Ki Tissa

an earlier post from 2013 given another airing


“And it came to pass, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tables of the testimony in his hand, that Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while God talked with him. And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face sent forth beams; and they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34:29-30)

When Moses was in the presence of God that time on the mountain, something happened to him that was, quite literally transformative. Beams of light radiated from the skin of his face as he descended the mountain. The word used for the beam of light – “karan”- is connected to a word we are more familiar with – “Keren”, meaning a horn. The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the bible followed Jerome, one of the Church Fathers, who had misunderstood…

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Purim: by telling ourselves stories we can open up a world of choices, or “is it bashert or is it what I do”

The book of Esther, the foundational text for the minor post biblical festival of Purim, is riddled with ambiguities and ambivalences, allusions and opacities, and we are uncomfortably aware that the text is a constant tease of hidden and revealed, covered and discovered, secret and known. Even the name of the eponymous heroine, Esther, comes from a Hebrew root that means concealment. Yet Esther is also related to the word for a star, which shines brightly under the right conditions.

The themes of concealment and revelation are constantly played with – God is never mentioned in the book, yet clearly God is at work here – and there are many other examples. Mordechai overhears a plot to kill the king from his hidden place and brings it to official attention;  Esther is constrained in the harem yet is able to influence the royal policy;  Vashti chooses to remain enclosed when ordered to reveal her beauty in public; , Mordechai’s act is recorded at the time but not revealed and rewarded till much later, the almost playful peek-a-boo of now you see it now you don’t is a thread that runs through the story,  our peripheral vision catching it momentarily as it disappears when we try to look straight at it.

Perhaps the most extraordinary “now you see it now you don’t” moment is in the interchange between Mordechai and Esther, carried on through the medium of Hatach, one of the king’s eunuchs. Mordechai sends word of everything that has happened with regard to the decree against the Jews, and tells Esther she must go to the king to make supplications on behalf of her people. Esther’s response via Hatach is that everyone knows that to approach the king in the innermost (hidden) courtyard without being invited is to risk certain death, and she has not been called to the king in thirty days.

We are right at the centre of the book – almost exactly at the centre in terms of the number of verses – as Mordechai answer’s Esther’s anxious justification for her inability to help. His answer is three fold. First he reminds her that she will not be safe either, even though she is in the harem. Secondly he tells her that the Jewish people will not be destroyed as help will most certainly come from another source if she continues to be inactive, and finally he asks a rhetorical question of her – could it be that this moment is the moment of destiny her life has been leading up to?

“Then Mordecai asked them to return his answer to Esther: ‘ Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:13-14)

It is an extraordinary speech and it raises many questions for us too. The first is a reminder that should we try to keep our heads down and not resist injustice on the grounds that we may survive a toxic political climate by keeping our presence shadowy and not attracting attention to ourselves is a folly and a false position. One need only think of the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller castigating the German intellectuals for their silence in the face of rising Nazi power:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Or the quotation famously attributed to the political philosopher Edmund Burke that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing”, reframed by Albert Einstein as “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.”

The second assertion is a classical theological position that God will never abandon the Jewish people, even though at times it may appear that God is silent, uncaring, absent, or even chas v’chalila apparently allowing Jewish suffering at this time for some particular purpose. This is a deeply problematic area in theology, not least because of the deep suffering during the Shoah, and while the idea of ‘hester panim, the face of God is concealed from us”  may be rooted in the words of such books as the prophet Isaiah, so that the act of God concealing God’s face is understood as a way of God punishing disobedient subjects, by far the prevailing Jewish sentiment is that of Job:  God may appear to be distant and God’s face hidden from us, but as Martin Buber writes, “a hiding God is also a God who can be found”.

So while the Jews were facing a terrible crisis throughout the empire, Mordechai knew and asserted that relief would come, that God would turn towards them and help them, that even if Esther failed to deliver the liberation, the Jewish people would still prevail.  “Relief and deliverance will arise from a different place”.

The third statement is probably the most challenging for us, the question Mordechai asks Esther “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” This is a formulation of the idea of having a destiny, a preordained role in life, something which can be found in expressions of folk religions, but which comes dangerously close to encroaching on our freedom of will, freedom of choice.

The Talmud tells us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” reminding us of our absolute freedom of will and our own absolute responsibility for our actions. We are entirely free to make our own choices, God has no power over this.

So Mordechai questioning Esther with the veiled suggestion that her destiny has led her to be in such a position, able to make a difference to the experience of the Jewish people, is problematic and in need of our attention. Can she have been destined for this moment?

Many of us like to think that there is a plan in the world, that the universe is not random and our existence in it not merely incidental and accidental.  We like to locate ourselves in something that has meaning; we like to tell ourselves stories to make sense of our life and our choices.

Judaism is predicated on the freedom of will, but still our narratives contain hints of ways to try to understand the mind of God. Decision-making involving the casting of lots (goralim) is mentioned 77 times in the biblical narrative:- in the story of the scapegoat, in the allocation of tribal territories  once the people enter the land of Israel, described both before in the book of Numbers and after in the book of Joshua. Lots are cast in the books of Chronicles to divide the priestly work, in Jonah to decide who is responsible for God sending the storm, and are mentioned in both Psalms and Proverbs as well of course of the famous ‘purim’ cast in the book of Esther to decide a favourable date.  One might also argue that the Urim and Thumim found in the breastplate of the High Priest in the book of Exodus were artefacts of divination to understand the will of God (Exodus 28:30), though they did not always seem to give a certainty, as King Saul found (Sam 28:6) and their use seems to have ended by the early days of the monarchy and the advent of the prophetic tradition.

One of the things that makes us human is our need for storytelling. We are generally uncomfortable with an entirely random context, with the idea that only arbitrary luck brought us into being, of there being no framework of meaning supporting our existence. So we tell ourselves stories to support our choices and those stories in turn become our inner dialogue and shape what we think is possible or justifiable.

Whether we frame our stories in quasi-religious or in historical or political language, we hold these narratives dear because they explain us to ourselves.  In the words of the less than conventionally religious Jewish thinker Karl Marx “[people] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”

We make our choices in life, but these choices are shaped by our context, by how we understand ourselves and our history and how we got to be in the place we are. Whether it is because we believe in something to be ‘bashert’ – (our destiny somehow gifted from God), or whether we consider that the decision making is ours alone, we still tell stories around how we come to our choices, we allow our internal narratives to shape us, to help form what we think and to give us the courage to act. Whether because we believe God is guiding us or we believe that history and context have privileged us;  whether we can tell ourselves it will all be alright because somewhere there is a plan, or we can tell ourselves that if we fail it is because of the randomness of luck, each of us holds to the thread of meaning we tell ourselves is our truth.

One of the questions that arises from Mordechai’s question to Esther is one we  might sometimes ask of ourselves. “Do we feel that our lives have been organised to bring us to a moment of critical action or decision making?”  And if so, what are the things we feel ourselves put on the earth to do? Or maybe to change the perspective slightly – do we feel, looking back on our lives so far, that our existence has impacted positively on the world around us in any way, that we have done things of which we are proud, that are something uniquely ours to have achieved?

Mordechai tells Esther that her not acting will not save her, nor will her inaction change the thrust of history into the future – the Jews will be saved by some means or other, and he introduces to her then that the choice of whether she acts or does not act is in the context of a story she can tell herself – that maybe God has put her in this place where she can risk a meeting with the King in order to try to save her people. This is a powerful pivot in the story that speaks also to us. Our choices cannot be made on the basis of trying to survive a hostile power by keeping a low profile. We need to make choices actively, and there will be consequences that are contingent on our choices. Knowing that, what is important is the story we tell ourselves to confirm or justify the choices we make.

What are the stories that we tell ourselves? The narrative of Jewish persecution and survival is a strong one in our tradition, embodied in many of our festivals with the rather tongue in cheek “they tried to kill us off, they failed, let’s eat”.  Yet alongside this celebration is the remembrance of the  pain and the fear of our history – we look around us to see from where an attack may come, worry about our own likely responses.  We see ourselves as modern, western, education, integrated citizens of our countries, at the same time as identifying with an ancient and particular tradition that encourages a different set of perspectives.  We understand that history rolls on, that our actions may affect its particular course but not its ultimate progression. Our internal story telling may give us the courage to act in a particular way, it may allow us to justify ex post facto the choices we made and our actions or inactions, our beliefs shape how we see the world and help us to imagine a different one.  We toy with the dynamic interface between free-will and destiny, and nowhere in bible is that so clear as in Mordechai’s threefold response to Esther. We must act in the world, we must understand that our actions are neither  ultimate or irrevocable, but we are not free to hide away from making those choices.

Our tradition has always given us a helping set of stories so that we can construct a narrative that will support our choices. Be it Hillel haZakein who told us “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” or Rabbi Tarfon who taught “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” we know the imperative is to act to make the world a better place for our being in it.  In the words again of Hillel haZakein, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. go and learn.”







The interface between God and human beings is fraught with potential both creative and destructive. It is uncharted territory where we wander, sometimes alone and sometimes with companions and while we might pay attention to the stories told by those who have more recently gone before us, our constant and most useful guide is Torah.

Torah teaches us the boundaries others have met, the pathways our predecessors have taken, gives us a glimpse into what we might be looking out for.

To some extent, we could call Torah a manual for those who wish to undertake a spiritual journey. But it is a limited manual. It offers no guarantees about reaching the desired destination, it offers some advice sketches out some road signs and extends the hope that as others have done, then so maybe can I.

This limited manual can be a great comfort, but it also creates many problems for us. We have a desire to know “how to do it”, we want to be told that if we behave in a certain way we will reach such-and-such a place. We often want to have concrete guidelines like all those recipe books and television programmes that state very clearly “if you follow my instructions you will have a perfect cake every time”. Increasingly I am asked how to do something or is something allowed or forbidden, not out of curiosity and a genuine need to explore, but because people are seeing religion as the repository of the skills needed to achieve – or rather they are seeing rabbis and priests as the people who hold the secret and can either open or close the door to God.

There is a second problem in modernity – we have forgotten how religious language works, we are so goal centred we pay too little attention to the process, we have lost understanding of symbolic language and our sensitivity to metaphor and allegory is blunted in our need for certainty. The chain of tradition in which generations told the stories they had heard from their ancestors and fed their descendants with the ‘hiddushim’ the innovations they had found, has been disrupted and dislocated. The multiple varieties of ways to understand the torah text that can be seen in Midrash, in the aggadic texts recorded in Talmud, in the rabbinic commentaries on bible and on each others works – they might be recorded but their meaning is often either misunderstood or completely lost.

I am not talking here about the knowledge of Hebrew – indeed there are certainly many more people fluent in the language alive now than ever before – but rather about the understanding of religious process, of symbols and thought processes and of whole concepts that unspokenly underpinned the midrashic and aggadic texts .

Rather than admit to ourselves that our understanding is weakened, it seems to me that we have created structures that make sense to our modern minds and our need to know the recipes, and we try to ignore or dismiss the rest of our tradition as being archaic or irrelevant or magical thinking.

So how does one get back into the living meaning of Torah in order to be able to delve deeper into our spiritual search and come closer to the God who revealed Godself with such clarity to our ancestors that it seemed they were meeting almost face to face.

One way certainly is through studying the Hebrew text, examining the original words both with and without the overlay of rabbinic commentaries in order to reveal the clusters of meanings that are embedded in those words.

Another way is to personalise the text, to find its echoes resonating within our own souls and to extend the meanings into our own experience.

In traditional rabbinic exegesis, these two methods go hand in hand, creating a dynamic and relevant understanding of Torah, to help us use the ‘guide book’ in our own spiritual journey.

Sidra Tetzaveh is, on the surface, a continuation of the instructions about the Mishkan, the physical structure erected by the Israelites in the desert as a constant symbol and reminder of the presence of God.  There are instructions about the building followed by the details of the priestly garments, the anointing of the priests and the offerings they are to bring.

The challenge is to find the relevance to us – progressive Jews who have given up the special status of the Cohanim, who have a real revulsion against animal sacrifice, who have expunged the prayers for its return and for the return of the Temple with all of its offerings, hierarchies and structures from our prayer books.

The relevance to us can be found once we begin to look past the minutiae of the detail of the ritual and let the text speak to us. We are dealing here with the creation of symbols that speak of the presence of God and of the boundaries that will prevent us from getting too close to a power that could overwhelm us so that we lose our own self. We are looking at creating a conduit, to find ways to relate to God. And this is an age old problem every generation must address.

In Sidra Tetzaveh we see the making of a structure that will operate through time and space, connecting the outer world and the inner one, involving both action and prayer, uniting us as one people while at the same time connecting each one to God. It was a structure for its time, one we can hardly comprehend, yet we continue to read it because it has things to teach us still.

The verse which begins the sidra “v’ata tetzaveh et b’nei Yisrael, v’yikhu elecha shemen zayit zach katit l’maor leha’a lot ner tamid”  You shall command the children of Israel that they will bring pure beaten olive oil for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually” is an important one for us. Each of us has a responsibility to keep alight a ner tamid, a continually burning light. Each of us has the responsibility to do it for ourselves, to keep a spark alive in our own souls and our own lives.

The ner tamid in a synagogue is usually explained as being a symbol of the continuing presence of God, and we have taken the idea of externalising it by having one in every synagogue, hanging over the Ark. A light is kept burning in every synagogue to be an outward sign of the light that is burning in every Jewish soul.

Sometimes the symbolism can take on a new and even painful dimension – I remember hearing a survivor of the Shoah, Hilda Schindler, describe how after Kristallnacht in Berlin she saw the ner tamid of the Fasanenstrasse Synabobe burning brightly on the ground.

There are other symbols in this sidra – the anointing and ordaining of the priesthood whose special task is to take care of the boundaries between the Jews and God, and whose economic and functional dependence on the Israelites only points up their special task rather than diminish it – a task that we now have in our own homes and study houses. There is the focus on the garments of the High Priest, on which we model the clothes for the Sefer Torah, and so once again remind ourselves that people and objects can function at the interface of God and humanity.

Our texts speak in many languages in order to make their meaning available to us. It is improper of us to try to distil down the lessons, to accept that there is only one accepted meaning that is taught by someone else and should not be challenged. The beauty of traditional Judaism and the beauty of contemporary progressive Judaism is that we have refused to join in the process of passively accepting the judgements of others.

My first synagogue President, Mervin Elliot z”l used to say that for us Reform Jews tradition had a vote but not a veto. I liked the pithiness of the language when I first heard it,  but now some thirty years later I appreciate more the acceptance of the past and the willingness to explore the present and the future that is embedded in it.

When we come across texts like those in Tetzaveh we can either treat them like a manual or recipe book, decide that those people who are descendants of the Cohanim must have some special power and role that we cannot decipher, and walk away from the challenges of how we build the bridges and the protective structures whereby we can come close to God in this day and age. Or we can take up the challenge, see a product of its time have something that can speak to us today, transmuted perhaps or extended or even echoed, and create the Judaism that does the same work today that the mishkan and priesthood did in biblical times.  We can remind ourselves that we are supposed to be (as we read only a few chapters earlier) “a nation of priests and a holy nation”. Each of us can take on the role, keep alight the ner tamid in our own places and lives, and find that each of us has something to teach, each of us has something to offer the community, each of us protects and nurtures the spark of divine in the world.

(sermon given 2017 lev chadash)

Terumah – the riddle of the cherubim

“Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover.  Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Testimony that I will give you. There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:16-22)

וְעָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם מִשְּׁנֵ֖י קְצ֥וֹת הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃ וַ֠עֲשֵׂה כְּר֨וּב אֶחָ֤ד מִקָּצָה֙ מִזֶּ֔ה וּכְרוּב־אֶחָ֥ד מִקָּצָ֖ה מִזֶּ֑ה מִן־הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת תַּעֲשׂ֥וּ אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֖ים עַל־שְׁנֵ֥י קְצוֹתָֽיו׃ וְהָי֣וּ הַכְּרֻבִים֩ פֹּרְשֵׂ֨י כְנָפַ֜יִם לְמַ֗עְלָה סֹכְכִ֤ים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם֙ עַל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת וּפְנֵיהֶ֖ם אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו אֶל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת יִהְי֖וּ פְּנֵ֥י הַכְּרֻבִֽים׃ וְנָתַתָּ֧ אֶת־הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת עַל־הָאָרֹ֖ן מִלְמָ֑עְלָה וְאֶל־הָ֣אָרֹ֔ן תִּתֵּן֙ אֶת־הָ֣עֵדֻ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶתֵּ֖ן אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנוֹעַדְתִּ֣י לְךָ֮ שָׁם֒ וְדִבַּרְתִּ֨י אִתְּךָ֜ מֵעַ֣ל הַכַּפֹּ֗רֶת מִבֵּין֙ שְׁנֵ֣י הַכְּרֻבִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־אֲרֹ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֑ת אֵ֣ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֧ר אֲצַוֶּ֛ה אוֹתְךָ֖ אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

I have always loved cherubs. It is a love I inherited from my grandmother who had several decorating her homes.  And I too occasionally add to my own collection of sweet faced plump winged babies.

But the cherubim of bible should not be viewed as these somewhat kitsch figures – we do a great disservice to the text to fall into this cosy view.

We first meet the cherubim in the book of Genesis at the denouement of the second creation story: “God drove the human out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen 3:24 )

וַיְגָ֖רֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים וְאֵ֨ת לַ֤הַט הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים׃ (ס)

Their purpose is to prevent the human beings gaining access back into the garden and eating from the tree of life, something that we know will mean humanity acquiring  eternity, a characteristic of the divine that is denied to mortals.

Wherever the cherubim appear we are in sacred space. While the word appears almost a hundred times in the Hebrew bible, we know very little about them except for the fact they were winged. How many wings seems to be unclear – it varies in different descriptions. Sometimes they are clearly representational figures such as in Solomon’s Temple, at other times God flies in the skies, carried by the cherubim.

“In the Shrine he [Solomon]  made two cherubim of olive wood, each 10 cubits high. [One] had a wing measuring 5 cubits and another wing measuring 5 cubits, so that the spread from wingtip to wingtip was 10 cubits;  and the wingspread of the other cherub was also 10 cubits. The two cherubim had the same measurements and proportions:  the height of the one cherub was 10 cubits, and so was that of the other cherub.  He placed the cherubim inside the inner chamber. Since the wings of the cherubim were extended, a wing of the one touched one wall and a wing of the other touched the other wall, while their wings in the centre of the chamber touched each other.  He overlaid the cherubim with gold.”   These are huge figures, over twenty feet high, with matching enormous wingspans, dominating the inner chamber. Yet we know them to be olive wood, representations – but of what? And to what purpose? Will God speak to the people from above them?

The most famous depiction of the cherubim is that of Ezekiel, who was among those sent into exile with the king in 597BCE (see 2K 24:14-16) At a body of water he calls the Nehar Kevar, (the Kevar canal) he has a vision. This canal appears to be the area in Babylonia where the exiled Jews were settled and is separately documented in Akkadian literature. He documents part of his vision thus:

“The cherubs ascended; those were the creatures that I had seen by the Kevar Canal. Whenever the cherubs went, the wheels went beside them; and when the cherubs lifted their wings to ascend from the earth, the wheels did not roll away from their side. When those stood still, these stood still; and when those ascended, these ascended with them, for the spirit of the creature was in them. Then the Presence of the Eternal left the platform of the House and stopped above the cherubs.  And I saw the cherubs lift their wings and rise from the earth, with the wheels beside them as they departed; and they stopped at the entrance of the eastern gate of the House of the Eternal, with the Presence of the God of Israel above them.  They were the same creatures that I had seen below the God of Israel at the Kevar Canal; so now I knew that they were cherubs.” Ezekiel 10:15-20

Now it is well known in ancient near eastern mythologies – and even in later western ones –  that the divine being rides some kind of chariot pulled by some types of mythic beasts, and I am certain that the cherubim of the bible must have their origin within even older mythologies.   But that doesn’t really explain their presence in our sacred space, using their wings in some kind of protective way, guarding the area between God and us – for God is often depicted as being seated above the cherubim (for example Hezekiah’s prayer recorded in the book of Isaiah speaks of God “enthroned above the Cherubim”

There is no sense of the cherubim being in any way angelic or quasi divine in the Hebrew bible, they fulfil no role in bridging the space between us and God. They simply are there, figures beyond which we cannot see or go.  The idea of their being in some way angelic comes in later commentaries , so while both Rashi and Ibn Ezra see nothing angelic in the cherubim, the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 21 suggests that they were beings who were created on the third day, with no definite shape or form, while the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu (10th century) believes them to have been part of the group created before the beginning of our world., Bachya ben Asher  in 14th century Spain also believes they are angels but intriguingly he has a reason – it is important to believe in angels because prophecy can only happen through the mediation of an angel, and given that the God speaks to Moses from above the cherubim, these must logically be angels. There are two of them above the ark, to make clear that they are not the image of the one God.

So while there is much speculation about what the Cherubim might be, their connection to the mythic beasts of other traditions – gryphons or sphinxes, centaurs or Assyrian Lamassu, or the way they may have segued into Judaism from the Akkadian winged bulls the kirubu or the shedim that guarded palaces– the reality is, as is often the case, hidden in the past. So by the time of the Talmud it is clear that no one knew much about the cherubim.  There are several discussions recorded including the one found in Chagigah 13b

“What is the meaning of “cherub”? Rabbi Abbahu said: Like a baby [keravya], for in Babylonia they call a baby ravya. Rav Pappa said to Abaye: However, if that is so, what is the meaning of that which is written: “The first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle”? The face of a cherub is the same as the face of a man; what is the difference between them? He replied: The difference is that the face of a man is referring to a large face, whereas the face of a cherub means the small face of a baby.”

It is from this and other passages that the elision from guardian of the divine mystery to cupid-like plump baby boy has occurred, and we have stopped really asking ourselves about the purpose of the cherubim in the Hebrew bible.

Clearly the cherubim serve God, and clearly too they provide a barrier or boundary between the sacred and the mundane; they prevent us from coming to close to the mystery.

But what do they represent to us? What function do they have? We assume that God does not need the protection the cherubim provide, so are they there to protect us?

There is a wonderful, almost transgressive piece in Talmud about the cherubim and what they were doing.

“Rav Ketina said: When the Jewish people would ascend for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, the priests would roll up the curtain for them and show them the cherubs, which were clinging to one another, and say to them: See how you are beloved before God, like the love of a male and female. The two cherubs symbolize the Holy One, Blessed be God, and the Jewish people.” (Yoma 54a)

Throughout the tradition there is a thread which asks – what do the cherubim say to us, what are they symbolising?

Rav Ketina stretches the point of the almost to breaking in order to teach that the two figures which are touching at the wingtips, (and whose spreading wings as described in the Exodus passage above, uses a phrase also used as a euphemism for sex elsewhere in bible).  So he posits that the two figures looking at each other, touching each other, are symbolic of God and Israel, entwined in a relationship of love. (Even more unusual of course is the idea that the people got to see the cherubim but that is for another day.)

Later commentators take up the male-female balance of the cherubim explicated by Rav Ketina and suggest that this is not symbolising God and Israel, but reminding us of the imperative to have children and create the next generation.

There are other suggestions as to what the cherubim might symbolise – different attributes of God, mercy and justice, the importance of contact with the other, teacher and pupil, study partners, the mystical world and the world we can know, the bringing close and the keeping of boundaries…..

The text tells us that the cherubim are shielding the cover of the ark with their outstretched wings and they are facing each other and also looking slightly downwards at the cover. To me it is an image of a partnership of protection and support. There is something enveloping about those wings creating a space within them as they touch each other, rather as an adult holds a baby, or a comforter holds the comforted, or lovers hold each other close. The fact that they are both gazing towards the thing they are holding, and their faces are turned towards each other adds to the sense of intention. These are no guards to keep away the people seeking God, no fearsome bouncers keeping us out of sacred space, but protective and nurturing figures, taking care of a precious object. Rather like their parallel the Sphinx, they pose a riddle for the traveller, a riddle whose answer is firmly human focused.

They are not angels, but they prefigure what will be as religion becomes institutionalised, and we have to ask ourselves how will we nurture the word of God in our time and space? How will we show love? How will we communicate? How will we see the other who is just like us but who is not us? How will we protect the sacred and yet allow the word of God to come into the world?

The questions implied and threaded through the appearance of the cherubim almost one hundred times in our bible are questions that challenge us. They ask how God is brought into our world, and each one of us is part of the answer.




Mishpatim: speaking to us today to remind us to take care of the strangers who live amongst us

Introduced in this sidra, and threaded through the rest of the biblical text is a commandment so contemporary and relevant it is as if we can still hear the air vibrate with the divine voice. Here in parashat Mishpatim we are reminded not once, but twice, not to oppress or wrong the stranger:

וְגֵ֥ר לֹֽא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: כא כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן: כב אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַֽעֲקָתֽוֹ:

And a stranger you will not wrong, neither shall you oppress them; for you  were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry” (Exodus 22:20-22)

 וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:

“And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (23:9)

This commandment is the subject of much commentary – not least the number of times it appears in the biblical text.

In the Babylonian Talmud we are told:

“It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: Why did the Torah warn against [wrongdoing] the proselyte in thirty-six, or as others say, in forty-six, places?  Because he has a strong inclination to evil. What is the meaning of the verse, You shall neither wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt?

It has been taught: Rabbi Nathan said: Do not taunt your neighbour with the blemish you yourself have (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b)

Thirty six or forty six repetitions of the warning against wronging a stranger – it is an extraordinary marker of something the biblical tradition holds dear – and a reminder of course that wronging strangers must be something easy to do in any society or the bible and later traditions would not feel the need to hammer home the point.

The reasons given in bible are generally either that having been oppressed ourselves we should take care not to put others into that position because we know the pain of it (remember that you were slaves in Egypt), or that God cares in particular for the vulnerable – and the stranger is repeatedly part of a list that includes the widowed and the orphaned, those with no family or economic security to support them. And both of these are powerful aspirations – that we, who know the pain of being an outsider should not make others outsiders, and that our society must be structured to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and supported, that we should not expect God to do what is our obligation. We see ourselves as doing God’s work when we treat other human beings with dignity and respect, seeing God in them as our shared Creator, and it is telling that there is no blessing formula for our doing this kind of holy work – no beracha thanking God for the commandment, it is meant to be so ingrained in us that it has shaped our very identity.

Post biblical commentators explain this imperative to not wrong a stranger, to care for the vulnerable who are living amongst us, in a number of ways commensurate with their own context. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus, living in oppressive times under Roman rule while the second temple was destroyed and society was fractured and fractious, was concerned that should we treat the strangers amongst us badly they would turn on us and damage us – hence the “strong inclination to evil”.  For Rabbi Nathan of Babylon, who live a generation or so later, the issue was more that the Jewish people were likely to see in strangers things they recognised – and disliked – in themselves and would therefore externalise and reject their own attributes.

Rashi in eleventh century France, seeing the early crusaders sweep through in order the cleanse their society of others, suggests to us that the verse “for you were strangers” is there to remind us that if we hurt the strangers living amongst us they may also denounce and hurt us by reminding ourselves and others that we too are descended from strangers – a “blemish” we share with more modern immigrants by being foreign in the land we are living in.

And the Ramban (Nachmanides) who lived in 13th century Spain, a gentle character most of whose life was untroubled by political upheaval – at least until the disputation of Barcelona when he was already in his seventies – focuses differently on this commandment, saying “Do not oppress the stranger because you think he has no one to defend him; remember how Pharaoh learned that God defends the stranger. God is the shield of the oppressed, the one who sees the tears of those who have no one else to give them comfort. God will save every person from the hands of those stronger than he. God will always hear the cries of the widow and the orphan, the pleas of those who have no one upon whom to rely except their Father in Heaven”

Each of us reads bible in the context of our own experiences, but each of us must take note that there is a particular obligation on us to care for the vulnerable amongst us, be they our own people who have fallen on hard times and who need our support (the widowed and the orphaned) or be they strangers who have come to live alongside us in the land: (The ger). We may tell ourselves different narratives about this obligation, but we must honour it in action. We might remember that Abraham was an Ivri – from across the river – who introduced himself to the people of Het as a resident alien among them, we might see the pain of Moses who called one of his sons Gershon (ger-sham) because he was a stranger among the people he was living with and found it most painful when he had a child away from his own people. We might recognise that we are like the stranger, even if we are settled and they are not. We might recognise the spark of the divine in every human being. We might respond to the ethics of caring for the vulnerable, the orphan, widow and foreigner, or feel the gaze of God on us asking us to do what we know to be the right thing

We might notice that each of these are somehow cut off from their roots, less supported by family than the rest of us, with less available family around them for whatever reason. Indeed Ibn Ezra, himself forced to leave Spain and wander for much of his later life when the incoming Almohad regime began to persecute the Jews, commented on our verse that “The reason for the prohibition ‘You shall not wrong a stranger’ (Exodus 22:20)…is that he has no family roots”

All of which is to say that the normal human desire to create a group of like-people around oneself, to isolate oneself from strangers and  to ignore them, to build a society which excludes them, is known to bible and is firmly disapproved of. Time and again we are warned, reminded, instructed – care for the vulnerable, in particular those who need help, in particular those without a structure to support them, in particular the widow, orphan and foreigner who are trying to survive right by you.

So it is possibly not surprising when one reads that most of Europe is doing all it can to keep the great wave of migration away, to turn its back on the frightened, the poor, the victims of warring groups, the homeless, the desperate. Not surprising, but not acceptable either. And when Israel, a land created by Jews whose historical narrative has been the despised outsider since the fall of the second temple – when Israel behaves without the Derech Eretz, without the ethical and judicial imperatives to look after strangers, it is time for Jews all over the world to step up and remind our people of the most common commandment in Bible, and the obligation to obey it.

Israel was one of the first signatories of the UN convention on Refugees in 1951 and committed herself to making the asylum process and painfree and humane as possible.

Today there are about thirty eight thousand Africans seeking refuge in Israel, who have come mainly from the war torn areas of Sudan and Eritrea. They live mainly in South Tel Aviv. About five thousand children are in this group, and about seven thousand women. The conditions are not good, they are crowded and the local population is also economically and socially vulnerable. The situation has been allowed to spiral so that competition between the different populations means that there is less work, higher rents, little sense of community and enormous pressure on all the people.

Because of a Supreme Court judgment that Israel, which recognises it cannot send the people back to certain danger, can instead send them to a ‘neutral’ third country (understood to be Rwanda or possibly Uganda), the pressure to deport the refugees with their ‘consent’ is growing with a financial incentive to get them to leave or the threat of jail if they refuse.

Asylum applications are complicated and often the paperwork gets lost in the system, so of the approximately fourteen thousand applications filed, only eleven Sudanese and Eritrean refugees have been accepted, with about six thousand refused and the rest lost in the system.

Israel takes pride in being a Jewish state, which means it should be based on Jewish values. The present government is simply ignoring these values. But  the Jewish people are not ignoring these values and many groups are doing their best to change the policy of Government to better align with the most frequent exhortation in bible – love your neighbour as yourself, care for the vulnerable, treat the stranger with the same law as the home born – however you frame it, wherever you delve into the biblical text,  this is our core religious activity.

Jews outside of Israel are protesting to the Government in many ways. Haaretz just reported   After thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya to protest the deportation of asylum seekers from Israel to the African country, thousands more joined them in protest outside Rwandan missions around the world in over a dozen cities….Michael Sfard, a Tel Aviv–based human rights lawyer who represents victims of civil rights violations, told the crowd he is ashamed that his own government “does not live up to the lessons that should have been learned from our own history, from our own collective biography.”

Rabbis for Human Rights are educating and among the activists – see

Rabbi Susan Silverman is leading a call to hide asylum seekers facing forced deportation,

Other Jewish and Israeli human rights organisations are focussing on helping – such as

The Hotline for Migrants and Refugees   protects the rights of refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking

CIMI      the Centre for International Migration and Integration, has been leading a campaign to adopt and advocate young people who first arrived in Israel as unaccompanied minors, among other work to help integrate migrants.

The Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement (Miklat Israel),  is an initiative to hide asylum seekers slated for deportation in private homes. Rabbis and holocaust survivors are among the people providing such sanctuary

עוצרים את הגירוש a grassroots effort to stop the impending deportations through disseminating information, protests, and social media campaigns.  Right Now! Advocates for  for Asylum Seekers in Israel and is running an advocacy campaign abroad.

“You shall not turn over a slave who seeks refuge with you. He shall live with you in any place he may choose, within one of your gates. You must not mistreat him” – Deuteronomy 23:16-17.

Let me finish with a text from Sefer haChinuch, an anthology of the mitzvot from 13th century Spain:

“It is for us to learn from this precious commandment to take pity on any man who is in a town or city that is not his native ground and site of the family of his fathers.  Let us not maltreat him in any way, finding him alone, with those who would aid him quite far from him – just as we see that the Torah adjures us to have compassion on anyone who needs help.  With these qualities we will merit to be treated with compassion by the Eternal God Be He blessed”



photo taken from internet Jewish Chronicle page reporting the story Students and teachers protest against the deportation of African asylum seekers, Tel Aviv, January 24, 2018 Photo: Flash 90

Ki HaAdam Etz Ha’Sadeh – human beings and trees, or “none of us thrive uprooted”

In the book of Deuteronomy in a passage describing the rules for besieging a city we find a curious phrase: “When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field human, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, those you may destroy and cut down, that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with thee, until it fall.” (20:19-20)

It begins with the prohibition against destroying trees, and clarifies that the trees to be protected are those that bear edible produce, but within the arc we find the phrase “ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” and this has always been a verse that has resonated for me far beyond the rules prohibiting scorched earth policies in war. It can be read either as a question or as a statement of truth, either “Are trees of the field [like] human beings?” or “Human beings are [like] trees of the field”

Trees are everywhere in bible, sometimes for good, sometimes less so. Abraham enters the land from Haran via Shechem and arrives at Elon Moreh (the terebinth (oak) tree of Moreh, he  is encamped under the terebinth of Mamre when God comes to him to tell him Isaac will be born, Deborah the nurse of Rebecca is buried under a terebinth tree,   Jacob buries the household idols of Laban under a terebinth, Deborah sits and judges under a palm tree, David fights Goliath in the valley of the Elah (terebinth), Hosea describes idolaters as worshiping at various trees – “They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and offer upon the hills, under oaks and poplars and terebinths, because the shadow thereof is good;

The Israelite religion valued trees but had an uneasy relationship with them insofar as the hated and dominant Canaanite tradition was one of tree worship. The mother goddess Asherah was associated with sacred trees,  Asherah/Asherim  are  described more than thirty times in the biblical narrative as being a cult centred on a pole or stylised tree, or else a sacred grove of trees. It was to be feared and to be rooted out.

And then of course there are famous trees right at the beginning of the biblical narrative – those planted in the Garden of Eden, not only those whose fruit could be eaten, but more particularly the two from which nothing must be taken – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Eternal Life. The trees with which our ambivalence begins.

While the sacred trees of the Asherah/Asherim have been uprooted from the traditions of the biblical Israelite people, we have taken the tree for ourselves –  big time. The candelabrum in the desert tent which transferred to the Temple is modelled on a tree, and botanical terms are used. That candelabrum remains the most ancient symbol of Judaism.  We are used to Torah being described as Etz Hayim, a Tree of Life.  Trees are used in parables and as analogies. Look at Jotham’s use of them to describe the choice of Abimelech as king (Judges 9) or Ezekiel’s use of the cedar and the trees of the field to symbolise Israel and the other nations.  Look at the psalmist who describes the righteous person as like a tree planted by the waters. Wherever you look in bible you can find trees.

So this phrase “Ki Ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” fits into a long and rich tradition and certainly is the subject of a great deal of halachic and aggadic attention and interpretation.

Its plain meanings – the rhetorical question asking whether a tree should pay the price for human greed or stupidity, and the idea that human beings are comparable to trees of the field are both explored, and while for many years I have focused on this as a question which underlies the importance of preserving the fruit trees rather than weaponising them or wasting them in war, this year I found myself niggled into a slightly different direction.

Human beings are [like] trees of the field.

In what way are we like the trees of the field? I think because we put down roots and we reach to the stars. Our roots are hidden away, a complex network of sustaining relationships, anchoring us, holding us to our history, giving us the wherewithal to grow. Our bodies grow, we become a presence in the world that can be fruitful and filled with life. We yearn ever upwards, yet in so doing we can offer shade, shelter, fruit, support to each other. We respond to our environment and we shape our environment.

In the wonderful book “The hidden life of trees” the author Peter Wohlleben writes ““When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you “help” individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbours in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. And there are now a lot of losers in the forest. Weaker members, who would once have been supported by the stronger ones, suddenly fall behind. Whether the reason for their decline is their location and lack of nutrients, a passing malaise, or genetic makeup, they now fall prey to insects and fungi.”

No tree provides everything we need, just as no one person or relationship can provide everything in life:  diversity is important for us. And trees are rarely naturally isolated, even in the biblical desert they generally grow and thrive in groups.  Like trees, we are relational beings, we need each other, we need community.

As the news every day seems to bring yet more stories of those who have been uprooted from their communities because of war and its attendant problems of violence, terror, starvation and chaos, I see how the verse comes alive. Trees are innocent bystanders in war and must be protected. They are the resource from which new society may grow, and to uproot them or damage them may destroy the potential future. As refugees flee into hopeful sanctuary, we know that they are leaving behind a barren landscape where life cannot continue. As refugees enter a new country they bring with them all the possibilities of regeneration, even where despair and terror appears  to have caused irreparable harm – still the hopeful green shoots appear from what looks like the dead stump. People who have been uprooted have lost much more than material possessions – they lose part of their history and much of their future. Their present feels fragile and vulnerable – will they be supported, will they be able to create networks and become part of community, will they be able once more to grow.

As I look at the news stories my heart breaks. Young children alone and scared in Europe, sent by parents desperate to give them a chance at life. Whole families or lone individuals trying to reach safety in rickety boats on treacherous seas.  Victims of trafficking who cannot understand the system which is trying to keep them out. Victims of violence who survive as an act of will. Everyone cut off at the roots, anxiously trying to regrow, to find some shelter and space and sustenance. No one uproots themselves willingly – it is always a final act of desperation.

At Tu b’shevat we celebrate the trees of our land. We plant more, we clear round others so they can reach the light, we mark the new year of life. And this is good, but as the bible reminds us human beings also need what trees need. And so we must find the space for those fleeing the war in their own land to put down roots in ours, help to create the networks of relationships that will support them, give them the wherewithal to flourish. If we protect a material tree from the trauma of war surrounding it, how much more should we be protecting the human being, part of our own family tree, from such trauma.?






Chanukah and Christmas: chocolate coins and presents as we celebrate God in the world

On Tuesday evening Jews all over the world will light chanukiot, the 8 branched candelabra used to celebrate the festival of Chanukah. It commemorates the regaining of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE, and its rededication after the occupying Seleucids had defiled it while imposing Hellenic culture over its empire, prohibiting any other religions.  The story of the successful revolt by a small group of pious Jews against the large military power of its day has a touch of the miraculous, and sure enough the narratives first found in the apocryphal first two Books of Maccabees have evolved in their retelling, well beyond the original event.

The dark threads of the story are eclipsed by the reframing in the Talmud, which saw Chanukah as less of a human story of oppression and guerrilla warfare, and more as a demonstration of the divine presence in history. So today we celebrate the miracle of oil staying alight for 8 days rather than one, and we eat foods cooked in oil and play games of chance that refer to the miracle, we give presents each night and generally make merry with friends and family, and think very little of the origin of the rebellion against assimilation with the dominant power.

The date of Chanukah – 25th Kislev – moves around the calendar a little but is always around Christmas. And the date is not the only similarity. Both are festivals rooted in pagan winter solstice where lighting the surrounding darkness is central. Both use tree symbolism – the Chanukiah is based on the Temple Menorah, which bible describes using botanical terms – clearly a Tree of Life, while Christmas uses evergreens – holly, ivy, fir trees – to proclaim Everlasting Life. Both stories are set in times of oppression – the Seleucid Empire and the Roman one, and both embed hope that human oppression is vanquished by divine activity. Both signal God’s presence in the world and both stories have a mythic quality of redemption.

And there are other similarities. In modern times the minor post-biblical festival of Chanukah has taken on some less wholesome aspects of Christmas in a bid to compete for Jewish attention.  Both now struggle against commercialisation overpowering their religious message, both become overindulgent. On Chanukah the ‘gelt’ that began as a way to give children small change to use when playing dreidl quickly grew into a present every evening, as more assimilated communities noticed the joy that Christmas presents brought. Chocolate coins took over. What can you do when your child looks at all the glittering baubles with awe and desire? The festival marking rejecting the dominant culture has assimilated it perfectly. As my young son said to his friend when discussing their different Decembers – “What? ONLY ONE night of Christmas? Poor you”

 This article first published in the London Evening Standard on 11th December 2017