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.



Parashat Beshallach Shabbat Shira

from 2013 but still relevant


This week we will be reading Parashat Beshallach, which is also known as Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of song, because it contains within it the song sung by the grateful survivors of the escape from the Egyptians and the crossing of the Reed Sea.

Parashat Beshallach always coincides with the week we celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the new year for trees, a time when traditionally we understand that the trees are beginning to awake from the dormancy of winter and their sap begins to rise.  As we celebrate this minor festival which was originally a cut-off date for tax purposes, we become more aware of the nature that is around us and that we often forget to notice in the busyness of our lives. There are a number of customs that have grown up around this date. Planting trees, eating the fruits specific to the land of Israel, grapes, olives, dates…

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lech lecha, a change of place can lead to a change of destiny

The words we first hear from God to Avram “lech lecha”, are given without introduction or context.  Avram is to make a journey from his birthplace, leaving the security of family and settled place, and to go “lecha” – to or for himself, to a place which is described only as “the land which [God]will show you”. This journey defines Avram, who only two chapters later is called “Avram Ha’Ivri” – Avram, the one who has traversed/ crossed over. (14:13)

This designation “Ha’Ivri”, the one who has crossed from one place to another, has come down to us to describe ourselves (Hebrews) and our language of Ivrit.

The sense of movement, of travelling from one place to another, infuses Jewish history and Jewish identity. As much as we are “people of the book” we are “people of the world”, with a powerful and continuous yearning for the Land of Israel which has retained its centrality in our identity and liturgy, while mostly living in a wide and mobile diaspora.

There is a Yiddish saying “toyshen den platz, toyshen den glick” – “change your place and change your luck”, which must have acted as a comfort as communities were chased out of their villages and towns, or pre-emptively left before the coming pogrom. But the idea comes from Talmud, (Rosh Hashanah 16 b), and this first commandment to Avram is the proof text for it.  We read:

וא”ר יצחק ד’ דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם אלו הן צדקה צעקה שינוי השם ושינוי מעשה צדקה דכתיב (משלי י, ב) וצדקה תציל ממות צעקה דכתיב (תהלים קז, כח) ויצעקו אל ה’ בצר להם וממצוקותיהם יוציאם שינוי השם דכתיב (בראשית יז, טו) שרי אשתך לא תקרא את שמה שרי כי שרה שמה וכתיב וברכתי אותה וגם נתתי ממנה לך בן שינוי מעשה דכתיב (יונה ג, י) וירא האלהים את מעשיהם וכתיב (יונה ג, י) וינחם האלהים על הרעה

וי”א אף שינוי מקום דכתיב (בראשית יב, א) ויאמר ה’ אל אברם לך לך מארצך והדר ואעשך לגוי גדול ואידך ההוא זכותא דא”י הוא דאהניא ליה


Rabbi Yitzḥak said: A person’s sentence is torn up on account of four types of actions. These are: Giving charity, crying out in prayer, a change of one’s name, and a change of one’s deeds for the better. An allusion may be found in Scripture for all of them: Giving charity, as it is written: “And charity delivers from death” (Proverbs 10:2); crying out in prayer, as it is written: “Then they cry to the Eternal in their trouble (Psalms 107:28); a change of one’s name, as it is written: “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. ..And I will bless her, and I will also give you a son from her” (Genesis 17:15-16); a change of one’s deeds for the better, as it is written: “And God saw their deeds, and repented of the evil which God had said God would do to them, and so did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). And some say: Also, a change of one’s place of residence cancels an evil judgment, as it is written: “And the Eternal said to Abram: Go you out of your county” (Genesis 12:1), and afterward it is written: “And I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12: 2). The Gemara explains: And the other one, i.e., Rabbi Yitzḥak, who does not include a change of residence in his list, holds that in the case of Abram, it was the merit and sanctity of Eretz Yisrael that helped him become the father of a great nation. Rosh Hashanah 16b


The time honoured ways of changing your destiny – offering prayer and giving charity, changing one’s name and changing one’s actions – these are all methods of acting upon oneself in order to avert consequences of continuing down a particular path. Jewish prayer is a reflexive action, work upon oneself; the giving of charity offers an awareness of one’s own privilege and good fortune, forces us to give up some of our selfishness to help the other. Changing one’s name marks a conscious new beginning for oneself, the name often reflecting the aspiration of what one might become; changing our actions is self-explanatory – if we stop doing something we give ourselves the chance of averting the consequences of doing it. These are all things we can do as we sit in our comfort zone. But the fifth – not part of the list of Rabbi Yitzhak, is, to my mind a different category.  Coming from the imperative “lech lecha”, the anonymous sages draw the lesson that changing one’s residence changes one’s life trajectory. Rabbi Yitzhak disagrees – he sees the country one goes to – specifically Israel  – as changing us.  Such is the power of the Holy Land in his eyes.

Yet I think there is a modern lesson to be drawn for us in this passage. There are ways of working on oneself that can improve our situation, help us become better people, and these ways will impact how our lives unfold.  Whether in modern terms it is better nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, learning good habits – we all try self-improvement at different times in our lives.

But the behaviour based on lech lecha is qualitatively different. Yes, we move ourselves but then it is something external that works on us– the altered perspective of from where we view the world.  There is a tradition in Judaism that a mourner changes where they usually sit in synagogue – the idea being both to signify that life has changed radically, and to signal their experience to the community,  but this shift also literally gives them a different viewpoint, a different perspective on the world which they must come to be part of. Changing ones place is a radical act, leaving the familiar structures of habit and home to strike out away from ones comfort zone means we will experience the world quite differently.

When we change our place we change our perspective and we see differently. Be it by imagining ourselves in the shoes of others or by our physically leaving one place for another; be it by shifting ourselves in time or geography, by taking a long journey or simply sitting in another chair, lech lecha – we can change the route along which our life might otherwise run without our thinking about it.

Sometimes the change is because the place we move to is kinder, calmer, more supportive than the place we left, and this may be the thing that allows us to move from our earlier position. That is the theory of the sanctity of Eretz Israel in the Talmudic source. But more often I think there is interplay. The difference we have to adapt to when we change our physical or mental space forces us into an openness we didn’t allow before. The new space is something we have to grow into, as we see our past from a different perspective, as we notice what we had overlooked, and as we see new possibility.

The practise of Yom Kippur – where we deliberately move into a space where we act “as if dead” – means we see our lives quite differently. What was apparently of critical importance suddenly seems trivial; what was apparently less important suddenly seems vital.

When Avram changed his place, journeying to the land God showed him, he changed the destiny of all his descendants as well as himself. Many of us have family who came as refugees to this country in order simply to HAVE a destiny, as death and hatred stalked their lives in other countries.  We Jews are historically sadly used to changing our place of residence to change our destiny. But the change of perspective does not always need such massive upheaval. Change your favourite seat, your routines and habits, the barely noticed tramlines along which your life runs. Lech lecha, go to your self, go for your self, and encounter a new destiny.

“He will Rule Over You” a verse misused

While it is true that God says to Eve ‘I will multiply your pains in childbearing; with painful labour you will bring forth children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’, one must remember that extracting a verse from its context can be dangerous.

There are those who read this verse as objectively true. Childbirth is painful; women look for intimacy more than men; men are superior to women. This writer is not one of them.

The passage occurs immediately after the expulsion from Eden. God curses the serpent with separation from other species for beguiling the woman, adding mutual hostility for good measure. Then comes the statement to Eve, and finally Adam is addressed, “Because you listened to your wife and ate the fruit… The ground is cursed …By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.

There are two biblical parallels. God challenges Cain later in almost identical language “sin waits at the door; its desire towards you, but you can rule over it.” The passages mirror each other – Eve’s desire is positive, sin’s negative. Dominating is negative when over Eve, but positive when over sin. And we see another mirror image from before leaving the garden: In Eden Eve’s will dominated and food had been easily obtained. Now we have the reverse: an exercise in irony and dislocation from the perfect.

The statements to Adam, Eve and the serpent must be read within this context of warning that life will never be easy, never be perfect; there will always be temptations, we must work hard to make the best of it.

This verse has been used to justify keeping women subservient to men, overlooking the texts where men and women are created equally. Its misuse compounds the problem of living in an imperfect dislocated world and hides the achievable resolution.

written for and published in Progressive Judaism section of London Jewish News February 2018

Ki Tissa

an earlier post from 2013 given another airing


“And it came to pass, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tables of the testimony in his hand, that Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while God talked with him. And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face sent forth beams; and they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34:29-30)

When Moses was in the presence of God that time on the mountain, something happened to him that was, quite literally transformative. Beams of light radiated from the skin of his face as he descended the mountain. The word used for the beam of light – “karan”- is connected to a word we are more familiar with – “Keren”, meaning a horn. The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the bible followed Jerome, one of the Church Fathers, who had misunderstood…

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Miketz: the strange case of the disappearing women


Dr Ruchama Weiss points out that sidra Miketz is the first in Torah that is devoid of any stories of women : – she identifies it as the point at which bible begins to actively exclude women from the focus of the narrative. Over the fourteen years that the sidra spans in three and a half chapters of the book of Genesis, women are indeed conspicuous by their absence. The matriarchs have died, the only daughter of Jacob that we know of, the unfortunate Dina, has disappeared following her experiences with Shechem, no other daughters or indeed wives of the sons of Jacob are recorded here. They must have existed, but the biblical author does not see fit to document their presence.

There is in fact one woman who briefly makes an appearance – Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera a priest of On. Our introduction to her is laconic and…

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Judith- a heroine for chanukah

We sing of the bravery of Judah Maccabee at Chanukah, but in tradition we have a heroine too – Judith – whose genealogy is given to 15 generations, presumably to dissociate her from the Canaanite wife of Esau who bears the same name. She is a heroine par excellence. She is independent of mind and action, a woman who believes in God but who also knows that God acts through human hands. She is prepared to be those hands, blood stained as they will be. She is a woman whose story deserves to be told, her actions save her people and she is unafraid of anyone: – the male elders in her city are challenged by her for their pusillanimous response to their situation; the enemy general’s plan is thwarted by her bold moves.  She is  brave, beautiful, intelligent, modest and practical. She is her own woman. Artists love her story and her powerful exploit can be seen through their eyes in painting and in sculpture. Only her own people – in particular the early rabbinic tradition – choose to downplay her, whether because of her modesty or her murdering or her independent spirit, only they know.

There are many variations of her story but she does not appear in rabbinic literature nor is her book in the biblical canon, but is relegated to the apocrypha. She disappears from the Jewish worldview for a thousand years, resurfacing in the eleventh century when the custom of reading a Hebrew text of her book on Shabbat Chanukah took hold, possibly because there are resonances of the Hasmonean revolt. The enemy Assyrian king is named Nebuchadnezzar and his general Holofernes – surely they are related to Antiochus Epiphanes and to his general Nicanor who is also beheaded and his head hung on the walls of Jerusalem by Judah Maccabee. The theme of an emperor who was determined to impose his worship on the subjected peoples is repeated here, along with the fear in Jerusalem that the Temple would be altered and the worship of God made to cease.

But the courage and ingenuity of Judith is at a different level to that of the protagonists of the Maccabean revolt. She is everything we might expect of a modern heroine. Judith has her own book; the earliest extant text is written in Greek and found in the Septuagint, the earliest Hebrew versions are medieval, although it was probably written in the late second Temple period.

Judith only appears in the book in the eighth chapter. Widowed suddenly three and a half years before the story starts, she lives the cloistered life of a virtuous woman, shut up with her maids in the upper part of her house, fasting except for Shabbat and new moons and festivals, a woman known to fear God. She is both wealthy and beautiful, a woman whose reputation for her godliness meant that no one had a bad word to say of her.

Holofernes is besieging the town of Betulia, and the townspeople, believing that God has abandoned them, petition their leaders to surrender to him, “For it is better, that being captives we should live and bless the Eternal, than that we should die, and be a reproach to all flesh, after we have seen our wives and our infants die before our eyes. We call to witness this day heaven and earth, and the God of our ancestors…to deliver now the city into the hand of the army of Holofernes that our end may be short by the edge of the sword, which is made longer by the drought of thirst.”

Uzziah, one of the rulers of the town, responds by playing for time:  “Be of good courage, my brethren, and let us wait these five days for mercy from the Eternal” But Judith is having none of this setting a target for God to respond and instead suggests humility and prayer. She cites the greats of Jewish history – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, who suffered their trials and remained faithful to God. The city leadership agree with her words, and ask her, “a holy woman who fears God” to pray for them.

Judith tells them she will leave the city that night, they are not to know what she intends to do, but they must pray for her that her plan will succeed, and they must pray to God for their safety too. Uzziah agrees, telling her “Go in peace, and the Eternal be with you to take revenge of our enemies.”

It is an extraordinary exchange. Judith, beautiful wealthy and deeply religious, not only contradicts both the will of the people to surrender and the response of the elders to wait five days, but takes on the responsibility for ending the siege, and this intention is both acknowledged and agreed by the leadership. This is no little princess to be protected, but a woman of valour with her own agency and her own approach and strategy.

Wearing mourning clothing Judith prays in her home, and her prayer is unexpected – she asks God for the strength to be like her ancestor Shimon who had taken vengeance against the people of Shechem on behalf of his sister Dina. She asks God to hear her prayer, the prayer o a widow, and she understands God to know everything, past present and future.  She asks God to strenghtn her in her fight against the enemy, in particular she asks God to help her to lie in order to destroy the enemy, and she hopes that “This will be a glorious monument for your name, when he shall fall by the hand of a woman.” She ends with a reference to the covenant, “Remember, O Eternal, your covenant, and put words in my mouth, and strengthen the resolution in my heart, that your house may continue in holiness,  And all nations may acknowledge that you are God, and there is no other besides you”.

Then she washes and anoints herself, makes herself utterly beautiful and bedecks herself with jewellery – we are reminded of Esther in the harem – and then God even adds to her beauty so that no man could resist her. Taking wine and oil, figs and corn, she and her maid leave the city that night, watched by Uzziah and the elders.

Encountering the watchman of the Assyrians Judith says that she is surrendering to him and that she can show him how to take the city without loss of a single one of his men. Everyone notices her beauty, no one can resist her and soon she is inside the tent of Holofernes and he is intent on seducing her.

For four days she eats her own food rather than that of Holofernes, and keeps herself as a pure Jewish woman. On the fifth day, he was maddened with his desire and she agrees to drink wine with him – he drinks more than he ever has before and passes out. In one of the Hebrew versions of the story she has brought salty cheese with her in order to increase his thirst.  Once he is insensible on his bed she prays silently in tears, only her lips moving, asking God for the strength to do what she must do to save her people. She took Holofernes own sword and beheaded him with two blows, wrapping the headless body in the material from the canopy over the bed and giving the head to her maidservant to carry with her. The two women left the camp as if to go pray, something they had evidently done each night, but this time they returned to their own city and demanded to be let in, saying God was with them, that God’s power had been exercised. They showed the men of the city the head of Holofernes, and she went on to say she had been protected by an angel the whole time, that she had been protected from the lewd intentions of Holofernes.

Judith was praised and lauded by the city leaders, blessed and extolled as a servant of God whose name would never be forgotten. Her plan that the death of the general would send his army into fear and disarray came to pass and they ran away, hotly pursued by the townspeople. A great victory was claimed over the Assyrians, their camp was despoiled “And Joachim the high priest came from Jerusalem to Betulia with all the elders to see Judith.  And when she came out to him, they all blessed her with one voice, saying: You are the glory of Jerusalem, you are the joy of Israel, you are the honour of our people”

The book ends with the song of Judith, and with an endnote telling us that in her lifetime and for years afterwards Israel dwelt in security, that her name and acts were known throughout the land, that she gave her maid her freedom, and that she died aged 105 years old and was buried next to her husband. Her chastity is emphasised repeatedly, her humility and her love of God. Intriguingly the last verse tells us “the day of the festivity of this victory is received by the Hebrews in the number of holy days, and is religiously observed by the Jews from that time until this day.”

The story of Judith echoes so many other stories of women who change the course of history in biblical and extra biblical texts. From Sarah onwards we see the resonances – the use of beauty so dangerous their men might be damaged because of it. We hear the power of Deborah and Miriam in her songs, the deception of Rebecca in her deception of Holofernes, the silent prayer of Hannah resonates through the second prayer of Judith and of course Esther, the beautiful woman whose closeness to the king saved the Jewish people, and whose actions are to be celebrated for all time. Judith takes her place in the roll call of honour of women whose actions pivot the history of the Israelite people, a roll call that grows longer as we look more closely at our texts.  The stories and the voices of these women call to us to be remembered and to shape us and our understanding of our history. This Chanukah, find a version of the story of Judith to read, and give voice to her once again.