Rest in Peace, Mr. Spock

 We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most…human.

Thus spoke Captain Kirk, eulogizing his friend, Mr. Spock, near the end of the 1982 film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” His death proved only temporary in the Star Trek universe, of course. Would that we could say the same of Leonard Nimoy, whose expressive eyebrows and subdued delivery brought the character to life over nearly a half-century of television and film. Nimoy died this morning, at home, at the age of 83. Rest in peace, Leib.

Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy

Nimoy’s Jewishness is well-known, and perhaps the best-known expression of that Jewishness is his borrowing of the hand gesture from the duchhenen ritual, when the kohanim stretch their hands forth, spread their fingers, and bless the people: Y’varech’cha Adonai Veishmareicha. May the Lord bless you and keep you. Or, if you will… Live long and prosper.

It was no accident that Spock’s signature gesture felt so Jewish. Nimoy has told the story many times of his desire to play to Spock’s neither-here-nor-there, outsider status. Here he is, in a recent interview:

Spock is an alien wherever he is. Because he’s not Vulcan, and he’s not human. He’s what we used to call a half-breed. Vulcan father, human mother. So he’s not totally at home in the Vulcan culture, not totally accepted in the Vulcan culture, because he’s not totally Vulcan. Certainly not totally accepted in the human culture because he’s part-Vulcan. And that alienation was something that I had learned in Boston. I knew what it meant to be a member of a minority, and in some cases an outcast minority. So I understood that aspect of the character, and I think it was helpful in playing it.

The source of Spock’s alienation was also the source of his greatness. Being a unique mixture of Vulcan logic and human emotion, he was able – most of the time – to live a life of splendid balance (often to great comedic effect, as his hot-headed human colleagues reacted to his unflappable nature). Not as cold and calculating as his Vulcan family, nor as emotive as the humans, he embodied the middle way, the golden mean to which we aspire. As our Tradition (JT Hagiga 2.1) has it: “The path of Torah is a narrow one. To the right is fire; to the left, ice and snow. What do we do? Walk the middle road.” Spock’s middle road allowed him to both sacrifice his lone self for the good of the many – because it was logical – and to say to his Captain, with his last breaths, “I have been, and shall always be, your friend.”

I mention all of this, in the first instance, by way of paying tribute to an actor whose passing is certainly worth noting. But Mr. Spock and his universe also provide us with a helpful way of understanding this week’s parashah, tetzaveh, and particularly the choshen mishpat, the “breastplate of decision” worn by the high priest. That special garment’s design is laid out in the verses in your handout. You’ll see there that the hallmark features of the choshen mishpat were its inclusiveness and its diversity – at least in the context of its times.

From Exodus chapter 28, we read:

You shall make a breastpiece of decision, worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes.

In order for the High Priest to represent the people – all of the people – each tribe needed to be included. Take away one stone, or switch out a sapphire for an extra amethyst, and it’s no longer a choshen mishpat. In order for it to work, everyone needed to be represented.

Well, almost everyone. I’m sure some of you are thinking to yourselves, “what about Jacob’s daughter Dinah?” And you are right to do so. Dinah’s absence from the breastplate of decision is a reminder to us, today, to continue stretching our capacity for welcome and inclusion. We are at our best, as communities, as synagogues, and as societies, when difference is celebrated rather than merely tolerated, or worse, dismissed.

And wasn’t that the beauty of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise? In 1966, this daring series appeared on America’s television screens with its vision of a future in which men and women, black, white, and Asian crewmembers, Russians and Americans, and even a chief science officer who is the product of an interplanetary mixed-marriage, all served together. Future iterations of the series have pushed the boundaries even further, and at least with respect to its vision of diversity, it is fair to say that Star Trek is less and less science-fiction as the years pass. In important ways, it is becoming a reality.

“Becoming a reality.” Obviously, we’re not there yet. If we look back to the days when Kirk and Spock first showed up on our screens, there’s no denying that progress has been made: for women, for people of color, for LGBT people, and others. And still, we know that a world of true inclusion, a world in which everyone counts, remains, unrealized. Our work of tikkun is in good measure that work of inclusion. Our task is to make sure that every jewel finds its place on the breastplate, and every human finds a place to belong.

May this vision come to pass. And may each of you live long, and prosper. Shabbat Shalom.

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