The mitzvah of tztitzit, ritual fringes which are attached to the corners of a four cornered garment, is among the commandments which mark the Jew as distinctive. Jews are commanded to make them, wear them, and look upon them and in so doing attend to their message:
And the Lord said to Moshe, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and you shall say to them that they should make them a fringe on the skirts of their garments for their generations and place on the fringe of the skirt a tekhelet thread. And it shall be a fringe for you, and you shall see it (u’re’item oto) and be mindful of (u’zekhartem) all of the Lord’s commandments…’ (Numbers 15:37-41)
One particularly influential midrash examines the impact of making, seeing, and doing this mitzvah by examining in light of a verse from the book of Psalms:
Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for those with an upright heart. (Psalms 97:11)
This verse seems to promise the righteous that in the end they will be redeemed from any their troubles (darkness) and will benefit from God’s light. The following midrash understands that light to be the “world to come”:
“Then the Lord spoke unto Moses saying, ‘Speak unto the Children of Israel and tell them to make tzitzit (tassels) for themselves.” (Numbers 15:37-38) With regard to this, Scripture said: “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for those with an upright heart.” (Psalms 97:11) … The Holy One, blessed be He, sowed the Torah and the commandments for Israel, in order for them to inherit them life in the world to come. He did not put a thing in the world concerning which He did not give Israel a commandment.
[The midrash goes on to provide a survey of a variety of human activity for which there are mitzvot which will ensure the observer of that reward.]
A person goes out to plow? It is written: ‘You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.’ (Deuteronomy 22:10); To plant? ‘You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed. (Ibid. 22:9); To harvest? ‘When you reap your harvest in your field [and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not return to take it.]’ (Ibid. 24:19); To thresh? ‘You shall not muzzle an ox in its threshing.’ (Numbers 25:4); To knead? ‘Of the first of your dough you shall knead.’ (Numbers 15:20); To slaughter? ‘That one shall give the priest the shoulder, the two cheeks, and the stomach.’ (Deuteronomy 18:3); Regarding a bird’s nest? ‘You shall surely send away.’ (Ibid. 22:7); Concerning animals and poultry? “He shall pour out its blood and cover it with dust.’ (Leviticus 17:13); Planting? ‘You shall regard [its fruit] as forbidden.’ (Ibid. 19:23); Burying the dead? ‘You shall not cut yourselves.’ (Deuteronomy 14:1); Shaving one’s hair? ‘You shall not round off the sideburns on your head.’ (Leviticus 19:27); Building a house? ‘You shall make a parapet [for your roof].’ (Deuteronomy 22:8); Regarding the doorposts? ‘And you shall write them upon the doorposts (mezuzot) of your house and on your gates. (Ibid. 6:9); Covering oneself in a tallit? “Make fringes for themselves.” (Numb. 15:38:) (adapted from Tanhuma Shelakh 15)
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe, in his magisterial drashot on the Humash, the Sfat Emet, sheds a “new light” on the “light sown for the righteous” promised by the Psalmist, lending an entirely different meaning to the Tanhuma’s drasha:
It is known that there are 613 mitzvot, parallel to 248 limbs and sinews and 365 days of the year – that is to say, that there is an inner light in the soul of every Jew and through the mitzvot one is able to awaken this light. And ‘light is sown in the righteous’ (Psalms 97:11) – this is reflected in the mitzvah of tzitzit, as it is written: And you shall see it (the tzitzit)” (Numbers 15:29) and it will for you like accepting the Divine Presence (the Shekhina). (Sfat Emet Shlakh 5646, Or Etzion ed. p. 130)
The light sown “for” the righteous is found “in” each of us and the purpose of the mitzvot, according to the Sfat Emet, is to activate our awareness of this “divine” inner light so that we might cultivate our relationship with God. The mitzvah of “tzitizit”, which has symbolically come to represent the performance of all of the mitzvot, then, can act as the beginning of this spiritual journey.