A Cocoon of Peace and Tranquility

Last Shabbat – last Saturday – I “escaped” from the media coverage of what was happening in Israel and Gaza and the horrifying news of the downed Malaysian airplane to the serenity and peacefulness of the Reform Movement’s Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, MA.

If only the rest of the world could experience the sense of tranquility, wholeness and community that exists at one of our Reform Movement camps!

We began our morning together with a beautiful outdoor Shabbat morning service.

What caught my attention most this Shabbat was the interaction between the parents who were visiting for the day and their children who were spending an extended time up at camp either as campers or staff.

I observed how parents and their children sat really close together during the service because they wanted to be close together. Some parents rubbed their children’s backs during the service, some children had their arms around their parents. Some siblings sat on their older siblings laps. It was truly a time of family togetherness.

I was incredibly moved when one father took his tallit (his prayer shawl), draped it over his daughter and drew her in close. They prayed wrapped in the safety of their father-daughter “cocoon” connected both physically and spiritually. It was their own safe-haven from the rest of the outside world for a short while.

Shoshana Maniscalco and her father Ron "Buff" at URJ Camp Eisner
Shoshana Maniscalco and her father Ron “Buff” at URJ Camp Eisner praying together

tallit literally represents the 613 mitzvot commandments in the Torah. On each of its four corners is a set of fringes. Each set of fringes is comprised of a specific number of threads, tied with a specific number of knots and one thread is wrapped around all of the others a specific number of times.

If you add together all of the threads, the knots and the wrappings from all four corners, they add up to 613. By putting on a tallit, we are symbolically taking upon ourselves the responsibility and obligation of the commandments.

There’s another purpose to a tallit, however. It acts as a “cocoon” and separates us from what is taking place around us. Having a tallit wrapped around our shoulders during a time of prayer and meditation can help keep us focused on our connection with God and community. It serves as our refuge from the world outside.

During times like these, when war is raging in Israel and Gaza and planes are being shot down from the sky, I almost wish I could wrap an infinitesimally large tallit around the world and cocoon everyone from all harm….”and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, they shall never again know war.” (Micah 4:3)

The following poem is by the late Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai. It depicts some of the symbolism, feelings and emotions captured by our memories of the tallit.

A Tallit Poem, by Yehuda Amichai

Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:

taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,

spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband

(embroidered or trimmed in gold).

Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead like a sky,

a wedding canopy, a parachute.

And then winding it around his head as in Hide-and-Seek,

wrapping his whole body in it, close and slow,

snuggling into it like the cocoon of a butterfly,

then opening would-be wings to fly. 

And why is the tallis striped and not checkered

black and white like a chessboard?

Because squares are finite and hopeless. 

Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go 

like airport runways where angels land and take off.

 Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.

When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,

he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again

over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,

still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

Open Closed Open: Poems, trans. by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (New York: Harcourt, 2000), p. 44

May we all come to know the peace, safety, serenity and tranquility that comes from being wrapped in the cocoon of a tallit at all times.

Turn Your Guns into PloughShares

“Guns! Buy your guns here! We sell all types of guns: wild west guns, shot guns, guns, guns, guns!’

I’ve just returned from visiting friends in the Southwest. It seems that on every other block, I had an opportunity to purchase my own gun. There were more gun shops than fast-food joints. I almost felt assaulted by all the gun shops I encountered. Perhaps I could grab a burger and a gun to go?

My friends and I initially joked about what kind of gun we should purchase, but in reality, it is not a joke. Not when each week, we read of another school shooting, another accidental killing by gunshot, another drive-by gang killing.

We have some staggering statistics regarding guns and gun violence in the United States: On average:

  • 30,000 Americans are killed by firearms each year;
  • 12,000 Americans are murdered by firearms each year;
  • 30 Americans are murdered each day via gunshot
  • 200 Americans are wounded each day via gun violence; and
  • with 88 guns per 100 people, the United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. (Statistics courtesy of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center).

This past June, Illinois (where I live) became the last state to pass the “Concealed Carry” Bill, allowing Illinois State Police to issue a concealed-carry license to any qualified applicant. The law just went into effect the beginning of January, 2014.

Many places, such as houses of worship, (including my own Congregation B’nai Torah),  restaurants, grocery stores display a “NO CONCEALED WEAPONS ALLOWED” sign:

No Concealed Weapons Allowed
No Concealed Weapons Allowed: Turn Guns into Ploughshares

Is this the kind of world we want for our children? A place where they become as familiar with the logo for “No Guns” as they are with the logo for the “Stop” sign? Do we want them to worry that they might not be safe at school or at the playground? Do we want them to worry that their parents might not be safe at work? 

I am sure that many of us know someone who has been personally affected by gun violence. And it isn’t something that only takes place “out there”: it takes place in JCC’s, in synagogues and in our own homes as well. Guns do not discriminate when it comes to age, gender, race or religion.

In last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, from the book of Exodus, we receive the 10 Commandments. The first two Commandments are statements: 

I am the Eternal Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

You shall have no other Gods beside Me. (Exodus 20: 2-3)

Our text tells us: God exists. And the singularity of God’s nature suggests that all of us are equal in God’s eyes. As such, we need to treat every human being with that same sense of equality. With dignity and respect.

We need to combine the first two commandments with the Sixth Commandment:

“You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20: 13)

It becomes clear from our text that guns and other weapons of violence are not to be used indiscriminately. That if we are to preserve our relationship with God and our relationship with each other, we need to carefully think through what our society does to prevent gun violence.

The Reform Movement supports Gun Violence Prevention Advocacy and offers congregations educational and programmatic resource materials.

Visit the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC)website: www.rac.org for more information or click below for the RAC’s

Gun Violence and Prevention Program and Resource Guide

“Don’t stop after beating the swords into ploughshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into ploughshares first.” –Yehuda Amichai