Biblical Empathy at the exodus from Egypt

Bible tells of ten plagues that struck all Egyptian people in the battle between God and Pharaoh, culminating with “God smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon and all the firstborn of cattle….there was a great cry in Egypt for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” The Egyptians hurried the Israelites away, giving them everything they asked for – jewellery, animals, clothing, gold, because they said “We are all dead”.

One can only imagine the grief, the terror and anguish of the Egyptians on that night, the night that we celebrate as “leil shimurim – night of vigil”, now Seder Night. As we celebrate and remember the story of our liberation, we are also observing the anniversary of these deaths, and on Seventh Day Pesach we will recall the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers, drowned as the waters closed over them while they pursued the escaping Israelites.

The bible tells the stories unflinchingly, recording the screams of the people facing their dead at midnight, the fear and distress of the Egyptian forces caught on the seabed unable to flee as the waters roll back.  It tells of the real human cost of our freedom. And Jewish tradition picks up this theme so that our observance of Pesach not only tells the story of the Israelites gaining freedom, but also the story of grief and fear experienced by those cast as our enemies.

The book of Proverbs tells us “when your enemy falls, do not rejoice” and rabbinic tradition reminds us to lessen any  joy gained at the expense of others. So we recite only half-hallel for the last six days of Pesach, we take out drops of wine at our Seder while recounting the plagues, and  remind ourselves that freedom  comes at a cost that we must never forget.

 

written for and first published by London Jewish News “the bible says what?” column March 2018

Chol haMoed Pesach: the love affair begins – the view from the harem

During Chol HaMoed Pesach it is traditional to read Shir HaShirim (Shir haShirim), one of the five ‘megillot’ read in synagogues over the year.  Esther is read at Purim for obvious reasons, Ruth at Shavuot, Eicha (Lamentations) at Tisha b’Av, and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) at Succot.

While the Midrash Rabbah groups these books together (along with the Five Books of Moses), they were not written at the same time or indeed in the same way, and date from between the 5th and the 12th centuries as far as we can tell.  Purim is predicated on the Book of Esther, Tisha b’Av is clearly connected to Eicha, but the three pilgrimage festivals having their own Megillah is rather more complicated and the links between them somewhat fragile.

So why is Song of Songs read during the festival that commemorates the exodus from Egypt?

It is, quite plainly, a book of love poetry. It describes the story of a Shulamite woman who is passionately in love with a shepherd but is separated from him, having been taken into King Solomon’s harem. In an erotically charged and physically explicit series of poems she remembers the relationship she yearns for, the imagery is bucolic and sensual, using imagery of the field and the vineyards, painting a picture of intense love between two people. In a dialogue structure we hear the voice of the lover describing her and their encounters, lingering on her face, her body, her breasts and thighs and neck, her face, her smell. A third voice, that of narrator or chorus, also appears in the structure and the protagonist occasionally turns to speak to or to give advice to the daughters of Jerusalem.

The book begins with a superscription informing us that this is “Song of Songs which is Solomon’s” and so it is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, a factor which was critical into its acceptance into the biblical canon. But this authorship is unlikely in the extreme. The language shows it to be much later than the Solomonic period – probably 3rd to 1st Century BCE; It has parallels with other love poetry of the region and with Greek poetry and it fits into the genre of women’s poetry for the harem.

Yet it was taken into the biblical canon and treated by the rabbis as an allegory of the love story between Israel and God, with Israel taking the role of the female protagonist and King Solomon standing for God. The book was clearly controversial and only the powerful and passionate defence by Rabbi Akiva in the first century ended the argument. Famously he said” Heaven forbid that anyone in Israel would ever dispute the sacredness of Shir HaShirim for the whole world is not worth the day on which Shir Hashirim was given to Israel;  all of the Writings are kodesh (“holy”) but Shir Hashirim is kodesh kodashim (“holy of holies”).

Quite why he defends it so robustly, or why he plays on the name with the idea of holiness (kodesh kodashim) is left in history, but it has the effect of reframing how we read this book so fully that the voice of the woman is all but muted, the physicality and comfort with her emotions and desires are practically erased, and the book is taken into the men’s domain of ‘holiness’ and of the patriarchal God, and the religiousness of the woman and of women in general is diminished to the point of invisibility.

This is a book that speaks of the power of love through the voice of a woman. It bespeaks young and untested love, the intense first love that nothing ever quite matches again.  One can see why it fits Pesach which happens in the springtime when all the animals and birds are coming out of a long winter and going through their mating rituals prior to settling down. One can see how it fits into the first love of the Exodus from Egypt, when the beloved can change the world for their lover, in this case quite literally. Nothing bad has happened yet, no quarrels, no golden calf, no element of falling short of the mark, the beloved can do no wrong and as yet is untainted by doubt.

Yet having been appropriated for the patriarchal view of covenantal religion it is easy to miss that this book is women’s religious literature, that Solomon is not the desired or the lover, but instead represents a disruption to the older, earlier love that is both more pastoral and more prosaic. Religion in the hands of men created a structure of ritual purity, a hierarchy and a priesthood who ministered in mysterious inner sanctums where no one could see or could enter. Religion in the hands of women was more nature based, more in tune with the rhythms of the body, focused on the creation of new life and the dwindling of energies as life diminishes. It is no accident that there were women in the liminal space at the doorway before the tent of meeting, performing their poetry and songs, welcoming the bringer of the sacrifice and facilitating their leaving the ritual. It is no accident that it is women who mark important events with song – there are more women’s songs in bible than men’s by far. Women from Deborah to Jephthah’s daughter, from Hannah to Miriam, sing across the boundaries of events.

I think that Rabbi Akiva was right when he says that this book is so holy, but probably not for the reasons he gives. It is holy because it records the religious expression of women, it is forthright and unashamed about the physical space that women take up, and while written from an inner world of the harem it reminds the reader that the author is well aware of the outer world and all its gifts. The voice of the woman is equal to that of the man in this book, it is ideal in that it takes us back to the first story of Creation and the simultaneous formation of men and women.  It can bespeak the love affair between God and Israel in the sense that a truly matched couple in love must not have a power dynamic where one is so much greater than the other – in this love affair God enters our world as lover not as sovereign. There is much eye contact and kissing in the poetry, it is a relationship where both participants give and receive equally.

I fear that the book which reflects the spirituality of women has been so reframed and reinterpreted that it is almost heretical to read it in what I believe was its original voice. It seems to be no coincidence that the mangled punning of Shmuel to alter the beautiful phrase from this book “…har’ini et mar’ayich, hashmini et kolech, ki kolech arev umarech naveh” – “show me your countenance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your countenance is pleasant” is made to read instead “kol b’ishah ervah” the voice of a woman is nakedness/sexuality. (BT Berachot 24) and then offered as a proof that women’s voices should not be heard.

Did he choose the verse from the very book of women’s voices singing in public space to try to mute that very voice from discourse as a deliberate act in order to add insult to injury? To assert the patriarchal norms and taking up of all public space for masculine voices in order to silence any other way of worship?  Is this the first attempt in recorded history of mansplaining?

Whatever the process, for a long time the voice of women in religious worship and religious relationship has been quiet, a whisper, the voice of slender silence. Yet there are hints throughout our tradition that the voice is still speaking – the bat kol, literally the daughter of the voice, is a rabbinic term for communication from the divine.

The book ends with a plea for the voice to continue to be heard: “You who dwell n the gardens, the companions listen out for your voice: Cause me to hear it. Make haste my beloved” (8:13,14)

There is another reason that shir hashirim is read on Pesach, the great festival of our liberation, our freedom from oppression, the fulfilled desire of the Israelites to be able to worship their God in their own way – it is a reminder that the voices of women in Judaism are still struggling to be heard, still searching for a space in the discourse, still asserting viewpoints that are seen as less valid or less important or less authoritative. We have not yet achieved our liberation within the Jewish tradition. But our voices will continue to sing, to speak, to shape the world we see and to counter and add counterpoint to the other voices heard so loudly in our tradition.

 

 

 

Shabbat HaGadol:the day to remind ourselves (as we frantically focus down on Pesach preparations) that our world is larger and more complex than we might be tempted to think.

The shabbat before Pesach goes under the name of “Shabbat Hagadol”, the Great Sabbath. It follows a number of special shabbatot, each with its own name and purpose –Shekalim and Zachor, Parah and HaChodesh, each of which is designed liturgically to remind us of something particular, each of which has its own extra torah reading and Haftarah.

Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath, doesn’t quite fit into the pattern.  While it has its own Haftarah from which some say its name is derived  (it ends “hiney anochi sholeyach lachem et eliyah ha’navee, lifnei bo yom Adonai, hagadol v’ha’norah”  Behold I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the arrival of the Day of the Eternal God, the great and the awesome day (Malachi 3:4-24,23”)  there is no way of knowing whether the name or the reading came first, and truthfully the connection is quite tenuous – to derive the name of the day from the penultimate word of the Haftarah seems unlikely.  So, it doesn’t have an extra Torah reading, and the Haftarah which contains both terrible warning of destruction as well as a prophecy of the redemption at the end of days, is an unlikely contender for the designation of the date.

So what makes this Shabbat Great? Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath?

I’ve heard a number of explanations – always a sign that there can be no certainty – and they range from the quasi historical to the frankly unbelievable.

Traditional commentators explain that the 10th Nissan, the date when the Israelites were to take the lambs into their homes prior to slaughtering them on the 14th of that month, was a shabbat – hence we are remembering the anniversary of that brave act of identification made by the Hebrew slaves after the ninth plague had not yet effected their liberation.  It is a neat suggestion, backed up by some ingenious workings of biblical chronology, but I think at least partially, it misses the point of the naming of this shabbat.  To get a sense of the specialness of this day we need to look not at the particular events of the Exodus, but at the fuller picture of the Jewish year.

There are two shabbatot in the year when it was traditional for the rabbis or scholars of the community to give a sermon.   One was the shabbat before Pesach – Shabbat Hagadol,  and the other was the Shabbat before Yom Kippur – Shabbat Shuvah.  Each of these are the pivotal shabbatot of the Jewish calendar, for they appear exactly half a year apart at a boundary point of the year.  The spring month of Nisan is designated in the bible as the first month of the year, and the autumn month of Tishrei begins the counting of the new solar year.  Both therefore are counted as real new years in our calendar, and so both hold out the possibility of new beginnings.

In both new years there is a tradition of self examination, of clearing out the old disruptive and restraining elements in our lives, and of starting afresh.  Be it the emptying our of the crumbs in our pockets into running water during tashlich as we symbolically get rid of our sins at Rosh Hashanah, or the bedikat chametz – searching for the strategically placed bits of bread around the house with a candle and a feather on the night before seder night so as to be able to burn them the next day, we use the same symbolism to the same effect – we want to be able to start again unencumbered by our past worldly misdemeanours, we want to have a new chance, and the beginning of a year has the right sort of resonance for it.

In the month of Tishrei, along with the festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the eight days of Sukkot our calendar has created  a special shabbat with its own haftarah, where God speaks to us asking us to return – Shabbat Shuvah.   It seems only proper that the month of Nisan should have a special shabbat too, echoing the relationship between God and Israel that will also be so prominent in the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, but weighted slightly differently from the Autumn celebration.

Pesach is a festival that is dedicated to the particular experience of the Jews.  It records our liberation from slavery, the beginning of our journey towards peoplehood, the moment when we embarked on a course that would lead to our encountering God, accepting Covenant, recognising the unity of the Divine.  The Autumn Festivals celebrate not our particularity but our part in a universality – Rosh Hashanah is not the birthday of the Jewish people but of the World, Sukkot is the festival of recognition of the universality of God over all peoples.  Our Jewish tradition values both aspects – the particularity of the special covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God, and the universality of God being God over all the world – divine creator of all people.

Just as we have two new years co-existing with each other in our calendar, so does our theology allow for two quite different identities – the particular one of the Jewish world and the universal one of the whole world.  The skill is in keeping the balance at all times between what may sometimes be conflicting priorities.  If we become too universalist then we lose our special identity, integrating and assimilating into our context until we become unrecognisable even to ourselves.  If we become too particularist then we block out the world around us, turn our backs on the real and important issues of our context, and deny the greatness and universality of our God by denying parts of God’s creation.  The prophets railed against this; the rabbis planned and manoeuvred to keep seemingly mutually incompatible ideas and circumstances alive and within the tradition.  It is a major triumph of Judaism that it is able to keep conflicting truths within the canon of our teachings and one we must never take for granted.

So both Nisan and Tishrei are new beginnings, yet each has different characteristic alongside the similarity.  Nisan is about the particular redemption of the Jewish people, Tishrei about the universal redemption of the world.  Yet each has a balancing component within it.  In Tishrei we mix into the liturgy a great deal of contemplative and reflective material, and we add a shabbat of particularity – shabbat Shuvah.  In Pesach we act out the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt as though we ourselves were there, but we mix into it an awareness of the pain and suffering of the wider world. We lessen our wine of joy by dropping some out as we recall the sufferings of the Egyptians for example, we shorten some of the Hallel psalms to temper our happiness at the crossing of the Red Sea because we remember the Egyptian pursuers who drowned there.  And we add to our commemoration of our redemption from slavery the oppression of others who are not yet released from their subjugation.  There is a tradition to add to both the symbols of Pesach and the liturgy of its services a wider remembrance of suffering and tyranny.  When I was growing up it was common to have a matzah of hope for Jews in Syria and the Soviet Union, to leave an extra chair and place setting for those who were unable to partake in a seder.  As time passed other things have been added to some sedarim – the orange placed on the seder place for example, to symbolise inclusion; and now the olive being added as a hope for peace for all peoples in the Middle East.

Balancing the universal and the particular, the creation of the whole world and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, is a Jewish life skill.  We are a separate people who are part of the one humanity created by God.  We have a particular covenant which designates particular obligations – mitzvot, with that God and we also know that while our convenant is binding on both parties, God also has other particular covenants with other peoples.  We care about our special identity and need to keep it active, and yet we also care about God’s wider world.  We balance the two parts of ourselves continually, the particularist and the universalist elements are both  legitimate expressions of Jewish thinking, and neither perspective can enable us without the other being somewhere in the equation.

So why Shabbat HaGadol?  It is, I think, the balance to Shabbat Shuvah, the day to remind ourselves as we frantically focus down on Pesach preparations that our world is larger and more complex than we might currently be tempted to think.  If our minds are full only of cleaning, cooking and shopping, we should allow space to consider the purpose of commemorating the festival at all. If we are preparing ourselves for the seder service, we should be looking outside the texts of Egyptian or Roman or Crusader persecution of the Jews and look for more modern examples of oppression and subjugation – both within the Jewish world and outside of it.  Shabbat Hagadol is a day to remember the rest of the world before we immerse ourselves in the particular Jewish experience of an exodus and a liberation that led to our formation as a people.

We are once again, at a new beginning.  It is 6 months since we stopped and really thought about the world and about our part within it, our sins of commission and our sins of omission.  This shabbat before Pesach, Shabbat HaGadol, calls to us now to ask – Have we changed in that time? Have  we responded to injustice or pain around us? Have we followed up the resolutions and vows we made during the Yamim Noraim?  Are we playing a part in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world so as to make it a more godly place?  Do we really care what is happening in our name in the world right now as Jews or middle-class professionals or citizens of Western countries?  Or will we just settle down in our homes to commemorate a historical event in a ritual way, opening the door to the outside only towards the end of our service, for a brief moment of recognition that we are not alone in the world, yearning for Elijah to come and signal the end?

Shabbat Hagadol – taking place in a new month which itself begins a new year refocuses us for a day away from our own historical reality to look at the surroundings in which our present reality takes place. It is truly a Great Sabbath.

A Key on the Seder Plate: Remembering those who are detained indefinitely while their applications for asylum are being processed.

keysforfreedomImagine the fear of being subject to indefinite detention. No way of knowing how long you will be there,” feeling like you have been put into some sort of human storage facility” (Ajay from Freed Voices).  Imagine trying to keep your sense of self, already damaged by the treatment you have received earlier in your own country, the torture and abuse you have fled, leaving behind family and home in an attempt to save yourself.  Imagine the dangerous journey to freedom, the cold and the heat, the hunger and the insecurity, the anxiety for those you have left behind, the fear of what the future will hold.

Imagine then arriving at a country of sanctuary, hopeful, grateful, ready to work hard to create a new home and make new relationships, to build a good future. And then imagine the bureaucracy, the suspicion, the black hole you fall into as you try to do all the things that will bring a new start. Imagine the xenophobia, the misery, the violence of those who are losing all hope. Imagine that your innocence is questioned, that being locked up without any time structure is seen as normal. Imagine the limbo you find yourself in, no end in sight, nothing to hold on to. In 2015, 255 people had been detained for between one and two years, 41 for over two years.  But these figures exclude the many people who are held in prisons under immigration powers, so the true figure is likely to be significantly higher.  Detention is justified as a way to deport people, but the majority of people detained for more than a year are not ultimately deported.

There is no clarity or transparency in the process. It just grinds on slowly – at least you hope it is grinding on – how would you know if you are not forgotten?  How do you hold on to your humanity when others see you only as a statistic, and a hostile statistic at that?

As one detained asylum seeker said:    “In prison you count the days down to your release, but in detention you count the days up and up” (Suleymane from Freed Voices”)

In 2015 official figures report that almost three thousand people were placed on suicide watch, eleven of them children.  And the figures for suicide attempts inside these centres is going up. The mental health of detained asylum seekers becomes further fractured by the fear, the lack of any clear process or time structure, the prison conditions in which they are held.

As Richard Fuller MP said at an interfaith event hosted by Tzelem and Rene Cassin in the House of Commons yesterday (20th April 2016) “the system is costly, it is inefficient, and it is unjust”. It costs £70 thousand a year to hold someone in detention in Colnbrook detention centre – money that could be used for their rehabilitation and to facilitate their entry into society.

The UK is the only European country with indefinite detention for asylum seekers. The immigration bill is coming back to the Commons with many amendments from the Lords, one of which is to set a time limit of 28 days. As we go into Pesach, our festival of freedom, let’s do all we can to remember and to hold in our hearts and minds the frightened people held in indefinite detention in our own country. Put a key on your Seder plate and pledge to work for the freedom of all people to live in security and peace, to work for the ordinary and common desire we all share to be able to get on with our lives without fear.

Parashat Vayikra HaChodesh: organising time and encountering nature. Or “our experience of nature reflects and enhances our experience of God”

“This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:2)

This is the very first commandment given in bible to the entire nation of Israel and rabbinic tradition understands that it commands us to sanctify each new month, and gives us the authority to declare which is the first day of the month. This declaration was done originally through the examining of witnesses by a Beit Din – rabbinic court – in Jerusalem. Talmud gives very detailed instructions about this activity, not surprising given that this declaration and authority over the calendar by the Rabbis is said even to bind God – the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8b) declares that the verse in psalms (81:4-5) “Sound the shofar on the new moon for our feast day, for it is a law for Israel, and a ruling of the God of Jacob” (a piece that is central to our Rosh Hashanah liturgy), means that the Court Above does not enter into judgment on Rosh Hashanah until the Court Below has declared the new month of Tishri.

This commandment gives the Jewish people the authority to decide about time. The whole Jewish year, all of Jewish Time, including deciding the date for legal or taxation or deciding ages or festival observance, is dependent on the Court declaring the new month, having listened to and examined all the witnesses who came to speak of having seen the new moon. This control over deciding time is extraordinary, giving the Rabbinic Court a power akin to God’s, Who created time. Being able to control one’s time means being free in a very powerful way – slaves do not manage their own time, and in modern times the balancing of work/life is a critical part of how we experience our lives.

The declaration of the new moon was one of the three activities seen as fundamental to Jewish identity and therefore banned by the Seleucid Empire, against whom the Chanukah revolt took place. The other two were the observance of Brit Milah (circumcision) and Shabbat.

There are two rituals today in which we are able to observe the turning of the month. The first is familiar to many, the Birkat haChodesh read out in synagogue on the Shabbat before the New Moon (except the new moon of Tishri) to remind the community of the fact. Along with the announcement of the date the New Moon would be seen we read: “May it be Your will, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You bring this month to us for goodness and for blessing. May You give us long life – a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life in which there is fear of heaven and fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame nor humiliation, a life of wealth and honour, a life in which we will have love of Torah and fear of heaven, a life in which our heartfelt requests will be fulfilled for the good. May the Holy One, Blessed is God, renew it for us and for all Your people, the Family of Israel, for life and for peace, for joy and for gladness, for salvation and for consolation, and let us say: Amen.”

But there is another ritual called Birkat haChodesh – and sometimes (wrongly) called Kiddush Levanah – the Sanctification of the Moon, when we bless God as we stand under the night sky in the presence of the new moon. The ritual comes from Talmud, where in Tractate Sanhedrin we find the text of the Blessing: “Praised are you, O Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who created the skies with Your word, and all heaven’s host with the breath of Your mouth. You gave them appointed times and roles, and they never miss their cues, doing their Creator’s bidding with gladness and joy. God is the true creator who acts faithfully, and who has told the moon to renew itself. It is a beautiful crown for the people carried by God from birth (Israel), who will also be renewed in the future in order to proclaim the beauty of their creator and God’s glorious majesty. Praised are you, O God, who renews new moons.”

Around the Talmudic text we find the idea that the ceremony should take place on a night when the moon is growing (not necessarily the New Moon), preferably on Saturday night when the celebrant will be wearing their best clothes and will be happy. There was a custom of showing one’s joy by dancing and leaping towards the moon, raising the body on tiptoes three times while reciting the formula “As I dance towards you, but cannot touch you, so shall none of my enemies be able to touch me!” and everyone should say to each other “Shalom Aleichem”: “Peace to You”

I have taken part in this ritual within a community exactly five times in my life, but each time have become more aware of the praise of nature and of God’s role as the creator of nature, which is something that we lose often in our liturgical mainstream. Each time the symbolism of the moon, which waxes and wanes, which sometimes hangs low and almost tangible in the night sky and which sometimes is hidden; the moon which influences our world so powerfully but so invisibly – from the flow of the tides to the stable axial tilt; from the comfort of light at darkest night and darkness of a moonless night – the moon symbolises so much more than just a satellite orbiting the earth and lit by the sun. It symbolises continuity, growth and renewal, weakness and ending followed by increase in strength and fulfilment. It is no wonder that Jewish texts liken the people Israel to the moon, with our fluctuating history and our constant return to life – the moon symbolises hope, renewal, constant change within a clear set of parameters. Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yochanan said “reciting the blessing over the moon at the appropriate time is like being in the presence of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).. and the school of Rabbi Ishmael said “if the Children of Israel are privileged to greet their father in heaven once a month, it is enough”. Now while I am not advocating a connection with Jewish ritual only once a month, it is a powerful reminder that our experience of nature reflects and enhances our experience of God. And we can experience nature at any moment – currently the blossom is out on the trees and the spring bulbs are flowering. The encounter with nature only takes for us to open our eyes and see – and from that looking at our world we can feel hope and a sense of the continuity through the changing world. Be it the moon, be it other aspects of creation, be it the Creator, the privilege of perceiving this hope must be enough.

Image by Eric Teske (CC BY-NC 3.0)

Counting Down the Days: Between Pesach and Shavuot

Between Pesach and Shavuot we count. Every evening we tick off the day that has just passed, and we label it – adding up the weeks and the days of the omer, building up to the moment at Sinai when the covenant between God and the Israelites was signed, the moment when Judaism might be said to be created. It was at Sinai that the group of ex slaves who had descended from Jacob first got to understand something about God, and it was at Sinai that they began to realise that God required something from them that was more than the usual obeisance and paying off. An association was formed with obligations and expectations on both sides. Each party began to understand that the other was far more complex and ambiguous than they had appreciated until now, that much was hidden and even more was yet to emerge. At Sinai the God who had spoken to the ancestors, who had battled Pharaoh with plagues and signs and wonders, who had led them in the wilderness with a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire became something quite different – became of God of relationship and connection. And the disparate group of people with some shared stories and a collective present became united because of their experience there.

We don’t really know what happened at Sinai, some three months after the people had streamed out of Egypt into an uncertain freedom. But we know that the event shaped them and it continues to shape us – the revelation at Sinai, even while the people kept their distance from the mountain, made them the commanded people of God. We agreed to be God’s workers in the world and God agreed to be our God. Even now we struggle to make sense of that agreement, and we constantly nuance and finesse and philosophize in our struggle to seek its meaning. We take some control where we can, so we count the days from Pesach to Shavuot, waiting to get there and to experience it again – maybe this will be the year when we understand a little more.

Musings – what other foods might we put onto a seder plate?

It is becoming common now to have an alternative seder plate with foods to remind us about the importance of the festival themes. So there is an orange to represent the alienated and isolated Jews, be they women, gay, transgender… There is the olive to remind us of the need for peace in the world, and specifically the need to make peace between the Israeli and Palestinian inhabitants of the Land. There is the fairtraid cocoa bean and also the tomato, to remind us of the modern slavery endured by others in order that we have such products cheaply… There is the cup of water filled for Miriam the prophetess who is credited with providing water in the desert.

Image I was asked last year what else I might choose to put on a seder plate, and here is my response:

I would choose a pomegranate to be on my Seder plate as a reminder of the many different strands of my Judaism and the fact that I am free to have a complex layered understanding of tradition. The pomegranate is one of the seven species the bible tells us about growing in the land of Israel, (the shivat haminim), fruits which are traditionally eaten on Sukkot, a full half year from Pesach, a reminder of the connection to the Land to which I remain spiritually attached. It was said to be one of the fruits brought back by the spies to demonstrate the fertility of the land – a tempting luscious fruit that can only be eaten sensually, as Song of Songs reminds us.

Tradition tells us that a pomegranate has 613 seeds – equivalent to the mitzvot, and I particularly like the chutzpah of such a statement and that fact that we remember it while knowing that it is not remotely true. I like that the mitzvot are likened to the jewelled seeds, and the implication of richness and nourishment within them, while remembering the hard pip within each seed that can be both irritation and pleasure, and that can stay with one long after the juicy flesh has been taken. And I like the way that pomegranates are so useful in so many ways – as health food, as astringent, as spice and decoration, as traditional remedy for any number of ailments right through the body, as drink and paste and marinade. It prompts me to think of the multi-faceted ways Judaism is expressed, from the traditional covenantal relationship and discipline of mitzvot, to the loose warmth of ‘kitchen Judaism’ as people respond to the remembered smells of the different festival foods though the year.

Bible tells us that Aaron wore a special garment as high priest, and it was decorated with alternate bells and pomegranates on the hem, so that when he moved the sounds of these objects clashing would be heard and people would know he would be safe – indeed the bible is starkly clear – “so that he will not die”. This brings me from the sacrificial system of Biblical Judaism right into the modern world of Jewish community – people will pay attention to how others are, particularly those who are vulnerable. They will notice if they haven’t seen or heard them, and do something so that their lives are sustained and preserved. The pomegranate is the standard bearer for communication in community.

Another tradition tells us that the forbidden fruit eaten by Eve in Eden was not the apple (a later pun on the Latin ‘malum’ to mean both bad and apple) but the pomegranate. If it is truly the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it would be a potent reminder at Seder that we have choices in what we do, a freedom in our lives with consequent responsibilities. We cannot accuse others for our not having achieved what we know we should have, or take refuge in the modern day ‘slavery’ to routine. The pomegranate would challenge us –“know what is important, do what is right”.

A pomegranate is similar in shape to a grenade (indeed its name in both English and Hebrew reflects this) and so it would be a salutary reminder that even that which is beautiful and health giving could easily become dangerous and destructive in the wrong circumstances, another warning on the Seder table to remind us that our Judaism can either sustain us in living well or in living selfishly and without care or thought for the other among whom we live. Choose Life! says the bible, but both blessing and curse are set before us and it is our freedom to decide which way to go.

And finally – the best way to eat a pomegranate is to cut it into two pieces, turn each upside down in one hand and hit it with a wooden spoon so that the seeds fall into a waiting container. A satisfying if difficult thing to do well, a metaphor for much of the Jewish world one might think. But the best bit comes last – once the Seder is over and a home must be found for the objects on the Seder plate, to eat a wonderful juicy fresh pomegranate must be the best end to the ritual I can think of!