(If you want the actual sermon, you can find the recording of it here).
There’s a famous joke about a man who’s just got a brand new sports car. He takes to a coastal highway, opens up the throttle, and speeds along, but while driving alongside a steep hill, he hits a sharp turn too fast, and has to jump out of his car as it plunges into the rocks below. Even then, he’s dangling, cartoon-like, from a branch on the side of the mountain. “God!” He cries, “Please help me!” He’s startled when a voice responds, “here I am, my son.” Oh, thank God!” He cries again. “Save me, God. I’ll do anything!” “I’ll save you,” Replies God. “you only have to do one thing.” “Yes, anything!” “Let go”.
We all know the joke. What makes it funny is thinking about our own reactions. How many of us, clinging for dear life to the side of a cliff, would trust a voice and let go? Would you trust the voice? Or would you trust your own eyes and experience: that voices do not defy gravity, and that the only thing keeping you from plummeting to your doom is your hands on the branch?
The same question is raised by our Torah portion. In Shelach Lecha, Israelite spies enter the land, scout it, and return to inform Israel that, while it is a good land, it’s occupied, and the residents are veritable giants, or so it seems to them. Despite Joshua and Caleb urging the People to trust in God, the Israelites despair and actually turn around to go back to Egypt, back the way they came. It’s such a catastrophic response, such a terrible lack of faith, that the generation that left Egypt is cursed to die in the wilderness, rather than enter the land promised them. What’s curious, though, is how the portion ends—not with Israel’s banishment, not with death and more death as described throughout the verses, but a peculiar mitzvah, a singular commandment. Last week’s portion ended with the commandment to wear tzitzit, or fringes on the corners of our garments. The text reads:
The Eternal said to Moses as follows: 38Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. 39That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. 40Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. 41I the Eternal am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God.
Wait, Fringes? Why fringes? I think we could all agree that this is a strange commandment. Rabbinic and proto-rabbinic texts, like Josephus, suggest that it was the tzitzit, the fringes, so seemingly arbitrary, that finally caused Korach, Dathan and Abiram to throw his hands up and rebel a few verses later. That one more oddball mitzvah that had no rhyme or reason pushed them over the edge. Scholars believe they were the pockets of antiquity, used to tie signet seals or other important objects to one’s cloak. Others suggest they were a form of ethnic differentiation: dressing in a way that separated them from others. But what do fringes have to do with Mitzvot, or sacred obligations? What do fringes have to do with the rebellion of the spies, or Egypt for that matter?
Apparently, everything. Let’s look again at our Israelite ancestors. Despite being liberated from Egypt, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, building the Mishkan, the tabernacle, eating manna along their journey, witnessing untold miracles, and being brought to the cusp of the Land, Israel still didn’t appreciate their relationship with God, or their own holiness. They were still a slave people, still ready to go back to Egypt whenever the going got tough, and no amount of blessings by priests or fancy rituals or awe-inspiring miracles were going to change the way they saw themselves: as grasshoppers. They didn’t see with their faith; they saw with their eyes and heart, they saw through the lens of FEAR. And Fear will always lead us backwards, always lead us backward.And that’s as true today as it was then. Are we really any different? “Everybody on earth deals with fear” says the lawyer in the movie Defending Your Life. “Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything. Real feeling, true happiness, real joy, they can't get through that fog.”
Special effects are nice, rallies and speeches—words-- may give us warm fuzzies, but at the end of the day, they don’t change us or our condition, they don’t reduce our fear. We need those tangible reminders—an embrace, a memento, a cloak with a thread the color of the sky as the sun sets—blue and purple and green all at once—that would remind us, to follow not our eyes or our hearts, but God. To put it another way: when our inclination is to ‘go back to Egypt’; that is, to turn in fear. We cling to the ledge because we think there is no alternative. The Israelites—and we—need a physical reminder to trust in God, WHO LED US OUT OF EGYPT. That is, a physical reminder that we can't go backward, only forward; we cannot hold on forever, we need to let go of the past and have a little faith. Ibn Ezra says that if we do so, we will be holy and our rational soul will not be stained by the polluted lusts of the heart. Israel thinks it's acting rationally; really it's being irrational; driven by fear of the future, of the unknown. They are full of fear. We need reminders not to be afraid. No, that’s not quite right. We need something to hold onto that says “I acknowledge your fear, and while holding onto me won’t give you the answers, I’ll remind you why you’re here, and that will help you get through your fears.”
Because that’s the missing piece, isn’t it? When we’re afraid, it’s because we’re not sure what to do, not sure of our role, or of our relationships. When we’re afraid we don’t know who we can trust. We curl inward, instead of outward. But when we remember that we have a mission, a purpose, a reason—when we remember we are valued and holy—then the fear moves backward, and our sense of meaning forward. Fear moves us to think only of ourselves; we need reminders to think of others, to move from a focus of “my” needs to “our” needs.
So, what are your fears? What sends you back to Egypt? And what are your Tzitzit, the tangibles that reassure you and reaffirm you? What forces you to cling for dear life to the edge? Is it fear of loneliness, of change, of not mattering? For me, it’s fear of failure. And I know I need my tzitzit—real and metaphorical—to remind me of my sacred obligations. And when I hold onto those personal tzitzit, I remember my family, my circle, my congregation and my community, my world my God, and I am renewed. The challenges aren’t any less challenging, the object of my fear isn’t any less daunting, but for a moment I can move outside myself. I can stop listening to my eyes and the racing of my heart. I can let go.
Teach us, O God, to always look toward our personal tzitzit, to see in each person a reminder of You, and so be led back to You and your Torah, lest our hearts lead us astray. Amen.