by Rabbi Avi Billet
In his introduction to the book of Bamidbar, Nachmanides posits that the majority of the mitzvot of this book were commandments for the specific time period of wilderness travel and would not be applicable once they reached the land of Canaan/Israel.
Last week's one-time consecration of the Levites is a classic example of a mitzvah in this category.
There are mitzvot that exist past the wilderness period, of course, some of which fit into a classification of "obligatory if you make a specific choice." For example, according to the Sefer HaChinukh there are 10 commandments incumbent upon a person who chooses to become a Nazir. Taking on Nezirut status is by no means obligatory – and some are even critical of the Nazir – which translates to 10 of the 613 commandments being "un-fulfillable" to those who never play the Nazir-option card.
In our parsha, "Tzitzis" is apparently another example of this latter category. It seems the obligation is to put the tzitzis strings on four corners of a four-or-more cornered garment that one wears. Were a person to never wear such a garment, the mitzvah would seemingly become obsolete. [The Sefer HaChinukh equates this to the mitzvah of maakeh – if one does not have a flat roof, the mitzvah of maakeh is not applicable.]
To be fair, the Sefer HaChinukh (end of mitzvah 386) says, "Even though the obligation from the Torah is only when a person is wearing a 4-cornered garment," an ode to the fact that the mitzvah is only applicable when the garment is being worn (a mitzvah on the person - גברא), while there is no mitzvah to have strings attached to a garment that sits on a shelf (not a mitzvah on a garment - חפצא), "nevertheless our sages warned us to take the pains to fulfill this mitzvah… The Torah, after all, equated it with fulfilling all the commandments. Rabbi Elazar said anyone who is careful about Tzitzis, Tefillin and Mezuzah is assured he will not sin forever."
I don't believe that one who is careful about these mitzvot is guaranteed not to sin because I don't believe we have the power or intellectual ability to equate these fulfillments with a safeguard against sinning. But is the mitzvah completely irrelevant?
The gemara (Menachos 43b) records a fair share of opinions as to what the verse means when it says "You will see the [strings] and you will remember all the commandments of God and you will do them." (15:39)
Some of the possibilities of what the "all the commandments" reminder will be include: to recite the Shema, regarding the mitzvah of kilayim (mixing wool and flax in clothing - based on the proximity to Devarim 22:12), all Mitzvos that are dependant on time (from which women are exempt of the obligation), and an idea that seeing inspires action (based on a homiletical connection to Devarim 6:13).
Even the Gemara, therefore, is largely of the opinion that tzitzis is not the answer to everything. But the Gemara continues (and the Rambam quotes this in his own Book of Mitzvot, Shoresh 9), by emphasizing that as much as Tzitzis is only counted as one mitzvah, "someone who does not have Tzitzis on his (presumably 4-cornered) garment is in violation of five positive commandments because the mitzvah is emphasized five times in the Torah." While I don't think Maimonides is saying a person who opts not to wear a 4-cornered garment is in violation, perhaps this thought could nonetheless serve as an incentive as well for people to actively pursue wearing Tzitzis, in order to fulfill five positive components of this Mitzvah.
The optional side of this and other Mitzvos are a reminder that the obligatory nature of "every" mitzvah is not set in stone. Sometimes ingredients need to fall into place in order for the obligation to set in.
At the same time, the binding aspect of all Mitzvos is something that should never be overlooked. There is a major difference between a mindset that ignores "commandments as obligations" and one that says "if the circumstances don't present themselves, I will not seek them out."
Every day brings with it, for example, a new obligation to wear tefillin or to study Torah. On the other hand, one who never divorces, to bring the other type of example, will never fulfill the mitzvah associated with the writing and delivering of a גט (get - divorce document). Ignoring the former is a rejection of the Commander-Commanded relationship. Never fulfilling the latter is hopefully part of a recipe of a nice, healthy, lifelong relationship with a spouse.
When it comes to Tzitzis, and whatever "seeing" the strings is supposed to remind us, the concept of the Tzitzis encompassing the entire body should serve as a symbolic reminder of how we are to devote our entire bodies, when possible, to the service of God.