20th Elul – the great shofar sounds…

20 Ellul

Even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Biblical decree, it hints at something, i.e., “Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! And slumberers, arise from your slumber! Search your ways and return in teshuvah and remember your Creator! Those who forget the Truth amidst the futility of the moment and are infatuated all their years with vanity and nothingness that will not help and will not save, examine your souls and improve your ways and your motivations! Let each of you abandon your wicked ways, and your thoughts which are no good.” (Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilchot teshuvah 3:4)

The shofar is a peculiarly powerful instrument. Its call pierces the air – we cannot ignore its sound.  It has been used to summon people for battle, as a warning, as a blast to terrify the enemy. It was heard at Sinai – though it is not clear who was blowing it. The ram caught in a thicket at the binding of Isaac was caught by its horn, from which comes the rabbinic idea that God instructed Abraham that his descendants should blow the shofar whenever they were in danger of divine punishment – the merits of the protagonists in the Akedah would be brought in front of God who would therefore forgive us.  Bible tells us to blow it to announce the New Moon of Tishri, and from that comes the idea that every new month is publicised in this way.

The sound of the shofar is also close to the sounds of wailing and of more gentle but insistent crying.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) discussing the sounds has one tanna saying the Teruah means a wailing sound, the Sh’varim denotes moaning or broken sighs.  The Tekiah, the straight blast of sound, is both introductory and closing sound, to contain and to announce the sorrowful nature of the other calls.

The shofar does much of our work for us. It is designed to wake us up, but also to give voice to our fears and anxieties, and then to strengthen us in our battle to become our best selves.  There is a debate in the Talmud about whether the shofar should be bent or straight, and the implication is that the shofar represents the person who is approaching God – should we approach with our backs straight and, so to speak, look God in the eye while asking for forgiveness, or should we be bent with the weight of our sorrow at the sin we are carrying, and looking down to the ground?

There is no answer given – all shofarot whether straight or curved are permissible. Each of us, however we feel about ourselves, can come before God and under that divine gaze, be open about what and who we currently are.

 

 

5th Elul – fragmenting ourselves or unifying ourselves?

5th Elul

“On Judgment Day God will not ask you to which sect you belonged, but what manner of life you led” (Chafetz Chaim)

We Jews have a habit of fracturing into different groups, and cordially disliking or despising those not in our particular corner of the Jewish world.  The famous joke of a desert island with one Jewish inhabitant having two synagogues – one he would go to and the other he would never go to, has a kernel of truth at its heart. I’ve lost count of the people who tell me that Reform Judaism is not authentic, or that the stricter one is, the more Jewish one is. The lurch towards increasing humras (strictnesses) in behaviour, of being more pious than anyone else has happened in my lifetime, possibly because the confidence of doing things like our parents did them has taken a knock, as the generation of survivors who were dislocated from their destroyed communities began to look instead to texts and guidelines rather than trust their custom and family habits.

I belong to many on-line groups where the questions are put – is it allowed? Is it kosher? Is it forbidden? Instead of living a life of continuation, many Jews are now living a life of uncertainty, of the need for being told how to do their Judaism – with the information usually coming from books and compilations of judgments, rather than from lived generational experience which may not always match with the letter of the “law” but which was how Jews did it for centuries.

The problem with this need for certainty, is that it leads to a univocal Judaism that will not tolerate difference in practise. It leads not only to “orthodoxy” but to “modern orthodoxy” and “ultra-orthodoxy” and “Haredi orthodoxy” and even the group lev tahor (google them and weep) or neturei karta – and heaven knows what else.

Judaism is not univocal and it never was. There are local customs and traditions that suit the community that has them, and that should not be given up for the sake of recognition by other Jews. Yet they are often under pressure to do just that.

The Talmud tells us “Jews were not exiled until they separated into sects” (Johanan bar Nappaha in TJ Sanhedrin 10:5). That “the command in Deuteronomy 14:1 (You shall not cut yourselves) means, according to Shimon b Lakish that “You shall not cut yourselves into separate sects” (TB Yevamot 13b)

Yet still we do it. The Hasidic world follows many different dynasties which often do not have good relationships between them. The progressive world is divided into different movements which have developed n the last few hundred years. Time was a Jew was a Jew was a Jew. We trusted them to follow their Judaism without fear or favour, criticism or taunt. There were plenty of other problems without having to have the internal squabbles, or at least without spending so much time and energy on them

During the Yamim Noraim and our preparation for these days, when we will all stand before God as one people, and all differences of nuance and practise fall away, let’s try to savour the feeling that we are Am Yisrael, and hold onto it when these days are done. And so go into the New  Year giving each other respect for our differences, and support in our Jewish living – however it may be expressed.

 

3rd Elul: birthday of Menachem Meiri

3rd Elul birth of Menachem ben Solomon Meiri or Ha’Meiri (1249–1306)

The Meiri was a Catalan rabbi, Talmudist and Maimonidean, regarded as one of the most brilliant commentators of his time. His works, which have often been ignored by much of the halachic process since, show a clear and logical – and scientific – approach to our great foundational texts.  He was a philosopher whose learning kept him open to new approaches – from the Jewish Encyclopaedia we read that “Meiri was too much of a philosopher himself to interdict the study of philosophy. Thus, when solicited by Abba Mari to give his adhesion to the excommunication launched against the secular sciences, Meiri wrote him a letter in which he emphatically defended science, the only concession he made being to forbid the study of secular sciences by any one before he has thoroughly studied the Talmud.”

He is especially famous for his writings on Jewish-Gentile relationships, repeatedly holding that the statements against the other nations in the Talmud and the discriminatory laws against them, were only about the long-disappeared idolatrous nations of that time, and in no way were to be used in his contemporary setting.  He was also a clear early voice in support of women’s reading of the Sefer Torah and the Megillah within the community.

Other comments of his are also worth bringing forward for attention– for example on the fractious dispute that has surfaced in our time: Kol b’isha ervah – the idea that a woman’s voice is sexually provocative and must therefore not be heard – also provide useful early texts to remind those who would silence women en masse in public spaces, that their viewpoint is not miSinai. On the nature of Ervah as it relates sexuality he is clear that this is highly subjective. “That a person knows himself and his inclinations” and that Kol B’isha does not apply when one knows that her voice will not be sexually stimulating. And concerning this the Torah says I am the Eternal your God” — indicating that each person must draw an honest and individual boundary”

He rules that even a minor may read from the Torah scroll for the community. He believes that one’s obligation to read the Torah publicly is not one that falls under the halachic concept that a person of lesser obligation cannot perform a commandment on behalf of a person with a greater obligation, for that is holds only for individual obligations and not communal ones. Hence, women too can read from the Sefer Torah.

There are downsides to his writing. In particular I found his comments on who to marry disappointing: Commenting on BT Yevamot 63a where Rav Pappa advises “Be patient and marry a woman who is suitable for you. Descend a level to marry a woman of lower social status, and ascend a level to choose a friend”   Rashi glosses: “Do not take an important woman as your wife, lest she find that you are unacceptable to her” But the Meiri goes further in his commentary -“Never seek a wife among those who are greater than you, lest as a result of her higher standing, she rules over you. Surely then she will not obey you regarding household tasks.”

We are all children of our time, and we have all absorbed the generation norms in which we live, to a greater or lesser degree. The Meiri was of his place and time, but had the courage to speak against much of the prevailing fear of “the other” – be they women or gentiles.  And he continued to be open to knowledge from whatever source, defending the learning of the sciences and a good and rounded education. We need more such voices today.

2nd Elul – the Shulchan Aruch and why we need to examine the pre-set table and also our own received certainties

2 Elul

The great legal code compiled by the Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Caro, and called the Shulchan Aruch (“The prepared table), was published in Venice in 1555 on the 2nd day of Elul. Along with the commentary by Moses Isserles, which builds on the Sephardi rulings and adds the Ashkenazi traditions – and which he called the Mappah – the table cloth – it is the go-to code of choice for anyone wanting to decide what the ritual and legal requirements might be for their issue, and is core learning for those who wish to have orthodox semicha.

Structured in four main sections following the pattern of the earlier Code of Law the Tur (Arba Turim of Jacob ben Asher) and the Beit Yosef, (Caro’s earlier and much more detailed work commenting on the rulings of the Tur): there is Orach Chaim– the laws of prayer and synagogue custom for daily,, Sabbath, and holiday times;   Yoreh Deah – Laws about kashrut; family purity, relations with non-Jews; vows; Israel; conversion, death and mourning, offerings etc.   Even Ha-Ezer– Laws addressing marriage, procreation and divorce; and Hoshen Mishpat– Laws for courts of justice; loans and claims; agents; finance; acquisition, purchases and gifts; legacies and inheritance; lost and found property; theft, robbery, damages.. The Shulchan Aruch was designed to provide and exhaustive but relatively easy guide for those without deep knowledge of Jewish law. Caro himself saw it as an entry point into halachah rather than embodying the final conclusive rulings of Halacha. In his introduction it is clear that for him the main text is to be the Beit Yosef, with its citations, its legal arguments, its logical threads. The Shulchan Aruch was for young students not yet able to cope with the complexities of drilling into the text to derive legal precedent.

When I was a rabbinic student, I was taught Talmud by a very orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem. When I asked about learning more Rabbinic Codes, he would say “You are training to be a Reform Rabbi. For that you need to learn how the Rabbis who wrote and codified halachah would think, and for that you need to be well versed in Talmud, not just look up the Codes”.  I used to joke that it would be for us to write the mappiot – the napkins.

Indeed my teacher was not alone. Many of Caro’s contemporaries were concerned that this book would end up being the definitive answer for many people, and they would stop their own investigation and curiosity that might provide different ways for Jewish practise to go. And their worries were well founded – an answer may be found in the Shulchan Aruch that gives no indication of why it was decided, on what grounds, and whether it was a matter of substance or of opinion.

There is a strand of Judaism that tends to the conservative, in the sense that once something is written or done, it is no longer open for question. We no longer notice that it is no longer appropriate, or that the context has radically changed. There is a well-known story of the synagogue where, when the Torah scroll was paraded, it was the custom to bow at a particular place. No one knew why this custom was there, many stories were created to explain it – and the answer only came to light when doing renovations it became clear that there had been a low level gas light on the wall, which would have knocked into the Sefer Torah had the scroll not been lowered momentarily in what appeared to some to be the carrier bowing.

We all have our habits that once served us well and that now we don’t even notice, even though they may actually be harmful or prevent us from living our full lives. We all cling to memories or traditions – such as my refusal to eat kitniot on Pesach despite knowing it is a minhag shtus – a stupid custom. It may be a minhag shtus, but it is my mother’s and her mother’s….

The kitniot minhag is not dangerous or life limiting, indeed for me it is part of Pesach despite all rational proof of its irrelevance. But we all hold other ideas, which we have not examined and simply taken on another person’s word.  Whether it be a low self-image derived from childhood experiences, unconscious misogyny or low level racism, a sense of supremacy of our own nation/ religion – whatever, we have all swallowed uncritically and with absolute certainty all kinds of things we should really have critiqued and reflected on and had the courage to work on or even deny.

So as Elul moves on into the Yamim Noraim, now is the time to say to ourselves – what ideas have we absorbed uncritically and then not bothered to examine again? It’s time to read the Beit Yosef alongside the Shulchan Aruch, to go back to the creativity of the Talmud and the extraordinary openness of the Bible. As my teacher said, Reform is nothing if it does not critique from foundational texts the accretion of beliefs and folklore and rulings of the Codes and challenge them.

And we are not doing our job if we are not critiquing the accretion of beliefs and folklore and certainties we hold and on which we unconsciously act.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tu b’Av: an especially joyful festival to be reclaimed

The three weeks that lead from the 17th Tammuz (breaching of the walls of Jerusalem)  to the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av) are traditionally a period of mourning, known as bein hametzarim – in the narrow straits. So it is all the more surprising that just one week after Tisha b’Av comes an especially joyful festival – the full moon of Av brings us Tu b’Av – when we are told:

Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel said: Never were there any more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments – borrowed ones, however, in order not to cause shame to those who had none of their own. These clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus the maidens went out and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose; (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)

The rabbis of the Gemara are perplexed – ““On the 15th of Av and on the Day of Atonement,” etc. It is right that the Day of Atonement should be a day of rejoicing, because that is a day of forgiveness, and on that day the 2nd tablets of the Law were given to Moses; but why should the 15th of Av be a day of rejoicing?”

And so begins a fascinating rabbinic journey into what is behind the celebration of the fifteenth (Tu) of’Av :

Said R. Yehudah in the name of Samuel: “On that day it was permitted to the members of the different tribes to intermarry.” Whence is this deduced? Because it is written [Num 36: 6]: “This is the thing which the Eternal has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad,” they claim that “this is the thing” implies the decree was only for that generation, but for later generations the decree doesn’t apply.

  1. Joseph in the name of R. Nachman said: On that day the members of the tribe of Benjamin were permitted to intermarry with the other tribes, as it is written [Judges 21. 1]: “Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying: Not any one of us shall give his daughter unto Benjamin for wife.”

Rabba bar bar Hana said in the name of R. Johanan: On that day the last of those who were destined to die in the desert died, and the destiny was thus fulfilled;

Ulla said: “On that day the guards appointed by Jeroboam to prevent the Israelites from coming to Jerusalem were abolished by Hosea the son of Elah, and he said: ‘Let them go wherever they choose.'”

  1. Matnah said: “On that day permission was given to bury the dead who were killed in battle at the city of Beitar”

Rabba and R, Joseph both said: On that day they ceased to cut wood for the altar, as we have learned in a Baraita: R. Eliezer the Great said: “From the fifteenth day of Av the heat of the sun was lessened and the timber was no longer dry, so they ceased to cut wood for the altar.”

There is a golden rule in rabbinic exposition – the more explanations given for something, the less likely it is that anyone knows what the explanation actually is. Clearly a celebration on the 15th of Av, which coincided with the beginning of the grape harvest, is part of the custom and practise of the Jews by the time of the Talmud, but its origin is already lost in the mists of time.

Let’s look briefly at the Talmudic explanations before looking at the festival itself.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is told in the book of Numbers- a rare piece of case law in that book and a powerful piece of text about women confronting Moses in order to attain fairness under the law. Zelophehad is dead, he had 5 daughters and no sons, and according to the rules of inheritance at that time, the girls would be left without anything. They approach Moses and argue their case, including the fact that their father will be forgotten in his tribe. Moses has to ask God about the merits of the case, and God tells him that the case of these daughters is valid; they should indeed inherit from their father. Later a problem arises, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh – which the family of Zelophehad belong to – also bring a petition to Moses. Should daughters inherit when there is no son, and then marry into another tribe, the inheritance and land that would normally stay within the tribe will be given to the tribe that the woman marries into.

So the law is amended – such women who inherit land from their fathers must marry only within their own tribe – a limiting phenomenon that itself causes problems. So Rabbi Yehuda quotes Samuel by saying that tribes may now intermarry freely – and the date of this decision was the fifteenth of Av on the last year before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel.

The second explanation in the gemara is from a much darker story found at the end of the book of Judges, where a woman staying overnight in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, was gang raped until she died. The other tribes went to war against the Benjaminites who would not give up the criminals for justice, and a ban was proclaimed which meant no one could marry into that tribe. This ban was eventually lifted on the fifteenth of Av. One assumes that this idea comes from the commonality of Tu b’Av to the statement in the Book of Judges ““And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come out of the vineyards, and let every man catch  his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.” (21:21)

The third explanation – This comes from a midrash found in the Jerusalem Talmud amongst other texts, which say that the generation who were to die in the desert because of their connection to the sin of the Golden Calf expected to die on Tisha b’Av. This would cause a problem – if there were to be so many deaths on one day, then who would be able to dig the graves and bury the people? So Moses sent out a decree: On Tisha b’Av everyone must dig their own grave and sleep in it. Those who would die would die, and the survivors would simply have to fill in the graves with the bodies already in them. But many did not die who felt that they too were destined for this fate, and so they continued to sleep in the graves they had dug for themselves until they saw the full moon of Av and realised that Tisha b’Av was well and truly behind them. They would live!

The fourth explanation: King Jeroboam (c900BCE) had challenged Rehoboam the son of Solomon, because of his authoritarian rule, and took the ten Northern tribes with him to his capital Shechem. He built two temples as rivals to the one in Jerusalem (Bethel and Dan) and banned his people from going to worship in Jerusalem.  Fifty years later, the last King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, rescinded the ban – on Tu b’Av – and the joy that ensued is encoded in the festival.

The fifth explanation also involves graves, in this case the ones slaughtered in the rebellion against Rome led by the false messiah Shimon bar Kochba in 135. The massacre of the Jews by the Romans was estimated by one Roman historian as being at least 580 thousand dead and many more taken captive into slavery in other parts of the empire. The majority of the Jewish population was exiled from the land and the land given a new name by the Romans – Syria Palestina – to try to sever the connection between the land and the Jews. Tisha b’Av saw the final destruction of Temple and hopes, and the fortress of Beitar was breached and its inhabitants murdered and left unburied. So Rav Matnah’s explanation for Tu b’Av is that 6 days after the tragedy (some stories say a year and six days), the Romans finally permitted the burial of the slaughtered Jews – on Tu b’Av.

After such dramatic explanations the final one in the list is more prosaic, but also most likely to be the case. Simply that the full moon of Av is around the summer equinox, the days are beginning to shorten and one might be less sure of enough dry weather for the wood cut down for the Temple sacrifices to be sufficiently prepared for its use, and any wood cut down later would be liable to smoke unpleasantly. This explanation is bolstered by the fact that we know of customs in the near East whereby the end of the season for cutting wood is marked by celebration including dancing and music.

So having established that Tu b’Av was being celebrated in Mishnaic times, that the young women would go out into the vines wearing white dresses they had borrowed so as not to be identified by their clothing, that they danced and sang and that clearly a shidduch market was in full swing on that date – the young men would chase them and choose their brides – the rabbinic tradition tried to explain the event using stories of rape, graves, massacre, orphaned women claiming economic rights and hence losing the right to marry outside of their tribe, civil war and rebellion against both internally among the Jewish people and also against an oppressive occupying power. One has to wonder why.

I am reminded of a recent “tweet” that asks why a prominent politician is tweeting terrible racism, and suggests that the deflection is to stop people paying attention to something worse – the statutory rape of underage girls.  Here the rabbinic tradition has a clear story of strong young single women in public space, helping each other with their clothing and “seductively” dancing and singing among the grape vines, with their symbolism of wine and wealth and fertility. So immediately there is a deflection – Beitar! Bnot Zelophehad! Possibly the darkest story in bible of a young concubine gang raped and murdered, whose fate was to be cut into twelve pieces each of which was sent to one of the tribes of Israel! Sin and death and lying in the grave! Rebellion and Massacre!

It seems to me that the Tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnah, c50-200CE) were fine with the celebrations of Tu b’Av and the fact of young girls out on a summer evening enjoying their bodies, their strength and their music, but the Amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemara c200-500CE) were decidedly not. So Tu b’Av became a date more often ignored than celebrated. The single attention was liturgical – Tachanun (the penitential section of prayers of supplication and confession) are not said on Tu b’Av. Only since the modern State of Israel has been established has Tu b’Av been celebrated – it has become a kind of Jewish “Valentine’s Day”, a day for love, for weddings, for romance. The 19th century Haskalah poet Judah Leib Gordon wrote about its celebration in the newly planted vineyards and certainly for the more secular Israelis this is a Jewish festival to take to their hearts.

It’s worth noting the framing of the Mishnah where Tu b’Av is recorded. It is mentioned in the same breath as the most solemn day in the calendar – Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the white fast. On this day people traditionally wear kittels – the white shrouds they will be buried in. The day is a day of joy as well as penitence, because when we have truly repented, God will forgive us. We leave the day lightened by our activities and return more able to continue with living our lives.

There are real similarities between the two festivals, albeit one is a day out of time “as if dead” and the other a day of sensuous delight. Each reminds us of the importance of living our lives as fully and as well as we can. Each reminds us about living” in the now”, each helps us create our future selves.

So – let’s reclaim Tu b’Av, the full moon that follows three weeks of mourning,  that takes place 6 days after the blackest day in the calendar. Let’s remind ourselves that life must continue, joy must be part of our living, that relationships with others matter and that the future is ours to create

Tetzaveh:

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)