May 5, 2020
Braiding our lives (and our Challah)
My daughter has very long hair. She is 8 years old and can just about sit on her hair. People occasionally call her Rapunzel instead of Sarah, which she likes. And she also likes to have her hair done in unique styles, usually involving a braid. Her cousin graduated from high school this week and as we were preparing to go to the ceremony, she asked me to make a braid from 3 little braids. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m actually not very good at doing hair, but I’m becoming quite the expert on braids. In case you haven’t braided anyone’s hair recently, it involves taking 3 strands and intertwining them into one. And when I was finished braiding together 3 braids into one big braid, I had created a beautiful, elaborate, intertwined analogy for our lives and for this week’s Parshah.
In Shelach L’cha, Moses sends 12 spies, a leader from each tribe, into the land of Canaan to see what we were facing. They returned 40 days later with beautiful fruit and stories of a lush and bountiful land, but 10 of the spies reported that the land was inhabited with giants who would certainly destroy the children of Israel while the remaining two, Caleb and Joshua, believed that the land could be conquered as G-d had directed. The people believed the 10 and ultimately G-d decreed that their entry into the promised land would be delayed by forty years to have a new generation start a new life in this new land. This Parshah also includes directions for putting tzitzit or fringe on the four corners of our garments so we remember to fulfill the mitzvot. This is also the Parshah where we are directed to consecrate a portion of the bread to G-d called Challah, interestingly Challah is a loaf that is traditionally braided. So how else do braids fit in?
The incident with the spies was a demonstration of what happens when we lose faith. All 12 spies went to the same land but 10 lost faith which dramatically impacted their interpretation of what might happen physically when entering Canaan. Caleb and Joshua remembered that G-d was with them which positively impacted their interpretation and the actual outcome. So out of this, G-d introduces a physical reminder of our spiritual lives with fringe. It reminds me of the technique of snapping a rubber band you wear on your wrist when trying to break a bad habit but only in reverse. Rather than averse conditioning, it would be positive reinforcement. And what seems to be the challenge for both our ancestors as they journeyed across the desert and for us as we journey through our lives is how to intertwine the physical, the temporal and the spiritual into one person, one braid. When we forget our spiritual side and only worry about our bodies and the world around us, that’s exactly what we do….we worry, we lose hope, we see the glass half empty, we lose faith. When we forget our physical and temporal sides and only concentrate on our spiritual lives, we lose the ability to fulfill mitzvot which require physical action to accomplish. But when we intertwine our spiritual, physical and temporal worlds into one connected soul, we are able to conquer giants and repair the world. And when we take each individual braid that is one soul and braid it together with every other soul, we create this beautiful, elaborate, intertwined world.
I recently read a lovely story of a female Jewish television writer who was raised in an Orthodox home. Her father would take her to services when she was still young enough to sit on his lap in the men’s section and to entertain her he would show her how to braid his tzitzit. Decades later when he passed away in his eighties, the man from the Jewish Burial Society asked the daughter if her father had a tallit that he wanted to be buried with. She brought him the tallit and he then asked her if she wanted to keep one of the tzitzit. She was amazed that she was allowed to do that. He asked for a scissors and in her words, “I got it, and tensed as he prepared to cut the cord. At that moment one of my dad’s last links to the earthly world was cut, and I felt an almost umbilical severing of the bond between the father who had filled the days of my life and the one who would come to inhabit my memory. And yet, as this physical connection was broken, a new bond was formed.” She continued to say, “Today, every time I touch the tzitzit, it is as if I am touching my father. The braided cord—for it is, indeed, a braid I made—is a tangible reminder of one of his sweetest lessons. In the braids of his tzitzit are the cords of his life, the temporal entwined with the spiritual, in a special, private link that remains long after his soul departed.”
So as we face our week, let’s remember that we are actually here on this journey to incorporate the spiritual into our physical and temporal worlds. If we look at our world as intertwined, then we can start to see the meaning in every action and the hope in every challenge. And rather than wear a rubber band to snap to remind us, we can be reminded by tzitzit, braided or not, and even by the braid of our challah or the braid in our children’s hair, that we are all connected and that our physical, spiritual and temporal worlds must be one as G-d is One.