This week's Torah reading begins by recounting the spies being sent into the land of Canaan on behalf of the Children of Israel. Joshua, Caleb and ten other qualified leaders were chosen from each of the twelve tribes and sent into the land of Canaan ahead of the Children of Israel in order to scout out the land and report back their findings. Their job was to spy out the land, as it says in Numbers 13:2, "Send men to spy out the land of Canaan ..." As we know, ten of these twelve men came back with an evil report that slandered the land God had promised to them. That evil report delayed their entrance into the Land of Promise by forty long years.
At the end of the portion we read about how the Children of Israel are to make tzitzit—ritual fringes/tassels—on the corners of their garments. Even to this day religious Jewish men wear a special garment with these tassels attached to it as a normal part of their daily attire. The commandment is as follows:
Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels ("tzitzit") on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. (Numbers 15:38-39)
How is the beginning of the portion—the evil report of the spies—connected to this seemingly unrelated topic of wearing tassels? In Hebrew, the word used for "spy" is a form of the word tur (תר - pronounced "toor"). When we read about the tzitzit this same word repeated, but we smooth it out in our English translations. The passage literally says that the tzitzit are to be a reminder to not "spy (tur) after your own heart and your own eyes." What does this mean? Rashi, in his commentary on this portion, connects these two passages and explains that the eyes and the heart are types of "spies" that search out sins for the body. The eyes see and the heart desires, but the body commits the sin. This kind of language is reminiscent of a teaching by James, the brother of our Master:
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:14-15)
Remember the children's song that says, "Be careful little eyes what you see ..."? It's true. Our eyes are the gateways to our souls. The temptation for Eve was that she saw that the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was "a delight to the eyes" (Genesis 3:6). The lust of the eyes and the desire of the heart left unchecked will lead us down paths of destruction.
The tzitzit are a reminder to guard these gateways and follow the commandments of God. But the tzitzit were not only a reminder to keep the commandments, but in a way, they are a constant reminder to not repeat the same mistake as the spies. Whenever we allow our eyes and our hearts to dictate reality, rather than what God has spoken, we are falling prey to the same trap as the ten spies who brought back the evil report. Our reality should be shaped by the Word of God, rather than our own imaginations. The tzitzit are a constant reminder of this.