We will do, but do we hear?

How could the Israelites have made the Golden Calf? They had just witnessed the most awe-inspiring, mind boggling miracles- the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea and to cap it all God’s revelation to them on Mount Sinai. And yet here they were only a few weeks later making a golden calf and proclaiming: “these are your gods Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

Many explanations have been put forward. Moses had been up the mountain for longer than they expected, so they assumed he was dead and sought a substitute for his leadership. Alternatively, the calf was made by the foreigners in their midst- they blamed the foreigners in those days too. Or they were so subsumed in their slave mentality that they could not deal with the idea of an unknown invisible deity; they needed a concrete representation. Continue reading “We will do, but do we hear?”

Sparkling Fringes- How Language Helps Us Make Connections We Might Otherwise Miss

The High Priest in the Israelite Tabernacle, and later in the Jerusalem Temple, was told to wear an object, identified as a tzitz, on his forehead. The instruction to make this object is found in the book of Exodus (28, 36-38), but no details are given as to its size, shape or weight. All we are told is that it is to be made of pure gold, placed upon the priest’s linen headdress and suspended from a woollen thread dyed with t’chelet, a blue pigment extracted from a particular species of marine snail. The tzitz is to have the words Holy to the Lord engraved upon it.

As we would expect, rabbinic tradition amplifies this very vague instruction. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 63b) the tzitz was a plate, two fingerbreadths in breadth, that extended the full width of the forehead, from one ear to the other. To the Lord was written on one line, the word Holy was written beneath. R. Eliezer ben Yosé disagreed; he claimed to have seen the tzitz in Rome, taken there with the other treasures after the Romans had destroyed the Temple. The words Holy to the Lord were, he said, written on one line. Continue reading “Sparkling Fringes- How Language Helps Us Make Connections We Might Otherwise Miss”

God Doesn’t Need a Granny Flat

After he has given them the Torah, God instructs the Israelites to build him a sanctuary, out of materials that they will voluntarily donate.

The idea that the nation needs a sanctuary in which to worship is reasonable. What is harder to understand is the biblical idea that God needs a house to dwell in (Exodus 25,8). Equally difficult is  the rabbinic interpretation that implies God needs the sanctuary as much, or even more, than the Israelites. Continue reading “God Doesn’t Need a Granny Flat”

Akiva’s Educational Manifesto

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the Jewish religion could easily have vanished with it. The Temple was Judaism’s cultic centre, without it the faith’s survival seemed impossible. Had it not been for a small group of people, who we now call the Rabbis. They took it upon themselves to reshape Judaism for a new future, one in which individuals rather than priests were responsible for their own spiritual needs, in which the home and synagogue rather than the Temple became the centre of religious life.

The first generation of rabbis began the process of establishing the religion’s framework. They drew on the traditions they knew, and they expounded the text of the written Torah. Subsequent generations clarified, expanded and supplemented their work. But they were a small, isolated group of scholars. For their work to have any meaning at all they would have to inspire and enthuse the masses. They needed to get their message out. Continue reading “Akiva’s Educational Manifesto”

Jethro’s profound, mundane message

Chapter 18 of the book of Exodus feels a little like an anti-climax. The previous chapters have been high drama: the ten plagues, departure from Egypt, splitting of the Red Sea, the miraculous descent of the manna; all powerful, stirring stuff. Then we get to chapter 18, Jethro arriving at the Israelite camp, seeing Moses trying to resolve the disputes that people are bringing to him, a growing crowd of litigants lining up, all awaiting their turn.

Jethro, quite wisely, informs him that the way he is going about this is unsustainable. ‘It is too much for you. You can’t do it alone.’ Jethro tells Moses he has to delegate, appoint judges, divide the tasks up. Continue reading “Jethro’s profound, mundane message”

Splitting the Red Sea- A Pre-Ordained Miracle

When the Israelites left Egypt, God did not lead them to the Promised Land by the shortest route, in case they became regretful ‘when they see war and return to Egypt’. The Bible does not explain what war they would have seen. A Midrashic tradition speculates that would have seen the corpses of the Ephraimites, of whom a legend states they left Egypt before their due time, travelled by the shortest route and were attacked and slaughtered by the Philistines.

A more straightforward explanation is that the Israelites themselves might have been attacked as they travelled through the inhabited coastal lands, causing them to lose heart and return to Egypt. Continue reading “Splitting the Red Sea- A Pre-Ordained Miracle”

Moses’s Staff: Pageantry or Miracle?

Moses’s staff is the stuff of legend. It was one of ten miraculous objects created at twilight at the beginning of the first Sabbath. Made of sapphire, given to Adam and handed down throughout the generations, the staff will one day be wielded by the Messiah itself. That in a nutshell is the rabbinic tradition. None of it is in the Torah.

Instead, the biblical account tells us of two staffs, one belonging to Aaron, one to Moses. It tells us nothing about either of them. We picture them as ordinary pieces of wood; walking sticks or shepherds’ crooks. Continue reading “Moses’s Staff: Pageantry or Miracle?”

Embalming Jacob – A Lesson to Diaspora Communities

The book of Genesis ends with death in Egypt. First Jacob dies, then Joseph. Following the Egyptian custom, they were both embalmed. The Torah makes no mention of how the embalming was carried out, which parts of the body were removed or which embalming fluids were used. Indeed it gives no detail at all, other than the fact that they were each embalmed.

This is a little surprising. Embalming was not a Hebrew custom; no other corpse in the Bible is subjected to the process. There is little doubt that the only reason they were embalmed was because they lived in Egypt, yet the whole subject is dealt with very casually: ‘Then Joseph ordered his servants, the doctors, to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel’ (50,2). Continue reading “Embalming Jacob – A Lesson to Diaspora Communities”

Egypt’s Famine and the Importance of Uncertainty

The sequence of events in the Bible is often confusing, leading to multiple, seemingly conflicting interpretations. Even though the Talmud declared long ago that “There is no before or after in the Torah”, in other words it is not written in chronological order, this did not solve all the problems.  Indeed, some biblical commentators, most notably the great 12th century exegete Ramban rejected this principle, because as far as he was concerned it just doesn’t work.

An example of chronological confusion occurs when Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt for the second time. Joseph finally makes himself known to them. he reassures them of his good intentions by saying that God had sent him to Egypt to save their lives, because there were still five years of famine left to run. He means that they are now in the second year of the seven year famine which his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream had foretold. Continue reading “Egypt’s Famine and the Importance of Uncertainty”

Why Was Joseph Flawed?

Joseph, Mordechai and­­­ Daniel have much in common. So much so that the two later accounts, the stories of Mordechai and Daniel, appear to be literary reworkings of aspects of the Joseph tale.

Each of the three ascends from the depths and humiliation of exile to become the ruler of a foreign land. Joseph is elevated to high office because he is the only person in Egypt who could interpret Pharaoh’s mysterious dreams. Daniel similarly; he may have been a mere youth but he did what none of the wise men in Babylon could do, he explained the meaning of the terrifying image that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream.

Mordechai, like Joseph, was wreathed in royal finery and led in procession through the streets.  Daniel and Mordechai both refused to compromise their religious behaviour. Mordechai would not bow down to Haman; Daniel would not eat the king’s food or wine. Continue reading “Why Was Joseph Flawed?”