Shabbat Shekalim:counting ourselves and making ourselves count

In the month of Adar there are 4 extra Torah portions read after the weekly reading each shabbat which give their names to that shabbat. The first of these, read on the shabbat after Rosh Chodesh Adar (the new moon of the month of Adar) is Shekalim.

The extra piece speaks of the census which is taken in the wilderness, where the people are to donate a half shekel each as ‘kofer nafsho’ (a ransom for his soul) and kesef hakippurim (atonement money). This offering to God, which is to be the same amount for everyone counted, regardless of their financial worth, is to fund the service of the tent of meeting.

The half-shekel tax that pays for the maintenance of the worship system is to be paid by the first day of the month of Nisan and so the extra reading at the beginning of Adar functions as a reminder to the community that the payment is about to be due. It has always been a source of amusement to me that many modern synagogues hold their AGM’s (and therefore the beginning of the subscription year) at around this time, in order to nudge their members to think about their membership payments, although now we do not suggest that such payment would effect an atonement.

The way of not counting people but instead counting the coins of identical value goes deep in the Jewish psyche. David incurred the wrath of God and an ensuing plague when he counted the Israelites (2Sam24) and while the commentators suggest it was because the census was not authorised, there has remained a fear of counting individuals in case of danger. This may have had to do with the belief that numbering people implied diminishing them in some way, or that the biblical census was usually associated with upcoming military activity in which many of the people numbered would lose their lives. To this day there is a general Jewish fear of censuses, and when counting a minyan for prayer people will either use the loophole of a negative (as in ‘not one, not two, not three etc.) or a recite a verse with ten words (such as Psalm 28 v9 which has the added benefit of acting as a prayer, translating as “save Your people and bless your inheritance and tend them and carry them forever”).

Whatever the reason for it, this method of counting identically valued coins teaches some valuable lessons. It shows us that while each person may have his or her own individual financial worth, everyone has the same value before God. And it causes us to ask about the significance of each person bringing only a half shekel rather than a whole one.’ Many explanations are offered by commentators: – that the half shekel may represent the time of day when the sin of the golden calf was committed (midday). That it is the equivalent to the penalty for those who disobey the 10 commandments and so this payment can be seen as a kind of atonement. They are all ingenious explanations, but the one I prefer is of a different order – According to Rambam, the use of a half shekel rather than a whole one teaches us that no person is complete when alone – we can only attain full spiritual completeness when we are in relationship with others, when we are in a community of shared interest. And I would add to this view that not only can we not be not be complete when alone, but that our completion is a process rather than an existential state. So that just as the world is in a state of continuing completion we too are always in the position of completing ourselves. And just as the world needs our work and our active interest for is continuation, so do we need the active interest of and participation in the community of ideas and of other people.

As each of us gives of our time and wealth to the community we are also aware of our own needs and our own lacks, we are each looking to be fulfilled by the ‘other half’ that can be found in relationship with other people.

Shabbat Shekalim begins the run up to Pesach, the time of redemption and the beginning of peoplehood rather than the collection of individuals. It is a liturgical nudge, a reminder that we are not fulfilled by ourselves, that we are a work in progress. This year it is paired with parashat vayakhel, the Torah reading that begins with assembling the whole people. The message is clear – community is our natural state however individual and singular we know ourselves to be. No person is complete on their own, but we are all of equal value to God, however much or little we materially own. And every one of us has something to offer the community, every single one of us counts.

Ki Tissa: looking back and looking forward, how do we see the presence of God.

And [Moses said to God] ‘Show me, I beg you, your glory.’ And God said: ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Eternal before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’ And God said: ‘You cannot see My face (panai), for humans shall not see Me and live.’ And God said: ‘Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand upon the rock. And it will be, while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. And I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back / behind Me (achorai); but My face shall not be seen.’ (Exodus 33:18-23)

It is a very famous scene. Moses asking for reassurance, God offering an experience of staggering intimacy. But the way it is often understood as an anthropomorphic event distances us from it. It takes on a filmic or even cartoonish quality and the nature of the encounter remains unknowable.

Yet until the late middle ages it was never read like this, and to quote the New Testament Scholar John Dominic Crossan it is important to remember that it “is not that ancient people told literal stories and we are smart enough to take them symbolically but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally”.

So if we are to go back and take another look at what the text is telling us Moses saw on Sinai, we should divest ourselves of the idea that the text is recording Moses literally seeing the departing back of God as the closest we can get to the divine, and look at the words again, without the gloss of modern translation. And we should be prepared to read the metaphors and resonances in the text, rather than accept a superficial literalist reading.

So what did Moses see?

The root of the word panim, (face) occurs in various forms twenty-two times in 47 verses in this passage, meaning that there is a persistent calling our attention to it. And the midrash begins to fill in some synonyms for it – as well as ‘face’, ‘aspect’ or ’existence’ it can also be “divine justice”, “divine essence”, “divine revelation” “the secret mysteries of Torah”, “the reward of the righteous”.

The root meaning of the word “achorai” is ‘behind’ or ‘after’ – hence the translation “back” but this is not the usual word for the body part (which would be ‘gav’). It is more – the thing that follows, so achorai is “what is behind me” or “what follows me”

From this we can begin to see that Moses is not meeting an incarnate God, but encountering the divine insofar as it is possible for the human being to do so. Human beings cannot fully comprehend the essence of divinity, they can only see the evidence of God with hindsight, when they see what follows after God’s presence has touched their lives.

An early midrash suggests that what Moses sees is the shadow of God, playing with the name of Bezalel who is chosen to create the symbol of God’s presence among the people, the mishkan. Others suggest that the shadow that Moses could be seeing is where God is not – in the same way that we sometimes talk about the emptiness depression and sadness that can overshadow our lives.

The first century Aramaic translation of the text by Onkelos is intriguing: He writes “And God said, ‘you cannot see the face of My shechinah (dwelling/presence); for no one can see Me and survive. And God said, Look, there is a place prepared before Me, and you will stand on the rock, and it will be that when My Glory passes by, I will put you in a cavern of the rock, and My Word will overshadow you until I have passed; and I will take away the word of My Glory, and you will see that which is after Me, but what is before Me shall not be seen”

It is an intriguing translation, for it both chooses not to read the text in any way as a physical encounter where God has even a metaphorical body, but instead it opens up the possibility of reading the text in terms of time. Panai (my face) and Achorai (my back) are now understood as before me and after me, just as we might use them today – there is a time stretching ahead of us, and there is a life we have lived stretching out behind us. So what Moses is allowed to see is ‘behind God’ ie that which has already happened, but he is not allowed a glimpse into the future, what is to “the face of God”. This makes more sense to me – we can understand a great deal more about our lives as the time passes, we can see and make sense of ‘achorai’, but we can only speculate about the future, and every science fiction time travelling story is predicated on the dangers of interfering with the future….

If wes put ourselves into the text, we begin to see that, rather like the later message of the book of Job, no one can even begin to comprehend the secrets and mysteries of divinity, but we can see where God has been. Whether we choose to see that as glimpsing a shadow or hearing an echo, or whether we choose to understand it as making sense through reflecting on what is and what has been, it makes sense to me in my own relationship with God that very often it is not clear to me in the moment that God has been present, and yet when I reflect on a particular conversation or difficult encounter or a moment of relationship I suddenly see the shadow of God in it, and know that God was there all along.

Moses asked for reassurance, and was allowed to see the presence of God in what had happened already. And it was sufficient for him to go into the future with enough confidence to take the next steps. The future is hidden from us, but the shadowy presence of God will be in it as we pass through, and as time moves on we are promised that it will be possible to recognise that God was indeed with us on the journey.

Tetzaveh: the flames that ascend on their own

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

For those of us who enjoy parsing bible, this very first verse of the sidra gives us a rich seam of learning. God is instructing Moses on what will happen inside the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle used for worship in the wilderness years. The sidra gives us elaborately detailed instructions for the clothing of the priests, and about the ceremony of ordination in which they will be dedicated to the service of God. The purpose of the clothes and the rituals are made clear – it is to make the priests holy.

The holiness of biblical times was not the abstract quality we think of it today, it was for them an important state of being for those who were to approach God. Holiness could be acquired through ritual and clothing, washing and the abstention from some actions, people and places. Holiness was a quality which was necessary for those who wished to serve God in the rituals of worship, as it would somehow protect them from what was understood to be a potentially dangerous and certainly unknowable presence of God.

So we have verse after verse of what they wore and when and how they wore it, what they washed and what they daubed in blood; what they ate and when and in what condition, what they slaughtered and what they sprinkled, what they burned and what they waved.

Reading it one can easily fall into a modern-minded trap of wondering how on earth they could believe that this ritual of sacrifice and incense brought people closer to God – but I think the clue is in the very first line I quoted – this is not for God, it was never for God, this is for the people.

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

Rabbinic commentators noticed two surprising words in this verse.

The first being that the oil that is being brought to light the lamps in the Mishkan – and to symbolise the eternal relationship between God and people – is brought not for (or to) God but Alecha – for you. The midrash is clear (Lev Rabbah 31:8) when it tells us that God already has the sun as a servant, there is already fire in the world so God does not need the light that we have burning in the Mishkan. God does not need it, we do. Bringing the olive oil into the Mishkan is an action only for our benefit; it is a way to come closer to God, a way to create relationship with the Eternal. The Midrash tells us that God gives us the mitzvot as a way to let us have as many opportunities as possible to come closer to relationship with God, even in the smallest and insignificant actions of our lives – such as providing olive oil for a lamp.

There is a second curiosity in this verse. The verb used to describe kindling the light is not the normal one for lighting a flame – lehadlik – but instead the bible talks of le’ha’alot Ner Tamid – to cause to ascend a light continually.

In the Talmud are two ideas about this verb and what we can learn from it. Rabbi Samuel bar Isaac in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sukkah 29b) deduced that the unusual word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, literally “to cause to ascend,” meant that the wick had to allow the flame to ascend by itself. And thus the Rabbis concluded that no material other than flax — as in the fine linen of the High Priest’s clothing — would allow the flame to ascend by itself. Similarly, in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21a) Rami bar Hama deduced from the use of word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, that the flame had to ascend by itself, and not through other means (such as adjustment by the priests).

Taking these comments and in particular the idea that the flame should ascend on its own, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the famous nineteenth century founder of the school of “Torah im Derech Eretz” orthodoxy which negotiates the  relationship between traditionally observant Judaism and the modern world, wrote that “the description of the act of kindling a lamp by the term ‘ascending’ is peculiar to the service of the lamp in the sanctuary. It alludes to the action of the priest in applying the flame to the wick which is ready to be kindled until the flame ascends of its own”. The task of the teacher of Judaism is to make themselves superfluous to their pupils. It is not their function to keep the people – the ones who receive instruction from the teacher – continually dependent on them”

The statement is a beautiful distillation of what Jewish education – formal and informal – should be aiming for. That we want our children (and of course our adults) to be themselves ‘flames which ascend on their own’. The goal of Jewish community is that individually and collectively we gain the knowledge and the confidence and the inspiration to live active and thoughtful Jewish lives, that each of us is able to stand up and be a light in the world, living with Jewish values and ethics, striking out for righteousness.

There is an idiom in the English language – to pass the torch – and this is, to some extent what all of us in the Jewish world hope to be doing within our communities. However this sidra reminds us that we are not passing the torch on in order to relinquish our responsibilities, but rather that we nurture the flame of learning and identity of the next generation with our own learning and experience.

The image of Aaron each and every day nurturing a flame in order to have it stand upright and unaided, giving light through the darkness is an image that appeals to me and speaks to me of how we have kept our traditions and our teachings alive through the generations.


Mishpatim: Torah MiSinai is only one half of the conversation

In parashat Yitro is the climactic coming together of God and the Israelite people as three months after the dramatic exodus from Egypt following signs and wonders, the people are encamped at the foot of Mt Sinai and Moses and God encounter each other once more in order to create the agreement that as long as the people will obey God’s voice and keep the covenant, then they will be God’s special treasure among all the peoples of the earth, and shall become a kingdom of priests to God, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5,6). A period of purification is followed by the majesty of the presence of God, and the words of God are declaimed amid black smoke, thunder and lightning, terrifying the people who declare their willingness to accept the covenant but ask for Moses to be their representative and for them to keep well away from whatever is going on.

The relationship is consummated with words, called in Hebrew the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Statements, which function essentially as the paragraph headings that prescribe the boundaries and the requirements of the relationship.

Like any new relationship, each side views the other as pretty wonderful, there is no need immediately to get into the gritty details of the red lines and the expectations that will make living together successful or not. But soon of course those realities set in and the couple have to ‘talk tachlis’. Hence the detailed miscellany of laws in the following chapters, including a whole sidra named ‘mishpatim’: the laws and rules of the relationship.

This year, I was especially drawn to thinking about the authority of the rules – who gets to decide what they are, who gets to change them, and to ask – how does the relationship evolve?

In Exodus 24 we have insight into the beginning of the ‘tachlis period’. Moses is to come alone to God. There has been some etiquette about introducing the leaders of the people further up the Mountain, but now Moses tells the people all God’s words and the people answer in unified response “all the words which the Eternal spoke we will do”. Then Moses writes down all the words of God (it is not clear where he does this), after which he builds an altar representing the entire people and there is a sacrificial rite, followed by this information “And Moses took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the Eternal has spoken will we do, and we will understand.’ (24:7)

What is this Book of the Covenant? Why does Moses follow his reading – and the people’s oddly worded response – with a ritual where he takes the blood of the previous sacrifice, sprinkles it on the people and tells them ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Eternal has made with you in agreement with all these words.’ We now have a Book of the Covenant (Sefer ha brit) and Blood of the Covenant (dam ha brit) and then suddenly we are in a vision, as the 70 plus elders of Israel find themselves at a feast where they see God standing on a clear sapphire pavement.

Just as suddenly we are out. God tells Moses ‘Come up to Me into the mount and be there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah (teaching) and the commandment (mitzvah)(, which I have written, that you may teach them.’ (v12)

What are these tablets of stone, the Torah and the Mitzvah that Moses is to teach? How do they fit into the covenant? Why then does Moses stay on the mountain after this for forty days and nights, hidden in cloud, leaving his people leaderless and frightened and alone?

The text, like the top of the mountain, is opaque. We cannot understand the encounter, only know that there was indeed such a moment that cemented the relationship between God and Israel, a relationship that might go through many rocky patches and many silences, but which will never actually break. We have a brit, a covenant, and we are tied to each other for eternity.

But what are the parameters of the covenant? What do we have to do? What will we come to understand? And while the existence of the covenant is unchanging, the conditions have clearly developed and altered.

The Talmud sets out the traditional position of the verse asking: What is the meaning of “And I will give you the tablets of stone and the law and the commandment, which I have written so that you can teach them”? “Tablets of stone”-these are the Ten Commandments, “the law” -this is the Torah, “the commandment”- this is the Mishnah,” which I have written”- these are the Prophets and the Writings, “that you may teach them”- this is the Gemara. And it teaches that they were all given to Moses on Sinai (TB Berachot 5a).

This passage is frequently cited as the proof text of Torah miSinai – that God gave to Moses everything that would become Rabbinic Judaism in later years. Either it was given at Sinai or it has no authenticity runs the argument. But surely this cannot be a literal reading of the biblical text, nor a complete reading of the Talmudic one.

The phrase Torah mi Sinai is found only once in Talmudic texts – in the introduction to the Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, where we are told “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”

It is found not at all in Bible, and indeed while the seeds of the idea of divine revelation encompassing the whole of what became Rabbinic/Halachic Judaism can be discerned, they are only in the later books of Chronicles and of Ezra and Nehemiah, books which are generally seen as being written only in the 5th/4th Century BCE. These books use the words haTorah / Torah while earlier books refer always to Torot, a plurality of teachings. The Book of Nehemiah even refers to Ezra reading In the book, in the Law of God, (BaSefer, b’torat Elohim) distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. (8:8,18), and also” Ezra the scribe [was asked] to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Eternal had commanded to Israel”, and so clearly by the early Second Temple period there was a tradition of a Mosaic/divine book of Torah, which is variously described as being the Torah of God or the Torah of Moses, something unknown in earlier biblical texts.

This idea is seized upon by the Rabbis who took for themselves the right to decide not only what the texts would mean, but also used it to assert their authority and control over the people. Hence we have the midrashic text in Leviticus Rabbah (5th Century) ““everything an experienced pupil might ever say to his teacher was revealed to Moses at Sinai.”, and the more worrying Mishnah Sanhedrin (10:1) “…These have no share in the World to Come: One who says that [the belief of] resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, [one who says that] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and one who denigrates the Torah..”

Why did they do this? Was it in order to emphasise the authenticity of their authority post Temple, against the Karaites and the Sadducees and those who wished to continue Priestly authority? This would certainly make sense as they were reinventing what it meant to be Jewish after the central worship authority had disappeared, and a multiplicity of rival claims may have spread the Jewish people too thinly to survive.

But we are in a different world, where literary criticism and scholarship that takes into account the context of a text mean that we can see that Torah miSinai cannot be a literal description of our foundational texts. Even Maimonides, who famously enshrined Torah miSinai into his thirteen principles of faith, would surely have framed those principles differently in modern times, (And one must also take into account the context of those principles that became Yigdal – he was responding to Islamic claims about the superiority of its revelatory texts).

Whatever the Torah of Moses /the Torah of God means, for which the shorthand remains “Torah miSinai”, it has become a barrier for the Jewish people rather than an enabler. People who have good academic understanding in the secular world find the notion of one book literally given at one time on a desert mountain to be improbable, which means that the world of scriptural literalists tries to keep modernity away from ‘their’ Jews, with terrible consequences often. People who seek to understand the text differently are shunned or worse, treated as if they are no longer Jews. And then there is the halachic process, which from being a dynamic and responsive practice has become solidified and deeply unhelpful often, simply because there is nothing ‘miSinai’ that pushes for change.

I love the idea of God speaking with Moses in the presence of the entire people, and that being an inspirational and creative moment that energised the ongoing relationship of God and the Jews. But I hate the idea that the route to the relationship is held in the hands of people with little understanding of modernity or the modern Jewish people and State, who try to excommunicate anyone who challenges or brings in modern ideas from the Covenant and the peoplehood.

It is time to reclaim Torah MiSinai, to go back to that moment where the whole people heard and said, we will do and we will understand, and while they may have deputed Moses to negotiate the contract on their behalf, did not abdicate their own responsibility for being part of the development of what the contract would mean over time.