Esther: the Book, the Woman, the power shifts.

The book of Esther is one of the last to be added to the Hebrew canon, for a number of reasons, not least that the name of God does not appear in it.  The book is a puzzle, filled with allusions and hinting at hidden depths. Even the name of the eponymous heroine, Esther, comes from the Hebrew root ‘s.t.r’ meaning ‘to conceal’ although it may of course be a Hebrew form of the name Ishtar the Babylonian goddess of love, war, fertility, and sexuality, or the Persian ‘satarah’ meaning a star.

It is also a book whose meaning is to be understood not at the surface level of the p’shat. Placed within the final section of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), the Ketuvim, it is firmly in the realm of ‘writings’ rather than ‘word of God’.  This book is not history in the sense of recording events that happened – it is history in the sense of revealing a continuing truth that speaks to each generation.

The book begins in the Persian capital of Shushan, with the King Ahasuerus hosting an enormous banquet for the nobles and princes of his province, a banquet which then grew to include the others in the fortress. Meanwhile Vashti the queen hosted her own banquet for the women and all went well until the King decided to require Vashti to come show herself and her great beauty to his guests, wearing the Royal crown. Vashti said no. Now much has been written about Vashti – how she was a feminist icon, her own woman.  Rabbinic tradition tells that she refused because she understood that she had been asked to come wearing ONLY the crown. Or that she had a tail!  There is also a midrash that says that Vashti was more royal than her husband (according to this she was the orphaned daughter of Belshazzar and Ahasuerus had been the steward in the stables of her father) and so she refused to obey him and show off the regal regalia.  Whatever her reason, Vashti said no and this sent the men’s banqueting company into a panic. The king and his advisors are worried that if she gets away with her refusal to obey her husband, then other women will get the idea that they too will not have to be compliant and obedient to theirs, and then who knows what would happen?

So Vashti is banished (some say executed) – not primarily for her act of disobedience, but “pour encourager les autres” ie to compel others not to copy her behaviour.  The text is unabashed and very clearly about the submission of women to men: “When the king’s decree will be published throughout the great kingdom, all wives will give honour to their husbands….and he sent letters…that every man should rule in his own house”.

When the king had calmed down (and we presume sobered up) he realised that he would want feminine company now that Vashti had gone, and his advisors once again had the solution. “Let there be sought for the king young virgins fair to look on, and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom so that they may gather together all the fair young virgins to Shushan the fortress to the house of the women…and let ointments be given them, and let the maiden that pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti” and this advice pleased the king. Choosing a wife in this way would mean choosing a young unformed girl who could be moulded to fit the wishes of her husband.

Esther appears as one of these virgins collected for the beauty contest whose prize was to be consort to the king. We meet her as an orphan, the daughter of Avihail and cousin of Mordecai, a Benjaminite. We learn very little about her as a person, but we find that she is described as beautiful that she is obedient to Mordecai’s instruction not to reveal her identity or Jewishness, that she finds favour in the eyes of the eunuch responsible for the women and she appears to be compliant with all that is asked of her.  The text also tells us that Mordecai is able to walk every day before the court of the women’s house, to know how Esther did, and what would become of her – unbelievable in any harem setting, and yet critical to the narrative. Mordecai retains control over Esther in this way  even though she is being groomed for the king.

Four years after the beauty contest had begun, Esther went to the King and he loved her and made her queen by placing the crown on her head, a worthy replacement for the beautiful Vashti.  And still Esther kept her Jewishness hidden, “for Esther did the commandment of Mordecai, like as when she was brought up with him”.

The narrative turns to a story whereby Mordecai discovers a plot against the king, who tells Esther, who in turn tells the king and clearly cites that the information came from Mordecai – but not apparently with the added information that he is a blood relative – and so the conspirators are examined, found guilty, and executed; and Mordecai’s name written in the book of chronicles of the king. Yet apparently no reward is given…..

Now we turn to Haman the Agagite, who is promoted above all the other princes and advisors and the king commands that everyone shall bow down before him. And so of course, everyone does – everyone but Mordecai – who said it was against his religion to bow down to a person. Haman decided to be rid of all the Jews in the empire.

This is five years after Esther had become queen – five years where she had not divulged her yichus, nor it seems has had a child. The king seems to be continuing with sampling the beautiful young virgins of the empire, and according to the Midrash Esther was not only keeping Shabbat (by virtue of having seven maidservants so that she always knew what day of the week it was), not only keeping kashrut as an early adopter of vegetarianism, but was also taking instruction from Mordecai about the laws of family purity – for what else would he be doing by walking in the by the court of the women’s house except keeping her on the halachic straight and narrow?

Lots (purim) were cast by Haman to decide the most propitious date for the pogrom against the Jews – it would be in Adar, eleven months hence. Haman set his trap. He told the King that “there is a certain people scattered and dispersed in all the provinces of your empire, and they have different laws from others, and they don’t obey your laws. It isn’t a good idea for you to have them in the empire, so set a decree that they should be destroyed, and I will pay a lot of silver into your treasury.  The King simply took his signet ring and gave it to Haman, saying that both the silver and the people were Haman’s to do whatever wanted. It seems a passive response, and inexplicable that the King would have refused the money raised from allowing the pogrom. And yet the narrative is unperturbed.

The decree was sent out throughout the empire, permitting the people to “destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.”  The King and Haman settled down to drink and the text records that the fortress of Shushan was perplexed. To them, if not to the narrator, this seemed bizarre.

Mordecai clothed himself in mourning clothing of sackcloth and ashes and paraded through the city and at the gate of the king. Through Hatach, a chamberlain of the King, Esther found out what was happening and Mordecai sent her a copy of the decree with the instruction that now was the time to go to the King and beg mercy for her people. But Esther told him she couldn’t. Unless the king summoned her she was at risk of death for approaching him; and worse – she hadn’t been summoned for a month – maybe she was losing her position in his affections.

But Mordecai’s words were chilling. “Don’t think you will survive safely if the rest of the Jews are attacked. You and your descendants will perish, even though deliverance will surely come from somewhere. And anyway, who knows, maybe this is the reason you have been led to your position in the harem?”

Esther seems to come into her own. In the first, and only, nod to religious ritual in the story, she demands that the Jews should fast for her for three days, and decides that she too will fast along with her handmaids, and after that she will go into the king unbidden. “And if I perish, I perish”. Sadly the midrash glosses this taking of power back into submission: the Babylonian tradition understands that Esther was in fact the wife of Mordecai as well as his cousin. This would mean her living in the harem of the king would constitute adultery, the punishment of which would be death. However, one could make the case for her being compelled to live with the king, and therefore the punishment mitigated, but should she voluntarily approach the king then this case fails and Esther becomes an adulteress and forbidden forever to Mordecai. Poor Esther, being asked to remove the lifesaving defence of compulsion….

But for now the tables are turned. Mordecai goes on his way “and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.” The power dynamic shifts – for now.

Esther approaches the King successfully and asks him to come with Haman for a feast that very day. At the feast, the king again asks her what she wants, and she replies that she will tell him tomorrow, if he comes again with Haman to another feast. Haman is overjoyed to be included in the feasting, but his mood darkens when he sees Mordecai at the gate, still refusing to bow to him. He keeps his cool and goes home where he tells his friends and Zeresh his wife of all the honours that have come his way, but says he cannot enjoy them as long as “Mordecai the Jew” is sitting at the gate. Zeresh and the friends offer advice – he should have a gallows built immediately, then in the morning get the permission from the king to hang Mordecai, and after that he will be able to enjoy his good fortune and high status.

But that night – another plot twist! The king cannot sleep, he asks for the book of records to be read to him and finds that Mordecai was never repaid for his information about the plot against the life of the king. Haman, come early to get permission for the hanging of Mordecai, is invited to offer suggestions on “What shall be done for the man whom the king delights to honour?” and Haman, so certain of his favour in the court asked himself: ‘Whom would the king delight to honour besides myself?’ and comes up with no contender. Thinking the king wants to honour him he suggests that such a man should be dressed by other noble princes in regal clothing complete with crown, settled on a horse and taken through the city with the proclamation “This is being done for a man that the king wishes to honour”

The king is delighted with the suggestion and tells Haman to carry it out on Mordecai. Afterwards Mordecai returned to the king’s gate and the humiliated Haman goes home. Haman’s friends and wife tell him that if Mordecai the Jew has prevailed over him, then it is a sign that he will fail in his quest to destroy all the Jews of the empire. At that moment, before he can really process the information, the servants come to take him to Esther’s banquet.

And it is getting worse for Haman. For the king now asks Esther what it is that she wants, and she replies that she would like her life and the life of her people who are condemned to be killed. When the king asks who has condemned them, she answers quite bluntly ‘An adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman.’

Haman is terrified. The king is furious. Esther is silent. The king goes into the garden to think, and Haman pleads for his life before the queen. In a moment of farce the king returns from the palace garden “into the place of the banquet of wine; and Haman was fallen upon the couch where Esther was. Then said the king: ‘Will he even force the queen before me in the house?’ ”

What happened while the king was outside? Did Esther engineer the situation as a tableau before his return? Did Haman trip and fall on her? The text doesn’t tell us. But we know now that Esther, compliant and beautiful, has also been strategic and thoughtful in getting her request met. She is not an ignorant young girl at this point, but a mature woman who has been queen for some time…

Haman is taken out and hanged on the gallows built for Mordecai, a lovely tidy twist to the story. His house was given to Esther, who also told the king of her relationship with Mordecai. Mordecai was promoted and given the king’s signet ring that had originally been given to Haman. And curiously it is Esther who then sets Mordecai over the house of Haman. No doubt now who is the boss in that relationship.

Esther then works to reverse the decree against the Jews engineered by Haman. She cries before the king and asks him to write new letters contradicting the original orders to destroy the Jews. But he cannot for the king’s letters signed with the king’s seal are immutable. Instead he suggests that as Esther is now in charge of the house of Haman, she and Mordecai can now send out other letters also signed with the seal of the king to inform them that “the king had granted to the Jews in every city that they gather themselves together and stand for their life, to destroy and to slay and to cause to perish all the forces of the people and the province that would assault them, their children and women, and to take the spoils.” They were to do this on one day – the 13th day of Adar.

This was seen as a great day for the Jews and many people in the Empire converted to Judaism. So when the date for the pogrom came around all the king’s officers were on the side of the Jews and it seems that there were relatively few enemies to slay throughout the empire – 75 thousand in total in that huge expanse of territory – except in Shushan itself. There 500 men and the ten sons of Haman were killed on the 13th Adar and 300 more on the 14th Adar but no spoils were taken.

The book then concludes with an explanation of the festival of Purim, to be kept throughout the generations and tells us that “Esther the queen, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordecai the Jew, wrote down all the acts of power, to confirm this second letter of Purim.” And that “the commandment of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in the book.”

Power seems to be firmly in the hands of Esther, but the book ends with an addendum that “For Mordecai the Jew was second to king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his fellows; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed.”

So what do we, as modern women, make of the story of Esther and the festival of Purim which the book attempts to explain?

We see that a vulnerable orphaned girl ends up a powerful woman. Having been compliant and obedient, passive in the hands of the men around her, she later reveals herself as being a woman with a shrewd strategic mind, who ends the story as a woman of great power and control, the owner of Haman’s estates, the writer of letters in the name of the King.

In this she forms a literary counter to Vashti, the woman who began the story with great power but whose choice to refuse her husband’s wishes in a public snub made her the ultimate powerless ‘outsider’.

But Esther does not use her tactical instincts and rise up to defend her people until she is reminded that even living in the palace would not protect her from sharing the fate decreed for her people. Only the realisation that she too is vulnerable makes her act.  In this we might see the pattern of abused women everywhere whose lack of confidence cause them to lose agency and accept with painful passivity until the moment when they finally realise the lack of choice – to act or to die.

It is generally accepted that the book of Esther is a late book, probably written @4th century BCE and it seems to be a polemic written for diaspora Jews to remind them that life will always be hard, there will always be people who hate them in the lands they are living in, and yet unlike modern rhetoric the book seems to be adding to this information that there are ways of dealing with this situation: contact with government, integration into the society, walking the fine line between accepting the mores of the country and taking a principled stand to retain Jewish identity.

I am always struck by the line from the havdalah service – the Jews had light, gladness joy and honour – so may we also” which is a reference to the book of Esther. It is placed liturgically at one of the most frightening times of the week, when Shabbat is going out and we are to face the world again, with all its uncertainty. The ‘extra soul’ departs until the following week, we are bereft and diminished. And we comfort ourselves with the words that come from the end of the book after all the fighting and fear that the Jews of the empire faced. Essentially we repeat each week that living in Diaspora is insecure, and yet we can do it. And more than that, we can grow in confidence and skills just like Esther.

written for Beit Deborah magazine

illustration from BL Hebrew Project digitised collection – the beauty parade with Esther

Esther: il libro, la donna, i cambi di potere.

Di Rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato il 13 marzo 2019

 

Il libro di Esther è uno degli ultimi ad essere stati aggiunti al canone ebraico, per una serie di motivi, non ultimo il fatto che il nome di Dio in esso non compare. Il libro è un puzzle, pieno di allusioni e indizi nascosti in profondità. Persino il nome dell’eroina eponima, Esther, deriva dalla radice ebraica “str” ​​che significa “nascondere” sebbene possa essere naturalmente una forma ebraica del nome Ishtar, la dea babilonese dell’amore, della guerra, della fertilità e della sessualità, o possa derivare dal persiano ‘satarah’ che significa stella.

 

È anche un libro il cui significato non si comprende restando al livello superficiale dello peshat (uno dei quattro metodi esegetici del testo, corrispondente al significato letterale, ndt). Il libro Ketuvim, gli Agiografi, collocato all’interno della sezione finale del Tanach (la Bibbia ebraica), è saldamente nel regno degli “scritti” invece  che in quello della “parola di Dio”. Questo libro non è storia nel senso di registrazione di eventi accaduti: è storia nel senso di rivelazione di una verità continua che parla ad ogni generazione.

 

Il libro inizia nella capitale persiana di Shushan, con il re Assuero che ospita un enorme banchetto per i nobili e i principi della sua provincia, un banchetto che poi cresce fino a includere altri nella fortezza. Nel frattempo Vashti, la regina, organizza il proprio banchetto per le donne e tutto va bene finché il re non decide di chiedere a Vashti di venire a mostrarsi,  e mostrare la sua grande bellezza agli ospiti, indossando la corona reale. Vashti dice di no. Ora, molto è stato scritto su Vashti: su come sia un’icona femminista, una donna che appartiene a se stessa. La tradizione rabbinica dice che lei rifiuta perché capisce che le era stato chiesto di venire SOLO con la corona. O che avesse una coda! Vashti era più reale di suo marito, racconta un midrash in base al quale ella era la figlia orfana di Baldassarre, mentre Assuero era stato il maggiordomo nelle stalle di suo padre, e così lei rifiuta di obbedirgli e mostrare le insegne regali. Qualunque fosse la sua ragione, Vashti dice di no e questo manda la compagnia degli uomini al banchetto nel panico. Il re ed i suoi consiglieri sono preoccupati che se lei si allontana rifiutando di obbedire al marito, allora le altre donne avranno l’idea che anche loro potranno non essere obbedienti ai loro, e poi chissà che cosa potrebbe succedere?

 

Quindi Vashti viene bandita (alcuni dicono giustiziata), non principalmente per il suo atto di disobbedienza, ma per il suo “encourager les autres”, lo si fa quindi per evitare che altre donne imitino il suo comportamento. Il testo è sfacciato e molto chiaro sulla sottomissione delle donne agli uomini: “Quando il decreto del re sarà pubblicato in tutto il grande regno, tutte le mogli daranno onore ai loro mariti … e invierà lettere … che ogni uomo dovrebbe governare nella sua propria casa”.

 

Quando il re si fu calmato (e presumibilmente era tornato sobrio) si rese conto che avrebbe voluto una compagnia femminile ora che Vashti se n’era andata, e che i suoi consiglieri avevano ancora una volta la soluzione. “Si cerchino per il re, giovani vergini, belle da vedere, e che il re nomini ufficiali in tutte le province del suo regno perché riuniscano tutte le belle e giovani vergini a Shushan, la fortezza, nella casa delle donne … e che siano dati loro unguenti, e che la fanciulla che piace al re sia regina invece di Vashti” e questo consiglio piacque al re. Scegliere una moglie in questo modo avrebbe significato scegliere una giovane ragazza non ancora formata che avrebbe potuto essere modellata per soddisfare i desideri di suo marito.

 

Esther appare come una di queste vergini raccolte per il concorso di bellezza il cui premio era di essere consorte del re. La incontriamo come un’orfana, la figlia di Avihail e cugina di Mordechai, un Beniaminita. Sappiamo molto poco su di lei come persona, ma scopriamo che è descritta come bella e che è ubbidiente alle istruzioni di Mordechai di non rivelare la sua identità o ebraicità, che trova favore negli occhi dell’eunuco responsabile delle donne e sembra accondiscendere a tutte le richieste che le vengono poste. Il testo ci dice anche che Mordechai è in grado di camminare ogni giorno davanti al cortile della casa delle donne, per sapere come stia Esther e cosa ne sarà di lei, cosa incredibile per un qualsiasi harem, e tuttavia critica per la narrazione. Mordechai mantiene il controllo su Esther in questo modo anche mentre la stanno preparando per il re.

 

Quattro anni dopo che la gara di bellezza era iniziata, Esther andò dal re e lui la amò e la fece regina mettendo la corona sulla sua testa, degna sostituta della bellissima Vashti. E ancora Esther teneva nascosta la sua ebraicità, “perchè Esther obbediva al comando di Mordechai, come quando era cresciuta con lui”.

 

La narrazione si trasforma in una storia in cui Mordechai scopre un complotto contro il re, lo racconta a Esther, che a sua volta lo racconta al re e cita chiaramente che l’informazione viene da Mordechai, ma apparentemente non aggiunge l’informazione di essergli consanguinea, e così i cospiratori sono esaminati, vengono giudicati colpevoli e giustiziati; e il nome di Mordechai viene scritto nel libro delle cronache del re. Eppure a quanto pare non viene data alcuna ricompensa…

 

Ora ci rivolgiamo ad Haman l’Agagita, che era stato promosso al di sopra di tutti gli altri principi e consiglieri e il re comandò che tutti si inchinassero davanti a lui. E così, naturalmente tutti fecero, tutti tranne Mordechai, che disse che inchinarsi davanti a una persona era contro la sua religione. Haman decise di sbarazzarsi di tutti gli ebrei nell’impero.

 

Sono passati cinque anni da quando Esther era diventata regina,  cinque anni in cui non aveva reso noto il suo yichus, né sembra che avesse avuto un figlio. Il re continuava a provare le belle giovani vergini dell’impero, e secondo il midrash Esther non stava solo osservando lo Shabbat (in virtù di avere sette schiave in modo da sapere sempre in quale giorno della settimana fosse), non solo osservando la casherut, come una dei primi ad adottare il vegetarianismo, ma stava anche ricevendo istruzioni da Mordechai sulle leggi della purezza familiare, per quale altro motivo egli sarebbe entrato nella corte della casa delle donne se non per mantenerla strettamente in linea con le regole halachiche?

 

Haman tirò delle sorti (purim) per decidere la data più propizia per il pogrom contro gli ebrei: sarebbe stato ad Adar, dopo undici mesi. Haman pose la sua trappola. Disse al Re “c’è un certo popolo disperso in tutte le province del vostro impero, e ha leggi diverse dagli altri, e non obbedisce alle vostre leggi. Non è una buona idea per voi averlo nell’impero, quindi stabilite un decreto per distruggerlo, e io aggiungerò molto argento al vostro tesoro. Il Re semplicemente prese il suo anello col sigillo e lo diede ad Haman, dicendo che sia l’argento sia il popolo erano di Haman e che avrebbe potuto farne qualsiasi cosa volesse. Il rifiuto del re di accettare il denaro raccolto per permettere il pogrom sembra una risposta passiva, e inspiegabile. Eppure la narrazione è imperturbata.

 

Il decreto fu inviato in tutto l’impero, permettendo al popolo di “distruggere, uccidere e far morire tutti gli ebrei, giovani e meno giovani, bambini e donne in un solo giorno, nel tredicesimo giorno del dodicesimo mese, che è il mese di Adar, e fare bottino. “Il re e Haman si accomodarono per bere e il testo riporta che la fortezza di Shushan era perplessa. Per loro, se non per il narratore, questo sembrava strano.

 

Mordechai si rivestì di abiti da lutto di sacco e di cenere e sfilò per la città e alla porta del re. Attraverso Hatach, un ciambellano del re, Esther scoprì cosa stava succedendo e Mordechai le mandò una copia del decreto con le istruzioni che ora era il momento di andare dal re e chiedere pietà per il suo popolo. Ma Esther gli disse che non poteva: era a rischio di esser messa a morte se si fosse avvicinata a lui a meno che il re stesso non l’avesse chiamata e, peggio ancora, non era stata convocata da un mese,  forse stava perdendo la sua posizione negli affetti del re.

 

Ma le parole di Mordechai erano agghiaccianti. “Non pensare che sopravvivrai in sicurezza se il resto degli ebrei sarà attaccato. Tu e la tua discendenza perirete, anche se la liberazione da qualche parte sicuramente arriverà. E comunque, chissà, forse questa è la ragione per cui sei stata condotta nella tua posizione nell’harem?”.

 

Esther mostra le proprie qualità. Nel primo, e unico, cenno del rituale religioso nella storia, chiede che gli ebrei digiunino per lei per tre giorni, e decide che anche lei digiunerà insieme alle sue ancelle, e dopo di ciò andrà dal re senza nascondersi. “E se perisco, perisco”. Purtroppo il midrash rimprovera questa presa di potere alla sottomissione: la tradizione babilonese intende che Esther fosse in effetti la moglie di Mordechai e sua cugina. Ciò significherebbe che la sua vita nell’harem del re costituirebbe adulterio, la cui punizione sarebbe la morte. Tuttavia, si potrebbe giustificare il fatto che fosse costretta a vivere con il re, e quindi la punizione era attenuata, ma se lei si fosse avvicinata volontariamente al re, allora questo caso non avrebbe ragione d’essere e Esther diventerebbe un’adultera e quindi proibita per sempre a Mordechai. Povera Esther, le viene chiesto di rimuovere la difesa salvavita della costrizione ….

 

Ma per ora le carte in tavola sono diverse. Mordechai andò per la sua strada “e fece tutto quello che Esther gli aveva comandato”. Al momento la dinamica del potere è spostata.

 

Esther si avvicina al re con successo e gli chiede di venire con Haman per una festa proprio quel giorno. Alla festa, il re le chiede di nuovo ciò che vuole, e lei risponde che glielo dirà l’indomani, se verrà di nuovo con Haman ad un’altra festa. Haman è felicissimo di essere incluso nel banchetto, ma il suo umore si oscura quando al cancello vede Mordechai, che nuovamente si rifiuta di inchinarsi a lui. Si mantiene tranquillo e torna a casa dove dice ai suoi amici e a Zeresh sua moglie di tutti gli onori che gli sono stati offerti, ma dice che non può goderseli finché ” Mordechai l’ebreo” è seduto al cancello. Zeresh e gli amici offrono consigli: dovrebbe costruire immediatamente una forca, poi al mattino ottenere il permesso dal re di impiccarvi Mordechai, e dopo sarà in grado di godere della sua buona fortuna e dello status elevato.

 

Ma quella notte: un altro colpo di scena! Il re non riesce a dormire, chiede il libro dei documenti da leggere e trova che Mordechai non è mai stato ripagato per le sue informazioni sul complotto contro la vita del re. Haman, arriva presto per ottenere il permesso per l’impiccagione di Mordechai, ed è invitato a offrire suggerimenti su “che cosa deve essere fatto per l’uomo che il re si diletta ad onorare” e Haman, così certo del suo favore nella corte, si chiede: “chi il re sarebbe deliziato di onorare oltre me stesso?”, e non presenta alcun contendente. Pensando che il re voglia onorarlo, suggerisce che un tale uomo dovrebbe essere vestito da altri nobili principi con abiti regali completi di corona, sistemato a cavallo e portato in giro per la città con la proclamazione “Questo è stato fatto per un uomo che il re desidera onorare”.

 

Il re è soddisfatto del suggerimento e dice ad Haman di applicarlo a Mordechai. In seguito Mordechai torna alla porta del re e l’umiliato Haman torna a casa. Gli amici e la moglie di Haman gli dicono che se Mordechai l’ebreo ha prevalso su di lui, allora è un segno che fallirà nella sua tentativo di distruggere tutti gli ebrei dell’impero. In quel momento, prima che possa davvero elaborare le informazioni, i servitori arrivano per portarlo al banchetto di Esther.

 

E per Haman le cose stanno peggiorando. Poichè il re ora chiede ad Esther cosa vuole, e lei risponde che vorrebbe salva la sua vita e la vita del suo popolo che è condannato a essere ucciso. Quando il re chiede chi li ha condannati, risponde in modo abbastanza schietto “un avversario e un nemico, proprio questo malvagio Haman”.

 

Haman è terrorizzato. Il re è furioso. Esther è silenziosa. Il re va nel giardino a pensare, e Haman implora per la sua vita davanti alla regina. In un momento farsesco il re ritorna dal giardino del palazzo nel luogo del banchetto delle libagioni; e Haman giace caduto sul divano dove stava Esther. Quindi il re dice: “Costringerà addirittura la regina dinnanzi a me in questa casa?”

 

Cosa è successo mentre il re era fuori? Esther ha progettato la situazione come un tableau prima del suo ritorno? Haman si è spostato ed è caduto su di lei? Il testo non ce lo dice, ma ora sappiamo che Esther, compiacente e bella, è stata anche strategica e riflessiva nell’ottenere la sua richiesta soddisfatta. Lei a questo punto non è una ragazza inconsapevole, ma una donna matura che è stata regina per qualche tempo …

 

Haman viene portato fuori e impiccato sulla forca costruita per Mordechai, un bel colpo di scena alla storia. La sua casa è data a Esther, che racconta anche al re della suo rapporto di parentela con Mordechai. Mordechai è promosso e riceve l’anello con sigillo del re che era stato originariamente dato ad Haman. E curiosamente è Esther che poi colloca Mordechai nella casa di Haman. Nessun dubbio su chi ora in quel rapporto sia il capo.

 

Esther poi lavora per invertire il decreto contro gli ebrei progettato da Haman. Ella piange davanti al re e gli chiede di scrivere nuove lettere in contraddizione con gli ordini originali di distruggere gli ebrei. Ma egli non può perchè le lettere del re, firmate con il suo sigillo, sono immutabili. Invece suggerisce che siccome Esther è ora responsabile della casa di Haman, lei e Mordechai possono inviare altre lettere, firmate anche con il sigillo del re, per informare che “il re aveva concesso agli ebrei in ogni città di radunarsi e difendere la loro vita, per distruggere e uccidere e far morire tutte le forze del popolo e della provincia che avessero ad assalire gli ebrei, i loro figli e le loro donne, e prendere il bottino. “Dovevano fare questo in un giorno, il tredicesimo giorno di Adar.

 

Questo fu visto come un grande giorno per gli ebrei e molte persone nell’impero si convertirono all’ebraismo. Così, quando arrivò la data del pogrom, tutti gli ufficiali del re erano dalla parte degli ebrei e sembra che ci fossero relativamente pochi nemici da uccidere in tutto l’impero: settantacinquemila in totale in quell’immensa distesa di territorio, tranne che nella stessa Shushan. Lì cinquecento uomini e dieci figli di Haman furono uccisi il tredici di Adar e altri trecento il quattordici di Adar, ma non venne preso alcun bottino.

 

Il libro si conclude quindi con una spiegazione della festa di Purim, da serbare attraverso le generazioni e ci dice che “la regina Esther, la figlia di Abihail, e Mordechai l’ebreo, scrissero tutti gli atti di potere, per confermare questa secondo lettera di Purim.” e che “il comandamento di Esther confermava queste questioni di Purim; ed è stato scritto nel libro.”

 

Il potere sembra essere saldamente nelle mani di Ester, ma il libro termina con un addendum: “Perchè Mordechai l’ebreo era secondo al re Assuero, e grande tra gli ebrei, e accettato dalla moltitudine dei suoi simili; cercando il bene del suo popolo e parlando di pace a tutti i suoi discendenti”.

 

Allora, cosa facciamo noi, come donne moderne, della storia di Ester e della festa di Purim che il libro tenta di spiegare?

 

Vediamo che una ragazza orfana vulnerabile finisce col diventare una donna potente. Essendo stata obbediente e passiva nelle mani degli uomini intorno a lei, si rivela in seguito come una donna con una mente strategica acuta, che conclude la storia come donna di grande potere e capacità di comandare, l’intestataria della proprietà di Haman, e la scrivente delle lettere nel nome del re.

 

In questo lei costituisce un contraltare letterario a Vashti, la donna che ha iniziato la storia con grande potere ma la cui scelta di rifiutare i desideri del marito in un affronto pubblico l’aveva resa un caso estremo di impotenza ed emarginazione.

 

Ma Esther non aveva usato i suoi istinti tattici e non si era mossa per difendere il suo popolo fino a ché non le era stato ricordato che persino vivere nel palazzo non l’avrebbe protetta dal condividere il destino decretato per il suo popolo. Solo la consapevolezza che anche lei è vulnerabile la fa agire. In questo possiamo vedere il modello delle donne ovunque maltrattate, la cui mancanza di fiducia fa perdere loro la capacità di agire e le fa subire con dolorosa passività fino al momento in cui finalmente si rendono conto della mancanza di scelta, agire o morire.

 

È generalmente accettato che il libro di Esther sia un libro tardo, probabilmente scritto nel IV secolo a.E.V. e sembra essere una controversia scritta per gli ebrei della diaspora per ricordare loro che la vita sarà sempre dura, ci saranno sempre persone che li odieranno nelle terre in cui vivono, eppure a differenza della moderna retorica, il libro sembra aggiungere a questa informazione che ci sono dei modi per affrontare questa situazione: il contatto con il governo, l’integrazione nella società, camminare sulla linea sottile tra l’accettazione dei costumi del paese e l’assumere posizioni di principio per mantenere l’identità ebraica.

 

Sono sempre colpita dalla battuta del servizio dell’ havdalà: “gli ebrei avevano luce, gioia, gioia e onore, così possiamo averlo anche noi” che è un riferimento al libro di Esther. È collocato liturgicamente in uno dei momenti più spaventosi della settimana, quando Shabbat sta uscendo e dobbiamo affrontare di nuovo il mondo, con tutta la sua incertezza. “L’anima aggiuntiva” se ne va fino alla settimana seguente, e ne siamo deprivati ​​e sminuiti. E ci consoliamo con le parole che arrivano dalla fine del libro, dopo tutti i combattimenti e le paure che gli ebrei dell’impero hanno affrontato. Sostanzialmente ripetiamo ogni settimana che vivere in Diaspora è insicuro, eppure possiamo farlo. Inoltre, possiamo aumentare la fiducia in noi stessi e nelle nostre capacità proprio come Esther.

 

Scritto per la rivista Bet Debora                                                      traduzione di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

Tzav- we need to understand commandedness through the lens of both halacha and aggadah or we will miss the point completely

Sermon given 2018 Lev Chadash Milano

Every so often the Jewish world erupts into a debate about authenticity and flung into the mix are accusations about what Torah is, what mitzvot are, and who has the right to decide.

In parashat Tzav we find God telling Moses “Command Aaron  and his sons to do these rituals”  There follows a description of the five sacrifices the priests are to perform, the limits to the acceptable consumption of the meat of the sacrifices, and the details about how Aaron and his sons were to be prepared for ordination as priests.

The power of that imperative “Tzav!” which introduces the details of the ritual reverberates across the centuries.  To this day Jews view ourselves as commanded, and Rabbinic Judaism has grounded itself on the Halachah of mitzvot, what they are and how to do them, while Jewish theology and the meaning of WHY we live in this way, essentially remains in the area of aggadah.

It is the tension between these two ways of ‘being Jewish” that causes us so many problems. For Eugene Borowitz, possibly the most influential Reform Jewish thinker, “While Halachah seeks to define just what constitutes one’s obligation, the aggadah often attempts to supply the theological and historical foundation of Jewish duty” or as AJ Heschel formulated it, Halacha becomes Jewish behaviour while the motivation for these behaviours is aggadah.

How we approach God is important, and to know that there is more than one way to do this within Judaism, offers a validity to what we know Judaism to be – a variety of ways in which to be authentically Jewish, rather than a doctrinal or behavioural “orthodoxy” which itself creates heresy.

Halacha gives form and structure, provides a system for us to live and work within. Aggadah  is harder to define, but must express our limitless striving to relate to God in the world.  Essentially Halacha – and the system of mitzvot that Rabbinic Judaism cherishes – prescribes for us how to behave in the world while Aggadah helps us formulate our aspirations for what life is about, helps give meaning to our existence, and inspires us to continue the search for relationship with God.

The Rabbinic Judaism within whose system we all now function began as a wonderfully dynamic melding of both halachic and aggadic discourse. Talmud is its apotheosis.  Within Talmud there is very little interest in proclaiming what the halachah actually is, and indeed any such ruling is hardly ever found. Instead we have a variety of opinions recorded, debated, refuted or supported with biblical verses or teachings from either inside or outside the text of the Talmud itself, and this rich raw material becomes the foundation of how Judaism could develop.  Halachah and aggadah coexist in this system, each informing and enriching the other, providing balance and dynamism.   The two systems probably only begin to diverge in the Geonic Period (c600 – 1000 CE) and with the codifying of the Oral Torah we find that the system of halachah and mitzvot becomes rigid and stultifies, while the creative emotive and wide-ranging  aggadic system often gets relegated to a less important status. Yet, as Heschel wrote: ”To maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of halachah is as erroneous as to maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of aggadah. The interrelationship of halachah and aggadah is the very heart of Judaism. Halachah without aggadah is dead, aggadah without halachah is wild.”

We Jews see ourselves as a commanded and covenanted people, a people who perform mitzvot, who follow the directives of God with whom we are in a covenant of obligation. Yet we cannot quite agree on the Who is doing the commanding, nor what the commandments actually are, let alone how we must carry them out authentically.

Is the commander the God of Torah – and if so, which of God’s commands in bible are even applicable to us, let alone take precedence? Is the commander the God of later literature, of the Nevi’im, the Prophetic books and the Ketuvim (Writings)?   Is the Commander the Voice of God we discern in our lives and through our experiences? Is it the Voice of our tradition and history, the chain of which we are but one generational link? Is the voice emanating from our modern ethical understanding of the world? There are as many answers are there are Jews formulating them – in the words of Leonard Cohen in “Who by Fire”, a treatment of the famous Rosh Hashanah prayer:  “And who shall I say is calling?”

Yet that word follows us – Tzav!  We are a commanded and covenanted people.

How are we to understand it?  Mitzvah is not “the law” – or at least it is only one of ten biblical terms used to describe regulation of the people. There are also “din” “tzedakah” “davar” “mishmeret” “torah” “Mishpat” “chok”  “edut”  “ot” in bible, terms often used interchangeably in the biblical text, reminding us that the guidelines come in various ways and are just that – guidelines. Even the word “halachah” comes from the root lalechet – to go or to walk, and Torah is related to the word for parents – the people who guide us and help us become our best selves.

Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, the great scholar and 1st-2nd century Tanna (the early generation of teacher) developed the idea that the language of Torah is divinely revealed, so that there was semantic significance, or at least midrashic potential, to every word and every letter in the Torah – nothing in it was a mistake or an addition, the document was in every sense divine. His slightly younger peer, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha took a different view – he said that the Torah speaks to human beings in human language, with repetitions and metaphor and so on.  The views of both continued into the development of Judaism, yet it seems that Rabbi Akiva’s view took the ascendant over time, and that while Yishmael developed principles for understanding the divine intention, the notion of “Torah miSinai” hardened over time into what people generally take it to mean today – that everything from Torah to rabbinic teshuvot today were revealed to Moses at Sinai

The origin of this idea can be found not in Torah but in Talmud: “Rabbi Levi bar Hama said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said “ God said to Moses: Ascend to me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the stone tablets and the Torah and the mitzvah that I have written that you may teach them” (Exodus 24:12). What is the meaning of this verse?  “Tablets of stone”-these are the Ten Commandments, “the Torah”-this is the Torah (five books of Moses), “the Mitzvah”- this is the Mishnah,” which I have written”- these are the Prophets and the Writings, “that you may teach them”- this is the Gemara. And it teaches that they were all given to Moses on Sinai (TB Brachot 5a).

From this aggadic text comes the idea that everything, ALL aspects of Torah, all halachic rulings, were given to Moses at Sinai by God and thus are incontestable, and not liable to challenge or modification.  Resh Lakish’s statement appears in different places in gemara, attributed to others, but we also find an extension of it in the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 2:4) commenting on a verse found in Deuteronomy :”Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: …Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud and Aggada — even that which an experienced student is destined to teach before his master — were all told to Moses at Sinai…”

From the process of discussion and debate that epitomises Talmud, we come to a place of no discussion and of rulings given from “on high” with the barely veiled threat of delegitimising anyone who questions.

It is quite a leap, yet it seems to be one that many barely notice these days. I have lost count of the number of times people have told me – wrongly even in the terms of foundational Rabbinic Judaism – that as a Reform Jew I am not following “real” Judaism, that halachic rulings cannot ever be challenged, that every mitzvah ever is to be found in Torah itself, and every Jew is obligated to follow them all, without exception, (aside from the ones that have to happen within the Temple or the Land of Israel. )

It worries me that Rabbi Akiva has such an ascendancy over Rabbi Ishmael, that Torah is not read as a document for human beings to encounter but only for accepted scholars within an increasingly narrow tradition. It worries me that a hardening has happened so that whereas the Mishnah only documents three “laws given to Moses from Sinai”, by the time we get to the medieval period and Maimonides the laws are codified and fixed, and the tradition of ascribing them as Torah from Sinai is used to suppress debate or challenge.

Torah miSinai to the rabbinic world was not what it means today. The original understanding was that while the Written Torah was given to Moses, the Oral Torah – or rather the authority to create and develop oral torah that would impact on our understanding of written torah – was given alongside it, in order to both bolster the claim to authority of the rabbinic tradition, and also to keep relevant and human a text given in the desert in a particular and ancient context at one moment in time.  Torah mi Sinai became the process, the dynamism, the way we can keep written Torah open to us and our own contexts. So to the Rabbis Torah mi Sinai was the whole range of midrashic exploration, all of  the interpretations, the discussions and the disputes, the variety of recorded opinion, the consensus of each generation as matters became relevant and live to them.  Torah miSinai is contradictory, it is interpretive, it holds opposing and dissonant views, it is alive. This best described in a midrash (Midrash Tehilim (11-14th century) where Rav Yannai taught “Had the words of Torah been given in clear decisions, our condition would have been intolerable. How so? When God spoke to Moses, Moses said “Define the law precisely, leaving no doubt, no ambiguity.” But God answered “follow the majority. If the majority acquit, acquit, If the majority condemn, condemn. Torah is to be interpreted in 49 ways to say something is pure and 49 ways to say something is impure” (12:7)

We are a commanded people. Our text matters to us, we hold it as sacred, we read it and study it and try to ascertain its meaning for us. We must never let go of this, even as personal autonomy takes pride of place in our lives.

Eugene Borowitz spent his life thinking and writing about the dialectic between our commandedness and our sense as Reform Jews of a personal autonomy. He could not square the circle, but he taught that while we have autonomy he insisted that we must confront our Judaism with our Jewish selves, not as “autonomous persons-in-general”. He taught the importance of our decision making based on informed and understood knowledge of our tradition and our texts.  He felt that Reform Jews must be “rooted in Israel’s corporate faithfulness to God” and that this would help structure how we live our lives. Borowitz advocated for the importance of Reform Jews knowing our tradition, interacting with our texts, understanding the historic covenant that Jews have with God. Yet he also wrote  “this does not rise to the point of validating law in the traditional sense, for personal autonomy remains the cornerstone of this piety.”

It is I think harder to be a Reform Jew than a traditional Jew, for we must bring ourselves into the thinking, rather than accept the crumbs offered as “torah miSinai”.

And Borowitz added an extra piece to our work. Whatever we ”do or say in the name of Judaism must be ethical”.  While many see mitzvot as prescribed behaviour, often focusing on the minutiae of ritual activity, we Reform Jews must see mitzvot as behaviour that will bring us closer to God by doing God’s will. We may not follow all of the ritual mitzvot that have developed in Rabbinic Judaism but that is not how we should be defining ourselves – we must define ourselves by what we do rather than what we don’t do. And more than that, anything that we do not do, that may separate us from the weight of traditional consensus, should be understood and considered and be open to revisiting rather than have the door closed on it forever. So early Reformers did not do Purim, seeing it as somewhat repellent, but now almost all progressive synagogues have brought it back. Many early Reformers gave up kashrut as being anachronistic, whereas now kashrut has once again found a home in our tradition, both as normative tradition, and also as an expression of concern for the environment – eco kashrut.

A colleague of Borowitz’, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, also advocated for informed decision making to be a hallmark of Reform Judaism, and challenged us to “ethicize the ritual mitzvot and ritualise the ethical mitzvot”, as in the interplay of Halachah and Aggadah, we need both the practical behaviour and the understanding, the ritual and the ethical driver of the ritual.

We Reform Jews are part of a tradition going back to Sinai – the tradition of Aggadah and Halachah influencing each other, the tradition of commandedness, the tradition of covenant with God. We are part of the tradition that says we must question and know our texts, learn, debate, act.

Tzav – we are a commanded people. We may not be in agreement about many things within this statement but the statement itself stands.

So for we Reform Jews, while we may challenge the idea and substance of the 613 mitzvot, while we may debate the relevance of or even need for  some of the ritual mitzvot, we are part of the system of halachah and aggadah, of mitzvot and Jewish texts. We cannot step away and abdicate responsibility; we must be part of the dialogue. And as we add our voices and our experience to the voice of commandment, to the history of our people, we shall enhance and nourish it, as we ourselves will be enhanced and nourished.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will

Ogni tanto dal mondo ebraico scaturisce un dibattito a proposito dell’autenticità, e ci si mettere a discutere su cosa sia la Torà, quali siano le mitzvot e chi abbia il diritto di deciderlo.

Nella parashà Tzav troviamo Dio che dice a Mosè: “Comanda ad Aronne e ai suoi figli di compiere questi rituali”. Segue una descrizione dei cinque sacrifici che i sacerdoti devono compiere, dei limiti del consumo accettabile della carne dei sacrifici e i dettagli su come Aronne e i suoi figli debbano essere preparati per l’ordinazione sacerdotale.

Il potere di quell’imperativo: “Tzav!”, che introduce i dettagli del rituale, trova riverbero attraverso i secoli. Fino ai nostri giorni noi ebrei vediamo noi stessi come precettati e il giudaismo rabbinico si è basato sulla Halachà delle mitzvot, su cosa siano e come adempierle, mentre la teologia ebraica, e il significato del PERCHÉ viviamo in questo modo, rimane essenzialmente nell’area dell’Haggadà.

È la tensione tra questi due modi di “essere ebrei” che ci causa tanti problemi. Per Eugene Borowitz, forse il più influente pensatore ebreo riformato, “Mentre l’Halachà cerca soltanto di definire ciò che costituisce il proprio obbligo, l’Haggadà tenta sovente di fornire il fondamento teologico e storico del dovere ebraico” o, come formulato da A.J. Heschel: l’Halachà diventa un comportamento ebraico mentre la motivazione di questo comportamento è l’Haggadà.

Il modo in cui noi ci avviciniamo a Dio è importante, e sapere che nell’ebraismo c’è più di un modo per farlo offre validità a ciò che sappiamo essere l’ebraismo:  una varietà di modi in cui si può autenticamente essere ebrei, piuttosto che una “ortodossia” dottrinale o comportamentale che già di per sé crea eresia.

L’Halachà dà forma e struttura, ci fornisce un sistema per vivere e al cui interno lavorare. L’Haggadà è più difficile da definire, ma deve esprimere il nostro sforzo illimitato di relazionarci con Dio nel mondo. Essenzialmente l’Halachà,  e il sistema di mitzvot che il giudaismo rabbinico apprezza, ci dà prescrizioni su come comportarci nel mondo mentre l’Haggadà ci aiuta a formulare le nostre aspirazioni per ciò che riguarda la vita, ci aiuta a dare un senso alla nostra esistenza e ci ispira a continuare la ricerca di relazione con Dio.

L’ebraismo rabbinico, nel cui sistema noi tutti ora operiamo, ha avuto inizio come una fusione meravigliosamente dinamica del discorso halachico e di quello haggadico. Il Talmud ne è la sua apoteosi. All’interno del Talmud c’è pochissimo interesse nel proclamare ciò che realmente sia l’Halachà, e, in effetti, una tale sentenza non si trova quasi mai. Abbiamo invece una varietà di opinioni registrate, discusse, confutate o supportate con versetti o insegnamenti biblici, sia all’interno che all’esterno del testo del Talmud stesso, e questa ricca materia prima diventa il fondamento di come l’ebraismo potrebbe svilupparsi. Halachà e Haggadà coesistono in questo sistema, ciascuna informando e arricchendo l’altra, fornendo vicendevolmente equilibrio e dinamismo. I due sistemi iniziarono probabilmente a divergere solo nel Periodo Geonico (circa 600 – 1000 E.V.), e, con la codificazione della Torà orale, troviamo che il sistema dell’Halachà e delle mitzvot diventa rigido e illogico, mentre il sistema haggadico, legato alle emozioni, creativo e ad ampio spettro, spesso viene relegato in uno status meno importante. Tuttavia, come scrisse Heschel: “Sostenere che l’essenza dell’ebraismo consista esclusivamente di Halachà è errato quanto affermare che l’essenza dell’ebraismo consista esclusivamente di Haggadà. L’interrelazione tra Halachà e Haggadà è il vero cuore dell’ebraismo. L’Halachà senza Haggadà è morta, l’Haggadà senza Halachà è selvaggia”.

Noi ebrei vediamo noi stessi come popolo che ha ricevuto precetti e che è coinvolto in un patto, ovvero un popolo che compie mitzvot, che segue le direttive di Dio, con il quale abbiamo un patto di obblighi. Tuttavia non possiamo essere completamente d’accordo su chi stia impartendo il comando, né su cosa siano effettivamente i precetti, per non parlare poi di come dobbiamo adempierli autenticamente.

Chi dà i precetti è il Dio della Torà? E, se sì, quale tra i precetti di Dio nella Bibbia è applicabile anche a noi, per non parlare delle priorità? Chi dà i precetti è il Dio della letteratura successiva, dei Nevi’im, dei Libri Profetici e dei Ketuvim (Scritti)? Chi dà i precetti è la Voce di Dio che discerniamo nelle nostre vite e attraverso le nostre esperienze? È la Voce della nostra tradizione e della nostra storia, la catena di cui siamo solo un anello generazionale? La Voce è emanazione della nostra moderna comprensione etica del mondo? Ci sono tante risposte quante sono gli ebrei che hanno formulato le domande, per usare le parole di Leonard Cohen in “Who by Fire”, adattamento della famosa preghiera di Rosh Hashanà: “E chi dirò che sta chiamando?”

Eppure quella parola ci segue: “Tzav!”  Siamo un popolo precettato e che si è impegnato in un patto.

Come possiamo intenderlo? Mitzvà non significa “la legge”, quantomeno è solo uno dei dieci termini biblici usati per descrivere le regole date al popolo. Nella Bibbia sono presenti  anche “Din”, “Tzedakà”, “Davar”, “Mishmeret” “Torà”, “Mishpat”, “Chok”, “Edut” e “Ot”. Termini spesso usati in modo intercambiabile nel testo biblico, che ci ricordando che le linee guida giungono in vari modi e sono proprio questo: linee guida. Anche la parola “Halachà” deriva dalla radice lalechet, andare o camminare, e la Torà stessa è legata alla parola che significa genitori: le persone che ci guidano e ci aiutano a diventare i nostri migliori sé.

Il rabbino Akiva ben Yosef, grande studioso e Tanna del I-II secolo (la prima generazione di insegnanti), sviluppò l’idea che il linguaggio della Torà sia stato divinamente rivelato, che ci fosse quindi un significato semantico, o almeno un potenziale midrashico, in ogni sua parola e in ogni sua lettera; nulla in essa era stato frutto di un errore o di un’aggiunta: il documento era in ogni senso divino. Il suo collega un po’ più giovane, il rabbino Yishmael ben Elisha, adottò un punto di vista differente: disse che la Torà parla agli esseri umani nella lingua umana, con ripetizioni, metafore e così via. Le opinioni di entrambi trovarono seguito nello sviluppo dell’ebraismo, eppure sembra che la visione di Rabbi Akiva ebbe la meglio nel tempo e che, mentre Yishmael sviluppava i principi per comprendere l’intenzione divina, la nozione di Torà miSinai si sia consolidata nei secoli in ciò che generalmente si intende che significhi oggi: che tutto, dalla Torà alle teshuvot rabbiniche odierne, sia stato rivelato a Mosè al Sinai.

L’origine di questa idea non si trova nella Torà ma nel Talmud: “Rabbi Levi bar Hama disse che Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish disse: ‘Dio disse a Mosè: sali verso di Me sul monte e rimani là, e Io ti darò le tavole di pietra, la Torà e la mitzvà che Io ho scritto per istruirli (Esodo 24:12). Qual è il significato di questo verso? ‘Tavole di pietra’: sono i Dieci Comandamenti; ‘La Torà’:  questa è la Torà (cinque libri di Mosè); ’la Mitzvà’: questa è la Mishnà; ‘che ho scritto’: questi sono i Profeti e gli Scritti; “per poterli insegnare”: questa è la Ghemarà. E ciò ci insegna che erano tutti dati a Mosè sul Sinai” (TB Brachot 5a).

Da questo testo haggadico proviene l’idea che tutto, TUTTI gli aspetti della Torà, tutte le regole halachiche, siano stati dati a Mosè al Sinai da Dio e che quindi siano incontestabili, e non suscettibili di contestazioni o modifiche. L’affermazione di Resh Lakish appare in diversi punti della Ghemarà, attribuita ad altri, ma se ne trova un’estensione anche nel Talmud di Gerusalemme (Peah 2: 4), nel commento di un verso tratto dal Deuteronomio: “il Rabbino Joshua ben Levi disse: … Scrittura, Mishnà, Talmud e Haggadà, anche quello che uno studente esperto è destinato a insegnare prima del suo maestro, sono stati tutti raccontati a Mosè al Sinai … ”

Dal processo di discussione e dibattito che si incarna nel Talmud, arriviamo a un luogo di non discussione e di decisioni date da “in alto”, con la minaccia appena velata di delegittimazione per chiunque faccia domande.

È un bel salto, eppure sembra essere uno di quelli di cui a malapena ci si accorge, di questi tempi. Ho perso il conto del numero di volte in cui le persone mi hanno detto, erroneamente anche nei termini dell’ebraismo rabbinico fondativo, che come ebrea della riforma non sto seguendo il giudaismo “reale”, che le regole halachiche non possono mai essere sfidate, che ogni mitzvà di ogni epoca si trova nella Torà, e ogni ebreo è obbligato a seguirle tutte, senza eccezioni (a parte quelle che devono aver luogo all’interno del Tempio o della Terra di Israele).

Mi preoccupa che Rabbi Akiva abbia un tale sopravvento su Rabbi Ishmael, che la Torà non sia letta come un documento per esseri umani da incontrare, ma solo per studiosi accettati all’interno di una tradizione sempre più ristretta. Mi preoccupa che sia accaduto un inasprimento tale che, mentre la Mishnà documenta solo tre “leggi date a Mosè dal Sinai”, quando arriviamo al periodo medievale e a Maimonide le leggi sono codificate e fissate, e la tradizione di attribuirle come Torà del Sinai sia usata per sopprimere il dibattito o la sfida.

La Torà miSinai per il mondo rabbinico non era ciò che significa oggi. L’interpretazione  originale era che, mentre la Torà scritta venne data a Mosè, la Torà orale, o piuttosto l’autorità per creare e sviluppare la Torà orale che avrebbe avuto un impatto sulla nostra comprensione della Torà scritta, le fu affiancata al fine di sostenere il richiamo all’autorità della tradizione rabbinica e per mantenere rilevante e umano un testo dato nel deserto in un contesto antico e particolare e in uno specifico momento temporale. Torà miSinai è diventato il processo, il dinamismo, il modo in cui possiamo tenere la Torà scritta aperta a noi e ai nostri contesti. Così per i rabbini Torà miSinai era l’intera gamma di esplorazioni midrashiche, di tutte le interpretazioni, le discussioni e le dispute, della varietà di opinioni registrate, del consenso di ogni generazione quando le questioni diventavano rilevanti e vive per loro. Torà miSinai è contraddittoria, è interpretativa, ha punti di vista opposti e dissonanti, è viva. Questo è meglio descritto in un midrash (Midrash Tehilim – 11-14 ° secolo) in cui Rav Yannai insegnava: “Se le parole della Torà fossero state date in decisioni chiare, la nostra condizione sarebbe stata intollerabile. In che modo? Quando Dio parlò a Mosè, Mosè disse: ‘Definisci la legge con precisione, senza lasciare dubbi, senza ambiguità.’ Ma Dio rispose: ‘segui la maggioranza, se la maggioranza assolve, assolvi, se la maggioranza condanna, condanna, la Torà deve essere interpretata in 49 modi per dire che qualcosa è puro e 49 modi per dire che qualcosa è impuro.” (12: 7)

Siamo un popolo che ha ricevuto precetti. Il nostro testo conta per noi, lo riteniamo sacro, lo leggiamo e lo studiamo e cerchiamo di accertare il suo significato per noi. Non dobbiamo mai lasciarlo andare, anche se l’autonomia personale è al primo posto nelle nostre vite.

Eugene Borowitz trascorse la sua vita a pensare e scrivere a proposito della dialettica tra il nostro aver ricevuto un comando e il significato dell’autonomia personale in quanto ebrei riformati. Non ha potuto quadrare il cerchio, ma ha insegnato che nonostante abbiamo autonomia ha insistito sul fatto che dobbiamo affrontare il nostro ebraismo con i nostri sé ebraici, non come “persone autonome in generale”. Ha insegnato l’importanza del nostro processo decisionale basato sulla conoscenza informata e consapevole della nostra tradizione e dei nostri testi. Sentiva che gli ebrei riformati devono essere “radicati nella fedeltà di Israele a Dio” e che ciò aiuterebbe a strutturare il modo in cui viviamo le nostre vite. Borowitz sostenne l’importanza degli ebrei riformati conoscendo la nostra tradizione, interagendo con i nostri testi, comprendendo l’alleanza storica che gli ebrei hanno con Dio. Eppure ha anche scritto che “questo non porta al punto di convalidare la legge nel senso tradizionale, perché l’autonomia personale rimane la pietra angolare di questa fede”.

Penso che sia più difficile essere un ebreo riformato di un ebreo tradizionale, perché dobbiamo concentrarci sul pensiero, piuttosto che accettare le briciole offerte come “Torà miSinai”.

E Borowitz ha aggiunto un pezzo in più al nostro lavoro. Qualsiasi cosa “facciamo o diciamo nel nome dell’ebraismo deve essere etica”. Mentre molti vedono le mitzvot come un comportamento prescritto, spesso concentrandosi sulle minuzie dell’attività rituale, noi ebrei riformati dobbiamo vedere le mitzvot come un comportamento che ci porterà più vicini a Dio, facendo la volontà di Dio. Potremmo non seguire tutte le mitzvot rituali che si sono sviluppate nel giudaismo rabbinico, ma non è così che dovremmo definire noi stessi, dobbiamo definire noi stessi per mezzo di ciò che facciamo piuttosto che di ciò che non facciamo. Inoltre, tutto ciò che non facciamo, ciò che potrebbe separarci dal peso del consenso tradizionale, dovrebbe essere compreso e considerato ed essere aperto alla rivisitazione invece che essere chiuso per sempre. Quindi i primi riformatori non festeggiavano Purim, considerandolo un po’ repellente, ma ora quasi tutte le sinagoghe progressiste lo hanno ristabilito. Molti primi riformatori abbandonarono la Kashrut in quanto anacronistica, mentre ora la Kashrut trova nuovamente posto  nella nostra tradizione, sia come tradizione normativa, sia come espressione di preoccupazione per l’ambiente, la eco-kashrut.
Un collega di Borowitz, il rabbino Arnold Jacob Wolf, sosteneva anche che il processo decisionale informato fosse un segno distintivo dell’ebraismo riformato e ci sfidava a “rendere etiche le mitzvot rituali e ritualizzare le mitzvot etiche”, come nell’interazione di Halachà e Haggadà, abbiamo bisogno sia del comportamento pratico che della comprensione, del rituale e del motore etico del rituale.
Noi ebrei riformati facciamo parte di una tradizione che risale al Sinai, la tradizione in cui Haggadà e Halachà si influenzano a vicenda, la tradizione dei precetti, la tradizione dell’alleanza con Dio. Facciamo parte della tradizione secondo cui dobbiamo interrogare e conoscere i nostri testi, imparare, discutere, agire.
Tzav: siamo un popolo con dei precetti. Potremmo non essere d’accordo su molte cose all’interno di questa affermazione, ma la dichiarazione stessa è valida.

Quindi, noi ebrei riformati, mentre possiamo sfidare l’idea e la sostanza delle seicentotredici mitzvot, mentre possiamo discutere l’importanza o addirittura la necessità di alcune delle mitzvot rituali, siamo anche parte del sistema di Halachà e Haggadà, mitzvot e testi ebraici Non possiamo allontanarci e abdicare alla responsabilità; dobbiamo essere parte del dialogo. E mentre aggiungiamo le nostre voci e la nostra esperienza alla voce del comandamento, alla storia della nostra gente, la valorizzeremo e la nutriremo, poiché noi stessi saremo valorizzati e nutriti.
Ken y’hi ratzon. Possa essere la volontà di Dio

 

 

 

 

Pekudei – continuing creation gives purpose, recreating creation is our role

The book of Exodus ends with the completion of the portable Tabernacle painstakingly made to God’s exact instructions by the children of Israel. It seems that we have been reading about this building work for weeks – no other event in the journey the Israelites make in the wilderness has been told us in such detail. And now, finally, a year after Moses had told the people to prepare for leaving slavery in Egypt, the place is ready – and Moses is checking the last details, assembling the artefacts,  making sure everything is as it should be.

There is a beautiful symmetry in the torah between the events here at the end of the book of Exodus and the ones at the beginning of the book of Genesis.  And the words used in the narrative here are an echo of those used at the beginning of our text – just as Moses finishes the work he has done (va’y’chal Moshe et ham’lacha) so we are reminded that God in creating the Shabbat, also finishes the work he had done. V’y’chal elohim b’yom hash’vi’i et ha’m’lachto.

We are being deliberately reminded of the work of Creation as the Tabernacle is completed. We are being clearly prompted to understand that the creation of the sanctuary in the wilderness by the children of Israel is a mirroring of the divine creation of the universe.  In making the world God created a home for us, and in the making of the tabernacle we echoed that creation – but for whom are we making a home?  What are the responsibilities we are taking on by behaving within our microcosm like the divine creator of the universe?

When God told the people to make the tabernacle, the instruction was to build the place so that God would dwell among them. The purpose of the Mishkan wasn’t so much the place itself as the process of building with shared intention, the learning for the people was about larger issues than construction  – it was about responsibility for others, about development of relationship, about removing oneself from the centre  and instead becoming part of the whole system.

Building the tabernacle in effect transferred the power and the responsibility of creation from heaven to earth, and God was no longer simply  the Mover behind the creation of the universe, but became part of human experience – Because of the building of the tabernacle, God now dwelled among the people who were created in the image of the divinity, they had built a place for the divine presence to enter the world – not in the tabernacle as such, but in the actions of the people who worked together to bring it into being.

By the end of the book of Exodus, God and people are truly partners in creation. It is an image we continue to use to this day – the idea that the world is not yet completed, that people are completing it.  Unlike the creation of humanity at the beginning of the book of Genesis, the people are required not to be the passive consumers of the garden of Eden, nor are they to be so focussed on making a living that they cannot begin to consider other more metaphysical needs – by the end of the book of exodus we find that we are indeed to work hard in life, but for a greater cause than to earn our daily bread. Our hard work is the necessary ingredient to complete the work of creation begun with the words of God.

Something else emerges from the texts surrounding the building of the tabernacle which adds to our understanding of what it is to take on the responsibility for creation in our sphere as God does for the universe.  Even a brief reading of the stories of the time in the wilderness will reveal a people who are unhappy with their lot, who foment rebellion, who wish to return to slavery rather than face the unknown of the future land.  Already in the year before the building of the Mishkan – a year in which they had seen the terrible things done in Egypt, a year in which they had found freedom – a year in which the people were able to experience the Revelation at Sinai; already the people had rebelled, had complained, had tried to rid themselves of the leadership of Moses, and had begged Aaron to create the golden calf for them to worship.  And yet this should have been the most wonderful and undemanding year of their lives.  They were no longer enslaved, no longer routinely humiliated in the society in which they lived.  They had food every day which simply fell from heaven and lay there for them to collect, their clothing never needed mending, and their shoes never wore out.  All of their material needs were met. The leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam took over all their responsibilities and resolved the disputes that arose, there was absolutely nothing to worry about or concern themselves with.  Like the first humans in the Garden of Eden, everything should have been perfect – yet somehow it wasn’t.

The Midrash notes the continual stream of complaining and notes too that God responded to it compassionately – “it was because of their constant murmurings that the Holy One asked them to put their hand to the making of the Mishkan”  And the response works – the Midrash again highlights the fact that there were no complaints, no rebellions and no conflict recorded during any of the chapters in Torah that describe the building of the tabernacle: “the whole time they were engaged with the work of the Mishkan they did not grumble” (Midrash Pesikta Rabbati).

So what do we learn from this, what did God bring about in the world with this task?

God understood that human beings need a sense of purpose, that we need to have a point to our existence, we need to be able to care about something and to be able to engage in meaningful activity. Without such endeavour we dissolve into bad tempered pointlessness, into destructive behaviour, into misery and self indulgent self-centredness.  Left to our own purposelessness we create a sort of human tohu va’vohu, and it becomes harder and harder for human relationships to take root and for society to develop to the benefit of its members.

If the Midrash is right, that the people complained and the society disintegrated because everyone felt superfluous and without any role or consequence, then the notion of our taking on the task of being creator of our world is even more important, and it is increasingly vital that we consider just how we bring God into our Mishkan.  How are we building the Mishkan today, creating the space for the divine to be experienced in our world? How are we making sure that everyone, not just the leadership or the elite are able to contribute to making our world a better place?  It is a question we have to ask again and again – for the Mishkan is a travelling structure, constantly taken down and put up again, reflecting the reality that we re create our world each day, in every aspect of our lives.

Tetzaveh: Avnei Zikaron, the stones of remembrance are all around us

The list of what the High Priest should wear when carrying out his duties is long and detailed. The Hoshen (a breastplate); The Ephod, a kind of tunic made with gold, blue, purple and scarlet, fine twisted linen threads. It would have two onyx stones, each engraved with six of the names of the tribes of Israel, and they would be embedded in a gold setting on the shoulders of the garment;  A gold frontlet to be worn on the forehead, with the inscription “Kodesh l’Adonai” (Holy to God); A fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash, and linen trousers. The Hoshen was fixed by chains to the shoulders of the ephod and carefully connected, the urim and tumim were placed within it, and twelve different precious stones arranged in four rows of three, one for each of the tribes of Israel.

The clothing was fringed, with pomegranates and golden bells around the hem of the robe so that it would make a sound when the High Priest walked in the sanctuary, and people would be able to hear him.

If all this sounds a little familiar, it is because we dress our scrolls in similar fashion. Tunics of rich materials, beautifully embroidered; crowns and bells – called rimonim, pomegranates, that tinkle when we carry it;  a breastplate – hoshen.

Several times we are told that the High Priest’s clothes are for honour and beauty – kavod v’tiferet. And we have taken from this the idea of adorning our synagogues and Sifrei torah for the same purpose – hiddur mitzvah – beautifying a mitzvah -being the principle behind the decoration of our ritual objects, about the three statutory meals on Shabbat, about creating an aesthetic in our lives that not only glorifies God but makes us more aware of the beauty of our world.

There is much of the language of the text that we don’t really understand:  – what exactly is an ephod? Why did the priest wear a gold engraved plate on his forehead? Why would having bells and pomegranates on the hem of his robe mean that he would not die? What really were the urim and the tumim? Where they objects of divination? How were they used and how does that fit into the ritual system being designed here?   There are so many opaque words and unanswerable questions in this text, but this year one particular expression caught my attention:

וְשַׂמְתָּ֞ אֶת־שְׁתֵּ֣י הָֽאֲבָנִ֗ים עַ֚ל כִּתְפֹ֣ת הָֽאֵפֹ֔ד אַבְנֵ֥י זִכָּרֹ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְנָשָׂא֩ אַֽהֲרֹ֨ן אֶת־שְׁמוֹתָ֜ם לִפְנֵ֧י יְהוָֹ֛ה עַל־שְׁתֵּ֥י כְתֵפָ֖יו לְזִכָּרֹֽן:

You shall place the two stones on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, remembrance-stones for the children of Israel. Aaron shall carry their names before God on his two shoulders as a remembrance.  Exodus 28:12

וְנָשָׂ֣א אַֽ֠הֲרֹ֠ן אֶת־שְׁמ֨וֹת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל בְּחֹ֧שֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּ֛ט עַל־לִבּ֖וֹ בְּבֹא֣וֹ אֶל־הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ לְזִכָּרֹ֥ן לִפְנֵֽי־יְהוָֹ֖ה תָּמִֽיד:

And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goes in to the holy place, for a memorial before the Eternal continually. (28:29)

It was, at first, the two engraved stones on the shoulders of the ephod – “avnei zikaron” – “stones of remembrance” that I noticed – avnei zikaron.  I have recently returned from Lausanne, where with my brother and sister we dedicated a new stone on the grave of my grandfather, who had died there from damages he had originally acquired in Dachau. Having eventually got to a clinic in Switzerland, stateless and without access to any of his assets, he had died and been buried by the community there. My grandmother had arranged a stone to mark the grave, my father had had it repaired, but on a recent visit we saw that his grave was essentially unmarked – the composite the stone had been made from had not held the letters of his name.  Here, to all intents and purposes, lay the body of an unknown man.

We arranged a stone to go onto his grave, and while the stone on a grave is usually called in Hebrew a “matzevah”, from the standing stone marking the grave of the matriarch Rachel, this felt more like an even zikaron, a stone to provoke memory. We felt it was important to not only mark the grave and give our grandfather back his name, but to create something that would cause an onlooker to think about him and to learn something of his essence. So we added  his title – Landgerichstrat – County Court Judge. And we added the name of my grandmother buried in Lugano, of my father buried in Bradford, and the name of his aunt Helene who died in Theresienstadt.  We added the dates of their lives, their relationship to my grandfather and the places where they were born and died. And at the foot of the stone is the acronym found on so many Jewish graves – taf nun tzaddi beit hei – t’hi nishmato tzrurah bitzrur ha’hayim – may their souls be bound up on the threads of life.

Seventy years after his death, we, his descendants whom he never knew and could not even have imagined, found great meaning in creating for him an even zikaron – a memorial stone that not only gave him back his name, but in some way brought him back into the fabric of life. It gave him a measure of dignity; it recorded that here lay a man who loved and was loved, who had had learning and held a respected career, whose family had become scattered – and worse – because of forces we can still not really understand.

So much memory was encapsulated in the engraving.  Four names and their relationship to the man lying there.  A status in society; six towns in four different countries. We stood around that snowy grave under a winter sun and told family stories, traced the journey that had led this man whose family had been in the Lower Saxony area for hundreds of years, to a lonely grave far from those who had loved him. We remembered our father whose yahrzeit, like that of his father, fell that week and how, through him, we had come to know and root ourselves in a world that no longer really exists, yet continues in memory, in some artefacts, and in words.

I have consecrated many gravestones in cemeteries in several countries on different continents, as well as memorial plaques in libraries and synagogues – of family, friends and congregants. But I never understood as I understood then the power of a stone that records and remembers when all else seems to have passed into history, the power of avnei zikaron.

There is a strong idea in Judaism that a person is not forgotten as long as their name is remembered.  This is why the museum dedicated to the Shoah in Israel is called Yad v’Shem – a name taken from Isaiah (56:5) which reads “To them will I give in my house and within my walls a place and a name (Yad v’Shem) better than sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” –  and is designed to hold memory, to be a place which records and names all those who have no descendants to memorialise them, no one to speak their name and tell their story.    Talmud says that when we teach what we have learned from someone else, we do so b’shem omro-  in their name – and Talmud tells us the lips of deceased teachers move in the grave when we do so – they are continuing to teach and so still attached to life.  We name our children for dead relatives; we blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven – (quite literally in the case of torah scribes who test their pens by writing the name of Amalek on some parchment and crossing it out).  The book of Proverbs tells us that “the memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked rots away (shall be forgotten.)”  Again and again, remembering someone’s name is seen as synonymous with keeping them from the ultimate oblivion of death;

The stones on the breastplate of the High Priest that kept the twelve tribes of Israel before the gaze of God also had the effect of reminding the priest that his service to God was in the name of and on behalf of every single Israelite.  And the Midrash tells us that they were avnei zikaron not only in order that God would remember, but that the Priests would remember.

The Stolpersteine project is another way to keep alive those whose memory was almost entirely obliterated. The artist Gunter Demnig began a project in 1992 to remember the victims of National Socialism, by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavements of their last address of choice. The ordinary cobblestones on the pavements outside their homes are replaced, putting in their place stones with a plaque that bears a simple inscription – the name, date of birth and the date and place of death, if known of each individual. One stone per person. The stones are positioned outside the houses of Jews, Roma, Sinti and others who were murdered by the Nazi regime.  Stolpersteine, stumbling stones, can be found in Germany, Austria, France, Hungary the Netherlands, Belgium the Czech republic, Norway, Italy, the Ukraine, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Finland  and more recently Spain….  What began as a mainly artistic endeavour has turned into a powerful aid for people to create memory, to bring back to life in some way those who disappeared, murdered, their bodies unburied and desecrated. It is a measure of the power of this project that to get one installed will take well over a year, so long is the waiting list of those who wish to commemorate family.

The original meaning of the word stolpersteine used to be “an obstacle”, something that prevented you getting to your goal; but that has changed, the focus is drawn to the immediate now rather than on the horizon. They are designed to provoke thought, to make us see the world around us a little differently for a moment, as the people who once walked those streets until taken away and murdered, come to focus and live for us for a short while. So now one stumbles over the stone in the pavement and stops, reads, thinks of the individuals and the families who lived in the house or apartment adjacent. Tragically they are also the focus of those who do not want to be reminded, do not want to accept any role in remembering. We  know that in December last year twenty of them, which commemorated members of two Italian Jewish families – the Di Consiglio family and the Di Castro family – were hacked out and stolen in Rome, others have been defaced or vandalised.

We are told that the High Priest Aaron wore bells on his clothing so that he didn’t die. It is not really clear how death was prevented, but what is clear is that the people could hear him moving around in that sacred space.  People being aware of him somehow kept him from death.  It is our memories and the stories we tell of those we love that keep them living in some very real way. Their bodies may die but the memory lives on strongly. And the best way we can keep their memory in public attention is to inscribe it on a stone – their names, relevant dates, reminders of the person they were, reminders that they had lived a life, had been bound up in the threads of a fabric in which we too are bound up.

The Avnei Zikaron in the clothing of the High Priest were there primarily to remind both God and human beings of the importance of our history together, of the relationship to each other that has given meaning to both parties.   Stones of memory mean that as long as we will not forget each other we won’t completely die, and that when we die we will not be completely forgotten. And that matters.

The acronym “taf nun tzaddi beit hei” is found on Jewish graves the world over, and refers to the idea that the life being recorded here is not completely ended, but its threads are connected to the continuing future – be it through descendants or stories, be it through the impact the person had on others, their teachings, their behaviour, their actions. After we had recited the psalms, sung the El Malei Rachamim, spoken the words of Kaddish Yatom the mourners kaddish, after we had shared memories and stories of a man we never knew except through his impact on our father, and stories and memories of our father, our grandmother, and the elderly woman murdered in Theresienstadt after 80 years of life in a quiet village tending the family synagogue and the family shop, we bent down and placed on my grandfather’s grave some small stones, one for each of us, one for our parents, and one for each of our children. And then one for the soon to be born baby of the next generation of our family.  Stones put down on sacred space as avnei zikaron, for life goes on.

sermon at lev chadash February 2019

 

Tetzaveh

“And you will command the children of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for lighting, to cause a lamp to burn continually (ner tamid)” (Exodus 27:20-12)

This first mitzvah of the tabernacle is interesting for several reasons. It echoes the first words of God at creation– y’hi or – let there be light. And in a narrative dedicated to the clothing and behaviour of the priests, the command here is communal – the responsibility for an eternal light belongs to the people, not the priesthood. The lamp sits facing the ark curtain, prepared and lit by the priests each evening to burn through till the morning. In the parallel passage in Leviticus 24:2-4 the ner tamid clearly has several flames, and far from hanging over the ark as a modern ner tamid does, it is part of a lampstand on the opposite wall to the ark– the seven branched menorah. Indeed during the temple period its other name was the ner ma’aravi, the western light. It is thought that while all the lights burned through the night, only one was kept burning continually (1Sam 3:3)

Why does the bible ask us to keep a small light burning continually since clearly the function of lighting the sacred space is done by the other lights? And why must we repeatedly light more lights?  We often say the ner tamid is a reminder of God’s continuing presence in our world, a small beacon of hope that stays with us as the pillar of fire guided us in the desert. Yet this is not enough. The echo of y’hi or reminds us that we too must play our role in the creation of our world. Every day we must tend to this work. The people must bring the prepared oil – this is our job and no one else’s.

 

written for “the bible says what?” Jewish News February 2019

mikketz – seeing ourselves as foreign may enable change; or, how a new perspective can open up a new life

By the time the family of Jacob came to Egypt to find food, their brother Joseph is unrecognizable as the good looking, spoiled young lad who was thrown into the pit at Shechem. He is thoroughly Egyptianised.  His name is changed to Zaphenat Pane’ach, his style of dress is Egyptian, he has an Egyptian wife Asenat and native born children. He has status in the community as right hand man to Pharaoh. It is highly unlikely that the brothers, who think that their brother Joseph had most probably died in the intervening 22 years since they last saw him, will suspect Zaphenat Pane’ach of being anything except he court official he apparently is, yet we have the verse early on in their meeting   – ”And Joseph saw his brothers and he recognised them, but he made himself strange (unrecognisable) to them. (42:7)

ז וַיַּ֥רְא יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיַּכִּרֵ֑ם וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר אֲלֵיהֶ֜ם

Va’yar Yosef et echav, va’ya’kireim, va’yit’nakeir alei’hem

There is a peculiarity of the Hebrew language here – the Torah expressing two opposite meanings by employing the same Hebrew root  נכּר  in two different grammatical voices – one meaning to disclose an identity, to recognise someone, and the other meaning to conceal identity/ to be a stranger/ to be unrecognisable.

Joseph’s purpose in concealing his identity and putting his family through so  much anguish is the subject of a great deal of rabbinic commentary. After all, he charged his brothers with espionage, incarcerated Shimon, demanded the presence of Benjamin in Egypt and finally framed Benjamin as a thief before admitting to his brothers his true identity and inviting the whole family to stay with him in Egypt.  It is pretty horrible to read this apparent abuse of power, and the traditional commentators have had a hard time refuting the charge that Joseph’s motives for such behaviour were vengeful and cruel. They bring three separate explanations for his unbrotherly conduct:

The first is that he manoeuvred in this way so as to bring about the realisation of the dreams he had had in his youth – the dream that his brothers and father would prostrate themselves before him. The second is that he was attempting to teach his brothers the lessons of his own experiences which they had brought upon him by allowing him to be sold into slavery, framed as a criminal and imprisoned. And the third –  that he devised the various experiments and tests so as to assure himself  of their complete change of heart and their repentance.

None of these explanations fully satisfies us about what was in Joseph’s mind when he treated his brothers so roughly, but the end result is worth noting, for it becomes clear that the brothers have indeed changed since they last saw Joseph. They no longer hate Rachel’s sons,  and they are solicitous of their father’s feelings. The way is paved for one of the recurrent themes in bible- for brothers to become reconciled after a period of estrangement.

So what is going on in this verse where Torah uses the same  verb to express the double event of Joseph recognising his brothers  while hiding his own identity?   The pun draws the eye and ear to the text of this verse, yet Joseph’s actions in the rest of the chapter seem to throw no light on why he did what he did – hence the energy used for the rabbinic apologetics – something important must be happening here, and we must try to find out what it is.

Let’s look at the situation from a different angle:-

Joseph recognises his brothers, but he cannot know them, for 22 years have passed since he  last saw them. He already had a foreign persona, and the brothers, described in the text both as Joseph’s brothers and as Jacobs sons will be unable to perceive their relation in Zaphenat Pane’ach: – they will only able to relate to the young vain Joseph as they remember him, not the powerful figure second only to the Pharaoh who sits before them.

Joseph makes himself even more foreign וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר and puts his brothers into uncomfortable situations before finally revealing himself. The extreme foreignness is  the prelude to the reconciliation.   It is almost as if the difference between Joseph and his brothers 22 years earlier, and their situation now has to be exaggerated to prove that all the protagonists in the story are now quite different people  – so that their arguments can be resolved and put into the past;  and only then can reconciliation take place.

Far from revealing himself immediately – “look at me, I’m the same Joseph you lost”, Joseph has to show his new characteristics and persona “look at me – I’ve changed”

The brothers too must display how much they have grown and changed. Sometimes, when a fight and a separation have been too hurtful, it is necessary for a period of separation to be followed by proof of change, before  reconciliation can be attempted and the situation resolved. With all the other stories of brotherly argument and reconciliation, this proof of change was not needed, presumably because the hurt was not quite so life changing as what had been done to Joseph.

It seems that here in the final story of sibling rivalry and reconciliation, we have an extra dimension to our understanding of necessary change  before reconciliation can take place – each side must show they are no longer the people who had been in conflict earlier in their lives but have deepened in their understanding of the other and grown in maturity.  Consequently the extra need for “foreignness” or “strangeness” is emphasised in the story. Joseph is no longer the youthful and untested dreamer who had so hurt his brothers with his arrogance and certainty. And they, having lived with the guilt of his disappearance and the grief of their father,  are no longer his hate filled siblings.

We are reaching the end of the secular year – always a good time to take stock of our lives. And it is a good time to look at our own hurts and estrangements,  as individuals and as a community and as a people, and to question how far we are along our journey towards reconciliations of the hurt and the damage we harbour.  We can look within the Jewish world, with its politics and power games, and we can look at the behaviour of Israel both internally to its peoples and externally to its diaspora, and we see much work to be done, much change to happen before the Jewish people become our best selves.

And each of us as individual human beings has our own list of hurts with which we have been unable to deal yet, and maybe we need to change ourselves before we can begin to address them – we like Joseph, need both to recognise the other and also change ourselves.

Le’hit’nacher – to make ourselves different, to hide parts of ourselves and to develop and prioritise other charcteristics within ourselves, to make ourselves foreign to our past faults. It is all part of the small steps we make towards reconciliation and resolution of our hurts and our mistakes. It is something, like Joseph, we can choose to do, even if, like Joseph, we do it in small steps and out of some fear that nothing has yet changed for us from the outside.

Mikketz means “at the end of”. Every new step has the possibility of ending something with which we are familiar or comfortable – it is why the fear of change is so strongly rooted in us.  But to follow Joseph’s example, to make ourselves different, foreign, changed from our usual narratives – it seems that we might bring an end to some of our hurts, and open a door for ourselves into the future.

sermon given at lev chadash milano 2017

 

 

 

Vayetzei : the lessons of Jacob’s hat

Many years ago an older colleague explained to me the origin of religious Jews covering their heads with this remark – “It comes from parashat Vayetzei, where we are told ‘Vayetzei Yaakov – Jacob went out’ – you don’t think he went out without a hat do you?

It isn’t exactly a joke, nor of course is it a real proof-text for a religious behaviour. But it does shine a light onto a process that we often disregard – the bridge between biblical text and religious expression.

First let me get out of the way the reality that the practise of covering the head – either at all times, or during prayer, or during prayer and study of torah – does not come from parashat vayetzei, though its history and origin is somewhat mysterious and there is no actual mitzvah to do this – it is custom and practise rather than commandment

Mishnah Sanhedrin, chapter ten, includes the teaching “These have no share in the World to Come: (Olam haBa): One who says that [the belief of] resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, [one who says that] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and one who denigrates the Torah.”

Now this is interesting. Nowhere in fact does Torah teach of the physical resurrection of the dead. The closest texts are Isaiah 26:19 (Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, You who dwell in the dust!— For Your dew is like the dew on fresh growth; You make the land of the shades come to life.) and Daniel 12:2 “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence”

Yet from these poetic and figurative expressions comes, by the early Talmudic period, the rabbinic idea not only that physical resurrection is possible, but that anyone who does not believe in it forfeits their place in the world to come. The idea is also embedded in the Amidah prayer,in the gevurot blessing, which references the power of God to give life to the dead six times in a fairly short blessing, and which was probably written early in the 1st century BCE.

Another maxim from the same colleague – the more answers rabbinic tradition gives to a question, the more we know that there is no single answer to the question and each response is an attempt to make sense of a problem. So when we see the idea of God giving life to the dead six times in one blessing we can see the determination that this must become authoritative belief, leading us to see that at the point the amidah was written, it clearly was not yet a stable principle of faith.

So when we look at the mishna Sanhedrin 10:1 again, we see that it is an interpolation into an otherwise strictly legal text. It is demanding that three principles are mandatory, the red lines of the argument. Phrased in a way that says “all Jews achieve olam haba except Jews doing these three things” reads to me rather like the apocryphal note in the margin of a sermon – “argument weak, shout louder”.

The principle of belief in the dead living once more is ambiguous – is this something that will only happen at the end of days? Is it physical resurrection? Is it the continuation of the self, the soul? Is it something we can nuance – that the dead live on in our memories, in our actions, that the actions they did while living are impactful after their death?

It is the later part of the statement that has caused many more problems for us – What do we mean when we say that Torah is from heaven (min hashamayim)? What did the rabbis of the mishnah mean by it?

This idea has proved to be one of the most difficult and controversial ones of rabbinic Judaism.  While Maimonides coded the idea into his thirteen principles of faith, which have become de rigeur for a section of the Jewish world  – the eighth principle is “ I believe by complete faith that the whole Torah now found in our hands was the exact same one given to Moses, may peace rest upon him.”

But what does this mean? What did Maimonides mean by “Torah” or by “given to Moses”  It is unlikely that he meant that God literally dictated the entire text of the five books of Moses to Moses at Sinai.

Maimonides was a product of his time.  The time in which he lived was a time when Christians, Muslims and Karaite Jews were all challenging the Jewish world, his thirteen principles were a formulation to argue against people saying that the Jews had altered torah to exclude references to their religions, and against the idea that Torah could be added to and rewritten.

Each of us are products of our time. Each of us swim in a sea of habit and shared assumptions we barely notice, and a sea of change and challenge we notice all too easily and which either cause us to retreat behind the assumptions we cannot see to challenge, or to venture out and have to deal with the dissonance.

Most Jews think that covering the head with kippah or streimel, cap or bowler hat – is a religious act mandated from Torah. It is not. It does not appear in Talmud either except in one comment in tractate Kiddushin which also suggests that one should not walk fully upright – both of them referring to an awareness of the glory of God in the world of which we should be in awe at all times, and another in tractate Shabbat that suggests that covering the head /being aware of the presence of God – might have a tangible effect on behaviour.

Head covering seems to have come about as a response to the world around us, where covering or uncovering the head showed respect to a greater power. Indeed when I was young I often saw people doffing their cap in the presence of those they perceived to be their social superiors, or removing hats as a funeral cortege passed by. Why do Jews put a hat on when the rest of the world takes it off? Davka. Why do we think the custom has the force of law – because we are used to it, we no longer notice its origin in social constructs.  The same is true when we try to distort the concept of torah min hashamayim. Torah from God – mediated through human beings – this was the standard understanding until Maimonides forced the issue into one of orthodox belief, putting people inside or outside Judaism.

Jacob went out – and of course he put on his hat. But the question today is – would any of the many different streams of the orthodox world recognise him as being part of the community of Klal Yisrael?  Would they see a Jew under that hat?