Tonight’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is focused on the priestly raiments. We learn about the Ephod, the Breastpiece, the robe, a fringed tunic, headdress and sash, the kinds of yarns that are to be used and metals and gems for adornment. There was a whole lot of commentary connected to this Torah partion today with people arguing about whether the priestly dress was white and gold or instead blue and black!
After describing the priestly vestments, the Torah speaks of the method of consecration, of the sacrificial practices that must be performed. Finally, we hear of where God will meet with the priests, in the Tent of Meeting which will be sanctified by God’s presence.
The specifics of the discussion of priestly garments are not directly appropriate to the matters of the day, or perhaps considering the many discussions about the color of that dress, all too appropriate. Yet, the Torah which was taught this afternoon was indeed connected to the priests. It focused on the Priestly Benediction and the hand gesture of the character Spock from Star Trek. The much beloved actor who portrayed Spock, Leonard Nimoy, passed away today at the age of 83.
Leonard Nimoy, who grew up Orthodox in Boston to Ukrainian immigrant parents, helped to bring Jewish ideals into millions of homes through Star Trek. Nimoy, actor, director, photographer, poet, ended up so connected to the character of Spock that he struggled to make his own way. His two autobiographies were entitled, “I am not Spock,” published in 1977 and “I am Spock,” published in 1995.
Star Trek, which debuted September 8, 1966 took on the social issues of the day though a campy sci-fi show set in the distant future. Star Trek challenged numerous social norms from women’s rights, to race, equality and much more. Spock’s character presented and represented several challenges to social norms.
Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, called him the “conscience of Star Trek.” Spock was a vehicle used to bring science and reason to confront human emotional reactions and beliefs. Whenever a prejudice or some aspect of faith impacted a storyline, Spock was there to squash it or to highlight it.
My favorite Spock scene is one from the movie Wrath of Khan. Spoiler alert, I’m going to tell you how the movie ends. Plug your ears if you’d rather not hear.
The ship was crippled and the only way to save it was for Spock to enter a room full of a lethal level of radiation. The doctor discouraged Spock from entering. Spock incapacitated him, entered, and saved the ship along with all those onboard. When Captain Kirk arrived and interacted with Spock as he lay dying, Leonard Nimoy’s character explained himself by saying that, “Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper."
It’s a very Kantian message, based in science and reason.
Star Trek’s real message, however, is in Captain Kirk’s response, the Jewish response, set up by Spock’s statement. It is found in the following movie, “The Search for Spock,” which was directed by Nimoy. In it, the crew takes a great risk to recover Spock’s now resurrected body from "The Genesis Planet," I won’t even bother to comment on the obvious religious overtones of that.
Spock, not remembering what happened, asks Kirk, “Why would you do this?” “Why go through this great risk, put the whole crew at risk, to help me?” Captain Kirk responds with a rabbinical statement, “Because the needs of the one, outweigh the needs of the many.” It is a statement based on Mishnah Sanhedrin, which teaches, “Whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”
Nimoy’s character, Spock, was part of an inter-racial family--well, actually an inter-species family. Spock was part human and part Vulcan. His character and its narrative of nearly five decades of Star Trek episodes and movies about his character, helped people understand mixed-race, multi-cultural, and interfaith families. We followed many story lines about religious rites, cultural stereotypes, discrimination and prejudice. Star Trek taught tolerance and did so significantly through the character of Spock.
Spock showed that geeks could be leaders and helped make science cool. His was a character far ahead of his time, beloved by science fiction fans from the start.
Star Trek’s theme in its early incarnation was “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” The statement was about exploration, about human adventure. In retrospect, it was also what the show did in confronting the accepted ideas of its day. It was bold.
Commander Spock’s character, Start Trek as a show, and Leonard Nimoy throughout his life, went boldly forward and urged us to follow. “Lekh lekha!” Get up and boldly go from where you are used to being and what you are used to having around you. Things are going to change! It was a biblical message. It was the message of the 1960s. It was a Jewish message.
Today, was a day that fans of Star Trek have long dreaded. Leonard Nimoy’s Spock is now truly dead, not to be resurrected in the next movie.
His memory lives on. It was something special today, seeing people all around the world sharing a Jewish sign, the Priestly Benediction, with one another? How meaningful on this day of political argument, of fears of terrorism, of division, that so many offered each other a blessing? “Live long and prosper!”
Leonard Nimoy will always be remembered for his portrayal of the character of Spock, for his on stage portrayal of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, for his love of Judaism and for the many things he taught us all about how to live, to be proud of our Judaism, and to care for one another.
Live long and prosper, my friends. Live long and prosper! Shabbat Shalom.