Posted By The Stash

One of the numbers we hear most often is “613”—the number of mitzvot in the Torah. That is a large number to remember, so we need some help. The help is in the tzizit, the fringes on the corners of garments that the Israelites were instructed to create. The gematria, the numerical value of the letters, of tzizit is 600 and each strand has 8 strings and 5 knots—hence the mnemonic power of the tzizit in recalling the 613 mitzvot. Our Sages realized the educational value of visual aids long ago.

But there is a more interesting question to ask here. We are told that the tzizit will help the wearer “remember ALL the mitzvot of Hashem and DO them.” Quite frankly, this was never possible. Some of the mitzvot are gender based, so that even when the Temple stood those in Israel who observed all the requisite laws of the Temple and the land could never observe all the mitzvot. So how can the Torah command the impossible?

Note that the word “all” is linked to the word “do.” We are being told to do all the mitzvoth we can remember through the visual aid of the tzizit. That is, it is our duty to gradually increase the number of mitzvot we do until “all we can do” is as close to 613 as possible. This is not the spiritual equivalent of a hamster running on its circular treadmill and going nowhere. It is the duty of the Intelligent Jew to always ask, “is this All the mitzvot I am capable of doing?” knowing that there are many more still undone. At the same time, it is understandable for people who are gradually mastering more mitzvot to hit a temporary plateau in which they feel “these are ALL the mitzvot I am presently capable of doing.”

The word “all the mitzvot and do them” thus has a key element of elasticity built into it. At any one time, we may be doing all the mitzvot we are able to without ever knowing how many more we are still capable of doing. Because the concept of “all the mitzvot” is so deliberately nebulous, it compels us to keep striving upwards to seek the ultimate “all,” the maximum number we can do. Given the fact that no Jew can truly do all 613, this becomes a lifelong quest for maximizing our mitzva potential and actualizing personal change. And the more spiritual we become, the more conscious we become of how much more we can still do. A lovely story elucidates this. A skeptic in Czarist Russia once asked the Rav of Volozhin why he wore such a long tallit with even longer tzizit. “Surely Rabbi,” said the skeptic, “you have a great memory and it should be easy for you to remember the commandments. Why do you need such a long tallit?” To which the Rav replied, “I am but a poor Rabbi, I do not trust my memory, I need a large reminder.” If the Vilna Gaon’s greatest student could say this—what should we say? May we always strive to do more and never cease striving.

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