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Ki Tissa

5 March 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

This week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, ends with a description of Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai. It is his second descent. The first ended in violence and tragedy. Then, with the tablets of stone in his arms, he rejoins the Israelites, who are dancing around the golden calf – the ‘god’ they have got Aaron to build for them – at the foot of the mountain. Moses smashes the tablets, grounds the golden calf into powder and strews it on water, forcing the Israelites to drink the brew. Rallying the Levites, he instructs them to slay all those who have been faithless – ‘sibling, neighbour and kin’ (Exodus 32.27). One of the more disturbing passages in the Torah.

Moses ascends Sinai a second time, he intercedes on behalf of the people, pleads for some sign that God will lead him and accompany him as the Israelites move forward. At this moment of intense loneliness and isolation, God places Moses in the ‘cleft of a rock’, shields him with His hand, removes His hand and tells Moses that he will see His back, ‘but My face must not be seen’ (33.23).

Moses remains on the mountain for forty days and forty nights, fasting from food and drink and there, says the Torah, he wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, ‘the Ten Words’ or commandments.

Now he descends a second time, bearing the tablets, unaware that the skin of his face is radiant. The people perceive this visible change in their leader; he speaks to them and then, the Torah says: Va-yitein al-panav mas’veh – ‘He put a veil over his face’ (34.33). He masks himself.

And whenever Moses enters the Tent of Meeting to converse with God, he removes his mask until he comes out. The Israelites glimpse the radiance of his face and then he masks himself again until he enters to speak with God (Exodus 34.34-35).

Re-reading these verses, I am struck by how they might speak to us today, in this time of mask-wearing. Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg in her remarkable commentary to these verses points out the ambiguity of this ritual of masking and unmasking. We assume that Moses unmasks when he communes with God and replaces the veil when he sees the people. But, she says, ‘that turns out not to be the case. Only after he finishes speaking to them does he replace the veil’ (Moses: A Human Life, p. 75).

Why does Moses wait to mask himself until after he has finished speaking with the people? Basing her interpretation on the commentary of the 19th century Bible commentator Ha-amek Davar (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1893), Zornberg sees Moses in his role as teacher: ‘In order to teach what he has learned, in order to act for the sake of his people, Moses must relinquish something of his inner life…At the same time, he must speak of and from that inner life.’

The teacher’s face, she says, ‘is an integral part of the teaching experience. Thus he folds back the veil so that his students will look at his face.’ He wants the people to desire to see his face. The human face ‘expresses nuanced meanings and engages with the yearnings of those who listen to words of Torah’ (ibid., p. 76).

A photograph in the paper this week shows a teacher sitting at a table surrounded by her primary school pupils. She is wearing a mask, her little students are maskless. Only her eyes are visible and she must communicate and express herself with them, with her bodily gestures and with her voice, all the subtleties of the unsaid, of the implicit that might be conveyed in facial gestures.

If it is a challenge for the teacher to communicate meaningfully from behind a mask, how much more so for the student who must try and discern the true teaching that comes from their instructor. The Talmud, in a wonderfully pedagogical teaching, quotes Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi who recites a verse from Isaiah: ‘And your eyes shall see your teacher’s face’ (30.20). I sat behind Rabbi Meir, says the author of the Mishnah and I learnt sufficient, but had I seen his face, my understanding would be greater. ‘The teacher’s face,’ says Zornberg, ‘has much to offer [their students]’ (p. 77) – both in terms of intellectual learning and from their own experience.

So much has been expected of teachers over the past year, from those who have supported the learning of the smallest children and the challenges experienced by their parents, to the older teenagers, who have spent too many hours in front of a screen for days on end, as well as those who have lost out on a year’s consistent learning.

Children, teenagers and teachers will need time to re-adjust as they return to school next week. I hope, before little people and our older pupils are returned to their academic curriculum, there will be time for play, for prayer and reflection as they re-emerge into the social world and continue their journey towards maturity and independence.

We all need to see each other’s faces once again – when it is safe to do so – and share something of our inner lives with each other. It is this that creates meaningful human connection and friendship as our eyes look upon each other’s face.

Shabbat shalom

Alexandra Wright

The World Without Fear

12 March 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

This week’s double Torah portion marks the completion of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) construction. As a part of the Tabernacle, a special lampstand - menorah - of pure gold was made. Every Israelite made a voluntary contribution of gold and other materials, which became a material to build the menorah and other items for the Tabernacle.

Rabbi Avidan Freedman1 notes that there are three things the Menorah lacks, which all the other major vessels of the Tabernacle have:

* The menorah is made of pure gold, while the other vessels are gilded,  
* There are no measurements given for menorah, 
* The menorah has no crown.

Rabbi Freedman writes that the menorah has no crown. It has no measurements which define it, and it has no layers. It represents not accomplishment, but pure essence. Thus, it is the element which is most shared by the entire Jewish people. Not everyone is born a king, or a priest, and not everyone takes advantage of the opportunity to put the crown of Torah on, but all share the shining light of the menorah.

Such as the menorah was made of many voluntary donations, so too our society is a result of small contributions of all its members. This week’s Torah portion is an opportunity for us to think of our shared experiences and the way how individual choices can achieve important social change.

This week, following the disappearance of 33-year-old Sarah Everard in south London, women are sharing their thoughts, stories and experiences about what it's like to constantly feel unsafe2

Every story is an individual experience of a woman being followed, harassed, and verbally or physically abused. One such story is an unpleasant experience, but when it becomes a shared experience of most women, it becomes a horrific truth about our society.

Most of us know a woman who felt unsafe walking at night. It is the time for all of us - men and women, old and young – to make our contribution to the creation of a better and safer world. The least we can do today is to listen and say “I am sorry”. The best way forward is to follow an example of many change-makers and take an active part in building the future – whether it is through joining the conversation, learning about it, or being aware of this dynamic while taking a walk. Just like people were able to create a beautiful piece of art out of voluntary contributions in the desert, so too we can build the better future and the world where the light of many individuals will break through the darkness of fear, harassment and abuse.

Shabbat shalom.

Igor Zinkov

[1] You can read the full article by Rabbi Avidan Freedman by clicking here
[2] To read some of the stories on Twitter by clicking here  

Shabbat Vayikra

19 March 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

A white cat, a regular visitor, has entered the garden. She – or it may be a he, I’m not sure – is stalking alongside the flowerbed towards the back of the house. She crouches down in front of a thick blackberry bush, watching, listening, waiting. I am sure there is a nest in the bush and will her to move away, to find another distraction. She turns her head slowly across the garden and sees a squirrel staring intently at her. This is my territory, he thinks, but he’s nervous and holds himself still in the middle of the lawn, before scrambling up and on to the back of a wooden chair where he perches upright on his two rear legs. The cat and the squirrel look at each other for a few moments, their bodies taut and tense, before the squirrel loses interest and embarks on his perennial search for food.

I have spent too much time this past year watching the animal and bird-life in the garden. The tiny blue tits alight on the rose bushes in front of my window; the blackbirds chatter and squabble over the fat balls hung by my neighbour on the bushes outside his back door. Jays can be seen in the higher branches of the trees, with their pinkish-brown bodies, a black moustache either side of their beaks and the blue and black bars at the edge of their wings. The crow, with its black plumage, bill and legs, drops heavily on to the grass. They come in twos or threes and waddle with ungainly gait, pecking the ground for insects and worms. I think of Ted Hughes’ poem, ‘Crow and the Birds’ – in which the eagle, curlew and swallow soar through the dawn and the dusk, the sparrow preens and ‘bullfinch plump[s] in the apple bud’ and all the birds of the air gracefully encounter a time, a habitat – the sun, the moon, a ‘dewball’ – while ‘Crow spraddle[s] head-down in the beach-garbage, guzzling a dropped ice-cream.’

It is a year since the first lockdown and those early days of fear and panic, when it seemed as though the fragile structures of our life had collapsed in on themselves. Had I even heard of Zoom or Stream-Yard of GatherTown or any of the other platforms we have been using to communicate with each other? Suddenly, the years of labour and experience, of thinking that perhaps I could do this work, were swept away and I was back in the first year of rabbinical school, having to figure out from scratch how to lead a service, how to teach online, how to be with people, officiate at a funeral or shiva.

And now, a year later, we look forward, tentatively, to being together once again; talking face to face from behind our masks. And I wonder, how will it be for those who have been alone for so long, for those who have scarcely ventured from their homes, who haven’t seen family or friends for more than a year?

And I wonder how animals emerge from hibernation after their winter days of torpor and sleep. I read that when an animal hibernates, they are wakeful and restless, for they must rouse themselves from time to time during the winter, to keep their body temperature from dipping too low. And so, as winter ends, many creatures emerge sleep-deprived, exhausted and half their body weight.

Some animals remain lethargic for weeks, remaining close to their lairs, their appetite still reduced; new mothers remain alert, quickly finding a place of safety for their infants. Other creatures look for somewhere warm and stable to rear their young. There are animals that emerge charged up and ready to take off and others who take longer to find their feet or their wings.

Perhaps when we begin to emerge from this lockdown, we can take some comfort from the mammals, insects, birds and other living things with which we share the world. We will find our own way back to some semblance of the life we had before this pandemic – for we are social creatures and need the reassurance of each other’s presence. We need a voice and touch; we need the kindness and reassurance of others; for it is only through being with each other that we learn how to go out into the world and become ourselves again through gemilut chasadim – acts of loving kindness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Language and our understanding of the world

26 March 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

There is a well-known story about some places in Siberia where people have 30 words to define different types of snow. Most likely this is a myth. There are ethnographers who checked this fact and disproved it. There are no more than 4 or 5 words for snow in Siberia, but this myth spread so widely that even some people in Siberia now tell each other the story that some other Siberians have 30 words for snow.

Although this story may be a myth, it underlines an important principle – the environment affects our language. This fact led some researchers to ask the following question – does language affect the way we think about the world?

Psychologist Lera Boroditsky conducted many experiments that concluded that many aspects of thought are influenced by people’s native language. Unlike English, many languages have grammatical genders associated with nouns1, so Boroditsky and her colleagues ran a series of experiments that tested whether the grammatical gender associated with a noun influenced how people perceive the object named by the noun.

In one such study for example they tested native Spanish and German speakers by asking them to name the first 3 adjectives that came to mind when describing several objects that have opposite genders in each language. In general, the participants came up with adjectives that were more stereotypically masculine if the object word was masculine in their language and more stereotypically feminine if it was feminine. For example, for the word “key”, which is masculine in German generated words such as ‘hard’, ‘heavy’, ‘jagged’, ‘serrated’, and ‘useful’. Spanish speakers whose word for key is feminine came up with ‘golden’, ‘intricate’, ‘lovely’, ‘shiny’, and ‘tiny’. This experiment proved that we are in fact affected by the language we speak.

This week’s Torah portion Tzav begins with the description of the five sacrifices that the priests are commanded to perform.

In English, the word ‘sacrifice’ is associated with giving up, abandonment, and surrender. It has a negative connotation, which can affect our understanding of the principle described in Torah. However, the Hebrew word for sacrifice has a very different meaning. That word is korban, and it comes from a root meaning ‘to come near, to approach, to become closely involved in a relationship with another.’

Although most Jews today do not want to re-establish animal sacrifices, I think that the Torah principle behind them can be meaningful. The concept of sacrifices in the original language of Torah is an act of coming close to your religion, drawing near to your spirituality, and making a step forward to the understanding of yourself. Any spiritual practice requires a proactive involvement of all individuals. It is not a coincidence that the prayer in Judaism originates in the Temple worship and described in Talmud as ‘the service of the heart’ – regular labour of our hearts which makes our lives full, peaceful, and whole. Active involvement and the choice to participate will make your spiritual practice meaningful, and bring peace and meaning to your everyday life.

Shabbat shalom,
Igor Zinkov

[1] Read more about the study about how native language affects people’s perception of the world HERE

Wed, 17 July 2024 11 Tammuz 5784