Saturday, August 11, 2012

Parashat Ekev 5772

In courses given at the religious studies departments of many universities, one is taught that all religions seek to reassure people from their greatest fears. On the whole, one can observe that religions promise that, providing people obey the rules dictated in the holy text, they will survive – in the short term by having enough to eat, enough food for themselves and their families, in the sense that their fields will be fertile and provide a good harvest, and their flock will reproduce well and provide more meat for them and in the long term because their God promises that their blood-line will survive down the generations, the god promises that they themselves will also be fertile.

It is repeated over and over in the Tanach that God will provide food and fertility. In Ekev in particular, the promise appears right at the start, in Chapter 7. Here’s a quote: “The Lord will multiply you and bless the fruit of your body and fruit of your land, your corn and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the young of your flock in the land which He promised your father to give to you.”

It is ironic that I am married to an arch-atheist who at this very moment is having to demonstrate scientifically that our first and foremost interest during this life is to keep ourselves safe and sound, and if possible, to have children ourselves or support others close to us in having them. Some would say that this is common sense, but in academic circles this comes under the heading of evolutionary psychology. The question has arisen in this last week. Very suitable for Parashat Ekev.

In the following chapter of the parashah, chapter 8, the tone changes: the first verse is a reminder that there are commandments to be obeyed. The next one that God is responsible for the trials that befell the Bnei Israel these 40 years past in the desert: for the suffering that they endured. These trials are sent so that God may know how we perform under difficult conditions. Will we continue to carry out the commandments? God is responsible for the bad experiences such as the hunger as well as for the manna which came from the sky. He will chastise us – chastise us lovingly, but punish us nevertheless: God-caused suffering. Verse 6 is another reminder of the commandments to be kept. Then follows a reiteration of all the good things that God will make happen, the water, the wheat, the barley, the vine, fig trees and pomegranates, olive-trees and honey. Plenty.

Verse 11: again, a reminder not to forget God’s commandments. Followed by a listing of all the good things about to happen, the herds multiplying, the houses built, the hunger satisfied, and a warning in verse 14 “lest your heart grow haughty” - Do not forget the God who brought you out of Egypt! A reminder of the hardships of the wanderings in the desert, and finally the verse this drashah is about: verse 17 reads: “And you will say to yourself: It is my own strength and the might of my hand which have accumulated this wealth for me”.

In other words, I and I alone have created the situation I am in – all is well with me and truly it is because of my own efforts that it is so. I have overcome the difficulties and I deserve the reward. Whereas everything written shows you that God is the one who has created both the blessings and the curses.

The warning that this self-centered way of thinking is wrong exists in a more extreme fashion elsewhere: the prophet Ezekiel describes Pharaoh as “the great serpent who couches in the midst of his streams, who says: My river is my own, and I have made myself”. Here is a complete denial of any causal agent outside the self. The evil embodied by Pharaoh lies first and foremost in his egocentricity.

This arrogance is something that can arise easily in less extreme forms,; it is a natural way to think, for we all do it to some extent, unless we strive to avoid it or are indeed very wise and humble, like Moses. It is observable in every culture. When all is well with us, when we succeed in life, we are convinced that it is entirely thanks to our own efforts, and we minimize in our own minds the events which are beyond our control, such as sun, water and fertile land and the contributions others may have made to our success.

Maybe we graciously thank them, outwardly acknowledging them, all the while thinking “But really, if it had not been for me, none of this would have happened”. It is an all too human scenario. And it may be true, indeed we may have made a most important contribution.

But those who are on the outside, observing, may see, on the other hand – that this person was born with great gifts or maybe simply one great gift, think of a great musician for instance – and without those gifts he or she would not have succeeded. It could be that this person was born into a family which recognized the gift and did its best to foster it. And then maybe the society was a society which in turn valued people who are gifted and enabled them to flourish. We are all aware of what happens to the poor women born in countries where they are not allowed to leave home, who are prevented from having access to education and training of any kind. To live in New Zealand is a blessing, indeed in most democratic countries, except maybe for some of the poor European ones, today. That we live in a country which is at peace and allows us to flourish. (Who was to know that Greece would descend into turmoil?) That our sons and daughters are not obliged to risk their lives in order to defend our borders. That most of us enjoy some measure of healthcare which enables us to live to ripe old age.

All these things are by and large not in our control. When my great-grandmother was my age, she was a little old lady who wore only black and was quite fragile. She was truly elderly. And here I am, big and strong, and expecting according to statistics to live another 20 years. Not because I am a better person, it is just that I live in a century which has not been decimated by war twice, I have never gone hungry and medicine has greatly progressed. Some would say we are lucky, others would thank God. Our lives are the result of a multiplicity of actions by those whom we know and by many whom we don’t. There is a lot to be grateful for. And suddenly something can go terribly wrong and we find ourselves in the midst of disaster, as happened to all those who were in Christchurch last year.

I was reminded of the serpent in the river very recently. We were at dinner with a group of friends – most of them not from our congregation – and we were talking about the rising inequality in our society. We were all in agreement that the middle classes were increasingly impoverished, that the poor were even poorer and that the 1% were enjoying an huge income at the expense – literally – of everyone else. One of our number could indeed be counted among that 1%, and as you would expect he is a confident chap who does not hesitate to express his views. He said that he could see nothing wrong with inequality. Opposite him sat one very clever man and next to him sat another. A quiet and intense debate took place and an attempt was made to clarify for him how badly things will go for our society if we revert to the situation which existed in the 19th century, when a few people were extremely rich – and others worked a full working day and did not earn enough to feed their families. It became clear in the conversation that the problem for our rich friend was that he felt entitled to all the money he made. What is wrong with inequality he asked repeatedly, in aggrieved tones. I remember a well known religious leader stating categorically that it is immoral for a person to be paid too little for them to support themselves in a decent fashion. At the moment, we are watching the prices go up – recently the petrol again, - and the people who do not earn much or who are on the benefit suffer the most. The conversation turned towards the French revolution, which was triggered by the high price of bread. It was to no avail: we could not make our friend see the wrongs of the situation. He was an embodiment of verse 17 of Ekev: “And you will say to yourself: “It is my own strength and the might of my hand which have accumulated this wealth for me”. Therefore he feels entitled to it. He has forgotten that he has been blessed in many ways.

The translation just quoted is not a literal one. Literally the Hebrew says “And you will say in your hearts".
Why "in your hearts"?

Someone might say that it does not matter what happens in a person’s heart, it is what they say out loud that matters. If you don’t actually say it, you’ll harm no one…In his short article on this topic, Levi Atson writes about politicians: they are careful of their every word so as to say only things which are acceptable, which are politically correct. Except for the slip of the tongue when they actually say what they think,  and all is revealed, the end of a promising career.

Levi Atson writes: “Racism, hate, bigotry, and gossip should be deleted way before the words take the train to the microphone. For once they sit at the station of the mind, it is too late; the train is about to come. And then, there is no turning back.” (Levi Atzon on )

It is important to notice one’s own thoughts, to be aware when they stray too far into arrogance and self-righteousness, to let those thoughts go and remind ourselves that we are not the authors of our own well-being. It is difficult to see where exactly our contribution lies and where the contribution of all the countless people who have fashioned our lives - those who have loved us, nurtured us, taught us, healed us, and also those who have hurt us and harmed us - they may well be the same ones. And what the contribution is of genetics and the weather and events happening far from here or in Parliament down the road.

Our world is one enormous web of interconnectedness over time and space and everyone belongs to it. We cannot hope to understand it or grasp it with our little minds.

So we say Baruch atah Adonai for everything, and in particular for this lovely Shabbat morning.

I wish you Shabbat shalom!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Parashat Pinchas 5772

Parashat Pinchas has three main parts: the story of Pinchas the zealot who murders Zimri and the Medianite, and is deemed to have done a good thing – how is that possible? Then there a part which is admin: the counting of heads, the census of Bnei Israel - which is the second counting to take place in this book, it is not called Numbers for nothing. And the last part is about the sharing out and distribution of the Land to the Bnei Israel.

Having read the parashah, which did not inspire me, there came to mind the fact that my friend Judith Clearwater, in her book Still dreaming, published a drashah on parashat Pinchas. It seemed worth while checking out what she had found to say about it.

 In her drashah, she discusses a turning point in her way of life: she had decided to pull out of some of the things she was doing, to do less. She had sat down and written letters and felt guiltyabout letting people down, and then felt much better once it was done. And that of course is why the drashah must have come to my mind, because that is exactly where I am at right now.

Some of you may be aware that a new editor is being sought for the Bulletin. In Judith’s case, she was quitting because of ill-health. In my case, my health is good and there has been no actual crisis. Rather, it seemed that the Bulletin had grown and the work seemed to take up more and more energy, so that I wasn’t up to doing much on non-Bulletin days. Editing the Bulletin is an enjoyable experience, and an absorbing one. So absorbing that other matters fell by the wayside. Because of that, the time has arrived to do what those Olympic athletes are doing in the UK at the moment - passing the torch from one to another in the lead-up to the games. So now we are looking for another person to take over, and the Bulletin will change again and become a reflection of a different point of view.

What struck me particularly from the vantage point of  the editor was how active our community is and how gifted our members. At first I thought of these events as unique – a book launch, a play, a study group, a poetry group, a baby group, the Klezmer Rebs, Temple Caterers, the annual seder, our bnei mitzvah, articles written  – all these different ways in which people dedicate themselves to something, and perform in ways which affect the rest of us, improving our lives. It was impressive. And then I realised that these events kept coming – there were always more. New people popped up doing different things. The Board changed. The volunteers varied. There was yet again something newsworthy to report, something to be proud of.

Another lesson was taught me over this period: and that is how much goodness there is around, how much people do for each other in quiet ways. It is a bit ant-like in that the individual effort appears small and hardly noticeable at the individual level, but when you have a whole congregation where giving a helping hand is highly valued and tends to happen naturally, it is awe-inspiring to observe, and a privilege to be in a position to witness it during these five years. Our newspapers focus a great deal on what is wrong and harmful in our society – and that is to some extent necessary. It does tend to create in our minds the feeling that the world out there is evil and many people are bent on harm. From the vantage point of an editor, one can see that this is not the case…
I am sure that someone will be found to continue the newsletter and that someone will give it a new form – it will be fun to watch it evolve.

And now to the parashah: the parashah says simply that Pinchas killed Zimri and his Medianite concubine Cozbi bat Tzur. . And then, very surprisingly,  Adonai granted him peace.

The Talmud gives more background to this: Bnei Israel, and the tribe of Shimon in particular, were seduced by Medianite women who were prostituting themselves. Zimri was the chief of the simeonites. People were upset by this behaviour and did not know what to do. In a misguided effort to assert that all was well, and that this was acceptable behaviour, Zimri took the Medianite princess into his tent as a concubine. And Moses did nothing about it. Torah law does not provide for conventional, court-induced punishment for such an offender. However, a law does exist that gives license for "zealots to smite” those who consort with idolatresses. So Zimri was deserving of death according to the Torah. The sentence is not entrusted to the normal judiciary process – it is up to the zealots. 

The commentaries say that the motives of the zealot who takes unilateral action are all-important. In this case he commits a double murder.

Is he acting out God’s wishes, or is he a violent man pretending to be holy? The true zealot is a selfless individual – do we believe such people exist?   If they do, they must be rare. A commentary by an Israeli academic calls Pinchas a great man, because  Pinchas was utterly taken over by pristine, pure religious intention. A normal person would have personal prejudices and inclinations in this matter and therefore ceases to qualify for zealotry. This is confusing. Maybe a zealot performs this murder without anger, calmly, because it needs to be done? No hate, no rage. This is a different act from that performed by suicide bombers who kill themselves in the process, who are encouraged to kill for a reward…

Judaism abhors murder; Judaism abhors killing. The Israeli Courts of law do not order the killing of a man proven to be guilty of murder , except in very rare circumstances. The sage Maimonides said that it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death. Anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof until we would be convicting on a mere whim.

The threshold to proving that someone has committed a murder is very high, there have to have been witnesses who saw the person do it, who heard him say that he was going to do it. So Jewish courts of law only rarely condemn a person to death – in my lifetime it happened as most of you know in Eichmann‘s case. Eichmann was found to be one of the main architects of the Holocaust, responsible for millions of deaths.
This law about smiting the infidels, belongs to a special category, the category of laws that are not taught. These are laws we are “not instructed to perform”. Many laws instruct us what not to perform, but here it is a  law we are not instructed to perform.

If Pinchas had asked for permission to kill Zimri, no one would have granted it. He was allowed to do it, but he had to give himself that permission, he had to break the law against murder all by himself. “The action  is directed entirely at eradicating evil in the name of Heaven. Only under such circumstances is this forbidden act which normally causes impurity transformed to an act which sanctifies.”

G-d said: he  has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. By killing the two, Pinchas stopped a plague that had begun to rage as the result of G-d's wrath against His people. The plague was a plague of immorality.

And G-d said:  "I hereby give him My covenant of peace.”

Just as a man owes gratitude and favor to someone who did him a favor, so here G-d expressed to Pinchas His feelings of peace. (Rashi) G-d says (Torah):”It shall be for him and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of kehunah, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel." The word kehunah means priesthood.

Pinchas had not been anointed as a priest prior to this event. He belonged to the right tribe, as he was Aaron’s grandson. But until that moment, only the older generations had been anointed. Pinchas was made a priest at the moment when he killed Cozbi, because he was a zealot who killed two people for the sake of G-d.

This is very difficult to take on board, and despite working on it and reading about it, I still don’t understand it. What Pinchas did came from a place of wisdom most of us do not know and may never attain. After studying this, it seemed best to say, I don’t understand, and to keep in mind the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” plain and simple. The commandments exist because transgression comes easily to us. We read about murders in the newspaper at almost any time. If it were not so easy to kill, the commandment would not be relevant. This is the law which is taught to us.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Emor 5772 / 2012

Parshat Emor

May 2012

The Hebrew word kadosh, as you no doubt know, means sacred, holy. In the initial chapter of this parashah, words based on the root kadash occur frequently – where Moses and Aaron are told about the priesthood, who can qualify to be a priest, a Cohen and what issues might prevent a person from being one.

First of all they have to be male. Then they must be a descendant of Aaron. This means that Moses himself was not in a position to become a priest, even though he spoke to G-d face to face.

The main issue here is about what is holy and what is not. There are several words that occur over and over again here. The word for holy  appears in many variations. Then there are the words for not-holy, such as tameh and chalul.

The word tameh is often translated as impure. That actually may not do justice to its true meaning. Much has been written about this meaning of tameh, and the simplest interpretation may be to say not-holy. When we use the word impure, we imply something negative, something bad. But that is not the case here. It is as if we said the word up is good, and down is bad.

It is like a light switch – is there any moral value to it being up or down? The position of the light switch is up when we need the light on or down when we no longer need it. This is the kind of difference between kadosh and tameh. These words are very similar to the words tapu and noa in Maori.

There is another word that is used here and that is chalul, which has more of the meaning of a blemish, which means pierced, defiled. The paragraphs go to and fro between holy and not-holy, saying that the priest is supposed to be holy, sacred, and he can’t be holy or sacred if he goes near dead bodies, or marries a certain kind of woman, such as a woman who has been married before and is now single again – either because she is now a widow or because she is divorced.

So we learn that the Cohanim, the priests, are to form an elite with special rules of conduct that do not apply to ordinary people, to the rest of bnei Israel.

For us, inclusiveness is an important value. And much of what is in the Torah is about inclusiveness. Except that here we have the deliberate creation of a caste, whose work brings them closer to G-d than the rest of bnei Israel. It is not democratic, we would say it is not fair. There is no discussion about people’s moral behaviour or how good they are to deserve this honour. On the contrary, it is all an accident of birth, due to being a descendant of Aaron’s.

Things become really distasteful to us, with our 21st century Western world view, in verses 18, 19 and 20 – which list the blemishes which are unacceptable in a Cohen who is to practice the rituals around the sacrifices in the Temple on behalf of bnei Israel. There are many of them – a rash of any kind on one’s skin, or a wound that has not yet healed, anyone who has one arm longer than the other or limps, or has something wrong with his eyes… Verse 21 concludes these descriptions and adds No man of the seed of Aaron the priest that has a blemish shall come near to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire. He has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God.

This is very painful, particularly if you yourself or someone you love has such a blemish. This list is cruel. We are all imperfect, and some of these imperfections are visible ones. The Torah seems to reject people in a most public way.

This appears to be the same rule of perfection which applies to the animals brought to sacrifice. They must be perfect as well. Only the best will do. We don’t have difficulty with that: If you are going to offer something to G-d, it should be the best there is. We evaluate animals according to their bodies. Surely that should be different from the way we evaluate our fellow human beings. So how come the Torah puts the same kinds of demands on the priests as on the animals about to be slaughtered? Where is the injunction to be kind to others, to treat them as we would like to be treated ourselves?  We suffer from being imperfect, most of us try to overcome our faults.
The classic explanation for this - which comes from the Chabad website - and which they call the Classic Explanation – that explanation teaches that the Cohen represents the people to G‑d. However, he also represents G‑d to the people. In this second role, it is vital that he be “perfect,” without spiritual or physical imperfections. This explanation resonates with a world that considered physical deformities as blemishes, and felt that such people could not assume positions of leadership.

The Chassidic Rabbis also say that according to the Zohar, anyone with a disability is born with a higher soul, a more developed soul than a person who is born with a healthy body. What happens if you become disabled later in life, I don’t know. That is something to think about.

The reasoning that reaches this conclusion is intricate and complicated and has to do with the fact that G-d purposefully created an imperfect world. This is a one-sentence summary of a response by Rabbi Eli Popack to a question about this issue, on

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says something else: he says that the ritual of sacrifice is about the soul, about prayer, being in touch with God.  When someone goes up to perform the ritual, the people carrying out the ritual have to be in touch with their spirituality and not be distracted. How does disability distract us? Here is a quote from his drashah – he is talking about Job.
In a series of blows, Job loses everything: his flocks, his herds, his children. Yet his faith remains intact. Satan then proposes subjecting Job to an even greater trial, covering his body with sores.5 The logic of this seems absurd. How can a skin disease be a greater trial of faith than losing your children?

It isn’t. But what the book is saying is that when your body is afflicted, it can be hard, even impossible, to focus on spirituality. This has nothing to do with ultimate truth, and everything to do with the human mind. As Maimonides said, you cannot give your mind to meditating on truth when you are hungry or thirsty, homeless or sick.

In his drashah, Rabbi Sacks teaches an understanding of the Holy – which is difficult to understand.  It seemed best to quote him as he wrote it, though it has been cut a bit to avoid it being too long. Here is how it goes:

G‑d is beyond space and time, yet G‑d created space and time as well as the physical entities that occupy space and time. G‑d is therefore “concealed.” The Hebrew word for universe, olam, comes from the same Hebrew root as ne’elam, “hidden.”.

Yet if G‑d was completely and permanently hidden from the physical world, it would be as if He were absent. From a human perspective, there would be no difference between an unknowable G‑d and a nonexistent G‑d.

Therefore G‑d established the holy as the point at which the Eternal enters time and the Infinite enters space. Holy time is Shabbat. Holy space was the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple.

G‑d’s eternity stands in the sharpest possible contrast to our mortality. All that lives will one day die.

Tum’ah [the fact of being tameh] should therefore not be thought of as “defilement,” as if there were something wrong or sinful about it. Tum’ah is about mortality. Death bespeaks mortality, but so too does birth. A skin disease like tzaraat makes us vividly aware of the body. So does an unusual physical attribute like a misshapen limb. There is nothing wrong about any of these things, but they focus our attention on the physical and are therefore incompatible with the holy space of the Tabernacle, dedicated to the presence of the non-physical, the Eternal Infinite that never dies or decays.

We all know we will one day die, but for the most part we feel part of life. the logic—if logic is the right word—of tum’ah has nothing to do with rationality, and everything to do with emotion Tum’ah means that which distracts from eternity and infinity by making us forcibly aware of mortality, of the fact that we are physical beings in a physical world.

What the Tabernacle represented in space, and Shabbat in time, was quite radical. It was not rare in the ancient world, nor in some religions today, to believe that here on earth everything is mortal. Only in heaven or the afterlife will we encounter immortality. Hence many religions in both East and West have been otherworldly. In Judaism holiness exists within this world, despite the fact that it is bounded by space and time. But holiness, like antimatter, must be carefully insulated. Hence the stringency of the laws of Shabbat on the one hand, the Temple and its priesthood on the other.

The holy is the point at which heaven and earth meet, where, by intense focus and a complete absence of earthly concerns, we open up space and time to the sensed presence of G‑d, who is beyond space and time. It is an intimation of eternity in the midst of life, allowing us at our holiest moments to feel part of something that does not die. The holy is the space within which we redeem our existence from mere contingency, and know that we are held within the “everlasting arms” of G‑d
What caused me to struggle most with this parashah is that it is dualistic: sacred and not sacred, the Cohen and the not Cohen, the acceptable woman and the unacceptable woman, the disabled Cohen and the Cohen who is without disability. Dualism matters because it creates an in-group and an out-group, it opposes inclusiveness, and mostly when you think about it, inclusiveness is what makes the world whole, whereas divisions tend to be harmful, though some division is practical and necessary. For instance, we all agree to divide the streams of traffic on the road, so that one side is for cars going in one direction and the other side is for the cars in the opposite direction. It reduces the chances of accidents.

Here is a quote from Rabbi Sacks’s drashah again:
These laws, together with many others in Leviticus and Numbers—especially the rite of the red heifer, used to cleanse those who had come into contact with the dead—are hard for us to understand nowadays. They already were in the days of the sages. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is famous for saying to his students, “It is not that death defiles, nor that the waters [of the red heifer] purify. Rather, G‑d says, ‘I have ordained a statute and issued a decree, and you have no permission to transgress it.’” The implication seems to be that the rules have no logic. They are simply divine commands.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Parashat Bo - Pesach 2012

The bit of parashat Bo that was read today contains a statement where the Torah relates how G-d smote the Egyptians …Va yehi bachetzi halailah [verse 12:29]. “And it came to pass at midnight that the Lord smote all the first-born…”.

Earlier in the parashah – in the bit before the reading – Moses is quoted as saying, in connection with the same event: “At about midnight – ka chatzot – I will go out into the midst of Egypt…” and he predicts the plague of the first-born – “all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die….”
In connection with this, Rabbi Avivah Zornberg mentions the following Talmudic recommendation in her commentary:‘Teach your tongue to say “I don’t know”, lest you be exposed as a liar’.

It is very heady stuff to be ‘the one who knows’. Not so popular among a person’s friends and relatives, who might call him or her a “know-it-all”. And if they are kind, they might add – “And he - or she - is often right”. Which is of course the person’s un-doing, the bit that keeps  us trapped in this idea that we know  – as mentioned earlier: it is heady stuff, to be in the right.

A visiting friend who lives in France said that her family call her “Madame Je-sais-tout” - Mrs I-know-everything. We both laughed: maybe the fact that there is a name for it in another language reflects how common a failing this is.  But at times, it seems important not to know. When we believe that we know, the idea we have of reality may be skewed. One who knows has erected a barrier to finding out what is happening in fact.Whereas the statement  ‘I don’t know’ implies an open mind. To go back to the parashah: where the Torah mentions when G-d will inflict the plague – the time is given exactly: at midnight.

Moses, talking of the same event says : “At about midnight….”

Before rambling on about this, here is the paragraph in Rabbi Zornberg's book* which caught my attention. She says the essential point about this reading is the precariousness of truth. Truth is a fragile thing, to be handled with care. The handling that is taking place is the talking about it. 

Whenever we open our mouths to speak, we risk being wrong. Moses knows that the plague will strike at midnight, but he says “At about midnight….”

Now some people may be knowingly wrong. When we find out – we may find out some of the time -  we call them liars. Sometimes people are wrong unknowingly, but it may still happen that they are called liars because of it. Certainly they will be less trusted, if only because they did not have the wisdom to acknowledge when they did not know.

So back to Avivah Zornberg: the precariousness of truth. Moses has predicted the plague and she writes
“the slightest of time-gaps – an error of milliseconds in the Egyptian calculation of mean time – will give them grounds to belie Moses’ whole story. Although Moses, and certainly G-d, knows the precise moment of midnight, human language must engage with the approximations and not with the absolute. This is particularly true in speaking about time, where subjectivity is unavoidable.”
And here she mentions the narrative of the night of the plague of the firstborn, the word Ba Chatzi – “at exactly midnight” is used: the narrative is about G-d’s actions and she says the expression describes “the absolute, divine measurement that is beyond human perception”.

She says: “There is no way of absolutely preventing or repudiating the subversive narratives of Egypt…. Moses avoids an arrogant exactness of prediction, he adopts a modest scepticism, which in the Talmud becomes exemplary: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’. …”
The prediction after all had been precise, had it not?
Avivah writes: “The human modesty recommended here takes account of the narratives and probable mis-narratives of others.” You can imagine how, if anything had happened even slightly differently from what was predicted, the Egyptians would pounce and say triumphantly – It is not what you said would happen, you said midnight – well it wasn’t midnight, was it!

There is no way of preventing this – given any chance, events will be misconstrued, and there is no way of overcoming the effect of the misconstruction.
There seems to be wisdom in this – to know that there is nothing to be done, that this is the world we live in – something happens and it may get misconstrued.
Moses was careful not to appear arrogant and a “know it all” – if he’d said “at exactly midnight” he would have been laying the ground for people to jeer and say “Well, was that exactly midnight? I don’t think so!” and ”Who does he think he is? How much control does he believe he has? He speaks as if he himself made the plague happen.” Better to appear a little remote from it. Better to be modest, and not so accurate.

A friend found that she had several house-bound people to visit over a certain period. Except for the first one, she found it an effort to arrive on time – sometimes visits were longer, sometimes shorter, depending on the need.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  These were her friends: she wanted to visit in peace and quiet, stay for as long as was necessary and not get stressed if the traffic was slower than expected as she travelled from one place to another. She felt it was rude to arrive a quarter of an hour later than she’d said. She felt she was being unreliable, and even disrespectful. And in a small way, to say that you’ll arrive say at three and arrive at a quarter past is a kind of lie. Her friends did not complained about this to her, it was her own feeling of guilt and inadequacy – surely there had to be a solution?
A friend who was a social worker told her: “Don’t give an exact time”.
 “What do you mean?”  
"Say “I’ll arrive between three and a quarter past three”."
 Very simple.
And that is what she did. In fact all she did was be more exact not in her arrival time but in the way she spoke about it. She only told the truth - she was more truthful. But it had required an effort on her behalf – it may be that many of you are thinking that they would have thought of this themselves…
It did require an effort and it did involve being exact with her speech.

Being aware of what one is saying and its effect on other people seems to be a life-long work. Sometimes when people come across this idea of taking care with their words for the first time, they say: “But I’d have to watch every word I say! That’s ridiculous!”. And that of course is precisely the thing to do - to attempt to watch every word we say.

The Particulars of Rapture: reflections on Exodus, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (2001, Schocken Books)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ki tissa 5772 Exodus 30:11- 34:35

An important part of this parashah is the story of the golden calf. Moses disappears onto Mount Sinai, where he spends 40 days and 40 nights talking face to face with God, and at some point during that time, Bnei Israel approach his brother Aaron and say to him: Come, make us a God. Which he proceeds to do, asking them to bring to him their gold ear-rings. He then melts down the jewellry and sculpts a golden calf for them.

Is this not surprising? Aaron does not say -"Let's wait just a little longer - I'm sure that he'll be here in a minute." Is this not  what would be expected of someone in his position: he is the brother, you might say the next of kin - is it not the same as the next in line? In the not very distant past, he spoke on Moses' behalf to Pharaoh, when Moses himself felt he could not do so. We have been told already that he is to be the High Priest - Aaron seems very close to Moses. And yet he complies with this aberrant request without a word of protest.

Rabbi Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote a commentary on the Book of Exodus, entitled The Particulars of Rapture. This book contains 60 pages of writing about this one parashah alone.

One of the things she says about the Golden Calf event is that even though the story is told in the Torah much later on, it actually happens in close juxtaposition to the revelation: at one moment, God is manifest and all is light and clarity, and then just as suddenly, confusion reigns, the Bnei Israel lose their way and turn to idolatry. It is like night and day - good and evil are very close to each other, and it is sometimes hard to see when the transition from the one to the other occurs. It may take only a small shift.

Where is this shift here? Rabbi Zornberg says that it is all in one word "Boshesh". Va yar ha am ki boshesh Moshe laredet min ha har." verse 1 of chapter 32. Boshesh means "delay". "And the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down the mountain."Apparently this is the only time this word is used in the Torah.

Rashi says about this: "When Moses ascended the mountain, he told the people: In 40 days time I'll be back. They thought that the day of his ascent was included in the count, while he meant 40 complete days which began with the night. Since he ascended on the 7th of Sivan, the count began the following night and ended on the 17th of Tamuz. But, says Rashi, on the 16th of Tamuz, Satan came and threw the world into chaos: he showed them an image of darkness and deep fog and chaos, as if to say: "Surely Moses is dead - that is why chaos is come to the world".

In other words, the Bnei Israel suddenly experienced great doubt - we all know how that can happen - we trust someone happily, without question, until one day something goes a little wrong, and the thought occurs to us that maybe we have been blind, that it may be that this person is not what they seem... we experience a sense of abandonment and curse ourselves for not having perceived this earlier, the new scenario looks more and more credible the longer we dwell upon it and we say to ourselves - How could I have been so stupid! We are pervaded by a sense of fear and loneliness, a sense that something that could be trusted, like the earth beneath our feet, is subject to earthquakes and liquefaction, how could we have been so stupid - we experience pain and guilt, maybe even anger at the person - we are now quite sure that we have been deceived, we writhe in anguish.

This is Satan's work, say the Rabbanim. In modern parlance we might talk of paranoia. To the person experiencing it, it is a form of fear: When is it right to mistrust? How do we handle this sort of situation? Maybe what is needed is to examine the past record of that person - in this case Moses has so far never given bnei Israel a reason to doubt him...

There is another interesting fact about this one verse which is the first in chapter 32. The last verse in the chapter just before, which is also in this parashah, tells us that at this moment, Moses is receiving from God the two tables of testimony, written with the finger of God. A most holy moment above, juxtaposed with a moment of evil below. The contrast is very great.  How could this happen?

This is where Rabbi Zornberg speaks to my heart. She writes about a sense of abandonment and she quotes modern psychological theory, in particular Winnicott.

Some of you may be familiar with the psychological literature around abandonment. Besides Winnicott, the main writer on this topic was an Englishman named Bowlby. He wrote about attachement. Abandonment is the other side of that particular coin. A child needs to have someone reliable to attach to in order to grow up as a healthy adult. For instance, if we consider Moses' very early life, we may have experienced a sense of relief to realise that when he was rescued from the Nile as an infant in a reed basket by Pharaoh's daughter, the person chosen to be his nurse was his own mother. He was not separated from her for very long.

Bowlby studied babies who were put into day-care during World War II, because their mothers had to work. And he found that the babies did not fare well if the mother was away for a long time, and they fared even worse if the staff changed frequently. Of course, different babies would have different reactions - some were more needy than others, right from the start. The older the child, the better he or she could cope with the separation. There is a lot of theory written about this, about the way a child's mind develops and how long a child can keep an image of a missing mother - it is mostly the mother - in their mind, and what happens when this time is exceeded. Basically at first the child experiences discomfort, then pain and then what is termed trauma.

We have a similar situation here with Bnei Israel. They were only a young people. Moses had lead them to Mt Sinai and all the power and knowledge seemed to be vested in him. Moses himself sometimes promoted this view: he set himself up as sole judge and jury to whom everyone came for justice, and it was his father in law who was not a Hebrew who said to him, Moses, this is too much for any one person, choose among the wise men in your midst and empower them to deal with the easier cases, and keep only the tricky ones for yourself. So Bnei Israel saw Moses as an extremely powerful person - much as a baby sees a parent - and they felt bereft when he was missing. They felt very anxious and needy and they quickly wanted to do something about this feeling, by getting hold of something else to fill the gap. That something else turned out to be the golden calf.

The golden calf is the end product of a psychological process: Rabbi Zornberg quotes from the work Meshech chochmah, by a 19th century Polish Rabbi called Rabbi Simcha HaCohen. For bnei Israel, she says, "Moses had become the source of supernatural power" The beginning of the people's corruption consists in their projecting all power onto Moses, the man who got them out of Egypt.  In other words, the idolatry began long before the Golden Calf.  The other side of projecting all the power onto another person is that there is no power left for anyone else. Every individual feels weak and in need of protection and salvation. It is an intolerable situation. So the Bnei Israel bow low in front of the calf and say in verse 4 "This is your God O Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt". They know this is not the case, and yet this is what they say. And in verse 7 of the same chapter, God who has seen this describes it to Moses "Go down, for your people that you brought out of the land of Egypt have behaved corruptly..." And then he mentions the fact that they are a "stiffnecked people" kshei oref, which would seem to entail just the opposite that they are not easily changed...

Maybe in fact they have not changed, they have remained the way they were in Egypt, idol-worshippers? What is happening could be seen as a resistance to the new way. This is a fairly common reaction when one tries anything new - at first we fail, then we reconsider and try again, and maybe we have to go through this many times, it does not matter in which domain, whether it is learning a new skill or getting rid of a habit, just doing something new is always a bit fraught.

We need to understand this and apply compassion rather than condemnation. The road is hard, the road is long, we stumble and sometimes we fall. The wonder is in how we pick ourselves up and carry on, just like Bnei Israel in the desert, yet again.

Shabbat shalom.

Mishpatim 5772

I forgot to post this when I wrote it - realised it as I prepared the next drashah. So here it is in the form in which I read it out.

This is a difficult parashah. It is rich, complex and weighty. As such, it is possible that I may have got things wrong and I would like to ask anyone who has a different understanding please to speak up so that anything wrong may be corrected.

Mishpatim means laws, and indeed the first and main part of this parashah is all about laws. Chapter 21 + 22 + 23 until verse 19 – all laws. There is a lot to do with giving slaves their freedom, and it is always specified that the law is the same for a male or a female slave. Someone called Bernard S. Jackson has just written an entire book about this parashah and he says something interesting about the laws as they were considered in the days when Moses was alive: he says that early biblical law was significantly different from the way we see the law now, which is something like a set of rules to be argued over in Court – he says that many of the laws in the Covenant Code in Exodus should be viewed as "wisdom-laws." By this term, he means "self-executing" rules, the provisions of which permit their application without recourse to the law-courts or similar institutions. They thus conform to two tenets of the "wisdom tradition": that judicial dispute should be avoided, and that the law is a type of teaching, or "wisdom". And of course the word Torah means Teachings.

After the laws, there is a sudden change, where the text moves from practical every day issues, such as who owes what to whom to make up for which transgression, to a promise from God. God says: I shall send you an angel.

Coming upon those words suddenly – after the grimness of the last law, which is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – suddenly there it is, I shall send you an angel.

This angel is to be obeyed and followed, the verses are full of threats and promises. And after 13 verses, there is another change in the topic of the text to a description of Moses going up on to Mt Sinai to receive the stone tables of the Law. “And he walked on a mosaic of sapphires and the sky above was entirely clear.” Everything was filled with light. This part of the parashah takes up exactly 18 verses, which in Hebrew spells Chai, meaning life.

To go back to the absolute beginning of the parashah: the first word is the word Ve which is represented by the one letter Vav and means And

- And these were the laws that were given…

According to Rashi, this indicates that what is in this parashah is linked to what was happening in the previous parashah –. The previous parashah was Ytro and the last bit of Ytro is the list of the the 10 commandments, as they were handed over to Moses. So this one little letter Vav indicates that the laws mentioned in the first part of the parashat Mishpatim were also handed down at Sinai. This is important for complicated reasons which I’ll touch upon later.

This use of the word And is important.

Some years back, some of you may remember, a famous and eminent American rabbi, Rabbi Schechter Shlomi came to Wellington and visited us. Rabbi Schechter Shelomi must be in his 90s by now. He is a great leader of Reform Judaism. The Rabbi at Temple Sinai at the time of his visit was Rabbi Johanna, and she was overjoyed at the honour accorded our congregation. It was very exciting. That Saturday everyone was here, the schul was full, bursting at the seams. The Rabbi looked at our Torah and said something nice about it. Then he went on to say that it made him think of a special kind of Torah, where the scribe managed to start every new column with the word a Ve. You know how the Torah is written down in columns of text? Well every one of them would start with the word Ve – the scribe would play around with the spacing and size of the letters, make them biger or smaller, so that the first word at the top of the column would always be Ve.

And then Rabbi Schechter told a story about the importance of the word And. He told us that one particular committee he belonged to had made it their practice to require that whenever anyone spoke, their first word had to be And.

He said the word And creates links, and these links overcome differences and create inclusiveness, and help us to be together and stay together. He gave as an example the colours in his Talit, which had a rainbow of beautiful stripes in it, so the rainbow represents the and of all the colours; he talked about the different religions of the world that are all necessary, he said, and which each perform a different function, like the various organs in the body…another and.

You might try saying And yourself sometimes when you find yourself about to use a word which is less helpful, such as But … You know, someone makes a suggestion and you feel the word But come into your mind and in your mouth. It might be the birth of an argument, might it not? One might try – maybe not always successfully – to replace that But with the word And – of course you have to change what you were going to say next, at least a little - and that may be a good thing. Counsellors are taught this as a technique. It makes them more agreeable people. And some of them go on to teach this to their clients. You might say, this is all technique, it is not their true self, and maybe that is so to start with. It is possible that in due course, with practice, it might become their true self. And some of you here who are agreeable people in your own right probably have been doing this all your lives and don’t need this suggestion. Just common politeness you might say. It seems easy to say to those of us who are not so blessed that we should try to be ‘positive’ – well, this is actually one way of being positive, it appears like a trick, and the interesting thing about it is that it makes you more aware of what you are about to say, and gives you an opportunity for change. Trying new ways of doing things is always interesting.

There is an important event in this last part of parashat Mishpatim: this is from Rabbi Aviva Zornberg’s commentary: she points out that verse 4 of chapter 24 says And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. According to Rashi, ‘All the words’ are the Torah – as far as the Bnei Israel knew at the time: it was the history of the world from the Creation from Bereshit, until the present moment, the moment of the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. The next verse, verse 5, talks about sacrifices on the special altar that Moses built. Moses divides the blood from the sacrifices into two separate parts. Now follows a sequence where the word taken VaYikach is mentioned three times: one part of the blood is taken and sprinkled on the altar walls; then the Book of the Covenant is taken and read by Moses “into the ears of the people”, who respond “We shall do and we shall hear!” in verse 7.

After the reading is concluded, the second bowl of blood is again taken and sprinkled – this time on the people themselves, which is something surprising and off-putting; Avivah Zornberg says that water always follows the blood, so presumably there was some washing, but that is not what this sequence is about..

If you think about it, you see that the taking and sprinkling of blood is on either side of the taking of the book, and that there is a link created by the words and he took - Va Ykach - between the altar, representing God, and the people. At the centre of this ritual is the Book, the link between the people and God.

What we do here during the service reflects those events: at the centre, the high point of our service, is the reading of the Book. Everything we do beforehand leads up to it, and then afterwards leads away from it. The reading is at the core, and so everyone who reads from the Torah can know that the first reader ever was Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our greatest teacher. And that is what the word Torah means, it means Teachings.

And the role of the people is to listen and to act accordingly. And that is not exactly what they say: they say it the other way round - we shall do and we shall listen, in other words they promise to act first. -The Lubavitcher Rebbe says that this represents the ultimate declaration of faith: Even before one has been told what to do, one promises to obey.

Here is the tricky bit regarding this parashah: it is based on Rashi’s interpretation. There is a break between what happened before Sinai and after Sinai. Before Bnei Israel hear the story of the Torah, they approach the mountain and experience what is known as the Revelation, seeing the clouds and lightening and hearing the voice of God. They are then exposed to a new narrative which tells the history of the world in a new and different way.

This parashah begins with Ve – which as you know, means And; so do most of the parashot, one linked to the other. One exception is of course the very first parashah, Bereshit, Bereshit bara elohim et ha shamyim ve et ha Aretz. Chapter 19, from the Parashah preceding
Mishpatim, Parashat Ytro, which describes the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, does not start with a Ve either.

Rashi says that what is described in twelve verses of this parashah, , is a kind of flashback to Ytro – we are given here a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that was missing earlier – it has been separated from the other part., though it belongs with it in terms of the sequence. Why is this written in this way? Aviva Zornberg writes that Rashi is on the track of something elusive which cannot be articulated in any other way. The reading aloud of the text is placed firmly at the centre of the ritual enactment of the covenant.

Here is the bit that is complicated: what happens in these two days when Moses is on Mt Sinai, what happens between God and Bnei Israel, is qualitatively different from what happened in the previous parashah. What happens in Ytro is the creation of a contract – these are the laws and you must follow them. What happens in Mishpatim has to do with faith, it is the covenant.