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.
A 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.