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)

Terumah – the riddle of the cherubim

“Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover.  Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Testimony that I will give you. There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:16-22)

וְעָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם מִשְּׁנֵ֖י קְצ֥וֹת הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃ וַ֠עֲשֵׂה כְּר֨וּב אֶחָ֤ד מִקָּצָה֙ מִזֶּ֔ה וּכְרוּב־אֶחָ֥ד מִקָּצָ֖ה מִזֶּ֑ה מִן־הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת תַּעֲשׂ֥וּ אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֖ים עַל־שְׁנֵ֥י קְצוֹתָֽיו׃ וְהָי֣וּ הַכְּרֻבִים֩ פֹּרְשֵׂ֨י כְנָפַ֜יִם לְמַ֗עְלָה סֹכְכִ֤ים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם֙ עַל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת וּפְנֵיהֶ֖ם אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו אֶל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת יִהְי֖וּ פְּנֵ֥י הַכְּרֻבִֽים׃ וְנָתַתָּ֧ אֶת־הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת עַל־הָאָרֹ֖ן מִלְמָ֑עְלָה וְאֶל־הָ֣אָרֹ֔ן תִּתֵּן֙ אֶת־הָ֣עֵדֻ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶתֵּ֖ן אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנוֹעַדְתִּ֣י לְךָ֮ שָׁם֒ וְדִבַּרְתִּ֨י אִתְּךָ֜ מֵעַ֣ל הַכַּפֹּ֗רֶת מִבֵּין֙ שְׁנֵ֣י הַכְּרֻבִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־אֲרֹ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֑ת אֵ֣ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֧ר אֲצַוֶּ֛ה אוֹתְךָ֖ אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

I have always loved cherubs. It is a love I inherited from my grandmother who had several decorating her homes.  And I too occasionally add to my own collection of sweet faced plump winged babies.

But the cherubim of bible should not be viewed as these somewhat kitsch figures – we do a great disservice to the text to fall into this cosy view.

We first meet the cherubim in the book of Genesis at the denouement of the second creation story: “God drove the human out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen 3:24 )

וַיְגָ֖רֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים וְאֵ֨ת לַ֤הַט הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים׃ (ס)

Their purpose is to prevent the human beings gaining access back into the garden and eating from the tree of life, something that we know will mean humanity acquiring  eternity, a characteristic of the divine that is denied to mortals.

Wherever the cherubim appear we are in sacred space. While the word appears almost a hundred times in the Hebrew bible, we know very little about them except for the fact they were winged. How many wings seems to be unclear – it varies in different descriptions. Sometimes they are clearly representational figures such as in Solomon’s Temple, at other times God flies in the skies, carried by the cherubim.

“In the Shrine he [Solomon]  made two cherubim of olive wood, each 10 cubits high. [One] had a wing measuring 5 cubits and another wing measuring 5 cubits, so that the spread from wingtip to wingtip was 10 cubits;  and the wingspread of the other cherub was also 10 cubits. The two cherubim had the same measurements and proportions:  the height of the one cherub was 10 cubits, and so was that of the other cherub.  He placed the cherubim inside the inner chamber. Since the wings of the cherubim were extended, a wing of the one touched one wall and a wing of the other touched the other wall, while their wings in the centre of the chamber touched each other.  He overlaid the cherubim with gold.”   These are huge figures, over twenty feet high, with matching enormous wingspans, dominating the inner chamber. Yet we know them to be olive wood, representations – but of what? And to what purpose? Will God speak to the people from above them?

The most famous depiction of the cherubim is that of Ezekiel, who was among those sent into exile with the king in 597BCE (see 2K 24:14-16) At a body of water he calls the Nehar Kevar, (the Kevar canal) he has a vision. This canal appears to be the area in Babylonia where the exiled Jews were settled and is separately documented in Akkadian literature. He documents part of his vision thus:

“The cherubs ascended; those were the creatures that I had seen by the Kevar Canal. Whenever the cherubs went, the wheels went beside them; and when the cherubs lifted their wings to ascend from the earth, the wheels did not roll away from their side. When those stood still, these stood still; and when those ascended, these ascended with them, for the spirit of the creature was in them. Then the Presence of the Eternal left the platform of the House and stopped above the cherubs.  And I saw the cherubs lift their wings and rise from the earth, with the wheels beside them as they departed; and they stopped at the entrance of the eastern gate of the House of the Eternal, with the Presence of the God of Israel above them.  They were the same creatures that I had seen below the God of Israel at the Kevar Canal; so now I knew that they were cherubs.” Ezekiel 10:15-20

Now it is well known in ancient near eastern mythologies – and even in later western ones –  that the divine being rides some kind of chariot pulled by some types of mythic beasts, and I am certain that the cherubim of the bible must have their origin within even older mythologies.   But that doesn’t really explain their presence in our sacred space, using their wings in some kind of protective way, guarding the area between God and us – for God is often depicted as being seated above the cherubim (for example Hezekiah’s prayer recorded in the book of Isaiah speaks of God “enthroned above the Cherubim”

There is no sense of the cherubim being in any way angelic or quasi divine in the Hebrew bible, they fulfil no role in bridging the space between us and God. They simply are there, figures beyond which we cannot see or go.  The idea of their being in some way angelic comes in later commentaries , so while both Rashi and Ibn Ezra see nothing angelic in the cherubim, the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 21 suggests that they were beings who were created on the third day, with no definite shape or form, while the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu (10th century) believes them to have been part of the group created before the beginning of our world., Bachya ben Asher  in 14th century Spain also believes they are angels but intriguingly he has a reason – it is important to believe in angels because prophecy can only happen through the mediation of an angel, and given that the God speaks to Moses from above the cherubim, these must logically be angels. There are two of them above the ark, to make clear that they are not the image of the one God.

So while there is much speculation about what the Cherubim might be, their connection to the mythic beasts of other traditions – gryphons or sphinxes, centaurs or Assyrian Lamassu, or the way they may have segued into Judaism from the Akkadian winged bulls the kirubu or the shedim that guarded palaces– the reality is, as is often the case, hidden in the past. So by the time of the Talmud it is clear that no one knew much about the cherubim.  There are several discussions recorded including the one found in Chagigah 13b

“What is the meaning of “cherub”? Rabbi Abbahu said: Like a baby [keravya], for in Babylonia they call a baby ravya. Rav Pappa said to Abaye: However, if that is so, what is the meaning of that which is written: “The first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle”? The face of a cherub is the same as the face of a man; what is the difference between them? He replied: The difference is that the face of a man is referring to a large face, whereas the face of a cherub means the small face of a baby.”

It is from this and other passages that the elision from guardian of the divine mystery to cupid-like plump baby boy has occurred, and we have stopped really asking ourselves about the purpose of the cherubim in the Hebrew bible.

Clearly the cherubim serve God, and clearly too they provide a barrier or boundary between the sacred and the mundane; they prevent us from coming to close to the mystery.

But what do they represent to us? What function do they have? We assume that God does not need the protection the cherubim provide, so are they there to protect us?

There is a wonderful, almost transgressive piece in Talmud about the cherubim and what they were doing.

“Rav Ketina said: When the Jewish people would ascend for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, the priests would roll up the curtain for them and show them the cherubs, which were clinging to one another, and say to them: See how you are beloved before God, like the love of a male and female. The two cherubs symbolize the Holy One, Blessed be God, and the Jewish people.” (Yoma 54a)

Throughout the tradition there is a thread which asks – what do the cherubim say to us, what are they symbolising?

Rav Ketina stretches the point of the almost to breaking in order to teach that the two figures which are touching at the wingtips, (and whose spreading wings as described in the Exodus passage above, uses a phrase also used as a euphemism for sex elsewhere in bible).  So he posits that the two figures looking at each other, touching each other, are symbolic of God and Israel, entwined in a relationship of love. (Even more unusual of course is the idea that the people got to see the cherubim but that is for another day.)

Later commentators take up the male-female balance of the cherubim explicated by Rav Ketina and suggest that this is not symbolising God and Israel, but reminding us of the imperative to have children and create the next generation.

There are other suggestions as to what the cherubim might symbolise – different attributes of God, mercy and justice, the importance of contact with the other, teacher and pupil, study partners, the mystical world and the world we can know, the bringing close and the keeping of boundaries…..

The text tells us that the cherubim are shielding the cover of the ark with their outstretched wings and they are facing each other and also looking slightly downwards at the cover. To me it is an image of a partnership of protection and support. There is something enveloping about those wings creating a space within them as they touch each other, rather as an adult holds a baby, or a comforter holds the comforted, or lovers hold each other close. The fact that they are both gazing towards the thing they are holding, and their faces are turned towards each other adds to the sense of intention. These are no guards to keep away the people seeking God, no fearsome bouncers keeping us out of sacred space, but protective and nurturing figures, taking care of a precious object. Rather like their parallel the Sphinx, they pose a riddle for the traveller, a riddle whose answer is firmly human focused.

They are not angels, but they prefigure what will be as religion becomes institutionalised, and we have to ask ourselves how will we nurture the word of God in our time and space? How will we show love? How will we communicate? How will we see the other who is just like us but who is not us? How will we protect the sacred and yet allow the word of God to come into the world?

The questions implied and threaded through the appearance of the cherubim almost one hundred times in our bible are questions that challenge us. They ask how God is brought into our world, and each one of us is part of the answer.




Parashat Noach and Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan: – time to break the silence and speak out #metoo

Rosh Chodesh Marcheshvan is a special day for me – specifically it is the date on our Ketubah recording our chuppah (Jewish wedding)– and in my eagerness to be observant on that day and  I remember being slightly disappointed that the traditional wedding day fast in order to be cleansed of all ‘sin’ was overridden by the nature of the day.

I remember too the debate about the name of the month – would one write Cheshvan or Marcheshvan on the wedding document? The month may be free from festivals, but it was the beginning of our marriage – surely we couldn’t call the month “bitter Cheshvan” on that basis?

The eighth month in our calendar,  it may have come to us through the Akkadian/Babylonian language, and simply be a description of its place in the year, with  m’rach sh’van corresponding to “eighth month”.  Certainly the longer name of Marcheshvan is the one used in the Mishnah and in Talmudic texts, and the great rabbinic commentators Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Maimonides all give it this name, rather than the shorter Cheshvan.  And yet somewhere we lost that certainty and all sorts of traditions have grown up to explain why the month Cheshvan apparently has the prefix Mar. As I referred to earlier, the word can mean ‘bitter’ – leading to the idea that since this is a month with no celebrations at all, it is a bitter month. Others take the idea that Mar means a drop of water, and so see it as the word reminding us that in Cheshvan the rains must fall if we are to have good harvests and fill the aquifers, rivers and lakes in Israel. Yet others see it as a prefix denoting respect – we respect the beginning of our new lives post the festival marathon of Rosh Hashanah – Yom Kippur –Sukkot – Shemini Atzeret –Simchat Torah. Just as we want to live lives where we gain respect from others for our good actions, so we respect the month where we begin in earnest to live our ordinary lives as best we can.  There are many midrashim on the subject of MarCheshvan, and also about its other biblical name ‘Bul’, but this year something else struck me. The name Cheshvan written


Could come from the Hebrew root  חוש meaning “to make haste” or more likely from    חשה meaning “to be silent, or inactive”.

I have been thinking a lot about prayer recently, and about how we speak prayer and how we listen, how we actively seek connection with God and how we sometimes allow ourselves just to be, waiting through all the busyness and distractions of our lives for what in the First Book of Kings (19:12) is called  ק֖וֹל דְּמָמָ֥ה דַקָּֽה:

“The still small voice” or rather better – “the voice of slender silence”

Silence and contemplation can give great rewards in a prayer life. Time to reflect, to quieten the activity in our minds, to let go of all the “shoulds” and “musts” and imperatives of getting things done fast, no time wasted, hurry hurry hurry…..

The naming of Cheshvan seems to be a dissonance – the haste implied in one possible verbal root, the quietness and inaction in the other.

Add to that the water – bitter or otherwise – drip drip dripping into our consciousness, both life giving and life destroying – particularly when read in conjunction with parashat Noach, and Chesvan seems to be a deliberate puzzle. Are we to be still and hear the voice of God, are we to be active in God’s work? Are we to make haste or to make space and time?

Noah himself is a puzzle – he never speaks to God, he never speaks to the population whom he knows will be destroyed. He never argues for the living, nor warns them, nor engages with them in any way. Instead he makes haste to do what God has asked him. He is both silent and hasty, actively  creating the Ark, but entirely passive in the ethical or societal aspects of the narrative.

I have never felt comfortable with Noah. Even though this was my batmitzvah portion, I found the man himself unpleasant, I could not bring myself to identify with his story and this used to bother me a great deal.

Until this year when, like many other women across the world I found myself writing #metoo on my social media.

The idea was that “If everyone who has been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste. #metoo”

The idea came about after the Harvey Weinstein exposure, to help provide support for victims, so they would know that they were not suffering alone in this, to try to prevent the backlash of victim blaming that rapidly appeared.

#metoo appeared all over the timelines of me and my friends and of men and women all over the world, and indeed the magnitude of the problem became clear for all to see. Many debates began – what counts as sexual assault? What counts as harassment? Were women being hypersensitive? Where were the men who didn’t seem to notice what was the everyday experience of so many women? Who were the men who were harassing women? How come the women had not spoken out before? What was the conspiracy of silence that allowed men to abuse their power over women, the open secrets that were simply not discussed?

And it hit me – the silence, the inactivity, which I often experience as a positive in my spiritual life suddenly had a different force – it became the silencing of the voices of victims, the inactivity surrounding the open secrets, the weapon of choice to enable the rich, powerful and protected to continue in their self-serving behaviour. It is the silence surrounding modern slavery and human trafficking when we buy clothes unrealistically cheaply, the real price paid by the factory workers who toil for long hours for very little reward. It is the silence surrounding the lack of a living wage for many people in this country, the silence surrounding the need for food banks and people who have to choose to be warm or to be fed – or even more stark choices around keeping a roof over their heads. It is the silence around domestic abuse and the routine and everyday harassment of women.  I could go on and on about what we keep silent about, not because we don’t know but because we don’t want to know and talking about it will make it more real to us.

Cheshvan is the eighth month of the year – symbolically seven plus one, completion plus one – it is the beginning again. In so many ways we are at the start of something where we can change the world if only we stopped our silence and made haste for justice. Noah is a salutary example – he kept his silence and the world drowned. Yes there was a new beginning, but that beginning was steeped in regret for a past that had not been resolved, merely suppressed and hidden in the depths.

Our voices do not have to be loud but they have to be heard. We need to speak out and we need to listen to the voices of those who have hidden their voices or whose voices have been suppressed by people more powerful than them.

Cheshvan is the time for us to challenge ourselves on when we are silent positively in order to hear the voice of God in the world, and when we stop being silent in order for God’s voice to speak out in the world. It is, we discover, the same voice. Beginning again doesn’t have to mean washing away the past as if it never existed; it means acknowledging the faults of the past and confronting them, working for change, creating a world which is better for our living in it. Last week we read of God asking Cain “where is your brother” and saying “the bloods of your brother are crying out to me from the ground”. Now as we reach Cheshvan and read the story of the generation of Noah it is time to hear the cries of those unjustly paying the price for the corruption of others more powerful than they, time to give the answer to Cain’s disingenuous response “am I my brother’s keeper?”

We are human beings, responsible for each other, responsible to care for each other, responsible for whistle-blowing improper behaviour, for calling out the power plays that make so many miserable.

As #metoo swept across social media, many protested that they did not know. We know now. And it is time to make haste, time  break the silence. A new beginning as we read about a new creation after the cleansing out of the corruption and abuses of power that had been tolerated for far too long.





Cain and Hevel: Am I my brother’s keeper?

The first murder happens in bible in the first generation to be born – Cain and Hevel, two of the sons of Adam and Eve, bring death into the world.  It is unclear really what the relationship between them was – indeed the more we read the biblical account the more questions we have.

In the fourth chapter of Genesis we are told that “the man knew his wife; and she conceived and bore Cain, and said: ‘I have acquired a man with the help of the Eternal.’

א וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וַתַּ֨הַר֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־קַ֔יִן וַתֹּ֕אמֶר קָנִ֥יתִי אִ֖ישׁ אֶת־יְהוָֹֽה:

Already the conception of Cain is problematic. Eve is named, her husband is not. She conceives and bears a son who is apparently already named and maybe even already grown, and then she says something that appears to be designed to remove her partner from the narrative.  The name Cain comes from the root to acquire, to have material ownership. Eve says she has acquired a man with God.  The role of her husband, the man to her woman, the father of the child – is diminished in the text. I remember years ago studying this with a family therapist who pointed out that many a family goes through difficulties when a new baby is born, and that often the relationship between mother and child can freeze out the father who feels to be of little use in those early chaotic days .  If this is not addressed and worked on, it can cause serious dysfunction in the family in later years.

And then comes the second child – is it a different conception or is Hevel the twin of Cain? There is no mention of Adam at all here, not the act of procreation nor the pregnancy. Instead we are told “and again she bore his brother, Hevel, and Hevel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain was a worker of the ground

ב וַתֹּ֣סֶף לָלֶ֔דֶת אֶת־אָחִ֖יו אֶת־הָ֑בֶל וַֽיְהִי־הֶ֨בֶל֙ רֹ֣עֵה צֹ֔אן וְקַ֕יִן הָיָ֖ה עֹבֵ֥ד אֲדָמָֽה

Havel comes into the world without any reference to Adam, but clearly in relationship to Cain – she bears ‘his brother’ and his name too is ready made. While Cain, the acquirer, the one who is in deep relationship with the land appears as a material figure, Hevel’s name has quite a different resonance. Hevel means breath; implicit in it is the idea of transience, even pointlessness. The preacher Kohelet in his book (read at Succot) begins by lamenting

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל  Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

The brothers, one too firmly grounded, one apparently totally transient, choose work that suits their natures – Cain tills the ground, Hevel shepherds his flock. And when they bring their thanksgiving offerings to God – another curiosity since this is the first we know of such a practise – the fruits of the ground brought by Cain are rejected, while the firstborn of the flocks brought by Hevel are accepted by God.

Why? Why would God accept the offerings of one brother and not the other? Is there a suggestion that Cain does not bring of the best, of the first? Are we to believe that God is a carnivore and not a vegetarian? Is this a moment that comes to every parent and child when the child complains that something is not fair, only to be told “who ever said that life was fair?”

Cain is angry and depressed, and God asks the first of the questions in the text – “Why are you angry? And why has your face fallen?” And then God continues with a slightly sinister statement – “If you do well/make it good – you will be lifted/accepted, but if you do not do well/make it good, then sin lies at the doorway, and its desire is to you, but you may rule over it”

What on earth does God mean? And how is this a response to a dejected Cain who has presumably never been thwarted, who was the clear favourite of his mother, the man who provides and has acquisitions and wealth? The last part of the phrase echoes the words God spoke to Eve when she and Adam are sent away from the garden – she will desire her husband yet he will have power over her. Is this a reference to the dislocation within the family? The more one looks the less one understands.

But we know that Cain spoke to Hevel, though the content of the conversation is not recorded. Then both Cain and Hevel were in the field, Cain rose up against Hevel his brother and killed him. And in the very next verse God asks the next question

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־קַ֔יִן אֵ֖י הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יךָ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי:

Where is Hevel your brother? And he answered “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?”

Finally a conversation between the two of them, finally we hear clear voices in the text. And the voices resonate down the generations until now.

God asks a question to which God already knows the answer – a question similar to the one asked in Eden – “where are you?” The reply – sullen, angry, also a question – does not admit to the truth – Cain most certainly knows where his brother is. And then comes the climax –“What have you done? The bloods of your brother are crying out to Me from the ground”

The story then quickly spirals to its conclusion. Cain is cursed from the ground he has worked, it will no longer produce for him. He is no longer the one who owns the land but is destined to become a transient, one who wanders. With some compassion at Cain’s horror at what his future will be, at the mercy of anyone who comes across him, God provides him with a token to protect him. Just as Adam and Eve were provided with clothing by God when they were driven out of Eden, Cain too is provided with some protection as he is sent away – and then bible turns its focus on to the children of Cain who become powerful figures, and onto the birth of Seth to replace the lost Hevel.

The story is rich in metaphor, in parallels with which to read the stories of Cain and Hevel’s parents, with mythic understanding of the first human beings and human family, in lacunae in the text which we might fill with our creative understandings and midrash.

But I think the most powerful piece in the story is the rhetorical question asked by Cain and the divine response – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “the bloods of your brother are crying out to me from the ground”

This question – “am I my brother’s keeper” is asked throughout the book of Genesis – from the relationship of Abraham to Lot, the son of his dead brother, through the complicated relationship of Isaac and Ishmael, the painful rivalry between Jacob and Esau, the violence and toxic competition between Jacobs twelve sons that ends only after a lifetime of separation and agony for the brothers and their father. The book of Genesis ends with one brother (Joseph) financially supporting the others who had wronged him, and reconciliation between brothers occurs when Judah shows that he is prepared to take the place of Benjamin as hostage in Egypt, so that Joseph sees that Judah has indeed learned the lesson of “Am I my brother’s protector?”

But the question does not end with the book of Genesis, even though the dénouement closes the narrative of the founding families. For bible continues to record how careless we can be of the other, how little we understand about our role in community, how ambition and self-indulgence and habit of categorising the ‘other’ as less than our own is embedded in our psyche. We too sullenly ask of the world “am I my brother’s keeper? – Do I have to care what happens to other people?”

The answer of course to Cain’s question is “yes – you are indeed responsible for the care and protection of your brother” God’s response, that the bloods of his brother are crying out from the land into which they seeped is an absolute imperative that reminds us that our actions have consequences, that we are all interconnected, and that we have a responsibility to ensure that everyone is acknowledged and their needs fulfilled.

Indeed, the word “brother” is to be understood in biblical tradition not simply in terms of genetics or of closeness of family or geographic proximity or ethnic tie – here we are talking about the foundation of the human race – the brother of Cain at this point is every other human being in the world. We are each other’s guarantors, supporters, protectors. If we fail in that duty and their blood is spilled or their lives diminished, then God will hear of our failure and will demand justice from us.

While the biblical story of the first sibling rivalry leading to fratricide is one that raises more questions in us the more we read it, a narrative filled with difficulties and complications, there are some lessons that we can understand easily, even though we may not really like them or find them comforting.

One is about our privilege and what it leads us to expect. Cain was the eldest son, well beloved, a man connected intimately to the land which he worked and which provided wealth and sustenance. He never noticed his privilege just as we don’t notice the privilege with which we live in a first world country as a settled people. He expected his sacrifice to be accepted and welcomed, gratitude from God in response to his thanksgiving offerings. His face fell, he was distressed when this did not happen, and he felt cheated and angry. God challenges his privilege asking him why he is so upset – and God goes further, reminding him that if he works hard and does well then he will feel good, but that sometimes working hard doesn’t lead to doing well – “sin crouches at the door” in the words of the bible, chata’at, is a word from archery meaning missing the mark, not doing all we could, not fulfilling what is required from us. God goes on to tell us – we can control that behaviour of chata’at, but it takes will, mindfulness and effort. We have to acknowledge our disappointment when our privilege doesn’t benefit us, recognise that when someone else gains it does not have to mean that we lose – even if it can feel like that. We must confront our own unacknowledged privilege when we work to recognise the humanity of others and understand that the luck of living in 21st century Europe, with enough money to buy food and shelter and entertainment and education, to feel secure and rooted in a community – it really is random.

Another lesson we learn from this narrative is that we often repeat the mistakes of our parents, and add a few more mistakes for good measure. We are connected to our pasts and they have influence on us – often more than we might notice. And unless we become aware of the influences we are destined to act them out. It is not for nothing that the most repeated commandment in bible is to remember that we were slaves in Egypt in order not to treat people lower down the socio-economic scale than we now are as we were once treated.

And another lesson is that life is not fair. God – or the universe – can appear to us to be random. There is no causal or mechanistic relationship between good people having good lives and vice versa. So we must not judge those who are unfortunate in their lives, and we must work to remedy the unfairness. When their bloods cry out, not only God listens, we must too.

Where does this lead us? The bloods of our brothers and sisters call out to us – the word is in the plural in bible to tell us, say the rabbis, that everyone is connected to many others – no life is in isolation, not even Hevel who is almost vapour, who never married or had children – even Hevel has bloods – he is connected to the rest of humanity.

In today’s world of increasing unrest, of wars and political uprisings and hurricanes and storms, of terrorism and uncertainty there are huge movements of people who are severed from their ancestral lands, refugees from their villages and cities. There were 31.1 million new internal displacements by conflict, violence and disasters in 2016. (1) This is the equivalent of one person forced to flee every second. Be they the Rohynga Muslims fleeing Myanmar or the people escaping civil war in Syria, be they the people desperately crossing the Mediterranean sea in flimsy boats and arriving destitute at the foot of Italy, or the more than five thousand who drowned in that sea in 2016 meaning that on average, 14 people died every single day last year in the Mediterranean trying to find safety or a better life in Europe.

Their bloods call out to us – what are we going to do?  Life is not fair but it is not for us to accept our privilege and ignore what others suffer. Jewish tradition reminds us that only one human being was created originally so that no one can say, ‘my father was greater than your father.’ In other words, every human being is unique and inherently precious (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5).

We have a responsibility to each other. As Jews, as human beings, we have to check our privilege and work for justice for the people who need it. As we begin this new year having reminded ourselves with the succah of the fragility of our lives and transience of material possessions, we are reminded too that other people’s lives are even more fragile right now, their material possessions lost or even never existing. And we must apply ourselves to the tikkun, to being the support of our fellow human beings, and to helping God create a better world for us all to live in.

(1) http://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2017/


Chukkat: Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess and one of the leadership triumvirate

We have learned this week of the death of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved of the tribe of Levi. Born in Egypt, the oldest child in the family with two younger brothers Aaron and Moses, Miriam kept faith with the religious tradition of her ancestors in the darkest times, even prophesying the birth of her youngest brother Moses and predicting that he would be the one who would deliver their people to freedom (BT Sotah11- 12b). Along with her brothers she was part of the leadership that brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Sadly she has not lived to see the end of the journey, but her leadership – particularly of the women – was critical to its success.

Miriam had a particular affinity with water. Even her name reminds us of it, variously translated as ‘bitter seas’ (Mar Yam) or even “doubled water” (depending on whether one sees the letters mem reish as deriving from bitterness or of water. We first meet her at the water’s edge, saving her little brother Moses adrift in the Nile reeds. (Exodus 2:4-9) She is a powerful figure at the Sea of Reads and her song of praise became the basis for the rather more famous (and more fully recorded in bible) song of her brother, Shirat haYam. (Exodus 15) Luckily the Dead Sea Scrolls have recorded more of her verses than the biblical editor thought fit to include.(4Q365).  And of course we must not forget Miriam’s well which followed her in the wilderness and which provided much needed refreshment for the Children of Israel, was a miracle provided because of her merit. (Ta’anit 9a).

Bible called her a prophet and indeed Miriam was a great prophet of Israel, though sadly she has no book named for her prophesies, an oversight to be much deplored.

Her name might also allude to the idea of rebellion – a role model for all Jews, Miriam thought for herself and did not acquiesce to the ideas of others without challenge. It was this characteristic that gave her the will to challenge her parent’s decision (and that of the other Jewish adults) to no longer have relations in order that no children would be born – some say that they all divorced so as to prevent a new generation being born into slavery. But Miriam’s refusal to be party to this pessimistic arrangement meant that not only did she and her brother Aaron dance and sing at the remarriage of their parents, but that other families followed suit. Her rebellious spirit was vital in keeping the people alive and hopeful. (BT Sotah 12a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 6). Indeed such was her role in preserving the last generation to be born in Egypt, there are some who say that the midwife Puah was in fact Miriam herself.  In part this connects to her rebellious nature. There are those who say that she was insolent (hofi’ah panim – lifted her face) toward Pharaoh when she heard his edict to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrew women, and looked down her nose at him. She told him: “Woe to you on the Day of Judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you.” Pharaoh was so enraged at her behaviour that he wanted to kill her. She was saved only because Yocheved intervened, saying “Do you take notice of her? She is a baby, and knows nothing” (Ex. Rabbah, 1:13).  Miriam found it hard to keep her mouth shut at that, but luckily she did so.

While it is not clear who Miriam married – indeed if she married at all – there are some who say she married Caleb and other who say she married her uncle Uzziel. Clearly these marriages were unimportant in the public sphere in which she worked, but it is said that her children were sages and kings because she had stood up to the evil decree of Pharaoh and also persuaded the Hebrews to continue to procreate. Bezalel is said to have descended from her, as is King David.

While this writer does not see the need to describe family for Miriam – either to explore whether she married or had children – it is gratifying that the midrashic tradition felt, in its own terms, that she deserved to be rewarded for her integrity and willingness to speak truth to power. We note that the sons of Moses walk out of history and that two of Aaron’s sons offer strange fire to God, with only the younger two continuing into priesthood, with its ultimately difficult and chequered history.

Miriam was musical, a great timbrel player, and a wonderful song leader and dancer who lifted the spirits of all who saw her. Her liveliness and optimism, coupled with a strong character and a willingness to speak out, make her a superlative role model for Jews everywhere. Her association with water, the living waters from which everything can draw its sustenance, is no accident. Water flows where it will, as did Miriam.

Even when Miriam criticised the fact that her brother Moses had married a Cushite woman and apparently put away Zipporah, the wife of his youth and mother of his two sons, she did so from a position of integrity, challenging her younger brother’s autocratic behaviour and as a result of her good and close relationship with Zipporah, a Midianite woman married into the Israelite leadership family (Sifrei on Numbers 12). She was concerned that Moses was no longer visiting Zipporah who was thus condemned to having no marital comfort and would not be able to bear more children.(Avot de R.Natan ch 9; Sifrei Zuta 12:1; sifra Metzorah 5).

While she was smitten with a skin disease as punishment for the harshness of her words, it must be noted that the whole camp waited for her to heal before moving on. For seven days even the Shechinah, as well as the priests and the Israelites stayed in camp while her tzara’at took its course (Mishnah Sotah 1:9) and it is well understood that this exceptional treatment was a reward for her work supporting Moses as a baby and enabling him to be reunited safely with is mother as his wet nurse, as well as helping in the leadership of the people in the many desert years.

While Miriam died on tenth of Nisan in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, (Sifrei on Devarim 305) her death is recorded here in Chukkat along with that of Aaron. All three of the siblings are buried on the heights of Avarim close to the land of Israel, and Miriam, like her brothers  would later, died by the kiss of God as her soul was gently drawn back from her body (BT baba batra 17a), an ending known as the death of the righteous.

She will not be forgotten. In modern times she is remembered at the Pesach seder with a Cup of Miriam filled with water, and a special prayer; while others add a piece of fish to the seder plate to reference her particular affinity with water.

Sadly however the characteristics of Miriam are sometimes hidden from view or even actively ignored – her prophecy and the determination she had to make her voice heard by people more senior than her are a fundamental part of her character. She spoke out, her voice was heard and followed – in both her capacity to advise and in her song leading, even if her brother then took credit for some of her best works. She was not quiescent in the face of a community that didn’t want change, or that was prepared to put up with injustice and oppression. She was active in both the birth and the rearing of Moses, keeping faith with her idea that here was a child who could be a leader and redeemer of the people. She was an equal partner in leadership, she had her own ideas and her own way of going about things. She was nobody’s ‘yes woman’. Her integrity, her strength of character, her fluidity, her determination to keep life happening, all meant that Miriam’s was a voice that shaped the people, she was heard in the public space, she was respected even when she sometimes said things in a less than careful way, she was warm and caring and people knew it. Moses could be distant, his shyness and insecurities causing him to hide away sometimes. Aaron could be arrogant in his priestly garments and status. But Miriam was accessible to the people and they loved her for it, as she spoke out on their behalf and fought for their rights.

Both the editors of the received text and the creators of midrash have not always dealt kindly with her. There is a rabbinic propensity to see her as bitter or as rebellious to the established order, her voice (already edited at the song of the sea) is not heard again in bible after the episode of the tzara’at; her death is reported without ceremony or sadness.  There are some notable exceptions to the blurring of Miriam in history. The prophet Micah tells us of God’s comment “I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (6:4). I cannot help but think that her gender was a problem to later commentators and redactors, something that sadly continues to this day. Yet Miriam is described in bible as a prophet, she sings her own song, she leads the people and she keeps her brothers safe and in relationship with the people.  She is patently a popular leader. When we lose Miriam we lose a righteous and able leader. When we lose the stories of her we risk losing the participation of modern women in the public sphere, rebellious, sassy, open, fluid, willing to speak truth to power and to challenge both adversaries and relatives who would rather we were quiet.

Some women have suggested fasting on the tenth of Nisan as her yahrzeit. That is fine should women want to do this, but I would suggest that we would do her greater honour by speaking out, by rebelling against injustice and against the desire to push women into the private and domestic sphere where they might more easily be controlled, and by bringing the swirling waters of justice and of challenge into the society in which we live.

Parashat Korach : The women behind the men emerge. Take a bow Ms On ben Pelet

The rebellion of Korach is a powerful and pivotal moment in Torah, as the leadership of Moses and Aaron is challenged by their cousin who proclaims that they have taken too much of the power for themselves, that all the people were holy, and Moses and Aaron are raising themselves up above the ‘kehal adonai’ the community of God.

With Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, all of them grandchildren of Reuben the oldest son of Jacob, Korach the great grandson of Levi, third son of Jacob and ancestor of Moses and Aaron, musters 250 men of stature – this is emphasised in the text: “n’si’ei eidah, k’ri’ei mo’ed, anshei shem – princes of the congregation, elect men of the community, men of renown”.

The testosterone level is so high in this story we can practically smell it. The clashing of antlers of the big beasts jousting for power and control. There might be a pretence about the need for all the people to be recognised as holy, but the reality is clear that this is a palace coup, and Moses doesn’t know what to do.

A great deal has been written about this, but I want to focus today on one of the more minor characters, On ben Pelet. Because while he is there at the beginning of the revolution he is missing from its denouement. And he doesn’t appear again.  The other rebels go down into the yawning pit as the earth opens, On ben Pelet however simply disappears from history.  Why?

The midrash provides a wonderful explanation. His wife gets involved. In this testosterone soaked challenge the men have essentially lost the plot. Where there are reasonable grounds for saying that Moses and Aaron have taken on too much of the leadership, there is no accountability and there is no transparency, the plotters went too far themselves, scenting regime change. It takes, in the view of the midrash, the calm and thoughtful intervention of the women we never really see (except as witnesses to the divine destruction of the hard line conspirators).

Talmud tells us this: (BT Sanhedrin 109b-110a)

“Rav said: On, the son of Pelet was saved by his wife. Said she to him, ‘What matters it to you? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korach] becomes master, you will be nothing but a disciple.’ He replied, ‘But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.’ She said, ‘I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, “seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them. [So,]’ she proceeded, ‘Sit here, and I will save you.’ She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down inside [the tent]. Then she sat down at the entrance and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated. Meanwhile, Korach’s wife joined them [the rebels] and said to him [Korach], ‘See what Moses has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother’s sons he made vice High Priests. If Terumah is brought, he decrees, Let it be for the priest; if the tithe is brought, which belongs to you [i.e., to the Levite], he orders, Give a tenth part of it to the priest. Moreover, he has had your hair cut off, and makes sport of you as though you were dirt; for he was jealous of your hair.’ Said he to her, ‘But he has done likewise!’ She replied, ‘Since all the greatness was his, he said also, Let me die with the Philistines. Moreover, he has commanded you, Set [fringes] of blue wool [in the corners of your garments]; but if there is virtue in blue wool, then bring forth blue wool, and clothe your entire academy with it.  And so it is written, Every wise woman builds her house — this refers to the wife of On, the son of Pelet; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands — to Korach’s wife.”

The Talmudic midrash sees the minor figure of On ben Pelet, notices his disappearance by the end of the story, and pins this on the even more minor figures of “the wives”.

The unnamed wife of On ben Pelet is a politician to her fingertips. She can see that her husband is of lowly status and is never likely to amount to much. Whoever wins in the rebellion, he will never be an important part of the hierarchy. He isn’t much of a catch, one gets the feeling, but he is hers and she would rather he were alive than dead. Whether this is love or not is irrelevant, his fate would have repercussions on her status, she does not want to be the widow of a dissident – that would make her even more vulnerable than she is now.

So, in time honoured fashion, she gets him drunk. We think of Boaz and Ruth, of Noah and his daughters, of Yael and Sisera – when a woman wants to get a man pliant and to do her bidding it seems, the answer is to ply him with intoxicants. The drunken On ben Pelet is ushered into the tent to sleep it off. But this is still not enough to ensure he doesn’t rouse and put himself – and her – into danger. So she sits at the entrance with loosened hair – immodest, sexually charged, a terror to the scouts who may come to demand his presence. Like Rachel she uses her body to prevent anyone coming to search. And her husband slumbers on all unknowing.

On ben Pelet is, in the story, a nudnik, a schlemiel, scion of a great family maybe, but incompetent and easily led. He needs all the skills of his competent wife to survive. And it would be lovely if the midrash ended there. But no, the Talmud having decided on a verse in Proverbs (14:1) feels the need to explicate the other half of it.

“Every wise woman builds her house; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands.”

The wise woman here is clearly aligned with the wife of On ben Pelet, but who is the foolish wife? After all, 250 men joined Korach, Datan and Abiram in the failed rebellion.

It is interesting to me that the midrash decides that the parallel is with the wife of Korach – the main protagonist in this affair. And more than that, they give her great knowledge and legalistic reasoning – this is an educated woman able to debate and hold her point.

She begins first with the nepotism: Moses has made himself king. He has made his brother the High Priest, he has made his brother’s sons vice High Priests – something that is new to this text. Then when the Terumah offering is brought, it is immediately taken up by his own close family. This food (or oil or wine) can only be eaten by the Cohanim. Korach being only a Levite, is not permitted to have use of it.

Then she points out the tithing which would go to the Levites – Moses had set a limit of a tenth to go to the priests.

Then she moves on to the cut hair done as part of the purification rites. Before her husband can object she layers meaning over it – Moses was jealous of Korach’s lovely hair. He now laughs at him once the hair is cut off and Korach is, presumably, less attractive. No matter that Moses also had his hair cut according to Korach, his wife clearly believes that the impact on Moses was much less than that on her husband. Moses comes out the winner.

Now she moves onto ritual grievances. Moses had told them to wear blue threads on the fringes of their garments, but this is simply tokenistic in her eyes – if blue is to be worn as a mark of honour, then the whole garment should be blue. Otherwise, her reasoning seems to be, there is no real honour, just pretence, a token and perfunctory nod to the status of her husband; Korach is damned by faint praise and his wife notices.

She is painted as an intelligent and ambitious woman. Curiously she too seems to have the upper hand in the relationship – and she gives Korach the intellectual underpinnings for his challenge.

But her ambition for her husband is too much. He is not a strategist, not really a leader. Having made his alliances his own thirst for power comes through – why else would On ben Pelet feel uneasy having agreed to join the alliance? Korach cannot deviate from the path he is on. He doesn’t seem to realise that the atmosphere is changing, that his leadership is doomed.

His wife too is given no more voice. Who knows whether she had she would have been able to persuade her husband to reverse his challenge. Instead we see from the text that Datan and Abiram, their wives and children, stand at the doorways of their tents; And we see the earth opening and everything that pertained to Korach was swallowed up alive into the pit. The 250 men who were offering their own incense were destroyed by divine fire. Yet curiously Korach and his wife are not mentioned in the text as explicitly as Datan and Abiram were. Did Mrs Korach have one last trick up her sleeve? Did they melt away from the scene of destruction they had caused, in the hope of living to fight another day?

Parashat Shelach Lecha: The faith of women is overlooked and the result is catastrophic

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֣ישׁ אֶחָד֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶחָ֜ד לְמַטֵּ֤ה אֲבֹתָיו֙ תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ כֹּ֖ל נָשִׂ֥יא בָהֶֽם:

God tells Moses to send men to travel round the land of Canaan, which God is giving to the children of Israel – one man from each ancestral tribe, each one a leader.

So begins the tale of the spies, whose return from reconnoitering the land  bringing stories of the hopelessness of the enterprise led to the people to become so disheartened that the story of the Israelites entering their promised land may easily have ended right here.  Certainly it becomes clear that the people are not yet ready to take the next step, and a prolonged sojourn in the wilderness as a new generation grows and takes over is necessary.

At first sight it seems a bit of an own goal – God tells Moses to send the men, trusted leaders who are – as Rashi says, commenting on the use of the word “anashim” – important and also righteous.  And yet the failure of leadership – apart from the perspectives of Joshua and Caleb – is catastrophic for the generation of the exodus.

The traditional commentators are interested in this story, in what went so badly wrong that the trajectory of the narrative was skewed and the journey that should have taken a short time ended up being one that took forty years.

Clearly there is a problem with the spies. Firstly comes the question of “shelach lecha” – a phrase that sounds so close to the divine commandment to Abraham “lech lecha”, and yet unlike Abraham’s journey of trust in God and of his own spiritual and material growth, this journey seems to be the exact opposite.

The casual reader might assume that a military reconnoitre of the land God is giving would be simple good practise. After all, even though God says “I am giving the land to the Children of Israel”,  surely a back-up plan is sensible.   But the reader trained to read through the Jewish texts will see this differently.

“Shelach lecha” – send “for yourself” – this is not something that God needed Moses to do, it was something that Moses and the children of Israel needed to do. Unlike  “Lech lecha” – Go to/for yourself” this is not a journey of discovery of the self, it is a journey to allay the fears the self already has. It bespeaks a lack of trust in God. The midrashic traditions picks this up – sending the men is a demonstration of lack of faith in God, but there is a further question we must ask. God is telling Moses not to simply have faith, but saying “you can send if you must”.

In the retelling of the story in Deuteronomy (1:20-46) it becomes clear from Moses’ speech that the request to send men does not come from God but from the people.  Moses tells the story like this “Behold, the Eternal your God has set the land before you, go up and take possession of it as the Eternal, the God of your ancestors told you. Do not fear and do not be dismayed. And you came to me, all of you, and said “Let us send men before us so that they will look out the land for us and bring us word of the way by which we should go up, and the cities we will encounter. And it seemed a good idea to me, and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe….”

This now begs the question, if it seemed not unreasonable that the people might want to know more about the land, and God – while not requiring this – did not command against it, then who SHOULD have been sent up to see the lay of the land?

The clue lies in the context of the story. It takes place just after the story of Miriam and the Cushite woman, where Miriam seems to be punished for speaking falsely, for asserting her own importance at the expense of another, and for showing lack of respect for others. A lesson needs to be learned, the question is – who has learned it?

Fantastically Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, (1550 – 1619) the scholar and poet and writer of his own Torah commentary (Kli Yekar) asks this question and answers it: Who should have been sent? The women!

He bases his opinion on a number of midrashic stories where it is the women who show themselves to have more faith than the men. They continue to have babies even when the Egyptian authorities try to murder their new-borns and their men refuse to have sexual relations with them. They protect their baby sons in this time. They refuse to give up their jewellery at first when the golden calf is created.  So when faith is really needed, it is the women who provide it.

The Kli Yekar notes that when the spies bring back their report of the difficulty of taking the land which is well protected and whose people look strong and powerful, the men revolt and want to return to Egypt.  In Chapter 14 the text is clear that while all the people wept, it was the men who said “why did God bring us to this land to fall by the sword, our wives and children will be prey, it would be better to return to Egypt. So they said to each other, let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt” (1:2-4). This establishes the lack of faith of the men for the Kli Yakar who goes on to compare this behaviour with that of the daughters of Zelophechad who specifically ask to be able to own the land of their father who had died without a male heir. For Rabbi Luntschitz this shows – along with all the other examples of women’s faith – that the faith of women is superior to that of the men, and hence if Moses had really wanted to send people on this errand that demonstrated a lack of complete faith in God, he should have sent women who would not have fallen so easily into the fearfulness and desire to return to Egypt rather than go forward into the land.

For the Kli Yekar Moses made a disastrous decision that was informed more by his prejudice about men’s roles and women’s roles and less by any empirical observation as to who had shown real faith in God.  Had Moses sent women to spy out the land (and it doesn’t seem to worry him that women might be functioning as army scouts, unlike some of today’s rabbonim) then they would have returned with the information and framed it in the same hopeful and faithful way that Joshua and Caleb did – it is a tough land to conquer but God is with us.

Add to this that the women have seen what happened to Miriam when she was banished with a skin complaint for her ungracious behaviour that had asserted her importance over the Cushite woman – they know that God is watching closely, that trusting in God is important.

But the men – Moses among them – are caught up with their own status. They are princes, they are leadership, they are important – they are anashim.  They have learned nothing, neither about God’s continued presence nor about humility and faith. Shelach lecha – it is all about them.  And when it fails, the answer is to find another leader from among their ranks and return to business as usual, go back to the safety of the slave routine of Egypt.

As the orthodox world continues to struggle with the role of women, perpetually trying to find ways to put us out of the public space and to assert the norms of the patriarchy, it is sobering to read the thoughts of one rabbi from the 16th century who recognised the need for women to come into the public space and be acknowledged for their own selves.

The Kli Yekar takes his name from the book of Proverbs 20:15 “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel”

He is indeed a rare jewel, he speaks from within the tradition and he speaks a deep truth. Almost all commentators agree that God did not want Moses to send anyone to scout out the land – it was an act of lack of faith. But if someone did have to go to reassure the people, send people whose faith you can trust in- and who better in this case than the people who have demonstrated again and again their trust in God and in a better future?  – The women of the exodus.