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)

Vayechi: our life is given to us so that we learn how to die

The narrative opens with the verse “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years.

Immediately we are plunged into an end of life narrative but for the first time we have an extended view as we see Jacob begin to put his family affairs in order and to secure the succession, as a number of different conversations and scenes are recorded.

“And the time drew near that Israel must die; and he called his son Joseph, and said to him: ‘If now I have found favour in thy sight, put, I pray you, your hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray you, in Egypt .But when I sleep with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying-place.’ And he said: ‘I will do as you have said.’ And he said: ‘Swear to me.’ And he swore to him.”

When Jacob’s father Isaac had died, the narrative was short and to the point. We are told that: “Jacob came to Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiriat-arba–the same is Hebron–where Abraham and Isaac sojourned. And the days of Isaac were a hundred and fourscore years. And Isaac expired, and died, and was gathered unto his people, old and full of days; and Esau and Jacob his sons buried him. (Genesis 35: 27-29)

The ‘deathbed scene’ of passing on the special blessing with its accompanying promise of covenantal relationship with God had taken place many years earlier apparently, when his sons were much younger, and Isaac had seemed more concerned with getting a good meal than with the business of settling the family inheritance after his death. “And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his elder son, and said to him: ‘My son’; and he said unto him: ‘Here am I.’ And he said: ‘Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death. Now therefore take thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savoury food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die’ (Gen 27:1-4)

Isaac did not take the responsibility to ensure that things would transition smoothly after his death; he did not call both his sons to his bedside in order to deliver the blessing, but set up a complicated process that in retrospect looks almost wilfully negligent. The outcome was that the boys were set against each other, that Jacob fled and was away for at least fourteen years, and that the doubt as to his legitimacy as heir to his father’s blessing threads through the narrative as he battles angels and debates with God and we are left wondering what was Isaac’s intention in asking “who are you, my son?”

Isaac did not model himself on his own father who had many more children with Keturah after Sarah’s death, but about whom we are told “And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. But to the sons of the concubines that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts; and he sent them away from Isaac his son while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country” (Gen 25:6 )Abraham protected Isaac from inheritance claims and also arranged his marriage into a powerful and protective family (Gen 24:1ff)

And now we have the deathbed arrangements of Jacob, and what a difference as he plans and calculates! First he speaks to Joseph, and he asks that he not be buried in Egypt but with his own father in the Cave of Machpela at Mamre. Then as he declines further, Joseph visits again with his own two sons, named for forgetting his past and for his successful life in Egypt. Jacob summons his strength to tell the story of the covenantal blessing, of the angel who had guarded him, of the death and burial of Joseph’s mother Rachel, adopts both the boys explicitly bringing them into the covenant blessing, and setting the younger (Ephraim) over the older (Manasseh). He gives Joseph what to all intents and purposes is his personal blessing, telling him that God will be with him and will bring him back to his ancestral land, and he offers something else that is outside of the covenant: “Moreover I have given to you one portion above your brothers, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.‘ (Gen:48:22)

And then finally he spoke to all the twelve sons together, twice telling them to assemble themselves together, and then offering individual blessings to each one. These are not the blessings of the covenant but clear assessments of their personalities and likely futures. Judah is singled out for praise and leadership, and Joseph is given what appears to be the major non-covenantal and personal blessing: “The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of the prince among his brethren.” And then he asks all his sons to make sure he will be buried in the ancestral graves in Machpela, and he too expires and, like Abraham and Isaac before him, he is “gathered to his people”.

It is an exemplary death. All the threads of his life are brought together – his funeral arrangements are made, and he asks ALL his children to take responsibility to take him to the burial site which will bring him – and them – back to his familial roots. He brings his two Egyptian grandchildren into the family fold, he resolves his relationship with Joseph in a number of ways not least taking the responsibility of being the parent rather than being a guest enjoying his son’s hospitality and giving his personal gift separately from the family inheritance. He brings all his sons together so that none have more information than the others, and he is absolutely clear about them and their fortunes in an open and formal setting of deathbed blessing. And having finished his speech he gets comfortably into the bed and he dies.

Many years later we are told a similar story – the death of Rabbi Judah haNasi whom we know to have been in terrible pain and discomfort in his terminal state, but whose process of dying also encompasses the resolving of the important issues of his life. In the Babylonian Talmud we read “At the time of Rabbi’s death he said: I need my sons. His sons came to him and he told them “carefully observe the honour due to your mother……He said to them “I need the sages of Israel. The sages of Israel came to him and he said to them” Do not eulogise me in the towns. But establish a session after thirty days. Simon my son shall be Hacham, Gamliel my son shall be Nasi. Hanina bar Hama shall sit at the head of the Academy.  He said to them “I need my younger son” R. Simon came to him; He transmitted to him the tradition of wisdom. He said to them I need my older son. Rabban Gamliel came to him and he transmitted to him the orders of the patriarchate. ( Ketubot 103a-b)

Rabbi’s death was less peaceful than that of Jacob, indeed it took the intervention of a compassionate maid servant to help ease him from this world when she saw just how much pain he was in, but his thoughtful planning and the passing on of the legacy of his learning and leadership owe much to the story in Genesis. Only when Jacob completes the resolution of the family tensions at his deathbed, rather than hide from the challenge as his own father had done, does the story of lethal sibling rivalry that began with the very first brothers Cain and Abel and was demonstrated down the generations of the Book of Genesis, end. Judah HaNasi faced a similar problem – there was no clear successor of sufficient stature, so he gave to both his sons as well as to R.Hanina bar Hama a role and a title to go forward with. We know that the decentralisation of the rabbinic world began at this time, along with a flowering of other academies – -the new Academy and Patriarchate at Tiberius came to supersede the one at Sepphoris over time. But Judah haNasi did his best to prevent the splintering of authority and both his life and his death contributed to a smoother shift than might otherwise have been.

Most of us will not be leaving anything so valuable an inheritance as these figures, but we will all be leaving other important gifts and it is essential that we learn the lessons of dying well from wherever we can.

The lessons in our texts are a good place to start. To confront the reality that we will die, even if we don’t know when, so that we can plan and work in order to leave behind good relationships rather than complicated or destructive feelings.

The model to avoid is that of Isaac who surprisingly thought more about fulfilling his own immediate needs than smoothing the path for the future. Jacob the trickster cast aside his deceptiveness and spoke to each son individually in the presence of the others. Rabbi spoke with both the Sages of the Academy and then to each of his sons in order to prevent unseemly battles over leadership.

We none of us know the day of our death, but we can most certainly try to live our lives in such a way that we do not leave too much of a relationship mess behind us. If we truly lived as if we might die tomorrow we might say and do the things we should say and do now, and not say or do the things we imagine we can always sort out some time in the future while we focus on our own needs.

If we try to put things right each day, as if it is our last day and this our deathbed process, then we might leave less emotional mess behind. If we tell those we love that we love them, forgive those who hurt us, let people know our wishes -be it organ donation or special bequests; if we give back what we owe and plan for the future so that we do not leave others in the lurch, then we can leave the rest up to God and to the future that we can hope will take care of itself.