Symbols Serve as Spirituality Vessels


By Rabbi Fred V. Davidow

Parshat Shelach

Frequently, someone will say to a rabbi, “I am spiritual but not religious.” It’s easy to interpret what “not religious” means — not attending Sabbath services, not studying Torah, not saying hamotzi before eating and a host of other practices.

But what does it mean to be “spiritual”? To love God? To believe in the Ten Commandments? Love your fellow human beings? Be a good person? Think deep thoughts? These are lofty ideas, but how are they actualized?

Think of spiritual matters to be like water. Let’s say that a spiritual outlook on life is as essential for our emotional well-being as water is absolutely necessary for physical survival. If that were so, we would definitely want to get some of this spiritual stuff. How will we go about getting it? Let’s compare the getting of spiritual stuff to drinking water.

We are hiking in the mountains, and we come to a stream flowing with cool, clear water. We are thirsty, and we put our hand into the water with our fingers separated and sweep our hand through the water and then bring the hand up to the mouth. We won’t get very much water that way. We could lick some moisture from the hand but it would take a long time to quench thirst that way.

No, we could cup one hand, or better yet, we could make a bigger cup with both hands. Thereby we create a vessel that will hold water from which we are able to get a mouthful of water at one time. Matters spiritual are like water, and the effective way to get water into our bodies is to put it into a vessel, like cupped hands or a glass.

It is possible that people who say they are spiritual but not religious have a spirituality that is unfocused, undirected, unchanneled or unvesseled.

The purpose of religious customs is to create the vessels from which we can get enough spiritual water to sustain us.

The last paragraph of this week’s parsha, Numbers 15:37-41, is placed verbatim in the traditional prayer book as the third Torah passage of the Shema. Unfortunately, American Reform prayer books — the latest one excluded — omitted this paragraph.

One reason is that this Torah passage speaks about wearing the tallit, and since early Reformers eliminated the custom of wearing the tallit, it did not make sense to put in the Reform prayer book. In the history of Reform Judaism, there has been a tendency to be non-ritualistic, to be spiritual but not religious. During the last 40 years we have come to realize the importance of rituals as powerful symbols, and the tallit is just such a powerful symbol.

There are three significant verbs in Numbers 15:37-41: see, remember and perform.

We are supposed to see the fringes on the tallit, originally blue cords at each corner. Seeing makes a strong impression. The fringed garment is a tangible reminder of our heritage. Walking into the sanctuary, we see the mezuzah on the doorpost, the menorah, the ark, the Ten Commandments, the Kiddush cup, the tallit. All of these symbols are vessels containing lessons about Judaism that help to create a spiritual mood.

When we see these vessels, we remember the lessons of our faith, and we remember we are descendants of an ancient people that have employed these reminders for centuries and centuries.

When we see and remember, then we are supposed to be prepared to perform.

Abraham Tzvi Idelsohn, who taught liturgy at Hebrew Union College 90 years ago, wrote that this paragraph was added to the Shema section of the Siddur to emphasize the necessity of religious customs.

Even in ancient times, Hellenized Jews in Palestine and Egypt claimed that it was sufficient just to think and meditate on God and that religious services and observances were not required.

However, the impulse for meditation and prayer is most likely going to be derived from actions. Putting on a kippah, opening a prayer book, donning a tallit, kissing the Torah scroll, bending the knee and bowing help to stimulate spiritual thoughts: These symbolic actions are the means of creating Jewish spirituality.

The climax of the Exodus is not the parting of the Sea of Reeds. The climax is the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, a set of rules to be followed. They are a vessel that captures the spirit of serving God.

We imbibe our spiritual stuff not only by meditating but by performing. There have to be vessels like the tallit that are a concrete expression of our spirituality.  

Rabbi Fred V. Davidow teaches at lifelong learning programs and at continuing care retirement communities. He is also preparing his book Guardians of the City: Stories to Shape Moral Character for publication. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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