After the fallout of the spies’ poor report of what lay ahead, God instructed the Jewish People to observe the mitzvah of tzitzis, which we recite to this day as a part of the Shema:
וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְוֹת ה’, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם – You will wear these tzitzis. When you see them, you will be reminded of all God’s commands; and you’ll do them – and you won’t stray after your hearts and eyes! (15:39)
R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the juxtaposition of tzitzis with the story of the spies implies some association by sequence. In fact, the stated purpose of tzitzis mirrors the failure of the spies, being misled by eyes that seek – וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן / וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם.
Our eyes and hearts are our emotion and instinct – the spies’ error was that they succumbed to fear out of a desire for comfort and safety. They were correct that conquering Israel would be difficult and scary; they were wrong for thinking it was impossible and that the whole journey had been a fruitless mistake. After everything they’d seen, they still couldn’t conquer their fear, and their fight or flight response was engaged.
As the Sfas Emes notes, it’s only the interpretation of the spies’ report that was flawed – they had correctly assessed the facts. But even if the land were inhabited by hordes of big, strong, tough, well-armed, and well-trained men, would God’s assurances and promises have meant any less? Scouting ahead only altered things from their perspective; nothing changed for God. It was only ever for their benefit – שלח לך – but they were sadly led astray by what they’d seen and how it made them feel.
Enter the mitzvah of tzitzis, reminding us that there is more than meets the eye. Don’t fall for how things appear! While it’s an essential lesson for us to learn, it was especially egregious for them to miss. God had come good for them in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and then gave them food, shelter, and water through an arid and empty desert; God had more than earned their trust. But they couldn’t trust in God, couldn’t live with the uncertainty of what lay ahead. Yet when God conceded to their request, they couldn’t handle it, and they panicked. But the Jewish People would have been better off not sending spies to scout ahead at all!
A key part of the mitzvah of tzitzis requirement is to have a blue-violet string – תְּכֵלֶת. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum ends with blue-violet. There are infrared, ultraviolet, and lots more additional magnitudes of light that radiate unseen beyond what our eyes can discern on either end of the spectrum. It’s also blue like the sky, the limit of earth’s visible atmosphere, yet we know that space sprawls out far beyond our most powerful and sensitive imaging tools. Perhaps then, part of the mitzvah of tzitzis is to remind us of the essential human boundaries of our perception, that there is an invisible, imperceptible, but very real unseen sphere of existence beyond what we see and feel.
It’s worth highlighting that the blue thread surrounds the white threads and not the other way around. If tzitzis corresponds to all of Torah – לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְוֹתָי – then it corresponds to all of life within the finite bounds of human capability and limitations. There is no separate track for spirituality to exclude the physical; the Torah utilizes the earthly and physical drives. It’s a man’s duty to unite and elevate all available forces and things and incorporate them under the Torah’s umbrella, and tzitzis is the mini-uniform for the job.
And given blue’s deep symbolism and appearance on a Jew’s uniform, it should be no surprise that it is the standard color of the Beis HaMikdash and Kohen Gadol’s uniforms.
Tzitzis follows the story with the spies to remind us daily and for eternity that the spies could not have been more wrong. It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see and how you see.
There’s always more than meets the eye.