Following the advice of a colleague who reminds me “when speaking to three-year-olds we need to translate Jewish language into ‘three-year-old’” I let Hannah touch my tallit, play with the fringes, and then I invited her to try wearing it.
Hannah then said, “It feels nice, Daddy. I like it.”
So I explained further, “It’s called a tallit. It’s very special and we wear it when we say our prayers, when we say thank you to God for all of the wonderful things we have in the world. When you celebrate your bat mitzvah, you can choose to have a tallit of your own.”
Hannah’s eyes opened more brightly and she said, “Oooh, Hannah gets her own tallit Daddy!”
Truthfully, in ten years time, when the moment comes for Hannah to prepare and celebrate her Bat Mitzvah, we will engage in the discussion about the importance of the tallit. The reality in our community is that some women choose to wear tallit while others do not; and both are equally appropriate interpretations of Jewish tradition and practice.
I imagine that moment to be like what Moses must have felt in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot. Moses grew up in the Pharaoh’s palace but also came to recognize the harsh ways in which the Israelite slaves were treated. One day, he noticed an Egyptian taskmaster treating an Israelite unjustly and came upon the taskmaster and killed him. Fearing for his own life, Moses fled into the wilderness.
Some time later, when he was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro in the wilderness, he happened upon a bush that had caught aflame, but was not consumed by the fire. Going over to take a closer look, God called out to Moses from the bush and said, “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” This initial conversation between Moses and God forges a relationship between Moses and God. Moses will subsequently return to Egypt to free his people and lead them toward the Promised Land.
We may think that Moses has it easy. As God’s spiritual messenger, he has a direct connection, and an easy line; spirituality and the sacred are readily available, at his fingertips, whenever he wants. He gets to see the burning bush, he witnesses the plagues, he watches the sea spread out before him, he receives the tablets of the commandments not once but twice! He even requests an audience with God and when told that no one can see God’s face, he is still able to see God’s back passing before him.
But these moments are just that – moments in the course of a long life, moments that arise amidst difficulties, challenges to his power and leadership, grumbling Israelites, his own personal frustrations. For Moses, and for us alike, the sacred, the opportunity to stand on sacred ground, to recognize the presence of the holy is truly fleeting.
We know too well that we live in a world in which sacred space is lacking or seemingly absent. Last month four women were arrested at the Western Wall in Jerusalem – for the supposed “crime” of wearing a tallit, and praying out loud. If not there, at a place which is supposed to be holy and open and accessible to all Jews, where we ask, can we expect to find sacred space? Last month’s massacre in which twenty primary school-aged students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut were brutally killed, still leaves many of us shell-shocked and dumbfounded. Where we ask, can we find sacred space? This week’s news from Delhi, India in which a 23-year-old woman died as a result of injuries sustained after being gang raped by six men, beaten and thrown out of a moving bus has sparked emotions of both grief and fury. Where we ask, in our world, can we find sacred space? Where can we find the assurance and reassurance, that even in a world filled with darkness, that like God said to Moses, “I will be with you,” we can know that God will be with us?
It starts with the personal and our own efforts to explore our tradition. Rabbi Goldie Milgram reminds us:
While the tallit can serve you powerfully during prayer, it also serves as a spiritual shelter at difficult times. A young student once called from a portable phone in a closet where she was hiding from an abusive uncle: “Rabbi, I called the police. They are coming,” she whispered, “and I’m safely under my tallit, talking together with you and God.” Another student once called from college to talk about a difficulty, saying that she’d wrapped herself in her tallit for the call and telling me that it had become a sacred space where she could cry and pray about her fears at this time in her life.
This is not to say that a tallit will protect us from certain danger, only that it can afford spiritual and emotional protection and shelter, light within darkness. A tallit gives us an opportunity, in personal and private, or communal reflection, to create a boundary of separation, a demarcation, an indication of God’s love, shelter and protection, to remind ourselves that God’s love is enveloping and embracing, guiding us and protecting us in light. Sometimes, in order to connect with the sacred, we have to trust in the symbols and the ritual objects that our unique tradition affords us.
But in addition to the personal, we also have to be aware of the moments, those fleeting occasions where not by what we have done or controlled, we are amazed, we are surprised, we smile knowingly, appreciating that we are in the presence of something greater. A child’s eyes wide with wonder and curiosity, a beautiful sunset, an inspirational performance, a sparkling achievement wrested from the jaws of struggle or defeat, the sharing of love and intimate feelings, a time of healing, a time of comfort, a time of gratitude or conversation where we lose track of everything around us and allow ourselves to simply be.
Earlier this week, we were reminded of the importance of living in the moment, of appreciating the moments of our lives by one Janell Burley Hofmann who upon gifting an iPhone to her son Greg required him to sign an 18-point contract outlining provisions for his use. Janell wrote, “Don’t take a zillion pictures and videos. There is no need to document everything. Live your experiences. They will be stored in your memory for eternity…Keep your eyes up. See the world happening around you. Stare out a window. Listen to the birds. Take a walk. Talk to a stranger. Wonder without googling.” Janell Hofmann’s instructions to her son are instructions and reminders to us, to live the moments of our lives, to recognize the blessings and the brilliance, to search for the sacred, unimpeded by ubiquitous technology.
But more than personal reassurance that comes from ritual, and the reminder of being present in the moment, we have the ability to bring the sacred into the world, we have the ability to create sacred ground. We have the ability to make our relationships sacred – places of trust, of emotional sharing, of warmth, of love. We have the ability to make a difference – to support initiatives like IRAC and Women of the Wall who seek equal spiritual expression for women in Israel, to support change.org who are actively gaining signatories to a petition asking the Indian government to actively prosecute rape cases, introduce sensitivity training for police and pass laws to protect women, to describe and promote and live with sacred behavior, and to teach and inspire others to do similarly.
As we go through life, sharing our experiences, watching our children grow, we are blessed to have rituals that reassure and comfort us, the knowledge and understanding to appreciate the moments of our lives and teach others to do similarly, and the strength to make a difference. Then we will appreciate and understand the sentiment in our world like in Moses’, that God tells us to take the sandals off our feet, for we are standing on sacred ground.
 Exodus 3:1-5.
 Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Meaning and Mitzvah: Daily Practices for Reclaiming Judaism through Prayer, God, Torah, Hebrew, Mitzvot, and Peoplehood. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005, p. 189.