Rosh Hashanah Sermon – We live in a participatory universe

L’italiano segue l’inglese

The 11th Century Andalusian Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda was the author of the first Jewish system of ethics in his book known as The Duties of the Heart”  “Hovot HaLev”. He introduced his book saying that many Jews only seemed to care about the outward observances, the rituals, the duties to be performed by the parts of the body “Hovot HaEvarim” – but not those of the inner mind or the driving ideas and values of the Jewish tradition.  Bachya wanted to explain that Judaism was more than ritualistic or habitual behaviour, more than a mechanistic performance – he taught that Judaism is the embodiment of a great spiritual truth.

This truth is not folkloric or magical, but based on reason, on revelation, on the search for God through Torah. He wrote that there was a great need for the many ethical rabbinic texts to be brought together into a coherent system, in the hope that mechanistic Judaism would give way to a more thoughtful and deeper way of living the religion.

It is an unfortunate reality that for many Jews, mitzvot are categorised as being EITHER Hovot HaEvarim (duties of the limbs) OR Hovot HaLev (duties of the heart).

Rav Soloveitchik taught that one can see mitzvot as being both – in his words mitzvot are both “enacted” (Hovot HaEvarim) and “fulfilled” (Hovot HaLev), and, should we perform the mitzvah on one plane but not on the other, then we are not in fact completing the mitzvah.

Soloveitchik used the mitzvot of prayer and of repentance to demonstrate his meaning. We can turn up at the synagogue and say all the right words, but if the words have no effect upon us, then they are empty of purpose and we have not done our work.

Prayer – also known as avodah she’balev – the work of the heart, is much more than the reciting of formulae either in community or alone. Teshuvah, the act of repairing and returning, has no power if it only puts a patch over a problem without changing us and changing our future behaviour.  How do we avoid habitual words that our mouths may say or our ears may hear, but that do not reach and change our hearts?

Bachya wrote that most people act in accord with our own self-interest, with what he saw as selfish and worldly rather than with any higher or more selfless motivation. He wanted us to reach further than our own needs and wants, to willingly and joyfully serve God, whatever God demands of us.

Soloveitchik was interested not only in the doing, but the knowing of God. He wrote: “To believe is necessary but it is not enough- one must also feel and sense the existence of God”.

Both these profound thinkers can help us on the journey we are taking through the Yamim Noraim, as well as into the future. Soloveitchik created the paradigm of the repentant person, the one who returns to God, in this way- “The person embodies the experience which begins with a feeling of sin, and ends in the redemption of a wondrous proximity to God. Between these two points, human beings stand as a creator of worlds, as we shape the greatest of our works – ourselves”  I am not sure I fully agree with Soloveitchik, but where I most certainly concur is his statement that we do indeed shape ourselves through our choices and our actions – and our inaction too.

We are creators of worlds! Jewish thought has always placed human beings in this role. Bible teaches from its earliest chapters that we partner God in the ongoing creation of this world. With Adam then Noah, then Abraham the partnership is increasingly formalised until the covenant with Moses and the whole people Israel – all who will ever be or who will ever become. Rabbinic tradition bases itself on the texts describing the Sinai Covenant and teaches that there are two Torahs given there – the written (torah she’bichtav) and the oral (torah she’b’al peh). The oral Torah is not a transmitted teaching per se, but the route to interpreting the written Torah, which is open to a multiplicity of meanings.

As Nachmanides wrote ““For it was in accordance with the interpretations that the Rabbis would give, that God gave us the Torah.” “Would give” – leaving open to the future times, to new understanding, to continued creation.

For the whole of time that Judaism has evolved there is an important directive for us all – The continuing creation of the world depends not just on God, but on us.  Why is this so?

Perhaps the most developed – but certainly not the only -nor even the most important theory- is that of 16th century Lurianic Kabbalistic theory. It teaches us that our work is to gather the sparks of the divine from wherever they are embedded in the world, in order to bring about a full tikkun – to repair and restore the world to its original state of primordial unity in relationship with God

Now whether we want to return to the primordial binary state of purity and dross, unmixed and tightly boundaried, is a moot point, but certainly the Jewish world-view wherever one looks in our tradition, is that this co-creating partnership is our reason to be. It is the way that we build relationship with God, and this relationship is seen as the foundational aspiration of humanity; Our tradition tells us that this is an equal aspiration for God. God wants us – God’s creations – to become creators ourselves. To make something of our time in the world, to change it even if only a little, and to leave it a better place for our being here. As the Chasidic tradition would have it “nothing is more precious to us than that which we create through hard work and struggle. The brilliance we pull out from the dust, the beauty we can make from broken pieces…to take the things we are given, the damaged and broken, even our own lives which may be hurt and fragile, and to make them whole. This is the foundation of our worlds existence, the purpose by which it was thought into being- the Creator’s wish that those created would themselves become creators, and partners in the perfecting of Gods world” (maamar bechukotai)

What our texts are pointing towards can also be found in quantum mechanics –

According to the rules of quantum mechanics, our observations influence the universe at the most fundamental levels. The boundary between an objective “world out there” and our own subjective consciousness blurs… When physicists look at the basic constituents of reality— atoms or photons – what they see depends on how they have set up their experiment. A physicist’s observations determine whether an atom, say, behaves like a fluid wave or a hard particle, or which path it follows in traveling from one point to another. From the quantum perspective the universe is an extremely interactive place, and all possibilities exist, at least until they are observed. In the words of the American physicist John Wheeler, “we live in a “participatory universe.””

Now I am not a physicist, nor I guess are many of you, but it fascinates me how the same ideas can emerge from both science and religion.

“We live in a participatory universe.”

Judaism teaches that our actions matter, that even small changes in our behaviours can potentially cause major change both to ourselves and to others; that how we behave in the world can have transformative effects. It asks us to be aware of our environment, of how we treat the stranger and the vulnerable. It reminds us that the earth belongs not to us but to God, ultimately everything is on loan to us, we will take nothing when we depart this world. “The earth is Gods and all its fullness”, says the psalm (24),” and all who live upon it.”

(לַיהוָה, הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ –

But while we are here, we have the responsibility of creation – the world is not a separate entity untouched by our presence, we live in a participatory universe.

Bachya, Soloveitchik, Lurianic Kabbalah, quantum physics – all remind us that we exist in relationship to others and to “the other” as well as to ourselves. What we do, how we act – it matters to more than just our own conscience or our own feelings. We are each of us part of the continuing creation of our world.

Bachya famously wrote “Days are scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered”. What exactly did he mean by this? Is he referring to the Talmudic “book of life” where everyone’s deeds are recorded for the benefit of the heavenly court as well as for themselves? Is he referring to the library of history, so that while each of us lives and dies, something of us remains and can be accessed in order to remember us? Is he saying that we write only on our own scrolls or is he referring to the way we impact on others “scrolls”, how we treat them being written into their own experience, maybe to be dealt with in the future by a therapist or to be held onto as supportive help in difficult times?

During the Yamim Noraim we tend to reflect on our own lives, our goals, our hopes, our mistakes, our feelings…. We think about how we have acted and how we can repair what we did, how to make ourselves better. It is important work, reflecting on the way we are living our lives, working to become the people we would like to be.

But there is another aspect to the work of the Yamim Noraim. We belong in a participatory universe, we are the creators of worlds.

Days are scrolls. And scrolls embody the words and the experiences, the teachings and the mistakes, the learning and the doing not only of our own selves, but of our people, and ultimately of our shared humanity. What will we write in our own scrolls for the coming year? What will we write in the scrolls of others? Will we participate in the work of completing creation or will we close down the possibilities of change? Will we become more conscious of the rest of the world impacted by our choices or will we shut out the clamouring voices of environmentalists, refugees, people caught up in famine, in war, in poverty?

We begin the ten days towards return – teshuvah. What will it look like? And what will the days and weeks and months look like after we close this festival period and no longer be quite so conscious of the trails we make on the pages of life.

Days are scrolls. We make our marks whether we choose to or not. We write and we read, changing not only our own life trajectory but also potentially those of others. What will we write on the scrolls in the coming year? What will we mark on the scroll of our own life and what will we mark on the life scrolls of others?

We live in a participatory universe, we create each day anew. Today is the beginning of a new year in a number of areas where we check our accounts and rebalance what we will do going forward. Let it also be the beginning of a new way of our being aware of what each of us is creating and is contributing to creation.

Sermone per Rosh HaShanà           Viviamo in un universo partecipativo

Di Rav Sylvia Rothschild, Lev Chadash Milano 2019

Il rabbino andaluso del XI secolo Bachya Ibn Pakuda fu l’autore del primo sistema ebraico di etica, nel suo libro noto come “I doveri del cuore” “Hovot HaLev“. Introdusse il suo libro dicendo che molti ebrei sembravano preoccuparsi solo dell’osservanza esteriore, dei rituali, dei doveri che devono essere eseguiti dalle parti del corpo “Hovot HaEvarim“, ma non quelli della mente interiore o delle idee guida e dei valori della tradizione ebraica. Bachya volle spiegare che l’ebraismo era più che un comportamento rituale o abituale, più che una performance meccanicistica: insegnò che l’ebraismo è l’incarnazione di una grande verità spirituale.

Questa verità non è folcloristica o magica, ma basata sulla ragione, sulla rivelazione, sulla ricerca di Dio attraverso la Torà. Scrisse che c’era un grande bisogno che i molti testi etici rabbinici fossero riuniti in un sistema coerente, nella speranza che l’ebraismo meccanicistico lasciasse il posto a un modo più ponderato e più profondo di vivere la religione.

È una  sfortunata realtà che per molti ebrei le mitzvot siano classificate come Hovot HaEvarim (doveri degli organi) o come  Hovot HaLev (doveri del cuore).

Rav Soloveitchik ha insegnato che uno può vedere le mitzvot in entrambi i modi, nelle sue parole le mitzvot sono sia “messe in atto” (Hovot HaEvarim) che “appagate” (Hovot HaLev), e quando si esegue la mitzvà su un piano ma non sull’altro, in realtà non stiamo completando la mitzvà. Uno degli esempi di Soloveitchik in questo saggio sono le mitzvot della preghiera e del pentimento. Possiamo presentarci alla sinagoga e dire tutte le parole giuste, ma se le parole non hanno alcun effetto su di noi, allora sono prive di scopo e non abbiamo adempiuto il nostro obbligo. La preghiera, nota anche come avodà shebalev, il servizio del cuore, è molto più che la recitazione di formule sia in comunità che da soli. La teshuvà, l’atto di riparare e tornare, non ha alcun potere se mette solo una pezza su un problema senza cambiarci e cambiare il nostro comportamento futuro. Come possiamo evitare che le parole abituali che le nostre bocche possono dire o le nostre orecchie sentire, manchino di cambiare i nostri cuori?

Bachya ha scritto che la maggior parte delle persone agisce in accordo con il proprio interesse personale, con ciò che vede come egoista e mondano piuttosto che con qualsiasi motivazione più alta o più altruista. Voleva che arrivassimo oltre i nostri bisogni e desideri, per servire volontariamente e gioiosamente Dio, qualunque cosa Dio richieda da noi.

Soloveitchik era interessato non solo al fare, ma alla conoscenza di Dio. Scrisse: “Credere è necessario ma non è abbastanza, bisogna anche sentire e percepire l’esistenza di Dio”.

Entrambi questi profondi pensatori possono aiutarci nel viaggio che stiamo facendo attraverso gli Yamim Noraim, così come nel futuro. Soloveitchik ha creato il paradigma della persona pentita, quella che ritorna a Dio, in questo modo: “La persona incarna l’esperienza che inizia con un sentimento di peccato e finisce con la redenzione di una meravigliosa vicinanza a Dio. Tra questi due punti, gli esseri umani si ergono come creatori di mondi, lì, mentre modelliamo la più grande delle nostre opere, noi stessi ”Non sono sicura di essere pienamente d’accordo con Soloveitchik, ma certamente concordo sulla sua affermazione che in effetti modelliamo noi stessi attraverso le nostre scelte e le nostre azioni, e anche la nostra inazione.

Siamo creatori di mondi! Il pensiero ebraico ha sempre posto gli esseri umani in questo ruolo. La Bibbia insegna fin dai suoi primi capitoli che collaboriamo con Dio nella creazione in corso di questo mondo. Con Adamo, poi Noè, poi Abramo, la collaborazione è sempre più formalizzata fino all’alleanza con Mosè e l’intero popolo Israele, tutti quelli che ci saranno o che lo diventeranno. La tradizione rabbinica si basa sui testi che descrivono l’Alleanza del Sinai e insegna che ci sono due Torà che lì sono state date: la Torà scritta (Torà shebichtav) e quella orale (Torà she’b’al pè). La Torà orale non è di per sé un insegnamento trasmesso, ma il percorso per interpretare la Torà scritta, che è aperta a una molteplicità di significati.

Come scrisse Nachmanide “Perché era in accordo con le interpretazioni che i Rabbini avrebbero dato, che Dio ci ha dato la Torà”. “Avrebbero dato“, lasciando l’apertura ai tempi futuri, a nuove comprensioni, alla creazione continua.

Per tutto il tempo in cui l’ebraismo si è evoluto, esiste un’importante direttiva per tutti noi: la creazione continua del mondo dipende non solo da Dio, ma da noi. Perché è così?

Forse la più sviluppata, ma certamente non l’unica, e neppure la teoria più importante, è la teoria cabalistica lurianica del XVI secolo. Ci insegna che il nostro lavoro consiste nel raccogliere le scintille del divino da qualsiasi parte del mondo esse siano incorporate, al fine di creare un tikkun completo, per riparare e ripristinare il mondo al suo stato originale di unità primordiale in relazione con Dio.

Ora, se vogliamo tornare allo stato binario primordiale di purezza e scorie, non mescolate e strettamente circoscritte, siamo a un punto controverso, ma certamente la visione ebraica del mondo, ovunque uno guardi nella nostra tradizione, è che questa collaborazione di co-creazione è la nostra ragione d’essere. È il modo in cui costruiamo una relazione con Dio, e questa relazione è vista come l’aspirazione fondamentale dell’umanità; La nostra tradizione ci dice che questa aspirazione è uguale per Dio. Dio vuole che noi, le creazioni di Dio, diventiamo noi stessi creatori. Fare qualcosa del nostro tempo nel mondo, cambiarlo anche se solo un po’ e lasciarlo un posto migliore per il nostro essere qui. Come vorrebbe la tradizione chassidica “niente è più prezioso per noi di quello che creiamo attraverso il duro lavoro e la lotta. Lo splendore che estraiamo dalla polvere, la bellezza che possiamo ricavare dai pezzi rotti … prendere le cose che ci vengono date, le cose danneggiate e rotte, persino le nostre stesse vite che possono essere ferite e fragili e renderle intere. Questo è il fondamento dell’esistenza dei nostri mondi, lo scopo con cui è stato pensato, il desiderio del Creatore che quelli creati diventassero essi stessi creatori e partner nel perfezionamento del mondo di Dio”. (Maamar BeChukotai)

Ciò a cui puntano i nostri testi può essere trovato anche nella meccanica quantistica.

Secondo le regole della meccanica quantistica, le nostre osservazioni influenzano l’universo ai livelli più fondamentali. Il confine tra un “mondo là fuori” oggettivo e la nostra coscienza soggettiva sfuma … Quando i fisici guardano i costituenti di base della realtà, atomi o fotoni, ciò che vedono dipende da come hanno organizzato il loro esperimento. Le osservazioni di un fisico determinano se un atomo, per esempio, si comporti come un’onda fluida o una particella dura, o quale percorso segua nel viaggio da un punto all’altro. Dal punto di vista quantistico l’universo è un luogo estremamente interattivo e tutte le possibilità esistono, almeno fino a quando non vengono osservate. Nelle parole del fisico americano John Wheeler, “viviamo in un” universo partecipativo”.

Ora, io non sono un fisico, e credo che neppure molti di voi lo siano, ma mi affascina come le stesse idee possano emergere sia dalla scienza che dalla religione.

“Viviamo in un universo partecipativo.”

L’ebraismo insegna che le nostre azioni contano, che anche piccoli cambiamenti nei nostri comportamenti possono potenzialmente causare grandi cambiamenti sia a noi stessi che agli altri; che il modo in cui ci comportiamo nel mondo può avere effetti trasformativi. Ci chiede di essere consapevoli del nostro ambiente, di come trattiamo lo straniero e il vulnerabile. Ci ricorda che la terra non appartiene a noi ma a Dio, in definitiva tutto è in prestito per noi, non prenderemo nulla quando lasceremo questo mondo. “Al Signore appartengono la terra e tutto ciò che essa contiene”, dice il salmo (24), “e tutti coloro che vivono su di essa”.

לַיהוָה, הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ –

Ma mentre siamo qui, abbiamo la responsabilità della creazione: il mondo non è un’entità separata non toccata dalla nostra presenza, viviamo in un universo partecipativo.

Bachya, Soloveitchik, la Kabbalà lurianica, la fisica quantistica, tutti ci ricordano che esistiamo in relazione con gli altri e con “l’altro” e con noi stessi. Cosa facciamo, come agiamo – è importante per qualcosa di più della nostra sola coscienza o dei nostri sentimenti. Ognuno di noi è parte della creazione continua del nostro mondo.

Ciò che ha scritto Bachya è rinomato: “I giorni sono pergamene, scrivi su di essi ciò che vuoi venga ricordato”. Cosa intendeva esattamente con questo? Si sta riferendo al “libro della vita” talmudico in cui vengono registrate le azioni di tutti a beneficio della corte celeste e per se stessi? Si riferisce alla biblioteca della storia, così che mentre ognuno di noi vive e muore, qualcosa di noi rimane e vi si può accedere per ricordarci? Sta dicendo che scriviamo solo sui nostri rotoli o si riferisce al modo in cui influenziamo gli altri “rotoli”, come li trattiamo mentre vengono scritti nella loro stessa esperienza, forse per essere trattati in futuro da un terapeuta o per essere trattenuti come aiuto di supporto in tempi difficili?

Durante gli Yamim Noraim tendiamo a riflettere sulle nostre stesse vite, i nostri obiettivi, le nostre speranze, i nostri errori, i nostri sentimenti … Pensiamo a come abbiamo agito e come possiamo riparare ciò che abbiamo fatto, come migliorarci. È un lavoro importante, che riflette sul modo in cui viviamo la nostra vita, lavorando per diventare le persone che vorremmo essere.

Ma c’è un altro aspetto nel lavoro degli Yamim Noraim. Apparteniamo a un universo partecipativo, siamo creatori di mondi.

I giorni sono pergamene. E i rotoli incarnano le parole e le esperienze, gli insegnamenti e gli errori, l’apprendimento e il fare non solo di noi stessi, ma della nostra gente e, in definitiva, della nostra umanità condivisa. Cosa scriveremo nelle nostre pergamene per il prossimo anno? Cosa scriveremo nelle pergamene degli altri? Parteciperemo al lavoro di completamento della creazione o chiuderemo le possibilità di cambiamento? Diventeremo più consapevoli del resto del mondo influenzato dalle nostre scelte o elimineremo le voci clamorose degli ambientalisti, dei rifugiati, delle persone coinvolte nella carestia, nella guerra, nella povertà?

Iniziamo i dieci giorni verso il ritorno, la teshuvà. A cosa somiglierà? E come saranno i giorni, le settimane e i mesi dopo la chiusura di questo periodo delle festività quando non saremo più così consapevoli dei sentieri che tracciamo sulle pagine della vita.

I giorni sono pergamene. Lasciamo il segno che scegliamo oppure no. Scriviamo e leggiamo, cambiando non solo la nostra traiettoria di vita ma anche potenzialmente quella degli altri. Cosa scriveremo sulle pergamene nel prossimo anno? Cosa segneremo sulla pergamena della nostra vita e cosa segneremo sulla pergamena della vita degli altri?

Viviamo in un universo partecipativo, creiamo ogni giorno nuovamente. Oggi è l’inizio di un nuovo anno in una serie di settori in cui controlliamo i nostri conti e riequilibriamo ciò che faremo in futuro. Facciamo che sia anche l’inizio di un nuovo modo di essere consapevoli di ciò che ognuno di noi sta creando e sta contribuendo alla creazione.

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo

Rosh Hashanah Sermon  : unetaneh tokef prayer and the day for judgement.

 “B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun, uv’yom tzom kippur yea’ha’teymun -On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed”

One of the most powerful themes in the liturgy for the Yamim Noraim is this one:- the idea that in heaven on this day there are opened three different books – one for the totally righteous, one for the totally wicked, and one – the largest one by far – for the people who have both good and bad deeds on our record, who must be weighed up and judged on a case by case basis.

The unetaneh tokef prayer – which came into use in Ashkenazi tradition in the Amidah since the 11th century (and is used in some Sephardi traditions just before the Mussaf service) but which is built on a much older poem from the Byzantine Period in Israel (circa 330–638) is a powerful liturgical poem for the Yamim Noraim, from which the quotation above is taken. It goes on to tell us what is also decided on this day: : How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who shall rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, etc”  but goes on to remind us that” But Penitence, Prayer and Good Deeds can annul the Severity of the Decree.”

 The Book of Life:  Its earliest Jewish appearance is in the book of Exodus just months after the exodus from Egypt, when the Ten Commandments are given on Sinai and Moses returns to see people having despaired of his return and created a golden calf to worship. Moses returned to God, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray You, out of Your book which You have written.’  And God said to Moses: ‘whoever has sinned against Me, that one will I blot out of My book. Ex 32:32-35

We tend to see the Book of Life in terms of the unetaneh tokef prayer – a document that records everything, collecting the evidence determining who shall live and who shall die in the coming year, rewarding or punishing according to the life already lived. Yet the two ideas – that there is a Book written about our Life, and that reference to such a book enables the heavenly sentencing on Judgment Day (that is Rosh Hashanah), do not have to be so entwined.

The idea of a heavenly Book of Life seems to have originated in Babylon, with Babylonian legend speaking of the Tablets of Destiny, lists of sins and wrongdoings of people, who should be blotted out of existence. Scholars believe it probably referred to some kind of Eternal life, an end of time Judgment. Our Rosh Hashanah liturgy however sees the document differently, causing us to pray for a better and longer earthly life.

While the Mishnah tells us (Avot 2:1) “Consider three things that you may not come within the power of sin. Know what is above you—a seeing eye, and a hearing ear, and all your deeds are written in a book”, it also tells us “All Israel have a portion in the world to come”. Eternal life is, in effect, a given – the Book of Life is not so much about our eternity as about the actual record we each create as we live and go about our lives. The Sefer Hasidim pointedly adds that God is in no need of a book of records; saying “the Torah speaks the language of human beings”; that is, “this is a metaphorical statement to remind us that everything we do is a matter of record, and this record builds to describe and create testimony about each human life – its actions, its meaning, its impact on the world, its memory and memorial”.

The Book of our Life is not, in reality, simply a record of good and bad deeds, to be weighed up each Rosh Hashanah Judgment day when the book is opened.  It is the ultimate repository of who we are. We are, in effect, the sum of our actions and our memories. When our lives are stripped of memory they are stripped of meaning and of purpose. Purpose and meaning ultimately rely on a context and an awareness that is provided for us by our use and recording of memory.

In the last few weeks of Torah readings we have been reading about Moses’ rehearsing to and reminding the people of Israel about their history, their purpose, their connection with the Divine Being and its purpose, and the ethical and religious principles they agreed to when they entered the Covenant with God at Sinai, – an Eternal covenant, and one into which we bring our children. The whole of the book of Deuteronomy is in effect a Memory Book, a Book of Life, a record and proof text for who we are and what we are about. It is Moses’ last effort to implant within us a sense of our history and our purpose, a text to take with us into our future.

In just the same way as Torah gives meaning and purpose to the wider Jewish identity, our very personal existence depends on our own memory, mission and morality – remembering where we came from, what we are called on to do, and how we are called on to do it. And  this information is what creates each of our books of life, which we are invited to open and to read during Ellul, and then from Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur.

Our continued existence as thoughtful and purposeful human beings depends upon what is written in our own Book of Life. Who we really are will form who we will become. If we pay no attention to our own historical reality, to the memories of ourselves and of our people which we rehearse regularly in religious ritual both at home and in the synagogue, then slowly but surely we will lose touch with our root meaning – that which in religious terms would be called Covenant.

If we no longer tell the stories of our past, and find meaning within them that can speak to the modern world, then we will lose our particular purpose, and our lives will indeed become simple accountancy columns – so much fun versus so much pain, so many good deeds versus so many mean ones.  If we distance ourselves from the moral teaching of our tradition, and create a morality based instead on convenience or on what feels right in some unsubstantiated way, then we are in danger of losing our way, of making decisions not using our inherited system of values but on what suits us or fits in with our limited world view.

Memory, Purpose  and Morality – these bring the awareness of where we are the and the connection to where we come from; they create the understanding that our life must be lived with a purpose that is connected to our peoplehood, our roots – however we want to define memory; and a set of overarching values that are not about our own gratification or benefit but about a world view that takes in more than our own selves or our narrow context. This is what Moses was trying to explain in his last speeches recorded so clearly in the book of Deuteronomy – distilling both the history and the learning of the earlier books of Torah.  It is what we must try to do now, as we open our personal Book of Life and read it in order to understand something deep and vital about how we are living our own lives. Not just to reflect on things that are pricking our conscience a little or on the irritations and anxieties of other’s behaviour towards us. But to consider our memory, our  purpose in the world and the morality that both feeds and drives us.

Purpose and meaning, that which gives shape and direction to our lives, does not come out of nowhere. It is shaped by the stories we tell of ourselves and our forebears, by the writings of our historians and our prophets; It is taught to us in our homes and a variety of schools; That which comes to us through our faith tradition is rehearsed in prayer; symbolically enacted in rituals; and recalled periodically in a variety of services and liturgies. Our memories are strengthened by their being recalled and recounted, freshened and sharpened by how we use them.

Without a structure and a system for remembering and teaching, for measuring ourselves against who and what we should be, we ultimately cut ourselves loose from purpose and meaning and have to find roots wherever we can. This is as true of a nation state as it is of a religious identity as it is of an individual person. Each of us must root ourselves in a sense of meaning and purpose if we are to live full lives, and our senses of meaning and purpose must themselves be rooted in something of value and credibility – our family hist­­­ory and its stories, our connection to religious tradition, to a system of values and morals, to our reasons for being – our own humanity.

So when we pray – B’sefer Hayyim nizakeir v’nikateiv lefanecha.Anachnu v’chol amm’cha beit yisrael, le’hayyim tovim v’shalom.

May we and all Your people the family of Israel be remembered and recorded in the Book of Life for a good life and for peace. We are asking not for a simple accounting exercise in order to creep into heaven, not a weighing up of good and bad in the hope that we have been rather better than not, but that our lives are recorded and our memory maintained and refreshed so that we are better able to observe and take hold of the purpose and meaning of our individual and group existence, that our behavior will align more closely to who we know we could become – articulating the values of human dignity and social justice, of enacting good in the world.

It is important that we ask both for ourselves and also for all the people Israel to be able to critically understand the purpose and meaning of existence. For we are not alone here, not individuals on a journey to personal enlightenment so much as a group who are bound – since Sinai – in Covenant with God. We are a people, responsible each for the other, created to support each other and the values we share in the world.

We are a people, responsible each for the other, seeing ourselves as partners in co-creating with God the world in which we live, responsible for the enactment of the divine message of shleima – wholeness and integrity, in our world.

Torah tells us the world is not finished and perfect, it is up to people to complete and to perfect it.

We work on ourselves. That may be more or less difficult, more or less possible, and ultimately it is between ourselves and God just how well we manage.

For most of us our personal Book of Life is readable, at least in solitude, with a modicum of privacy to protect our dignity. We remember our childhoods, at least enough to draw from them the lessons we need as adults. We mostly have at least a sketchy knowledge of our family history over the previous generations – the name of a town or shtetl, the name of an ancestor recalled in our own, the stories that emerge when the family get together for a lifecycle event or festival. We can reconstruct enough of our past to gain a sense of our purpose and, as the bible says, the apple does not fall far from the tree – our family history is often surprisingly circular, and we maintain the values and traditions of our past in some way.

But when we become a group, then it is harder to examine our actions, to take joint responsibility for things we either know nothing about or maybe feel angry about.    We all belong to many different groups and we have responsibility for them– to hold each to account, to remind each of their past and their purpose. In particular at this time we think about the group we belong to called “Jewish Peoplehood” and “Israel”, and remind each other that Israel’s very existence depends on its memory, on its mission, and its morality.

Our memories are held in a book – the Book of Life for the Jewish people is Torah and its descendant the Rabbinic tradition of responsa and innovation. If we forget the values that are given to us there then we forget who we are and what we are about, we will ultimately fall apart, unnourished, unrooted, unconnected.

So when we think about the Book of Life this year, consider it a Book that actively maintains us and our purpose, defines our identities and our values so that we can work in the world in a consistent and meaningful way. And think too about the greater Book, the one that records the behaviour of our whole people. And with both of these volumes open and read lets think about what we want to be written in the coming year, so that when we leave here today we can begin to take up our meaning and our purpose, rooted in our values and our morality, and review and record the memories we want to be acted upon and remembered.

 

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.

 

Zipporah: unsung heroine of parshat Yitro

The sidra is named for Yitro, the priest of Midian and father of seven daughters and indeed Yitro deserves the honour for he takes in the fugitive Moses, provides him with shelter, with work and with a wife – his daughter Zipporah, and he teaches him a great deal about leadership and about relationship with God.

But it is his daughters I would like to focus on, and in particular the long suffering Zipporah.

Moses, having fled the wrath of Pharaoh after he had killed an Egyptian taskmaster, fled to Midian and sat down by a well. The verse repeats one verb – וַיֵּשֶׁב – “to sit or to stay”, which alerts us to pay close attention. Rashi quotes midrash: – the first “staying” means that he settled in Midian, and the second that he deliberately sat near the well. Just as Jacob met Rachel and Eliezer found Rebecca at a well, it seems clear that Moses was intending to find himself a partner. Sure enough, he meets and subsequently helps the seven daughters of the priest of Midian who have come to get water for their father’s flocks. Having filled the troughs with water for their animals, the women are chased away by the shepherds – something that is apparently their usual experience as after Moses helps them they arrive home earlier than usual, an event noted by their surprised father.

Why do the shepherds chase the girls away? Scripture gives us no clue, but midrash comes to our rescue. According to Shemot Rabbah (1:32), the priest of Midian had abandoned idolatry and so had been excluded from the community, and his daughters were treated harshly because of this ban. It is a curious lacuna in the text,  tantalising us with the unexplained punitive treatment of the vulnerable daughters of a man of status even while appearing not to care very much.  At this point we do not know the name of their father, only that he is a “cohen Midian”, a priest of Midian.

Unlike the meetings that lead to the marriages of Rachel and Rebecca there seems to be no special relationship created between Moses and any of the women at the well. Indeed they do not invite him back to their home in order to thank him with their hospitality, but they leave him at the well; indeed the encounter would end there except that  their father asks what has happened that  they are back earlier than usual. Only then do they recount the event, and their father exclaims at their omission and tells them to call Moses in order to offer him a meal. Laconically the text then tells us that  “Moses was וַיּוֹאֶל – willing or content to stay with the man, and he gave Zipporah his daughter to Moses”. Having met all seven daughters without being given any sense of their individuality or their difference, we now find that one of the daughters is given as a wife to Moses. There has been no courtship, no sense that they were interested in each other or found any connection with each other, Zipporah is simply an object here, given to the “ger Toshav” and she bears him a child whom he (not she) names Gershom, a signifier of Moses’ experience as a stranger in a strange land. It is not indicative of any closeness of relationship or belief in a shared future through the child.

Zipporah is almost invisible. She appears to have no agency whatsoever, no personality is evinced and no relationship with Moses on show. All we have is her name – which probably derives from the root meaning ‘bird’- in particular a sparrow, and seems to gloss the meaning that she is unremarkable and unappreciated.

But our next meeting with Zipporah changes all of that.

While acting as shepherd for his father in law Moses had met God near Horeb at the bush that burned but was not consumed, and been told to return to Egypt and to take out God’s people who were suffering there.  Moses is not at all keen. First he asks God “who am I that I can go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out?” and God reassures him – “I will be with you, and as proof when you have done it you will worship me here”. Moses finds another reason to avoid the task –“no one will believe me. They will ask me for your name and I don’t know what to say”. God responds with a phrase that will answer this fear “ehyeh asher ehyeh – I will be what I will be” God extends the instruction – “Go tell them I sent you, Go gather the elders and tell them I have remembered them and will bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey. Go with the elders and tell Pharaoh to let you take three days journey into the wilderness to worship God. And when Pharaoh refuses, I will smite Egypt and you will be allowed to go. And then when you go, ask for compensation from the Egyptians, you will not leave empty handed”.

Moses responds once more with anxiety:  “They won’t believe me. They won’t think I have met You”. God responds with admirable patience and firstly turns Moses’ staff into a serpent and then back into a staff, and then turns Moses’ hand leprous and then returned it to its healthy state.  These are to be signs Moses can use to convince the Israelites of the authenticity of his meeting with God.

Leaving aside the whiff of bad magical tricks, what we are left with is Moses’ desire not to get involved, not to take any initiative or risk, even at the direct request of God. God even offers him a third sign to show the disbelieving Israelites – the changing of water to blood – it smacks a little of desperation, how many tricks does one need if one actually believes in what you are saying?

Moses finds another reason not to go – he is not an orator, he finds public speaking hard and he is not convinced by God’s response to him that as God has chosen him his speaking skills will be adequate. Only then does God get angry – this dissembling has gone on long enough. Moses will have the help of Aaron, he will have his staff and the various tricks. He should get going.

Interestingly Moses does not get going immediately – instead he goes to Yitro his father in law and asks for permission to leave to see if any of his family in Egypt are still alive. And Yitro tells him to go in peace. Was he hoping that Yitro would not give permission? Who are the brothers in Egypt whose status Moses is referring to?  God seems to respond to an unsaid remark – “everyone who sought your death in Egypt is now dead. Go.”

Moses takes Zipporah and his two sons to journey to Egypt and while they travel God tells him that while he may create magical effects with his staff, Pharaoh will not give the people permission to leave. Then follows an opaque and quite terrifying text.

God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh that Israel is the first born son of God.  Pharaoh has been asked to let God’s first born son travel to worship God, but Pharaoh has refused and so God will kill the son, the first born son of Pharaoh.

The theme of the first born son, of the primacy of that role and the specialness of that child, is emphasised and established. We are prefiguring the final plague when the first born son of everyone in Egypt, from Pharaoh to the animals in the fields, will be slain during one terrible night. All will be killed except the first born of those Israelites who have enacted the ritual of the night of Pesach, slaying a lamb and displaying its blood on their doorpost. There is a time slippage – this is being said before anything has really happened. There is a person slippage – quite who is who is unclear. All we know is that the first born son belongs to God in a way that others do not.

Moses is travelling with his own first born son, Gershom.

On the way to the lodging house, God encountered him (וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ) and sought to kill him.

What is the nature of the encounter? Who does God encounter? Who does God seek to kill?

Is it Moses? Is it Gershom?

Moses is entirely passive. Rigid with shock? Prepared to acquiesce? Unwilling to act? Up till now he has mainly been avoiding what God  asks of him. This seems to be part of the same behaviour.

But Zipporah is having none of it. The daughter of a Cohen Midian, a Midianite Priest, she immediately recognises the danger and the need to act. She becomes a Priestess, performing the ritual that will avert the danger.

Zipporah takes a flint and circumcises her son – presumably Gershom her first born rather than Eliezer.        She touches/approaches ‘his feet’ She declares “כִּ֧י חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי:”

It is a priestly ritual with an act and a declaration. The blood seems to be the sacrifice that propitiates God and also binds her to the divine. It also seems to save the life of Moses and/or Gershom.

What is a “hatan damim”. Often translated as a “bridegroom of blood”, it may refer to the newly circumcised Gershom (a child being circumcised is described as Hatan); or to Moses (Hatan can mean bridegroom) in that this act is the one that really binds them together as equal partners in the work of God; or even to God – does she bind God to her in her ritual action where she offers the blood of her own first born? And here is God the Hatan (bridegroom) of the Hatan (father in law)? Has she bought into Moses’ relationship with God by virtue of circumcising her son?

Whatever happens in this night, God withdraws the danger, and Zipporah clarifies that the ritual is to do with the act of circumcision: חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת

One might think that this act by Zipporah is enough to give her status and place in the leadership going into Egypt, but bizarrely it appears to have the opposite effect. There is no record that she ever goes to Egypt, and no record that she is part of the events there, and no record that she is part of the Exodus.  Instead she disappears from the text until all these events are over, and then we have an insight into where she had gone.

In this sidra (exodus 18) we find that Yitro, the priest of Midian and hatan (father in law) of Moses , has heard about God having brought the Israelites out of Egypt and he brings Zipporah and their two sons to Moses

We are told

 וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ:

Yitro, the Hoten of Moses, took Zipporah the wife of Moses, after he had sent her away.

The word for sending away here is the same as that used for divorcing a wife (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Had Moses divorced Zipporah? Had he sent her back to her father’s house in order to protect her from what was to happen in Egypt? Was the sending away an act of shielding love or of punitive revenge? We cannot know. But we do know that Yitro feels confident enough to bring her and the two sons to Moses at the mountain where God will be revealed to Israel.

Is he ensuring his daughter is able to be present at the giving of Torah? Is he ensuring that his grandchildren take their appropriate place in Israelite history? Torah stays silent on the subject. Neither Zipporah nor her two sons with Moses will have any role in the future narrative. Moses is the ultimate high achieving father/husband who has no time for family – everything is focused on his love of his work/God – a personal life is irrelevant.

Poor Zipporah. Moses isn’t even interested to see the family. He welcomes Yitro his father in law, he performs all the social niceties with him, he brings him into the tent and updates him about what has happened and Yitro behaves like a priest. Once again there is a meal – they eat bread together as when Moses first met Yitro.

And Zipporah fades out of the narrative. She is, we assume, at Sinai – but Moses is determined to stay focussed and pure and instructs men and women not to be together for the days of preparation. Their relationship – never close or personal – is now over. Only with the story in the book of Numbers of the complaining about Moses (second) wife being Cushite brings her back to mind. But even here it is not clear – is this a new wife or the same one? There are no children. Moses is not interested in relationships. He is married to his job, to God, to his position as leader.

Zipporah is a woman who, like the other women in the early chapters of Exodus, saves the life of Moses and allows him to grow and mature into the person able to fulfil God’s work. From the midwives who facilitate his birth and his mother who carefully hides him where he will be found, through Miriam and the daughter of Pharaoh, the protective function is carried out by women – a relic maybe of an earlier tradition of guardian goddess, that has been subverted by the paternal and patriarchal characteristic of the Hebrew God.

Zipporah forms no close relationship with a peer. She cuts a lonely figure despite being one of seven sisters.  Her marriage is loveless and cold. She is given no obvious honour or status, does not seem to have any contact with her sister-in-law Miriam (unless one reads Miriam’s complaint about the Cushite wife as being one of sisterly solidarity with Zipporah – a reading that would be quite a stretch).  She stands alone, but she is powerful. She takes on God and makes God back off. She protects her young son and saves his life. She protects her husband and saves his life too. I can only hope she got more pleasure from Gershom and Eliezer, that they honoured and respected her and understood just what a brave and competent woman she was. I like to think of her rising to the priesthood, an early role model who understood ritual and liturgical formula and could use them to best effect.

Whoever she was and whatever happened to her, her name gives us some optimism. Like a sparrow she flies unnoticed, getting on with her life, able to see from her own perspective. As psalm 84 reminds us

גַּם־צִפּ֨וֹר ׀ מָ֢צְאָה בַ֡יִת וּדְר֤וֹר ׀ קֵ֥ן לָהּ֘ אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֢תָה אֶפְרֹ֫חֶ֥יהָ אֶת־מִ֭זְבְּחוֹתֶיךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֑וֹת מַ֝לְכִּ֗י וֵאלֹהָֽי:

Even a sparrow finds a home and a swallow a nest where she may lay her young, Your altars Adonai tzeva’ot, my sovereign and my ruler.

Zipporah the priestess of Midian both challenges God and is brought by God into the inner circle of God. Where Moses fails her, let’s hope God supports her. She is at Sinai and she is unencumbered by her husband. Who knows what she could have achieved that bible has chosen not to record.

 

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.

Parashat Pinchas:Religion is designed to protect us from our shadow side

The actions of Pinchas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron have been a real problem to commentators on bible from earliest times. The Israelites were sinning, committing idolatry and cavorting with the Midianite women and God had ordered the leaders of these people to be killed. But Pinchas, apparently roused to zealous fury by the sight of an Israelite man with a Midianite woman who were shamelessly transgressing in full view of Moses and the weeping frightened people waiting by the door of the Tent of Meeting, thrust a spear through the misbehaving couple.

It was summary justice, conducted without any of the due process of warning, without trial where both sides of the story could be told, without witnesses speaking, without the judicial process that would protect the accused and offer mitigating outcomes. Pinchas’ action was simply outrageous, contravening all the rules set up to protect society.  Put simply he murdered two human beings because he was ‘zealous for God’. He is the icon of proponents of violence in the name of religion.

But while God may seemingly reward Pinchas (and also the people as the plague is suddenly stopped), the ambiguity of the text and many responses of tradition make clear that violence in the name of God is unacceptable. The third century sage Rav condemned him, saying that the judgement on the two people he had killed was only to be made by God, and while the action might be within the parameters of law given on Sinai, “God who gave the advice should execute the advice”.  In the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) we read that “Pinchas acted against the will of the wise men”, and of the comment by  Rabbi Judah bar Pazzi who says that Pinchas was about to be excommunicated for his action and that this was only averted when God intervened to save him.  God’s declaration that this zealousness and its murderous outcome was done without any personal motivation whatsoever, done only for the honour of God, was what saved Pinchas from the legal process about to take place, but even then it is understood that only such absolute purity of motive is acceptable, and only God can know the full motives of any heart.

Zealousness or vengeance on behalf of God – it is a problem that has never left religion.  God says that Pinchas was “vengeful/zealous/carrying out My vengeance  for My sake (be-kano et kinati     בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם).

קַנָּא is an attribute of God, albeit one that moderns find problematic. We know, because bible tells us, that the plague on the people was an aspect of divine קַנָּא, also that God introduces Godself to the people at Mt. Sinai as “El Kana” (Exodus 20:4). And whatever the difficulty we might have with knowing that God is not only love, not only sweetness and light, but that God is complex and contains within divinity the full spectrum of possibility, it seems to me that in the way this text is written, as well as the majority of rabbinic responses to it, we are made to understand that this attribute is one that should properly be left to God. For who among us is so pure of heart that we can know that there is no other motive, no selfish desire or egoistic drive mixed in with our religious zeal?

Violence and vengeance is part of the human psyche.  The book of Genesis tells us that Cain (whose name  קַיִן echoes the sound קַנָּא, although it comes from the root meaning acquisition rather than vengefulness) murdered his own brother in anger when his own hopes were frustrated. He too was given something by God – the mark of Cain placed on him to protect him from those who would hurt him. Within ten generations of Cain the earth is filled with wickedness and violence, so much that God was sorry that s/he had ever created human beings (Genesis 6:5ff) and wanted to blot them off the surface of the earth, saving only one family, that of Noach, who was relatively less wicked than others. God told Noach “The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” (Gen 6:13)

From the beginning of bible, it is clear that when God made human beings in the divine image, this included the shadow side of that image. It becomes the job of religion not to excise that which cannot be eliminated, but to recognise it and to find ways to constrain it, limiting the driver of zealousness to the point of making it impotent, making it impossible for people to act from this belief/feeling.  Hence the Talmudic narrative which clarifies that Pinchas is defended by God because uniquely he has entirely pure motives for his act, with no personal impetus whatsoever.

Talmud also contains the idea that “the [torah] scroll and the sword came down from heaven tied together” – a teaching by the 3rd century Rabbi Eleazar of Modi’in. It derives from the Rabbinic idea that Torah was a complete and perfect work even before it was given to the Israelite people at Mt Sinai, and ties it together with the idea that violence/vengeance was also one of the earliest actions demonstrated in humanity. It is often quoted to suggest that both are necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, but in fact the statement of Rabbi Eleazar goes on:- “God said to Israel, ‘If you observe the Torah that is written in the one, you will be saved from the other. If you do not, then you will be destroyed/injured by it”

The teaching is clear however: Both violence and religion are intertwined and archetypal in people, but the work of religious tradition is to try to separate them, not to allow the violence which is endemic within us to overpower us, but instead to follow the will of God in order to subdue this first and primal response.

When God gives Pinchas the covenant of peace, he is not rewarding him for an achievement, he is constraining him from further violence, just as the mark of Cain is constraining others from further violence.

The problem we face today is how to constrain those who feel zealousness for God, of whatever tradition and whatever religion, so that they understand that, in the words of the final song of Moses, Ha’azinu, God says  לִ֤י נָקָם֙ וְשִׁלֵּ֔ם “Vengeance and Recompense is Mine”.

It is not our work to punish or avenge in the name of God, we leave that to God. But it is our work to educate ourselves and each other that acts of violence in the name of religion or in the name of protecting the honour of God are unacceptable, beyond any parameter in this world, and will not make the perpetrators religious martyrs or otherwise glorified. Religion is designed to protect us from our shadow side, from acting on our anger and from narrowing our perspective so we no longer see the humanity of each other. If it is not doing this, then it is religion that needs to evolve in order to fulfil this function.  And that is a job for people – not God – to do: And if not now, when?

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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