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)

Toledot: there are more generations and more branches in our family tree than we notice – meet Mahalat bat Ishmael the fragrant bringer of hope

וַיַּ֣רְא עֵשָׂ֔ו כִּ֥י רָע֖וֹת בְּנ֣וֹת כְּנָ֑עַן בְּעֵינֵ֖י יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִֽיו: ט וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶל־יִשְׁמָעֵ֑אל וַיִּקַּ֡ח אֶת־מַֽחֲלַ֣ת ׀ בַּת־יִשְׁמָעֵ֨אל בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֲח֧וֹת נְבָי֛וֹת עַל־נָשָׁ֖יו ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה:

“And Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan were displeasing to Isaac his father. So Esau went to Ishmael and he took Machalat the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nevayot over his women/ in addition to his other wives, for a wife for himself.”

So ends the sidra of Toledot. It began with Isaac marrying Rebecca and pleading with God for her to have children. Having conceived twins who are struggling within her, Rebecca is informed that she will give birth to two nations who would be not be equal. The firstborn, Esau, was red and hairy. The second born was holding on to his brother’s heel so they named him Jacob (heel). Esau became a skilled hunter and was the favoured child of his father, but Jacob remained close to home and his mother. The bible recounts the story of Esau coming home famished after a hunting trip and selling his birthright blessing for some of the delicious red stew that Jacob had made.

The narrative continues with the story of a famine and Isaac goes to the Philistine King Abimelech for support, having been told by God to not leave the land as his father had done. Isaac settled in Gerar, and for fear of being killed because of Rebecca’s beauty, he follows the example his parents had given and told Abimelech that Rebecca was not his wife but his sister. Abimelech however found the lie out, and in order not to attract punishment from God, warns the Philistines not to mistreat the couple.   Isaac grows wealthy and the Philistines begin to hate and envy him to the point where he is unsafe. Isaac moves his household away to Rechovot, and then has an encounter with God at Beersheva where he receives the covenant of blessing. Abimelech, understanding that Isaac is the heir to his father’s relationship with God seeks a peace treaty with him which is sealed with a feast.

Now we return our focus to the family. Esau married two Hittite women, Judith bat Be’eri and Basemat bat Elon, and Isaac and Rebecca are bitterly upset.

Now we come to the last phase of Isaac’s life. He is old, his sight is poor, he knows it is time to give the blessings to his sons. He asks Esau to hunt and prepare a dish of his game for him after which he will bless him. Rebecca overhears, and, when Esau is gone, she instructs Jacob to bring her young goats in order for her to make a meal for Isaac that Jacob can take him and receive the blessing. Jacob does not think this will work- Esau is hairy, Jacob is not. Isaac on touching his son will understand the deception and may curse him. Rebecca responds by taking the curse upon herself, and demands that Jacob do as she has told him. She makes coverings from the skins of the goats and food from the flesh, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing and sends him to his father. The text is ambiguous as to whether Isaac recognises which of his sons is with him, but he goes with the flow, blessing Jacob with the special blessing. Esau returns, discovers his blessing is already given to his brother and in his distress asks his father for another. Isaac blesses him with abundance, but also with the hope that he will one day break the yoke of subservience to his brother. Esau’s fury is a danger to Jacob and so his mother arranges that he is sent to safety with her family under the pretext that this will keep him away from Canaanite women and help him to marry within the family group.  Esau hears this, understands that his first two choices of wife were not acceptable to his parents, and so he goes to Ishmael his uncle in order to marry Machalat, his cousin, the daughter of Ishmael.

Machalat is family. She is the daughter of Ishmael the beloved son of Abraham and of Hagar, whom God comforts when she and her son are near to death in the wilderness having been expelled from the camp. Hagar is the first person who is recorded as giving a name to God.   We are told that “she called the name of the Eternal who spoke to her, You are El Ro’ee (a God of seeing)” (Gen 16:13)  So Machalat is the grandchild of a woman who encountered God.

There are two biblical texts naming the wives of Esau, and they do not exactly coincide. One tells us the three wives are Yehudit bat Beeri, Basemat bat Elon and Mahalat bat Ishmael (Gen 26) whereas the second tells us they are Adah bat Elon, Basemat bat Ishmael and Oholivamah bat Anah (Gen 36).  The gemara resolves the problem by saying that Basemat/Machalat were the same woman, and whereas the name Basemat means fragrant, Machalat comes from the same root as forgiveness – mechilah – and that in marrying her all the sins of Esau were forgiven (JT Bikkurim 3:3)This would explain how, when the brothers meet up again years later, Esau is warm and welcoming, having given up the bitterness and anger caused by his brother’s betrayal, he too, having been forgiven, is able to forgive.

Basemat, whose name implies great sweetness, gives Esau a son and names him Re’u-El –friend of God. Is it accident that the name plays with and even seems to echo the name her grandmother gave to God – El-Roee? What is clear is that while Esau has many other children, only this son is named with a reference to God.

It feels like a hint – Hagar and Basemat were not destined to be part of the main thread of the narrative, but they were important nevertheless, they had their own very good relationship with God and their lives impact upon our history.

The bible may not be focussed on these women, or on this lateral branch of the family tree, but it considers them important enough for them and their descendants to be recorded. We know about Rebecca, her initial infertility and her later challenge to God once her difficult pregnancy was begun. We know how she took care to direct the narrative so that Jacob would become the link in the chain of tradition. We know about Sarah, her initial infertility and her derisive laughter in responding to God’s telling her that she would yet bear a child to be the link in the chain of tradition. But the bible reminds us there were other women who also had encounters with God, yet who did not go on to become matriarchs in our tradition.

Our historic commentators do not much notice these women, and if they choose to do so it is usually to make a point about the men they are connected with, and to be honest, they are not often kind to the women nor interested in them and their experience. But now we have a different set of lenses, modernity chooses to unpeel the layers of patriarchy and look again at the unvarnished text. Machalat the daughter of Ishmael appears to be a woman who, like her grandmother, knows God. Her marriage to Esau seems to change him, their son is a friend of God, the same God who appeared to abet Esau’s trauma. She brings forgiveness – mechilah – and she brings hope. Hope for the brothers who were destined to be in an unequal power relationship but whom we see later in life are both wealthy, settled family men. And in bringing the hope that transforms the relationship of brothers born to struggle against each other, surely she can be the touchstone for us in our generation when we know we are not forced or destined to hate each other. Machalat bat Ishmael, she brings the fragrance of hope and optimism. She deserves to be noticed.




Image is “Mahalat” [Yishmael’s daughter, Esav’s wife] by Siona Benjamin