On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Sh’lach L’cha: Judaism on the Fringes

What does it mean to be on the fringes of Judaism? Does Judaism allow for creativity, allowing those on the fringe who want, to be brought toward the center? Is Judaism open to different forms of expression? In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Jacobs describes his take, and how it fits in to Parashat Sh’lach L’cha.

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Welcome to On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs talks to us about Parashat Sh’lach L’cha in episode 73. And he asks what it means to live on the fringes.

This week we focus our attention on Parashat Sh’lach L’cha from the Book of Numbers. It's a story that is well known, the story of the spies being sent out to really take a look at the land of milk and honey. Is it really so beautiful? Is it really going to be worth this 40 year journey into the desert?

But we're not going to focus in on that part of the parashah. I love it and it's profound. We're going to pay attention to the two last paragraphs of the parashah. They come from the book that we love, and a chapter that is usually overlooked because of the drama of this story.

So, in the very end of the parashah we have the mitzvah, the commandment of tzitzit, of the fringes. That we are told that when you wear a four cornered garment—something, by the way, I've yet to do in my life—you must have on the four corners these ritually tied pieces of macramé called tzitzit. It is a tradition that we know if you've seen a prayer shawl—a tallis. But its place is bigger and more profound than simply a ritual detail about a ritual garment.

I'd like to just frame my podcast today as kind of an experience of fringe Judaism. If you live on the fringes, you live on the outskirts. What you do may not be part of the mainstream or the norm. And in some ways the idea of what Jewish life is experiencing today is a bit of fringe Judaism.

But let me start with the actual fringes. So on the four corners of this garment, usually it's a prayer shawl, very often it's black and white or blue and white and now it could be tie dyed or any colors that a person would want. And you tie on to those corners these ritual knots that signify the four corners of the earth, so that we might be living in New York or Dallas or Seattle, but our spiritual reach is always the four corners of the earth. We bring them together before we say the Shema, the prayer of God's oneness. We literally put into our hand the fourth tzitzit, put it over our hearts.

If you actually untie the knots or if you actually tie them, the word tzitzit itself is in gematria, where you take the letters and translate them to numbers, the tzadi is equivalent to 90, yud is ten, and a taf is 400. It adds up to 600, not yet a significant Jewish number. But if you add the eight strings on one of the tzitzit and the five knots you get 13. You add that to 600 and, poof! You've got a very significant Jewish number. Also if you count the number of times the little strand is the shamash, is wrapped around, it is 7, 8, 11, and 13, which in the opposite move from numbers to letters transfers to Adonai echad. So it's the idea of the unity of the world reminding us on our garment.

You've probably heard me talk about this before but I have this purple and grey tallit that's just very special to me, that's symbolic I think, in ways of understanding this moment in Jewish life. But sometimes I wear it in communities and people say, oh, that's such an unusual tallis, where'd you get it? Can I get one like that? I said, “Well, I don't think you can get one like it.” “No no no. I've got you know a great way on the internet. I can find anything.” I say, well, this piece of cloth I got in a refugee camp in Chad back in 2005 when I was there witnessing the survival of a number of the survivors of Darfur's genocide. And I took that piece of cloth and I got home and my daughter Sarah who was training at that moment for her bat mitzvah, we tied the tzitzit on.

For me, I put on that tallis, I think of not just the refugee children in Chad, I think of refugees and the most vulnerable all around the globe. So there you have the fringes, reminding us about those who live on the fringe of life. And in many ways it's a very, very strong reminder. It's also a kind of, maybe kind of a reimagining a bit of an ancient ritual practice. And to see it now not just for men, but obviously for men and women who choose to do so.

So I'd like to think that one of the ways that we remind ourselves that the fringe isn’t actually beyond our reach, and sometimes the fringe is really powerful as we take it into our own and affirm the oneness and the integrated way in which our world is created.

But right before the section about the tallis and the tzitzit, we have a teaching that's really, kind of in some ways an object lesson about what not to do on the Sabbath. We're told that once Israelites were in the wilderness they came upon a man gathering wood for the Sabbath, because you can't--you're not supposed to do certain things on Shabbat, one of them is to gather wood and to make a fire. And it turns out that the eternal said to Moses, this man shall be put to death and the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.

So you have a ritual infraction. Someone is observing the Sabbath in a way that is now inappropriate, but he is told—put to death by the whole community. So for me, you know, this is a moment where we have so much creativity going on about what Shabbat could be. And you read a story like this and you say, oh my gosh, that's going to stymie anyone's creativity. You’re very outside the, you know, the riverbanks of Jewish observance and you could pay the ultimate price with your life.

So I think that this, this example of the rules and the restrictions and the don'ts overwhelm the possibilities and the creativity of the what-ifs. So for many people, to set aside 25 hours to not live on their technology is perhaps one of the most redemptive things that we could imagine. The idea that we could spend time with family or friends, with meals or study or reflection or take a walk in nature or, you know, for those of us who don't get our hands into the earth, maybe we would garden as an expression of Shabbat. So I find this this little kind of tag on to the parashah in some ways so disempowering to the incredible creativity that we're seeing, people reclaiming what Shabbat could be, what a seventh day that wasn't just all of my busyness. And I think that in some ways the don'ts of Shabbat still, still are larger than the possibilities of what we could do.

And I hope that those of us who find ourselves on the fringe, meaning that we're not part of the mainstream or the normative Jewish institutions of a synagogue, or some of the other places where we gather, that we can actually feel empowered to be creative. To say, you know, what is it that would help me regenerate and renew myself on the seventh day? I have a friend who doesn't wear her watch on the Sabbath. That act alone changes the whole day because you can't be late for something, you can't be rushing to something. I don’t even have my watch on, I don’t even know if it's if it's 8:00, 9:00, or 10:00.

What are the ways that we could reclaim a seventh day that could not only be set apart, but could be the way that we keep our souls alive, that we keep our relationships and our communities nurtured?

But it may not take the form of a traditional Shabbat dinner or Friday night services. It may, and by the way, those things can be very beautiful and meaningful. They are to me and to millions of people. But I love on the fringes, things are growing. New possibilities are being tested. And for us when we think of the tallis and the four quarters, let's think of also all the new ways that people are thinking and living and experiencing Shabbat and Jewish life, not as threatening, not as things that we should scold or inhibit or punish, but things that we should learn from. Where's the yearning? Where is that possibility?

So I'll ask you, podcast listener, think about: are you on the fringe? Are you somewhere in the middle?

Do you have, if you're in the middle, do you have a spiritual reach that brings those in from the fringe, whether they be living in in Darfur or in Israel or in parts of the world that are overlooked and neglected? Is Jewish life something that you feel is open to new forms of expression? This is an incredible moment, so the scouts went to scout the land, I'm asking you maybe to help us scout the future. By what it is that we're doing, what it is that we see others doing that could bring new vitality to Jewish life.

Maybe it's symbolized by a prayer shawl that we wear, one that's traditional, one that's very non-traditional. Maybe it's a new way to observe the seventh day. I think being out on the fringe is not a bad place to be. Join me.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at  ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.