Vayelech: the time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our choices is upon us. or: the bnei mitzvah of the people of Israel

Eight years ago one of my dearest friends was about to be seventy years old, and she decided to celebrate this momentous and biblical age by having her batmitzvah. I had tried to persuade her to do this for years and she had brushed me off; it is typical of her that she made her choice by herself on a date that had such resonance, and then throw herself into study and thinking for herself.  We talked a little about the date and the sidra, and then she chose to direct her own study and do her own research. Luckily she sent me a near final draft. I say luckily because she never read this drasha or celebrated that long awaited day, for with everything planned and organised and ready to go, she suffered a cataclysmic and sudden bereavement and the weekend was taken over instead with grief and shock and the arrangements to honour the dead.

We spoke a while afterwards about her celebrating her batmitzvah on a different date but we both knew that was not really going to happen. The anticipated joy would never be the same, the shadow of grief never quite left her, and she too would depart this world suddenly and unexpectedly and quite dramatically, leaving the rest of us a small flavour of the shock she had experienced on the day of her birthday batmitzvah, to grieve and to question, and to process the reality of what happens when a life is torn from the world without warning.

Checking my computer recently, and thinking also of her as I do at this time of year, I came across an email where she had sent me this draft of the drasha she was to give to the community she had been at the heart of for so many years. With the permission of her children, I want to share it here.

“Vayelech is the shortest parsha in the Torah. It is 30 verses long, and I don’t recall ever hearing it read. In non-leap years like this one it is linked with Nitzavim. When I read Nitzavim-Vayelech they held together. They are followed next week by Ha’azinu which, when I looked it up I discovered is one the 10 Shirot [songs] conceived or written as part of the Almighty’s pre-Creation preparations. The only one still to be written is the song we will sing when the Messiah comes. 

We are coming to the end of the Torah. This name, given to the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is better translated as Teaching. We are coming to the end of the month of Elul the month in which we begin to prepare for the approaching High Holy Days, and in the coming week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah which in turn is followed by the 10 days of penitence and Yom Kippur. Then in roughly a month’s time on Simchat Torah we will finish reading the Teaching, the end of Deuteronomy, and seamlessly begin Bereishit – Genesis – again. 

Vayelech must contain the most important rite of passage in the whole history of our planet. But we will come to that.  

Israel is camped in its tribal groups on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to cross. The preceding parsha, Nitzavim, tells of Moses addressing the whole of Israel, in preparation for entering the land God has promised them. He reminds them they are standing before God, and is clear that every person is included in this relationship.

 [my son] tells me I can tell one joke… a clear example of don’t do as I do, do as I say …but I have two, and we will come to the second soon. A very good friend sent me a card, writing in it “I saw this, and thought of you.” The cartoon was a line drawing of 2 dogs, the larger one saying: “I understand more commands than I obey.” I hope you agree with me, that this is arguable!

Moses and God know from experience that the Children of Israel will fail to follow God’s Teaching. 

Moses warns those listening to him that the consequences of disobedience will be that the land will become desolate, but mitigates this by prophesying they will make t’shuvah, return to the right way, and God will reconcile with them and bring them back.

 And he says something that has always troubled me:  that the commandment he is giving to them and so to us “is not beyond you, or too remote. Not in Heaven, or across the sea. It is very close to you… in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.”

 What I have never been sure of is what this is, what it is that is in my heart, and in my mouth?  Not the 10 Commandments – too many!    And not the 613 mitzvot buried in the text. And then the man who is not my chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said quite plainly on radio 4, no less, what it is, even quoting where I should find it. It is found in Genesis chapter 18, vv 17 – 19, where God is choosing Abraham because he deals with his household with Tzedakah and Mishpat:  two words which together give the meaning of justice tempered with mercy. This is how we hope God will deal with us on Yom Hakippurim.

 And finally Moses said that we have a choice, God has given us the choice of life and death – blessing and curse. We should choose to love God and walk in God’s path and keep God’s commandments. And just as the penalties for not doing so have been listed, the rewards of obeying are explained. 

What we have been told is that all Israel is equally bound by this covenant, regardless of social position or occupation. And that even if we disobey God’s Laws there can be future redemption.

Further, we know that obedience to God’s Laws is within our scope. 

And also that we are to have that freedom to choose that sets us apart from the animals.

 And then we come to today’s portion, .Vayelech “And he went” which is the beginning of the rite of passage for the Children of Israel.

 There is to be a change of “Top Management”. This is the day of Moses’s 120th birthday, and Moses has finally accepted that it is also his death day. It’s been hard for Moses to come to terms with his mortality, and he has behaved a little like a child trying to justify not going to bed, not just yet. There’s no time to discuss this today, try reading Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews. God has been forbearing with this servant with whom God has been in conversation for the last 40 years.

 In this time the generations born into slavery have died, and the people who are born into freedom have known no other Leader. Moses has taught them, settled disputes, referred knotty halachic problems directly to God, and brought back the answers. It is explained that God will go with them, and lead them across the Jordan. Further, that although Moses may not go, they will have Joshua.

 Moses has been frightened of dying, and the Almighty has shown him Aaron’s painless death. God is giving him the signal honour of dying on the anniversary of his birthday, and although Moses is not to be allowed to cross the Jordan God has taken him to look down upon the land.

 Moses is kept busy on this day – there are the tribes to address, and writing enough copies of the Teaching to give one to each tribe, and lodge one in the Ark of the Covenant. This is talked of as a witness against the people, but I suppose it’s the master copy, and proof of God’s promises and provisions. Moses writes The Scroll to the very end, until it is finished, which is taken to mean that it is prophetic, containing as it does an account of his death. Further, the Almighty gives him a message to deliver, and a song of 43 verses, one of the 10 Shirot, to teach to the people.

  How many people do you think there were, camped by the river? How many going into the Promised Land?

 Jacob went to Egypt with 72 souls in his household. A rabble of 600,000 freed slaves left Egypt – and these were the men of fighting age. Add their relatives – minimally a wife each, one child. – Not parents and siblings – this could cause doubtful accounting – a conservative estimate would be 1,800,000 people. No wonder manna was needed!

Nor was it just Jews who escaped Egypt, plenty of escapee opportunists would have taken the chance, and been the “strangers within your gates” who are to have equality under the covenant with Jacob’s descendants.

 The instruction was given for this to be read every seven years in the shemittah year. All Israel is commanded to gather at Succot in the place God has appointed (eventually the Temple in Jerusalem) and the King read to the people from the Scroll.

 And the chapter ends with the prediction that Israel with turn away from God, and that God’s reaction would be to turn God’s face away from them – but also with the promise that their descendants will not forget the words which will remain in their mouths.

 So what is happening?

 It seems that with the completion of the Torah and our entry into the Promised Land, our Creator considers we are grown up. We have the Torah; we have the record in it of discussions and decisions. We are aware that we can judge matters between human beings – but not matters between human beings and God. We cannot deal with these because it is not our business to govern or over-rule another’s conscience.

 God will not appoint another Moses – there is to be no dynastical continuity. No further theophanies. Israel has become a nation of priests with everyone having access to the Almighty and to God’s mercy.

 And when we begin Genesis all over again, we go back to Creation and the dysfunctional families of Adam and Noah. When we come to Abraham, look out for the Teaching and how it is built on chapter by chapter.

 And where’s the second joke? – listen to the translation.”

Sadly, we never heard the second joke. And the poignancy of some of the comments in the drasha make for difficult reading for those who knew her and knew her later story, though the mischief of her personality comes through this text for me, as does her clear and certain faith in God. This was a woman who, as administrator in the synagogue, would regularly leave open the door to the sanctuary in her office hours “because God likes to go for a walk”, but actually so that visitors would feel able to enter and sit and offer their prayers or order their thoughts. She would tidy up the siddurim and make sure they were properly shelved, saying that upside down books “gave God a headache”, to cover her need to honour God by keeping the synagogue neat. She spent hundreds of hours talking to the lonely, reassuring the frightened, supporting the vulnerable. She spent hundreds of hours creating the databases and systems to ensure that the synagogue ran as effectively as it could. And the roots of all this voluntary caring for the synagogue community was her own life’s struggles and her awareness that if God considers we are grown up now, with equal access to the Almighty and no “top management” to direct us, then we had better get on with it, with the work of creating and sustaining the world with tzedakah and mishpat, with righteousness and justice.

In this period of the Ten Days, as we reflect on the lives we are leading, the choices we are making, and the mortality that will come for us all, either with or without warning, I read her drasha as a modern ”unetaneh tokef”, and, as I was for so many years when I was her rabbi and she my congregant, I am grateful for the learning I had from her.

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017

 

 

 

 

Mishpatim: Torah MiSinai is only one half of the conversation

In parashat Yitro is the climactic coming together of God and the Israelite people as three months after the dramatic exodus from Egypt following signs and wonders, the people are encamped at the foot of Mt Sinai and Moses and God encounter each other once more in order to create the agreement that as long as the people will obey God’s voice and keep the covenant, then they will be God’s special treasure among all the peoples of the earth, and shall become a kingdom of priests to God, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5,6). A period of purification is followed by the majesty of the presence of God, and the words of God are declaimed amid black smoke, thunder and lightning, terrifying the people who declare their willingness to accept the covenant but ask for Moses to be their representative and for them to keep well away from whatever is going on.

The relationship is consummated with words, called in Hebrew the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Statements, which function essentially as the paragraph headings that prescribe the boundaries and the requirements of the relationship.

Like any new relationship, each side views the other as pretty wonderful, there is no need immediately to get into the gritty details of the red lines and the expectations that will make living together successful or not. But soon of course those realities set in and the couple have to ‘talk tachlis’. Hence the detailed miscellany of laws in the following chapters, including a whole sidra named ‘mishpatim’: the laws and rules of the relationship.

This year, I was especially drawn to thinking about the authority of the rules – who gets to decide what they are, who gets to change them, and to ask – how does the relationship evolve?

In Exodus 24 we have insight into the beginning of the ‘tachlis period’. Moses is to come alone to God. There has been some etiquette about introducing the leaders of the people further up the Mountain, but now Moses tells the people all God’s words and the people answer in unified response “all the words which the Eternal spoke we will do”. Then Moses writes down all the words of God (it is not clear where he does this), after which he builds an altar representing the entire people and there is a sacrificial rite, followed by this information “And Moses took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the Eternal has spoken will we do, and we will understand.’ (24:7)

What is this Book of the Covenant? Why does Moses follow his reading – and the people’s oddly worded response – with a ritual where he takes the blood of the previous sacrifice, sprinkles it on the people and tells them ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Eternal has made with you in agreement with all these words.’ We now have a Book of the Covenant (Sefer ha brit) and Blood of the Covenant (dam ha brit) and then suddenly we are in a vision, as the 70 plus elders of Israel find themselves at a feast where they see God standing on a clear sapphire pavement.

Just as suddenly we are out. God tells Moses ‘Come up to Me into the mount and be there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah (teaching) and the commandment (mitzvah)(, which I have written, that you may teach them.’ (v12)

What are these tablets of stone, the Torah and the Mitzvah that Moses is to teach? How do they fit into the covenant? Why then does Moses stay on the mountain after this for forty days and nights, hidden in cloud, leaving his people leaderless and frightened and alone?

The text, like the top of the mountain, is opaque. We cannot understand the encounter, only know that there was indeed such a moment that cemented the relationship between God and Israel, a relationship that might go through many rocky patches and many silences, but which will never actually break. We have a brit, a covenant, and we are tied to each other for eternity.

But what are the parameters of the covenant? What do we have to do? What will we come to understand? And while the existence of the covenant is unchanging, the conditions have clearly developed and altered.

The Talmud sets out the traditional position of the verse asking: What is the meaning of “And I will give you the tablets of stone and the law and the commandment, which I have written so that you can teach them”? “Tablets of stone”-these are the Ten Commandments, “the law” -this is the Torah, “the commandment”- this is the Mishnah,” which I have written”- these are the Prophets and the Writings, “that you may teach them”- this is the Gemara. And it teaches that they were all given to Moses on Sinai (TB Berachot 5a).

This passage is frequently cited as the proof text of Torah miSinai – that God gave to Moses everything that would become Rabbinic Judaism in later years. Either it was given at Sinai or it has no authenticity runs the argument. But surely this cannot be a literal reading of the biblical text, nor a complete reading of the Talmudic one.

The phrase Torah mi Sinai is found only once in Talmudic texts – in the introduction to the Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, where we are told “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”

It is found not at all in Bible, and indeed while the seeds of the idea of divine revelation encompassing the whole of what became Rabbinic/Halachic Judaism can be discerned, they are only in the later books of Chronicles and of Ezra and Nehemiah, books which are generally seen as being written only in the 5th/4th Century BCE. These books use the words haTorah / Torah while earlier books refer always to Torot, a plurality of teachings. The Book of Nehemiah even refers to Ezra reading In the book, in the Law of God, (BaSefer, b’torat Elohim) distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. (8:8,18), and also” Ezra the scribe [was asked] to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Eternal had commanded to Israel”, and so clearly by the early Second Temple period there was a tradition of a Mosaic/divine book of Torah, which is variously described as being the Torah of God or the Torah of Moses, something unknown in earlier biblical texts.

This idea is seized upon by the Rabbis who took for themselves the right to decide not only what the texts would mean, but also used it to assert their authority and control over the people. Hence we have the midrashic text in Leviticus Rabbah (5th Century) ““everything an experienced pupil might ever say to his teacher was revealed to Moses at Sinai.”, and the more worrying Mishnah Sanhedrin (10:1) “…These have no share in the World to Come: One who says that [the belief of] resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, [one who says that] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and one who denigrates the Torah..”

Why did they do this? Was it in order to emphasise the authenticity of their authority post Temple, against the Karaites and the Sadducees and those who wished to continue Priestly authority? This would certainly make sense as they were reinventing what it meant to be Jewish after the central worship authority had disappeared, and a multiplicity of rival claims may have spread the Jewish people too thinly to survive.

But we are in a different world, where literary criticism and scholarship that takes into account the context of a text mean that we can see that Torah miSinai cannot be a literal description of our foundational texts. Even Maimonides, who famously enshrined Torah miSinai into his thirteen principles of faith, would surely have framed those principles differently in modern times, (And one must also take into account the context of those principles that became Yigdal – he was responding to Islamic claims about the superiority of its revelatory texts).

Whatever the Torah of Moses /the Torah of God means, for which the shorthand remains “Torah miSinai”, it has become a barrier for the Jewish people rather than an enabler. People who have good academic understanding in the secular world find the notion of one book literally given at one time on a desert mountain to be improbable, which means that the world of scriptural literalists tries to keep modernity away from ‘their’ Jews, with terrible consequences often. People who seek to understand the text differently are shunned or worse, treated as if they are no longer Jews. And then there is the halachic process, which from being a dynamic and responsive practice has become solidified and deeply unhelpful often, simply because there is nothing ‘miSinai’ that pushes for change.

I love the idea of God speaking with Moses in the presence of the entire people, and that being an inspirational and creative moment that energised the ongoing relationship of God and the Jews. But I hate the idea that the route to the relationship is held in the hands of people with little understanding of modernity or the modern Jewish people and State, who try to excommunicate anyone who challenges or brings in modern ideas from the Covenant and the peoplehood.

It is time to reclaim Torah MiSinai, to go back to that moment where the whole people heard and said, we will do and we will understand, and while they may have deputed Moses to negotiate the contract on their behalf, did not abdicate their own responsibility for being part of the development of what the contract would mean over time.

_Moses_on_Mount_Sinai_Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-1895-1900

Ki Tetzei: whether you believe in the Metzaveh or not, you are not free to walk away from proper behaviour to others

The sidra of Ki Tetzei contains, according to Maimonides, 72 of the fabled 613 commandments in the Torah – on first reading the effect is of an enormous list of apparently haphazard rules ranging from family relationships to the treatment of a judicially executed corpse. From care for animals to cultic prostitution; from financial probity to cloth made from a mixture of wool and linen.

Throughout history Jewish scholars have tried to explain the unified theory of mitzvot; rather like with the laws of physics there is the sense that somehow there is an elegant rationale that, once found, will enlighten us about the world and its meaning. The best try (in my view) is that of Rabbi Pinchas b Hama who wrote (Devarim Rabbah 6:3) that “Wherever you go and whatever you do, pious deeds will accompany you. When you build a new house, make a parapet for the roof. When you make a door write the commandments on the doorposts; when you put on new garments consider from what they are made; when you reap your harvest and forget a sheaf, leave it for the widow, orphaned and the stranger, the vulnerable in your society”

In other words, every aspect of our daily life can be made holy through following these mitzvot – the mundane can be raised to the exceptional, the quality of our lives infinitely changed in these tiny regular incremental actions.

Many years ago studying with Rabbi Hugo Gryn zl I learned about the Shema, the prayer recited morning and evening of each day, for many people the defining prayer of Judaism. It speaks in the first line of the unity of God, and of the relationship of God and Jews. But before it does it demands something else of us – Shema – listen! Pay attention! Hear what is really important!

The first command in the prayer is to love God completely – with heart, spirit and physical strength. Then we are told that God’s commandments should be with us always, spoken of repeatedly to our children, talked about when we sit in our home, when we are walking outside, when we lie down, when we get up. They are to be written upon our doorposts so that going in and out of our homes we see and are reminded of the requirements of God. And in the Shema too we are told “ukshartam l’ot al yadecha, v’hayu l’totafot beyn eynecha” you shall hold fast to them as a sign upon your hands and they will be (reminders) before your eyes. The line has been understood to be the source of the practise of placing tefillin – small leather boxes containing some prayers – on the head and hand during the weekday morning prayer as an aid to remembering, but Rabbi Gryn had a different view – he understood it to say “in everything your hand touches and everything your eye sees you must respond to the requirements of God.”

If we really fulfil the commandment of ‘Shema’, then no part of our life is exempt from the dictates of holiness. We cannot be pious in the synagogue but not at home or at work. We cannot care about the humanity of the people we like but not that of those we dislike or disagree with. We cannot do the technical bare minimum to fulfil our obligations to society and consider our job well done. As another part of this sidra says – lo tuchal le’hitalem– You are not able to/ must not remain indifferent.

In this sidra too is the commandment to wear tzitzit – the knotted threads on the edges of some garments, most usually seen today on the tallit, which are the physical reminders that we have regular and routine obligations as Jews. Our obligation to love God is played out in our world – how we relate to others, how we care for the vulnerable, how we manage risk, how we nurture good values. The traditional unified theory of mitzvot is based on an unquestioned acceptance of the Metzaveh – the One who commands – that is God. In today’s world that understanding does not work so well – there are many who find such faith impossible or even undesirable. And yet the value of the system of mitzvot remains powerful – Judaism has never asked what you believe, but demands that you behave according to its belief. Lack of faith in God is no excuse for lack of proper behaviour towards others.

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

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

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

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

ketubah cropped shavuot

Parashat Yitro : The process of Revelation, the giving and the accepting.

Famously in bible the Jews are given Torah at Sinai, and while the exact experience of what happens and in what order is hard to follow in the text, three times the words of God are put before the Jewish people and three times they respond to Moses:  

The first report comes in Exodus 19:7-8 where we are told “And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Eternal had commanded them. And all the people answered together and said “all that the Eternal has spoken we will do. And Moses reported the words of the people to God.” 

It is not clear if “all the people” described here are really all the people, or their representatives, but the response is clear – “everything God has said, we will do: na’asseh”.

But later, after the giving of the Ten Commandments and the beginning of their explication in the chapters that follow, we are told this:  “And to Moses God said Come up to the Eternal, you and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel;  and worship at a distance. And Moses alone shall come near to God, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people go up with him. And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Eternal, and all the rules, and all the people answered with one voice and said “All the words which the Eternal has spoken, we will do : na’asseh” (Exodus 24:1-4)

And a few verses later we are told “And [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read in the hearing of the people, and they said “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do and we will hear: na’asseh venishma”

This repetition of the transmission of the covenant described in different ways leads us to some interesting places. The phrase “na’asseh venishma” is curious for a number of reasons, not least the meaning of the word nishma here, and of course the word order.  The root shema (shin mem ayin) primarily means to hear, to listen, to pay attention, and goes on to have a meaning of to understand, even to consent to, to agree, to obey…. 

Usually translated as “we will do it and we will understand”, the word order echoes a modern understanding of learning – ie that learning or understanding emerges from action, rather than the other way around.  In the words of Pablo Picasso, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it”. From this strange word order comes the Jewish tradition of action first – that we don’t have to spend time studying or learning before doing the mitzvot, we don’t have to wait to act until we have a fully researched position, but our actions lead to our understanding of the world, and deepen our thinking.  This is much the same way that prayer works. By the act and process of regular prayer, of reciting or meditating upon ancient words, we find ourselves on occasion in the presence of God. In my experience it rarely happens the other way about, that, finding ourselves aware of the Divine, we utter our prayer. The routine of prayer, the regularity and even the almost mantra like poetry of the words and the rote action lead us to another level of awareness sometimes. It acts upon us and seeps into us and changes us.

Na’asseh venishma –it is usually understood to mean that we act before we might have fully worked out all the consequences. It is traditionally understood to mean that we are a religion of doing rather more than one of believing. That our understanding of, and relationship with, God emerges from our right behaviour in the world. I must admit this makes sense to me, resonates with my own experience of mitzvot and of prayer.  

But there is something else. Three times the revelation is presented before the people it seems, and twice only the response “na’asseh” is given. The first time, before the Ten Commandments are spoken, the revelation seems to be given specifically via the elders. It is accepted as a commitment – na’asseh, we will do it.

The second time the revelation is presented is after the Ten Commandments are spoken, but again we are reminded of the leadership’s attendance, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders are nearby, even though only Moses is in the presence of God.  Again the response is na’aseh, we will do it.

But the third time it is different –this time the relationship between God and people is not mediated through a leadership, but Moses reads the Book of the Covenant to all the people, and then they reply with this curious phrase “na’asseh venishma”. What is being added to the agreement to act? Is it truly knowledge and understanding? Is it compliance and obedience? Or is it the openness to committing at a deeper level? Not the intellectual expertise that grows from repeated doing, but the relationship that is created from an ongoing commitment to simply be there, attentive, part of the other person’s world.  Once the people are engaged directly, it seems to me that they not only agree to the Covenant being presented to them, they additionally agree to the relationship that will emerge from this Covenant being enacted, that the Covenant in effect will become part of them.

We live in a world where we pride ourselves on being rational, thought-through, evidence based. We don’t act without forethought, without awareness of consequences. We would rather overthink than reach out impulsively. We are cautious, careful, watchful. And yet at Sinai we see something different – the willingness to take on trust, the preparedness to take the next step without knowing what it might entail, the openness to whatever will grow and emerge that is out of our ability to control. It is the paradigm for any loving relationship, the model for any creative endeavour. It bespeaks hope and it bespeaks a kind of confidence that whatever comes our way we will be able to negotiate through it. That to me is the miracle of Sinai. Not the shaking mountain or the smoke and shofar, but the way that God and Moses learn to stop using a hierarchy and engage directly with the people, and the way the people respond by throwing their lot in with God and Moses. Clearly both sides take a risk and step into the unknown.

It is said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty and here there is no certainty. There is only the openness that what will be will be a journey worth embarking upon. A journey and an openness to possibility that marks us even now – for as the Midrash tells us, we all stand at Sinai.

Parashat Mishpatim. What is the purpose of mitzvot?

This sidra follows on from the dramatic events at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Aseret Hadibrot – the Ten Statements, and in effect it fills in the detail missing from those headline legal principles. Mishpatim means ‘laws’ or ‘rulings’ and they will govern the community who agree to accept them. And what a curious collection they are. Of the more than fifty mitzvot to be found in the sidra, we have some that deal with the treatment of slaves, with the crimes of murder and kidnap, with personal injury and with civil damages through neglect or theft. There are rules about witchcraft and idolatry, about oppression and unfair business practise, about applying legal codes in a prejudiced fashion and not giving false testimony; laws about not mistreating widows and orphans, and about care for animals.

The most frequent mitzvah in Torah, given at least 37 different times in the text, is repeated here too – “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Israel.”

 There are rules about the Sabbath, about the sabbatical year and about the three pilgrim festivals of Succot, Shavuot and Pesach.

It is a mishmash of a legal code but what comes through loud and clear to the reader is the importance to the Jewish people of mitzvot, commandments.

From Torah we see that for the ancient people there were particular reasons for observing the mitzvot – firstly and most importantly because God tells us to. Secondly there was in the ancient understanding an idea that people who obeyed them would be rewarded, and people who disobeyed risked punishment. Then there were two different types of reason given in Torah – that the mitzvot were intrinsically imbued with divine wisdom, and that they would lead us to achieving holiness.  

Interestingly while Judaism teaches that mitzvot are divinely ordained and therefore not to be questioned or even necessarily understood, it does at the same time try to explain them as a rational force, and many commentators suggest reasons for our doing them. We are told: – “The essential reason for the commandments is to make the human heart upright” ( ibn Ezra on Deut 5:18); or “Each commandment adds holiness to the people of Israel.” (Issi ben Akavia,  Mechilta on Ex 22:30); or even that “The purpose of the mitzvot is…to promote compassion, loving kindness and peace in the world” (Maimonides, yad, Shabbat)

So there is a tension in our tradition – do we do the commandments (mitzvot) simply because there is a Commander (metzaveh) who told us to do this and this should be enough, or do we search out a meaning behind each mitzvah? And if we do the latter, what happens if we cannot find a suitable reason and meaning? Do we abandon the mitzvah as unreasonable or pointless? Or do we continue to do it in the hope that meaning will emerge? After all, at Sinai the people famously answered “na’aseh ve’nishma, [first] we will do it and [subsequently] we will understand”.

The tension and balancing between holding a religious belief and a rationalist position was as great in the ancient world as it is today. Blind faith was never a prerequisite of a Jewish life and one could argue that the story of the Akedah (the story of the binding of Isaac) is as much polemic against such a narrow devotion as it is against child sacrifice. After all, Abraham never again talks to God, to his wife, nor to his son after his extreme ‘obedience’ to God’s will. Yet clear understanding of the meaning of what we do is not the great goal either – if we only behaved in a way we understood and could defend rationally we would find our lives impoverished and diminished beyond all imagination. Blaise Pascal had it right when he said “If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous . . . There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.” (from Pensees)

Judaism tends to the position of na’aseh ve’nishma – doing in order to understand, blending faith and reason and giving neither the upper hand, but instead knowing that if we behave “as if” we believe, if we follow the way of mitzvot, then further understanding may come. Meanwhile we are impacting on ourselves and on our world in a positive way as we are directed to behaviour that may not be our first instinct – to support the poor and downtrodden, to value life, to respect the boundaries of others, to rein in our own power and desires so as not to trample over the lives of others. The list goes on.  

As tradition says again and again in different words, the same message:  “the commandments were given only to refine God’s creatures…”(Midrash Tanchuma). They change us, they cause us to think about what we are doing and not to act out of immediate self interest, they shape our behaviour and ultimately they may help us to bring holiness into our world. 

 

 

Yitro

The sidra that contains the Asseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments, is named for a non Jew, a pagan priest, a man who is grandfather to Moses’ sons and who teaches Moses about the importance of Justice not being delayed. He is also the man who recognises that the God of the Hebrews is the most powerful of all gods. And yet this man walks away just before the moment when the collective People of Israel is formed by the creation of its covenant with God. He, whose name means ‘abundance’ or ‘plenty’ seems to walk out of history and yet we remember him and all he did for Moses, we honour his name in the very sidra where God meets and forms the unbreakable covenant bond with the Jewish people.  Without Yitro, his care and protection, his teaching of religious rituals, Moses may never have come to understand what he saw at the burning bush, and Israel may never have understood what happened at Sinai, and yet Yitro himself did not seem to need this relationship – as a priest himself he clearly had his own connection with God.

When God does speak to Israel, we immediately face a curiosity in the text, for the word God begins with is strange – The introduction of God to the people is with the word:  “I am”  but using a rare four letter root “Anochi” instead of the more usual word “Ani”. The Talmud has a beautiful explanation for why God is using such a strange word to introduce God to the people:- Rabbi Yochanan explains that this word must be an acronym  for Ana Nafshi Ketovit Yehovit  – which means “I wrote My very soul and gave it to you” or “I am giving you My soul in writing” (Shabbat 105a).

The Ten Commandments are neither ten, nor are they commandments. They are, as the Hebrew nomenclature makes clear to us, statements. Some of them could be understood to be commandments, and indeed the famous biblical commentator Rashi sees them as the basic categories for the 613 commandments traditionally said to be in Torah, but to see them only as demands on us would be to miss out on the richness of the event.

Traditional commentators wrestle with the notion of commandments, and what it means for our ongoing understanding of God. Some say that the word “Anochi” might be said to be a commandment (Know that I am God), but equally others claim that it couldn’t yet be a commandment, as to be commanded one must first believe in (or at least acknowledge) a commander, and the speaking of the word Anochi therefore can only be the first moment of such understanding, and therefore the prerequisite to the mitzvot. Only if one believes in the existence of God can the further teachings of God have meaning.

So ‘Anochi’ is really a portal into relationship with God, it is the liminal moment when we understand that God exists. This cannot be commanded, it must be experienced in some way by the soul who chooses to do so. A colleague told me recently that during her rabbinic training she confided to one of her teachers that she was finding herself unexpectedly moved, gripped by she knew not what. The response “If you show an interest you will be taken seriously” was, she said, the most frightening thing she ever heard, and one that has stayed with her to this day. She had entered the portal of “Anochi”, had understood that when studying Torah she encounters God’s soul in writing.

There is so much more to mitzvot than “the ten commandments”, so much more to how we are in the world than “good behaviour” or kindness or charity to others. Once you search for “Anochi” seriously, you will be taken seriously and you will see the world through different lenses and over a different timeframe.  My guess is that Yitro had already done this in his own way, he did not need Sinai, he was already in his own particular relationship with God, his life was yeter, more than enough, filled with its own meaning and understanding.  But he opened the portal for us to find our way, our Jewish way.  For each of us must find God, and make our relationship with God, in our own way, and each must understand that “Anochi” has many ways of relationship just as there are many different peoples of the world.