Mishpatim: The Code of Law that structures Human Rights in its very bones, or Justice and Judges must uphold the moral imperative.

Mishpatim 2022

Parashat Mishpatim continues the process begun at Sinai, explicating and evolving the laws that will govern this nascent Israelite society. It begins with the laws that govern the indentured Israelite servants, and then moves on to the laws of damages- beginning with the person who either intentionally or unintenionally causes damage, and then dealing with the damage that is caused indirectly or by the property of people. The parasha then continues into other areas.

On first reading, it seems as if the laws contain a jumble of different areas and contexts with little logical order. Rabbi Elchanan Samet however has a different view: “Our question about the organization of the parasha of damages is based on the assumption that the order should follow the categories of the agents which CAUSE damage. Such a categorization is appropriate from a legal perspective, since one’s level of responsibility for the damage determines whether and how much restitution he much pay.  Our questions, however, disappear when we realize that the Torah orders this section based on the categories of those who are DAMAGED, not those who CAUSE damage”.

(https://etzion.org.il/en/tanakh/torah/sefer-shemot/parashat-mishpatim/mishpatim-laws-damages-declaration-human-rights)

In other words, the Torah has an organising principle here not just of legal categories, but of societal values. It begins with the value of human and then animal life, moves onto plant life and the sustaining ability of agriculture for society, and only then moves to general property or to money.  By using this principle, we are reminded powerfully that all human life and wellbeing, )closely followed by animal life and well being) is de facto more important to sustain and to protect than property or wealth.

On this organising principle, Judaism builds an edifice of understanding and provides a moral compass for us and for all of society. One cannot claim for example that the poor deserve less than the rich, that refugees have fewer rights to security than those comfortably living in the land, or that the rights of animals to life and welfare can be negotiated (or worse) for monetary profit.

Mishpatim has often been described as a foundational text for our society, a text which creates an environment built on laws that are applicable to everyone, that have authority, that addresses a broad variety of human experiences. The view that the organising principle is not only the legal sysem regulating human action but actually the moral imperative to be particularly concerned about supporting the wronged person and getting justice for them is mind blowing.  We generally focus on the idea that it is clearly built on earlier codes, such as that of Hammurabi, and examine the differences between the two codes of law, but to change focus and look at how the code is structured to prioritise people’s humanity and well being, the care for all living creatures and for nature BEFORE considering the care for material wealth and possessions is to understand the biblical imperative to care for the world and its inhabitants even at the cost of any accumulation of wealth or other material power.

We cannot of course ignore the fact that the legal code is critical to keeping the moral code properly focused and working. It is law – good law that is made to help people rather than to oppress or constrain people – that keeps society safe. The very word “mishpatim” means “laws”, and it requires people who apply wisdom and compassion to interpret and wield these laws.

I have been thinking a great deal recently about my grandfather, Walter Fritz Louis Rothschild, whose career as a judge faltered and ultimately came to an end with the rise of the Nazis in Germany. We have a newspaper where the following is reported on 21st January 1933 under the heading “A Public Scandal” :

“Offener Brief an den Reichsjustizminister.

Wir berichteten bereits in unsere gestrigen Ausgabe über den öffentlichen Skandal am hiesigen Amtsgericht.  Der Führer der SA-Obergruppe 2, Lutze, hat jetzt folgenden offenen Brief an den Reichsjustizminister gerichtet:

Ein Einzelfall, der in der Bevölkerung Hannovers berechtigte Entrüstung und Empörung ausgelöst hat, gibt mir Veranlassung, mich an Sie zu wenden und ein Problem zur Sprache zu bringen, das dringend und umgehend der Bereinigung bedarf.

               Der Vorgang ist folgender:           Das Amtsgericht Hannover hat es für zweckmäßig befunden, in einer politischen Strafsache, die am Mittwoch, dem 18. Januar 1933 vor dem hiesigen Amtsgericht anstand, in einem Verfahren gegen 2 SA-Männer den jüdischen Amtsgerichtsrat Dr. Rothschild als Vorsitzenden herauszustellen.

               Die Vernehmung der Beklagten erfolgte von Seiten des Dr. Rothschilds in überaus provokatorischer und unsachlicher Form.

   Der Verteidiger der Angeklagten bezweifelte daraufhin die Unbefangenheit des jüdischen Vorsitzenden und wird von diesem in einer Art und Weise behandelt, die weit über das Maß des Erträglichen und Erlaubten hinausgeht. Das Gericht zieht sich zur Beratung zurück und erklärt dann den Antrag des Verteidigers als gegenstandslos.

               Herr Reichsjustizminister! Es dürfte auch Ihnen nicht entgangen sein, daß das deutsche Volk, soweit es die nat.-soz. Weltanschauung vertritt – und das sind rund 40 Prozent der Gesamtbevölkerung Deutschlands – die jüdischen Fesseln abzustreifen sich anschickt.

               Wir verbitten es uns, daß man Vollblut- und Halbblutjuden als Richter über deutsche Menschen einsetzt. Wir fordern, daß der verantwortliche Amtsgerichtsdirektor, der für den obengenannten Vorgang  die Verantwortung trägt, zur Rechenschaft gezogen wird.

               Ich hoffe, daß Sie diesem Appell in letzter Stunde die gebührende Beachtung schenken, ehe es an den Gerichten zu Auftritten kommt, die eine autoritäre Rechtspflege überhaupt in Frage stellen.

               Zu Ihrer Orientierung diene Ihnen, daß sich die hannoverschen Gerichte durch Herausstellung jüdischen Justizpersonals besonders hervortun. Ich nenne u.a. :

               1. den ersten Staatsanwalt Wolfssohn,

               2. die Richterin Alice Rosenfeld,

               3. den Amtsgerichtsrat Rothschild,

und empfehle Ihnen, die Genannten schnellstens in der Versenkung verschwinden zu lassen.

Der Führer der SA-Obergruppe II, gez. Lutze, M.d..R.”  [i.e. Mitglied des Reichstages.]

“Open letter to the Reich Minister of Justice.

We already reported in yesterday’s issue about the public scandal at the local district court.   The leader of SA-Obergruppe 2, Lutze, has now addressed the following open letter to the Reich Minister of Justice:

An individual case which has caused justified indignation and outrage among the people of Hanover has given me cause to address you and to raise a problem which urgently and immediately needs clearing up.

               The process is as follows:

               The District Court of Hanover has found it expedient to single out the Jewish District Court Councillor Dr. Rothschild as the presiding judge in a political criminal case which was pending before the District Court here on Wednesday, January 18, 1933, in proceedings against 2 SA men.

               The questioning of the defendants was carried out by Dr. Rothschild in an extremely provocative and unobjective manner.

   The defendants’ defence counsel then doubted the impartiality of the Jewish chairman and was treated by him in a manner that went far beyond what was tolerable and permissible. The court retires for deliberation and then declares the motion of the defence counsel to be without object.

               Mr. Minister of Justice! It should not have escaped your notice that the German people, in so far as they represent the National-Socialist worldview – and that is about 40 percent of the total population of Germany – are preparing to throw off the Jewish shackles.

               We forbid the use of full-blooded and half-blooded Jews as judges over German people. We demand that the director of the district court, who is responsible for the above-mentioned incident, be brought to justice.

               I hope that you will give this appeal the attention it deserves at the last hour, before there are any appearances in the courts that call the authoritarian administration of justice into question at all.

               For your orientation, please note that the Hanoverian courts are particularly prominent in singling out Jewish judicial personnel. I mention, among others:

               1. the first public prosecutor Wolfssohn,

               2. Judge Alice Rosenfeld,

               3. the district court judge Rothschild,

and I recommend that you let the aforementioned disappear as quickly as possible.

The leader of SA-Obergruppe II,

signed. Lutze, M.d..R.”     [i.e. member of the Reichstag.]

One can only imagine the arrogant confidence of the writers of the letter, who, unhappy that an incident where up to 30 SA (Sturmabteilung – Nazi paramilitary wing “Storm Detachment) men had set upon a man wearing a Reichsbanner badge in his hat (anti fascist/ liberal organisation of the Weimar republic) and beaten him up, were questioned robustly by a Jewish court judge and found to have a case to answer – felt able to demand that Jewish judges be removed from office.

One can only imagine the feelings of that judge  – my grandfather- writing his carefully worded and thoughtful 5 page response to the accusation, only to be removed from his role within a week of his rebuttal as the Nazis came to power and removed all Jews from their public roles.

My grandfather died as a result of the physical ill- treatment he received in Dachau shortly after the war. But my grandmother survived and on occasion she would reminisce with me. One day she told me of her overwhelming fear in the early thirties – I think it must have been around the time of this court case – as she tried to persuade her husband to leave the country. He told her “I can’t. If the judges leave then there will be no justice”.

By the time he realised that there would be no judges and no justice it was too late to leave. Countries had closed their borders to Jews, they and extended family were trapped.

Last week I lit a yahrzeit candle for him. This week we are mark the European Holocaust Memorial Day and we repeat the words “never again” and “Zachor – Remember” hopefully and desperately in the knowledge that since the Shoah we have seen people dehumanised because of their ethnicity or religion, we have seen people attempt to erase any memory and any learning from memory.

And this week we read parashat Mishpatim. We read a parasha where a society is created by laws. A parasha structured to remind us that every single human being is of value, every single human being is of equal value, and that value is paramount in how we organise our society.

If only our society followed the structure set out in parashat mishpatim. To value human life, animal life, the natural world. To care for them, to protect them, to nourish and sustain and honour them. And only after that to consider material wealth, profit, gains.  If only we had a system where the person damaged was the most important to consider, not the damage to property or wealth.

We are witnessing an assault by government on our codes of justice. We are witnessing legislation whereby if the government does not agree with the judiciary, they will overrule the judgments. We are witnessing long term underfunding of our system which is causing it to break down. We are witnessing a government that thinks the law is not for them to follow. We are living in dangerous times.

And I think of my brave and lonely grandfather saying to my fearful and anxious grandmother. “If the judges leave there will be no justice.”

Hannover Judges. My grandfather Landgerichtsrat Dr Walter Fritz Louis Rothschild third row from the front, fourth from the right

Va’Era: listening, hearing and acting in despondent and terrifying times

“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the ETERNAL. I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the ETERNAL, am your God who freed you from the labours of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I sworeto Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the ETERNAL.” But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” Exodus 6:5-9

Twice now we hear that God hears the groaning of the Israelites – At the burning bush God tells Moses “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings……”  Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. (Exodus 3:7,9), yet at no point does the bible record the Israelites calling out to God for help to save them from their slavery in Egypt. Yet God hears them and decides to act to help them.

This contrasts painfully with the lack of listening that the Israelites themselves do. When Moses speaks to them of his encounter with God, and the re-entry of God into their narrative, they refuse to listen to him. They  are too fully absorbed in the misery of their existence to contemplate anything beyond it.

The text plays repeatedly with miscommunication, with what is said, or listened to, or heard or understood. God hears what is not cried out. Moses pleads his inability to speak well to others. Pharoah chooses not to understand the import of the signs and wonders being inflicted on his people and land. He too is fully absorbed in retaining and growing his own power to notice what else is happening around him. Again and again he is forced into accepting a version of the request of the Israelite people, to go and worship God in the wilderness, only to retract his agreements shortly afterwards.

What we come to understand is that listening and understanding are both active and committed behaviours. While one can communicate without intending to do so, it is also possible to be exposed to the communication of others without taking on board what it is that they are communicating. One can hear the silent pain of others and yet miss the explicit and direct words shared with us.

When Moses brings the message from God to the Israelites, the message of freedom from slavery, they do not hear him – and the bible explains that they are crushed by their conditions, have no ability to think beyond their misery.

Listening and understanding are active behaviours of commitment to the other. It is not enough to just skim the surface of communication, gleaning sufficient though scant information in order to continue one side of a conversation.  Listening is an act of will, paying attention takes effort, being present in communication is not the easy route.

The Israelites are consumed by their conditions, exhausted by the effort they must put in just to survive. They cannot hear the voice of freedom even when it speaks directly to them. God has to try another way to get their attention, as well as the attention of their oppressors.

We are living in a world undergoing pandemic, where almost everyone is giving their attention to negotiating the unknowable. After almost two years of this “new normal”, many of us are exhausted, many burned out, many in more fragile situations in work or in relationships, many contemplating a different way to live their lives going forward. The hard work of just keeping going means that for many of us all our attention is taken, we have no bandwidth for listening and really hearing the messages of others, no emotional capacity for even the directly spoken plea.

Yet it is important that we are able to turn our attention outside our immediate situation. Be it climate change or massively increased poverty, increasing political corruption or the desolation of the many bereaved people – we have to lift our heads and begin to pay attention. To listen to the pain of others even if not directed to us. To commit to understanding and engaging with the problems our world is facing, even if we would rather just keep our heads down and plough on.

When God sends the signs – seven of which appear in this sidra – they are signs not just to Pharaoh, but to everyone, from Hebrew slave to Egyptian courtiers. They are attention grabbing reminders that the world needs us to pay attention, that the vulnerable and the frightened need us to pay attention, that the people treated unjustly need us to pay attention.

In the beginning of this sidra God tells Moses” I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name”

Much is written about the names of God here, but I am minded to pay attention this year to the words of Saadia Gaon who said that the shin of Shaddai is a preposition, so the word is really She’ Dai – The One Who said to the world “Enough”

Standing up and being prepared to say “Enough” takes courage, presence, commitment and deep attention. And it is something we also need to be doing. Saying “enough” to the facts of extreme poverty in rich nations, of frightened refugees preferring to risk their lives because there are no proper secure or legal routes to safely. Saying “enough” to those who would grab resources for themselves at the expense of other peoples. Saying “enough” to corruption in government, to legislation designed to remove rights, to legislation designed to erase history

We are all tired and frightened and uncertain in this pandemic time, but if we don’t begin to pay attention to what else is happening while Covid 19 rampages through the globe, if we don’t stand up and say “enough” to human beings living in terrible conditions with little hope of change, then we are not paying attention to our texts. The ten signs God sends to Egypt increase in severity and terror. God has to find a way to be heard. And if we just stop and listen for the still small voice of our texts and traditions, we will hear and understand and gather the strength to be who we need to be.

Parashat Toledot – Fighting for the space to live in safety and for important resources to be accessible to all who need them has a long history

“and [Isaac] grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth. And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled. Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek., “contention.” because they contended with him. And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. harassment.” He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehovot, saying, “Now at last the Eternal has granted us ample space(breadth)” to increase in the land.”” (Genesis 26:13ff)

The stories in the life of Isaac often parallel those of his father Abraham. There is a famine in the early story of Abraham, and a famine in the early life of Isaac. In both cases they left the land of Israel – Abraham went down to Egypt, Isaac to Gerar in Philistine controlled territory, having been explicitly told by God NOT to go to Egypt. Isaac encounters an Abimelech, King of Gerar and lies about the relationship he has with Rebecca, calling her his sister rather than his wife, (something Abraham had also done, both in Egypt and in Gerar)

Abraham also has an encounter with an Abimelech, the king of Gerar, over the issue of the ownership of wells, just as Isaac does in the narrative here. The digging and ownership of wells is of importance in both their lives. Both father and son have issues with the large size of their flocks and herds and the resources needed to sustain them, and both father and son react most of the time by removing themselves from conflict – Abraham with his nephew Lot, Isaac with the herdsmen of Gerar. Both have two sons, and have what might be called fraught relationships with them and with the passing of the legacy of covenant. Abraham sends Ishmael away from him and involves Isaac in whatever the mysterious event of the akeidah, never seeing him again afterwards. Isaac is tricked by Jacob pretending to be Esau, passes on the covenant apparently unaware the recipient is not Esau (or at least there is ambiguity in his mind), and Jacob is sent away, never to see his father again.

Yet there is more to Isaac’s life than his simply repeating the leitmotif’s of his father, and echoing the experiences of that great Ivri, crosser of boundaries.

 Isaac – often seen as the least significant of the patriarchs, the son of a famous father and the father of a famous son. Yet his is a story with much to teach us. A man who never leaves the Land despite many trials. The only one to be described as being in love with his wife. A man who has to deal with complexity and ambiguity in navigating his life, and with fewer certainties. A man who has survived the terrible trauma of his father’s apparent attempt on his life – or at least a seeming willingness to do so.

The story told above – of the re-digging of the Abrahamic wells and the negotiations that ensue – resonated particularly for me this year as we watch the COP 26 conference and the postures and positions on display.

In the Abrahamic parallel we are told: “At that time Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien.” And Abraham said, “I swear it.” When Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs of the flock. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” He said, “These seven ewe lambs you shall accept from my hand, in order that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba; (well of seven or well of oath) because there both of them swore an oath. When they had made a covenant at Beer-sheba, Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, left and returned to the land of the Philistines. [Abraham] planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the Eternal, the Everlasting God. And Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines. (Gen 21:22-34)

In this narrative we are confronted with the need for trust between the various powers or participants to the agreement who are involved – without that trust nothing “agreed” can be said to really be agreed.  We are confronted too with the issues of ownership of resources, of the fair sharing of such resources, with the actions of the people who reside on the land and those of people who control resources but do not “belong” to the land on which they are situated. Abraham and Abimelech appear able to make a treaty with a reasonable level of success – though we are never told why the servants of Abimelech had seized Abraham’s well in the first place.

By the time of Isaac, the wells had not only been taken back but actively stopped up – a strange phenomenon given the preciousness of the resource. Does this somewhat aggressive action date from unresolved issues from the time of Abraham? Is it to prevent others coming in from outside to use the water improperly? We can only speculate. But the continuing quarrelling and harassment that Isaac faces when trying to reclaim his father’s property shows us that the matter has not only not been resolved, but that there is ongoing acrimony and anger ready to erupt into violence.

Isaac does not go to the King as his father had done, he simply moves away and tries to settle elsewhere near a “family well”, and eventually he digs and finds what may be a new watersource, one that is not contested, and understands that now he has found a place to settle down.

Yet strangely, the next verse tells us that he moves on the BeerSheba, where he encounters God and receives the covenant promise, then builds an altar and worships, then pitches his tent and only then digs a well…

Abimelech and the Philistines come to find him to make a treaty with him, and responding to his challenge about their hostility to him which has forced him to move on, tell him that they now see that God is with him. (26:28) They make their own treaty with him, and leave. Only then do Isaac’s servants come to tell him that they have found water, which he names “Sheba” (oath) and again we have a story about the naming of Beer Sheba.

What comes down to us from these narratives is how the trust and the treaties need to be ongoing, that having been made once is not enough – they must be kept in good repair. We see that was accepted once may not be acceptable going forward. We see that pressure on resources will not only not go away, but will engender resentment and anger if not addressed fairly and regularly. We see that the actions of one (or more) rich and powerful agent (s) can be hugely detrimental to others with less power but with a real stake in the issue. And this power differential cannot be allowed to continue.

If we want to have a fairer world, a world where there is access to resources by all who need them, a world where there is trust and where people work to keep that trust alive and responsive, then we need to ensure that we are part of the solution, able to see the realities and to ensure that our leadership both acknowledge and respond in a timely and appropriate manner to those realities.

Watching the COP26 and seeing the posturing, the lobbying, the arrogance of the more powerful countries and the despair of those less powerful, we can see we have a long way to go to make a fairer and more sustainable world. The time is short, but this is no reason not to continue to involve ourselves and our values. Isaac eventually finds a place where there is space for everyone to have their own needs met without treading on the needs of others. It is a goal worth aspiring to.

Vayera – Mercy and Justice – truth springs up from the earth, justice from the heavens

Vayera 

Then the Eternal said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Eternal. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen 18:20-25)

Justice is at the heart of Judaism from the biblical narrative onwards, and it is understood to be a core attribution of God that we human beings should strive to emulate.

But Justice alone will not create a sustainable world. And here in Vayera we see Abraham challenging God and God’s intended actions against the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Is this how to dispense Justice? Something more is needed….

When we read the two creation stories in the beginning of the book of Genesis, we see that God’s name differs between the stories. To begin with God is called Elohim – a word that is also used to describe human judges in bible, and it is understood to correspond to the attribute of Justice. In the second story the name of God is YHVH Elohim – Justice is present but so is something else, something in the ineffable and unpronounceable name of God – something understood to correspond to the attribute of Mercy.

Why the additional name? Because anything created only to follow the rules of strict justice is unlikely to survive for long – Justice must always be tempered with Mercy.

The midrash explains thus: “In creating the world God combined the two attributes of justice and mercy: “Thus said the Holy One, blessed be God’s name! ‘If I create the world with the attribute of mercy, sin will be plentiful; and if I create it with the attribute of justice, how can the world exist? Therefore I will create it with both attributes, mercy and justice, and thus may it endure.'”. [Gen. R. 12:15]

“Initially, God intended to create it with the attribute of Justice. But then He saw that the world cannot exist [with only Justice], so He gave priority to the attribute of Mercy, and joined it with the attribute of Justice.” (Pesikta Rabbati 40)

As the prophet Micah put it (6:8)  “God  has told you, O human, what is good, And what the Eternal requires of you:  Only to do justice (mishpat), And to love goodness (hesed), And to walk humbly with your God”

The bible tells us “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16) but while it commands absolute justice we can see that at the same time compassion and mercy are threaded into the narrative almost all the time. Just as the first creation story has the world made from absolute justice, so there has to be a second creation where that justice is mitigated with mercy. If the world is made with only absolute justice, goes the thought, then no one would survive God’s decrees. And if it were to be made only with absolute mercy, then chaos would ensue if no one was ever going to deal with the consequences of their choices. Hence the intertwining of the two attributes, Justice and Mercy, within God.

In the Talmud there is a discussion about whether God prays and to whom. The decision is that God does indeed pray and that God prays to Godself. And what is the prayer that God recites? “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may suppress my other attributes so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy, and on their behalf restrain my attribute of strict Justice.” (Berachot 7a)

In the story in Vayera, God appears to be in full “Justice” mode. It is Abraham who introduces the notion of mercy. Abraham’s question to God is a masterpiece of critical examination: “Shall the Shofet/Judge of all the earth not Mishpat/Justice”? It is a reminder that sometimes we may have to remind God of the prayer God prays (see above).

In the weekday Amidah there is a paragraph that does just that.

הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְ֒טֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵֽינוּ כְּבַתְּ֒חִלָּה וְהָסֵר מִמֶּֽנּוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה וּמְלוֹךְ עָלֵֽינוּ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה לְבַדְּ֒ךָ בְּחֶֽסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים וְצַדְּ֒קֵֽנוּ בַּמִשְׁפָּט:

 Restore our judges as before and our counselors as at the first. Remove sorrow and sighing from us, and reign over us You, Adonai, alone with kindness (hesed) and mercy (rachamim); and make us righteous with justice,

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה מֶֽלֶךְ אֹהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט:

Blessed are You, Adonai the Sovereign who loves righteousness and justice.

While the blessing uses a verse in Isaiah (1:26) I will restore your magistrates as of old,
And your counselors as of yore. After that you (Jerusalem)shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City”
to reference the “golden period” of the Judges – before the monarchy was established – a human monarchy which God had not originally planned for and which may be seen as in some way challenging the kingship of God. The final section explicitly reminds God that God should use kindness and compassion in order to bring about Justice, that  Justice only emerges when there is also compassion and mercy.

Justice is our imperative, it drives Jewish thinking in so many ways. This prayer reminds us that without Justice there will be “sorrow and sighing” – the world will not function and people will be ridden over roughshod with no way of protecting themselves.  But Justice cannot exist alone, in a place where there is only justice there can be no mercy. In a place where there is only mercy there can be no justice. And so while the imperative to pursue Justice at all times shapes us, we must be constantly aware to be merciful in its applications.

In the words of the psalmist

חֶסֶד־וֶאֱמֶ֥ת נִפְגָּ֑שׁוּ צֶ֖דֶק וְשָׁל֣וֹם נָשָֽׁקוּ׃ Faithfulness and truth meet;
justice and well-being kiss. אֱ֭מֶת מֵאֶ֣רֶץ תִּצְמָ֑ח וְ֝צֶ֗דֶק מִשָּׁמַ֥יִם נִשְׁקָֽף׃ Truth springs up from the earth;
justice looks down from heaven.

Just as God learns this, then so do we. Just as God acts with both attributes, so must we. It is a difficult road to walk, and just as Abraham was able to challenge God, so too we must challenge ourselves and each other. Justice yes, but mercy always too.

Lech Lecha: the land cannot continue to sustain us and something has to change

Now Avram was very rich in cattle, silver, and gold. And he proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai, the site of the altar that he had built there at first; and there Avram invoked the ETERNAL by name. Lot, who went with Avram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Avram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle.—The Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.—  Avram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate:a (Lit. “Please separate from me.”) if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the ETERNAL had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the ETERNAL, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other; Avram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. (Genesis 13:5ff)

Avram and his nephew (and heir presumptive)  Lot had travelled from their homeland of Haran and, finding famine in the land of Canaan had journeyed on to Egypt. There, the encounter with Pharaoh who took Sarai into his harem, believing her to be not Avram’s wife but his sister, led to the family acquiring great wealth before leaving Egypt and returning to Canaan (Gen 12:16). Travelling north through the Negev desert, they reached Beit El (North of Jerusalem), where they had struck camp on their original journey from Haran, and settled there.

But this time their herds and flocks were numerous, the land could not sustain so many animals – theirs as well as those of the Canaanites and Perizzites – and -as ever when a resource becomes scarce, tempers flare and cooperation ends as each group tried to take as much of the resource as possible to sustain their own before thinking of the needs other.

The land could not support them staying together for their livestock [possessions] were so many…..”

Abusing the land by overgrazing or by planting too intensively is a phenomenon as old as settled human habitation. The bible not only understands it, but legislates. So for example in Exodus 22:4 we read “When a man lets his livestock loose to graze in another’s land, and so allows a field or a vineyard to be grazed bare, he must make restitution for the impairment Lit. “excellence.” of that field or vineyard.” And Rashi comments here (quoting Talmud Baba Kama 2b) “this describes when  he takes his cattle into the field or the vineyard of his fellow and causes damage to him by one of these two ways: either by the mere fact that he lets his cattle go (tread) there, or by letting it graze there .”  The rabbis of the Talmud were well aware that overgrazing by animals damages the land in two different ways – by eating the vegetation which can then cause soil degradation and later erosion,  and by treading down the land so vegetation cannot thrive there.  

Bible is threaded through with the idea that the land itself has value and agency, quite separately from the fact it acts as home to humanity. From the moment the first human beings are created in the narrative in the first chapter of Genesis, they are given a blessing to “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and control it;” – this last verb is the focus of much commentary – one being that of Sforno (died Bologna 1550)  “It means that the human is to use their intelligence to prevent predators from invading their habitats”, and certainly both biblical and midrashic texts make clear that humanity can only keep control of the land if they take care of the land and act righteously in the way that God requires.  In the words of Rabbi Dovid Sears “the blessing to “control comprises a form of stewardship for which humanity is answerable to God”

The second creation story links humanity to the land even more intimately – Adam, the human being, is created from the Adamah – the ground. We are made of the same stuff, and while the life force is within us we have choices, afterwards we return to the dust we were formed from.

In the story of Avram and Lot there are a number of issues we can recognise in our modern problems with how we deal with our environment.

First of course is the sheer number of animals that they own between them – and the animals of the other peoples in the area. Quite simply the pshat (plain reading of the text) is that there is not enough grazing for them all.

Then there is the fact of individual desires that may mitigate against the needs of others. Ibn Ezra (died 1167 Spain) comments on the word “yachdav” (v6) thus “Yachdav (together) can refer to two (as in our verse) or to many, as in And all the people answered together (yachdav) (Ex. 19:8)….. Yachdav is not synonymous with yachad (together). Yachdav means acting like one person.”. Ibn Ezra is building on the interpretation of Targum Onkelos (early 2nd century translation of the Torah into Aramaic)  which translates yachdav to mean “as one person,” and makes clear that there must be shared values and deep relationship if human beings are to live in full harmony with the land. The uncle and nephew simply can’t create a strategy where they can share the resource that is there, they are each apparently calculating based on their own interests and values  – Lot for wealth, Avram one assumes, for the fulfilment of the covenant by staying on the land.That is, their individuality is blended, as in And all the people answered together (yachdav) (Ex. 19:8), which means that all the people answered as if they were one person. Yachad implies two people acting at the same time, but each one by himself (Weiser).

Thirdly, Avram gives Lot the choice of where he will take his animals. And Lot takes full advantage – “Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the Eternal had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Eternal, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;” (13:10,11)

Lot chooses what he believes to be the best and most richly resourced land for himself. Off he goes to the wealthiest part of the land to further his own material ambitions. We know of course that the cities of the plain – Sodom and Gomorrah – are materially rich but ethically lacking, a compromise that Lot appears prepared to make. His accompanying Avram on the great adventure of Lech Lecha, his role as heir presumptive – all of these are about feeding his own ambitions, and there is apparently no moral imperative in the choices he makes. We cannot but read this text in the light of what happens to Lot and his family, to the point where the descendants of Lot, the Moabites and the Ammonites are forbidden to intermarry with the descendants of Abraham.

Shortage of resource – be it land, water, grain, – the bible is constantly dealing with this problem – so much of the narrative is set against the backdrop of famine or struggles over the right to land. plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose.  We too are dealing with that same shortage of resource in the world – and unlike Avram and Lot we cannot simply spread out to find a place with enough resource to sustain us.

We have to address the overwhelming need to work together as one humanity on one planet. In a way that is truly “yachdav”. We are interconnected in so many ways across the globe: as our climate changes we will have an ever increasing number of refugees. As we compete for resources – be they metals for computer chips or construction, or for water, land and gran – we have to find a way to share equitably and openly. As the coronavirus circulates the globe we must share vaccines and medications if we are to prevent its repeated mutations and iterations. We are living in a world – as shown by recently leaked documents – where the rich are getting richer and hiding their wealth from the rest of the world, while the poor are not only getting poorer but are actively unable to sustain themselves from day to day.

The earth will not continue to sustain us as she is abused and ignored, as soil erosion and flooding, tidal changes and hurricanes increasingly demonstrate. The parasha Lech Lecha comes immediately after the cataclysmic floods and the dispersal following the tower of Babel in Parashat Noach. It is reminding us of our responsibility to each other and to our world. There is, as they say, no Planet B.

By Wenceslaus Hollar – Artwork from University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital CollectionScanned by University of TorontoHigh-resolution version extracted using custom tool by User:Dcoetzee, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6233909

Parashat Noach: We will not be silent: renewing the work of creation

Parashat Noach

Ten generations from the Creation of the first human beings the earth is corrupted, violent and vile.

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃  {ס} 

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.

In three verses (Genesis 6:11-13) the narrative drives home the problem – human beings have damaged their environment irredeemably. Ha’aretz “the earth” is mentioned six times, each time with the connection that it is corrupted  – from the root שָׁחַת  meaning spoiled, destroyed, corrupted, decayed….

God doesn’t directly reference the corruption of the people – it is the earth which is expressing the consequences of human action and inaction, the earth which is acting out the full horror of what humanity has become. And it is on the earth that the full punishment will be felt, as the floods rise and the rain falls, the waters that surround the land which were divided above and below at the time of creation return to their place, and no land will be seen for 150 days and nights.

The intertwining of people and land is complete. What one does affects the other, yet we also know that the land is used again and again in bible to be the metric against which ethical behaviour is measured – and should we not follow God’s requirements we will be unceremoniously evicted from the land for which we have stewardship.

When God decides to end the corruption on the earth God speaks to Noach. God tells him – all flesh will be ended because it is the action of humanity that has brought this unspeakable destruction about, and God is about to end creation – both people and land must be ended.

And Noach says – well, interesting Noach says nothing. Indeed, we have no record in any of the narrative of Noach speaking. Not to God, not to his family, not to humankind. His silence is a cold core at the heart of the story.  Noach doesn’t react, doesn’t warn, doesn’t plead or beg or educate or protest….

Instead Noach builds the boat, collects the animals and their food as God has commanded him, floats in a sea of destruction as everything around him drowns. And when eventually the dry land appears and they are all able to disembark, still Noach doesn’t speak. He builds and altar and sacrifices to God. He plants a vineyard and makes wine and gets drunk, and only then does Noach speak – he speaks to curse his son who had shamed him while he slept off his drunkenness. (Oddly while it was his son Ham who had seen him in this state, Noach actually curses Canaan, the son of Ham.)

He breaks this long long silence for what? To curse so that one group of society will be oppressed by another. He has essentially learned nothing.

We read the story every year. Every year Torah is reminding us – it just took ten generations to completely spoil the creation of our world. We read it and yet we don’t notice it. Instead we focus on the rainbow, the promise from God not to destroy us again by flood. We have turned it into a children’s story decorated with colourful pictures of rainbows and cheerful animals on an artfully dilapidated boat.

We don’t pay attention to the silence of Noach, which mirrors our own silence. We too don’t protest or change our behaviours or warn or educate, we too just doggedly get on with our lives. We don’t pay attention to the way that nature rises up to right itself, the planet ridding itself of the dirt and destruction humanity has visited upon it. We don’t pay attention to the drunkenness of the man who cannot cope with what he has seen, nor the warnings which echo when he finally speaks – to curse the future.

Noach is the quintessential antihero. There is nothing much we can see in him to learn from or to emulate. Yet his story can teach us a great deal. First and foremost it teaches us that abusing the earth will bring devastating consequences to all who live on this planet, and to the planet itself. We learn that the earth is fragile and complex interdependent system, that it does not take long – ten generations – to corrupt and seriously damage it. We learn that the way to avert this is not only to change our behaviour but also to engage with each other and support each other in changing how we treat our world, silence and focus only on self-preservation will not bring a good outcome for anyone. We learn that the trauma of survival in such circumstances will mark the generations to come.

Bible tells us that God repents having made human beings on the earth. (Genesis 6:6) and so brings about the flood. It tells us that God wearily understands that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21) after Noach has made his sacrifice having survived and returned to dry land. Much is made of God’s covenant not to bring total destruction by flood ever again – the symbol for the promise being the rainbow that appears in the sky – but this is not an open promise to the world that we will not bring about our own destruction, merely a divine understanding that perfection will never be part of the human project.

A perfect world is beyond our grasp, but that should not stop us grasping for a world which is healthy and healing, nurtured and nurturing, diverse and complex and continuing to evolve.

In the yotzer prayer, one of the two blessings before the shema in the shacharit (morning) service, is the phrase    “uvtuvo me’chadesh bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit”

In [God’s] goodness God renews the work of creation every day.

Creation is not static, it is a constantly emerging phenomenon. Our tradition makes us partners with God in nurturing the environment we live in. If  God is said to give us a new possibility each day to make our world a better place, then unlike Noach we must grasp the challenge and work hard to clean up our world, and so avoid the inevitable consequences of just looking after ourselves and keeping silent.

Bereishit – the roots of social justice are entwined with our creation as human beings

And the Eternal God said, behold, the human being is become like one of us, to be able to know good and evil (Gen 3:22)

ֶוַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ, לָדַעַת, טוֹב וָרָע;

What had been an ability reserved for divinity, to know and differentiate good and evil, to understand morality and make ethical decisions, has now become a human capacity. We can no longer exist in a state of ethical indifference to the world – we cannot claim we do not understand the consequences of our actions.

The Italian rabbi  and biblical commentator Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (died Bologna 1550) wrote an extraordinary comment on this verse. He read the latter half of the verse as meaning that humanity will know good and evil while continuing to “wear our image”, an intolerable situation because of the human tendency to give in to the yetzer ha’ra, the inclination towards material rather than spiritual imperatives.

For Sforno the problem was that the human being, in favouring their yetzer hara, would not then reach the spiritual level set out for them when God first created them in the image of the divine, but I read his comment slightly differently. While protected and camouflaged because they were wearing the clothing of being created in the image of God, human beings would continue to choose selfishly intentionally. They would bring into disrepute the name and the meaning of being a religious person, they would disgrace and dishonour the values taught by religious traditions, because they would use it for their own purposes and to fulfil their own needs.

I cannot help thinking of how often in our world people wear the clothing of integrity while simultaneously denigrating and demeaning it. Of the police officer who used his warrant card to kidnap, rape and murder a young woman walking home, and all the other stories that are emerging as women tell their stories. Of the politicians who flaunt the national flag in their interviews as if they are defending the values of our nations. Of the despots who rule in the name of “the people” and divide communities by disparaging some imagined “elite”. Of the clergy and the educators and the employers who have historically abused their power and abused those in their power. Of the “nationalists” who foment hatred against outsiders and people in need. The list seems endless right now.

Moral authority  must be much more than clothing we can take on or take off. And much more than the roles we inhabit professionally. It must come from within, be ingrained in how we choose to behave whether “in role” or not, our actions informed by it whether we can be seen or whether we are in private.

Judaism is very clear that each of us is responsible for our own actions. God has given us a pure soul for which we thank God every morning in the “elohai neshama” prayer. It is for each of us to take care of that gift, to be aware of what might taint it and how we can make reparations and teshuvah in order to keep ourselves in good order. No one else can act as intermediary or offer absolution – we have to do the work ourselves.

 But Judaism is also interested in our responsibility for others and for our world. In this week’s sidra the first murder, the fratricide of Abel by Cain, is recorded. And God asks Cain the same question that God asked Eve – “What have you done? (Mah zot aseet/ mah aseeta?”. Eve tries to pass the blame onto the serpent who is then cursed among all the animals, (Genesis 3:13ff) but Cain’s denial of responsibility is far more chilling, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and it leads to him being cursed from the very earth of which he is made, as God says “the bloods of your brother cry out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).

We cannot read this sidra without being very clear that the actions of one can impinge upon another. We cannot see God’s responses to our actions as being anything other than a repeated demand that we act ethically and morally, in the interest of the community rather than pursue our own desires. We see that God doesn’t ignore or deny the wrongdoing even if we might try to do so, to mitigate, to explain away, to obfuscate to ourselves or to others.

Each of us has the gift of moral discernment. We know the difference between right and wrong; we can identify even in the most complex situations what we should be doing, even if we choose not to do so. Each of us has the gift of a pure soul, every morning we are reminded in our prayers that the condition of our moral being is our own responsibility.  Each of us is also tasked with the welfare and well-being of our own communities, of giving a gentle “tochecha”(rebuke/honest feedback/helpful criticism) when we see someone whose behaviour is not in line with ethical imperatives.  We are indeed “our brother’s keeper”

In this very first sidra of the yearly cycle, we see the roots of social justice established as part of the agreement between God and humanity. We see how each of us is given the ability to understand right and wrong, each of us is given the choice, the continuous and continuing choice, in how we decide to act. We see that none of us are isolated or insulated from each other, that the choices we make may have deep impact on the lives and wellbeing of others. That we have responsibility to and for each other.

So when we see people wearing the image of the divine while at the same time diminishing the presence of divine will in the world, we have to speak up. When we see people abusing their authority, abusing their power over others; when we see politicians gaslighting the electorate or waving the flag to cover their selfish and destructive behaviour, we have to stand up and speak out. When we hear the rhetoric of hate in the guise of patriotism, we must call it out, confront it and those who speak it.

If like Adam, Eve and the Serpent we just try to pass on the blame, or like Cain we deny that any blame might be attached, we are denying the humanity of the other and denying our own human obligation to support and care for others – our obligation to act in the image of God. If we add to that our wearing the clothing of integrity and moral authority while denying the obligations they entail, we are truly ignoring the lessons of this sidra, and we are adding insult to injury by not only choosing our yetzer ha’ra over our yetzer hatov, but masquerading, pretending that this is divinely sanctioned behaviour.

Hiding behind a professional role, clothing ourselves in terms of values while choosing to behave directly in contradiction to those values, whether it be a religious professional or a policeman, a politician charged with working to benefit the country or a regulator tasked with ensuring their organisation does what it is supposed to do – Sforno was right to be worried. If we traduce the divine image in which we are made while proclaiming our rights and our righteousness, the damage we can do is amplified beyond measure. And so society loses trust in educators and police, in politicians and regulators, in journalists and in clergy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tetzaveh Zachor – ways to get out of the cycle of violence?

l’italiano segue l’inglese

Shabbat Zachor – named for the second scroll reading which signals the imminent arrival of Purim –gives us the instruction to “Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came out of Egypt. How he met you by the way and struck the last strugglers, all those feeble ones at the back, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God.  So it shall be, when the eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land with the Eternal your god gives you as an inheritance, to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Yet the story in the narrative in Exodus is somewhat different.  “Then came Amalek and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moses said to Joshua, Choose men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand at the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said, and fought with Amalek, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went up to the top of the hill. And it happened that when Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed. And when he dropped his hand, Amalek prevailed. Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on each side of him, so that his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the sword. And God said to Moses “Write this for a memorial in a book, and repeat it in the ears of Joshua, for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.  And Moses built an altar and called it Adonai Nissi, (God is my banner) and he said “the hand upon the throne of the Eternal. God will have war with Amalek from generation to generation”

So which is it? Did Amalek come and prey upon the weakest individuals at the back of the caravan of people fleeing Egypt?  Or was it an apparently unprovoked attack while they were encamped? Was there a battle between armies, or was it a stealthy marauding and attacking of the most feeble?  Were Moses and Joshua active in some way, strategizing the battle? Or were they barely aware of the attacks at the end of the line of people? And who exactly is at war with Amalek? Is it God or is it the Israelites? And which of them is responsible for blotting out the memory of Amalek –  a persistent requirement down the generations, as persistent as telling the story of the exodus from Egypt,  the covenant accepted at Sinai, the story of Esther, Mordechai and Haman – all of which we are told to retell, to never allow the memory to be forgotten.

We are told that Amalek does not “fear God” –Amalek do not possesses “Yirat Adonai”

When we look closely at this term – fearing God – it appears to be one used particularly in circumstances that involve the choice to behave ethically.  Whenever someone could take advantage of a weaker person and doesn’t, but instead chooses to behave with moral integrity, they are described as having “Yirat Adonai”. So, for example, the Egyptian midwives who defy the order of the Pharaoh and who don’t kill the new-born baby boys are motivated by Yirat Adonai (Ex1:17). When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and tells them that he will not harm them he says “I fear God” (Gen 42:18). In the “holiness code” is possibly the most clear example – after the warning not to curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block in front of the blind we are told – “v’yareita me’elochecha – but you shall fear God, I am the Eternal”

The fear of God seems to be the awareness of a higher authority, of something beyond the individual and their desires. While religion is not the only generator of ethics, it is certainly a powerful one, and the idea of an eye that sees and an ear that hears – even if others do not – has historically kept many on a better path than they might otherwise have chosen.

The Amalekites seem not to have this corrective in their world view – they see no reason to behave ethically if that should conflict with their own gain or benefit.  They are the paradigm of amorality – and so it seems that God steps in, and the fight to blot out this life without moral guidance is one that takes place in every generation. The reminder to us that for all time we should blot out the memory of Amalek, to remember always to fight the habit of selfishness, of not caring for the weak or the vulnerable. While this greed and disregard for others is externalised into the Amalekites, the reality is that we all carry the tendency within us.  One of my teachers used to say – “it’s all very well being afraid of what God might think, but most of us are more concerned with what other people might think if they knew what we do – if only we cared as much about what God thinks as we do about what other people think, the world would be a better place!”

Yirat Adonai, the fear of God, is sometimes translated as “reverence” or “awe”, but I rather like the idea that one should be a Godfearer.  Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that we live our lives with all kinds of fears – realistic and irrational. Fear of old age, or pain or illness; of death, of loneliness, of poverty or somehow being “found out”. He said fear was something that confuses us and limits us- we never know what to be legitimately fearful of, what is a pointless fear.

“”Fear seems to be a universal malaise…What kind of fear is it that can overtake us, thereby uprooting all other kinds of fears-fears of failure….of rejection … or of disease? Only the fear of the Eternal God! … [During the High Holydays] We pray that this great fear will free us from all the lesser fears which lurk everywhere, upsetting and embittering our lives”

The Adon Olam has a verse based on psalm 118 – “Adonai Li, lo ira” – God is with me, I shall not fear. It is one of my favourite verses. In the psalm the second half of the verse asks “ma ya’aseh li Adam” – what can human beings do to me?  It is the same view of Yirat Adonai as that of Soloveitchik – Because if we have a secure and certain foundation of Yirat Adonai, of fear of God, then all smaller “mortal” fears fall away.

Talmud also sees Yirat Adonai as a necessary part of our relationship with God and our development as human beings, to become the best we can be.  In tractate 31b we read:

“Rabbah bar Rav Huna said, “Any person who has [mastered] Torah learning but lacks Yirat shamayim (reverence for heaven, or God) is like a treasurer who has been given the keys to the inner chambers, but who has not been given the keys to the outer chambers. How can [the treasurer] enter [the inner chamber]?”

In other words, Yirat shamayim is the necessary condition for us to truly understand what Torah is about. Without it, all our learning , all our worldly achievements are pointless. We might know the texts, the legal conclusions drawn from them, but without the element of relationship with God that is played out in our relationship with God’s creation, they remain cold academic prowess – we have missed the point of why we learn Torah.

The autumn festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Yamim Noraim in Hebrew – Noraim having the same root as Yira – fear or awe.  During the amidah we have the “uv’chen” insertions asking God to send Pachad, Eima and Yerucha on Creation –  all words used for fear/ awe or reverence. It was these prayers that Soloveitchik was referencing – once we understand Who to be in awe of, there is no need to tie ourselves up in pointless worry about other people. Yirat Adonai liberates us to perceive what is true and what is simply our own construction of the world. It allows us therefore to reorient ourselves and if necessary to change how we are living our lives, freed from the pressures that might otherwise distort our authenticity and integrity.

So what is the connection to the Book of Esther and the story of Purim?

Besides the fact that we are told that Haman is a descendent of Agag, and therefore descended  from the Amalekites, we see also that he behaves in an extraordinary and deeply amoral way. From the moment he is angered that Mordechai did not bow to him, he appears to overreact dramatically as he thinks only to revenge his injured pride. Indeed, the whole book is predicated on various modes of revenge. – And the motivation to take revenge on others is possibly the furthest away from the humanity we want to be, behaviour that is the polar opposite of Yirat Adonai.

The Book of Esther is famous also for the lack of both name of God and the presence of God – a reminder to us that without any sense of the God of Yirat Adonai we are vulnerable to the forces that surround us, forces that have no guiding morality with which to mitigate or  soften their actions. It is paradigmatically the book of Diaspora – the Jewish experience of being at best at guest and at worst a stranger in someone else’s land; And like the historical experience of Diaspora, one must always be conscious of treading carefully so as not to upset or provoke the host country, never quite knowing when a comfortable existence may suddenly become a precarious one, as the whims of the governing powers shift unpredictably.

But possibly the most painful connection between Megillat Esther and the command to remember and so blot out the Amalekites, is the violence that vibrates through the whole narrative, culminating in the Jewish uprising against those who would destroy them.

Surely there is more going on here than a fictionalising of the fears of a vulnerable diaspora community – however closely these fears follow a terrible historical reality. There is something in the overreaction of Haman to Mordechai – the desire to destroy a whole people because of the actions of one man – that needs closer examination:-

We know that the Amalakites are descended from Esau: bible tells us And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son; and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek (Gen 36:12). The Talmud fills in details:

Timna was a royal princess. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, “I would rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of the other nation.” From her Amalek descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her. (Sanhedrin 99b)

So the enmity between Israel and Amalek is rooted in the far past – and twice the Amalekites were treated badly – when Esau was cheated of the birthright by his younger brother Jacob, and when his daughter in law was rejected for conversion.

This may explain why the aggrieved Amalekites attacked the Israelites shortly after the exodus from Egypt. They are avenging the historical wrong.

But then further reading gives us the story of King Saul who fulfilled the commandment to blot out the Amalekites because of what they did after the exodus  –  and only the king, Agag, survived the massacre. (1 Samuel 15)

Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin. Mordechai was also of the tribe of Benjamin. Was Haman taking revenge not only because of hurt pride, but because he was avenging the massacre of his tribe by the tribal ancestors of Mordechai?

There are a number of literary devices that tie the various stories of the Amalekites and the Israelites to the Book of Esther.( For example the same words are used of the bitter cry of the betrayed Esau, and that of Mordechai when he learns of the plot to kill all the Jews . “ vayitz ‘ak tz ‘akah g ‘dola u’marah”  And he cried a great and bitter cry! ) It is almost as if the generational pain has been programmed into the very DNA of the protagonists.

So when we see the terrible violence play out once again in the Book of Esther, when we consider what it means to remember Amalek so as to blot him out, we see that we too are part of the chain that goes back to the terrible sibling rivalry of the Book of Genesis. It is never truly resolved – Joseph and his brothers find a way through to build a civil relationship but that is scarcely a true and full resolution.

The Book of Esther is a salutary reminder, not only that we are vulnerable to the continued hatred of those who choose not to “fear God”, but we are vulnerable too to playing out the violence in our own generation. It is a chain of attack or be-attacked scenarios, of taking revenge in turn down the generations, with never an end in sight. And the end of the book, with the Jews killing over seventy five thousand of those who hated them and wished to kill them, is not so much a victory as a tragedy.

Maybe we should wipe out the memory of Amalek  by no longer participating in the tit-for-tat violence, but demonstrate our Yirat Adonai by no longer prolonging this hatred. After all, Moses says that the war against Amalek is waged by God – not necessarily by us.

How can we stop the cycles of violence in our world? The Book of Esther provides one way – to fictionalise it, put the acting out into the realm of fancy-dress and carnival. In this way we can fulfil the requirements to remember without bringing the violence into the real world. To remember our ancestral pain without causing hurt to others would truly be acting with Yirat Adonai.

Shabbat Zachor, così denominato per la seconda lettura del rotolo, segnala l’imminente arrivo di Purim e ci dà l’insegnamento: “Ricordati di ciò che ti fece Amalek quando eri in viaggio, allorché uscisti dall’Egitto, che ti assalì sulla strada e colpì tutti coloro che affranti erano rimasti indietro mentre tu eri stanco e sfinito, e non temette Iddio. E quando il Signore tuo Dio ti darà tregua da tutti i tuoi nemici all’intorno nella terra che sta per darti in eredità perché tu ne prenda possesso, cancellerai il ricordo di Amalek di sotto al cielo, non dimenticarlo!” (Deuteronomio 25: 17-19)

Eppure la storia, nella narrazione dell’Esodo, è in qualche modo diversa. “Quindi venne Amalek e attaccò Israele in Refidim. Mosè disse a Giosuè: ‘Scegliti alcuni bravi guerrieri e va’ a combattere Amalek; domani io mi metterò sulla sommità della collina e terrò in mano la verga del Signore’. Giosuè eseguì il comando di Mosè iniziando battaglia contro Amalek, e nello stesso tempo Mosè, Aronne e Chur salirono in cima alla collina. Ora fintanto ché Mosè teneva alzate le sua mani vinceva Israele; quando le abbassava vinceva Amalek. Ma le braccia di Mosè erano pesanti, allora presero una pietra, gliela misero sotto, egli vi si assise sopra a Aronne e Chur sostenevano le sue braccia l’uno da una parte e l’altro dall’altra cosicché le sue braccia poterono sostenersi sino al tramonto del sole. E Giosuè sconfisse Amalek e la sue gente a fil di spada. Il Signore disse a Mosè: ‘Scrivi in un libro il ricordo di questo grande avvenimento e trasmettilo oralmente a Giosuè, ché Io ho stabilito di cancellare la memoria di Amalek di sotto il cielo’. Mosè fabbricò un altare che nominò: Dio è la mia bandiera. E disse: ‘Il Signore pone la mano sul Suo trono, guerra ad Amalek di generazione in generazione”.  (Esodo 17: 8-16)

Quindi, di cosa si tratta? Amalek venne a predare dagli individui più deboli nelle retrovie della carovana di persone in fuga dall’Egitto? O fu un attacco apparentemente non provocato mentre erano accampati? Ci fu una battaglia tra eserciti o avvenne un attacco furtivo con saccheggio verso i più deboli? Mosè e Giosuè furono in ​​qualche modo attivi, pianificando la battaglia? O furono a malapena a conoscenza degli attacchi nelle retrovie della colonna di persone? E chi, esattamente, è in guerra con Amalek? È Dio o sono gli Israeliti? E chi di loro è responsabile di cancellare la memoria di Amalek, una necessità persistente lungo le generazioni, persistente come il raccontare la storia dell’esodo dall’Egitto, del patto accettato nel Sinai, della storia di Ester, Mardocheo e Haman:  tutte cose che ci vien detto di ripetere, di non permettere mai che se ne perda il ricordo.

Ci viene detto che Amalek non “teme Dio”: Amalek non possiede “Yirat Adonai”.

Quando osserviamo più da vicino questa espressione, “temere Dio”, sembra che sia usata in particolare in circostanze che implichino la scelta di comportarsi eticamente. Ogni volta che qualcuno potrebbe trarre vantaggio da una persona più debole e non lo fa, scegliendo invece di comportarsi con integrità morale, viene descritto come “Yirat Adonai”. Quindi, ad esempio, le ostetriche egiziane che sfidano l’ordine del Faraone e non uccidono i neonati, sono spinte da Yirat Adonai (Ex 1:17). Quando Giuseppe si rivela ai propri fratelli e dice loro che non farà loro del male, dice “Temo Dio” (Gen 42:18). Nel “codice di santità” c’è forse l’esempio più chiaro: dopo l’avvertimento di non maledire i sordi, né di mettere un ostacolo davanti al cieco ci viene detto “v’yareita me’elochecha – ma avrai paura di Dio, Io sono l’Eterno”.

Il timore di Dio sembra essere la consapevolezza di un’autorità superiore, di qualcosa al di là dell’individuo e dei suoi desideri. Anche se la religione non è l’unico generatore di etica, lo è comunque in modo potente, e l’idea di un occhio che vede e un orecchio che ascolta, anche quando altri non lo fanno, ha storicamente tenuto molti su un sentiero migliore di quello che avrebbero altrimenti scelto.

Gli Amalekiti sembrano non possedere questo correttivo nella loro visione del mondo: non vedono alcun motivo per comportarsi eticamente quando ciò dovesse entrare in conflitto con il proprio guadagno o beneficio. Essi sono il paradigma dell’amoralità, e quindi sembra che in ogni generazione vi sia l’intervento di Dio e la lotta per estromettere questa vita senza guida morale. Ci viene ricordato che in ogni tempo dovremmo cancellare la memoria di Amalek, ricordandoci sempre di combattere l’abitudine all’egoismo, al non prendersi cura dei deboli o dei vulnerabili. Nonostante questa avidità e disprezzo per gli altri siano esplicitati negli Amalekiti, la realtà è che tutti portiamo dentro di noi questa tendenza. Uno dei miei insegnanti era solito dire: “è cosa buona essere spaventati da ciò che Dio potrebbe pensare, ma la maggior parte di noi è più preoccupata da ciò che gli altri potrebbero pensare se sapessero ciò che facciamo: se solo ci importasse nella stessa misura di cosa Dio pensa di ciò che facciamo così come ci importa di quanto ne pensano gli altri, il mondo sarebbe un posto migliore!”

Yirat Adonai, il timore di Dio, a volte viene tradotto come “riverenza” o “soggezione”, ma mi piace abbastanza l’idea che si dovrebbe essere Timorati di Dio. Joseph Soloveitchik scrisse che viviamo le nostre vite con ogni tipo di paura: realistiche e irrazionali. Paura della vecchiaia, o del dolore o  della malattia; della morte, della solitudine, della povertà o  di essere in qualche modo “smascherati”. Disse che la paura è qualcosa che ci confonde e ci limita: non sappiamo mai di cosa avere legittimamente paura e cosa invece sia una paura inutile.

“La paura sembra essere un malessere universale … Che tipo di paura può sopraffarci, estirpando così tutti gli altri tipi di paure: paura del fallimento … del rifiuto … o della malattia? Solo la paura dell’Eterno Dio! … [Durante le Festività Solenni] Preghiamo affinché questa grande paura ci liberi da tutte le paure minori che si nascondono ovunque, sconvolgendo e amareggiando le nostre vite”.

L’Adon Olam ha un verso basato sul salmo 118: “Adonai Li, lo ira – Dio è con me, non avrò paura”. È uno dei miei versi preferiti. Nel salmo, la seconda metà del verso chiede “ma ya’aseh li Adam – cosa possono farmi gli esseri umani?” È la stessa visione di Yirat Adonai che troviamo in Soloveitchik: perché se abbiamo una base sicura e certa di Yirat Adonai, della paura di Dio, allora tutte le più piccole paure “mortali” svaniscono.

Anche il Talmud vede Yirat Adonai come parte necessaria della nostra relazione con Dio e del nostro sviluppo come esseri umani, per diventare il meglio che possiamo essere. Nel trattato 31b leggiamo:

            “Rabbah bar Rav Huna ha detto: ‘Qualsiasi persona che abbia [padroneggiato] gli insegnamenti della Torà ma manchi di Yirat shamayim (riverenza verso il cielo o Dio) è come un tesoriere a cui siano state date le chiavi delle camere interne, ma a cui non siano state date le chiavi delle camere esterne. Come può [il tesoriere] entrare [nella camera interna]?’”

In altre parole, Yirat shamayim è la condizione necessaria per comprendere veramente di cosa tratti la Torà. Senza di essa, tutto il nostro apprendimento, tutti i nostri traguardi mondani sono inutili. Potremmo conoscere i testi, le conclusioni legali tratte da essi, ma senza l’elemento di relazione con Dio che si gioca nel nostro rapporto con la creazione di Dio, rimangono fredde abilità accademiche: abbiamo perso il punto del perché impariamo la Torà.

Le festività autunnali di Rosh Hashanà e Yom Kippur in ebraico sono chiamate Yamim Noraim e  Noraim ha la stessa radice di Yira: paura o timore reverenziale. Durante l’amidà abbiamo le “uv’chen”,  inserti che chiedono a Dio di inviare Pachad, Eima e Yerucha sulla Creazione, tutte parole utilizzate a significare paura/timore o riverenza. Queste erano le preghiere cui faceva riferimento Soloveitchik: una volta che capiamo di chi avere timore reverenziale, non c’è bisogno di legarci in inutili preoccupazioni per le altre persone. Yirat Adonai ci libera facendoci percepire ciò che è vero da ciò che è semplicemente una nostra idea artefatta del mondo. Ci consente quindi di riorientare noi stessi e, se necessario, di cambiare il modo in cui viviamo la nostra vita, liberi dalle pressioni che potrebbero altrimenti distorcere la nostra autenticità e integrità.

Quindi, qual è il legame con il Libro di Esther e la storia di Purim?

Oltre al fatto che ci viene detto che Haman è discendente di Agag, e quindi discende dagli Amalekiti, vediamo anche come egli si comporti in modo straordinariamente e profondamente amorale. Dal momento in cui si arrabbia per il fatto che Mardocheo non si è inchinato a lui, sembra reagire in modo esagerato, se pensa solo di vendicare il proprio orgoglio ferito. In effetti, l’intero libro è basato su varie modalità di vendetta, e la motivazione del vendicarsi sugli altri è forse quanto più lontano ci sia dall’umanità che vogliamo essere, un comportamento che è diametralmente opposto a Yirat Adonai.

Il Libro di Ester è famoso anche per la mancanza sia del nome di Dio che della presenza di Dio: per ricordarci che senza alcun senso del Dio di Yirat Adonai siamo vulnerabili alle forze che ci circondano, forze che non hanno una guida morale che mitighi o ammorbidisca le loro azioni. È il libro paradigmatico della Diaspora: l’esperienza ebraica di essere nella migliore delle ipotesi ospite e nel peggiore dei casi estraneo nella terra di qualcun altro; E, come nell’esperienza storica della Diaspora, si deve essere sempre consci di procedere con cautela per non sconvolgere o provocare il paese ospitante, senza mai sapere quando un’esistenza confortevole possa improvvisamente diventare precaria, poiché i capricci dei poteri governativi si spostano in modo imprevedibile.

Ma, probabilmente, la connessione più dolorosa tra la Megillat Esther e il comando di ricordare e quindi cancellare gli Amalekiti, è la violenza che vibra attraverso l’intera narrazione, culminante nella rivolta ebraica contro coloro che vorrebbero distruggerli.

Sicuramente qui c’è molto di più che una messa in finzione delle paure di una vulnerabile comunità della diaspora, per quanto da vicino queste paure seguano una terribile realtà storica. C’è qualcosa nella reazione eccessiva di Haman verso Mardocheo, nel desiderio di distruggere un intero popolo a causa delle azioni di un solo uomo, che necessita di un esame più attento:

Sappiamo che gli Amalekiti discendono da Esaù: la Bibbia ci dice “Timna concubina di Elifaz (figlio di Esaù) gli partorì Amalek” (Gen 36:12). Il Talmud dà ulteriori dettagli:

            Timna era una principessa reale. Desiderando diventare proselita, andò da Abramo, Isacco e Giacobbe, ma essi non la accettarono. Così andò e divenne una concubina di Elifaz, figlio di Esaù,         dicendo: “Preferirei essere una servitrice di questo popolo piuttosto che una nobile nell’altra nazione”. Da lei discese Amalek che afflisse Israele. Perchè ciò? Perché non avrebbero dovuto respingerla. (Sinedrio 99b)

Quindi l’inimicizia tra Israele e Amalek è radicata nel lontano passato, due volte gli Amalekiti vennero trattati male: quando a Esaù fu tolto con l’inganno il diritto di nascita da suo fratello minore Giacobbe, e quando sua nuora fu respinta per la conversione.

Questo potrebbe spiegare perché essi, danneggiati, attaccarono gli israeliti poco dopo l’esodo dall’Egitto. Vendicano l’errore storico.

Ulteriori letture ci restituiscono poi la storia del re Saul, che adempì il comandamento di cancellare gli Amalekiti a causa di ciò che fecero dopo l’esodo, e solo il re Agag sopravvisse al massacro. (1 Samuele 15)

Saul apparteneva alla tribù di Beniamino. Anche Mardocheo apparteneva alla tribù di Beniamino. Haman si stava vendicando non solo per l’orgoglio ferito, ma perché vendicava il massacro della sua tribù da parte degli antenati tribali di Mardocheo?

Ci sono un certo numero di dispositivi letterari che legano le varie storie degli Amalekiti e degli Israeliti al Libro di Esther. (Ad esempio, le stesse parole sono usate nel grido amaro del tradito Esaù, e in quello di Mardocheo quando apprende del complotto per uccidere tutti gli ebrei: “Vayitz ‘ak tz’ akah g ‘dola u’marà” E pianse un grande e amaro grido!) È quasi come se il dolore generazionale sia stato programmato nel DNA stesso dei protagonisti.

Quindi, quando vediamo la terribile violenza che si ripete nel Libro di Esther, quando consideriamo cosa significhi ricordare Amalek in modo da cancellarlo, constatiamo che anche noi facciamo parte della catena che risale alla terribile rivalità tra fratelli del Libro della Genesi. Non è mai veramente risolta: Giuseppe e i suoi fratelli trovano un modo per costruire una relazione civile, a malapena una risoluzione piena e autentica.

Il Libro di Esther è un benefico sollecito: non solo siamo vulnerabili al continuo odio di coloro che scelgono di non “temere Dio”, ma siamo anche vulnerabili alla messa in atto della violenza nella nostra stessa generazione. È una catena di scenari “attaccare o essere attaccati”, di vendicarci a nostra volta nello scorrere delle generazioni, senza mai una fine all’orizzonte. E la fine del libro, con gli ebrei che uccidono oltre settantacinquemila di coloro che li odiavano e desideravano ucciderli, non è tanto una vittoria quanto una tragedia.

Forse dovremmo cancellare la memoria di Amalek non partecipando più alla violenza occhio per occhio, e dimostrare il nostro Yirat Adonai non prolungando più questo odio. Dopo tutto, Mosè afferma che la guerra contro Amalek è condotta da Dio, non necessariamente da noi.

Come possiamo fermare i cicli di violenza nel nostro mondo? Il libro di Ester fornisce un modo: mettendola in scena e trasportandola nel regno del costume e del carnevale. In questo modo possiamo soddisfare i requisiti del ricordare senza portare la violenza nel mondo reale.     Ricordare il nostro dolore ancestrale senza causare danni agli altri sarebbe davvero recitare con Yirat Adonai

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

 

Mishpatim – following God’s time and learning the lessons of God’s world

In amongst the diverse laws of Mishpatim, laws about slaves and murder, about kidnap and assault, about how to treat parents, damage to livestock, theft, seduction, damage to crops, sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, loans, treatment of the enemy in war, bribery etc. we have the statement

“Six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the abundance of it; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat. Similarly you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your olive grove. (Ex 23:10-11)

 This instruction is repeated and expanded in Leviticus chapter 25, verses 1-7:

And the Eternal spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath for the Eternal. Six years shall you sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its produce. But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Eternal; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows by itself from your harvest, you shall not reap, and the grapes of your untended vine, you shall not gather [in quantity, as if to sell]; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. And the sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for you, and for your servant and for your maid, and for your hired servant and for the traveller who sojourns with you; and for your cattle, and for the wild beasts that are in your land, shall all the abundance be for food.”

And even more so in Deuteronomy:

At the end of every seven years you shall make a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he lent to his neighbour; he shall not exact it of his neighbour and his brother; because God’s release has been proclaimed…..If there be among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which the Eternal your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy fellow;) but you shall surely open your hand to them, and shall surely lend them sufficient for their need. Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying: ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand’; and your eye be evil against your needy fellow, and you do not give to they; and they cry out to the Eternal against you, and it be sin in you. You shall surely give to them, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give; because for this thing the Eternal your God will bless you in all your work, and in all of the works of your hands. For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shall surely open your hand unto your poor and needy fellows, in your land. If your fellow, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, they shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you shalt let them go free. And when you let them go free, you shall not let them go empty; you shall furnish them liberally out from your flock, and your threshing-floor, and your winepress; of that which the Eternal your God has blessed you, shall you give to them. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Eternal your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing to-day.’ (15:1-2, 7-15)

 The concept of a sabbatical year, a year when the land is not worked, planted or harvested, but instead allowed to lie fallow, and any produce that grows despite the lack of planting or maintenance is available to anyone, is a biblical innovation that promotes three different social “goods” – allowing the land to lie fallow and recuperate, setting free the Jew who had sold themselves into bonded labour, and the annulment of debts which, if allowed to grow unfettered, would prevent a family ever  leaving poverty.

(The Jubilee, after every seven cycles of sabbatical years, had the added feature of returning any hereditary land and property to their original ownership or their descendants).

The rest for the land is not only about recuperation and restoration – the bible tells us that the consequence for not observing the sabbatical year is exile.  So clearly this is more than an agricultural technique co-opted into a ritual observance – there is further learning to be gained from this mitzvah. What does the enforced rest from working the land do to make our failure to comply mean we are punished so severely?

When we added to the other factors specific to the sabbatical year – those of freeing slaves and annulling debts – it seems that the common theme is to remind us that “ownership” is a fragile phenomenon; that we cannot presume to do what we like with what we own because the ultimate owners are not us. We are simply the stewards, the possessors of the usufruct, holding it on temporary loan and required to return it in good condition.

In the shemittah year, the landowner and the landless are made equal. Both must search for their food – and this mitzvah is not a brief event. For a full year the rights of the landowner and the rights of the landless are the same. For a full year the land is allowed to rest. All people and all animals are able to eat from the produce that grows without help – fruits from the trees, any crop that had self-seeded, any perennial vegetable.

Living like this for a year must reset so many societal assumptions.  Not only is private ownership suddenly not a given, the land cannot in this year be locked away from others – they must have access to glean what food they can. The land itself is expected to rest – something we rarely ask today of our earth, instead we fertilize and spray and burn and rotate in order to get something more from the land. But in the biblical shemittah year the land is like a person, getting its own Shabbat.  In the cycle required by God, six days of labour followed by a day of rest; six years of the landowner sowing and harvesting followed by a full year of “hefker”, of the produce of the land being available to all – we are reminded that we live to a different expectation, we live to a divine expectation.