Lech Lecha – the story of a famine which displaces vulnerable people needs to be heard

When Abram and Sarai, his nephew Lot and the souls they had made in Haran travelled on God’s instruction to the Land of Canaan, they arrived and stopped at Shechem, where Abram built an altar and where God promised that land to his descendants. Abram journeyed on, via the mountain near Beit El, where he built another altar, and continued southwards travelling the length of the land of Israel until they exited the Land on its southern border with Egypt.

It reads rather as an anti-climax to that famous imperative in the first recorded encounter between God and Abram:

 וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ:

God said to Abram “Go for yourself from your land and your birthplace, and from the house of our father, to the land which I will show you”

No introduction, no explanation, no conversation – just a command to go elsewhere, the trust that the journey will have an end is implicit, God will show Abram the place when he gets there.

But it isn’t exactly what happens. Because there is famine in the land – very heavy famine.  Abram and Sarai will die if they stay there, so, prefiguring the Joseph narratives, they travel into Egypt for refuge.

Famine appears with grim frequency in bible. Each of the patriarchs will suffer serious famine – Abram goes to Egypt, Isaac goes to the Philistine King in Gerar rather than go to Egypt(Gen 26:1). Jacob and his sons go down into Egypt to buy food when the famine takes hold. The book of Ruth describes the famine that led Ruth and Elimelech to flee to Moab (Ruth 1:1). In David’s time there was a famine lasting three years (2Sam 21:1). The story of Elijah records the famine in the land (1Kings 17:1) and in Elisha fed the famine starved people of Gilgal (2Kings 4:38). Famines are also recorded in Jerusalem in the time of Tzedekiah (2Kings 25:3) (see also Jeremiah’s painful description of the drought 14:1-6) and in Canaan in the time of Nehemiah (Neh. 5:3)

The Land of Israel was dependent on the rainfall for its crops and trees, so drought and therefore famine were always to be feared. There was also fear of pests or diseases that would destroy the crops (Joel 1:4ff)and which we see most dramatically in the plague in Egypt just before the Hebrew slaves were able to leave.

War and sieges would also bring famines – again described in biblical texts with painful clarity. Famine, along with Pestilence and the sword (war) (Dever v’Herev v’Ra’av) appears regularly in a triumvirate in the Hebrew bible (cf. Jer. 14:12; 21:7, 9; 24:10; Ezek. 6:11,) and has entered the liturgy in both Avinu Malkeinu and in the Hashkiveinu prayer  (second blessing following shema)

הָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אוֹיֵב דֶבֶר וְחֶרֶב וְרָעָב וְיָגוֹן

 

Talmud also discusses the problems of famine. We read in Ta’anit 5a “Rav Nachman said to Rabbi Yitzḥak: What is the meaning of that which is written: “For the Eternal has called upon a famine and it shall also come upon the land seven years” (II Kings 8:1)? Specifically, in those seven years, what did they eat?

Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rabbi Nachman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said as follows: In the first year they ate that which was in their houses; in the second year they ate that which was in their fields; in the third year they ate the meat of their remaining kosher animals; in the fourth year they ate the meat of their remaining non-kosher animals; in the fifth year they ate the meat of repugnant creatures and creeping animals, i.e., any insects they found; in the sixth year they ate the flesh of their sons and their daughters; and in the seventh year they ate the flesh of their own arms, to fulfil that which is stated: “Each man shall eat the flesh of his own arm” (Isaiah 9:19).”

The starvation and breakdown of social norms that famine brought can be seen across the literature.  In the Talmud we read the pitiful story of one of the wealthiest women in Jerusalem, Marta bat Baitos who could not buy food with all her silver and gold, and who died after picking out the grain from the animal dung she stepped on (Gittin 56a;  Josephus mentions the eating of children in Jerusalem during the Roman War (Wars 6:201–13). There are at least three historical references to famine caused by the observance of the Sabbatical year, one during the siege of Jerusalem by the forces of Antiochus IV (Ant. 12:378), one in the war of Herod against Antigonus (Ant. 14:476) and one during Herod’s reign (Ant. 15:7).

Drought, with the rains withheld, has generally been theologised into punishment for transgressions, a tool wielded by God when we do not follow the rules that acknowledge God’s ownership of the land by bringing tithes both to thank God and to feed those who cannot grow food for themselves,  and when we fail in our our obligations to the Land to treat it well and allow it to rest.

Rabbinic responsa are also very sensitive to drought and famine, with a growing list of actions to pray for rain with special prayers added into the liturgy, fasting etc. So seriously did the rabbis take the realities of famine that they permitted emigration from the land of Israel in the case of famine, albeit only when survival would become extremely difficult(BB 91b; Gen. R. 25).

Rabba bar bar Ḥana says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: They taught that it is prohibited to leave Eretz Yisrael only if money is cheap, i.e., not excessively difficult to obtain, and produce is expensive, similar to the case in the baraita where two se’a of wheat are sold for a sela. But when money is expensive, i.e., it is difficult to earn money for sustenance, even if the price of four se’a of grain stood at a sela, one may leave Eretz Yisrael in order to survive.(BB91b)

Basing themselves on Genesis 41:50 the rabbis (Ta’anit 11a) also forbade procreation during the years of famine.

Our tradition knows about the difficulties of living and thriving in a world where the rains may not come, where crops may fail and people may starve. It understood that while famine may come as a result of war, it is more likely to be because we, the human stewards of the world, do not treat the world as it must be treated, and the consequences of this lack of care will come to haunt us.

Abram and Sarai left their home to reach the land God had promised, but having reached it they immediately became environment migrants. The land would not let them stay and thrive, they had to put themselves at greater risk and depend on a foreign power to survive.   This part of their story is not often emphasised – the great journey to the promised land is a far more palatable thread to take from this sidra, but the short verses that tell of the famine that would have killed them should they have stayed are maybe more instructive in these times of climate change happening across the globe as a direct result of human carelessness and greed.

Lech Lecha is the call to activism – Get up and go, make something happen! We Jews are called as our ur-ancestors were called. We should pay heed to the increasingly serious warnings our planet is giving us, and return to the work of stewarding, protecting and  supporting a healthy and diverse world.

 

 

26th Ellul- learning to forgive ourselves as God forgives

In the Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) we have the origin of the great confessional prayer of the Yamim Noraim, the Avinu Malkeinu.  “Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos, the great teacher and pious scholar descended before the Ark in order to serve as prayer leader on a fast day because of a terrible and prolonged drought.  He recited 24 blessings but was not answered. Then his student, Rabbi Akiva descended before the Ark and simply said “Avinu Malkeinu, Ein lanu melech ele atah, Avinu Malkeinu lema’an’cha rachem Aleinu: (Our Father, our Ruler, we have no sovereign other than You. Our Father, our Ruler, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”

Immediately the rains fell. The Sages began whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not. A Divine Voice emerged and said: It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”

Rabbi Eliezer was known for his fierce temper, and indeed was excommunicated when his colleagues could no longer deal with his domineering and strict viewpoints – though interestingly both he and his learning were always held in great respect and he is one of the most quoted rabbis in Talmud. But he was not a person who found forgiveness easy to do, nor did he find it easy to let go of his anger – indeed the story of his wife Ima Shalom who supervised his prayers after the excommunication in order to prevent his anger overtaking the world is a powerful end to the story of the oven of Achnai, and a reminder that when someone is so certain of the rightness of their view that there is danger for us all.

But Akiva, the one who could forgive others, had a simple prayer answered;  a prayer that did not even mention the desperate need for rain, but asked God for mercy for God’s own sake.

This is the origin of Avinu Malkeinu – and also of the extraordinary – and powerfully resonant – last lines of the prayer.

Over the year many additions have been made to this prayer. Sephardi machzorim generally have 32 petitions, the Ashkenazi ones can go up to 44. Some requests are particular and some are universal, some ask directly for favours, others remind God of the vulnerability of the people. But the last lines are different, they special and are specially loved – so much so that we have changed the longstanding tradition of saying them quietly but instead lustily and happily remind God to be merciful as is God’s nature, because we have no good deeds to bring. All this to a joyful tune, quite different from the solemn and rather serious tune of the rest of the prayer.

The Dubner Maggid tells the story of the person who goes shopping, excitedly adding more and more items to their “buy” list. All the petitions are in effect  us saying “I’ll take that, and that, and give me that too please”  And then when we get to the till, we find we cannot pay for everything we have taken, and in embarrassment have to say to the cashier – can you help me? Can you give me some credit and I will try to pay you in the coming year.  As long as I have a good year – please add a good year to my basket…

The embarrassment referred to in the story of the Dubner Maggid is all but disappeared today. Instead we proudly and clearly stand before an open Ark and list our requests to God. The Avinu Malkeinu is in each of the services; it is one of the last prayers in Neilah, the evening of Yom Kippur. We have spent the day reflecting, we have spent the month before on Heshbon Nefesh, considering our previous behaviour. And on Yom Kippur we may fast and afflict our souls, but we also know that if we are more like Rabbi Akiva, able to forgive others, God will forgive us. Yom Kippur is the white fast for a reason – the colour is both the colour of mourning and the colour of joy. We can have both serious reflection and happy anticipation in our lives – and both are deserved.