Sarah, a matriarch whose multifaceted life gives us all something to live up to.

The Matriarch Sarah is the only woman for whom a sidra, the weekly torah reading, is named.  The first wife of Abraham, the mother of Isaac, she is the also the first of the four biblical matriarchs. What do we know about her? No genealogy is given for her when we first meet her as the wife of Avram living in Ur of the Chaldees, although Avram does at a later point say she is his half-sister. (Gen 20:12). Her name when we first meet her is “Sarai” which may be a name derived from the goddess Ishtar who was also called “Sarrat”, and although scholars also suggest it may be a name meaning priestess of that pagan cult, we tend to assume her name comes from the Hebrew for prince or leader –S.R.R.  making Sarah a princess of our people.

The first thing we know about Sarah is that she is unable to conceive a child, and so when she does so at the age of 90, her husband being one hundred years of age, this is clearly because of divine intervention and both parents laugh in disbelief when God tells them. Abraham asks God to give Ishmael the role of heir (Gen 17:17-19) but God is very clear – the covenant with Abraham will be passed down through a son he shall have with Sarah. She is an important and necessary figure in the divine covenant and as proof of this her name is to be changed along with Avram’s and she too is blessed in similar language to the blessing given to Abraham.

The change of names must catch our attention. When Abraham’s name is changed it is to clearly alter his destiny. God tells him “your name will no longer be called Avram (exalted father) but your name shall be Avraham because I have given to you the fatherhood of a multitude of nations”. The letter ‘hei’ has been added to Avram’s name – and this letter, with the numeric value of 5 which is the magical number for protection, is also a letter which symbolically denotes the name of God.

Sarah’s name change is rather different. God speaks not to her but to Abraham, saying “You shall not call her name Sarai, because her name is Sarah. And I will bless her and also give you a son with her. And I will bless her….”

Sarah is already her name – there is no change except that now Abraham will call her by her name. There is no added letter to her name – instead one could argue that part of her name has been taken away, the yod (numerical value ten, symbolically used for the name of God) has transmuted into the letter hei. It has been halved, and one half given to Avram in order to fit him for the role he is to take on. You could say that Sarah is diminished in order to enrich her husband.  Some of her divine spark is taken in order to build him up. She is the woman whose descendants will gain the eternal covenant. She has a special relationship with God – the only woman in torah to whom God talks directly – it is through the merit of Sarah that Abraham is able to achieve his destiny.

Another way of reading what happens to Sarah’s name is that the yod is turned into a hei by the addition of the letter dalet – when a scribe writes the letter hei in a torah scroll, it is by the combination of a yod and a dalet. So while at the same time as creating two hei letters from the yod, one could reason that Sarah had the letter dalet added to her name. The letter dalet is an ideogram for a doorway, as the Hebrew word delet reminds us. So knowing that she is Sarah means that Abraham begins to understand that she is the doorway and the gatekeeper to a deeper spirituality, a way to connect with God not just for himself but for the generations to come. Sarah emerges as liminal, as the connector between two worlds, a woman who transcends experienced reality.

Sarah’s relationship with God is defined by the phrase we use in liturgy – “pokeid Sarah”.  The verb p.k.d has a number of meanings: to attend to, to visit, to muster, to remember, to account, to command.   God remembers Sarah’s desire for a child, God visits Sarah to announce that she will have a child, God appoints Sarah to be the matriarch of peoples, God pays attention to her and tells Abraham to do the same.

Abraham and Sarah were said to have been noticeably hospitable, open and inclusive. Sarah’s tent was said to be open on all sides to welcome desert travellers needing a warm welcome. The midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 60:16) tells us also that as long as she lived the Shechinah hovered over her tent, her challah dough was blessed and her Sabbath lights lasted the entire week until the next Shabbat.

She was also a notable prophet – the Talmud (Yerushalmi Sotah 7:1) tells us that her prophecy was greater than that of Abraham , and that God was referring to her prophetic power when telling Abraham “whatever she tells you, do as she says” (BT Sanhedrin). It also lists her among the seven women prophets (BT Megillah 14a)

Sarah lived to the age of 127, and the way the bible describes this implies she lived a number of different lives in these years. She was a woman of great complexity, a woman of great strength who was destined to become the progenitor and matriarch of many peoples.  It took time for this to be revealed – she is a woman both hidden in the tent and open to the world; a wife who travelled with her husband wherever he went at some real inconvenience to herself and a wife who was living in a different city from him when she died. Her relationship with Isaac was a strong bond – she ensured his protection when she saw that Ishmael was assuming a position of power that might damage him, and he was comforted for her death by the love of his wife Rebecca, a touching phrase which tells us a great deal about the bond between them.

Sarah’s relationship with Isaac is at the core of the text. The covenant of blessing is destined to be the given to the child of both Abraham and Sarah, but Abraham is clearly fond of both boys, even suggesting to God that rather than have another child, Ishmael could take the role. So it is Sarah who must protect Isaac, who must shape and form him ready to take on his destiny. It is Sarah who engineers the removal of Ishmael from the scene, and who having protected her son from a potential rival retires from the fray.

But her protective action did not end the danger. God appears to ask Abraham to offer up Isaac on a specific mountain and Abraham does not argue but takes the boy on the journey, prepares him for his fate and is ready to slice the knife into him as a bound offering to God, only stopped by the urgent cry of an angel of God at the very last moment.

Because of the story of the death of Sarah being reported in bible immediately after this terrible text of the binding of Isaac, the midrash links the two, saying that Satan tricked Sarah into believing that Abraham had indeed killed their only son, and the soul of Sarah flew out of her body in her deep distress as she wished to live no longer. Another somewhat less believable version is that she died of happiness when she realised that she had been tricked and her son was still alive. (Pirkei d’R.Eliezer 32/ Ginzburg Legends of the Jews)

Either way, her life ends much sooner than that of Abraham who goes on to marry Keturah and have more sons, but who has become irrelevant to the purpose of the biblical narrative after that moment on Mount Moriah – except to buy the land in Hebron for her final resting place, the Cave of Machpela which will become the family mausoleum to this day.

The text moves on to focus on Isaac, son of Sarah and Abraham. Isaac will marry Rebecca and he will love her till his death. The love of his mother has made him who he is, a strong but unobtrusive figure perfectly placed between his famous father and his famous son, providing stability and warmth and entrenching the place of the covenant of blessing into the family firmly and steadfastly. The legacy of Sarah provided many things in rabbinic tradition – land properly bought within Israel, many converts to the one God, hospitality, steadfastness, divine merit, but for me her best legacy is Isaac. Often misunderstood and seen as less important than his colourful father and sons, he is a man who has shown himself to be so well loved that he can overcome the trauma of near filicide to build a relationship of love and trust with wife and sons, and to put down roots and live alongside the other tribes. That, I am sure, is the inheritance he got from Sarah. That, and the covenant of blessing which is usually – wrongly – ascribed to Abraham alone. but which was given to him only because of the merit of Sarah. I used to have a fridge magnet that said “behind every successful man is an exhausted woman” – certainly the aphorism that most fits our first and most wondrous matriarch.

Behar: to treat with respect is the essence of holiness

The bible is very clear – everything we have belongs to God and is at best ‘on loan’ to us. And we have to treat it properly and with respect. Even the land must be allowed to rest, rather than be worked to produce more and more. Besides giving the land a chance to return to a good condition, the sabbatical year also meant that all people, whether they were rich or poor, would find themselves dependant on what the land produced naturally, as all of them would have to collect and gather the food that was there, rather than the usual experience of the richer ones harvesting a good amount and leaving a proportion in the field for the poor to glean. This would have been a transformational experience in that the ones who always had food would become aware of the conditions the poor faced all the time, and one imagines that the bible hoped this learning would motivate them to help support the needy.

Leviticus is a book that is primarily about the ritual system and how holiness is created, and reading some of the narrative here we become aware of the agenda of social justice that is threaded through it, how the world cannot be made perfect if justice is not available for all. Even during the shemitta year, the year when the land is to rest and recuperate, the obligation for tzedakah for the poor continues – in other words just because you are tightening your belts, you don’t forget the needs of others who rely on the help they get from society in order to survive.

Everything we have belongs to God and is, at best, on loan to us. When we harvest the land we leave food for the poor. When we help a fellow human being who is in financial difficulties we give them their dignity and are not to charge interest on any loan we give. The laws remind us that even the money we have is not ours to use as we please. It is a conditional loan, to be partially used for the benefit of others.

As we look into an uncertain future where politically, socially, financially we know that times will be tough and we will almost certainly feel ourselves to have lost some of the security we felt in earlier times, the message that comes through this part of Leviticus could comfort us a little – and could teach us a lot. We must – even now -continue our obligation to a just society where the gap between rich and poor must be actively narrowed (if not removed) on a regular basis. We must – even now – continue our commitment to tzedakah, to the dignity of our fellow human beings, and to our land. And if we maintain our understanding that each of us has a part to play in bettering the world, and that sometimes that process requires us to start again in a different way, then even now when following news sites may leave us feeling impotent angry and depressed, we can stop, take stock, and get on with helping to create a healthier and holier world.



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.


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.


Acharei Mot – Kedoshim: Holiness is not a state to achieve, but a process to live by.

א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדשִׁ֣ים תִּֽהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

Sidra Kedoshim is very familiar to us, echoing as it does the Ten Commandments, and taking the soubriquet “the holiness code”. Reform Jews read it on Yom Kippur as a reminder of what the ethical life would look like. We are aware of its physical and spiritual place in the Torah – it lies at the very centre of the scroll, and in the centre of Kedoshim itself is the golden rule – “love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Eternal”.   This law was quoted by Hillel in the first century, albeit cast into the negative “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”; Rabbi Akiva declared it to be the great principle of the Torah. And many Christians know it through its repetition by Jesus, who called it second only to the commandment to love God.

So when we look at the great commandment which acts as a chorus throughout this sidra –“You shall be Kadosh (Holy) as I the Eternal am Kadosh (Holy) – we tend to immediately think of the great dictum which, if followed, will bring about a better world for us all. Indeed, if we behave towards our neighbour with as much care as we behave towards fulfilling our own needs, we would automatically be living more saintly lives than we do now. But the sidra goes on, and the detail in the second half gives a slightly different flavour to the response ‘Be Kadosh as I the Eternal your God am Kadosh”

It goes on to talk about kilayim – not mixing different kinds or species, be they animal or agricultural. It talks about sha’atnez, not mixing wool and linen together in garments. The laws of Kilayim are elaborated in Talmud which expounds and clarifies the laws of this occasionally strange principle.

It goes on to talk about the prohibition of the fruit of new trees – for three years after a tree is planted its fruit may not be used at all, in the fourth year the fruit is used only for religious celebration, after that, it is permitted to use the fruit of the tree.

And then come a whole lots of individual prohibitions or warnings – don’t eat anything with the blood; don’t practise divination or soothsaying, don’t round of the side growth on your head or your beard, don’t mutilate your flesh or mark yourself in any way. Don’t make your daughter a prostitute. Keep the Sabbath and venerate the sanctuary. Don’t turn to ghosts or familiars. Show deference to the old. Don’t wrong the stranger. Don’t falsify weights or measures.

It is such an odd mix, such a strange set of things for the narrator of the biblical text to be perturbed about. Some of the injunctions are self-evidently good to do, others read to the modern eye as ritual behaviour with no obvious meaning and some superstition implicit within them. What are we to make of not rounding the hair of the head? Or of saving the fruit for 5 years before having the use of it?

The second half of sidra Kedoshim challenges our understanding of what it means to be holy. We are out of the spiritual world and solidly into a more practical one. Holiness becomes less a matter of intention and more a matter of action. Holiness becomes something we do in relation to other people as well as a private matter between ourselves and God.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with holiness. Not simply that I found it hard to achieve in my life, but that put as a spiritual and saintly proposition, it made me feel a bit queasy. Maybe it is my solid and gritty northern upbringing, but the way some forms of piety and piousness are expressed don’t make me feel spiritually uplifted, rather they make me want to kick the individual offering their religiosity in such a way.

It has been a consistent feature of my religious life that the most holy people I encounter are also almost universally the earthiest. I recall a verse of a song by my teacher Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Magonet which affectionately described – some may say lampooned – all the people who had seriously affected his religious growth, called “come and join the cavalcade”. The verse that comes to mind goes something like   “it is not easy to watch the prophet speak. He dribbles on occasion and he’s far too fond of sweets”. I won’t reveal which revered teacher is being described, but I can assure you that, of all the great of his generation, he is certainly the one most able to transmit a sense of the immanent yet transcendent God in such a way that it is almost as if a map of the religious journey is in your hand.

I have a problem with holiness – it seems to have acquired in modern parlance a sort of righteousness, the sanctity and piety of which have suppressed any human odour; it seems not to belong to ordinary life, but to the extraordinary and spiritually chaste living of the favoured few. But that is truly not what Jewish holiness is about – for the Jewish mind the act of holiness is one that we do, and we are made holy by our actions – think of all those blessings which begin with the formula – Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, – Who makes us kadosh (holy) by the obligations to do that God puts upon us.   Look at some of the injunctions in Kedoshim – they are about trying to avoid crossing the sort of boundaries which are in place to protect the vulnerable, or to provide some self discipline, or to prevent us falling into a world view of chaos and randomness that would sap the spiritual yearning from the most determined of us.

The bible has a truly blunt and honest view of human behaviour. It doesn’t expect people to be angels – indeed it is well aware that, while made in God’s image, human beings have potentially everything of God’s image within us – we have the potential to do great evil as well as great good.   We have the potential to do nothing for vast stretches of time and by our inactivity to let evil flourish. The bible sees that people, by nature, often behave selfishly, or thoughtlessly. We face the reality that the bible wouldn’t waste time legislating against things that people would never think of doing, or, having thought of them, do. So the lists of prohibitions gives us a fascinating insight into what some people at least, got up to, and we are able to recognise ourselves in the categories of behaviour if not in the particulars. How many of us take our agriculture and food chain for granted, not caring how a crop was grown, what conditions the labourers in the field worked under, what chemicals were used, what the effect on the environment might have been. How many of us care about how the crops were harvested and transported? Yet here in Leviticus there are indicators about what is important – that the crop should be planted thoughtfully, that the harvest is not ours alone, but in some way is also the creation of system we have no power over. And how many of us practise some form of superstitious magic to gain some control over our worlds – maybe not divination or soothsaying any more, but certainly ways in which we try to ascertain the future so as to be able to feel in control. We might not believe in horoscopes or astrological charts, but we derive some obscure comfort from them too often to be able to admit to them having no effect whatsoever. The abdicating of responsibility and the expectation that others will look after us – or not – is one that is ingrained in many of us, usually without the concomitant expectation that we must do our bit to take care of the more vulnerable aspects of the world.

The biblical kedushah is an amazing concept. It is a recognition of our frailty and our vulnerability, of our self centredness and our fear of the world. And it says – this is who we are, and we are going to build on and use these fault lines to strengthen ourselves. Rav Kook too talks a great deal about holiness, and his premise that the more damaged (the more knots we have in his terms), the more complex and convoluted our personalities, the more we have the potential to become something different and holy – as we work through our faults, so we become more experienced about the world, more compassionate about others, more honest about possibilities.

Holiness is not an unachievable goal, nor is it reserved for the good guys who never do anything really wrong. It is the inevitable result of our struggling with ourselves honestly, of our getting to know who we are and making real efforts to adapt that knowledge into the real world. There is nothing other-worldly about the Jewish concept of holiness, nothing necessarily spiritual or ethereal. Holiness is the outcome of our living in the world, of our focusing on the present and being aware of our behaviour and the impact it might have. It is the result of honest dealings and honest struggle. When Jacob met the angelic figure at the Ford of Jabok and struggling all night was permanently wounded in his groin, the supernatural figure blessed him and changed his name to Israel, saying he was one who had struggled with God and prevailed. Yet immediately the name Jacob is used again, as he tries to slide his family past his brother without effecting the reconciliation his brother so wanted. The name Jacob is used interchangeably with the name Israel for the rest of his life. Jacob isn’t any more holy for the experience, just wiser and more thoughtful and occasionally more tuned in to the right behaviour. I take comfort from that double use of name, because it tells me something that makes sense for me. Holiness is not a state to achieve; it is a choice to make every minute of the day, a process which we follow again and again, sometimes taking the holy way, sometimes not. It is in the struggle that we encounter God, that we become a little more what we could be.   We grow in holiness with every encounter, but we remain rooted in the world. And that is the way life should be.

Not Kohens nor Levites, but all the people are holy

It is shocking to read in sidra emor about the particular physical qualifications which must be met by the hereditary priesthood, in particular the restrictions which the bible describes in this week’s sidra. “No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lords offerings by fire.” we are told, “he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Eternal have sanctified them”

The defects are described in the text – blindness, lameness, hunchback, cataracts – all of them physical and external, all of them beyond the control of the individual. Indeed we are told in later rabbinic commentary (on Bechorot 45a) that an internal defect does not disqualify one from priestly service, only external defects do this.

The priests were a group apart, their status protected and hedged around with strict regulations. They could not touch a dead body except that of an immediate blood relative. They could not shave their heads nor cut the sides of their beards. They could not marry a divorced woman- their wives had to be above any suspicion and come from families that also were seen to be pure. In return for their work in the Temple service they were given special privileges and obligations. To this day in Orthodox Judaism the person who considers themselves to be of a priestly family is called to the Torah reading first, is privileged to do the duchenan (the priestly blessing) on festival days, and will perform pidyon haben – the ritual of release of the firstborn son. Reform Judaism does not make such people more special than others in the community. We do not aspire to a third Temple so the role of priest/ Kohen, is defunct. The disbenefits for a Kohen are real, and can complicate their lives, which, given the reality that we have no real way of knowing who is actually a descendent of the Aaronide family can cause problems that do not need to be caused, and anyway Reform Judaism understands that religious leadership is no longer in the hands of the hereditary priesthood, but has passed into the hands of rabbis and scholars and is now embedded in Rabbinic Judaism.  

It is often a surprise to Jews from a traditional orthodox background to find that we do not accord any special privileges to the Cohens and the Levites in our services; that we have no difficulty with them attending funerals like other Jews; that we perform their marriages to proselytes. It is sometimes a shock to them that we have taken for ourselves the wonderful “priestly blessing” formula, and that we use it at the end of most of our services to invoke the blessing of God on the community on a daily or weekly basis. I have occasionally overheard complaints about what is seen as our lack of respect for the priesthood, yet I do believe that this particular reform was one of the most powerful and significant for us. Far from rejecting our history, I am certain that by making all Jews equal within our liturgical practise we are proclaiming that we are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Instead of defining holiness within the confines of the ritual of the Temple service, we are opening it out into the lives of all who are looking for it. By rejecting the notion of a priesthood whose holiness or lack of it is expressed in terms of physical defect or perfection, we are free to become a people whose holiness or lack of it is expressed in more inner terms, in our prayers, our hopes and intentions, our yearnings, as well as in the actions which result from our inner lives.

The priesthood described in the bible is a complex structure designed to contain purity and holiness as it was understood then, and shows, I believe, clear signs of having accepted concepts from outside societies as well as creating new forms and ways of being. The notion that physical perfection was required in anything which came near to the place of the sacrifices was taken on board in the biblical tradition, but that doesn’t mean it was divine, nor that it was right. Today one can argue that we know much more about physical disability and are less afraid of it, But more than having a different approach to disability, we have developed a different approach to holiness. Maimonides tells us that the sacrificial system was a necessary step to the more religiously sophisticated and satisfactory practise of prayer. His argument could be extended to communal holiness – we no longer need a special group of people to be holy on our behalf, the professional liturgists and holders of ritual power. We have graduated from such a need and now the special privileges and obligations are the property of the whole Jewish people. It means that we must all take on the work of attending to God’s service, rather than leave it to the people who were born to it, or who are the heirs presumptive. We all have the job of seeing to it that holiness is part of the practise and the being of the Jewish people, that it is expressed both internally and externally, that we truly work together to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. If we don’t do that now, then we will be, in the words of sidra Emor, “profaning Gods holy places”, for the holy places of God are always found within a community of people.

Chol HaMoed Succot leading into Simchat Torah

Chol HaMoed is literally the “mundane of the festival” – the intermediate days of the festivals which are bookended by more ritually observant days, and we see this twice a year with the festivals of Pesach and of Sukkot in the spring and the autumn.

It is a strange phrase, and halachically it is an odd time – some work is restricted but not all. The boundaries are blurred between special festival time and ordinary working day. Does one do a particular ritual or not? If so, does one say the blessing or not? Needless to say, hours of rabbinic time have been spent over the generations in deciding just how much of the time is Chol – ordinary, and how much of it is Moed – festive.

And Succot has an extra dimension. Biblically there are seven days of Succot ending with Hoshanah Rabbah, when there are 7 hakkafot (circuits of the synagogue) with the lulav and etrog, and when the final judgment written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur is delivered – yet we have an eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, literally the” eighth of ending” which in the diaspora has also claimed a second day.  No one quite knows what Shemini Atzeret is for – though it may have been the day of cleaning the Temple, which, given the tradition that seventy bulls were sacrificed on Succot to atone for the seventy nations of the world, might certainly need some cleaning.

The Rabbis of the Talmud are themselves somewhat puzzled about what Shemini Atzeret is, and declare Shemini Atzeret to be a holiday in its own right, not just the final day of Succot.  Reform Judaism has added Simchat Torah, an entirely different festival following a different cycle, to the date. Orthodox Jews celebrate Simchat Torah on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. This concatenation of different celebrations does mean one thing though – while the intermediate days of Succot may be an unclear time of both secular and holy mixed together, the final days are a blur of festivity and enjoyment. Not for nothing is this festival period called “zeman simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing. For a week there is the pleasure of sitting in one’s Succah, not obligated to work at the daily grind, and entertaining guests – ushpizin. And then follows the exuberance of Simchat Torah, the achievement of having read the whole scroll and the anticipation of starting again kicks in, and we dance and sing and drink and eat sweet things and let go of all the sombre introspective tropes that have been shadowing us since the beginning of Elul, or some would say since Tisha b’Av.

Simchat Torah is a time for partying. We have been so solemn, so thoughtful, so penitent. Now we turn back into Life – and we dance, sing, laugh, run, bound back into life, with all inhibitions left behind.

Famously Samuel Pepys witnessed Simchat Torah in Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1663 and this is what he wrote in his diary:

“Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew.

And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that everyone desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew.  But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall…”

Pepys was horrified at what he saw, and had no understanding of it. He had no context in which to view it and a certain set of beliefs about what constituted worship. I would love for every synagogue to have a Simchat Torah like the one he saw – the joy, the comfort with the sifrei Torah, the comfort in offering worship through the body as well as the mind, the pleasure in knowing that a new year is started, and one that offers us all the opportunities we might need once more.

Judaism is unusual in that we move on from our Atonement once we have come together as a community and taken seriously the command to return to God and let go of our habits and inclinations that stop us living the lives we should. We move on always into Life. And if we need more Atonement – well, we can always return to God, do Teshuvah at any time, but at a fixed point in our yearly cycle we make sure we do it. I think that is the beauty of this strange concept of Chol HaMoed – there is always time for the world in our festivals, and there is always time for our religious commitments in our daily lives. While much of Judaism is about keeping boundaries, we also allow the crossover places, the liminal space which allows us always to return, always to make holy that which is ordinary, and keep holiness as an ordinary imperative in our lives.