This week’s parasha opens with the infamous story of the scouts (or spies), who bring back the report about the “land that devours its inhabitants”, leading to the faithless people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. It closes with the command to wear tzitzit, a teaching so important in our tradition that it has since become known as the third paragraph of the Shema, one of the few passages of Torah placed directly into our Siddur, recited twice daily. While the opening and closing of the parashah are seemingly disconnected, our sages noted a linguistic connection between the two passages through the word used to spy out the land, “la-tur”. This is the same word used in the commandment of tzitzit, in which we are told to look at the tzitzit in order “not to scout after our own eyes.” Rather, the tzitzit remind us of the mitzvot which in turn keep us from wandering in the wilderness. How so?
The notion of “mitzvot”, or commandments, is one of the most confusing in all of Judaism. There are some Jews who believe that there are 613 mitzvot that were directly communicated by God to Moses in the wilderness, that must be specifically followed according to the halakha — the Jewish law developed over thousands of years but also authoritative as God’s word. Others, recognizing the human hand in the writing of Torah and tradition, have reduced the concept of mitzvot into an amorphous, general concept of “doing good deeds.” The power of a life of mitzvah exists somewhere in between.
Mitzvot indeed have been constructed by our ancestors, but they are far more than just good deeds. The system of mitzvot is a sophisticated approach to living with an understanding that all life is interconnected; that we, as conscious beings, are responsible for each other and all living things; that we, as spiritual beings, can strive for continued growth and deepening. Mitzvot are a series of obligations, learned through study of Torah, which inform Jews how to live a holy and spiritual life.
Human beings have sacred potential, but we also have fears and desires that can easily lead us astray, as in the story of the spies. The tzitzit we wear, like a knot tied around our fingers, serve as reminders not to follow after our “hearts and eyes” into behavior motivated by poor emotional bearing. Instead we are to remember, as it says in the final lines of the third paragraph and this week’s parasha: “So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord, your God.” Parasha Shelach Lecha reminds us as Jews to live a sacred life of obligation.