Shelach Lecha: nudged along the path to beyond ourselves

“And the ETERNAL spoke to Moses, saying:  ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.  And it shall be to you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the ETERNAL, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray;  that ye may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your God.   I am the ETERNAL your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the ETERNAL your God.”

It is, maybe, one of the earliest educational strategies – a visual aid to constantly remind one of something important, to teach a constant and immediate awareness of God and of the covenant relationship we have whose conditions – mitzvot – inform every aspect of our lives.

The thread of colour commanded in the mitzvah of tzitzit has long since gone in most ritual garments, since we cannot be sure exactly how to make the dye to create this tekhelet, the blue colour (although in recent years it has made a partial return as some think they have cracked the identity of the chilazon, source of the most expensive colour dye of the ancient world). But the fringes remain – though for most Jews not on their everyday garments, but on the shawls we wear, the tallitot, when we want to make space in our life for prayer.

The idea of the fringes on our clothing is that we will always have with us a reminder of God and of the commandments that we are obliged to fulfil – indeed the fringes are knotted in a particular way to remind us of the number 613, to echo the idea that there are 613 commandments said to be in Torah, so that every time we see them we will remember the covenant and our part in it.  Judaism is a religion of the every day, it is through ordinary mundane quotidian activities that we create the Jewish people, develop Jewish identity.  The fringes on the corners of the garments, the tzitzit, were designed to reinforce this. Whatever we see, whatever we do, there is a Jewish edge to the action, a perspective of obligation and commandment. We are reminded always of the foundation of who we are – we are a covenanted people whose life and behaviour is shaped by the encounter at Sinai, when we agreed to a relationship with God that was to be expressed in how we act in the world.

In the Talmud in a discussion on tzitzit, and on the tekhelet colour mandated in bible, we are told that: “Rabbi Meir used to say: How is tekhelet different from all other colours?  Because tekhelet is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky is like [God’s] throne of glory as it says: “Under God’s feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of heaven in purity.” (Shemot 24:10)  (Menachot 43b). 

It is a curious teaching. For Rabbi Meir is linking the reminder of the tzitzit not only to the commandments, but also to a sense of God. And he does so by inserting stages of a journey so to speak – He doesn’t talk about tekhelet only as colour, but as the colour first of the sea and then of the sky, and only then of the hidden place of God. He seems to want us not just to associate the colour with God, but to think about the connections between us and God – the sea is a place we can reach and touch, a huge swathe of our world, but ultimately finite. The sky though is untouchable for us, and apparently infinite, and only then do we move on to the “throne of glory” – the exaltedness of God. By making us work, stage by stage, Rabbi Meir is teaching us that we can reach up beyond ourselves to gain some sense of connection – not making a comment on the colour of the universe, or a simple mechanistic connection between the colour on the tallit and the strange description of the sapphire pavement found in the book of Exodus. By making us think, by moving us from the tangible and visible, to the intangible visible, to the invisible infinite, we are being taken on a process and a progression that allows us to think beyond ourselves, beyond even what we can normally imagine.

There is in our tradition another version of this statement of Rabbi Meir’s, which makes the idea of progression even clearer. In Midrash Tehillim we read that the tekhelet “resembles the sea and the sea is like the grasses, and the grasses are like the trees, and the trees are like the firmament, and the firmament is like the radiance, and the radiance is like the rainbow, and the rainbow is like the [divine] image” (90:18).

I like this version because it causes us to not only reach beyond ourselves and our world, but to do so slowly, taking our time, looking from sea level to ground level to tree level to sky and beyond. And in this account there is a punch line:  “Rabbi Hezekiah taught: When the children of Israel are wrapped in their prayer shawls, let them not think that they are clothed merely in ordinary blue. Rather, let the children of Israel look upon their prayer shawls as though the glory of the Presence were covering them.” (Midrash Tehillim 90:18).

When we look at the fringes of the tallit, and we remember the original instruction here in parashat Shelach Lecha, we begin to understand the powerful effect of that colour of tekhelet (which has, incidentally remained with us in a sort of echo form in the variant colours of the stripes of the tallit which can range from almost black to a turquoise-ey sky blue, as can the dye from the chilazon, dependent on the age of the mollusc), and which has progressed from the tallit to the flag of Israel.  By using the thread of tekhelet – and then by using a reminder of the thread and the colour and what it makes us think about– we are bridging a gap between our world and the heavens, between ourselves and God. The radiance we are encouraged to think towards becomes like a rainbow – the perpetual sign between God and us that we are under divine protection – takes us to an almost magical link between the worlds.

When we put on our tallit for prayer and wrap ourselves in the fringes we are, so to speak, putting on the seatbelts, checking the mirrors – readying ourselves for a journey towards God. We are land animals, made of earth, adamah – which root is the origin of the word for the colour red – edom. We are physical beings made from the stuff of our ground says the bible, yet our souls yearn for more – the look to connect to more than the material physical world of now. The tekhelet prescribed in our tradition is a recognition of that yearning, and the offer of a way towards what we want – we can look through the natural world around us and from studying it and appreciating it, we can find a way to the creator of all that we see.

This is how Jewish tradition shapes us and forms us – it takes the everyday and makes us notice more. We are asked not to skim through our lives but to examine them, to consider what we are doing, to aspire for more.  It expects mindfulness and it gives us methods and tools for us to achieve this. But on the way to mindfulness it gives us a more pragmatic approach – the commandments are sets of behaviour that will shape us without us even thinking about it – in effect if we behave like a mensch even without thinking about the ethical imperatives or the spiritual growth, but just because that is what is expected from us, we can live our lives and look back and realise we have become a mensch.  The spiritual journey does not have to be too self reflective, we are nudged along the path with reminders to do, to be, to act – and so, in time, to understand and to become.

Ki Tetzei: whether you believe in the Metzaveh or not, you are not free to walk away from proper behaviour to others

The sidra of Ki Tetzei contains, according to Maimonides, 72 of the fabled 613 commandments in the Torah – on first reading the effect is of an enormous list of apparently haphazard rules ranging from family relationships to the treatment of a judicially executed corpse. From care for animals to cultic prostitution; from financial probity to cloth made from a mixture of wool and linen.

Throughout history Jewish scholars have tried to explain the unified theory of mitzvot; rather like with the laws of physics there is the sense that somehow there is an elegant rationale that, once found, will enlighten us about the world and its meaning. The best try (in my view) is that of Rabbi Pinchas b Hama who wrote (Devarim Rabbah 6:3) that “Wherever you go and whatever you do, pious deeds will accompany you. When you build a new house, make a parapet for the roof. When you make a door write the commandments on the doorposts; when you put on new garments consider from what they are made; when you reap your harvest and forget a sheaf, leave it for the widow, orphaned and the stranger, the vulnerable in your society”

In other words, every aspect of our daily life can be made holy through following these mitzvot – the mundane can be raised to the exceptional, the quality of our lives infinitely changed in these tiny regular incremental actions.

Many years ago studying with Rabbi Hugo Gryn zl I learned about the Shema, the prayer recited morning and evening of each day, for many people the defining prayer of Judaism. It speaks in the first line of the unity of God, and of the relationship of God and Jews. But before it does it demands something else of us – Shema – listen! Pay attention! Hear what is really important!

The first command in the prayer is to love God completely – with heart, spirit and physical strength. Then we are told that God’s commandments should be with us always, spoken of repeatedly to our children, talked about when we sit in our home, when we are walking outside, when we lie down, when we get up. They are to be written upon our doorposts so that going in and out of our homes we see and are reminded of the requirements of God. And in the Shema too we are told “ukshartam l’ot al yadecha, v’hayu l’totafot beyn eynecha” you shall hold fast to them as a sign upon your hands and they will be (reminders) before your eyes. The line has been understood to be the source of the practise of placing tefillin – small leather boxes containing some prayers – on the head and hand during the weekday morning prayer as an aid to remembering, but Rabbi Gryn had a different view – he understood it to say “in everything your hand touches and everything your eye sees you must respond to the requirements of God.”

If we really fulfil the commandment of ‘Shema’, then no part of our life is exempt from the dictates of holiness. We cannot be pious in the synagogue but not at home or at work. We cannot care about the humanity of the people we like but not that of those we dislike or disagree with. We cannot do the technical bare minimum to fulfil our obligations to society and consider our job well done. As another part of this sidra says – lo tuchal le’hitalem– You are not able to/ must not remain indifferent.

In this sidra too is the commandment to wear tzitzit – the knotted threads on the edges of some garments, most usually seen today on the tallit, which are the physical reminders that we have regular and routine obligations as Jews. Our obligation to love God is played out in our world – how we relate to others, how we care for the vulnerable, how we manage risk, how we nurture good values. The traditional unified theory of mitzvot is based on an unquestioned acceptance of the Metzaveh – the One who commands – that is God. In today’s world that understanding does not work so well – there are many who find such faith impossible or even undesirable. And yet the value of the system of mitzvot remains powerful – Judaism has never asked what you believe, but demands that you behave according to its belief. Lack of faith in God is no excuse for lack of proper behaviour towards others.

Parashat Tetzaveh: Do clothes really make us who we are?

In this sidra, Moses is told toBring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that they may minister to Me in the priest’s office, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, Eleazer and Itamar, Aaron’s sons.  And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for splendour and for beauty.  And you shall speak to all that are wise-hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to sanctify him, that he may minister to Me in the priest’s office.  And these are the garments which they shall make: a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, and a tunic of chequer work, a mitre, and a girdle; and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, and his sons, that he may minister to Me in the priest’s office.”(Exodus 28:2ff)

What is the connection between the sacred garments and the work of the priest? Why should the sacred garments be for splendour and beauty? And why should they be made by people who are especially wise?

Rav Kook reminds us that clothing has more than a utilitarian function, to protect us from the weather and to encase our fragile skin in more hardy materials. While animals have fur and feathers for such purposes, we humans are different, we are more vulnerable and have to create an outer layer for defence.  But that is not our only difference – in creating clothes we can also affect how we feel about ourselves and others, clothes can influence our attitudes and our feelings, alter our state of mind, signal something important to ourselves and to others. Essentially clothes can be powerful drivers of our sense of self. It may be simple such as the wearing of a uniform or professional outfit which gives us confidence and standing, it may be bridal wear or mourning outfits signifying change of status or emotional state. Rav Kook sees this function of clothing as having great theological and  ethical value. “It stresses those qualities that separate us from the animals and their simple physical needs. It enables us to attain a heightened sense of holiness and dignity. By covering our heads, wearing modest dress, and fulfilling the mitzvot of tefillin and tzitzit, we deepen our awareness of God’s presence.” (Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 354)

When God sends Adam and Eve out from the Garden of Eden to the exposed world outside, the first thing God did was to make them clothes – garments made of skin to replace the ones they had made themselves of fig leaves to cover their newly realised nakedness (gen 3). It is an act of protection and of love, and similarly to when God marks Cain in order to safeguard him as he wanders the world, it is also a reminder of an awareness of God, that we are more than we appear to be, that we have a spiritual hinterland,  a layer of security beyond the material.

Jewish tradition speaks of Hiddur Mitzvah – a concept derived from the verse in Exodus at the Song of the Sea  (15:2) “This is my God and I will glorify him”. The Midrash tells us that since it is not really possible to add glory to God, this must really mean that we glorify God by the way we perform the mitzvot – and from this develops the art of beautiful ritual artefacts – sifrei torah covers, tallitot, Shabbat candlesticks, Seder plates etc.  So clearly the notion of Aaron and his sons wearing splendid and beautiful clothes for the priestly function could be seen as part of this idea. And yet, it seems to me that more is being spoken of in the special clothes for priestly work.  Aaron’s clothing sanctifies him. It is not just the wearing of respectfully clean and tidy clothing that is happening here, the clothes literally change the person in some way.

The Talmud makes this idea of clothing changing our perceptions even more explicit “. Said R. Abbahu in R. Johanan’s name, and some derive ultimately [the teaching] from R. Eleazar the son of R.Simeon:  “Because Scripture says “And you shall gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind head-tires on them; and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute: When wearing their [appointed] garments, they are invested with their priesthood; when not wearing their garments, they are not invested with their priesthood. (Zevachim 17b).

So the Talmudic rabbis understood that the garments invest them with the priesthood – and removing their priestly clothing will separate them from the priesthood – it is a startling assertion if true, but I think something else is really meant here.  The priestly garments did not make the priesthood, nor did they remove it but they helped Aaron and the priests to feel like they were priests, they integrated the internal reality with the external appearance, and for something so important as ministering before God this was of critical importance.

I once heard of a condition called “Bishop’s syndrome” – I have no idea if it is really there in the medical textbooks, but essentially it describes the sense of disbelief when someone climbs high in the clerical hierarchy and fears that somehow they are not deserving of this status or title. It is characterised by the anxious thought that “one day they will find out I am not a proper bishop”. I guess it could be called “head teacher’s syndrome” or you could insert any role which requires competence and responsibility.   To wear the ‘uniform’ can help ‘create’ the persona, both for the person wearing it and for the person who sees it, and we see this most powerfully today in the medical white coat, or the hi-vis jackets.

I experience this phenomenon when I wrap myself in tallit. Not only am I delineating time for prayer and focus on meaning, I am delineating space around myself, and signalling to myself and to others that I am becoming my more prayerful self.  The fact that I am wearing the uniform of the mitzvot, that I am enwrapped and made rapt in the warmth of prayer, allowing myself to immerse in the sea of prayer and conversation with God helps me in both the preparation and the act.  The beauty of my tallit, the knowledge that it was made with love and mindfulness, all help to make this a special time.  

I also experience this phenomenon when sitting in shul and seeing all the people around me wearing tallit, people who walk in to the room as ordinary Jews somehow become the people of Israel, flocking together, shawls draped over shoulders, creating a sea of prayer – and the opposite occurs when they take off their tallitot and return to the world of the ordinary.

Aaron and his sons are to wear special garments in order to minister before God. The clothes help them cross the boundary from the ordinary to the extraordinary. They help the people to see them not as frail human beings but as priests of God. The fact that the clothes are beautiful, that they are made with mindfulness all help to foster the sense of transformation.

We see clothes today as signifiers often of role or of status – but rarely do we think of them as the agents of change. And rarely do we recognise the power of clothing to direct our thinking, so when we are impressed by someone in expensive or designer wear we may forget that the person inside is not the clothing. The person inside is special, is a child of God, is unique and has gifts and talents, feelings and thoughts –the clothing is an outer layer designed for protection and action. The body is the clothing of the soul – and our tradition reminds us that when the clothing of our material self wears out and is respectfully disposed of, the soul will continue with God.

Wearing Tallit

When I place my tallit around my body and say the blessing “lehitatef batzitzit – to wrap myself in the tallit”, a number of feelings wash through me changing my sense of self. To begin with, putting on tallit is a marker in time – with this action I am letting go of the mundane, of the worries and the niggles of my ordinary life and I am entering demarcated and focussed prayer time. Secondly, there is a marker of change in my emotional state – The feeling of being wrapped in the tallit provides a sense of warmth, comfort, separation from surroundings and connection to a different sphere, as the weight on my shoulders reminds me of the expectations and obligations I have taken upon myself as a religious Jewish person. And finally, the putting on of tallit creates a marker in space – my tallit provides a tangible boundary between my internal world and the outer one.

The tallit is so much more than a shawl traditionally worn while praying the morning service. It is a both creator and signifier of disconnection and reconnection.

I have never known a barmitzvah boy think twice about receiving and wearing his tallit. It is just something that they do, something they expect to do, for them it is a right and an obligation to wear the symbols of obligation and rights. I have never known a batmitzvah girl (or any woman) take on tallit without much soul searching and some anxiety. Are they ready to take on all that tallit means? Does the wearing of tallit give the proper statement about their religious observance and worth? Is it saying something more than they are able to do or be?

While it is often said to be that the tallit is a male garment, this view dates only from medieval times and came into being as a way of underpinning the growing move towards prohibiting women from wearing it. And women did, we know, wear tallit and they were explicitly permitted to do so in a number of early rabbinic responsa and even Talmud (Menachot 43a) tells us that “Our Rabbis taught: All must observe the law of tzitzit, priests, Levites, and Israelites, proselytes, women and slaves” and gives us two examples of Sages who attached tzitzit to the clothing of the women in their households – Rabbi Judah ( Menachot 43a) and R. Amram the pious (Sukkah 11a). The reason given for women being exempt from this mitzvah (not, note, prohibited) is that it is a positive time bound mitzvah and the rule of thumb was understood to be that women were exempt from having to perform mitzvot that were bound to fixed times – except of course, when they were not exempt, such as lighting the Shabbat candles, making Shabbat kiddush, lighting the chanukiah, prayer….. And the idea of the garment to which tzitzit are attached being strictly male – well, Bedouin to this day wear the four cornered cloak described in our texts (the abaya)– and both men and women wear it.  

Only in the thirteenth century did Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg begin to overturn the practise of generations and his view was promulgated by Isserles in the 16th Century who wrote that the wearing of tallit by women might be a sign of religious arrogance or self righteousness (Yuhara), although even he admitted that a woman could wear tztitiz, it was her intention that mattered, not the wearing per se . But since this medieval onslaught against the presence of women in the public space, the practise has dwindled to the point where it is barely remembered, until in our days a critical mass of women have once more decided to take on the wearing of tallit as a mitzvah.  

The variety of journeys that women take to adopt for themselves the mitzvah of tallit is extraordinary and salutary. I know of women who choose to wear the tallit of a deceased husband, father or grandfather as a mark of respect and love, and a desire to be close in prayer to those who gave meaning to their lives. I know of women who studied hard in order to make their own tallit and who choose to weave extraordinary moments and memories into the fabric, building a sort of physical memory of their spiritual life into the tallit. I know of women who wear the tallit of Women of the Wall as their choice of garment in order to additionally show their support for other women practising this mitzvah wherever they may be in the world. I know of women who wear ‘feminine’ tallit and women who wear ‘traditional’ designs always for particular reasons, and of women who wear both at different times in their prayer lives. I have never yet met a woman who thoughtlessly puts on tallit, or who sees it as her religious right that she must display to others, or sees the wearing of it as an act of rebellion or arrogance or in-your-face piety.

The arguments against women wearing tallit seem to hang on either it being a male garment (easily circumvented should one buy this argument by the plethora of feminine talliot that can be purchased) or that exemption should be extended to prohibition on the somewhat shaky ground that women only wear tallit to be arrogant (something that can be easily disproved by talking to -and listening to -women who choose to wear tallit.) The arguments for women wearing tallit is that we find it an aid to prayer, a ritual that increases our kavannah – our focus and concentration on our relationship with God as we pray. It creates special time, special space, a deposit of memory on which we can build and from which we can grow, a custom that deepens and warms our religious attachment. It provides a much needed boundary between the mundane and the sacred in our busy lives, it signifies our detachment from the unimportant and our attachment to our Creator in prayer.  If you haven’t yet explored the possibility of this mitzvah, I encourage you to do so. Male or female, we all have much we can gain from it.

 

 

 

parashat vayetzei

Vayetzei 

Every so often someone asks about the word “mizpah”, found in this sidra, because it appears on a piece of jewellery sold in a national chain of shops.

When the sidra Vayetzei begins, Jacob is effectively running for his life, leaving home and family in Beer Sheba, and going towards unknown relations in Haran.  A frightened and homesick young man, uncertain of what the future will bring, he stops alone by a roadside at night and dreams the dream which is to sustain him throughout his life – he dreams of a ladder connecting heaven to earth, and there on that ladder he encounters God.  By the time the sidra ends, much of the trickery which caused him to leave home will have been reflected into his own life – his father in law will have deceived him with his bride (the mirror image of his own deceiving of his father), the older will not be passed over for the younger (as was done when he took the blessing meant for his older brother.)    After 20 years Jacob is returning home a wealthy and confident man, no longer alone but with a substantial entourage, and of course also as a husband and father.  Relations with his father in law have been marked by abuse and mistrust, and at the end of the sidra Jacob makes good his escape, only to be chased by Laban who is searching for the stolen household gods, and who doesn’t want this young kinsman to leave and take with him both family and family wealth.  The two make a pact finally, neither of them happy about the other but both unable to do anything further about it.  The pact is marked by a mound of stones, named in both the Hebrew of  Jacob (Galeid)  and the Aramaic of Laban (y’gar sahadoota) ,  and then it is suddenly named again ‘Mitzpah’, because Laban  said  “May the Eternal watch between you and me when we are out of sight of each other,  if you ill- treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters  – though no one else be about, remember the Eternal God will be a witness between you and me” (31:49).

Mitzpah then is not a blessing but a warning.  Far from being a token designating eternal love, it is more a sort of token of eternal mistrust.  Yet there it is to be found on the pages of well known catalogue store under the rubric  “His and Hers split pendant set”, along with other split pendants with such inscriptions as “Our Hearts beat as One”, and even the famous speech of Ruth to Naomi “where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God”.

One wonders what the designers of this jewellery, and also the many people who actually buy it would think, if they realised that the apparently romantic message in fact is a barely coded warning between two known tricksters that whatever they do, even in secret when no one is around to observe them, the truth will be known to God, who will most certainly judge them.

The whole business set me wondering about the things we wear to remind us of what is important to us.

Traditionally Jews wear  certain things to remind us of the biblical commandments – tefillin in the daily morning service which contain paragraphs from bible reminding us of the obligation to love God and to teach our children to do so too;  or tallit with the corner fringes knotted to remind us of the 613 commandments said to be in Torah, many of which deal with how to behave towards others –  but even these reminders can become habitual so that we don’t really think of the meaning of these commandments which are designed to shape our behaviour to be holy – to behave against our own selfish needs or interests in favour of Imagebettering our world, developing creation along with God. We could do though with something to jolt us out of our daily existence, something to remind us that God is there in everything we do and everything we see.  The traditional system of blessings said before we do any action has much to commend it, the whole system of time bound mitzvot marking our days and our weeks, of shabbatot and festivals, they are all designed as ‘signs’ to remind us of our partnership with the Creator and our responsibilities to God, but few of us today have the kind of lives which would make all these signs meaningful.  Thinking about it, maybe we should all buy one of those pendants which say MIZPAH, not as a declaration of love for another, but to remind ourselves that all the twists and turns of our lives, all our petty temptations and deceits and actions and inactions, they may all be hidden from our fellow human beings, but will never be hidden from God, who will ultimately judge us.  Everything we say and everything we do, at home or outside, whatever time of day – we should do in the certain knowledge and fear that it will not be forgotten.  That would certainly add a different dimension to our lives!