Counting the omer in hope towards an unknown future: Shavuot in a time of pandemic

L’italiano segue l’inglese

As we count each evening from Pesach to Shavuot – forty-nine days or a week of weeks (hence the name Shavuot or Weeks) – we say a blessing with the ending “Who has commanded us concerning counting the Omer”.

Counting the Omer comes from the biblical narrative which tells us (Leviticus 23:10-16)

 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf (omer) of the first grain you harvest.  He will wave the sheaf (omer) before God so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath. On the day you wave the sheaf, you must sacrifice as a burnt offering to God a year old lamb without defect, together with its grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with olive oil—a food offering presented to the Eternal a pleasing aroma—and its drink offering of a quarter of a hin of wine. You must not eat any bread, or roasted or new grain, until the very day you bring this offering to your God. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.  Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath and then present an offering of new grain to the Eternal”.

From the barley harvest of Pesach to the wheat harvest of Shavuot we count the days. Biblical Jews were profoundly aware of the importance of these harvests – and the third harvest of the year at Sukkot, when the newly ripened first fruits would also be brought to the Temple. Regular rainfall could not be relied on, nor was there a large river to provide the necessary irrigation – the whole agricultural endeavour was fragile and everyone knew it. So the counting of the days as the barley harvest began at Pesach until the wheat was ready at Shavuot marked a time of both anxiety and hope. The formula – this is day X of the Omer, which is Y weeks and Z days of the Omer – focuses us each night on exactly where we are in the cycle – will the barley harvest be successfully concluded? Will the wheat be ripe and ready?

That period of anxiety and hope resonated profoundly for the rabbis who rebuilt and reoriented Judaism after the destruction of the Temple and our exile from the Land of Israel. The agricultural focus fell away and in its place we remembered the journey out of Egypt to Sinai – from our liberation from slavery to reaching a milestone towards redemption with the Covenant with God; from being frightened individuals chased out of a foreign land to becoming a people who would return to their own ancestral Land.

We are once again in a period of anxiety and hope. Our normal life and routines have largely vanished:  the ability to meet friends and hug them, to pop out to the shops without fear of terrible consequences, to get on a bus or a train or go to a cinema or restaurant – suddenly all these are freighted with danger. Many of us know of people who have become seriously ill, or who moved from enjoying their life to their life ending in a matter of a few short weeks. The anxiety seems endless – and yet there is also hope. We have found the hope, as did our ancestors, both in marking the passage of time as we watch the Spring arrive with its blossom and its greenery, and in growing sense of community as we begin to understand how connected we are to each other, and as we forge ever closer relationships with each other – albeit with appropriate social distancing.

Shavuot does not mark the end of anything –either agriculturally or theologically. It marks the beginning of the second major harvest of the year, or the giving and receiving of the Torah – something that can never be a single event but is in fact a process that continually unfolds. As Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, “The Giving of the Torah took place in the month of Sivan, but the receiving of the Torah takes place every day.”

Maybe it is because it does not mark a clear and decisive event that Shavuot is often described as a “Cinderella festival”, one that it is hard to be enthusiastic about – apart from the cheesecakes and other delicacies. But in reality Shavuot is one of the major festivals of Judaism. Along with Pesach and Sukkot it was one of the three times Jews were meant to visit the Temple in Jerusalem in order to thank God for the foods that would sustain life. In its rabbinic guise it is the moment when the Israelites became a people; the moment when, meeting God, we accepted the Covenant for all time and all generations, we agreed to be God’s people and do God’s will. Shavuot celebrates and rehearses the foundational moment of Judaism – tradition tells us we were all at Sinai, all part of the Covenant acceptance.

This year we will not be able to meet in the synagogue and re-enact Sinai. There will be no greenery decorating the bimah and Ark to remind us that Sinai was filled with flowers when God and the people promised their faithfulness to each other. The drama of the liturgy will feel a little less so when mediated through our internet providers. But the message of Shavuot – of the recognition of the fragility of life, of the existential anxiety of human beings, of the fact we are all journeying together through difficult land towards a hoped for but unclear future – that message will be clearer than ever this year.

So let’s celebrate the Spring time, bless the fact that we reach another day, be grateful for the community in which we live and with whom we share this journey. And remember the leap of faith of both God and the Jewish people to stick with each other and travel into a hopeful future.

Contare l’Omer nella speranza verso un futuro sconosciuto: Shavuot in tempo di pandemia

Mentre contiamo ogni sera da Pesach a Shavuot, quarantanove giorni ovvero una settimana di settimane (da cui il nome Shavuot o Settimane), diciamo una benedizione con il finale “Che ci ha comandato riguardo al conteggio dell’Omer”.

Contare l’Omer deriva dalla narrazione biblica che, in Levitico 23: 10-16, ci dice:

“Parla ai figli di Israele e di’ loro:” Quando sarete entrati nel paese che sto per darvi e ne mieterete i prodotti del campo, dovrete portare al sacerdote, il manipolo che avrete mietuto per primo; questi agiterà il manipolo davanti all’Signore affinché vi renda graditi; nel giorno successivo e in quello di astensione dal lavoro lo agiterà il sacerdote. In un giorno in cui agiterete il manipolo offrirete un agnello senza difetti di un anno come olocausto in onore del Signore; e la sua offerta farinacea sarà costituita da due decime di Efà di fior di farina intrisa nell’olio come sacrificio da ardersi con il fuoco in onore del Signore affinché costituisca profumo gradito, e la sua libazione sarà costituita di vino, nella misura di un quarto di Hin. Non mangerete né pane né grano abbrustolito, né grano fresco del nuovo prodotto fino a quel giorno, fino a che cioè non avrete presentato il sacrifico destinato al vostro Dio; questa è la legge per tutti i tempi, per le vostre generazioni in tutte le vostre sedi. E conterete, a cominciare dal giorno successivo a quello di astensione dal lavoro, dal giorno cioè in cui porterete il manipolo che deve essere agitato, sette settimane, che siano complete: fino al giorno successivo alla settima settimana conterete cinquanta giorni, e presenterete un’offerta farinacea di nuovi prodotti in onore del Signore.”.

Dal raccolto dell’orzo di Pesach al raccolto del grano di Shavuot contiamo i giorni. Gli ebrei biblici erano profondamente consapevoli dell’importanza di questi raccolti, così come del terzo raccolto annuale a Sukkot, quando anche i primi frutti appena maturati sarebbero stati portati al Tempio. Non si poteva fare affidamento su piogge regolari, né c’era un grande fiume per fornire l’irrigazione necessaria: l’intero sforzo agricolo era fragile e tutti lo sapevano. Quindi, il conteggio dei giorni da quando iniziava la raccolta dell’orzo a Pesach fino a quando il grano non era pronto a Shavuot segnava un momento di ansia e speranza. La formula “questo è il giorno X dell’Omer, ovvero Y settimane e Z giorni dell’Omer” ci focalizza ogni notte esattamente sul punto a cui siamo nel ciclo: la raccolta dell’orzo sarà conclusa con successo? Il grano sarà maturo e pronto?

Quel periodo di ansia e speranza risuonò profondamente per i rabbini che ricostruirono e riorientarono l’ebraismo dopo la distruzione del Tempio e il nostro esilio dalla Terra di Israele. L’attenzione all’agricoltura è svanita e al suo posto abbiamo ricordato il viaggio dall’Egitto al Sinai: dalla nostra liberazione dalla schiavitù al raggiungimento di una pietra miliare verso la redenzione con l’Alleanza con Dio; dall’essere spaventati individui cacciati da una terra straniera al diventare un popolo che sarebbe tornato alla propria Terra ancestrale.

Siamo di nuovo in un periodo di ansia e speranza. La nostra vita normale e la routine sono in gran parte svanite: la possibilità di incontrare amici e abbracciarli, di andare nei negozi senza timore di conseguenze terribili, di salire su un autobus o in treno o di andare al cinema o al ristorante: improvvisamente tutto ciò è carico di pericolo. Molti di noi conoscono persone che si sono ammalate gravemente o che sono passate dal godersi la vita al finire la loro vita nel giro di poche settimane. L’ansia sembra infinita, eppure c’è anche speranza. Abbiamo trovato la speranza, così come i nostri antenati, sia nel segnare il passare del tempo mentre guardiamo arrivare la Primavera con i suoi fiori e il suo verde, sia nel crescente senso di comunità di quando iniziamo a capire quanto siamo collegati gli uni agli altri, e quando instauriamo relazioni sempre più strette l’uno con l’altro, anche se con un adeguato distanziamento sociale.

Shavuot non segna la fine di nulla, né in ambito agricolo né teologico. Segna l’inizio del secondo grande raccolto dell’anno, ovvero il dare e ricevere della Torà: qualcosa che non può mai essere un singolo evento ma è in realtà un processo che si svolge continuamente. Come diceva Menachem Mendel di Kotzk: “Il Dare della Torà ha avuto luogo nel mese di Sivan, ma il ricevimento della Torah ha luogo ogni giorno”.

Forse è perché non segna un evento chiaro e decisivo che Shavuot è spesso descritta come una “festività Cenerentola” di cui è difficile essere entusiasti, a parte le cheesecake e altre prelibatezze. In realtà Shavuot è una delle maggiori festività dell’ebraismo. Insieme a Pesach e Sukkot era una delle tre volte in cui gli ebrei erano richiesto di visitare il Tempio di Gerusalemme per ringraziare Dio per i cibi che avrebbero sostenuto la vita. Nella sua forma rabbinica è il momento in cui gli israeliti sono diventati un popolo; il momento in cui, incontrando Dio, abbiamo accettato l’Alleanza per sempre e per tutte le generazioni, abbiamo deciso di essere il popolo di Dio e fare la volontà di Dio. Shavuot celebra e prova il momento fondamentale dell’ebraismo: la tradizione ci dice che eravamo tutti nel Sinai, tutti parte dell’accettazione del Patto.

Quest’anno non potremo incontrarci nella sinagoga e rievocare il Sinai. Lì non ci saranno addobbi floreali per la bimà e l’Arca, a ricordarci che il Sinai era pieno di fiori quando Dio e il popolo si promisero l’un l’altro. Il dramma della liturgia si sentirà un po’ meno, mediato attraverso i nostri fornitori di servizi Internet. Ma il messaggio di Shavuot, del riconoscimento della fragilità della vita, dell’ansia esistenziale degli esseri umani, del fatto che stiamo tutti viaggiando insieme attraverso la terra difficile verso un futuro sperato ma poco chiaro, quel messaggio quest’anno sarà più chiaro che mai.

Quindi celebriamo il periodo primaverile, benediciamo il fatto di raggiungere un altro giorno, ringraziamo la comunità in cui viviamo e con cui condividiamo questo viaggio. E ricordiamo il salto di fede sia di Dio che del popolo ebraico per restare fedeli e viaggiare in un futuro pieno di speranza.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Shavuot: A new model of relationship where women are (also) in the narrative

We first find the festival in the book of Exodus where it is called called הקציר חג hag ha-katzir “the  festival of harvest” later clarified with the information that the harvest is of “the first-fruits of your labours” (Exodus 23:16). When we meet it in Leviticus (ch23) it has no name but we are told to count seven complete weeks plus one day -fifty days- and then bring a new meal offering and other sacrifices – the first fruits – to God. In the book of Numbers (28:26) we are told it is  “the day of the first-fruits, הבכורים יום when you bring a new meal-offering to the Eternal in your feast of weeks” and in Deuteronomy it is called the festival of Shavuot because of the counting of seven weeks from having put the sickle to the standing grain.

There is nothing in bible about this being the festival of the giving of Torah, the name we use now in our liturgical marking of the festival. Shavuot as we know it is a construction that builds on the ritual of bringing first fruits as sacrifices to the Temple to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, and replaces this with the covenantal relationship we have as a people with God, a relationship which is documented and defined by the giving and receiving of Torah.

So how amazing it is then that this festival which is the bridge par excellence between Temple and Rabbinic Judaism has as one of its major texts the story told in the book of Ruth, one of only two books named for a woman in the whole of Torah, a book which places women and women’s relationships right at the centre of the narrative, as one of them freely accepts all the obligations of Torah to join the Jewish people, and the other acts as her guide and support.

Other women also feature in the book, with strong supporting roles. Orpah, the other sister in law, who chooses to go back to her own people rather than go forward with Ruth and Naomi to an unknown future. The women of Bethlehem who act like a chorus and comment on the situation of Naomi. Even the matriarchs Rachel and Leah and the brave and resourceful Tamar make an extraordinary appearance, when the elders tell Boaz: ‘We are witnesses. The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel….and let your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, of the seed which the Eternal shall give thee of this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12)

As we are modelling a new relationship with God that has moved from the cult of sacrificial worship to a Judaism based on words and actions that aspire to bring us closer to God, the leading figures are the women, and we have two pairs of women – Naomi and Ruth, Rachel and Leah, who have modelled for us an extraordinary generous and compassionate relationship. The sisters had had the misfortune to marry the same man, and therefore be thrown into competition with each other, something that is not referred to in the text before Jacob came along, and we know that Rachel took pity on her older – and less loved -sister Leah by giving her tokens to seduce Jacob. Naomi and Ruth had the misfortune to be widowed and left without masculine support in a patriarchal world, but Ruth’s determination to stay with Naomi and Naomi’s supportive matriarchal abilities meant that all ended well for them both – indeed it is in this book that we find the only time a woman is described as loving another woman – right at the end of the book the women of Bethlehem say that Ruth loves (a.ha.v) Naomi, and Naomi nurses Ruth’s child, an act of extraordinary love and unity. Their relationship is the exact opposite of the parody of mother-in-law / daughter-in-law. It’s true there is no husband/son to fight over but they do not fight over the child/grandchild but instead are both functioning as its mother – indeed the women of Bethlehem say “a child is born to Naomi” rather than to Ruth – the mothering is from both women without problem.

The blessing given when Boaz is to marry Ruth is another extraordinary piece of text. “The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel”. There is a clear resonance with the blessing by Jacob of his two grandsons by Joseph (Genesis 48:20) “By you will Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” – itself a blessing of harmonisation, given that Ephraim (the younger) is placed above Manasseh, with no complaint or jealousy shown by the boys, a first in the blessing of sons in the book of Genesis. So again this is a blessing of resolution of any rivalries, a bringing together of two who might fight against each other but instead choose to work together without hostility. Then comes the naming of Rachel and Leah, sisters whose relationship may have been poisoned by the actions of Jacob, each wanting what the other had from him – one wanting love, the other wanting children. Apart from the disruption in their lives caused by Jacob, there is no textual reference to any hostility between them. And here they are credited as being the two who built the house of Israel.  Sarah and Rebecca here are less important as matriarchs – it is the mothers of the twelve tribes who take centre stage as with the tribal configuration Israel becomes less one family and more one people. I am aware that Bilhah and Zilpah are also the mothers of sons of Jacob and are not credited with this – I think because legally they are surrogates, the children not belonging to them, and this is a subject that will be given space in the future.

So here as the denouement of the text, the marriage of the foreign woman Ruth to Boaz a descendant of Tamar and Judah, and the bringing into the house of Naomi (who midrash gives a genealogy that will also lead to Judah and Tamar) means that the house of Boaz will be built like the house of Israel – the Jewish people will grow in numbers and in strength, but also be ready to receive Torah in its life, as Ruth has demonstrated her willing acceptance out in the wilds Moab just as the Israelites demonstrated their acceptance in the wilds of Sinai. There is a harmonisation, a sense of bringing together loose ends and readying for the next stage, and it is all done through the relationship of women with each other, choosing not to try to best each other or outdo each other, but to work together to build for the future.

And what an edifice was built on the foundations of these women. Of Tamar who boldly waylaid Judah in order to have the child that was rightfully hers and that would liberate her from yevamah. Of Rachel and Leah who became the matriarchs of tribal Judaism. Of Naomi who survived the deaths of her husband and sons, who ‘came back empty’ in her own words but who found the way to replenish and rebuild, based on her relationship of love and dvekut with her foreign daughter in law. Of Ruth, whose behaviour would not now pass the test of tzniut in many communities, but who also found a way to replenish and rebuild a life that may otherwise have dwindled into nothing.

The edifice built was ultimately the Davidic line of monarchy as the genealogy at the end of the book tells us.  And this is another ‘wild card’ in the patriarchal narrative we are so used to. For David is the grandchild of a Moabite woman and a descendant of more than one woman who used their bodies and their sexuality to gain what they needed. He is the descendant of men who left Beit Lechem to go to the hated Moab in time of famine and paid for it with their lives. He is the scion of a family with more skeletons in their wardrobe than one can imagine, and at the same time he is the descendant of women who broke the mould of sibling rivalries and patriarchal power plays, who chose to work together, to love each other in the most unlikely circumstances, to help each other unselfishly.

Torah was given to a people who were afraid and trembling, in a desert where they were insecure by a God who was so terrifying that they begged Moses to act as intermediary and agent for them. Sinai is a powerful piece of theatre with smoke and mountains that shook and the sound of a shofar piercing the air. At Shavuot we get a different model – a young woman who willingly and with love stays with an older woman and helps her return to her home, an older woman who willingly and with love guides the younger towards a future that will be blessed with security and warmth. No great theatre, no powerful revelation, just the day to day living of two people helping each other out.

I think the rabbis chose well when this book became the story read to parallel the theophany at Sinai. Here are the women, who were so hidden from view in the Exodus telling of the story. Here are the ordinary and quotidian activities of people caring for each other. Here is a true story of love and of people helping each other to what they need – no fireworks, no drama – just the reality of covenantal relationship in its quiet and extraordinary glory.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parashat Bemidbar:counting a community not calculating for the individual

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lag B’omer. A moral tale for election day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counting From Shavuot – There must be fifty ways to do a mitzvah; or how to meet God in the everyday after the thunderclap at Sinai

At the heart of Jewish tradition is the idea of covenant, the binding agreement between God and Israel, confirmed by our obligation to do mitzvot, commandments. This structure has never changed, and the covenant remains in force even when one side or the other appears to break its terms. What is open to interpretation though is the precise nature of these commandments, and, contrary to popular belief, the number of them. Simlai, a third century sage once sermonised that there were 613 commandments– an idea he got from adding up the numbers of the word Torah to make 611 and then adding the two direct commandments from God (“I am God” and “You shall have no other gods”).   While this story may have entered folklore as if it is real law, the truth is early biblical commentators disagreed. Abraham ibn Ezra wrote that this was not authentic rabbinic tradition: “Sages enumerate 613 mitzvot in many diverse ways but in truth there is no end to the number of mitzvot and if we were to count only the root principles the number of mitzvot would not reach 613” Nachmanides knew opinion was divided, while recognising the power of the sermon. It  turns out on closer inspection that the number of mitzvot in Bible being 613 is just Simlai’s opinion, following his own choices for explication of the mitzvot.

            So if we understand that the structure of mitzvot is neither so mechanistic nor so time bound as aggadah says, how do we fulfil the covenant? Over time a consensus grew about what are truly God’s requirements – the Ten Commandments say, or celebrating festivals. And other laws of ethical or ritual nature – supporting the poor, sanctifying the Sabbath, have also taken root. But the action of mitzvah must keep on changing and responding to our context – maybe ecological activity or giving blood could be seen as modern mitzvot.

So I have a challenge. Write for yourselves a list of 52 mitzvot you would like to do – from visiting a lonely elderly person to attending religious services, from volunteering to researching a social justice issue. And each week try to do just one of them. On Shavuot tradition tells us God marries Israel and the Torah is the wedding document, with all its derived mitzvot. So from this year to next, see if you can find, (to mangle the words of the song), “50 ways to meet your lover.”

ketubah cropped shavuot

Counting Down the Days: Between Pesach and Shavuot

Between Pesach and Shavuot we count. Every evening we tick off the day that has just passed, and we label it – adding up the weeks and the days of the omer, building up to the moment at Sinai when the covenant between God and the Israelites was signed, the moment when Judaism might be said to be created. It was at Sinai that the group of ex slaves who had descended from Jacob first got to understand something about God, and it was at Sinai that they began to realise that God required something from them that was more than the usual obeisance and paying off. An association was formed with obligations and expectations on both sides. Each party began to understand that the other was far more complex and ambiguous than they had appreciated until now, that much was hidden and even more was yet to emerge. At Sinai the God who had spoken to the ancestors, who had battled Pharaoh with plagues and signs and wonders, who had led them in the wilderness with a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire became something quite different – became of God of relationship and connection. And the disparate group of people with some shared stories and a collective present became united because of their experience there.

We don’t really know what happened at Sinai, some three months after the people had streamed out of Egypt into an uncertain freedom. But we know that the event shaped them and it continues to shape us – the revelation at Sinai, even while the people kept their distance from the mountain, made them the commanded people of God. We agreed to be God’s workers in the world and God agreed to be our God. Even now we struggle to make sense of that agreement, and we constantly nuance and finesse and philosophize in our struggle to seek its meaning. We take some control where we can, so we count the days from Pesach to Shavuot, waiting to get there and to experience it again – maybe this will be the year when we understand a little more.