Vayelech: the time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our choices is upon us. or: the bnei mitzvah of the people of Israel

Eight years ago one of my dearest friends was about to be seventy years old, and she decided to celebrate this momentous and biblical age by having her batmitzvah. I had tried to persuade her to do this for years and she had brushed me off; it is typical of her that she made her choice by herself on a date that had such resonance, and then throw herself into study and thinking for herself.  We talked a little about the date and the sidra, and then she chose to direct her own study and do her own research. Luckily she sent me a near final draft. I say luckily because she never read this drasha or celebrated that long awaited day, for with everything planned and organised and ready to go, she suffered a cataclysmic and sudden bereavement and the weekend was taken over instead with grief and shock and the arrangements to honour the dead.

We spoke a while afterwards about her celebrating her batmitzvah on a different date but we both knew that was not really going to happen. The anticipated joy would never be the same, the shadow of grief never quite left her, and she too would depart this world suddenly and unexpectedly and quite dramatically, leaving the rest of us a small flavour of the shock she had experienced on the day of her birthday batmitzvah, to grieve and to question, and to process the reality of what happens when a life is torn from the world without warning.

Checking my computer recently, and thinking also of her as I do at this time of year, I came across an email where she had sent me this draft of the drasha she was to give to the community she had been at the heart of for so many years. With the permission of her children, I want to share it here.

“Vayelech is the shortest parsha in the Torah. It is 30 verses long, and I don’t recall ever hearing it read. In non-leap years like this one it is linked with Nitzavim. When I read Nitzavim-Vayelech they held together. They are followed next week by Ha’azinu which, when I looked it up I discovered is one the 10 Shirot [songs] conceived or written as part of the Almighty’s pre-Creation preparations. The only one still to be written is the song we will sing when the Messiah comes. 

We are coming to the end of the Torah. This name, given to the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is better translated as Teaching. We are coming to the end of the month of Elul the month in which we begin to prepare for the approaching High Holy Days, and in the coming week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah which in turn is followed by the 10 days of penitence and Yom Kippur. Then in roughly a month’s time on Simchat Torah we will finish reading the Teaching, the end of Deuteronomy, and seamlessly begin Bereishit – Genesis – again. 

Vayelech must contain the most important rite of passage in the whole history of our planet. But we will come to that.  

Israel is camped in its tribal groups on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to cross. The preceding parsha, Nitzavim, tells of Moses addressing the whole of Israel, in preparation for entering the land God has promised them. He reminds them they are standing before God, and is clear that every person is included in this relationship.

 [my son] tells me I can tell one joke… a clear example of don’t do as I do, do as I say …but I have two, and we will come to the second soon. A very good friend sent me a card, writing in it “I saw this, and thought of you.” The cartoon was a line drawing of 2 dogs, the larger one saying: “I understand more commands than I obey.” I hope you agree with me, that this is arguable!

Moses and God know from experience that the Children of Israel will fail to follow God’s Teaching. 

Moses warns those listening to him that the consequences of disobedience will be that the land will become desolate, but mitigates this by prophesying they will make t’shuvah, return to the right way, and God will reconcile with them and bring them back.

 And he says something that has always troubled me:  that the commandment he is giving to them and so to us “is not beyond you, or too remote. Not in Heaven, or across the sea. It is very close to you… in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.”

 What I have never been sure of is what this is, what it is that is in my heart, and in my mouth?  Not the 10 Commandments – too many!    And not the 613 mitzvot buried in the text. And then the man who is not my chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said quite plainly on radio 4, no less, what it is, even quoting where I should find it. It is found in Genesis chapter 18, vv 17 – 19, where God is choosing Abraham because he deals with his household with Tzedakah and Mishpat:  two words which together give the meaning of justice tempered with mercy. This is how we hope God will deal with us on Yom Hakippurim.

 And finally Moses said that we have a choice, God has given us the choice of life and death – blessing and curse. We should choose to love God and walk in God’s path and keep God’s commandments. And just as the penalties for not doing so have been listed, the rewards of obeying are explained. 

What we have been told is that all Israel is equally bound by this covenant, regardless of social position or occupation. And that even if we disobey God’s Laws there can be future redemption.

Further, we know that obedience to God’s Laws is within our scope. 

And also that we are to have that freedom to choose that sets us apart from the animals.

 And then we come to today’s portion, .Vayelech “And he went” which is the beginning of the rite of passage for the Children of Israel.

 There is to be a change of “Top Management”. This is the day of Moses’s 120th birthday, and Moses has finally accepted that it is also his death day. It’s been hard for Moses to come to terms with his mortality, and he has behaved a little like a child trying to justify not going to bed, not just yet. There’s no time to discuss this today, try reading Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews. God has been forbearing with this servant with whom God has been in conversation for the last 40 years.

 In this time the generations born into slavery have died, and the people who are born into freedom have known no other Leader. Moses has taught them, settled disputes, referred knotty halachic problems directly to God, and brought back the answers. It is explained that God will go with them, and lead them across the Jordan. Further, that although Moses may not go, they will have Joshua.

 Moses has been frightened of dying, and the Almighty has shown him Aaron’s painless death. God is giving him the signal honour of dying on the anniversary of his birthday, and although Moses is not to be allowed to cross the Jordan God has taken him to look down upon the land.

 Moses is kept busy on this day – there are the tribes to address, and writing enough copies of the Teaching to give one to each tribe, and lodge one in the Ark of the Covenant. This is talked of as a witness against the people, but I suppose it’s the master copy, and proof of God’s promises and provisions. Moses writes The Scroll to the very end, until it is finished, which is taken to mean that it is prophetic, containing as it does an account of his death. Further, the Almighty gives him a message to deliver, and a song of 43 verses, one of the 10 Shirot, to teach to the people.

  How many people do you think there were, camped by the river? How many going into the Promised Land?

 Jacob went to Egypt with 72 souls in his household. A rabble of 600,000 freed slaves left Egypt – and these were the men of fighting age. Add their relatives – minimally a wife each, one child. – Not parents and siblings – this could cause doubtful accounting – a conservative estimate would be 1,800,000 people. No wonder manna was needed!

Nor was it just Jews who escaped Egypt, plenty of escapee opportunists would have taken the chance, and been the “strangers within your gates” who are to have equality under the covenant with Jacob’s descendants.

 The instruction was given for this to be read every seven years in the shemittah year. All Israel is commanded to gather at Succot in the place God has appointed (eventually the Temple in Jerusalem) and the King read to the people from the Scroll.

 And the chapter ends with the prediction that Israel with turn away from God, and that God’s reaction would be to turn God’s face away from them – but also with the promise that their descendants will not forget the words which will remain in their mouths.

 So what is happening?

 It seems that with the completion of the Torah and our entry into the Promised Land, our Creator considers we are grown up. We have the Torah; we have the record in it of discussions and decisions. We are aware that we can judge matters between human beings – but not matters between human beings and God. We cannot deal with these because it is not our business to govern or over-rule another’s conscience.

 God will not appoint another Moses – there is to be no dynastical continuity. No further theophanies. Israel has become a nation of priests with everyone having access to the Almighty and to God’s mercy.

 And when we begin Genesis all over again, we go back to Creation and the dysfunctional families of Adam and Noah. When we come to Abraham, look out for the Teaching and how it is built on chapter by chapter.

 And where’s the second joke? – listen to the translation.”

Sadly, we never heard the second joke. And the poignancy of some of the comments in the drasha make for difficult reading for those who knew her and knew her later story, though the mischief of her personality comes through this text for me, as does her clear and certain faith in God. This was a woman who, as administrator in the synagogue, would regularly leave open the door to the sanctuary in her office hours “because God likes to go for a walk”, but actually so that visitors would feel able to enter and sit and offer their prayers or order their thoughts. She would tidy up the siddurim and make sure they were properly shelved, saying that upside down books “gave God a headache”, to cover her need to honour God by keeping the synagogue neat. She spent hundreds of hours talking to the lonely, reassuring the frightened, supporting the vulnerable. She spent hundreds of hours creating the databases and systems to ensure that the synagogue ran as effectively as it could. And the roots of all this voluntary caring for the synagogue community was her own life’s struggles and her awareness that if God considers we are grown up now, with equal access to the Almighty and no “top management” to direct us, then we had better get on with it, with the work of creating and sustaining the world with tzedakah and mishpat, with righteousness and justice.

In this period of the Ten Days, as we reflect on the lives we are leading, the choices we are making, and the mortality that will come for us all, either with or without warning, I read her drasha as a modern ”unetaneh tokef”, and, as I was for so many years when I was her rabbi and she my congregant, I am grateful for the learning I had from her.

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017

 

 

 

 

Ki Tavo:

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with two commandments which are connected to the land.  Bringing the First Fruits (known as Bikkurim) (1-11) and the Elimination of Tithes (Biur Ma’asrot) (v12-15).

As one would expect, both of these commandments require action – the first fruits of the ground are to be taken in a basket to God’s designated place, and handed over to the priest there. In the third year the owner of the property must give a proportion of the produce as a tithe that will go to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow.  So far so normal.  But the bible goes on to require speeches to be made while these two  commandments are to be carried out, and, unusually for Torah, it gives the actual texts to be said.  Biblical prayer is usually spontaneous, rising out of the immediate needs of the moment, and rarely recorded in any detail at all, yet here we have two separate declarations given verbatim, and the recital of these two passages have become counted in rabbinic tradition as positive commandments in their own right.

‘Mikkra Bikkurim’, the recital of the declaration of the first fruits, contains within it phrases that eventually were imported wholesale to become part of the Pesach Haggadah, going over the history of the exodus and the terrible painful situation that had preceded it, and personalising that history.  Vidui Ma’asrot, the Confession of Tithes, focuses on the completed observance of the mitzvah of giving tithes, but goes on to ask God ‘s help for the future. These two declarations begin with simple statements of action, but then move way beyond the actual observation of the commandments in the present moment to add meaning and weight.  They don’t stop with acknowledgement, but instead push the speaker and the hearer forward, beyond thanksgiving and into a place of deepened understanding.   Bikkurim takes the speaker into the past, the ancient ancestral past of a time when the land was not so settled and fruitful, of the time of Jewish suffering and slavery in Egypt, and of the redemption from that position.  It roots the speaker in history, and deliberately contrasts the situation of the speaker – their security in their own land, their economic and agricultural prosperity – with the insecurity, poverty and misery of the people in earlier times.

This then is followed by the Vidui Ma’asrot, which ends with the words “look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the land which you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey”

It is a prayer which notes the history – but only in terms of a passing nod to the ancestral promise that God would deliver to them a land fertile and prosperous. More than anything this is a petition for the future, a request for God to pay attention to the land and the people, a wish for a bright and untrammelled destiny.

Four mitzvot are contained in this section.  Two of them require the physical transference of the wealth of agricultural prosperity from their owner to others less economically secure – first the sacrifice of the first fruits of the ground, which is to be given to God via the priesthood of that time; secondly the giving of tithes to those who have no means of supporting themselves – the landless stranger, the ones who have no economic supporter to care for their produce, the Levites.  The food is to be shared out, no-one is to be hungry or uncared for in this system, and no one is to believe that they have absolute rights of ownership just because they are working this land at this time.

But the other two mitzvot are speeches, and they have become far more prominent in the text somehow than the actions to which they refer at the beginning.  The speeches provide a continuum of historical experience; they locate the actions of giving in a system of time and give meaning to the present in a religious dimension as well as a chronological one.  They provide a worship experience almost unprecedented in Torah. But they also provide a context and a philosophical understanding we can learn from today.

Taken together the two speeches trace time and interleave the lonely and painfilled vulnerability of the ‘arami oved avimy father was a wandering Aramean’ – into a world where God can be asked to look after, bless and care for Israel, both people and land.  Simultaneously wealth can be acknowledged and rejoiced over while the reminder of the fragility of any economic security is overtly stated.  A dialectic is set up between the history of Israel and the role of God.  It becomes clear that without full awareness of the history leading up to this moment there can be no understanding of the present, and certainly no awareness of what the future might hold.  Our history impacts upon us and informs our present.  Any awareness of future must be rooted in past as well as current experience.

At its most simple, the thanksgiving and joy for any prosperity of today can only be properly achieved when accompanied by an understanding of past sadness and pain; only by awareness of the depths of depression can one understand the heights of exaltation.  But there is much more to the two declarations than this.  They cry out for us to examine our lives and our history before beginning to draw conclusions about our present existence; to understand where we and others are rooted before making plans for the future.

We are approaching the last week of the month of Ellul, traditionally a time for examining our lives, for considering our situations and for trying to make changes for the better in our existence.  We cannot do this in a vacuum.  We have to take into account our history, all the experiences that have fed into who we are today, the sad as well as the happy, those that cause us pain as well as those of which we feel proud.  We have to accept the reality of what has been our own story, before we can begin to see where we might journey on towards. And like those who declared the Mikra Bikkurim and the Vidui Ma’asrot we have to see the place of other people in our story, and to look for the presence of God in it too, even if only to ask God to notice and pay some attention to our lives.

Looking at the texts of the two prayers, maybe we also have to be able to say that we have taken some action already, have recognised our responsibility to act in our world to make it a better place.  These prayers remind us that while we examine our lives, we must see ourselves as part of a whole greater than ourselves. What we do in the world out there has impact, how we behave towards others matters – and maybe most importantly how we see ourselves in relation to others – and them in relation to us – be it in an historical or a geographical perspective, in a theological or political or even a societal dimension, that is the essence of our understanding.  Our lives cannot be limited to here and now. Our existence cannot be so narrow as only to focus on those we know, or those we care about personally.  Judaism has always taught us to operate in the broader world and at this time, when we are liable to focus down into ourselves religiously we should remember the imperative built into the two declarations which begin the sidra of ki Tavo.

 

 

Shofetim: We all have a role to play in the ongoing deliverance of Justice

In his last days, Moses is deeply concerned with the future good governance of the people.  Today’s sidra begins with his instructing the people: “shoftim v’shotrim titein lecha b’chol sh’areicha asher Adonai eloheicha notein lecha lishvatecha, v’shaftu et ha’am, mishpat tzedek”

Judges and officers you will give for yourselves in all your gates, which the Eternal your God gives you, lishvatecha (either in every town and settlement or else each tribe would have its own access to the judiciary); and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

Justice is clearly to be for everyone, in every place, the same. The legal system must not be open to undue influence, it must strain to judge each person with “mishpat tzedek”, righteous justice, and indeed Moses goes on to require “tzedek tzekek tirdof” – that the people must actively pursue this righteous behaviour, not be passive consumers of the justice or expect someone else to make it happen.

Moses goes on to detail what will become the different strands of leadership within the Jewish world of the time – first the monarchy, then the priesthood, then the prophets.  And there is much to be said about the way power is organised in this model: there will be a monarchy only if the people want this, and the instructions about this role are curiously more about what the king could NOT have and do, rather than what the king must do for the people: So there is to be no foreign power or return to Egypt, no building up of horses or wives or personal wealth, and the  honourable positive exception is that the king must write for himself a “mishneh haTorah hazot al sefer mi’lifnei ha’cohanim ha’levi’im” And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law [Torah] in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites” and the king must read this book regularly in order not to separate himself from the people and to ensure that the king (and also the people) continue to follow the Torah of God.

There is to be the hereditary priesthood from the tribe of Levi, who will own no land but “Adonai hu nachalato” God is their inheritance and so they will eat from the offerings brought to God and they will control the ritual and the religious life of the people.  The prophets will come later, each one is to be a mouthpiece for God and will speak what God commands them, and the people are warned how to detect a true prophet from a false one.

Powerful and separate roles – that of judge, of sovereign, of priesthood, and of prophet – each holds a different power and each has a different job to do. The separation of powers is critical in the good governance of the people and has already evolved in Moses’ lifetime. But there is one role that is not spelled out yet is critical for the others to function.

The sidra begins “shoftim v’shotrim” and while it reminds us first that the shoftim, the judges will judge each person with “Mishpat tzedek – righteous Justice”, it seems to take for granted the role of the shotrim. Variously translated as “officers”, “bailiffs” these are the people who ensure that the judgments are carried out, that justice is done.

Rashi explains that the Shoftim are the judges who consider the cases and who render decisions. The Shotrim are the executive officers who translate the law into reality. In our world the Shoftim are both the legislature and the judiciary who must be independent and who must have the public good of a just society at the forefront of all they do, while the Shotrim would be the carriers out, the branch who must execute and implement, and if necessary enforce the laws decided by the shoftim.

Bring that forward into today’s world and we can understand just how critical a role the shotrim play.  There is, of course, some overlap and some dual-role activity. Our Parliamentarians are both the legislature in that they write and decide the laws, but they also have a responsibility to their constituency to ensure that justice will be pursued. Our Judges both interpret the law as it is written and create it case by case “on the ground”, and they must ensure that not just the law as it is codified shall be enacted, but that justice should be done – even if that means straining the legal language on occasion. Law as an ideal construct will of necessity not always speak to the situations of real human beings, and in such cases the shotrim must ensure that justice will be actively pursued.

Bible reminds us that for good governance there must be several different and separated roles so that power can be spread among them and not concentrated in too few hands. But this sidra is particularly interested in justice as part of that governance, and provides not only for the law-makers the shoftim, but for the justice enablers, the shotrim. Sometimes there may be a dissonance between the two, sometimes they will work well. Rashi suggests that the shotrim were there to ensure that the words of the shoftim are carried out, even going so far as to suggest chastising those who were not doing so.  But in the context of the separation of powers in this sidra, as well as the overarching theme of justice, I wonder if this can be right, whether their role is not to chastise the people but to ensure that justice matches the law.

As we sit in late preBrexit Britain, watching our legislature hide behind legal loopholes such as that the result of the advisory referendum cannot be challenged precisely because it was advisory, or that the findings of fraud and cheating are not reasons to legally annul the resultant vote;  when we see Jeremy Corbyn and the current leadership of the Labour Party tie itself into knots about the antiSemitism in the party, finding all kinds of jargon and spurious disciplinary or investigative processes to distance themselves from responsibility for their own behaviour; When we watch Boris Johnson cynically using dog whistle racism to shore up his own position in a party that is so afraid of the far right fringe that it has lost any sense of its own purpose; Then more than ever we cry out for the shotrim, the people who are not the leadership but whose purpose is to ensure that the leadership promotes justice rather than legalistic nuances.

Who are the shotrim? Well they are not defined in the text. They must clearly be people who have the ability to act as officers of governance. They must clearly be people for whom justice is the overriding value. They are, I think, people like you and me, who step up and speak up for justice.  For me the shotrim are embodied in people such as Carole Cadwalladr, who campaigns for transparency in the murky political world of Brexit, or the pro-bono lawyers who are challenging government at every turn. They are the leaders of civic society working for and demanding a safe haven for refugees, the boats of MSF literally fishing bodies out of the water of the Mediterranean.

But we don’t all have to be quite so all-consumed or so dedicated to do our bit towards being shotrim. We simply have to keep our focus on ensuring that justice is delivered equally for everyone, remind out government of this requirement, volunteer or write letters, become activists for a cause. It is our role to be human beings who care for the rights of other human beings. Put like that, it shouldn’t be too onerous a task. And it is a task we must accept for justice to thrive.

 

 

 

The paradox that is Pinchas plays out also in Jeremiah or: the murderous zealot in the cause of God while the despairing prophet gives us hope

There is no literary connection between the torah reading of Pinchas and the designated haftarah- the connection is instead calendrical as this week we begin the cycle of haftarot that will take us to Tisha b’Av, the blackest day of our calendar – and from there to Rosh Hashanah, the day of our judgment and the new year.

The three shabbatot before Tisha b’Av each have a traditional special haftarah reading that deals with the punishment that will befall the people who forget the God of the covenant. They are known as t’lat d’fur’anuta’ the “three of affliction” or of rebuke.  As we enter the first of the three, which signal not only the coming remembrance of the cataclysm that was Tisha b’Av, but also that we are on the run up now to Rosh Hashanah, we are provided with a good deal of food for thought as we must begin to measure ourselves and our lives, to try to comprehend the circumstances and environment  in which we are living.

The prophet Jeremiah lived at the end of the 7th century BCE. The Northern Kingdom had been destroyed and its inhabitants dispersed and lost. Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was in danger of the same fate. Jeremiah recognised this, and he offered both despair and hope in his prophecy. The religious and social conditions of the time were not good – idolatry was rife, and Josiah’s reforms were partial and weak, and did not survive long after Josiah’s death.  People were disconnected from the source of their religious traditions to the point where they even felt that the misfortunes of their country could have been caused by their not offering incense to other gods during the time of Josiah’s reforms. It is likely that there were even human sacrifices being offered at this time, justified as being a return to the true religion, a perversion of Judaism that appalled Jeremiah.

People were being stigmatized as being treacherous; they could not trust one another or build up strong relationships. Social injustice existed on all levels of society, and was barely even noted, so ordinary had it become to mistreat the poor in society. The world of Jeremiah is one we might recognise today, society breaking down, all kinds of fantasies floated as if they might be genuine, fake news and loss of trust in the leadership.

And what does Jeremiah talk about?  He talks about contract, about the covenant that the Jews have with God, about how there is a special obligation of loyalty upon Israel, and that even if Israel does not offer this loyalty, even if destruction follows, the curious truth is that the special relationship between God and the Jews, implied by the covenant, will not be broken. In all of the despair he shines an odd ray of hope.

It is a strange conception that we have an unbreakable contract of obligation to God.  It is almost impossible for us to imagine an agreement which, even if broken on both sides, remains binding. And yet it is at the heart of our history, it is our raison d’être and our aspiration. A Jew cannot repudiate the covenant for all time, even if we appear to despise it or ignore it. The obligation and the special relationship remain in place. I am  reminded of the perennial Jewish complaint to God- “We realise that we are the chosen people, but can’t you just go and choose someone else for a change”.  The answer, of course, is “even if I do, it doesn’t preclude Me from continuing to choose you!”

Reading Jeremiah is to know that we have an inescapable destiny.  The folkloric Yiddish form – that something is bashert, that something is meant to happen in the grand scheme of things – has probably helped the Jewish people to get through all manner of crises. Yet Jeremiah, for all his despair at what is going on around him, is paradoxically aware both of a kind of predestination and of the critical importance that free will will have in any outcome – he is prophesying about the impact of the individual’s choices.  He begins his prophecy in a way that shows he believed he had been called with by God:  “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.  Before you were born, I set you apart.  I have appointed you a prophet to the nations”

Jeremiah develops the twin concepts of predestination and free will.  He rails at the people precisely because he knows that their chosen behaviour is dangerous and wrong, but that they can choose to behave a different way and different outcomes will occur. Predestination is not the same as determinism.  As Mishnah Pirkei Avot comments: All may be foreseen, but freedom of choice is given”  or as Mishnah Berachot frames it “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven”: That is, whatever God may or may not perceive, it doesn’t have to mean that it will necessarily happen.  Unlike the covenant which binds us eternally however many times we may break it, we do have the power to escape what may seem to be our destiny – even a small change in behaviour can lead to a massive change in outcome.  It is in our hands to shape our lives.

Medieval philosophers understood this well. Maimonides comments that we enter the world with a variety of propensities and possibilities, but what use is made of them is our own doing.  Modern science has come to the same conclusion – we may be able to map out a whole variety of genes, but we still can’t guarantee our predictions about the bearers of those genes – even genetically identical twins can live completely different lives.

We read the 3 haftarot of rebuke and affliction every year in the 3 weeks before we commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples.  We can’t undo the history, but we can listen to the message – we know what is required of us, we know the likely outcome of our ignoring what God requires of us, we can change the future.

After Tisha b’Av our liturgical tradition decrees that there come 7 haftarot of consolation – more than double the words of warning and pain – a perfect number of weeks of grieving and moving on. From this Shabbat until Rosh Hashanah there are ten weeks of preparation, mirroring the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the work we do from this period will intensify in urgency and feeling.   The liturgical calendar is being carefully patterned and manipulated to encourage us on a religious journey towards new beginnings. The message is being hammered home – the covenant may be ignored or unfulfilled but it has not broken, we remain obliged to our relationship with God.  Our future is foreseen in all its possibilities but we remain in charge of what will actually be – we have the choice to behave well, and if we choose not to do so we are well aware of the consequences.  But even the consequences, dire as they may be, never rule out the possibility of change, of, to use a very old fashioned word – redemption.  From the reading of the first haftarah of affliction until Rosh Hashanah we have ten weeks – the clock is ticking and, as we read in Pirkei Avot, “the work is great and the Master of the House is waiting.”

 

Balak: the lies of leaders are a danger to us all; or “the tendency to fake news is all ours”

 

לֹ֣א אִ֥ישׁ אֵל֙ וִֽיכַזֵּ֔ב וּבֶן־אָדָ֖ם וְיִתְנֶחָ֑ם הַה֤וּא אָמַר֙ וְלֹ֣א יַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְדִבֶּ֖ר וְלֹ֥א יְקִימֶֽנָּה:

God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent [the agreement]: when God has said, will God not do it? Or when God has spoken, will God not make it good?

Balaam is speaking to Balak, explaining why he cannot perform the cursing of the people of Israel. He has tried, even though he knew from the outset that this was a professional job that was doomed to failure, but whether it was vanity or a belief he could change God’s mind, or simply the money was so good he thought it worth the shot – in this final exchange between Balak the King of Moab and the well-respected gentile prophet whose relationship with God is documented in bible, Balaam has to tell Balak that however many bulls are sacrificed on however many mountain tops, the cursing of the people of Israel is not going to happen. Indeed, after one final attempt following this exchange, Balaam will open his mouth and declare the words “Mah tovu ochalecha Ya’akov” – (how good are your tents” and the blessing of the Israelites that follow them.

It is a well-known story, beautifully crafted with humour and some mystery and growing tension, and a crowning blessing. But it is the phrase that Balaam tells Balak that stuck out for me this year – God is not a human being who would tell lies, not a human being who goes back on their word, but God speaks and it will happen, God says and it will be established.

Lo Ish El, vi’chazeiv – “God is not a man, a teller of lies. God is not Someone who says they will do something and then go back on their word”. And it struck me just how powerful these words are, when spoken to a political leader.  For by implication at least, Balaam is speaking truth to power and pointing out to Balak that he, the King of Moab, is someone who might lie, offering one thing and doing another.

We are living in a world where our leaders and those in power are doing just that too. Every news broadcast seems to bring yet another story of people who lied in order to manipulate a vote – famously at the referendum for Brexit when many were swayed by the words on a bus chartered by the official campaign to leave: “We send the EU £350 million a week let’s fund our NHS instead” because they understood it to mean that  a vote for Brexit would mean the money sent to the EU would be given to the NHS instead, only to be told later “let’s give” is not a promise, and any monies that MIGHT be given to the NHS would not have to even approximate £350 million. Chris Grayling said that the promised £350 million per week was ‘an aspiration’, not a promise, Nigel Farage also immediately backtracked saying it was “a mistake”. Iain Duncan Smith also backtracked, denying promising the money would be spent on the NHS, saying ‘It is not a promise broken, I never said that through the course of the election, what I said was we will be able to spend the lion’s share of that money’.

Lies are told about migrants – while we know that immigration brings with it the forces that will help an economy thrive, the narrative of the right wing politicians is of displacing native workers, using resources that were not created by them, both taking jobs AND claiming benefits etc. By whipping up fear of “the other”, politicians are able to displace the blame for previous poor decisions on funding hospitals and schools, investing in the future etc. and by such misdirection and distraction keep themselves in power and keep the populace obedient.

Lying is part of the political discourse – the famous saying by the 17th century diplomat and politician Sir Henry Wotton “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” has aged well. We know that many public servants have learned to cherry pick information to give to their leaders so as not to incur their fury, or ministers hiding difficult decisions by releasing them when people might easily miss them. Famously as the twin towers burned on September 11th, British politicians and their spokespersons thought it a good day to “bury bad news”

We can watch the White House press conferences open-mouthed in horror as obvious and easily checkable lies are promulgated as truths. Just yesterday, Trump announced to a rally “We love the countries of the European Union. But the European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States.”  Note that “of course”.  He was not challenged; suddenly it appears that the European Union, the project set up after the war to build relationships within Europe, was designed to be an enemy of America.

The examples go on and on sadly. Misinformation, Fake News, Lies, or as the British MP Alan Clark called it “Being economical with the actualite” (when giving evidence in a trial about what he had told Parliament about what was happening) – we are sadly used to those in power having little regard for honesty, truthfulness, or the integrity of doing what they say and saying what they do. While it is not in fact an essential prerequisite for holding power, it has become an ingrained habit in many. Balak too no doubt, whose name means “to lay waste”, whose fear of the Israelites, their large number and what they had done to the Amorites, first consults with the elders and then calls on Balaam to curse the people who are coming towards his land. He will not take no for an answer. He offers wealth and honours, and curiously “v’chol asher tomar elai, e’esse” whatever you say to me [to do] I will do  – something that Balaam will later throw back at him in his words about God quoted at the beginning of this piece.

What can we make of this? Balaam is telling Balak that God does not lead by lying to the people, by misinformation or going back on promises. On the one hand this is a statement of faith in the faithfulness of God – the people and God have a covenant, it is unbreakable and it will continue.

But it is also saying something about people – in particular but not exclusively about leaders. We are so used to being lied to, misinformed or not informed, promised things before an election that mysteriously vanish once the election has been held, told that information in “sensitive” or “confidential” and therefore must be kept from public view; we are becoming used to social media platforms churning out partial truths and television presenters allowing their interviewees to speak unchallenged and unexamined.

Yet the model for leadership is presented here by Balaam is a good one. Not to lie. Not to renege on an agreement.  To do what one has said one will do. To speak and to follow through about what was said.

Jewish tradition has always recognised that for some, leadership is an aspiration in order to enhance the self – to gain wealth or respect or status. It has also always recognised that leadership concentrated in the hands of too few is dangerous – hence the biblical model of the monarchy, the priesthood and the third office- prophet or judge or elder. None has all the power; there are checks and balances built into the system

The Talmud reminds us that “One who is appointed over a community becomes the servant of the community,” (Horayot 10b), the (12th century) tosafot on Mishnah Sanhedrin (7:2) comments “One who is wise, humble and fearful of sin may be made a community leader. There are many such statements in our texts.

Leadership is a position requiring less ego and more humility – look at Moses, leader par excellence, whose leadership alongside that of Aaron and Miriam was marked by doubt and by questioning. Leadership involves not only holding the vision of which direction to go, but building the consensus among the community in order to bring them with.

We have forgotten – or maybe simply let go of – the importance of the qualities of service to the community of those in a leadership role and allowed it to become inflated and self-important, laying waste to communities as it does so. We have too many “Balaks” in positions of power and we are allowing them to increase fake news and lies in the public discourse and destroy the communities so carefully and painstakingly built up over the years. Talmud Yerushalmi has a sobering reminder for us ““As the leader, so the generation; as the generation, so the leader.” (Talmud Yer. Arachin 17a)

 

 

 

Chukkat – how fear can curdle the humanity of societies; or: we won’t forget the heartless Edomites and our heartlessness won’t be forgotten either

It is Refugee Week, the week that takes place across the world around World Refugee Day on 20th June. And while we are horrified by the stories coming from the Mediterranean, with the Aquarius and her sister ships picking up frantic and vulnerable refugees floating on leaky and overcrowded boats in their attempts to seek safety and then desperately looking for a country who will offer them refuge, while we are shocked and appalled by the photos coming from the USA of traumatised and desperate children who have been separated from their parents and caged up in warehouses, while we watch people become dehumanised on our screens or in our newspapers, the bible quietly and insistently sends us a message. Tucked into the more dramatic events in parashat Chukkat come these seven verses:  And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: ‘Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the travail that has befallen us; how our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and our ancestors; and when we cried to the Eternal, God heard our voice, and sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt; and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of your border. Let us pass, I pray you, through your land; we will not pass through field or through vineyard, neither will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go along the king’s highway, we will not turn aside to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your border.’  And Edom said to him: ‘You shalt not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against you.’ And the children of Israel said to him: ‘We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of thy water, I and my cattle, then will I give the price thereof; let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt.’ And he said: ‘You shalt not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; wherefore Israel turned away from him (Numbers 20:14-21

A frightened people want to pass near the borders of Edom on their way from misery and torment in one country as they journey to find safety. And they are refused. They try to be diplomatic, they offer to pay for any damage or any resource used, they are desperate to come through this land to get to safety, but not only does Edom refuse to let them do so, they come out with an army to prevent them from coming anywhere near.

What are Edom so afraid of? Why do they chase this group away in such a hostile manner? In what way does it benefit them? In what way might they honestly be threatened?

Edom is understood to be the city of Esau – a close relative, the brother of Jacob. But there is no warmth to be found in this story. The people move to Mt Hor and back towards the sea of reeds, in order to travel around Edom but quickly find themselves in the same position with Sihon, the king of the Amorites.  The story is retold in Deuteronomy, when nearly forty years after the first attempt God reminds the people not to provoke Edom, who have been given this land by God, and this time they are allowed to go through.  But should we expect today’s refugees to wait for nearly forty years to find some peace, put down some roots, get on with their lives?

In today’s world we find that we are living in one of the largest forced displacement crises ever recorded. Over 65 million people are on the move, force to flee their homes and look for safety elsewhere.   Last year, 362,376 people arrived in Europe via sea. Just under half were women and children. About a million people from outside Europe claimed refugee status in the twelve months just gone.. But contrary to the narratives so many media offer, most refugees are actually taken in and cared for by poorer countries than those of Europe. The UN’s Refugee Agency estimates that nearly nine in ten of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries. Take a moment for that to sink in.  Ninety percent of the world’s refugees are taken care of by countries that can themselves barely afford to do so. And yet they do. And meanwhile the richer countries act like the Edomites and refuse even the polite and diplomatic requests to travel through, the offer to pay for resources, to desperate need to be safe – preferring to show force and to send the refugees away to try to find another way to safety

The name Edom is used as rabbinic code for Rome. Rome, the powerful and wealthy head of the huge and spreading Empire which did not care for the vulnerable or the stranger but only for its own status and power. Our tradition speaks of Edom with disdain, it is the model of behaviour that is unacceptable, it is the model we do not wish to be like. Bible reminds us repeatedly to care for the stranger, the vulnerable in society, the ones who have fallen to the bottom of the societal pile.  And yet here we are, watching an American administration quote biblical verses as ‘proof’ of the right to separate children from their parents and lock them up without comfort or care. The Independent Newspaper has reported that up to 2,000 children migrant children have been separated from their families in just six weeks in the USA. We are watching an Italian government minister try to take a census of the Roma community, in order to expel those who do not have Italian citizenship. We know that here in the UK there is still indefinite detention for people whose paperwork is not completely full and in order, we see a terrible rise in xenophobia and people being attacked in public spaces for being foreign. We have a Home Office who is proud of operating a “hostile environment”, and a Prime Minister who was the architect of the policy and remains proud of it, even as we see the how the Windrush Generation were treated with disdain and with no respect, as we hear the stories of families split apart, of people’s live shattered at the whim of some ill though out and  bureaucratic policy. As we mark refugee week, as we read Chukkat with its focus on death and purity, with its narratives of the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, with its record of the actions of Edom to the vulnerable migrants known as the children of Israel, we weep.

If we had to write a history of the world right now, if we had to write of the 65 million people fleeing violence or war in their own homes, of the talk of locking up people and indefinite detention for those without the right papers, if we had to record the stories of the people picked up on the Mediterranean Sea, in fear of drowning but prepared to take the risk as being less awful than staying put, if we had to record the fear of travelling communities, of people who have been uprooted from their homes – what would the people reading our history say? How would they look on an administration quoting Bible to justify their abuses of power to the most vulnerable? How would they look at a Europe which takes a tiny percentage of the mass of rootless and fearful people, and which squabbles over who is taking enough of the “burden”?

In Chukkat we read of the red heifer, the ashes of which will purify the impure and make impure the pure. It is a chok, a law without reason, done only on the grounds of faith. In refugee week 2018 as we read the parasha we see that there is no reason, only the belief that we must keep people out at all costs – even at the cost of their lives, as we increase the impurity in our world by denying the most vulnerable their dignity.

The antidote to causeless hatred is causeless love. We are a long way from it right now, but we can hope that the outrage will finally be enough to make the necessary changes, that the political will to care for people because they are people will be found, that refugees may soon find places to call home.

Parashat Chukkat reminds us that the world is a scary place, that resources are finite and that death will come to us all. But it reminds us too of the dignity of refugees, of the humanity of the people travelling to find safety, of their connection to us, and that history will record and we will be judged. May that be enough to bring change and rest for those who so sorely need it.

 

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Korach: reading the Bad Boys of the Exodus can help with the Bad Boys of Brexit

Reading Bible reminds us again and again that people are the same, whatever age they live in, and that politics is also essentially unchanged over the centuries. Some people have principles, others appear to have only causes, and one repeatedly seen cause is sadly that of increasing their own power and status.

Yes, they will dress it up – in a tub-thumping speech to the leader they may say “you are taking too much on yourself, all the people are holy” or they may use the language of the demagogue explicitly reminding others that only they are following “the will of the people” and everyone else is betraying them. Often the speaker is privileged and wealthy, yet somehow acts as if they are one of the less advantaged, and speak against some notionally distant and uncaring governing elite.

So Korach, cousin of Aaron and Moses, was a member of the tribe of Levi, singled out for special status. The midrash tells us that he was very wealthy (indeed the phrase “as rich as Korach” in Hebrew equates with the modern slang “filthy rich” and Bemidbar Rabba 18:15 tells us that Korach was the comptroller in Pharaoh’s palace and was in charge of the keys of his treasuries, and later on is clear that he was not the most disinterested or honest supervisor, but took many of the riches for himself (Bemidbar Rabba 22:7)   And yet his language implies that he is simply the spokesperson for the downtrodden and ignored, as he whips up a populist movement to his own agenda.

There can be no doubt that Korach is one of the “Bad Boys of the Exodus”. And of course he gets his comeuppance, as the duel of the firepans of incense leads the rebels to their unnatural deaths while Aaron and his family are confirmed in the priesthood and the copper from the firepans is to be used to plate the altar to remind everyone that the priesthood is of the family of Aaron (See Numbers 17)

God, having taken out the leadership of the rebellion, is keen to finish the job, sending a plague upon the whole community, and Aaron and Moses have to rush to help save them from the consequences of this rebellion.

Sometimes bible has a way of speaking to the current moment in an eerie and extraordinary way. Here in the UK we have our demagogues, almost to a man wealthy and privileged and with a deep urge to seize power. The leadership of the Brexit project – the “Bad Boys of Brexit” are generally personally wealthy, have a background of privilege in terms of education and family connections, and have manipulated people who have been ignored or suppressed into somehow believing that they are just like them. The newspapers they write for or control drip poisonous xenophobic tropes, see the European Union as other, indeed as enemy. They deliberately whip up the ideas of treason, seeing enemies and betrayal everywhere. For years stories about “the other” have published which show the poor patriotic English person being cheated, lied to, ignored in favour of foreigners.  Forget the ideology of working for European peace, if you read these papers you would believe that laws are imposed on us by foreigners who don’t consult, don’t expect us to have a voice, don’t care about us, only about our money which they want from us. These years have done their work, the mob are roused, with threats of violence against anyone with a different narrative, from Members of Parliament down. And real violence against anyone perceived as “other”. For me the nadir was the headline “enemies of the people” in the Daily Mail (4.11.17), with photos of three High Court Judges who “defied {the} Brexit voters” and who could trigger a constitutional crisis. What had the Judges done? They had ruled that Parliament must be consulted before the Government could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would start the UK’s formal process of EU withdrawal.

In the story of Korach, the rebels are spectacularly –and unnaturally – dealt with, going down into the bowels of the earth which then closed over them. But the continued effect of their poison and lies meant that God was prepared to continue cleansing the people – by plague. It took the desperate interventions of Moses and Aaron to change that terrible outcome, and to get the people once more back on track to achieve their goal, of entry into the Promised Land.  We learn from this that the power of the rabble rouser and demogague continues long after they have stopped. It takes courage and thoughtful intervention, facing the problem and the poison and combatting it with a different narrative, to slowly root out the worst of it.

But the human desire for grabbing power and for seeing others as foreign or other does not go away. It must be recognised and it must be contained, for it will never leave us. There will always be those who rise up in every generation to pervert justice and kindness for their own benefit and we need to be aware of this and on our guard, fighting and fighting for the values of understanding our shared humanity, of having compassion for the other  rather than fear or hatred.  It is interesting to see that some psalms are written by the bnei Korach – the sons or descendants of Korach. Korach does not go away, but becomes part of the community – and we have to be aware that the tropes of Korach’s rebellion are still entwined within our groups.

How our current situation, of growing populist movements and politicians will end, we don’t yet know.  We see that the language of snide demagoguery continues, we see that wealth has been acquired through odd and secretive ways from outside the community (just as Korach had appropriated his wealth immorally from Egyptian stores). We see parties or individuals gaining power by whipping up xenophobia and hatred while implying that they are on the side of the poor and dispossessed.  No God is going to come and cause the earth to open – we are on our own with this one. But we should take heart from the biblical text. Ultimately Korach loses, the people are back on track and the violence and plague abates. It takes work and pain and fear and tears. But ultimately Korach will lose again.