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Rabbi Robinson sermon June 28, 2019

06/27/2019 11:28:32 AM


Rabbi Robinson


Parashat Shelach Lecha


This week, Rabbi Richard Levy passed away. A hillel rabbi and professor at HUC in LA, he’s remembered for a number of things. He was one of the 17 rabbis who heeded the call by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was arrested protesting for civil rights in St. Augustine, Florida on June 19th, 1964. He wrote On Wings of Awe, the high holiday prayerbook still used by many Hillels at universities around the country. He is the primary author of the 1999 Statement of Principles of Reform Judaism, adopted by the Reform rabbinate as our declaration of our mission and vision as a Movement.  And he is possibly most famous in our movement for a magazine cover. In November of 1998, the cover of Reform Judaism Magazine (May it be remembered for blessing) arrived in people’s mailboxes with Rabbi Levy’s beatific image on the cover, in profile, leaning forward to kiss the tzitzit, the fringes, of his tallit. It was the same issue that the new principles were introduced to the movement and the picture was meant to be a statement indicating that Reform Jews weren’t afraid of ritual garb or ritual in general, anymore. That we had made our peace with the traditions of the past. Well, it made a statement all right. While many embraced this idea that you could be Reform and keep to various traditions, plenty of folks went bananas about this ‘orthodox’ ritual being ‘foisted’ on the movement. Obviously, 20 years later, it’s safe to say that we got over it, but it says something about the nature of ritual and ritual garb, that it evokes such a reaction. And there’s something to that reaction. After all, how does a shmatta, never mind the fringes of said shmatta, help us live better, more meaningful lives? What’s the point of it? Hasn’t it become just another thing for b’nai mitzvah families to buy and otherwise, well, just a shmatta?

Interestingly, that question goes back to the very origin of the practice. This week begins with the adventures of the spies in the land of Israel. That group of 12, including Joshua and Caleb, scout out the land in order to bring a good report back to the Israelites, but instead create widespread panic that ultimately causes the Israelites to spend a generation out in the wilderness before entering the Land. It’s a pretty dramatic story, one that ends with…the commandment to wear tzitzit as a reminder of God’s commandments. What on earth does this have to do with the first part of the parsha? They seem entirely disconnected. Indeed, in some of the pseudopigraphic (I love that word) accounts of the book of Numbers, as well as the Midrash, there is a thread that suggests Korach’s rebelling, which is the very next narrative, is a reaction to this mitzvah. When Korach says rav lachem “you’ve gone too far”, the commentators say this is in reaction to tzitzit. What does this have to do with the spies and God’s declaration that this generation would die in the wilderness?

As always, the commentator Reuven Hammer brings his careful insight. He points out that the word that is used for the warning that comes with the command to wear fringes, that we should not follow, or “taturu” after our lustful urges; is the same Hebrew word used for the spies’ mission, that they are sent “va’yaturu”, to scout or follow. While not a totally unique word in the Bible, it doesn’t happen that often, and the fact that the word is repeated three times in short succession should tell us something. That in fact, these words are deeply related. Tzitzit is not meant to be an empty ritual, it’s to remind us of our sense of obligation, of our covenant with God. We aren’t supposed to pursue whatever is in our heart, but follow the path that God has laid out for us. The spies followed their heart—their fear, their anxiousness at the mission ahead, their nostalgia in Egypt, their own lack of faith, and it was a detriment to themselves and the people. And it’s the same with us. Yes, even we moderns need some ritual object to remind us of our covenant with God, to keep us following the pathway of the just. Think of the images we have seen of children at remote facilities having come from the border, or the images of Oscar Ramierez and his daughter Valeria, dead on the Mexican border. We are shocked out of our complacency by images and objects. That is what the Tallit is supposed to do for us. We are supposed to hold them in our hands and remember what our obligations are—to the poor, to the vulnerable, to each other. It is not just a fidget for services or a fashion show, but an object that is supposed to call us out to our obligations. As I tell our b’nai mitzvah students, when we put on a tallit, we are signaling to ourselves and others that we take our sacred commitments seriously; that we take the mitzvot seriously. That we take this world seriously.

When Rabbi Rick Jacobs became president of the URJ several years ago and led services at the URJ biennial, at the sh’ma, he asked everyone gathered who was wearing a tallit to gather up the tzitzit and in gathering them, think of the vulnerable in this world who need to be gathered, and hold them close. That’s what we do as Reform Jews; we need to hold the vulnerable close to us. Richard Levy understood this. We should understand this. Maybe we’ll choose to wear tzitzit, maybe not, but we need to remember those fringes, so that we remember those on the fringe of life, so that we remember our obligations as a nation of priests and a holy people. May it be so. Amen.

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