Bamidbar: 15: 37-41
It was a typical Tuesday morning davening at the eight o’clock shacharit minyan. The shaliach tzibur for psukei dezimra, the introductory songs of praise from tehillim, had led the service at a brisk pace, and they were chugging towards shemoneh esrei, the culmination of the morning service, at full steam. It was the usual daily crew at the minyan--around twenty men in the small beit midrash—and since no one had opened the window, it felt a bit humid in the room, one might even say a little pungent. The service had its usual vibe, what one of the congregants might characterize as haimish.
They had just covered their eyes to recite the first verse of Shma and were proceeding through the three paragraphs of the prayer. All of the congregants were immersed in their own recitations. Well, somewhat immersed.
M.K. looked over at his friend L.B. as he said the Shma. He wore a multicolored talit with many stripes and colors. What was it, purple, gold, and orange? Where did he get the minhag to wear such an outlandish talit? His family was German originally. Surely no one in the old country would don a prayer shawl like that. Didn’t he know it should have black stripes, as is traditional? O.K., so some wore blue stripes and some wore black. Still, there’s no reason to go all hippie-dippy . Who knows what motivates people to do what they do?
L.B. looked over at R.S. who was davening in the row in front of him. His talit was the traditional white with black stripes, but one of his fringes was deep blue, dyed with techelet from a snail from Greece called the Murex trunculus in an attempt to revive the use of techelet as is specified in the paragraph on tzitzit in the Torah (hakanaf petil techelet, the corner is a deep blue string). L.B. shook his head in derision. Some people just have to do things their own way. He wouldn’t do that unless the rabbi certified the practice and everyone did it.
R.S. looked up from his siddur for just a moment but caught sight of P.L. clutching his tzitzit against his heart as he said the shma. He looked back down at his siddur but sighed under his breath for just a moment. So ostentatious. Prayer was a personal thing. No one had to see you express your emotions publically. Still, to each his own.
P.L. did not look up from his siddur as he davened, but he couldn’t help hearing J.M. strongly emphasize the pronunciation of the letter “z” in the word tizkeru as he read the paragraph on tzitzit. He knew it was a minhag based on being careful not to say tiskeru, which would mean to profit, and instead to say tizkeru, which would mean to remember. Still, he could say it more quietly. There’s no need to disrupt everyone else’s concentration.
J.M. had let his mind drift during the recitation of the Shma, and before he looked back down at his prayer book he saw D.F. hold his tzitzit fringes out before his eyes while he said the words ure-item otam, and you shall see them. He had never noticed him doing that before. What a funky, outside the box minhag. Still, he wouldn’t start doing it. It wasn’t in his family tradition.
D.F. looked over at S.C. as he davened. When did he start putting his talit over his head when he said Shma? He certainly had changed a lot since they went to high school together. Back then he barely davened, now he was Mr. Pious. But still, it certainly was a good thing, as long as he wasn’t doing it for show.
S.C. turned and looked at the back of the beit midrash and saw H.G. seated in the last row. Late again. Didn’t he understand that he needed to be present for the whole service? Just get up earlier. Didn’t he understand that zrizut makdimin lemitzvot, that you need to perform a mitzvah eagerly, and at the earliest possible time? He looked back at his siddur and continued to recite the Shma.
H.G. sat in the last row of the shul and davened quietly to himself. He had arrived late, thanks to a crying baby and a delayed school bus, but he caught up to the group by the time they started the blessings leading to the Shma. He watched the room of daveners as they proceeded through their daily prayers, as this group did every morning. What a wonderful tapestry of minhagim. Different color talitot with different ataras (neck bands), some plain and some fancy. Some of the group shuckled fervently as they davened, others sat perfectly still. Some kissed their tzitzit like they were lovers while others didn’t gather them in their hands at all. H.G. had no family traditions, as his parents weren’t religious, but sitting in the back of the synagogue watching the members of the congregation each practice his own traditions was like being in a Jewish United Nations.
He thought of the words of the third paragraph of the Shma which teaches the mitzvah of tzitzit. What was the key phrase? Lema-an tizkeru ve-asitem et kol mitzvotai, veheyitem kedoshim le-elokeichem. So that you will remember and you will do all my commandments, and you will be holy to your G-d. Clearly this group was fulfilling this commandment beautifully. And to him, reaching for holiness was what davening was all about.
H.G. felt very inspired. As he looked around the sanctuary, he was confident that everyone else in the room was feeling the same vibe.