The Inner Sanctum
Voices from the pews
Moshe’s final communication to the Jews through poetry and allegory, has one purpose I think.
That is to alert the Jews, G-d is not some quaint old man with a white beard and rosy cheeks, who brings gifts to those who are pious, and punishes those who are not.
Despite Hashem punishing Moshe by exclusion into the land of Canaan, Moshe continued to sing His praises (and His decisions) till the end.
Guaranteed Moshe was not trying to sidle up to G-d seeking favours, and redemption in his last moments. Because at all stages Moshe was only interested in the perpetuity of the Children of Israel, through an authentic covenant with G-d,.
The honest relationship Moshe had with G-d till the end, is the template of the kind of relationship we need to have with G-d today.
Jacob the patriarch provides the HOW to do this.
Years ago after he and his brother Easau had become estranged, an opportunity arose for a meeting between them.
What did Jacob do? He used the only tactics available to all of when trying to make a connection with another person.
He accumulated gifts, he sent away the vulnerable members of his group, plus he prepared to fight.
Explaining Jacob’s strategy, Jacob moved towards, away and against, the ONLY way we can ever interact with anyone
Bringing gifts was moving towards. Sending off the vulnerable was moving away, and getting ready to fight was moving against.
In other words this is how we need to treat our relationship with Hashem, to ensure a genuine relationship, and no longer say one thing, and do another.
Sometimes only we need to move towards Him, sometimes we need to move away from Him, and there are plenty of times we must move against (challenge) Him.
Currently, it appears we have a delusionary relationship with an imaginary G-d, who will reward us if we are nice. Time and time again it is noticed how good and pious Jews die or suffer despite moving endlessly towards G-d, and the “rashas” thrive and prosper after moving exclusively away.
Is it not time to wake up and re-establish that authentic relationship as demonstrated by Moshe, at the most pivotal time in his life, his imminent death. At this point there was no time for niceties, or rhetoric, Moshe had to say it as it is, and he moved towards, away and against, never declaring our piety would see us through, rather our following the Torah as difficult as that was, would give us some hope of redemption.
The prophet Isiah also reminded us not to anthropomorphise G-d
“ For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, My ways”, says the Lord
Thus far we have not really listened.
What will it take??
Victor Frenkel the great Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor is often asked why he didn’t flee while he had the chance once Hitler occupied Austria.
He explains that although he had a visa to flee to the USA, he was wrestling with the dilemma of abandoning his aging parents who weren’t able to travel with him.
One day he saw a broken shard of marble on the table at his family home. His father told him that when the national socialists burned down the largest Viennese synagogue, he had taken this piece from amongst the rubble because he noticed it was from the ten commandments that had been part of the building façade.
One gilded letter was on the shard of marble referencing one of the ten commandments. Which of the ten was it referencing? Honour your father and mother so that you may live a long life on this earth. It was from this “little sign” that Victor Frankl decided to remain in Austria with his parents and the rest is history. He was taken to the concentration camps where he developed a therapy and therapeutic approach that saved the lives of countless people in the concentration camps.
Sometimes it is the broken shards of the law that teach us the most important lessons in life.
Our tradition teaches us that the Holy of Holies section of the ancient temple in Jerusalem housed the ark of the covenant with the stones of the ten commandments. To which set of ten commandments are we referring ?
We know that when Moses descended the mountain and found the Israelites sinning with the golden calf he threw the two tablets with the ten commandments to the ground and shattered them. The midrash offers this dramatic vision of the shattered stones lying on the ground and the Hebrew letters flying upwards to heaven.
At that point G-d was pretty much thinking this whole Divine revelation to a chosen people was a bit ill conceived. He suggested un-choosing the Israelites but Moshe rejected this suggestion and prayed for their forgiveness and another 40 days later received a second set of tablets that remained whole and carried the words of the law for posterity.
Here’s where it gets interesting: The Talmud says that it was both the whole tablets and the broken tablets that were kept in the ark of the holy of holies in the temple.
This is quite shocking!
The broken tablets were the evidence of a people who turned against G-d at precisely the moment that they made their commitment to being faithful people. Or as the Talmud rather colourfully puts it – as a spouse desecrating the marriage covenant whilst still under the wedding canopy.
What possible benefit is there in keeping these broken tablets, a remnant of a disgraceful episode in our history and keeping them in the holiest location of all.
There are many explanations to this formidable question. Some relate this notion to the psychology of life where we carry our broken experiences alongside our whole ones.
Yet an even more profound explanation relates to the relationship between a fallible human and a perfect law.
Moses descended the mountain with great hope and fanfare celebrating the monumental occasion of delivering the law to the people holding tablets stating ten of the most critical commandments. Lo and behold he finds the people desecrating the very first two commands on the tablets.
I can almost picture Moses looking up at the frenzied scene in front of him of the people worshipping a golden calf and then back down at the tablets that explicitly forbid this. Looking at the people; back at the tablets and thinking well this isn’t gonna work…
At that point Moshe, our leader and teacher, had a stunning and simple choice. Something has to go; the people or the law.
And Moshe, spontaneously and instinctively, cast down the law shattering it into pieces.
And the people endured.
He chose the people over the law. Not because the law isn’t important or holy, it certainly is, but because no matter how valuable the teachings or law is, it is worthless without the people to bear its teachings and practice its principles.
This might sound controversial but the tablets and indeed the Torah despite being filled with sanctity and life changing ideas, is an inanimate object containing abstract ideas.
It is the practice of these ideas by humankind that gives the Torah its true meaning and life. If (and when) we fail there is no other choice but to reboot and start again.
In the final words of the entire Torah, Moshe is regaled for the acts and decisions he made before ‘’the eyes of all Israel.” Rashi, the most famous 11th Century Torah scholar, comments that the final words of the Torah are alluding to Moshe’s greatest act – the shattering of the tablets.
This is Moshe’s greatest act? The final word on Moses? The final message of the whole Torah? The greatest prophet who threw G-ds word to the ground and shattered the law!
Every year we commemorate the day of the giving of the Torah on the 6th of Sivan and then 40 days later we commemorate the destruction of the tablets on the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz.
It is a sad day because it teaches us of the fallibility of human decision making but it is also a hallowed day because from within the broken shards Moshe taught us his greatest lesson of all.
A body of laws and ideas needs living – even if fallible – practitioners to bring its words to life.
One day on the eve of the festival of the giving of the Torah, someone walked into the shul and gifted me with a broken folio of torah she had found in an antique shop in rural Morocco. Perhaps serendipitously the section she gave me was precisely the description of the festival we would commemorate that night. The giving of Torah and the ten commandments.
I looked at this broken piece of the Torah and was reminded of the shattered stones of Moses that rested in the holy of holies.
Our responsibility is to be the living bearers and practitioners of the law. We carry it. We teach it. We practice it. We give it its life as it gives us our life.
Speaking of those who bear the law with such distinction I want to acknowledge all of you who come in every year for this service and for the work that you do throughout the year. This year we pay special homage to Justice Weinberg as he comes to the conclusion of this phase of his career for bearing and applying the law with such integrity.
I also just wish to say a personal thank you to Justice Kaye on behalf of our shul and the entire community for without your enthusiasm and encouragement this important service may well have faded.
Every year I receive a thank you with the Supreme Courts letterhead and before I open it I’m always certain that some of the unsavoury actions of my troubled youth have finally caught up with me, but no they are a most dignified and heartfelt letter of thanks from Justice Kaye for hosting the legal year service. You deserve our appreciation for bearing the spirit and the practice of our law with dignity and integrity. And thank you to Raph, Ruth, Bronwyn, Sam, Didi, Adam, Danny and Paul and all who contribute to this service.
I wish you all a successful year in your most hallowed role of being at the forefront of those who are the living bearers and practitioners of the law in our community.
Between 1993 and 2005 I worked as a librarian at the Makor (now Lamm) Library, which had begun a program called Write Your Story to help people write and publish their autobiographies. In 1998 when their first anthology was to be published, the library staff were asked to contribute in order to fill out its contents. I wrote the story below at that time and have not changed it since.
Cleveland, Ohio, has been home to a vibrant Jewish community since the turn of the century. In fact, by 1920 Jews represented 9% of the population; they currently number about 60,000. I grew up in the comfortable middle-class suburb of Cleveland Heights, where my siblings and I walked to the local primary school and attended the nearby Presbyterian Church. Our neighbours were Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists, as far as I knew. I never questioned the absence of our father at church every Sunday; after all, he had two jobs, was studying for his MD and was hardly around anyway.
I don’t remember hearing anything about Jews until I was ten. My paternal grandparents, who lived in Montreal, had sent me a Queen Elizabeth doll on the occasion of her coronation. After writing the requisite thank-you note, I asked my mother for their first names and address. She told me that their last name was not Leonards, like ours, but Rabinovitch, which was a Jewish name. My father, she said, had changed it when he went to university because his future would be better if he didn’t have a Jewish-sounding name. I don’t remember thinking anything very much about this seemingly startling piece of information. It had no effect on my daily life and I certainly never contemplated asking my father about it.
Only years later did I learn anything more of my father’s mysterious Jewish origins. I would learn that he was the elder of two sons, always his mother’s favourite and the focus of the ambition born of her Russian immigrant experience in the Jewish area of Montreal. Although he gained entry to McGill (the premier English-speaking university) under the Jewish quota as Jacob Rabinovitch (needing to score 25% higher than non-Jews), he soon saw that he would never be accepted in the ‘right’ circles with his name. Getting his mother (clearly the decision-maker in the family) to agree was apparently not too difficult and he thus became Jack Leonards, his middle name being Leonard, with the ‘s’ added to give uniqueness.
When war broke out in 1939 he was completing undergraduate studies in science. He set his sights on a future in the United States, where research opportunities existed and the draft thus far did not. Virginia Polytechnic Institute offered him scholarship money and over the next two years he got master’s degrees in chemistry and nutrition and began dating my mother. They married in late 1941. Somehow my father kept his bride ignorant of his background and his mother unaware of his marriage. They moved to Cleveland, where my father was to gain his PhD in biochemistry and where his deception was revealed. His brother, sent by his mother, arrived on the doorstep to be greeted by his unknown sister-in-law and two nieces. I never learned of his mother’s reaction to this news.
We visited my grandparents in Montreal on several occasions in my childhood. They lived in an ‘apartment’, not in a house like us. I remember cooking smells that were unfamiliar to me, though I don’t remember what we ate. We went to a place where bagels were being made; I do remember the delights of eating the warm rolls, as we called them. Uncle Izzy had a dry goods store, where my sister and I were given new dresses. My mother later told me that my sister had overheard our grandparents speaking a different language. When she asked our father what they were speaking, his reply was ‘French’! My father’s work as a professor in biochemistry and as a research physician brought him into close contact with members of the Cleveland medical community, many of whom were Jewish. At a party one night, my mother later recounted, a friend approach them saying, ‘Come on, Jack, I’m Jewish and I know you are too. Why don’t you just say so?’ My father’s response was to grab his wife’s hand, saying, ‘Come on, Betty, we’re leaving,’ and turn his back on an astonished friend.
When I was twelve, my father had to move out of the house. He had a ‘drinking problem’ and his increasingly intolerable behaviour was making our lives miserable. His departure was a relief to us all. My own relationship with him had always been fraught with fear and discomfort. I stayed out of his way; when asked, I did what he wanted with complete compliance. I hated the corporal punishment he inflicted on my three brothers and admired the way my older sister stood up to him in support of our mother. My own cowardice was a source of shame to me. I avoided seeing my father in the ensuing years, although he made some effort to re-establish a relationship with me. I told him that I was ‘busy with my own life.’ I was not to revisit my paternal grandmother until I was close to thirty and in the process of converting to Judaism.
Free of the anxiety of my father’s presence, I launched into a very successful high school career. Cleveland Heights High School gathered students from four junior high schools, three of which had very high percentages of Jewish students. I came from the one that had none (that I knew of, anyway). At Heights, everyone got along very well – we just didn’t socialise outside school hours; interfaith dating was uncommon. In my senior year I briefly went out with a Jewish boy, but his parents pressured him into returning to his Jewish girlfriend.
After graduating, I was awarded a four-year scholarship to a small liberal arts college in Ohio. My freshman class boasted one black and one Jew! My Jewish friend from high school wrote letters from Harvard, so when I finished up in Boston after graduating, he looked me up. We were married a year later. At his parents’ request, we went to see a rabbi, who might have agreed to marry us if only I hadn’t burst into tears at the suggestion. I could not contemplate the hurt it would inflict on my mother and on her four maiden aunts who had nurtured us all after the ‘dreadful’ way things with my father had turned out.
We lived a kind of non-aligned university life, my husband and I. The only taste of Jewish life I experienced was our yearly trip to Cleveland for Passover. I don’t remember a Haggadah being opened, though we may have spilled a few drops of wine. What I’ve never forgotten are the verbal exchanges, their volume and animation, which I would have called serious fighting but which my in-laws somehow treated as perfectly normal. In my home such behaviour would have been considered disrespectful and impolite. Yet I could see that this family shared an open affection and acceptance that I greatly admired. Nonetheless, five years later I walked out of that marriage and into the arms of my second Jewish man.
This time the question of converting was my own initiative. I remember my thinking centring around the importance of finding a sense of community for myself, as I was approaching the age of thirty. I also believed that my attraction to Jewish men pointed towards a need to establish a link with my father through his past, as I was not very interested in him in the present. I also sensed the importance of making the commitment to Judaism for my future parents-in-law, both survivors of Russian work camps during the Holocaust. The mechanics of the process in Toronto were expeditious and painless: weekly classes (with a written exam at the end), a connection with a Jewish family (cousins of my partner) and immersion in the mikvah.
Before leaving for Australia in 1974, I visited my father to say farewell and to discover his reaction to my becoming Jewish. When I told him, he looked away, telling me that he’d been to Australia for medical conferences, where he found the telephone service total inadequate and where he couldn’t even book a plane ticket after 5 pm. I never saw my father again. He died five years later, aged 59, never having achieved his lifelong ambition of winning a Nobel Prize. At the memorial service we held at his home, colleagues told us they believe he could have, if only …
Converting to Judaism took six months; becoming Jewish took at least ten years. In 1985, on a visit to the U.S., I realised that everything about my mother’s home and lifestyle seemed foreign (goyish is what I really thought) to me. What took another ten years to learn was that I could not turn my back on the first 30 years of my life, on the American Protestant values that persisted despite my best efforts to ignore them. I had not denied my origins, as my father had; instead I denigrated or dismissed most aspects of my background. The process of learning to accept and integrate my past has been not only a challenge but also full of ironies. In 1991 I returned to Cleveland for the 30th anniversary of my high school graduation. I felt immediately at home, as the predominantly Jewish gathering could have been a wedding or bar mitzvah in Melbourne. I even danced with my first husband. A few years ago I began going to shul on Shabbat, which in my marriage we had never done, but which I see as akin to my attending church as a child – only the day and venue have changed.
My father’s self-imposed exile, despite its tragic side, also had its ironies. After his death the Cleveland Jewish News ran his obituary! He might have denied his being Jewish, but the community claimed him. His daughter in Australia can say Kaddish for him. Surely we never fully understand the paths our lives take, but I have come to believe that my parents’ choice of my name was more than a simple coincidence.
I am a fabled Jew of the North, of the red lipstick wearing, Radio National quoting, back yard chook owner variety. I am conversant in acronyms, grant writing idioms and the bureau speak of the not for profit sector from my day job and I can wax lyrical for hours about the perils, pleasures and pitfalls of doing stand up comedy, but the language of orthodoxy sometimes leaves me flummoxed.
The tenets of doing stand-up comedy for me are; fear, failure and humiliation. Laughter from the audience is strangely secondary to being able to control all three tenets at once.
When I go to the synagogue I love as an Inner city Jew, my lack of understanding about Orthodoxy feels similar; but private, without a spotlight glaring down on me and my palpable discomfort inhaled deeply by the audience.
I go to the shule in the city, not because it saves me the schlep of a Southside shule, where I know that there are more liberal options, but because I feel like it is my spiritual homeland, because it’s old and calming and the Rabbi and his wife, despite my complete lack of understanding about so many things are warm, friendly and welcoming.
Like the time I go to shule, to an event promoted in the small magazine posted out to me as a ‘spine tingling event,’ a night of nights.
As I approach the throng gathered outside I know that the greeting isn’t ‘Good Shabbos’ but maybe it’s ‘Chag sameach’, then someone nods and says ‘Good Yontif.’
‘Good Yontif’ I reply. That’s the greeting for tonight’s event: ‘Good Yontif.’
I climb the stairs with other women, the paint is peeling in parts and the walls are thick, cold and very, very old.
I look around as everyone does, to check out who is there.
The Rabbi begins talking. The men are doing that thing they do, seemingly in a private space, but so publicly; swaying and moving their lips silently.
I feel vaguely foolish and gauche, wearing a turquoise sweater, printed skirt and a red scarf, many of the women are dressed in black and some, including the Rabbi’s wife are in white.
Around me there are writers, philanthropists, gallery owners, sons of men who have been barmitzved there, wives and husbands who have been married in this, the oldest synagogue in Melbourne. They appear to know precisely what to do, say and wear.
One of the Rabbi’s sons is taking a book from where the Rabbi stands. I have not even bothered to get a book, because I know that my eyes will only scan the pages. I want instead to just feel the words and not have to flick through the pages, never sure if I am on the right one or not.
Another of the Rabbi’s sons runs into the now packed shule, he is around 6 or 7. This is his life, the rituals, his father speaking, praying and swaying amongst people. The young boy doesn’t look bored, but open and accepting.
I think of my own two children, 2 girls aged 10 and 17. If they were here, they would be sighing and asking when it will all be over, so that they may get back to their screens and to the spaces that they understand.
The open look on the Rabbi’s son’s face makes me think about respect and it makes me wonder which of the Rabbi’s boys will become a Rabbi themselves, and which of them might throw their hands up and reject it all.
I look at the Rabbis wife, she is slim and beautiful, and she always looks happy. I wonder if she is happy because she need not look any further, because this is her life and she is satisfied with it. I wonder is she is happy because she has chosen this life, or maybe it has chosen her. I think about what that must be like, if she grew up knowing that she would marry a Rabbi, the rituals and traditions grounding her in someway and offering a deep and nourishing meaning to her life
Sometimes I catch my reflection in a shop window and so often I don’t look happy, because I am always striving to be better, busier, more competent, more involved. More, more, more and so very rarely just being. So when I am silent in the shule that night, and on other nights, just watching and following and never quite understanding, it is a stillness that brings me calm and in a strange way contentment.
I can sing ‘Morning has broken, like the first morning’, I can recite ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, and I want to follow.’ I can sing ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ but I cannot sing this song on this night of Yom Kippur. My schooling in North East England was entrenched in the Church of England, Judaism was not there in that space, ever.
The rituals continue. I am still and calm. The Rabbi begins to tell us about this ancient night of prayer and song.
Everyone laughs as the Rabbi describes his son hitting his own chest so hard as he said the sins out loud, that he fell over.
We are asked to repeat the sins and hit ourselves on our chests: not to gossip, not to over eat, to be kind and good.
I wish there was one to say don’t worry, just relax unless you’ve been taught this stuff from birth then how can you know it all?
As the scrolls are brought upstairs after the men have kissed and touched them, I am afraid that a spotlight will suddenly shine upon me and highlight my lack of understanding.
The lady next to me pushes chairs aside and pulls me by the arm:
‘You must’ she says, ‘it’s only once a year, you must touch the scrolls. I am a project engineer I can make this work.’
She gestures to the young man carrying the scrolls. I touch the silken cloth, I sit down quickly, feeling embarrassed that a fuss has been made.
Then the songs and words and the rituals begin to soothe once more. I am still, because this place connects me deeply with my past: to my family, to those who perished in camps, to those who have come for thousands of years before me. The Hebrew writing that I do not understand is like a set of symbols that has been the warp and weft in my world, but never enmeshed into a landscape that I can truly understand.
I watch the Rabbi and his wife greet the congregants as they leave. They look like a new bride and groom, thanking well-wishers on their nuptials.
‘It was lovely,’ I hear people say, ‘such a lovely evening.’ Like they have been to the theatre, or out to dinner.
We spill out into the wet night, moving back into our own worlds, my sense of fear, humiliation and failure ebbing like the sound of fading laughter.
What will we think
When we look back?
How will we change
And be changed?
My little minyan,
Older than the Era,
Have we ever before –
Before the Roman,
Or before Inquisitor
Or in the camps –
Ceased to foregather?
I’ve bewailed Jerusalem
Alone, in the outback,
‘How, sitteth the city alone’,
I can do that again.
But one hundred notes
Of the shofar –
The horn that shook
The mount in its smoke –
Who will hear
From so far?
And how do we atone
And we want to atone.
We asked, Who by fire?
And the fires replied:
We asked, Who by water?
And the floods spoke:
Two – in Queensland.
And we asked, Who by plague?
And the plague is still counting
And the aged dead are mounting.
Even ‘though we prayed,
Cast me not off
In old age.
On the Eighth Day
Of Solemn Assembly
He said, He’d miss us.
I haven’t missed God:
From my deeps,
(my particular deeps)
I have called Him,
And I have felt Him close.
But I have missed my minyan –
‘We few, we happy few,
We band of brothers’ –
Where we treated God
As we treated one another –
As a brother.
The prophet said –
He, of the broken heart,
Forsaken, cut off, alone –
‘I will betroth thee
I will betroth thee
And with justice
And with compassion;
I will betroth thee
And you will know Hashem.’