The fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot contain a number of commemorations that range from the most ancient to the most modern of our people’s history. Beginning with the birth of our nation and our peoplehood with the exodus from Egypt, the period ends with the birth of our covenant relationship with God as a people at Mount Sinai.
In between, the fifty days of the Omer are days of semi mourning for a reason we are never quite clear about. Some say it is in memory of the oppression of Jews under the Romans, and the failure of the revolts against them; Others that 24 thousand students of Rabbi Akiva died in that period of a plague. One the thirty third day we have Lag B’Omer – (Lamed Gimel = 33) which provided a brief change in fortunes for the beleaguered Jews of the time.
Less than a week after the end of Pesach, when we commemorate the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites at the Red Sea on the seventh day of the festival, we remember a period when deliverance did not come. The abortive uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, and all the murdered victims of the Holocaust are recalled on Yom ha Shoah ve’ha’Gevurah – the day for remembering the holocaust and the heroism.
A week later, and more of our dead are remembered on Yom ha Zikaron – the day of memorial for those who gave their lives for the emerging State of Israel. The day after that we mark Yom Ha’atzma’ut – Israel’s independence day, and this looks forward to the last week of the Omer period and its 44th day when Yom Yerushalayim commemorates the reunification of the city in the Six Day War.
So in fifty days we range over three thousand five hundred years of history. We see victories and defeats, celebrations and mourning. We observe Festivals that are at the core of our being as Jews, we see half festivals, not-really-festivals, and festivals in the making. We see the dynamism and the forward thrust of Judaism which continues to create liturgy and ritual through which to express the most contemporary of events, and we look forward to messianic age promised in all our celebrations at this time But as we look forward, we also remember, are reminded, have memory of, recall, memorialise, commemorate, reminisce. All these events have one thing in common, both past and future, the intertwined and symbiotic fate of the nation of Israel and people of Israel.
We are all Israel, connected to each other, to our history, to our future and to our historic land. That connection and what happens to the land remains even today integral to what happens to the people. We are a people, a tribe, links in a chain that never breaks.
The purpose of the exodus from Egypt was not simply freedom from slavery, it is freedom with a purpose – the purpose fulfilled at Shavuot, the unbreakable covenant we made with God, a covenant made for all generations, for those who were there at the time and those who were not there, for those born into the people and those who chose to join it.
The time between Pesach and Shavuot is a time that we count, a time we make count. We build up to the Sinaitic moment where God and people connect in a way never seen before nor since. We live and are nourished from that moment.
Shavuot is often overlooked, a festival without much ritual in the home, and all night study in the synagogue doesn’t appeal to everyone. But it marks a pivotal moment in our narrative and our formation.
Shavuot is celebrated this year (2022) on Saturday 4th in the evening till Sunday 5th in the evening (or Monday if you follow the diaspora tradition of a second day).
Find yourself a community of learners, a community of pray-ers and celebrate Shavuot, take yourself to Sinai and recommit to the eternal covenant. And then move forward into the rest of the Jewish year, away from Sinai and onto the journey that builds the people of Israel and binds us together as we go through the desert to the promised land.
Discussion about abortion is necessarily complex and frequently freighted with contextual perspectives. Yet an examination of Jewish sources reveals that while indeed this is a complex and nuanced subject, certain matters are clear since biblical times. Firstly biblical law does not treat abortion as murder, but as a civil matter. We find the legal status of the foetus encoded in Mishnah Ohalot (7:6) which speaks of therapeutic abortion even during childbirth:- the life of the unborn child is of less legal weight than that of the mother right up to the point of the emergence of the head, because until that point it is not a “nefesh”. The mother’s right to life supersedes that of the unborn child.
Our tradition also deals with the emotional well-being of the mother. Mishnah Arakhin teaches that a pregnant woman who is convicted of a capital crime is executed quickly in order not to prolong her agony while she carries the child to term. Commentary on this somewhat grisly text makes clear that the rights of the foetus are not greater than the emotional distress of the mother. Once again the mother’s needs take precedence over those of the unborn child.
Interestingly both Rabbinic law (which describes a pregnancy of 40 days as “water”) and early Church law – which permitted abortion until the child “quickened” (about 16-20 weeks), were the norm for centuries. Not that anyone doubted that the body belonged to God, and that abortion was a serious matter, but punishments were not severe, nor was the perpetrator deemed criminal. In the UK, abortion after “quickening” attracted the death penalty only in 1803, and in 1937 earlier abortion was added. After that a succession of laws increasingly limited access to abortion and criminalised those involved. Similarly in the Jewish world some eminent poskim narrowed access to abortion to medically mandated life-saving situations only. In part this was a response to Shoah – Jewish lives lost should be replaced, went the thinking. But clearly something else is in play – the rights of a woman over her own body and her own fertility, accepted for centuries as being in the private domain, were brought into public discourse in order to control them.
Once again the rhetoric is ramping up. But the Jewish view is clear – our focus should be to look after the children and families who are living and who need society’s help, not policing women’s bodies.
Written for “Progressively Speaking” in Jewish News July 2020
Aborto e tradizione ebraica
Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild il 22 maggio 2022
La discussione sull’aborto è necessariamente complessa e, spesso, carica di prospettive legate al contesto. Eppure un esame delle fonti ebraiche rivela che, mentre in effetti è un argomento complesso e ricco di sfumature, alcune cose sono chiare fin dai tempi biblici. In primo luogo la legge biblica non tratta l’aborto come un omicidio, ma come una questione civile. Lo stato giuridico del feto lo troviamo codificato nella Mishnà Ohalot (7,6) che parla di aborto terapeutico anche durante il parto: la vita del nascituro ha un peso legale inferiore a quella della madre fino al momento in cui la testa emerge, perché fino a quel punto non è “nefesh”. Il diritto alla vita della madre prevale su quello del nascituro.
La nostra tradizione si occupa anche del benessere emotivo della madre. Mishnà Arakhin stabilisce che una donna incinta condannata per un crimine capitale venga giustiziata rapidamente senza farle portare a termine la gravidanza, per non prolungare la sua agonia. Il commento a questo testo alquanto raccapricciante chiarisce che i diritti del feto non sono maggiori del disagio emotivo della madre. Ancora una volta i bisogni della madre hanno la precedenza su quelli del nascituro.
È interessante notare che sia la legge rabbinica (che descrive una gravidanza di quaranta giorni come “acqua”) sia la legge primitiva della Chiesa, che consentiva l’aborto fino a quando il bambino non compiva i primi movimenti percepibili (tra la sedicesima e la ventesima settimana circa), sono state la norma per secoli. Non che qualcuno dubitasse che il corpo appartenesse a Dio, e che l’aborto non fosse una cosa seria, ma le punizioni non erano severe, né l’autore del reato era ritenuto criminale. Nel Regno Unito, l’aborto dopo la percezione dei movimenti fetali, è stato punito con la pena di morte solo nel 1803, nel 1937 è stata poi aggiunta per l’aborto nella fase precedente. Dopodiché una serie di leggi limitava sempre più l’accesso all’aborto e criminalizzava le persone coinvolte. Allo stesso modo, nel mondo ebraico, alcuni eminenti poskim hanno ristretto l’accesso all’aborto solo a situazioni salvavita obbligatorie dal punto di vista medico. Questa è stata in parte una risposta alla Shoà: le vite perdute degli ebrei dovrebbero essere sostituite, si pensava. Ma, chiaramente, è in gioco qualcos’altro: i diritti di una donna sul proprio corpo e sulla propria fertilità, accettati per secoli come dominio privato, sono stati introdotti nel discorso pubblico al fine di controllarli.
Ancora una volta la retorica si fa strada. Il punto di vista ebraico è però chiaro: il nostro obiettivo dovrebbe essere quello di prenderci cura dei bambini e delle famiglie che vivono e che hanno bisogno dell’aiuto della società, e non quello di sorvegliare i corpi delle donne.
Scritto per “Progressively Speaking” in Jewish News luglio 2020
My great aunt Helene Rothschild was born on the 6 May 1862 in Ottenstein, the daughter of Siegmund Rothschild. She never married. She stayed in the village and ran the grocery business among her other activities. Family lore recalls that she kept charge of the sefer torah from the synagogue built by the family, and that it was one of the possessions she tried to protect till the end – but while my grandmother saw much of her furniture and linens and silver and art work after the war in the houses of her erstwhile neighbours, the scroll disappeared. We have one beautiful tablecloth of hers that one neighbour gave to my grandmother.
She had expected to die where she had been born and lived, where her family owned the Jewish cemetery and her father and mother were buried. Indeed family lore speaks of the grave she had organised for…
Every year around this time we read about the money given by the people to build the mishkan, the tent of meeting that will travel with them, and the work of creating it. At the end of book of Exodus we read P’kudei – “the accounts of the tabernacle….as they were rendered according to the commandment of Moses”. From here comes the imperative that public money has to be accounted for in detail, with complete transparency.
Centuries later King Jehoash expected Temple donations given to the priests would be used to keep the Temple in good repair. Discovering that money was given but the Temple was not maintained, he changed the system and installed a large chest with a small hole in it near the altar, where all monetary donations were safely deposited. Then “the royal scribe and the high priest would come, put the money into bags, and count it. They would deliver the money to the overseers of the work. These, in turn, would pay the carpenters and the labourers …and pay for the wood and stone and .. every other expenditure needed to maintain God’s House. (2Kings12 10ff)
The imperative for transparency and proper use of public money may have been natural for Moses, but by the time of Jehoash structures were needed to protect public funds. Notice the representative from monarchy as well as priesthood when the box was opened and the money counted. Talmud tells us “Money for the charity fund is collected by two people and distributed by three people. It is collected by two people because one does not appoint an authority over the community composed of fewer than two. And it is distributed by three people, like the number of judges needed in cases of monetary law, since the distributors determine who receives money and how much” (Baba Batra 8b)
There is a longstanding tradition in Judaism that those who collect or disburse public money must be provably honest and doing it “leshem shamayim” – not for their own benefit but for the public good. They had to not only be honest but be seen to behave honestly – they were to stay together when collecting, not be seen putting even their own money into their pockets, be trusted to collect and distribute appropriately. Money given in order to support the community is heavily regulated in Jewish law. No one can evade the communal responsibility to support the poor in their society and they do so through the regulated and trusted system.
As Maimonides writes “A city with a Jewish population must establish men who are known and reliable, who will go about among the people weekly, taking from each their fixed amount, and giving to each poor person enough food for seven days: this is called “kupah.”
Likewise they establish gabbaim who will take daily, from each courtyard, foodstuffs or money from whoever donates at that time, and distribute the collection in the evening among the poor, giving to each a day’s sustenance, and this is called “tam’hui.””
While Mishna Avot may tell us that “everything belongs to God”, the reality has always been that some accrue wealth at the expense of others, misappropriating public funds – as Kohelet says, “there is nothing new under the sun”. So given our texts exhorting public service over private gain, never allowing the control of public money to fall to a small unaccountable elite, legislating communal responsibility to feed, clothe, house and maintain the poorer in society (defined as not having enough for two good meals a day), what would Moses or Jehoash say about the homeless, the food banks, the benefit cuts, or the writing off of fraudulently misappropriated public funds?
(written for the Jewish News Progressive Judaism page February 2022)
Parashat Mishpatim continues the process begun at Sinai, explicating and evolving the laws that will govern this nascent Israelite society. It begins with the laws that govern the indentured Israelite servants, and then moves on to the laws of damages- beginning with the person who either intentionally or unintenionally causes damage, and then dealing with the damage that is caused indirectly or by the property of people. The parasha then continues into other areas.
On first reading, it seems as if the laws contain a jumble of different areas and contexts with little logical order. Rabbi Elchanan Samet however has a different view: “Our question about the organization of the parasha of damages is based on the assumption that the order should follow the categories of the agents which CAUSE damage. Such a categorization is appropriate from a legal perspective, since one’s level of responsibility for the damage determines whether and how much restitution he much pay. Our questions, however, disappear when we realize that the Torah orders this section based on the categories of those who are DAMAGED, not those who CAUSE damage”.
In other words, the Torah has an organising principle here not just of legal categories, but of societal values. It begins with the value of human and then animal life, moves onto plant life and the sustaining ability of agriculture for society, and only then moves to general property or to money. By using this principle, we are reminded powerfully that all human life and wellbeing, )closely followed by animal life and well being) is de facto more important to sustain and to protect than property or wealth.
On this organising principle, Judaism builds an edifice of understanding and provides a moral compass for us and for all of society. One cannot claim for example that the poor deserve less than the rich, that refugees have fewer rights to security than those comfortably living in the land, or that the rights of animals to life and welfare can be negotiated (or worse) for monetary profit.
Mishpatim has often been described as a foundational text for our society, a text which creates an environment built on laws that are applicable to everyone, that have authority, that addresses a broad variety of human experiences. The view that the organising principle is not only the legal sysem regulating human action but actually the moral imperative to be particularly concerned about supporting the wronged person and getting justice for them is mind blowing. We generally focus on the idea that it is clearly built on earlier codes, such as that of Hammurabi, and examine the differences between the two codes of law, but to change focus and look at how the code is structured to prioritise people’s humanity and well being, the care for all living creatures and for nature BEFORE considering the care for material wealth and possessions is to understand the biblical imperative to care for the world and its inhabitants even at the cost of any accumulation of wealth or other material power.
We cannot of course ignore the fact that the legal code is critical to keeping the moral code properly focused and working. It is law – good law that is made to help people rather than to oppress or constrain people – that keeps society safe. The very word “mishpatim” means “laws”, and it requires people who apply wisdom and compassion to interpret and wield these laws.
I have been thinking a great deal recently about my grandfather, Walter Fritz Louis Rothschild, whose career as a judge faltered and ultimately came to an end with the rise of the Nazis in Germany. We have a newspaper where the following is reported on 21st January 1933 under the heading “A Public Scandal” :
“Offener Brief an den Reichsjustizminister.
Wir berichteten bereits in unsere gestrigen Ausgabe über den öffentlichen Skandal am hiesigen Amtsgericht. Der Führer der SA-Obergruppe 2, Lutze, hat jetzt folgenden offenen Brief an den Reichsjustizminister gerichtet:
Ein Einzelfall, der in der Bevölkerung Hannovers berechtigte Entrüstung und Empörung ausgelöst hat, gibt mir Veranlassung, mich an Sie zu wenden und ein Problem zur Sprache zu bringen, das dringend und umgehend der Bereinigung bedarf.
Der Vorgang ist folgender: Das Amtsgericht Hannover hat es für zweckmäßig befunden, in einer politischen Strafsache, die am Mittwoch, dem 18. Januar 1933 vor dem hiesigen Amtsgericht anstand, in einem Verfahren gegen 2 SA-Männer den jüdischen Amtsgerichtsrat Dr. Rothschild als Vorsitzenden herauszustellen.
Die Vernehmung der Beklagten erfolgte von Seiten des Dr. Rothschilds in überaus provokatorischer und unsachlicher Form.
Der Verteidiger der Angeklagten bezweifelte daraufhin die Unbefangenheit des jüdischen Vorsitzenden und wird von diesem in einer Art und Weise behandelt, die weit über das Maß des Erträglichen und Erlaubten hinausgeht. Das Gericht zieht sich zur Beratung zurück und erklärt dann den Antrag des Verteidigers als gegenstandslos.
Herr Reichsjustizminister! Es dürfte auch Ihnen nicht entgangen sein, daß das deutsche Volk, soweit es die nat.-soz. Weltanschauung vertritt – und das sind rund 40 Prozent der Gesamtbevölkerung Deutschlands – die jüdischen Fesseln abzustreifen sich anschickt.
Wir verbitten es uns, daß man Vollblut- und Halbblutjuden als Richter über deutsche Menschen einsetzt. Wir fordern, daß der verantwortliche Amtsgerichtsdirektor, der für den obengenannten Vorgang die Verantwortung trägt, zur Rechenschaft gezogen wird.
Ich hoffe, daß Sie diesem Appell in letzter Stunde die gebührende Beachtung schenken, ehe es an den Gerichten zu Auftritten kommt, die eine autoritäre Rechtspflege überhaupt in Frage stellen.
Zu Ihrer Orientierung diene Ihnen, daß sich die hannoverschen Gerichte durch Herausstellung jüdischen Justizpersonals besonders hervortun. Ich nenne u.a. :
1. den ersten Staatsanwalt Wolfssohn,
2. die Richterin Alice Rosenfeld,
3. den Amtsgerichtsrat Rothschild,
und empfehle Ihnen, die Genannten schnellstens in der Versenkung verschwinden zu lassen.
Der Führer der SA-Obergruppe II, gez. Lutze, M.d..R.” [i.e. Mitglied des Reichstages.]
“Open letter to the Reich Minister of Justice.
We already reported in yesterday’s issue about the public scandal at the local district court. The leader of SA-Obergruppe 2, Lutze, has now addressed the following open letter to the Reich Minister of Justice:
An individual case which has caused justified indignation and outrage among the people of Hanover has given me cause to address you and to raise a problem which urgently and immediately needs clearing up.
The process is as follows:
The District Court of Hanover has found it expedient to single out the Jewish District Court Councillor Dr. Rothschild as the presiding judge in a political criminal case which was pending before the District Court here on Wednesday, January 18, 1933, in proceedings against 2 SA men.
The questioning of the defendants was carried out by Dr. Rothschild in an extremely provocative and unobjective manner.
The defendants’ defence counsel then doubted the impartiality of the Jewish chairman and was treated by him in a manner that went far beyond what was tolerable and permissible. The court retires for deliberation and then declares the motion of the defence counsel to be without object.
Mr. Minister of Justice! It should not have escaped your notice that the German people, in so far as they represent the National-Socialist worldview – and that is about 40 percent of the total population of Germany – are preparing to throw off the Jewish shackles.
We forbid the use of full-blooded and half-blooded Jews as judges over German people. We demand that the director of the district court, who is responsible for the above-mentioned incident, be brought to justice.
I hope that you will give this appeal the attention it deserves at the last hour, before there are any appearances in the courts that call the authoritarian administration of justice into question at all.
For your orientation, please note that the Hanoverian courts are particularly prominent in singling out Jewish judicial personnel. I mention, among others:
1. the first public prosecutor Wolfssohn,
2. Judge Alice Rosenfeld,
3. the district court judge Rothschild,
and I recommend that you let the aforementioned disappear as quickly as possible.
The leader of SA-Obergruppe II,
signed. Lutze, M.d..R.” [i.e. member of the Reichstag.]
One can only imagine the arrogant confidence of the writers of the letter, who, unhappy that an incident where up to 30 SA (Sturmabteilung – Nazi paramilitary wing “Storm Detachment) men had set upon a man wearing a Reichsbanner badge in his hat (anti fascist/ liberal organisation of the Weimar republic) and beaten him up, were questioned robustly by a Jewish court judge and found to have a case to answer – felt able to demand that Jewish judges be removed from office.
One can only imagine the feelings of that judge – my grandfather- writing his carefully worded and thoughtful 5 page response to the accusation, only to be removed from his role within a week of his rebuttal as the Nazis came to power and removed all Jews from their public roles.
My grandfather died as a result of the physical ill- treatment he received in Dachau shortly after the war. But my grandmother survived and on occasion she would reminisce with me. One day she told me of her overwhelming fear in the early thirties – I think it must have been around the time of this court case – as she tried to persuade her husband to leave the country. He told her “I can’t. If the judges leave then there will be no justice”.
By the time he realised that there would be no judges and no justice it was too late to leave. Countries had closed their borders to Jews, they and extended family were trapped.
Last week I lit a yahrzeit candle for him. This week we are mark the European Holocaust Memorial Day and we repeat the words “never again” and “Zachor – Remember” hopefully and desperately in the knowledge that since the Shoah we have seen people dehumanised because of their ethnicity or religion, we have seen people attempt to erase any memory and any learning from memory.
And this week we read parashat Mishpatim. We read a parasha where a society is created by laws. A parasha structured to remind us that every single human being is of value, every single human being is of equal value, and that value is paramount in how we organise our society.
If only our society followed the structure set out in parashat mishpatim. To value human life, animal life, the natural world. To care for them, to protect them, to nourish and sustain and honour them. And only after that to consider material wealth, profit, gains. If only we had a system where the person damaged was the most important to consider, not the damage to property or wealth.
We are witnessing an assault by government on our codes of justice. We are witnessing legislation whereby if the government does not agree with the judiciary, they will overrule the judgments. We are witnessing long term underfunding of our system which is causing it to break down. We are witnessing a government that thinks the law is not for them to follow. We are living in dangerous times.
And I think of my brave and lonely grandfather saying to my fearful and anxious grandmother. “If the judges leave there will be no justice.”
“One day Choni the circle maker was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready-grown] carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted these for me so I too plant these for my children”. ( Talmud Bavli: Taanit 23a)
Trees are deeply important in our tradition, and also have their own relationship with God. They are prominent in our texts – mentioned at the Creation, vital to the narrative in the Garden of Eden; the Hebrew word for tree appears in the bible over 150 times and more than 100 different kinds of trees, shrubs and plants are named. The Mishnah follows suit, naming hundreds more plants in its legal codification. In all more than 500 different plants are named in our traditional texts. Trees are a signifier of the connection the Jews have with the land, and reflect the relationship that we have with the Land of Israel – Moses repeatedly reminds us that we must care for the land and treat it well, and not only land but people – otherwise we will be driven out from there as other nations apparently were before us.
Trees have a special place in how we create awareness of God. For they are not only part of the natural world, they are also used repeatedly in our texts as a metaphor for humanity, for life, for reaching upwards to God and rooting the self in the world. Trees symbolise so much, they have a quasi-divine element, a quasi-human element. They feed us, they provide shelter, they bridge the generations, and they act as a bellwether for our moral state.
We read in Deuteronomy “ When you will besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you? (20:19)
This image, comparing the fruit tree to human beings, powerfully reminds us of the damage that can be inflicted in a war between people, and in obliging us to protect the trees reminds us of what we have in common with them. If we should not cut down the fruit bearing tree, how much more so should we consider the safety of the people being besieged?
We are about to celebrate the festival of Tu b’Shevat – the fifteenth day of the month Shevat. Originally Tu b’Shevat was simply the way by which the age of trees was measured for purpose of tithing and of orlah (the first three years when the fruit was considered strictly God’s property and not to be eaten by anyone). In effect it marks the boundary of a tax year.
After the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70CE the taking of tithes from fruit trees fell into disuse, but the date remained special in our calendars. The Mishnah recorded four new years and their dates: – Rosh Hashanah le’ilanot (Tu b’Shevat) for trees, Rosh Hashanah for years, Rosh Hashanah lema’aser behemah for tithing animals, and Rosh Hashanah le’mel’achim for counting the years of a king’s reign.
The date of Tu b’Shevat has stayed in our calendar throughout the time we were without our land, celebrated and noted by communities all over the world. The Kabbalists of Sfat in the 16th and 17th century developed a ritual – the Tu b’Shevat Seder – to represent our connection to the land of Israel and also to reflect the mystical concept of God’s relationship with our world being like a tree. The Seder consisted of eating the different types of traditional fruits grown in Israel and connecting the different types of these fruit with each the Four Worlds of Kabbalistic theology, drinking four cups of wine that were each mixed with different proportions of wine with each cup of wine symbolizing one of the four seasons, and reading texts about trees.
The mystics understand Tu B’Shevat as being the day when the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe. And they taught that by offering blessings on Tu B’Shevat, a person can help in the healing of the world. From this came the belief that since on Tu B’Shevat we offer a blessing for each fruit before we consume it, the more fruits we eat, the more blessings we can offer to help heal the world.
In more modern times Tu b’Shevat has been a gift to the Zionist movement and the return to the Land. They have used it as an opportunity to plant trees in Israel as a way of transforming the land, as well as re-attaching ourselves to the physical Land of Israel. And most recently the Jewish ecological movements have adopted the day to remind us in powerful messages of our obligation to care for the environment.
All these themes bound up in Tu b’Shevat are important and helpful to our own Jewish identity and spirituality. There is an overarching theme of healing the world through our connections with nature, of the importance and symbiosis of our relationship with the natural world. And in our relationship with nature, we express our relationship with God. Caring for our world is a sacred task. As we read in Proverbs (3:18)
[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her is happy.
Our tradition asks: “How can a person of flesh and blood follow God? … God, from the very beginning of creation, was occupied before all else with planting. Therefore … occupy yourselves first and foremost with planting. – Midrash: Leviticus Rabbah 25:3
It reminds us that “If you have a sapling in your hand and people tell you that the Messiah has come, plant the sapling and then go and greet him” (Avot de Rabbi Natan)
When my mother told my small niece not to go out of the gate when playing in the garden, my niece resisted, saying she had learned at her orthodox Jewish primary school that “the God of Israel will protect me”. She could certainly leave the garden and go into the road. When my mother explained that the God of Israel was using her as the protective agent to watch over my niece’s safety, she reluctantly agreed to staying within the garden.
I think of this story whenever I come across Jews who refuse medical interventions because of “the will of God”, and when I hear the phrase “pikuach nefesh” used in response. While we are used to translating the phrase as “saving a life”, its root meaning is “watching over or overseeing a person”. Our obligation to others is to watch out for them, ensuring that they are not endangered.
My niece, disabused of the notion that God would always protect her, grew up aware of the Jewish obligation to take care of each other, that the “looking out for” the other is the responsibility of everyone in society. Looking out for the other means taking public health seriously, rather then allowing each to make a decision for themselves that may have harmful consequences for others. It means not expecting God to intervene to help us, but being the agent of protection ourselves – protecting ourselves and others.
History has shown us that biblical verses like “Whoever keeps the mitzvot will know no harm” (Ecc8:5) cannot be read at face value, that faith in God is not the harbinger of survival, and that the kind of piety that expects divine protection as reward for uncritical devotion is at best misguided. From Talmud on the idea that a doctor may heal even what God has caused is threaded through our texts. Healing becomes a religious obligation, preventing danger and illness a duty.
Recently the haredi world was in uproar when a prominent rabbi advocated vaccinating children against Covid. He received death threats, was called “Amalek” whose name must be erased, accused of murder by his own community, purportedly in God’s name.
Progressive Judaism does not teach that illness is God’s will nor that only the undeserving succumb. Faith does not preserve, disease is not a judgment, each of us must watch out for others. Vaccination protects us all. It’s a mitzvah. Do it.
Vaccini e salute pubblica – Pikuach Nefesh
Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild il 9 gennaio 2022
Quando mia madre diceva alla mia nipotina di non uscire dal cancello mentre giocava in giardino, mia nipote opponeva resistenza, e, come aveva imparato nella sua scuola elementare ebraica ortodossa, diceva: “il Dio di Israele mi proteggerà”. Poteva lasciare il giardino e mettersi tranquillamente in strada. Quando mia madre le spiegava che il Dio d’Israele la stava usando come agente protettivo per vegliare sulla sua sicurezza, lei accettava con riluttanza di rimanere nel giardino.
Penso a questa storia ogni volta che mi imbatto in ebrei che rifiutano gli interventi medici a causa della “volontà di Dio”, e quando sento la frase “pikuach nefesh” usata come risposta. Nonostante siamo abituati a tradurre la frase come “salvare una vita”, il suo significato principale è “vegliare o sorvegliare una persona”. Il nostro obbligo nei confronti degli altri è di prenderci cura di loro, assicurandoci che non siano in pericolo.
Mia nipote, disillusa all’idea che Dio l’avrebbe sempre protetta, è cresciuta consapevole dell’obbligo ebraico di prendersi cura l’uno dell’altro, che “prendersi cura” dell’altro è responsabilità di tutti nella società. Prendersi cura dell’altro significa prendere sul serio la salute pubblica, piuttosto che permettere a ciascuno di prendere una singola decisione che potrebbe avere conseguenze dannose per gli altri. Significa non aspettarsi che Dio intervenga per aiutarci, ma essere noi stessi l’agente di protezione, proteggendo noi stessi e gli altri.
La storia ci ha mostrato che versetti biblici come “Chi osserva le mitzvot non conoscerà alcun male” (Ecc 8:5) non possono essere intesi alla lettera, che la fede in Dio non è foriera di sopravvivenza e che il tipo di pietà che si aspetta la divina protezione come ricompensa per la devozione acritica è, nella migliore delle ipotesi, fuorviante. Dal Talmud in poi l’idea che un medico possa guarire anche ciò che Dio ha causato è intessuta nei nostri testi. Guarire diventa un obbligo religioso, prevenire il pericolo e la malattia diventa un dovere.
Recentemente il mondo haredi è stato in subbuglio quando un eminente rabbino ha sostenuto la vaccinazione dei bambini contro il Covid. Ha ricevuto minacce di morte, è stato chiamato “Amalek” il cui nome deve essere cancellato, accusato di omicidio dalla sua stessa comunità, presumibilmente in nome di Dio.
L’ebraismo progressivo non insegna che la malattia è volontà di Dio né che solo gli immeritevoli soccombono. La fede non preserva, la malattia non è un giudizio, ognuno di noi deve stare attento agli altri. La vaccinazione ci protegge tutti. È una mitzvà. Fatela.
“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the ETERNAL. I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the ETERNAL, am your God who freed you from the labours of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I sworeto Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the ETERNAL.” But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” Exodus 6:5-9
Twice now we hear that God hears the groaning of the Israelites – At the burning bush God tells Moses “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings……” Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. (Exodus 3:7,9), yet at no point does the bible record the Israelites calling out to God for help to save them from their slavery in Egypt. Yet God hears them and decides to act to help them.
This contrasts painfully with the lack of listening that the Israelites themselves do. When Moses speaks to them of his encounter with God, and the re-entry of God into their narrative, they refuse to listen to him. They are too fully absorbed in the misery of their existence to contemplate anything beyond it.
The text plays repeatedly with miscommunication, with what is said, or listened to, or heard or understood. God hears what is not cried out. Moses pleads his inability to speak well to others. Pharoah chooses not to understand the import of the signs and wonders being inflicted on his people and land. He too is fully absorbed in retaining and growing his own power to notice what else is happening around him. Again and again he is forced into accepting a version of the request of the Israelite people, to go and worship God in the wilderness, only to retract his agreements shortly afterwards.
What we come to understand is that listening and understanding are both active and committed behaviours. While one can communicate without intending to do so, it is also possible to be exposed to the communication of others without taking on board what it is that they are communicating. One can hear the silent pain of others and yet miss the explicit and direct words shared with us.
When Moses brings the message from God to the Israelites, the message of freedom from slavery, they do not hear him – and the bible explains that they are crushed by their conditions, have no ability to think beyond their misery.
Listening and understanding are active behaviours of commitment to the other. It is not enough to just skim the surface of communication, gleaning sufficient though scant information in order to continue one side of a conversation. Listening is an act of will, paying attention takes effort, being present in communication is not the easy route.
The Israelites are consumed by their conditions, exhausted by the effort they must put in just to survive. They cannot hear the voice of freedom even when it speaks directly to them. God has to try another way to get their attention, as well as the attention of their oppressors.
We are living in a world undergoing pandemic, where almost everyone is giving their attention to negotiating the unknowable. After almost two years of this “new normal”, many of us are exhausted, many burned out, many in more fragile situations in work or in relationships, many contemplating a different way to live their lives going forward. The hard work of just keeping going means that for many of us all our attention is taken, we have no bandwidth for listening and really hearing the messages of others, no emotional capacity for even the directly spoken plea.
Yet it is important that we are able to turn our attention outside our immediate situation. Be it climate change or massively increased poverty, increasing political corruption or the desolation of the many bereaved people – we have to lift our heads and begin to pay attention. To listen to the pain of others even if not directed to us. To commit to understanding and engaging with the problems our world is facing, even if we would rather just keep our heads down and plough on.
When God sends the signs – seven of which appear in this sidra – they are signs not just to Pharaoh, but to everyone, from Hebrew slave to Egyptian courtiers. They are attention grabbing reminders that the world needs us to pay attention, that the vulnerable and the frightened need us to pay attention, that the people treated unjustly need us to pay attention.
In the beginning of this sidra God tells Moses” I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name”
Much is written about the names of God here, but I am minded to pay attention this year to the words of Saadia Gaon who said that the shin of Shaddai is a preposition, so the word is really She’ Dai – The One Who said to the world “Enough”
Standing up and being prepared to say “Enough” takes courage, presence, commitment and deep attention. And it is something we also need to be doing. Saying “enough” to the facts of extreme poverty in rich nations, of frightened refugees preferring to risk their lives because there are no proper secure or legal routes to safely. Saying “enough” to those who would grab resources for themselves at the expense of other peoples. Saying “enough” to corruption in government, to legislation designed to remove rights, to legislation designed to erase history
We are all tired and frightened and uncertain in this pandemic time, but if we don’t begin to pay attention to what else is happening while Covid 19 rampages through the globe, if we don’t stand up and say “enough” to human beings living in terrible conditions with little hope of change, then we are not paying attention to our texts. The ten signs God sends to Egypt increase in severity and terror. God has to find a way to be heard. And if we just stop and listen for the still small voice of our texts and traditions, we will hear and understand and gather the strength to be who we need to be.
When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. (Exodus 2:3)
The story of Moses’ mother who hid him in a floating box among the reeds of the Nile river with his sister keeping watch to see what will happen leaves us with so many questions. But reading it this year the description of the box as a tevat gomeh – a seemingly inadequate and vulnerable woven box which was waterproofed with bitumen, struck me anew.
The only other place in bible where this word “tevah” appears is in the story of Noah’s floating vessel, when God tells him that the earth is to be destroyed, and Noah must
Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch.” (Genesis 6:14)
My mind – as I am sure the minds of so many of us do – flies to the pictures all over the media of the small boats, often overfull with asylum seekers who are making dangerous journeys to safety. The reach Europe, or to reach the UK, they must cross the often treacherous waters, which in the case of the English Channel means both freezing seas, choppy waves and the busiest shipping lanes that they must avoid.
The connection between the tarred box that Moses’ mother makes, and the one made by Noah is not unnoticed among our traditional commentators. They notice that in both cases those within the tevah are saved from drowning; those who are not so lucky – the animals and people not chosen by Noah, or the baby boys of the Hebrews cast into the Nile at birth – will not survive. In both cases the tevah is the means of survival – in the story of Noah it is the whole of the animal kingdom which is given a chance of survival through the representatives protected on the Ark, and in the story of Moses it is the Jewish people who are given a chance of survival through the later actions of the tiny baby preserved within the basket.
At the point of the story where the birth and saving of the infant Moses is told, everyone is nameless. A certain man from the tribe of Levi marries a woman from that same tribe and she conceives and bears a son. She hid him for three months and then, when hiding was no longer an option, puts the child in the waterproofed basket amongst the reeds and sets his sister to watch. A female relative of the Pharaoh approaches and sees the basket, sends a slave to fetch it, opens it and realises this is a Hebrew child, at which point the watching sister shows herself and offers to provide a Hebrew wetnurse – the mother of the baby. The “wetnurse” takes the baby home under the protection of the daughter of Pharoah and nurtures him, bringing him back only when he is grown. And only then – only then in a sidra called “names” – do we get a name for anyone in the story. Pharaoh’s daughter says “His name is Moshe, because I drew him from the waters” (Exodus 2:10) (the verbal root m.sh.h meaning to draw out) שְׁמוֹ֙ מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַתֹּ֕אמֶר כִּ֥י מִן־הַמַּ֖יִם מְשִׁיתִֽהוּ׃
The namelessness of all the protagonists feels deliberate and important. These are not special people born to the task of saving an oppressed and vulnerable group, it is only the circumstances they find themselves in – and how they respond to those circumstances – that makes them of particular interest to us. They are, however, all of them representing a special quality that should give us pause – they are all, whether powerful or powerless, old or young, active or passive in the story – they are all human beings.
Reading this story in a world in which our politicians feel comfortable suggesting that the human beings seeking refuge and security in countries far from their own homes should be “turned around at sea”. People in dangerous small craft, often unseaworthy at the best of times of frequently overloaded and in poor conditions, become weaponised in an increasingly hostile environment as our politicians pander to the racism and xenophobia of a vocal minority of people.
Once we know the names and the stories of those who take to these boats as the only way to reach safety we cannot be as indifferent or as hostile as we are encouraged to be by sections of the media and government.
Read the stories and weep – human beings merely seeking safety, risking everything because there was no alternative, read and think of Moses in his basket, his anxious mother, his watching sister, everyone just hoping that they would encounter kindness rather than hostility.
Read about those who died recently – read their stories and learn their names and the names of those who loved them. On parashat Shemot, the least we can do is to understand the humanity of even the nameless, and do our best to tell their stories and let their names not be erased.
As we commemorate Kristallnacht this year, the words of Arthur Flehinger, my step-uncle and a member of the Baden Baden synagogue who witnessed it all, along with my grandfather, need to be heard again
The events of 10.11.1938 in Baden-Baden were described by Arthur Flehinger, a teacher at the Hohenbaden Gymnasium, who subsequently came to Bradford, Yorkshire, in a report he wrote in 1955: (In Stadtarchiv Baden-Baden 05-02/015). Translated by Rabbi Walter Rothschild.
“Until the infamous 10th November 1938 Baden-Baden remained largely sheltered from the worst excesses of the Nazis. This was not because anyone wanted to grant the Jews of the Spa town any especial privileges, but from purely egoistic reasons, because the Spa had strong international connections which had to be maintained; It was, as one said, Germany’s Visiting Card. Any major disruption of the inner peace would have had as an effect a reduction in the number of visitors from abroad and therefore a reduction in foreign currency takings, and the Nazis needed money and more money. Of course all the Nazi Orders (fingerprinting, Jewish…