Chanukah and Christmas: chocolate coins and presents as we celebrate God in the world

On Tuesday evening Jews all over the world will light chanukiot, the 8 branched candelabra used to celebrate the festival of Chanukah. It commemorates the regaining of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE, and its rededication after the occupying Seleucids had defiled it while imposing Hellenic culture over its empire, prohibiting any other religions.  The story of the successful revolt by a small group of pious Jews against the large military power of its day has a touch of the miraculous, and sure enough the narratives first found in the apocryphal first two Books of Maccabees have evolved in their retelling, well beyond the original event.

The dark threads of the story are eclipsed by the reframing in the Talmud, which saw Chanukah as less of a human story of oppression and guerrilla warfare, and more as a demonstration of the divine presence in history. So today we celebrate the miracle of oil staying alight for 8 days rather than one, and we eat foods cooked in oil and play games of chance that refer to the miracle, we give presents each night and generally make merry with friends and family, and think very little of the origin of the rebellion against assimilation with the dominant power.

The date of Chanukah – 25th Kislev – moves around the calendar a little but is always around Christmas. And the date is not the only similarity. Both are festivals rooted in pagan winter solstice where lighting the surrounding darkness is central. Both use tree symbolism – the Chanukiah is based on the Temple Menorah, which bible describes using botanical terms – clearly a Tree of Life, while Christmas uses evergreens – holly, ivy, fir trees – to proclaim Everlasting Life. Both stories are set in times of oppression – the Seleucid Empire and the Roman one, and both embed hope that human oppression is vanquished by divine activity. Both signal God’s presence in the world and both stories have a mythic quality of redemption.

And there are other similarities. In modern times the minor post-biblical festival of Chanukah has taken on some less wholesome aspects of Christmas in a bid to compete for Jewish attention.  Both now struggle against commercialisation overpowering their religious message, both become overindulgent. On Chanukah the ‘gelt’ that began as a way to give children small change to use when playing dreidl quickly grew into a present every evening, as more assimilated communities noticed the joy that Christmas presents brought. Chocolate coins took over. What can you do when your child looks at all the glittering baubles with awe and desire? The festival marking rejecting the dominant culture has assimilated it perfectly. As my young son said to his friend when discussing their different Decembers – “What? ONLY ONE night of Christmas? Poor you”

 This article first published in the London Evening Standard on 11th December 2017

Vayetzei: The Importance of Awe

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know”. He has a sense of wonder, and he expresses it:  “How full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”

The phrase “Ma nora ha’makom ha’zeh, ein zeh ki im beit Elohim” (How full of awe is this place, this is none other than the house of God”) is part of the stonework on the exterior of the synagogue I   grew  up in, and as one walked in and looked up, that is the sentiment one felt – even though it is situated in what is now inner city Bradford, on a less than salubrious road.

The religious message I received as a child was bound up in this synagogue, in the community of people and in the building they worshipped in. It was a two-fold message- Firstly that we can encounter God wherever we are, for God is always ‘in this place’ as are we, and often we do not notice how close God can be to us.

Secondly it was made clear that awe is a necessary instinct;  God is beyond our comprehension or reason, and we must respect that reality. We have to live with not being able to control God or demand from God or expect to understand God.

When we pray, what are we really doing?

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a scholar, theologian and social activist. He wrote “the predicament of prayer is twofold: not only do we not know how to pray, we do not know what to pray for.  We have lost the ability to be shocked.”

Heschel also suggested that we have overemphasized intellectual ideas when we think about religion, and that we also overemphasise religious belief; For Heschel religion is more like a way of being in the world, a way of facing life and dealing with it.

In Judaism, ‘Believing’ is not the most important thing for a religious Jew, but Awe, or the ability to be shocked is the fundamental requirement.  The bible talks of the religious person as one who is yirat Adonai, or yirat shamayim – in awe of God or in awe of heaven. Without a sense of awe, without the ability to be shocked or moved by what we see around us, we can never really move on to encounter God, or develop a sense of faith.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told in my rabbinate that someone doesn’t really believe in God;  the number of apologies that somehow come my way. I never quite know as a rabbi how to help people to believe in God if that is what they think they want, but what I am sure of is that the beginning of such a journey is Awe.

When Jacob first encounters God he notices how the place is filled with Awe, and he had not understood it. It takes time, and possibly even a certain vulnerability for us to open ourselves to noticing God.

Many of our services begin with the phrase “v’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon” usually translated as “and as for me, let my prayer come before you God at a favourable time”, but it is more complex than that, meaning something more like and I am my prayer to you God at a favourable time”. We are in fact our own prayers – if only we would let ourselves be so. Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote “Meeting God can be simple, but nothing can happen if we do not will it. If we seek God then God can be found. God will allow us to find God if we seek with all our will” (RSGB Machzor p 312)

 

One of the lessons from this sidra is how easy it is not to notice how close God can be to us if we do not choose to open ourselves to the possibility.  And we sometimes need help to do this. Beautiful places, whether natural or built by human beings, can help us catch the numinous. Too narrow a focus on what we are doing, our goals and aspirations, our desire not to look back – all can stop us being aware and in the moment.

The ability to be shocked, to notice and to understand the implications of what has become normalised – this is the skill we need to nurture. The ability to be moved by what we see and hear, rather than to blot it out or cover it with our own inner monologue. Jacob left his comfort zone when he left his home, and only then did he meet God. We may not need to leave our homes, but we too need to go out as he did – vayetzei – and begin to pay attention to all we have ignored.bradford interior

 

 

 

 

 

Vayera – how does God appear in the world – and how do we manage God’s appearance in the world?

At the end of last week’s sidra, Abraham, Ishmael and all of the men in his household were circumcised as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. Abraham’s implicit trust in God has led him to leave his homeland, together with his wife and household. He has made covenants with God, each time with the promise/blessing that he will have descendants and land.

They left Haran and arrived in Canaan and within six verses we have another divine encounter: “Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, untilעַ֖ד אֵל֣וֹן מוֹרֶ֑ה – the oak trees of Moreh, while the Canaanite was still in the land.     

And God appeared to Abram  וַיֵּרָ֤א יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־   אַבְרָ֔ם   and said “to your seed I will give this land” and he built there an altar to God who had appeared to him  הַנִּרְאֶ֥ה אֵלָֽיו

After this Abram went to the mountain to the east of Beit El and encamped there, and built an altar to God and called on God’s name, before moving onwards to the south.

The nature of Abraham’s “call”, his acceptance of God and his willingness to do as commanded has sometimes meant that Abraham is seen as the ultimate “man of faith”. After all he is willing to remove himself from homeland and family, to travel to an unknown destination, to offer both his sons to God’s desires and his existential aloneness is mitigated by the covenant with God. Yet Abraham is also held up to us as a role model – he is the first Ivri, one who crosses boundaries; he is Avraham Avinu – our father and founder; he is the embodiment of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, modelling openness and welcoming hospitality to all.

We are not privy to the origins of Abraham’s extraordinary faith – the first we know is that God tells him to go and he goes. But early in parashat Lech Lecha God appears to Abram by some oak trees, and now here in parashat Vayera we have the same thing.  Sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day, Abraham is sheltering and looking outwards. He is, once again, by some oak trees וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א this time those of Mamre, when God appears to him. The same language, the same setting, with only minor differences. Abraham has a revelation, once more seeing God amongst the trees.

There is debate among the traditional commentators whether Abraham has one or two revelations at this point. Is the introductory verse telling us that God appears to Abraham just that, a sort of headline for what is to follow, as Maimonides posited? Or is it a revelation in and of itself as Rashi and others thought, and in that case, just what can be learned from it? For Abraham sees not God, but three ‘men’, and his response is not to build an altar or set out a ritual covenant, but to rush out to welcome them in, and to provide a meal for them. And the next verse gives us even more room for ambiguity, for when Abraham speaks he says:

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַֽעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ

“Adonai (either “God” or “My lords”) If I have found favour in your sight, please do not pass by your servant”

Is he speaking to the men to invite them in for a rest, a wash and a meal? Or is he speaking to God and saying “wait please, while I offer hospitality to these men, and then I will have time to pay attention to you”?

I must say, I used to love the first interpretation the most: – the idea that we know that God was in these men but Abraham did not, yet still he responded to their needs with honour and dignity. From this it is easy to understand the importance of seeing past the surface of the people we meet, to draw the lesson that everyone has a spark of God within them, everyone is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and so we have a duty to relate to them, to care for them. The three men, hot and dusty and hungry and thirsty would have been a drain on the resources of their host, but Abraham did not hesitate to give them food and drink and comfort.

I still love that interpretation of the text, but I have come to appreciate the second one more. What if God reveals himself to Abraham, but immediately after this there is a pressing need to care for human beings, and Abraham finds himself saying to God – “can you wait please, there is something more important to do than listen to you right now?”

The something more important is, of course, the hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of the stranger and carer for the traveller that Abraham is so famous for. And the spiritual high, the encounter with the divine is of  lesser importance than the practical obligation to behave well towards others.

I like the idea that Abraham is less the paradigmatic man of perfect faith in the sense of his doing everything God tells him almost entirely without protest, and more the practical human being who responds viscerally to visceral need. I wonder if this instinctive act to help the travellers in the desert is the same instinct that causes him to later challenge God when the second revelation happens – the information that the whole of the city of Sdom will be destroyed, the righteous alongside the corrupt.  And I wonder what happened to that instinct after this episode.

For it seems to me that Abraham somehow loses his religious edge as he becomes a more patriarchal figure, and he becomes institutionally religious rather than instinctively so. No longer does he tell God to wait, nor does he argue with God when God asks the unaskable. He concurs. It is a terrible and repeated mistake, and by accepting God’s decrees he appears to lose his relationships with both his sons, with Hagar and with Sarah.

Abraham is indeed a role model for us, but maybe that should be modelling not uncritical religious faith and practise, but challenging it and inserting ourselves into the narratives. It would, I recognise, take some faith to ask God to wait while we do more important things in the world, but I have the feeling it would not be unwelcome.

Whenever I read the narratives of Abraham and Sarah, I am frustrated and made uncomfortable both by what is explicit in the text – the treatment of Hagar and Ishmael excluded from the family, the treatment of Sarah when she is bargained for Abraham’s freedom and of Isaac bound as a sacrifice to a demanding and testing God etc; and also by what is not explicit in the text – how does God talk to Abraham, what does Abraham see and experience…. I mistrust the certainty that seems built in to the narratives, the pain that is ignored – and I wonder how these stories can be a model for us – how can we recognise God’s presence in the world?

Abraham meets God twice by oak trees – large trees that cast shadows with canopies that play with the light coming through them. In each case the appearance of God could be understood to be just that – an appearance, or a vision, or a revelation. Abraham’s response in the first instance is to build an altar to mark the spot, but then to move some distance away and build a second altar from which to call on God. In the second instance no altar is necessary, no calling on God’s name and hoping for encounter – Abraham knows now what is important, he has his priorities straight – taking care of people in need trumps any vision or revelation, it outranks a personal encounter with divinity, all of that can wait – the work we do in the world to make it better is the critical work of being human and in the image of God.

I am not suggesting that prayer or contemplation or listening out for God’s voice in the world are not important – far from it. Any way in which we can ground ourselves in the relationship we have with the creator is important, it will nourish us and develop us and challenge us to be our best selves. But to make that the goal is to miss the point. Religion and ritual exist in order to keep us aware of what is important, though often they appear to exists only in order to perpetuate their own structures. Once a religion becomes an institution its focus changes to survival and regular challenges and reformations are needed to stop it crystallising.  The institutions may talk the talk but they walk the walk less readily.

So the idea of Abraham, the patriarch and founder of monotheistic religion, asking God to please wait while he gets on with caring for travellers is an important idea to keep hold of. We serve God best when we serve God’s creation, we cannot do God’s work if we turn our backs on God’s creatures in order to have a more spiritual focus.

 

 

Parashat Noach and Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan: – time to break the silence and speak out #metoo

Rosh Chodesh Marcheshvan is a special day for me – specifically it is the date on our Ketubah recording our chuppah (Jewish wedding)– and in my eagerness to be observant on that day and  I remember being slightly disappointed that the traditional wedding day fast in order to be cleansed of all ‘sin’ was overridden by the nature of the day.

I remember too the debate about the name of the month – would one write Cheshvan or Marcheshvan on the wedding document? The month may be free from festivals, but it was the beginning of our marriage – surely we couldn’t call the month “bitter Cheshvan” on that basis?

The eighth month in our calendar,  it may have come to us through the Akkadian/Babylonian language, and simply be a description of its place in the year, with  m’rach sh’van corresponding to “eighth month”.  Certainly the longer name of Marcheshvan is the one used in the Mishnah and in Talmudic texts, and the great rabbinic commentators Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Maimonides all give it this name, rather than the shorter Cheshvan.  And yet somewhere we lost that certainty and all sorts of traditions have grown up to explain why the month Cheshvan apparently has the prefix Mar. As I referred to earlier, the word can mean ‘bitter’ – leading to the idea that since this is a month with no celebrations at all, it is a bitter month. Others take the idea that Mar means a drop of water, and so see it as the word reminding us that in Cheshvan the rains must fall if we are to have good harvests and fill the aquifers, rivers and lakes in Israel. Yet others see it as a prefix denoting respect – we respect the beginning of our new lives post the festival marathon of Rosh Hashanah – Yom Kippur –Sukkot – Shemini Atzeret –Simchat Torah. Just as we want to live lives where we gain respect from others for our good actions, so we respect the month where we begin in earnest to live our ordinary lives as best we can.  There are many midrashim on the subject of MarCheshvan, and also about its other biblical name ‘Bul’, but this year something else struck me. The name Cheshvan written

חשון

Could come from the Hebrew root  חוש meaning “to make haste” or more likely from    חשה meaning “to be silent, or inactive”.

I have been thinking a lot about prayer recently, and about how we speak prayer and how we listen, how we actively seek connection with God and how we sometimes allow ourselves just to be, waiting through all the busyness and distractions of our lives for what in the First Book of Kings (19:12) is called  ק֖וֹל דְּמָמָ֥ה דַקָּֽה:

“The still small voice” or rather better – “the voice of slender silence”

Silence and contemplation can give great rewards in a prayer life. Time to reflect, to quieten the activity in our minds, to let go of all the “shoulds” and “musts” and imperatives of getting things done fast, no time wasted, hurry hurry hurry…..

The naming of Cheshvan seems to be a dissonance – the haste implied in one possible verbal root, the quietness and inaction in the other.

Add to that the water – bitter or otherwise – drip drip dripping into our consciousness, both life giving and life destroying – particularly when read in conjunction with parashat Noach, and Chesvan seems to be a deliberate puzzle. Are we to be still and hear the voice of God, are we to be active in God’s work? Are we to make haste or to make space and time?

Noah himself is a puzzle – he never speaks to God, he never speaks to the population whom he knows will be destroyed. He never argues for the living, nor warns them, nor engages with them in any way. Instead he makes haste to do what God has asked him. He is both silent and hasty, actively  creating the Ark, but entirely passive in the ethical or societal aspects of the narrative.

I have never felt comfortable with Noah. Even though this was my batmitzvah portion, I found the man himself unpleasant, I could not bring myself to identify with his story and this used to bother me a great deal.

Until this year when, like many other women across the world I found myself writing #metoo on my social media.

The idea was that “If everyone who has been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste. #metoo”

The idea came about after the Harvey Weinstein exposure, to help provide support for victims, so they would know that they were not suffering alone in this, to try to prevent the backlash of victim blaming that rapidly appeared.

#metoo appeared all over the timelines of me and my friends and of men and women all over the world, and indeed the magnitude of the problem became clear for all to see. Many debates began – what counts as sexual assault? What counts as harassment? Were women being hypersensitive? Where were the men who didn’t seem to notice what was the everyday experience of so many women? Who were the men who were harassing women? How come the women had not spoken out before? What was the conspiracy of silence that allowed men to abuse their power over women, the open secrets that were simply not discussed?

And it hit me – the silence, the inactivity, which I often experience as a positive in my spiritual life suddenly had a different force – it became the silencing of the voices of victims, the inactivity surrounding the open secrets, the weapon of choice to enable the rich, powerful and protected to continue in their self-serving behaviour. It is the silence surrounding modern slavery and human trafficking when we buy clothes unrealistically cheaply, the real price paid by the factory workers who toil for long hours for very little reward. It is the silence surrounding the lack of a living wage for many people in this country, the silence surrounding the need for food banks and people who have to choose to be warm or to be fed – or even more stark choices around keeping a roof over their heads. It is the silence around domestic abuse and the routine and everyday harassment of women.  I could go on and on about what we keep silent about, not because we don’t know but because we don’t want to know and talking about it will make it more real to us.

Cheshvan is the eighth month of the year – symbolically seven plus one, completion plus one – it is the beginning again. In so many ways we are at the start of something where we can change the world if only we stopped our silence and made haste for justice. Noah is a salutary example – he kept his silence and the world drowned. Yes there was a new beginning, but that beginning was steeped in regret for a past that had not been resolved, merely suppressed and hidden in the depths.

Our voices do not have to be loud but they have to be heard. We need to speak out and we need to listen to the voices of those who have hidden their voices or whose voices have been suppressed by people more powerful than them.

Cheshvan is the time for us to challenge ourselves on when we are silent positively in order to hear the voice of God in the world, and when we stop being silent in order for God’s voice to speak out in the world. It is, we discover, the same voice. Beginning again doesn’t have to mean washing away the past as if it never existed; it means acknowledging the faults of the past and confronting them, working for change, creating a world which is better for our living in it. Last week we read of God asking Cain “where is your brother” and saying “the bloods of your brother are crying out to me from the ground”. Now as we reach Cheshvan and read the story of the generation of Noah it is time to hear the cries of those unjustly paying the price for the corruption of others more powerful than they, time to give the answer to Cain’s disingenuous response “am I my brother’s keeper?”

We are human beings, responsible for each other, responsible to care for each other, responsible for whistle-blowing improper behaviour, for calling out the power plays that make so many miserable.

As #metoo swept across social media, many protested that they did not know. We know now. And it is time to make haste, time  break the silence. A new beginning as we read about a new creation after the cleansing out of the corruption and abuses of power that had been tolerated for far too long.

 

 

 

 

Cain and Hevel: Am I my brother’s keeper?

The first murder happens in bible in the first generation to be born – Cain and Hevel, two of the sons of Adam and Eve, bring death into the world.  It is unclear really what the relationship between them was – indeed the more we read the biblical account the more questions we have.

In the fourth chapter of Genesis we are told that “the man knew his wife; and she conceived and bore Cain, and said: ‘I have acquired a man with the help of the Eternal.’

א וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וַתַּ֨הַר֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־קַ֔יִן וַתֹּ֕אמֶר קָנִ֥יתִי אִ֖ישׁ אֶת־יְהוָֹֽה:

Already the conception of Cain is problematic. Eve is named, her husband is not. She conceives and bears a son who is apparently already named and maybe even already grown, and then she says something that appears to be designed to remove her partner from the narrative.  The name Cain comes from the root to acquire, to have material ownership. Eve says she has acquired a man with God.  The role of her husband, the man to her woman, the father of the child – is diminished in the text. I remember years ago studying this with a family therapist who pointed out that many a family goes through difficulties when a new baby is born, and that often the relationship between mother and child can freeze out the father who feels to be of little use in those early chaotic days .  If this is not addressed and worked on, it can cause serious dysfunction in the family in later years.

And then comes the second child – is it a different conception or is Hevel the twin of Cain? There is no mention of Adam at all here, not the act of procreation nor the pregnancy. Instead we are told “and again she bore his brother, Hevel, and Hevel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain was a worker of the ground

ב וַתֹּ֣סֶף לָלֶ֔דֶת אֶת־אָחִ֖יו אֶת־הָ֑בֶל וַֽיְהִי־הֶ֨בֶל֙ רֹ֣עֵה צֹ֔אן וְקַ֕יִן הָיָ֖ה עֹבֵ֥ד אֲדָמָֽה

Havel comes into the world without any reference to Adam, but clearly in relationship to Cain – she bears ‘his brother’ and his name too is ready made. While Cain, the acquirer, the one who is in deep relationship with the land appears as a material figure, Hevel’s name has quite a different resonance. Hevel means breath; implicit in it is the idea of transience, even pointlessness. The preacher Kohelet in his book (read at Succot) begins by lamenting

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל  Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

The brothers, one too firmly grounded, one apparently totally transient, choose work that suits their natures – Cain tills the ground, Hevel shepherds his flock. And when they bring their thanksgiving offerings to God – another curiosity since this is the first we know of such a practise – the fruits of the ground brought by Cain are rejected, while the firstborn of the flocks brought by Hevel are accepted by God.

Why? Why would God accept the offerings of one brother and not the other? Is there a suggestion that Cain does not bring of the best, of the first? Are we to believe that God is a carnivore and not a vegetarian? Is this a moment that comes to every parent and child when the child complains that something is not fair, only to be told “who ever said that life was fair?”

Cain is angry and depressed, and God asks the first of the questions in the text – “Why are you angry? And why has your face fallen?” And then God continues with a slightly sinister statement – “If you do well/make it good – you will be lifted/accepted, but if you do not do well/make it good, then sin lies at the doorway, and its desire is to you, but you may rule over it”

What on earth does God mean? And how is this a response to a dejected Cain who has presumably never been thwarted, who was the clear favourite of his mother, the man who provides and has acquisitions and wealth? The last part of the phrase echoes the words God spoke to Eve when she and Adam are sent away from the garden – she will desire her husband yet he will have power over her. Is this a reference to the dislocation within the family? The more one looks the less one understands.

But we know that Cain spoke to Hevel, though the content of the conversation is not recorded. Then both Cain and Hevel were in the field, Cain rose up against Hevel his brother and killed him. And in the very next verse God asks the next question

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־קַ֔יִן אֵ֖י הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יךָ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי:

Where is Hevel your brother? And he answered “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?”

Finally a conversation between the two of them, finally we hear clear voices in the text. And the voices resonate down the generations until now.

God asks a question to which God already knows the answer – a question similar to the one asked in Eden – “where are you?” The reply – sullen, angry, also a question – does not admit to the truth – Cain most certainly knows where his brother is. And then comes the climax –“What have you done? The bloods of your brother are crying out to Me from the ground”

The story then quickly spirals to its conclusion. Cain is cursed from the ground he has worked, it will no longer produce for him. He is no longer the one who owns the land but is destined to become a transient, one who wanders. With some compassion at Cain’s horror at what his future will be, at the mercy of anyone who comes across him, God provides him with a token to protect him. Just as Adam and Eve were provided with clothing by God when they were driven out of Eden, Cain too is provided with some protection as he is sent away – and then bible turns its focus on to the children of Cain who become powerful figures, and onto the birth of Seth to replace the lost Hevel.

The story is rich in metaphor, in parallels with which to read the stories of Cain and Hevel’s parents, with mythic understanding of the first human beings and human family, in lacunae in the text which we might fill with our creative understandings and midrash.

But I think the most powerful piece in the story is the rhetorical question asked by Cain and the divine response – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “the bloods of your brother are crying out to me from the ground”

This question – “am I my brother’s keeper” is asked throughout the book of Genesis – from the relationship of Abraham to Lot, the son of his dead brother, through the complicated relationship of Isaac and Ishmael, the painful rivalry between Jacob and Esau, the violence and toxic competition between Jacobs twelve sons that ends only after a lifetime of separation and agony for the brothers and their father. The book of Genesis ends with one brother (Joseph) financially supporting the others who had wronged him, and reconciliation between brothers occurs when Judah shows that he is prepared to take the place of Benjamin as hostage in Egypt, so that Joseph sees that Judah has indeed learned the lesson of “Am I my brother’s protector?”

But the question does not end with the book of Genesis, even though the dénouement closes the narrative of the founding families. For bible continues to record how careless we can be of the other, how little we understand about our role in community, how ambition and self-indulgence and habit of categorising the ‘other’ as less than our own is embedded in our psyche. We too sullenly ask of the world “am I my brother’s keeper? – Do I have to care what happens to other people?”

The answer of course to Cain’s question is “yes – you are indeed responsible for the care and protection of your brother” God’s response, that the bloods of his brother are crying out from the land into which they seeped is an absolute imperative that reminds us that our actions have consequences, that we are all interconnected, and that we have a responsibility to ensure that everyone is acknowledged and their needs fulfilled.

Indeed, the word “brother” is to be understood in biblical tradition not simply in terms of genetics or of closeness of family or geographic proximity or ethnic tie – here we are talking about the foundation of the human race – the brother of Cain at this point is every other human being in the world. We are each other’s guarantors, supporters, protectors. If we fail in that duty and their blood is spilled or their lives diminished, then God will hear of our failure and will demand justice from us.

While the biblical story of the first sibling rivalry leading to fratricide is one that raises more questions in us the more we read it, a narrative filled with difficulties and complications, there are some lessons that we can understand easily, even though we may not really like them or find them comforting.

One is about our privilege and what it leads us to expect. Cain was the eldest son, well beloved, a man connected intimately to the land which he worked and which provided wealth and sustenance. He never noticed his privilege just as we don’t notice the privilege with which we live in a first world country as a settled people. He expected his sacrifice to be accepted and welcomed, gratitude from God in response to his thanksgiving offerings. His face fell, he was distressed when this did not happen, and he felt cheated and angry. God challenges his privilege asking him why he is so upset – and God goes further, reminding him that if he works hard and does well then he will feel good, but that sometimes working hard doesn’t lead to doing well – “sin crouches at the door” in the words of the bible, chata’at, is a word from archery meaning missing the mark, not doing all we could, not fulfilling what is required from us. God goes on to tell us – we can control that behaviour of chata’at, but it takes will, mindfulness and effort. We have to acknowledge our disappointment when our privilege doesn’t benefit us, recognise that when someone else gains it does not have to mean that we lose – even if it can feel like that. We must confront our own unacknowledged privilege when we work to recognise the humanity of others and understand that the luck of living in 21st century Europe, with enough money to buy food and shelter and entertainment and education, to feel secure and rooted in a community – it really is random.

Another lesson we learn from this narrative is that we often repeat the mistakes of our parents, and add a few more mistakes for good measure. We are connected to our pasts and they have influence on us – often more than we might notice. And unless we become aware of the influences we are destined to act them out. It is not for nothing that the most repeated commandment in bible is to remember that we were slaves in Egypt in order not to treat people lower down the socio-economic scale than we now are as we were once treated.

And another lesson is that life is not fair. God – or the universe – can appear to us to be random. There is no causal or mechanistic relationship between good people having good lives and vice versa. So we must not judge those who are unfortunate in their lives, and we must work to remedy the unfairness. When their bloods cry out, not only God listens, we must too.

Where does this lead us? The bloods of our brothers and sisters call out to us – the word is in the plural in bible to tell us, say the rabbis, that everyone is connected to many others – no life is in isolation, not even Hevel who is almost vapour, who never married or had children – even Hevel has bloods – he is connected to the rest of humanity.

In today’s world of increasing unrest, of wars and political uprisings and hurricanes and storms, of terrorism and uncertainty there are huge movements of people who are severed from their ancestral lands, refugees from their villages and cities. There were 31.1 million new internal displacements by conflict, violence and disasters in 2016. (1) This is the equivalent of one person forced to flee every second. Be they the Rohynga Muslims fleeing Myanmar or the people escaping civil war in Syria, be they the people desperately crossing the Mediterranean sea in flimsy boats and arriving destitute at the foot of Italy, or the more than five thousand who drowned in that sea in 2016 meaning that on average, 14 people died every single day last year in the Mediterranean trying to find safety or a better life in Europe.

Their bloods call out to us – what are we going to do?  Life is not fair but it is not for us to accept our privilege and ignore what others suffer. Jewish tradition reminds us that only one human being was created originally so that no one can say, ‘my father was greater than your father.’ In other words, every human being is unique and inherently precious (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5).

We have a responsibility to each other. As Jews, as human beings, we have to check our privilege and work for justice for the people who need it. As we begin this new year having reminded ourselves with the succah of the fragility of our lives and transience of material possessions, we are reminded too that other people’s lives are even more fragile right now, their material possessions lost or even never existing. And we must apply ourselves to the tikkun, to being the support of our fellow human beings, and to helping God create a better world for us all to live in.

(1) http://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2017/

 

Sukkot: Our plans make God laugh but we hope and trust anyway – what else can we do but rejoice in the life we have?

Putting up the succah in our autumnal garden some of last year’s birch leaves fall out of the folds of the s’chach and I am transported back to memories of the year gone by, aware suddenly of the passing of time, of what has changed and what is changing.

Autumn brings a special kind of melancholy. Some flowers and fruits are at their peak, the pears plumply falling on the lawn; the apples – those that have not been enjoyed by the birds – full and round. Many plants are still flowering profusely and as I look at them I know with sadness that soon  I will have to disrupt this joyful performance in order to dig them up and save them for next year, or cut them back to prevent the frost damaging their tender stems.

In the garden it feels a bit like a last hurrah. The squirrels are busily collecting acorns and conkers to bury against a hard winter; the birds are gorging on berries, the bees checking each bloom for the last sweet drops they may give up. The air has a chill, leaves are already creating an unwanted blanket over the flower beds, my gardener’s instincts are warning me not to leave the tidying up – what my mother calls ‘putting the garden to bed’ –  too  late. If I do, the price will be the slimy stems of frost damaged annuals, happy slugs and other pests doing their damage in comfort, and the bone chilling experience of wrestling with dead or dying vegetation fixed into the unyielding soil.

Autumn brings with it a sense of dying even while life is climaxing.  We have more than a shiver of recognition of our own mortality. And the Jewish festivals have been resonating with the season – We begin a new year with reflection and awe as we undergo Judgment Day – Yom HaDin; we follow through the Ten Days of Repentance (the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah) as we acknowledge our shortcomings and mistakes, until Yom Kippur enables us to, so to speak, slough off the burden of guilt that has been weighing on us, having done all we can to remedy what we have done.  We tidy up the garden even as we are enjoying its beauty; we cover over and put to bed the nagging thoughts about things we can no longer do anything about. We prepare for the future by cleansing the landscape of our lives.

And because all work like this takes longer than the original plan, and indeed is an ongoing act throughout the year, Jewish tradition reminds us that the Gates of Repentance stay open until the end of the Succot festival.

With all the intimations of death within life, with all the resonance of mortality and melancholy the season brings, we are commanded in bible to treat the festival of Succot with joyfulness. It is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our joy. We must rejoice before God with the products of the land, the pri etz hadar (fruit of the beautiful tree), the palm, the myrtle, the willow of the brook.

As a gardener I notice that these plants all grow in Israel in different parts of the country – for such a tiny piece of land the different micro-climates are extraordinary.  The lulav, coming from the palm tree, fruits most happily where it is hot and dry – while it grows in the coastal areas, in truth it is a tree that disdains humidity and far prefers the semi –desert conditions. The myrtle (hadas) prefers the cooler mountainous areas. The aravah (willow) needs to be close to a consistent water supply (hence “willows of the brook”) and the etrog grows best in the lower coastal areas and the valleys.  These four symbols of Succot encompass all the growing conditions a gardener could work in, and it is a rarely lucky horticulturist who finds themselves able to work them all in one garden.  I would love more acid soils and less shade in my garden, but such is life, one works with what one has.

We bring together vegetation from all areas of Israel, symbolising not only geographical or horticultural diversity but also different times in our lives- the hot semi desert when growth and change seem impossible, the cool perspective when we can see, if not always reach, our next stage, the times when life flows fast around us and the times when the horizon is very distant and unimaginable.

On Succot we telescope the year with its possibilities into this composite symbol; indeed we telescope our lives with its many experiences both good and bad into the celebration of the festival, and we rejoice before God for our very selves. We know that no life is untouched by sorrow, that no-one escapes from living without experiencing problems and pain, but we know too that our lives are something to be thankful for, to celebrate and enjoy.  The autumnal adumbral presentiments of change – of life and death and rebirth – make us pause for a moment to notice the change, the growing and the dying back, the fruiting and the flowering.

Why are we commanded to rejoice at the very time we are facing the bleakness of the  winter? I think it is an assertion of hope, of trust that the world will once again flourish and flower, that life, even as it is in the process of completing one cycle, is readying and preparing the next. We are facing a dormancy but not an ending. We rejoice because we have confidence that we are not alone, that our lives are not isolated, but that a thread of something beyond us will connect us in time and space. The very succot we build and live in, fragile and uncomfortable and with little protection from the elements, remind us that when all the physical defences and supports we take for granted are gone, we are still together, still in community, still under the protection of God.  When we tie together the arba’a minim, we not only become aware of the larger world, shaking it East, South, West, North, Upwards and Downwards in petition for the water our land needs at this time, we also become aware of the composite peoplehood we are a part of. The midrashim that link the parts to the parts of the body, the “types “ that make up community, the geography of the Land of Israel – all of them have one thing in common. If we care for each other and live in community, sharing what we have, comforting those in pain or distress, recognising the humanity of the other, then we are stronger, we can face the Autumn and the Winter, we can depend on the thread of life that may seem impossible to see, that may lie dormant under unpromising conditions.

We rejoice on Succot because with all of the fears, all of the uncertainty, all of the sudden awareness of the transience of our materiality, we remember that we are part of a greater whole, and God, even if not obvious to us, underpins us and supports us and keeps us alive to say the she’he’cheyanu prayer at this season. We none of us know what our future holds for us and while we might make plans for it these are at the most provisional. As the Yiddish saying goes: Der mentsh tracht und Gott lacht – Human Beings make plans and (this is why) God laughs

דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט

All we can do is live in the moment, aware of the fragilities of life and aware too that life goes on – and hope that we will see the next season and the next.

 

Rosh Hashanah Sermon  : unetaneh tokef prayer and the day for judgement.

 “B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun, uv’yom tzom kippur yea’ha’teymun -On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed”

One of the most powerful themes in the liturgy for the Yamim Noraim is this one:- the idea that in heaven on this day there are opened three different books – one for the totally righteous, one for the totally wicked, and one – the largest one by far – for the people who have both good and bad deeds on our record, who must be weighed up and judged on a case by case basis.

The unetaneh tokef prayer – which came into use in Ashkenazi tradition in the Amidah since the 11th century (and is used in some Sephardi traditions just before the Mussaf service) but which is built on a much older poem from the Byzantine Period in Israel (circa 330–638) is a powerful liturgical poem for the Yamim Noraim, from which the quotation above is taken. It goes on to tell us what is also decided on this day: : How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who shall rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, etc”  but goes on to remind us that” But Penitence, Prayer and Good Deeds can annul the Severity of the Decree.”

 The Book of Life:  Its earliest Jewish appearance is in the book of Exodus just months after the exodus from Egypt, when the Ten Commandments are given on Sinai and Moses returns to see people having despaired of his return and created a golden calf to worship. Moses returned to God, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray You, out of Your book which You have written.’  And God said to Moses: ‘whoever has sinned against Me, that one will I blot out of My book. Ex 32:32-35

We tend to see the Book of Life in terms of the unetaneh tokef prayer – a document that records everything, collecting the evidence determining who shall live and who shall die in the coming year, rewarding or punishing according to the life already lived. Yet the two ideas – that there is a Book written about our Life, and that reference to such a book enables the heavenly sentencing on Judgment Day (that is Rosh Hashanah), do not have to be so entwined.

The idea of a heavenly Book of Life seems to have originated in Babylon, with Babylonian legend speaking of the Tablets of Destiny, lists of sins and wrongdoings of people, who should be blotted out of existence. Scholars believe it probably referred to some kind of Eternal life, an end of time Judgment. Our Rosh Hashanah liturgy however sees the document differently, causing us to pray for a better and longer earthly life.

While the Mishnah tells us (Avot 2:1) “Consider three things that you may not come within the power of sin. Know what is above you—a seeing eye, and a hearing ear, and all your deeds are written in a book”, it also tells us “All Israel have a portion in the world to come”. Eternal life is, in effect, a given – the Book of Life is not so much about our eternity as about the actual record we each create as we live and go about our lives. The Sefer Hasidim pointedly adds that God is in no need of a book of records; saying “the Torah speaks the language of human beings”; that is, “this is a metaphorical statement to remind us that everything we do is a matter of record, and this record builds to describe and create testimony about each human life – its actions, its meaning, its impact on the world, its memory and memorial”.

The Book of our Life is not, in reality, simply a record of good and bad deeds, to be weighed up each Rosh Hashanah Judgment day when the book is opened.  It is the ultimate repository of who we are. We are, in effect, the sum of our actions and our memories. When our lives are stripped of memory they are stripped of meaning and of purpose. Purpose and meaning ultimately rely on a context and an awareness that is provided for us by our use and recording of memory.

In the last few weeks of Torah readings we have been reading about Moses’ rehearsing to and reminding the people of Israel about their history, their purpose, their connection with the Divine Being and its purpose, and the ethical and religious principles they agreed to when they entered the Covenant with God at Sinai, – an Eternal covenant, and one into which we bring our children. The whole of the book of Deuteronomy is in effect a Memory Book, a Book of Life, a record and proof text for who we are and what we are about. It is Moses’ last effort to implant within us a sense of our history and our purpose, a text to take with us into our future.

In just the same way as Torah gives meaning and purpose to the wider Jewish identity, our very personal existence depends on our own memory, mission and morality – remembering where we came from, what we are called on to do, and how we are called on to do it. And  this information is what creates each of our books of life, which we are invited to open and to read during Ellul, and then from Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur.

Our continued existence as thoughtful and purposeful human beings depends upon what is written in our own Book of Life. Who we really are will form who we will become. If we pay no attention to our own historical reality, to the memories of ourselves and of our people which we rehearse regularly in religious ritual both at home and in the synagogue, then slowly but surely we will lose touch with our root meaning – that which in religious terms would be called Covenant.

If we no longer tell the stories of our past, and find meaning within them that can speak to the modern world, then we will lose our particular purpose, and our lives will indeed become simple accountancy columns – so much fun versus so much pain, so many good deeds versus so many mean ones.  If we distance ourselves from the moral teaching of our tradition, and create a morality based instead on convenience or on what feels right in some unsubstantiated way, then we are in danger of losing our way, of making decisions not using our inherited system of values but on what suits us or fits in with our limited world view.

Memory, Purpose  and Morality – these bring the awareness of where we are the and the connection to where we come from; they create the understanding that our life must be lived with a purpose that is connected to our peoplehood, our roots – however we want to define memory; and a set of overarching values that are not about our own gratification or benefit but about a world view that takes in more than our own selves or our narrow context. This is what Moses was trying to explain in his last speeches recorded so clearly in the book of Deuteronomy – distilling both the history and the learning of the earlier books of Torah.  It is what we must try to do now, as we open our personal Book of Life and read it in order to understand something deep and vital about how we are living our own lives. Not just to reflect on things that are pricking our conscience a little or on the irritations and anxieties of other’s behaviour towards us. But to consider our memory, our  purpose in the world and the morality that both feeds and drives us.

Purpose and meaning, that which gives shape and direction to our lives, does not come out of nowhere. It is shaped by the stories we tell of ourselves and our forebears, by the writings of our historians and our prophets; It is taught to us in our homes and a variety of schools; That which comes to us through our faith tradition is rehearsed in prayer; symbolically enacted in rituals; and recalled periodically in a variety of services and liturgies. Our memories are strengthened by their being recalled and recounted, freshened and sharpened by how we use them.

Without a structure and a system for remembering and teaching, for measuring ourselves against who and what we should be, we ultimately cut ourselves loose from purpose and meaning and have to find roots wherever we can. This is as true of a nation state as it is of a religious identity as it is of an individual person. Each of us must root ourselves in a sense of meaning and purpose if we are to live full lives, and our senses of meaning and purpose must themselves be rooted in something of value and credibility – our family hist­­­ory and its stories, our connection to religious tradition, to a system of values and morals, to our reasons for being – our own humanity.

So when we pray – B’sefer Hayyim nizakeir v’nikateiv lefanecha.Anachnu v’chol amm’cha beit yisrael, le’hayyim tovim v’shalom.

May we and all Your people the family of Israel be remembered and recorded in the Book of Life for a good life and for peace. We are asking not for a simple accounting exercise in order to creep into heaven, not a weighing up of good and bad in the hope that we have been rather better than not, but that our lives are recorded and our memory maintained and refreshed so that we are better able to observe and take hold of the purpose and meaning of our individual and group existence, that our behavior will align more closely to who we know we could become – articulating the values of human dignity and social justice, of enacting good in the world.

It is important that we ask both for ourselves and also for all the people Israel to be able to critically understand the purpose and meaning of existence. For we are not alone here, not individuals on a journey to personal enlightenment so much as a group who are bound – since Sinai – in Covenant with God. We are a people, responsible each for the other, created to support each other and the values we share in the world.

We are a people, responsible each for the other, seeing ourselves as partners in co-creating with God the world in which we live, responsible for the enactment of the divine message of shleima – wholeness and integrity, in our world.

Torah tells us the world is not finished and perfect, it is up to people to complete and to perfect it.

We work on ourselves. That may be more or less difficult, more or less possible, and ultimately it is between ourselves and God just how well we manage.

For most of us our personal Book of Life is readable, at least in solitude, with a modicum of privacy to protect our dignity. We remember our childhoods, at least enough to draw from them the lessons we need as adults. We mostly have at least a sketchy knowledge of our family history over the previous generations – the name of a town or shtetl, the name of an ancestor recalled in our own, the stories that emerge when the family get together for a lifecycle event or festival. We can reconstruct enough of our past to gain a sense of our purpose and, as the bible says, the apple does not fall far from the tree – our family history is often surprisingly circular, and we maintain the values and traditions of our past in some way.

But when we become a group, then it is harder to examine our actions, to take joint responsibility for things we either know nothing about or maybe feel angry about.    We all belong to many different groups and we have responsibility for them– to hold each to account, to remind each of their past and their purpose. In particular at this time we think about the group we belong to called “Jewish Peoplehood” and “Israel”, and remind each other that Israel’s very existence depends on its memory, on its mission, and its morality.

Our memories are held in a book – the Book of Life for the Jewish people is Torah and its descendant the Rabbinic tradition of responsa and innovation. If we forget the values that are given to us there then we forget who we are and what we are about, we will ultimately fall apart, unnourished, unrooted, unconnected.

So when we think about the Book of Life this year, consider it a Book that actively maintains us and our purpose, defines our identities and our values so that we can work in the world in a consistent and meaningful way. And think too about the greater Book, the one that records the behaviour of our whole people. And with both of these volumes open and read lets think about what we want to be written in the coming year, so that when we leave here today we can begin to take up our meaning and our purpose, rooted in our values and our morality, and review and record the memories we want to be acted upon and remembered.