Tallit Tale



            Friends, after 26 years of leading this congregation in High Holy Day Worship, I should have mastered the skill to craft a message for this moment easily. And this year in particular, with no evacuations, holidays arriving not too early or late, conditions for sermon composition were ideal. Three weeks ago I finished writing my sermons for Rosh Hashanah. I was quite pleased with my prompt preparation, but periodically doubts crept into my consciousness: Was I presenting a new insight? Challenging my congregation? Lifting them spiritually? This congregation deserves my best effort? Was I settling?

So, I reviewed my writing again. I wanted to believe that my message resonated with meaning, but a nagging apprehension told me otherwise. Lynn reconfirmed my fears. In truth, she offered fair warning a few weeks ago upon first reading, but I was reluctant to accept her critique. I could not sleep. I knew what I had to do. If God could create the world in seven days, I could certainly fashion a sermonic masterpiece in two.

Mica, my youngest daughter, who always likes it when I mention her in a sermon, just started the University of Georgia. This prompted recollections of my own college days, when I would labor over term papers. Up to the deadline for submission, it was a work in progress. What was true for term papers is equally valid for sermons, and is even more applicable to how we live our lives. We struggle with our achievements and relationships, our talents and weaknesses, striving for our best, but succumbing to paths of least resistance. The journey begins at youth and continues until our end of days. This season annually provides the opportunity to evaluate ourselves, cognizant that we are all works in progress.

As I reflected on my days, I realized that an article of Jewish ritual clothing might symbolize my own development: The Tallit, the simple or not so simple prayer shawl. In this month’s Temple bulletin and e-mail communications, I have encouraged our members, male and female, who own Tallesim/Tallitot to bring them and wear them for Holy Day and Shabbat worship. Or you can select from those that we provide in the back of the sanctuary. Draping a prayer shawl over one’s shoulders does not signify that one is more or less Jewish. However, I do believe that feeling the cloth on your shoulders and touching the strings is an irrational, tactile sensation, enhancing the prayer experience. During B’nai Mitzvah I regularly witness moments of memory and connection when a tallit representing family history is worn, linking multiple generations. In a similar way when we swaddle ourselves in a tallit, we connect to our ancestors and Jews around the world.

The origins of the Tallit are in the Torah, where we are instructed to wear a fringed garment. When we see the tsitsit-fringes, like a superstitious string wrapped around a finger, it will remind us of God’s commandments. The custom however is to only wear a tallit during daytime worship, for the practical reason that one needs light for the tsitsit to be visible, with the one exception being Kol Nidre Eve, which I will explain to you next week. The Book of Numbers command speaks of a blue thread, but the precise dye combination has long ago disappeared. However, the customary stripes often connected with the tallit are reminders of that blue color. The fringes are tied in a series of knots to symbolically represent the 613 mitzvot and a numerical equivalent to the statement that “God is One.”

In my minds eye, I envision myself standing upon the pulpit for my Bar Mitzvah, wearing a tallit for the first time. Wait there must be technical difficulties! There seems to be a problem with the picture. Perhaps it is still analog and not digital. According to my Bar Mitzvah album, I am not wearing a tallit. As an observant Reform Jew in the 1960s we wore neither kippah or tallit. The mantra then was, “It doesn’t matter what you wear on the outside; it is what is inside that counts.” So at least in terms of ritual garb, I entered Jewish life naked. Nonetheless, weekly religious school and family observance concretized a solid foundation of faith. We celebrated Jewish holidays and kindled Shabbat candles. I mastered the Hebrew prayers, though few in number in our old Union Prayer Book, knew numerous Bible stories, chuckled at Yiddish tales from the Wise Men of Chelm and understood that there were guiding values by which I should conduct my life. As a teen, entering adulthood, I was confident in who I was as a Jew and a person.

I purchased my first tallit at the age of 22, as a first year Rabbinical Student in Jerusalem. I scoured the shops of Meah Shearim, then the primary religious i.e. Ultra Orthodox section of the city, before selecting, as some of you can see, a  traditional, white wool with black stripes. As a student I grappled with Jewish tradition, seeking the right balance between liberalism and tradition, moral mandates and ritual practices, rational values and spiritual insight. I proudly wore that tallit throughout rabbinical school until ordination.

Then I donned the cleric’s robe, black for Shabbat and white for Holy Days, adorned with what we called “an atara.” The term actually refers to the neck band, which is often attached to most tallesim, but in this case described a slender tallit with delicate fringe attached. It was less a tallit and more a symbol of office, not unlike academic colors. In retrospect, it was part costume and uniform, designed to make an impression. I was now an adult, playing a role for which I was trained and committed, a realization which was both energizing and terrifying. Filled with youthful zeal, I was ready to spread Judaism to the Jewish masses. But at times, I have to admit it helped to have a costume which identified who I was to others and myself, perhaps even covering insecurities and doubts.

When I first came to Gates of Prayer in 1984, I continued to wear the robe and atara. After all, I had to establish myself as “the rabbi.” Within a few years, I shed the robe and simply wore the atara over my suit. I remained the same rabbi, while comfortably reducing some of the distance that the robe created.

Some of you may remember our previous sanctuary décor of midnight blue carpet and carrot colored seats. We then added a dramatic, thematic, comparably colored tapestry. Returning to Israel for a mission, I entered the Yaffo boutique to select a Gabrielli tallit, not quite the Armani of tallesim, but definitely stylish. Of course I selected orange and blue. I wanted to blend in, to be at one with our prayer setting. But, it also communicated that contemporary Reform Judaism was vibrant, marked by flexibility and change, growth and beauty.

As we celebrated my 10th year as rabbi of Gates of Prayer, I received a gift from the congregation. Hindsight reveals a not so subtle statement, as I was presented with a new tallit, silk as opposed to wool, in gentler colors with images of Jerusalem. I wear it now, to some extent because the white background looks better against the white robe, but also due to its messages. Israel and its importance to Jewish identity is a core aspect of what it means to be a Jew today. Trips to Israel, whether for teens or adults rejuvenate us all, and I include myself. Being there reaffirms our roots, links us to history and heritage, while providing a model of vital Jewish living.

On a personal level this new tallit expressed respect and appreciation, acknowledging an important relationship between rabbi and congregation. After ten years, we had adapted to one another. We enjoyed the comfort of knowing that we could weather periods of turmoil and stay committed to one another. The honeymoon was long past and in its place was a solid foundation for the future.

In 2000 we renovated our building and especially the sanctuary. Goodbye blue and orange! Hello beige and plum! Goodbye tapestry! Hello windows! It must be time for a new tallit! And so, while attending our URJ international convention, I selected an artisan to fashion a one of a kind tallit, mirroring the new symbols found in our sanctuary. The atara-neck piece is embroidered with our theme verse: Ivdu et Adonai B’simcha- Worship God with Joy, a guiding principle of what I teach and model and how we conduct worship and create congregational programs. Representations of Divine light and the stars of the covenant are reminders of a growing relationship with God.  That awareness continues to develop in my life.

Then two summers ago, while leading a congregational trip in Israel, I spotted a cute tallit depicting the story of Joseph. It included bright striped colors, images of his dreams with sun, moon and stars, along with sheaves of wheat and Pharoah’s dream of cows being devoured. I did not buy it, but my fellow travelers presented it to me as a gift. It’s a wonderful teaching tool for Tot Shabbat and children’s services. Not everything needs to be about me. Focusing on others brings joy and fulfillment.

This evening, I stand before you and we all stand before God, the sum total of our life experiences. We all begin with the confidence of youth and then enter into periods of struggle, questioning and grappling with who we are and what is important to us. We assume positions and explore possibilities, even wearing costumes to strengthen us, while we deal with doubts and insecurities. At times we will simply try to blend into our surroundings. With the advantage of the years, we glean that people and places can expand who we are, that shared experiences will shape us and relationships can be forged from trials. Faith can connect us with that which is transcendent and fulfillment arrives as we focus on the needs of others. I look forward to the purchase of my next tallit and what it might represent. Whether wearing a tallit or not, we are all works in progress.


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