Kedoshim: increasing kiddush hashem and diminishing hillul hashem.

It has long been the habit to refer to all the Jews who historically were killed for adhering to their faith in times of persecution as having died “al Kiddush Hashem” and this idea has also become attached to the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah – they have become kedoshim through their deaths and are  elevated to the status of martyrdom.  I understand the comfort that may be derived by those who mourn their murdered family and friends to see their status as that of kedoshim, but I have always found this slide of the terminology to be problematic. To me martyrdom should be a conscious choice. To me their murder is a Hillul Hashem, and no holiness can be found within it, only in the responses both at the time and afterwards to protest, to remember, to mourn, to live on.

I am uncomfortable also in the loss of the full name of Yom haShoah, which is actually “Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah”— literally the “Day of (remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Heroism.” All choice has been removed from our remembering – both the lack of choice of those who were rounded up and unable to protest, and the powerful choices made by those who did protest, or who were partisans or who hid themselves or others from the evil around them.  By diminishing the heroism, by diminishing the choices people made from their own humanity and their ethical imperatives, it seems to be we lose out on Kiddush Hashem as people are able to bring it about. Instead we focus on the Hillul Hashem of those who mindlessly or not destroyed the hopes and lives of so many and we coat the victims in martyrdom as if to bring honour to their destinies.

Yom HaShoah was created to remember those we have defined as kedoshim either through martyrdom or through protecting God’s creation when others were trying to destroy it, and the date was chosen by the Government of Israel to remember them. It is no coincidence that the date chosen by the politicians was out of sync from the date that would have been chosen by rabbinic tradition, and instead of being placed on a traditional day of mourning such as tenth Tevet or Tisha b’Av it was placed a week before the celebration of the Israel Independence Day – Yom ha’Atzma’ut. This placing has led to a connection in the minds of many, that the outcome of the murder of the 6 million is the creation of the modern State of Israel.

For me this is deeply problematic. Not only does it submerge the many prior years of political Zionism that worked to create a Jewish state, but it builds the state on the martyrdom of the ‘kedoshim’, many of whom were not natural Zionists in life.  In so doing, it changes the nature of the contract with the land we have had since this Torah text was given – that we have the land of Israel because God has given it to us, and we have a responsibility to live on it in a way that promotes Kiddush Hashem. Sidra Kedoshim makes clear that our continued living on the land of Israel depends on our living lives of kedoshim, ethical lives where the vulnerable are protected, the land is cared for, and where a lived awareness of the focussed attention of God and the desire to behave as God would wish us to do should always be part of our daily routines. By making the idea of ‘kedoshim’ the historical foundation of the State rather than the aspiration of the contemporary society we reduce the imperative to behave in holiness. And that is dangerous, for if we are not acting to promote Kiddush Hashem we run the risk of sliding into its shadow, of Hillul Hashem. If we believe we have an entitlement not given to us by Torah but by the deaths of innocents then we can easily act from that sense of entitlement, and we forget the conditions given here in Leviticus that the land will not tolerate our bad behaviour.

The rabbis of the Talmud spoke of being kedoshim as living in such a way as to imitate the divine qualities of mercy and kindness.  They specifically ruled out imitating the parallel divine attribute of strict justice often seen as working in balance with divine mercy and which may impose conditions for the way the mercy might be applied. They are advocating undiscriminating kindness to others in order both to achieve kedoshim and to increase the presence of God in the world. I am reminded of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote “when I was young I used to admire clever people, now I am older I admire kind people” and I hope that beyond admiration, we remember the vulnerable and the powerless and those who sought to help and protect them, and in remembering our own experience of helplessness and oppression we too strive to increase kindness in our world.

 

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.

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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.

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.

Vayetzei: We become who we can imagine and dream we can become.

There is so much deceit in this week’s Torah reading. Deceit and dreaming. Jacob is on the run from his brother Esau, having deceived their father into giving him the blessing meant for Esau, the blessing of the firstborn. He falls in love with Rachel, the younger daughter of his uncle Laban, only to be deceived on the wedding night and given Leah her elder sister instead. In order to achieve the wages owed to him he strikes a deal with Laban which means he can selectively breed a huge flock of animals, something Laban was clearly not expecting. While Laban is away, Jacob sneaks away with Rachel and Leah and his household including a large flock of animals. Rachel steals the household gods and hides them, something she keeps from everyone. When Laban pursues them she lies about having them – a lie that will lead to her own death.  Deception follows dishonesty, it is a sorry read for those who would like to find bible reading an uplifting experience.

And yet – at the same time as all the double dealing and the cheating, something else seems to be happening. Alongside the scheming is a growing sense of God, a sense of awe; an understanding that the individual is neither alone in the world nor irrelevant to it.

The understanding begins as Jacob sleeps, when he senses the presence of God in a lonely isolated place on the road, and perceives that that presence is caring and watchful.  It grows as he learns to love selflessly – Jacob works for fourteen years in order to pay Laban so as to marry the woman he loves. Once his beloved younger wife has a son, Jacob realises it is time for him to go home, he himself is in danger of absorbing too many of the dubious values of his father in law Laban and somewhere deep inside himself he knows that needs to protect this beloved son from doing so also. It turns out that the rather unreliable and devious Jacob we met at the beginning of the sidra is in fact capable of deep love and loyalty; he is rooted in the landscape of his family, his untrustworthy personality and selfish behaviour are not the full measure of the man.

What are the mechanisms that bring about this deeper understanding? They seem to be a combination of dreams and imaginings. Whatever happens on that lonely night by the roadside on the way to Haran, Jacob begins to transform his world. As he sleeps he dreams of angels mounting a ladder to heaven and other angels descending a ladder to the earth. He hears God speak to him, renewing the covenant made between God and Abraham and God and Isaac. He believes the covenant is now also with him. And then he awakes. Torah never clarifies if this is truly a religious encounter or a product of the imagination of Jacob, something of his own that yet provides him with a new understanding and insight. Whatever it is, Jacob begins to understand that God can be present in his life.

Rashi suggests that when Jacob says “The Eternal is present in this place and I, I did not know it”, he means “had I known, I would not have slept in such a holy place. And yet, had he not slept there he would never have known it to be a holy place. So paradoxically, in order to understand the sacredness of the place, Jacob had to trust his own inner self, his own imagination, his own ability to create and transform the world. And this is what brought about a change in him, allowed him to become a better self.

As Jacob dreams, as he imagines possibilities, he begins to form them and make them real. He wakes knowing with certainty now that he is the true inheritor of the blessing, the one with whom the covenant is made. From that moment on he seems to be a different person – one with a purpose beyond his own gratification and enjoyment. While dreaming or imagining the encounter with God, he effectively created the outcome of such an encounter, he became the next possessor of the covenant.  The power of our dreams or imagination should never be dismissed. We become who we can imagine and dream we can become.

Chayei Sarah: Sarah Imeinu, a flawed and powerful matriarch

The death of Sarah so soon after the binding of Isaac by his father, is ascribed in the midrash as the result of the shock Sarah experienced when she became aware that Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice their son Isaac in order to demonstrate to God his total loyalty, and that God had been prepared to test Abraham with such an ordeal.

God had said to Abraham: take your son, your only one, whom you love…” but the truth is that Isaac was not Abraham’s only son, though he was Sarah’s, HER only one. Abraham still of course, had Ishmael.

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Isaac was her miracle child, born to her after years of infertility had merged into menopause, prophesied to her by God, a boy whose name meant laughter, but whose life in the event seemed to have had very little joy in it.

Isaac was the boy who was born to fulfil the promise of huge numbers of descendants. In procuring a son, any son, for Abraham, Sarah had tried to make sure that promise was fulfilled, but in the process had given herself a life with very little laughter and a great deal of unhappiness. She had given her handmaid Hagar to Abraham, but the son born from that union had then had to leave the family as she understood that he presented a danger to Isaac and to his inheritance. Then too, the relationship between Abraham and Sarah was clearly not all it might have been.  We know that Abraham was not with Sarah when she died, and more than that, that they had separate households in separate cities. The Midrash also suggests that love had died between them before the Akedah, when it allows us read that famous command from God as “Take your son, the only one you love, take Isaac…”

Sarah lived for 127 years, and the content of her life was the launch pad for much of later Jewish history.  Her death gives us a stake in the future too, for the negotiations between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite to buy her gravesite provide us not only with an insight into such transactions, but give documentary credibility to the attachment of the Jewish people to the land.  Many is the scriptural literalist who points to this passage and declares – “see we bought this land all this time ago, it is ours.”

It seems to me horribly appropriate that it should have been for Sarah that the land was purchased and the transaction so scrupulously recorded, for it is Sarah who took matters into her own hands when she procured a son for her husband via her handmaid Hagar, and set up a chain of painful rejection and destruction that has never quite been dealt with by any of the protagonists or by their descendents.

It was Sarah who couldn’t wait; who caused the birth of Ishmael and who had him sent away to what she assumed would be his death. It was Sarah whose sad and ironic laughter prefigured the lack of any real laughter in Isaac’s life.

Sarah is a figure who comes from nowhere – her genealogy is not given (exceptional in the biblical context) except for the defensive statement by Abraham that she is his sister.  She is however included in the covenant promise  given to Abraham – it will be her child with him, not Hagar’s to whom the covenant will apply. She is beautiful enough to be wanted by Kings, yet her barrenness makes her beauty somehow irrelevant, and her beauty is seen by Abraham mainly as a threat to his own life should anyone more powerful than him desire her.

Her life is full of journeying, her relationships full of misplaced love, manipulation and pain.

Sarah’s death leaves unfinished and painful circumstances. There is a great hole in the life of her son, who does not meet her again after the terrifying experience with his father, and who later takes his own bride into his mother’s tent, (not his father’s), to be comforted for the loss of his mother. Her husband also mourns her, but having honourably buried her, swiftly remarries, fathering children who will be the ancestors of the surrounding tribes with which Israel will have to deal.  Intriguingly, Keturah, the second wife of Abraham, is equated in the Midrash with Hagar, the repudiated handmaid of Sarah, a way no doubt of dealing with the discomfort of the rabbis with the behaviour of Sarah and Abraham towards this innocent Egyptian maid, yet a resolution which essentially betrays Sarah.

Sarah’s death is too soon, despite her 127 years of full life. She bequeathed a series of family behaviours that took generations to deal with, if not to fully conclude.  Her son was left emotionally disabled by his upbringing, her grandchildren spent years unable to see past their own senses of injustice and betrayal.

Yet for all of this Sarah was a matriarch, she ordered and she sorted and she gave unquestioning loyalty to Abraham and to his perceived destiny.  She travelled with him, leaving her home and her background just as surely as Abraham had done.  She nourished and cared for him, she understood prophesy and indeed is seen as a prophet in her own right, her gifts in that field considered to be greater even than Abraham’s. She heard God’s voice and she spoke with God and she even had the confidence to laugh at God.

The rabbis say that Sarah’s death is announced in such a way (“The lives of Sarah were..and Sarah died”) to bring home the lesson that her life was fully lived and that that was the important thing about her – her death was inevitable but it was her life that counted.  As we remember the stories about her, the bold actions she took on behalf of those she loved, the meddling in history and the protecting of her own, we can begin to understand her and to some extent understand the choices she made. She was matriarch, wife, part of the chain of the covenant; she loved fiercely and maybe acted on that love unwisely. She was sometimes a problem for herself and for those around her, but her life remains a story worth telling from which we can learn. Sarah Imeinu, a brilliant and determined woman whose life was full and complex and left its mark on her descendants, and whose death has also impacted on our history up to the present time.

(image an embroidery of Sarah’s tent on Torah binder by Caroline Ingram)

Nitzavim Vayelech: Standing Up – for each other and for our common humanity.

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In Nitzavim Moses warns that “The secret things belong to the Eternal our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah.”  (Deuteronomy 29:28). It sounds perfectly reasonable as a sentence until one starts to look a little closer – what are the secret or hidden things being referred to here? What are the revealed? And why the need to state the distinction? It is an obscure verse and open to much conjecture.

Rashi understands this verse as one where Moses reassures the people who are standing and accepting the covenant for all time and all Jews – even those not yet born. They must be afraid that they will be held responsible for things about which they knew nothing, as part of some Jewish collective responsibility – indeed we are told in Talmud (Shevuot 39a) that” Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la zeh – all Israel are responsible, one for the other.” So in Rashi’s eyes Moses is explaining that any sins that were openly committed and that we might have been able to prevent or mitigate – these we remain responsible for. But actions done in secret, about which we can have no knowledge – these are left for God to deal with; and he goes on to explain that God will indeed punish sins that are not publicly known about, if they are not acknowledged or mitigated.

One of the great themes of the end of the book of Deuteronomy is ‘arvut’ – the mutual responsibility between Jews. As the leadership of Moses is coming to an end, he clearly foresees a splintering of the group, maybe the challenge of a number of different leadership candidates, and he does his best to prevent this by stressing the communal nature of our relationships with each other. So here we are reminded: we are part of a single people bound by a single covenant. We cannot afford to ignore what each other is doing, or to challenge what we see to be against the values of our tradition, or to excuse something as fringe or marginal or not impacting upon us.

There is a something else that adds to the oddity and opacity of this verse – in the scroll the words ‘for us and our children’ with dots over each letter. The reason for this scribal notification is not known, but it drags our attention to the verse asking for us to pay even more intense attention to it.

We read in the Talmud: Why are there dots over ‘for us and our children’ and the ayin of ‘ad’? To teach that they were not punished for the hidden things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan – the words of Rabbi Judah. Rabbi Nehemiah said to him: Is one ever punished for the hidden things? Doesn’t it say: to eternity? Rather, just as one is not punished for the hidden things, so they were not punished for the revealed things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan. (Sanhedrin 43b)

The Talmud seems to imply that the collective responsibility only comes into being once the Jews had arrived in the land, that the peoplehood only becomes absolute at the point they have a land. This idea has evolved as the Jewish people fulfilled the Abrahamic promise by being dispersed all over the world, and as the land became metaphor more than reality for so much of Jewish history to grow into a sense of collective arvut – of responsibility for more than our Jewish community but for the different communities of which we are part, and certainly our identities have become more complex and overlain with different relationships. We grow into our communities when we have shared purpose, shared values, shared space. But the dots over the phrase “for us and our children” direct us to look deeper and closer, and again Rashi comes to our aid. Rashi, (commenting on Psalm 87:6) suggests that “the hidden things are not sins, but people” – that while many Jews have left Judaism either through historical circumstance or through assimilation, and their children may never even know of their Jewish history and backgrounds, Rashi understands that their Jewish roots are never forgotten by God.

Now this may make some people uncomfortable. In Nitzavim we were entered into a covenant without either assent or consent – by our descending from Jewish parentage we are part of this covenant whether we like it or not. Jewishness is something that is given to us whether we wanted it or not. Similarly, the understanding of a verse around this covenant is that we can never escape it – even if we no longer are aware of being part of the Jewish people, by virtue of heritage all who descend from that time will find themselves brought back into it. One thing that it does do however is to bring into focus that we cannot really know anyone’s yichus, and that we should trust God’s judgement over our own. It also means that we cannot be narrow in our understanding of who is in our community, with whom we share responsibility – the obligation to care for others extends beyond the confines of family or known community, out to the whole human world – the arvut is rightly broadened out to include all the groups among whom we live.

This verse about the hidden and the revealed reminds us that we cannot know everything about the world. It reminds us that we have responsibility for what we do or should know about – and it also reminds us that one of the things we know is that we cannot know for sure where the boundaries of our community lie, only that they extend into the human race.

Danny Siegel wrote a wonderful poem which speaks to us in the same way, a poem I love to read and use to remind myself of the extensiveness of arvut:

“If you always assume/ that the person sitting next to you/ is the messiah/ just waiting for some simple human kindness/ You will soon come to weigh your words/ and watch your hands/ and attend to your responsibilities./ And/ if he so chooses/ not to reveal himself in your time/ It will not matter. (Danny Siegel, ‘A Rebbe’s Proverb (from the Yiddish)’)

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