While the Israelites were in the desert, they found a man “mekoshesh” (“gathering”, or possibly “cutting” or “piling”) sticks on the Sabbath day.
And they … brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole congregation. And they put him in ward, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. And the L-rd said to Moses: The man should surely die, the whole congregation should stone him outside the camp.” And that is what happened. (Num. 15:32-36).
According to the commentators, Moses actually organized patrols to search for violators of the Sabbath. In this case, according to Rashi, the men who found the mekoshesh first warned him that he was committing a capital offence, and if he did not stop he would be arrested and sentenced to death. They only arrested him after he ignored their warning, and (according to the Orech Chaim) so brazen was he that he came before Moses and Aaron with the sticks over his shoulder.
The very next passage of the parsha deals with the mitzva of wearing tzitzis (fringes) on the corners of one’s garments, with, on each corner, a fringe of “tcheles” (a blue-green dye from a sea creature). “And you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the L-rd, and do them, and not follow the desiresof your heart and your eyes, which lead you astray, that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your G-d” (Num. 15:39-40).
The Ramban links this commandment with the previous passage on the “mekoshesh”, by explaining that G-d, seeing how the mekoshesh had strayed into an aveira (transgression), gave the people the device of tzitzis so as to help them in keeping the mitzvos. Presumably, if the mekoshesh had been wearing tzitzis, he would not have committed this aveira.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachos 1:2) explains how this would work: the thread of tcheles would remind one, by its color, of the sea, which would remind one of grass, which would remind one in turn of the sky, which would remind one in turn of G-d’s Throne. So it would seem that a long mental chain of association would be necessary for the fringes to do their work!
Two problems arise, in connection with this idea.
First, must we suppose that the mekoshesh, who was not dissuaded from his action by threats of death, would be made to cease by looking at his tzitzis, which would make him think in turn of the sea, the grass, the sky and G-d’s throne?
Secondly, why not short-circuit this action of the tzitzis, by requiring instead that anyone who was about to commit an aveira should quickly look up at the sky?
The answer to both these questions is this: the tzitzis are not designed to be useful when one already has the idea of committing an aveira. If the mekoshesh had looked at his tzitzis after having started his gathering, they would probably have been ineffective. Similarly, someone who tries to derive inspiration from the sky after having thought about an aveira will probably not get much help this way.
The whole point of wearing tzitzis is not to work some magical effect on someone who is on his way to commit a sin. It is to prevent the situation, and the temptation, from arising altogether!
Some people pride themselves on setting up situations where they are subject to temptation, so that they can (hopefully!) resist this temptation.
But this is nonsense. It is wrong, according to the Torah, to subject oneself to temptation at all. The idea of tzitzis is to encourage the wearer to set up a Torah environment for himself, in which his lifestyle, activities and choice of friends are such that these opportunities for sinning do not even arise.
It is my prayer that all of you may, by such a process, live good, clean lives free of the opportunity or the temptation for evil.