I offer this d’var torah in honour of my father’s memory – this coming week marks the first yarzheit since he left us last year. I’m sure it seems a fitting tribute, on the face of it – and it is. However, you may not know that my father was a Christian, and not just any kind of Christian – my father was an Orthodox Christian, of the Dutch Reformed variety. While I returned to the Judaism once lost to my mother’s family, I took with me much of my upbringing including a passion for study, debate and learning, something my Dad and I often enjoyed together (and sometimes didn’t!). Dad was a great debater, intelligent, well read, calm and sure in what he believed. I am grateful for the gifts he gave me.
This is such a rich Parsha, so many interesting points to explore. Today I’ll be reflecting on the very end of the Parsha, vs. 37 – 41.
“The Eternal One said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d. I the eternal am your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d: I the Eternal your G-d.”
So why this part? Well, as it happens I have recently begun experimenting with wearing a kipah all the time – almost all the time. Before studying this parsha I would be hard pressed to tell you exactly why. My decision is wrapped up in many aspects of my identity – as a Jew, as a woman, as a person who is not quickly or automatically identified as Jewish; as someone who can ‘pass’ as non-Jewish; as someone who explores and wants to push the envelope of expression of my gender, of my Jewishness, of the various concurrent identities I hold. Not a painful or restless expression but, I hope, as a sign of constant growth and expression.
One of the reasons I couldn’t articulate until I studied this parshah has to do with identity and relationship to G-d, and how I express that here in shul, amongst our Jewish community and in the broader, non-Jewish communities in which I live, play, work.
The Torah says: “That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d.”
According to the Plaut commentary, evidence regarding women wearing fringes was ‘ambiguous’. Ambiguous works for me. And 'works' as I experiment with this external representation of my Identity as a Jew.
The Plaut commentary also includes the following: "When people learn much, pray much, and think ‘I am truly pious’, they transgress the command, ‘Do not follow your heart and your eye in your lustful urge’. Let them look at the tizitzit and remember who they are. Chassidic (66)".
The Tzitzit are a physical reminder to us to remember who we are. Not to be caught up in our own ego, our own status. It also flies in the face of 'if it feels good, do it' or 'the purpose of life is to be happy'. When my father saw evidence of this in the secular world he became worried. He warned me of the world's seduction and shared his concern that it would leave people empty, spiritually bereft. We talked about and debated this often. For me, being raised in a religion where discomfort loomed large as an ideal, ideas of pursuing comfort, happiness, feeling good were very appealing. Of course as I've grown older and had a little more experience in the world I realize what he was trying to say and how it might apply to me. There is nothing inherently wrong in 'feeling good' as my father may have believed. But what is the source of 'feeling good'? Where does our joy come from? How do we anchor ourselves as Jews in a world that tells us to think only of ourselves and what feels good to us?
Look at the tizitzit and remember who I am.
These days the kipah serves as my tzitzit. I realize the kipah identifies me as a Jew to non Jews and to Jews as well. I choose to identify myself and, as such, take on a certain responsibility. While I am obviously not one to observe all the mitzvah vote and certain,y don't adhere to the letter of the law, it reminds me of my commitment to the spirit of the law, to G-d, to the Jewish people. I have to think twice about where I eat, what I eat, how I conduct myself at work, in meetings with the children I represent and meetings with the leaders I find myself confronting on behalf of my clients. In where I seek and find pleasure.
I consider myself an ethical person, yet I do feel weight of the kippah reminding me of who I am, how I am to conduct myself and how I want to present myself as a Jew.
So what about tizitzit? I'm curious about tizitzit. Might they find their way on to my body? As part of my ever growing identity? Maybe.
I have mixed feelings when I see orthodox men wearing tiztzit. I look at then and I wish I could follow this particular commandment. I look at them and know they will never accept me as a Jew, especially if they peep me walking down town, a woman wearing tizitzit. I also know that I don't 'need' these outward displays of Jewish observance in order to be a Jew, live a a Jew, Daven as a Jew. There are so many mitzvot I will likely never keep. Why do I have to go messing with tizitzit?
In a recent D'var Torah on this parsha, Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld wrote:
"While rejecting the ritual mitzvot, our early (Reform) leaders still felt connected to the "moral" mitzvot. By retaining these last two verses as part of the Sh'ma, I believe they wanted to remind us that we must still study and teach Judaism and about our covenant with God and what is required of us to be holy."
I believe that too. I choose Reform Judaism. And I love this statement : "we must still study and teach Judaism and about our covenant with G-d and what is required of us to be holy." By rejecting the ritual mitzvot it's not as though we are taking the 'easy' way. There remain expectations of us. The phrase 'and what is required of us to be holy' is something that we could debate and discuss for hours and days and weeks.
And yet those tizitzit...they keep calling. I think I might know why. Before my conversion was final I longed to wear the tallit. My own tallit. To read the blessing, to meditate a few moments before fully donning my own fringed garment, my tallit. And wow - it was not a let down. Although I had been living 'Jewishly' for many years before converting there was something particularly transcendent about the first time I wore my tallit. I gazed on its fringes and suddenly that made sense. To this day, donning a tallit is something I do with kavannah, with intention. I never rush myself, never see it is as rote - each and every time, this morning included, I don the tallit with kavannah. It's not mystical or magical....but it's special and its meaningful.
In a D'var Torah of this parsha from a few years ago Rabbi Loevinger, (formerly of Rabbi Goldstein's Kolel here in Toronto and one of my first Jewish teachers) offered the following: "The parasha ends with the commandment about the tzitzit, which were to serve as a reminder to observe all of God’s commandments.The midrash illustrates this with a story: A person is thrown from a boat into the sea. The captain stretches out a rope and tells him to take firm hold of it, for his life depends on it. The rope is like the tzitzit, and the captain is like God. The tzitzit provide a lifeline."
I like this. I may envision a different notion of G-d then those who developed the midrash but I connect with this image: the tizitzit are a direct line to the Torah, to the Jewish people and to prayer, belonging.
Look at the tzitzit and remember who I am.
We should all be able to answer the question, "what do I look at and remember I am a Jew?"