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The View From the Ziggurat - Parashat T'rumah

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The View From the Ziggurat           Imagine that we’re in a Temple.            Sorry, that wasn’t clear. We’re not in that Temple. Take your mind away from Jerusalem and picture, instead, a temple in ancient Mesopotamia. In this part of the world, a temple might be found perched atop a ziggurat - or, in Akkadian, ziqquratum , meaning “to build high”. You can guess from the name that it’s a high place. To get into the temple structure, we need to ascend an incredible staircase. The temple is made of layers and sections, and there are places we mere peasants cannot go. While not all ziggurats were completely identical in all time periods, common features would appear in temple design: courtyards outside, likely for the public; basins of water; altars for animal sacrifice; a structure of multiple layers, and - most importantly of all - a holy chamber that housed the god. You and I cannot enter that chamber, but perhaps atop this ziggurat, we can catch a glimpse of the great statue of the

Miriam, Moses, and the Mumpsimus

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  Mosaic from the Abbey Church of the Dormition in Jerusalem           There is a story about a mistake made in Latin, in a Catholic mass, in the 16th Century. The story is of a priest who, when reciting the mass in Latin for his congregation, got into the bad habit of saying the word mumpsimus instead of sumpsimus . Sumpsimus means “we have taken”. Mumpsimus, on the other hand, doesn’t mean anything at all. Despite being corrected, so goes the story, the priest stubbornly stuck to his mistake. His masses were always conducted with the nonsense word mumpsimus , and he could not be talked out of it.  Now mumpsimus does have a meaning. It means someone who obstinately sticks to their opinion even after being shown that they are wrong.  It is a cute story in part because, at least to most of us, it doesn’t really matter. We’re people who pray in a language which isn’t our mother tongue. Even for native Hebrew speakers, the language of prayer is not precisely the same as the language o

Spiritual Peripheral Vision

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  Spiritual Peripheral Vision Earlier this year, I had my fight-or-flight response triggered. Of course, this happens to all of us every now and then, from so much as stepping into the road at the wrong moment. Any time our brains process that there is a direct danger, it can trigger an acute stress response. It’s a well-engineered piece of human psychology… usually.  In my experience, I froze. I became entirely still as my consciousness zeroed in on the point of danger in front of me.  Just in case I haven’t made this sound dramatic enough, what my brain was responding to was a shark swimming directly at me.  I was, to be fair, deliberately in the water with the sharks. I’d gone for a swim with them on the other side of the Atlantic. I was originally told there would be a cage, but hey, it’s Florida; we turned up and were told there wouldn’t be a cage today, here, take a snorkel, try not to splash around or you might look like a fish. Nobody is going to enjoy the situation if

Quoting Shakespeare (and Redemption)

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  Quoting Shakespeare (And Redemption) I’d like to start with a game. I’m going to need you to be very brave for this to work. The stakes are low: there are no points or punishments involved.  The game is this: I’m going to say a quote, and I want to know if you think the origin of that quote is Tanakh - Hebrew Bible - or Shakespeare.  Here we go. First quote:                     “What a piece of work is a man?” (Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2)                     “The better part of valour is discretion.” (Henry Fourth, Part I, 5, 4)                     “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears.” (Jeremiah 9:1)                     “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22)                     “How poor are they that have not patience!” (Othello (II, iii)                     “How the mighty have fallen.” (2 Samuel 1:25)                     “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Kohelet 1:9)           That last one was perhaps the easiest, at least fo

A Medicine For Loneliness

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  I’ve been thinking about loneliness.  I think it’s on my mind because the only thing I can compare these last two weeks to is the experience of Covid. And for many of us, especially those of us who live on our own, it was an experience of profound loneliness, and of looking for places of connection to fill a sudden void.  There’s a profound loneliness in this week’s Torah portion, for Noah, who’s called upon to build this ark and save this sliver of humanity and the animal world from the oncoming flood. His experience is like the experience of the prophets of our tradition - of being the only one who sees the truth of what is happening.  I want to say that both those lonelinesses feel relevant to these past few weeks. There’s a profound distance I think many of us feel from loved ones in Israel, a distance which is physical in nature. That physical distance was there before, but it’s so much more apparent now. But there’s also that kind of prophetic loneliness, the sense that we can

The Golem, the Virgin Bride, and the Beautiful Captive

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  The Golem, the Virgin Bride, and the Beautiful Captive  Parashat Ki Teitzei           In the early 1970s, when she was still identifying as an Orthodox Jew, now-Rabbi Rachel Adler published a trailblazing article entitled: “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halacha and the Jewish Woman”. I was inspired to reread this recently, after going to see the Barbie Movie, which is a very normal reaction, thank you.           Rachel Adler’s article was about how halakhah, the Jewish legal framework, has largely been enacted upon women throughout history; that many mitzvot aimed at women were really about their relationships with men and children rather than their relationships with God. It’s a good article and well worth reading if you haven’t come across it. She was clearly thirsty for a halakhic framework that really saw her as a full member of the Jewish community and participant in the Jewish story. And she concludes the article by invoking the folk tale of the golem, the creature made of clay who

El Shaddai - God and Mountains

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     This might come as a surprise to anyone I’ve spoken with about my enjoyment of bungee jumping, but… I am actually afraid of heights. I haven’t let that fear stop me from bungee jumping, or hiking up what Israel calls mountains, or walking on ramparts - but there is always a moment, just as I’m about to begin, that I think to myself: why and how have I done this again? That thought arrives just as I become overwhelmed with an emotion I can only call unpleasantly religious. I do not mean that I feel unsafe and start asking God to save me. I think, at that point, God might be inclined to point out that I did this to myself. I’m referring to an emotion that perhaps you’ll recognise, too: an acute awareness of the grandeur of all things, filtered through a sense of dread and awe, all while being far too present in the moment. Unpleasantly religious.            That is the feeling I associate with moments in the Torah and in our theological metaphors that involve heights, especially mou