Ha’azinu – what might we say and write when we confront our own mortality?

Moses knows he is going to die.  Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.

I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up.  What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.

It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely.   His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”

It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.

We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.

Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.

The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world.  Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.

Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone.  I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the  setting that is 1500 years after his own life.  It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b.  Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.

So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.

All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave.  I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.

Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me.  The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth.  Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.

Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them.  He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way.  The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.

There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational.  Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature.  Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed  in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.

As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned.  Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.

The work of the yamim noraim – our teshuvah and the teshuvah of God

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur always have such a strange quality about them.  On the one hand there is the imperative for active introspection – to search, to think, to pray, to critically examine our behaviour over the past year. There is the knowledge that we should be going out of our way to make things better – and at the same time the slight embarrassment about our trying to do exactly that.  Then there is the  awareness that whatever is going on in our heads and our private worlds,  out there in the world people are continuing exactly as normal, indulging in office politics say, or scheming and manoeuvring to be the first or get the most. Salesmen still offer their inflated claims for their products, school bullies continue to rule the playground – whatever our good intentions, the world isn’t going to change because of what we Jews are doing.

We even know that – after all, what is the kol nidrei prayer except an exercise in apologetics, in effect we are saying – “dear God, we are only frail human beings, please don’t hold us to all those good intentions, those promises that we were really going to change this year.”

It is such disjointed time, during which our minds are holding such incongruous ideas, that it is a wonder we don’t simply explode with the effort required to make sense of things; that or give up. Each of us has had our own pain over the past year – whether it was the fracturing of our lives through the deaths of family or friends, illness or lost relationships or work – our worlds can change abruptly and apparently randomly and it surely makes us question the whole point of what we are doing, this uniquely Jewish process of setting aside time for spiritual catharsis and divine forgiveness.   What is the point if we can’t change much, if we can’t protect our loved ones from a seemingly capricious power, if we can’t persuade God that we deserve a measure of guardianship from suffering, if we can’t see a reward for all our hard work?  What kind of God are we returning to when we make Teshuvah? What kind of religion are we affirming as we join together and recite texts which include the apparent attempted murder of a son by a father desperate to show loyalty to God, which include the images of the book of life and the book of death, which include a graphic martyrology section.

We may be uncomfortable with the welter of different ideas all living and growing in our minds.  We may be questioning our reason for being here today, drawn by an atavistic need to be with Jews as the dread day of Yom Kippur begins.  We may be confused or angry with God, we might even be embarrassed by our presence here today, viewing it as a superstitious ritual with no real relevance to our own lives, yet here we all are, and it is our very presence together that matters – it means that we haven’t quite given up, whatever the pressures and the temptations to do so.

Ever since I was quite small I used to wonder, what does God do on Yom Kippur? I used to try to imagine for myself – ‘Is God sitting like some ancient law lord, presiding over the panelled celestial courtroom as each life is weighed in the balance?  Is God enthroned in majestic glory, watching the sad grey souls parade in front of him like sheep?  Will God really know what I am thinking, will God know all the little cheats and lies that I have been party to, and if so what will happen to me?’

It took me years to move behind some of the imagery of the machzor, to stop focussing exclusively on my own petty guilts and to dare to attempt a little dialogue.  But when I did that I began to understand something different about this day, began to forgive a little more.

What does God do on Yom Kippur?

The clue to answering this question is found in the timing of the festival, and is also reflected in the choice of our Torah reading which includes some verses which echo through and through the liturgy.  Yom Kippur is biblically given as a date, the tenth of Tishri, described as a time designated as a day for atonement, for afflicting our souls.  In Temple times it became the focus of a major priestly ritual connecting the people of Israel with their creator.  Since rabbinic times we have used it more personally as a time for reflecting with humility on our lives, upon the fractured nature of our relationship with God – broken, we begin to understand, because of our own behaviour, our own pride and refusal to engage with God.  But this practise of introspection and of trying to make good isn’t an explicitly biblical command – in fact it isn’t all that clear in the bible what Yom Kippur is really for.  Unlike the other biblical festivals it isn’t an agricultural date celebrating the safe ingathering of a harvest, nor does it commemorate an historical or even an obvious theological event.  But there is one tradition – a very early one, (Seder Olam Rabba – 2nd century),  which tells us that the tenth day of Tishri  is the date on which Moses brought down from Sinai the second set of the tablets of the law.

This then is understood to be the date when, after the Children of Israel had sinned with the Golden Calf having feared that Moses had died, and after Moses had returned and angrily thrown down and destroyed the first set of the Ten Commandments, God gave us another chance – and we gave God another chance too.

So what does God do on Yom Kippur? Just like us, God makes Teshuvah – God forgives us for the mistakes we have made, and God creates the opportunity for us to add our pardon to that of the divine creator.

God making Teshuvah – it is a strange, almost frightening concept, yet it is also a vital one if we are to maintain a relationship with God. We do not live in the cosy world of childhood which tells us that if we are good nothing bad can happen to us, that if our parents are present no evil thing can frighten us.  We live in an imperfect world, where disease and accidents can happen, where we do our best to make sense and order but still have to live with the nonsense and disorder that are part of real life.  We live in a world of imperfectly understood mechanisms, of sudden floods or terrible droughts, of bad things happening to good people, of innocent people caught up in situations not of their own making.  We live in such a world because it is an inevitable concomitant of our functioning as full human beings.  If we did not, we would still be in the Garden of Eden and God would still be protecting us by not allowing us to experience our world fully, or take decisions, or be responsible or adult.

In the tradition of the mystic literature, the analogy is made that God has withdrawn or shrunk Godself from our world to make space for us to be in it without being overwhelmed by and subsumed into the presence of God.  And with that lessening of the total presence of God there come the inevitable consequences.

But while it might be said that God is slightly apart from our world, we also know that God has given us abilities and understanding – texts which teach us how to increase the presence of God in the world through our own efforts, souls which contain the spark of God within them, the ability to communicate, to feel, to make relationships with each other, to support and comfort each other, self awareness, moral discrimination, the ability to choose how we are in the world – all these things are gifts from God, and all of them are double edged – we can choose not to use our gifts, or we can choose to distort them or be distorted by them.

We live in an imperfect world because we live in a human one, and that is painful for us as I believe it is for God.  God, having created us and having given us independence of spirit waits for us to seek God.  And at Yom Kippur as we feel the urge to somehow come back, to make Teshuvah, to understand a little of our what our lives  may be about, God too feels the need to turn to us, to help us as we go through the process of self examination, to make the journey that is too hard for us, to make Teshuvah as well.

God forgives us for the mistakes we have made in the past year, allows us the opportunity to acknowledge them, to make amends, to put them behind us. Our scripture tells us about what happened immediately after the episode of the Golden Calf. It would have been so easy for God to give up on us then, to start again with another group, to allow the pain and anger and frustration to dictate the end of the relationship, but that is not what God did.  And it is not something that we can do either.  Confused or angry,  doubtful or deeply hurt – Yom Kippur calls us back to God and demands that whatever our feelings we must engage, must enter the dialogue, must enter the presence of God and struggle with what that means.  As we begin the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, acknowledging that all of us have failed, acknowledging too that we will make mistakes again in the future, wondering what the point might therefore be, it is important for us to simply take the time to consider that the point might reside simply in our actively being here, might be found in our refusal to accept all that the machzor sets out for us, might inhabit our doubts and our negative feelings as much as any sense of spiritual satisfaction.  On this day we turn to God and find that God is already turned towards us, waiting for our engagement with the fundamental issues of our identity, willing us to forgive and to be forgiven, comforting us as well as challenging us, demanding that we live our lives the best way we can, reflecting our creator and bringing about much needed repairs to ourselves and to our fundamentally damaged world.


Nitzavim: we are our own matzevah, sign of a covenant that we cannot fully understand

Just before the famous opening words of parashat Nitzavim, we see Moses speaking “el col Yisrael” – to all Israel, reminding them that they had seen everything that God had done to Pharaoh and to the people in Egypt, had seen the great trials, signs and wonders, but that God had not given them a heart to know, eyes to see, nor ears to hear until right now.

He then goes into a strange excursus, telling them that “I led you for forty years in the wilderness, your clothes did not grow old nor did your shoes wear out, you have not eaten bread nor have you drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that “I am the Eternal your God”.

He speaks of the two kings of the Amorites, Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan, of how they battled against the Israelites but were defeated, their land given to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh. And so he tells them to observe the words of this covenant and do them, in order that they be successful in all they will do.

So ends the sidra before, and the division is both dramatically powerful and problematically distracting.  Nitzavim begins “You (pl) are standing this day ALL OF YOU, before the Eternal your God – your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers all, a man (sing) of Israel. Your children, your women, and your stranger who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. For your passing over into the covenant of the Eternal your God, and its conditions, which the eternal your God is making with you today, in order to establish you today for himself for a people, and he will be for you a God, as he said to you, and as he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham Isaac and Jacob. ”

The image of everyone being present in order to enter into a covenant with God, where all the people would become God’s people and God would have a particular relationship of covenantal obligation with them is hugely appealing. It is made the more so when we see the list of people who will become part of this unbreakable relationship of covenant –from the highest status men of office through to each individual (man), then children, women, strangers who have become part of the group in some way, and finally the most menial labourers often invisible to the rest of society. Leaving aside the androcentric society of bible for a moment, we see a real equality in the covenant – it doesn’t matter your gender or your status, whether you are Israelite or resident stranger, your position as regards the covenant with God is the same.

So lovely is this thought that it is easy to not notice other nudges in the text. The elision of Moses and God is deeply problematic to me – not only does he tell the people that this is a moment of revelation which had been hidden for the previous forty years because God had not given them the abilities to perceive what most of their lives had been about, he also doesn’t seem to be quoting God so much as claiming God’s role.  While the presence of the people, all of the people, is accentuated in this text, so that Moses tells them that not only those present that day but also those who were not present that day (understood in tradition to be both all the future descendants of the people present, and also all who would enter the covenant via conversion to Judaism), the presence of God is harder to ascertain. Moses seems to stand in for God at the introduction of this covenant. And after the fearsome predictions of what would happen in both this and future generations when the people will forsake God and in turn be forsaken, along with the land, we are told “the secret/ hidden things belong to the Eternal our God, but what is revealed belongs to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this torah/teaching”

There is a play about hidden and revealed going on in this text, made explicit at the beginning and end of the chapter, and this makes all the more dangerous the signing up to a covenant which cannot be fully understood.

As if to underline this play of hiding/revealing in the context of a treaty or covenant, the text nudges us to two other biblical narratives, neither of which comforts us.

Firstly is the phrase “atem nitzavim”  coming from the Hebrew root yod tzadi beit, it is in the niphal (reflexive) form meaning not so much standing as “you are setting yourselves up” or “taking one’s stand”.  It is a curious phrase, and it causes us to think of other uses of the root – more often found as the noun form of ‘matzevah”. The first time we meet the word is after the dream of the ladder when the young Jacob realises that he has met God, he rises early in the morning, takes the stone he had put under his head the night before, sets it up as a pillar (matzevah) and pours oil over it in a religious ritual, vowing “If God will be with me, will keep me on this way that I go, will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I will be able to return to my father’s house in peace, THEN will the Eternal be my God, and this stone, that I have set up as a pillar (matzevah) will be the house of God….”(Gen 28:18-22)

Later, when Jacob is about to return to his homeland and has to negotiate his leaving with his father in law Laban, Laban tells him  “And now come, let us make a covenant, I and you; and let it be for a witness between me and you.’ So Jacob takes a stone and raises it for a matzevah (Gen 31:44,45)

The original use of the word matzevah seems to be not just an upstanding stone to mark a place, but a physical marker of a covenant that is being made.

Moses uses the word differently though – “Atem Nitzavim” may legitimately be translated as: “You are standing”, but it has echoes of more than physically being on one’s feet – it means “you are setting yourselves up as a matzevah, you are physically yourselves the sign of the covenant that is being made between yourselves and God”

The second nudge is the phrase translated as “from hewers of wood to drawers of water”.  Besides the fact that there is little difference at the very bottom of the social scale being a hewer of wood or a drawer of water it is referring to those who  are using brute strength to service the society which will barely notice their efforts (though it will most certainly notice if they stop).

The phrase is not common – apart from here it appears in the Book of Joshua (chapter 9) which recounts a covenant that is not what it seems.  Once again the Amorite Kings  Sihon of Heshbon, and  Og king of Bashan are referenced, this time their defeat has led other inhabitants (the Hivites or Gibeonites both appear in this role) to dress in worn out clothing, with worn shoes and stale bread and patched wine skins (more resonances to the passage here in Deuteronomy) and pose as being travellers from a distant land who have heard of the acts of God done in Egypt and who have come to this land in order to meet these people of God and to make a treaty so as to live together with them in peace.  The Israelites are flattered, they take the food and wine that are offered, and critically they do not “take counsel from the Eternal”. After three days of covenant making/celebrating,  Joshua and the Israelites find that the people were not who they had said they were, but were long term inhabitants of the land and were now protected from the oncoming Israelites by treaty. In response to their having lied, and to their protected status, Joshua  acknowledged that they would live, but he curses them – they are to be bondmen to the Israelites, in particular “there shall never fail to be of you bondmen, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.’

There are too many echoes in this tale from the Book of Joshua.  As we are told there is “no before and no after in torah” one has to read each story in the light of the other.  So when Moses alludes to the covenant being made on the edge of the land, the covenant between God and the people, he is warning them both that covenants can be made without full knowledge, that some things may only come to light later, that ultimately we take things on trust and sometimes that trust is misplaced.

Sometimes too the upshot of not knowing something can be of real disbenefit, sometimes we can live with it sometimes it is hard to live with.

But we are ourselves the matzevah, we have set ourselves up for this covenant and we are the physical signs of its existence. We are so intertwined – our lives, our very selves are part of the covenant – that we can never free ourselves of it. We are the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, the people who keep society going with tasks that are not honoured but are honourable.  We are also the people who take a leap in the dark with God, who retain trust even when there is no obvious reason to do so.

Nowadays we use the word matzevah to mean a tomb stone, the marker of a body that rests in the earth having finished its tasks in life.  It provides solidity, certainty, finality.  But I do like the idea of the matzevah that is the living human being, the one that is uncertain, ongoing, working in the dark to some extent, living in hope.  As we enter the Days of Awe, the days of risk, of trying to make ourselves our best selves, the days when we wonder what God thinks of us, being a living matzevah, a living sign of the covenant between us and God must surely be a powerful sign and reminder we have trusted God all these years, and we hope to have reason to trust as we journey into the future.

image the stone said to be Lot’s wife in Sdom from wikimedia

Ki Tavo: creating our own narrative by our own actions. What we do becomes what we are.

“When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, …, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose… You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him; “I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your God that I have entered the land that the Eternal swore to our ancestors to assign us.” …. “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meagre numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labour upon us. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me.” ….. And you shall rejoice in all the good which the Eternal your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of you. (Deut 26:1–3, 5-10, 26:11)

The commandment at the beginning of the sidra is familiar to us, reminding us to tell our story in such a way that we do not just focus on harvest, or on our good fortune, nor even to tell it while recognising that our good fortune is not simply the result of our own effort, but to create a narrative that puts our experience into the context of the historical experience of the Jewish people.

Telling our story is how all of us make sense of our lives. Each of us has a narrative running through our consciousness, each of us notices most easily what fits into that narrative, manages to ignore that which cannot be meshed into the story.  The theme of these days of preparation for Rosh Hashanah – that of opening and reading to book of our lives, emerges in part from the awareness of the stories we construct about our everyday experience.  But while each of us may be the centre of our own continuous narrative, Jewish teaching does not allow us to become self-absorbed. Instead we are expected to see ourselves as part of a whole that is greater than ourselves. We are part of a people. We live beyond this moment – we live in the span of the whole experience of our people.  And the way we express ourselves religiously is woven into our internal and external narrative. We have to become aware not only of the immanent God with whom we can create some form of relationship of “I – Thou”; The God we worship is the God of history, the God who has no limits of time or space. Ever since we accepted Torah, Jews have been taught to see God at work in the world around us, in the historical experience of our people, and in the humanity of others.

Each of us, like the Israelite farmer bringing his first fruits, is required to tell a story, to render an account – before God and to our innermost selves, of who and what we are – a narrative that explains just what it is that spurs us on to action in this world. In telling his story, that farmer was commanded to look beyond his immediate reality to a vision of what his life was to be about. So, we too, are asked, when telling our story, not to ignore the “real world” but to transcend it, to direct our attention away from the concrete trivialities of our material existence and toward those goals, however exalted and “unrealistic,” that God would have us set for our lives.

The liturgical formula that is preserved in the verses at the beginning of ki tavo is a rare example of the prayer life of ancient Israel.  We use it in a number of settings – from the Pesach Haggadah to the liturgy of bikkurim, and its familiarity speaks to us and reminds us that the story of the redemption from slavery which led to the covenant at Sinai is a foundational one for us as Jews. Without it our stories are in danger of sentimentality. But it isn’t just the words that teach us.  We are moved from words to actions. The ritual begins with our declaration to proclaim our understanding and our faith. Then we go beyond the declaration into action – the tachlis.  Having acknowledged the Source of our blessing – God – and told the story of our own historical vulnerability, remembering our impotence and pain, we go on to do something intensely practical – to share the offering with the Levite/ priest and the ger–“the sojourner/stranger that is in your midst.” (Deuteronomy 26:11)

The ger, (Sojourner/stranger) is almost a synonym for the idea of the vulnerable, the one who does not have land or resource, the one without the support of family or landsmen, the person who is quintessentially alone. Today the closest equivalent is likely to be the refugee or the asylum seeker, washed up without possessions in a foreign environment. Torah requires us not only to acknowledge our own good fortune, but to behave directly out of that acknowledging, to routinely share with those who do not have the same good fortune as us.  The act of thanksgiving commanded at the beginning of the sidra leads us to act even before thinking about the action, getting us to do a good thing, to perform a mitzvah, that will shape our understanding of the world, that will shape us.  The requirement to care for the vulnerable enters into the narrative we live by each day, we cannot disregard it.  It is no surprise therefore that tradition teaches that “In the future age, all sacrifices and prayers will be abolished, except that of thanksgiving”. (Menachem of Gallia, in Vayikra Rabbah 9:7).

In this month of Elul as we approach the High Holy Days and we think about what we have done and what we have not done, what we should do and what we fear we will never do, it is important to remember that these days are the white fast, they are days of Awe but they are also days of thanksgiving for all we have, for knowing that God will not desert us, that God will let us find our way if we search. They remind us that we should not forget our past nor think only of our present. They remind us that we have to find the words to tell the story that is true for us, that gives meaning and shape to our lives. And even before we really understand, we have to act.


Ekev: justice and mercy, individual and society, unity and interdependence from the Shema to the Days of Awe

Ask most Jews to explain the Shema and chances are they will think only of the first paragraph. They will speak of the Affirmation of the unity of God, the centrality of that belief to Judaism. Many Jewish commentators wax lyrical about the Shema as confession of faith through the ages. There are stories of those who die “al Kiddush HaShem”, prolonging the words of the Shema until they expire, leaving this world with the proclamation of their belief in the one God. Others speak of  the duty to love God that is spoken of in the prayer, the requirement to keep Gods commandments and to teach our children to do so. They remind us of the awareness of God that is to be present at all times and in everything we do – whatever we look towards, whatever our hands are busy with.

So central to Jewish theology is this prayer, that the early leaders of the Reform Movement made a deliberate policy to highlight it during the services, and hence many progressive congregations would stand whilst the first paragraph is being recited, and some even open the ark so as to further underline the point.

But the Shema itself is actually comprised of three paragraphs, and in our zeal to highlight the first we have cast the other two into shadow. We are aided and abetted in this by our own siddur which offers other passages for reading in silence as well as the full text of the shema.

It is not surprising that the reformers were less keen to proclaim the sentiments of the second paragraph, for whilst the first has an underlying principle of Loving God, this one had as its essence the principle of Fearing God.

Here we have the God of Righteous Retribution. The powerful God of Justice whose requirement and commandments must be fulfilled on pain of death. No room for negotiation here, only unswerving dedication and acceptance of the mitzvot will do. This time God is perceived as rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is no middle way and there is no way out. If you truly listen go God, love and obey completely, the rains will come at the right time and the land will be fertile and productive.

If however your heart strays to other gods, then there will be no rain, the land will not produce and disaster will come

The equation is simple and horribly clear. Obeying God means remaining in the land which is lush and fertile; disobeying means the likelihood of a horrible death from famine.  Jeremiah, describing one such drought wrote: “Judah is in mourning, her settlements languish. Men are bowed to the ground and the outcry of Jerusalem rises. Their nobles sent their servants for water; they came to the cisterns they found no water. They returned their vessels empty. They are shamed and humiliated, they cover their heads. Because of the ground there is dismay, for there has been no rain on the earth. The ploughmen are shamed they cover their heads. Even the hind in the field forsakes her new-born fawn because there is no grass. And the wild asses stand on the bare heights, snuffling the air like jackals. Their eyes pine because there is no herbage”( Jer 14:1-6)

Rain in its due season, life giving water, is a gift from God. God may choose to withhold it and so cause wholesale death as punishment. This is the theology of the fundamentalist  who blames the difficulties we experience as punishment for someone’s (usually someone else’s) sin . It is a perception of God that is both childlike and horrific, a god without mercy who dispenses reward and punishment with machine like efficiency and no extenuating circumstances to be taken into account.

Small wonder the Reform Movement had no desire to weight this paragraph with the same glory as its predecessor. Small wonder the MRJ siddur took to printing it out only once, and in other places laconically writes “during the silence the second and third paragraphs of the Shema may be read, or the following” and then gives us uplifting selections from Isaiah, Proverbs or the Holiness Code in Leviticus.

Traditionally the three paragraphs are printed in full whenever the Shema is to be read, and the rabbis of old had other way of dealing with this rather frightening aspect of the almighty. Prayers for rain in their due season are recited in services, the principle prayer being recited during Musaf on the last day of Sukkot and from then until Pesach the sentence “mashiv ha ruach umoreed ha geshem” is inserted into the Amidah (who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall). After Pesach another prayer for dew is recited and there are several other petitionary prayers recited at the appropriate times of the year.

The prayers for rain are amongst the earliest of all the liturgical texts and are clearly a response to the fear of divine threat that would withhold rain as punishment. If these prayers do not work, then the Mishnah lays down another response – that of fasting. The structures become greater the longer the period without rain, from people of merit fasting during daylight hours for three days to eventually the whole community fasting a total of thirteen days, with no washing, little business transacted and so on. The bible may describe certain punishment, but the rabbis modified it to take account of repentance.

Other responses take account of the fact that we do not often see the righteous rewarded nor the wicked punished in everyday life, though the development of the idea of an afterlife is later than the text here in Deuteronomy but once it appears in our philosophy, it means that punishment need not be tied into the agricultural year.

The book of Job was written as a response to the convention wisdom that all who are afflicted in life have in some way deserved it. Maimonides coped with this threat of divine retribution by writing that people should first serve God for a reward in order to learn to serve God without any motive – he took the view here (as with the sacrificial system) that ideal worship has to be learned and will not come without a process of weaning away from other forms. Hence this was a necessary stage in the history of the development of the relationship of the Jewish with God.

A more modern attempt to cope with this difficult second paragraph is to look at it in context with the first. In the first paragraph the underlying principle is love and the wording is in the singular – you will love God and do God’s commandments.  In the second paragraph the underlying principle is that of fear, and through the fear will come the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments – most of which cannot be done without other people.

The wording is in the plural precisely for that reason. One can fulfil the first paragraph alone, but for the second paragraph to be valid, other people are vital. The shema moves from the relationship of the individual with God to relationships within society. For these relationships to work there must be rules and sanctions, boundaries must be set in place for the security of all concerned. Love alone will not enable a society to function smoothly – courts of laws are needed to.

We are moving towards a time of the year when the image of God as Judge is becoming stronger. Soon we shall be entering the moth of Elul with its lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Nachmanides wrote that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgement. Either way both mercy and judgement are part of the unity of God, interdependent and of equal importance just as we see in the full shema.

There is a Midrash that before God made our world God first made and destroyed other worlds. Some were made only with justice but no one could survive. Some God made only with mercy and love but the inhabitants were anarchic and constantly destroyed each other. Finally God made a world with a blend of the two, an imperfect but pragmatic world that worked. And that was when God knew that it was good.

Va’etchanan and Nachamu:In approaching God with our desires we may yet find comfort and the chance to rebuild

The Shabbat where we read parashat Va’etchanan is named for its haftarah: it is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation.

After three weeks of haftarot that speak of rebuke, that have ratcheted up the anxious anticipation of the forthcoming cataclysm that is Tisha b’Av, we now begin the seven weeks of consolation, leading us to the possibility of a new start with God at Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that whatever the catastrophe, God is still there for us.

For a period of ten weeks we are liturgically reminded that it is time to put in the work to repair our relationship with God.

Va’etchanan begins with Moses reminding the people of his asking for God’s graciousness, asking to be allowed to enter the land that his whole life has been dedicated to guiding the nascent Jewish people towards.  He says “I besought God at that time saying, Adonai Elohim; you have begun to show your servant your greatness, the strength of your hand. For which god in heaven and earth can exist who does like you do? Please let me cross over so that I will see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.  But God was angry with me because of you (the way you behaved) and did not listen to me and said to me, ‘Enough, do not speak more of this matter’…  Go up to Pisgah and look [in all four directions] …and command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him….”

Va’etchanan ends an era, albeit with the pain and frustration of Moses played out publicly before the people. A line has been drawn; it is time for the next leader, the next stage of the people’s history.

Nachamu begins with the repeated imperative to “Comfort yourselves”. It goes on to speak to the heart of Jerusalem to say that that her time of service is over and her guilt paid off, that she has received from God double for all her sins.  A voice is calls: Clear the route of God in the wilderness, make a highway in the desert for our God. Every valley shall be raised, every mountain and hill diminished, the rugged will be levelled, the rough places smoothed.  And the glory of God will be revealed and everyone shall see it, for the mouth of God has spoken it”

One can read the Isaiah as a counterpoint to Va’etchanan, a response to Moses’ anguish that he will not be there to guide and escort the people in the land they are ready to enter: – Isaiah stresses the point that while yes the people will stray, God will still be there for them. The pathway that has led from Egypt to Mt Sinai, and from Mt Sinai to the Promised Land in a wandering and circuitous route, will become clear and defined and will link the people and God in a pathway that is easy to see and to tread.  The repetition of the imperative “Nachamu” echoes the repetition of the angel calling to Abraham at the site of the Akedah, reminding us that when we are so involved in our own ideas and world view it takes more than one call to drag us out of our intense concentration to be able to see a bigger picture.

But I think the Isaiah speaks not only to past time, but to present and future time. The passage speaks of a change in the landscape so that all the landmarks we are used to have gone, a levelling so that the valleys and mountains are brought together to one flat plain where no one and nothing can hide. It erases the peaks and the troughs, the domains of the heavens and the earth which shall never quite meet. Instead it speaks of human mortality and the eternity of the word of God. It speaks of catastrophic worldly and political change and of the consoling continuity of our relationship with God.

Whose is the voice calling in the wilderness demanding proclamation?  Whose is the voice asking what should be proclaimed?  Like the voice of the shofar at the revelation of Mt Sinai, these voices are ownerless in the text; we can claim them or project onto them.

The voices can be ours, demanding justice, demanding fairness, demanding relationship with God. Just as we are told that “the mouth of the Eternal has spoken” we are given a voice to speak back, to have a dialogue not only with each other but with our creator.

We are in the liturgical run-up to the Days of Awe, when God is said to be more present in the world, more willing to listen to us, more focussed on repairing the gaps that have emerged between us. As Isaiah reminds us “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever…. O you who tells good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength, lift it up and be unafraid, say to the cities of Judah “Behold your God”. Behold the Eternal God will come…even as a shepherd who feeds his flock, who gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in his breast…”

Immediately after Tisha b’Av in the shock of the loss it commemorates, it is important to re-orient ourselves from mourning to life, to repair our own lives and to work for the greater good of our communities so that the glory of God is to be revealed, so that everyone shall join the work of repairing our world.

Devarim: Shabbat Chazon:- Both Vision and Words to understand how we got to this position and how we stand with God.

On the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av the liturgical calendar demands that we begin to read the book of Deuteronomy – Devarim, and for the haftarah we read the vision of Isaiah, the reading which unusually gives the Shabbat its special name – Chazon, vision. This haftarah is the third of a set of three haftarot that do not match up with the torah reading, but rather with the three weeks before the ninth of Av, and are called the haftarot of rebuke.  (In this case while today is the 9th of Av, it serves as the Shabbat before as we do not fast on Shabbat, and Tisha b’Av observance will begin tonight)

All sorts of cycles of Jewish history and philosophy come together in the readings for this week, focussing us for the task ahead as we become aware of the nearness of Ellul, and the need for serious introspection.  And the words, the language of the readings, give us a number of hints, guiding our thought patterns gently but certainly, as we enter this time.

On Tisha b’Av by tradition we read the Megillah of Lamentations, known by its first exclamation of desperation and sorrow – Eicha. The word, meaning “How can this be?” or simply “Alas” is not particularly common in bible, yet it appears in both the torah reading and the haftarah today.  It is as if the exclamation is being used as a prompt to our subconscious –“How can we have arrived at this state once more after all our good intentions last year?”

The word is uncommon.  It is used only by three prophets – Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah (here in Lamentations).  But there is another word which looks exactly the same in the unpointed torah text and the Midrash notes this with interest:  After Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they hid themselves away from God when God came looking for them in the garden.  And God called out to them “Ayeka” – Where are you?

The words Eicha? And Ayeka? look the same in the unvowelled text.

The Midrash suggest that in that call God was showing all the despair that would later be the Jewish experience at the destruction of Jerusalem – “How lonely sits the city once great with people”. (Lam1:1)

The link is obvious – that it is the choices we make that bring about ill fortune, it is our own behaviour that is the progenitor of our despair.

But there is another way to look at this similarity of consonants – in the passage in Genesis God calls out to human beings “Where are you”, but we might as easily call out to God the same question.  As we survey the destruction of our worlds again and again, we must ask of God – “where are You?”

Some years ago I had a long conversation with a woman congregant who had been brought out of Germany as a child in the kinderstransport, but who had then had to live with the terrible pain of knowing that her family had not survived the camps, had written letters to her begging her to help them out of that hell, had died wondering if she would be able to save them.  She told me that she was not going to fast on Yom Kippur any more.  I said I thought that was reasonable – she was ill and on a great deal of medication, but that wasn’t her point.  “No” she said, “it isn’t the medication, it is just that for nearly 80 years I have been saying sorry to God every Yom Kippur, and now I feel I have done it.  Now it is time for God to begin to say sorry to me”.

Her life had been long and filled with all sorts of pain, emotional, spiritual and physical.  But she had come to the last stretch and she had a problem for God.  It was both the exclamation “Eicha” and the question “Ayeka” – “How could this happen? Where were You?”

The list of the calamities that are said to have occurred on Tisha b’Av is extensive.  The day that the spies reported back that the land was wonderful but would not be easy to take – and the people rejected Moses and Joshua’s urging to go into battle for it – was said to have been Tisha b’Av for example.  And as we consider the violent history of the Jewish people, surviving terrible destructions again and again, we are left with the questions – “How could it have happened again?  Eicha?  And: Where were You? Ayeka?”

As the pain of the Jewish people reverberates down the centuries, so do those two words.

Which brings us to Devarim – and Chazon.

God creates the world in the very beginning of Torah with words – God speaks and the world as we know it emerges.  The huge bulk of Torah takes place in the midbar, the place where the action of speech and the words spoken create a space in which God can be encountered.  Wilderness, unstructured and unowned land – the dimension where ideas can be embodied not only in our usual use of language but in our very existence.  And at the end of the book of Numbers, known as Bemidbar, the narration leaves us poised on the edge of the land, with Moses about to die and told to anoint Joshua, the only other survivor of the midbar experience, as his successor.  Moses passes on his authority of leadership, he climbs a mountain so as to see the midbar where he has spent most of his life, and the land of Canaan which he will never enter, and then he begins to speak. Devarim. Words pour from him in a torrent. His memories, his meaning, his purpose – his very soul. Facing his end he chooses to mirror the actions of God at the creation of the world – he uses words to bring into being the most important things he knows.  He answers the questions “Eicha” – how can these situations happen?”  And “Ayeka – where are You?”

The situations happen because we contribute again and again to them happening.  Where is God?– God is right here.  Moses wants us to know these answers. He puts an enormous amount of energy into reminding us, calling heaven and earth as witness. He rehearses our history – and our complicity in it.  He offers blessings and curses and repeats the simple rule – what we choose to do always has consequences.  And he tells us again and again how God is waiting for us, is close to us, is never far away and only waiting for our call.  Poor Moses – it is learning he can never quite pass on to us, for each of us has to learn it for ourselves.

Today is Shabbat Devarim. It marks the beginning of the book of Moses’ final and more distilled teachings to go with us into the future when Moses cannot.  It is the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, a day of almost resigned and patient waiting for the worst after almost three weeks of semi mourning.  Words seem to be useless now. They cannot change the future.  We arealmost weighed down by the number of them being prayed and read, exclaimed or muttered.

Words are everywhere – we cannot get away from them. And they begin to lose their power to reach us, so many words surround us.

And so Isaiah brings us something else along to help us with all these words – he brings a vision, a different sense of how to interpret and understand the world.

The vision of Isaiah son of Amotz….  Isaiah’s vision projects onto the harsh reality around him and establishes a different kind of perspective. Isaiah reminds us that at the Creation God spoke, and God saw.  Sometimes, when the words aren’t enough any more, it is important to draw back and to see. To notice, to observe and perceive, to witness.

We Jews are a people of words, and we can use words in so many clever ways. We are sometimes able to block out our reality for a time with a judicious use of language.  We are sometimes able to confuse ourselves or others about the truth of our lives.  We can construct so many different worlds, from the minutiae of our legal system to the legends chronicled in our midrashim.  By declaring time sacred, we can make it so for the period of Shabbat.  By asserting our scriptural narrative we can make order in the universe.  But sometimes we need not to declare or proclaim, but to look, and to really see.  We may have a prayer called “Shema” – Listen!  which we expect others as well as ourselves to hear as we recite it, but we also have a torah reading “Re’eh” – see!

Moses, our greatest prophet, said of himself that he was not so good with words.  He had instead the experience, the encounter, the vision, to take him and our people through the wilderness and to the edge of the promised land. Our prophets were also men – and women – of vision, something we occasionally choose to forget.

But this Shabbat we are reminded – Chazon as well as Devarim – Vision as well as words, to look as well as to speak and listen.

As we enter Tisha b’Av we will need both of these senses fully honed.  And in the run up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which these liturgical events signal to us, we are reminded- use words to understand the world and explain it to ourselves and to God, use words to pray, to ask, to meet each other – but never forget the other sense – stand back and really take a long hard look at our world and our place in it.  Watch ourselves and perceive our own contribution to where we now are.  Forget our clever use of words just for once, and instead, use our sight our foresight, our imagination, our revelation – get in touch once more with our own vision.