Friday, 29 February 2008



This week has seen the passing of a mother of a member of New London and a mother of a member of St Albans Masorti. I spent Thursday night meeting with a couple planning their marriage and will spend Friday morning at a stonesetting. I’ve arranged a baby naming and helped another couple with some options for Hebrew names for their unborn child. The grandfather of one friend of New London and father of another also passed away. I am spending this Shabbat with the fourteen members of the Bar Mitzvah programme of St Albans and on Monday I am hosting a brunch for the senior members of New London. And the title of this week’s Torah reading – vayahkel.


And Moses gathered all the congregation of the people of Israel.


Actually the translation ‘gathered’ (found in the Hertz Pentateuch) doesn’t do Hebrew justice. The Hebrew word has the same root as the word kehillah - community. Perhaps a better translation would be;


And Moses made a community out of all the congregation of the people of Israel.


Sad, really, that English doesn’t have a verb ‘to communitise,’ but ‘communitising’ is what we do – we bind ourselves into one another’s past, present and future, we share in the celebrations and the commiserations, we take our part in the unfolding of the generations and the sense, buried deep down, that once upon a time we all stood at Sinai.


Shabbat shalom.


Sunday, 24 February 2008

I don't like it when things get broken

I don’t like it when things get broken. I mean I don’t mind it when I can whisk away the fragments Into a bin with them. Moving on – no use crying over spilt milk and all that. I just don’t like broken bits and pieces hanging around, reminding me of my clumsiness, reminding me of a failure to respect the fragility of the objects surrounding me. There is a breakage, a loss, a mourning that in week’s parasha. As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. In the retelling of the story of this week’s reading in Deuteronomy. Having been told in the most clear-cut language, that Moses broke the tablets – Moses is commanded to build new tablets. And God said to me, Cut two tablets of stone like the first and I will write on the tablets the words that were in the first tablets which you broke.[1] It’s that ‘which you broke’ piece which demands attention – asher shibarta. We all know Moses broke the tablets. We’ve just heard that Moses broke the tablets. Why do we need to hear it again? We could understand the ‘which you broke’ in the same sense that a wife might tell a husband, ‘And you have to get the kitchen cabinet fixed – which you broke.’ Perhaps the ‘which you broke’ serves as a little jab of the finger. A little puncturing of our ability to pretend that we did no wrong. Maybe the which you broke is best understood as a passive aggressive way to skewer those who break into our comfort zone with their clumsiness or anger. After all, none of us likes having broken things lying around. We can all get a little passive aggressive, Maybe even God too. Or maybe not. In the Talmud[2] Reish Lakish suggests a different way to read this ‘finger-jabbing’ phrase. Instead of asher shibarta – which you have broken, Reish Lakish suggests we should read these words – ishur shibarta –‘I will strengthen you since you broke them.’ It’s a radical read. Asher – which we would happily understand as a finger-jabbing ‘which’ is instead to be understood as the first person future of a word connecting to strength. If Reish Lakish to be taken seriously then the phrase asher shibarta, far from being a finger pointing angry – don’t you mess with My tablets oh Moses – becomes a Divine endorsement. As the Talmud puts it this was one of the things that Moses did of his own will, vhiskim hakodesh baruch hu imo And God agreed with him. The tablets needed to be broken. Yeshar kochecha shshibarta - well done for breaking them. What good is done by breaking the tablets? I suspect it allows the story to continue. Unbroken the tablets would have leered at the sinning Children of Israel – and you shall have no other gods They would have been trapped in their past, in their failure. Moses has broken the tablets to put a line under the past, to move on. Creativity, the future, they demand that something, first, be broken. It’s a cliché but there is truth in the notion that one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. A person cannot grow by staying the same. A person cannot change by holding tightly to everything they possess. Some things need to be broken to allow us to move on. And breaking something allows a clarity. It allows us to draw a line under our past and stops it from overwhelming our present. And what goes for a person, of course, goes for a community. But there is something else. Something truly important. We don’t throw out the broken pieces of the old design. After all the pieces of the broken tablets were never thrown out. In Deuteronomy the asher shibarta verse continues with the injunction - and you will put them in the ark."[3] It’s that word ‘them’ One might think it refers only to the shiny new tablets. But the Rabbis declare Luhot v'shivrei luhot munachim ba'aron[4] The tablets and the broken tablets are to be placed in the ark. We carry the broken tablets with us. They sit, say the Rabbis, alongside the new tablets in the ark. That’s a glorious spiritual message – you carry with you the new and the old together. The broken and the, as yet, unbroken. We have tablets, we break tablets, we make new tablets and we schlep the whole thing along with us into the future - Our broken tablets and our yet to be broken tablets. Schlepping around the broken bits reminds us of our past – all its glories and all its failures – that’s a good thing. In addition, schlepping around the broken bits reminds us that everything gets broken eventually – logos, kitchen cabinets, you, me, the very buildings we stand in – we’re all doomed to become fragmentary shards eventually. That’s a good thing to remember too. And breaking the old allows us to walk on into the future. My natural inclination is not like it when things get broken. My natural inclination is to whisk away the fragments Into a bin with them – no use crying over spilt milk and all that. But the religious way is more subtle. Heavier to carry around, but ultimately more honest. The religious way is to break our tablets, carve new tablets and carry both broken and unbroken as we make our way into the future.

[1] Deut 10:1-2 [2] Sanhedrin 87a, see Rashi ad loc. See also the last Rashi on the Torah [3] Deuteronomy 10:2 [4] Bava Batra 14b

How to be God's Perfect Partner

Midrash of the Week

Tanchuma, Ki Tisa, #30[1]

What led Moses to break the tablets?

A parable: A king went on an overseas voyage and left his fiancee in the company of the servants. Because of the improper behavior of the servants, the reputation of the royal fiancée became impugned. Her attendant arose and destroyed her wedding document. He said, “If the king gives the order to kill her for her misbehaviour, I will say to him, ‘There is no evidence that she was your wife.’ During the interim (between accusations and defenses) the king conducted an investigation and found that the improper behavior was confined to the maidservants alone. He was reconciled with his fiancée. Her attendant told the king to write his wife-to-be a new wedding document since the first one was destroyed. The king replied, “You tore it up, therefore you must acquire the fresh paper required, and I will write the new document in my own hand.” The king is God; the servants are the mixed multitudes who left Egypt. The attendant is Moses. The fiancée of is Israel. For this reason, it is said (to Moses) “Form by yourself (new tablets to replace the ones that you destroyed)…”

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת כי תשא סימן ל ומה ראה משה לשבר את הלוחות, משל למלך שהלך למדינת הים והניח אשתו עם השפחות ומתוך שהיתה עמהם יצא עליה שם רע שמע המלך ובא ובקש להורגה, שמע שושבינה עמד וקרע כתובתה אמר אם יאמר המלך כך וכך עשתה אשתי נאמר לו עדיין אינה אשתך בדק המלך אחריה ולא מצא בה ערות דבר אלא השפחות הם היו שקלקלו, מיד נתרצה לה, א"ל שושבינה מרי עשה לה כתובה אחרת שנתקרעה הראשונה, א"ל אתה קרעת אותה לך והביא את הנייר משלך ואני כותב כתב ידי,


This is the human in sleeves- rolled-up mode. It’s a motif we know from Abraham and it fits perfectly the ‘pshat’ of the defence Moses launches to save Israel from God’s threatened destruction in the words of the Bible itself.

But what imagery!

No Rambam-aloofness.

A deeply impassioned deity - God in search of a partner.

The question is, do we have a better shot at being this partner by dedicating ourselves to the model of a sweet and winsome wife, or the model of the proactive master of chutzpah Moses?

Friday, 22 February 2008

Religion in the World - Sukuk and Prosbul

A report on the BBC this morning looked at the possibility of Her Majesty’s Government issuing Sukuk or Islamic-law compliant bonds. Since Sharia law prohibits lending money at interest, creditors, including Governments, who wish to borrow from Muslims, have to offer something other than interest to get capital. It seems the classic way round the problem is to have a Muslim ‘lender’ purchase capital and be paid rent rather than give a loan and be paid in interest. Perhaps unsurprisingly the presenter was poking holes in the logic of the scholar trying to explain the niceties of Sharia before 9am, ‘wasn’t it more than a bit hypocritical?’ However I found myself nodding along quite happily, the twisted logic of the Sukuk felt very familiar. In a glorious attempt to prevent the poorest in society being trapped by debt the Bible ensures that all debts are wiped out in the Sabbatical year. Beware the Bible goes on to state lest you harbour the base thought, "The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching," so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. 10 Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. (Deut 15:9-10) But it did no good. The Bible’s best intentions were thwarted by human nature. So to prevent mass illegality Hillel the Elder created the pruzbul, a legal fiction to enable the collection of loans made before the sabbatical year. (Gittin 58b, Mishnah Shviit Chapt 10) Some two thousand years ago Hillel didn’t, of course, reject the holiness of scripture or outwardly deny its obliging nature. He just ensured that life, viewed by the commercial and civil standards of that time could go on. The world needs religion to control an unbridled capitalist impulse that left unchecked will see those with capital become ever richer while forcing those who need capital into servitude. That said we should never forget that religion needs the world, as a touchstone to ensure that good intentions can be part of a lived reality and not some impossible fairy-land dream. Institutions like the pruzbul and the Sukuk are signs of the possibility of religion and the world meeting in harmony. They are signs of religions looking outwards to the worlds in which they are to be lived. It’s good news.
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