Shavuot: the voice of God is heard in the voices of ALL the people. (Or women were at Sinai too, and at the kotel)

In a very few days we will be celebrating Shavuot, a festival of biblical origin which can lay claim to being  one of the most mysterious of our holy days. To begin with, it has no fixed date but instead we have to count towards it from the first day of the Omer, the bringing of a sheaf of the new barley harvest which must be offered in thanksgiving before the harvest can be used. In Leviticus 23 we read “And the Eternal said to Moses, Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, ‘When you are come into the land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, then you will bring the first omer of your harvest to the priest, and he will wave the omer before the Eternal for you to be accepted, on the morrow after the Sabbath, the priest will wave it…and you will not eat bread nor parched corn nor fresh corn until this day, until you have brought the offering of God, it is a statute forever…and you will count from the morrow after the Sabbath from the day that you brought the omer of waving, seven weeks shall be complete, until the morning after the seventh week you shall count fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to the Eternal” (9-16)

In this opaque text a few things stand out: That we must bring from the new harvest in thanksgiving to the Creator of all before we can eat from it. That we must count a period of fifty days from the bringing of one harvest (barley) till the next harvest (wheat), and that the fiftieth day is also to be a festival with full ritual panoply.

It is a feast of harvest, a festival of first fruits – but so are other festivals. It feels like there is something missing in the text, some other layer that was either so well known as to be pointless to explain, or something so deeply mysterious as to be impossible to explain.  Its name is also problematic – in the same chapter we are told of the festival of matza called Pesach and of the festival of booths called Succot but Shavuot – it just means weeks.

The lacunae were noticed very early on and if nature abhors a vacuum, rabbinic tradition refuses to allow one too, rushing to fill any apparent jump or void in text with explanation and midrash. So to begin – what is the date of Shavuot? Should it always be a Sunday, as it would be if we really counted seven weeks from the ‘morrow after the shabbat’    הַשַּׁבָּת  מִמָּחֳרַת

The Second Temple period was one of great disruption and great creativity. Two powerful groups – the Pharisees (forerunners of the Rabbinic tradition) and the Sadducees (political and priestly elite) differed as to the date of Shavuot. The Sadducees read the text literally – the counting began the day after the Shabbat, while the Pharisees interpreted it, specifically that the word “Sabbath” was a word meaning not just the seventh day, but also “festival”, specifically in is case the festival just described before the text quoted, and therefore the omer counting would begin the day after the first day of Pesach.  At a stroke Shavuot was linked to Pesach and with a little creative accounting with the days of the journey towards Mt Sinai the Rabbis could attach the events at Sinai, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the creation of peoplehood with Torah as its powerful identifier to this date. So Exodus linked to Revelation, Freedom to Responsibility, and Shavuot stopped being simply an agricultural festival on a date that could vary and became a fixed point – a high point – in our journey to Judaism.  Shavuot became zeman matan torahteinu – the time of the giving of our Torah – the oral as well as the written – and more than that became the date of the unbreakable covenant made between God and the Jewish people.

So by extension, Shavuot became understood to be the date that we became not just a people, but God’s people. God descended far enough from the heavens to build a different kind of relationship with us, offered us a gift in order to delineate that relationship. And the language of marriage came into play – God wooed us in the desert and brought us to Sinai where the ‘wedding’ took place. God plays the part of the groom, Israel of the bride, and the words of Hosea are used “I will betroth you to me for ever, I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, In love and compassion, I will betroth you in faithfulness and you will know the Eternal (Hosea 2:2.1-2.). The mystical tradition went so far as to create a wedding liturgy within the Shavuot service, and famously Israel Najara, the poet and mystic of Sfat, created a ketubah to be read before the Torah reading in which God as bridegroom and Israel as bride are symbolically betrothed.

Some texts see the marriage as between God (groom) and Israel (bride) with the Torah as the binding contract; others see it as between Israel as groom and Torah as bride, with God as witness and the Oral Torah with Shabbat as dowry. Whichever role the participants took, the imagery of the marriage relationship is one of the most potent of the festival, and it points to the power that the rabbinic tradition saw in the marriage relationship.

The people of Israel as the bride of God, the covenant of marriage being marked with Torah, with Shabbat, with gifts that bring us closer to God – it is extraordinary in so many ways.  The position of the woman in this image – that she is Israel, that Israel is fundamentally feminine, and that the relationship is one of real love and partnership between both parties to the agreement -this is the ideal of marriage. Right from the creation stories in Genesis, where God created men and women at the same time, or where God created woman to be ezer k’negdo, a partner and help who was equal and in dynamic tension to the man, the relationship of marriage between two companions in bible and in the early rabbinic world was real partnership and both parties had their own agency and autonomy which contributed to a strong and confident enterprise.

Quite how we got to the position today from this ideal and idealised partnership to women being marginalised and disempowered in many areas of ‘traditional’ Judaism is a long and painful journey.  How has Israel, the bride of God, relegated its own women to behind a mechitza, distanced us from prayer and from learning, spun stories of idealisation that turn the Shavuot ideas on their head, (for example those about the special spirituality of women which means they don’t need to perform mitzvot). Over time there has been a persistent and incremental and continuing removal of women from the discourse of partnership, from the public space and from the partnership which is developed and rooted in the Shavuot mythology of the marriage between God and Israel.  At Sinai the mountain trembled and the people trembled and all the people stood together at the foot of the mountain and all the people answered together saying “everything that God has spoken we will do” as the voice of the shofar was heard and God answered Moses with a voice.  Voices mingling and speaking and answering – God’s voice, Moses’ voice, the voice of all the people, the voice of the shofar. But now it seems that some voices have precedence and other voices must be stilled. After generations of lying fallow and unused in Talmud the dictum of kol isha has surfaced in rabbinic thinking as a prop to their wish to remove women’s voices from their hearing.

Yesterday on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the women of the wall (WOW)  in Jerusalem held their service for the new month early in the morning. 80 women and more prayed together from their hearts, welcoming the new month and the upcoming festival where Torah was given to ALL the people at Sinai. The prayer was respectful and peaceful and yet – Lesley Sachs, the Director of WOW was detained with the Torah scroll immediately following RH Sivan prayers. Despite a quiet prayer, Sachs was held by police for “disturbing the public order”.  The man who oversees the administration of the wall Rabbi Rabinowitz told journalists that she had smuggled the Torah scroll in under her skirt. An extraordinarily offensive accusation that was provably untrue – she was wearing trousers. But this insight into the mind of the ‘traditional’ rabbi tells us a lot as to why women’s voices are being silenced – what exists under a woman’s skirt is somehow terrifying, our sexuality must be controlled and restrained, a woman’s voice is her nakedness/lewdness in the minds of those who distort the biblical quotation (from a woman’s voice is her sweetness)

We are approaching the anniversary of what happened at Sinai when ALL the people witnessed the divine theophany and ALL the people accepted Torah.  This Shavuot it is even more important that we make sure that ALL the voices can be heard in our public spaces and places, in teaching and learning, in work and in play.  For if God chose to do to Israel what some in Israel choose to do to women, then the marriage must surely be voided on grounds of complete deviation from the agreement.  The countdown is nearly over, the last days of the omer are here. It has been a period of reflection and quietness, readying ourselves for the revelation. Let’s hope the revelation takes us back to our roots, and that the voice of women in prayer and learning will once again be heard with the voice of men doing the same.

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Parashat Bemidbar:counting a community not calculating for the individual

 

We are in the time of the counting the omer – the days between Pesach and Shavuot – which give an awareness of, and a prominence to the link between Freedom (Pesach) and Responsibility (Shavuot).

Counting is something that has long roots in Jewish tradition- we count days and weeks of the omer, we count the days of penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we count the years for the shemittah year and we count the multiples of shemittah years for the Jubilee year. The scribe will count the letters written in a Torah scroll in order to check that there are none added and none removed accidentally.  We even count the days till brit and the “white days” in the menstrual cycle.  But counting people has always been a problem in Jewish tradition – it is forbidden to take a direct numbering of the people of Israel and plague was often the result for those who tried. The Talmud tells us “Rabbi Eleazar said: Whosoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition, as it is said: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured” [Hosea]. R. Nachman b. Isaac said: He would transgress two prohibitions, for it is written: ‘Which cannot be measured or numbered’.

Counting people can be said to take away the uniqueness of the individual, turning them simply into a number, dehumanizing the person. At the same time one could argue that as every number is different, the person is stripped not so much of individuality as of community. Yet community power resides within numbers. The development of the three patriarchs to the seventy souls who went down with Jacob to Egypt, to the over six hundred thousand at Sinai show how the community, the peoplehood, grew.  We still understand a community to be the number we can count on the fingers of two hands – a minyan is ten people. Numbers bind us into community and they bind us to our roots. The traditional way of counting a minyan is to recite verse 9 of psalm 28 – the ten words of which being “hoshia et amecha uvarech et nachalatecha ur’eim venasseim ad ha’olam – Save Your people, and bless Your inheritance and tend them, and carry them for ever. Another traditional way is to say “not one, not two, not three etc”

The fear of counting people and thus separating them from the community and possibly from their own humanity has long roots in Judaism – only God is really allowed to count us, only God is seen as having the ability to count without discounting so to speak. Yet the need to understand the community and to be able to count people into the community continues.  And the way that bible recommends is that we ask for a contribution from people and each contribution is counted.

It isn’t so odd as it sounds. Effectively the half shekel poll tax in order to support the Temple was both a fundraising activity and a way of measuring the numerical strength of the community. But I particularly resonate to the requirement that asks of people that in order for their presence to be recognised, they should offer some basic support to the community, and with this support they will be counted in.

The idea of being in a community by virtue of what you are offering to that community – not life changing amounts of money per se as the half shekel was a deliberately small amount designed to be possible for everyone to give, but a contribution nevertheless is the expression of an ancient idea that you are part of the community if you choose to offer something of yourself to it, if you partake of it, if you participate within it. You are part of the community if the community can count on you.

Listening to the emotive and emotional arguments about the wider community issue on the agenda today – the arguments about whether we should remain in the European Union or leave it and forge a new path– we hear a lot of words but can discern very little useful information to help frame our thoughts. One recent analysis of the words used most by the two campaigns show that Remain repeatedly use the three words “Jobs”, “Trade”, Businesses”, while the Leave campaign use “controlled” “NHS” and “Money”. It seems clear that the argument for economic stability sits with the Remain campaign, the argument for autonomy with the Leave. But as we move from Pesach to Shavuot, from Freedom to Responsibility, and into the book of Bemidbar, of the transitional neither-here-nor-there liminal space of the wilderness on whose other side will be the border with the promised land I find myself more and more cross that the language being used is of self-interest and self-regard, of “what can I not give to the community” and “what can I get from the community”.

Where is the rhetoric of commonality or of shared aims and aspirations? Where is the language of supporting each other, of helping each other to make a better world?

All I hear is calculation, and I am reminded of a quotation attributed to the architect Daniel Libeskind that “Life it is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics, it’s about experience, it’s about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting than what is obvious.”

Life is best lived in relationship, in community with others, sometimes taking and sometimes giving but always associating with the other. The more I think of how we count a minyan – with the formula “not one, not two, not three”, the more I like the reminder that we are bound together, that while we may be individuals with our own self-interest and self-regard, what is most important about us is that we together can rise over our individualism in order to form something much bigger and much more nourishing for us all – we can  form community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lag B’omer. A moral tale for election day

Election Day will fall on Lag b’Omer –the thirty third day of the omer period where we count the days between Pesach and Shavuot, between Exodus and Revelation, between Freedom and Purpose.

The period of the counting of the omer is traditionally a quiet and introspective one, a time of semi mourning, although it is not clear for what we are mourning. One tradition says we are mourning the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague because they had not shown enough respect to each other. The plague ended on the 33rd day of the omer, and so this is a day taken out of the mourning period, a day for celebration and bonfires, before we go back into our counting the days till Shavuot. The story does not make sense – why would we mourn those who behaved so badly? Why do we go back into mourning after lag b’omer? But what does make sense is the idea of why God sent the plague – because these students of the celebrated rabbi were disrespectful of each other.

There is a long tradition in seeing the hand of the divine in natural disasters – from the ten plagues in Egypt onwards Jewish teachers have linked what insurers call ‘Acts of God’ to spiritual lessons about God’. Sometimes, as with the story trying to add meaning to the minor festival of Lag b’Omer there is a morality tale that we can understand. When people do not value each other and treat each other with respect, catastrophe can ensue. Indeed we also have the tradition that the fall of Jerusaelm was essentially down to sinat chinam, to the populace hating each other without reason.

But sometimes this tradition gets out of hand. This week after the terrible earthquake in Nepal with thousands of people dead and many thousands more struggling to survive in desperate circumstances, two rabbis chose to make a linkage. One, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi posted approvingly on his Facebook page “All the idol worshiping places in Nepal are now destroyed”. And then The chief of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious court, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, told followers that the earthquake was meant as a lesson to the Jewish people to stop the conversions of people to Judaism done by Government paid rabbis within the IDF (and not under the control of his court)

I guess if we are going to have a habit of interpreting events in the natural world to give us moral lessons from the divinity we are always going to risk those voices who are so sure that their agenda is also God’s agenda come to the fore. And in the days of social media (a facebook page noch) these people will put their ideology across.

It is always difficult to be sure that we hear the authentic voice of God, but there is one sure fire test – if it is harmful to any people or peoples, all of whom our bible reminds us right at the start are created in the image of God, then we can be pretty sure this may be our viewpoint but it isn’t God’s.

We are counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot, we are in a strange period of quiet and reflection, we are readying ourselves for Revelation, for meeting with God, for learning what our purpose is to be. We will remember the students of Rabbi Akiva who died, either because they were disrespectful of each other or, in another tradition, because they were rebelling against the harsh Roman Government of the day and fell in a great battle. Maybe both – revolting against a government that did not care about them, and passing on the lack of care to their fellows.

The next few days and weeks will see the election promises recede into the past and real politik take over. But whatever the colour and shape of our new governing body, it behoves them to remember to treat all of us with respect, to remember that we are all valuable human beings and equal before the creator, and that while God may not intervene in a dramatic way to show Divine pleasure or displeasure, there will most certainly be another election and we, the masses of ordinary people, will be able to affirm or dislodge them.

Parashat Behar:different kinds of deception and the obligation to avoid them

In sidra Behar we find the source texts for the prohibitions against two different kinds of deception – ona’at mammon and ona’at devarim. The verb ona’ah literally means “to overreach”, and describes the act of wronging another by selling an article for more than its real worth, or conversely, by purchasing an article for less than its real worth.

              The proscription is based on the verse in this sidra (25:14) “when you sell anything to your neighbour, or buy anything from your neighbour, you shall not deceive one another”. Talmud (Baba Metzia 49b) specifies what level of price variation is valid and what is not. For the merchants among us, it is deemed permissible to make a fair profit (seen as charging less than one sixth above the accepted price), but it is not permissible to overcharge and deceive a customer.
              The ban on verbal deception arises from a statement three verses later where we read (25:17) “Do not deceive one another but fear your God, for I the Eternal am your God”. Since the previous verse explicitly mentions monetary deception, the rabbis decided that this verse must refer to another kind of fraud – that of verbal dishonesty. The Mishnah (Baba Metzia 4:10) tells us “Just as there is deception in buying and selling, so too there is deception in words”
              The example that is given is the raising of the expectations of the merchant that he has a sale when the person posing as a buyer has no intention of such a transaction, something I suspect we may all have been guilty of doing, when we look at an item on the High Street but then go on to buy it on the internet at a discounted rate. But of course verbal dishonesty is a great deal more than the behaviour of people around a transaction and I find it curious that the Talmudic tradition stayed so close to the mercantile metaphors.

               Verbal dishonesty is so ingrained a habit in our behaviours that we can often barely notice it, from the telling of “little white lies” through to being “economical with the actualite” in an effort to stave off embarrassment or worse. We have all learned to speak “diplomatically” or “tactically” or “strategically”. We can hide behind many a circumlocution in order not to say what should really be honestly and transparently available to the people with whom we “do business”.

I am not suggesting we all suddenly become aficionados of what is sometimes called “blunt speaking” – that is another way in which we can bludgeon the other into not taking on board the whole meaning. I am however suggesting that we look seriously at how we communicate with each other, at what we choose to communicate and to whom. To hear second or third hand about a matter that is important to you; to be the subject of gossip or speculation – even to be forced into issuing public denials; to be told that “people are saying about you…” rather than “I think…”; these are all forms of verbal dishonesty that do more than to raise expectations unfairly qua the Mishnah – they are forms of dishonesty that start to destroy the soul of the people deceived and of the people deceiving.

We are in the Omer period, a time of reflection and sombre thoughtfulness before Shavuot when we will celebrate the giving of Torah. Sidra Behar actually refers back in time to the words that Moses was given by God on Mount Sinai – in particular the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Matters or Words sometimes called the Ten Commandments. Now would be a good time to examine ourselves and our behaviour in the light of the prohibition against ona’at Devarim – the use of words to deceive each other.    

The meaning of Matzah: affliction or liberation but always bread.

The bible tells us that people cannot live by bread alone (Deuteronomy 8:3), a statement so powerful it is repeated in the New Testament.

 Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods. Evidence on rocks in Europe from 30,000 years ago shows starch residue left from the plants which had presumably been pounded to create flour in order to make early flat bread.

With the Neolithic age and the spread of agriculture, bread from grains became the mainstay of the human diet. Yeast spores are everywhere – in the air and even on the surface of cereal grains, so any dough left to rest in the open air will over time become naturally leavened. But people quickly learned to help the process along -Pliny the Elder reports that the Gauls and the Iberians used the foam skimmed from beer to produce “a lighter kind of bread than other peoples.” Those who drank wine instead of beer in the ancient world used a paste composed of grape juice and flour that was allowed to begin fermenting, or else they used wheat bran steeped in wine, as a source for their yeast. But the most common source of leavening was to retain a piece of dough from the previous day to use as a starter for the new dough.

Probably that is why every year or so one had to start again, to not keep on endlessly adding a piece of dough from before to the new mix of flour and water, but to break what we would see as the cycle of infection and make a new start with this important food.

Bread means so many things to us – it was used to pay the workers’ wages in ancient Egypt and the word is still used today to denote wealth – both ‘bread’ and ‘dough’ are slang expressions for money.  The word ‘companion’ denotes someone with bread (com + panis). The Roman poet Juvenal satirised superficial politicians and the public as caring only for “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses).

The cultural importance of “bread” goes beyond slang, to serve as a metaphor for basic necessities and living conditions in general. A “bread-winner” is a household’s main economic contributor whose role is “putting bread on the table”. A remarkable or revolutionary innovation is often referred to as “the greatest thing since sliced bread”. Bread is the staple requirement in all human societies.

The word “bread” itself is curious – it has been claimed to be derived from the root of brew though it may be connected with the root of break, for its early uses are confined to broken pieces, or bits of bread. But in Hebrew the etymology is even more curious – “Lechem”, the Hebrew word for bread, is the same root as “lochem” – to do battle, and unlike the Teutonic languages, the third possible root “lacham” means not to separate, but to join together.   Using all three meanings, Ludwig Kohler, the author of a dictionary of biblical Hebrew, suggests that this third root – to be joined together, explains both battle and eating bread – in battle there is hand to hand combat and soldiers are bonded together in groups, in eating bread together people bond together in solidarity – breaking bread with someone is a powerful signifier or peace with them. Of course, the opposite may also be true – wars are fought over resources, and what is the most basic resource alongside water? Bread.

So what has this to do with the emblematic food of Pesach?  Matzah is symbolic of two kinds of bread: both the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation.   As we consider this festival and the foods we don’t let ourselves eat – for Pesach should not be, as it increasingly seems to be becoming, a time when we can imaginatively create dishes that mimic chametz, with breakfast cereals and potato flour pasta made kosher for Pesach, – but we should be thinking of the staples of our lives, what they are based upon, how we are separated and how we are joined, how we add value to our lives rather than live them mechanistically.

By eating matzah we are helping ourselves consider what is freedom, what is poverty, and how fine the line between the two. We are reminding ourselves of what is basic and important in our lives and what is the froth of the leavening.  Every so often we have to stop, to break the chain of habit, to start again from the beginning and Pesach is that time. Just as we break the cycle of infection of using a piece of dough from the previous day by making our bread with no additions except the elemental flour and water, so we take a week to live our lives in simplicity, to think about what we have been doing unthinkingly.  Bread is freedom and bread is poverty. Bread is broken and bread is joined. As we navigate the ambiguity and the possibilities of lechem in the form of matzah, we have the choice to think again. Are we in freedom? Do we oppress? Are we broken and separated from what matters? Are we joined to others in a strong bond?

The festival of Pesach will soon be over, but I hope the thinking it demands of us goes into the weeks of the Omer as we build and count up towards Sinai and the accepting of Torah.