Parashat Tetzaveh: the Ner Tamid is not only a symbolic reminder, but one that tells us to tend our relationship with God

Every synagogue has within it a Ner Tamid, a constant and continuously illuminating light that burns above the Ark. There are a variety of ideas about exactly what it symbolises – it is often associated with the menorah, the seven-branched lamp stand which stood in front of the Temple in Jerusalem. Or with the continuously-burning incense altar which stood in front of the Ark. Our sages interpreted the Ner Tamid as a symbol of God’s eternal and imminent Presence in our communities and in our lives – essentially it is a symbol of the eternal nature of our Covenant with God.

In Parashat Tetzaveh, Aaron is charged with the duty of attending the Ner Tamid – Le’ha’alot Ner Tamid – a verb that doesn’t actually mean “to light” (which would, like the Shabbat candle blessing be ‘lehadlik” but instead literally means ‘to cause to rise up’ or ‘to elevate’ the eternal light.  We are told that every evening Aaron goes into the tabernacle and lights the seven lamps of the menorah (candlestick) so that they will burn and illuminate through the night,  and he ‘elevates’ the Ner Tamid too. So does this mean that the light of the Ner Tamid is like that of the menorah, not a perpetual flame but one that burns out each day?

The great medieval commentator Rashi asks about the unusual verb that is used – Le’ha’alot Ner Tamid, and says “one should deal with the flame and tend it so that it rises on its own” So Aaron would not actually have to relight the Ner Tamid, he would have to nurture it (trimming the wick or adding the oil) until the flame rose on its own. So this instruction to Aaron about the raising of the light of the Ner Tamid is nothing to do with illumination or lighting the lamp, it is about the nurturing of an existing flame, about the daily renewal of something profoundly important.

The Ner Tamid symbolises the eternal nature of our covenant with God – the real relationship that is always present – if not always acknowledged – between us and God. And just as the Ner Tamid needs regular and frequent tending, so does our relationship with God need regular and frequent attention if it is to be at its best.

In Pesikta de Rav Kahana – an Aramaic collection of midrashim, we find the story of Rabbi Aha, who says of the Ner Tamid that Israel is the olive tree and God is the lamp. When oil from the olive tree is put into the lamp, then the two together give light as one unity. So the Holy One will say to Israel “My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us go together, you and I, and give light to Zion”.

The purpose of our covenant with God is to work to bring more light into the world, to make the world a better place by collaborating with the creator to bring about justice and righteousness in our world. If we see a Ner Tamid simply as a beautiful artefact hanging in a frequently empty building, then we miss the point that it is making – that each of us must make a daily effort to enlighten and improve our world.

The Launch of Tzelem at the Speaker’s Rooms 28th January 2015

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In the beautiful and opulent surroundings of the State Rooms of the Speaker’s Apartment in Westminster over 60 Rabbis and Cantors from the different Jewish streams in the UK came together to launch a new organisation: Tzelem- the Rabbinic  Voice for Social and Economic Justice in the UK.

Founded on the Jewish principle that we are all created in the image of God (b’tzelem Elohim), Tzelem builds on the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew bible which speaks of the vital importance that social and economic justice is available for everyone.  Jewish tradition has long advocated the rights of the marginal and the powerless, and our teachings are rich in texts calling for us to take part in asserting those rights, and standing up in the face of the powerful in order to achieve them.

It is the purpose of Tzelem to continue this tradition by critiquing the issues at the root of our society that keep the vulnerable and powerless exposed and helpless.  We aim to take action in order to change the structures that maintain the marginality of the weakest in society, and to change the way they are viewed.

Four Rabbis spoke from their own close experience of mental illness, child poverty, homelessness and immigration. It was a sobering experience made even more poignant in the surroundings in which we heard it, to be told that one in four children in Britain do not have adequate nutrition. It was painful to hear stories of the rapidly downward cycle into homelessness that left people without hope for the future, or so ill after exposure to the elements that their whole self fragmented. It was moving to see a colleague speak of his own struggle with bipolar disorder and the depression that accompanied it made all the more difficult because of the fear of stigma, disapproval and rejection.

 Rabbis and Cantors, like other clergy, see every strata of society and this is one of our strengths and one of the reasons we must be a driving force in contributing to a fairer society. Our texts and tradition demands it of us, and so does the lived experience of our role. We see what is often hidden from other members of society – the desperation, the poverty, the lack of hope, the pain and the willingness to ignore the weak and vulnerable in the busyness of life. Tzelem has come like a ray of hope into the worlds of many colleagues. We have watched other faith traditions step forward and demand justice and economic security for all members of our society and we spoke out as individuals each in our own milieu, but the creation of this platform with rabbis and cantors from across the spectrum of observance has given us energy and hope that our voice will be amplified, that together the voice of Judaism and its demands for justice for all will be heard in all the corners of the United Kingdom.

At our launch we reminded ourselves of what our tradition demands of us, and we reminded ourselves of the poverty and the pain that exist within the communities in which we live. We cannot stand by while the pain of our fellow human beings calls out to be addressed and ameliorated. As Hillel wrote two thousand years ago “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself then what am I? And if not now, when? (Avot 1:14)

For more on the texts of the launch and on Tzelem, see http://www.tzelem.uk/#!Launch-Resources/c14bu/7293522D-5710-49E6-BA0A-8E5986FA912A

Parashat Terumah: Building the space for a non incarnate God to not dwell – the elevation of giving

In parashat Terumah we are given the instructions for building a sacred place, and a very detailed directive it is. Almost an architect’s blueprint. It seems all the more strange that such a clear and comprehensive picture is drawn for the building in which a totally abstract and absolutely non incarnate God may (or may not) dwell.

The sacred place is described as “mishkan”, the place of dwelling, yet that is decidedly what it is not. It is, instead, a signal to remind the Israelites that God is among them – and God makes this clear in the instructions for the Children of Israel to build the sanctuary – “Make a mishkan so that I will dwell among them.”

The Torah makes clear that this mishkan is to be symbol and metaphor of the relationship between God and the people who are in covenant bond with God. It is to describe, in a variety of different ways, the relationship between them; it will even in some way create the relationship, it will certainly make clear some of the central requirements.

To begin with, God involves and obliges the whole people. “Daber el bnei Yisrael va’yikhu li trumah me’eyt kol ish asher yid’vennu libbo, tikhu li et trumati – Speak to the Israelite people and accept for Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them” (Ex25:2) Because the mishkan is to serve the entire community, it must also be constructed through the involvement of the entire community. But this is not a tax on the people; instead Moses is to accept the free will offerings of the people. The Terumah is specifically something set aside by its owner and dedicated for sacred use.   In other words, the people must be in the habit of thinking of their property not as theirs alone, but as something over which they have current charge – much, I suppose, as we are encouraged to think of our children. The use of this property therefore is to do the best we can with it – it is only a loan to us, not our exclusive asset. For the people to give a portion of their property to a sacred purpose, willingly and with the intention of creating a better world, is an implicit assumption behind the building of the mishkan.

The word Terumah is an interesting one. Its root is from RAM – to lift up, to elevate. Presumably it derives from the physical act of lifting up that which is offered to God, but there are Chasidic teachings that the act of offering a gift to God elevates not so much the gift as the giver. We are told that those who collect for charitable purposes must ensure that they have pure intentions before they start, but those who give to charity don’t have to be so worthy – the act of giving purifies them ( (Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev/ Shalom of Kaminiki).

So the giving must be from everyone, it must be offered willingly with the understanding that God is the source of all, as part of the working construct that we must acknowledge God’s place in our world.

The mishkan is also the demonstrable proof that the agreement at Sinai is working. When Moses repeated to the Children of Israel all the commands of God and all the rules, at the theophany at Mt. Sinai, we are told that they replied “All that the Eternal has spoken, we will faithfully do” (Ex24:3,7etc) The phrase ‘na’aseh v’nishma’ – ‘we will do and we will understand’ – the literal response of the people, is borne out here in the building of a sacred space which is both the dwelling place and emphatically NOT the dwelling place of God. . In building the mishkan they will take the step into putting into material practise what has only now been a verbal agreement.   In building the mishkan they will learn much more about God.

When people built holy places in the ancient world, they were constructed to house the image of the deity to whom they were dedicated. This holy place was different, for there was to be no image at all. It is – if you will pardon the expression – a graphic representation of the non-representation of the Jewish God.

However there was something in the mishkan, and that something was the Ark, the first of the furniture of the mishkan to be described, and lovingly detailed. The Ark and its cover were explicated carefully, and the Torah instructed the people that the ‘Edut’ the witnessing, was to be placed in the Ark. Quite what was it that was to go into the Ark? Edut is an ancient word meaning covenant or treaty – and it seems that what went into the Ark was the physical container of that treaty – the tablets of the brit (covenant), the stones on which were written the ten commandments.

cherubimIn the ancient Near East, there would be boxes placed under the throne of the ruler, and in those boxes would be placed the laws of the land, and the treaties made with other peoples. In effect, the foundation of the throne of the monarch was a box which stored the laws.

The Ark contained the Edut, the treaty of the children of Israel with God. It is, in effect, the box at the base of the throne of the divine monarch. It would have been very clear to the people of the time that the presence of the Ark pointed up the absence of the throne above it – a clear symbol of the abstractness, yet absolute monarchy of God. Above the Ark was the kapporet, the cover made of a flat sheet of gold, from whose two ends rose two cherubim. God told Moses that he would meet Moses there “I will speak to you from above the kapporet, from between the two cherubim” (Ex 25:22). There is no description of the cherubim, though one can safely assume that they were not the chubby figures of gently winged angelic babies we see depicted in religious art. It may be that they are related in some way to the verb karov, to be near, the word which we use to denote the way of prayer (drawing near) implicit in the making of sacrifice. It may be that they are related to the Akkadian word ‘kuribu’ originally meaning ‘to pray’, but also used to describe creatures which were part human, part bird and part beast, and which would guard the entrance to pagan temples and petition the deities on behalf of the worshippers.

Whatever the cherubim were, they were clearly of significance, not the least being that they symbolised the difference of this understanding of God from any other – they could not petition a deity for there was none in the holy place to petition. Instead they highlighted the abstract nature of the Jewish God, the absence of a discernible throne, the absence of a depiction of the deity. The book of psalms (99:1) describes God as one who is yoshev ha kruvim – the one who rests upon the cherubim. The cherubim, like the Edut, represent the base of the throne of God – a throne which is not built, a throne which will remain empty.   When God speaks, it is from above the Ark, from between the cherubim, from a place outside of space.

When all the people willingly bring their offerings to create the place that represents an understanding of God they are still finding difficult (witness the golden calf episode that began this enterprise); when they elevate themselves by giving, when they demonstrate their understanding that God is the source of their wealth and their possessions, when they deliberately build a shrine that is to remain empty, a throne that does not exist, then God dwells among them. The building of the mishkan teaches us so much about Jewish values and Jewish community, and it points out to us the limit of our understanding of God.

Women’s Voices and the Public Space:Tradition and Texts that must not disappear

I am increasingly convinced that unless women know the texts of our own tradition, we will be at the mercy of the interpretations of those who wish to keep women’s voices from the public sphere. The tension that exists between those who wish to shut women up and the rights and desires of women to speak and be heard has been around for hundreds, even thousands of years. And yet the texts upon which our tradition actually stands are unaware of such tension. It is clear that women and men both had a voice that must be heard, there is no cognizance or pattern in bible of women being silenced. Indeed the voices of the matriarchs are powerful drivers of the narrative, their needs are documented, their feelings acknowledged. Indeed one of my favourite overlooked verses in bible is when Abraham is told to listen to the voice of Sarah: “And God said to Abraham: ‘Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your bondwoman; in all that Sarah says to you, hearken to her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to you.” (Genesis 21:12)

I am well aware that in Genesis 3: 17 God punishes Adam, apparently because he listened to his wife’s voice: “And to Adam God said: ‘Because you have hearkened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying: You shall not eat of it; cursed is the ground for you sake; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life.” But these two verses do not need to be in opposition. In the story of the eating of the fruit of the tree, the words “because you have listened to the voice of your wife” are apparently superfluous in that Adam also ate of the fruit of the tree. So what is the problem here? Chaim ibn Attar (known as the Or ha-Ḥayyim) a prominent 18th century Moroccan Rabbi suggests that the problem is that Adam listened to his wife but did not engage her in conversation and so did not understand the provenance of the fruit that she was giving him. If we extend this argument to the verse where Abraham is told to listen to Sarah, his listening (presumably a more dynamic and thoughtful listening than that of Adam) leads him to do what God wants. The point is that both voices in active conversation, with active listening to the other, are required, and not the one way control where women are instructed by the voice of men to keep their voices silent. That way lies the fate of Adam, cast out of the garden because he did not actively converse with his wife.

The classical world did not appreciate the voice of women in public space, and it seems to me that Judaism (along with other traditions and cultures) have whole heartedly adopted the mores of the Greek and Roman worlds where it comes to the voices of women. Mary Beard wrote a wonderful treatment of women’s voices in this classical world which you can access here http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n06/mary-beard/the-public-voice-of-women and I recommend that you do so in order to see just how much syncretism has gone on in order to suppress the sound of women’s voices. She speaks not only of the systematised disempowerment of women in the classical world but also of the thinking behind it, writing that “to become a man – and we’re talking elite man – was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness. A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman.”

But in the world of bible the genders were not so defined, though certainly the rabbinic literature is influenced by the view of women as being of lower status that threads through the law and customs from the Roman world. The rabbis might have absorbed this view, but it comes to them from a world view outside the ur-texts of our tradition.

So here is a list, not exhaustive and not definitive, of the voices of women singing and dancing and loudly celebrating in the presence of – indeed alongside – the men.

The songs (and dances) of Women

  1. Miriam dances and sings with timbrels in a victory song Exodus 15: 1-3, 20 – 23

א אָ֣ז יָֽשִׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיֹּֽאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַּֽיהוָֹה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹֽכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם: ב עָזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹהֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַֽאֲרֹֽמְמֶֽנְהוּ: ג יְהוָֹ֖ה אִ֣ישׁ מִלְחָמָ֑ה יְהוָֹ֖ה שְׁמֽוֹ:

“Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Eternal, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the Eternal, for God is highly exalted; the horse and his rider God has thrown into the sea. The Eternal is my strength and song, and God is become my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him. The Eternal is a man of war, The Eternal is God’s name.”

כ וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַֽהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אן ָ כָל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַֽחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת: כא וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָֹה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹֽכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם:   ס   כב וַיַּסַּ֨ע מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מִיַּם־ס֔וּף וַיֵּֽצְא֖וּ אֶל־מִדְבַּר־שׁ֑וּר וַיֵּֽלְכ֧וּ שְׁלֹֽשֶׁת־יָמִ֛ים בַּמִּדְבָּ֖ר וְלֹא־מָ֥צְאוּ מָֽיִם: כג וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ מָרָ֔תָה וְלֹ֣א יָֽכְל֗וּ לִשְׁתֹּ֥ת מַ֨יִם֙ מִמָּרָ֔ה כִּ֥י מָרִ֖ים הֵ֑ם עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָֽרָא־שְׁמָ֖הּ מָרָֽה:

“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang to them: Sing ye to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted: the horse and his rider God has thrown into the sea. And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah.”

Many scholars are of the opinion that the whole hymn in Exodus was originally led by Miriam, not just the verse above (v21) that mirrors Moses in verse 1. It was known that women would lead victory songs and dancing (see 1 Samuel 18:6-7 below)

A separate song of Miriam has survived in part in a Qumran text (4Q365 fragment 6a and 6c). The seven lines which expand the song and are preserved here indicate that Miriam was considered in the ancient Jewish text as an appropriate singer of songs, an autonomous figure with her own song of triumph which, while it repeats some of the features of the Mosaic song recorded in Exodus has other material not so recorded.

Certainly Jewish tradition contains a number of statements that refer to the song of Miriam and to the way her voice was heard at the Reed Sea. Philo of Alexandria (also known as Philo Judaeus) (20 BCE- 50 CE) suggests that the men and women sang together. Rashi, citing the Mechilta (ad loc), comments that “Moses sang the song to the men; he sang the song and they responded after him, and Miriam sang the song to the women (and they responded after her, as it is written ‘Sing’ [Shiru]).”

Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser, 1809-1879) also assumes that the women sang, because they could claim that the redemption from Egypt only took place because of their merit as women had saved Moses as a baby and the midwives Shipra and Puah had defied the Pharoah in order to deliver baby Jewish boys. Indeed he says that they sang separately from the men so that their voices would be heard clearly, as they had had such a share in the miracles. And other commentators suggest that the men and women sang polyphonically, with the men initiating song and the women responding by repeating it, both parts equally important.

The song of Miriam as a response to military victory with dancing and the beating of drums, is part of a strand of women’s singing that can be found as a victorious celebration by women throughout bible (see also Judges 11:4; Jer.31:3; Psalm 68:26; Judith 15:12-13)

  1. Deborah the prophetess sings her song of victory

א וַתָּ֣שַׁר דְּבוֹרָ֔ה וּבָרָ֖ק בֶּן־אֲבִינֹ֑עַם בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹֽר: ב בִּפְרֹ֤עַ פְּרָעוֹת֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהִתְנַדֵּ֖ב עָ֑ם בָּרְכ֖וּ יְהֹוָֽה: ג שִׁמְע֣וּ מְלָכִ֔ים הַֽאֲזִ֖ינוּ רֹֽזְנִ֑ים אָֽנֹכִ֗י לַֽיהֹוָה֙ אָֽנֹכִ֣י אָשִׁ֔ירָה אֲזַמֵּ֕ר לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ד יְהֹוָ֗ה בְּצֵֽאתְךָ֤ מִשֵּׂעִיר֙ בְּצַעְדְּךָ֙ מִשְּׂדֵ֣ה אֱד֔וֹם אֶ֣רֶץ רָעָ֔שָׁה גַּם־שָׁמַ֖יִם נָטָ֑פוּ גַּם־עָבִ֖ים נָ֥טְפוּ מָֽיִם: ה הָרִ֥ים נָֽזְל֖וּ מִפְּנֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֑ה זֶ֣ה סִינַ֔י מִפְּנֵ֕י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ו בִּימֵ֞י שַׁמְגַּ֤ר בֶּן־עֲנָת֙ בִּימֵ֣י יָעֵ֔ל חָֽדְל֖וּ אֳרָח֑וֹת וְהֹלְכֵ֣י נְתִיב֔וֹת יֵלְכ֕וּ אֳרָח֖וֹת עֲקַלְקַלּֽוֹת: ז חָדְל֧וּ פְרָז֛וֹן בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חָדֵ֑לּוּ עַ֤ד שַׁקַּ֨מְתִּי֙ דְּבוֹרָ֔ה שַׁקַּ֥מְתִּי אֵ֖ם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ח יִבְחַר֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים חֲדָשִׁ֔ים אָ֖ז לָחֶ֣ם שְׁעָרִ֑ים מָגֵ֤ן אִם־יֵֽרָאֶה֙ וָרֹ֔מַח בְּאַרְבָּעִ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ט לִבִּי֙ לְחֽוֹקְקֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַמִּֽתְנַדְּבִ֖ים בָּעָ֑ם בָּרְכ֖וּ יְהֹוָֽה: י רֹֽכְבֵי֩ אֲתֹנ֨וֹת צְחֹר֜וֹת יֹֽשְׁבֵ֧י עַל־מִדִּ֛ין וְהֹֽלְכֵ֥י עַל־דֶּ֖רֶךְ שִֽׂיחוּ: יא מִקּ֣וֹל מְחַֽצְצִ֗ים בֵּ֚ין מַשְׁאַבִּ֔ים שָׁ֤ם יְתַנּוּ֙ צִדְק֣וֹת יְהֹוָ֔ה צִדְקֹ֥ת פִּרְזֹנ֖וֹ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אָ֛ז יָֽרְד֥וּ לַשְּׁעָרִ֖ים עַם־יְהֹוָֽה: יב עוּרִ֤י עוּרִי֙ דְּבוֹרָ֔ה ע֥וּרִי ע֖וּרִי דַּבְּרִי־שִׁ֑יר ק֥וּם בָּרָ֛ק וּֽשֲׁבֵ֥ה שֶׁבְיְךָ֖ בֶּן־אֲבִינֹֽעַם:Judges 5

Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying: When men let grow their hair in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly, bless the Eternal. Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes; I, to the Eternal will I sing; I will sing praise to the Eternal, the God of Israel. Eternal, when You went forth out of Seir, when You did march out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens also dropped, yea, the clouds dropped water. The mountains quaked at the presence of the Eternal, even Sinai at the presence of the Eternal, the God of Israel. In the days of Shamgar the son of Anat, in the days of Jael, the highways ceased, and the travellers walked through byways. The rulers ceased in Israel, they ceased, until you did arise, Deborah, that you did arise a mother in Israel. They chose new gods; then was war in the gates; was a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel? My heart is toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless ye the Eternal. Ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit on rich cloths, and ye that walk by the way, tell of it; Louder than the voice of archers, by the watering-troughs! there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the Eternal, even the righteous acts of God’s rulers in Israel. Then the people of the Eternal went down to the gates. Awake, awake, Deborah; awake, awake, utter a song; arise, Barak, and lead your captivity captive, you son of Abinoam”.

3.Jeptha’s Daughter Judges 11:34ff meets her victorious father with timbrels and dancing

לד וַיָּבֹ֨א יִפְתָּ֣ח הַמִּצְפָּה֘ אֶל־בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְהִנֵּ֤ה בִתּוֹ֙ יֹצֵ֣את לִקְרָאת֔וֹ בְתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹל֑וֹת וְרַק֙ הִ֣יא יְחִידָ֔ה אֵֽין־ל֥וֹ מִמֶּ֛נּוּ בֵּ֖ן אוֹ־בַֽת: לה וַיְהִי֩ כִרְאוֹת֨וֹ אוֹתָ֜הּ וַיִקְרַ֣ע אֶת־בְּגָדָ֗יו וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֲהָ֤הּ בִּתִּי֙ הַכְרֵ֣עַ הִכְרַעְתִּ֔נִי וְאַ֖תְּ הָיִ֣יתְ בְּעֹֽכְרָ֑י וְאָנֹכִ֗י פָּצִ֤יתִי־פִי֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה וְלֹ֥א אוּכַ֖ל לָשֽׁוּב: לו וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֗יו אָבִי֙ פָּצִ֤יתָה אֶת־פִּ֨יךָ֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה עֲשֵׂ֣ה לִ֔י כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר יָצָ֣א מִפִּ֑יךָ אַחֲרֵ֡י אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂה֩ לְךָ֙ יְהֹוָ֧ה נְקָמ֛וֹת מֵאֹיְבֶ֖יךָ מִבְּנֵ֥י עַמּֽוֹן: לז וַתֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֶל־אָבִ֔יהָ יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לִּ֖י הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה הַרְפֵּ֨ה מִמֶּ֜נִּי שְׁנַ֣יִם חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וְאֵֽלְכָה֙ וְיָרַדְתִּ֣י עַל־הֶֽהָרִ֔ים וְאֶבְכֶּה֙ עַל־בְּתוּלַ֔י אָנֹכִ֖י וְרֵעֹיתָֽי [וְרֵעוֹתָֽי]: לח וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לֵ֔כִי וַיִּשְׁלַ֥ח אוֹתָ֖הּ שְׁנֵ֣י חֳדָשִׁ֑ים וַתֵּ֤לֶךְ הִיא֙ וְרֵ֣עוֹתֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֥בְךְּ עַל־בְּתוּלֶ֖יהָ עַל־הֶהָרִֽים: לט וַיְהִ֞י מִקֵּ֣ץ ׀ שְׁנַ֣יִם חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וַתָּ֨שָׁב֙ אֶל־אָבִ֔יהָ וַיַּ֣עַשׂ לָ֔הּ אֶת־נִדְר֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָדָ֑ר וְהִיא֙ לֹא־יָדְעָ֣ה אִ֔ישׁ וַתְּהִי־חֹ֖ק בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל: מ מִיָּמִ֣ים ׀ יָמִ֗ימָה תֵּלַ֨כְנָה֙ בְּנ֣וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְתַנּ֕וֹת לְבַת־יִפְתָּ֖ח הַגִּלְעָדִ֑י אַרְבַּ֥עַת יָמִ֖ים בַּשָּׁנָֽה:

And Jephtha came to Mizpah to his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came to pass, when he saw her that he rent his clothes, and said: ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are become my troubler; for I have opened my mouth to the Eternal, and I cannot go back.’ And she said to him: ‘My father, you have opened your mouth to the Eternal; do to me according to that which has proceeded out of your mouth; forasmuch as the Eternal has taken vengeance for you of your enemies, even of the children of Ammon.’ And she said to her father: ‘Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may depart and go down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.’ And he said: ‘Go.’ And he sent her away for two months; and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed; and she had not known man. And it was a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephtha the Gileadite four days in a year”

4.The women of the Cities of Israel sing their song of victory with dancing and timbrels   1 Samuel 18:6-7

     ו וַיְהִ֣י בְּבוֹאָ֗ם בְּשׁ֤וּב דָּוִד֙ מֵֽהַכּ֣וֹת אֶת־הַפְּלִשְׁתִּ֔י וַתֵּצֶ֨אנָה הַנָּשִׁ֜ים מִכָּל־עָרֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לָשִׁ֣ור [לָשִׁ֣יר] וְהַמְּחֹל֔וֹת לִקְרַ֖את שָׁא֣וּל הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ בְּתֻפִּ֥ים בְּשִׂמְחָ֖ה וּבְשָׁלִשִֽׁים: ז וַתַּֽעֲנֶ֛ינָה הַנָּשִׁ֥ים הַֽמְשַֽׂחֲק֖וֹת וַתֹּאמַ֑רְן ָ הִכָּ֤ה שָׁאוּל֙ בַּֽאֲלָפָ֔ו [בַּֽאֲלָפָ֔יו] וְדָוִ֖ד בְּרִֽבְבֹתָֽיו:

“And it came to pass as they came, when David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with joy, and with three-stringed instruments. And the women sang one to another in their play, and said: Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands”

5.Psalm 68 vv26-27 the women sing and dance and play timbrels

 כו קִדְּמ֣וּ שָׁ֭רִים אַחַ֣ר נֹגְנִ֑ים בְּ֖ת֥וֹךְ עֲלָמ֣וֹת תּוֹפֵפֽוֹת: כז בְּֽ֭מַקְהֵלוֹת בָּרְכ֣וּ אֱלֹהִ֑ים יְ֝הֹוָ֗ה מִמְּק֥וֹר יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

 “The singers go before, the minstrels follow after, in the midst of damsels playing upon timbrels. ‘Bless ye God in full assemblies, even the Eternal, ye that are from the fountain of Israel.’”

  1. Judith 15: 8-13

Then Joachim the high priest, and the ancients of the children of Israel who dwelled in Jerusalem, came to behold the good things that God had showed to Israel, and to see Judith, and to salute her. And when they came to her, they blessed her with one accord, and said to her, You are the exaltation of Jerusalem, you are the great glory of Israel, you are the great rejoicing of our nation:  You have done all these things by your hand: you have done much good to Israel, and God is pleased therewith: blessed be you of the Almighty God for evermore. And all the people said, ‘So be it’.  And the people spoiled the camp the space of thirty days: and they gave to Judith Holofernes, his tent, and all his plate and beds and vessels, and all his stuff: and she took it and laid it on her mule; and made ready her carts, and laid them thereon.  Then all the women of Israel ran together to see her, and blessed her, and made a dance among them for her: and she took branches in her hand, and gave also to the women that were with her.  And they put a garland of olive upon her and her maid that was with her, and she went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women: and all the men of Israel followed in their armour with garlands, and with songs in their mouths.

Shekalim: The imperative to never diminish people by reducing them to numbers on a list

“The ETERNAL spoke to Moses, saying: ‘When you take the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to God, when you number them; that there be no plague among them, when you numbers them. This they shall give, every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary–the shekel is twenty gerahs–half a shekel for an offering to the ETERNAL. Every one that passes among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the offering of the ETERNAL. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the ETERNAL, to make atonement for your souls. And you shall take the atonement money from the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the ETERNAL to make atonement for your souls.'(Ex 30 11-16)”

Shabbat Shekalim comes around the beginning of the new month of Adar, in order to give a good month’s notice of the beginning of the month of Nisan, the month in which Pesach falls at the full moon. It is also read at this time because, according to tradition, the census of which it speaks was taken on the first of Nisan, so the reading is also acting of a reminder of that census and its purpose. The passage reminds us of the census taken in the wilderness through the donation of a half shekel coin, given not apparently only for the purpose of counting people, but also as a kind of sacrifice to offer atonement for sin, and also to provide for the maintenance of the Tent of Meeting – the forerunner to Temple and Synagogue as the space which reminds the people that God is among them. On Shabbat Shekalim, we also read a haftarah portion from 2 Kings which also makes reference to the census money and the use of it for Temple maintenance.

It is a complex text raising a lot of questions. What is the atonement being offered? What plague is being avoided? What could possibly be the difficulty with a census, a direct count of the military age men? There seems to be an ancient taboo against counting people which operates still today. By tradition one never counts people – when checking that there are ten people for a minyan a verse from the psalms is read “Hoshia et amekha, u’varekh et nahalatekha, ur’em v’nas’em ad ha’olam” [Save Your nation and bless Your inheritance, tend to them and raise them up, forever – Psalm 28:9]. It has ten words, each used to check off the people until it is clear that there are ten or over.

So why don’t we count people? Rashi suggests that numbering people means we don’t see their full humanity, and in some way we diminish them. He brings to his argument the ancient text of the Hebrew bible translated by Onkelos into Aramaic – the word for census becomes ‘taking’ – in some way by numbering people we take from them something essential. So he tells us we should never do a head count, but instead take from each of them a token, and then count those tokens. If we do not, we risk a plague coming upon us, as happened when David conducted a census. The Talmud also asks and answers our question – but differently:

“Why are people not counted directly? … Rabbi Isaac says ‘It is forbidden to count Israel, even for the performance of a mitzvah.’ … “The Talmudic discussion focuses on the verse: “The number of B’nei Yisrael will be like the sands of the sea which cannot be measured or counted …” (Hosea 2:1). In other words it is a sort of denial of faith, that the promise given to Abraham that his descendants would be beyond counting would somehow be compromised by the act of counting.

I am not sure that either of these responses gives us the authoritative reason for why counting people is so viscerally wrong. But there is something very powerful in the refusal to see people in terms of numbers. And interesting too that in the act of finding out how many men of military age are available in the community – for that must be the primary purpose of this counting – other things are woven in. Each person who is eligible gives half a shekel, something we are reminded is based on a known weight of silver equal to twenty gerahs. So each person gives the equivalent of ten gerahs. This half shekel coin must have been one of the smallest – but possibly not THE smallest – coin, something that was within everyone’s reach to donate. But add to that is the instruction – both rich and poor will contribute the same amount, neither more nor less. This reminds us that both rich and poor are equally valued in the eyes of God. The contribution of each one is of equal importance. So in the act of assessing capacity for military strength, everyone is expected to give something, and relative wealth is made irrelevant – everyone contributes the same. The fact that it is coins and not people being counted for this is also a salutary lesson – on the one hand there is something that seems to be a little coldly dispassionate about counting the silver tokens rather than the human beings, but at the same time the humanity of the individuals is being preserved – only the contribution they give is being counted. And then the piece de resistance – the silver tokens that are given are to be used not for war, not in any way for aggrandizing the powerful or for claiming the territory of others – all the contributions are used to maintain the Tent of Meeting – in effect they are the synagogue subscriptions. It is no accident that many synagogues finish their financial years at this time – the Torah reading reminds everyone of the need to give, to contribute to the well-being of the community. Without such offerings no synagogue or Jewish institution would survive.

The passage we read as maftir for Shabbat Shekalim is a well known one with clear parallels in today’s practice. The need to be able to call together a force to defend the people and the land; the need for the humanity of that force to be defended too so that the soldiers do not lose their essential souls in the fighting they do is vital, and there is much to be said about how that particular lesson is not being applied well in the current situation in Israel – just look at the website of Breaking the Silence, the testimony of Israeli soldiers, to see how values and humanity can be eroded. The imperative to never diminish people by reducing them to numbers on a list is one to which our own recent history bears painful testimony. But something else struck me powerfully this year when reading the piece. The half-ness of the shekel and the fact that a half shekel is ten gerahs.

Why a half shekel? One response is that this is a coin within reach of everyone, something that is not too big a sacrifice to give but not so small as to be insignificant. That may well be true, there is no clear economic scale for us to check it against but it has a sort of inherent likelihood. But think a little more and other values emerge. A half shekel is not complete – it requires another half to complete it. What we are saying by giving this ‘half’ is that we are making a contribution, but on its own it is not powerful enough – we need to be part of a community in order to play out our values successfully.

To be part of a community, we have first to count ourselves, to give something that can itself be noted and counted. The half shekel that we give demonstrates that we need someone else in the community to fulfill us and make us whole, to partner us and complete us. Judaism teaches that life is not to be lived as an ascetic, removing ourselves from the pleasures of people – life is to be lived in community – so public prayer for example requires a minyan – hence the need to count the people to ensure ten are present. Community is an essential tool in tikkun olam, in repairing the world. It is certainly true that one person alone can make a difference, but working together with others creates a whole world of other possibilities. We all need other people to fulfill us and the offer of a half shekel not only allows ourselves into the community, it invites others to be our partner.

In honour of Tu b’Shevat: to whom does the land belong?

One day Chaim, a landowner, had to leave the town for a while, and he left his land in the care of Jacob. Jacob worked hard on the land, taking great care to weed it, fertilise it, dig it over; then he planted a crop, weeded and watered it, and the land gave bountifully in return. And so it went until Chaim returned, and reclaimed his land. “Thank you for all you have done” he said, “but now I have come back I wish to work this land, for it belongs to me”. But Jacob resisted. “No!” he said. “I have worked this land and made it even more fertile and good; this land now belongs to me, by virtue of my work to enhance it and make its soil rich and productive. You may be the legal owner on paper, but I am the owner in reality”. The two of them struggled and fought, shouted and argued, each of them claiming their ownership of the land. Eventually they were persuaded to go to the local Rabbi for arbitration of their dispute, and they agreed to abide by the decision of that Beit Din. So off they went, and each passionately put his case of ownership, by virtue of legal document or by virtue of practical working and protecting. The rabbi listened to both sides carefully, and declared “the question is a complex one, for each of you have made a good case as to why the land should belong to you, but there is a third party in this case who has not yet spoken. Come with me”. So Chaim and Jacob went with the rabbi out to the field in question, wondering who the third party to the dispute might be. And they were surprised when the rabbi bent down, ear to the earth, and silently appeared to be listening. “What are you doing? Where is the other person who has claim to this land?” each of them shouted, looking round and gesticulating furiously to defend their claim from the unknown plaintiff. After a moment the rabbi got up and brushing down his clothing he said. “Gentlemen, each of you say that the land belongs to you. Each of you has made the case for your ownership. But I have asked the third party to this dispute – I have asked the land to whom it belongs, and the land has told me that neither of you own this land. The land has told me that you belong to it.”  (Jewish folktale)

We hear God differently through our diversity: the trick is to listen fully and to know that different voices tell of the same God

The sidra begins with the words “vayishma Yitro – and Jethro heard” – but we don’t know what exactly it was that Jethro heard and understood. The information about what had happened in Egypt, the splitting of the sea and the war against Amalek didn’t have much effect on others who knew of it, so why does only Jethro respond in this way? There must be something else in the text….Either Jethro heard something more than we are told, or else he heard in a way that moved him powerfully and changed him.

Jethro seemed to hear in a particular way, the kind of hearing that happens when someone is moved to re-examine feelings, and so change the direction of their life.   This is more than active listening; it requires openness to the other, readiness to be affected by what one hears.

Hearing is a theme in this sidra. For of course we also have the people hearing God speaking, as the foundational event of Judaism, the giving of Torah at Sinai, happens in the hearing of the people at the foot of the mountain.  But what does it mean to hear the voice of God? And how can we possibly know when we have heard it, let alone allow ourselves to be changed by it?

After three days of preparation, the people are gathered at the foot of the mountain, the summit of which seems to be hidden in a storm of lightening, fire and smoke, and there is thunder and what appears to be the sound of the shofar, though it is never clear who is blowing the shofar. The whole mountain is trembling violently and Moses begins to talk to God and God answers: “And when the voice – Kol – of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a Kol -voice. It isn’t really clear what it is that people hear when God answers – the word Kol can mean a voice, a sound, even a thunderclap. The ambiguity is important, for each person could claim to have heard God, and yet each may have heard something quite different from others. Rabbi Art Green suggests that what Moses heard was the thunder, just as everyone else did, but that within it he was able to hear the voice of God, even though others could not. Moses’ special ability was that he could translate the voice of God into the words we have– the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments.

The Talmud (Berachot 45a) records an amazing discussion: “From where do we know that, in the ancient practice of reading the Torah, when an interpreter would translate the Hebrew words of the Torah reader into Aramaic, the interpreter was not allowed to raise his voice above the level of the reader? From the verse: “Moses spoke, and God answered him in a voice.” What does the text mean when it says “in a voice?” asks the Talmud “It means The voice of Moses,” which is understood by them as meaning that God’s voice was at the same volume as Moses’ voice. But it is possible to read this at face value- as Art Green does – So when the Talmud says “God spoke in the voice of Moses” we could understand that God actually did speak in the voice of Moses” That is, at the moment of revelation, the voice of God and the voice of Moses were identical, indistinguishable. The human and divine voice was apparently the same – and this is why Moses was able to discern within the thunder the voice of God – it was his own voice he could hear.

There is a great deal of rabbinic storytelling around the events at Sinai. One of the most important is that it wasn’t only the Israelites at the foot of the mountain who heard the voice of God. The Midrash teaches that the voice went out to all the seventy nations of the world, each in its own language (Shabbat 88b), and another Midrash tells us that every person heard the voice of God differently, each in their own head (Shemot Rabbah 5.9). These are two different Midrashim, with quite different understandings from the text of what was actually heard. And this is diversity of interpretation is important to us. The Talmud, recording the debates of generations of rabbis about what text means, and what God’s will might be, shows us that disagreement and creative understanding are all part of the process of trying to discern what might be the truth of God’s words to us. The only agreement in this diverse process is that there is indeed a truth, but it is not clear what that truth might necessarily be. In the words of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, “The Midrash can present on one page many contradictory interpretations of any given biblical verse. Certainly our sages realized that if one Midrash gives one version of events and a second Midrash gives a contradictory version, they can’t both be true at the level of what physically happened. However, they understood that each Midrash taught us something they saw as true about the world.  What does this teach us about truth and legitimate disagreement? Judaism does not teach that everything is relative. The message of the Parasha is that there is ultimate truth. However, we don’t always have a common understanding of what that truth is.

How do we negotiate this?  What are the ground rules and red lines when we all passionately believe we are right?  Civil debate becomes even more challenging when we are not merely talking about theoretical issues, but issues that impact upon our most deeply held moral values.” In other words, debate is all the more difficult for us when we are required to really hear the other side, to be prepared to give up some of the things that we hold dearly to ourselves, in order to serve the higher principle of making the world a better and more just place for all.

How do we hear the voice of God in our world? How can we trust what we think we hear? How do we choose between what we want to hear and what is authentically the voice? Firstly, like Jethro, we must listen completely, hear truly what is said and be open to it being something that might challenge what up till now we have held true and firm. And, like Moses, we must let the voice of God sound through our own voices, not that we may think we can speak for God but that we allow God to speak through us.

God is not us, and we are not God, but we must experience God with our own selves, our own experiences, our own way of understanding. And listening to the voice of God, true listening, should inform our choices and challenge our assumptions and some of our closely held attitudes. God is calling us to be something more than we are, to be more the people we should be. That is the voice we must listen to, and give others the right to hear the voice that they also hear – for the one thing our tradition is quite clear about is that each will hear the voice of God differently, but each of us is quite capable of hearing the voice of God.