October 18th: Sukkot
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
For our Torah Commentary at this season, we shall be publishing Rabbi Ostrich’s Yom Tov sermons. This is from Yom Kippur: The Clothes of God.
On Rosh Hashanah, I began with the question: What are we doing here? And I ask it again. What are we doing here this evening? Are here to petition the Almighty? Are we here to come to grips with our Jewish Identities? Are we here out of a vague sense of familial or ancestral obligation? Or, are we here out of a perennial and traditional curiosity—to ponder and feel in Jewish ways during these moments of High Holiness.
While we can get specific and philosophical, I also find it helpful to be rather expansive in categorizing this communal encounter. Indeed, I find it helpful to consider the words of a non-Jewish thinker in his description of religion and God—and therefore these gatherings.
The philosopher William James defined Religion as the human response to an undifferentiated sense of reality—to what he called the More: an undefinable, non-empirical feeling of a Presence. People of religion gather to contemplate and approach this Presence, and we Jews have developed a whole tradition full of insights and techniques, achieving some real profundity.
Among the approaches to the ineffable Presence we call God is the prayer we chant during this season, Un’taneh Tokef. In it, we speak of God judging everyone, both the hosts of heaven and those who dwell on earth. “As the shepherd seeks out the flock, and makes the sheep pass under the staff, so do You muster and number and consider every soul, setting the bounds of every creature’s life, and decreeing its destiny.” It is a problematic passage—one that is often discussed, and yet there is some truth to the reality it approaches. We believe that our decisions make a difference, but we also find that other factors—factors we do not control—impact our lives in significant ways. Thus do our Yom Kippur prayers go in two directions. We pray to ourselves that we will make good choices, and we pray that the Greatest of Powers ease our way and make our challenges manageable.
Among our prayers for protection, we have Hashkivaynu. Coming after Mi Chamocha and before the Amidah, on pages 32-33 of our Machzor, we just prayed these words:
“Shield us, we pray, against enemies, disease, war, famine, and sorrow, and strengthen us against the evil forces that abound on every side; give us refuge in the shadow of Your wings.”
There is also this traditional Bedtime Prayer:
“Behold the couch of Solomon, with sixty mighty ones of Israel surrounding. Gripping the sword, skilled in warfare, they protect us from fear in the night...In the Name of the Lord God of Israel, may the angels protect me. May Michael be at my right, Gabriel at my left. May Uriel be before me, Raphael behind me, and above my head the Presence of God.”
Of course, ours is not the only religious tradition in which God is invoked for protection. Among the more interesting prayers that I have found is an extended metaphor in Christianity for what is called The Armor of God. In Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, our Christian friends pray:
“Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil...gird your loins with truth; cover your chest with the breastplate of righteousness; Your feet shall be shod with the gospel of peace; your shield shall be faith with which you can stop all the fiery darts of the wicked. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the word of God.”
When a Christian friend introduced me to this passage, he explained it in terms of his faith persuading/invoking God to protect him with holy armor.
However, as I reflected on this Christian passage, it occurred to me that there is another way to read it. While there are certain kinds of clothing that protect us—in this case the Armor of God, there is also clothing that affects our movement or our moods. Take flip-flops, for instance: one walks in them differently than in regular shoes. The same could be said for high heels, work boots, or orthopedic shoes. Or, take fancy clothes or a military or work uniform: we feel differently when we wear them.
So, in addition to whatever protection Christian faith might afford my friend, could it not also be possible that the clothes of faith affect his behavior? When one is wearing the truth on one’s body, there should be a tendency to behave truthfully and in line with true values. When one is wearing peaceful boots, there should be a tendency to walk in peaceful ways. The same can be said for the helmet of salvation and the sword of God’s word. When wearing or wielding these, there should be the tendency to behave in godly ways.
I do not know if this is a particularly Jewish way of reading the Ephesians passage, but it is certainly in line with the spiritual interpretations of our own Jewish ritual clothing. Though some may regard Kippah, Tallit, and Tefillin as mere customs, the fact is that Tradition has imbued them with attitudinal expectations.
In the case of the Kippah or Yarmulke, the original purpose is reverence—that covering one’s head caps one’s ego both psychologically and emotionally, reminding us that there is a reality greater than we. There is also the sense of sacred identification—that wearing the Yarmulke represents to the world that we are Jewish, members of a sacred community and dedicated to its values. This kind of awareness should affect our attitudes and behavior.
In the case of Tefillin—when we bind God’s words “as a sign on our arms,” the prayers draw a very strong connection between ritual ornamentation and our behavior. As one wraps the leather strap around one’s finger, Tradition prescribes a vow from the Prophet Hosea (2.21):
“I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy. I will espouse you with faithfulness, and you shall be devoted to the Lord.”
A Kabbalistic interpretation sees the wrapping of the leather strap on one’s arm as tying ourselves and God together—of d’vekut, cleaving to God. The words one says while wrapping can also lead to insights. Tradition prescribes the verse from Psalm 145—which we may know best from Ashray: “You open Your hand to satisfy the will of every creature.” Some see these words as a prayer asking that God’s Hand be opened generously to give us lots of blessings. Rabbi Shefa Gold, however, sees it as more of a reciprocal process. When she prays, she likes to translate it spiritually as “You open Your hand; I open my heart to this abundance.” The Tefillin can inspire us to be receptive to the blessings God gives and to learn satisfaction and appreciation.
When one puts the leather Tefillin box on one’s forehead—“between one’s eyes,” it can be seen as a dedication of both thinking and vision to godly values. It always reminds me of a phrase from a Reform Religious School curriculum in the 1980s, To See the World Through Jewish Eyes. When we mediate our vision and mental functioning with holiness, we are drawn to seeing the world and thinking about it the way God does.
The Tallit, which is traditionally worn at morning services but which is also part of our special Kol Nidre holiness, is even more direct in speaking of the effect of godly clothing. The meditation prayed before putting on the Tallit, from Psalm 104, speaks metaphorically about robing ourselves in God’s glory and sensibilities:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul: O Lord, my God, You are exceedingly great:
You are clothed in glory and majesty, Wrapped in a robe of light;
You spread out the heavens like a curtain.”
Wrapping ourselves in the Tallit is seen as wrapping ourselves in the mitzvot—dedicating ourselves to the mitzvah life and to exemplifying godliness in our behavior. Wrapped in godliness, we can represent God—actually, present God in the world.
Covering our heads with reverence, wrapping our arms with appreciation and commitment, influencing our vision and our thinking, and wrapping ourselves in holy possibilities is like putting on a uniform of our highest and most holy aspirations. Whether we wear these clothes of God literally or spiritually, let us wear them with true kavannah, with a sense that our attitudes and behaviors matter, that we have holy potential and are resolved to bring it forth in our lives.
May our meditations and prayers on this most holy of days open our hearts and our eyes to the significance of our roles in the world. May we bring holiness and goodness and lovingkindness and mercy. May we be devoted to the Lord and be God’s channels of light and blessing in the world.