The interface between God and human beings is fraught with potential both creative and destructive. It is uncharted territory where we wander, sometimes alone and sometimes with companions and while we might pay attention to the stories told by those who have more recently gone before us, our constant and most useful guide is Torah.
Torah teaches us the boundaries others have met, the pathways our predecessors have taken, gives us a glimpse into what we might be looking out for.
To some extent, we could call Torah a manual for those who wish to undertake a spiritual journey. But it is a limited manual. It offers no guarantees about reaching the desired destination, it offers some advice sketches out some road signs and extends the hope that as others have done, then so maybe can I.
This limited manual can be a great comfort, but it also creates many problems for us. We have a desire to know “how to do it”, we want to be told that if we behave in a certain way we will reach such-and-such a place. We often want to have concrete guidelines like all those recipe books and television programmes that state very clearly “if you follow my instructions you will have a perfect cake every time”. Increasingly I am asked how to do something or is something allowed or forbidden, not out of curiosity and a genuine need to explore, but because people are seeing religion as the repository of the skills needed to achieve – or rather they are seeing rabbis and priests as the people who hold the secret and can either open or close the door to God.
There is a second problem in modernity – we have forgotten how religious language works, we are so goal centred we pay too little attention to the process, we have lost understanding of symbolic language and our sensitivity to metaphor and allegory is blunted in our need for certainty. The chain of tradition in which generations told the stories they had heard from their ancestors and fed their descendants with the ‘hiddushim’ the innovations they had found, has been disrupted and dislocated. The multiple varieties of ways to understand the torah text that can be seen in Midrash, in the aggadic texts recorded in Talmud, in the rabbinic commentaries on bible and on each others works – they might be recorded but their meaning is often either misunderstood or completely lost.
I am not talking here about the knowledge of Hebrew – indeed there are certainly many more people fluent in the language alive now than ever before – but rather about the understanding of religious process, of symbols and thought processes and of whole concepts that unspokenly underpinned the midrashic and aggadic texts .
Rather than admit to ourselves that our understanding is weakened, it seems to me that we have created structures that make sense to our modern minds and our need to know the recipes, and we try to ignore or dismiss the rest of our tradition as being archaic or irrelevant or magical thinking.
So how does one get back into the living meaning of Torah in order to be able to delve deeper into our spiritual search and come closer to the God who revealed Godself with such clarity to our ancestors that it seemed they were meeting almost face to face.
One way certainly is through studying the Hebrew text, examining the original words both with and without the overlay of rabbinic commentaries in order to reveal the clusters of meanings that are embedded in those words.
Another way is to personalise the text, to find its echoes resonating within our own souls and to extend the meanings into our own experience.
In traditional rabbinic exegesis, these two methods go hand in hand, creating a dynamic and relevant understanding of Torah, to help us use the ‘guide book’ in our own spiritual journey.
Sidra Tetzaveh is, on the surface, a continuation of the instructions about the Mishkan, the physical structure erected by the Israelites in the desert as a constant symbol and reminder of the presence of God. There are instructions about the building followed by the details of the priestly garments, the anointing of the priests and the offerings they are to bring.
The challenge is to find the relevance to us – progressive Jews who have given up the special status of the Cohanim, who have a real revulsion against animal sacrifice, who have expunged the prayers for its return and for the return of the Temple with all of its offerings, hierarchies and structures from our prayer books.
The relevance to us can be found once we begin to look past the minutiae of the detail of the ritual and let the text speak to us. We are dealing here with the creation of symbols that speak of the presence of God and of the boundaries that will prevent us from getting too close to a power that could overwhelm us so that we lose our own self. We are looking at creating a conduit, to find ways to relate to God. And this is an age old problem every generation must address.
In Sidra Tetzaveh we see the making of a structure that will operate through time and space, connecting the outer world and the inner one, involving both action and prayer, uniting us as one people while at the same time connecting each one to God. It was a structure for its time, one we can hardly comprehend, yet we continue to read it because it has things to teach us still.
The verse which begins the sidra “v’ata tetzaveh et b’nei Yisrael, v’yikhu elecha shemen zayit zach katit l’maor leha’a lot ner tamid” You shall command the children of Israel that they will bring pure beaten olive oil for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually” is an important one for us. Each of us has a responsibility to keep alight a ner tamid, a continually burning light. Each of us has the responsibility to do it for ourselves, to keep a spark alive in our own souls and our own lives.
The ner tamid in a synagogue is usually explained as being a symbol of the continuing presence of God, and we have taken the idea of externalising it by having one in every synagogue, hanging over the Ark. A light is kept burning in every synagogue to be an outward sign of the light that is burning in every Jewish soul.
Sometimes the symbolism can take on a new and even painful dimension – I remember hearing a survivor of the Shoah, Hilda Schindler, describe how after Kristallnacht in Berlin she saw the ner tamid of the Fasanenstrasse Synabobe burning brightly on the ground.
There are other symbols in this sidra – the anointing and ordaining of the priesthood whose special task is to take care of the boundaries between the Jews and God, and whose economic and functional dependence on the Israelites only points up their special task rather than diminish it – a task that we now have in our own homes and study houses. There is the focus on the garments of the High Priest, on which we model the clothes for the Sefer Torah, and so once again remind ourselves that people and objects can function at the interface of God and humanity.
Our texts speak in many languages in order to make their meaning available to us. It is improper of us to try to distil down the lessons, to accept that there is only one accepted meaning that is taught by someone else and should not be challenged. The beauty of traditional Judaism and the beauty of contemporary progressive Judaism is that we have refused to join in the process of passively accepting the judgements of others.
My first synagogue President, Mervin Elliot z”l used to say that for us Reform Jews tradition had a vote but not a veto. I liked the pithiness of the language when I first heard it, but now some thirty years later I appreciate more the acceptance of the past and the willingness to explore the present and the future that is embedded in it.
When we come across texts like those in Tetzaveh we can either treat them like a manual or recipe book, decide that those people who are descendants of the Cohanim must have some special power and role that we cannot decipher, and walk away from the challenges of how we build the bridges and the protective structures whereby we can come close to God in this day and age. Or we can take up the challenge, see a product of its time have something that can speak to us today, transmuted perhaps or extended or even echoed, and create the Judaism that does the same work today that the mishkan and priesthood did in biblical times. We can remind ourselves that we are supposed to be (as we read only a few chapters earlier) “a nation of priests and a holy nation”. Each of us can take on the role, keep alight the ner tamid in our own places and lives, and find that each of us has something to teach, each of us has something to offer the community, each of us protects and nurtures the spark of divine in the world.
(sermon given 2017 lev chadash)