A Tree of Life – and life giving trees: Tu b’Shevat

“One day Choni the circle maker was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready-grown] carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted these for me so I too plant these for my children”.            ( Talmud Bavli: Taanit 23a)

Trees are deeply important in our tradition, and also have their own relationship with God. They are prominent in our texts – mentioned at the Creation, vital to the narrative in the Garden of Eden; the Hebrew word for tree appears in the bible over 150 times and more than 100 different kinds of trees, shrubs and plants are named. The Mishnah follows suit, naming hundreds more plants in its legal codification. In all more than 500 different plants are named in our traditional texts.  Trees are a signifier of the connection the Jews have with the land, and reflect the relationship that we have with the Land of Israel – Moses repeatedly reminds us that we must care for the land and treat it well, and not only land but people – otherwise we will be driven out from there as other nations apparently were before us.  

Trees have a special place in how we create awareness of God. For they are not only part of the natural world, they are also used repeatedly in our texts as a metaphor for humanity, for life, for reaching upwards to God and rooting the self in the world.  Trees symbolise so much, they have a quasi-divine element, a quasi-human element. They feed us, they provide shelter, they bridge the generations, and they act as a bellwether for our moral state.

We read in Deuteronomy “ When you will besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you? (20:19)

This image, comparing the fruit tree to human beings, powerfully reminds us of the damage that can be inflicted in a war between people, and in obliging us to protect the trees reminds us of what we have in common with them. If we should not cut down the fruit bearing tree, how much more so should we consider the safety of the people being besieged?

We are about to celebrate the festival of Tu b’Shevat – the fifteenth day of the month Shevat. Originally Tu b’Shevat was simply the way by which the age of trees was measured for purpose of tithing and of orlah (the first three years when the fruit was considered strictly God’s property and not to be eaten by anyone). In effect it marks the boundary of a tax year.

After the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70CE the taking of tithes from fruit trees fell into disuse, but the date remained special in our calendars. The Mishnah recorded four new years  and their dates: – Rosh Hashanah le’ilanot (Tu b’Shevat) for trees, Rosh Hashanah for years, Rosh Hashanah lema’aser behemah for tithing animals, and Rosh Hashanah le’mel’achim for counting the years of a king’s reign.

The date of Tu b’Shevat has stayed in our calendar throughout the time we were without our land, celebrated and noted by communities all over the world. The Kabbalists of Sfat in the 16th and 17th century developed a ritual – the Tu b’Shevat Seder – to represent our connection to the land of Israel and also to reflect the mystical concept of God’s relationship with our world being like a tree.  The Seder consisted of eating the different types of traditional fruits grown in Israel and connecting the different types of these fruit with each the Four Worlds of Kabbalistic theology, drinking four cups of wine that were each mixed with different proportions of wine with each cup of wine symbolizing one of the four seasons, and reading texts about trees.

The mystics understand Tu B’Shevat as being the day when the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe.  And they taught that by offering blessings on Tu B’Shevat, a person can help in the healing of the world. From this came the belief that since on Tu B’Shevat we offer a blessing for each fruit before we consume it, the more fruits we eat, the more blessings we can offer to help heal the world.

In more modern times Tu b’Shevat has been a gift to the Zionist movement and the return to the Land. They have used it as an opportunity to plant trees in Israel as a way of transforming  the land, as well as re-attaching ourselves to the physical Land of Israel. And most recently the Jewish ecological movements have adopted the day to remind us in  powerful messages of our obligation to care for the environment.

All these themes bound up in Tu b’Shevat are important and helpful to our own Jewish identity and spirituality. There is an overarching theme of healing the world through our connections with nature, of the importance and symbiosis of our relationship with the natural world. And in our relationship with nature, we express our relationship with God. Caring for our world is a sacred task. As we read in Proverbs (3:18)

עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ 

[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her is happy.

Our tradition asks: “How can a person of flesh and blood follow God? … God, from the very beginning of creation, was occupied before all else with planting.  Therefore … occupy yourselves first and foremost with planting.  – Midrash: Leviticus Rabbah 25:3

It reminds us that  “If you have a sapling in your hand and people tell you that the Messiah has come, plant the sapling and then go and greet him” (Avot de Rabbi Natan)

Vaccinations and Public Health – Pikuach Nefesh

L’Italiano segue Inglese

When my mother told my small niece not to go out of the gate when playing in the garden, my niece resisted, saying she had learned at her orthodox Jewish primary school that “the God of Israel will protect me”. She could certainly leave the garden and go into the road. When my mother explained that the God of Israel was using her as the protective agent to watch over my niece’s safety, she reluctantly agreed to staying within the garden.

I think of this story whenever I come across Jews who refuse medical interventions because of “the will of God”, and when I hear the phrase “pikuach nefesh” used in response. While we are used to translating the phrase as “saving a life”, its root meaning is “watching over or overseeing a person”. Our obligation to others is to watch out for them, ensuring that they are not endangered.

My niece, disabused of the notion that God would always protect her, grew up aware of the Jewish obligation to take care of each other, that the “looking out for” the other is the responsibility of everyone in society.  Looking out for the other means taking public health seriously, rather then allowing each to make a decision for themselves that may have harmful consequences for others. It means not expecting God to intervene to help us, but being the agent of protection ourselves – protecting ourselves and others.

History has shown us that biblical verses like “Whoever keeps the mitzvot will  know no harm” (Ecc8:5) cannot be read at face value, that faith in God is not the harbinger of survival, and that the kind of piety that expects divine protection as reward for uncritical devotion is at best misguided. From Talmud on the idea that a doctor may heal even what God has caused is threaded through our texts. Healing becomes a religious obligation, preventing danger and illness a duty.

Recently the haredi world was in uproar when a prominent rabbi advocated vaccinating children against Covid. He received death threats, was called “Amalek” whose name must be erased, accused of murder by his own community, purportedly in God’s name.

Progressive Judaism does not teach that illness is God’s will nor that only the undeserving succumb. Faith does not preserve, disease is not a judgment, each of us must watch out for others.  Vaccination protects us all. It’s a mitzvah. Do it.

Vaccini e salute pubblica – Pikuach Nefesh

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild il 9 gennaio 2022

          Quando mia madre diceva alla mia nipotina di non uscire dal cancello mentre giocava in giardino, mia nipote opponeva resistenza, e, come aveva imparato nella sua scuola elementare ebraica ortodossa, diceva: “il Dio di Israele mi proteggerà”. Poteva lasciare il giardino e mettersi tranquillamente in strada. Quando mia madre le spiegava che il Dio d’Israele la stava usando come agente protettivo per vegliare sulla sua sicurezza, lei accettava con riluttanza di rimanere nel giardino.

          Penso a questa storia ogni volta che mi imbatto in ebrei che rifiutano gli interventi medici a causa della “volontà di Dio”, e quando sento la frase “pikuach nefesh” usata come risposta. Nonostante siamo abituati a tradurre la frase come “salvare una vita”, il suo significato principale è “vegliare o sorvegliare una persona”. Il nostro obbligo nei confronti degli altri è di prenderci cura di loro, assicurandoci che non siano in pericolo.

          Mia nipote, disillusa all’idea che Dio l’avrebbe sempre protetta, è cresciuta consapevole dell’obbligo ebraico di prendersi cura l’uno dell’altro, che “prendersi cura” dell’altro è responsabilità di tutti nella società. Prendersi cura dell’altro significa prendere sul serio la salute pubblica, piuttosto che permettere a ciascuno di prendere una singola decisione che potrebbe avere conseguenze dannose per gli altri. Significa non aspettarsi che Dio intervenga per aiutarci, ma essere noi stessi l’agente di protezione, proteggendo noi stessi e gli altri.

          La storia ci ha mostrato che versetti biblici come “Chi osserva le mitzvot non conoscerà alcun male” (Ecc 8:5) non possono essere intesi alla lettera, che la fede in Dio non è foriera di sopravvivenza e che il tipo di pietà che si aspetta la divina protezione come ricompensa per la devozione acritica è, nella migliore delle ipotesi, fuorviante. Dal Talmud in poi l’idea che un medico possa guarire anche ciò che Dio ha causato è intessuta nei nostri testi. Guarire diventa un obbligo religioso, prevenire il pericolo e la malattia diventa un dovere.

          Recentemente il mondo haredi è stato in subbuglio quando un eminente rabbino ha sostenuto la vaccinazione dei bambini contro il Covid. Ha ricevuto minacce di morte, è stato chiamato “Amalek” il cui nome deve essere cancellato, accusato di omicidio dalla sua stessa comunità, presumibilmente in nome di Dio.

          L’ebraismo progressivo non insegna che la malattia è volontà di Dio né che solo gli immeritevoli soccombono. La fede non preserva, la malattia non è un giudizio, ognuno di noi deve stare attento agli altri. La vaccinazione ci protegge tutti. È una mitzvà. Fatela.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

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

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…

15th Elul: Which God do you not believe in?

Elul 15 23rd August

A discussion among my colleagues – “What does one say when someone says to you “Rabbi, I don’t believe in God””

One answer – “I always ask them which God they don’t believe in”.

My teacher Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet used to bemoan the fact that so many Jews give up serious Jewish education at bar/bat mitzvah. They had, he used to say, a thirteen year old god. And as they grew and matured, their idea of God was frozen in time, adolescent and unbelievable.

Jews are the people of Israel – literally the ones who struggle with God. We are not required (despite the Maimonidean doctrine) to believe in God. Indeed earliest rabbinic Judaism was not so much interested in what people believed about divinity, but talked instead about shared narratives. Slightly later we have the extraordinary rabbinic midrash on the verse in Jeremiah (16:11) “They have forsaken Me and not kept my Torah”   – “If only they had forsaken Me but kept my Torah!” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 5-7th Century)

Rabbinic Judaism is far more interested in how people behave, in the keeping of mitzvot, in action rather than in belief.

Since the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai on the way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in their ancestral land, Jews are a people who are commanded – who are under a chiyyuv, and obligation – and whose live are traditionally framed by the observance of mitzvot.

Of course the idea of commandments does somewhere require there to be a commander, but while we may have an historic metzaveh in our texts, the doing of mitzvot is in and of itself integral to our religious life. So for example Rabbi David Polish wrote that “When a Jew performs one of the many life acts known as mitzvot to remind themselves of the moments of encounter, what was only episodic becomes epochal, what was only a moment in Jewish history becomes eternal in Jewish life”[i]  His examples of the lighting of shabbat candles or of sitting at a Pesach seder are some of the examples he gives of our connecting with Jews across the world and across time.  The meaning and purpose of mitzvah for him is in part a way of sharing history and experiences across Jewish people hood, something that strengthens us in the world, and that momentarily allows us to transcend the mundane into the spiritual. 

There are many rabbinic names and descriptors for God. There are ways of understanding God not as a noun but as a verb – we are not tied to a thirteen year old god, some kind of supernatural being to whom we have to speak in stilted and formalised language. My very favourite name for God is “haMakom” – literally “the place”. Not a geographical location but a space where things can happen.

Israel – Jews – are named for struggling with God. Struggling with the ideas, the ethical demands, the behaviours that are required of us to be in covenant with God. The struggle is ongoing. If you find it hard to believe in the God of your childhood, then it is up to you to search the texts and find God with whom you can have a dialogue.


[i] ” Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle, ed. Simeon J. Maslin [New York: CCAR Press, 1979]

13th Elul – ki tetzei – you shall not remain indifferent

Elul 13  21st August  Shabbat ki Tetzei

Ki Tetzei: You Shall Not Remain Indifferent – The Extra Dimension in Jewish Law

first Posted on September 1, 2014

            Parashat Ki Tetzei contains seventy two commandments, (some say 74: either way the largest number in any Torah portion). They deal with such diverse subjects as the treatment of captives, defiant children, lost animals, birds’ nests, roof railings, divorce, rights of aliens, loans, vows, and protection of works; parental guilt, charity for the poor, regulations for inheritance and fair weights and measures. Many attempts have been made to categorize such laws, but the words of Torah which conclude the duty to return lost property or to keep it safe until it can be restored to its owner – the words lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent (or you shall not hide or act as if you cannot see) seem to me to sum up the ethical principle which underpins these disparate laws most powerfully.

            Way back in the book of Genesis, when Cain says to God “am I my brother’s keeper?” the response from God is “What have you done, your brother’s blood calls out to Me from the ground” – in other words it is made clear to Cain that ‘Yes, we are responsible for each other; we must not remain indifferent to the situation of others, nor hide from their pain, nor avoid seeing their distress. More than that, we have to try to see ahead, to work out the possibilities that our actions or omissions may cause others. We are obliged to consider the effects of what we do upon other people.

‘Lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent’ It is a powerful dictum, a motto for every day life. It could have been formulated for our middle class existence, when people talk of compassion fatigue, of undeserving refugees; when we create rational and reasonable explanations for our unwillingness to care about the discomfort in the world we see around us.   Lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent – it is an in-your-face moral and ethical requirement, taking us further into our humanity, reminding us that however practical Judaism is, however much a religion of doing, the doing is based on our shared humanity, our striving to reach a fuller and richer knowledge of our Source.

            Nachmanides makes it clear that the mitzvah of returning lost property supersedes any inconvenience to the finder. He reminds us that the mitzvah applies to friends, strangers, and even to enemies. He says “Assist others. Remember the bond of humanity between you, and forget the hatred”. Benno Jacob builds on his commentary, and suggests that the act of helping an enemy by helping his lost animal is itself a means of arriving at reconciliation. But it is Pinchas Peli who crystallizes the heart of Judaism taught in this huge collection of disparate laws – “From the moment one notices an animal gone astray, or an object lost by someone, one must not hide oneself. Whether he is busy with something else, or whether he chooses to get involved, a person is in fact involved, and duty bound to bring the object to his home, keeping it there safely until it can be returned to its owner. While some legal systems require returning or handing over found property to the authorities, none enjoins the finder from ignoring the lost object in the first place.

            Judaism is an infinitely complex way of being. There is no single Hebrew expression to approximate the word ‘religious’ – the use of idioms such as dati (legally observant) or charedi (quaking in the presence of the lord) are recent innovations, and they are not only inadequate and parochial, they distort the essence of Judaism. Judaism is not only about what one does and doesn’t do. It is more than what rituals you keep, or what time you separate. It isn’t lived only in the spiritual plane nor exclusively in the material world, but is rooted in the ethical and the moral. A legal code which tells us to behave properly towards others, to look after lost property even of your enemy, to make strenuous efforts to return that property – this we all understand and appreciate. But that extra expectation, – you shall not pretend not to see or to notice this property – you shall not hide yourself or be indifferent to your surroundings, however inconvenient it might be for you to notice them and therefore to have to respond to them – that is a quintessentially Jewish requirement, a teaching which fully recognises age old human rationalizations or ways of glossing over what we’d rather not deal with.    

            At this time of year, in the month of Ellul, we examine our lives and the things we have done or left undone, affecting people around us as well as affecting ourselves. It is a time when we need to be honest, to stop hiding behind all the good reasons why we didn’t have time to do what we should have done, to stop sliding our eyes away from the pain we have participated in.

Lo tuchal lehitalem- you shall not hide yourself, you shall not be indifferent.   We are not permitted to look the other way, to continue with our lives as routinely as before. Hiding the truth from ourselves and not acting to help others is a direct prohibition. Indifference to our world is intolerable, unethical and it breaches our morality. As we continue the run up to Rosh Hashanah, the annual Heshbon ha Nefesh – accounting of our soul, we need to strip away the pretence, come out of hiding and look clearly and dispassionately at our world and our place in it.

Losing our indifference might be the best thing we do all year.

wiesel indifference

 

11th Elul – Yossele the miser and Yomtov Lipman Heller

Elul 11 19th August 2021

On 19th August 1654 the Yom Tov Lipman Heller, a student of the Maharal of Prague and the author of a commentary on the Mishnah (Tosefot Yom Tov) died.  He was a deep scholar of Talmud, but also a keen student of bible, Hebrew grammar, philosophy, geometry, natural science mathematics and astronomy.  He was also known for his integrity and became a communal leader at a very early age.

Besides his great talmudic knowledge, he engaged in the study of Kabbalah, religious philosophy, and Hebrew grammar and also acquired an extensive general knowledge, particularly of mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences. In 1597, when only 18 years of age, he was appointed dayyan in Prague, and served in this office for 28 years, during which period he became renowned for his knowledge and for his integrity. As well as Talmudic commentary, he wrote commentary to that of Asher ben Yechiel, (The Rosh) focussing on prayer and on kashrut and developing the local Prague halachic traditions. He also translated the Rosh’s ethical work “Orchot Chayim” written originally for the author’s sons and embodying teachings to live an ethical Jewish life. Heller introduced the reading of parts of this work into the liturgy of his community and the work is an important part of mussar literature to this day.

His life was not easy – his integrity and his straightforwardness meant that he was not a successful political being nor always a revered community leader, but his character shines through his work and through stories that are told about him. So, for example, we see his response to the persecutions of 1648 being to try to help agunot lose that awful status. And we have the testimony on his death that “he did not leave the wherewithal to purchase shrouds, even though he was the Av Beit Din of Cracow… all this because he never took dishonest money” (testimony of Z Margulies, intro Hibburei likkutim 1715)

The story I find most fascinating is that of Yossele, the Miser of Cracow.  When Yossele, a wealthy man but one who was never seen to give tzedakah or to help the community died, YomTov Heller was asked where to bury him. He decreed that as this man had not supported the community in any way, he should be buried in a far corner of the cemetery away from the places where the most honoured people would be buried. Shortly after the burial however it became apparent that far from being a miser Yossele had practised the highest level of tzedakah – he had given anonymously via third parties so that no-one knew the level of his charitable giving, nor did he know to whom this support were going.  Far from being a miser, he was now understood to be a lamed vavnik. Yom Tov Heller repented his harsh decision and left instruction that he be buried in the same section as Yossele as an act of teshuvah.

His grave is indeed in a remote part of the cemetery in Cracow.

Image of grave by Talmidavi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48824514

4th Elul – holy texts holy people

Elul 4 12th August

On this day in 1553 Pope Julius the third ordered the confiscation and burning of the Talmud.

‘Once these books are removed,’ an advisor to the Roman Inquisition had written, ‘it will soon be that the more that they are without the wisdom of their rabbis, so much more will they be prepared and disposed to receive the Christian faith and,’ what he calls, ‘the wisdom of the word of God.’

The Inquisitors confiscated every copy of the Talmud in Italy; On Rosh Hashanah 5314 (9 September 1553), that the Talmud and many other Jewish books were burnt in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.

On 12 September 1553 another papal decree was issued, demanding that all copies of the Talmud throughout the Catholic world be gathered and destroyed. In Venice – then the world centre of Hebrew printing  – the order was interpreted to include other Jewish books as well. On Saturday, 21 October 1553 , 3rd Cheshvan 5314 all  the books gathered were burned in Piazza San Marco.

Other Hebrew books were burned in 1568 in Venice.

Throughout the remainder of the sixteenth-century, a complete edition of the Talmud could not be found anywhere in the region.

Later, the printing of Hebrew books was permitted once more, but under censorship. They were checked and licenced by the authorities (licenza dei Superiori)  whose imprimatur can be found in all Hebrew texts printed in Venice from the second half of the 16th century onwards.

The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and studying it has shaped Jewish thinking. Those of us who have read a page a day (daf yomi) for the seven and a half years it takes to complete the books  will attest to a change in how the world is perceived. Yet the ideas of a people do not only reside on the printed page, and the burning of their books did not destroy the Jewish people.

Judaism resides in the spirit of the Jewish people. Ideas may be suppressed, people may be martyred, but as Leo Baeck wrote centuries later “A people only dies when its spirit dies”.

On the plaque recording the great burning in Rome there are two quotations. One from the Talmudic story of the martyrdom of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion, who, wrapped in a burning torah scroll called out “The parchment is burning but the letters fly up to heaven”, the second from the lamentation Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh, a kinah by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, written in the 13th century after the Disputation of Paris led to the destruction of almost every copy of the Talmud in Europe. The question is directed at the Torah, how can the text given in holy fire be destroyed in worldly fire?  “My question, burned in the fire, about the welfare of mourners” (Sha’ali Serufah ba’Esh, leshalom avelai’ich”

For all that study of our texts has sustained and nourished us, informed and shaped our thinking, allowed us to express our reality and pursue ideas to their sometimes extraordinary conclusions, the texts themselves repeatedly tell us that it is the ideas they embody rather then the physical artefacts that matter. What is given in holy fire cannot be destroyed in worldly fire. It is our interaction and engagement with the ideas of Judaism that keeps our spirit alive, and keeps our people alive.

This coming week, month, year find some texts and engage with them. It can be bible or siddur, Talmud or commentary. Let yourself be touched and changed, discover for yourselves the holy fire.

2nd Elul 5781 We can each do our share in making the world a better place.

2nd Elul 2021 10 August 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg sworn in United States Supreme Court

On this day in 1993 RBG was sworn in as the second woman – and the first Jewish woman – to serve on the US Supreme Court.

At the time she said “I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and the courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”

Throughout her life and career, Justice Ginsburg fought against oppression and inequality. She is credited with transforming opportunities and livelihoods previously dictated by gender inequalities. She was influential on Civil Rights Law, and dismantled a network of laws which supported sex discrimination. Perhaps surprisingly, many of her landmark legal successes came while she was representing men. Ultimately, Justice Ginsberg was clear: gender inequality is harmful to everyone. 

She also said “Promoting active liberty does not mean allowing the majority to run roughshod over minorities. It calls for taking special care that all groups have a chance to fully participate in society and the political process.”

We can’t be RBG, but she was carrying on a legacy of justice that is our inheritance and obligation too. We may not be able to change or to create legislation, but in our own ways and our own worlds we can have the strength and courage to serve that command.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, asked to give advice to young people about how to fulfil that obligation said “Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do our share to redeem the world despite all absurdities and all the frustration and all the disappointment.”

We can each do our share. Indeed, it is all that we can do. The only question is how we plan to do it.