This week, Cantor is going to be chanting from the end of parashat shelach lecha, the command to wear tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of our tallitot, and we are told that those tzitzit are supposed to act as a reminder of our covenant with God and our sacred obligations, our mitzvot. Once upon a time those fringes probably acted as pockets; something you would tie your cylinder seal or other important things to, for safekeeping. Our Torah portion transforms them into important symbols of what it means to be God’s people.
I’ve shared this story before, but I find it no less powerful in this moment: when Rabbi Rick Jacobs became president of the URJ several years ago and led services at the URJ biennial, when we got to the sh’ma, he asked everyone gathered who was wearing a tallit to gather up their tzitzit, And, in gathering them, think of the vulnerable in this world who need to be gathered, and hold them close.
I’ve mentioned this moment before, and right now, it feels more powerful than ever. We, in this moment, are so profoundly aware of the vulnerable in the world. And, increasingly, we are seeing our own role in helping make them vulnerable. We know who they are: those deemed ‘essential’ workers, who have to put their bodies between us and the disease. Those with health issues. The disabled. The person of color whose life and experience is undervalued. The immigrant. The refugee. The Asylum seeker. The homeless. The poor. Those we as a society should be gathering up with love but instead cast aside, dismissing their pain, their very vulnerability.
In a way, the purpose of these tzitzit, these symbols of the commandments, is to make us uncomfortable. That might seem to be a surprise; who wants to be uncomfortable in shul? The seats are bad enough! But it may be that, looking down at them, we will be reminded that we have sacred obligations, including to those who are at risk, who are vulnerable, and we may think of the times we did not fulfill our obligation; where we either failed to see the Other and their need, or we thought we didn’t have an obligation to the Other in that moment at all. In that way, the tzitzit are like this moment, where we are called upon to be uncomfortable and think about our obligations to one another. Did we wear the mask when we walked the dog? Did we get offended by the protester’s slogan rather than think about the pain behind their words? Did we fret over statues instead of people? Did we realize that a behavior or turn of phrase that used to be innocuous or even supportive turned out to be damaging in some way? It is unpleasant to be uncomfortable. It’s even uncomfortable! But that discomfort, that reminder of the times we did not fulfill our obligation, is not meant to stand in judgement over us. It is meant to teach us. It’s meant to remind us that the opportunity for correction, for t’shuvah, is always present, and that our nefesh, our being, is always capable of refinement, of elevation, and of doing the work.
So in this moment of discomfort, on this Juneteenth, we need to gather up our spiritual tzitzit and look at them, and be reminded of our obligations to one another, especially to the vulnerable in our community. And as we gather them, let our discomfort as we reflect lead us to doing better, to being better, to trying harder to do the work of valuing and loving one another, of fulfilling our sacred obligations. May we we need to do is gather them up, and remember our obligation to them, our obligation to achieve the kind of society where all are valued and loved. And, in doing so, may we fulfill the words of our portion, and be holy to our God and each other. Amen.