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Yom Sheini, 12 Tammuz 5778

This week we will be reading from parashat Shelach-Lecha. Much of the parasha is focused on the narrative of the spies who were sent out to scout out the land of Canaan. However, in terms of modern applications, the most pertinent section of the Torah portion can be found in the last paragraph in Shelach-Lecha.

There God commanded Moses to instruct the Israelites that they are to “make for themselves fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue (t’cheilet) to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe, look at it and recall all the commandments of Adonai and observe them…” (Numbers 15:38-39).

This four-cornered garment was probably already being worn by the Israelites as daily wear, and it was the attachment of the tzitzit that made the garment holy. However, as styles changed in the Jewish world, the four-cornered garment fell out of favor. In response the rabbis instituted practice of the tallit-katan, which is a small, rectangular garment with a neck-hole for everyday wear. It is probably people who saw these hanging on clothing lines that led to an erroneous belief about marital practices in Jewish communities.

There is also the tallit-gadol, or prayer shawl, that is often worn during morning worship services. Because morning worship is a positive, time-bound mitzvah, women were first exempted and later excluded from the practice of wearing a tallit.

The founders of what eventually became Reform Judaism wished to change many elements of Jewish life. One of them was the removal of non-rational practices, which included the wearing of a kippa and a tallit. There were even congregations that strictly prohibited the wearing of these items, and it was even written into a few rabbis’ contracts.

However, what was old is new again. As we strive to re-contextualize and make new meaning out of traditional practice, the kippa and later the tallit have found their way back into the Reform world. However, there is a twist: now, both men and women are allowed and encouraged to take on this practice if they find it meaningful.

According to a Hasidic tale, “How did God create the world? God wrapped Godself in a robe of light, and it began to shine." This means the act of wearing a tallit can be like an act recreating creation. Each time we engage in sacred worship, we are in a way creating an opportunity to recreate ourselves.

So whether you follow the precepts established in this week’s parasha and wrap yourself in a tallit, or you find other meaningful ways to engage with the holy, each moment has the potential to be just like the moment when God declared “let there be light.”

May the warmth of God’s ever-loving embrace found in the tallit be a guide -- an inspiration to unlocking new ways to encounter the Holy within ourselves and in the world as well.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff