Vayera – how does God appear in the world – and how do we manage God’s appearance in the world?

At the end of last week’s sidra, Abraham, Ishmael and all of the men in his household were circumcised as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. Abraham’s implicit trust in God has led him to leave his homeland, together with his wife and household. He has made covenants with God, each time with the promise/blessing that he will have descendants and land.

They left Haran and arrived in Canaan and within six verses we have another divine encounter: “Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, untilעַ֖ד אֵל֣וֹן מוֹרֶ֑ה – the oak trees of Moreh, while the Canaanite was still in the land.     

And God appeared to Abram  וַיֵּרָ֤א יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־   אַבְרָ֔ם   and said “to your seed I will give this land” and he built there an altar to God who had appeared to him  הַנִּרְאֶ֥ה אֵלָֽיו

After this Abram went to the mountain to the east of Beit El and encamped there, and built an altar to God and called on God’s name, before moving onwards to the south.

The nature of Abraham’s “call”, his acceptance of God and his willingness to do as commanded has sometimes meant that Abraham is seen as the ultimate “man of faith”. After all he is willing to remove himself from homeland and family, to travel to an unknown destination, to offer both his sons to God’s desires and his existential aloneness is mitigated by the covenant with God. Yet Abraham is also held up to us as a role model – he is the first Ivri, one who crosses boundaries; he is Avraham Avinu – our father and founder; he is the embodiment of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, modelling openness and welcoming hospitality to all.

We are not privy to the origins of Abraham’s extraordinary faith – the first we know is that God tells him to go and he goes. But early in parashat Lech Lecha God appears to Abram by some oak trees, and now here in parashat Vayera we have the same thing.  Sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day, Abraham is sheltering and looking outwards. He is, once again, by some oak trees וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א this time those of Mamre, when God appears to him. The same language, the same setting, with only minor differences. Abraham has a revelation, once more seeing God amongst the trees.

There is debate among the traditional commentators whether Abraham has one or two revelations at this point. Is the introductory verse telling us that God appears to Abraham just that, a sort of headline for what is to follow, as Maimonides posited? Or is it a revelation in and of itself as Rashi and others thought, and in that case, just what can be learned from it? For Abraham sees not God, but three ‘men’, and his response is not to build an altar or set out a ritual covenant, but to rush out to welcome them in, and to provide a meal for them. And the next verse gives us even more room for ambiguity, for when Abraham speaks he says:

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַֽעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ

“Adonai (either “God” or “My lords”) If I have found favour in your sight, please do not pass by your servant”

Is he speaking to the men to invite them in for a rest, a wash and a meal? Or is he speaking to God and saying “wait please, while I offer hospitality to these men, and then I will have time to pay attention to you”?

I must say, I used to love the first interpretation the most: – the idea that we know that God was in these men but Abraham did not, yet still he responded to their needs with honour and dignity. From this it is easy to understand the importance of seeing past the surface of the people we meet, to draw the lesson that everyone has a spark of God within them, everyone is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and so we have a duty to relate to them, to care for them. The three men, hot and dusty and hungry and thirsty would have been a drain on the resources of their host, but Abraham did not hesitate to give them food and drink and comfort.

I still love that interpretation of the text, but I have come to appreciate the second one more. What if God reveals himself to Abraham, but immediately after this there is a pressing need to care for human beings, and Abraham finds himself saying to God – “can you wait please, there is something more important to do than listen to you right now?”

The something more important is, of course, the hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of the stranger and carer for the traveller that Abraham is so famous for. And the spiritual high, the encounter with the divine is of  lesser importance than the practical obligation to behave well towards others.

I like the idea that Abraham is less the paradigmatic man of perfect faith in the sense of his doing everything God tells him almost entirely without protest, and more the practical human being who responds viscerally to visceral need. I wonder if this instinctive act to help the travellers in the desert is the same instinct that causes him to later challenge God when the second revelation happens – the information that the whole of the city of Sdom will be destroyed, the righteous alongside the corrupt.  And I wonder what happened to that instinct after this episode.

For it seems to me that Abraham somehow loses his religious edge as he becomes a more patriarchal figure, and he becomes institutionally religious rather than instinctively so. No longer does he tell God to wait, nor does he argue with God when God asks the unaskable. He concurs. It is a terrible and repeated mistake, and by accepting God’s decrees he appears to lose his relationships with both his sons, with Hagar and with Sarah.

Abraham is indeed a role model for us, but maybe that should be modelling not uncritical religious faith and practise, but challenging it and inserting ourselves into the narratives. It would, I recognise, take some faith to ask God to wait while we do more important things in the world, but I have the feeling it would not be unwelcome.

Whenever I read the narratives of Abraham and Sarah, I am frustrated and made uncomfortable both by what is explicit in the text – the treatment of Hagar and Ishmael excluded from the family, the treatment of Sarah when she is bargained for Abraham’s freedom and of Isaac bound as a sacrifice to a demanding and testing God etc; and also by what is not explicit in the text – how does God talk to Abraham, what does Abraham see and experience…. I mistrust the certainty that seems built in to the narratives, the pain that is ignored – and I wonder how these stories can be a model for us – how can we recognise God’s presence in the world?

Abraham meets God twice by oak trees – large trees that cast shadows with canopies that play with the light coming through them. In each case the appearance of God could be understood to be just that – an appearance, or a vision, or a revelation. Abraham’s response in the first instance is to build an altar to mark the spot, but then to move some distance away and build a second altar from which to call on God. In the second instance no altar is necessary, no calling on God’s name and hoping for encounter – Abraham knows now what is important, he has his priorities straight – taking care of people in need trumps any vision or revelation, it outranks a personal encounter with divinity, all of that can wait – the work we do in the world to make it better is the critical work of being human and in the image of God.

I am not suggesting that prayer or contemplation or listening out for God’s voice in the world are not important – far from it. Any way in which we can ground ourselves in the relationship we have with the creator is important, it will nourish us and develop us and challenge us to be our best selves. But to make that the goal is to miss the point. Religion and ritual exist in order to keep us aware of what is important, though often they appear to exists only in order to perpetuate their own structures. Once a religion becomes an institution its focus changes to survival and regular challenges and reformations are needed to stop it crystallising.  The institutions may talk the talk but they walk the walk less readily.

So the idea of Abraham, the patriarch and founder of monotheistic religion, asking God to please wait while he gets on with caring for travellers is an important idea to keep hold of. We serve God best when we serve God’s creation, we cannot do God’s work if we turn our backs on God’s creatures in order to have a more spiritual focus.

 

 

Lech Lecha: the covenant of Abraham and Sarah

The idea of covenant with God was already present with the narratives of Noah. In Genesis Chapter 6 we find “And God said to Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make an ark of gopher wood…. I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, and your sons, and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort you will bring into the ark to keep them alive with you….So did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.”

After the flood comes another covenant – (Genesis Ch.9) “And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you… never shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; nor shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ And God said: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. …And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.’ And God said to Noah: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”

So when God makes the covenant of the pieces with Abram in Genesis 15 “And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. In that day the Eternal made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” while we may find the description opaque, the idea of the divine promise given to one individual but extending into the future is familiar.

Parashat Lech Lecha introduces the covenant that is central to Jews and Judaism – brit milah – circumcision.  In Genesis 17 we read “God appeared to Abram, and said to him: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be wholehearted. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply thee exceedingly.’ ‘ My covenant is with you and you will be the father of a multitude of nations. Your name shall not anymore be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…And I will make you exceeding fruitful, I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant….. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed…must be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. …..And God said to Abraham: ‘As for Sarai thy wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.  And I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.”

Judaism is based on the particular covenant relationship between God and the Jewish people. And this relationship begins with Abraham and Sarah, travelling down the generations through their son Isaac. This covenant relationship is unbreakable, however much we let God down or God lets us down. God has other covenantal relationships with humanity, but the specific Jewish relationship of responsibility and purpose is the one that underpins all Jewish teaching.

Pretty much every Jewish family circumcises their 8 day old baby boy in the ceremony of brit milah as bible requires. The child is brought in ceremonially to the mohel and blessings said, which include the blessing “who has commanded us con­cerning circumcision” and   “who has commanded us to  enter [him] into  the covenant of Abraham our father.”

Bible is clear on this – all baby boys, whether born into the Jewish family or adopted into the household, are to be given this sign in their flesh that they too are part of the Abrahamic covenant.  It is a patriarchal society into which they are born, the brit is their male right – but what exactly is the position of women in this covenant so central to Jewish self-understanding?

A closer reading of our texts reveals something interesting. The covenant of the pieces, opaque and full of dark magical symbolism, is deeply patriarchal and refers to the continuity of possession and power of the Abrahamic line. There is a prefiguring of the terrifying experience at Sinai, with smoke and fire and a God who overawes. Yes the childless Abram will have heirs, countless descendants, but their fate will be difficult and painful as slaves and exiles,  until they finally inherit the land, displacing the nations living upon it. Abram himself will die peacefully in old age encountering nothing of the complex future.  The second covenant is different – here it is personal and intimate. While land and descendants are still the critical core of the covenant, here the land is an ahuzah, a family holding, rather than a nation state as in the earlier covenant. Here  Abram’s line is described in terms of family, it is described positively as being fruitful, a multitude of nations including king. There is no mention of a terrible period of time in exile and slavery, instead the focus is on the mutuality of the covenant – Abram and his line must keep the covenant as well as God, and his name is changed to show the personal transformation. And in parallel we are told that Sarai too is part of this promise, she will bear a son, and through that son nations and kings will be born, and the covenant will be held within this familial line. She too has her name changed; she too is radically altered by the encounter. This is a covenant with real people who are active in the creation and expression of the covenant, and who are transformed by the event – both have the letter ה added to their names, a letter used to signify God and both will shortly by transformed by the birth of their child.

While the sign of the covenant is to be embedded in the flesh of the male member, the covenant itself is not limited to those who carry the sign – it is enshrined in the peoplehood that descends from Abraham and Sarah, in their activity and participation.

Looking at the biblical texts we can see that each covenant apparently made with one individual is in reality made with an extension from that individual – be it the covenants with Noah that are in reality made also with his extended family or secondly with the whole of humanity, or the covenants with Abraham which extend to his descendants through Sarah, the notion of the individual limited covenant is a mistake. When we get to Sinai it is clear that while the discussion is with Moses, the covenant is actually with all the people both present and yet to be born or to choose Judaism. Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy in parashat Nitzavim make this clear – everyone, male, female, adult, child, high status or low – is in the covenant.

So how come we only seem to celebrate or mark the entry into the covenant of male children? How are women supposed to see themselves as integral to the covenant too?  Traditional texts assume simply that women need no such entry point. In the Talmud (avodah zarah 87a) we read a debate about who can perform circumcision. The focus is on the repeated words “himol yimol” in the passage from Genesis 17 – this can be translated as the individual must be circumcised to enter the covenant, or it can be understood as ‘the circumciser needs to be circumcised’. Following this second reading, one would imagine that only a man can act as mohel (circumcisor) and yet we know that Zipporah herself circumcised her child. From this the Talmud decides that women are classed as ‘among the circumcised’ – in other words, women are already born with the sign of the covenant in their bodies, and need no extra marking in their flesh.

What this natural state is is subject to debate – it seems to have something to do with the blood released- could it be menstruation or the ability to give birth, both of which involved natural bleeding?  Is it to do with the ability to procreate – certainly the idea of circumcision is also seen in the treatment of fruit trees whose fruit cannot be eaten for three years – they are ‘orlah’, literally ‘uncircumcised’. So possibly the act of milah is an act to make the male ‘fruitful’, something a woman is seen as being ab initio?

But while our texts understand women to be part of the covenant even without ceremony, and the traditional debate is only to clarify the reason for this, it seems to me that a real issue is being overlooked. We bring a boy child into the covenant surrounded by family and community, with great joy and love, a week after his birth. But a girl child is simply noted, a mi sheberach (blessing) recited in her father’s synagogue when neither she nor her mother are present, end of story.

It is not enough. It is not enough to say that women are on a spiritually higher level than men and therefore need not be obligated to do mitzvot. It is not enough to teach that a woman’s glory is internal, that she should be shielded from the outside world, protected from public space. It is not enough to recite platitudes to try to flatter or distract women from living full and public lives, from actively taking their place in the covenant, from operating openly in public space, their voices and ideas heard in study and in action.

By denying women a public recognition of our place in the covenant, we have slid into the position where women’s roles have become seen as lesser than those of men, where women are somehow not counted in the legal or spiritual community of Jews.  It begins to be taught that women are only in the covenant by virtue of their relationship with men – fathers or husbands or sons. It begins to be understood that women’s rights and women’s voices are contingent on their relationship with men. And then we slide into a deeply dangerous place, where women are not only removed from the public space, their voices silenced to protect male ‘sensibilities’, but women’s reality is eroded, women’s experience downplayed, and the covenant is deprived of what was clearly there at the beginning – the particular contribution of women.

Judaism is not only a religion, not only a set of beliefs, not only a genetic inheritance, not only a set of shared values and stories and way of seeing the world – it is a peoplehood in covenant with God. And that peoplehood contains a complex variety of souls. Like the lulav and etrog which are seen as symbolising the Jewish people – some with learning but no mitzvot, others with mitzvot but no learning, yet others with both learning and mitzvot and still others with no learning and no mitzvot – we encompass the full range of what is possible in a people, and we need each other to fulfil ourselves.

So the ceremonies that bring daughters into the covenant – simchat bat, zeved habat, brit bat, – these are important ceremonies and while some date to the 17th century, they are not yet in common usage across the community, nor always recognised as being more than a nice way to celebrate having a new baby in the family or to welcome a daughter into the world.

Women are, and always have been, part of the covenant. Abraham may have had to circumcise himself, but Sarah too was physically altered, bringing her child into world long past the age of childbearing. Both were named, both were transformed, both were necessary

It is time we took more seriously the rite of passage to bring a daughter into the covenant. Time to bring the creative ceremonials out of the shadows and into the mainstream liturgy and life of the synagogue community. Respect for women begins with treating the births of female children with the same communal enthusiasm and joy as the birth of male children is celebrated. From publicly entering a girl child into the covenant may come a greater understanding that women have our own part in the covenant, must explore it and explain it and be creative with it as the men have over the centuries.

Merle Feld’s poem “We all stood together at Sinai” is a salutary reminder of what happens when we don’t give equal value time and space to women’s covenant experience.

We All Stood Together   By Merle Feld   (for Rachel Adler)

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down

And then
As time passes
The particulars
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
The feeling

But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute

My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
Sparks flying

 

 

 

 

 

Rosh Hashanah Sermon  : unetaneh tokef prayer and the day for judgement.

 “B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun, uv’yom tzom kippur yea’ha’teymun -On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed”

One of the most powerful themes in the liturgy for the Yamim Noraim is this one:- the idea that in heaven on this day there are opened three different books – one for the totally righteous, one for the totally wicked, and one – the largest one by far – for the people who have both good and bad deeds on our record, who must be weighed up and judged on a case by case basis.

The unetaneh tokef prayer – which came into use in Ashkenazi tradition in the Amidah since the 11th century (and is used in some Sephardi traditions just before the Mussaf service) but which is built on a much older poem from the Byzantine Period in Israel (circa 330–638) is a powerful liturgical poem for the Yamim Noraim, from which the quotation above is taken. It goes on to tell us what is also decided on this day: : How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who shall rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, etc”  but goes on to remind us that” But Penitence, Prayer and Good Deeds can annul the Severity of the Decree.”

 The Book of Life:  Its earliest Jewish appearance is in the book of Exodus just months after the exodus from Egypt, when the Ten Commandments are given on Sinai and Moses returns to see people having despaired of his return and created a golden calf to worship. Moses returned to God, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray You, out of Your book which You have written.’  And God said to Moses: ‘whoever has sinned against Me, that one will I blot out of My book. Ex 32:32-35

We tend to see the Book of Life in terms of the unetaneh tokef prayer – a document that records everything, collecting the evidence determining who shall live and who shall die in the coming year, rewarding or punishing according to the life already lived. Yet the two ideas – that there is a Book written about our Life, and that reference to such a book enables the heavenly sentencing on Judgment Day (that is Rosh Hashanah), do not have to be so entwined.

The idea of a heavenly Book of Life seems to have originated in Babylon, with Babylonian legend speaking of the Tablets of Destiny, lists of sins and wrongdoings of people, who should be blotted out of existence. Scholars believe it probably referred to some kind of Eternal life, an end of time Judgment. Our Rosh Hashanah liturgy however sees the document differently, causing us to pray for a better and longer earthly life.

While the Mishnah tells us (Avot 2:1) “Consider three things that you may not come within the power of sin. Know what is above you—a seeing eye, and a hearing ear, and all your deeds are written in a book”, it also tells us “All Israel have a portion in the world to come”. Eternal life is, in effect, a given – the Book of Life is not so much about our eternity as about the actual record we each create as we live and go about our lives. The Sefer Hasidim pointedly adds that God is in no need of a book of records; saying “the Torah speaks the language of human beings”; that is, “this is a metaphorical statement to remind us that everything we do is a matter of record, and this record builds to describe and create testimony about each human life – its actions, its meaning, its impact on the world, its memory and memorial”.

The Book of our Life is not, in reality, simply a record of good and bad deeds, to be weighed up each Rosh Hashanah Judgment day when the book is opened.  It is the ultimate repository of who we are. We are, in effect, the sum of our actions and our memories. When our lives are stripped of memory they are stripped of meaning and of purpose. Purpose and meaning ultimately rely on a context and an awareness that is provided for us by our use and recording of memory.

In the last few weeks of Torah readings we have been reading about Moses’ rehearsing to and reminding the people of Israel about their history, their purpose, their connection with the Divine Being and its purpose, and the ethical and religious principles they agreed to when they entered the Covenant with God at Sinai, – an Eternal covenant, and one into which we bring our children. The whole of the book of Deuteronomy is in effect a Memory Book, a Book of Life, a record and proof text for who we are and what we are about. It is Moses’ last effort to implant within us a sense of our history and our purpose, a text to take with us into our future.

In just the same way as Torah gives meaning and purpose to the wider Jewish identity, our very personal existence depends on our own memory, mission and morality – remembering where we came from, what we are called on to do, and how we are called on to do it. And  this information is what creates each of our books of life, which we are invited to open and to read during Ellul, and then from Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur.

Our continued existence as thoughtful and purposeful human beings depends upon what is written in our own Book of Life. Who we really are will form who we will become. If we pay no attention to our own historical reality, to the memories of ourselves and of our people which we rehearse regularly in religious ritual both at home and in the synagogue, then slowly but surely we will lose touch with our root meaning – that which in religious terms would be called Covenant.

If we no longer tell the stories of our past, and find meaning within them that can speak to the modern world, then we will lose our particular purpose, and our lives will indeed become simple accountancy columns – so much fun versus so much pain, so many good deeds versus so many mean ones.  If we distance ourselves from the moral teaching of our tradition, and create a morality based instead on convenience or on what feels right in some unsubstantiated way, then we are in danger of losing our way, of making decisions not using our inherited system of values but on what suits us or fits in with our limited world view.

Memory, Purpose  and Morality – these bring the awareness of where we are the and the connection to where we come from; they create the understanding that our life must be lived with a purpose that is connected to our peoplehood, our roots – however we want to define memory; and a set of overarching values that are not about our own gratification or benefit but about a world view that takes in more than our own selves or our narrow context. This is what Moses was trying to explain in his last speeches recorded so clearly in the book of Deuteronomy – distilling both the history and the learning of the earlier books of Torah.  It is what we must try to do now, as we open our personal Book of Life and read it in order to understand something deep and vital about how we are living our own lives. Not just to reflect on things that are pricking our conscience a little or on the irritations and anxieties of other’s behaviour towards us. But to consider our memory, our  purpose in the world and the morality that both feeds and drives us.

Purpose and meaning, that which gives shape and direction to our lives, does not come out of nowhere. It is shaped by the stories we tell of ourselves and our forebears, by the writings of our historians and our prophets; It is taught to us in our homes and a variety of schools; That which comes to us through our faith tradition is rehearsed in prayer; symbolically enacted in rituals; and recalled periodically in a variety of services and liturgies. Our memories are strengthened by their being recalled and recounted, freshened and sharpened by how we use them.

Without a structure and a system for remembering and teaching, for measuring ourselves against who and what we should be, we ultimately cut ourselves loose from purpose and meaning and have to find roots wherever we can. This is as true of a nation state as it is of a religious identity as it is of an individual person. Each of us must root ourselves in a sense of meaning and purpose if we are to live full lives, and our senses of meaning and purpose must themselves be rooted in something of value and credibility – our family hist­­­ory and its stories, our connection to religious tradition, to a system of values and morals, to our reasons for being – our own humanity.

So when we pray – B’sefer Hayyim nizakeir v’nikateiv lefanecha.Anachnu v’chol amm’cha beit yisrael, le’hayyim tovim v’shalom.

May we and all Your people the family of Israel be remembered and recorded in the Book of Life for a good life and for peace. We are asking not for a simple accounting exercise in order to creep into heaven, not a weighing up of good and bad in the hope that we have been rather better than not, but that our lives are recorded and our memory maintained and refreshed so that we are better able to observe and take hold of the purpose and meaning of our individual and group existence, that our behavior will align more closely to who we know we could become – articulating the values of human dignity and social justice, of enacting good in the world.

It is important that we ask both for ourselves and also for all the people Israel to be able to critically understand the purpose and meaning of existence. For we are not alone here, not individuals on a journey to personal enlightenment so much as a group who are bound – since Sinai – in Covenant with God. We are a people, responsible each for the other, created to support each other and the values we share in the world.

We are a people, responsible each for the other, seeing ourselves as partners in co-creating with God the world in which we live, responsible for the enactment of the divine message of shleima – wholeness and integrity, in our world.

Torah tells us the world is not finished and perfect, it is up to people to complete and to perfect it.

We work on ourselves. That may be more or less difficult, more or less possible, and ultimately it is between ourselves and God just how well we manage.

For most of us our personal Book of Life is readable, at least in solitude, with a modicum of privacy to protect our dignity. We remember our childhoods, at least enough to draw from them the lessons we need as adults. We mostly have at least a sketchy knowledge of our family history over the previous generations – the name of a town or shtetl, the name of an ancestor recalled in our own, the stories that emerge when the family get together for a lifecycle event or festival. We can reconstruct enough of our past to gain a sense of our purpose and, as the bible says, the apple does not fall far from the tree – our family history is often surprisingly circular, and we maintain the values and traditions of our past in some way.

But when we become a group, then it is harder to examine our actions, to take joint responsibility for things we either know nothing about or maybe feel angry about.    We all belong to many different groups and we have responsibility for them– to hold each to account, to remind each of their past and their purpose. In particular at this time we think about the group we belong to called “Jewish Peoplehood” and “Israel”, and remind each other that Israel’s very existence depends on its memory, on its mission, and its morality.

Our memories are held in a book – the Book of Life for the Jewish people is Torah and its descendant the Rabbinic tradition of responsa and innovation. If we forget the values that are given to us there then we forget who we are and what we are about, we will ultimately fall apart, unnourished, unrooted, unconnected.

So when we think about the Book of Life this year, consider it a Book that actively maintains us and our purpose, defines our identities and our values so that we can work in the world in a consistent and meaningful way. And think too about the greater Book, the one that records the behaviour of our whole people. And with both of these volumes open and read lets think about what we want to be written in the coming year, so that when we leave here today we can begin to take up our meaning and our purpose, rooted in our values and our morality, and review and record the memories we want to be acted upon and remembered.

 

Shabbat HaGadol:the day to remind ourselves (as we frantically focus down on Pesach preparations) that our world is larger and more complex than we might be tempted to think.

The shabbat before Pesach goes under the name of “Shabbat Hagadol”, the Great Sabbath. It follows a number of special shabbatot, each with its own name and purpose –Shekalim and Zachor, Parah and HaChodesh, each of which is designed liturgically to remind us of something particular, each of which has its own extra torah reading and Haftarah.

Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath, doesn’t quite fit into the pattern.  While it has its own Haftarah from which some say its name is derived  (it ends “hiney anochi sholeyach lachem et eliyah ha’navee, lifnei bo yom Adonai, hagadol v’ha’norah”  Behold I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the arrival of the Day of the Eternal God, the great and the awesome day (Malachi 3:4-24,23”)  there is no way of knowing whether the name or the reading came first, and truthfully the connection is quite tenuous – to derive the name of the day from the penultimate word of the Haftarah seems unlikely.  So, it doesn’t have an extra Torah reading, and the Haftarah which contains both terrible warning of destruction as well as a prophecy of the redemption at the end of days, is an unlikely contender for the designation of the date.

So what makes this Shabbat Great? Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath?

I’ve heard a number of explanations – always a sign that there can be no certainty – and they range from the quasi historical to the frankly unbelievable.

Traditional commentators explain that the 10th Nissan, the date when the Israelites were to take the lambs into their homes prior to slaughtering them on the 14th of that month, was a shabbat – hence we are remembering the anniversary of that brave act of identification made by the Hebrew slaves after the ninth plague had not yet effected their liberation.  It is a neat suggestion, backed up by some ingenious workings of biblical chronology, but I think at least partially, it misses the point of the naming of this shabbat.  To get a sense of the specialness of this day we need to look not at the particular events of the Exodus, but at the fuller picture of the Jewish year.

There are two shabbatot in the year when it was traditional for the rabbis or scholars of the community to give a sermon.   One was the shabbat before Pesach – Shabbat Hagadol,  and the other was the Shabbat before Yom Kippur – Shabbat Shuvah.  Each of these are the pivotal shabbatot of the Jewish calendar, for they appear exactly half a year apart at a boundary point of the year.  The spring month of Nisan is designated in the bible as the first month of the year, and the autumn month of Tishrei begins the counting of the new solar year.  Both therefore are counted as real new years in our calendar, and so both hold out the possibility of new beginnings.

In both new years there is a tradition of self examination, of clearing out the old disruptive and restraining elements in our lives, and of starting afresh.  Be it the emptying our of the crumbs in our pockets into running water during tashlich as we symbolically get rid of our sins at Rosh Hashanah, or the bedikat chametz – searching for the strategically placed bits of bread around the house with a candle and a feather on the night before seder night so as to be able to burn them the next day, we use the same symbolism to the same effect – we want to be able to start again unencumbered by our past worldly misdemeanours, we want to have a new chance, and the beginning of a year has the right sort of resonance for it.

In the month of Tishrei, along with the festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the eight days of Sukkot our calendar has created  a special shabbat with its own haftarah, where God speaks to us asking us to return – Shabbat Shuvah.   It seems only proper that the month of Nisan should have a special shabbat too, echoing the relationship between God and Israel that will also be so prominent in the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, but weighted slightly differently from the Autumn celebration.

Pesach is a festival that is dedicated to the particular experience of the Jews.  It records our liberation from slavery, the beginning of our journey towards peoplehood, the moment when we embarked on a course that would lead to our encountering God, accepting Covenant, recognising the unity of the Divine.  The Autumn Festivals celebrate not our particularity but our part in a universality – Rosh Hashanah is not the birthday of the Jewish people but of the World, Sukkot is the festival of recognition of the universality of God over all peoples.  Our Jewish tradition values both aspects – the particularity of the special covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God, and the universality of God being God over all the world – divine creator of all people.

Just as we have two new years co-existing with each other in our calendar, so does our theology allow for two quite different identities – the particular one of the Jewish world and the universal one of the whole world.  The skill is in keeping the balance at all times between what may sometimes be conflicting priorities.  If we become too universalist then we lose our special identity, integrating and assimilating into our context until we become unrecognisable even to ourselves.  If we become too particularist then we block out the world around us, turn our backs on the real and important issues of our context, and deny the greatness and universality of our God by denying parts of God’s creation.  The prophets railed against this; the rabbis planned and manoeuvred to keep seemingly mutually incompatible ideas and circumstances alive and within the tradition.  It is a major triumph of Judaism that it is able to keep conflicting truths within the canon of our teachings and one we must never take for granted.

So both Nisan and Tishrei are new beginnings, yet each has different characteristic alongside the similarity.  Nisan is about the particular redemption of the Jewish people, Tishrei about the universal redemption of the world.  Yet each has a balancing component within it.  In Tishrei we mix into the liturgy a great deal of contemplative and reflective material, and we add a shabbat of particularity – shabbat Shuvah.  In Pesach we act out the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt as though we ourselves were there, but we mix into it an awareness of the pain and suffering of the wider world. We lessen our wine of joy by dropping some out as we recall the sufferings of the Egyptians for example, we shorten some of the Hallel psalms to temper our happiness at the crossing of the Red Sea because we remember the Egyptian pursuers who drowned there.  And we add to our commemoration of our redemption from slavery the oppression of others who are not yet released from their subjugation.  There is a tradition to add to both the symbols of Pesach and the liturgy of its services a wider remembrance of suffering and tyranny.  When I was growing up it was common to have a matzah of hope for Jews in Syria and the Soviet Union, to leave an extra chair and place setting for those who were unable to partake in a seder.  As time passed other things have been added to some sedarim – the orange placed on the seder place for example, to symbolise inclusion; and now the olive being added as a hope for peace for all peoples in the Middle East.

Balancing the universal and the particular, the creation of the whole world and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, is a Jewish life skill.  We are a separate people who are part of the one humanity created by God.  We have a particular covenant which designates particular obligations – mitzvot, with that God and we also know that while our convenant is binding on both parties, God also has other particular covenants with other peoples.  We care about our special identity and need to keep it active, and yet we also care about God’s wider world.  We balance the two parts of ourselves continually, the particularist and the universalist elements are both  legitimate expressions of Jewish thinking, and neither perspective can enable us without the other being somewhere in the equation.

So why Shabbat HaGadol?  It is, I think, the balance to Shabbat Shuvah, the day to remind ourselves as we frantically focus down on Pesach preparations that our world is larger and more complex than we might currently be tempted to think.  If our minds are full only of cleaning, cooking and shopping, we should allow space to consider the purpose of commemorating the festival at all. If we are preparing ourselves for the seder service, we should be looking outside the texts of Egyptian or Roman or Crusader persecution of the Jews and look for more modern examples of oppression and subjugation – both within the Jewish world and outside of it.  Shabbat Hagadol is a day to remember the rest of the world before we immerse ourselves in the particular Jewish experience of an exodus and a liberation that led to our formation as a people.

We are once again, at a new beginning.  It is 6 months since we stopped and really thought about the world and about our part within it, our sins of commission and our sins of omission.  This shabbat before Pesach, Shabbat HaGadol, calls to us now to ask – Have we changed in that time? Have  we responded to injustice or pain around us? Have we followed up the resolutions and vows we made during the Yamim Noraim?  Are we playing a part in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world so as to make it a more godly place?  Do we really care what is happening in our name in the world right now as Jews or middle-class professionals or citizens of Western countries?  Or will we just settle down in our homes to commemorate a historical event in a ritual way, opening the door to the outside only towards the end of our service, for a brief moment of recognition that we are not alone in the world, yearning for Elijah to come and signal the end?

Shabbat Hagadol – taking place in a new month which itself begins a new year refocuses us for a day away from our own historical reality to look at the surroundings in which our present reality takes place. It is truly a Great Sabbath.

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

Nitzavim: we are our own matzevah, sign of a covenant that we cannot fully understand

Just before the famous opening words of parashat Nitzavim, we see Moses speaking “el col Yisrael” – to all Israel, reminding them that they had seen everything that God had done to Pharaoh and to the people in Egypt, had seen the great trials, signs and wonders, but that God had not given them a heart to know, eyes to see, nor ears to hear until right now.

He then goes into a strange excursus, telling them that “I led you for forty years in the wilderness, your clothes did not grow old nor did your shoes wear out, you have not eaten bread nor have you drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that “I am the Eternal your God”.

He speaks of the two kings of the Amorites, Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan, of how they battled against the Israelites but were defeated, their land given to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh. And so he tells them to observe the words of this covenant and do them, in order that they be successful in all they will do.

So ends the sidra before, and the division is both dramatically powerful and problematically distracting.  Nitzavim begins “You (pl) are standing this day ALL OF YOU, before the Eternal your God – your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers all, a man (sing) of Israel. Your children, your women, and your stranger who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. For your passing over into the covenant of the Eternal your God, and its conditions, which the eternal your God is making with you today, in order to establish you today for himself for a people, and he will be for you a God, as he said to you, and as he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham Isaac and Jacob. ”

The image of everyone being present in order to enter into a covenant with God, where all the people would become God’s people and God would have a particular relationship of covenantal obligation with them is hugely appealing. It is made the more so when we see the list of people who will become part of this unbreakable relationship of covenant –from the highest status men of office through to each individual (man), then children, women, strangers who have become part of the group in some way, and finally the most menial labourers often invisible to the rest of society. Leaving aside the androcentric society of bible for a moment, we see a real equality in the covenant – it doesn’t matter your gender or your status, whether you are Israelite or resident stranger, your position as regards the covenant with God is the same.

So lovely is this thought that it is easy to not notice other nudges in the text. The elision of Moses and God is deeply problematic to me – not only does he tell the people that this is a moment of revelation which had been hidden for the previous forty years because God had not given them the abilities to perceive what most of their lives had been about, he also doesn’t seem to be quoting God so much as claiming God’s role.  While the presence of the people, all of the people, is accentuated in this text, so that Moses tells them that not only those present that day but also those who were not present that day (understood in tradition to be both all the future descendants of the people present, and also all who would enter the covenant via conversion to Judaism), the presence of God is harder to ascertain. Moses seems to stand in for God at the introduction of this covenant. And after the fearsome predictions of what would happen in both this and future generations when the people will forsake God and in turn be forsaken, along with the land, we are told “the secret/ hidden things belong to the Eternal our God, but what is revealed belongs to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this torah/teaching”

There is a play about hidden and revealed going on in this text, made explicit at the beginning and end of the chapter, and this makes all the more dangerous the signing up to a covenant which cannot be fully understood.

As if to underline this play of hiding/revealing in the context of a treaty or covenant, the text nudges us to two other biblical narratives, neither of which comforts us.

Firstly is the phrase “atem nitzavim”  coming from the Hebrew root yod tzadi beit, it is in the niphal (reflexive) form meaning not so much standing as “you are setting yourselves up” or “taking one’s stand”.  It is a curious phrase, and it causes us to think of other uses of the root – more often found as the noun form of ‘matzevah”. The first time we meet the word is after the dream of the ladder when the young Jacob realises that he has met God, he rises early in the morning, takes the stone he had put under his head the night before, sets it up as a pillar (matzevah) and pours oil over it in a religious ritual, vowing “If God will be with me, will keep me on this way that I go, will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I will be able to return to my father’s house in peace, THEN will the Eternal be my God, and this stone, that I have set up as a pillar (matzevah) will be the house of God….”(Gen 28:18-22)

Later, when Jacob is about to return to his homeland and has to negotiate his leaving with his father in law Laban, Laban tells him  “And now come, let us make a covenant, I and you; and let it be for a witness between me and you.’ So Jacob takes a stone and raises it for a matzevah (Gen 31:44,45)

The original use of the word matzevah seems to be not just an upstanding stone to mark a place, but a physical marker of a covenant that is being made.

Moses uses the word differently though – “Atem Nitzavim” may legitimately be translated as: “You are standing”, but it has echoes of more than physically being on one’s feet – it means “you are setting yourselves up as a matzevah, you are physically yourselves the sign of the covenant that is being made between yourselves and God”

The second nudge is the phrase translated as “from hewers of wood to drawers of water”.  Besides the fact that there is little difference at the very bottom of the social scale being a hewer of wood or a drawer of water it is referring to those who  are using brute strength to service the society which will barely notice their efforts (though it will most certainly notice if they stop).

The phrase is not common – apart from here it appears in the Book of Joshua (chapter 9) which recounts a covenant that is not what it seems.  Once again the Amorite Kings  Sihon of Heshbon, and  Og king of Bashan are referenced, this time their defeat has led other inhabitants (the Hivites or Gibeonites both appear in this role) to dress in worn out clothing, with worn shoes and stale bread and patched wine skins (more resonances to the passage here in Deuteronomy) and pose as being travellers from a distant land who have heard of the acts of God done in Egypt and who have come to this land in order to meet these people of God and to make a treaty so as to live together with them in peace.  The Israelites are flattered, they take the food and wine that are offered, and critically they do not “take counsel from the Eternal”. After three days of covenant making/celebrating,  Joshua and the Israelites find that the people were not who they had said they were, but were long term inhabitants of the land and were now protected from the oncoming Israelites by treaty. In response to their having lied, and to their protected status, Joshua  acknowledged that they would live, but he curses them – they are to be bondmen to the Israelites, in particular “there shall never fail to be of you bondmen, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.’

There are too many echoes in this tale from the Book of Joshua.  As we are told there is “no before and no after in torah” one has to read each story in the light of the other.  So when Moses alludes to the covenant being made on the edge of the land, the covenant between God and the people, he is warning them both that covenants can be made without full knowledge, that some things may only come to light later, that ultimately we take things on trust and sometimes that trust is misplaced.

Sometimes too the upshot of not knowing something can be of real disbenefit, sometimes we can live with it sometimes it is hard to live with.

But we are ourselves the matzevah, we have set ourselves up for this covenant and we are the physical signs of its existence. We are so intertwined – our lives, our very selves are part of the covenant – that we can never free ourselves of it. We are the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, the people who keep society going with tasks that are not honoured but are honourable.  We are also the people who take a leap in the dark with God, who retain trust even when there is no obvious reason to do so.

Nowadays we use the word matzevah to mean a tomb stone, the marker of a body that rests in the earth having finished its tasks in life.  It provides solidity, certainty, finality.  But I do like the idea of the matzevah that is the living human being, the one that is uncertain, ongoing, working in the dark to some extent, living in hope.  As we enter the Days of Awe, the days of risk, of trying to make ourselves our best selves, the days when we wonder what God thinks of us, being a living matzevah, a living sign of the covenant between us and God must surely be a powerful sign and reminder we have trusted God all these years, and we hope to have reason to trust as we journey into the future.

image the stone said to be Lot’s wife in Sdom from wikimedia

Behukkotai:rebukes that remind us we must work together

Sidra Behukotai ends the book of Leviticus, and while frequently read in conjunction with sidra Behar, it differs from it substantially in the tone of the narrative. It opens by describing the blessings and rewards that the Israelites will receive if they uphold the covenant with God and follow the mitzvot that are the conditions of that covenant, and ends  with a brief series of teachings about tithing, the sanctification of voluntary gifts to the Temple, and about vows. But the centre of this short sidra is the passage known as the rebukes – tochecha – when Torah lists the tragedies that will befall us should we abandon God’s covenant and our obligation to do mitzvot.

One particular verse stands out for me as being emblematic of the tochecha: In Leviticus 26:23-24 we read:

“Ve’im b’eileh lo tivasru li, v’halachtem imi keri, v’halachti af ani imachem b’keri,v’hikeiti etchem gam ani sheva al chatoteichem.” (And if after these [punishments] you are not disciplined/corrected but [instead] will walk ‘keri’ with me, then I will walk, even I, with you in ‘keri’, and I will smite you, yes me, seven times for your sins”)

This word, which is found right at the heart of this narrative of rebuke, appears nowhere else in Torah in this grammatical form, yet in this text we find it repeated seven times within twenty sentences (vv 21,23,24,27,28,40,41) forcing us to notice and explore it. Our behaviour clearly b’keri has terrible consequences. And yet it is not clear what the writer means by it.

Many classical commentators follow Rashi and Maimonides and understand the root of the word to be k.r.h – meaning something that happens by casual chance or by accident (mikreh), though it may also be translated as being in opposition or contrary, or indeed it may come from the root k.r.r meaning to be cold.  But we also know that when used in bible, the apparent casual chance of the text is not ever quite what it seems to be on the surface, but instead is a coded phrase used to let us know that something of significance is about to happen.  So it is that Ruth meets Boaz the language of k.r.h is used to alert us to the significance of her choosing his field to glean in.   There is something curious about a phrase used to describe a chance that is not exactly chance, a casual encounter of enormous significance, but that is how the word keri is used, and to find it so definitely  emphasised in the text of the tochecha means we need to look closely at just what God means when God says “If you walk ‘keri’ with me, then most definitely I will walk ‘keri’ with you.

The three most common teachings about this are: the classical idea expressed by Rashi and Maimonides that there is a lack of interest or intention in walking God’s way – a sort of going through the motions without really caring or understanding or being principled in doing God’s will; The extension of this mechanistic approach of indifference which is developed by R.Samson Raphael Hirsch of modern orthodoxy, and which overlays on the classical understanding the idea that when we do God’s will b’keri it is essentially not simply a casual coincidence but a phenomenon that happens when our will and God’s will coincide so that while it feels we are doing God’s will with intention, in reality we are following our own self-interest and priding ourselves on acting with more righteousness than should be claimed; and thirdly the position of the founder of the ethical mussar movement R.Israel Salanter who layers in the idea of coldness to the behaviour to suggest that when we walk with God b’keri it is that we follow God’s commandments not only mechanistically but also without any warmth or passion for it – there is no possibility of our doing the mitzvot changing us or developing our relationship with the creator.

I like this idea that if we follow God’s commandments to the letter, but without any passion – without committing ourselves and our hopes and fears – that this is viewed by God as b’keri: casual indifferent and cold religion. It bespeaks irrelevance – the acting out of what is required but in no way coming from the commitment of the self.  It is act but not attitude. How do we bring God closer into the world if we do not ourselves make the effort to make the world a better place? How do we bring ourselves closer to God if we pay attention more to how things look than how things are?

The warning in the tochecha, of all the things that will go wrong if we act b’keri – is so powerful an imperative that we are told that not only will God mirror our indifference, God will go further and punish us seven fold – the designation of maximalist or absolute punishment, the other end of the spectrum from casual/chance/indifferent.  If anything is designed to catch our attention, it must be the severity of this response.

And after it all, the horror story painted so dramatically of famine and war and terror and starvation and expulsion and yearning and pain – there comes this: “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land….And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the Eternal.”

God promises to remember – to actively recall the relationship of Covenant between God and the Jewish people which will never be broken no matter how badly behaved we might be. And God compounds this by naming the Avot, the three founding patriarchs of the Jewish people, and unusually lists them in reverse order, the only time this is found in bible.

This bringing in of the patriarchs leads to the concept of zechut avot, the merit of our ancestors, which we can call upon to weight our case before the heavenly court. The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah) explicates this, asking  “Why are the Avot listed backwards? To say: If the acts of Jacob are not worthy, then the acts of Isaac are worthy, and if the acts of Isaac are not worthy, then the acts of Abraham are worthy. The acts of each one is sufficiently worthy that the world can be saved for his sake.”

Rashi mitigates this a little, saying Why are they listed backwards? As if to say: Jacob, the youngest, is worthy of that; and if he is not worthy, behold, Isaac is with him, and if he is not worthy, behold, Abraham is with him and he is worthy.”

It is, I think, a little dig or reminder to the Jews of modernity – the greatest zechut/merit is that of Abraham, and as time goes on the merit is by its nature in decline. So we need to add the merit of our ancestors rather than assume any one is sufficient by itself. We, so much further away from biblical times are expected to have less merit than the founding patriarchs – so how much more do we need each other to fulfil our task. If we just do our tasks with indifference, or follow God’s will where it coincides with our self-interest, or do not attempt our holy task with all the passion and awareness we could bring to it, then we will fail. And to do our holy task well enough we must do it together, in community, with shared and common interest. We need not only the combined merit of our ancestors in tough times, we need the combined merit of our fellow human beings. Only in this way, by working together to make the world a better and holier place, by rebuking each other where necessary, by paying attention to what we do and its effect on others – only in this way will we create the blessing we yearn for.