A few days ago, my wife was speaking on the phone to a friend about plans for tomorrow, which is of course Fathers’ Day. I overheard her say, “Well, Seth will do whatever I plan for him on Fathers’ Day.” Upon hearing this, I remarked, in all seriousness, “Oh, it’s Fathers’ Day?” It’s my job to remember when Shavuot falls, or Rosh Hodesh, or the 17th of Tammuz (which is a minor fast day - falls on Tuesday, July 15th this year - plan ahead!). But Mothers’ Day, Valentines’ Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, even? Fahgettaboutit.
I occasionally have a hard time remembering all the things that I need to remember. Of course, now that my schedule is entirely owned by Google Calendar, it’s even harder for me to recall my next appointment, let alone what’s happening three weeks from now. This is a peril that we all face in the Information Age: too much information! I cannot keep it all straight, and that’s why I have electronic devices to help me out. Of course, relying on the computer or smartphone is only compounding the problem.
But here is something for which we may need reminders: being Jewish. Doing Jewish things in Jewish time. Reminders of the value of Judaism. Reminders of our heritage. Reminders to keep the important stuff in view, because there are so many distractions. There are so many ways to avoid the great intangibles: God, the Torah, and all of the non-remunerative value that comes from investing our ever-limited attention in Jewish life.
But what are the most important features of being Jewish? That is the essential Jewish question of our time.
There are some in the Jewish world who say that the answer is fulfilling 613 mitzvot in excruciating detail, and that’s the end of the story. That preserving the traditions and customs associated with fulfilling Jewish law, classically understood as God’s word to us, is the most important thing. And that approach has yielded a bounty of activity and success in the the Jewish world. Let’s face it: those of our people who are zealously committed to the fulfillment of halakhah / Jewish law and custom to the tiniest jot and tittle are reproducing at a much faster rate than the rest of us.
Problem is, it is possible, and even easy, to pursue halakhah without thinking too deeply about what it all means. Actions are important, but the thought behind the action is just as important if not more so. And when the end goal is the action itself, the fulfillment of the minutiae of halakhah, does the intention matter so much?
There is even a strain of Jewish thought that says that mitzvot have no intrinsic value or meaning - that they are simply commandments that must be followed. For example, there is a mitzvah / commandment in the Torah known as shilluah ha-qen, the requirement of shooing away the mother bird before taking her young from the nest (Deut. 22:6-7). The Mishnah (Berakhot 5:3) tells us that this should not be interpreted as displaying mercy so that God will be merciful to us.Rather, it is merely a statute to be followed, just like so many others in the Torah, because it is there.
But I cannot be Jewish in this way. I need to connect with my tradition with my heart and mind, to understand that God asked us to do certain things for a reason. I have trouble performing particular actions just because that is the way it has always been done; I need motivation, and cannot suspend my reason and logic (and I’d guess that most of us here are in the same boat).
Tefillah / prayer, for example, can be deeply meaningful, but only if you actually wrestle with the text. The mere recitation of words in a foreign language because ancient rabbis dictated a standard framework for tefillah is uninspiring. And prayer merely for its own sake is a hard sell. But the combination of meaning, words, themes, music, meditation, and choreography brings me clarity, improves my concentration, helps me to examine myself, gives me a daily dose of qedushah / holiness and humility, and frames my day. Ladies and gentlemen, that is meaning.
At the other end of the Jewish spectrum, there are those who feel that Jewish values are the most essential feature of Jewish life, that we should behave not according to ancient law codes and customs, but rather that our behavior should be guided by traditional values evident in Jewish text: tiqqun olam (repairing the world), hakhnassat orhim (welcoming guests into your home), biqqur holim (visiting the ill), derekh eretz (respect), praise and gratitude and so forth.
But values are not enough. There is an intermediate position, a path that pursues both the traditional actions, the mitzvot, and also encourages thought about the values that drive them. And that’s the kind of Jew that I want to be. Sign me up for that: the marriage of action and intent.
I want to be part of the Jewish world that not only fasts on Yom Kippur, but also sees the fast as being connected to repentance and being cleansed and making better choices next time. I want to live the Judaism that relates the Pesah seder with the message of freedom and urges us to act in the continuing struggle against slavery in all its forms today. I want to engage with a Judaism that celebrates the joy of Shabbat positively, and does not see the day of rest and enjoyment as merely a burdensome series of prohibitions.
And in my mind, this type of Judaism is suggested by today’s parashah. We chanted the passage which we know and love as the third paragraph of the Shema, the one about the tzitzit (Numbers 15:37-41). The passage says explicitly that wearing the tzitzit (plural: tzitziyyot) is to remind us of the mitzvot and not to stray from the right path. But then it goes on to invoke the Exodus from Egypt, a seminal event in the establishment of the Jewish nation. The passage thereby suggests that the purpose of the mitzvot is not only their performance, but connecting them with our history, our peoplehood, and our obligation to remember where we came from and the obligations we have to aid the oppressed, the bound, the enslaved.
The tallit gadol, which many of us are wearing right now, is generally thought of as a ritual article, that is, something worn during services. But many also follow the custom of wearing a tallit qatan under our clothes, so that we are always reminded of all of the above all day long. (If you put on a tallit gadol, you are also fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzit). And, of course, here at Temple Israel we encourage women to take upon themselves this mitzvah as well; even though it has traditionally been observed by men, the Talmud (e.g. Menahot 43a) and many prominent rabbis throughout history (e.g. Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Rambam) indicate that women are not merely encouraged, but required to perform the mitzvah of tzitzit (similarly, Jewish sources also permit women to wear tefillin, including the great Maimonides).
But I’d like to suggest the following: when we are not in the synagogue, we need reminders. We need metaphorical tzitziyyot. We need to be reminded of the important things: yes, the values; yes, the customs; yes, the laws. We need to connect the doing with the understanding. We need for Judaism to create meaning for us. If not, it will be simply crowded out by all the distractions in our lives.
Ladies and gentlemen, the struggle for the Jewish future will be a struggle for meaning - for understanding the values embedded within Jewish practice, for relating those things to how we live our lives on a daily basis. We need the “why” behind the “what,” and that is the The tallit is so integral to Jewish life that we see it every time we look at the flag of the state of Israel; it is such an intimate part of our experience as Jews that there is a custom of burying one’s tallit with the deceased - it is effectively the only thing we take with us when we leave this world.
So how do we maintain those reminders? How do we don those metaphorical tzitziyyot? By going out of our way to set aside holy moments for ourselves in which we recall the richness of our ancient heritage. By making the Shabbat special, a day apart from the craziness of the week, in whatever ways we can, traditional or otherwise. By choosing a diet that reflects our holy relationship with God’s Creation. By sanctifying our relationships and always seeking to partner with God in repairing this world. By seeking out the ancient wisdom in our textual heritage through all the contemporary means available in the Information Age (it has its advantages!).
Find those metaphorical tzitziyyot, and keep the reminders of the important features of Jewish life in front of you. To all my fellow dads, happy Fathers’ Day! See you on the 17th of Tammuz.
~Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 6/14/2014.)