Our Parsha reading this week is all about 'stepping up to the plate'. Its title is taken from the Book of Numbers, chapters 8-12.
The Hebrew name of our Parsha reading, Beha'alotecha, literally means 'when you cause yourself to rise'. It is usually translated, however, as 'kindling the lamps' in the Mishkan/Tabernacle. As is so often the case in Hebrew, both are correct. We no longer have Aaron or the Mishkan, but we do have ourselves, and of course writing as a Jew, it is our faith that it is the Jewish people who are now called to be 'a kingdom of priests and a holy people.'
Therefore it seems singularly fitting that the contemporary Jewish person who reads this text is able to relate it to him or herself. And for the modern reader, I suggest that 'stepping up to the plate' is as good a rendition as any for what Numbers is saying to us.
These have been some of the darkest days in Jewish history – first the disaster at Meron, which I chronicled in my previous article, and now the experience of hatred against Jews in Israel and Jews in diaspora alike. It is at times like this when the relevant Parsha reading can bring solace and comfort to even the most seasoned writer.
But what does 'stepping up to the plate' actually mean.
I have to confess that in my younger days, I always thought this phrase meant taking your turn to be fed. Brought up in an England still reeling from strict food rationing, and then 'fed' on tales of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, as well as the musical 'Oliver', surely 'stepping up to the plate' meant 'not missing out', and even – if pushed (and if you were lucky), like Oliver, 'daring to ask for more'.
But then, later in life, I 'put away childish things' so to speak, and confronted my own early assumptions. I took the trouble to look into the phrase 'stepping up to the plate' and was shocked by where the evidence led. Not only wasn't this most English-sounding of phrases English at all, it was actually (perish the thought!) American.
And not only was 'stepping up to the plate' an American concept, but it was to do with that most American of sports – alien to most of us on this side of the pond – the national American sport of baseball.
In American baseball it appears that there is a new and technical significance to the term 'plate', which means 'to take your turn at taking responsibility'.
So, I discovered as an adult that my earlier assumptions were completely wrong. But why had I made this mistake? For two separate reasons, from which I suggest most of us could learn a great deal.
First, I took the terms 'step up' and 'plate' literally and out of their further context. And secondly, I had no idea that the word 'plate' could have a number of meanings or that language can be manipulated for our own ends.
But why the initial misunderstandings in the first place? The answer probably goes something like this. In this country, we are 'fed' practically from birth a whole lot of 'propaganda' about nasty Jews called Fagin, and lovely suffering people like Nancy and Oliver, and blustering bullies like Mr Bumble and ordinarily nasty people such as Bill (who 'understandably' murders Nancy in a drunken fit of jealousy).
But none of these typically English characters comes over as intrinsically evil. They all have failings – yes – like the rest of us. But none is the devil incarnate as is the Jew, Fagin, of course, that absolute epitome of the genetically depraved Jewish male child-abuser of murderous stealth (who is merely the product of a crazed imagination – in this case of the author, Charles Dickens, still much loved and admired and buried – naturally – in Westminster Abbey).
In other words, none of these characters except 'the Jew', Fagin, lives up to the reputation of 'the eternal Jew' or 'der ewige Jude', as it was translated from Dickens into 20th-century appropriate Nazi-speak – and then seamlessly morphed (no, definitely not joking) into the 21st-century propaganda sheets of a number of contemporary aid agencies in Gaza and surrounds.
And where do most 'Fagins' live now? Why, in what the French ambassador to the Court of St James is alleged to have called 'that shitty little country', the State of Israel of course.
As for the Jews still living in North America and the tiny remnant still surviving in the UK and Europe? Of completely no account whatsoever in the minds of people who count.
So, what better than to go after these Jews – who actually behave as Jesus would have – rather than the present murderous, and duly elected, Palestinian regime in Gaza, which has exterminated all its Palestinian enemies, and every 6 or 7 years restarts its cycles of onslaughts on the Jews once again.
On 1 January 2008, Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill's official biographer, expert on the Holocaust and one of the brains behind the Imperial War Museum, made a guest appearance on Jerusalem's Channel 12. He was asked his views of Hamas, who had been elected into office by the Palestinian population in Gaza, and had subsequently set about destroying the greenhouses erected for them by the Israelis who had been asked to do so by the Palestinians. And for good measure, the elected Hamas authority also wiped out the remaining remnants of Fatah residents in that area.
We all know that it is impossible for aid agencies, workers, the UN, or any other group or individual to set foot in Gaza without the prior and continued approval of the Hamas regime. Therefore anyone taking those steps must be considered as collaborators in the avowed goal of Hamas, which is to exterminate both the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.
Sir Martin Gilbert was aware of these facts, so that when asked by the interviewer what he thought of Hamas, he said the following: 'I don't understand you. You should have wiped out Hamas at source. They are even worse than Hitler. If you don't wipe them out now – eventually, they will wipe you out.'
This, then, is what is meant by 'stepping up to the plate', not 'asking for more', but 'taking responsibility'.
If 'stepping up to the plate' and 'telling it how it is' is what it's about, how does this week's Haftorah (prophetic reading) fit into the equation? Well, the prophet Zechariah (2.14-4.7) encourages Israel, known as 'the daughter of Zion' to 'sing and be glad ... for, just look, I [G-d] am coming and will dwell among you.'
Again, on first reading, this could simply be a Messianic injunction to a weakened Jewish people, personified as a woman [I know, I know, but this is no time for political correctness]. Just take a look at the verb translated as 'dwell'. This is the term 'sh-k-n', which should more accurately be rendered as 'indwell'.
This is the very same word as used in our parallel Parsha reading from Numbers for the construction which houses the Menorah (candelabra) and acts as a temporary and portable house of worship, i.e. the Mishkan. The term sh-k-n, whether in verb or in noun form (i.e. whether as 'indwelling', or 'the indwelling construction') depicts the most intimate type of proximity possible.
The sub-text for Zecharia is therefore that the Jews know that they have always been loved; they know that they are loved now at this moment; and they know that they always will be loved. No matter what the world throws at the Jews, G-d will continue to treasure the Jews as his special people – special because of the mission that they have always had in the world and will continue to do so. And this is, ironically why the Jews are also hated so much by the rest of the world.
Food for thought there.
So, next time you want to say or do something nasty about Jews, Judaism, Israel, or anything else to do with Jews (food maybe, or Hollywood musicals, Covid cures, high tech, humour etc etc), just hold back for one minute and think: Jesus was Jewish – what he taught was Judaism (especially the Sermon on the Mount) and I expect he would probably feel most at home in a synagogue based in the Galilee. I also bet that Jesus would be scratching his head and wondering why so many Christians back the enemies of Christianity and why the Jews – his own people - are so maligned by people who call themselves 'Christian' and follow after him.
So, instead of constantly asking for more of the same, why don't we step up to the plate once in a while and demonstrate that we are, deep down, made of finer stuff than we think.
Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.