as do many professionals working in institutes such as science labs or hospitals in order to identify belonging to their group.
However, while Tzitzit can identify adherence to Mitzvot and the Jewish faith, they have a much deeper overall meaning.
When reading the Parsha it can be hard to see the direct link between the story of the spies and the commandment to wear Tzitzit. In the commandments relating to Tzittzit the Torah commands (15:39):
And you shall not seek (taturu) after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you go astray.”
In contrast, the rebuke of the spies’ incident the Tirah includes the quote (14:33):
“And your children will wander in the desert for forty years, and will bear your going astray….”
These quotes intrinsically link the two matters. The Mitzvah of Tzitzit hints that the spies who were sent to Israel followed after their feelings through their hearts and eyes and therefore went astray. In contrast, Tzitzit act as a guard against this by providing protection from repeating the same mistakes.
Rather than merely symbolizing belonging to a group, Tzitzit are a guard against acting rashly and without proper reasoning and thought. It is very easy to approach issues with a hot head and without proper consideration or thought. In contrast, Tzitzit are an open sign of our obligation to ensure that each time we approach an issue we use our rational thinking to ensure that we have come to the right conclusion.
In addition, Tziztit, include a biblical requirement to include a “Techeilet” (a blue string) in its fringes. There are a number of reasons for including the blue string, but the colour of Teicheilet is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to heaven. In this way, Tzitzit, through the Techeilet reminds us of our connection all the way to G-d’s glorious throne.
The spies lacked belief in their tremendous power and connection to G-d through their actions. The Tzitzit now come to teach us that as Jewish people, we aren’t just physical people; but rather we are linked all the way up to G-d through our actions, Torah and Mitzvot.
In this way, the Mitzvah of Tzitzit provides an eternal remedy to the story of the spies. While the Jewish people could have demonstrated their faith in G-d and the Land of Israel, they were bound up in fear and distress and did not use their rational thoughts to identify that G-d would protect them and care for them, as had been the case since Exodus.
Therefore, the Mitzvah of Tzitzit helps to remind all who see them of the benevolence of G-d and the fact that the Jewish people as G-d’s sanctified nation are provided for and protected.