Ki Tissa

“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 the difference and so of course artists such as Michelangelo and Donatello who read the texts in Latin, depicted Moses as having horns. And this anti-Semitic stereotype of the devilish Jew has been with us ever since – I can remember one of my childhood rabbis being challenged at a school visit to take off his kippah and show the class the horns that were surely hiding beneath it.

The rays of light that the bible describes are presumably something that distinguished Moses as having had a particularly close encounter with the Divine – they are more often seen as halos or auras in religious paintings from other faith traditions. So it is particularly poignant that this physical sign of Moses’ experience of God became the source of historical racism and ignorance about Jews.

But there is another aspect to this tale that is not well understood and from which we can take a more positive lesson. Moses was entirely unaware that his skin was radiating light as he came down from the mountain. He had been in close communion with God, had been offered for only his descendants to survive, had argued with God, had become violently angry when confronted by the idolatry of the people, had gone once more to God and had spent a very long time creating the second set of the Ten Commandments. He had gone from ecstatic high to terrible low, from great joy to great fury and back; he had been transformed by the journey he had undergone – and he did not know it.

Moses was, we know, a man who felt he would not be a great leader when God approached him at the burning bush. We are explicitly told of him that he was modest. He clearly spent a lot of his time in self-doubt and uncertainty, and that humble self-image was fuelled by the rebellions and mutterings against him of the Israelites. He did not in any was ‘do’ self-aggrandisement. He simply didn’t notice that his skin was radiating great light. And that is the nub of the story – rather like the burning bush which would have taken time and observation in order to see was not being consumed, the truly transformative events are often not the ones we especially notice at the time. And the truly great person gets on quietly and efficiently with the business in hand, rather than brags or boasts or swaggers to make sure everyone else pays enough attention.Image

Parashat Tetzaveh. Shabbat Zachor

 “And it will be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, you shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17)

            So we read on the Shabbat before Purim, the Shabbat when we remember the gratuitous hatred shown to the Children of Israel as they fled from Egypt, echoing the hatred shown by Haman, said to be descended from the Amalakites, and we remember too the gratuitous hatred shown to Jews ever since.

            It is a text which has come to be something of an emblem for Jews – the act of remembering, so sacred to our tradition, is to be used in this one case to blot out the individuals concerned, to erase their names from history.

            As Jews we fear only one thing – we fear disappearing entirely, so that no trace of us is found.  One thinks of Isaiah’s phrase, poignantly taken up by the holocaust remembrance centre in Israel – “I  will give in My house and within My walls a monument and a memorial (yad v’shem) better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off.  (56:5).  Yad v’shem – a hand and a name. 

            Almost everything we do as Jews is in some way about remembering, and what we remember can be linked to two grand themes – Creation and Exodus/Redemption.  All our festivals, whether agricultural in their origins or not, are linked to Creation and to Redemption – think of Pesach, Redemption of our people and Creation of peoplehood.  Shavuot, building on Pesach, brings us the meaning of our Redemption – Torah.  Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the cycle of time, a new start which may yet lead us to Redemption, Yom Kippur helps us leave behind and create again.  Succot is of course Creation led, with the underlying theme that our Redemption can come only from God, Simchat Torah neatly begins with the almost – Redemption of the Jewish people and focuses us again into the Creation story.  Chanukah and Purim, the two post biblical festivals are both about Redemption too, with the possibilities of starting again afresh.

            In our rich and complex Jewish tradition, we constantly and ritually remember the two experiences which mould us – the Creation which we experience newly every day, and the Redemption to which we are committed to work.  We remember where we come from and where we are going to.  That is our most sacred behaviour.  And so it is particularly shocking to be told to remember so as to be sure to erase all memory.

Such an instruction is a creative betrayal of that which we hold most sacred.  Nothing could be more designedly dumbfounding, more completely against our instincts.  Our whole imperative is to remember so as not to lose completely.

            Yet the special reading on Shabbat Zachor, designed to emphasise the response to Purim which will shortly follow, tells us that not everything or everyone should be remembered, that there are certain events the enormity of which means that they must be buried away forever.  They are beyond our capacity to deal with, beyond our ability to create anew or to bring to Redemption.  Few and far between – one thinks inevitably of the go’el who would not marry Ruth for the sake of his descendents, and who is named only Poloni ben Poloni – Mr X – in the text – these events where enforced erasing of the memory of a human being serve to point up the importance of conserving the memory.  Shabbat Zachor says it all – Shabbat Remember! 

            Nowadays we have so much to remember – and extra days have been added to our calendar with Yom ha Shoah, and Yom ha Atzma’ut, the depths and heights of the last century.  We are programmed to remember, to allow history to live again in us.  We just have to ask ourselves what we should be remembering, and how. 

            The text we read as part of Shabbat Zachor begins “And it will be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, you shall not forget”, places the enforced forgetting and erasing in a context – it begins with a future time “It will be”.  This reminds us of one very important lesson – we don’t have to worry yet about what we might erase or forget, that will be for the unspecified future.  Right now our task is to remember and to document and to keep alive, it is not, absolutely not, to do anything else.



Parashat Terumah – creating our own sanctuary

 “Dabeir el bnei Yisrael vayik’hu li teruma. Me’eit kol ish asher yidvennu libo, tik’hu et terumati. …. va’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham .And God spoke to Moses, saying:  ‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of everyone whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering….And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”

With this sidra we embark upon no fewer than thirteen weeks’ worth of Torah portions detailing how the Mishkan, the tabernacle, was meant to be built. One might contrast this to the narrative about the creation of the world which takes two chapters to tell two stories, or the narrative about Sinai and the revelation of Torah which takes three chapters in total.   So why is Torah focussing so narrowly and for so long? The answer can I think be found in the key word – Terumah is usually translated as an offering that is lifted up, but it is made clear in this passage that this is an offering freely given by whoever is moved to give.

There is none of the hard sell we are used to in charitable appeals, none of the slightly guilt tinged writing of cheques or pledge cards.  This is an offering that is motivated only by the desire to give. The root of the word terumah is something that is uplifted, elevated to a higher status. What we see here is the moment when human beings choose to do something extraordinary of their own free will; and then they are uplifted in some profound way. This elevation happens not because they are giving, but rather they are giving because they are in some way transcending their base selves.

What is it that causes this shift in the soul, this opening out of the awareness of the person? The narrative comes immediately after the debacle of the golden calf, when again the people gave, but that time they gave their gold and jewels in order to make for themselves an idol to worship.

 it must surely be some deep recognition that however much we make for ourselves external props and supports in order to buttress our fragile existence, true strength comes from within us. God’s words in verse 8 “va’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham” is a clue – “let them make for me a sacred space and I will dwell within them”.

Once the people truly understand that the space they make within themselves by stopping all their frantic activity and verbal whirlwind and just letting themselves breathe and be – once they see that that this internal mindful space is effectively a mikdash, a sanctuary that is within themselves, then it quickly becomes apparent that the resources they need to support themselves are all there, all available and accessible. Call it God, call it by any other name, once we stop and let ourselves simply be, once we make the time and space to simply notice what our heart and mind truly wants, when we stop trying to fill the space around us and within us with busy-ness and activity then we ourselves are raised above the mundane. We become Terumah – uplifted; and we offer Terumah – the gift of who we are is a gift both to God and to ourselves.

Where does God dwell? This portion reminds us of the response of the Kotsker Rebbe Menachem Mendel. “God dwells wherever we let God in”.

As we begin the long and extraordinarily detailed description of the building of the sanctuary in the desert, we may reflect on why Torah spends so many weeks on the particular descriptions and the minutiae.   It takes a long time to create such a sacred space, yet consider the mikdash which we ourselves can create – without the gold or the silver, the purple or scarlet. The mikdash which we create within ourselves comes from our taking time out of our constant activity. And when we create that space within ourselves, we may find it filled with the Terumah – the willing heart, the presence of God, the strength and support that dwells within ourselves, if only we would reach for it.


Parashat Mishpatim. What is the purpose of mitzvot?

This sidra follows on from the dramatic events at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Aseret Hadibrot – the Ten Statements, and in effect it fills in the detail missing from those headline legal principles. Mishpatim means ‘laws’ or ‘rulings’ and they will govern the community who agree to accept them. And what a curious collection they are. Of the more than fifty mitzvot to be found in the sidra, we have some that deal with the treatment of slaves, with the crimes of murder and kidnap, with personal injury and with civil damages through neglect or theft. There are rules about witchcraft and idolatry, about oppression and unfair business practise, about applying legal codes in a prejudiced fashion and not giving false testimony; laws about not mistreating widows and orphans, and about care for animals.

The most frequent mitzvah in Torah, given at least 37 different times in the text, is repeated here too – “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Israel.”

 There are rules about the Sabbath, about the sabbatical year and about the three pilgrim festivals of Succot, Shavuot and Pesach.

It is a mishmash of a legal code but what comes through loud and clear to the reader is the importance to the Jewish people of mitzvot, commandments.

From Torah we see that for the ancient people there were particular reasons for observing the mitzvot – firstly and most importantly because God tells us to. Secondly there was in the ancient understanding an idea that people who obeyed them would be rewarded, and people who disobeyed risked punishment. Then there were two different types of reason given in Torah – that the mitzvot were intrinsically imbued with divine wisdom, and that they would lead us to achieving holiness.  

Interestingly while Judaism teaches that mitzvot are divinely ordained and therefore not to be questioned or even necessarily understood, it does at the same time try to explain them as a rational force, and many commentators suggest reasons for our doing them. We are told: – “The essential reason for the commandments is to make the human heart upright” ( ibn Ezra on Deut 5:18); or “Each commandment adds holiness to the people of Israel.” (Issi ben Akavia,  Mechilta on Ex 22:30); or even that “The purpose of the mitzvot is…to promote compassion, loving kindness and peace in the world” (Maimonides, yad, Shabbat)

So there is a tension in our tradition – do we do the commandments (mitzvot) simply because there is a Commander (metzaveh) who told us to do this and this should be enough, or do we search out a meaning behind each mitzvah? And if we do the latter, what happens if we cannot find a suitable reason and meaning? Do we abandon the mitzvah as unreasonable or pointless? Or do we continue to do it in the hope that meaning will emerge? After all, at Sinai the people famously answered “na’aseh ve’nishma, [first] we will do it and [subsequently] we will understand”.

The tension and balancing between holding a religious belief and a rationalist position was as great in the ancient world as it is today. Blind faith was never a prerequisite of a Jewish life and one could argue that the story of the Akedah (the story of the binding of Isaac) is as much polemic against such a narrow devotion as it is against child sacrifice. After all, Abraham never again talks to God, to his wife, nor to his son after his extreme ‘obedience’ to God’s will. Yet clear understanding of the meaning of what we do is not the great goal either – if we only behaved in a way we understood and could defend rationally we would find our lives impoverished and diminished beyond all imagination. Blaise Pascal had it right when he said “If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous . . . There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.” (from Pensees)

Judaism tends to the position of na’aseh ve’nishma – doing in order to understand, blending faith and reason and giving neither the upper hand, but instead knowing that if we behave “as if” we believe, if we follow the way of mitzvot, then further understanding may come. Meanwhile we are impacting on ourselves and on our world in a positive way as we are directed to behaviour that may not be our first instinct – to support the poor and downtrodden, to value life, to respect the boundaries of others, to rein in our own power and desires so as not to trample over the lives of others. The list goes on.  

As tradition says again and again in different words, the same message:  “the commandments were given only to refine God’s creatures…”(Midrash Tanchuma). They change us, they cause us to think about what we are doing and not to act out of immediate self interest, they shape our behaviour and ultimately they may help us to bring holiness into our world.