Yom Kippur Sermon: what kinds of people are called dead even while still alive?

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In Midrash Tanchuma the question is asked:  “What kinds of people are called dead even when they are alive? Those who see the morning sunlight…those who see the sun set…those who eat and drink, and are not stirred to say a blessing” (Tanchuma, v’zot habracha, 7)

Yom Kippur is an unusual time – we treat it as a day outside of time, a day as if we are dead. We wear shrouds; we abstain from eating, drinking, washing and other activities of the living. We have in our liturgy the recurring imagery of a Book of Life, and we repeat the refrain of our hope that we will be inscribed in it for another year – for if we are not, then we will indeed be dead.  The awareness of our mortality looms over the day, it provides much needed perspective and hopefully also a spur to our thinking about our priorities when we return to daily life.

Yom Kippur is a kind of a dress rehearsal for our dying. When we will look back over a hopefully full and happy life, tradition teaches that we will understand what our life was really about, what was important and what was not – and the very thin lines between them. The Chasidic tradition tells us that that understanding will be our heaven and our hell – when we realise that things we overlooked as uninteresting or unimportant really were critical, when things we pursued and enjoyed having achieved will be sloughed off as irrelevant to our souls.

We have the chance today to weight the scales for that understanding. Yom Kippur reminds us each year that we will one day face our own death. Everyone dies, that is not negotiable, but the question is really, how well does everyone live? How well do we use our own lives?

Yom Kippur also gives us another experience – besides the time out of time, the day we can spend “as if dead” – it reminds us that we will undergo many deaths in our lifetimes, and that these small deaths can be doorways to other ways of being. We experience many losses, many changes from what we hoped or planned. Our life paths deviate again and again, sometimes randomly, sometimes unfairly – but as my mother is fond of saying, when a door closes, a window opens. We are able to find a new way of being, say goodbye to a previous iteration of ourselves and grow into someone a little different from before.

Our rabbis taught that sleep is one-sixtieth of death (Berachot 57b) and every day when we wake up  from sleep, we have a prayer to thank God for the return of our pure soul – the elohai neshama prayer speaks of God breathing our soul back into us – just as the first human was breathed into life. So every day is a new birth in potentia, we can start again after the small death of sleep. Every single day is a new possibility for change, for growth, for becoming more of the person we would like to be.

Just as each day brings the possibility of small changes or bigger transformation, the many sadnesses and losses and small deaths in our lives can help us focus on what is really important. And Yom Kippur is a gift of a day to us to weigh up the balance of our lives.

The Talmud tells us (Shabbat 31a) that after death every soul will arrive at the beit din shel ma’alah, the heavenly court, and will be asked the same questions. “Did you act in your business with honesty and integrity? Did you fix set times for studying Torah? Did you participate in the commandment of creation? Did you continue to hope? Did you engage in the pursuit of wisdom? Did you have fear of Heaven?”

These are not rhetorical or philosophical questions, they are designed to make us think about what our lives are for, how to best use the days and hours that we have – particularly since no one knows how short or long the time left to us might be.

The first question – did you have integrity and honesty in your dealings with others – is not only practical but aims deep at our character – how we treat others is a measure for how we value others.  The instinct to profit at the expense of others is in us all. The question aims squarely at how much we might have given in to that instinct, how much we temper it with the awareness that we are all the children of one God.

The second question is about study – our own inner lives are at stake here.  Torah study is the emblem of connection to our roots, to our people and to God. It provides the lenses through which we see the world, it shapes our moral code, it pushes us into an awareness that we are not the centre of the universe and that something else is. To make a fixed time to remind ourselves of the teachings which give framework to our behaviour and our decision making, is a life- giving action. It keeps us in the space where anything can happen, it gives us roots, it allows for us to continue to grow and to develop ourselves.

The third question – did you participate in the mitzvah of creation – this is more, so much more, than the plain sense of procreation. When we teach, when we model good behaviour, when we help others to grow or to change, to let go or to hold on, we participate in the mitzvah of creation. When we help a community to come together, be it providing the challot or the drashot, learning together, providing a group for the wedding or b’nei mitzvah celebrant or for the mourner to express their grief and fulfil their rites – we are participating in creation. When we recognise the humanity of the other – the refugee, the immigrant, the impoverished or the frightened, we are participating in the mitzvah of creation. When we visit the sick or comfort the bereaved, we are participating in that mitzvah too. Whenever we build relationship with the other, help a community to grow and thrive – all this is part of that same mitzvah. When we plant a garden or a tree, when we try to protect the environment with the choices we have – all of this is the mitzvah of creation.

Did you continue to hope? Despair is easy to come by in this world. More so for the generations of Jews exiled from their land and treated with scorn and humiliation. Yet the Jew continues to hope and that hope is what underpins our resilience and our particularity as a people. We don’t let go of our covenant promise, however distant it appears. We don’t let go of our faith in humanity either. As Edmond Fleg wrote:  “I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.” The hope is understood in tradition as the hope for redemption, for the messianic age. The point of the hope is that Jews have clung on to our identity, our purpose and meaning through this mechanism. One day the hope will be fulfilled.

In our time it seems that darkness is coming once again, as nationalism and populism are on the rise, xenophobia and narrow hatred growing in many countries across the globe. All the more important then, to hold on to hope, not to give in to the eroding and corroding despair which would lead us to every darker, ever narrower places, which would destroy all that would be good in the world.

Did you engage in the pursuit of wisdom? – wisdom is more than knowledge, it is the ability to see through situations, to sift out the right from the wrong, to apply a morality as well as  legal or logical thinking. Traditionally explained as a gift of age and experience, wisdom does not fall into our laps, it must be pursued, worked on, it is the outcome of critical and honest thinking, of seeing honestly rather than through the lens of self-interest. One of my favourite sermons is by Milton Steinberg, called “To Hold With Open Arms” In it he tells the following story:

“After a long illness I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience; all there is to it. And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment…The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the building- the golden glow of sunlight.  It touched me too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing. And as I basked in its glory, there ran through my mind those wonder words of the prophet about the sun which some day shall rise with healing on its wings. In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy, almost the beatitude I felt. But no, there they walked – men and women and children in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed,. And then I remembered how often I, too had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it, and I said to myself, how precious is the sunlight, but alas how careless of it are we”

Rabbi Steinberg died a young man – but the wisdom in this one story challenges us all about how precious our world is, and how careless we are of it.  He reminds us that that value of an experience is not lessened by whether or not it is commonplace. He reminds us we are in a connected world.

Did you fear heaven? The Talmud tells us that everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven (Rabbi Chanina TB Berachot 33b)- what does it mean? That we have free will to serve heaven or not – we cannot be coerced into faith or into religious practise, it is a free choice and not even God can act here. So we are being asked to defend our choices, from what ethical or other code we acted in our lives. We are being asked if we were true to our own selves.

“Everyone dies, but not everyone fully lives” said William Sachs Wallace. Yom Kippur is an opportunity, a repeated and fixed and regular time to examine our lives, so that on our deaths we can stand up in the heavenly court certain that we did, indeed, live as fully and as well as we could.  Each of us has our own life to live, there is no pro forma, no template that says “this one way is the right way”. We have to examine and discern, play the stories through our minds, speak to others to see how we have impacted on them, reflect and consider.

When I think of the many funerals I have officiated at or attended, and the thousands of life stories I have heard, there are some that stand out for me and stay with me because of what I learn from that person and the life they lived. It is rarely the amazing achievements of some member of the great and the good – their political or scientific or academic performances, their stellar achievements in their chosen fields, their honorifics and their titles. Yes, these are impressive, but sometimes I have listened to the list of public successes in a group of mourners so small, and so emotionally distant from the deceased, that I wonder what can have gone so badly wrong in their personal lives, their relationships?

 I once wrote the Hesped  (eulogy) for a woman who had apparently done nothing in her life but bring up her children and clean her home. As I was talking with the family, wondering what I could possibly say at the funeral, one fact kept shining through, demanding to be noticed.  She had been a loving and much loved woman. A wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend, neighbour. Everyone had a story of how she had been there for them in some crossroads in their lives. Everyone spoke of how they could move on in their lives having discussed things with her. Everyone told of how loved they felt, a love they missed beyond telling. She had no list of achievements to define her, only her persistent and consistent and supportive love that had held together a large extended family, allowing each one to grow to be who they were. I realised then what an extraordinary achievement her quiet ­­­­life had been, how appreciative and appreciated she had been. I have never forgotten the lesson I learned from her life, as told by the people who mourned her.

What kinds of people are called dead even when they are alive? Those who see the morning sunlight…those who see the sun set…those who eat and drink, and are not stirred to say a blessing”

Let us resolve today, while we are examining our lives and our hopes, recalibrating our aspirations and letting go of our doubts and fears, that we will not be amongst those who see the sunrise and sunset, who enjoy all there is of the ordinary pleasures of life, and not be stirred to say a blessing. Let us decide that we will be among those who live our lives as fully and as appreciatively as we possibly can, and be as true to ourselves as we were created to be. A small change in behaviour, but it might lead to us being able to answer those questions to the heavenly beit din with a sense of having understood while alive, what some may only begin to see when it is too late to act.

 

Nel midrash Tanchuma viene posta la domanda: “Che tipo di persone vengono chiamate morte anche quando sono vive? Quelli che vedono il sole del mattino … quelli che vedono il sole tramontare … quelli che mangiano e bevono e non si sono premurati di dire una benedizione”. (Tanchuma, v’zot habracha, 7)

 

Yom Kippur è un momento insolito: lo consideriamo un giorno fuori dal tempo, un giorno in cui è come se fossimo morti. Indossiamo dei sudari; ci asteniamo dal mangiare, dal bere, dal lavarci e da altre attività dei vivi. Nella nostra liturgia abbiamo le immagini ricorrenti di un Libro della Vita, e ripetiamo il ritornello della nostra speranza che ci saremo iscritti in esso per un altro anno, perché se non lo saremo, saremmo davvero morti. La consapevolezza della nostra mortalità incombe nel corso della giornata, fornisce una prospettiva tanto necessaria e, si spera, anche uno stimolo al nostro pensiero sulle nostre priorità nel ritorno alla vita quotidiana.

Yom Kippur è una specie di prova generale per la nostra morte. Quando ripenseremo a una vita piena di speranza e piena di felicità, la tradizione insegna che capiremo in cosa consisteva veramente la nostra vita, cosa era importante e cosa non lo era, e le sottili linee tra esse. La tradizione chassidica ci dice che quella comprensione sarà il nostro paradiso e il nostro inferno, quando ci rendiamo conto che le cose che abbiamo trascurato come poco interessanti o poco importanti erano davvero critiche, quando le cose che perseguivamo e godevamo di aver raggiunto sarebbero state abbandonate come irrilevanti per le nostre anime.

Oggi abbiamo la possibilità di soppesare le scale per quella comprensione. Yom Kippur ci ricorda ogni anno che un giorno affronteremo la nostra stessa morte. Tutti muoiono, questo non è negoziabile, ma la domanda è davvero: quanto bene vive ognuno? Quanto bene usiamo le nostre stesse vite?

Yom Kippur ci offre anche un’altra esperienza: oltre al tempo fuori dal tempo, al giorno in cui possiamo trascorrere “come se morti”, ci ricorda che subiremo molte morti nelle nostre vite e che queste piccole morti possono essere delle porte verso altri modi di essere. Viviamo molte perdite, molti cambiamenti rispetto a quanto sperato o pianificato. I nostri percorsi di vita si discostano ripetutamente, a volte in modo casuale, a volte ingiustamente, ma come mia madre ama dire, quando una porta si chiude, si apre una finestra. Siamo in grado di trovare un nuovo modo di essere, dire addio a una precedente replica di noi stessi e crescere come qualcuno un po’ diverso da prima.

I nostri rabbini hanno insegnato che il sonno è un sessantesimo della morte (Berachot 57b) e ogni giorno quando ci svegliamo dal sonno, abbiamo una preghiera per ringraziare Dio per il ritorno della nostra anima pura, la preghiera elohai neshama parla di Dio che insuffla di nuovo la nostra anima in noi, proprio come al primo essere umano è stata insufflata la vita. Quindi ogni giorno è potenzialmente una nuova nascita, possiamo ricominciare dopo la piccola morte del sonno. Ogni singolo giorno è una nuova possibilità di cambiamento, di crescita, per diventare maggiormente  la persona che vorremmo essere.

Proprio come ogni giorno porta la possibilità di piccoli cambiamenti o maggiori trasformazioni, le molte tristezze e perdite e le piccole morti nelle nostre vite possono aiutarci a concentrarci su ciò che è veramente importante. E Yom Kippur è per noi il dono di una giornata per valutare l’equilibrio delle nostre vite.

Il Talmud ci dice (Shabbat 31a) che dopo la morte ogni anima arriverà al beit din shel ma’alà, la corte celeste, e gli verranno poste le stesse domande. “Hai agito nel tuo lavoro con onestà e integrità? Hai fissato dei tempi prestabiliti per studiare la Torà? Hai partecipato al comandamento della creazione? Hai continuato a sperare? Ti sei impegnato nella ricerca della saggezza? Hai avuto timore dei Cieli?”

Queste non sono domande retoriche o filosofiche, sono progettate per farci pensare a cosa servono le nostre vite, come utilizzare al meglio i giorni e le ore che abbiamo, in particolare perché nessuno sa quanto breve o lungo potrebbe essere il tempo che ci rimane.

La prima domanda, hai avuto integrità e onestà nei tuoi rapporti con gli altri, non è solo pratica, ma mira in profondità al nostro carattere, come trattiamo gli altri è la misura di come valutiamo gli altri. L’istinto di trarre profitto a spese degli altri è in tutti noi. La domanda mira esattamente a quanto potremmo aver ceduto a quell’istinto, a quanto lo temperiamo con la consapevolezza che siamo tutti figli di un unico Dio.

La seconda domanda riguarda lo studio: qui sono in gioco le nostre vite interiori. Lo studio della Torà è l’emblema della connessione con le nostre radici, con il nostro popolo e con Dio. Fornisce le lenti attraverso le quali vediamo il mondo, modella il nostro codice morale, ci spinge nella consapevolezza che non siamo il centro dell’universo e che qualcos’altro lo è. Trovare un tempo fisso per ricordare a noi stessi gli insegnamenti che danno un quadro al nostro comportamento e al nostro processo decisionale, è un’azione vitalizzante. Ci tiene nello spazio in cui tutto può succedere, ci dà radici, ci consente di continuare a crescere e svilupparci.

La terza domanda – hai partecipato alla mitzvà della creazione, è molto di più del semplice senso di procreazione. Quando insegniamo, quando modelliamo un buon comportamento, quando aiutiamo gli altri a crescere o a cambiare, a lasciarsi andare o a resistere, partecipiamo alla mitzvà della creazione. Quando aiutiamo una comunità a riunirsi, sia fornendo le challot o le derashot, imparando insieme, fornendo un gruppo per il matrimonio o per i  b’nei mitzvà o per il partecipanti al lutto per esprimere il loro dolore e soddisfare i loro riti, stiamo partecipando alla creazione. Quando riconosciamo l’umanità dell’altro, il rifugiato, l’immigrato, l’impoverito o lo spaventato, stiamo partecipando alla mitzvà della creazione. Quando visitiamo i malati o confortiamo i defunti, partecipiamo anche a quella mitzvà. Ogni volta che costruiamo relazioni con gli altri, aiutiamo una comunità a crescere e prosperare, tutto ciò fa parte della stessa mitzvà. Quando piantiamo un giardino o un albero, quando proviamo a proteggere l’ambiente con le scelte che compiamo, tutto ciò è la mitzvà della creazione.

Hai continuato a sperare? La disperazione è facile da trovare in questo mondo. Ancora di più per le generazioni di ebrei esiliati dalla loro terra e trattati con disprezzo e umiliazione. Eppure l’ebreo continua a sperare e quella speranza è ciò che sostiene la nostra resilienza e la nostra particolarità come popolo. Non abbandoniamo la promessa del nostro patto, per quanto distante appaia. Neanche noi abbandoniamo la nostra fiducia nell’umanità. Come scrisse Edmond Fleg: “Sono ebreo perché in ogni epoca in cui si sente il grido di disperazione l’ebreo spera”. La speranza è intesa nella tradizione come la speranza della redenzione, per l’era messianica. Il punto della speranza è che noi ebrei ci siamo aggrappati alla nostra identità, al nostro scopo e significato attraverso questo meccanismo. Un giorno la speranza si realizzerà.

Ai nostri tempi sembra che l’oscurità stia tornando, mentre il nazionalismo e il populismo sono in aumento, la xenofobia e l’odio stretto crescono in molti paesi in tutto il mondo. Tanto più importante, quindi, continuare a sperare, non cedere alla disperazione che erode e corrode che ci porterebbe in ogni luogo più oscuro, sempre più stretto, che distruggerebbe tutto ciò che c’è di buono nel mondo.

Ti sei impegnato nella ricerca della saggezza? La saggezza è più della conoscenza, è la capacità di vedere attraverso le situazioni, di selezionare il bene dal male, di applicare una moralità così come il pensiero legale o logico. Tradizionalmente spiegato come un dono dell’età e dell’esperienza, la saggezza non ci casca in braccio, deve essere perseguita, elaborata, è il risultato di un pensiero critico e onesto, di vedere onestamente piuttosto che attraverso l’obiettivo dell’interesse personale. Uno dei miei sermoni preferiti è di Milton Steinberg, chiamato “To Hold With Open Arms” In esso racconta la seguente storia:

“Dopo una lunga malattia mi è stato permesso per la prima volta di uscire di casa. E mentre attraversavo la soglia, la luce del sole mi salutava. Questa è la mia esperienza; tutto ciò che c’è da fare. Eppure, finché vivrò, non dimenticherò mai quel momento … Il cielo sopra di noi era molto blu, molto chiaro e molto, molto alto. Un vento debole soffiava dalle pianure occidentali, fresco eppure in qualche modo tinto di calore – come un vino secco e freddo. E ovunque nel firmamento sopra di me, nella grande volta tra terra e cielo, sui marciapiedi, l’edificio – il bagliore dorato della luce del sole. Mi ha toccato anche, con amicizia, con calore, con benedizione. E mentre mi crogiolavo nella sua gloria, mi passarono per la mente quelle parole meravigliose del profeta sul sole che un giorno sorgerà con la guarigione sulle sue ali. In quell’istante mi guardai attorno per vedere se qualcun altro avesse mostrato sulla sua faccia la gioia, quasi la beatitudine che provavo. Ma no, lì camminavano – uomini, donne e bambini nella gloria di un diluvio dorato, e per quanto potessi rilevare, non c’era nessuno a prestare attenzione. E poi mi sono ricordato di quanto spesso anche io ero stato indifferente alla luce solare, quanto spesso, preoccupato per le piccole e talvolta meschine preoccupazioni, l’avevo ignorato, e mi sono detto, quanto è preziosa la luce del sole, ma purtroppo quanto ne siamo disinteressati”. 

Il rabbino Steinberg morì da giovane, ma la saggezza in questa storia ci mette alla prova su quanto sia prezioso il nostro mondo e su quanto noi ne siamo negligenti. Ci ricorda che quel valore di un’esperienza non è diminuito dal fatto che esso sia o meno un luogo comune. Ci ricorda che siamo in un mondo connesso.

Hai temuto i Cieli? Il Talmud ci dice che tutto è nelle mani del cielo tranne la paura del cielo (Rabbi Chanina TB Berachot 33b) – cosa significa? Che abbiamo il libero arbitrio di servire il Cielo oppure no, non possiamo essere costretti alla fede o alla pratica religiosa, è una scelta libera e nemmeno Dio può agire qui. Quindi ci viene chiesto di difendere le nostre scelte e secondo quale codice etico o di altro tipo abbiamo agito nella nostra vita. Ci viene chiesto se siamo stati fedeli a noi stessi.

“Tutti muoiono, ma non tutti vivono pienamente”, ha detto William Sachs Wallace. Yom Kippur è un’opportunità, un tempo ripetuto, fisso e regolare per esaminare le nostre vite, in modo che sulle nostre morti possiamo stare in piedi nella corte celeste certi di aver vissuto, in verità, nel modo più completo e migliore possibile. Ognuno di noi ha la propria vita da vivere, non esiste un modello pro forma, nessun modello che dice “questo unico modo è il modo giusto”. Dobbiamo esaminare e discernere, interpretare le storie attraverso le nostre menti, parlare con gli altri per vedere come abbiamo avuto un impatto su di essi, riflettere e considerare.

successi pubblici in gruppi di persone in lutto così piccoli, e così emotivamente distanti dal defunto, Quando penso ai molti funerali in cui ho officiato o frequentato e alle migliaia di storie di vita che ho ascoltato, ce ne sono alcune che si distinguono e rimangono con me per ciò che ho imparato da quella persona e per la vita che hanno vissuto. Raramente sono i successi sorprendenti di alcuni membri dei grandi e dei buoni, le loro prestazioni politiche o scientifiche o accademiche, i loro successi stellari nei loro campi scelti, i loro onori e i loro titoli. Sì, sono impressionanti, ma a volte ho ascoltato l’elenco dei che mi chiedo cosa possa essere andato così male nella loro vita personale, nelle loro relazioni ?

Una volta ho scritto l’Hesped (elogio funebre) per una donna che apparentemente non aveva fatto nulla nella sua vita, ma ha allevato i suoi figli e pulito la sua casa. Mentre parlavo con la famiglia, chiedendomi cosa avrei potuto dire al funerale, un fatto continuava a splendere, chiedendo di essere notato. Era stata una donna amorevole e molto amata. Una moglie, madre, nonna, sorella, amica, vicina di casa. Tutti avevano una storia di come era stata lì per loro in un bivio nella loro vita. Tutti hanno parlato di come potevano andare avanti nella loro vita dopo aver discusso di cose con lei. Tutti hanno raccontato di quanto si sentissero amati, un amore che sentivano mancare oltre ogni dire. Non aveva una lista di risultati da definire, solo il suo amore persistente, solido e solidale che aveva tenuto insieme una grande famiglia allargata, permettendo a ciascuno di crescere di essere quello che erano. Mi resi conto quindi di quale straordinario successo fosse stata la sua vita tranquilla, di quanto fosse stata riconoscente e riconosciuta. Non ho mai dimenticato la lezione che ho imparato dalla sua vita, raccontata dalle persone che la piangevano.

Che tipo di persone vengono chiamate morte anche quando sono vive? Quelli che vedono il sole del mattino … quelli che vedono il sole tramontare … quelli che mangiano e bevono e non si premurano di dire una benedizione.

Cerchiamo di risolvere oggi, mentre esaminiamo le nostre vite e le nostre speranze, ricalibrando le nostre aspirazioni e lasciando andare i nostri dubbi e le nostre paure, che non saremo tra coloro che vedono l’alba e il tramonto, che godono di tutti i piaceri ordinari di vita, e non essere agitato per dire una benedizione. Decidiamo che saremo tra coloro che vivranno la nostra vita nel modo più completo e comprensivo possibile e saremo fedeli a noi stessi così come siamo stati creati per essere. Un piccolo cambiamento nel comportamento, ma potrebbe portarci a essere in grado di rispondere a quelle domande al Bet Din celsete con il senso di aver capito da vivi, ciò che alcuni potrebbero iniziare a vedere solo quando è ormai troppo tardi per agire.

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Parashat Noach: when we don’t confront catastrophe we enable it; or -we have to stop taking the world for granted if we want it to survive

The stories within parashat Noach are among the most frightening – and the most relevant – ones we could be reading right now.

While the narratives of the Flood and of the Tower of Babel are well known to us, there is another thread we tend to overlook. It is the story of how, when returned to dry land, Noah built a vineyard, made wine and stupefied himself with it so that he exposed himself in his tent, causing one son to see and tell, the other two to carefully cover him without themselves looking at their father in such a humiliating and vulnerable state.

There is a Midrash that is telling about this post diluvian Noah.

“When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said, God, how could you have done this? … God replied, Oh Noah, how different you are from the way Abraham … will be. He will argue with me on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah when I tell him that I plan their destruction… But you, Noah, when I told you I would destroy the entire world, I lingered and delayed, so that you would speak on behalf of the world. But when you knew you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch you. You thought of no one but your family. And now you complain? Then Noah knew that he had sinned” (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Noach).

Noah is introduced to us right at the beginning of the story as “a righteous man in his generation”, and quite rightly the rabbis do not see this as a great compliment. The qualifying phrase “in his generation” makes it clear that his righteousness is relative rather than absolute. So this just about good-enough man is enabled to survive in order to begin the world afresh. But as starts to face the future, he realises all that he had not done, that his selfishness and narrow vision had allowed the great destruction to happen, that it didn’t have to be like this.

Noah, facing the new world, cannot actually face the past and his part in it, nor really can he move on into the future. He just gets stupefyingly, paralytically drunk, and his sons are forced to deal with the consequences. The younger one does not know what to do – Midrash suggests that he actually assaults his naked father as he lies dead to the world – but at the very least he does nothing;  the older ones treat him with more respect, but reading the text one has the feeling that they simply cannot bear to see their father lying there, seeing what he has become. By covering him they are also trying to cover up everything that Noah has symbolises – his passivity, his refusal to engage with the situation God tells him of, his lack of compassion for other living beings, his lack of any timely compassion at all and his inability to deal with the consequences of his own inaction.

Upon waking, Noah curses Canaan, the child of his younger son, and blesses God on behalf of the other two, giving them an approximation of a blessing.

Why? Why curse Canaan, the child of Ham who saw him naked? Why not Ham himself? Noah is passing the pain down the generations, to those who are neither present nor responsible for the destruction. His own drunken misery becomes a curse for some of his descendants.

The truth that Noah doesn’t want to face is that he is in a new world now. A world washed clean of the violence and horror of the past, but also washed away – its resources, its people, and its structures all gone. This is no longer the world of miraculous creation, when God walked among the people in the Garden, and oversaw the perfection of the world. We are now in a world that Nechama Leibowitz described as ‘post miraculous’ a world where suddenly there are obligations – the seven mitzvot of the b’nei Noah are given here, … “It was in this renewed world — the world destined to be our world and not in the earlier, miraculous world — that saw the opening of the gate to the conflict between the values of  tikkun olam (perfection of the world) and Humanity .Avraham, who appears at the end of Parashat Noach is the person who takes upon himself the mission of perfecting the world as Kingdom of God, rather than taking the world for granted as Noach had done”

Noach took the world for granted. When warned by God of what was to happen, he took that for granted too. And when the worst had happened and the world was washed away leaving Noah and his family to begin it once again, he failed to do what was necessary, and it took another ten generations – till that of Abraham, for the relationship between God and human beings to flower once more.

It is interesting to me that this parashah began with the phrase, “These are the descendants of Noah,” yet does not go on to list any people, but rather begins a discussion of Noah’s attributes. One commentator suggests that this teaches us that what a person “leaves behind” in the world is not only children, but also the effects of their deeds.

Noah left behind both of course – everyone in the world is a descendant of this man if the flood story is to be believed, and so everyone is obligated to the mitzvot of b’nei Noach. But he also left behind the effect of his behaviours, deeds both committed and omitted.

Noah did not help to perfect the world. He allowed it to be washed away.  He didn’t appreciate the value of the world at all, focussing only on his own family and his own needs. Only after it was gone was he able to understand what was lost, and even then he was not able to deal with this loss. He curses a part of his family into perpetuity, his descendants go on to build the Tower of Babel in order to in some way find a purpose and meaning in their continued existence, and maybe also to challenge the divine using their newly created technology. So they too are forced to confront catastrophe as they are scattered across the world and left unable to communicate with each other. It takes ten generations, with the emergence of Avraham, for the world to begin to heal itself.

Like Noah we too are facing a time when the world seems to be set on a pathway to destruction: climate change, global heating, over fishing, the rainforest which once covered 14% of the earth’s surface now covers less than 8%, with all the consequences of loss of species that involves, years long droughts and famines.  We can see the warnings of destruction, we know the consequences of what is happening now, yet somehow we walk about in a dream, neither warning each other nor challenging what is happening. We spend our time trying to ensure only that we and our families can be safe, that our houses are weatherproofed, that our pantries are stocked. We are behaving no differently than Noah. And if we give it some thought and project our ideas into the near future, we can see than those who survive this environmental tumult will not have the resources to cope.

It is our job to take the story of Noah seriously – not as a good enough man who was saved from cataclysm because he did what God said without question, but as a man who was at least righteous in his generation, someone who hadn’t completely surrendered to the corruption and destructive activities around him. And we should see the consequences of his inactions too – that the world he allowed his children to inherit was damaged and fragile and took generations to heal.

Pirkei Avot reminds us that Rabbi Tarphon said “We are not obligated to complete the task; neither are we free to abstain from it” (2:21). So how do we begin to address the problem? The answer comes from a number of sources – the most clear being that every small step matters. As Maimonides wrote about Teshuvah, “one should consider the entire world as if it were exactly balanced between acts of righteousness and evil. The very next action you take, therefore, can save or condemn the world

Parashat Balak: Prophecy and Leadership can come from the most unexpected places, OR Female Donkeys have much to teach us

Twice in Torah an animal speaks. The first is the Nachash, the serpent in the Garden of Eden whose conversation is instrumental in Eve eating the fruit from a forbidden tree (Genesis 3); and the second is the donkey who three times tries to protect her owner (Balaam) from the wrath of God before her mouth is opened by God to challenge his behaviour. (Numbers 22)

Interestingly both animals speak in the interrogative as they initiate the conversation. The serpent has its own agency, approaching the woman without prior recorded interaction, and it clearly understands the reality of the situation they are in rather better than the woman does. The serpent asks her “Has God said that you should not eat of any tree in the garden?” and on being told that the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden was forbidden lest they die, the serpent says, quite truthfully – “you shall not die, for God knows that in the day that you eat it, then your eyes will be opened and you shall be like God, knowing good and evil”.  He does not seduce her to eat the fruit or even recommend that she eat it – he simply points out that the punishment she believes will follow is not the case, and instead a different outcome will emerge – the humans will have godlike qualities that currently they do not possess, the ability to make moral judgments.  The tree itself is beautiful, the fruit looks delicious, and the woman – now clear of her fear of death – eats and gives to her partner. There is nothing to warn of danger in the presentation of tree or fruit, and the intervention of the serpent seems a necessary catalyst for the human beings to take the next step.

In contrast, the donkey does not speak at first. She is simply trying to get out of the way of the angel by any route possible, squeezing herself and her rider into increasingly small spaces, and bearing the cruel punishment by Balaam in silence until eventually, when Balaam’s beatings of her become unbearable, God opens her mouth and she asks “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”  When Balaam answers “because you mocked me, I wish I had a sword in my hand for I would kill you”, she asks two more questions: “Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden all your long life until today? Have I ever done this sort of thing before to you?” To which Balaam answers with one word: “No”.

Only then does God open Balaam’s eyes and he sees what the donkey has seen all along – the fiery angel standing in the way, who DOES have a sword in its hand. Balaam bows down and falls prostrate to the ground, and the angel of God asks the same question the donkey did – “Why have you beaten your donkey three times?” before going on to explain that the angel is there as an adversary (le’Satan), “because your way is contrary to me”

The serpent is “arum” – subtle or cunning (though it has another meaning of cautious and prudent). It is its own self, beholden to none.

The donkey ‘s personality is not described in the same way, but we understand her by her behaviour. Firstly, she can see the angel when no one else can – she is a perceptive animal. She only speaks when God ‘opens her mouth’, rather than from her own initiative, she has been Balaam’s donkey for many years and served him faithfully. Her questions are personal, immediate, and relational. “What have I done to you that you hurt me?” “Am I not your long term and faithful donkey?” “Have I ever done this before?”

She is a faithful servant, dedicated to helping and protecting the person she sees as her master – quite unlike the serpent who is an individual with agency, dedicated to – well who knows what? Truth? Mischief? Action?

In both cases the intervention of the animal allows their human interlocutor to perceive and know what the animal already knows. They seem to mediate divine revelation, albeit in different ways and with different outcomes. The serpent is punished, lowered, put in opposition to humankind. The donkey is defended by the angel who asks the same question she asked of Balaam, and it is made clear that while the angel might have killed Balaam, it had no intention of hurting the donkey.

I find it interesting that the donkey is not “Chamor חֲמוֹר” but an “aton  אֲתֹן” – very specifically she is a female donkey, her verbs are in the feminine, this is the deliberate presentation of a female protagonist.

I find it interesting too that the donkey is contextualised in relationship; her interventions are not grand or self-centred but to do with the bond and connection between her and Balaam. She doesn’t feel the need to tell him of the angel in the road, but to ask about what has happened between them that their rapport has failed and he is beating her.

I don’t see this as subservience, even though the donkey is clearly of low status in human society. Instead between the two stories I see two models of change. The first is hierarchical, the shrewd and calculating “catalyst figure” knows the information and by their line of questioning is leading the other person towards the information it wants them to know. The question is asked and the answer is challenged with the facts. The change happens but the outcome is not really happy for either protagonist.

In the second story, while the “catalyst figure” knows the information, it makes the assumption that the other also holds information, and it takes care of them and uses their relationship and the trust built up between them to allow the other to learn.  Even when there is a further intervention (when God opens the mouth of the donkey) she does not discuss the revelation in front of them but formulates her response around the relationship between them.

While it may be unfair to say that the first model is the “male” one and the second model of leadership the “female” one, it is I think true that generally female leadership is characterised by being more transformational, task focussed, collaborative and often indirect, whereas generally male leadership is characterised by being more transactional, hierarchical and focused on the achievement of the preferred outcome.  It is no surprise to me that the serpent is masculine but the donkey feminine.

The donkey provides a voice of gentle sanity in a story that describes testosterone fuelled attempts to increase power and demonstrate status in the world of the king and the prophet – and all the time the reader knows the added irony that the Children of Israel know nothing of what is going on, so that the grabs for more status and power are irrelevant to them. The great Seer Balaam proves to be a comically less able prophet than his donkey, the great King Balak’s frustration grows to almost laughable boiling point as he tries again and again to have his enemies cursed – paying a fortune to no avail. Again and again we are invited to understand that there is much more to the world than we can easily see; that the apparently important figures are in fact not so important in the larger scheme of things; that if we only pay attention to the surface or believe the publicity of those who claim leadership rights, then we are missing the complexity and connectedness, the way relationships and shared values organise or world.

There are many variants on the theme that behind every great man is a person supporting them selflessly to enable that greatness – usually a woman. But my two favourites which both speak to the story of Balaam and his female donkey are from popular culture.

John Lennon wrote (though not about Balaam) “As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot.” And Harrison Ford opined “Behind every great man is a woman. Telling him he’s not so hot.”

The bible seems to agree. And the prophet Zechariah reminds us

גִּילִ֨י מְאֹ֜ד בַּת־צִיּ֗וֹן הָרִ֨יעִי֙ בַּ֣ת יְרֽוּשָׁלַ֔ם הִנֵּ֤ה מַלְכֵּךְ֙ יָ֣בוֹא לָ֔ךְ צַדִּ֥יק וְנוֹשָׁ֖ע ה֑וּא עָנִי֙ וְרֹכֵ֣ב עַל־חֲמ֔וֹר וְעַל־עַ֖יִר בֶּן־אֲתֹנֽוֹת:

Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion, shout O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you, righteous and redeeming, poor and riding on a donkey (chamor), and upon the foal of a (female) donkey.

Come the messianic times, the child of that donkey who protected and supported her rider Balaam, will have the honour to bring the anointed one into Jerusalem.  The line of Balaam’s donkey will ascend into the service of the messiah. The line of the serpent in Eden will be lowly and in opposition to humankind.  Very different outcomes from the different interventions of the animals who speak.

 

 

Shavuot: A new model of relationship where women are (also) in the narrative

We first find the festival in the book of Exodus where it is called called הקציר חג hag ha-katzir “the  festival of harvest” later clarified with the information that the harvest is of “the first-fruits of your labours” (Exodus 23:16). When we meet it in Leviticus (ch23) it has no name but we are told to count seven complete weeks plus one day -fifty days- and then bring a new meal offering and other sacrifices – the first fruits – to God. In the book of Numbers (28:26) we are told it is  “the day of the first-fruits, הבכורים יום when you bring a new meal-offering to the Eternal in your feast of weeks” and in Deuteronomy it is called the festival of Shavuot because of the counting of seven weeks from having put the sickle to the standing grain.

There is nothing in bible about this being the festival of the giving of Torah, the name we use now in our liturgical marking of the festival. Shavuot as we know it is a construction that builds on the ritual of bringing first fruits as sacrifices to the Temple to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, and replaces this with the covenantal relationship we have as a people with God, a relationship which is documented and defined by the giving and receiving of Torah.

So how amazing it is then that this festival which is the bridge par excellence between Temple and Rabbinic Judaism has as one of its major texts the story told in the book of Ruth, one of only two books named for a woman in the whole of Torah, a book which places women and women’s relationships right at the centre of the narrative, as one of them freely accepts all the obligations of Torah to join the Jewish people, and the other acts as her guide and support.

Other women also feature in the book, with strong supporting roles. Orpah, the other sister in law, who chooses to go back to her own people rather than go forward with Ruth and Naomi to an unknown future. The women of Bethlehem who act like a chorus and comment on the situation of Naomi. Even the matriarchs Rachel and Leah and the brave and resourceful Tamar make an extraordinary appearance, when the elders tell Boaz: ‘We are witnesses. The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel….and let your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, of the seed which the Eternal shall give thee of this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12)

As we are modelling a new relationship with God that has moved from the cult of sacrificial worship to a Judaism based on words and actions that aspire to bring us closer to God, the leading figures are the women, and we have two pairs of women – Naomi and Ruth, Rachel and Leah, who have modelled for us an extraordinary generous and compassionate relationship. The sisters had had the misfortune to marry the same man, and therefore be thrown into competition with each other, something that is not referred to in the text before Jacob came along, and we know that Rachel took pity on her older – and less loved -sister Leah by giving her tokens to seduce Jacob. Naomi and Ruth had the misfortune to be widowed and left without masculine support in a patriarchal world, but Ruth’s determination to stay with Naomi and Naomi’s supportive matriarchal abilities meant that all ended well for them both – indeed it is in this book that we find the only time a woman is described as loving another woman – right at the end of the book the women of Bethlehem say that Ruth loves (a.ha.v) Naomi, and Naomi nurses Ruth’s child, an act of extraordinary love and unity. Their relationship is the exact opposite of the parody of mother-in-law / daughter-in-law. It’s true there is no husband/son to fight over but they do not fight over the child/grandchild but instead are both functioning as its mother – indeed the women of Bethlehem say “a child is born to Naomi” rather than to Ruth – the mothering is from both women without problem.

The blessing given when Boaz is to marry Ruth is another extraordinary piece of text. “The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel”. There is a clear resonance with the blessing by Jacob of his two grandsons by Joseph (Genesis 48:20) “By you will Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” – itself a blessing of harmonisation, given that Ephraim (the younger) is placed above Manasseh, with no complaint or jealousy shown by the boys, a first in the blessing of sons in the book of Genesis. So again this is a blessing of resolution of any rivalries, a bringing together of two who might fight against each other but instead choose to work together without hostility. Then comes the naming of Rachel and Leah, sisters whose relationship may have been poisoned by the actions of Jacob, each wanting what the other had from him – one wanting love, the other wanting children. Apart from the disruption in their lives caused by Jacob, there is no textual reference to any hostility between them. And here they are credited as being the two who built the house of Israel.  Sarah and Rebecca here are less important as matriarchs – it is the mothers of the twelve tribes who take centre stage as with the tribal configuration Israel becomes less one family and more one people. I am aware that Bilhah and Zilpah are also the mothers of sons of Jacob and are not credited with this – I think because legally they are surrogates, the children not belonging to them, and this is a subject that will be given space in the future.

So here as the denouement of the text, the marriage of the foreign woman Ruth to Boaz a descendant of Tamar and Judah, and the bringing into the house of Naomi (who midrash gives a genealogy that will also lead to Judah and Tamar) means that the house of Boaz will be built like the house of Israel – the Jewish people will grow in numbers and in strength, but also be ready to receive Torah in its life, as Ruth has demonstrated her willing acceptance out in the wilds Moab just as the Israelites demonstrated their acceptance in the wilds of Sinai. There is a harmonisation, a sense of bringing together loose ends and readying for the next stage, and it is all done through the relationship of women with each other, choosing not to try to best each other or outdo each other, but to work together to build for the future.

And what an edifice was built on the foundations of these women. Of Tamar who boldly waylaid Judah in order to have the child that was rightfully hers and that would liberate her from yevamah. Of Rachel and Leah who became the matriarchs of tribal Judaism. Of Naomi who survived the deaths of her husband and sons, who ‘came back empty’ in her own words but who found the way to replenish and rebuild, based on her relationship of love and dvekut with her foreign daughter in law. Of Ruth, whose behaviour would not now pass the test of tzniut in many communities, but who also found a way to replenish and rebuild a life that may otherwise have dwindled into nothing.

The edifice built was ultimately the Davidic line of monarchy as the genealogy at the end of the book tells us.  And this is another ‘wild card’ in the patriarchal narrative we are so used to. For David is the grandchild of a Moabite woman and a descendant of more than one woman who used their bodies and their sexuality to gain what they needed. He is the descendant of men who left Beit Lechem to go to the hated Moab in time of famine and paid for it with their lives. He is the scion of a family with more skeletons in their wardrobe than one can imagine, and at the same time he is the descendant of women who broke the mould of sibling rivalries and patriarchal power plays, who chose to work together, to love each other in the most unlikely circumstances, to help each other unselfishly.

Torah was given to a people who were afraid and trembling, in a desert where they were insecure by a God who was so terrifying that they begged Moses to act as intermediary and agent for them. Sinai is a powerful piece of theatre with smoke and mountains that shook and the sound of a shofar piercing the air. At Shavuot we get a different model – a young woman who willingly and with love stays with an older woman and helps her return to her home, an older woman who willingly and with love guides the younger towards a future that will be blessed with security and warmth. No great theatre, no powerful revelation, just the day to day living of two people helping each other out.

I think the rabbis chose well when this book became the story read to parallel the theophany at Sinai. Here are the women, who were so hidden from view in the Exodus telling of the story. Here are the ordinary and quotidian activities of people caring for each other. Here is a true story of love and of people helping each other to what they need – no fireworks, no drama – just the reality of covenantal relationship in its quiet and extraordinary glory.

 

Serach bat Asher:the woman who authenticated Moses and went alive to paradise. Parashat Vayigash

Last week’s torah portion ended on a cliff hanger. A missing cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph demands that Benjamin remain in Egypt as his slave. Judah begs Joseph to allow him to take Benjamin’s place as Jacob will not survive Benjamin’s loss. At this point Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. They are – understandably – astonished that the young frightened boy they left in the pit so many years ago has become this most powerful Egyptian official.  Meanwhile Pharaoh learns that Joseph’s brothers are in Egypt and tells Joseph to invite Jacob and the entire household to come live in Egypt in the land of Goshen. So Jacob and Joseph have an emotional reunion. The family work as shepherds, the famine continues, and Joseph manages the country, selling grain for land until by the end of the famine Pharaoh owns all of the land in the country, except for that owned by the priests. Once the famine ends, Joseph gives seed to all the people telling them that they must repay Pharaoh with one fifth of their harvest.

Joseph is at the centre of the complex threads of the narrative, but look around the stage and other figures come into view. Those who caught my attention this year are the ones who are barely sketched out, yet who are noted in the genealogical lists, and this always bears further examination. There is the Canaanite woman, unnamed, who bears a son – Saul – to Shimon, apparently a different mother than that of his other five sons. She reappears again in the list in Exodus (Ch. 6) as the mother of Shimon’s son Saul, and yet other Canaanite women who bore sons to the family are not singled out like this – we already met the unnamed wife of Judah, introduced only as the daughter of the Canaanite Shua, whose children Er and Onan so dishonoured Tamar in Gen 38, yet she is not mentioned here.

Then there are the other unnamed wives we find in verse 5:  “And Jacob rose up from Beer-Sheva; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him.” And there is the somewhat ambiguous language of verse 7 where we are told of “[Jacob’s] sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into Egypt.”

Only two ‘daughters’ are mentioned here by name – Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah whose sad story has already been told, and Serach, the daughter of Asher, granddaughter of Jacob and Zilpah, the maid of Leah. Yet the word ‘daughters’ is in the plural – there were clearly other women who were born into the household, even though they remain unnamed and indeed uncounted in the famous statement that seventy souls went down to Egypt with Jacob.  Is the number seventy to be understood literally here, in which case there has to be some creativity with the arithmetic in the names listed here? Or is it the symbolic number it is often used as elsewhere. Seventy is the multiplication of two perfect numbers (seven and ten), it is the number of elders appointed to help Moses (Num 11:16), the number of nations and languages after the flood. Seventy symbolises a whole world, and we know that Jacob brings a whole world of his wives, his children and of his grandchildren – both sons and daughters, yet the listed names show only two female descendants – Dina, and Serach bat Asher.

So who is Serach bat Asher and why is her name remembered? No story remains extant in the narrative, but there are some tantalising intimations.

She appears here in the list of those who left Canaan to go to Egypt, and she appears also in the census at the end of the Israelites sojourn in the desert (in Numbers 26:46).  That is it as far as bible is concerned, but the aggadic literature is intrigued by this woman who apparently lives for over four hundred years and whose name bookends both the leaving of Canaan and the return to the Land.

The first function of Serach bat Asher is to hold memory. She links the generation of the ancestors to the generation of the exodus, from the “family” of Israel to the post-Sinai “people” of Israel.  She is the original “oral tradition”, and the midrash (Pirkei d’rabbi Eliezer) has her validating Moses as the man who will redeem the Israelites from Egypt, as she knew the secret sign given by Joseph to his brothers to signify that divine deliverance was imminent.

So not only does she link the generations and hold the memory of the divinity, she also provides the authority and authenticity of the leadership. The man from whom rabbinic tradition derives its whole substance is essentially given his legitimacy by the woman, Serach bat Asher. Something to think about as we hear the howls of outrage in some quarters when women scholars are finally given the respectful title that recognise their abilities.

According to the midrash Serach was a musician and a singer. When the sons of Jacob wanted to tell him that Joseph was still alive, they feared that the shock of the news might kill him, so they enlisted the talents of Serach who revealed the information to him gently. In response he blessed her, and said “the mouth that told the news that Joseph is alive will never taste death” (see Midrash hagadol on Gen 46 and Targum pseudo Yonatan)  This blessing gave Serach immortality, and like the prophet Elijah some traditions tell of her going to heaven while still living.

Serach was not only the link between the patriarchal generations and the post Sinai people. She was also the possessor of all kinds of hidden or lost knowledge that she would reveal when appropriate. So, for example, she knew the place where Joseph’s body was kept in Egypt, and when the time came for Moses to take the bones out with the people of Israel in accordance with the promise made to Joseph on his deathbed (Exodus 13) it was Serach who could lead him to the coffin. She explains biblical text, in one midrash she corrects a rabbi’s teaching about the splitting of the reed sea, saying that the waves looked like a wall rather than a lattice work. And in the story in the book of Samuel when a wise woman averts a crisis that Yoav, the captain of the army of King David, is not dealing with well – the midrash assumes that this is Serach bat Asher, and gives her the words “I am the one who completed the number of Israel; I am the one who linked the faithful to the faithful, Joseph to Moses” (Bereishit Rabbah)

Serach bat Asher is never married in the midrashic literature. Yet this does not stop Nachmanides suggesting she is named in the census because her descendants would inherit land. The aggadic tradition creates a life filled with miracles and wisdom, with courage and scholarship, a woman whose life extends for hundreds of years and who teaches about redemption. And yet at the same time she barely registers on the awareness of many students of Jewish tradition, and it is Elijah who catches our imagination, who visits every brit milah and pesach seder, whose chariot drives our stories of messianic redemption.

Serach bat Asher does not wander our world, unlike Elijah. And while there is a Sephardic tradition that she died in the twelfth century – there was even a grave site in Isfahan – she disappeared long before she was so conveniently laid to rest.  This confining of her seems to be almost deliberate – she is just too much for the medieval Jewish world to accept, she has been veiled and contained and controlled. Her name – which may well be a cognate of the verb samech reish chet – would mean to be abundant, to be excessive, to go free, to loosen the hair, to roam; yet more often dictionaries suggest that her name is just a variant of Sarah – to be a princess. And we know what happens to princesses in most fairy stories – they end up locked in the tower and hidden.

So may Serach bat Asher find her way back to her freedom to walk in the world, correcting rabbinic teachings which close things down and reminding us of the signs that show who truly speaks the words of God. Her job was to remember, to reveal, to connect us to our foundational stories, to open the world for us. We need her to cut through the thickets that have grown up since those stories were recorded. Serach bat Asher, another woman’s voice in our tradition that was quieted over time, calls to us once more.

 

 

 

 

Vayetzei: Rachel and Leah show us a thing or too, but we have to look closely to notice

This sidra is rich in narrative tales. Fleeing from the anger of Esau at the theft of his blessing,  Jacob goes to Haran. On the way he dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. God appears to him and promises him protection, children, and the land on which he is lying. Jacob vows that if God fulfils the promise, God will be his God.

Falling in love with his cousin Rachel, daughter of his mother’s brother Laban he offers to work for seven years in order to marry her, but Laban has two daughters and he switches the bride so that Jacob unknowingly marries Leah.  Told that the older has precedence over the younger  Jacob agrees he will marry Rachel a week later, and work another seven years for her.

Leah bears Jacob four sons, but Rachel does not conceive and so gives her maidservant Bilhah as a concubine. Bilhah conceives two sons then Leah gives Jacob her maidservant Zilpah who also has two sons. Leah bears three more children, two sons and a daughter (Dina).  Rachel finally conceives and has a son, Joseph.

Wishing to return home Jacob agrees with Laban that he will be to build a flock for himself from the herds of Laban as recompense for his twenty years of service, and uses selective breeding in order to build a huge herd. Then, while Laban is away, they flee towards Canaan. But before leaving Rachel quietly steals the household idols. . Laban pursues them but is warned in a dream not to take revenge. A search for the idols proves fruitless as Rachel hides them and claims ritual uncleanness. Jacob promises Laban that whoever took the idols will die. Jacob and Laban make a peace agreement between themselves.

Jacob left Canaan a tricksy but vulnerable young man, exiled to the homeland of his mother for his own safety. By the end of the sidra he is still pretty tricksy and still somewhat vulnerable, but he is also wealthy and the patriarch of a large family of his own.

He leaves Haran, not because his mother has finally sent for him as she promised all those years ago, but because he is increasingly aware of the fragility of his situation.  Married to the two daughters of his uncle Laban and father to eleven sons and at least one daughter, one might think that he has deep roots in the area, but no – he is the object of suspicion and mistrust. He overhears the sons of Laban saying: ‘Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s; and of that which was our father’s has he gotten all this wealth.’  Laban too no longer responds to him as he had before. So God tells him: “Return to the land of your forbears, and to your birthplace; and I will be with you.’

What Jacob does then is very interesting – he calls both sisters out to the fields where his flocks of animals are (calling Rachel before Leah) and he seems to justify to them what he wants to do. He tells them that Laban has changed towards him, but that he has always been a good servant to their father even though Laban had mocked him and continually altered the wages due to him. But God had been steadfastly with Jacob and had organised that whatever Laban had agreed with Jacob in payment had surprisingly turned out in Jacob’s favour so that Jacob had been able to build up a large herd of animals from Laban’s flock. He goes so far as to say that God had ‘redeemed’ the animals and given them to Jacob. (31:9) and that an angel had drawn his attention to the vow at Beit El, and how God had been true to this vow, and that now it was time to go home to the land of his birth.

The sisters appear to believe both in the covenant made with God, and that it was God who had given their husband the great wealth he had amassed.

They  answer together (the verb is singular indicating the unity of the response)  and this reply is revealing.

“And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him: ‘Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not accounted by him as strangers? For he has sold us, and has also quite devoured our price. For all the riches which God has taken away from our father, that is ours and our children’s. Now then, whatsoever God has said to you, do.’

וַתַּ֤עַן רָחֵל֙ וְלֵאָ֔ה וַתֹּאמַ֖רְנָה ל֑וֹ הַע֥וֹד לָ֛נוּ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַֽחֲלָ֖ה בְּבֵ֥ית אָבִֽינוּ:  הֲל֧וֹא נָכְרִיּ֛וֹת נֶחְשַׁ֥בְנוּ ל֖וֹ כִּ֣י מְכָרָ֑נוּ וַיֹּ֥אכַל גַּם־אָכ֖וֹל אֶת־כַּסְפֵּֽנוּ: כִּ֣י כָל־הָעֹ֗שֶׁר אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֤יל אֱלֹהִים֙ מֵֽאָבִ֔ינוּ לָ֥נוּ ה֖וּא וּלְבָנֵ֑ינוּ וְעַתָּ֗ה כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֧ר אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֵלֶ֖יךָ עֲשֵֽׂה:

The sons of Laban had clearly been disgruntled that Jacob was managing to breed a wonderful flock for himself from their father’s animals, his payment for the years of work, although this had not been negotiated in advance – indeed Jacob had originally offered to work in order to marry Rachel.

But the daughters of Laban also had a view about the transaction between their father and their husband. They had been hoping for some inheritance it seems, some part of their father’s wealth; but it has become clear that this was a vain hope, there would be no wealth coming their way. It is not entirely clear whether this is because Laban has been impoverished by the actions of Jacob or whether they had finally understood the way their father used his money to take power, promising but never delivering, changing the terms of the deal on a whim – that while they might continue to hope for it their father would simply not give them anything.

And worse than this, Laban has not behaved properly in the matter of their marriage – they would have expected there to be a dowry for each of them, monies that should be spent on them. While it is true that Jacob came without much wealth, but he worked an unusual and substantial number of years for each woman, earning Laban serious income. That wealth was not put aside for the use of the women; instead Laban had consumed it immediately, leaving nothing for the daughters. He has treated them as possessions and not as family and the women are not happy. They throw in their lot with Jacob and with his God, understanding that God has rebalanced the wealth, taking what should anyway have been theirs from their father and giving it to them and to their children.

Their final phrase: “v’ata, kol asher amar Elohim elecha, aseh” is redolent. It is a foretaste of Sinai when the people say , kol asher dibber Adonai na’aseh (Exodus 19:8) – All that God tells us we shall do.” It echoes the narrative that reminds us that Moses followed the instructions of his father in law Yitro just before Sinai (Exodus 18:24) when we are told that “va’ya’as kol asher amar” – Moses listened to the words of his father in law and did everything that he had said”. It echoes too the instruction to Abraham anxious that he has been told to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, when God says to him “All that Sarah says to you, obey her voice : kol asher tomar elecha Sarah, shma b’kolah”

Rachel and Leah are not only giving permission, they are giving instructions – “whatever God tells you to do, then you must do it”. It is quite a different relationship than Jacob had had before with God, when he had woken from his dream aware of the presence of God, yet still with enough bravado to hold God to account – “IF you do everything you say and IF you bring me back safely, THEN you can be my God”.

Rachel and Leah are serious protagonists in Jacob’s leaving Haran and returning to Canaan. They are not simply ‘the household’ – indeed they are resisting staying in a place where they are in danger of having to be subservient to their father.

Jacob collects his household and his wealth, puts his wives and sons on camels, and taking advantage of Laban’s absence he sets off for his homeland. But the real action that follows is that of Rachel – she takes the teraphim, the household Gods that we are specifically told were her father’s.

Did she take them for spite? Did she take them because she believed in them? Did she take them because she feared being homesick, or in order to prevent Laban from invoking those gods against her husband and family? Did she take them as a symbol of the inheritance she knew she was not going to receive?  This last question interests me most, for the possession of the teraphim seems to have indicated that the owner would then also possess the power and benefits of the first born in terms of property inheritance. (see Nuzi Tablet Gadd 51 pub 1926 CJ Gadd)

Just as Jacob had stolen the birth right of his first-born brother Esau, Rachel symbolically steals the birth right of her brothers. She is no passive figure here but is looking out for the rights of her children and grandchildren into the future.  She hides the teraphim successfully, taking control of her destiny, and Laban is unable to find them. It is her moment of triumph, safeguarding the future, until she is undermined unwittingly by her husband Jacob. For sadly the tale ends badly, she will die giving birth to her second son Benjamin as in protesting his own innocence Jacob has unwittingly brought a curse down upon her.

When first we read the sidra of Vayetzei we see the powerful chemistry between Rachel and Jacob, we see the terrible pain of Leah who wants her husband to love her and who each time is rejected, we see the usage of the two women concubines Bilhah and Zilpah. It takes a while to look beneath that first appearance of women as objects  and see the subversion and the taking control that is going on.

Rachel hides the teraphim under the saddle of the camel and says to her father “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise up before you; for the manner of women is upon me.’ And he searched, but he did not find the teraphim.”

Ki lo uchal lakum mipanecha, ki derech nashim li, vay’hapess v’lo matza et hateraphim

כִּ֣י ל֤וֹא אוּכַל֙ לָק֣וּם מִפָּנֶ֔יךָ כִּי־דֶ֥רֶךְ נָשִׁ֖ים לִ֑י וַיְחַפֵּ֕שׂ וְלֹ֥א מָצָ֖א

אֶת־הַתְּרָפִֽים:

She says to him that she is not able to rise up before him. This can be read two ways – that she cannot get up because she has her period (though why that should stop her getting up is unclear), or that she is unable to rise before him for another reason – and the one she gives is that she has her period. But could it be that she does not want to pay him the honour of rising before him – she is simply unable to offer him such respect now she has seen him for what he is and has rejected him?

He searches, but he does not find the teraphim. Hers is the last place they could be hidden, everywhere else has already been searched. She is unable to show him any respect, he in turn does not find either the teraphim or the reason she does not want to show him any regard. He is blind to any symbolism or deeper meaning, and the control – and the teraphim – remain in Rachel’s hands.

I heard someone recently describe the actions of the women in Genesis as manipulative, devious and unscrupulous. This in response to studying the actions of Jacob’s mother Rebecca, who organised for him to get the blessing by use of clothing and cooking.  The women in bible are indeed active in getting the narrative moving, they sometimes cause it to take an unusual path, they sometimes second guess God, they sometimes even nudge God into long delayed action. But this is not devious or unscrupulous or any negative connotation – the women in bible are active, creative, powerful and thoughtful. They hear the voice of God and they see the hand of God. That the text records their actions, albeit with the spotlight frequently turned away, is important. And it is important that in this generation we return the spotlight to those players who are not always seen on the stage, for they are our models and our matriarchs and they deserve our attention.

 

 

Toledot: there are more generations and more branches in our family tree than we notice – meet Mahalat bat Ishmael the fragrant bringer of hope

וַיַּ֣רְא עֵשָׂ֔ו כִּ֥י רָע֖וֹת בְּנ֣וֹת כְּנָ֑עַן בְּעֵינֵ֖י יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִֽיו: ט וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶל־יִשְׁמָעֵ֑אל וַיִּקַּ֡ח אֶת־מַֽחֲלַ֣ת ׀ בַּת־יִשְׁמָעֵ֨אל בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֲח֧וֹת נְבָי֛וֹת עַל־נָשָׁ֖יו ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה:

“And Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan were displeasing to Isaac his father. So Esau went to Ishmael and he took Machalat the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nevayot over his women/ in addition to his other wives, for a wife for himself.”

So ends the sidra of Toledot. It began with Isaac marrying Rebecca and pleading with God for her to have children. Having conceived twins who are struggling within her, Rebecca is informed that she will give birth to two nations who would be not be equal. The firstborn, Esau, was red and hairy. The second born was holding on to his brother’s heel so they named him Jacob (heel). Esau became a skilled hunter and was the favoured child of his father, but Jacob remained close to home and his mother. The bible recounts the story of Esau coming home famished after a hunting trip and selling his birthright blessing for some of the delicious red stew that Jacob had made.

The narrative continues with the story of a famine and Isaac goes to the Philistine King Abimelech for support, having been told by God to not leave the land as his father had done. Isaac settled in Gerar, and for fear of being killed because of Rebecca’s beauty, he follows the example his parents had given and told Abimelech that Rebecca was not his wife but his sister. Abimelech however found the lie out, and in order not to attract punishment from God, warns the Philistines not to mistreat the couple.   Isaac grows wealthy and the Philistines begin to hate and envy him to the point where he is unsafe. Isaac moves his household away to Rechovot, and then has an encounter with God at Beersheva where he receives the covenant of blessing. Abimelech, understanding that Isaac is the heir to his father’s relationship with God seeks a peace treaty with him which is sealed with a feast.

Now we return our focus to the family. Esau married two Hittite women, Judith bat Be’eri and Basemat bat Elon, and Isaac and Rebecca are bitterly upset.

Now we come to the last phase of Isaac’s life. He is old, his sight is poor, he knows it is time to give the blessings to his sons. He asks Esau to hunt and prepare a dish of his game for him after which he will bless him. Rebecca overhears, and, when Esau is gone, she instructs Jacob to bring her young goats in order for her to make a meal for Isaac that Jacob can take him and receive the blessing. Jacob does not think this will work- Esau is hairy, Jacob is not. Isaac on touching his son will understand the deception and may curse him. Rebecca responds by taking the curse upon herself, and demands that Jacob do as she has told him. She makes coverings from the skins of the goats and food from the flesh, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing and sends him to his father. The text is ambiguous as to whether Isaac recognises which of his sons is with him, but he goes with the flow, blessing Jacob with the special blessing. Esau returns, discovers his blessing is already given to his brother and in his distress asks his father for another. Isaac blesses him with abundance, but also with the hope that he will one day break the yoke of subservience to his brother. Esau’s fury is a danger to Jacob and so his mother arranges that he is sent to safety with her family under the pretext that this will keep him away from Canaanite women and help him to marry within the family group.  Esau hears this, understands that his first two choices of wife were not acceptable to his parents, and so he goes to Ishmael his uncle in order to marry Machalat, his cousin, the daughter of Ishmael.

Machalat is family. She is the daughter of Ishmael the beloved son of Abraham and of Hagar, whom God comforts when she and her son are near to death in the wilderness having been expelled from the camp. Hagar is the first person who is recorded as giving a name to God.   We are told that “she called the name of the Eternal who spoke to her, You are El Ro’ee (a God of seeing)” (Gen 16:13)  So Machalat is the grandchild of a woman who encountered God.

There are two biblical texts naming the wives of Esau, and they do not exactly coincide. One tells us the three wives are Yehudit bat Beeri, Basemat bat Elon and Mahalat bat Ishmael (Gen 26) whereas the second tells us they are Adah bat Elon, Basemat bat Ishmael and Oholivamah bat Anah (Gen 36).  The gemara resolves the problem by saying that Basemat/Machalat were the same woman, and whereas the name Basemat means fragrant, Machalat comes from the same root as forgiveness – mechilah – and that in marrying her all the sins of Esau were forgiven (JT Bikkurim 3:3)This would explain how, when the brothers meet up again years later, Esau is warm and welcoming, having given up the bitterness and anger caused by his brother’s betrayal, he too, having been forgiven, is able to forgive.

Basemat, whose name implies great sweetness, gives Esau a son and names him Re’u-El –friend of God. Is it accident that the name plays with and even seems to echo the name her grandmother gave to God – El-Roee? What is clear is that while Esau has many other children, only this son is named with a reference to God.

It feels like a hint – Hagar and Basemat were not destined to be part of the main thread of the narrative, but they were important nevertheless, they had their own very good relationship with God and their lives impact upon our history.

The bible may not be focussed on these women, or on this lateral branch of the family tree, but it considers them important enough for them and their descendants to be recorded. We know about Rebecca, her initial infertility and her later challenge to God once her difficult pregnancy was begun. We know how she took care to direct the narrative so that Jacob would become the link in the chain of tradition. We know about Sarah, her initial infertility and her derisive laughter in responding to God’s telling her that she would yet bear a child to be the link in the chain of tradition. But the bible reminds us there were other women who also had encounters with God, yet who did not go on to become matriarchs in our tradition.

Our historic commentators do not much notice these women, and if they choose to do so it is usually to make a point about the men they are connected with, and to be honest, they are not often kind to the women nor interested in them and their experience. But now we have a different set of lenses, modernity chooses to unpeel the layers of patriarchy and look again at the unvarnished text. Machalat the daughter of Ishmael appears to be a woman who, like her grandmother, knows God. Her marriage to Esau seems to change him, their son is a friend of God, the same God who appeared to abet Esau’s trauma. She brings forgiveness – mechilah – and she brings hope. Hope for the brothers who were destined to be in an unequal power relationship but whom we see later in life are both wealthy, settled family men. And in bringing the hope that transforms the relationship of brothers born to struggle against each other, surely she can be the touchstone for us in our generation when we know we are not forced or destined to hate each other. Machalat bat Ishmael, she brings the fragrance of hope and optimism. She deserves to be noticed.

 

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Image is “Mahalat” [Yishmael’s daughter, Esav’s wife] by Siona Benjamin