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Friday, June 17, 2011

Parshat Shelah-Lekha: Holy Reminders

This week’s parashah/portion is Shelakh – Lekha (Bemidbar/Numbers) 13:1 - 15:41).  In this parasha, Moses is commanded to choose one representative from each of the twelve tribes to serve as spies. Their mission is to enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and bring back a report to the people. "See what kind of land it is.....[investigate its cities, people, soil, and forests and] bring back some of the fruit of the land,” they are told. They do bring back grapes and other fruits, but ten of the twelve spies also bring back a report that, though the land is flowing "with milk and honey," it is filled with large fortified cities, "giants," and other dangerous inhabitants. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, bring back a positive report and remind the people that God is with them, so they can overcome any obstacle or enemy. Unfortunately, the people are carried away by the negative report of the majority and question whether Moses brought them this far out of Egypt only to die in the desert. As punishment for their blind acceptance of the negative report of the ten spies, God declares that the Israelites will wander in the desert for forty years until this generation of adults dies. Joshua and Caleb will be the only ones of that generation allowed to enter the land.

The parasha also includes the story of a man who is discovered gathering wood in public on Shabbat and is summarily stoned to death for his transgression. It then concludes with what is later to become the third paragraph of the Shema ("Vayomer"). This passage commands the people to wear tzitzit, fringes, on their garments as a reminder of the covenant with God and to prevent them from going astray after other gods or the "lusts of their hearts."

At first glance, it would not seem that there is much to connect these three sections of the parasha. However, this being the Torah, it’s not that difficult to discover an underlying theme that creates a whole from the seemingly disparate parts.. The juxtaposition of the man being stoned for transgressing the laws of Shabbat and the commandment to wear tzitzit can teach us that if we do not have a constant reminder of our commitment to God and the mitzvot we may also walk down a ritually transgressive path. It’s also important to remember that, according to tradition, what made the man’s transgression even more serious was that he broke the law in public. Judaism has a long history of considering various transgressions more serious if they are performed in public. This reminds us that we are each meant to serve as an example to our fellow Jews, and our fellow human beings. We are each responsible for one another. If someone blatantly transgresses a law in public, others may assume that it is permissible to do so. After all, if so-and-so can do it, why can't I?

One might assume that this is only true for leaders of the community, as in the case of the spies. In that case, the ten tribal leaders act irresponsibly in front of the community and bring the rest of the community down to their level through their actions. As leaders, they should have been cognizant of their responsibility to help prepare the people to enter.  And they should have had faith that God would guide them, as did Joshua and Caleb. But by listening to the fearful voice of the ego within them, they could only relate to the people their own individual fears and concerns.  In doing so they abdicated their responsibility as leaders and created panic among the people.

The man who gathered wood on Shabbat was not a leader. As a matter of fact, he is nameless.  So, he can be seen as representing all of the people, or all of us. What happened to him is therefore meant to teach each of us that, no matter how insignificant we might believe ourselves to be, we each have a responsibility to serve as an example and to help the community reach for higher goals.  Each individual is as important as the “leaders”.  Each of us must be mindful of our actions and the effect they can have on the entire community and, indeed, all of humanity.

Though we in the 21st century do not agree with the punishment meted out to the transgressor, but the message is still one that we must give some serious thought. We are each responsible for one another. Yet, we are only human.  We are often forgetful, even of the most important things.  And so we need reminders. That is the role of the tzitzit worn on our ancestors' clothing and still worn by many adult Jews on the tallit (prayer shawl) or as a ritual undergarment. This simple fringes symbolize the commandments in the Torah, which in turn represent our connection to the Divine within us all. They remind us that we can't simply follow the dictates of our heart. From moment to moment we must do our best to be in tune with call of the Divine that connects us all.  At all times, we have a responsibility to God, which means we have a responsibility to all of creation.  In each moment we must each try our best to meet these responsibilities if we want to be examples to our community and our world.

Whether or not we wear tzitzit, we must each find something to make us mindful of our actions and their potential consequences. Each of us as individuals can wear tzitzit in order to keep us mindful in each moment. Some people who wear tzitzit wear them so that all can see them; others tuck them in their clothing so that only they are aware of their presence. Originally, the tzitzit were attached to the outer garments. This was and is a public reminder of an inner state of mindfulness.

Still, even if today one chooses to wear actual tzitzit underneath ones clothing they are still a reminder of God’s presence and this can help a person to be mindful in each moment and effect a change in one’s behavior. In this way, one’s behavior becomes the outer manifestation for all to see, rather than the actual tzitzit. If one chooses not to wear traditional tzitzit, we should find something to serve as a reminder. It doesn’t even need to be  something tangible. For one can also use meditation techniques such as a mantra or
simply paying attention to the breath or other spiritual practices such as yoga or tai chi, non-tangible “tzitzit.” These reminders of our connection to the divine can serve the same purpose and help us to act in a compassionate, godly, mindful way in the world.

I believe finding some kind reminder for ourselves is essential for us to live as individuals in community. It is also essential if we are to act in such a way that will bring the divine blessings of compassion, loving-kindness, and wholeness into our broken world in each moment of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

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