This week we will be reading from parashat Shelach Lecha. It begins with the story of Moses sending in the 12 scouts to spy out the land of Canaan. It is a fascinating tale that we will be learning more about at tomorrow’s Bar Mitzvah.
Shelach Lecha then includes any number of commandments with regards to the Israelites, including ones related to taking care of the hungry, making appropriate offerings, and what to do in the case of someone who works on Shabbat.
It concludes with the mitzvah of wearing the tzitzit, the fringes that make up the ends of the tallit. According to our portion, the reason for wearing the tzitzit is to remind us to recall and observe all the mitzvot that God has commanded us. It is a physical reminder that we are supposed to wear throughout the ages and pass the tradition on to our children.
For the longest time, many Reform congregations not only discouraged but essentially “outlawed” the wearing of tallitot and kippot. They were viewed as being part of the non-logical religious observances, and therefore were no longer necessary.
However, all of this began to change in the late 60s and early 70s as a new group of Reformers wished to recapture and re-conceptualize our religious observances. It was during this time that the concept of Mi Shebeirach was reintroduced. It was during this time that we began to transition from Confirmation to B’nai Mitzvah. And it was during this time people began to wear tallitot again.
Traditionally, a tallit is worn by the shaliach tzibur (the service leader) and by men during morning services alone; the only exception being Kol Nidre. However, because we are egalitarian, tallitot can be worn by both men and women in a Reform setting.
As Jews, we can, for the most part, blend quite easily into society. It often takes outward symbols for us to declare who we are. Thus the tallit and the kippot are demonstrative of one’s Jewish identity. This is why at every b’nai mitzvah I state that the b’nai mitzvah is both literally and figuratively taking the commandments onto their shoulders as they put on the tallit. This does not mean that one has to wear a tallit in order to be Jewish. Instead it is one of a myriad of ways to proclaim to the world that one is Jewish.
So on this Shabbat, whether you wear a tallit or not, I encourage you to ask yourself, what do you do that demonstrates to yourself your Jewish identity? Whether it is a tallit, kippa, mezuzah, keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, keeping the festivals, eating a bagel with a shmeer of cream cheese, or catching the latest Woody Allen flick, there are many ways we can embrace our Jewish identity.
But if you haven’t worn a tallit or at least tried one on, you may just find it might just be the right fit. And even if it isn’t, there are a myriad of ways to embrace one’s best Jewish self. Just keep exploring.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff