Dannemora

June 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

I have spent time inside of a maximum security prison. Not as a convict, of course, but as a chaplain: in my first student pulpit, part of the role included visiting a local “supermax” in Lucasville, Ohio.

Ohio likes to build its prisons in the midst of cow pastures, so the prison looks a bit like the city of Oz in the distance, glinting in the sun, a tangle of barbed wire, guard towers and fences.

And I had no idea what to expect. For the record, getting inside of a supermax as a visitor is about as hard as getting into the Soviet Union during Glasnost, but a little bit easier than getting into an Israeli embassy during the Intifada.

And so, I was thinking about that experience this week as the manhunt continues for two escaped convicts.

The first service I did there was for High Holidays; the prisoners did not particularly connect with the liturgy of repentance and return. The second service I did was an abbreviated Passover seder; the prisoners connected powerfully with the imagery relating to slavery and freedom.

This week, in reading the news articles and opinion pieces about the prison that dominates Dannemora’s landscape, I was thinking of that fact.

One of the pieces that came across my feed this week was written by a former prisoner, speaking of the awfulness of prison itself, and the reasons why these two men would seek to run.

And I was angry at the piece, and a bit surprised at the vehemence of my reaction. Never once did he show any concern for the fate of the victims of these two men – or his own victims, for that matter, the unlucky folks who were on the other side of the gun when he committed the armed robbery that landed him in the New York State system of corrections. My cousin took two weeks off from her job as a bank teller the time she was robbed at gunpoint. These things get under your skin.

What you learn, when you walk into the halls of a maximum-security prison, is that the laws are not entirely fair. It is quite clear that the system has a preferred racial profile.

What you also learn is that the folks who work in corrections live with danger. I was absolutely astonished to discover that I would be walking side-by-side with convicted killers on my way to the chapel. There was, of course, a line on the floor that they were not expected to cross, and there were men with rifles watching at all times. But I still felt very exposed. I mentioned this fact to the chaplain who had greeted me at the door. “It’s been a year since the last riot,” he said, “so it’s probably fine.”

I also know a chaplain who had his shoulder dislocated by a prisoner.

And I know of folks in Cadyville who had to spend the day locked inside of their own houses, by order of the police, for fear of getting caught in the crossfire.

So these were the things on my mind as I read the Torah portion this week, and pondered what it might have to say to us.

First, let us get lost for a moment in the pure joy of understanding a text:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak 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. That 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. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.”

The purpose of the tallit is to serve as the vehicle for the tzitzit, the knotted fringes on the four corners. That’s why there is such variety in the tallit design: it’s the placeholder. The fringes are what’s actually commanded.

Why are the tzitzit usually white if the passage says they must have blue in them? Apparently, the blue dye came from a sea snail that has since gone extinct. I have seen tzitzit in multiple shades of blue, done in the hope that one of the shades would be the right one. But the general ruling is that without the proper dye they should be left white.

The knot pattern itself is distinctive: the most common pattern found in the US is an Ashkenazi style of a double knot, seven spirals, a double knot, eight spirals, a double knot, eleven spirals, a double knot, thirteen spirals, and finally a double knot. There is a Separdic variation in which the spirals loop in on themselves to create a swirling spine down the length of the tassel. Though there are reasons for why that pattern, they all appear to be explanations after the fact. Why that pattern? It just is.

If you go to the Israel Museum, to the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept, you will see an exhibit downstairs of the other items they found alongside the scrolls. One of those items is a tallit, made of white wool with black stripes, with white knotted fringes. It looks remarkably like the traditional tallitot for sale on Ben Yehuda Street today, but for the 2000 years of wear and tear.

In other words, wearing tzitzit is not simply one of the commandments: it is also a practice uniquely our own, one that stretches all the way back to the Biblical period.

But what is the purpose of the tzitzit? Our portion tells us that we should “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.”

We all have lustful urges, the kinds of urges that get us into trouble, big and small.

The basic concept of Jewish practice, explained in its simplest terms is this: if you make a practice of curbing those urges through small observances, it will help you stay on the path of what’s right and good.

The whole process is hard, really hard: our passions swamp us, overtake our brains, and let us get carried away by our emotional response. When that happens, we do stupid things: we ruin relationships and damage lives.

Why do we wear tzitzit, then? To remind us to stay on the right side of the law. To help us train ourselves to do the right thing. To build up a series of good habits that stay with us for a lifetime.

It does not always work, of course; but it is intended to help. “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.”

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