Parshas Shelach - Tzitzis and the Mekoshesh Eitzim
Parshas Shelach concludes with the mitzvah of Tzitzis, whose theme is remembering Hashem and His commandments. “And they shall be tzitzis (fringes) for you, and you shall look at them and recall all of the mitzvos of Hashem and not go stray after your hearts and after your eyes… In order that you remember and perform all of My mitzvos, and be holy unto your God… (Bamidbar 15:39-40)
The main motif of Parshas Shelach is the Chet Ha-Meraglim (Sin of the Spies). How does the mitzvah of Tzitzis relate to this? What is the role of Mitzvas Tzitzis in our parshah?
Furthermore, immediately prior to Mitzvas Tzitzis appears the story of the Mekoshesh Eitzim – the man who intentionally desecrated Shabbos after being warned about its laws. Rashi notes (from Sifri) that the incident of the Mekoshesh Eitzim teaches the punishment for Shabbos violation, for the basic prohibition of Meleches Shabbos (forbidden Shabbos work) was already presented and known earlier.
How does the story of the Mekoshesh Eitzim relate to the overall theme of Parshas Shelach? What is it doing in our parshah?
Those among B'nei Yisroel who sympathized with the Meraglim and were punished for abandoning faith in Hashem for accepting the Meraglim's reports and arguments were totally mindless of the promises that Hashem made concerning their inheritance of the Land. The people panicked and blanked out of their consciousness the words of Hashem, acting as if He had never told them that He would ensure their successful entry and prosperity in Eretz Yisroel. Unlike the case of the Chet Ha-Egel (Sin of the Calf), in which the nation did not lose faith, but went astray after idolatry in what began as sincere pursuit of faith, and unlike the case of the Mis’onenim (Complainers), in which the masses knew very well that Hashem was watching and controlling all, the Meraglim and their followers were suddenly and completely mindless of all that Hashem had promised; it was as if they were voluntarily stricken with amnesia. It is for this reason that Tzitzis, the mitzvah of remembering Hashem and His commandments, is the concluding message of Parshas Shelach. The unbelievable and inexcusable lapse which occurred to the Meraglim and their followers in the bizarre frenzy of despair is addressed by Mitzvas Tzitzis, the primary mitzvah of memory.
We can now understand the role of the Mekoshesh Eitzim in our parshah. As Rashi notes (ibid. v. 32) from the Sifri, this public desecration of Shabbos occurred on the second Shabbos of B'nei Yisroel's liberation from Mitzrayim! The Mekoshesh Eitzim had just passed through Yam Suf (the Sea of Reeds) on dry land, experiencing Hashem’s miracles firsthand; he had lived through the Eser Makkos (Ten Plagues) in Mitzrayim; he had been witness and party to Hashem's supernatural, mass deliverance of the entirety of B'nei Yisroel a mere number of days ago - yet this all made no lasting impression on him. It was almost immediately gone from his thoughts, as he proceeded to willfully violate the most weighty of Torah laws. The Mekoshesh Eitzim’s stunning ability to shake loose from his consciousness all sense of allegiance to Hashem is juxtaposed with the mitzvah of Tzitzis, which cries out that one may never forget that he is a servant of Hashem.
In secular society, public memory is very brief. Unrepentant politicians who are forced out of office as a result of the most egregious forms of corruption emerge a few months or years later as heroes and reborn leaders. Regimes which commit the worst atrocities imaginable are treated with deference and respect in the international community after the world forgets about the crimes committed. Not so the Jew. A Yisroel is adjured to be a person of memory, to never forget and never lose perspective. When something transpires, the Jew recalls and relates it to the larger picture; nothing occurs in a vacuum. This is how the Jew relates to Hashem and Torah, and it is the essence of Parshas Shelach.