We read in Parashat Lekh-Lekha of the battle Avraham waged to rescue the people and property of Sedom from the four kingdoms that had taken the townspeople captive and seized their possessions. Upon Avraham’s triumphant return from battle, he was met by the king of Sedom, who offered to allow Avraham to keep all the property he had retrieved. Avraham refused, vowing that he would not accept even a “thread or a shoe strap” from the rescued possessions (14:23). The Gemara in Masekhet Chulin (89a) comments that in reward for Avraham’s refusal to accept these materials, his descendants received the mitzva of the tzitzit strings – corresponding to Avraham’s refusal to accept a “thread” – and the mitzva of the tefillin straps – corresponding to the refusal to accept a “shoe strap.”
What might be the connection between these two mitzvot and Avraham’s vow to the king of Sedom? Why did Chazal associate the mitzvot of tzitzit and tefillin with this episode?
The stated reason for both these mitzvot is that they serve to remind us of our religious obligations. In Sefer Shemot (13:9), the Torah requires wearing tefillin “in order that the law of the Lord shall be in your mouth.” Wearing tefillin – which contains portions of the Torah – on our arms and heads reminds us to be cognizant at all times of the Torah, thus helping to ensure that we regularly speak of Torah matters. Likewise, the Torah in Sefer Bamidbar (15:40) commands us to affix tzitzit strings to our garment “in order that you remember to perform all of My commands.” The strings serve as a reminder of God’s laws, helping us to avoid neglecting our obligations. As people are naturally inclined to be lured away from the Torah’s laws, we are to wear these signs as reminders of our religious responsibilities.
By associating these mitzvot with Avraham’s vow to the king of Sedom, Chazal perhaps seek to teach us that wearing tefillin and tzitzit alone does not suffice to remind us of our religious obligations. Ultimately, our fealty to God’s laws depends upon our attitude and mindset. No thread or strap in the world will protect us against distractions and lures unless we live with the priority scale expressed by Avraham in response to the king of Sedom’s offer. Leaving aside the question raised by many as to why exactly Avraham chose to decline the offer, Avraham’s refusal – and the vehemence with which he announced it – demonstrates that he did not view material profit as a high priority. Avraham was a very wealthy man, but his life did not revolve around the accumulation of wealth. He spent his life not in the constant pursuit of material assets, but rather in the pursuit of the fulfillment of God’s will, working to disseminate the belief in a Creator. And it is only when we live this way, putting the service of God ahead of our material pursuits, that we can remain focused on our religious responsibilities. Tefillin and tzitzit will not impact somebody whose life revolves around the pursuit of material comforts and luxury. It is only if we are spiritually attuned, genuinely devoting our life to the service of God, and setting this goal as our highest priority, that these mitzvot can have the desired effect of reminding us of this lifelong ambition, which ought to be our primary point of focus throughout our lives.