Remembering the plot

“Distractions can be our biggest problem and our lifesaver” a friend said to me this week.   “When considering the news of the day, distractions lead us astray.  Their allure causes us to veer from the essential toward the senseless or idiotic.  Yet after a day’s worth of newsy outrages, it is the distraction than can become our refuge.”

Often, too often, we find ourselves angry, afraid, perplexed, exhausted, or in pain.  What can help such rattling conditions recede?  Recovering our higher purpose.  Reconnecting with our core commitments.  Feeling grounded by values is a more reliable way to regain our balance than is retreating to diversions.

The last words of this week’s portion of Torah restore the plot of our larger story.  “I am God your Lord, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God.  I am God your Lord” (Num. 17:41).  The need to recover the essence of our story is clear.  The failed spy tour of the land caused a forty year detour.  So the portion’s final passage reminds us who God is to us, and of how and why we came into being as a people.

This final passage is better known for enjoining the practice of tying fringes (tzitziot) onto the four quarters of our garments.  Looking upon them reminds us to do sacred deeds (mitzvot).  But this tradition is only applicable during the daylight hours – when, prior to electricity, the fringes were easily visible.  When the sun sets daily on this obligation, nightfall gives rise to the evening service’s only mention of the Exodus (mazkirin ba’lailot) in our passage which forms the final words of the nighttime Shema prayer.   In the darkest night, these words make us certain of the dawn.

After a long day of disturbances that divert us off course, these words can help to restore our sense of purpose.  Once upon a time, they helped God and our People get back on track.  For all time, they can rebalance our ways to help us make better decisions and keep commitments.

As our days get longer this June, may nightfall still prove to be restorative.  May it remind us of the larger plot of our story and the deeper purpose of our lives.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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