Toledot: there are more generations and more branches in our family tree than we notice – meet Mahalat bat Ishmael the fragrant bringer of hope

וַיַּ֣רְא עֵשָׂ֔ו כִּ֥י רָע֖וֹת בְּנ֣וֹת כְּנָ֑עַן בְּעֵינֵ֖י יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִֽיו: ט וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶל־יִשְׁמָעֵ֑אל וַיִּקַּ֡ח אֶת־מַֽחֲלַ֣ת ׀ בַּת־יִשְׁמָעֵ֨אל בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֲח֧וֹת נְבָי֛וֹת עַל־נָשָׁ֖יו ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה:

“And Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan were displeasing to Isaac his father. So Esau went to Ishmael and he took Machalat the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nevayot over his women/ in addition to his other wives, for a wife for himself.”

So ends the sidra of Toledot. It began with Isaac marrying Rebecca and pleading with God for her to have children. Having conceived twins who are struggling within her, Rebecca is informed that she will give birth to two nations who would be not be equal. The firstborn, Esau, was red and hairy. The second born was holding on to his brother’s heel so they named him Jacob (heel). Esau became a skilled hunter and was the favoured child of his father, but Jacob remained close to home and his mother. The bible recounts the story of Esau coming home famished after a hunting trip and selling his birthright blessing for some of the delicious red stew that Jacob had made.

The narrative continues with the story of a famine and Isaac goes to the Philistine King Abimelech for support, having been told by God to not leave the land as his father had done. Isaac settled in Gerar, and for fear of being killed because of Rebecca’s beauty, he follows the example his parents had given and told Abimelech that Rebecca was not his wife but his sister. Abimelech however found the lie out, and in order not to attract punishment from God, warns the Philistines not to mistreat the couple.   Isaac grows wealthy and the Philistines begin to hate and envy him to the point where he is unsafe. Isaac moves his household away to Rechovot, and then has an encounter with God at Beersheva where he receives the covenant of blessing. Abimelech, understanding that Isaac is the heir to his father’s relationship with God seeks a peace treaty with him which is sealed with a feast.

Now we return our focus to the family. Esau married two Hittite women, Judith bat Be’eri and Basemat bat Elon, and Isaac and Rebecca are bitterly upset.

Now we come to the last phase of Isaac’s life. He is old, his sight is poor, he knows it is time to give the blessings to his sons. He asks Esau to hunt and prepare a dish of his game for him after which he will bless him. Rebecca overhears, and, when Esau is gone, she instructs Jacob to bring her young goats in order for her to make a meal for Isaac that Jacob can take him and receive the blessing. Jacob does not think this will work- Esau is hairy, Jacob is not. Isaac on touching his son will understand the deception and may curse him. Rebecca responds by taking the curse upon herself, and demands that Jacob do as she has told him. She makes coverings from the skins of the goats and food from the flesh, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing and sends him to his father. The text is ambiguous as to whether Isaac recognises which of his sons is with him, but he goes with the flow, blessing Jacob with the special blessing. Esau returns, discovers his blessing is already given to his brother and in his distress asks his father for another. Isaac blesses him with abundance, but also with the hope that he will one day break the yoke of subservience to his brother. Esau’s fury is a danger to Jacob and so his mother arranges that he is sent to safety with her family under the pretext that this will keep him away from Canaanite women and help him to marry within the family group.  Esau hears this, understands that his first two choices of wife were not acceptable to his parents, and so he goes to Ishmael his uncle in order to marry Machalat, his cousin, the daughter of Ishmael.

Machalat is family. She is the daughter of Ishmael the beloved son of Abraham and of Hagar, whom God comforts when she and her son are near to death in the wilderness having been expelled from the camp. Hagar is the first person who is recorded as giving a name to God.   We are told that “she called the name of the Eternal who spoke to her, You are El Ro’ee (a God of seeing)” (Gen 16:13)  So Machalat is the grandchild of a woman who encountered God.

There are two biblical texts naming the wives of Esau, and they do not exactly coincide. One tells us the three wives are Yehudit bat Beeri, Basemat bat Elon and Mahalat bat Ishmael (Gen 26) whereas the second tells us they are Adah bat Elon, Basemat bat Ishmael and Oholivamah bat Anah (Gen 36).  The gemara resolves the problem by saying that Basemat/Machalat were the same woman, and whereas the name Basemat means fragrant, Machalat comes from the same root as forgiveness – mechilah – and that in marrying her all the sins of Esau were forgiven (JT Bikkurim 3:3)This would explain how, when the brothers meet up again years later, Esau is warm and welcoming, having given up the bitterness and anger caused by his brother’s betrayal, he too, having been forgiven, is able to forgive.

Basemat, whose name implies great sweetness, gives Esau a son and names him Re’u-El –friend of God. Is it accident that the name plays with and even seems to echo the name her grandmother gave to God – El-Roee? What is clear is that while Esau has many other children, only this son is named with a reference to God.

It feels like a hint – Hagar and Basemat were not destined to be part of the main thread of the narrative, but they were important nevertheless, they had their own very good relationship with God and their lives impact upon our history.

The bible may not be focussed on these women, or on this lateral branch of the family tree, but it considers them important enough for them and their descendants to be recorded. We know about Rebecca, her initial infertility and her later challenge to God once her difficult pregnancy was begun. We know how she took care to direct the narrative so that Jacob would become the link in the chain of tradition. We know about Sarah, her initial infertility and her derisive laughter in responding to God’s telling her that she would yet bear a child to be the link in the chain of tradition. But the bible reminds us there were other women who also had encounters with God, yet who did not go on to become matriarchs in our tradition.

Our historic commentators do not much notice these women, and if they choose to do so it is usually to make a point about the men they are connected with, and to be honest, they are not often kind to the women nor interested in them and their experience. But now we have a different set of lenses, modernity chooses to unpeel the layers of patriarchy and look again at the unvarnished text. Machalat the daughter of Ishmael appears to be a woman who, like her grandmother, knows God. Her marriage to Esau seems to change him, their son is a friend of God, the same God who appeared to abet Esau’s trauma. She brings forgiveness – mechilah – and she brings hope. Hope for the brothers who were destined to be in an unequal power relationship but whom we see later in life are both wealthy, settled family men. And in bringing the hope that transforms the relationship of brothers born to struggle against each other, surely she can be the touchstone for us in our generation when we know we are not forced or destined to hate each other. Machalat bat Ishmael, she brings the fragrance of hope and optimism. She deserves to be noticed.

 

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/56/dd/4b/56dd4b96809fb5e941fcbd8129daae88.jpg

 

Image is “Mahalat” [Yishmael’s daughter, Esav’s wife] by Siona Benjamin

A Key on the Seder Plate: Remembering those who are detained indefinitely while their applications for asylum are being processed.

keysforfreedomImagine the fear of being subject to indefinite detention. No way of knowing how long you will be there,” feeling like you have been put into some sort of human storage facility” (Ajay from Freed Voices).  Imagine trying to keep your sense of self, already damaged by the treatment you have received earlier in your own country, the torture and abuse you have fled, leaving behind family and home in an attempt to save yourself.  Imagine the dangerous journey to freedom, the cold and the heat, the hunger and the insecurity, the anxiety for those you have left behind, the fear of what the future will hold.

Imagine then arriving at a country of sanctuary, hopeful, grateful, ready to work hard to create a new home and make new relationships, to build a good future. And then imagine the bureaucracy, the suspicion, the black hole you fall into as you try to do all the things that will bring a new start. Imagine the xenophobia, the misery, the violence of those who are losing all hope. Imagine that your innocence is questioned, that being locked up without any time structure is seen as normal. Imagine the limbo you find yourself in, no end in sight, nothing to hold on to. In 2015, 255 people had been detained for between one and two years, 41 for over two years.  But these figures exclude the many people who are held in prisons under immigration powers, so the true figure is likely to be significantly higher.  Detention is justified as a way to deport people, but the majority of people detained for more than a year are not ultimately deported.

There is no clarity or transparency in the process. It just grinds on slowly – at least you hope it is grinding on – how would you know if you are not forgotten?  How do you hold on to your humanity when others see you only as a statistic, and a hostile statistic at that?

As one detained asylum seeker said:    “In prison you count the days down to your release, but in detention you count the days up and up” (Suleymane from Freed Voices”)

In 2015 official figures report that almost three thousand people were placed on suicide watch, eleven of them children.  And the figures for suicide attempts inside these centres is going up. The mental health of detained asylum seekers becomes further fractured by the fear, the lack of any clear process or time structure, the prison conditions in which they are held.

As Richard Fuller MP said at an interfaith event hosted by Tzelem and Rene Cassin in the House of Commons yesterday (20th April 2016) “the system is costly, it is inefficient, and it is unjust”. It costs £70 thousand a year to hold someone in detention in Colnbrook detention centre – money that could be used for their rehabilitation and to facilitate their entry into society.

The UK is the only European country with indefinite detention for asylum seekers. The immigration bill is coming back to the Commons with many amendments from the Lords, one of which is to set a time limit of 28 days. As we go into Pesach, our festival of freedom, let’s do all we can to remember and to hold in our hearts and minds the frightened people held in indefinite detention in our own country. Put a key on your Seder plate and pledge to work for the freedom of all people to live in security and peace, to work for the ordinary and common desire we all share to be able to get on with our lives without fear.

A beautiful Muslim Prayer for Peace

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This prayer deserves to be read and shared as widely as possible. And with a few appropriate edits of the language, we may all add our voices in prayer

The Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board call on our members and their affiliates across the United Kingdom to adopt the “Prayer for the Nation” as part of their services and sermons, on Friday 20th November 2015.
One of the first and most fundamental ways Muslims show feelings of commonality and brotherhood is through prayer.

Imam Shahid Raza OBE, Chairman, Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board said:
“The prayer is thought to be an opportunity for British Muslims to express a national identity in their own way. The prayers ask God to keep Britain a harmonious nation that protects the marginalized, upholds strong moral values and to promote loyalty among our diverse communities.”
“My colleague and I have given our full support to establish the “Prayer for the Nation”, and through our network of 1500+ faith leaders across the UK, we will be launching the Prayer at our sermons on Friday 20th November, but not exclusively our attention will also be at those who may not regular visit the Mosque, we will share on our Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp Accounts, we will get our young people to share on Instagram and SnapChat.”
“The prayer is not exclusive to faith leaders. We encourage it to be recited at our homes, madrassahs, community events, social gatherings and in our hearts and minds. We hope this will help nurture future generations of believers and contribute positively to the wider British society.”

Mustafa Field MBE, the Director of the Faiths Forum for London, said:
“The prayer could perhaps cultivate and give a voice to sentiments of amity and fraternity with British society at large.”
“The notion of citizenship revolve not only around moral values and legal obligations, but also around cultural narratives about identity and loyalty.”
“The concept of Britishness is fluid, but is based on our consensus around our shared values, and as a spiritual identity that favours cultural inclusiveness as an antidote to narrow nationalism.”
“The “Prayer for the Nation” is a contribution to the strengthening the sense of citizenship the holds our nation together.”

 

Prayer For The Nation

Oh Allah, our lord, unite our nation around the principles of justice, peace, love and faith.

Put peace and love in our hearts for the diversity that makes our country so beautiful

Oh Lord, most Strong, Give us the strength to protect and care for our neighbours.

Oh Lord, we pray for our nation, the United Kingdom. to remain loving, compassionate, remove prejudice from our hearts, and enable us to love our brothers and sisters of all faiths and none

Make our hearts and minds aware of our heritage, fulfilling duties and responsibilities as a citizen of our country!

Allah, Most Merciful, allow us to show kindness to those most vulnerable in society.

Protect us from evil, inspire and guide us in defending those open to abuse.

Lord, Most Generous allow us to give in charitable activity, and to help those most in need.

Lord give our Government vision and wisdom, as they take decisions affecting peace in our world.

Allah, our Sustainer, allow us to care for our environment and sustain this world for future generations.

Lord, Most merciful, Most Generous, please give us the patience to continue to learn from one another and work towards a more peaceful and kind world.

Make true in our nation the ideas of freedom and justice and brotherhood for all those who live for them.

Make our hearts generous so that we may treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Help us to share that which we have with others, for your sake. Strengthen us, love us and be kind to us all.

For media enquiries email mustafa@faithsforum4london.org or call 07946 515 987

“What a rabbi said to the politicians” or “Good Governance and Community leadership: texts for reflection for the Council of the London Borough of Merton”

 I was honoured recently to be asked to open the prayers for the first meeting of Council of the London Borough of Merton. The new Mayor Krystal Miller has decided to invite members of the different faith communities to take this role in her mayoral year, and I was excited and happy to be the first to wear the new interfaith insignia for this event.

I chose not to simply say a prayer, or to invoke a divine blessing, but to offer some texts on governance and community for the councillors to reflect upon, and here they are:

“In the Mishnah, the earliest attempt to codify Jewish law, we have a tractate called Pirkei Avot, meaning something like, the “Chapters of Fundamental Principles”, which contains material dating from around 200 BCE till 200 CE and concerns itself with ethical ideology. Traditionally we study it from Pesach (commemorating the Exodus from slavery) till either Shavuot (Festival of Revelation of Torah) or until Rosh Hashanah, (The Day of Judgment and the New Year)

The book is a kind of manual of good practise in both interpersonal relationships and governance, and I would like to share some of its insights:

Based on a verse in  Jeremiah, (29v7) written in the 6th century BCE:

ז  וְדִרְשוּ אֶת־שְׁלוֹם הָעיר אֲשֶׁר הִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה וְהִתְפַּלְלוּ בַֽעֲדָהּ אֶל־יְהֹוָה כִּי בִשְׁלוֹמָהּ יִֽהְיה לָכֶם שָׁלֽוֹם:

7 And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to live (be carried away captive,) and pray to the Eternal for it; for in the peace of that city shall you have peace.

The Mishnah tells us “Rabbi Chanina taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without fear of governmental authorities people would swallow each other alive” (Pirkei Avot 3:2).

ב רַבִּי חֲנִינָא סְגַן הַכֹּהֲנִים אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בָּלָעוּ.

So for more than two and a half thousand years, Jews have had the tradition of praying for the welfare of the monarch and government of the countries in which they lived, well aware that without good government, anarchy and danger will prevail : “without good governmental authorities, people would swallow each other alive”

As well as the importance of good governance, these sages also knew about the importance of community: (2:5)

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר, וְאַל תַּאֲמֵן בְּעַצְמָךְ עַד יוֹם מוֹתָךְ, וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרָךְ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ,

Hillel said, do not separate yourself  from the community, do not trust yourself until the day you die, do not judge your friend until you reach his place…

And Hillel’s contemporary Shammai taught (1:15)

טו שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמוֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:

“Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.”

Hillel also taught about the importance that each individual take responsibility for themselves, but also that we take responsibility for each other, and that this is an imperative: (1:14)

יד הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:

1:14 “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And, if I am for myself only, then what am I? And, if not now, when?”

Hillel, was active between 30 BCE and around 10 CE. His formulation of the golden rule “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a)” is a masterful one. If we all behaved in a way we would like others to behave to us, life would be far more pleasant.

Another sage, ben Azzai formulated it slightly differently, with a reminder of the importance of each human being:

ג הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם:

4:3. “He (the son of Azzai) used to say, do not be disrespectful of any person and do not be dismissive of any thing, for there is no person who does not have their hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place.”

I would like to end this study with the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: (2:16)

טז הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

Rabbi Tarfon (70CE) taught: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (2:16).

So what do we learn from this two thousand year old collection that is helpful for us today? Well firstly that there is, as Kohelet says

 מַה־שֶּֽׁהָיָה הוּא שֶׁיִּֽהְיֶה וּמַה־שֶּׁנַּֽעֲשָׂה הוּא שֶׁיֵּֽעָשֶׂה וְאֵין כָּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ:  יֵשׁ דָּבָר שֶׁיֹּאמַר רְאֵה־זֶה חָדָשׁ הוּא כְּבָר הָיָה לְעֹֽלָמִים אֲשֶׁר הָיָה מִלְּפָנֵֽנוּ:  אֵין זִכְרוֹן לָרִֽאשֹׁנִים וְגַם לָֽאַֽחֲרֹנִים שֶׁיִּֽהְיוּ לֹֽא־יִֽהְיֶה לָהֶם זִכָּרוֹן עִם שֶׁיִּֽהְיוּ לָֽאַֽחֲרֹנָֽה:

 That which has been is that which shall be, and that which has been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there a thing whereof it is said: ‘See, this is new’?–it has been already, in the ages which were before us. There is no remembrance of them of former times; neither shall there be any remembrance of them of latter times that are to come, among those that shall come after.

And secondly that for people to live well and peacefully and gain in prosperity and feel secure, they need both good governance that wields its power well, and they need good community, where people take responsibility for themselves and for each other.

This is my prayer for this Council, as it deliberates and balances different goods on behalf of the people of Merton. This council will have to make difficult decisions, to stretch its resources to the limit, to find a way to serve its different communities who will have competing needs and desires.  I pray that at all times you remember the importance of respect for all people, remembering that there is no person who does not have their hour. I pray that you never set yourselves apart from the community, that you never stop questioning yourselves, that you never feel distant from the real lived experience of your constituents. I pray that your governance brings security and settled peace to all who live in your boundaries. I hope you keep before you always the need to say little but to do much, and always to meet each other with a friendly face.

Every Saturday morning Jews pray for the welfare of the Government with the words V’chol mi she’oskin b’tzorcehy tzibbur be’emunah,  Hakadosh baruch hu yeshalem sechoram,  V’yishlach beracha v’hatzlacha bechol ma’asey y’deyhem

“All those who are occupied faithfully with the needs of the community may the Almighty pay their reward. May God send blessing prosperity and success in all the deeds of their hands. And let us say Amen”