In the discussion of the commandment of tzitzit, which is the concluding
subject matter in this week’s parsha, the Torah warns us not to follow the
dictates of our hearts’ desires and the wants occasioned by our wandering
The rabbis (especially the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin of
nineteenth century Volozhin) who commented on this verse stated that
the ‘desires of our heart’ refers to people who perform mitzvoth but
without any faith in their worth or in their Giver, and that ‘after their
wandering eyes’ refers to those who view mitzvoth that they personally
observe through the prism of their eyes and understanding alone.
They are always willing to substitute either their desires or their
intellectual rationalizations for the pure belief in God and the
subservience necessary to serve the Eternal. Man’s natural inclination to
be independent of commands and orders of others, to do what man alone
wishes to do irrespective of duty, tradition and ultimate consequences,
always places man in opposition to this Jewish concept which stresses
obedience and humility before our Creator.
The Torah allows us desires and rational thinking. But like every other
facet of human behavior, these desires have to be channeled and
disciplined. They are not meant to run wild and follow all of the changing
whims and vagaries of human society in all of its ages and generations.
Performance of the mitzvoth faithfully and in acknowledgement of the One
Who commands those mitzvoth to be performed becomes the foundation and
anchor for the necessary disciplines that enhance Jewish life and make it
Otherwise, our hearts and eyes, our uncontrolled desires and uninhibited
intellect and thoughts, will allow us eventually to go astray.
But, why is the commandment of tzitzit the ultimate method for teaching us
these lessons of obedience, probity and faith? After all there are
hundreds of other commandments that would seem to be proper to instruct us
in the same fashion.
Here also the commentators to the Torah struggled to find a proper and
meaningful explanation. The one that appeals most to me has to do with the
form that the mitzvah takes. Even though the mitzvah applies only to four-
cornered garments, a relative rarity in post-Talmudic times, Jews
purposely wore such four-cornered garments in order to obligate themselves
in the performance of the mitzvah of tzitzit.
Thus, this is a mitzvah that was omnipresent in their lives – a garment
that was constantly worn on their bodies. It was an item of self identity
and a primary reminder of the yoke of mitzvoth and Torah that the Jews
accepted upon themselves and their generations at Mount Sinai.
Tzitzit is a mitzvah that numerically (through gematryia) and in its form
(its knots and strings) constantly reminds us of the 613 mitzvoth that are
the basis of our existence and the responsibilities in our lives and in
Tzitzit is the sum total of all of the commandments – in fact of the very
concept of commandments – that is the heart of Judaism and the nucleus of
all Jewish life. Such is the methodology of Torah in all of our behavior
Rabbi Berel Wein