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)

Shelach Lecha: nudged along the path to beyond ourselves

“And the ETERNAL spoke to Moses, saying:  ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.  And it shall be to you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the ETERNAL, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray;  that ye may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your God.   I am the ETERNAL your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the ETERNAL your God.”

It is, maybe, one of the earliest educational strategies – a visual aid to constantly remind one of something important, to teach a constant and immediate awareness of God and of the covenant relationship we have whose conditions – mitzvot – inform every aspect of our lives.

The thread of colour commanded in the mitzvah of tzitzit has long since gone in most ritual garments, since we cannot be sure exactly how to make the dye to create this tekhelet, the blue colour (although in recent years it has made a partial return as some think they have cracked the identity of the chilazon, source of the most expensive colour dye of the ancient world). But the fringes remain – though for most Jews not on their everyday garments, but on the shawls we wear, the tallitot, when we want to make space in our life for prayer.

The idea of the fringes on our clothing is that we will always have with us a reminder of God and of the commandments that we are obliged to fulfil – indeed the fringes are knotted in a particular way to remind us of the number 613, to echo the idea that there are 613 commandments said to be in Torah, so that every time we see them we will remember the covenant and our part in it.  Judaism is a religion of the every day, it is through ordinary mundane quotidian activities that we create the Jewish people, develop Jewish identity.  The fringes on the corners of the garments, the tzitzit, were designed to reinforce this. Whatever we see, whatever we do, there is a Jewish edge to the action, a perspective of obligation and commandment. We are reminded always of the foundation of who we are – we are a covenanted people whose life and behaviour is shaped by the encounter at Sinai, when we agreed to a relationship with God that was to be expressed in how we act in the world.

In the Talmud in a discussion on tzitzit, and on the tekhelet colour mandated in bible, we are told that: “Rabbi Meir used to say: How is tekhelet different from all other colours?  Because tekhelet is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky is like [God’s] throne of glory as it says: “Under God’s feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of heaven in purity.” (Shemot 24:10)  (Menachot 43b). 

It is a curious teaching. For Rabbi Meir is linking the reminder of the tzitzit not only to the commandments, but also to a sense of God. And he does so by inserting stages of a journey so to speak – He doesn’t talk about tekhelet only as colour, but as the colour first of the sea and then of the sky, and only then of the hidden place of God. He seems to want us not just to associate the colour with God, but to think about the connections between us and God – the sea is a place we can reach and touch, a huge swathe of our world, but ultimately finite. The sky though is untouchable for us, and apparently infinite, and only then do we move on to the “throne of glory” – the exaltedness of God. By making us work, stage by stage, Rabbi Meir is teaching us that we can reach up beyond ourselves to gain some sense of connection – not making a comment on the colour of the universe, or a simple mechanistic connection between the colour on the tallit and the strange description of the sapphire pavement found in the book of Exodus. By making us think, by moving us from the tangible and visible, to the intangible visible, to the invisible infinite, we are being taken on a process and a progression that allows us to think beyond ourselves, beyond even what we can normally imagine.

There is in our tradition another version of this statement of Rabbi Meir’s, which makes the idea of progression even clearer. In Midrash Tehillim we read that the tekhelet “resembles the sea and the sea is like the grasses, and the grasses are like the trees, and the trees are like the firmament, and the firmament is like the radiance, and the radiance is like the rainbow, and the rainbow is like the [divine] image” (90:18).

I like this version because it causes us to not only reach beyond ourselves and our world, but to do so slowly, taking our time, looking from sea level to ground level to tree level to sky and beyond. And in this account there is a punch line:  “Rabbi Hezekiah taught: When the children of Israel are wrapped in their prayer shawls, let them not think that they are clothed merely in ordinary blue. Rather, let the children of Israel look upon their prayer shawls as though the glory of the Presence were covering them.” (Midrash Tehillim 90:18).

When we look at the fringes of the tallit, and we remember the original instruction here in parashat Shelach Lecha, we begin to understand the powerful effect of that colour of tekhelet (which has, incidentally remained with us in a sort of echo form in the variant colours of the stripes of the tallit which can range from almost black to a turquoise-ey sky blue, as can the dye from the chilazon, dependent on the age of the mollusc), and which has progressed from the tallit to the flag of Israel.  By using the thread of tekhelet – and then by using a reminder of the thread and the colour and what it makes us think about– we are bridging a gap between our world and the heavens, between ourselves and God. The radiance we are encouraged to think towards becomes like a rainbow – the perpetual sign between God and us that we are under divine protection – takes us to an almost magical link between the worlds.

When we put on our tallit for prayer and wrap ourselves in the fringes we are, so to speak, putting on the seatbelts, checking the mirrors – readying ourselves for a journey towards God. We are land animals, made of earth, adamah – which root is the origin of the word for the colour red – edom. We are physical beings made from the stuff of our ground says the bible, yet our souls yearn for more – the look to connect to more than the material physical world of now. The tekhelet prescribed in our tradition is a recognition of that yearning, and the offer of a way towards what we want – we can look through the natural world around us and from studying it and appreciating it, we can find a way to the creator of all that we see.

This is how Jewish tradition shapes us and forms us – it takes the everyday and makes us notice more. We are asked not to skim through our lives but to examine them, to consider what we are doing, to aspire for more.  It expects mindfulness and it gives us methods and tools for us to achieve this. But on the way to mindfulness it gives us a more pragmatic approach – the commandments are sets of behaviour that will shape us without us even thinking about it – in effect if we behave like a mensch even without thinking about the ethical imperatives or the spiritual growth, but just because that is what is expected from us, we can live our lives and look back and realise we have become a mensch.  The spiritual journey does not have to be too self reflective, we are nudged along the path with reminders to do, to be, to act – and so, in time, to understand and to become.