By Rabbi Sara Rich
There once was a Torah scholar who always observed the commandment to wear tzitzit (knotted tassles) on the four corners of his garments. Despite his piety, he was full of lust. He heard about a high-class prostitute overseas, sent her the payment, and traveled to her. In her room, on a bed of gold, she disrobed and waited for him to join her. He too removed his clothing and went up to the bed. At that exact moment, his tzitzit came up and slapped him across the face. He jumped down from the bed, horrified by what he almost did. Bewildered, she asked him what he possibly could have found wrong with her that he would change his mind. He replied that she was the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen, but the tzitzit reminded him not to sin. The women is so moved by the effect of the tzitzit that she decides to become Jewish, and they get married! (Babylonian Talmud Manachot 44a).
This powerful commandment to wear tzitzit is given to us in this week’s Torah portion. We are told to make tzitzit, and to “look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge” (Numbers 15:39).
Earlier in the Torah portion, a group of 12 scouts go into Canaan to survey the land, and 10 of the 12 bring back a negative report, doubting God’s promise that they can conquer the land. Rashi connects the sin of the spies with the commandment to wear tzitzit, saying, “The heart and the eyes are the ‘spies’ of the body – they act as its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets, and the body commits the sin.”
We often think of impulses as forces that we must control from wthin, through willpower and a commitment to following the law. The tzitzit remind us that visual cues can help us curb our actions. We might ask ourselves, “Do I have any undesirable behaviors that are triggered by something that I see?” Or, using the power of sight to influence the mind in a positive way, “Are there objects, pictures, or words that I can look at that will help me stay on the right path?” Let us learn to focus our sights on that which leads us to goodness, health and righteous deeds.