Parashat Balak: Prophecy and Leadership can come from the most unexpected places, OR Female Donkeys have much to teach us

Twice in Torah an animal speaks. The first is the Nachash, the serpent in the Garden of Eden whose conversation is instrumental in Eve eating the fruit from a forbidden tree (Genesis 3); and the second is the donkey who three times tries to protect her owner (Balaam) from the wrath of God before her mouth is opened by God to challenge his behaviour. (Numbers 22)

Interestingly both animals speak in the interrogative as they initiate the conversation. The serpent has its own agency, approaching the woman without prior recorded interaction, and it clearly understands the reality of the situation they are in rather better than the woman does. The serpent asks her “Has God said that you should not eat of any tree in the garden?” and on being told that the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden was forbidden lest they die, the serpent says, quite truthfully – “you shall not die, for God knows that in the day that you eat it, then your eyes will be opened and you shall be like God, knowing good and evil”.  He does not seduce her to eat the fruit or even recommend that she eat it – he simply points out that the punishment she believes will follow is not the case, and instead a different outcome will emerge – the humans will have godlike qualities that currently they do not possess, the ability to make moral judgments.  The tree itself is beautiful, the fruit looks delicious, and the woman – now clear of her fear of death – eats and gives to her partner. There is nothing to warn of danger in the presentation of tree or fruit, and the intervention of the serpent seems a necessary catalyst for the human beings to take the next step.

In contrast, the donkey does not speak at first. She is simply trying to get out of the way of the angel by any route possible, squeezing herself and her rider into increasingly small spaces, and bearing the cruel punishment by Balaam in silence until eventually, when Balaam’s beatings of her become unbearable, God opens her mouth and she asks “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”  When Balaam answers “because you mocked me, I wish I had a sword in my hand for I would kill you”, she asks two more questions: “Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden all your long life until today? Have I ever done this sort of thing before to you?” To which Balaam answers with one word: “No”.

Only then does God open Balaam’s eyes and he sees what the donkey has seen all along – the fiery angel standing in the way, who DOES have a sword in its hand. Balaam bows down and falls prostrate to the ground, and the angel of God asks the same question the donkey did – “Why have you beaten your donkey three times?” before going on to explain that the angel is there as an adversary (le’Satan), “because your way is contrary to me”

The serpent is “arum” – subtle or cunning (though it has another meaning of cautious and prudent). It is its own self, beholden to none.

The donkey ‘s personality is not described in the same way, but we understand her by her behaviour. Firstly, she can see the angel when no one else can – she is a perceptive animal. She only speaks when God ‘opens her mouth’, rather than from her own initiative, she has been Balaam’s donkey for many years and served him faithfully. Her questions are personal, immediate, and relational. “What have I done to you that you hurt me?” “Am I not your long term and faithful donkey?” “Have I ever done this before?”

She is a faithful servant, dedicated to helping and protecting the person she sees as her master – quite unlike the serpent who is an individual with agency, dedicated to – well who knows what? Truth? Mischief? Action?

In both cases the intervention of the animal allows their human interlocutor to perceive and know what the animal already knows. They seem to mediate divine revelation, albeit in different ways and with different outcomes. The serpent is punished, lowered, put in opposition to humankind. The donkey is defended by the angel who asks the same question she asked of Balaam, and it is made clear that while the angel might have killed Balaam, it had no intention of hurting the donkey.

I find it interesting that the donkey is not “Chamor חֲמוֹר” but an “aton  אֲתֹן” – very specifically she is a female donkey, her verbs are in the feminine, this is the deliberate presentation of a female protagonist.

I find it interesting too that the donkey is contextualised in relationship; her interventions are not grand or self-centred but to do with the bond and connection between her and Balaam. She doesn’t feel the need to tell him of the angel in the road, but to ask about what has happened between them that their rapport has failed and he is beating her.

I don’t see this as subservience, even though the donkey is clearly of low status in human society. Instead between the two stories I see two models of change. The first is hierarchical, the shrewd and calculating “catalyst figure” knows the information and by their line of questioning is leading the other person towards the information it wants them to know. The question is asked and the answer is challenged with the facts. The change happens but the outcome is not really happy for either protagonist.

In the second story, while the “catalyst figure” knows the information, it makes the assumption that the other also holds information, and it takes care of them and uses their relationship and the trust built up between them to allow the other to learn.  Even when there is a further intervention (when God opens the mouth of the donkey) she does not discuss the revelation in front of them but formulates her response around the relationship between them.

While it may be unfair to say that the first model is the “male” one and the second model of leadership the “female” one, it is I think true that generally female leadership is characterised by being more transformational, task focussed, collaborative and often indirect, whereas generally male leadership is characterised by being more transactional, hierarchical and focused on the achievement of the preferred outcome.  It is no surprise to me that the serpent is masculine but the donkey feminine.

The donkey provides a voice of gentle sanity in a story that describes testosterone fuelled attempts to increase power and demonstrate status in the world of the king and the prophet – and all the time the reader knows the added irony that the Children of Israel know nothing of what is going on, so that the grabs for more status and power are irrelevant to them. The great Seer Balaam proves to be a comically less able prophet than his donkey, the great King Balak’s frustration grows to almost laughable boiling point as he tries again and again to have his enemies cursed – paying a fortune to no avail. Again and again we are invited to understand that there is much more to the world than we can easily see; that the apparently important figures are in fact not so important in the larger scheme of things; that if we only pay attention to the surface or believe the publicity of those who claim leadership rights, then we are missing the complexity and connectedness, the way relationships and shared values organise or world.

There are many variants on the theme that behind every great man is a person supporting them selflessly to enable that greatness – usually a woman. But my two favourites which both speak to the story of Balaam and his female donkey are from popular culture.

John Lennon wrote (though not about Balaam) “As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot.” And Harrison Ford opined “Behind every great man is a woman. Telling him he’s not so hot.”

The bible seems to agree. And the prophet Zechariah reminds us

גִּילִ֨י מְאֹ֜ד בַּת־צִיּ֗וֹן הָרִ֨יעִי֙ בַּ֣ת יְרֽוּשָׁלַ֔ם הִנֵּ֤ה מַלְכֵּךְ֙ יָ֣בוֹא לָ֔ךְ צַדִּ֥יק וְנוֹשָׁ֖ע ה֑וּא עָנִי֙ וְרֹכֵ֣ב עַל־חֲמ֔וֹר וְעַל־עַ֖יִר בֶּן־אֲתֹנֽוֹת:

Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion, shout O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you, righteous and redeeming, poor and riding on a donkey (chamor), and upon the foal of a (female) donkey.

Come the messianic times, the child of that donkey who protected and supported her rider Balaam, will have the honour to bring the anointed one into Jerusalem.  The line of Balaam’s donkey will ascend into the service of the messiah. The line of the serpent in Eden will be lowly and in opposition to humankind.  Very different outcomes from the different interventions of the animals who speak.



Ekev: justice and mercy, individual and society, unity and interdependence from the Shema to the Days of Awe

Ask most Jews to explain the Shema and chances are they will think only of the first paragraph. They will speak of the Affirmation of the unity of God, the centrality of that belief to Judaism. Many Jewish commentators wax lyrical about the Shema as confession of faith through the ages. There are stories of those who die “al Kiddush HaShem”, prolonging the words of the Shema until they expire, leaving this world with the proclamation of their belief in the one God. Others speak of  the duty to love God that is spoken of in the prayer, the requirement to keep Gods commandments and to teach our children to do so. They remind us of the awareness of God that is to be present at all times and in everything we do – whatever we look towards, whatever our hands are busy with.

So central to Jewish theology is this prayer, that the early leaders of the Reform Movement made a deliberate policy to highlight it during the services, and hence many progressive congregations would stand whilst the first paragraph is being recited, and some even open the ark so as to further underline the point.

But the Shema itself is actually comprised of three paragraphs, and in our zeal to highlight the first we have cast the other two into shadow. We are aided and abetted in this by our own siddur which offers other passages for reading in silence as well as the full text of the shema.

It is not surprising that the reformers were less keen to proclaim the sentiments of the second paragraph, for whilst the first has an underlying principle of Loving God, this one had as its essence the principle of Fearing God.

Here we have the God of Righteous Retribution. The powerful God of Justice whose requirement and commandments must be fulfilled on pain of death. No room for negotiation here, only unswerving dedication and acceptance of the mitzvot will do. This time God is perceived as rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is no middle way and there is no way out. If you truly listen go God, love and obey completely, the rains will come at the right time and the land will be fertile and productive.

If however your heart strays to other gods, then there will be no rain, the land will not produce and disaster will come

The equation is simple and horribly clear. Obeying God means remaining in the land which is lush and fertile; disobeying means the likelihood of a horrible death from famine.  Jeremiah, describing one such drought wrote: “Judah is in mourning, her settlements languish. Men are bowed to the ground and the outcry of Jerusalem rises. Their nobles sent their servants for water; they came to the cisterns they found no water. They returned their vessels empty. They are shamed and humiliated, they cover their heads. Because of the ground there is dismay, for there has been no rain on the earth. The ploughmen are shamed they cover their heads. Even the hind in the field forsakes her new-born fawn because there is no grass. And the wild asses stand on the bare heights, snuffling the air like jackals. Their eyes pine because there is no herbage”( Jer 14:1-6)

Rain in its due season, life giving water, is a gift from God. God may choose to withhold it and so cause wholesale death as punishment. This is the theology of the fundamentalist  who blames the difficulties we experience as punishment for someone’s (usually someone else’s) sin . It is a perception of God that is both childlike and horrific, a god without mercy who dispenses reward and punishment with machine like efficiency and no extenuating circumstances to be taken into account.

Small wonder the Reform Movement had no desire to weight this paragraph with the same glory as its predecessor. Small wonder the MRJ siddur took to printing it out only once, and in other places laconically writes “during the silence the second and third paragraphs of the Shema may be read, or the following” and then gives us uplifting selections from Isaiah, Proverbs or the Holiness Code in Leviticus.

Traditionally the three paragraphs are printed in full whenever the Shema is to be read, and the rabbis of old had other way of dealing with this rather frightening aspect of the almighty. Prayers for rain in their due season are recited in services, the principle prayer being recited during Musaf on the last day of Sukkot and from then until Pesach the sentence “mashiv ha ruach umoreed ha geshem” is inserted into the Amidah (who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall). After Pesach another prayer for dew is recited and there are several other petitionary prayers recited at the appropriate times of the year.

The prayers for rain are amongst the earliest of all the liturgical texts and are clearly a response to the fear of divine threat that would withhold rain as punishment. If these prayers do not work, then the Mishnah lays down another response – that of fasting. The structures become greater the longer the period without rain, from people of merit fasting during daylight hours for three days to eventually the whole community fasting a total of thirteen days, with no washing, little business transacted and so on. The bible may describe certain punishment, but the rabbis modified it to take account of repentance.

Other responses take account of the fact that we do not often see the righteous rewarded nor the wicked punished in everyday life, though the development of the idea of an afterlife is later than the text here in Deuteronomy but once it appears in our philosophy, it means that punishment need not be tied into the agricultural year.

The book of Job was written as a response to the convention wisdom that all who are afflicted in life have in some way deserved it. Maimonides coped with this threat of divine retribution by writing that people should first serve God for a reward in order to learn to serve God without any motive – he took the view here (as with the sacrificial system) that ideal worship has to be learned and will not come without a process of weaning away from other forms. Hence this was a necessary stage in the history of the development of the relationship of the Jewish with God.

A more modern attempt to cope with this difficult second paragraph is to look at it in context with the first. In the first paragraph the underlying principle is love and the wording is in the singular – you will love God and do God’s commandments.  In the second paragraph the underlying principle is that of fear, and through the fear will come the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments – most of which cannot be done without other people.

The wording is in the plural precisely for that reason. One can fulfil the first paragraph alone, but for the second paragraph to be valid, other people are vital. The shema moves from the relationship of the individual with God to relationships within society. For these relationships to work there must be rules and sanctions, boundaries must be set in place for the security of all concerned. Love alone will not enable a society to function smoothly – courts of laws are needed to.

We are moving towards a time of the year when the image of God as Judge is becoming stronger. Soon we shall be entering the moth of Elul with its lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Nachmanides wrote that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgement. Either way both mercy and judgement are part of the unity of God, interdependent and of equal importance just as we see in the full shema.

There is a Midrash that before God made our world God first made and destroyed other worlds. Some were made only with justice but no one could survive. Some God made only with mercy and love but the inhabitants were anarchic and constantly destroyed each other. Finally God made a world with a blend of the two, an imperfect but pragmatic world that worked. And that was when God knew that it was good.

Va’etchanan and Nachamu:In approaching God with our desires we may yet find comfort and the chance to rebuild

The Shabbat where we read parashat Va’etchanan is named for its haftarah: it is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation.

After three weeks of haftarot that speak of rebuke, that have ratcheted up the anxious anticipation of the forthcoming cataclysm that is Tisha b’Av, we now begin the seven weeks of consolation, leading us to the possibility of a new start with God at Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that whatever the catastrophe, God is still there for us.

For a period of ten weeks we are liturgically reminded that it is time to put in the work to repair our relationship with God.

Va’etchanan begins with Moses reminding the people of his asking for God’s graciousness, asking to be allowed to enter the land that his whole life has been dedicated to guiding the nascent Jewish people towards.  He says “I besought God at that time saying, Adonai Elohim; you have begun to show your servant your greatness, the strength of your hand. For which god in heaven and earth can exist who does like you do? Please let me cross over so that I will see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.  But God was angry with me because of you (the way you behaved) and did not listen to me and said to me, ‘Enough, do not speak more of this matter’…  Go up to Pisgah and look [in all four directions] …and command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him….”

Va’etchanan ends an era, albeit with the pain and frustration of Moses played out publicly before the people. A line has been drawn; it is time for the next leader, the next stage of the people’s history.

Nachamu begins with the repeated imperative to “Comfort yourselves”. It goes on to speak to the heart of Jerusalem to say that that her time of service is over and her guilt paid off, that she has received from God double for all her sins.  A voice is calls: Clear the route of God in the wilderness, make a highway in the desert for our God. Every valley shall be raised, every mountain and hill diminished, the rugged will be levelled, the rough places smoothed.  And the glory of God will be revealed and everyone shall see it, for the mouth of God has spoken it”

One can read the Isaiah as a counterpoint to Va’etchanan, a response to Moses’ anguish that he will not be there to guide and escort the people in the land they are ready to enter: – Isaiah stresses the point that while yes the people will stray, God will still be there for them. The pathway that has led from Egypt to Mt Sinai, and from Mt Sinai to the Promised Land in a wandering and circuitous route, will become clear and defined and will link the people and God in a pathway that is easy to see and to tread.  The repetition of the imperative “Nachamu” echoes the repetition of the angel calling to Abraham at the site of the Akedah, reminding us that when we are so involved in our own ideas and world view it takes more than one call to drag us out of our intense concentration to be able to see a bigger picture.

But I think the Isaiah speaks not only to past time, but to present and future time. The passage speaks of a change in the landscape so that all the landmarks we are used to have gone, a levelling so that the valleys and mountains are brought together to one flat plain where no one and nothing can hide. It erases the peaks and the troughs, the domains of the heavens and the earth which shall never quite meet. Instead it speaks of human mortality and the eternity of the word of God. It speaks of catastrophic worldly and political change and of the consoling continuity of our relationship with God.

Whose is the voice calling in the wilderness demanding proclamation?  Whose is the voice asking what should be proclaimed?  Like the voice of the shofar at the revelation of Mt Sinai, these voices are ownerless in the text; we can claim them or project onto them.

The voices can be ours, demanding justice, demanding fairness, demanding relationship with God. Just as we are told that “the mouth of the Eternal has spoken” we are given a voice to speak back, to have a dialogue not only with each other but with our creator.

We are in the liturgical run-up to the Days of Awe, when God is said to be more present in the world, more willing to listen to us, more focussed on repairing the gaps that have emerged between us. As Isaiah reminds us “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever…. O you who tells good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength, lift it up and be unafraid, say to the cities of Judah “Behold your God”. Behold the Eternal God will come…even as a shepherd who feeds his flock, who gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in his breast…”

Immediately after Tisha b’Av in the shock of the loss it commemorates, it is important to re-orient ourselves from mourning to life, to repair our own lives and to work for the greater good of our communities so that the glory of God is to be revealed, so that everyone shall join the work of repairing our world.

Balak: the curse of being a people who dwell alone

Balaam, the seer and professional prophet from Aram who is commissioned by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites travelling through the land, says to Balak :- “[you told me] ‘come, curse me Jacob and come, defy Israel’  How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I disturb whom the Eternal has not disturbed?”

And then he tells him this: “For from the top of the rocks I see them, and from the hills I observe them. Behold, a people who will live alone, and with the nations they will not be reckoned”

כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב

Balaam is a seer, he is a powerful soothsayer who has a real connection with God, but none whatsoever with the people of Israel. When he sees them all his plans to curse are in disarray, he cannot curse the people protected by God, and while he continues to try to fulfil the contract as best he can he is limited in this case and he knows it. Yet he tries to offer curses – or at least ambiguous spells, and this story culminates in the verse which we have appropriated for well over a thousand years to help us into the mood for prayer:          מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹֽהָלֶ֖יךָ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

“How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel”

It is a comic tale despite the horror of a powerful person hoping to destroy the vulnerable people of Israel while they are going about their business quite unknowing of the hatred and bile directed towards them. The comedy is underlined by our liturgical use of the final declaration. But this year one of the earlier “blessings/curses” caught my eye.  “Behold a people who will live alone, who will not be reckoned with the nations”

Tradition tells us that this is transformed into a blessing, that alone of all the nations of history, the Jews continue, uniquely indestructible, forever distinct and separate from the peoples among whom we live. This thread of Jewish peoplehood, surviving without the structures that normally support identity, moving geographically across a huge diaspora, moving through time and evolving time and again to create and accept new ritual and liturgical structures, accommodating to different cultures and political environments, living alongside other religious traditions – it is indeed unique.  Empires came and went, those of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were powerful entities under which the Jews lived and often suffered, and still the Jews continue while the artefacts of the great Empires can be found in museums.

But this interpretation so beloved of the medieval commentators living under oppressive authorities and fearful of the crusading powers sweeping through Europe to the Holy Land, reads less comfortingly in modern times.

A people who will dwell alone, who will not be reckoned/counted/aligned with the other nations sounds scarily like a nationalism out of control, assuming an arrogance and an identity that does not relate to other peoples.  As I have been reading the remarks of some who voted for the UK to leave our relationship with Europe I see statements such as “I have my country back”, and “we can send the foreigners home” and “England for the English”. I see the demagoguery of UKIP, the racism that was unacceptable in British society suddenly surfacing as people feel permission to “dwell alone”. Words like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ dominate the discourse, turning the narrative into one of narrow chauvinism, bigotry and nationalism and xenophobia which appear to be segueing smoothly from the earlier arguments of more local agency and greater political autonomy.

I am chilled by the increased nationalism and jingoism I see not only in present day post referendum United Kingdom but also in other countries in Europe and in the USA. Patriotism has become a cloak for hatred of the other. Brown skinned people are being abused on public transport and told to “go home” – even though home is here, even though this island has always had many races and cultures – Angles and Saxons and Normans and Danes and Celts and  Germanic tribes and …..

I am chilled by the idea that being a people who are alone can possibly ever be a blessing, but in particular now when we live in an interconnected and interdependent world, when we can see the suffering of others at the touch of a computer or television, and we can help alleviate that suffering just as quickly and easily.  We learn from each other, we enrich each other both culturally and intellectually, we offer each other relationship while retaining the individuality we need for a real relationship to exist. As Martin Buber wrote a person (“I”) has meaning only in relation to others, what he called “I-Thou dialogue” – the same is true for peoples, for ethnicities and national identities. To separate oneself off and deny our interdependence, instead proclaiming the holy grail of absolute and total independence, is dangerous for every person, for every society, for every nation state.

The first time we have the phrase of being B.D.D. alone, comes in Genesis (2:18) Where God, having made the first human being says

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ:

It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make for him a support who is equal and different to him.

We all need others, people who are different, who have equal strength of opinion and independence, who challenge us and support us and are in relationship with us.  The saddest phrase in bible is probably the one at the beginning of the book of Lamentations, read after the commemoration of the calamity of the destruction of Jerusalem:

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֨תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס:

How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people. How is she become as a widow. She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!

We are already in the month of Tammuz – this weekend will see the 9th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and the temple sacrifices were discontinued, and next week we will commemorate the 17th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman army in 70CE leading to the removal of the Jewish people from their ancestral land. We may as a people have survived these historical catastrophes but the question is – have we learned from them? We need no longer fear being forcibly assimilated into a dominant power (or worse), the ‘blessing’ of being a people apart may now be less of a blessing if it blinkers us to the importance of our relationships with others.

As John Donne wrote in his meditation “

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

We should listen out for the bell tolling out its warning and push for relationship and the recognition of the reality of our interdependence with others. Or Balak’s ‘blessing’ may yet prove to be our curse.

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.







Mishpatim: Torah MiSinai is only one half of the conversation

In parashat Yitro is the climactic coming together of God and the Israelite people as three months after the dramatic exodus from Egypt following signs and wonders, the people are encamped at the foot of Mt Sinai and Moses and God encounter each other once more in order to create the agreement that as long as the people will obey God’s voice and keep the covenant, then they will be God’s special treasure among all the peoples of the earth, and shall become a kingdom of priests to God, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5,6). A period of purification is followed by the majesty of the presence of God, and the words of God are declaimed amid black smoke, thunder and lightning, terrifying the people who declare their willingness to accept the covenant but ask for Moses to be their representative and for them to keep well away from whatever is going on.

The relationship is consummated with words, called in Hebrew the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Statements, which function essentially as the paragraph headings that prescribe the boundaries and the requirements of the relationship.

Like any new relationship, each side views the other as pretty wonderful, there is no need immediately to get into the gritty details of the red lines and the expectations that will make living together successful or not. But soon of course those realities set in and the couple have to ‘talk tachlis’. Hence the detailed miscellany of laws in the following chapters, including a whole sidra named ‘mishpatim’: the laws and rules of the relationship.

This year, I was especially drawn to thinking about the authority of the rules – who gets to decide what they are, who gets to change them, and to ask – how does the relationship evolve?

In Exodus 24 we have insight into the beginning of the ‘tachlis period’. Moses is to come alone to God. There has been some etiquette about introducing the leaders of the people further up the Mountain, but now Moses tells the people all God’s words and the people answer in unified response “all the words which the Eternal spoke we will do”. Then Moses writes down all the words of God (it is not clear where he does this), after which he builds an altar representing the entire people and there is a sacrificial rite, followed by this information “And Moses took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the Eternal has spoken will we do, and we will understand.’ (24:7)

What is this Book of the Covenant? Why does Moses follow his reading – and the people’s oddly worded response – with a ritual where he takes the blood of the previous sacrifice, sprinkles it on the people and tells them ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Eternal has made with you in agreement with all these words.’ We now have a Book of the Covenant (Sefer ha brit) and Blood of the Covenant (dam ha brit) and then suddenly we are in a vision, as the 70 plus elders of Israel find themselves at a feast where they see God standing on a clear sapphire pavement.

Just as suddenly we are out. God tells Moses ‘Come up to Me into the mount and be there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah (teaching) and the commandment (mitzvah)(, which I have written, that you may teach them.’ (v12)

What are these tablets of stone, the Torah and the Mitzvah that Moses is to teach? How do they fit into the covenant? Why then does Moses stay on the mountain after this for forty days and nights, hidden in cloud, leaving his people leaderless and frightened and alone?

The text, like the top of the mountain, is opaque. We cannot understand the encounter, only know that there was indeed such a moment that cemented the relationship between God and Israel, a relationship that might go through many rocky patches and many silences, but which will never actually break. We have a brit, a covenant, and we are tied to each other for eternity.

But what are the parameters of the covenant? What do we have to do? What will we come to understand? And while the existence of the covenant is unchanging, the conditions have clearly developed and altered.

The Talmud sets out the traditional position of the verse asking: What is the meaning of “And I will give you the tablets of stone and the law and the commandment, which I have written so that you can teach them”? “Tablets of stone”-these are the Ten Commandments, “the law” -this is the Torah, “the commandment”- this is the Mishnah,” which I have written”- these are the Prophets and the Writings, “that you may teach them”- this is the Gemara. And it teaches that they were all given to Moses on Sinai (TB Berachot 5a).

This passage is frequently cited as the proof text of Torah miSinai – that God gave to Moses everything that would become Rabbinic Judaism in later years. Either it was given at Sinai or it has no authenticity runs the argument. But surely this cannot be a literal reading of the biblical text, nor a complete reading of the Talmudic one.

The phrase Torah mi Sinai is found only once in Talmudic texts – in the introduction to the Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, where we are told “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”

It is found not at all in Bible, and indeed while the seeds of the idea of divine revelation encompassing the whole of what became Rabbinic/Halachic Judaism can be discerned, they are only in the later books of Chronicles and of Ezra and Nehemiah, books which are generally seen as being written only in the 5th/4th Century BCE. These books use the words haTorah / Torah while earlier books refer always to Torot, a plurality of teachings. The Book of Nehemiah even refers to Ezra reading In the book, in the Law of God, (BaSefer, b’torat Elohim) distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. (8:8,18), and also” Ezra the scribe [was asked] to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Eternal had commanded to Israel”, and so clearly by the early Second Temple period there was a tradition of a Mosaic/divine book of Torah, which is variously described as being the Torah of God or the Torah of Moses, something unknown in earlier biblical texts.

This idea is seized upon by the Rabbis who took for themselves the right to decide not only what the texts would mean, but also used it to assert their authority and control over the people. Hence we have the midrashic text in Leviticus Rabbah (5th Century) ““everything an experienced pupil might ever say to his teacher was revealed to Moses at Sinai.”, and the more worrying Mishnah Sanhedrin (10:1) “…These have no share in the World to Come: One who says that [the belief of] resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, [one who says that] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and one who denigrates the Torah..”

Why did they do this? Was it in order to emphasise the authenticity of their authority post Temple, against the Karaites and the Sadducees and those who wished to continue Priestly authority? This would certainly make sense as they were reinventing what it meant to be Jewish after the central worship authority had disappeared, and a multiplicity of rival claims may have spread the Jewish people too thinly to survive.

But we are in a different world, where literary criticism and scholarship that takes into account the context of a text mean that we can see that Torah miSinai cannot be a literal description of our foundational texts. Even Maimonides, who famously enshrined Torah miSinai into his thirteen principles of faith, would surely have framed those principles differently in modern times, (And one must also take into account the context of those principles that became Yigdal – he was responding to Islamic claims about the superiority of its revelatory texts).

Whatever the Torah of Moses /the Torah of God means, for which the shorthand remains “Torah miSinai”, it has become a barrier for the Jewish people rather than an enabler. People who have good academic understanding in the secular world find the notion of one book literally given at one time on a desert mountain to be improbable, which means that the world of scriptural literalists tries to keep modernity away from ‘their’ Jews, with terrible consequences often. People who seek to understand the text differently are shunned or worse, treated as if they are no longer Jews. And then there is the halachic process, which from being a dynamic and responsive practice has become solidified and deeply unhelpful often, simply because there is nothing ‘miSinai’ that pushes for change.

I love the idea of God speaking with Moses in the presence of the entire people, and that being an inspirational and creative moment that energised the ongoing relationship of God and the Jews. But I hate the idea that the route to the relationship is held in the hands of people with little understanding of modernity or the modern Jewish people and State, who try to excommunicate anyone who challenges or brings in modern ideas from the Covenant and the peoplehood.

It is time to reclaim Torah MiSinai, to go back to that moment where the whole people heard and said, we will do and we will understand, and while they may have deputed Moses to negotiate the contract on their behalf, did not abdicate their own responsibility for being part of the development of what the contract would mean over time.