In Czarist Russia, it was unthinkable for a Jew to achieve any prestigious public position. When a Jew in Kiev managed to get himself appointed as the head of a bank, it was only because he had become so assimilated that his Jewish ancestry had been all but forgotten.
While visiting the seashore, an assimilated banker witnessed a terrible tragedy when a body was washed ashore. While it proved impossible to identify the deceased, because the niftar was wearing tzitzis, he was given a halachic burial.
The banker came to the realization that although he had renounced his Jewish identity in order to further his career, this was only applicable in his lifetime. He had put financial success before living the life of a Jew, but he did want to be buried as a Jew, so he began to wear a tallis kattan under his clothes.
Wearing tzitzis had a profound effect on the banker, and he gradually undertook to keep more and more mitzvos. He eventually was forced to give up his position at the bank and went on to become a prominent member of the Jewish community.
Harav Yaakov Yisrael Twerski, the Hornisteipeler Rebbe of Milwaukee, zy”a, would tell this story and say, “Never despair of a Jewish neshamah.”
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At the very end of this week’s parashah, we learn about the mitzvah of tzitzis from pesukim that we recite daily as part of Krias Shema. “It shall constitute tzitzis for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of Hashem and perform them,” the Torah tells us.
The Ibn Ezra teaches that while there are some who posit that the main time to wear a garment with tzitzis is during davening since that is when one recites Krias Shema, he feels that the opposite is true. While davening to Hashem, a person remembers his responsibilities and is careful not to sin. It’s during the other hours of the day, when one isn’t davening, that he needs this mitzvah to remind him who he is and of his obligation to keep all the mitzvos of Hashem.
Chazal (Menachos 43b, as explained by Tosafos) tell us that the slaves of ancient times would be branded with a unique seal attesting to their ownership. The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh explains that a servant is required to guard the honor of his master. The way he eats, the way he speaks, and the way he dresses must all be done in a manner that reflects appropriately on his master. He is not a master of his own destiny and must carefully obey every command he is given.
This is what the mitzvah of tzitzis does. It reminds us that we are not free to do as we wish but are servants of Hashem, the King, and that we are constantly on an obligatory mission for our Master.
With this approach, he explains the connection to the second part of the passuk, “And you shall not spy after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you stray.” Through seeing tzitzis, one subjugates his heart and eyes to the desires of the Creator.
One would therefore assume that anyone who wears tzitzis would desist from committing a sin of any sort. However, in reality this is unfortunately not the case. The fact is that even while wearing tzitzis, individuals sometimes do the wrong thing.
At first glance, this seems perplexing since the Torah clearly states that through wearing tzitzis a Jew will remember his obligations. The answer is that it all depends on how the mitzvah of tzitzis is performed. If the garment is donned out of habit, without any sort of contemplation and introspection, it will not have the desired effect.
The Tur (siman 8) states that when a person puts on tzitzis, he is required to bear in mind the kavanas hamitzvah, namely, that we perform this mitzvah in order to “remember all the commandments of Hashem.”
Only when one thinks about and internalizes this concept, when he seeks to perform the mitzvah with joy and enthusiasm, can the mitzvah of tzitzis be the crucial reminder that he is an eved Hashem.
(Adapted from the sefer Imoros Tehoros by the Rachmastrivka Rebbe, shlita)