Vayetzei : the lessons of Jacob’s hat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Rescuing the children of the shoah, one small community at a time

Shortly before Kristallnacht, Ossie Stroud, son of the first rabbi of Bradford Synagogue, and wealthy mill owner, called together the Reform and Orthodox communities telling them in no uncertain terms, they must provide refuge for Jews from Germany.  “We must put aside our differences and act as one community”. Money was raised; a building bought, furnishings collected, and 26 Kindertransport boys between 12 and 14 arrived at the hostel in December 1938, along with their houseparents. The community continued to look after the “boys” for many years – for of course the temporary refuge turned permanent as it became clear that the families left behind had been murdered, and they were alone in the world.

It was a remarkable story, repeated in communities across England. Ossie organised, pleaded, berated, collected small amounts of money from people with little to give, larger amounts from others. Jews and non-Jews joined the endeavour, helping in whichever way they could. The project was a mundane miracle.

I grew up knowing many of the “boys” and their story. The community absorbed them and in turn they invigorated the community. They were rescued because they were children in danger in their homelands, before anyone understood the enormity of what would become the Shoah,.

I learned about religion in action and what people could do if they worked together.

As we mark the 80th anniversaries of Kristallnacht and Kindertransport, the lesson has never been more important.

Alf Dubs was a Kindertransport child determined that today’s child refugees should have the same opportunity to grow up in safety that he was given. Supported by the charity “Citizens UK”, Lord Dubs has launched the “Our Turn” campaign, calling on Government to resettle 10,000 child refugees over ten years, the same number Kindertransport brought in ten months. Helping 10,000 children over 10 years would mean each local authority taking in an extra 3 children a year.

The Kindertransport was a private initiative, using no public funds – indeed posting bonds of £50 for each child. Faith groups, communities and individuals made it possible, because they decided they had a responsibility to assist children facing persecution across Europe. The Bradford initiative was repeated across the UK. Today, in camps across Europe, vulnerable children require safe passage. To honour those who helped our community, we must pass on the lesson, and give security to other vulnerable children.

To know more about the Bradford hostel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVOLq_OZi7Q

 

written for London Jewish News page November 2018

lech lecha, a change of place can lead to a change of destiny

The words we first hear from God to Avram “lech lecha”, are given without introduction or context.  Avram is to make a journey from his birthplace, leaving the security of family and settled place, and to go “lecha” – to or for himself, to a place which is described only as “the land which [God]will show you”. This journey defines Avram, who only two chapters later is called “Avram Ha’Ivri” – Avram, the one who has traversed/ crossed over. (14:13)

This designation “Ha’Ivri”, the one who has crossed from one place to another, has come down to us to describe ourselves (Hebrews) and our language of Ivrit.

The sense of movement, of travelling from one place to another, infuses Jewish history and Jewish identity. As much as we are “people of the book” we are “people of the world”, with a powerful and continuous yearning for the Land of Israel which has retained its centrality in our identity and liturgy, while mostly living in a wide and mobile diaspora.

There is a Yiddish saying “toyshen den platz, toyshen den glick” – “change your place and change your luck”, which must have acted as a comfort as communities were chased out of their villages and towns, or pre-emptively left before the coming pogrom. But the idea comes from Talmud, (Rosh Hashanah 16 b), and this first commandment to Avram is the proof text for it.  We read:

וא”ר יצחק ד’ דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם אלו הן צדקה צעקה שינוי השם ושינוי מעשה צדקה דכתיב (משלי י, ב) וצדקה תציל ממות צעקה דכתיב (תהלים קז, כח) ויצעקו אל ה’ בצר להם וממצוקותיהם יוציאם שינוי השם דכתיב (בראשית יז, טו) שרי אשתך לא תקרא את שמה שרי כי שרה שמה וכתיב וברכתי אותה וגם נתתי ממנה לך בן שינוי מעשה דכתיב (יונה ג, י) וירא האלהים את מעשיהם וכתיב (יונה ג, י) וינחם האלהים על הרעה

וי”א אף שינוי מקום דכתיב (בראשית יב, א) ויאמר ה’ אל אברם לך לך מארצך והדר ואעשך לגוי גדול ואידך ההוא זכותא דא”י הוא דאהניא ליה

 

Rabbi Yitzḥak said: A person’s sentence is torn up on account of four types of actions. These are: Giving charity, crying out in prayer, a change of one’s name, and a change of one’s deeds for the better. An allusion may be found in Scripture for all of them: Giving charity, as it is written: “And charity delivers from death” (Proverbs 10:2); crying out in prayer, as it is written: “Then they cry to the Eternal in their trouble (Psalms 107:28); a change of one’s name, as it is written: “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. ..And I will bless her, and I will also give you a son from her” (Genesis 17:15-16); a change of one’s deeds for the better, as it is written: “And God saw their deeds, and repented of the evil which God had said God would do to them, and so did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). And some say: Also, a change of one’s place of residence cancels an evil judgment, as it is written: “And the Eternal said to Abram: Go you out of your county” (Genesis 12:1), and afterward it is written: “And I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12: 2). The Gemara explains: And the other one, i.e., Rabbi Yitzḥak, who does not include a change of residence in his list, holds that in the case of Abram, it was the merit and sanctity of Eretz Yisrael that helped him become the father of a great nation. Rosh Hashanah 16b

 

The time honoured ways of changing your destiny – offering prayer and giving charity, changing one’s name and changing one’s actions – these are all methods of acting upon oneself in order to avert consequences of continuing down a particular path. Jewish prayer is a reflexive action, work upon oneself; the giving of charity offers an awareness of one’s own privilege and good fortune, forces us to give up some of our selfishness to help the other. Changing one’s name marks a conscious new beginning for oneself, the name often reflecting the aspiration of what one might become; changing our actions is self-explanatory – if we stop doing something we give ourselves the chance of averting the consequences of doing it. These are all things we can do as we sit in our comfort zone. But the fifth – not part of the list of Rabbi Yitzhak, is, to my mind a different category.  Coming from the imperative “lech lecha”, the anonymous sages draw the lesson that changing one’s residence changes one’s life trajectory. Rabbi Yitzhak disagrees – he sees the country one goes to – specifically Israel  – as changing us.  Such is the power of the Holy Land in his eyes.

Yet I think there is a modern lesson to be drawn for us in this passage. There are ways of working on oneself that can improve our situation, help us become better people, and these ways will impact how our lives unfold.  Whether in modern terms it is better nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, learning good habits – we all try self-improvement at different times in our lives.

But the behaviour based on lech lecha is qualitatively different. Yes, we move ourselves but then it is something external that works on us– the altered perspective of from where we view the world.  There is a tradition in Judaism that a mourner changes where they usually sit in synagogue – the idea being both to signify that life has changed radically, and to signal their experience to the community,  but this shift also literally gives them a different viewpoint, a different perspective on the world which they must come to be part of. Changing ones place is a radical act, leaving the familiar structures of habit and home to strike out away from ones comfort zone means we will experience the world quite differently.

When we change our place we change our perspective and we see differently. Be it by imagining ourselves in the shoes of others or by our physically leaving one place for another; be it by shifting ourselves in time or geography, by taking a long journey or simply sitting in another chair, lech lecha – we can change the route along which our life might otherwise run without our thinking about it.

Sometimes the change is because the place we move to is kinder, calmer, more supportive than the place we left, and this may be the thing that allows us to move from our earlier position. That is the theory of the sanctity of Eretz Israel in the Talmudic source. But more often I think there is interplay. The difference we have to adapt to when we change our physical or mental space forces us into an openness we didn’t allow before. The new space is something we have to grow into, as we see our past from a different perspective, as we notice what we had overlooked, and as we see new possibility.

The practise of Yom Kippur – where we deliberately move into a space where we act “as if dead” – means we see our lives quite differently. What was apparently of critical importance suddenly seems trivial; what was apparently less important suddenly seems vital.

When Avram changed his place, journeying to the land God showed him, he changed the destiny of all his descendants as well as himself. Many of us have family who came as refugees to this country in order simply to HAVE a destiny, as death and hatred stalked their lives in other countries.  We Jews are historically sadly used to changing our place of residence to change our destiny. But the change of perspective does not always need such massive upheaval. Change your favourite seat, your routines and habits, the barely noticed tramlines along which your life runs. Lech lecha, go to your self, go for your self, and encounter a new destiny.

Parashat Noach: when we don’t confront catastrophe we enable it; or -we have to stop taking the world for granted if we want it to survive

The stories within parashat Noach are among the most frightening – and the most relevant – ones we could be reading right now.

While the narratives of the Flood and of the Tower of Babel are well known to us, there is another thread we tend to overlook. It is the story of how, when returned to dry land, Noah built a vineyard, made wine and stupefied himself with it so that he exposed himself in his tent, causing one son to see and tell, the other two to carefully cover him without themselves looking at their father in such a humiliating and vulnerable state.

There is a Midrash that is telling about this post diluvian Noah.

“When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said, God, how could you have done this? … God replied, Oh Noah, how different you are from the way Abraham … will be. He will argue with me on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah when I tell him that I plan their destruction… But you, Noah, when I told you I would destroy the entire world, I lingered and delayed, so that you would speak on behalf of the world. But when you knew you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch you. You thought of no one but your family. And now you complain? Then Noah knew that he had sinned” (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Noach).

Noah is introduced to us right at the beginning of the story as “a righteous man in his generation”, and quite rightly the rabbis do not see this as a great compliment. The qualifying phrase “in his generation” makes it clear that his righteousness is relative rather than absolute. So this just about good-enough man is enabled to survive in order to begin the world afresh. But as starts to face the future, he realises all that he had not done, that his selfishness and narrow vision had allowed the great destruction to happen, that it didn’t have to be like this.

Noah, facing the new world, cannot actually face the past and his part in it, nor really can he move on into the future. He just gets stupefyingly, paralytically drunk, and his sons are forced to deal with the consequences. The younger one does not know what to do – Midrash suggests that he actually assaults his naked father as he lies dead to the world – but at the very least he does nothing;  the older ones treat him with more respect, but reading the text one has the feeling that they simply cannot bear to see their father lying there, seeing what he has become. By covering him they are also trying to cover up everything that Noah has symbolises – his passivity, his refusal to engage with the situation God tells him of, his lack of compassion for other living beings, his lack of any timely compassion at all and his inability to deal with the consequences of his own inaction.

Upon waking, Noah curses Canaan, the child of his younger son, and blesses God on behalf of the other two, giving them an approximation of a blessing.

Why? Why curse Canaan, the child of Ham who saw him naked? Why not Ham himself? Noah is passing the pain down the generations, to those who are neither present nor responsible for the destruction. His own drunken misery becomes a curse for some of his descendants.

The truth that Noah doesn’t want to face is that he is in a new world now. A world washed clean of the violence and horror of the past, but also washed away – its resources, its people, and its structures all gone. This is no longer the world of miraculous creation, when God walked among the people in the Garden, and oversaw the perfection of the world. We are now in a world that Nechama Leibowitz described as ‘post miraculous’ a world where suddenly there are obligations – the seven mitzvot of the b’nei Noah are given here, … “It was in this renewed world — the world destined to be our world and not in the earlier, miraculous world — that saw the opening of the gate to the conflict between the values of  tikkun olam (perfection of the world) and Humanity .Avraham, who appears at the end of Parashat Noach is the person who takes upon himself the mission of perfecting the world as Kingdom of God, rather than taking the world for granted as Noach had done”

Noach took the world for granted. When warned by God of what was to happen, he took that for granted too. And when the worst had happened and the world was washed away leaving Noah and his family to begin it once again, he failed to do what was necessary, and it took another ten generations – till that of Abraham, for the relationship between God and human beings to flower once more.

It is interesting to me that this parashah began with the phrase, “These are the descendants of Noah,” yet does not go on to list any people, but rather begins a discussion of Noah’s attributes. One commentator suggests that this teaches us that what a person “leaves behind” in the world is not only children, but also the effects of their deeds.

Noah left behind both of course – everyone in the world is a descendant of this man if the flood story is to be believed, and so everyone is obligated to the mitzvot of b’nei Noach. But he also left behind the effect of his behaviours, deeds both committed and omitted.

Noah did not help to perfect the world. He allowed it to be washed away.  He didn’t appreciate the value of the world at all, focussing only on his own family and his own needs. Only after it was gone was he able to understand what was lost, and even then he was not able to deal with this loss. He curses a part of his family into perpetuity, his descendants go on to build the Tower of Babel in order to in some way find a purpose and meaning in their continued existence, and maybe also to challenge the divine using their newly created technology. So they too are forced to confront catastrophe as they are scattered across the world and left unable to communicate with each other. It takes ten generations, with the emergence of Avraham, for the world to begin to heal itself.

Like Noah we too are facing a time when the world seems to be set on a pathway to destruction: climate change, global heating, over fishing, the rainforest which once covered 14% of the earth’s surface now covers less than 8%, with all the consequences of loss of species that involves, years long droughts and famines.  We can see the warnings of destruction, we know the consequences of what is happening now, yet somehow we walk about in a dream, neither warning each other nor challenging what is happening. We spend our time trying to ensure only that we and our families can be safe, that our houses are weatherproofed, that our pantries are stocked. We are behaving no differently than Noah. And if we give it some thought and project our ideas into the near future, we can see than those who survive this environmental tumult will not have the resources to cope.

It is our job to take the story of Noah seriously – not as a good enough man who was saved from cataclysm because he did what God said without question, but as a man who was at least righteous in his generation, someone who hadn’t completely surrendered to the corruption and destructive activities around him. And we should see the consequences of his inactions too – that the world he allowed his children to inherit was damaged and fragile and took generations to heal.

Pirkei Avot reminds us that Rabbi Tarphon said “We are not obligated to complete the task; neither are we free to abstain from it” (2:21). So how do we begin to address the problem? The answer comes from a number of sources – the most clear being that every small step matters. As Maimonides wrote about Teshuvah, “one should consider the entire world as if it were exactly balanced between acts of righteousness and evil. The very next action you take, therefore, can save or condemn the world

Bereishit: men and women created equally and mutually

Genesis has two creation stories, each with a different structure and a different name for God. The first, with the numbered days of the first week, has Elohim create humanity in God’s image at the end of the process, and this humanity is neither singular nor male. “Vayivra Elohim et ha’adam b’tzalmo, betzelem Elohim bara oto, zachar u’nekeivah bara otam” (1:27)

The second, where humanity was created even before the Garden of Eden was made, has one human fashioned from the dust of the earth, and placed into Eden. But it is already clear that one living being is a lonely being, so God creates the animals and birds. The human names them but does not develop a mutual relationship with them, and ultimately God has to create more human beings in the world. To do this, God does not create a new thing, but takes from the existing human to form the being who will be in relationship with it.

How we translate what God takes from the first being is critical to how we understand gender politics. And how it has been translated in the past is a direct outcome of such politics. For God takes מִצַּלְעֹתָיו  – from the side of the first human, and not, as it is frequently translated, a rib from it. This root appears over forty times in bible, and is never translated as anything other than “side” except in this passage, and first found in the Septuagint. If we look more closely we see that the word always describes something that is leaned upon, or (in the case of Jacob) limped upon. So what is bible telling us with this word? When God divides the Adam into ish (man) and isha (woman), the two are equal. One might ask why this understanding disappeared when bible is so clear?

 

(written for “the bible says what?” series for the progressive Judaism page of the Jewish News)

 

Sukkot: the people, the land, the relationships that connect us

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals mandated in Bible, forming a particular cycle of harvest celebrations with Pesach and Shavuot, yet unlike them in the passage in Leviticus which details the festivals, Sukkot is given an extra dimension – it is not only an agricultural celebration but also one that reminds us of the foundational story of our people.  “The fifteenth day of this seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you will keep the feast of the Eternal seven days …And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree (hadar), branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook and rejoice before the Eternal .. You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:34-43

This explicit link to the exodus, to the people’s vulnerability and dependence on God, brings a powerful richness to our celebration. Unlike the Spring/Summer celebrations of Pesach and Shavuot, with hope and new life bursting forth, the autumnal setting of Sukkot brings intimations of the dark, hard winter days ahead, the leafless trees, the sleeping earth, a quasi-death experience. Sukkot comes six months after Pesach, and it builds and develops the themes of that festival. Unlike the intense dramatic ‘high’ of the plagues and our leaving slavery in Egypt that Pesach provides, Sukkot marks the “ordinary and everyday” struggle to stay alive and safe. It reminds us that our freedoms are fragile, that even basic necessities are not automatically given to us, that life is made up of routine hard graft and of effortful striving. And in this quotidian mundane activity, God is also present, even if less obvious to us.

Sukkot is a festival of autumnal abundance in preparation for months of wintertime scarcity. But at the same time it draws our attention to our two most basic frailties, our need for water (for ourselves and our crops) and for shelter.  The sukkah itself represents the fragility of our homes, with the “s’chach” open to the skies even as the abundant fruit is hanging from it, and the arba’a minim shaken as an almost magical ceremonial to bring rain in the right season.

The four components, held together as they are shaken, are a fascinating concatenation of concepts. Biblically mandated, the palm, myrtle, willow and etrog can represent such a complexity of characteristics. One midrash suggests that together they represent the whole community, all of whom have value and are included in the ritual – the hadar fruit, the etrog, has taste (Torah) and aroma (Mitzvot); the palm has tasty fruit but no smell, (ie represents those who have torah but no good deeds); the myrtle leaves smell wonderful but it has no fruit (mitzvot but no torah), and the willow has neither taste nor smell (no torah and no mitzvot). Every community has people with each of these categories. When we pray before God, each person is important.

Another view is that each one represents a different part of the land of Israel- so the palm tree which loves a hot dry climate grows well in desert areas, the myrtle thrives in the cooler mountains regions, the willows grow only near the streams and waterways that flow all year, and the etrog is most comfortable in the lower coastal areas and the valleys. Israel has a series of microclimates, each represented here.

Or one can understand the arba minim to represent our history from Egypt to settlement: so the lulav would represent wandering in the desert, the willow- crossing the Jordan, the myrtle our settling in the mountains and the etrog the establishment of orchards.

And there is also a midrash that the arba’a minim represents each human being – the palm being the spine, the myrtle the eyes, the willow the lips and the etrog the heart, and we come in supplication to God because we understand how fragile our existence truly is.

Whichever symbolism resonates, the core truth is the same. We are in this world together, our survival is not guaranteed, we need to work together and support each other even as we celebrate a plentiful harvest.  We need to be aware of scarcity, that we can all be affected, that only by sharing and by working together can we create a more harmonious world.

Sukkot is given four names in bible: “Chag ha’Asif”[i] – the festival of ingathering; “Chag ha’Sukkot”[ii] – the Festival of Booths; He’Chag[iii] – THE festival; and “Chag l’Adonai”[iv] the Festival of the Eternal. Of these, the third name – the festival par excellence – gives us most pause for thought, for it reminds us that Sukkot is the most important festival.

Why is this? The symbols of the festival remind us that EVERY person in our society is important; each one needs the dignity of their own home and the security of knowing that basic needs will be met; (Talmud Berachot 57b tells us a home of one’s own increases self-esteem and dignity). They remind us that we are all journeying, that while we may have the illusion of a stable rooted existence, the world turns and our fortunes can turn with it. They remind us that we all have responsibility for the environment and for how we treat our world, that damage to our environment and changes to our climate affects us all. They remind us that we are dependent on factors that are beyond our control. Yet with all of this unsettling symbolism, the rabbis call this festival “z’man simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing, based upon the verses in Leviticus.  Why does Sukkot make us so happy, this festival of wandering and of fragility? I think because it reminds us of our human commonality and the power of human community. We are connected to God and we are connected to our land, we are connected to our foundational stories and to our historic experiences, but for any of this to truly matter, we must be connected to each other.

[i] Exodus 23:16; exodus 34:22

[ii] Leviticus 23.34; Deuteronomy 16:13,16

[iii] Ezekiel 45, 25, 1 Kings 8, 2, Ezekiel 45, 25 and 2 Chronicles 7, 8

[iv] Leviticus 23:39

(written for the “Judaism in 1000 words” section of Movement for Reform Judaism website)

Vayelech: the time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our choices is upon us. or: the bnei mitzvah of the people of Israel

Eight years ago one of my dearest friends was about to be seventy years old, and she decided to celebrate this momentous and biblical age by having her batmitzvah. I had tried to persuade her to do this for years and she had brushed me off; it is typical of her that she made her choice by herself on a date that had such resonance, and then throw herself into study and thinking for herself.  We talked a little about the date and the sidra, and then she chose to direct her own study and do her own research. Luckily she sent me a near final draft. I say luckily because she never read this drasha or celebrated that long awaited day, for with everything planned and organised and ready to go, she suffered a cataclysmic and sudden bereavement and the weekend was taken over instead with grief and shock and the arrangements to honour the dead.

We spoke a while afterwards about her celebrating her batmitzvah on a different date but we both knew that was not really going to happen. The anticipated joy would never be the same, the shadow of grief never quite left her, and she too would depart this world suddenly and unexpectedly and quite dramatically, leaving the rest of us a small flavour of the shock she had experienced on the day of her birthday batmitzvah, to grieve and to question, and to process the reality of what happens when a life is torn from the world without warning.

Checking my computer recently, and thinking also of her as I do at this time of year, I came across an email where she had sent me this draft of the drasha she was to give to the community she had been at the heart of for so many years. With the permission of her children, I want to share it here.

“Vayelech is the shortest parsha in the Torah. It is 30 verses long, and I don’t recall ever hearing it read. In non-leap years like this one it is linked with Nitzavim. When I read Nitzavim-Vayelech they held together. They are followed next week by Ha’azinu which, when I looked it up I discovered is one the 10 Shirot [songs] conceived or written as part of the Almighty’s pre-Creation preparations. The only one still to be written is the song we will sing when the Messiah comes. 

We are coming to the end of the Torah. This name, given to the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is better translated as Teaching. We are coming to the end of the month of Elul the month in which we begin to prepare for the approaching High Holy Days, and in the coming week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah which in turn is followed by the 10 days of penitence and Yom Kippur. Then in roughly a month’s time on Simchat Torah we will finish reading the Teaching, the end of Deuteronomy, and seamlessly begin Bereishit – Genesis – again. 

Vayelech must contain the most important rite of passage in the whole history of our planet. But we will come to that.  

Israel is camped in its tribal groups on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to cross. The preceding parsha, Nitzavim, tells of Moses addressing the whole of Israel, in preparation for entering the land God has promised them. He reminds them they are standing before God, and is clear that every person is included in this relationship.

 [my son] tells me I can tell one joke… a clear example of don’t do as I do, do as I say …but I have two, and we will come to the second soon. A very good friend sent me a card, writing in it “I saw this, and thought of you.” The cartoon was a line drawing of 2 dogs, the larger one saying: “I understand more commands than I obey.” I hope you agree with me, that this is arguable!

Moses and God know from experience that the Children of Israel will fail to follow God’s Teaching. 

Moses warns those listening to him that the consequences of disobedience will be that the land will become desolate, but mitigates this by prophesying they will make t’shuvah, return to the right way, and God will reconcile with them and bring them back.

 And he says something that has always troubled me:  that the commandment he is giving to them and so to us “is not beyond you, or too remote. Not in Heaven, or across the sea. It is very close to you… in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.”

 What I have never been sure of is what this is, what it is that is in my heart, and in my mouth?  Not the 10 Commandments – too many!    And not the 613 mitzvot buried in the text. And then the man who is not my chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said quite plainly on radio 4, no less, what it is, even quoting where I should find it. It is found in Genesis chapter 18, vv 17 – 19, where God is choosing Abraham because he deals with his household with Tzedakah and Mishpat:  two words which together give the meaning of justice tempered with mercy. This is how we hope God will deal with us on Yom Hakippurim.

 And finally Moses said that we have a choice, God has given us the choice of life and death – blessing and curse. We should choose to love God and walk in God’s path and keep God’s commandments. And just as the penalties for not doing so have been listed, the rewards of obeying are explained. 

What we have been told is that all Israel is equally bound by this covenant, regardless of social position or occupation. And that even if we disobey God’s Laws there can be future redemption.

Further, we know that obedience to God’s Laws is within our scope. 

And also that we are to have that freedom to choose that sets us apart from the animals.

 And then we come to today’s portion, .Vayelech “And he went” which is the beginning of the rite of passage for the Children of Israel.

 There is to be a change of “Top Management”. This is the day of Moses’s 120th birthday, and Moses has finally accepted that it is also his death day. It’s been hard for Moses to come to terms with his mortality, and he has behaved a little like a child trying to justify not going to bed, not just yet. There’s no time to discuss this today, try reading Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews. God has been forbearing with this servant with whom God has been in conversation for the last 40 years.

 In this time the generations born into slavery have died, and the people who are born into freedom have known no other Leader. Moses has taught them, settled disputes, referred knotty halachic problems directly to God, and brought back the answers. It is explained that God will go with them, and lead them across the Jordan. Further, that although Moses may not go, they will have Joshua.

 Moses has been frightened of dying, and the Almighty has shown him Aaron’s painless death. God is giving him the signal honour of dying on the anniversary of his birthday, and although Moses is not to be allowed to cross the Jordan God has taken him to look down upon the land.

 Moses is kept busy on this day – there are the tribes to address, and writing enough copies of the Teaching to give one to each tribe, and lodge one in the Ark of the Covenant. This is talked of as a witness against the people, but I suppose it’s the master copy, and proof of God’s promises and provisions. Moses writes The Scroll to the very end, until it is finished, which is taken to mean that it is prophetic, containing as it does an account of his death. Further, the Almighty gives him a message to deliver, and a song of 43 verses, one of the 10 Shirot, to teach to the people.

  How many people do you think there were, camped by the river? How many going into the Promised Land?

 Jacob went to Egypt with 72 souls in his household. A rabble of 600,000 freed slaves left Egypt – and these were the men of fighting age. Add their relatives – minimally a wife each, one child. – Not parents and siblings – this could cause doubtful accounting – a conservative estimate would be 1,800,000 people. No wonder manna was needed!

Nor was it just Jews who escaped Egypt, plenty of escapee opportunists would have taken the chance, and been the “strangers within your gates” who are to have equality under the covenant with Jacob’s descendants.

 The instruction was given for this to be read every seven years in the shemittah year. All Israel is commanded to gather at Succot in the place God has appointed (eventually the Temple in Jerusalem) and the King read to the people from the Scroll.

 And the chapter ends with the prediction that Israel with turn away from God, and that God’s reaction would be to turn God’s face away from them – but also with the promise that their descendants will not forget the words which will remain in their mouths.

 So what is happening?

 It seems that with the completion of the Torah and our entry into the Promised Land, our Creator considers we are grown up. We have the Torah; we have the record in it of discussions and decisions. We are aware that we can judge matters between human beings – but not matters between human beings and God. We cannot deal with these because it is not our business to govern or over-rule another’s conscience.

 God will not appoint another Moses – there is to be no dynastical continuity. No further theophanies. Israel has become a nation of priests with everyone having access to the Almighty and to God’s mercy.

 And when we begin Genesis all over again, we go back to Creation and the dysfunctional families of Adam and Noah. When we come to Abraham, look out for the Teaching and how it is built on chapter by chapter.

 And where’s the second joke? – listen to the translation.”

Sadly, we never heard the second joke. And the poignancy of some of the comments in the drasha make for difficult reading for those who knew her and knew her later story, though the mischief of her personality comes through this text for me, as does her clear and certain faith in God. This was a woman who, as administrator in the synagogue, would regularly leave open the door to the sanctuary in her office hours “because God likes to go for a walk”, but actually so that visitors would feel able to enter and sit and offer their prayers or order their thoughts. She would tidy up the siddurim and make sure they were properly shelved, saying that upside down books “gave God a headache”, to cover her need to honour God by keeping the synagogue neat. She spent hundreds of hours talking to the lonely, reassuring the frightened, supporting the vulnerable. She spent hundreds of hours creating the databases and systems to ensure that the synagogue ran as effectively as it could. And the roots of all this voluntary caring for the synagogue community was her own life’s struggles and her awareness that if God considers we are grown up now, with equal access to the Almighty and no “top management” to direct us, then we had better get on with it, with the work of creating and sustaining the world with tzedakah and mishpat, with righteousness and justice.

In this period of the Ten Days, as we reflect on the lives we are leading, the choices we are making, and the mortality that will come for us all, either with or without warning, I read her drasha as a modern ”unetaneh tokef”, and, as I was for so many years when I was her rabbi and she my congregant, I am grateful for the learning I had from her.

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017