Bemidbar: Shaped by our daily choices we are in a dynamic state of becoming.

Politicians are fond of describing their wilderness years when, unwanted by the electorate or maybe by the new leadership of their party, they languish unlistened to and alienated on the borders of the important events until they can be brought back into the mainstream and be useful once more

This week we enter the wilderness years – the book we are beginning to read is called “Bemidbar” –“in the desert”, but the reality of the Hebrew midbar is not one of emptiness and alienation from life, quite the reverse.

 Bemidbar takes us to a place rich in meaning and profound in experience. Not a place of biding out time while the inadequate and unaspirational generation of Exodus dies out, allowing a new braver generation untainted by the experience of slavery, to emerge. But a place of construction and development, of encounter and learning, of creating a people with a shared understanding of themselves and their context, and a shared vision of who they will become. The midbar is a place of preparation, a gestational place where the forming and shaping and becoming takes place.

 To be a religious person is not an absolute finished state. To be a Jew is not a once and for all event. It is a daily set of choices about how to behave, what principles to prioritise. Just as every morning we choose to get up and to face the world and what it might bring, so we choose to express ourselves as Jews on a daily basis. Some days are better than others of course. Some days the choices are clear, other times they are a struggle. We proceed from choice to choice and the time in between is not empty time, it is the time we use to help us to proceed, to digest and process what is happening.

 Bemidbar – the wilderness years – are just that for the children of Israel. They are not able just to move from 430 years of slavery in Egypt to freedom and autonomy in the land of Israel. They need time to learn, to explore their new identity, to consider and think about and digest all the implications of building a Jewish society in its own land for the very first time.

Some are afraid and effectively paralysed, unable to make any choice at all. Some want to return to the safety of what they knew regardless of how bad it was for them. Others want a society they can control, their priorities acted upon. Some will follow for a reward of some kind. Most need time to get their heads around it.

Throughout the period in the desert, from the middle of Shemot (Exodus) to the end of Bamidbar (Numbers) we are not in empty time and space but in liminal time and space. We are between two stats of being; we are in the dynamic state of becoming. We all need such times, be they to contemplate how to cast our votes, or time to understand and respond to a life change – a new birth, a change in status be it marital or professional, a time to grieve a loss. There are any number of changes we deal with on a regular basis. We need the space between one reality and another, time to locate ourselves in the new reality and to say goodbye to the old one. Every day we make choices, to live, to do (or not) what we need to do. We don’t randomly drift through the world, whether we admit it or not we live choice filled lives.

 But to make such choices we need time, space, information, support, challenge, external and internal expectations.The bible reflects this in the midbar, in the desert, where there are all the above and more. Before we leap to decisions we may live to regret – be they political or personal, ethical professional or relational, we should inhabit the liminal space, take our time and reflect, and see ourselves not as alienated and removed but as engaged in the religious activity of the thought-full, mind-full awareness of how our lives are lived.

Behukkotai: redemption requires ongoing action.

The sidra Bechukkotai ends the book of Leviticus, and concludes with the verse “These are the commandments which the Eternal commanded Moses for the children of Israel in Mt Sinai”

A book which is primarily dealing with the ritual system overseen by the hereditary priesthood, a book whose rabbinic name is Sefer Cohanim (The Book of the Priests), is seen by itself as holding a much wider remit, putting into context the sacrificial cult of priest and altar, clarifying the notion that the relationship between God and Israel is available to each and every person, and is framed into the construct of covenant.

            At the beginning of the sidra we are told of the great blessing which will be given to the people if they observe the Torah, 11 verses detailing the blessings of economic stability, peace and prosperity, and finally God’s presence among the people. This is followed by the tochecha – the admonition and curse, with 30 verses which warn of the destruction of the land, the destruction of the nation and their exile, for the sin of violating the commandments.

This set of warnings, which here are told to Moses by God in the desert, are repeated in an even more concise and forceful manner by Moses just before his death forty years hence.

When you study these two versions of the warnings, and compare then with other biblical texts warning about destruction and exile, you find a curious and certainly deliberate absence. Usually the warnings which are found in bible end with the promise of Teshuvah – that God will restore us from our captivity as soon as we return to God. The certainty of ultimate redemption is spelled out for the reader. If we actively seek God then God will redeem us. But the rebuke in this sidra, like its parallel text in Deuteronomy, does not state that redemption will surely come. Instead , at the end of chapter 26 of Leviticus (arguably the original end of the whole Torah), after the warnings of destruction and exile, we are told   “I will remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember,; and I will remember the land” and God goes on to say “When they are in the land of their enemies I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations that I might be their God, I am the Eternal”(26:42,44-5)

These verses, which resonate in this text, are ones which countless generations of Jews have held close. They are a huge comfort to many generations, yet they do not talk of redemption or of return to the Land. What they tell us is that God continues to remember the covenant – but they don’t tell us what that means. The covenant is remembered by God and so we are not lost however dark our days may be. The fact that the patriarchs are named in reverse order is used as the proof text for the tradition of Zechut Avot – the merits of our ancestors which we can call upon in difficult times. If our own merits do not help us than we enlist those of Jacob. If his don’t do the trick then we enlist the merits of Isaac and finally we can call on the merits of Abraham, who, as the first person to make a covenant with God will surely come to our aid.

            The tradition of Zechut Avot – that the merits of our ancestors will be added to our own at the time of judgement, and so will enable us to survive, is debated at length in the rabbinic literature and there are those who claim it continues to operate, and those who claim that the merit has been exhausted – our own sins by now far outweigh any ancestral good deeds. But all the commentators agree that whatever the status of Zechut Avot, the covenant made with our ancestors remains in force, it is the covenant which effectively ensures our continuing existence and our continuing meaning.

            Within the bible there are two types of covenant – there is the Noachide Covenant when God promises that the natural order will not change, a promise made by God which does not require any action or even response from people. Then there is the covenant as understood by Abraham and his descendants, the covenant that is described by God who does not forget. This is a covenant of mutuality – mutual obligation, mutual understanding, mutual responsibility. “I will be your God and you shall be My people” – there is an interdependence here, a way of defining and identifying through the other party in their relationship. This covenant is still in force even at the end of the tochecha – it remains in force because God remembers it. But there is no promise of redemption because redemption is not an automatic consequence of God remembering – we need the concept of mutuality – whether the covenant can be executed will depend not only on God remembering but on US remembering. For the people to find redemption they must act properly, responsibly, within the terms and conditions of the covenant.

            In the midrash we are told that:

“Three things were given to Israel conditionally – the Land of Israel, the Temple, and the Kingship of the House of David. And two things were given unconditionally – The Torah and the hereditary priesthood”

What is not mentioned is redemption – we have no automatic right to such a state of being, no magic formula of faith in God which will ensure that we are saved. Judaism teaches us, (and it bases its teaching from within the two passages of the tochecha), that we are in a position of covenant with God, that we have all the rights and obligations and responsibilities that such a relationship entails, and that the purpose of such contract is not that we individually save our souls through our belief, but that we work to save the world through our actions which themselves are rooted in the contract/covenant relationship we have accepted with God.

That contract can never be broken, whatever we do or don’t do, wherever we are, and however we view ourselves. Because God remembers the covenant, and God remembers the land. And God waits for us too to remember, and having remembered, to act.


Parashat Behar:different kinds of deception and the obligation to avoid them

In sidra Behar we find the source texts for the prohibitions against two different kinds of deception – ona’at mammon and ona’at devarim. The verb ona’ah literally means “to overreach”, and describes the act of wronging another by selling an article for more than its real worth, or conversely, by purchasing an article for less than its real worth.

              The proscription is based on the verse in this sidra (25:14) “when you sell anything to your neighbour, or buy anything from your neighbour, you shall not deceive one another”. Talmud (Baba Metzia 49b) specifies what level of price variation is valid and what is not. For the merchants among us, it is deemed permissible to make a fair profit (seen as charging less than one sixth above the accepted price), but it is not permissible to overcharge and deceive a customer.
              The ban on verbal deception arises from a statement three verses later where we read (25:17) “Do not deceive one another but fear your God, for I the Eternal am your God”. Since the previous verse explicitly mentions monetary deception, the rabbis decided that this verse must refer to another kind of fraud – that of verbal dishonesty. The Mishnah (Baba Metzia 4:10) tells us “Just as there is deception in buying and selling, so too there is deception in words”
              The example that is given is the raising of the expectations of the merchant that he has a sale when the person posing as a buyer has no intention of such a transaction, something I suspect we may all have been guilty of doing, when we look at an item on the High Street but then go on to buy it on the internet at a discounted rate. But of course verbal dishonesty is a great deal more than the behaviour of people around a transaction and I find it curious that the Talmudic tradition stayed so close to the mercantile metaphors.

               Verbal dishonesty is so ingrained a habit in our behaviours that we can often barely notice it, from the telling of “little white lies” through to being “economical with the actualite” in an effort to stave off embarrassment or worse. We have all learned to speak “diplomatically” or “tactically” or “strategically”. We can hide behind many a circumlocution in order not to say what should really be honestly and transparently available to the people with whom we “do business”.

I am not suggesting we all suddenly become aficionados of what is sometimes called “blunt speaking” – that is another way in which we can bludgeon the other into not taking on board the whole meaning. I am however suggesting that we look seriously at how we communicate with each other, at what we choose to communicate and to whom. To hear second or third hand about a matter that is important to you; to be the subject of gossip or speculation – even to be forced into issuing public denials; to be told that “people are saying about you…” rather than “I think…”; these are all forms of verbal dishonesty that do more than to raise expectations unfairly qua the Mishnah – they are forms of dishonesty that start to destroy the soul of the people deceived and of the people deceiving.

We are in the Omer period, a time of reflection and sombre thoughtfulness before Shavuot when we will celebrate the giving of Torah. Sidra Behar actually refers back in time to the words that Moses was given by God on Mount Sinai – in particular the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Matters or Words sometimes called the Ten Commandments. Now would be a good time to examine ourselves and our behaviour in the light of the prohibition against ona’at Devarim – the use of words to deceive each other.