Parashat Noach – the terrible message behind the rainbow

Noach  2022 Sermon for Lev Chadash

L’italiano segue l’inglese

The story of Noach begins at the end of last week’s sidra. His birth is recorded in a list of fathers and sons starting with Adam and his son Seth, and Noach is the tenth generation. His birth and naming stand out – We are told that “And Lamech lived a hundred eighty and two years, and begot a son. And he called his name Noah, saying: ‘This same shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which comes from the ground which the Eternal God has cursed.’ And Lamech lived after he begot Noah five hundred ninety and five years, and begot sons and daughters. And all the days of Lamech were seven hundred seventy and seven years; and he died. {S} And Noah was five hundred years old; and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (5:28-32)

 Unusually in this genealogy we are given a reason for Noach’s name – something not done since the creation of Adam. And we are also given the names of each of his sons – unlike earlier generations which gives the name only of the  person in the generational link.

Only Lamech speaks of the need for comfort, and only Lamech mentions the difficulty of life outside of Eden, of the curse borne by humanity who will have to work hard to survive on unforgiving land.

And still in last week’s reading we find the strange story of non-human beings interacting with humanity – “And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,  that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives, whomsoever they chose. And the Eternal said: ‘My spirit shall not abide in human beings for ever, for he also is flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.’  The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.”{P} (6:1-4)

Ten generations since the creation of human beings, there seems to have been some kind of crisis – the interbreeding of humanity with divine or semi-divine beings. And this occurs in the generation of  Noach. Then things get even worse: 

“And the Eternal saw that the wickedness of humanity was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of their heart was only evil continually.  And God repented having  made humanity on the earth, and was grieved to the heart. And the Eternal said: ‘I will blot out humanity whom I have created from the face of the earth; both human, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repents Me that I have made them.’  But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Eternal.  (6:5-8).

God repents the decision to create human beings. The verb used “vayenachem” sounds suspiciously close to the verb at the root of the name Noach – are we being nudged into seeing Noach as part of the plan to act on – or even to act out -God’s despair?

Curiously, this is the moment the sidra Bereishit ended. We await the next verses in the next weekly reading.

Parashat Noach begins in an echo with the previous sidra, giving the genealogy of Noach and his three sons. But any sense of continuity or stability disappears with the words “And the earth was corrupt before God and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth and behold it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noach, ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them, and behold I will destroy them with the earth – Make an ark of gopher wood etc etc…..”(11-14)

In the ten generations of human transmission on the earth, the earth is ruined, filled with violence, corrupted, disgusting. In God’s eyes there is nothing worth saving. Creation has failed. Instead there is only חָמָס – a root meaning violence, cruelty, malice, wronging, oppression  and injustice. (It appears 60 times in the Hebrew bible)

Now we all know the story of what happens next. Noach doesn’t debate with God, doesn’t warn his neighbours, doesn’t speak at all in our text, just gets on with the job of building the boat, collecting the animals, watching the floods that come from both above and below the earth…. His silence is one of the most difficult parts of the story for me.

The whole episode ends with the floods receding, Noach and his family back on dry land. As soon as he descends he builds an altar and sacrifices some of the rescued clean animals to God, who smells the smoke of the sacrifice and says – rather cryptically I always feel – “..  ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for human’s sake; for the imagination of humanity’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remains seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’ (8:21-22)

God then blesses Noach and his family, giving them the blessing that was given to the first human beings – be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth “פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֖וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃”  Then God says something which feels in contemporary times to be particularly painfully relevant “
 
And  fear( u’mora’achem) of you and the dread (cheet’chem) of you shall be upon every living thing of the earth , and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moves on the ground , and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they given and every living thing that moves shall be food for you”

This is the moment when the eating of animals seems to be given Divine permission. When Judaism left vegetarianism behind. One commentator (Don Yitzchak Abravanel 1437–1508) suggested  that Noach and his family may well have had concerns about the possibility of being overrun by wild life, some of which could have potentially attacked and harmed them.  So God offers both a “blessing” – that of animals fearing human beings in order to keep such harm away from them, and also permission to eat animals – effectively giving great power to humans over animals. It is a nice gloss on what I read as a chilling verse –  there will be no shared relationship possible between the animals and human beings – animals living on this planet are at the mercy of human activities, and as we are seeing today, animal populations are being wiped out as climate change takes hold. A recent report by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) tells us that “The world’s populations of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have declined by more than two-thirds on average since 1970” https://www.wwf.org.uk/our-reports/living-planet-report-2022

God makes a covenant with Noach and his descendants, and also with every living being on earth,  that never again will God destroy the earth by flood. The covenant is one sided – there is no obligation taken on by humanity or animals, only God establishes this covenant, only God is bound to it, and the sign of the covenant is not on earth but in the heavens – the rainbow.

We are used in modernity to seeing the rainbow as a benign if not actively beautiful symbol – a symbol of inclusion since all colours can be found in it. A symbol of comfort – in recent decades the idea of the “rainbow bridge” has taken root as a fantasy paradise for beloved pets to wait for their owners also to die and be reunited.  The rainbow is used to denote hope – particularly after a stormy and difficult time. The famous song from Wizard of Oz, “Somewhere over the rainbow” is seen by many as referring to the experience of Jews trapped by the Shoah – written by two Jewish immigrants to the USA it was published in 1939.

Earlier Jewish texts see the rainbow differently. The prophet Ezekiel, in Babylonian exile (6th Century BCE), had an ecstatic vision of God and compared the brightness of this vision to the appearance of a rainbow. (Ezekiel 1:28)  His vision led to the association of the rainbow with the divine glory, the immanence of God – that somehow the Shechinah dwelled within the rainbow. Because of this there is a tradition not to look at a rainbow for more than the glance necessary to say the blessing, not to tell others that a rainbow is in the sky. There is a belief that looking for too long at the rainbow will cause blindness (Chagigah 16a) because of God’s presence in it.

The rainbow in Jewish tradition is not unambiguously a happy sign. It is, as Rashi explains (9:14) a reminder of God’s anger, of God’s desire to destroy the world because of our behaviour in it. It is a sign more for God than for us – a reminder to God to control righteous anger, a sort of totem to hold on to for God to remember. And what is God remembering? Yes, the promise not to destroy the world through flood (though this is a particularly limited promise, nothing about fire/drought or pestilence), it is also God remembering that humanity is incapable of perfection, that God’s creation has a flaw within us that can never be erased – “the heart of humankind is evil from its youth” as the text puts it.

We have, as human beings, glossed the story of Noach and the rainbow covenant so that it has become unrecognisable. The story is told as a children’s story, every nursery has rainbows and toy figures or pictures of a charming colourful and unlikely ark with happy animals inside it. Many people still believe the idea that the rainbow contains 7 colours – seven, the symbol of perfection, a number with many different aspects – the seven Noachide Laws for example (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a),  seven sefirot of emotion in kabbalistic texts (the three others are of intellect), the seven days of the week, seven weeks between pesach and Shavuot, seventy years being a human lifespan. It just seems so right for the rainbow to have seven colours – yet even this is a gloss on reality. In fact there aren’t seven distinct bands, but multiple colours blending and shading into one another. The idea of seven comes from Isaac Newton in 1665. Until then it was accepted that there were 5 colours (Robert Boyle described them shortly before Newton – Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple), but because the number seven has a mystical meaning of perfection, Newton chose to define the rainbow as containing seven – adding the colour orange and splitting the colour purple into indigo and violet.

The story of Noach and of the Rainbow is a story that we have reworked away from its painful messages and instead made it as childlike and simplistic as possible, and the question for us is why has this story been so distorted in popular imagination?

The story begins with terrible violence and corruption, with a world that is not working, and a humanity barely worth saving. In just ten generations, creation has been traduced.

Then God creates an act of violence so terrible that creation is almost completely destroyed.

Then God realises that human beings are truly in the image of God – for where can we have got our destructive tendencies from if not from our divine creator? God sees that in creating humankind in the divine image God has created  complex and multivaried beings, they can be out of control, can make selfish and uncaring choices,  can exercise free will and choose to act against what is best for themselves or for others. God repents – though whether God repents for creating humanity or whether God repents for the flood caused in despair and anger is a moot point. God decides to let creation continue, and places in the sky a sign to remind God that this is the Creation God made.

The use of the rainbow as a sign of God responding to human beings is an extraordinary one. The text makes clear that this sign is a Keshet – the bow from a bow and arrow, an artefact for death and destruction, for hunting and for warfare. But this Keshet has two differences from the usual bow of an archer – it is pointed away from the earth so that any notional arrow would fly away into the heavens rather than damage the earth;  And it has no string – it has been “demilitarised”, an archer’s bow that cannot shoot, cannot cause any hurt. Nachmanides explains that orientation is like what happens when two nations who have been at war make overtures towards peace by pointing their bows away from each other. God is not only making peace after the violence of the flood, but commits to never acting so violently again while at the same time reminding us that this commitment comes from compassion towards us – that even though humanity has damaged the world God will show mercy towards us.

Far from being a cosy and comfortable image, the rainbow presents us with stunning clarity with the notion that an undeserving people yet has a compassionate God. The liturgical messages we have so recently spoken and heard in the Yamim Noraim have their roots in this story. We are deeply flawed, yet God is prepared to engage with us.

The blessing recited when we see a rainbow is an unusual one in that it has a triple phrasing – ““Blessed are You, Eternal, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to Your covenant, and keeps to Your promise.” – the only time we find this structure among the blessings we make  (though there is a slight resonance with the blessing the priests were instructed to say to the people, the nesiat kapayim).

Why this threefold structure? We speak of God who remembers, who is faithful, who keeps the divine promise – it feels rather like desperate supplication – “please God, don’t just remember when you see the rainbow, but remember this is a commitment you made to us, a promise not to destroy us, as we know you could and as we fear we deserve”

The rainbow acts as a sign, a bridge in the heavens between us and God, a reminder to us of the fragility of our existence and a reminder to God of the divine commitment to a flawed creation. It tells us we live in a precarious world, that we are vulnerable and weak, that life and death are intimately connected. It tells us that we live in a complicated world, where the binary structures of good or bad, right or wrong, are not enough, but instead we must engage with the messiness and complexity of overlapping layers of colour within the pure lights of the universe. It tells us that God limits Godself for us to continue to live in the world, and that we need to step up and act as God’s agents in continuing the work of creation.

As Lamech names Noach he reminds us both of the hard labour we are destined to undertake to survive in this world, and he reminds us that there is comfort and rest in this world too. We live always on spectrums of experiences – between hard labour and relaxation, between doubt and certainty, between safety and danger –  nothing is ever either/or. The rainbow is a perfect expression of that complexity we all have to negotiate, created as the rain falls and the sun shines. Life isn’t ever simple, but we are here and we are obliged to get on and make our lives the best we can.

As we start the new cycle of reading Torah, that is the lesson to take forward. Life is messy and complicated but here we are, and here is God, and together we will continue the work of creation.

La storia di Noach inizia là dove finisce la sidrà della scorsa settimana. La sua nascita è registrata in un elenco di padri e figli, che inizia con Adamo e suo figlio Seth e di cui Noach rappresenta la decima generazione. La sua nascita e il suo nome spiccano, ci viene detto che: “Quando Lamech aveva centottantadue anni generò un figlio. Gli mise nome Noach (Noè), dicendo: ‘Questi ci consolerà nell nostro lavoro e nel travaglio delle nostre mani che ci vengono dalla terra che il Signore ha maledetto’. Lamech dopo aver generato Noè visse cinquecentonovantacinque anni e generò figli e figlie. Visse complessivamente settecentosettantasette anni; poi morì. Noè all’età di cinquecento anni generò Scem, Cham e Jèfeth”. (5:28-32)

          Insolitamente, in questa genealogia ci viene fornita una ragione per il nome di Noach, cosa in precedenza era avvenuta solo in occasione della creazione di Adamo. E abbiamo anche i nomi di ciascuno dei suoi figli, a differenza delle generazioni precedenti di cui abbiamo solo il nome della persona nel legame generazionale.

          Solo Lamech parla del bisogno di conforto, e solo Lamech menziona la difficoltà della vita al di fuori dell’Eden, la maledizione portata dall’umanità che dovrà lavorare sodo per sopravvivere su una terra spietata.

          E ancora, nella lettura della scorsa settimana troviamo la strana storia di esseri non umani che interagiscono con l’umanità: “Quando gli uomini iniziarono a moltiplicarsi sulla faccia della terra ed erano nate loro delle figlie, i figli di Dio videro le figlie dell’uomo che erano belle e si presero delle mogli, fra tutte quelle che scelsero. Il Signore disse: ‘Il mio spirito non rimanga sempre perplesso nei riguardi dell’uomo considerando che è di carne; gli darò tempo centoventi anni’. I Nephilim (Giganti) erano sulla terra in quel tempo e, anche dopo che i figli di Dio si furono congiunti con le figlie dell’uomo, ne ebbero figli. Sono gli eroi dell’antichità, uomini famosi”. (6:1-4)

          Dieci generazioni dopo la creazione degli esseri umani, sembra che ci sia stata una sorta di crisi: l’incrocio dell’umanità con esseri divini o semi-divini. E questo avviene nella generazione di Noach, in seguito le cose peggiorano ulteriormente:

          “L’Eterno vide che la malvagità dell’uomo nella terra era grande, e che ogni creazione del pensiero dell’animo di lui era costantemente solo male. L’Eterno si pentì di aver fatto l’uomo sulla terra, e se ne addolorò in cuore. L’Eterno disse: ‘Distruggerò dalla faccia della terra l’uomo che ho creato; dall’uomo ai quadrupedi, ai rettili, agli uccelli del cielo, perché mi sono pentito di averli fatti.’ Ma Noè trovò grazia agli occhi dell’Eterno”. (6:5-8).

          Dio si pente della decisione di creare esseri umani. Il verbo usato, “vayenachem”, suona sospettosamente vicino al verbo che è alla radice del nome Noach: siamo stati spinti a vedere Noach come parte del piano di azione, o anche solo come oggetto della manifestazione della disperazione di Dio?

          Curiosamente, questo è il momento in cui la sidrà Bereshit termina. Attendiamo i prossimi versetti nella prossima lettura settimanale.

          La parashà Noach inizia in risonanza con la precedente sidrà, dando la genealogia di Noach e dei suoi tre figli. Ma ogni senso di continuità o stabilità scompare con le parole: “La terra era corrotta davanti a Dio, era piena di violenza. Dio vide che la terra era corrotta, che ogni creatura seguiva una via di corruzione sulla terra. Dio disse a Noach: ‘Ho decretato la fine di tutte le creature perché per esse la terra è piena di violenza; ed io le distruggerò con la terra stessa. – Fatti un’arca di legno di gopher… etc etc…” (11-14)

          Nelle dieci generazioni di trasmissione umana sulla terra, la terra è rovinata, riempita di violenza, corrotta, disgustosa. Agli occhi di Dio non c’è niente che valga la pena salvare. La creazione è fallita. C’è solo חָמָס – una radice che significa violenza, crudeltà, malizia, torto, oppressione e ingiustizia (appare sessanta volte nella Bibbia ebraica).

          Ora conosciamo tutti la storia di ciò che accadrà dopo. Noach non discute con Dio, non avverte i suoi vicini, nel nostro testo non parla affatto, si limita a fare il lavoro di costruire l’imbarcazione, raccogliere gli animali, guardare le inondazioni che provengono sia sopra che sotto la terra…. Il suo silenzio, per me, è una delle parti più difficili della storia.

          L’intero episodio si conclude con le inondazioni che si ritirano, Noach e la sua famiglia tornano sulla terraferma. Appena discende costruisce un altare e sacrifica a Dio alcuni degli animali permessi tratti in salvo. Dio fiuta il fumo del sacrificio e dice, secondo me, in modo piuttosto criptico:  “… Non maledirò più la terra a causa dell’uomo; poiché il pensiero dell’animo dell’uomo tende al male fin dalla fanciullezza; né più colpirò tutti i viventi, come ho fatto. Finché la terra sussisterà, non cesseranno semina e raccolto, freddo e caldo, estate e inverno, giorno e notte”. (8:21-22)

          Dio poi benedice Noach e la sua famiglia, dando loro la benedizione che fu data ai primi esseri umani: siate fecondi e moltiplicatevi e riempite la terra.

פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֖וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

          Successivamente Dio dice qualcosa che nei tempi contemporanei suona particolarmente e dolorosamente attuale “Tutte le bestie della terra e tutti volatili del cielo avranno spavento e paura di voi (u’mora’achem e chit’chem); con tutti gli animali che strisciano sulla terra e con tutti i pesci del mare sono dati in mano vostra. Ogni essere che è vivo vi servirà di cibo; come le verdure io vi do tutto”.

          Questo è il momento in cui il nutrirsi di animali sembra ricevere il permesso divino. Il momento in cui l’ebraismo si è lasciato alle spalle il vegetarianismo. Un commentatore (Don Yitzchak Abravanel 1437–1508) ha suggerito che Noach e la sua famiglia potrebbero aver avuto preoccupazioni sulla possibilità di essere invasi dagli animali selvatici, alcuni dei quali avrebbero potuto potenzialmente attaccarli e danneggiarli. Quindi Dio offre sia una “benedizione”, quella degli animali che temono gli esseri umani per tenere lontano da loro tale danno, sia il permesso di mangiare animali, dando effettivamente un grande potere agli esseri umani sugli animali. È una bella patinatura su quello che leggo come un verso agghiacciante: non ci sarà alcuna relazione condivisa possibile tra gli animali e gli esseri umani, gli animali che vivono su questo pianeta saranno alla mercé delle attività umane e, come stiamo vedendo oggi, le popolazioni animali saranno spazzate via quando il cambiamento climatico prenderà piede. Un recente rapporto del WWF (World Wildlife Fund) ci dice che “Le popolazioni mondiali di mammiferi selvatici, uccelli, anfibi, rettili e pesci sono diminuite in media di oltre due terzi dal 1970”

https://www.wwf. org.uk/our-reports/living-planet-report-2022

            Dio fa un patto con Noach e i suoi discendenti, e anche con ogni essere vivente sulla terra: che mai più Dio distruggerà la terra con il diluvio. Il patto è unilaterale: non vi è alcun obbligo assunto dall’umanità o dagli animali, solo Dio stabilisce questo patto, solo Dio è vincolato ad esso, e il segno del patto non è sulla terra ma nei cieli, l’arcobaleno.

            Nella modernità siamo abituati a vedere l’arcobaleno come un simbolo benigno, se non decisamente di bellezza, un simbolo di inclusione poiché in esso si possono trovare tutti i colori. Un simbolo di consolazione: negli ultimi decenni l’idea del “ponte arcobaleno” ha preso piede come un paradiso fantastico per gli amati animali domestici che aspettano che anche i loro proprietari muoiano e si riuniscano. L’arcobaleno è usato per denotare la speranza, in particolare dopo un periodo tempestoso e difficile. La famosa canzone del Mago di Oz, “Somewhere over the rainbow”, è vista da molti come un riferimento all’esperienza degli ebrei intrappolati dalla Shoà: scritta da due ebrei immigrati negli Stati Uniti, (Harold Arlen e E.Y. Harburg. N.d.T.) è stata pubblicata nel 1939.

            I primi testi ebraici vedono l’arcobaleno in modo diverso. Il profeta Ezechiele, nell’esilio babilonese (VI secolo a.E.v), ebbe una visione estatica di Dio e paragonò la luminosità di questa visione all’apparizione di un arcobaleno (Ezechiele 1:28). La sua visione portò all’associazione dell’arcobaleno con la gloria divina, con l’immanenza di Dio: in qualche modo la Shechinà dimorava all’interno dell’arcobaleno. Per questo c’è una tradizione di non guardare un arcobaleno per più del tempo necessario per dire la benedizione, di non dire agli altri che un arcobaleno è nel cielo. C’è la convinzione che guardare troppo a lungo l’arcobaleno causerà cecità (Chagigà 16a) a causa della presenza di Dio in esso.

            L’arcobaleno nella tradizione ebraica non è inequivocabilmente un segno felice. È, come spiega Rashi (9:14), un promemoria della rabbia di Dio, del desiderio di Dio di distruggere il mondo a causa del nostro comportamento in esso. È un segno più per Dio che per noi: un promemoria a Dio per controllare la giusta rabbia, una sorta di totem a cui aggrapparsi perché Dio lo ricordi. E cosa sta ricordando Dio? Sì, la promessa di non distruggere il mondo attraverso l’alluvione (sebbene questa sia una promessa particolarmente limitata, non si parla di fuoco, siccità o pestilenza), e Dio ricorda anche che l’umanità è incapace di perfezione, che la creazione di Dio ha un difetto dentro di noi che non può mai essere cancellato: “il cuore dell’umanità è malvagio fin dalla sua fanciullezza”, come dice il testo.

            Come esseri umani, abbiamo imbellito la storia di Noach e del patto dell’arcobaleno in modo da farla diventare irriconoscibile. La storia è raccontata come una favola per bambini, ogni scuola materna ha arcobaleni e figure giocattolo o immagini di un’affascinante arca colorata e improbabile con animali felici al suo interno. Molte persone credono ancora all’idea che l’arcobaleno contenga sette colori. Sette, il simbolo della perfezione, un numero con molti aspetti diversi: per esempio le sette Leggi Noachidi (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a), le sette Sefirot legate alle emozioni nei testi cabalistici (le altre tre sono di intelletto), i sette giorni della settimana, le sette settimane tra Pesach e Shavuot, i settanta anni di una vita umana. Sembra giusto che l’arcobaleno abbia sette colori, eppure anche questo è come una patina sulla realtà. Non ci sono sette bande distinte, ma più colori che si fondono e sfumano l’uno nell’altro. L’idea del sette viene da Isaac Newton nel 1665. Fino ad allora era accettato che esistessero 5 colori (Robert Boyle li descrisse poco prima di Newton: rosso, giallo, verde, blu, viola), ma poiché il numero sette ha un significato mistico di perfezione, Newton scelse di definire che l’arcobaleno ne contenesse sette, aggiungendo il colore arancione e suddividendo il colore viola in indaco e viola.

            La storia di Noach e dell’Arcobaleno è una storia che abbiamo rielaborato allontanandola dai suoi messaggi dolorosi e rendendola invece il più infantile e semplicistica possibile, e la domanda per noi è: perché questa storia è stata così distorta nell’immaginazione popolare?

            La storia inizia con una terribile violenza e corruzione, con un mondo che non funziona e un’umanità che a malapena vale la pena salvare. In sole dieci generazioni, la creazione è stata tradita.

            Allora Dio crea un atto di violenza così terribile che la creazione viene quasi completamente distrutta.

            Dio si rende conto che gli esseri umani sono veramente a immagine di Dio, perché da dove possiamo aver avuto le nostre tendenze distruttive se non dal nostro divino creatore? Dio vede che nel creare l’umanità a immagine divina Dio ha creato esseri complessi e variati: possono andare fuori controllo, possono fare scelte egoistiche e indifferenti, possono esercitare il libero arbitrio e scegliere di agire contro ciò che è meglio per se stessi o per gli altri. Dio si pente, anche se, che Dio si penta per aver creato l’umanità o se Dio si penta per il diluvio causato dalla disperazione e dalla rabbia è un punto controverso. Dio decide di lasciare che la creazione continui e pone nel cielo un segno per ricordare a Dio che questa è la Creazione che Dio ha fatto.

            L’uso dell’arcobaleno come segno di Dio che risponde agli esseri umani è straordinario. Il testo chiarisce che questo segno è un Keshet: un arco, parte del binomio arco e freccia, manufatti per la morte e la distruzione, per la caccia e per la guerra. Ma questo Keshet ha due differenze rispetto al solito arco di un arciere: è puntato lontano dalla terra in modo che qualsiasi freccia immaginaria voli via nei cieli piuttosto che danneggiare la terra; E non ha corda: è stato “smilitarizzato”, un arco da arciere che non può scagliare, non può causare alcun male. Nachmanide spiega che l’orientamento è come quello che si verifica quando due nazioni che sono state in guerra fanno aperture verso la pace puntando l’arco lontano l’una dall’altra. Dio non sta solo facendo la pace dopo la violenza del diluvio, ma si impegna a non agire mai più così violentemente, ricordandoci allo stesso tempo che questo impegno viene dalla compassione verso di noi, che anche se l’umanità ha danneggiato il mondo, Dio mostrerà misericordia verso di noi.

            Lungi dall’essere un’immagine accogliente e confortevole, l’arcobaleno ci presenta con straordinaria chiarezza l’idea che un popolo immeritevole ha ancora un Dio compassionevole. I messaggi liturgici che abbiamo pronunciato e ascoltato di recente durante gli Yamim Noraim, i giorni solenni, hanno le loro radici in questa storia. Siamo profondamente imperfetti, eppure Dio è pronto a impegnarsi con noi.

            La benedizione recitata quando vediamo un arcobaleno è insolita in quanto ha una triplice frase: “Benedetto sei tu, Eterno, Sovrano dell’universo, che ricordi il patto, sei fedele al tuo patto e mantieni la tua promessa.” E’ l’unica volta che troviamo questa struttura tra le benedizioni che facciamo (sebbene vi sia una leggera risonanza con la benedizione che i sacerdoti sono stati istruiti a dire al popolo, nesiat kapayim).

            Perché questa triplice struttura? Parliamo di Dio che ricorda, che è fedele, che mantiene la promessa divina, sembra quasi una supplica disperata: “ti prego Dio, non solo ricorda quando vedi l’arcobaleno, ma ricorda che questo è un impegno che hai preso con noi, una promessa di non distruggerci, come sappiamo che potresti e come temiamo di meritare”.

            L’arcobaleno funge da segno, un ponte nei cieli tra noi e Dio, un promemoria per noi della fragilità della nostra esistenza e un promemoria a Dio dell’impegno divino per una creazione imperfetta. Ci dice che viviamo in un mondo precario, che siamo vulnerabili e deboli, che la vita e la morte sono intimamente connesse. Ci dice che viviamo in un mondo complicato, in cui le strutture binarie di buono o cattivo, giusto o sbagliato, non sono sufficienti, ma dobbiamo invece confrontarci con il disordine e la complessità degli strati di colore sovrapposti all’interno delle luci pure dell’universo. Ci dice che Dio limita Dio stesso affinché noi continuiamo a vivere nel mondo e che dobbiamo fare un passo avanti e agire come agenti di Dio nel continuare l’opera della creazione.

            Quando Lamech nomina Noach, ricorda anche a noi il duro lavoro che siamo destinati a intraprendere per sopravvivere in questo mondo, e ricorda a noi che ci sono anche conforto e riposo in questo mondo. Viviamo sempre una gamma di esperienze:  spaziando tra duro lavoro e relax, tra dubbio e certezza, tra sicurezza e pericolo, niente è mai solo una cosa o l’altra. L’arcobaleno è un’espressione perfetta di quella complessità che tutti dobbiamo negoziare, creata quando la pioggia cade e il sole splende. La vita non è mai semplice, ma noi ci siamo e siamo obbligati ad andare avanti e rendere la nostra vita il meglio che possiamo.

            Così iniziamo il nuovo ciclo di lettura della Torà, questa è la lezione da portare avanti. La vita è disordinata e complicata ma eccoci qui, ed ecco Dio, e insieme continueremo l’opera della creazione.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Parashat Toledot – Fighting for the space to live in safety and for important resources to be accessible to all who need them has a long history

“and [Isaac] grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth. And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled. Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek., “contention.” because they contended with him. And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. harassment.” He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehovot, saying, “Now at last the Eternal has granted us ample space(breadth)” to increase in the land.”” (Genesis 26:13ff)

The stories in the life of Isaac often parallel those of his father Abraham. There is a famine in the early story of Abraham, and a famine in the early life of Isaac. In both cases they left the land of Israel – Abraham went down to Egypt, Isaac to Gerar in Philistine controlled territory, having been explicitly told by God NOT to go to Egypt. Isaac encounters an Abimelech, King of Gerar and lies about the relationship he has with Rebecca, calling her his sister rather than his wife, (something Abraham had also done, both in Egypt and in Gerar)

Abraham also has an encounter with an Abimelech, the king of Gerar, over the issue of the ownership of wells, just as Isaac does in the narrative here. The digging and ownership of wells is of importance in both their lives. Both father and son have issues with the large size of their flocks and herds and the resources needed to sustain them, and both father and son react most of the time by removing themselves from conflict – Abraham with his nephew Lot, Isaac with the herdsmen of Gerar. Both have two sons, and have what might be called fraught relationships with them and with the passing of the legacy of covenant. Abraham sends Ishmael away from him and involves Isaac in whatever the mysterious event of the akeidah, never seeing him again afterwards. Isaac is tricked by Jacob pretending to be Esau, passes on the covenant apparently unaware the recipient is not Esau (or at least there is ambiguity in his mind), and Jacob is sent away, never to see his father again.

Yet there is more to Isaac’s life than his simply repeating the leitmotif’s of his father, and echoing the experiences of that great Ivri, crosser of boundaries.

 Isaac – often seen as the least significant of the patriarchs, the son of a famous father and the father of a famous son. Yet his is a story with much to teach us. A man who never leaves the Land despite many trials. The only one to be described as being in love with his wife. A man who has to deal with complexity and ambiguity in navigating his life, and with fewer certainties. A man who has survived the terrible trauma of his father’s apparent attempt on his life – or at least a seeming willingness to do so.

The story told above – of the re-digging of the Abrahamic wells and the negotiations that ensue – resonated particularly for me this year as we watch the COP 26 conference and the postures and positions on display.

In the Abrahamic parallel we are told: “At that time Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien.” And Abraham said, “I swear it.” When Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs of the flock. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” He said, “These seven ewe lambs you shall accept from my hand, in order that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba; (well of seven or well of oath) because there both of them swore an oath. When they had made a covenant at Beer-sheba, Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, left and returned to the land of the Philistines. [Abraham] planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the Eternal, the Everlasting God. And Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines. (Gen 21:22-34)

In this narrative we are confronted with the need for trust between the various powers or participants to the agreement who are involved – without that trust nothing “agreed” can be said to really be agreed.  We are confronted too with the issues of ownership of resources, of the fair sharing of such resources, with the actions of the people who reside on the land and those of people who control resources but do not “belong” to the land on which they are situated. Abraham and Abimelech appear able to make a treaty with a reasonable level of success – though we are never told why the servants of Abimelech had seized Abraham’s well in the first place.

By the time of Isaac, the wells had not only been taken back but actively stopped up – a strange phenomenon given the preciousness of the resource. Does this somewhat aggressive action date from unresolved issues from the time of Abraham? Is it to prevent others coming in from outside to use the water improperly? We can only speculate. But the continuing quarrelling and harassment that Isaac faces when trying to reclaim his father’s property shows us that the matter has not only not been resolved, but that there is ongoing acrimony and anger ready to erupt into violence.

Isaac does not go to the King as his father had done, he simply moves away and tries to settle elsewhere near a “family well”, and eventually he digs and finds what may be a new watersource, one that is not contested, and understands that now he has found a place to settle down.

Yet strangely, the next verse tells us that he moves on the BeerSheba, where he encounters God and receives the covenant promise, then builds an altar and worships, then pitches his tent and only then digs a well…

Abimelech and the Philistines come to find him to make a treaty with him, and responding to his challenge about their hostility to him which has forced him to move on, tell him that they now see that God is with him. (26:28) They make their own treaty with him, and leave. Only then do Isaac’s servants come to tell him that they have found water, which he names “Sheba” (oath) and again we have a story about the naming of Beer Sheba.

What comes down to us from these narratives is how the trust and the treaties need to be ongoing, that having been made once is not enough – they must be kept in good repair. We see that was accepted once may not be acceptable going forward. We see that pressure on resources will not only not go away, but will engender resentment and anger if not addressed fairly and regularly. We see that the actions of one (or more) rich and powerful agent (s) can be hugely detrimental to others with less power but with a real stake in the issue. And this power differential cannot be allowed to continue.

If we want to have a fairer world, a world where there is access to resources by all who need them, a world where there is trust and where people work to keep that trust alive and responsive, then we need to ensure that we are part of the solution, able to see the realities and to ensure that our leadership both acknowledge and respond in a timely and appropriate manner to those realities.

Watching the COP26 and seeing the posturing, the lobbying, the arrogance of the more powerful countries and the despair of those less powerful, we can see we have a long way to go to make a fairer and more sustainable world. The time is short, but this is no reason not to continue to involve ourselves and our values. Isaac eventually finds a place where there is space for everyone to have their own needs met without treading on the needs of others. It is a goal worth aspiring to.

Vayera – Mercy and Justice – truth springs up from the earth, justice from the heavens

Vayera 

Then the Eternal said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Eternal. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen 18:20-25)

Justice is at the heart of Judaism from the biblical narrative onwards, and it is understood to be a core attribution of God that we human beings should strive to emulate.

But Justice alone will not create a sustainable world. And here in Vayera we see Abraham challenging God and God’s intended actions against the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Is this how to dispense Justice? Something more is needed….

When we read the two creation stories in the beginning of the book of Genesis, we see that God’s name differs between the stories. To begin with God is called Elohim – a word that is also used to describe human judges in bible, and it is understood to correspond to the attribute of Justice. In the second story the name of God is YHVH Elohim – Justice is present but so is something else, something in the ineffable and unpronounceable name of God – something understood to correspond to the attribute of Mercy.

Why the additional name? Because anything created only to follow the rules of strict justice is unlikely to survive for long – Justice must always be tempered with Mercy.

The midrash explains thus: “In creating the world God combined the two attributes of justice and mercy: “Thus said the Holy One, blessed be God’s name! ‘If I create the world with the attribute of mercy, sin will be plentiful; and if I create it with the attribute of justice, how can the world exist? Therefore I will create it with both attributes, mercy and justice, and thus may it endure.'”. [Gen. R. 12:15]

“Initially, God intended to create it with the attribute of Justice. But then He saw that the world cannot exist [with only Justice], so He gave priority to the attribute of Mercy, and joined it with the attribute of Justice.” (Pesikta Rabbati 40)

As the prophet Micah put it (6:8)  “God  has told you, O human, what is good, And what the Eternal requires of you:  Only to do justice (mishpat), And to love goodness (hesed), And to walk humbly with your God”

The bible tells us “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16) but while it commands absolute justice we can see that at the same time compassion and mercy are threaded into the narrative almost all the time. Just as the first creation story has the world made from absolute justice, so there has to be a second creation where that justice is mitigated with mercy. If the world is made with only absolute justice, goes the thought, then no one would survive God’s decrees. And if it were to be made only with absolute mercy, then chaos would ensue if no one was ever going to deal with the consequences of their choices. Hence the intertwining of the two attributes, Justice and Mercy, within God.

In the Talmud there is a discussion about whether God prays and to whom. The decision is that God does indeed pray and that God prays to Godself. And what is the prayer that God recites? “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may suppress my other attributes so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy, and on their behalf restrain my attribute of strict Justice.” (Berachot 7a)

In the story in Vayera, God appears to be in full “Justice” mode. It is Abraham who introduces the notion of mercy. Abraham’s question to God is a masterpiece of critical examination: “Shall the Shofet/Judge of all the earth not Mishpat/Justice”? It is a reminder that sometimes we may have to remind God of the prayer God prays (see above).

In the weekday Amidah there is a paragraph that does just that.

הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְ֒טֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵֽינוּ כְּבַתְּ֒חִלָּה וְהָסֵר מִמֶּֽנּוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה וּמְלוֹךְ עָלֵֽינוּ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה לְבַדְּ֒ךָ בְּחֶֽסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים וְצַדְּ֒קֵֽנוּ בַּמִשְׁפָּט:

 Restore our judges as before and our counselors as at the first. Remove sorrow and sighing from us, and reign over us You, Adonai, alone with kindness (hesed) and mercy (rachamim); and make us righteous with justice,

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה מֶֽלֶךְ אֹהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט:

Blessed are You, Adonai the Sovereign who loves righteousness and justice.

While the blessing uses a verse in Isaiah (1:26) I will restore your magistrates as of old,
And your counselors as of yore. After that you (Jerusalem)shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City”
to reference the “golden period” of the Judges – before the monarchy was established – a human monarchy which God had not originally planned for and which may be seen as in some way challenging the kingship of God. The final section explicitly reminds God that God should use kindness and compassion in order to bring about Justice, that  Justice only emerges when there is also compassion and mercy.

Justice is our imperative, it drives Jewish thinking in so many ways. This prayer reminds us that without Justice there will be “sorrow and sighing” – the world will not function and people will be ridden over roughshod with no way of protecting themselves.  But Justice cannot exist alone, in a place where there is only justice there can be no mercy. In a place where there is only mercy there can be no justice. And so while the imperative to pursue Justice at all times shapes us, we must be constantly aware to be merciful in its applications.

In the words of the psalmist

חֶסֶד־וֶאֱמֶ֥ת נִפְגָּ֑שׁוּ צֶ֖דֶק וְשָׁל֣וֹם נָשָֽׁקוּ׃ Faithfulness and truth meet;
justice and well-being kiss. אֱ֭מֶת מֵאֶ֣רֶץ תִּצְמָ֑ח וְ֝צֶ֗דֶק מִשָּׁמַ֥יִם נִשְׁקָֽף׃ Truth springs up from the earth;
justice looks down from heaven.

Just as God learns this, then so do we. Just as God acts with both attributes, so must we. It is a difficult road to walk, and just as Abraham was able to challenge God, so too we must challenge ourselves and each other. Justice yes, but mercy always too.

Lech Lecha: the land cannot continue to sustain us and something has to change

Now Avram was very rich in cattle, silver, and gold. And he proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai, the site of the altar that he had built there at first; and there Avram invoked the ETERNAL by name. Lot, who went with Avram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Avram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle.—The Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.—  Avram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate:a (Lit. “Please separate from me.”) if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the ETERNAL had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the ETERNAL, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other; Avram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. (Genesis 13:5ff)

Avram and his nephew (and heir presumptive)  Lot had travelled from their homeland of Haran and, finding famine in the land of Canaan had journeyed on to Egypt. There, the encounter with Pharaoh who took Sarai into his harem, believing her to be not Avram’s wife but his sister, led to the family acquiring great wealth before leaving Egypt and returning to Canaan (Gen 12:16). Travelling north through the Negev desert, they reached Beit El (North of Jerusalem), where they had struck camp on their original journey from Haran, and settled there.

But this time their herds and flocks were numerous, the land could not sustain so many animals – theirs as well as those of the Canaanites and Perizzites – and -as ever when a resource becomes scarce, tempers flare and cooperation ends as each group tried to take as much of the resource as possible to sustain their own before thinking of the needs other.

The land could not support them staying together for their livestock [possessions] were so many…..”

Abusing the land by overgrazing or by planting too intensively is a phenomenon as old as settled human habitation. The bible not only understands it, but legislates. So for example in Exodus 22:4 we read “When a man lets his livestock loose to graze in another’s land, and so allows a field or a vineyard to be grazed bare, he must make restitution for the impairment Lit. “excellence.” of that field or vineyard.” And Rashi comments here (quoting Talmud Baba Kama 2b) “this describes when  he takes his cattle into the field or the vineyard of his fellow and causes damage to him by one of these two ways: either by the mere fact that he lets his cattle go (tread) there, or by letting it graze there .”  The rabbis of the Talmud were well aware that overgrazing by animals damages the land in two different ways – by eating the vegetation which can then cause soil degradation and later erosion,  and by treading down the land so vegetation cannot thrive there.  

Bible is threaded through with the idea that the land itself has value and agency, quite separately from the fact it acts as home to humanity. From the moment the first human beings are created in the narrative in the first chapter of Genesis, they are given a blessing to “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and control it;” – this last verb is the focus of much commentary – one being that of Sforno (died Bologna 1550)  “It means that the human is to use their intelligence to prevent predators from invading their habitats”, and certainly both biblical and midrashic texts make clear that humanity can only keep control of the land if they take care of the land and act righteously in the way that God requires.  In the words of Rabbi Dovid Sears “the blessing to “control comprises a form of stewardship for which humanity is answerable to God”

The second creation story links humanity to the land even more intimately – Adam, the human being, is created from the Adamah – the ground. We are made of the same stuff, and while the life force is within us we have choices, afterwards we return to the dust we were formed from.

In the story of Avram and Lot there are a number of issues we can recognise in our modern problems with how we deal with our environment.

First of course is the sheer number of animals that they own between them – and the animals of the other peoples in the area. Quite simply the pshat (plain reading of the text) is that there is not enough grazing for them all.

Then there is the fact of individual desires that may mitigate against the needs of others. Ibn Ezra (died 1167 Spain) comments on the word “yachdav” (v6) thus “Yachdav (together) can refer to two (as in our verse) or to many, as in And all the people answered together (yachdav) (Ex. 19:8)….. Yachdav is not synonymous with yachad (together). Yachdav means acting like one person.”. Ibn Ezra is building on the interpretation of Targum Onkelos (early 2nd century translation of the Torah into Aramaic)  which translates yachdav to mean “as one person,” and makes clear that there must be shared values and deep relationship if human beings are to live in full harmony with the land. The uncle and nephew simply can’t create a strategy where they can share the resource that is there, they are each apparently calculating based on their own interests and values  – Lot for wealth, Avram one assumes, for the fulfilment of the covenant by staying on the land.That is, their individuality is blended, as in And all the people answered together (yachdav) (Ex. 19:8), which means that all the people answered as if they were one person. Yachad implies two people acting at the same time, but each one by himself (Weiser).

Thirdly, Avram gives Lot the choice of where he will take his animals. And Lot takes full advantage – “Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the Eternal had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Eternal, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;” (13:10,11)

Lot chooses what he believes to be the best and most richly resourced land for himself. Off he goes to the wealthiest part of the land to further his own material ambitions. We know of course that the cities of the plain – Sodom and Gomorrah – are materially rich but ethically lacking, a compromise that Lot appears prepared to make. His accompanying Avram on the great adventure of Lech Lecha, his role as heir presumptive – all of these are about feeding his own ambitions, and there is apparently no moral imperative in the choices he makes. We cannot but read this text in the light of what happens to Lot and his family, to the point where the descendants of Lot, the Moabites and the Ammonites are forbidden to intermarry with the descendants of Abraham.

Shortage of resource – be it land, water, grain, – the bible is constantly dealing with this problem – so much of the narrative is set against the backdrop of famine or struggles over the right to land. plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose.  We too are dealing with that same shortage of resource in the world – and unlike Avram and Lot we cannot simply spread out to find a place with enough resource to sustain us.

We have to address the overwhelming need to work together as one humanity on one planet. In a way that is truly “yachdav”. We are interconnected in so many ways across the globe: as our climate changes we will have an ever increasing number of refugees. As we compete for resources – be they metals for computer chips or construction, or for water, land and gran – we have to find a way to share equitably and openly. As the coronavirus circulates the globe we must share vaccines and medications if we are to prevent its repeated mutations and iterations. We are living in a world – as shown by recently leaked documents – where the rich are getting richer and hiding their wealth from the rest of the world, while the poor are not only getting poorer but are actively unable to sustain themselves from day to day.

The earth will not continue to sustain us as she is abused and ignored, as soil erosion and flooding, tidal changes and hurricanes increasingly demonstrate. The parasha Lech Lecha comes immediately after the cataclysmic floods and the dispersal following the tower of Babel in Parashat Noach. It is reminding us of our responsibility to each other and to our world. There is, as they say, no Planet B.

By Wenceslaus Hollar – Artwork from University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital CollectionScanned by University of TorontoHigh-resolution version extracted using custom tool by User:Dcoetzee, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6233909

World Mental Health Day 2021 – A Jewish approach

In the Talmud, Berachot 5b, we read a series of stories of the sages and their illnesses. First we are told of Rabbi Yochanan’s student, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, who falls ill. “Rabbi Yochanan entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Hiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward, as one who welcomes this suffering with love is rewarded. Rabbi Yochanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Similarly, Rabbi Yochanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yochanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.

The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yochanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yochanan stand himself up. The Gemara answers itself “A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.”

I read these stories as being a very clear statement of the repudiation of pain or suffering being “good for the soul” – or that accepting any pain or suffering is a gateway to divine mercy. Rather, the rabbis reject the idea that suffering is necessary for achieving closeness to God, or for salvation of the soul, or indeed for anything beneficial to the sufferer, in this world or the next.

Threaded through the narratives of the Hebrew bible are the stories of individuals who protest suffering – their own or that of the people around them.

Moses calls out to God to free him from the burden of leadership of a fractious people (Numbers 11:14-15), adding “And if You deal thus with me, kill me, I pray, out of hand, if I have found favour in Your sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness.” – Moses would rather die than continue in his mental distress and the loneliness of his position.

In 1Kings 19:4ff we see Elijah, having shown courage and confidence against the Baal worshippers only the chapter before, now frightened and depressed at his situation “He went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom-tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said: ‘It is enough; now, O Eternal God, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.”

We see King Saul, the first King of Israel,  repeatedly demonstrating disturbed behaviour and showing emotional and mental distress: shortly after he is anointed King by Samuel he has an episode where he joins a band of wandering prophets and falls into some kind of ecstatic prophetic frenzy, (1Sam 10:10) leading to the proverb “Is Saul also among the prophets?”;  and again he appears to have an episode much later when chasing David (1Sam 19:23f) whom he knows will now be king in his place “And he went to Naiot in Ramah and the spirit of God came upon him also, and he went and prophesised until he came to Naiot in Ramah. And he stripped off his clothes and prophesised before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say “Is Saul also among the prophets”

More frequently however Saul is described in what today we would understand to be deep depression and anxiety– described as “an evil spirit from God”, and could be soothed only by David playing the lyre before him (1Sam 16:23).

The Psalmist repeatedly writes of emotional and mental distress, of feeling alone and abandoned, of the anxiety of living with the knowledge that there are those who seek to harm them. The language used is very much bodily oriented – feelings are experienced in heart and belly and bowels, and this reinforces the Jewish teaching of Maimonides – “the body is the home of the soul and the soul guides the body. This means that the body and the soul are one unit”

Maimonides also wrote that “”When one is overpowered by imagination, prolonged meditation and avoidance of social contact, which he never exhibited before, or when one avoids pleasant experiences which were in him before, the physician should do nothing before he improves the soul by removing the extreme emotions.”  He believed that mental health was as important as physical health, earning him the distinction of being the father of psychosomatic medicine. He emphasised the prevention of illness of all kinds, mental or physical, since they interfered with the person’s ability to serve God. (Koenig: Faith and Mental Health: Religious Resources for Healing, p34)

 His understanding that before addressing a person’s physical needs, physicians must first attend to the patient’s emotional and mental needs, was a powerful innovation for his time (12th Century) and led to him being appointed as court physician, as well as being described by Ibn Abi Ozeibia (1203–1270), the famous physician and historian of Cairo as a “healer of the body and the mind.”

In the traditional community prayer for healing, the “Mi Sheberach” prayer read in the morning service when the Torah is read, we pray for a r’fuah shleimah, a complete recovery, which includes both r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf, a healing of the soul and the body. This ancient formula which asks for “complete healing”, specifies that both the body and the soul are often in need of help, that we are human beings who experience distress and pain in both the physical and spiritual parts of our being. Judaism acknowledges a that both mental and physical ill- health exists, and our tradition treats them on equally, knowing that for a human being to be “shalem” complete and whole,  there should be good health in both the physical and spiritual aspects.

Somewhere this understanding that we are made up of body and spirit, that everyone from the highest social status to the lowest can be subjected to distress of both mind and body, and that prioritising physical health over mental distress can never successfully alleviate either – somewhere this knowledge has diminished.

  • According to MIND 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England  
  • 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/

In any given week in England people suffer:    Mixed anxiety and depression: 8 in 100 people

  Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD): 6 in 100 people

  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): 4 in 100 people

  Depression: 3 in 100 people

  Phobias: 2 in 100 people

  Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): 1 in 100 people

  Panic disorder: fewer than 1 in 100 people.

We know that people who suffer from mental health challenges are not only having to deal with their illness, but that society will often stigmatise them and exclude them. People with a visible illness may attract empathy and concern, yet often people with an invisible illness or disability will find themselves ridiculed or dismissed, ignored or even feared.

Today is World Mental Health Day. A day for us to stop and recognise that each of us has a risk of mental ill-health in our lifetime, just as we have the risk of physical ill-health. A day for us to see the people whose suffering is often invisible to us; a day to give space and time to those who may be struggling, a day to tell others of our own distress and struggle. A day to remember that we are each made up of body and soul, and both can become out of sorts, both need to be in balance for our well-being.

 Mi she-bei-rach a-vo-tei-nu, Av-ra-ham, Yitz-chak, v’Ya-a-kov, v’i-mo-tei-nu Sa-rah, Riv-kah, Ra-chel, v’Le-ah, Hu yi-va-rech vi-ra-pei et ha-cho-leh/ha-cho-lah ____ ben/bat ____ Ha-Ka-dosh Ba-ruch Hu yi-ma-lei ra-cha-mim a-lav/a-lei-hah, l’ha-cha-li-mo/l’ha-cha-li-mah u-l’rap-o-to/u-l’rap-o-tah, l’ha-cha-zi-ko/ l’ha-cha-zi-kah u-l’ha-cha-yo-to/u-l’ha-cha-yo-tah V’yish-lach lo/lah bim-hei-ra r’fu-ah sh’lei-mah, r’fu-at ha-ne-fesh u-r’fu-at ha-guf, b’toch sh’ar cho-lei Yis-ra-el, hash-tah ba-a-ga-lah u-viz-man ka-riv, v’no-mar, Am-en!

May the One who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless and heal the one who is ill: ____ son/daughter of ____. May the Holy One, the fount of blessings, shower abundant mercies upon him/her, fulfilling his/her dreams of healing, strengthening him/her with the power of life.

Merciful one, restore him/her, heal him/her, strengthen him/her, enliven him/her. Send him/her a complete healing from the heavenly realm, a healing of body and a healing of soul, together with all who are ill soon, speedily, without delay; and let us say: Amen! Translation by National Center for Jewish Healing

https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/self-help/guides-tools-and-activities/five-steps-to-mental-wellbeing/

https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/health-wellbeing/conditions-illnesses/depression-anxiety/

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/world-mental-health-day

Parashat Noach: We will not be silent: renewing the work of creation

Parashat Noach

Ten generations from the Creation of the first human beings the earth is corrupted, violent and vile.

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃  {ס} 

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.

In three verses (Genesis 6:11-13) the narrative drives home the problem – human beings have damaged their environment irredeemably. Ha’aretz “the earth” is mentioned six times, each time with the connection that it is corrupted  – from the root שָׁחַת  meaning spoiled, destroyed, corrupted, decayed….

God doesn’t directly reference the corruption of the people – it is the earth which is expressing the consequences of human action and inaction, the earth which is acting out the full horror of what humanity has become. And it is on the earth that the full punishment will be felt, as the floods rise and the rain falls, the waters that surround the land which were divided above and below at the time of creation return to their place, and no land will be seen for 150 days and nights.

The intertwining of people and land is complete. What one does affects the other, yet we also know that the land is used again and again in bible to be the metric against which ethical behaviour is measured – and should we not follow God’s requirements we will be unceremoniously evicted from the land for which we have stewardship.

When God decides to end the corruption on the earth God speaks to Noach. God tells him – all flesh will be ended because it is the action of humanity that has brought this unspeakable destruction about, and God is about to end creation – both people and land must be ended.

And Noach says – well, interesting Noach says nothing. Indeed, we have no record in any of the narrative of Noach speaking. Not to God, not to his family, not to humankind. His silence is a cold core at the heart of the story.  Noach doesn’t react, doesn’t warn, doesn’t plead or beg or educate or protest….

Instead Noach builds the boat, collects the animals and their food as God has commanded him, floats in a sea of destruction as everything around him drowns. And when eventually the dry land appears and they are all able to disembark, still Noach doesn’t speak. He builds and altar and sacrifices to God. He plants a vineyard and makes wine and gets drunk, and only then does Noach speak – he speaks to curse his son who had shamed him while he slept off his drunkenness. (Oddly while it was his son Ham who had seen him in this state, Noach actually curses Canaan, the son of Ham.)

He breaks this long long silence for what? To curse so that one group of society will be oppressed by another. He has essentially learned nothing.

We read the story every year. Every year Torah is reminding us – it just took ten generations to completely spoil the creation of our world. We read it and yet we don’t notice it. Instead we focus on the rainbow, the promise from God not to destroy us again by flood. We have turned it into a children’s story decorated with colourful pictures of rainbows and cheerful animals on an artfully dilapidated boat.

We don’t pay attention to the silence of Noach, which mirrors our own silence. We too don’t protest or change our behaviours or warn or educate, we too just doggedly get on with our lives. We don’t pay attention to the way that nature rises up to right itself, the planet ridding itself of the dirt and destruction humanity has visited upon it. We don’t pay attention to the drunkenness of the man who cannot cope with what he has seen, nor the warnings which echo when he finally speaks – to curse the future.

Noach is the quintessential antihero. There is nothing much we can see in him to learn from or to emulate. Yet his story can teach us a great deal. First and foremost it teaches us that abusing the earth will bring devastating consequences to all who live on this planet, and to the planet itself. We learn that the earth is fragile and complex interdependent system, that it does not take long – ten generations – to corrupt and seriously damage it. We learn that the way to avert this is not only to change our behaviour but also to engage with each other and support each other in changing how we treat our world, silence and focus only on self-preservation will not bring a good outcome for anyone. We learn that the trauma of survival in such circumstances will mark the generations to come.

Bible tells us that God repents having made human beings on the earth. (Genesis 6:6) and so brings about the flood. It tells us that God wearily understands that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21) after Noach has made his sacrifice having survived and returned to dry land. Much is made of God’s covenant not to bring total destruction by flood ever again – the symbol for the promise being the rainbow that appears in the sky – but this is not an open promise to the world that we will not bring about our own destruction, merely a divine understanding that perfection will never be part of the human project.

A perfect world is beyond our grasp, but that should not stop us grasping for a world which is healthy and healing, nurtured and nurturing, diverse and complex and continuing to evolve.

In the yotzer prayer, one of the two blessings before the shema in the shacharit (morning) service, is the phrase    “uvtuvo me’chadesh bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit”

In [God’s] goodness God renews the work of creation every day.

Creation is not static, it is a constantly emerging phenomenon. Our tradition makes us partners with God in nurturing the environment we live in. If  God is said to give us a new possibility each day to make our world a better place, then unlike Noach we must grasp the challenge and work hard to clean up our world, and so avoid the inevitable consequences of just looking after ourselves and keeping silent.

Bereishit – the roots of social justice are entwined with our creation as human beings

And the Eternal God said, behold, the human being is become like one of us, to be able to know good and evil (Gen 3:22)

ֶוַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ, לָדַעַת, טוֹב וָרָע;

What had been an ability reserved for divinity, to know and differentiate good and evil, to understand morality and make ethical decisions, has now become a human capacity. We can no longer exist in a state of ethical indifference to the world – we cannot claim we do not understand the consequences of our actions.

The Italian rabbi  and biblical commentator Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (died Bologna 1550) wrote an extraordinary comment on this verse. He read the latter half of the verse as meaning that humanity will know good and evil while continuing to “wear our image”, an intolerable situation because of the human tendency to give in to the yetzer ha’ra, the inclination towards material rather than spiritual imperatives.

For Sforno the problem was that the human being, in favouring their yetzer hara, would not then reach the spiritual level set out for them when God first created them in the image of the divine, but I read his comment slightly differently. While protected and camouflaged because they were wearing the clothing of being created in the image of God, human beings would continue to choose selfishly intentionally. They would bring into disrepute the name and the meaning of being a religious person, they would disgrace and dishonour the values taught by religious traditions, because they would use it for their own purposes and to fulfil their own needs.

I cannot help thinking of how often in our world people wear the clothing of integrity while simultaneously denigrating and demeaning it. Of the police officer who used his warrant card to kidnap, rape and murder a young woman walking home, and all the other stories that are emerging as women tell their stories. Of the politicians who flaunt the national flag in their interviews as if they are defending the values of our nations. Of the despots who rule in the name of “the people” and divide communities by disparaging some imagined “elite”. Of the clergy and the educators and the employers who have historically abused their power and abused those in their power. Of the “nationalists” who foment hatred against outsiders and people in need. The list seems endless right now.

Moral authority  must be much more than clothing we can take on or take off. And much more than the roles we inhabit professionally. It must come from within, be ingrained in how we choose to behave whether “in role” or not, our actions informed by it whether we can be seen or whether we are in private.

Judaism is very clear that each of us is responsible for our own actions. God has given us a pure soul for which we thank God every morning in the “elohai neshama” prayer. It is for each of us to take care of that gift, to be aware of what might taint it and how we can make reparations and teshuvah in order to keep ourselves in good order. No one else can act as intermediary or offer absolution – we have to do the work ourselves.

 But Judaism is also interested in our responsibility for others and for our world. In this week’s sidra the first murder, the fratricide of Abel by Cain, is recorded. And God asks Cain the same question that God asked Eve – “What have you done? (Mah zot aseet/ mah aseeta?”. Eve tries to pass the blame onto the serpent who is then cursed among all the animals, (Genesis 3:13ff) but Cain’s denial of responsibility is far more chilling, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and it leads to him being cursed from the very earth of which he is made, as God says “the bloods of your brother cry out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).

We cannot read this sidra without being very clear that the actions of one can impinge upon another. We cannot see God’s responses to our actions as being anything other than a repeated demand that we act ethically and morally, in the interest of the community rather than pursue our own desires. We see that God doesn’t ignore or deny the wrongdoing even if we might try to do so, to mitigate, to explain away, to obfuscate to ourselves or to others.

Each of us has the gift of moral discernment. We know the difference between right and wrong; we can identify even in the most complex situations what we should be doing, even if we choose not to do so. Each of us has the gift of a pure soul, every morning we are reminded in our prayers that the condition of our moral being is our own responsibility.  Each of us is also tasked with the welfare and well-being of our own communities, of giving a gentle “tochecha”(rebuke/honest feedback/helpful criticism) when we see someone whose behaviour is not in line with ethical imperatives.  We are indeed “our brother’s keeper”

In this very first sidra of the yearly cycle, we see the roots of social justice established as part of the agreement between God and humanity. We see how each of us is given the ability to understand right and wrong, each of us is given the choice, the continuous and continuing choice, in how we decide to act. We see that none of us are isolated or insulated from each other, that the choices we make may have deep impact on the lives and wellbeing of others. That we have responsibility to and for each other.

So when we see people wearing the image of the divine while at the same time diminishing the presence of divine will in the world, we have to speak up. When we see people abusing their authority, abusing their power over others; when we see politicians gaslighting the electorate or waving the flag to cover their selfish and destructive behaviour, we have to stand up and speak out. When we hear the rhetoric of hate in the guise of patriotism, we must call it out, confront it and those who speak it.

If like Adam, Eve and the Serpent we just try to pass on the blame, or like Cain we deny that any blame might be attached, we are denying the humanity of the other and denying our own human obligation to support and care for others – our obligation to act in the image of God. If we add to that our wearing the clothing of integrity and moral authority while denying the obligations they entail, we are truly ignoring the lessons of this sidra, and we are adding insult to injury by not only choosing our yetzer ha’ra over our yetzer hatov, but masquerading, pretending that this is divinely sanctioned behaviour.

Hiding behind a professional role, clothing ourselves in terms of values while choosing to behave directly in contradiction to those values, whether it be a religious professional or a policeman, a politician charged with working to benefit the country or a regulator tasked with ensuring their organisation does what it is supposed to do – Sforno was right to be worried. If we traduce the divine image in which we are made while proclaiming our rights and our righteousness, the damage we can do is amplified beyond measure. And so society loses trust in educators and police, in politicians and regulators, in journalists and in clergy…

Naso. Birkat Cohanim – we are commanded to bless God’s creation with love

Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua was once asked by his disciples: To what do you attribute your longevity? He said to them: In all my days, I never made a shortcut [kappendarya] through a synagogue. Nor did I ever stride over the heads of the sacred people, i.e., I never stepped over people sitting in the study hall in order to reach my place, so as not to appear scornful of them. And I never lifted my hands for the Priestly Benediction without first reciting a blessing. The Gemara asks: What blessing does the priests recite before the benediction? Rabbi Zeira says that Rav Ḥisda says: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and commanded us to bless Your people, Israel, with love.  (BT Sota 39a)

This blessing is unique in its formulation. The Cohanim (priesthood) are commanded to perform the blessing with intentional and conscious love. While there are three commandments to love in Torah To “love your neighbour as yourself”(Leviticus 19:18); To “love the stranger as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34); and “You shall love the Eternal your God for all your heart, soul and strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4), there is no other blessing over a commandment that requires us to perform it “with love”

Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik  taught that this blessing, recited by the Kohanim prior to their delivering God’s Birkat Kohanim to God’s People, has much to teach us with its unique commandment to bless God’s people Israel with love. Rav Soloveitchik explains that this is not a blessing on the mitzvah per se “but it is a desire for the Priestly Blessing to be accompanied by love.”

He notes that the commandment of Birkat Cohanim has two separate parts – there is “the  transmission of a direct blessing from God” as the priests speak the words and God blesses the people and there is also  hashra’at ha-Shechinah (the manifestation of God’s presence).”

In effect, when the  Birkat Kohanim is recited, there “is a direct meeting with the Shechinah that presents us with an intimate encounter in which we come [so to speak] face to face with God.” (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Darosh Darash Yosef: Discourses of Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik on the Weekly Parashah)

Unlike any other prayer or any other benediction, this ancient text of threefold blessing, given in community yet addressed in the singular to each and every person,  has the power to eradicate the distance between the people and God. And so, says Rav Soloveitchik, we are reminded to enact it with intentional and deliberate love.

When Moses is told to tell Aaron about the giving of this blessing, the text is clear. The priests will say the words, but the blessing is to come directly from God. This is why the Cohanim uttering the words do not have to be deeply righteous or saintly people necessarily – they are only the vessels through which the blessings come.  On ascending the bimah to give the blessing they become faceless, their heads covered by their tallit they neither look directly at the people nor do the people look directly at them. Their role overrides any personal history at this moment.

And yet – this is more than those of Aaronic descent being the conduit for a divine blessing. As Rav Soloveitchik understands the event, they are not only conveying the divine blessing but they are re-enacting hashra’at ha-Shechinah – literally creating an immediate and intimate encounter between God and the Jewish people.

By doing this with intentional love, it seems to me that the Cohanim are taking on something of the role or characteristic of the Divine.  Unconditional love, deliberate and intentional love, is a pre-requisite of the ceremony. Regardless of who is saying the words of blessing, regardless of the actions and choices of each of the individuals receiving those words of blessing, the bond is formed through loving acceptance of the other.

The word for love used in the blessing “ahavah” is first used in the narrative the Akedah, when God speaks to Abraham of his son Isaac “the one you love” before testing that love to the limit. Ahavah seems to be used biblically across a full spectrum of loving feelings – from parental love to sensual love to loving friendship to spiritual love.  All use the verbal root alef hey beit.

The mystical tradition notes that the numerical value of ahavah (love) and echad (one) are the same – 13, and that the verse that precedes the command us to love God ends with the word “Echad” – describing the unity of God – a verse best known as the first line of the shema.

From this comes the idea that perceiving unity is the ultimate objective of love, and that love both brings the understanding that not only God is One, but creation too is connected and makes up one whole – even while we tend to note diversity and difference more frequently than we note unity and similarity.

So why are we commanded to love God? Because loving God – who is unified and whole – should cause us to love Creation – which is unified and whole. Loving God means we have to love people – all people, regardless of whether we might find them appealing or appalling, regardless of whether they are “of us” or are different from us.

The Talmud (Yoma 9b)  tells us that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel was a direct result of sinat chinam –  causeless hatred.  Rav Abraham Isaac Kook famously wrote that to rebuild Israel we would have to cultivate ahavat chinam – causeless love.

Causeless love is the requirement in the blessing before Birkat Cohanim, the priestly blessing. It is the only time we say the blessing to fulfil a mitzvah with these words. We need to nurture and cultivate the ability to causeless love for the other, not because this makes us fit to be the conduit for God’s blessing in the world, but because this makes us able to bring God’s presence into the world.

As Rabbi Akiva said, “Love your neighbour as yourself is the foundational principle (klal gadol) of Torah”.   He was not talking about love as feelings, nor as something to be earned or deserved, but to treat other human being with respect, with justice, with awareness that they too are part of the Unity that God has created, that they are part of us as we are part of them.

In this time of increasing polarisation, of rising anxiety and tensions, of spewing hatred in social media and on our streets, it is time to remember the unique formulation of blessing before enacting hashra’at ha-Shechinah, trying to bring God into the world; time to remember and be intentional knowing that God commands us to treat God’s people with love.

The Trees who sought a Sovereign

L’italiano segue l’inglese

In the Book of Judges we find a fantastical story of a debate between the trees about who should become their king. They first asked the olive tree who refused on account of the oil it produces; then they asked the fig who refused because she produced sweet fruit, and finally the grapevine who refused – well you get the idea. Then they asked the thornbush who responded that if they would honour him they could shelter under his shade, but if not, fire would come that would destroy even the cedars of Lebanon.

The story is told by Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon the judge who had brought Israel back to God after it had strayed into idolatry, but who notably had refused the kingship, saying that neither he nor any son would rule over them, only God was ruler of Israel.

Yet Abimelech, one of Gideon’s sons had other ideas. After Gideon’s death Abimelech committed fratricide to become the first king of Israel. Bible tells us Gideon had seventy sons – only Jotham survived Abimelech’s murderous onslaught by hiding. When Abimelech was made king in Shechem, Jotham stood atop Mt Gerizim and declared the story of the trees to the populace.

What was the purpose? To remind the people that good leadership comes with personal sacrifice, and that those who grab leadership for their own benefit can bring down the whole of society. Three trees were not prepared to give up their fruitful lives to take on leadership, and so the barren yet aggressive thorn was able to assume the title, with the false claim that it could provide protective shade (it cannot). Once in power, if anyone went against it, it could fuel the fires that would destroy them all. 

Civil war scarred the population. Abimelech died after a brief and bloody reign. Jotham’s story is for us all.

Gli alberi che cercavano un sovrano
di rav Sylvia Rothschild
pubblicato il 20 gennaio 2021
Nel Libro dei Giudici troviamo una storia fantastica di un dibattito tra gli alberi su chi sarebbe
dovuto diventare il loro re. Dapprima chiesero all’olivo, che rifiutò a causa dell’olio che produce;
poi chiesero al fico, che rifiutò perché produceva frutta dolce, infine alla vite che rifiutò… beh,
avrete capito. Chiesero quindi al roveto, che rispose che se lo avessero onorato avrebbero potuto
ripararsi sotto la sua ombra, ma in caso contrario sarebbe arrivato un fuoco che avrebbe distrutto
anche i cedri del Libano.
La storia è raccontata da Jotham, il figlio più giovane di Gedeone, il giudice che aveva riportato a
Dio il popolo di Israele dopo che si era smarrito nell’idolatria, ma che in particolare aveva rifiutato
la regalità, dicendo che né lui né alcun figlio avrebbe governato sul popolo, solo Dio era
governatore di Israele.
Eppure Abimelech, uno dei figli di Gedeone, aveva altre idee. Dopo la morte di Gedeone
Abimelech commise fratricidio per diventare il primo re di Israele. La Bibbia ci dice che Gedeone
aveva settanta figli e solo Jotham sopravvisse all’assalto omicida di Abimelech nascondendosi.
Quando Abimelech fu nominato re a Sichem, Jotham si trovava in cima al monte Gherizim e
raccontò alla popolazione la storia degli alberi.
Qual era lo scopo? Ricordare alle persone che una buona leadership viene fornita con il sacrificio
personale e che coloro che afferrano il potere a proprio vantaggio possono abbattere l’intera
società. Tre alberi non erano pronti a rinunciare alle loro vite fruttuose per assumere il comando,
e così la spina sterile ma aggressiva fu in grado di assumere il titolo, con la falsa affermazione che
poteva fornire ombra protettiva (non può). Una volta al potere, se qualcuno si fosse messo contro,
avrebbe potuto alimentare gli incendi che li avrebbero distrutti tutti.
La guerra civile segnò la popolazione. Abimelech morì dopo un breve e sanguinoso regno. La storia
di Jotham è per tutti noi.
Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Eshet Hayil – Women of bible were machers, at home and in the public space

L’italiano segue l’inglese

The biblical verses known as Eshet Chayil are traditionally recited by husbands to their wives at the Shabbat table, a paean of praise for an industrious home-maker, a nod to the burden of both visible and invisible labour undertaken by women. Those whose tradition it is often find it meaningful, a weekly recognition of the sharing of the workload in the marital partnership.

Yet look a little closer at the text, and this description of perfect womanhood is less the expression of family gratitude for the domestic and emotional labour of the matriarch, and more about the lived reality of women who were not only the cooks and needlewomen, weavers and housekeepers, but also the economic powerhouse on whom the family depended.

The adjective “Chayil” is used most often to mean force of a military kind: this woman is strong, powerful, even warlike – not a modest and passive creature. She not only does the home-building but she is also the one who surveys and buys fields, who goes out to buy the raw materials for her products and leaves home again to sell the finished articles she has made;  she plants and maintains vineyards….  The woman is the very definition of the sufferer of the “second shift” – not only economically active but also running the home. Arlene Hochschild  in her 1989 work on marital roles, discovered that on average women worked 15 hours longer each week than men, adding to an extra month of 24-hour days in a year’s time.

It would seem this woman needs to be “Chayil” and have strength and fortitude to cope with her life. Given this view of women as being efficient and creative, competent and hardworking, forceful and skilled negotiators, one wonders why women have been kept from leadership in the name of “tradition”.

 

Written for the Jewish News “the bible says” column June 2020

image from British Library 15th century Italian edition perush mishlei

Eshet Chayil – Le donne della Bibbia erano “machers”*, a casa e nello spazio pubblico

di rav Sylvia Rothschild

 

I versetti biblici noti come Eshet Chayil sono tradizionalmente recitati dai mariti alle proprie mogli al tavolo di Shabbat, un canto di lode per una laboriosa padrona di casa, un cenno al fardello del lavoro, sia visibile che invisibile, intrapreso dalle donne, quelle che la tradizione spesso trova significative, un riconoscimento settimanale della condivisione del carico di lavoro nell’accordo matrimoniale.

 

Tuttavia, osserviamo un po’ più da vicino il testo: questa descrizione della perfetta femminilità è in misura minore espressione di gratitudine familiare per il lavoro domestico ed emotivo della matriarca, è invece maggiormente centrata sulla realtà vissuta dalle donne, che non erano solo cuoche e cucitrici, tessitrici e donne delle pulizie, ma anche la potenza economica da cui dipendeva la famiglia.

 

L’aggettivo “Chayil” è usato più spesso per indicare forza di tipo militare: questa donna è forte, potente, persino guerriera, non una creatura modesta e passiva. Non solo costruisce la casa, ma è anche lei che controlla e acquista campi, che esce per comprare le materie prime per i suoi prodotti e lascia di nuovo la casa per vendere gli articoli finiti che ha realizzato; lei pianta e mantiene vigneti…. La donna è la definizione stessa di chi soffre del “doppio turno”: non solo è economicamente attiva, ma gestisce anche la casa. Arlene Hochschild nel suo lavoro del 1989 sui ruoli coniugali**, ha scoperto che in media le donne lavoravano quindici ore in più ogni settimana rispetto agli uomini, aggiungendo un mese in più di ventiquattr’ore al giorno in un anno.

 

Sembrerebbe che questa donna debba essere “Chayil” e avere forza e forza d’animo per far fronte alla sua vita. Considerata questa visione delle donne come negoziatori efficienti e creative, competenti e laboriose, forti e qualificate, ci si chiede perché le donne siano state tenute distanti dalla leadership in nome della “tradizione”.

 

*Macher, termine yiddish che indica una persona influente

**Hochschild, A., Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home,

New York, N.Y. Viking Penguin, 1989

 

Scritto per la rubrica “The Bible says” del Jewish News giugno 2020

immagine della British Library XV secolo edizione italiana perush mishlei

 

traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer