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)

Sermon for Yom Kippur Shacharit: ki vayom hazeh – on this day

Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before God, you shall be cleansed”  (Lev 16:30)

On Yom Kippur, when the High Priest entered the inner Temple, dressed in special robes and breastplate, the priestly garments including the frontlets on his head, the vestments of fine white linen, he would repeat this biblical verse in each of the three confessions he made.  And the people would crowd around outside in the temple courtyard, listening hard, and when they heard the the glorious and awesome four letter name of God we write as yod hey vav hey, the name which would be uttered only by the High Priest, only within the Holy of Holies, only on Yom Kippur, only as part of the confession ritual, then they would bow down with their faces to the ground and respond with the blessing of God’s name. This annual ritual of confession and sacrifice was a dangerous one, surrounded by mystery, perfumed by the incense, veiled from the community.  Tension mounted as the confessions grew, as the animals were sacrificed and the hopes pinned upon them being favourably received reached some form of expression.

My sympathies have always been with the high priest, upon whose shoulders rested the burden of so much expectation.  The fate of the whole people seems to have been given over to this one man on this one day – so he had better get it right.   The ritual was complicated, the choreography of washing and changing clothes, of sacrifice and prayer awesomely elaborate,  the consequences of making a mistake unthinkable.  We don’t know much from either biblical sources or first temple texts, but by the time of the Second Temple the Day for Atonement was focussed on the actions and intentions of the High Priest, and the role of the people was to listen, to be awe-struck, and to hope that he got it right.

That was then, but since the Temple days Yom Kippur has developed a different set of rituals, and while we re-enact part of the Avodah, the temple service of Yom Kippur, during the mussaf service, experiencing just the echo of the thrilling gravity and overwhelming power of that ceremony, our own liturgy and imagery takes us to a different  religious place.  Yom Kippur is no longer the Day for Atonement for the people Israel, it is by far a more personal and individual experience for we children of modern times.  The High Priest has long gone, the sacrificial system consigned to a stage post in history that no longer speaks to us of religious action, and the corporate nature of the people Israel has been changed as we have become a different category altogether – Jews, and while we consistently create community we see ourselves in the main as individuals, individual Jews.

The structure of the ritual and the philosophical underpinnings of the day have undergone a radical transformation, and so, I would posit, has the meaning of what Yom haKippurim means to us.  While we still translate this obscure name using the invented composite word ‘at-one’, we have changed both meaning and purpose of the day for our own spiritual needs.  I would even go so far as to say that the day is not really about sin and atonement any more – how would we even define those terms today? – but that Yom Kippur for us is about something quite other –  Time. Yom Kippur is about our use of time, about our location in time – it is in particular a day for us to focus on our own mortality.

Interspersed in our machzor with the major themes of sin and repentance, of forgiveness and atonement, we hear the insistently repeated motif of life and death. We talk for example about the Book of Life, we read the Martyrology, we recite a service of Yizkor, our traditional clothing for this day is to wear shrouds and we are called to abstain from the physical  pleasures of living, eating, drinking or washing.  We take a day right out of time and act as if the world outside is irrelevant to us, as if we are, for the moment, temporarily dead.

What message do we take from the prayers and texts as we sit through Yom Kippur.  It is probably true that we examine our lives and find our behaviour wanting.  It is probably the case that we make our stumbling attempts towards recognising and harnessing our own spirituality, yearning as we do for a sense of meaning, for a firm belief in a greater being.  It may well be that we feel momentarily inspired to change some part of our lives, or that we experience the satisfying of a need for connectedness which tends to be submerged during the busy weeks of the rest of our lives.  As the day rolls on, the ancient formulae about sin and loss swirl around us, as do the equally ancient phrases about return and forgiveness.  We know that we are less than perfect and we look for ways to deal with both the knowledge and the reality.   But we cannot retreat into the Yom Kippur of the Temple period and leave the whole religious business to someone else.  The Yom Kippur of our time looks us in the face and says – you are mortal, you only have a limited time on this earth – and you do not even know how limited it may be – so what are you going to do about your life?

Yom Kippur is no longer a day simply of general and ritual atonement. It is a day for us to restructure our lives, to reconcile our realities with our requirements.  Loud and clear through the prayers comes the reminder – we are mortal, we, and those around us do not have all the time in the world, and so if there are things we want to do, we should be planning to do them now, if there are things we need to change, we should be arranging to change them now, if there are things we want to say, we should be saying them now.

Nothing is so precious as time, nothing is so consistently abused. We waste time, we kill time, we fill in time – rarely do we actually use time appropriately.  Yet our tradition has been able to transform a day of communal awe and professional ritual activity, and give it to us in a new form – personal time for us to spend reconciling and reconstructing the lives we are living with the lives we already know we could be living.

As a community rabbi I have sat and listened so many times to the laments which begin ‘if only’, I have witnessed the rapprochements which have sometimes come too late, I have heard the stories of fractured relationships which have entailed years of lost possibilities;  I have met broygas individuals (note for translater – people who have taken offence)  who are determined that the other person should make the first move towards reconciliation – sometimes about an argument the reason for which is lost in history.  We don’t tend to use the word ‘sin’ for such behaviours, but surely to fail to make or maintain relationships in this way is one of the biggest sins we currently commit.   We all live within the constraints of time, we all know what is truly important to do in that time, yet most if not all of us regularly fail to acknowledge that we should be making our priorities so that when the time runs out – be it our own time in this world or the time of a loved one – we have done what was important and responded appropriately, addressing the most meaningful issues of our lives rather than reacting to what is presented as the most urgent.

On the tenth of Tishri the bible tells us to come together as a holy assembly for Yom haKippurim.   It is clearly to be a day of repentance, of hard thinking, of reconciliation and reconstruction of relationship.  We are used to the imagery that reminds us that we are to reconcile and reconstruct our relationship with God, and parts of us are able to do so. And we manage it without the intermediary of the stylised actions of the high priest.  We sit and think and pray, hear the voices inside us as they speak of loss and pain, of comfort and of peace.

But today isn’t only about our working on our relationship with God, it is about using that work and the understanding brought about by such a relationship so that we make substantial changes to our relationships with others.  As Morris Adler wrote:

‘Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be’ .

Yom Kippur has been many things for we Jews during our history.  The most solemn day of our calendar it is described as ‘shabbat shabbaton’ – the Sabbath of Sabbaths.  There is a tradition that when God had finished creating the world, God created the Sabbath, and scripture tells us “uvayom hash’vee’ee shavat va’yinafash” (Exod. 31:16-17) And on the seventh day God stopped all work and restored his soul.  This word va’yinafash is a strange one – often translated as “God rested” it really means something to do with restoring the soul.  From it comes the idea that on Shabbat we are given an extra soul or measure of soul, with which we can discern and taste the world that is more usually hidden from us, we can experience something outside of normal sensation.  If we have an extra dimension of soul on Shabbat, how much more so on shabbat shabbaton – today, Yom haKippurim?  On shabbat we use it to experience a taste of the world to come, but today we can use it for something else entirely – we can use it to understand more about this world and our place within it.  The liturgy of today reminds us about time, about the fleeting nature of our life in this world, about the end which all of us will face.  Yom Kippur gives us the time and the space to consider our part in our world, gives us the extra measure of soul we need to really consider and construct our lives as we mean to live them.  We have about another seven hours today, and the real world will begin to crowd in once more and drown out the world of prayer and thought we have created.  We do not know how much time we will have after that.  So today let’s face the time and let’s spend it wisely, rather than profligately allowing it to run away.   Who knows how many tomorrows there will be?

“Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before the lord, you shall be cleansed” says our machzor, quoting the book of Leviticus.  There is no High Priest to do the cleansing, only ourselves and our dedication and our desire, and of course this very special and holy block of time – today.

Vayikra: when a Jew tries to come closer to God

Beginning the book of Leviticus we enter into a world which so far has been peripheral to the thrust of the narrative since Adam and Eve left the sheltered privacy of Eden and entered the real world. Even the long and cumbersome details of the building of the Mishkan,, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, which took up some sixteen chapters at the end of the book of Exodus hasn’t really prepared us for the focused detail of the sacrificial system, the almost obsessive choreography involving altars, animals, incense and blood

The book of Leviticus brings a whole new approach to religion. People and their actions are categorised and prescriptions given to make restitution for having broken God’s commands. For particular kinds of sin you would bring particular kinds of animal. You might bring an animal from your herd, and would lay your hand of the head of the offering, which would then be slaughtered, cut into sections, laid on the altar and burned. Five different sacrifices are detailed at the very beginning the book of Leviticus, each one with its own set of regulations.

We look today at the book, described in rabbinic literature as ‘torat cohanim’ the priests legal and practical manual, and it makes very little sense to us. Animals brought to the sanctuary, identified as being expiation for our wrongful behaviour, and killed. Some parts splashed, some parts burned, some parts made into a thick smoke and some parts even sometimes eaten. A fixed ritual for a category of behaviour. It seems miles away from our current spirituality which trends to be personal, private, sedentary, tailored to our particular experience – modern.

We experience the text as atavistic, regressive, somehow uncivilized, or else maybe we see it as a way for people who didn’t know better to try to relate to their God. We have moved on to using prayer, to building relationship on our own terms, to introspection. We no longer need to make a public sacrifice, to act out any external ritual, to follow the rote and regulation of offerings for knowing sins and unwitting misdeeds, for individual breaking of vows or the collective responsibility of communal wrongdoing.

So we read through the book of Leviticus with our minds neatly closed against the horror, the smells, the hierarchy, the blood – and the meaning behind them all.

The sacrificial cult is, it is fair to say, anachronistic. It is not of our time. But that does not mean that it has no lessons for us, or that we can’t draw out real spirituality from exploring the things our ancestors did, and were so anxious to make sure that we could know how to do so too.

Firstly for these Jews, what they were doing was ‘korban’ a word meaning to draw near to something, to come closer. The building of the tabernacle had been effected by freely given offerings, by taking the best of what they had to put to the service of God, but the whole purpose of the building and of the system which it was designed to service was not simply giving up wealth, of sacrificing something of value, but it was korban – drawing nearer to God. In terms of the purpose of worship, over all this time the foundational idea simply hasn’t changed – we still want to experience closeness with the divinity.

When people offered up an animal in the specific rituals laid down in Leviticus, one of the things they were doing was showing how they were not defined by what they owned – before approaching God they would let go of the materialism that distorts and distracts all human beings from can and Abel onwards. It is a problem we wrestle with to this day – coming from the outside world with all the pressures and problems, we walk into the synagogue still defined by the things which seem to own us, our problems and situations, as well as clinging as if for dear life to all the external validators and bolsterers of our identity. It’s hard to let go of the world and our preoccupation with it, to relax into the state of being a Jew at prayer, offering the service of the heart with full attention and intention. Without some sort of structure it is more than hard – it is practically impossible.

So still today we create a structure for our own korbanot, our own drawing closer to God. Maybe it isn’t so clearly recognisable a construction as the rituals described in the book of Leviticus, but it is a construction nevertheless.  Be it the habit of daily prayer, or simply the formal system at work in the siddur, we still today go on our spiritual journey clutching a map and a set of implicit directions which, if written out, would probably rival the words of Leviticus in their attention to detail and in their unfamiliarity.

The service prescribed in the siddur is built to take us somewhere. We follow it carefully, even if it sometimes happens that we know longer have a deep familiarity with the signposts. It has taken on some of the elements of magic that must also have been perceived by those who followed the ritual of the tent of meeting – which bits are important, which bits left over from another meaning are no longer distinguishable to us.  One of the most significant changes of the reform movement 200 years ago was to take out of the siddur whole swathes of repetitious texts, as well as texts devoted to the sacrificial cult, the Temple and the messiah. We edited the siddur and tried to bring it back to its core purpose – a means of bringing us closer to God. We kept in the concept of Avodah, of work and worship, we kept in the idea of korban, of approaching God, we kept in too the distancing of the material world, the shrugging off of the layers of worry and doubt and of making a living and striving to have ownership of things. We created, and continue to create, a siddur to be proud of, a siddur which can really lift us in prayer, elevating the holy in our thoughts. But there is something which continues to nag at me and which I miss – though we took out a lot of things that needed to be excised, the accretions of a long and complicated history of trying to come closer to the mysterious divine, we also took out the idea of being active in this search, of action that is so much an intrinsic part of the sacrificial system.

We honed a beautiful liturgy and created a more coherent theology while doing so, but we have left it innocent of much ritual, and ritual, bizarre as it seems to the outsider, is part of worship too. Now I’m not advocating a regression to the sacrificial system, nor that we suddenly take up what is sometimes known as prayerobics, the shochelling of yeshiva bechurim while they chant their texts, but I do feel that a bit of action and taking part, together with a bit of unpredictability which must also have been a component of the sacrificial system, would be in order in our oh-so-orderly prayers. With all the senses awash with sensation, the sacrificial system would have overwhelmed the person who came to pray, brought them into a spiritually different place. Our more hygienic services can also be experienced as bland, neutral, less than spiritually satisfying, making it hard to let go and really sense the presence of God as we pray the beautiful words of our prayers. For all its directions and instructions for an ancient – and to our eyes cruel – practise, I sometimes wonder which generation really understood what is important to do when a Jews tries to reach God.

Encountering God is easy: approach with a willing heart and God will find us

A modern mind may look at the book of Leviticus and feel the distance. The world of ritual purity and impurity, of worship through sacrificial system etc is not one we instinctively understand and indeed are likely to find problematic. How can it be possible to come closer to God through such acts of ritual sacrifice?
Traditional Jewish practise dictates that young children are introduced to bible by studying Leviticus, based on the statement by Rav Assi who said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure should study the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.) I find it fascinating that our children begin not with the narratives that we find so often in books of bible stories for bedtime, not with the great dramas of exodus or Sinai, but with texts that do not pretend to have any historical interest, but are filled with rules and regulations about how to worship in the Sanctuary. The heart of Leviticus is that we have to learn how to encounter the God who dwells amongst us –remember that the Mishkan was built to remind people of the presence of God within and among them.
As we learn a series of rituals in order to approach God and come closer to an encounter with the divine, it becomes normative to think of God as a being who is in relationship with us. Leviticus teaches us that we can approach God, that God is open to our searching, indeed wants us to search. Leviticus also teaches that people do wrong things, both deliberately and unwittingly, and in either case forgiveness is not only possible it is waiting for us. What forgiveness requires is for us to know and acknowledge the wrong, and to do something about it in order to be absolved from the guilt.
Children, who have no difficulty believing in a divine being and who indeed often seem most at home in a world of searching for meaning, are indeed well able to begin to look at the texts in Leviticus that might be off putting for their more world weary parents. Children understand that bad behaviour has bad consequences, and that doing something to mitigate the behaviour will lead to better consequences. They believe that they will be forgiven no matter what they do, that they are loveable and acceptable even if their actions may not be.
So as we read the book of Leviticus, let’s remember it isn’t JUST a rule book for the priests, but a philosophy that says – approaching God is very easy, and if we do it thoughtfully, appropriately and mindfully then we will achieve what we want. The word used for sacrifice (korban) and for nearness share the same root k-r-v. Coming closer to God, having God come closer to us is what the ritual system is all about. We have replaced the structure with prayer and liturgy, but the underpinning understanding is the same. All we have to do is approach with a willing heart, and God will find us.