A Rabbi Goes to Auschwitz: Rabbi Walter Rothschild’s reflections on his journey to Auschwitz

A Rabbi goes to Auschwitz : Reflections on January 27th, 2002.

written For ‘Jerusalem Post’ in 2002. My brother, a rabbi living in Berlin, bearing the name of our grandfather (who was an inmate of Dachau and whose experience there led to his painful early death(, went often to the commemoration events at Auschwitz in order to say kaddish, el malei rachamim; A train buff, he documents the train journey as only he can, and the memorialising of the dead, who do not leave. It is a long piece but very well worth a read. You can find more of his writing on https://www.walterrothschild.de/rabbiner-dr-walter-l-rothschild/rabbi-dr-walter-l-rothschild-english/some-brief-examples

I have never travelled to Auschwitz by the ‘traditional way’; instead, I prefer to take a passenger train. From Berlin – where I live – there are good links by both day and night trains; the only real problem with the latter being that one is woken at the border for the passport controls. But this year, since I work in the Liberal Jewish community in Munich, and January 27th. fell on a Sunday, I had to get a train on Saturday late afternoon – Motzei Shabbat – to Salzburg, change there for a train to Vienna, change stations and catch the night train through to Oswiecim (pronounced “Ozvyenchim”). I travel all over Europe and mostly by train. Despite everything, it is a civilized form of transport and brings you to the city center rather than some scruffy airfield on the outskirts of nowhere. So I am no stranger to night trains.

There is a certain very special and private pleasure each time I buy a Return Ticket to Auschwitz, a pleasure intensified when one sees the old poster in the camp exhibition banning Jews from buying railway tickets on the Nazi “Ostbahn”. It really is the most appropriate way to come here – knowing that each bump in the rail, each old brick building, was passed by others over a half century ago. They, of course, did not know where they were heading, nor (most of the time) what exactly awaited them. For them it was just a slow, agonizing, uncomfortable journey with no facilities and no view….. One wonders. Did those who could get to the grill actually follow the route, did they have enough local knowledge to know where they were headed ?

So from München, the former “Hauptstadt der Bewegung”, the Capital of the Party, I take a train through Bavaria, through Freilassing (junction for Berchtesgaden) to Salzburg. Here there are only ten minutes to change, but a comfortable Austrian Euro-City express takes me past Linz, Hitler’s favourite Austrian city, and then winding through the darkened Wienerwald to Wien.

Vienna sits on the spot where worlds meet. Wien Westbahnhof (West Station) is a part of Western Europe. Here come the luxury trains from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium…..

Wien Südbahnhof (South Station) comes in two parts at two levels. The “Süd” part is a part of Southern Europe; Here the trains leave for Italy and the Mediterranean, for the Balkans – Slovenia, Croatia…… The “Ost” side, in contrast, is already Central Europe. Somehow, I like it. In its dingy post-war reincarnation there is none of the former Imperial magnificence left, more a flavour of the concrete 1950’s and the Cold War. Here stood my train – the 21.25 “Chopin”, mainly Polish sleeping or couchette through coaches for Warszawa (Warsaw) and for Krakow (Cracow), and even a modern red-white-blue Russian sleeping car for Moskhva (Moscow). (I took one of these once from Brussels to Moscow and back – a very comfortable trip.) On the neighboring track is the evening train for Bratislava – mostly Slovakian coaches, but also an Austrian one and a Ukrainian sleeper for Kiev, with its stove burning coal briquettes, the smell wafting nostalgically under the canopy. Just after we depart, the train of Hungarian coaches from Budapest is due to arrive. Truly this is an international station. One for ordinary travellers, not wealthy tourists.

The couchette for Krakow is almost empty, and I have a six-berth compartment to myself. A blessing, for there is little spare room for luggage. It seems overheated and has the usual semi-faecal and semi-coal-smoke odours of such vintage vehicles. But on a journey like this one does not complain. All things are relative. The Conductor is polite, and notes from his clipboard – “Ah, the passenger for Oswiecim”. He says nothing more, nor do I. There is no need. Who else travels to this place at this time ? He gives me my bedding and leaves me alone.

We set off through the dark over the Donau and along the old Imperial Nordbahn to Lundenburg (now the Czech border town of Breclav), past Strasshof, where the dark engine shed looms – now a museum filled with preserved steam locomotives, it was built with slave labour in the 1940’s and, according to some reports, there are still unmarked mass graves on the site. There is History along every kilometer of this route. But soon it is time to try to sleep……

I awake with a shock. It is 2am., we are at Ostrava (the German “Böhmiches Ostrau”), there is some shunting, then off we go past Bohumin to the border station at Petrovice. Yet more shunting. The platforms are very well lit, there is a busy Police and Customs office on the main platform. Three trains are in at the same time, and our coach is shunted onto another and then back onto a different set – eventually we have a Polish locomotive, two coaches from Prague and two from Vienna; the rest of our coaches have joined various Russian, Czech and Ukrainian vehicles at adjacent platforms. This, of course, will have been the route from Theresienstadt. The Czech and the Polish police come through. Passports, please. Civil. Not threatening. But at 3am. on a dark and very cold January morning, one realizes the coach was not overheated after all – it was just right.

In fact a cold, wet January Sunday is in many respects the best time to visit Auschwitz or Birkenau – there are not many other tourists around, no groups of “March of the Living” teenagers or self-righteous zealots. I am coming here because I have been invited – for the third time – to be “the Jewish representative” at the annual commemoration ceremonies to mark the liberation of the camp on a similar cold January in 1945. The small, elderly and penniless committee of Polish survivors are incredibly grateful that a Rabbi bothers to come – yet it is I who should be grateful for the invitation to perform this mitzvah. Last year my wife and son came too – many of her family, including her father, had come all the way from Westerbork in Holland. Only her father came back, and even that was by foot to Odessa, for repatriation by sea. One doesn’t grumble about overheated sleeping cars in such circumstances. Years ago, in Leeds, after a funeral, I found myself talking to a former sailor on the “S.S. Monoway”, the ship that made three return trips taking refugees from Odessa to Marseilles, and bringing back Cossack former prisoners-of-war, heading for certain torture and death under the Stalinist regime that branded all who survived the war with the Wehrmacht as “traitors”. Whether Soldiers or Slave Labourers, it was classed as a crime to come back alive…… The history of the last century is SO messy. What does “coming home” or “repatriation” mean in such circumstances ?

We crawl now through dark empty stations and past sidings filled with coal wagons; we are running a few minutes late – but then, who wants to rush to Auschwitz ? I am simply glad to be nearly sixty years late. The Polish railways have an enormous backlog of maintenance – truly, those who are afraid of high speeds need not worry here. But they function. At 04.33, six minutes behind schedule after a journey across half of Europe, I am the only one to alight at Oswiecim, a seven-platform junction station with lines heading four ways. Maybe those who criticize that “the railway to Auschwitz should have been bombed” ought to look at a railway map. The countryside is mainly fairly flat and featureless; there are a few bridges over rivers, but nothing that could, even if bombed, not have been repaired within three days under war conditions. This was – and still is – an incredibly busy network of lines, serving coal mines, power stations, a major locomotive works at Chrzanow, a sugar factory….. Far too strategically important, and with far too many loop lines and duplicate routes, to be severed for long. And as for the trains already under way, from Westerbork, from Drancy, from Saloniki – they would have got through, with little delay.

Railwaymen on all sides pride themselves on things like that. The story of British and American railway engineers restoring blasted tunnels and demolished bridges, of restoring blitzed lines and yards, is one of amazing achievement under great pressure. Germans, Poles and Russians – they were no slouches, either. So I really doubt whether a single life would have been saved, whether a single additional person would have been given pause for thought, would have feared that “the Allies know what we are doing”. Sorry if this shatters an illusion – but that’s the way it is, when one bothers to read some history. Apparently the main threat to crippling the Nazi supply lines came with the dropping of mines into the Danube – the loss of barges carrying oil from Romania was severe, and the river was harder to clear of wrecks than any railway marshalling yard.

Even on a Sunday there are some early-morning commuters on the bare platforms. I walk over the windy footbridge to check a hunch, and find I am right – the old black wartime 2-10-0 steam locomotive that had been rusting under a blanket of snow in January 2000, and which I did not have time to check in the foggy January 2001, has indeed gone, vanished. A pity. It would have been an impressive exhibit. In the garden of a railway house is a restored kilometer post: “350 kil. von Wien.” A reminder that this was the old main line, Vienna – Cracow.

At 7, as planned, I meet up with a Polish Catholic friend from Berlin, and we head on foot for the “Auschwitz I” camp, only ten minutes away. The locals are very keen always to point out that they live in “Oswiecim”, that “Auschwitz” was a purely German creation. My friend has a girl friend from this dingy and muddy little town – she hates saying where she comes from. One day, he told me, another girl on the train asked her, and laughed at the reply; Never having had this response before, she asked why? It turned out, the other girl came from the village of Treblinka….. What it mut be, to carry a Brand of Cain on your very birth certificate.

But – for those who come for the first time – it is always a shock to note that this camp, this notorious place, was at the edge of a town, a town that has since expanded almost to surround it.

Like that at Dachau, too. Mauthausen perches on a hilltop, Neuengamme was in the marshland south of Hamburg, Dora in wooded isolated valleys in Thüringen – but here, there are urban buses passing by the gate, and one can understand not only the outrage of those who complain, but also the human needs of those who live here, when from time to time a proposal emerges for a supermarket or a disco in the locality. Of course it is Bad Taste – but what is the alternative? To raze the entire town? For better or worse, people live and work here, too. The bus depot is just up the road.

Red and white Polish flags fly from lamp standards. This is not only the Liberation Day but the Polish National Day of Mourning. The complex of brick two-storey blocks was originally a large garrison, an extensive set of barracks for Galician officers who must have had a frightfully boring existence under the sullen Silesian sky. Barracks, store rooms, a rail siding connection at a strategic junction – it formed the perfect site for the purpose. But the new inhabitants were there to be tortured and starved and humiliated and murdered in myriad and inventive ways.

A small group has gathered. There is a brief ceremony at the Wall of Death. A small courtyard between Blocks, the windows on one side boarded over, the upper windows on the other half bricked up, posts stand there with metal hooks – from here the people were hung by their arms. Including the man who comes forward now with a wreath – an early political prisoner with an early, three-digit number, my friend informs me; somehow he survived, somehow he helped later to organize a group to form a committee to preserve this place when no-one else was interested – at the outset the volunteers had to lodge in Hoess’s former house, use the same bath the Commandant had used…. Brief speeches are made, all in Polish – by people who suffered here, by people whose parents or grandparents were shot here, by a former Kindergarten teacher, two of whose children were shot here…. A trumpet is blown, three drummers beat a rhythm, candles in red glasses are laid; then the wreaths come, scores of them, the wreath-layers formed up in rows four abreast. I notice one on behalf of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, one on behalf of the city of Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen…..

We clergy are to speak and pray later, but there is time for a quiet Kaddish before we are led to buses and driven the short distance to the Auschwitz-II Birkenau complex, enormous and empty as we march in procession down the main access road, parallel to the ramp, to the sidings, the most famous stretch of railway in the world. At the end, between the ruins of demolished crematoria, the International Memorial rises dark and threatening. Israel’s Ambassador, Sheva Weiss, delivers a passionate and fluent oration in Polish – I understand everything, though I do not understand a word. Then more wreaths, while the cold wind blows. How could people stand still here at Appell for hours at a time, without the benefit of coats and breakfast? Two years ago I watched as three members of the Polish Army Honour Guard, fittest of the fit and in full winter uniform, keeled over during the ceremony and had to be bundled into waiting army ambulances and treated for the cold.

It turns out, the organizer explains, that we “religious” are to say our prayers into microphones on a podium near the crematorium. Will God hear any better? Does it matter now anyway? The survivors are ailing now, many bent, with sticks, and they sit on rows of wooden folding chairs. There will not be many more years before this committee will either vanish or need to be reborn.

So we take our places – a local Catholic priest; my friend the German Catholic layman; myself, a British-born Reform Rabbi; and – and a Polish Buddhist! This year it seems the Polish Protestant bishop and the Orthodox priest could not come. So we step to the microphones.

And the heavens suddenly open. They weep with us. Strong winds nearly blow my siddur out of my hands, I have to clutch my hat. My siddur is soggy within minutes. But somehow I read the Prayer for the Six Million, in German as well as English – very deliberately, for I think it is important that a Rabbi from Berlin should recite Jewish prayers in German here, a place to which so many German Jews came, from the Grünewald and Putlitzstrasse freight yards. German is not JUST the language of Eichmann and Mengele. I add “El Maleh Rachamim”, the wind whipping the words away as I sing, and end with a Kaddish.

It is done. The dead have been honoured, but have not gone away They stay here still, somehow. But the journalists and the TV crews pack up, the elderly survivors shuffle off and disperse, my task is accomplished. There are no more speeches, no air-conditioned buses, no banquet. I may go.

As I have some time I explore a little further than last year, and then walk along the rotting railway tracks from the end past the ramp to the gate, from the gate across the road, and then there is a jungle, knee-high snow and mud, trees growing over and through the tracks. Nothing has rolled over here for years. But I persevere, interested in following the trail. My soggy coat gets covered in burrs and brambles, my shoes are not suitable for this quagmire. Two fences block my way and force a detour along a muddy field. It seems that the owner of Ulica Pivnicza 12 has extended his garden across the disused tracks. The trail is regained and followed through high dead grass to the spot where it joined the main system at the edge of a set of sidings. Here I find “The point of No Return”, the point – Americans would call it a ‘switch’ – which directed the loaded trains onto this short spur, the destination always visible across the fields. I am fascinated by the details – this is a very specific form of industrial archaeology, the industry in this case being Death. The line was laid only in 1944 to increase efficiency – until this point the victims had to march the distance I have just walked, maybe 2 kilometers. The layout of the tracks does not make sense at first, then it becomes clear that a point has been removed, that here was the spot where locomotives would uncouple and here they would have run round so as to be able to haul their trains into the rearward-facing spur. I find the remains of the little cabin where the pointsman no doubt sat on cold days. This was a well-organized and well-constructed system,designed for heavy traffic……….

I have seen what there is to see, and it is not long now, between the rain showers, to the station, passing on the way the spot where the 1.5 kilometer long spur line to ‘Auschwitz I’ used to link to the goods yard – part of the track lies there still, and the buffers at the end, but a road has been built over the section by the station, cutting it off. While awaiting our train, my friend and I discuss Theology. Where was God when Cain killed Abel? Why did God not protect Abel?

What is the point of punishing Cain when it is too late? Is there any point in vengeance, or is it just a preventative measure? Catholics believe in a God who was prepared to watch his own son be nailed to a plank of wood – out of Love. How can Jews relate to such a belief? Or to any belief?

And eventually my train to Krakow comes in – only a humble country stopping train, but that most important of all symbols – the train away from here, away from here, away from here………

 

Rabbi Walter Rothschild

https://www.walterrothschild.de/rabbiner-dr-walter-l-rothschild/rabbi-dr-walter-l-rothschild-english/some-brief-examples/

 

 

Bo: We may not be at the end of days, but the locusts are swarming now.

And the Eternal said to Moses: ‘Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts that they may come up upon the land of Egypt, and eat every herb of the land, even all that the hail has left.’ And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Eternal brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all the night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts. And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the borders of Egypt; very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such.  For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left; and there remained not any green thing, either tree or herb of the field, through all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 10:12-15)

The eighth of the disasters to come upon the Egyptians was that of the swarms of locusts, completing the devastation of the crops begun by the hail.

I remember the locust cage in the biology lab at school. The bright lights keeping the box warm and the locusts absolutely quiet and still: and the sudden and quite terrifyingly loud jumping and swarming when I put my hand into the box to feed them. The banging and whirring and jumping made my heart pound, even though I knew they were safely contained and anyway would not bite or sting.

That memory stayed with me – I can still feel the sudden violence of the movements, hear the bodies crashing against their confinement and my heart rate echoing their rapid thumping.

Reading the story of the swarming locusts in parashat Bo I can return to that memory and its accompanying visceral anxiety in a heartbeat. And now another layer of understanding is added as I read the reports of the locusts swarming in East Africa. Just like those in the biblical text they are consuming every last bit of vegetation needed for the people and for the animals to survive.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) this is the worst swarming in Kenya for a biblical sounding 70 years. It estimated one swarm there to be around 2,400 square kilometres (about 930 square miles); it could contain up to 200 billion locusts, each of which consumes its own weight in food every day. They can move up to 150 kilometres (90 miles) in one day. If unchecked, the numbers could grow 500 times by June, spreading to Uganda and South Sudan, becoming a plague that will devastate crops and pasture in a region which is already one of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world.

These locusts are not a phenomenon designed to show the power of God against those who do not recognise it – they are a natural and obvious consequence of the extreme weather events suffered in Africa in the last few years – drought, wildfires, floods, landslides, extreme temperature, fog and storms.

According to data maintained by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels, Africa recorded 56 extreme weather events in 2019 and 45 extreme events in 2018. Nearly 16.6 million people were affected due to natural disasters in 29 African countries last year.

The locusts came this year after a year of extremes which included eight cyclones off East Africa, the most in a single year since 1976.  The cyclones themselves are linked to higher-than-usual temperature differences between the two sides of the Indian Ocean – something meteorologists refer to as the Indian Ocean Dipole (or the “Indian Niño”) warmer sea temperatures in the western Indian Ocean region, with the opposite in the east. This unusually strong positive dipole this year has meant higher-than-average rainfall and floods in eastern Africa and droughts in south-east Asia and Australia. We have seen the resulting overwhelming bush fires in Australia, but maybe the news of the heavy downpours devastating parts of East Africa has been less prominent. In the Horn of Africa there was up to 300% above average rainfall between October and mid-November, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.  The resultant floods and washing away of villages, soil and people, has also been horrific.

We have a Famine Early Warning Systems Network. We have a Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. We have a Food and Agriculture organisation which is part of the UN.  We know what the changes in climate and environment mean, not only for the people currently facing devastation, but for our interconnected and fragile earth. What it means for us all.

I never read the story of the plague of locusts with the same dispassion as that of the frogs. Frogs always seemed dear and sweet beings, who may be found in a cool cellar, or around a garden pond – they are generally seen as symbolising life or harmony, they are beneficial to the garden, they squat patiently in damp corners or sit on lily pads…

But the plague of locusts is fraught with all the visceral and atavistic responses to the harsh rattling of their wings, and the sudden jumping, flying, swarming – let alone the ability to consume their own weight in vegetation every day.

The bible tells us that the locusts would

וְכִסָּה֙ אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֔רֶץ וְלֹ֥א יוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ

“Cover the eye of the earth, and one would not be able to see the earth” (10:5)

The eye of the earth will be covered, and he will be unable to see or understand the land – this is the message Moses will give to Pharaoh before the locusts will come, followed by the deep tangible darkness and finally the death of the first born.

There is a connecting theme of darkness, of blindness, of inability to discern in these final three plagues. It is a theme that resonates for us today – even with all the monitoring and the early warning systems, we are unable – or rather we are unwilling – to discern what the earth is telling us.   We are unwilling to really understand and to see that the disasters unfolding in different parts of our world are connected to each other and to us. Like the Pharaoh we stubbornly continue along our path in the face of the increasingly terrible events, until forced to wake up and cede to reality. This is plague number 8, there are two more steps in the biblical narrative until the final and most horrific event of all. There is – just – time for our politicians to wake up and cede to the reality of environmental disasters as a consequence of the change in our climate.  Like Moses and Aaron, we must communicate loud and clear to the prevailing powers, if we are to avoid the final devastation.

Va’era – signs and wonders are warnings: ignoring them may cost more than we can bear

L’italiano segue l’inglese

When Pharaoh instructed the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah to kill every new-born Hebrew baby boy (Exodus 1:15,16) he clearly thought he was responding  appropriately to the Egyptian nationalist fear that the population of Hebrews living amongst his people was increasing at an alarming rate and might become what we would now call a “fifth column”.  The murdering of the male children would ensure they could never grow into a military force, the keeping alive of the female children would ultimately provide both labour and more Egyptian children.

Besides the fact that, like all practitioners of the Great Replacement Theory, the fearers  were inventing a conspiracy against themselves that simply did not exist, and using it to try to control and oppress others – Pharaoh’s move acted against the promise of God to Abraham, a promise of many descendants and great fruitfulness.

For a while the actions of Shifra and Puah mitigated any effect of his decree – but they could not do so forever. In the biblical understanding of the world and the covenantal promise with God, something was seriously awry with decree of murder against new-born Hebrew boys, and the equilibrium had to be restored.

The conversations between Moses and God  begin with God noticing the pain and sorrow of the Hebrew slaves (3:6ff) and entering history  in order to address the problem of their oppression. God tells Moses to introduce himself and his experience to the Israelite people, and then go with the elders of that community to Pharaoh to request a three day ceremonial to God in the wilderness. At this point God notes that Pharaoh will not accede to the request, except with a “yad hazakah – a mighty hand”, and that God will smite Egypt with God’s “nifla’ot   נִפְלְאֹתַי” – wondrous events, and after that Pharaoh will let them go (Exodus 3:16-20)

When Moses objects that he will not be believed by the Israelites, God gives him two “signs אֹתוֹת” , and then offers a third – prefiguring the Nile being turned into blood, but on a much smaller scale (Exodus 4:1-9)

These two words – “signs” and “wonders” are the words used for most of what we today tend to describe as “plagues”. And in fact the word מגפה – translated as plague – does not occur until very much later in the narrative – in Exodus 9:14. Six events happen before the word is used – the Nile water is turned to blood, many frogs appear, followed by lice or gnats, then flies appear everywhere, the cattle and other animals become diseased, then everyone – human and beast – breaks out in boils. Only after Pharaoh is unmoved by the distress of everyone including his own magicians, does God say “For I will this time send all My plagues on your person (heart), and on your servants, and on your people; that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth.”(9:14)

There follows the extraordinary thunderstorm of hail and of intermittent fire that struck and devastated everywhere in the land of Egypt  – except the land of Goshen where Joseph had first settled his family:   “there was hail, and fire flashing up amidst the hail, very grievous, such as had not been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.  And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both human and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field.  Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail. (9:24-26). This is where our sidra ends. Next week’s reading continues the narrative with its climax: locusts which destroy all the remaining vegetation, the thick and tangible darkness that lasts for three days (except in Goshen) and finally and most terribly of all, resonating with Pharaoh’s original decree and even more extensive – the death of the first born child of every person from Pharaoh to the slave women and the cattle.

We tend when we read this narrative to fix on the battle between Pharaoh and God – and ask ourselves just why God allows so many to suffer in order to get Pharaoh to understand and the slaves to be able to leave.  We look at the patterning – the warnings and the lack of warnings; the Pharaonic response to allow the Hebrews to go -which he then revokes. The “hardening of the heart” – what it means, who does it and why…. But this year I noticed the very simple words “nifla’ot” and “ot” – the wonders and the signs – all of which describe nothing very magical but a logical sequence of consequences – stagnant polluted water leading to dead fish and escaping frogs; lice, flies, diseased animals and human beings as the biting insects and disease vectors grow in the surroundings – only with the odd mix of ice and fire does the nature of the “message” change – now something is deeply deeply unnatural, the world is in chaos, the normal expectation of weather systems is destroyed –and so it goes on.

In this narrative we see God “speaking” to human beings in a series of signs, of odd and unexpected activity. Only when these signs have been comprehensively and frequently ignored, do we move on to the real plagues – the all-consuming locusts who leave neither food nor seed, the darkness and the deaths within every family.

The world we live in is also experiencing the signs of work of creation being dismantled. We have chosen to challenge God or science – take your pick – and assumed that we can continue to create and consume energy, continue to pump rubbish into our waterways and seas, continue to behave as if we are not the care-takers of the world but the owners and rightful plunderers of it.

The signs have been with us for some time – strange weather systems, hotter summers, droughts, famines, torrential floods, tsunamis…… These are not plagues but they are warnings that all is not well, that our choices are disturbing the equilibrium of our world, that if we continue to behave as we have, there will be tragic consequences.

Va’era – segni e prodigi sono avvertimenti: ignorarli può costare più di quanto possiamo sopportare

Quando il Faraone diede istruzioni alle levatrici ebree Shifra e Pu’à di uccidere ogni neonato maschio ebreo (Esodo 1: 15,16), pensò chiaramente di rispondere in maniera appropriata ai timori nazionalisti egiziani che la popolazione di Ebrei, che viveva in mezzo al suo popolo, fosse in aumento con un tasso allarmante e che sarebbe potuta diventare quella che oggi chiameremmo una “quinta colonna”. L’assassinio di bambini maschi avrebbe garantito che essi non sarebbero mai diventati una forza militare, il mantenimento in vita delle bambine alla fine avrebbe fornito sia manodopera che più bambini egiziani.

Oltre al fatto che, come tutti i praticanti della Grande Teoria della Sostituzione, stava inventando una cospirazione inesistente contro se stesso e la usava per cercare di controllare e opprimere gli altri, la mossa del Faraone agiva contro la promessa di Dio ad Abramo, una promessa di molti discendenti e grande fecondità.

Per un po’ le azioni di Shifra e Pu’à mitigarono qualsiasi effetto del suo decreto, ma non poterono farlo per sempre. Secondo la visione biblica del mondo e nella promessa dell’alleanza con Dio, il decreto di uccidere tutti i neonati maschi ebrei era qualcosa di fortemente sbagliato, e l’equilibrio doveva essere ripristinato.

Le conversazioni tra Mosè e Dio iniziano con Dio che nota il dolore e la disperazione degli schiavi ebrei (3: 6 sgg) ed interviene nella storia per affrontare il problema della loro oppressione. Dio dice a Mosè di presentare se stesso e la sua esperienza al popolo israelita, e poi andare con gli anziani di quella comunità dal Faraone per richiedere un cerimoniale di tre giorni a Dio nel deserto. A questo punto Dio nota che il Faraone non acconsentirà alla richiesta, se non per mezzo di una “yad hazakà – una mano potente”, e quindi Dio colpisce l’Egitto con le sue “nifla’ot נִפְלְאֹתַי”, eventi meravigliosi, dopo di ciò il Faraone li lascerà andare. (Esodo 3: 16-20)

Quando Mosè obietta che non verrà creduto dagli israeliti, Dio gli dà due “segni אֹתוֹת”,  quindi ne offre un terzo, prefigurando il Nilo trasformato in sangue, ma su scala molto più piccola (Esodo 4: 1-9)

Queste due parole: “segni” e “meraviglie”, sono le parole usate per la maggior parte di ciò che oggi tendiamo a descrivere come “piaghe”. E in effetti la parola מגפה , tradotta come peste, non compare che molto più tardi nella narrazione, in Esodo 9:14. Sei eventi accadono prima che la parola venga usata: l’acqua del Nilo viene trasformata in sangue, compaiono molte rane, seguite da pidocchi o moscerini, quindi compaiono mosche ovunque, il bestiame e altri animali si ammalano, quindi tutti, umani e animali, si riempiono di bubboni. Solo dopo che il Faraone è indifferente all’angoscia di tutti, compresa quella dei suoi maghi, Dio dice: “Questa volta manderò tutte le mie piaghe sulla tua persona (cuore), sui tuoi servi e sul tuo popolo; che tu possa sapere che non c’è nessuno come Me in tutta la terra” (9:14).

Segue lo straordinario temporale della grandine e del fuoco intermittente che colpì e devastò ovunque il paese d’Egitto, tranne la terra di Goshen dove Giuseppe aveva inizialmente insediato la sua famiglia: “c’era grandine e il fuoco si accese in mezzo alla grandine, molto intensa, come non era stato in tutto il paese d’Egitto da quando era diventato una nazione. E la grandine colpì in tutto i paese d’Egitto tutto ciò che era nel campo, sia umano che bestia; e la grandine colpì ogni erba del campo e spezzò ogni albero del campo. Solo nella terra di Goshen, dove erano i figli d’Israele, non c’era grandine” (9: 24-26). Qui è dove termina la nostra sidrà. La lettura della prossima settimana continua la narrazione con il suo apice narrativo: locuste che distruggono tutta la vegetazione rimanente, l’oscurità densa e tangibile che dura tre giorni (tranne a Goshen) e, infine, e più terribile di tutto, in risonanza con il decreto originale del Faraone e ancora più ampio, la morte del primogenito di ogni persona, dal Faraone, alle donne schiave e al bestiame.

Si tende, nella lettura di questa narrazione, a concentrarsi sul conflitto tra il Faraone e Dio, ci si chiede perché Dio permetta a così tante persone di soffrire per far capire a Faraone e che gli schiavi possano andarsene. Osserviamo il modello: gli avvertimenti e la mancanza di avvertimenti; la risposta faraonica per consentire agli ebrei di andare, che viene poi revocata. L’ “indurimento del cuore”, cosa significa, chi lo fa e perché … Ma quest’anno ho notato le parole molto semplici “nifla’ot” e “ot”, le meraviglie e i segni, che non descrivono nulla di molto magico, ma una sequenza logica di conseguenze, acqua inquinata stagnante che porta alla morte dei pesci e alla fuga delle rane; pidocchi, mosche, animali ed esseri umani malati mentre gli insetti pungenti e i vettori di malattia crescono nei dintorni, soltanto con lo strano mix di ghiaccio e fuoco cambia la natura del “messaggio”: ora è qualcosa di profondamente innaturale, il mondo è nel caos, la normale aspettativa dei sistemi meteorologici viene distrutta, e così via.

In questa narrazione vediamo Dio “parlare” agli esseri umani in una serie di segni, di strane e inaspettate attività. Solo quando questi segni sono stati completamente e frequentemente ignorati, passiamo alle vere piaghe: le locuste che consumano tutto e che non lasciano né cibo né seme, l’oscurità e la morte all’interno di ogni famiglia.

Anche il mondo in cui viviamo sta vivendo i segnali dello smantellamento del  lavoro di creazione. Abbiamo scelto di sfidare Dio o la scienza, a voi la scelta, e abbiamo ipotizzato che possiamo continuare a creare e consumare energia, continuare a pompare immondizia nei nostri corsi d’acqua e nei nostri mari, continuare a comportarci come se non fossimo gli assistenti del mondo ma ne fossimo i proprietari e i legittimi saccheggiatori.

I segni ci accompagnano da un po’ di tempo: strani sistemi meteorologici, estati più calde, siccità, carestie, inondazioni torrenziali, tsunami …… Queste non sono piaghe ma sono avvertimenti che non tutto va bene, che le nostre scelte stanno disturbando l’equilibrio del nostro mondo, che se continuiamo a comportarci come abbiamo fatto finora, ci saranno conseguenze tragiche.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

The land we stand on is holy – turning, looking and paying attention….

L’italiano segue l’inglese

וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה הָיָ֥ה רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֛אן יִתְר֥וֹ חֹֽתְנ֖וֹ כֹּהֵ֣ן מִדְיָ֑ן וַיִּנְהַ֤ג אֶת־הַצֹּאן֙ אַחַ֣ר הַמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיָּבֹ֛א אֶל־הַ֥ר הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים חֹרֵֽבָה: וַ֠יֵּרָ֠א מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהוָֹ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל:  וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה מַדּ֖וּעַ לֹֽא־יִבְעַ֥ר הַסְּנֶֽה: וַיַּ֥רְא יְהוָֹ֖ה כִּ֣י סָ֣ר לִרְא֑וֹת וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, to Horeb. And the angel of the Eternal appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.  And Moses said: ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’   And when the Eternal saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: ‘Moses, Moses.’ And he said: ‘Here I am.’   (Exodus 3:1-4)

I cannot read this story this year without thinking of the fires burning without end, in California, Australia and the Amazon rainforests.

When Moses passed the bush that burned but was not consumed, he made the conscious choice to “turn aside and look at the great sight”, but more than that, he asked the question – how come this burns in such an extraordinary way?

There is at least one reading of this passage which asks why Moses? Why Moses, who had been born to Hebrew parents but brought up in the Egyptian palace; whose identity was fragile and dislocated and whose temper was hot, who had murdered in anger and then run away to the desert when discovered– why was Moses chosen for the role of leading the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and towards their promised ancestral land?  Why Moses? Why was the stutterer and outsider, belonging fully in neither Egyptian society nor Israelite community, the one to hear the words of God?

It is possible that many people passed that burning bush, and simply ignored it. It may be that God was waiting for someone to turn aside – that Moses wasn’t chosen per se, but his behaviour was unusual enough for him to become chosen. He paid attention.

How long does one watch a fire to notice that it is not consuming the material that is burning? If you have ever watched a bonfire you would know that it isn’t easy to watch a conflagration and see the clear diminishing of the contents. It takes quite some time to be obvious.

So Moses stopped his journey to turn and watch. He looked at what was presumably not an uncommon sight, and watched it for a long time. Moses was “chosen” because he was curious enough and open enough to stop his usual activity and to pay attention to what was happening.

We cannot be unaware of the devastation of the burning earth in different parts of the globe, caused in part by our own lifestyle choices. Yet we are passing by without looking, and allowing our policy makers to pass by too, ignoring what is happening – or worse denying it.

The burning forests and fields will not be ignored. Every year that passes as our world becomes warmer and more polluted, as the climate see-saws and changes, is a year that we are wasting if we want to act on the warnings.   Agriculture, factories, cars, power stations – are all contributing to the increasing temperature. The “greenhouse gasses” are increasing at an alarming rate – there is more C02 around in the atmosphere now than at any time in human history.

Moses heard the voice that told him what to do. We actually know what we have to do –we have no need of a supernatural voice.  As David Attenborough commented: “This is an urgent problem that has to be solved and, what’s more, we know how to do it – that’s the paradoxical thing, that we’re refusing to take steps that we know have to be taken.”

Moses was told to take off his shoes; the land he stood on was holy ground. All our ground is holy ground, all our earth is sacred. It is beyond time now to stop, to notice, to recognise what we are doing to our earth, and to take the steps to demand from the powerful governments and organisations that are refusing to act for our world to do so, and fast.

 

La terra su cui siamo è sacra, girati, osserva e presta attenzione

                Mosè pascolava il gregge di Ithrò, suo suocero, sacerdote di Midian e guidando le pecore di là del deserto arrivò al Monte del Signore, al Chorev. Un inviato del Signore gli apparve attraverso una fiamma di fuoco di mezzo ad un roveto e osservando si avvide che il roveto ardeva per il fuoco ma non si consumava. E Mosè disse fra sé: voglio avvicinarmi a vedere questo grande  fenomeno, come mai questo roveto non si consuma.’   Quando il Signore vide che egli si avvicinava per osservare il fenomeno, gridò dinnanzi a lui di mezzo al roveto: ‘Mosè, Mosè.’ Ed egli rispose: ‘Eccomi.’   (Esodo 3:1-4)

Quest’anno non posso leggere questa storia senza pensare ai fuochi che bruciano senza fine, in California, in Australia e nelle foreste pluviali amazzoniche.

Quando Mosè arrivò al roveto ardente che bruciava e non si consumava, fece la scelta consapevole di avvicinarsi e guardare il grande fenomeno ma, soprattutto, pose la domanda: come può esso bruciare in maniera così straordinaria?

C’è almeno una lettura di questo passaggio che chiede: perché Mosè? Perché Mosè, che era nato da genitori ebrei ma cresciuto nel palazzo egiziano, che aveva identità fragile e dislocata e temperamento caldo, che aveva ucciso con rabbia e poi era fuggito nel deserto quando venne scoperto, perché Mosè fu scelto per il ruolo di condurre gli schiavi ebrei fuori dall’Egitto e verso la loro ancestrale terra promessa? Perché Mosè? Perché un balbuziente e straniero, quello che  non apparteneva pienamente alla società egiziana né alla comunità israelita, era quello che ascoltava le parole di Dio?

È possibile che molte persone abbiano superato quel roveto ardente e lo abbiano semplicemente ignorato. Può darsi che Dio stesse aspettando qualcuno che si girasse, che Mosè non fosse stato scelto di per sé, ma che il suo comportamento fosse abbastanza insolito da essere scelto. Ha prestato attenzione.

Per quanto tempo si deve guardare un fuoco per notare che non sta consumando il materiale che sta bruciando? Se avete mai visto un falò, sapete che non è facile osservare una combustione e vedere la chiara diminuzione di ciò che sta bruciando. Ovviamente ci vuole un po’ di tempo.

Quindi Mosè fermò il suo viaggio per avvicinarsi e guardare. Guardò ciò che presumibilmente non era uno spettacolo insolito, e lo osservò a lungo. Mosè fu “scelto” perché era abbastanza curioso e abbastanza aperto da interrompere la sua solita attività e prestare attenzione a ciò che stava accadendo.

Non possiamo ignorare la devastazione della terra in fiamme in diverse parti del globo, causata in parte dalle nostre scelte di vita. Eppure stiamo passando senza guardare, e permettendo anche ai nostri responsabili politici di passare, ignorando ciò che sta accadendo, o peggio negandolo.

Le foreste e i campi in fiamme non saranno ignorati. Ogni anno che passa mentre il nostro mondo diventa più caldo e più inquinato, mentre il clima si fa altalenante e cambia, è un anno che stiamo sprecando se vogliamo agire in base agli avvertimenti. Agricoltura, fabbriche, automobili, centrali elettriche, tutto ciò sta contribuendo all’aumento della temperatura. I “gas serra” stanno aumentando a un ritmo allarmante, c’è più C02 nell’atmosfera ora che in qualsiasi momento della storia umana.

Mosè udì la voce che gli diceva cosa fare. In realtà sappiamo cosa dobbiamo fare: non abbiamo bisogno di una voce soprannaturale. Come ha commentato David Attenborough: “Questo è un problema urgente che deve essere risolto e, per di più, sappiamo come farlo; questa è la cosa paradossale, che ci stiamo rifiutando di prendere misure che sappiamo devono essere prese”.

A Mosè fu detto di togliersi le scarpe; la terra su cui si trovava era terra santa. Tutta la nostra terra è terra santa, tutta la nostra terra è sacra. È ormai il tempo di fermarsi, notare, riconoscere ciò che stiamo facendo sulla nostra terra e fare i passi per chiedere ai governi potenti e alle organizzazioni che si rifiutano di agire per il nostro mondo, di farlo e velocemente.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Vayechi: He lived. What was the purpose of his life?

And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years. (Genesis 47:28)

The report of the death of Jacob has superficial resonance with that of Sarah in how his age is given, but the wealth of detail around the future he conjures in his deathbed blessings gives us a focus that is missing in the flat account of Sarah’s age and death.

We are told first that he has spent the last seventeen years in Egypt – well past the end of the great famine that brought him there. Bible makes no comment on this fact, but draws our attention to it. Seventeen is a number made up of two significant digits – 7 being the number of the perfected whole, 10 being the number of completeness. It seems as if it is saying that the era is entirely over, it is time for a new thing to happen.

And then we are given the totality of the years of Jacob’s lives – he is 147 years old.

He knows he is soon to die. He makes his preparations, both with Joseph alone and then with his whole family. And so we see the life of Jacob through the prism of his active shaping of the future– through the arrangements for his burial and through the blessings he bestows on each son.

Just as our attention is drawn to his years spent away from his homeland, he draws the attention of his sons – and of we readers of the text – to the land they must also understand to be their homeland.

First he makes Joseph swear that he will not bury his father in Egypt. He is repudiating the adopted land of his son with surprising vehemence – “don’t bury me in Egypt…carry my body out of Egypt and bury me in my ancestral place” (vv29, 30)

Then (48:3) he reminds Joseph that “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me there (with fruitfulness)…and gave this land to my descendants after me for an everlasting possession. He claims the boys -whom he acknowledges were born in Egypt  (48:5) – for himself, giving them the inheritance of the blessing from Luz, the blessing of being attached to the land of Canaan. Then a few verses later (v21) tells Joseph “Behold, I die; but God will be with you, and bring you back to the land of your ancestors.” Then he tells Joseph he will give him an extra portion of the land – Shechem Echad – a puzzling phrase that is variously translated as the city of Shechem, as a topographical feature (a shoulder or mountain ridge), or as simply an extra piece of land – but however one understands this phrase the attention is focussed on the Land of Canaan, the ancestral and promised land.

Jacobs’s total focus on the connection of his descendants to his ancestral land is unmissable. He is powerfully aware of his approaching death, and on the legacy he must ensure is embedded in the next generations of his family. We are no longer quite so fixed on who is to receive the covenantal blessing that Abraham and Sarah ensured went to their son Isaac, and that Rebecca went to such lengths to ensure it went to Jacob himself, deceiving Isaac in the process. Now the covenantal blessing is to go down to each of the sons – so Jacob is thinking further and with more practicality. He wants to pass on land and resources as well as covenant and commitment to God. These are inextricably linked at this point, but his focus is the land and how his descendants will relate to it.

When we think of our own lives, and what we want to pass on to our own descendants, Jacob’s dying activity is instructive. He strips away the unimportant, he faces each person and their reality unflinchingly, he builds on the characteristics of each son, and he gives them responsibility for the land which is both symbolic (the covenantal relationship with God) and real. Treat the land well and you will live in comfort and ease. Treat the land badly and such comfort and ease will not be yours, but instead hunger and rootlessness.

There are many things we want for our descendants. We want them to be ethical human beings. We want them to behave with kindness to others. We want them to live in comfort and ease, not afraid or homeless or having to live a transient anxious existence. We want them to have family of their own –be they families of choice (as Jacob chooses Ephraim and Manasseh) or of relationship. And we want them to live on a land that provides for their needs, that provides food, water and shelter, space to live, landscape to give pleasure – be it the spiritual uplift of mountains or sunsets or the physical enjoyment of walking or swimming in a clean and beautiful environment.

Ours is a generation that has had to learn again to understand the impact on the land of how we choose to live. And we have had to become clearer about our own responsibility for how the land has been abused on our watch. As we distanced ourselves from traditional ways of working the land, found ways to extract resources from the earth in greater amounts, resources we used as if they were limitless, we have created deserts, polluted seas, contaminated soil, tainted air, created huge waste tips and dug enormous pits for landfill – Humankind currently produces two billion tonnes of waste per year between 7.6 billion people. (Figure from sensoneo.com)…..

Slowly – too slowly – we are changing our waste management. Recycling, using less disposable plastics, composting etc. Slowly we are considering our impact on the environment, as people choose to find different ways to travel – or to travel less; as people choose to eat different foods, to plant consciously to enable wildlife habitats. But as we see the Amazonian rainforest disappearing and burning, as we see the Australian bush burning out of control and its wildlife decimated, as we see the effects of climate change in our own back gardens – we know we are too slow to recognise our relationship to the land, our responsibility for its wellbeing, which will impact ultimately on our own wellbeing and that of our descendants.

Jacob speaks to his children, transmitting his ethical will, and we are also forced to ask: what is the legacy and the land that we will pass on to our children and grandchildren? Do we want to pass on a world where the environment no longer supports living diversity? Do we want to hand over a world where natural resources are treated with arrogant disdain and not valued or maintained?

We do not want our children to be forced to migrate because of drought or famine, to be in a world where species are forced into competition for survival; where the air is so toxic that the very breath in their bodies could damage their wellbeing. Jacob’s focus on relationship with the land is a bellwether. We need to be alert to the relationship we have with our world, the impact of our own behaviour and choices. We need to be working so that our own legacy is global sustainability, a world that will be nurtured by our descendants and nurture them in its turn.

 

 

Vayigash: when our relationships with land and with each other are damaged, we have to look at our own role before we can heal the breach.

L’italiano segue l’inglese

There was no bread in all the land;  the famine was very sore so Egypt and Canaan languished… Joseph gathered all the money found in Egypt and Canaan for the corn they bought; and brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. .all the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying: ‘Give us bread; why should we die because our money fails?’ And Joseph said: ‘Give your cattle, and I will give you [bread] for your cattle’. And they brought their cattle.. Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the asses; and  fed them with bread in exchange for all their cattle for that year.  When that year ended, they came to him the second year, and said to him: ‘We will not hide .. that our money is all spent; and the herds of cattle are yours, there is nothing left.. but our bodies, and our lands. Why should we die…both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be bondmen to Pharaoh; and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, and that the land be not desolate.’  So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; every Egyptian sold his field, because the famine was sore; and the land became Pharaoh’s.  And as for the people, he removed them city by city, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a portion from Pharaoh… Joseph said to the people: ‘Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh.  Here is seed, sow the land. And at harvest, you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for your households..’ And they said: ‘you have saved our lives.. we will be Pharaoh’s bondmen.’  (Genesis 47:13-26)

The bible recounts the fruit of Jacob’s having stored away supplies in the seven years of good harvests, to use in the following seven years of famine foretold in Pharaoh’s dream.  Within a few years he is in control of every resource – money, land, animals, even the people belong to the State. And more than that, he has changed the very nature of relationship between people and land. He transfers the people from the land that they had owned and farmed, and moves them to distant cities.

The Hizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoach  13thC France) teaches that Joseph does this because he was afraid that the sale of the fields would be forgotten in time, and ancestral claims resurface. So  in order to protect Pharaoh’s ownership Joseph moved the people away from the fields they had sold. Yet the Hebrew says rather more – Joseph transfers the people from the land to the cities, undermining the relationship set at the beginning of the book of Genesis, where people are created to serve and to guard the land, and instead of being the stewards of nature, the people become the servants of the ruling power.

Population transfer, where people lose their relationship to their ancestral lands, where whole communities are forced to uproot themselves and their families and throw themselves on the mercy of the political powers, has been used to keep populations quiet and unable to rebel since time immemorial, becoming seen formally as a human rights violation only in the 20th century. We modern readers find it painful in the extreme, albeit it is small comfort that the people themselves ask to sell themselves to Pharaoh (v19), and that Joseph never agrees to buy them as slaves – as opposed to buying their labour.  Nachmanides comments “They said that they wished to be purchased as slaves to the king to be treated as he saw fit. But Joseph wanted to buy ONLY the land and stipulated that they would be perpetual leaseholders or tenants of Pharaoh. When Joseph told them (v.23) ‘I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh’, he means NOT that he has acquired them as slaves but rather that through their farmland they will serve him. In truth the king should take 80% of the income and leave you only with 20%, but, says Joseph, I will be kind. You will take the (80%) share due to the landowner and Pharaoh will take the (20%) due to the tenant farmer”

The rabbinic tradition is deeply uncomfortable with the actions of Joseph, and one can argue that the bible is also uncomfortable with how he behaves in concentrating all resources and power into the hands of Pharaoh, diminishing the resource and particularly the relationship of the farmers with their land.  One can read this – and the apologetics which are a major component of the classical commentaries – as a textbook reading of how NOT to treat people trying to sustain themselves in areas of drought and famine. Sending supplies/ giving them enough to live from day to day – is of course an an important first step, and Joseph does what is necessary to keep the people alive by giving them bread, and later seeds to plant –  but exploiting the vulnerability of these desperate people is unacceptable, even if they themselves offer to put themselves in the position of being bought and sold.  The Egyptians become workers on the land of the Pharaoh, essentially they are slaves to the Pharaoh. And the whole narrative of the early chapters of Genesis – that humans would feed themselves by working the land, hard but dignified labour where the land would produce under the benign stewardship of the owner/farmer – is subverted in Joseph’s actions. The relationship between land and worker is disrupted deliberately as the original landowners are dispersed from their ancestral places.

The story does not begin at the famine – we see that in the good years that precede it,  food is not saved by those who produced it, but in the storehouses controlled by Joseph, and used to increase the power of the Pharaoh.

This story shows us how slavery becomes normalised, even welcomed as a way to stay fed and alive.  Even if the people themselves suggest selling themselves once they have no more money or other assets, Joseph’s act of population transfer hardens and fixes the reality of the rupture in the relationship between each family and their land. The move away from one’s land and from country to cities loosens the bonds of community, changing relationships further. Everyone becomes a little more vulnerable and a little more alone. The political class concentrates power in its own hands, the population are less able to resist.

So, when the Book of Exodus opens some 450 or so years later, and the memory of Joseph and his part in cementing the ruling powers is forgotten, we find that slavery is an obvious option for the Egyptians to use against the non-Egyptian people living among them.  The powerful are able to manipulate the ordinary citizens, and the stage is set for further misery.

When Joseph interprets the dreams of the Pharaoh and suggests a solution to ensure that the land and people do not perish in the long famine, he never suggests that this should be the lever to remove the agency and power of the grassroots of the people and allow the Pharaoh to become the owner of land and cattle stocks. The agreement was to ensure that people would be fed, that “the land would not perish during the famine”. In going well beyond his brief, in accepting the absolute power given to him by Pharaoh, in naming his children for “forgetting his father’s house” and for “becoming fruitful in Egypt” , Joseph isolates himself from the values of his own tribe and instead allies himself with the values of a society that does not care for the other.

There will be no tribe of Joseph, just the two half tribes of his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. His own dislocation from land is complete – it is the next generations who will begin the healing of both the human and tribal connection to land and the freedom of every person to live in peace upon it. A journey of healing we are all still making.

 

Vayigash: quando i nostri rapporti con la terra e tra di noi sono danneggiati dobbiamo guardare al nostro ruolo prima di poter curare la violazione.

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild, il 1 gennaio 2020

 

La  carestia era gravissima, tutto il paese mancava di viveri e l’Egitto così come Canaan ne erano stanchi. Giuseppe raccolse tutto il denaro che si trovava in Egitto e in Canaan per i viveri che compravano e lo fece entrare nelle casse del Faraone. Finito il denaro in Egitto e in Canaan tutti gli egiziani si presentarono da Giuseppe dicendo: ‘Dacci da mangiare; dobbiamo morire qui davanti a te se non abbiamo più denaro?’ E Giuseppe disse: ‘Date il vostro bestiame e io vi darò viveri in cambio di esso’. Portarono il  bestiame a Giuseppe ed egli quell’anno diede loro viveri in cambio di cavalli, bestiame ovino e bovino e asini; e così li sostentò con vettovaglie in cambio di tutto il loro bestiame. Finito quell’anno gli si presentarono l’anno seguente e gli dissero: ‘Non ti nascondiamo … che se il denaro è finito e se il bestiame è presso di te, o signore, non rimangono a tua disposizione che i nostri corpi e le nostre terre. Perché dovremmo perire … e con noi le nostre terre? Acquista noi e la nostra terra in cambio di viveri, e passeremo al servizio del Faraone; e dacci della semente, sì che possiamo vivere, e non morire, e i terreni non rimangano improduttivi’. Così Giuseppe acquistò al Faraone tutti i terreni d’Egitto poiché ognuno vendette il proprio campo, oppressi com’erano dalla fame e la terra divenne proprietà del Faraone. Trasferì la popolazione da una città all’altra, da una all’altra estremità del territorio egiziano. Solo non acquistò la terra dei sacerdoti, poiché essi ricevevano dal Faraone un assegno determinato … Giuseppe disse al popolo: ‘Ecco, io ho acquistato oggi voi e le vostre terre al Faraone. Eccovi la semente, seminate la terra. E al momento del raccolto, ne darete un quinto al Faraone, e quattro parti saranno le vostre, per seminare il campo, per il mantenimento vostro , di chi avete in casa e dei vostri figli…’ E dissero: ‘hai salvato le nostre vite … saremo i servi del faraone’”.  (Genesi 47: 13-26)

La Bibbia racconta gli esiti dell’atto di Giacobbe di immagazzinare scorte nei sette anni di buoni raccolti, da usarsi poi nei successivi sette anni di carestia predetti nel sogno del Faraone. Nel giro di pochi anni egli ha il controllo di ogni risorsa: denaro, terra, animali, anche il popolo appartiene allo Stato. E, oltre a ciò, ha cambiato la natura stessa del rapporto tra persone e terra. Toglie le persone dalla terra che avevano posseduto e coltivato e le trasferisce in città lontane.

Hizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoach, Francia del XIII sec.) insegna che Giuseppe lo fa perché teme che col tempo la vendita dei campi sarà dimenticata e le rivendicazioni ancestrali riemergerebbero. Quindi, al fine di proteggere la proprietà del Faraone, Giuseppe allontana le persone dai campi che avevano venduto. Eppure l’ebraico dice qualcosa di più: Giuseppe trasferisce la gente dalla terra alle città, minando la relazione stabilita all’inizio del libro di Genesi, in cui le persone sono create per servire e proteggere la terra, e invece di essere l’amministratore della natura, il popolo diventa il servitore del potere dominante.

Da tempo immemorabile il trasferimento della popolazione, con cui le persone perdono il rapporto con le proprie terre ancestrali e intere comunità sono costrette a sradicare se stesse e le loro famiglie e a gettarsi in balia dei poteri politici, è stato utilizzato per mantenere le popolazioni tranquille e incapaci di ribellarsi e, solo nel XX° secolo, viene considerato formalmente come una violazione dei diritti umani. Noi lettori moderni lo troviamo estremamente doloroso, sebbene sia un po’ di conforto che la gente stessa chieda di vendersi al Faraone (v19) e che Giuseppe non accetti mai di comprarli come schiavi ma, al contrario, di comprare il loro lavoro. Nachmanide commenta: “Dissero che desideravano essere acquistati come schiavi dal re per essere trattati come lui riteneva opportuno. Ma Giuseppe voleva comprare SOLO la terra e stabilì che sarebbero stati perpetui locatari o inquilini del Faraone. Quando Giuseppe disse loro (v.23) ‘Oggi ho acquisito voi e la vostra terra per il Faraone’, significa che NON li ha acquisiti come schiavi, ma piuttosto che attraverso i loro terreni agricoli essi lo serviranno. In verità il re dovrebbe prendere l’80% delle entrate e lasciar loro solo il 20%, ma, dice Giuseppe, sarò gentile. Prenderai la parte dovuta al proprietario terriero (l’80%) e il Faraone prenderà (il 20%) la parte dovuta al contadino locatario“.

La tradizione rabbinica è profondamente a disagio con le azioni di Giuseppe, e si può anche sostenere che la Bibbia sia a disagio proprio con il modo in cui si comporta, cioè concentrando tutte le risorse e il potere nelle mani del Faraone, diminuendo le risorse e in particolare il rapporto degli agricoltori con la loro terra. Si può leggere questo, e le scuse che sono una componente importante dei commenti classici, come una lettura da manuale di come NON trattare le persone che cercano di sostenersi in aree di siccità e carestia. Inviare rifornimenti/dare loro abbastanza per vivere di giorno in giorno è ovviamente un primo passo importante, e Giuseppe fa ciò che è necessario per mantenere in vita le persone dando loro il pane e poi i semi da piantare, ma sfruttare la vulnerabilità di queste persone disperate è inaccettabile, anche se loro stessi si offrono e si mettono nella condizione di essere acquistati e venduti. Gli egiziani diventano lavoratori nella terra del Faraone, essenzialmente sono schiavi del Faraone. E l’intera narrazione dei primi capitoli della Genesi, che gli umani si nutrano lavorando la terra, lavoro duro ma dignitoso in cui la terra produce sotto la benigna gestione del proprietario/agricoltore, è sovvertita dalle azioni di Giuseppe. Il rapporto tra terra e lavoratore viene interrotto deliberatamente quando i proprietari terrieri originali vengono dispersi dai loro luoghi ancestrali.

La storia non inizia dalla carestia: vediamo che nei buoni anni che la precedono il cibo non viene salvato da chi lo ha prodotto, ma nei magazzini controllati da Giuseppe, e utilizzato per aumentare il potere del Faraone.

Questa storia ci mostra come la schiavitù venga normalizzata, persino accolta come modo per rimanere nutriti e in vita. Anche se le persone stesse suggeriscono di vendersi quando non hanno più denaro o altri beni, l’atto di trasferimento della popolazione di Giuseppe indurisce e fissa la realtà della rottura nel rapporto tra ogni famiglia e la loro terra. L’allontanamento dalla propria terra e dal paese alle città allenta i legami della comunità, cambiando ulteriormente le relazioni. Tutti diventano un po’ più vulnerabili e un po’ più soli. La classe politica concentra il potere nelle proprie mani, la popolazione è meno in grado di resistere.

Quindi, quando il Libro dell’Esodo si apre circa 450 anni dopo e si perde il ricordo di Giuseppe e il suo ruolo nel cementare i poteri al comando, scopriamo che la schiavitù è un’opzione scontata che gli egiziani possono usare contro il popolo non egiziano che vive in mezzo a loro. I potenti sono in grado di manipolare i cittadini comuni e il palcoscenico è pronto per ulteriori sofferenze.

Quando Giuseppe interpreta i sogni del Faraone e suggerisce una soluzione per garantire che la terra e le persone non muoiano nella lunga carestia, non suggerisce mai che questa debba essere la leva per eliminare il potere della gente comune e consentire al Faraone di diventare proprietario delle terre e del bestiame. L’accordo era di assicurare che le persone fossero nutrite, che “la terra non sarebbe perita durante la carestia”. Andando ben oltre le direttive, accettando il potere assoluto conferitogli dal Faraone, dicendo ai propri figli di “aver dimenticato la casa del padre” e di “diventare fecondo in Egitto”, Giuseppe si isola dai valori della sua stessa tribù e si allea invece con i valori di una società a cui non importa del prossimo.

Non ci sarà una tribù di Giuseppe, solo le due mezze tribù dei suoi figli Efraim e Manasse. La sua alienazione dalla terra è completa: sono le generazioni successive che inizieranno la guarigione della connessione umana e tribale con la terra e la libertà di ogni persona di vivere in pace su di essa. Un viaggio di guarigione che stiamo ancora facendo.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

 

Mikketz: how knowledge and understanding still requires wisdom if we are to avert environmental disaster

 

Pharaoh dreams of seven fat healthy cows feeding by the river, which are devoured by seven sickly cows; then of seven full and healthy ears of corn devoured by seven thin ears of corn, in each case the devourers looked no fuller or healthier for what they had consumed.  Joseph, the interpreter of dreams, is summoned from prison in order to explain the Pharaoh’s dreams.

They are, he announces, dreams of warning of what God is about to bring to Egypt; seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. There are two dreams because of the speed in which events will begin.

Joseph then goes further than his brief. He is brought to interpret the dreams, but having done so he adds to the narrative- a chutzpah that could have had terrible consequence

“Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.

But luckily Pharaoh is impressed. Having asked (rhetorically) if such a man can be found to fulfil this plan, he turns to Joseph and says:  As God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than you.’  And Pharaoh said to Joseph: ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’

The three qualities –da’at (knowledge), binah (discernment) and chochmah (wisdom) come together in this verse indicating that Joseph doesn’t just know what the dream is saying, but that he can imagine the devastation indicated and can formulate and carry out a plan to mitigate it.

The dreams tell the very worst scenario – not only will extended famine come after the good years, but it will consume every aspect of those good years, they will not be remembered or even be able to be imagined – so say the classical commentators noting that when the sickly cows/corn absorb the healthy ones, there is no increase in well-being, no noticeable change at all. The desolation will be so complete it will be as if there was never anything else.

But the intervention of Joseph, with his combined knowledge, discernment and wisdom, was enough to keep Egypt, and even the surrounding areas, fed in the years of famine. The all-consuming famine was survived by the people – albeit they lost control of their land to Pharaoh as the price they paid for their food.

The Maharal of Prague teaches that the solution to the problem of famine in the dream was itself provided in the dream. The fact that the sickly cows and corn absorbed their healthy counterparts was a key to resolving the oncoming disaster – because it taught that there must be work done in the first seven years that would enable the next seven to be survivable. For him preparation in the face of oncoming devastation would enable the people to survive. His teaching primarily addresses the lacunae in the text – why would Joseph overstep his position and offer a solution? How does Pharaoh know that his interpretation was correct, and recognise both the importance of his plan  and the scale of his abilities? But the teaching gives us hope. We can prepare, we can begin to imagine and to mitigate the oncoming changes in our world. We can ensure that people have the resources to survive and sustain ourselves come what may.

In today’s world we once again face droughts and famines, as the global climate changes and watercourses dry up or rain washes away fertile soil. This is something we know, and we are beginning to understand the longer term consequences of much of our activity of the last century. We have both da’at and binah – knowledge and understanding. But is seems to me we have not yet taken on board the need for wisdom.  Joseph had a plan that did not stop the famine, but did mean that no one went hungry – he was proactive rather than reactive. He could imagine the worst case and worked to avert it. It is a lesson – an a quality – we need to acquire quickly if we are not to be overwhelmed by our own environment.