I'm on a Steven Ambrose kick; after just finishing Citizen Soldiers, I picked up Band of Brothers, (yes, the one they made an HBO miniseries about) and just finished the first chapter. The book, which follows the journey of E Company of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne from Normandy in 1944 to Germany and the end of World War II.
The first chapter describes the grueling nature of the training facing the troops who volunteered for the Airborne division -- far more intense and difficult than regular Army training. Yet, men pushed themselves harder and farther than they thought possible for the right to put the Airborne wings on their lapel and dress like a paratrooper. One soldier said, "We were all ready to trade our lives for the right to wear these accoutrements of the Airborne."
Shelach concludes with the commandment to wear tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of our four-cornered garments. (You might recognize this section as the third chapter of the Shema that we recite morning and night each day.) While we already know about the commandment to wear tzitzit, the section itself seems puzzling. We wear the tzitzit to "remember all the commandments of God and do them." (15:39) Yet, commentators wonder how the fringes of a garment remind us to perform mitzvot. Furthermore, the section concludes by mentioning the Exodus from Egypt: "I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the Land of Egypt...". (verse 41). That's nice, and certainly interesting. But how does it relate to tzitzit?
I was thinking about tzitzit in light of the Airborne uniforms of the E company. What we wear and how we dress speak loudly about our identity; who we are, with whom we identity, and even how we behave.
Think of wearing tzitzit not an obligation or commandment, but a privilege. What if we saw putting those fringes of our garments not as a burden, but a mark of accomplishment and exclusivity? If we did, then putting on those tzitzit would instill in us both a sense of pride and also a sense of obligation -- the requirement to live up to the expectations of the uniform.
Now we can understand why God mentions yetziat mitzrayim (the Exodus) in the section of tzitzit. God brought us out of Egypt to become His people. And if we're going to dress in His uniforms, we better act like His soldiers, and purport ourselves in the proper fashion - by observing the laws of His Torah.
The mitzvah of tzitzit is what we call a mitzvah kiyyumit -- a mitzvah of fulfillment. Torah law does not require anyone to wear tzitzit. If one wears a four-cornered garment, then it must have those fringes. The decision to wear that four-cornered garment is entirely voluntary. (Common custom today mandates the wearing of a tallit-kattan during the daytime though.) It's almost as if God tells us, "You don't have to wear my uniform. But if you're going to put on the uniform, then wear those fringes with pride, and act like one of my soldiers, "So that you will remember and do all of My commandments." (verse 40).