Seventh Day Pesach and the Song of Miriam

The preparations for Pesach begin in earnest at Purim. Any Jewish homemaker will tell you of the frenzy that begins to build from then, the cleaning out of cupboards, then whole rooms; the growth of boundaries within the house, the diminishing places to eat. The culmination of the whole activity is seder, then the week falls into a rhythm of its own, the hard work done for a little while. The festival at the end of the week has a different flavour, somehow more relaxed and reflective – before the work of packing away the Pesach artefacts and recreating ordinary life.

The exodus from Egypt may be acted out in the animated engaging ceremonies at the beginning of the week, but personal redemption for many of us is experienced more in the unassuming days that follow, and particularly in the service of the seventh day when the Song at the Sea is read from sidra Beshallach.

There are apparently two songs in this sidra – the one known as song of Moses, and then a fragment or apparent echo of it which is known as the song of Miriam. But modern scholarship suggests that the texts we have may not be given the correct ascription, that the songs of Miriam and Moses were one choral piece, different perspectives on the same event sung both antiphonally and together. Writings found in Qumran uncover another seven lines of Miriam’s song, and when these are put together with the unusual pattern of the words in the scroll, we find that a commentary on the main text emerges.  Miriam addresses her words to the whole community, focussing on the contemporary experience of the miracle, and bringing them into dialogue; Moses’ words are about his own understanding, his own leadership and strength.

The beginning of Pesach sometimes feels to be all about Moses, the upfront miraculous power of leaving Egypt in the chaos and turmoil of the exodus. But the ending of Pesach is about Miriam’s way of being – the quieter underpinning of experiencing change, of weaving it into normality, the import of the story and not the headline.

Miriam involves the whole community, singing to them of their history. While each of us must feel that we too came out from Egypt, how much more important is it to us that we did not come out alone, but as part of a people, and that our history is not just great events or great individuals, but a fabric made up of the lives of us all. Redemption is to be found in the quieter, deeper spaces of our tradition.


The meaning of Matzah: affliction or liberation but always bread.

The bible tells us that people cannot live by bread alone (Deuteronomy 8:3), a statement so powerful it is repeated in the New Testament.

 Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods. Evidence on rocks in Europe from 30,000 years ago shows starch residue left from the plants which had presumably been pounded to create flour in order to make early flat bread.

With the Neolithic age and the spread of agriculture, bread from grains became the mainstay of the human diet. Yeast spores are everywhere – in the air and even on the surface of cereal grains, so any dough left to rest in the open air will over time become naturally leavened. But people quickly learned to help the process along -Pliny the Elder reports that the Gauls and the Iberians used the foam skimmed from beer to produce “a lighter kind of bread than other peoples.” Those who drank wine instead of beer in the ancient world used a paste composed of grape juice and flour that was allowed to begin fermenting, or else they used wheat bran steeped in wine, as a source for their yeast. But the most common source of leavening was to retain a piece of dough from the previous day to use as a starter for the new dough.

Probably that is why every year or so one had to start again, to not keep on endlessly adding a piece of dough from before to the new mix of flour and water, but to break what we would see as the cycle of infection and make a new start with this important food.

Bread means so many things to us – it was used to pay the workers’ wages in ancient Egypt and the word is still used today to denote wealth – both ‘bread’ and ‘dough’ are slang expressions for money.  The word ‘companion’ denotes someone with bread (com + panis). The Roman poet Juvenal satirised superficial politicians and the public as caring only for “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses).

The cultural importance of “bread” goes beyond slang, to serve as a metaphor for basic necessities and living conditions in general. A “bread-winner” is a household’s main economic contributor whose role is “putting bread on the table”. A remarkable or revolutionary innovation is often referred to as “the greatest thing since sliced bread”. Bread is the staple requirement in all human societies.

The word “bread” itself is curious – it has been claimed to be derived from the root of brew though it may be connected with the root of break, for its early uses are confined to broken pieces, or bits of bread. But in Hebrew the etymology is even more curious – “Lechem”, the Hebrew word for bread, is the same root as “lochem” – to do battle, and unlike the Teutonic languages, the third possible root “lacham” means not to separate, but to join together.   Using all three meanings, Ludwig Kohler, the author of a dictionary of biblical Hebrew, suggests that this third root – to be joined together, explains both battle and eating bread – in battle there is hand to hand combat and soldiers are bonded together in groups, in eating bread together people bond together in solidarity – breaking bread with someone is a powerful signifier or peace with them. Of course, the opposite may also be true – wars are fought over resources, and what is the most basic resource alongside water? Bread.

So what has this to do with the emblematic food of Pesach?  Matzah is symbolic of two kinds of bread: both the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation.   As we consider this festival and the foods we don’t let ourselves eat – for Pesach should not be, as it increasingly seems to be becoming, a time when we can imaginatively create dishes that mimic chametz, with breakfast cereals and potato flour pasta made kosher for Pesach, – but we should be thinking of the staples of our lives, what they are based upon, how we are separated and how we are joined, how we add value to our lives rather than live them mechanistically.

By eating matzah we are helping ourselves consider what is freedom, what is poverty, and how fine the line between the two. We are reminding ourselves of what is basic and important in our lives and what is the froth of the leavening.  Every so often we have to stop, to break the chain of habit, to start again from the beginning and Pesach is that time. Just as we break the cycle of infection of using a piece of dough from the previous day by making our bread with no additions except the elemental flour and water, so we take a week to live our lives in simplicity, to think about what we have been doing unthinkingly.  Bread is freedom and bread is poverty. Bread is broken and bread is joined. As we navigate the ambiguity and the possibilities of lechem in the form of matzah, we have the choice to think again. Are we in freedom? Do we oppress? Are we broken and separated from what matters? Are we joined to others in a strong bond?

The festival of Pesach will soon be over, but I hope the thinking it demands of us goes into the weeks of the Omer as we build and count up towards Sinai and the accepting of Torah.


Parashat Tzav

What can we do when we feel anxious about what is happening around us, when we have no clear sense of why or how things may have come to this point, and we are faced with the limits of our own power to understand, or feel ourselves to be only partially in control of our existence?

This isn’t a novel or even an especially contemporary anxiety. The subjects of the bible narrative knew it well.

All religions dedicate themselves to working with the unknowable in some way, try to find ways – rituals and words – which will help their adherents to at least survive the vicissitudes of a potentially hostile universe, and at best to learn and grow and be able to operate with a degree of confidence as they go through life.  The great innovation of Judaism was the unification of the deity, the belief that the universe was neither random nor hostile, and that it and we were not at the mercy of some conflicting or haphazard forces, but that there is One God who cares for us, who listens to our fears and who responds to our frailty. 

With this one insight Judaism transformed the human experience.  We no longer see ourselves as flotsam and jetsam that floats in an uncaring universe, subject to random disruption and indiscriminate forces; or as the objects of the whims of higher beings, whose pain and whose lived experience make no difference in the scheme of things. Instead we know ourselves as the children of a caring Creator, whose very being we reflect as we live our lives. God may not necessarily give us what we want or even protect us from suffering, but God does give us a context in which we can live lives of value, tries to teach us and to nurture us, and is with us in the pain and in the happiness.  Because of the One God, we have meaning. And how we live our lives has significance.  And we matter.

The book of Leviticus is also known as Sefer Cohanim – the book of the priests. It is the manual, so to speak, of the group whose job it was to provide a link between the One God, unknowable and impenetrable, and the people who strive to be more godly, who follow the imperative to be holy without being quite sure what that might mean.

It is a book that we can find quite troubling, or at the very least barely relevant, as the description of the system of animal sacrifice carried out by an hereditary priesthood with arcane ritual and shadowy setting.  We can respond to it in a number of ways – as being of only historical interest, as describing a stage in a process in which we are much further down the religious line, as holding deep secrets of ethical and spiritual significance which we must study and meditate upon in order to glimpse the esoteric meaning beneath.

But however we choose to view the sacrificial system, the burning fat and incense, the sweet savour rising up into the heavens, the sprinkling of blood upon the altar – what we must accept is that this ritual, like many rituals, was designed to create something different in the world – it was a way of being able to take on the randomness of lived experience and create something far from arbitrary.  It was a recipe for creating a conscious and purposeful existence, for dealing with the existential angst of the human condition. It gives us a role and a world view in which we are not simply unknowing and impotent pawns in a bigger game – usually warfare – between two or more powerful figures, but people who matter, who are able to impact upon their environment, who by doing specific things are potentially able to change outcomes, who begin to bring forth our own realities.

            Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah – a guide for every-Jew on Judaism, talked about some of the laws – the chukkim- as being unknowable.  He follows one strand of rabbinic tradition which tells us that some mitzvot exist whose reason is not known and for which no rational purpose can be constructed. We simply do them because God told us to. They might hold no meaning for us except that of submission to the will of God, even when – especially when – we don’t see any validation or underlying principle. 

But in the Guide for the Perplexed, a philosophical work that was not written for the ordinary Jew, he has a slightly different take on the subject.  Instead he sees such mitzvot as having an educational purpose quite different from one of blind obedience. The chukkim in this work are, so to speak, the gateways to the ethical and spiritual dimension – if we begin to understand them in their context then we will derive from them great lessons of principle and deep moral values.  Taking the sacrifices enumerated in the book of Leviticus, Maimonides uses the principle that it is impossible to ask people to take on too much at once, unfeasible to expect religious – or any – change to go from one extreme to the other. And so he explains that the ritual sacrifice of animals and of other produce was a tradition the people saw all around them, a deeply powerful ritual that, although pagan and idolatrous in origin, was able to connect the people to their spirituality. So Torah did not abolish the sacrificial system, it harnessed it for Divine Service, and it began to neuter it.  It did this, says Maimonides, by legislating a number of boundaries and limitations around the practise.  They could only be brought in one place, for example, only by the hereditary priests, only in ways that were specified in detail. The laws of purity also limited access to the Temple, and so limited people’s ability to participate in the sacrifice of animals.   This becomes yet more powerful when we realise that sacrifice is the only form of worship that Torah limits for us, and when we read the prophets who remind us continually that God does not want our sacrifices but our prayers and our good deeds. 

            If one reads Leviticus – and the notion of laws that seem to have no real purpose or use – in the way the Rambam reads them in the Guide, a number of ideas begin to emerge for us. 

One is that God is understood to be not only the Creator who provides for us a structure and a meaning that did not exist in the human world before, but that God is able to be compassionate towards us even when we are attached to behaviours that are not the most helpful. God will help us change in stages, as we are ready to take on the next step and not before.

Another idea to emerge is that God listens to us – even bends God’s will to what we are able to do and to give.  If God truly didn’t want sacrifices yet allowed us to practise them – albeit in a limited way – then we have some ability to change how God is towards us, or at least one might say that God is willing to adapt to and to accommodate our needs.

These are radical perceptions, and I find them helpful. They tell us that there is space, theologically defined and protected space, to feel insecurity and doubt. There is opportunity to try out ways of being until we find one that provides what we need to be able to say. We don’t have to be certain, we don’t have to know, we don’t have to face a hostile universe that doesn’t care about our state of mind, or about the very fact of our lives.  We can take our time to think, to cling to what we know, to explore innovative perceptions, to challenge and to be confronted in our long held perceptions.           


Pesach thoughts

The story of Pesach is one of renewal. Originally it seems that there were two festivals to do with the Spring – there was Pesach which was a celebration of the new lambs, and there was Chag HaMatzah, a holiday which celebrated the first grain harvest of the year and the using up of the old. At some point, (maybe around 1250 BCE when the Exodus is said to have taken place), the two Spring festivals became one.  The verb ‘pasach’ means to jump over (the way that lambs jump about in the fields) so it became used to describe how God passed over the houses of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and did not kill the first-born people inside. The word Matzah came to be understood as the unleavened bread that was eaten because of the haste of the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt.  As ever, Judaism is adept at taking what already exists in the ritual lexicon and reinterpreting it, renewing it in order to bring about a different significance and meaning.

Pesach was a primarily a festival which rejoices in the Springtime and the hope of renewal and revitalisation it brings. It is also now an historical festival, marking the real beginnings of the Jewish people, something that will find its culmination in Shavuot. And Pesach is also a festival dedicated to ideological and the spiritual renewal– it is a festival of freedom, a promise and foretaste of ultimate redemption.

With Pesach and the Spring we are at a new beginning. The physical world is waking up and there is a sense of possibility. As Pesach approaches we deep clean our homes, removing the hametz – the old and fermented goods. The process symbolises a kind of spiritual new beginning, the removal of the stale from our lives and the opportunity to start again. 

Preparation for Pesach is a very physical activity, from Purim onwards we carry on an extreme version of spring cleaning, doing what used to called in my Yorkshire childhood ‘bottoming’ (as in I’ll get to the bottom of that wardrobe / pile of papers / overstuffed kitchen drawer). The sheer upheaval is enough to make one tired, yet it also forces a sort of internal reflection.  While making free with the bleach and the various cleansers the mind can sort of disengage and has time to think.  In fact it is not unlike the way prayer works – as the mouth and body follow the prescribed words and choreography of the siddur, the mind finds itself free to range further.

But Pesach isn’t only about the physical renewal nor the spiritual replenishment it brings – Pesach requires us to locate ourselves in our ancient narrative, to tell our story once more and place ourselves within it. To make certain our children are also listening and hearing it and taking it for themselves. Hence the rituals around the Seder, many of which are designed to attract the children, to pique their interest and draw them in. Without the telling of the story and the conversation about it that follows, Pesach is simply a Springtime ritual in order to celebrate the new agricultural year that follows the cold and forbidding winters. Without the discussion and dialogue about what the story is teaching us about freedom then and now, we are simply following an empty ritual.

 A gloss on the word Pesach teaches that besides being the verb for jumping over, it can be divided into two Hebrew words – ‘peh’ meaning mouth, and ‘sach’ meaning talking or conversation. The whole point of Pesach is to talk, to tell, to sing, to describe, to discuss, to argue examine and consider what the meaning is for us now. If we celebrate only with ritual, if we simply plonk ourselves down at the nearest Seder and work our way through the haggadah, we will be doing this most powerful of festivals a disservice. Pesach, the preparation time leading up to it, and the Seder itself all sanction conversation between the generations – to tell the story again and again, to understand what it means in our day and age. So as we prepare the ritual items for Seder, we invite friends and family to join us in the retelling of the haggadah , and merge the stories of springtime lambing and first grains with the stories of exodus from Egypt and God’s dramatic re-entry into our history. We ask ourselves the contemporary meaning of our story. We talk to each other about what we each think about freedom, what we see in the world,  and we consider what we can do about what we see. That is surely worth all the work in preparation for the festival, and it gives us our work for the year to come.

Parashat Vayikra

This week we are beginning a new book of Torah – the book of Leviticus, called in Hebrew “Vayikra”. The book deals in great detail with the minutiae of esoteric sacrifices and rituals – and of priestly purity, and for this reason it is also known in Rabbinic tradition as Torat Cohanim – the Book of the Priests, but surprisingly the book also contains within it the most accessibly ethical and spiritual texts of the whole bible – in particular it contains the list of behaviours in imitation of God that we call the Holiness Code.

            There is a time honoured tradition that when a child was considered ready to begin to study scripture at the age of five, they would begin by studying the book of Leviticus.  Many people find this somewhat bizarre – after all, a substantial amount of this book deals with the laws of the sacrificial cults, laws which are terribly complex and hard to follow, and which are also in abeyance since the destruction of the Temple –not something one would expect a five year old to understand and retain. Surely one would expect them to start with the stories in the book of Genesis, which would appeal to children and which benefit from being the very beginning of Torah, but the argument goes that as little children are innocent and pure (tahor) and as the book of Leviticus discusses the sacrifices which by their nature restore spiritual purity (taharah) to the person, then it is appropriate that the pure little children would begin their Jewish education with the topic of purity.

Other commentators point out that unlike the other four books of Moses, Leviticus does not open with subject matter in an historical setting – its main message is about individual and communal responsibility and accountability, and the means whereby we can approach God.  The Hebrew word for sacrifice “korban” is derived from the root meaning “to draw near” so the whole of the ritual system defined and described in Leviticus is all about bringing us closer to God.

 So the book which is physically at the centre of Torah is also spiritually at the centre – teaching that which is at the heart of Judaism – to recognise and to act on the need to come closer to God.  Each of us is obliged to do this, from the High Priest and the leadership through to what the bible calls the cutters of wood and the drawers of water, and each of us, wherever we are in the pecking order, brings our own personal daily sacrifice.

            Small children traditionally learn to read and study Vayikra, because in its mix of the ritual and the ethical, it embodies the timeless identity of being a Jew.  It is about doing, about how we behave towards God, and how we behave towards our fellow human beings. It may read like a manual for priests, but look a little deeper, and you will recognise that a real human need is being addressed, a need which has not changed in the intervening generations, even though our way of dealing with it may have altered. 


vayakhel pekudei

In this week’s Parasha we find the prohibition against kindling a fire on Shabbat, otherwise known as Hav’arah.  The Torah says “Lo teva’aru eish b’chol mosh’voteichem b’yom ha’Shabbat,” “Do not light a fire in any of your dwelling places, on the day of Shabbat.” Shabbat without the use of heating and lighting would be a pretty miserable experience- but luckily the Rabbis had an answer: Since the Torah does not say, “Lo Tihiyeh,” “Do not have a fire,” the halacha is that it is permissible to have a pre-existing fire on Shabbat. 

Indeed, in response to the Karaites, the scriptural literalists of their day, the rabbinic tradition even had a bracha for the Shabbat lights– “Baruch attah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu le’hadlik ner shel Shabbat – Blessed be You our Eternal God, sovereign of the universe, who sanctifies us through doing mitzvot and who commands us to light the lights of Shabbat.” Even further, the Sages instituted the rule that people should eat hot food every Shabbat – hence the tradition of cholent or adafina!

But what else do we learn from this strange story of what might be called Rabbinic counter intuitive interpretation?

Firstly there is a real issue about lighting fire on Shabbat – but why? Why is it singled out in this way? Shabbat is the way we celebrate Creation, imitating the work of God by taking control of our own time.  Perhaps the answer can be found in the twin symbols around the Mishkan demonstrating the presence of God: – a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Together the symbols are said to comprise the heavens – the Hebrew word ‘shamayim’ (heavens) is said by some to be an amalgam of the two words eish (fire) and mayim (water) – eternal opposites which in the heavens are able to live peacefully with each other.  So to create fire on Shabbat may be seen as encroaching too closely onto the work of God.

Or maybe it is seen as simply too dangerous, for fire, while it can bring warmth and a sense of security as one sits around it, is also potentially a symbol of destruction  and fear, the fires of Gehinnom come to mind.

So to create fire on Shabbat, without being able to carry water, might be dangerous in all sorts of ways Our passion for closeness to the divine as symbolised by fire is important, but just as important is its twin symbolised by water – Life, in its many and varied expressions

Rabbinic tradition does not think that lighting a fire on Shabbat is simply a practical hazard but that it is in some way a metaphor we need to take care about.

Possibly it is a metaphor for an inappropriate passionate union with God, or as the seventeenth century Rabbi Isaac Horowitz of Prague (the Shlah) writes: “This alludes to the fires of machloket / to disputes and ka’as / to anger.  A person must always be careful not to kindle these fires, but especially so on Shabbat.  On Shabbat, the “fires” of Gehinnom do not burn, but one who gets angry on Shabbat or causes machloket causes them to be rekindled, God forbid.  (Shnei Luchot Ha’berit: Torah Shebichtav).

He sees fire as a symbol for inappropriate passion – in this case anger towards others. By allowing ourselves to become angry on Shabbat we will destroy the essential meaning of Shabbat – or rest and recuperation and renewal. He brings to his argument also the folk tradition that those souls in Gehinnom get Shabbat off from their punishments, and that we would punish them even further by our actions.  It is a nice gloss, and certainly a teaching worth pursuing – by not allowing ourselves the luxury of becoming angry on Shabbat, we can teach ourselves self control and even learn to see our lives and its irritations in perspective.

The Rabbinic decision to take this verse and use it to not only ensure that there would be fire in the homes of the Jews, but that this would be sanctified is extraordinarily creative. It seems to have been the critical point between the Rabbinic Pharisaic tradition of Oral Torah, and the exacting tradition of the Saduceeas and Karaities that Torah must be understood only in a literal way, without the sophistication and the explication of the Oral Torah. In lighting Shabbat candles and blessing them, we are aligning ourselves with a tradition of thoughtfulness, and creative adaptiveness designed to meet the needs of the people. Shining a light into Shabbat in a contained and careful way addresses the issues of what fire might mean – too much passion towards God or else anger against others.

Maimonides, in his compilation of Jewish Law the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Shabbat  5:1), explains the argument regarding starting a fire on Shabbat thus – “this law refers to the person who lights a fire on Shabbat when he needs the ash” – in other words, the action is only forbidden if it can be completed, if there is a final and physical product.
            The end product of our lighting Shabbat candles is real – a sense of peacefulness and connectedness to tradition. Creating a light in this way as Shabbat comes in (traditionally the candles are lit 18 minutes before Shabbat so as to be burning well before the onset of the new day) means that we create what Isaiah calls oneg Shabbat – the delight of the Sabbath day, something that surely mirrors the events of creation.

But while the end product of lighting Shabbat candles is a peacefulness that is almost tangible, rather than an act of creation in itself, the idea that the rabbis had that  for the action to be complete there had to have a product is one that continues to intrigue me.

The soul is described sometimes as a light for God, a candle that flickers sometimes more strongly, other times less so. But it is not enough to be a flickering light, we should aim to be beacons of light in the world which provide more than good intentions or spiritual yearning – there must be an end product – an action that creates a lasting effect.