When commanding us to wear tzitzit, the pasuk says “uzchartem et kol mitzvot HaShem vaasitem otam – you shall remember all the commandments of G-d and you shall perform them” (Num. 15:39). There are two aspects here, remembering and doing. But shouldn’t vaasitem be enough? Why does remembering matter if you do all of the mitzvot? Why add uzchartem?
To better understand the role of memory in the mitzvah of tzitzit, I turn to tractate Bava Batra chapter 5, which chronicles the incredible adventures of the great traveling sage Rabba bar bar Chana. In one tale, he is guided to the location of the Jews who had died in the desert between Mitzrayim and Eretz Yisrael. As he gazes upon their perfectly preserved bodies, he notices that they are wearing tzitzit. As the first generation of Jews to hear the command right from Moshe Rabeinu himself, surely the knots and strings would be tied most accurately. The correct way to tie tzitzit is a matter of some debate in the beit midrash, so Rabba bar bar Channa cuts off one of the corners of tzitzit from one of the dead to bring back with him. As he tries to leave, he finds himself immobilized, and the guide explains that if you take anything from the bodies of the dead here you become unable to move. In order to continue on, Rabba bar bar Chana throws back the tzitzit corner (Bava Batra 74a).
When he arrives at the beit midrash and tells his story, and explains how close he was to settling the debate on how to properly tie tzitzit, the rabbis rebuke him. “We didn’t need a physical item to settle this debate! You should have remembered what you saw!” The rabbis are telling Rabba bar bar Chana that he got so caught up in having the vaasitem – the physical mitzvah – that he neglected uzchartem – the part of the mitzvah that relates to the mind.
Mitzvot are meant not only to be performed, but to change us. They are incredible, divine technologies for helping us to become better people, closer to the ideal that HaShem has for us.
When we put up a mezuzah, it’s not just about getting the scroll onto the doorframe. Tzedakah isn’t just about giving. Lulav isn’t just about shaking. We are meant to engage on a deep level with these mitzvot and allow them to change us. This Shabbat, let’s engage both Zechira and Asiya; let’s remember to be changed by the mitzvot that we do.