The Tallit and a Tale of Two Conventions-Parashat Sh'lach-L'cha-Numbers 15:37-41
Rabbi Lawrence P. Karol-Temple Beth Sholom-Topeka, Kansas
At about 4:30 a.m. on May 24, I was doing my final packing for my trip to Pittsburgh for the Central Conference of American Rabbis Convention. I took out my tallit, one that I bought in Jerusalem 22 years ago. When I arrived in Pittsburgh, I searched frantically for my tallit. When I spoke to Rhonda that evening, my suspicions were confirmed – the tallit was still on the bed at home. For the services I attended, my brother Steve graciously loaned me a kippah. Appropriately, it was the kippah from Adam’s Bar Mitzvah.
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.
The fact that I felt incomplete without my tallit illustrated one aspect of the Principles of Reform Judaism that the CCAR ratified on May 26. In the section on Torah, it declares: “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.” My sense that I can also pray without a tallit signifies the diversity that exists in our congregation and others, as people choose the mitzvot and practices that are most meaningful to them.
That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal One and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in and give in to urge and temptation.
I began to wear a tallit during my college years, when I was a participant in a Saturday morning egalitarian minyan at Hillel at University of Illinois. The Orthodox service was in the chapel upstairs. About twenty of us gathered in a setting in which men and women shared equally in the the roles and responsibilities of leading the service. At my rabbis’ convention, and at Hava Nashira, the songleading workshop I attended last week, it was not unusual to see men and women wearing a kippah, a tallit, and, at weekday services, the traditional tefillin for the arm and head.
Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.
The Hava Nashira gathering demonstrated the broad range of music that is used within the Reform movement. This time, I remembered to take my tallit, and I used it every morning. Worship was a highlight of our several days together as we joined our voices in unison singing and multiple-part harmony. We learned several new melodies for Lecha Dodi that we sang as a medley at our service last Friday night. Two cantors on the faculty led some prayers in the traditional chanting modes for weekday morning and evening and for Shabbat. Some of the tunes we sang I have introduced here, while others are melodies that we sing on a regular basis. Music sessions after meals also gave us a chance to show our collective spirit and spirituality. Whenever we sang together, we felt were reaching for a special sense of holiness.
I, Eternal One, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.
There is one story from Hava Nashira that must be told. When I woke up last Saturday morning, I found out that we had no power. In addition, water came out of the shower in a very slow trickle, because electrically-powered pumps provide the camp with adequate water pressure. I was able to get ready despite that problem, and went to breakfast. Some of us agreed that the power outage was intended to make us observe Shabbat in a more traditional way. As we began our Shabbat service at 10:00 a.m., I told the people next to me, “The power is probably going to come on again as we are saying some crucial passage in the service.” A few minutes later, after we said the Barechu, Debbie Friedman was teaching us a tune for the next prayer, “Yotzeir Or,” which praises God as the creator of light. As we sang those words, all of a sudden, the lights came back on. We broke into laughter and as we felt relief and amazement. As composer Craig Taubman rose to lead us in a slow and meditative rendition of his song, “Master of All Things,” we shared a renewed sense of the sanctity of our time together. It may not have been our prayers that brought the power back at that moment, but we knew that the power of our prayer reflected God’s presence with us on that Shabbat morning. Any community has that potential to create a sense of unity and of warmth, as if we are always wrapped, together, underneath the same tallit.The Eternal One is our God.