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.

Rosh Chodesh Elul

1st Elul  2021 Rosh Hashanah Le’ma’aseir Behema    9th August

Mishnah tells us there are four New Years, and the 1st of Elul is the New Year for the accounting purposes of tithing domestic animals.

While this is a date for a Temple practise and therefore has no practical significance today, the date has been glossed in order to publicise the Jewish value of Tza‘ar Ba’alei Hayim  – of preventing the suffering of animals.

The phrase originates in a Talmudic discussion about the treatment of domestic beasts, their loading and the conditions they must work under (BT Bava Metzia 32b).

Hebrew uses a number of words for animals – in Genesis animals, like humans are “Nefesh Chaya” – living souls. Biblically we see behema/ot are domesticated animals, Chaya (literally “alive” the word for wild animals (in modern Hebrew the generic word for animals, while wild animals are chayat bar, animals of the wild). But this  Talmudic  phrase Ba’alei Hayim not only recognises that animals are living, but that they are quite literally the masters or owners of life.

What does it mean to be an owner of life? And how does seeing our domestic animals as such figures influence how we think of them and treat them?

Judaism generally treats God as the Owner of Life – the One who gives and takes away life. We read in Talmud (Berachot 60b) the prayer familiar to all who read the morning service, the Elohai Neshama…:

When one awakens, one recites:
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure.
You formed it within me,
You breathed it into me,
and You guard it while it is within me.
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come.
As long as the soul is within me, I thank You,
O Eternal my God and God of my ancestors, Master of all worlds, Possessor of all souls.
Blessed are You, O Eternal who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

While it is clear that the Talmudic phrase “Ba’alei Chayim” is referencing animals that are in the service of human activity, it uses a lens we frequently ignore or even deny. Animals, even those who work for us or are farmed and herded in order to provide food for us, have a level of existence and meaning that also reflects the Creator of Life. We humans may have accorded ourselves the highest level in the creation story, the ones who name the animals and who will use them for our own benefit, but animal life too is important and has a spark of divine force, and it is not enough simply to avoid unnecessary cruelty.

Talmud tells us (BTBava Metzia 85a) “Once a calf being led to slaughter thrust its head into the skirts of Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi]’s robe and began to bleat plaintively. “Go,” he said, “for this is why you were created.” Because he spoke without compassion, he was afflicted [at the hand of Heaven].(the midrash tells us he suffered toothache for 13 years)

Then one day, his maidservant was cleaning his house and came upon some young weasels. She was about to chase them away with a broom, when Rabbi Yehudah said to her, “Let them be, for it is written: ‘God’s tender mercies are upon all God’s works'” (Psalms 145:9). They said [in Heaven], “Since he is merciful, let him be treated with mercy.” [Thereafter, his pain ceased.]

This day, Rosh Chodesh Elul, is the day to consider the value of Tza’ar Ba’alei Hayim and ask ourselves, how do we value Creation in our daily lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L’italiano segue l’inglese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild, il 1 gennaio 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

 

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

What does the bible say about voting?

God’s will was communicated to the High Priest through the Urim and Tumim, the earliest recorded “voting device”, but generally in bible leadership was not achieved by democratic decision.

That said, bible gives us guidance about qualities in leaders, helping us decide how to use our votes.

Jethro advises Moses “Provide from the entire people able people who fear God, trustworthy and hating bribes…to be their rulers”(Ex 18), and Moses tells Israel “Take from every tribe men of wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and.. make them rulers over you. (Deut 1:13)

Hosea provides a picture of inappropriate government: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” “They have set up kings, but not from Me, made princes, and I knew it not; of their silver and gold have they made idols” and warns of the consequences. Proverbs teaches “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.(29:2) and reminds us of the perils of short termism: “The lip of truth shall be established for ever: but a lying tongue is but for a moment.”

So what do we learn? Political candidates should be from across the population rather than a political class; they should be trustworthy, able to understand their role and bring a knowledgeable mind to their work. They should have integrity; not be swayed by the interests of the wealthy or lobbyists, nor interested in material gain. They should be working for the benefit of the whole people and not prioritise short-term political gains above long term. And bible has another insight – we should watch who politicians associate with. “Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man do not go: Lest you learn their ways, and get a snare to thy soul.” Because “when the wicked rise, people hide themselves away”