vayetzei – the mandrakes in the narrative have something to tell us

And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah: ‘Give me, I pray, from your son’s mandrakes.’   And she said unto her: ‘Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? and would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?’ And Rachel said: ‘Therefore he shall lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.’  And Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said: ‘You must come in to me; for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ And he lay with her that night. And God heard Leah, and she conceived, and bore Jacob a fifth son. (Genesis 30:14-17)

The vignette is usually passed off as part of the rivalry and dysfunction between the two sister wives of Jacob, the older one less beautiful and unloved, the younger one loved but barren. Leah has possession of some mandrakes which, in the ancient world appeared to have a number of useful properties- they were prophylactic against disease, the fragrance of them was thought to be an aphrodisiac (see Song of Songs 7:13 where the word play between “duda’im” (mandrakes) and “dodim” (lovemaking) makes this point eloquently (and is presumably why Leah has them).  They were thought to be an aid to fertility –which is presumably why Rachel wants them.

But it raises many questions, as well as giving us an insight into the relationship between human beings and the natural world.

Reuben brings the mandrakes to his mother, having found them in the field during the harvest. But why does he do this? It is unlikely that he is intervening in the marital problems of his parents. But the value of the plant is clear – Rachel is prepared to give Jacob up for the night to sleep with her sister and rival, in order to take possession of the mandrakes. The transaction is immortalised in the name of the child conceived that night – Issachar – “man of hire”

Humanity has used plants for our own benefit from the very beginning of biblical time.  The human being is placed in a garden where almost every piece of vegetation is for their delight or use. Only two trees have fruit which must not be tasted, and interestingly the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which midrash thinks of as a pomegranate and which since the vulgate translation is often thought of as an apple – is, according to one Christian myth (physiologos) a mandrake – for its associations of sexual desire.

The mandrake has a special place in myth, helped no doubt today by its appearance in the Harry Potter books where its somewhat magical –even occult – nature is explored. A member of the nightshade family, its fruit, leaves and large root have medicinal and narcotic properties. Because the root often divides and bears a likeness to torso, legs and arms, the plant is anthropomorphised, with a belief that it screams when taken from the ground and whoever hears the scream will soon die. (And so a technique was developed where it was tied to a dog who was then tempted with meat at a distance. The dog would run, the plant would be uprooted, and the human gatherer would remove their ear plugs and come to collect it from the safe distance they had been standing). It is associated with evil spirits and demons, believed to be created by the semen of hanged men.

The history of the mandrake is a paradigm from which we can learn much. It is a plant that can be both toxic and healing, is treated as being both prophylactic and promoter of fertility, has been anthropomorphosed with tales of its quasi human, quasi demonic being.  While it has now pretty much disappeared from medicinal use, its legend lives on. And it is this that reminds us that we didn’t always treat vegetation as mindless and passive, to be used by us without any thought except how we could continue to use it.  But bible is clear repeatedly that the vegetation of our world is to be respected and honoured. The garden of Eden was to be guarded and cared for, not ravished and run into the ground. Deuteronomy asks if fruit trees are human that we might cut them down in wartime for siege weapons, and reminds us that the tree must be protected as it cannot escape the hostilities. The book of Judges has Jotham’s parable of the trees who want to choose a king over them – and the reasons why the trees sensibly choose not to become that figure but instead allow the lowly – and treacherous bramble to take the role. The candlestick in the tent of meeting is described using botanical language, the book of Kings tells of Naboth’s vineyard which he vainly tries to protect as the inheritance of his ancestors that cannot be sold or uprooted, the rules of the sabbatical year to let the land rest…. The thread of the importance of living and sustainable vegetation that must be respected and indeed honoured, winds through Jewish texts and Jewish customs. How we care for our environment, how we think of the vegetation as well as the animals – is a powerful imperative and lesson for today.

We no longer believe mandrakes are the chosen home of demons so must be treated with care, but we do know that treating the plants  – from the lowliest grasses to the loftiest trees – is an obligation for us to take seriously. Why did Reuben collect the mandrakes during the wheat harvest, and give them to his mother – we shall never know, but it is a powerful reminder that plants play a part in our narrative too, even if we barely notice them at first glance.

 

Drawing of mandrakes based on Codex ex Vindobonensis Graecus 1. Dioscurides Neapolitanus XC. Bibliotecca Nazionale de Napoli. Sixth/seventh century.

 

 

Toledot – sometimes we can dig wells, sometimes we have to find other ways

And [Isaac] had possessions of flocks, and possessions of herds, and a great household; and the Philistines envied him.  Now all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth. And Abimelech said to Isaac: ‘Go from us; for you are much mightier than we.’  And Isaac departed thence, and encamped in the valley of Gerar, and dwelt there.  And Isaac dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.  And Isaac’s servants dug in the valley, and found there a well of living water. And the herdsmen of Gerar strove with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying: ‘The water is ours.’ And he called the name of the well Esek; because they contended with him.  And they dug another well, and they strove for that also. And he called the name of it Sitnah. And he removed from thence, and dug another well; and for that they strove not. And he called the name of it Rechovot; and he said: ‘For now the Eternal has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.’  And he went up from thence to Beersheva. (Gen26:14ff)

The story is one of Isaac finding his role both in the Land of Israel and as Patriarch of the family tribe– after a problematic childhood with two parents who each had powerful and somewhat overwhelming personalities. Isaac is clearly a different character, often described as the son of a strong father and the father of strong sons, he seems gentler, less “alpha”, less willing to take what he wants, although admiring of those who can.  But the story is also of the problem of how – and even if – to share resources, in particular the water which has always been a fragile and essential resource for life.

Water stress is a constant problem in Israel, the land which is watered only by the rainfall and should the rains not come, or not come at the right time, there will be drought and famine, and death.

We read in Deuteronomy 10ff “But the land…is a land of hills and valleys and drinks water as the rain of heaven…the eyes of God are always upon it….and if you obey my commandments…I will give the rain of your land in its season, both early and late rains, so you may gather your corn, wine and oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied… Take care less you …turn aside and serve other gods, for the anger of God will be against you and God will shut up the heavens and there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield her fruit and you will perish quickly from off the good land which God gives you”

The Land of Israel has always known water stress; The people Israel have built a theology around it, a routine of mitzvot in order to avert punishment by water, a choreography of teshuvah and fasting when the rains are delayed. It is in the DNA of rabbinic Judaism following the biblical exhortations – lack of rain follows the disruption of our relationship with God

But water stress is also a problem – and a growing one – in the rest of the world, and we know that there the causes and solutions are quite different.

New data reveals that 17 countries – home to one-quarter of the world’s population—face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress, where irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities withdraw more than 80% of their available supply on average every year.

Twelve out of these 17 most water-stressed countries are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The region is hot and dry, so water supply is low to begin with, but growing demands have pushed countries further into extreme stress. Climate change is set to complicate matters further: The World Bank found that this region has the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, estimated at 6-14% of GDP by 2050.

44 countries – one third of the world’s population, already face high levels of water stress. On average in these countries, more than 40 percent of the available supply is withdrawn every year. The World Bank also estimates that by 2025 about 1.8 billion people will live in regions or countries without enough water. Many other factors contribute to water scarcity – such as weak political will, climate variability and groundwater pollution – but climate change makes all of these challenges worse. When threats combine to lead to rapid water stress, the poorest suffer the worst consequences. (https://www.wri.org/news/2019/08/release-updated-global-water-risk-atlas-reveals-top-water-stressed-countries-and-states)

In the past decade floods, storms and fires, heatwaves and droughts have been increasing in frequency and in intensity. It is clear that this is a consequence of climate change.  The top 20 warmest years on record have occurred in the last 25 years, with 2017 the hottest without the contribution of El Nino.  The effect of this warming climate is an increasing impact on the water resources available to populations, and the effect of that drought will of course be famine, mass movement of desperate populations, potentially even war.

Isaac tried to reclaim the resources his father had used and presumably owned, but was no match for the resident population and each time moved on. It is a story of tribal struggle, of becoming a resource migrant, of learning that one cannot behave as we have been doing earlier, we must find new solutions to the problem of managing our resources alongside all who need to share them.

Abraham was insistent Isaac should never leave the land, but we know his descendants were forced by famine to go into Egypt where ultimately their fate was that of oppression and slavery. Returning to their own land after so many years away was a journey fraught with danger, but also requiring them to acknowledge that they would not take any of the resources of the land through which they were passing. (see Moses’ appeal to the King of Edom Numbers 20:17): “Let us pass I beg through your land, we will not pass through field or vineyard, nor will we drink of the water of the wells, we will go along the King’s Highway and will not turn right or left till we have passed your border” But Edom said to him “you will not pass through me, I will come out with a sword against you. And the children of Israel said: ‘We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of your water, I and my cattle, then will I give its price;  only let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt.’ And he said: ‘Thou shalt not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand.”

This is the reality to this day. “Economic migrants” has become a term of abuse – how much more so when thousands of people fleeing water shortages, drought and famine will beg to come through or to our land? And what will our fate be when the floods wash away soil and crops, damage or destroy our houses?  We are already seeing the effects of what rabbinic Judaism terms “judgement by water”.

We could go the route of ancient Israel and make teshuvah. Not by fasting and praying necessarily but by changing our behaviour, becoming more mindful of the wastage of water in our own lives. Whether it be use of water in our homes – leaving taps running, long showers etc., or awareness of the way the products we buy are using water )it was a shock for me to discover that the making of one small chocolate bar is takes 21 litres), whether it be smarter plumbing (or simply a brick in the toilet cistern) , we all need to learn how to conserve our water supplies.  It may seem an odd thing to read in rainy and flooded England currently (other countries too), but the floods here are the other side of the coin of drought there, and they wash away infrastructure, soil and crops leaving agriculture and transport vulnerable.

Isaac moved to Rechovot – the broad place where there was space for him and his family to live and to thrive. We don’t have that option. Climate change and water stress is a global phenomenon, a global emergency. We are all responsible for each other, we are all responsible for the earth and her resources. It is time for the tikkun, to help heal the world and to treat her with the respect she deserves.  As the psalmist writes:

The earth is the Eternal’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.  For God has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.  (Psalm 24)

If you want to read more about water stress and ways to help:

 

https://blog.ucsusa.org/pablo-ortiz/the-world-is-in-a-water-crisis-and-climate-change-is-making-it-worse

https://www.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/state-of-the-climate/

https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/08/17-countries-home-one-quarter-world-population-face-extremely-high-water-stress

https://www.watercalculator.org/water-use/climate-change-water-resources/

https://washmatters.wateraid.org/climate-change

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/07/it-takes-21-litres-of-water-to-produce-a-small-chocolate-bar-how-water-wise-is-your-diet

https://friendsoftheearth.uk/natural-resources/13-best-ways-save-water-stop-climate-breakdown

Vayera: arrogance and economic egoism destroy the world. Plus ca change plus c’est le meme chose

L’italiano segue l’inglese

After the stories of Creation of the world at the beginning of the book of Genesis, we experience a number of cataclysmic events. After the flood that destroys almost everything that had been created, with only Noah, his family and representatives of each species saved to begin again we once again have a terrible destruction wreaked on the earth by a despairing God – this time of the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, and according to the Book of Deuteronomy also Admah and Zeboiim, four of the five Cities of the Plain in the Vale of Siddim in the lower Jordan valley/ southern Dead Sea area.. . Only Zoar escaped the terrible fate of sulphurous fire that rained down and destroyed those prosperous cities and everyone in them, so that “the smoke of the land rose like the smoke of a kiln” (19:28)

What really happened in this area known for its vineyards and crops, its prosperous and fertile soil?  We cannot know whether this was a volcanic eruption or an earthquake, but the bible and our later rabbinic traditions are very clear why the cities were destroyed so thoroughly, and without any warning.

Ezekiel is very clear when he warns the kingdom of Judah of the consequences of their behaviour, in the sixth century BCE:  “    Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity; yet she did not support the poor and the needy”. (Ezekiel 16:49)

The Midrash develops this idea, speaking of the citizens of Sodom caring only for the wealthy, and saying that they expelled the poor from their midst, or even killed them.   Midrash Pirkei Eliezer teaches that the denizens of the cities were forbidden by law to aid the poor with food or anything else they might need – on penalty of death. Indeed it says that Lot’s daughter – who had grown up with Abram and Sarai and who therefore had a different set of values – was convicted of giving food to the poor and was executed. Before she died she cried out to God, and this was the sound that prompted God to send the messengers to find out what was happening there.

The sin of Sodom was not that of perverse sexual activities, it was the cold hearted arrogance of ignoring the needs of the other. More than that, it was the active greed for more and more, that meant that anything or anyone in the way of acquiring more was to be got rid of. As the citizens of these cities treated each other, so they would have treated the land. It was to be worked ceaselessly, it had to produce more and more, it was given no respect or honour or care.

That greed, that narrow focus on gain and ever greater productivity, led in the end to the rebellion of the land. One thinks of the earthquakes caused in Lancashire by the fracking for shale gas. Of the dust bowls in America and Canada in the 1930’s when the mechanisation and deep level ploughing of the grasslands destroyed the ecology till the top soil simply blew away in the drought.  The parallels are endless.

Meir Tamari, the economist and business ethicist, calls the sin of the cities of the plain “economic egoism”. We are seeing such behaviour again. The way richer and developed countries feel entitled to plunder those less developed. The destruction and deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. The exploitation of the oceans and the pollution of waste matter we have allowed to build up in the seas. The list goes on. We have more than enough and yet still we want more. We know that whole populations are displaced, that the age old climate patterns are changing, that drought and floods are increasingly common, but our arrogance continues and our world will pay the price.

Like Lot, we are living amongst the arrogance and greed, benefitting from it, but still a nagging voice sits in our head. Lot offered the messengers of God hospitality in a city where this was frowned upon – there was enough of a voice from his past with his uncle Abram to remind him of the importance of hospitality, yet he also gave in to the clamour of the people outside, offering his daughters to them in a horrific show of appeasement or of identification with them. We too often vacillate between the values we espouse and the behaviour we show. And all the time the world gets closer to the cataclysm.

What will it take for us to stop assuming the world belongs to us to do what we like with it, and instead to recognise and nurture the personhood of the land itself? As the extinction rebellion movement, the Fridays for future movement, the environmental personhood movement all grow in power, let’s hope it’s not too late, and that the righteous are not swept away with the wicked in one huge event of fire and brimstone.

Vayera: l’arroganza e l’egoismo economico distruggono il mondo. Più cambia, più è la stessa cosa

Di rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato il 13 novembre 2019

Dopo le storie di Creazione del mondo all’inizio del libro della Genesi, viviamo una serie di eventi catastrofici. Dopo il diluvio che distrugge quasi tutto ciò che era stato creato, salvando solo Noè, la sua famiglia e i rappresentanti di ogni specie per ricominciare, abbiamo nuovamente una terribile distruzione provocata sulla terra da un Dio disperato: questa volta delle città di Sodoma e Gomorra, e, secondo il Libro del Deuteronomio, anche di Admà e Zeboiim, quattro delle cinque Città della Pianura nella Valle di Siddim nella bassa valle della Giordania, la zona del Mar Morto meridionale. Solo Zoar sfuggì al terribile destino del fuoco sulfureo che piovve distruggendo quelle città prospere e tutti quelli che vi abitavano, in modo che “il fumo della terra saliva come il fumo di un forno”. (19:28)

 

Cosa è realmente accaduto in questa zona conosciuta per i suoi vigneti e colture, il suo terreno fertile e fiorente? Non possiamo sapere se si sia verificata un’eruzione vulcanica o un terremoto, ma la Bibbia e le nostre successive tradizioni rabbiniche sono molto chiare sul perché le città siano state distrutte così a fondo e senza alcun preavviso.

 

Ezechiele è molto chiaro quando avverte il regno di Giuda delle conseguenze del loro comportamento, nel sesto secolo a.e.v.: “Questo fu il peccato di Sodoma, tua sorella: l’arroganza, lei e le sue sorelle avevano abbondanza di pane e un tranquillo benessere si impadronì di lei, sì che non posero mano al povero e al misero”. (Ezechiele 16:49)

 

Il Midrash sviluppa questa idea, parlando dei cittadini di Sodoma che si prendono cura solo dei ricchi e dicendo che hanno espulso i poveri da loro, o addirittura li hanno uccisi. Midrash Pirkei Eliezer insegna che agli abitanti delle città era proibito per legge di aiutare i poveri con cibo o qualsiasi altra cosa di cui potessero avere bisogno, pena la morte. In effetti, dice che la figlia di Lot, che era cresciuta con Abram e Sarai e che quindi aveva un diverso insieme di valori, fu condannata per aver dato cibo ai poveri e venne giustiziata. Prima di morire gridò a Dio, e questo fu il suono che spinse Dio a mandare i messaggeri a scoprire cosa stava succedendo lì.

 

Il peccato di Sodoma non era quello delle attività sessuali perverse, era l’arroganza dal cuore freddo di ignorare i bisogni dell’altro. E ancor di più, era l’avidità attiva per cercare di possedere sempre di più, ciò significava che qualsiasi cosa o chiunque potesse ottenere di più doveva essere eliminato. Poiché i cittadini di queste città si trattavano a vicenda in questo modo, così avrebbero trattato la terra. Si doveva lavorare incessantemente, si doveva produrre sempre di più, non veniva dato alcun rispetto, onore o cura.

 

Quell’avidità, quella spasmodica attenzione al guadagno e a una produttività sempre maggiore, portarono infine alla ribellione della terra. Si pensi ai terremoti causati nel Lancashire dal “fracking” per il gas di scisto, alle tempeste di polvere in America e in Canada negli anni ’30, quando la meccanizzazione e l’aratura profonda delle praterie distrussero l’ecosistema fino a che il suolo superficiale fu semplicemente spazzato via nella siccità. I paralleli sono infiniti.

 

Meir Tamari, economista ed esperto di etica aziendale, chiama il peccato delle città della pianura “egoismo economico”. Stiamo vedendo un simile comportamento ancora oggi. Il modo in cui i paesi più ricchi e sviluppati si sentono in diritto di saccheggiare quelli meno sviluppati. La distruzione e la deforestazione della foresta pluviale amazzonica. Lo sfruttamento degli oceani e l’inquinamento da rifiuti che abbiamo permesso si verificasse nei mari. L’elenco continua. Abbiamo più che abbastanza e tuttavia vogliamo ancora di più. Sappiamo che intere popolazioni sono sfollate, che i vecchi schemi climatici stanno cambiando, che la siccità e le alluvioni sono sempre più comuni, ma la nostra arroganza continua e il nostro mondo ne pagherà il prezzo.

 

Come Lot, viviamo tra l’arroganza e l’avidità, beneficiandone, ma nella nostra testa c’è ancora una voce assillante. Lot offrì ai messaggeri di Dio l’ospitalità in una città in cui ciò era malvisto, aveva ancora la voce dei suoi trascorsi con suo zio Abramo a ricordargli l’importanza dell’ospitalità, eppure cedette anche al clamore della gente fuori, offrendo a essa le sue figlie in uno spettacolo orribile di appagamento o di identificazione con lei. Troppo spesso vacilliamo tra i valori che sposiamo e il comportamento che mostriamo. E il mondo si avvicina sempre più al cataclisma.

 

Cosa ci vorrà per smettere di supporre che il mondo ci appartenga per fare ciò che ci piace e invece riconoscere e coltivare la personalità della terra stessa? Mentre il movimento Extinction Rebellion, il movimento dei Friday for Future, il movimento per la personalità giuridica dell’ambiente aumentano il loro potere, speriamo che non sia troppo tardi, e che i giusti non vengano spazzati via con i malvagi in un enorme evento di fuoco e zolfo.

 

 

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lech Lecha – the story of a famine which displaces vulnerable people needs to be heard

When Abram and Sarai, his nephew Lot and the souls they had made in Haran travelled on God’s instruction to the Land of Canaan, they arrived and stopped at Shechem, where Abram built an altar and where God promised that land to his descendants. Abram journeyed on, via the mountain near Beit El, where he built another altar, and continued southwards travelling the length of the land of Israel until they exited the Land on its southern border with Egypt.

It reads rather as an anti-climax to that famous imperative in the first recorded encounter between God and Abram:

 וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ:

God said to Abram “Go for yourself from your land and your birthplace, and from the house of our father, to the land which I will show you”

No introduction, no explanation, no conversation – just a command to go elsewhere, the trust that the journey will have an end is implicit, God will show Abram the place when he gets there.

But it isn’t exactly what happens. Because there is famine in the land – very heavy famine.  Abram and Sarai will die if they stay there, so, prefiguring the Joseph narratives, they travel into Egypt for refuge.

Famine appears with grim frequency in bible. Each of the patriarchs will suffer serious famine – Abram goes to Egypt, Isaac goes to the Philistine King in Gerar rather than go to Egypt(Gen 26:1). Jacob and his sons go down into Egypt to buy food when the famine takes hold. The book of Ruth describes the famine that led Ruth and Elimelech to flee to Moab (Ruth 1:1). In David’s time there was a famine lasting three years (2Sam 21:1). The story of Elijah records the famine in the land (1Kings 17:1) and in Elisha fed the famine starved people of Gilgal (2Kings 4:38). Famines are also recorded in Jerusalem in the time of Tzedekiah (2Kings 25:3) (see also Jeremiah’s painful description of the drought 14:1-6) and in Canaan in the time of Nehemiah (Neh. 5:3)

The Land of Israel was dependent on the rainfall for its crops and trees, so drought and therefore famine were always to be feared. There was also fear of pests or diseases that would destroy the crops (Joel 1:4ff)and which we see most dramatically in the plague in Egypt just before the Hebrew slaves were able to leave.

War and sieges would also bring famines – again described in biblical texts with painful clarity. Famine, along with Pestilence and the sword (war) (Dever v’Herev v’Ra’av) appears regularly in a triumvirate in the Hebrew bible (cf. Jer. 14:12; 21:7, 9; 24:10; Ezek. 6:11,) and has entered the liturgy in both Avinu Malkeinu and in the Hashkiveinu prayer  (second blessing following shema)

הָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אוֹיֵב דֶבֶר וְחֶרֶב וְרָעָב וְיָגוֹן

 

Talmud also discusses the problems of famine. We read in Ta’anit 5a “Rav Nachman said to Rabbi Yitzḥak: What is the meaning of that which is written: “For the Eternal has called upon a famine and it shall also come upon the land seven years” (II Kings 8:1)? Specifically, in those seven years, what did they eat?

Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rabbi Nachman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said as follows: In the first year they ate that which was in their houses; in the second year they ate that which was in their fields; in the third year they ate the meat of their remaining kosher animals; in the fourth year they ate the meat of their remaining non-kosher animals; in the fifth year they ate the meat of repugnant creatures and creeping animals, i.e., any insects they found; in the sixth year they ate the flesh of their sons and their daughters; and in the seventh year they ate the flesh of their own arms, to fulfil that which is stated: “Each man shall eat the flesh of his own arm” (Isaiah 9:19).”

The starvation and breakdown of social norms that famine brought can be seen across the literature.  In the Talmud we read the pitiful story of one of the wealthiest women in Jerusalem, Marta bat Baitos who could not buy food with all her silver and gold, and who died after picking out the grain from the animal dung she stepped on (Gittin 56a;  Josephus mentions the eating of children in Jerusalem during the Roman War (Wars 6:201–13). There are at least three historical references to famine caused by the observance of the Sabbatical year, one during the siege of Jerusalem by the forces of Antiochus IV (Ant. 12:378), one in the war of Herod against Antigonus (Ant. 14:476) and one during Herod’s reign (Ant. 15:7).

Drought, with the rains withheld, has generally been theologised into punishment for transgressions, a tool wielded by God when we do not follow the rules that acknowledge God’s ownership of the land by bringing tithes both to thank God and to feed those who cannot grow food for themselves,  and when we fail in our our obligations to the Land to treat it well and allow it to rest.

Rabbinic responsa are also very sensitive to drought and famine, with a growing list of actions to pray for rain with special prayers added into the liturgy, fasting etc. So seriously did the rabbis take the realities of famine that they permitted emigration from the land of Israel in the case of famine, albeit only when survival would become extremely difficult(BB 91b; Gen. R. 25).

Rabba bar bar Ḥana says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: They taught that it is prohibited to leave Eretz Yisrael only if money is cheap, i.e., not excessively difficult to obtain, and produce is expensive, similar to the case in the baraita where two se’a of wheat are sold for a sela. But when money is expensive, i.e., it is difficult to earn money for sustenance, even if the price of four se’a of grain stood at a sela, one may leave Eretz Yisrael in order to survive.(BB91b)

Basing themselves on Genesis 41:50 the rabbis (Ta’anit 11a) also forbade procreation during the years of famine.

Our tradition knows about the difficulties of living and thriving in a world where the rains may not come, where crops may fail and people may starve. It understood that while famine may come as a result of war, it is more likely to be because we, the human stewards of the world, do not treat the world as it must be treated, and the consequences of this lack of care will come to haunt us.

Abram and Sarai left their home to reach the land God had promised, but having reached it they immediately became environment migrants. The land would not let them stay and thrive, they had to put themselves at greater risk and depend on a foreign power to survive.   This part of their story is not often emphasised – the great journey to the promised land is a far more palatable thread to take from this sidra, but the short verses that tell of the famine that would have killed them should they have stayed are maybe more instructive in these times of climate change happening across the globe as a direct result of human carelessness and greed.

Lech Lecha is the call to activism – Get up and go, make something happen! We Jews are called as our ur-ancestors were called. We should pay heed to the increasingly serious warnings our planet is giving us, and return to the work of stewarding, protecting and  supporting a healthy and diverse world.

 

 

Parashat Noach: how to avert the severity of the climate change decree

What are we to understand about the biblical story of Noah? How are we to relate to a God who allows such terrible destruction? How are we to relate to Nature, and the world in which we live?

Coming so soon after the story of the Creation of the world – there are just ten generations between Adam and Noah – the story bears witness to the much more complex relationship between human beings and the earth than we sometimes read from the earliest chapters in the Book of Genesis.

As we read in the first chapter, the earth and all its accoutrements – plants fish, birds and beasts – are created before human beings, and God sees them as being good. They are not created for the human being but exist in their own right. While the vegetation is available as food for the human, the animals are not so designated.  As Maimonides commented “The right view, in my opinion is that it should not be believed that all creation exists for the sake of the existence of humanity. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes, and not for the sake of something else.” (Moreh Nevuchim 3:13).  The Tosefta (late 2nd century text) asks “Why were human beings created last in the order of creation?” and answers itself “So that they should not grow proud, and we can say to them ‘even the gnat can claim it came before you in Creation’” (Tosefta on Sanhedrin 8:3)

We are created within and alongside nature. Nature, in this biblical viewpoint, is not created as a tool for us to treat as we choose, but exists both symbiotically with us and independently of us.

When God blesses humanity with the benediction to be fruitful and multiply, to populate the world and to steward it, this is not something that changes the power in the relationship, but instead formalises  the responsibility we have to sustain both ourselves and our world.  The natural world is not given to us unconditionally, but exists in relationship with us. It is not subservient to us, but is the place where we may thrive together, or may fail together.

Many readers of Bible are tempted to read the first chapters of Genesis and find a divinely created supremacy of humanity. After all, we are the only ones created in the divine image, whatever that may mean. While all the vegetation and animals are created to be able to sustain themselves and produce offspring, only humans are told to multiply and to range over the expanse of the earth.

So one might want to read into the text the sovereign authority of the human being in the natural world, but the bible would like to warn us that this is a misreading of great proportion. While the earlier story has words which are potentially problematic, particularly in how they are understood (“subdue the earth/ have dominion over”) (Genesis 1:28), the story of the Garden of Eden clarifies the relationship – the human is placed into the garden to serve it and to guard it”. And while we read in the Midrash that “God showed Adam all of the beauty of the Garden of Eden, and God said, “See my works, how lovely they are, how fine they are. All I have created, I created for you” – we must note that the Midrash continues with the warning “Take care not to destroy My world, for if you ruin it, there is no one to come after you to put it right” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

Once the first human beings are expelled from the Garden of Eden, nature will become even less benign a partner, and more of a problem as we scratch our living from the earth through the sweat of our brow; the relationship of serving the land changed to one of working it.

But even more clear a warning to us not to read ourselves as somehow permitted to use the natural world as we see fit and for our own purposes, without thought of the effects of our actions, is the story of the great flood in the time of Noah.

The bible makes a clear connection between the behaviour of the people at that time – corrupt and violent – and the bringing of the flood.  As we will find later, in times of famine for example, or the plagues visited upon Egypt, Nature is a tool in the hands of God, used as a necessary corrective when humanity chooses arrogance and enormous self-centredness over the obligation to serve and to guard….  As we find in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 8:12 (c200CE) commenting on verse 28 of the first chapter of Genesis:

God said, “I will make humankind in My image, after My likeness. They shall rule [ve-yir·du]…the whole earth”.… God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it;    and rule [u-re·du]…all living things…”  Rabbi Hanina said: “If humankind merits it, God says u-re·du [rule!]; while if humankind does not merit it, God says yé·ra·du [let them (the animals) rule].” (or Let them [human beings] descend [from their position of mastery]

 

The flood is a cataclysmic event. The bible records: “Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. And all flesh perished that moved upon the earth, both fowl, and cattle, and beast, and every swarming thing that swarmed upon the earth, and every human being; all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, whatsoever was in the dry land, died.  And God blotted out every living substance which was upon the face of the ground, both human, and cattle, and creeping thing, and fowl of the heaven; and they were blotted out from the earth; and Noah only was left, and they that were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days. ” (Genesis 7:20ff)

The destruction is incalculable, bringing death to every living thing outside of the sanctuary of the Ark. Plants and animals and birds – all gone in the space of a few months, along with the majority of human beings.  Bible sees this as a consequence of the will of God, who having seen the corruption and wickedness endemic in the world, regrets ever having made it and chooses to wipe most of it out and begin again.  The story is a retelling of much older flood stories, where there had been no moral conclusion drawn, simply the random destruction of the earth and her inhabitants by water, at the whim of indiscriminate and uncaring powers.

It is clear from biblical texts that Nature is, by its very existence, to be respected and held in some careful awe.  Again and again we are reminded that God is the creator of not just us, but of the rest of the world; Again and again we are reminded that our time here is short and we have but a fragile hold on life.  As Kohelet writes “one generation goes and another comes, but the earth abides forever” (1:4)

The mystical tradition teaches that the universe is the garment of God (Zohar 3:273a), a position also taught by the Hasidic tradition: “All that we see, the heaven, the earth and all that fills it – all these are the external garments of God” (Shneur Zalman of Liady)

There is a persistent thread within all streams of Judaism to remind us that reading the beginning of Genesis must be done most carefully – that should we derive the idea that humanity is somehow so exceptional that we are beyond the rules of nature, and beyond the obligations and morality expected of us by God, then we will indeed pay the price for that arrogance, and the price will be extracted by natural environmental events. As the unetaneh tokef prayer recited so recently in the Yamim Noraim reminds us, we will surely die, and the list of ways of us dying is instructive:

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague…….  But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.”

Repentance, prayer and righteousness may avert the severity of the decree. One might put it into more modern terms – we abuse the bounty of the natural world, are careless of its resources, wilfully blind to the effect of our actions but the actions of  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – this may avert the severity of the climate change already with us.

There is more – to Repair, to allow animals and land to rest; Regenerate;  Give animals freedom to range and to live a good and healthy life… Plant trees and grassland rather than paving over our environment, allow grasses to flower and insects to roam and feed, avoid pesticides and ensure our garden birds can eat safely….. these are the ways we can begin to avert the severity of the changes in our environment.

God saves Noah but repents the destruction after the event. The terror and trauma of the survivors is clear in the stories that follow, the rainbow a necessary but insufficient marker of security – the world may never again be totally destroyed by flood – but there are other ways we can destroy our world. The postdiluvian world is more complex, more violent and more painful than before. It is another kind of expulsion from Eden. Now every other animal – all living beings – will fear human beings (Genesis 9:2)– after all, it was human behaviour that had caused the destruction. Humanity is now permitted to eat anything that moves that has life – not just the vegetarian diet of before. Interestingly this permission is given only AFTER Noah has built an altar and sacrificed some of the animals on it in order for the smoke to reach God. Only the blood is forbidden to be eaten, says God. And anyone who takes the life of another – their life shall be required by God. There is a violent abrupt awareness of the flawed nature of humanity; the language is stark, unblinkingly focussed – it is ferocious.

After the flood, Noah leaves his ark, plants a vineyard and gets drunk. It is part of the story we don’t often tell. The trauma of the survivors is plain to see, the desperate fumbled attempts to rebuild the world which leads to the tragedy of the tower of Babel.

Humanity may indeed survive climate catastrophe, may go on to rebuild a new world. But would it not be better for us all to avert the evil in the decree, to help each other to rebuild this world to be a better example of what we would really want to create.

 

 

Bereishit -subduing the earth or serving her – not slaves but co-creators to protect and nurture our world

L’italiano segue l’inglese

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֘ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:

And God blessed them; and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’  (Genesis 1:28)

The stories of creation found in the first chapters of the book of Genesis provide the foundation for the myth of human ownership of the world; something which has allowed us to feel ourselves permitted to exploit and use the natural world for our own benefit.  And no verse has been quite so powerful in this myth as the one quoted above – translating the verbs as humanity “subduing / ruling / dominating” the earth.

But this reading is, at best, a partial understanding of the texts of Creation, and I would like to offer a more nuanced and less literalist view.

To begin – the verbs whose roots are

כבש   רדד  / רדה

Have multiple meanings, but for each of them the base meaning from which subdue/dominate arises is the physical act of treading down/ trampling /spreading out.  It would not be too far a literary stretch in the context of the words coming before – be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth – to read the next part of the verse as “and stretch out/make pathways over her (the earth), and stretch [your reach] over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living thing on the earth.  The root כבש

Is used today to describe roads and pathways – the methods by which we extend our ability to travel the earth.

But should this be a “spreading out” too far for some readers, one must also be aware of the context of this verse – both historically in terms of other earlier creation myths, and textually in the Book of Genesis.

Enumah Elish, the Babylonian myth of creation, describes the creation of humankind like this:

“Blood will I form and cause bone to be
Then will I set up a “lullu” [savage], ‘Man’ shall be his name!
Yes, I will create savage Man!
(Upon him) shall the services of the gods be imposed
That they may be at rest.”

For the Babylonians, the creation of human beings is about them being the slaves of the divinities, freeing the gods from the actual work of the world.  Human beings would work the earth, and provide the food and drink and other necessities or desires of the gods through sacrifices and libations.

It is this mythic story that informs the biblical creation stories, and some of the dynamic of owner/owned from the Enumah Elish may be found in the biblical text – but this is a very different creation story, with the human being created ‘b’tzelem Elohim’, and the self-sufficient God going on to offer the plant based foods for all the newly created beings, both human and animal.

This is also not the only creation story in Bible, and one cannot read the first iteration in Chapter 1 without the second iteration in Chapter 2 – the story of the Garden of Eden.

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:

And the Eternal God took the human, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it

The verbs here are quite different

עבד שמר

Mean literally to serve and to guard/protect.

So even if we took the verbs in chapter one to mean “to rule/to subdue” the earth, here in chapter two that dimension is mitigated greatly. The role of the paradigmatic human being is that of carer for the earth, serving it rather than exploiting it.

Any power of the ownership implied in the first story must now be understood to be that of the obligation to nurture and guard something that is precious to God. To work with God (rather than for the gods) is to have an authority and role in creation, it gives no permission to use or exploit without care or consideration for the earth and its future.

The rabbinic tradition clearly understands this – and reminds us that we are not to exceed our powers, not to selfishly take and exploit and damage in order to meet our own desires and needs – indeed this would bring us back full circle to the Enumah Elish and the selfish greedy lazy and thoughtless gods. Famously in Midrash Kohelet Rabbah we read

“Look at God’s work – for who can straighten what He has twisted? When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, God took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you. “ (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

Read together, the two creation stories provide a picture of the complex and important relationship between humanity, God and nature.  God, having created the world to be self-sustaining, is still involved through the work of human beings. We are, as ever, the hands of God in the world. We can manage and care for the natural world, sometimes – as in a garden- having to be creative in order to get the best results. Any gardener will tell about the importance of pruning, of digging up weeds by the roots,  of dead heading or thinning plants – all things that may seem “heavy handed” but ultimately provide the best environment.

Is our role to subdue the world or to spread out within it, causing fruitfulness and the fullness of nature?  I would suggest that the long standing myth of our being the pinnacle of creation meaning we have the right to dominate the world is a misunderstanding at a very deep level. To serve and to protect the earth – it is for this we were created, and this is how we most profoundly embody the idea of our being ‘b’tzelem Elohim”

Bereishit: sottomettere la terra o servirla, non schiavi ma co-creatori per proteggere e nutrire il nostro mondo

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֘ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:

E Dio li benedisse; e Dio stesso disse loro: Prolificate, moltiplicatevi, empite la terra e rendetevela soggetta; dominate sui pesci del mare, e sui volatili del cielo e su tutti gli animali che si muovono sulla terra.” (Genesi 1:28)

Le storie della creazione che si trovano nei primi capitoli del libro della Genesi forniscono le basi per il mito della proprietà umana del mondo: qualcosa che ci ha permesso di sentirci autorizzati a sfruttare e usare il mondo naturale a nostro vantaggio. E nessun verso è stato così potente in questo mito quanto quello sopra citato, per tradurre i verbi relativi all’agire dell’umanità in “sopraffare, controllare, dominare” la terra.

Ma questa lettura è, nella migliore delle ipotesi, una comprensione parziale dei testi della Creazione, e vorrei offrire una visione più sfumata e meno letterale.

Per cominciare, i verbi le cui radici sono  רדה / רדד  כבש  hanno significati multipli, ma per ognuno di essi il significato base da cui emerge ‘sottomettere o dominare’ è l’atto fisico di schiacciare, calpestare, spargere. Non sarebbe troppo una forzatura letteraria nel contesto delle parole che precedono ‘siate fecondi, moltiplicate e riempite la terra’ leggere la parte successiva del verso come “e allungatevi, percorretela (la terra), e allungate [la vostra portata] sui pesci del mare e sugli uccelli del cielo e su ogni cosa vivente sulla terra”.

La radice כבש oggi è usata per descrivere strade e percorsi, i metodi con cui estendiamo la nostra capacità di viaggiare sulla terra.

Ma se questo dovesse essere un “allargamento” eccessivo per alcuni lettori, si deve anche essere consapevoli del contesto di questo versetto: sia storicamente, in termini di altri miti della creazione precedente, sia testualmente, nel Libro della Genesi.

Enumah Elish, il mito babilonese della creazione, descrive la creazione dell’umanità in questo modo:

“Formerò il sangue e farò esistere l’osso

Quindi creerò un “lullu” [selvaggio], “Uomo” sarà il suo nome!

Sì, creerò un uomo selvaggio!

(Su di lui) saranno imposti i servizi degli dei

Che possano essere in pace.”

Per i babilonesi, la creazione di esseri umani riguarda il fatto che essi sono gli schiavi delle divinità, liberando così gli dei dal lavoro reale del mondo. Gli esseri umani lavorerebbero la terra fornendo cibo e bevande e altre necessità o desideri degli dei attraverso sacrifici e libagioni.

Questa storia mitica, presente nel contesto in cui vennero scritte le storie della creazione biblica, e alcune delle dinamiche proprietario/proprietà dell’Enumah Elish possono essere trovate nel testo biblico, ma questa è una storia della creazione molto diversa, con l’essere umano creato ‘b’ tzelem Elohim’ e il Dio autosufficiente che continua a offrire alimenti a base vegetale per tutti gli esseri appena creati, sia umani che animali.

Questa non è nemmeno l’unica storia della creazione nella Bibbia, e non si può leggere la prima iterazione nel capitolo 1 senza la seconda, la ripetizione nel capitolo 2: la storia del Giardino dell’Eden.

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:

E l’Eterno Dio prese l’uomo e lo pose nel Giardino di Eden perché lo coltivasse e lo custodisse.

I verbi qui sono abbastanza diversi: שמר עבד, significano letteralmente servire e fare la guardia, proteggere.

Quindi, anche se abbiamo considerato i verbi nel primo capitolo per significare “governare/ sottomettere” la terra, qui nel secondo capitolo quella dimensione è notevolmente mitigata. Il ruolo dell’essere umano paradigmatico è quello di prendersi cura della terra, servendola piuttosto che sfruttandola.

Qualsiasi potere della proprietà implicito nella prima storia deve ora essere inteso come quello dell’obbligo di nutrire e custodire qualcosa di prezioso per Dio. Lavorare con Dio (piuttosto che per gli dei) significa avere un’autorità e un ruolo nella creazione, non dà il permesso di usare o sfruttare senza cura o considerazione alcuna la terra e il suo futuro.

La tradizione rabbinica lo comprende chiaramente, e ci ricorda che non dobbiamo eccedere i nostri poteri, non dobbiamo prendere egoisticamente e sfruttare e danneggiare per soddisfare i nostri desideri e bisogni, in effetti questo ci riporterebbe al punto di partenza dell’Enumah Elish e gli dei egoisti, avidi, pigri e sconsiderati. Notoriamente nel Midrash Kohelet Rabbà leggiamo:

“Guarda il lavoro di Dio: per chi può raddrizzare ciò che ha distorto? Quando l’Uno, Santo e Benedetto, creò il primo essere umano, Dio lo prese e lo condusse attorno a tutti gli alberi del Giardino dell’Eden e disse: ‘Guarda le mie opere, quanto sono belle e lodevoli! E tutto ciò che ho creato, è stato creato per te. Fai attenzione a non corrompere e distruggere il mio mondo: se lo corrompi, non c’è nessuno che lo ripari dopo di te.’” (Kohelet Rabbà 7:13)

Lette insieme, le due storie della creazione forniscono un quadro del complesso e importante rapporto tra umanità, Dio e natura. Dio, avendo creato il mondo per essere autosufficiente, è ancora coinvolto attraverso il lavoro degli esseri umani. Siamo, come sempre, le mani di Dio nel mondo. Possiamo gestire e prenderci cura del mondo naturale, a volte, come in un giardino, dovendo essere creativi per ottenere i migliori risultati. Ogni giardiniere parlerà dell’importanza della potatura, dello scavo delle erbe infestanti dalle radici, della selezione o del diradamento delle piante, tutte cose che possono sembrare “pesanti” ma alla fine forniscono l’ambiente migliore.

Il nostro ruolo è sottomettere il mondo o spargerci al suo interno, causando fecondità e pienezza della natura? Suggerirei che l’antico mito del nostro essere l’apice della creazione, nel senso che abbiamo il diritto di dominare il mondo, è un malinteso a un livello molto profondo. Siamo stati creati per servire e proteggere la terra, ed è così che incarniamo profondamente l’idea del nostro essere “b’tzelem Elohim”.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer