The interface between God and human beings is fraught with potential both creative and destructive. It is uncharted territory where we wander, sometimes alone and sometimes with companions and while we might pay attention to the stories told by those who have more recently gone before us, our constant and most useful guide is Torah.

Torah teaches us the boundaries others have met, the pathways our predecessors have taken, gives us a glimpse into what we might be looking out for.

To some extent, we could call Torah a manual for those who wish to undertake a spiritual journey. But it is a limited manual. It offers no guarantees about reaching the desired destination, it offers some advice sketches out some road signs and extends the hope that as others have done, then so maybe can I.

This limited manual can be a great comfort, but it also creates many problems for us. We have a desire to know “how to do it”, we want to be told that if we behave in a certain way we will reach such-and-such a place. We often want to have concrete guidelines like all those recipe books and television programmes that state very clearly “if you follow my instructions you will have a perfect cake every time”. Increasingly I am asked how to do something or is something allowed or forbidden, not out of curiosity and a genuine need to explore, but because people are seeing religion as the repository of the skills needed to achieve – or rather they are seeing rabbis and priests as the people who hold the secret and can either open or close the door to God.

There is a second problem in modernity – we have forgotten how religious language works, we are so goal centred we pay too little attention to the process, we have lost understanding of symbolic language and our sensitivity to metaphor and allegory is blunted in our need for certainty. The chain of tradition in which generations told the stories they had heard from their ancestors and fed their descendants with the ‘hiddushim’ the innovations they had found, has been disrupted and dislocated. The multiple varieties of ways to understand the torah text that can be seen in Midrash, in the aggadic texts recorded in Talmud, in the rabbinic commentaries on bible and on each others works – they might be recorded but their meaning is often either misunderstood or completely lost.

I am not talking here about the knowledge of Hebrew – indeed there are certainly many more people fluent in the language alive now than ever before – but rather about the understanding of religious process, of symbols and thought processes and of whole concepts that unspokenly underpinned the midrashic and aggadic texts .

Rather than admit to ourselves that our understanding is weakened, it seems to me that we have created structures that make sense to our modern minds and our need to know the recipes, and we try to ignore or dismiss the rest of our tradition as being archaic or irrelevant or magical thinking.

So how does one get back into the living meaning of Torah in order to be able to delve deeper into our spiritual search and come closer to the God who revealed Godself with such clarity to our ancestors that it seemed they were meeting almost face to face.

One way certainly is through studying the Hebrew text, examining the original words both with and without the overlay of rabbinic commentaries in order to reveal the clusters of meanings that are embedded in those words.

Another way is to personalise the text, to find its echoes resonating within our own souls and to extend the meanings into our own experience.

In traditional rabbinic exegesis, these two methods go hand in hand, creating a dynamic and relevant understanding of Torah, to help us use the ‘guide book’ in our own spiritual journey.

Sidra Tetzaveh is, on the surface, a continuation of the instructions about the Mishkan, the physical structure erected by the Israelites in the desert as a constant symbol and reminder of the presence of God.  There are instructions about the building followed by the details of the priestly garments, the anointing of the priests and the offerings they are to bring.

The challenge is to find the relevance to us – progressive Jews who have given up the special status of the Cohanim, who have a real revulsion against animal sacrifice, who have expunged the prayers for its return and for the return of the Temple with all of its offerings, hierarchies and structures from our prayer books.

The relevance to us can be found once we begin to look past the minutiae of the detail of the ritual and let the text speak to us. We are dealing here with the creation of symbols that speak of the presence of God and of the boundaries that will prevent us from getting too close to a power that could overwhelm us so that we lose our own self. We are looking at creating a conduit, to find ways to relate to God. And this is an age old problem every generation must address.

In Sidra Tetzaveh we see the making of a structure that will operate through time and space, connecting the outer world and the inner one, involving both action and prayer, uniting us as one people while at the same time connecting each one to God. It was a structure for its time, one we can hardly comprehend, yet we continue to read it because it has things to teach us still.

The verse which begins the sidra “v’ata tetzaveh et b’nei Yisrael, v’yikhu elecha shemen zayit zach katit l’maor leha’a lot ner tamid”  You shall command the children of Israel that they will bring pure beaten olive oil for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually” is an important one for us. Each of us has a responsibility to keep alight a ner tamid, a continually burning light. Each of us has the responsibility to do it for ourselves, to keep a spark alive in our own souls and our own lives.

The ner tamid in a synagogue is usually explained as being a symbol of the continuing presence of God, and we have taken the idea of externalising it by having one in every synagogue, hanging over the Ark. A light is kept burning in every synagogue to be an outward sign of the light that is burning in every Jewish soul.

Sometimes the symbolism can take on a new and even painful dimension – I remember hearing a survivor of the Shoah, Hilda Schindler, describe how after Kristallnacht in Berlin she saw the ner tamid of the Fasanenstrasse Synabobe burning brightly on the ground.

There are other symbols in this sidra – the anointing and ordaining of the priesthood whose special task is to take care of the boundaries between the Jews and God, and whose economic and functional dependence on the Israelites only points up their special task rather than diminish it – a task that we now have in our own homes and study houses. There is the focus on the garments of the High Priest, on which we model the clothes for the Sefer Torah, and so once again remind ourselves that people and objects can function at the interface of God and humanity.

Our texts speak in many languages in order to make their meaning available to us. It is improper of us to try to distil down the lessons, to accept that there is only one accepted meaning that is taught by someone else and should not be challenged. The beauty of traditional Judaism and the beauty of contemporary progressive Judaism is that we have refused to join in the process of passively accepting the judgements of others.

My first synagogue President, Mervin Elliot z”l used to say that for us Reform Jews tradition had a vote but not a veto. I liked the pithiness of the language when I first heard it,  but now some thirty years later I appreciate more the acceptance of the past and the willingness to explore the present and the future that is embedded in it.

When we come across texts like those in Tetzaveh we can either treat them like a manual or recipe book, decide that those people who are descendants of the Cohanim must have some special power and role that we cannot decipher, and walk away from the challenges of how we build the bridges and the protective structures whereby we can come close to God in this day and age. Or we can take up the challenge, see a product of its time have something that can speak to us today, transmuted perhaps or extended or even echoed, and create the Judaism that does the same work today that the mishkan and priesthood did in biblical times.  We can remind ourselves that we are supposed to be (as we read only a few chapters earlier) “a nation of priests and a holy nation”. Each of us can take on the role, keep alight the ner tamid in our own places and lives, and find that each of us has something to teach, each of us has something to offer the community, each of us protects and nurtures the spark of divine in the world.

(sermon given 2017 lev chadash)

Vayetzei: Rachel and Leah show us a thing or too, but we have to look closely to notice

This sidra is rich in narrative tales. Fleeing from the anger of Esau at the theft of his blessing,  Jacob goes to Haran. On the way he dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. God appears to him and promises him protection, children, and the land on which he is lying. Jacob vows that if God fulfils the promise, God will be his God.

Falling in love with his cousin Rachel, daughter of his mother’s brother Laban he offers to work for seven years in order to marry her, but Laban has two daughters and he switches the bride so that Jacob unknowingly marries Leah.  Told that the older has precedence over the younger  Jacob agrees he will marry Rachel a week later, and work another seven years for her.

Leah bears Jacob four sons, but Rachel does not conceive and so gives her maidservant Bilhah as a concubine. Bilhah conceives two sons then Leah gives Jacob her maidservant Zilpah who also has two sons. Leah bears three more children, two sons and a daughter (Dina).  Rachel finally conceives and has a son, Joseph.

Wishing to return home Jacob agrees with Laban that he will be to build a flock for himself from the herds of Laban as recompense for his twenty years of service, and uses selective breeding in order to build a huge herd. Then, while Laban is away, they flee towards Canaan. But before leaving Rachel quietly steals the household idols. . Laban pursues them but is warned in a dream not to take revenge. A search for the idols proves fruitless as Rachel hides them and claims ritual uncleanness. Jacob promises Laban that whoever took the idols will die. Jacob and Laban make a peace agreement between themselves.

Jacob left Canaan a tricksy but vulnerable young man, exiled to the homeland of his mother for his own safety. By the end of the sidra he is still pretty tricksy and still somewhat vulnerable, but he is also wealthy and the patriarch of a large family of his own.

He leaves Haran, not because his mother has finally sent for him as she promised all those years ago, but because he is increasingly aware of the fragility of his situation.  Married to the two daughters of his uncle Laban and father to eleven sons and at least one daughter, one might think that he has deep roots in the area, but no – he is the object of suspicion and mistrust. He overhears the sons of Laban saying: ‘Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s; and of that which was our father’s has he gotten all this wealth.’  Laban too no longer responds to him as he had before. So God tells him: “Return to the land of your forbears, and to your birthplace; and I will be with you.’

What Jacob does then is very interesting – he calls both sisters out to the fields where his flocks of animals are (calling Rachel before Leah) and he seems to justify to them what he wants to do. He tells them that Laban has changed towards him, but that he has always been a good servant to their father even though Laban had mocked him and continually altered the wages due to him. But God had been steadfastly with Jacob and had organised that whatever Laban had agreed with Jacob in payment had surprisingly turned out in Jacob’s favour so that Jacob had been able to build up a large herd of animals from Laban’s flock. He goes so far as to say that God had ‘redeemed’ the animals and given them to Jacob. (31:9) and that an angel had drawn his attention to the vow at Beit El, and how God had been true to this vow, and that now it was time to go home to the land of his birth.

The sisters appear to believe both in the covenant made with God, and that it was God who had given their husband the great wealth he had amassed.

They  answer together (the verb is singular indicating the unity of the response)  and this reply is revealing.

“And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him: ‘Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not accounted by him as strangers? For he has sold us, and has also quite devoured our price. For all the riches which God has taken away from our father, that is ours and our children’s. Now then, whatsoever God has said to you, do.’

וַתַּ֤עַן רָחֵל֙ וְלֵאָ֔ה וַתֹּאמַ֖רְנָה ל֑וֹ הַע֥וֹד לָ֛נוּ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַֽחֲלָ֖ה בְּבֵ֥ית אָבִֽינוּ:  הֲל֧וֹא נָכְרִיּ֛וֹת נֶחְשַׁ֥בְנוּ ל֖וֹ כִּ֣י מְכָרָ֑נוּ וַיֹּ֥אכַל גַּם־אָכ֖וֹל אֶת־כַּסְפֵּֽנוּ: כִּ֣י כָל־הָעֹ֗שֶׁר אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֤יל אֱלֹהִים֙ מֵֽאָבִ֔ינוּ לָ֥נוּ ה֖וּא וּלְבָנֵ֑ינוּ וְעַתָּ֗ה כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֧ר אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֵלֶ֖יךָ עֲשֵֽׂה:

The sons of Laban had clearly been disgruntled that Jacob was managing to breed a wonderful flock for himself from their father’s animals, his payment for the years of work, although this had not been negotiated in advance – indeed Jacob had originally offered to work in order to marry Rachel.

But the daughters of Laban also had a view about the transaction between their father and their husband. They had been hoping for some inheritance it seems, some part of their father’s wealth; but it has become clear that this was a vain hope, there would be no wealth coming their way. It is not entirely clear whether this is because Laban has been impoverished by the actions of Jacob or whether they had finally understood the way their father used his money to take power, promising but never delivering, changing the terms of the deal on a whim – that while they might continue to hope for it their father would simply not give them anything.

And worse than this, Laban has not behaved properly in the matter of their marriage – they would have expected there to be a dowry for each of them, monies that should be spent on them. While it is true that Jacob came without much wealth, but he worked an unusual and substantial number of years for each woman, earning Laban serious income. That wealth was not put aside for the use of the women; instead Laban had consumed it immediately, leaving nothing for the daughters. He has treated them as possessions and not as family and the women are not happy. They throw in their lot with Jacob and with his God, understanding that God has rebalanced the wealth, taking what should anyway have been theirs from their father and giving it to them and to their children.

Their final phrase: “v’ata, kol asher amar Elohim elecha, aseh” is redolent. It is a foretaste of Sinai when the people say , kol asher dibber Adonai na’aseh (Exodus 19:8) – All that God tells us we shall do.” It echoes the narrative that reminds us that Moses followed the instructions of his father in law Yitro just before Sinai (Exodus 18:24) when we are told that “va’ya’as kol asher amar” – Moses listened to the words of his father in law and did everything that he had said”. It echoes too the instruction to Abraham anxious that he has been told to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, when God says to him “All that Sarah says to you, obey her voice : kol asher tomar elecha Sarah, shma b’kolah”

Rachel and Leah are not only giving permission, they are giving instructions – “whatever God tells you to do, then you must do it”. It is quite a different relationship than Jacob had had before with God, when he had woken from his dream aware of the presence of God, yet still with enough bravado to hold God to account – “IF you do everything you say and IF you bring me back safely, THEN you can be my God”.

Rachel and Leah are serious protagonists in Jacob’s leaving Haran and returning to Canaan. They are not simply ‘the household’ – indeed they are resisting staying in a place where they are in danger of having to be subservient to their father.

Jacob collects his household and his wealth, puts his wives and sons on camels, and taking advantage of Laban’s absence he sets off for his homeland. But the real action that follows is that of Rachel – she takes the teraphim, the household Gods that we are specifically told were her father’s.

Did she take them for spite? Did she take them because she believed in them? Did she take them because she feared being homesick, or in order to prevent Laban from invoking those gods against her husband and family? Did she take them as a symbol of the inheritance she knew she was not going to receive?  This last question interests me most, for the possession of the teraphim seems to have indicated that the owner would then also possess the power and benefits of the first born in terms of property inheritance. (see Nuzi Tablet Gadd 51 pub 1926 CJ Gadd)

Just as Jacob had stolen the birth right of his first-born brother Esau, Rachel symbolically steals the birth right of her brothers. She is no passive figure here but is looking out for the rights of her children and grandchildren into the future.  She hides the teraphim successfully, taking control of her destiny, and Laban is unable to find them. It is her moment of triumph, safeguarding the future, until she is undermined unwittingly by her husband Jacob. For sadly the tale ends badly, she will die giving birth to her second son Benjamin as in protesting his own innocence Jacob has unwittingly brought a curse down upon her.

When first we read the sidra of Vayetzei we see the powerful chemistry between Rachel and Jacob, we see the terrible pain of Leah who wants her husband to love her and who each time is rejected, we see the usage of the two women concubines Bilhah and Zilpah. It takes a while to look beneath that first appearance of women as objects  and see the subversion and the taking control that is going on.

Rachel hides the teraphim under the saddle of the camel and says to her father “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise up before you; for the manner of women is upon me.’ And he searched, but he did not find the teraphim.”

Ki lo uchal lakum mipanecha, ki derech nashim li, vay’hapess v’lo matza et hateraphim

כִּ֣י ל֤וֹא אוּכַל֙ לָק֣וּם מִפָּנֶ֔יךָ כִּי־דֶ֥רֶךְ נָשִׁ֖ים לִ֑י וַיְחַפֵּ֕שׂ וְלֹ֥א מָצָ֖א


She says to him that she is not able to rise up before him. This can be read two ways – that she cannot get up because she has her period (though why that should stop her getting up is unclear), or that she is unable to rise before him for another reason – and the one she gives is that she has her period. But could it be that she does not want to pay him the honour of rising before him – she is simply unable to offer him such respect now she has seen him for what he is and has rejected him?

He searches, but he does not find the teraphim. Hers is the last place they could be hidden, everywhere else has already been searched. She is unable to show him any respect, he in turn does not find either the teraphim or the reason she does not want to show him any regard. He is blind to any symbolism or deeper meaning, and the control – and the teraphim – remain in Rachel’s hands.

I heard someone recently describe the actions of the women in Genesis as manipulative, devious and unscrupulous. This in response to studying the actions of Jacob’s mother Rebecca, who organised for him to get the blessing by use of clothing and cooking.  The women in bible are indeed active in getting the narrative moving, they sometimes cause it to take an unusual path, they sometimes second guess God, they sometimes even nudge God into long delayed action. But this is not devious or unscrupulous or any negative connotation – the women in bible are active, creative, powerful and thoughtful. They hear the voice of God and they see the hand of God. That the text records their actions, albeit with the spotlight frequently turned away, is important. And it is important that in this generation we return the spotlight to those players who are not always seen on the stage, for they are our models and our matriarchs and they deserve our attention.