Parashat Noach – the terrible message behind the rainbow

Noach  2022 Sermon for Lev Chadash

L’italiano segue l’inglese

The story of Noach begins at the end of last week’s sidra. His birth is recorded in a list of fathers and sons starting with Adam and his son Seth, and Noach is the tenth generation. His birth and naming stand out – We are told that “And Lamech lived a hundred eighty and two years, and begot a son. And he called his name Noah, saying: ‘This same shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which comes from the ground which the Eternal God has cursed.’ And Lamech lived after he begot Noah five hundred ninety and five years, and begot sons and daughters. And all the days of Lamech were seven hundred seventy and seven years; and he died. {S} And Noah was five hundred years old; and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (5:28-32)

 Unusually in this genealogy we are given a reason for Noach’s name – something not done since the creation of Adam. And we are also given the names of each of his sons – unlike earlier generations which gives the name only of the  person in the generational link.

Only Lamech speaks of the need for comfort, and only Lamech mentions the difficulty of life outside of Eden, of the curse borne by humanity who will have to work hard to survive on unforgiving land.

And still in last week’s reading we find the strange story of non-human beings interacting with humanity – “And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,  that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives, whomsoever they chose. And the Eternal said: ‘My spirit shall not abide in human beings for ever, for he also is flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.’  The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.”{P} (6:1-4)

Ten generations since the creation of human beings, there seems to have been some kind of crisis – the interbreeding of humanity with divine or semi-divine beings. And this occurs in the generation of  Noach. Then things get even worse: 

“And the Eternal saw that the wickedness of humanity was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of their heart was only evil continually.  And God repented having  made humanity on the earth, and was grieved to the heart. And the Eternal said: ‘I will blot out humanity whom I have created from the face of the earth; both human, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repents Me that I have made them.’  But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Eternal.  (6:5-8).

God repents the decision to create human beings. The verb used “vayenachem” sounds suspiciously close to the verb at the root of the name Noach – are we being nudged into seeing Noach as part of the plan to act on – or even to act out -God’s despair?

Curiously, this is the moment the sidra Bereishit ended. We await the next verses in the next weekly reading.

Parashat Noach begins in an echo with the previous sidra, giving the genealogy of Noach and his three sons. But any sense of continuity or stability disappears with the words “And the earth was corrupt before God and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth and behold it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noach, ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them, and behold I will destroy them with the earth – Make an ark of gopher wood etc etc…..”(11-14)

In the ten generations of human transmission on the earth, the earth is ruined, filled with violence, corrupted, disgusting. In God’s eyes there is nothing worth saving. Creation has failed. Instead there is only חָמָס – a root meaning violence, cruelty, malice, wronging, oppression  and injustice. (It appears 60 times in the Hebrew bible)

Now we all know the story of what happens next. Noach doesn’t debate with God, doesn’t warn his neighbours, doesn’t speak at all in our text, just gets on with the job of building the boat, collecting the animals, watching the floods that come from both above and below the earth…. His silence is one of the most difficult parts of the story for me.

The whole episode ends with the floods receding, Noach and his family back on dry land. As soon as he descends he builds an altar and sacrifices some of the rescued clean animals to God, who smells the smoke of the sacrifice and says – rather cryptically I always feel – “..  ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for human’s sake; for the imagination of humanity’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remains seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’ (8:21-22)

God then blesses Noach and his family, giving them the blessing that was given to the first human beings – be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth “פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֖וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃”  Then God says something which feels in contemporary times to be particularly painfully relevant “
 
And  fear( u’mora’achem) of you and the dread (cheet’chem) of you shall be upon every living thing of the earth , and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moves on the ground , and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they given and every living thing that moves shall be food for you”

This is the moment when the eating of animals seems to be given Divine permission. When Judaism left vegetarianism behind. One commentator (Don Yitzchak Abravanel 1437–1508) suggested  that Noach and his family may well have had concerns about the possibility of being overrun by wild life, some of which could have potentially attacked and harmed them.  So God offers both a “blessing” – that of animals fearing human beings in order to keep such harm away from them, and also permission to eat animals – effectively giving great power to humans over animals. It is a nice gloss on what I read as a chilling verse –  there will be no shared relationship possible between the animals and human beings – animals living on this planet are at the mercy of human activities, and as we are seeing today, animal populations are being wiped out as climate change takes hold. A recent report by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) tells us that “The world’s populations of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have declined by more than two-thirds on average since 1970” https://www.wwf.org.uk/our-reports/living-planet-report-2022

God makes a covenant with Noach and his descendants, and also with every living being on earth,  that never again will God destroy the earth by flood. The covenant is one sided – there is no obligation taken on by humanity or animals, only God establishes this covenant, only God is bound to it, and the sign of the covenant is not on earth but in the heavens – the rainbow.

We are used in modernity to seeing the rainbow as a benign if not actively beautiful symbol – a symbol of inclusion since all colours can be found in it. A symbol of comfort – in recent decades the idea of the “rainbow bridge” has taken root as a fantasy paradise for beloved pets to wait for their owners also to die and be reunited.  The rainbow is used to denote hope – particularly after a stormy and difficult time. The famous song from Wizard of Oz, “Somewhere over the rainbow” is seen by many as referring to the experience of Jews trapped by the Shoah – written by two Jewish immigrants to the USA it was published in 1939.

Earlier Jewish texts see the rainbow differently. The prophet Ezekiel, in Babylonian exile (6th Century BCE), had an ecstatic vision of God and compared the brightness of this vision to the appearance of a rainbow. (Ezekiel 1:28)  His vision led to the association of the rainbow with the divine glory, the immanence of God – that somehow the Shechinah dwelled within the rainbow. Because of this there is a tradition not to look at a rainbow for more than the glance necessary to say the blessing, not to tell others that a rainbow is in the sky. There is a belief that looking for too long at the rainbow will cause blindness (Chagigah 16a) because of God’s presence in it.

The rainbow in Jewish tradition is not unambiguously a happy sign. It is, as Rashi explains (9:14) a reminder of God’s anger, of God’s desire to destroy the world because of our behaviour in it. It is a sign more for God than for us – a reminder to God to control righteous anger, a sort of totem to hold on to for God to remember. And what is God remembering? Yes, the promise not to destroy the world through flood (though this is a particularly limited promise, nothing about fire/drought or pestilence), it is also God remembering that humanity is incapable of perfection, that God’s creation has a flaw within us that can never be erased – “the heart of humankind is evil from its youth” as the text puts it.

We have, as human beings, glossed the story of Noach and the rainbow covenant so that it has become unrecognisable. The story is told as a children’s story, every nursery has rainbows and toy figures or pictures of a charming colourful and unlikely ark with happy animals inside it. Many people still believe the idea that the rainbow contains 7 colours – seven, the symbol of perfection, a number with many different aspects – the seven Noachide Laws for example (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a),  seven sefirot of emotion in kabbalistic texts (the three others are of intellect), the seven days of the week, seven weeks between pesach and Shavuot, seventy years being a human lifespan. It just seems so right for the rainbow to have seven colours – yet even this is a gloss on reality. In fact there aren’t seven distinct bands, but multiple colours blending and shading into one another. The idea of seven comes from Isaac Newton in 1665. Until then it was accepted that there were 5 colours (Robert Boyle described them shortly before Newton – Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple), but because the number seven has a mystical meaning of perfection, Newton chose to define the rainbow as containing seven – adding the colour orange and splitting the colour purple into indigo and violet.

The story of Noach and of the Rainbow is a story that we have reworked away from its painful messages and instead made it as childlike and simplistic as possible, and the question for us is why has this story been so distorted in popular imagination?

The story begins with terrible violence and corruption, with a world that is not working, and a humanity barely worth saving. In just ten generations, creation has been traduced.

Then God creates an act of violence so terrible that creation is almost completely destroyed.

Then God realises that human beings are truly in the image of God – for where can we have got our destructive tendencies from if not from our divine creator? God sees that in creating humankind in the divine image God has created  complex and multivaried beings, they can be out of control, can make selfish and uncaring choices,  can exercise free will and choose to act against what is best for themselves or for others. God repents – though whether God repents for creating humanity or whether God repents for the flood caused in despair and anger is a moot point. God decides to let creation continue, and places in the sky a sign to remind God that this is the Creation God made.

The use of the rainbow as a sign of God responding to human beings is an extraordinary one. The text makes clear that this sign is a Keshet – the bow from a bow and arrow, an artefact for death and destruction, for hunting and for warfare. But this Keshet has two differences from the usual bow of an archer – it is pointed away from the earth so that any notional arrow would fly away into the heavens rather than damage the earth;  And it has no string – it has been “demilitarised”, an archer’s bow that cannot shoot, cannot cause any hurt. Nachmanides explains that orientation is like what happens when two nations who have been at war make overtures towards peace by pointing their bows away from each other. God is not only making peace after the violence of the flood, but commits to never acting so violently again while at the same time reminding us that this commitment comes from compassion towards us – that even though humanity has damaged the world God will show mercy towards us.

Far from being a cosy and comfortable image, the rainbow presents us with stunning clarity with the notion that an undeserving people yet has a compassionate God. The liturgical messages we have so recently spoken and heard in the Yamim Noraim have their roots in this story. We are deeply flawed, yet God is prepared to engage with us.

The blessing recited when we see a rainbow is an unusual one in that it has a triple phrasing – ““Blessed are You, Eternal, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to Your covenant, and keeps to Your promise.” – the only time we find this structure among the blessings we make  (though there is a slight resonance with the blessing the priests were instructed to say to the people, the nesiat kapayim).

Why this threefold structure? We speak of God who remembers, who is faithful, who keeps the divine promise – it feels rather like desperate supplication – “please God, don’t just remember when you see the rainbow, but remember this is a commitment you made to us, a promise not to destroy us, as we know you could and as we fear we deserve”

The rainbow acts as a sign, a bridge in the heavens between us and God, a reminder to us of the fragility of our existence and a reminder to God of the divine commitment to a flawed creation. It tells us we live in a precarious world, that we are vulnerable and weak, that life and death are intimately connected. It tells us that we live in a complicated world, where the binary structures of good or bad, right or wrong, are not enough, but instead we must engage with the messiness and complexity of overlapping layers of colour within the pure lights of the universe. It tells us that God limits Godself for us to continue to live in the world, and that we need to step up and act as God’s agents in continuing the work of creation.

As Lamech names Noach he reminds us both of the hard labour we are destined to undertake to survive in this world, and he reminds us that there is comfort and rest in this world too. We live always on spectrums of experiences – between hard labour and relaxation, between doubt and certainty, between safety and danger –  nothing is ever either/or. The rainbow is a perfect expression of that complexity we all have to negotiate, created as the rain falls and the sun shines. Life isn’t ever simple, but we are here and we are obliged to get on and make our lives the best we can.

As we start the new cycle of reading Torah, that is the lesson to take forward. Life is messy and complicated but here we are, and here is God, and together we will continue the work of creation.

La storia di Noach inizia là dove finisce la sidrà della scorsa settimana. La sua nascita è registrata in un elenco di padri e figli, che inizia con Adamo e suo figlio Seth e di cui Noach rappresenta la decima generazione. La sua nascita e il suo nome spiccano, ci viene detto che: “Quando Lamech aveva centottantadue anni generò un figlio. Gli mise nome Noach (Noè), dicendo: ‘Questi ci consolerà nell nostro lavoro e nel travaglio delle nostre mani che ci vengono dalla terra che il Signore ha maledetto’. Lamech dopo aver generato Noè visse cinquecentonovantacinque anni e generò figli e figlie. Visse complessivamente settecentosettantasette anni; poi morì. Noè all’età di cinquecento anni generò Scem, Cham e Jèfeth”. (5:28-32)

          Insolitamente, in questa genealogia ci viene fornita una ragione per il nome di Noach, cosa in precedenza era avvenuta solo in occasione della creazione di Adamo. E abbiamo anche i nomi di ciascuno dei suoi figli, a differenza delle generazioni precedenti di cui abbiamo solo il nome della persona nel legame generazionale.

          Solo Lamech parla del bisogno di conforto, e solo Lamech menziona la difficoltà della vita al di fuori dell’Eden, la maledizione portata dall’umanità che dovrà lavorare sodo per sopravvivere su una terra spietata.

          E ancora, nella lettura della scorsa settimana troviamo la strana storia di esseri non umani che interagiscono con l’umanità: “Quando gli uomini iniziarono a moltiplicarsi sulla faccia della terra ed erano nate loro delle figlie, i figli di Dio videro le figlie dell’uomo che erano belle e si presero delle mogli, fra tutte quelle che scelsero. Il Signore disse: ‘Il mio spirito non rimanga sempre perplesso nei riguardi dell’uomo considerando che è di carne; gli darò tempo centoventi anni’. I Nephilim (Giganti) erano sulla terra in quel tempo e, anche dopo che i figli di Dio si furono congiunti con le figlie dell’uomo, ne ebbero figli. Sono gli eroi dell’antichità, uomini famosi”. (6:1-4)

          Dieci generazioni dopo la creazione degli esseri umani, sembra che ci sia stata una sorta di crisi: l’incrocio dell’umanità con esseri divini o semi-divini. E questo avviene nella generazione di Noach, in seguito le cose peggiorano ulteriormente:

          “L’Eterno vide che la malvagità dell’uomo nella terra era grande, e che ogni creazione del pensiero dell’animo di lui era costantemente solo male. L’Eterno si pentì di aver fatto l’uomo sulla terra, e se ne addolorò in cuore. L’Eterno disse: ‘Distruggerò dalla faccia della terra l’uomo che ho creato; dall’uomo ai quadrupedi, ai rettili, agli uccelli del cielo, perché mi sono pentito di averli fatti.’ Ma Noè trovò grazia agli occhi dell’Eterno”. (6:5-8).

          Dio si pente della decisione di creare esseri umani. Il verbo usato, “vayenachem”, suona sospettosamente vicino al verbo che è alla radice del nome Noach: siamo stati spinti a vedere Noach come parte del piano di azione, o anche solo come oggetto della manifestazione della disperazione di Dio?

          Curiosamente, questo è il momento in cui la sidrà Bereshit termina. Attendiamo i prossimi versetti nella prossima lettura settimanale.

          La parashà Noach inizia in risonanza con la precedente sidrà, dando la genealogia di Noach e dei suoi tre figli. Ma ogni senso di continuità o stabilità scompare con le parole: “La terra era corrotta davanti a Dio, era piena di violenza. Dio vide che la terra era corrotta, che ogni creatura seguiva una via di corruzione sulla terra. Dio disse a Noach: ‘Ho decretato la fine di tutte le creature perché per esse la terra è piena di violenza; ed io le distruggerò con la terra stessa. – Fatti un’arca di legno di gopher… etc etc…” (11-14)

          Nelle dieci generazioni di trasmissione umana sulla terra, la terra è rovinata, riempita di violenza, corrotta, disgustosa. Agli occhi di Dio non c’è niente che valga la pena salvare. La creazione è fallita. C’è solo חָמָס – una radice che significa violenza, crudeltà, malizia, torto, oppressione e ingiustizia (appare sessanta volte nella Bibbia ebraica).

          Ora conosciamo tutti la storia di ciò che accadrà dopo. Noach non discute con Dio, non avverte i suoi vicini, nel nostro testo non parla affatto, si limita a fare il lavoro di costruire l’imbarcazione, raccogliere gli animali, guardare le inondazioni che provengono sia sopra che sotto la terra…. Il suo silenzio, per me, è una delle parti più difficili della storia.

          L’intero episodio si conclude con le inondazioni che si ritirano, Noach e la sua famiglia tornano sulla terraferma. Appena discende costruisce un altare e sacrifica a Dio alcuni degli animali permessi tratti in salvo. Dio fiuta il fumo del sacrificio e dice, secondo me, in modo piuttosto criptico:  “… Non maledirò più la terra a causa dell’uomo; poiché il pensiero dell’animo dell’uomo tende al male fin dalla fanciullezza; né più colpirò tutti i viventi, come ho fatto. Finché la terra sussisterà, non cesseranno semina e raccolto, freddo e caldo, estate e inverno, giorno e notte”. (8:21-22)

          Dio poi benedice Noach e la sua famiglia, dando loro la benedizione che fu data ai primi esseri umani: siate fecondi e moltiplicatevi e riempite la terra.

פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֖וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

          Successivamente Dio dice qualcosa che nei tempi contemporanei suona particolarmente e dolorosamente attuale “Tutte le bestie della terra e tutti volatili del cielo avranno spavento e paura di voi (u’mora’achem e chit’chem); con tutti gli animali che strisciano sulla terra e con tutti i pesci del mare sono dati in mano vostra. Ogni essere che è vivo vi servirà di cibo; come le verdure io vi do tutto”.

          Questo è il momento in cui il nutrirsi di animali sembra ricevere il permesso divino. Il momento in cui l’ebraismo si è lasciato alle spalle il vegetarianismo. Un commentatore (Don Yitzchak Abravanel 1437–1508) ha suggerito che Noach e la sua famiglia potrebbero aver avuto preoccupazioni sulla possibilità di essere invasi dagli animali selvatici, alcuni dei quali avrebbero potuto potenzialmente attaccarli e danneggiarli. Quindi Dio offre sia una “benedizione”, quella degli animali che temono gli esseri umani per tenere lontano da loro tale danno, sia il permesso di mangiare animali, dando effettivamente un grande potere agli esseri umani sugli animali. È una bella patinatura su quello che leggo come un verso agghiacciante: non ci sarà alcuna relazione condivisa possibile tra gli animali e gli esseri umani, gli animali che vivono su questo pianeta saranno alla mercé delle attività umane e, come stiamo vedendo oggi, le popolazioni animali saranno spazzate via quando il cambiamento climatico prenderà piede. Un recente rapporto del WWF (World Wildlife Fund) ci dice che “Le popolazioni mondiali di mammiferi selvatici, uccelli, anfibi, rettili e pesci sono diminuite in media di oltre due terzi dal 1970”

https://www.wwf. org.uk/our-reports/living-planet-report-2022

            Dio fa un patto con Noach e i suoi discendenti, e anche con ogni essere vivente sulla terra: che mai più Dio distruggerà la terra con il diluvio. Il patto è unilaterale: non vi è alcun obbligo assunto dall’umanità o dagli animali, solo Dio stabilisce questo patto, solo Dio è vincolato ad esso, e il segno del patto non è sulla terra ma nei cieli, l’arcobaleno.

            Nella modernità siamo abituati a vedere l’arcobaleno come un simbolo benigno, se non decisamente di bellezza, un simbolo di inclusione poiché in esso si possono trovare tutti i colori. Un simbolo di consolazione: negli ultimi decenni l’idea del “ponte arcobaleno” ha preso piede come un paradiso fantastico per gli amati animali domestici che aspettano che anche i loro proprietari muoiano e si riuniscano. L’arcobaleno è usato per denotare la speranza, in particolare dopo un periodo tempestoso e difficile. La famosa canzone del Mago di Oz, “Somewhere over the rainbow”, è vista da molti come un riferimento all’esperienza degli ebrei intrappolati dalla Shoà: scritta da due ebrei immigrati negli Stati Uniti, (Harold Arlen e E.Y. Harburg. N.d.T.) è stata pubblicata nel 1939.

            I primi testi ebraici vedono l’arcobaleno in modo diverso. Il profeta Ezechiele, nell’esilio babilonese (VI secolo a.E.v), ebbe una visione estatica di Dio e paragonò la luminosità di questa visione all’apparizione di un arcobaleno (Ezechiele 1:28). La sua visione portò all’associazione dell’arcobaleno con la gloria divina, con l’immanenza di Dio: in qualche modo la Shechinà dimorava all’interno dell’arcobaleno. Per questo c’è una tradizione di non guardare un arcobaleno per più del tempo necessario per dire la benedizione, di non dire agli altri che un arcobaleno è nel cielo. C’è la convinzione che guardare troppo a lungo l’arcobaleno causerà cecità (Chagigà 16a) a causa della presenza di Dio in esso.

            L’arcobaleno nella tradizione ebraica non è inequivocabilmente un segno felice. È, come spiega Rashi (9:14), un promemoria della rabbia di Dio, del desiderio di Dio di distruggere il mondo a causa del nostro comportamento in esso. È un segno più per Dio che per noi: un promemoria a Dio per controllare la giusta rabbia, una sorta di totem a cui aggrapparsi perché Dio lo ricordi. E cosa sta ricordando Dio? Sì, la promessa di non distruggere il mondo attraverso l’alluvione (sebbene questa sia una promessa particolarmente limitata, non si parla di fuoco, siccità o pestilenza), e Dio ricorda anche che l’umanità è incapace di perfezione, che la creazione di Dio ha un difetto dentro di noi che non può mai essere cancellato: “il cuore dell’umanità è malvagio fin dalla sua fanciullezza”, come dice il testo.

            Come esseri umani, abbiamo imbellito la storia di Noach e del patto dell’arcobaleno in modo da farla diventare irriconoscibile. La storia è raccontata come una favola per bambini, ogni scuola materna ha arcobaleni e figure giocattolo o immagini di un’affascinante arca colorata e improbabile con animali felici al suo interno. Molte persone credono ancora all’idea che l’arcobaleno contenga sette colori. Sette, il simbolo della perfezione, un numero con molti aspetti diversi: per esempio le sette Leggi Noachidi (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a), le sette Sefirot legate alle emozioni nei testi cabalistici (le altre tre sono di intelletto), i sette giorni della settimana, le sette settimane tra Pesach e Shavuot, i settanta anni di una vita umana. Sembra giusto che l’arcobaleno abbia sette colori, eppure anche questo è come una patina sulla realtà. Non ci sono sette bande distinte, ma più colori che si fondono e sfumano l’uno nell’altro. L’idea del sette viene da Isaac Newton nel 1665. Fino ad allora era accettato che esistessero 5 colori (Robert Boyle li descrisse poco prima di Newton: rosso, giallo, verde, blu, viola), ma poiché il numero sette ha un significato mistico di perfezione, Newton scelse di definire che l’arcobaleno ne contenesse sette, aggiungendo il colore arancione e suddividendo il colore viola in indaco e viola.

            La storia di Noach e dell’Arcobaleno è una storia che abbiamo rielaborato allontanandola dai suoi messaggi dolorosi e rendendola invece il più infantile e semplicistica possibile, e la domanda per noi è: perché questa storia è stata così distorta nell’immaginazione popolare?

            La storia inizia con una terribile violenza e corruzione, con un mondo che non funziona e un’umanità che a malapena vale la pena salvare. In sole dieci generazioni, la creazione è stata tradita.

            Allora Dio crea un atto di violenza così terribile che la creazione viene quasi completamente distrutta.

            Dio si rende conto che gli esseri umani sono veramente a immagine di Dio, perché da dove possiamo aver avuto le nostre tendenze distruttive se non dal nostro divino creatore? Dio vede che nel creare l’umanità a immagine divina Dio ha creato esseri complessi e variati: possono andare fuori controllo, possono fare scelte egoistiche e indifferenti, possono esercitare il libero arbitrio e scegliere di agire contro ciò che è meglio per se stessi o per gli altri. Dio si pente, anche se, che Dio si penta per aver creato l’umanità o se Dio si penta per il diluvio causato dalla disperazione e dalla rabbia è un punto controverso. Dio decide di lasciare che la creazione continui e pone nel cielo un segno per ricordare a Dio che questa è la Creazione che Dio ha fatto.

            L’uso dell’arcobaleno come segno di Dio che risponde agli esseri umani è straordinario. Il testo chiarisce che questo segno è un Keshet: un arco, parte del binomio arco e freccia, manufatti per la morte e la distruzione, per la caccia e per la guerra. Ma questo Keshet ha due differenze rispetto al solito arco di un arciere: è puntato lontano dalla terra in modo che qualsiasi freccia immaginaria voli via nei cieli piuttosto che danneggiare la terra; E non ha corda: è stato “smilitarizzato”, un arco da arciere che non può scagliare, non può causare alcun male. Nachmanide spiega che l’orientamento è come quello che si verifica quando due nazioni che sono state in guerra fanno aperture verso la pace puntando l’arco lontano l’una dall’altra. Dio non sta solo facendo la pace dopo la violenza del diluvio, ma si impegna a non agire mai più così violentemente, ricordandoci allo stesso tempo che questo impegno viene dalla compassione verso di noi, che anche se l’umanità ha danneggiato il mondo, Dio mostrerà misericordia verso di noi.

            Lungi dall’essere un’immagine accogliente e confortevole, l’arcobaleno ci presenta con straordinaria chiarezza l’idea che un popolo immeritevole ha ancora un Dio compassionevole. I messaggi liturgici che abbiamo pronunciato e ascoltato di recente durante gli Yamim Noraim, i giorni solenni, hanno le loro radici in questa storia. Siamo profondamente imperfetti, eppure Dio è pronto a impegnarsi con noi.

            La benedizione recitata quando vediamo un arcobaleno è insolita in quanto ha una triplice frase: “Benedetto sei tu, Eterno, Sovrano dell’universo, che ricordi il patto, sei fedele al tuo patto e mantieni la tua promessa.” E’ l’unica volta che troviamo questa struttura tra le benedizioni che facciamo (sebbene vi sia una leggera risonanza con la benedizione che i sacerdoti sono stati istruiti a dire al popolo, nesiat kapayim).

            Perché questa triplice struttura? Parliamo di Dio che ricorda, che è fedele, che mantiene la promessa divina, sembra quasi una supplica disperata: “ti prego Dio, non solo ricorda quando vedi l’arcobaleno, ma ricorda che questo è un impegno che hai preso con noi, una promessa di non distruggerci, come sappiamo che potresti e come temiamo di meritare”.

            L’arcobaleno funge da segno, un ponte nei cieli tra noi e Dio, un promemoria per noi della fragilità della nostra esistenza e un promemoria a Dio dell’impegno divino per una creazione imperfetta. Ci dice che viviamo in un mondo precario, che siamo vulnerabili e deboli, che la vita e la morte sono intimamente connesse. Ci dice che viviamo in un mondo complicato, in cui le strutture binarie di buono o cattivo, giusto o sbagliato, non sono sufficienti, ma dobbiamo invece confrontarci con il disordine e la complessità degli strati di colore sovrapposti all’interno delle luci pure dell’universo. Ci dice che Dio limita Dio stesso affinché noi continuiamo a vivere nel mondo e che dobbiamo fare un passo avanti e agire come agenti di Dio nel continuare l’opera della creazione.

            Quando Lamech nomina Noach, ricorda anche a noi il duro lavoro che siamo destinati a intraprendere per sopravvivere in questo mondo, e ricorda a noi che ci sono anche conforto e riposo in questo mondo. Viviamo sempre una gamma di esperienze:  spaziando tra duro lavoro e relax, tra dubbio e certezza, tra sicurezza e pericolo, niente è mai solo una cosa o l’altra. L’arcobaleno è un’espressione perfetta di quella complessità che tutti dobbiamo negoziare, creata quando la pioggia cade e il sole splende. La vita non è mai semplice, ma noi ci siamo e siamo obbligati ad andare avanti e rendere la nostra vita il meglio che possiamo.

            Così iniziamo il nuovo ciclo di lettura della Torà, questa è la lezione da portare avanti. La vita è disordinata e complicata ma eccoci qui, ed ecco Dio, e insieme continueremo l’opera della creazione.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Pesach to Shavuot – milestones and memories

The fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot contain a number of commemorations that range from the most ancient to the most modern of our people’s history.   Beginning with the birth of our nation and our peoplehood with the exodus from Egypt, the period ends with the birth of our covenant relationship with God as a people at Mount Sinai.

In between, the fifty days of the Omer are days of semi mourning for a reason we are never quite clear about. Some say it is in memory of the oppression of Jews under the Romans, and the failure of the revolts against them; Others that 24 thousand students of Rabbi Akiva died in that period of a plague.  One the thirty third day we have Lag B’Omer  – (Lamed Gimel = 33) which provided a brief change in fortunes for the beleaguered Jews of the time. 

Less than a week after the end of Pesach, when we commemorate the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites at the Red Sea on the seventh day of the festival, we remember a period when deliverance did not come.   The abortive uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, and all the murdered victims of the Holocaust are recalled on Yom ha Shoah ve’ha’Gevurah – the day for remembering the holocaust and the heroism.

 A week later, and more of our dead are remembered on Yom ha Zikaron – the day of memorial for those who gave their lives for the emerging State of Israel.  The day after that we mark Yom Ha’atzma’ut – Israel’s independence day, and this looks forward to the last week of the Omer period and its 44th day when Yom Yerushalayim commemorates the reunification of the city in the Six Day War.

So in fifty days we range over three thousand five hundred years of history.  We see victories and defeats, celebrations and mourning.  We observe Festivals that are at the core of our being as Jews, we see half festivals, not-really-festivals, and festivals in the making.  We see the dynamism and the forward thrust of Judaism which continues to create liturgy and ritual through which to express the most contemporary of events, and we look forward to messianic age promised in all our celebrations at this time But as we look forward, we also remember, are reminded, have memory of, recall, memorialise, commemorate, reminisce.   All these events have one thing in common, both past and future, the intertwined and symbiotic fate of the nation of Israel and people of Israel.

  We are all Israel, connected to each other, to our history, to our future and to our historic land. That connection and what happens to the land remains even today integral to what happens to the people.  We are a people, a tribe, links in a chain that never breaks.

The purpose of the exodus from Egypt was not simply freedom from slavery, it is freedom with a purpose – the purpose fulfilled at Shavuot, the unbreakable covenant we made with God, a covenant made for all generations, for those who were there at the time and those who were not there, for those born into the people and those who chose to join it.

The time between Pesach and Shavuot is a time that we count, a time we make count. We build up to the Sinaitic moment where God and people connect in a way never seen before nor since. We live and are nourished from that moment.

Shavuot is often overlooked, a festival without much ritual in the home, and all night study in the synagogue doesn’t appeal to everyone. But it marks a pivotal moment in our narrative and our formation.

Shavuot is celebrated this year (2022) on Saturday 4th in the evening till Sunday 5th in the evening (or Monday if you follow the diaspora tradition of a second day).

Find yourself a community of learners, a community of pray-ers and celebrate Shavuot, take yourself to Sinai and recommit to the eternal covenant. And then move forward into the rest of the Jewish year, away from Sinai and onto the journey that builds the people of Israel and binds us together as we go through the desert to the promised land.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15th Elul: Which God do you not believe in?

Elul 15 23rd August

A discussion among my colleagues – “What does one say when someone says to you “Rabbi, I don’t believe in God””

One answer – “I always ask them which God they don’t believe in”.

My teacher Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet used to bemoan the fact that so many Jews give up serious Jewish education at bar/bat mitzvah. They had, he used to say, a thirteen year old god. And as they grew and matured, their idea of God was frozen in time, adolescent and unbelievable.

Jews are the people of Israel – literally the ones who struggle with God. We are not required (despite the Maimonidean doctrine) to believe in God. Indeed earliest rabbinic Judaism was not so much interested in what people believed about divinity, but talked instead about shared narratives. Slightly later we have the extraordinary rabbinic midrash on the verse in Jeremiah (16:11) “They have forsaken Me and not kept my Torah”   – “If only they had forsaken Me but kept my Torah!” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 5-7th Century)

Rabbinic Judaism is far more interested in how people behave, in the keeping of mitzvot, in action rather than in belief.

Since the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai on the way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in their ancestral land, Jews are a people who are commanded – who are under a chiyyuv, and obligation – and whose live are traditionally framed by the observance of mitzvot.

Of course the idea of commandments does somewhere require there to be a commander, but while we may have an historic metzaveh in our texts, the doing of mitzvot is in and of itself integral to our religious life. So for example Rabbi David Polish wrote that “When a Jew performs one of the many life acts known as mitzvot to remind themselves of the moments of encounter, what was only episodic becomes epochal, what was only a moment in Jewish history becomes eternal in Jewish life”[i]  His examples of the lighting of shabbat candles or of sitting at a Pesach seder are some of the examples he gives of our connecting with Jews across the world and across time.  The meaning and purpose of mitzvah for him is in part a way of sharing history and experiences across Jewish people hood, something that strengthens us in the world, and that momentarily allows us to transcend the mundane into the spiritual. 

There are many rabbinic names and descriptors for God. There are ways of understanding God not as a noun but as a verb – we are not tied to a thirteen year old god, some kind of supernatural being to whom we have to speak in stilted and formalised language. My very favourite name for God is “haMakom” – literally “the place”. Not a geographical location but a space where things can happen.

Israel – Jews – are named for struggling with God. Struggling with the ideas, the ethical demands, the behaviours that are required of us to be in covenant with God. The struggle is ongoing. If you find it hard to believe in the God of your childhood, then it is up to you to search the texts and find God with whom you can have a dialogue.


[i] ” Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle, ed. Simeon J. Maslin [New York: CCAR Press, 1979]

Vayechi: He lived. What was the purpose of his life?

And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years. (Genesis 47:28)

The report of the death of Jacob has superficial resonance with that of Sarah in how his age is given, but the wealth of detail around the future he conjures in his deathbed blessings gives us a focus that is missing in the flat account of Sarah’s age and death.

We are told first that he has spent the last seventeen years in Egypt – well past the end of the great famine that brought him there. Bible makes no comment on this fact, but draws our attention to it. Seventeen is a number made up of two significant digits – 7 being the number of the perfected whole, 10 being the number of completeness. It seems as if it is saying that the era is entirely over, it is time for a new thing to happen.

And then we are given the totality of the years of Jacob’s lives – he is 147 years old.

He knows he is soon to die. He makes his preparations, both with Joseph alone and then with his whole family. And so we see the life of Jacob through the prism of his active shaping of the future– through the arrangements for his burial and through the blessings he bestows on each son.

Just as our attention is drawn to his years spent away from his homeland, he draws the attention of his sons – and of we readers of the text – to the land they must also understand to be their homeland.

First he makes Joseph swear that he will not bury his father in Egypt. He is repudiating the adopted land of his son with surprising vehemence – “don’t bury me in Egypt…carry my body out of Egypt and bury me in my ancestral place” (vv29, 30)

Then (48:3) he reminds Joseph that “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me there (with fruitfulness)…and gave this land to my descendants after me for an everlasting possession. He claims the boys -whom he acknowledges were born in Egypt  (48:5) – for himself, giving them the inheritance of the blessing from Luz, the blessing of being attached to the land of Canaan. Then a few verses later (v21) tells Joseph “Behold, I die; but God will be with you, and bring you back to the land of your ancestors.” Then he tells Joseph he will give him an extra portion of the land – Shechem Echad – a puzzling phrase that is variously translated as the city of Shechem, as a topographical feature (a shoulder or mountain ridge), or as simply an extra piece of land – but however one understands this phrase the attention is focussed on the Land of Canaan, the ancestral and promised land.

Jacobs’s total focus on the connection of his descendants to his ancestral land is unmissable. He is powerfully aware of his approaching death, and on the legacy he must ensure is embedded in the next generations of his family. We are no longer quite so fixed on who is to receive the covenantal blessing that Abraham and Sarah ensured went to their son Isaac, and that Rebecca went to such lengths to ensure it went to Jacob himself, deceiving Isaac in the process. Now the covenantal blessing is to go down to each of the sons – so Jacob is thinking further and with more practicality. He wants to pass on land and resources as well as covenant and commitment to God. These are inextricably linked at this point, but his focus is the land and how his descendants will relate to it.

When we think of our own lives, and what we want to pass on to our own descendants, Jacob’s dying activity is instructive. He strips away the unimportant, he faces each person and their reality unflinchingly, he builds on the characteristics of each son, and he gives them responsibility for the land which is both symbolic (the covenantal relationship with God) and real. Treat the land well and you will live in comfort and ease. Treat the land badly and such comfort and ease will not be yours, but instead hunger and rootlessness.

There are many things we want for our descendants. We want them to be ethical human beings. We want them to behave with kindness to others. We want them to live in comfort and ease, not afraid or homeless or having to live a transient anxious existence. We want them to have family of their own –be they families of choice (as Jacob chooses Ephraim and Manasseh) or of relationship. And we want them to live on a land that provides for their needs, that provides food, water and shelter, space to live, landscape to give pleasure – be it the spiritual uplift of mountains or sunsets or the physical enjoyment of walking or swimming in a clean and beautiful environment.

Ours is a generation that has had to learn again to understand the impact on the land of how we choose to live. And we have had to become clearer about our own responsibility for how the land has been abused on our watch. As we distanced ourselves from traditional ways of working the land, found ways to extract resources from the earth in greater amounts, resources we used as if they were limitless, we have created deserts, polluted seas, contaminated soil, tainted air, created huge waste tips and dug enormous pits for landfill – Humankind currently produces two billion tonnes of waste per year between 7.6 billion people. (Figure from sensoneo.com)…..

Slowly – too slowly – we are changing our waste management. Recycling, using less disposable plastics, composting etc. Slowly we are considering our impact on the environment, as people choose to find different ways to travel – or to travel less; as people choose to eat different foods, to plant consciously to enable wildlife habitats. But as we see the Amazonian rainforest disappearing and burning, as we see the Australian bush burning out of control and its wildlife decimated, as we see the effects of climate change in our own back gardens – we know we are too slow to recognise our relationship to the land, our responsibility for its wellbeing, which will impact ultimately on our own wellbeing and that of our descendants.

Jacob speaks to his children, transmitting his ethical will, and we are also forced to ask: what is the legacy and the land that we will pass on to our children and grandchildren? Do we want to pass on a world where the environment no longer supports living diversity? Do we want to hand over a world where natural resources are treated with arrogant disdain and not valued or maintained?

We do not want our children to be forced to migrate because of drought or famine, to be in a world where species are forced into competition for survival; where the air is so toxic that the very breath in their bodies could damage their wellbeing. Jacob’s focus on relationship with the land is a bellwether. We need to be alert to the relationship we have with our world, the impact of our own behaviour and choices. We need to be working so that our own legacy is global sustainability, a world that will be nurtured by our descendants and nurture them in its turn.

 

 

Ki Tavo:

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with two commandments which are connected to the land.  Bringing the First Fruits (known as Bikkurim) (1-11) and the Elimination of Tithes (Biur Ma’asrot) (v12-15).

As one would expect, both of these commandments require action – the first fruits of the ground are to be taken in a basket to God’s designated place, and handed over to the priest there. In the third year the owner of the property must give a proportion of the produce as a tithe that will go to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow.  So far so normal.  But the bible goes on to require speeches to be made while these two  commandments are to be carried out, and, unusually for Torah, it gives the actual texts to be said.  Biblical prayer is usually spontaneous, rising out of the immediate needs of the moment, and rarely recorded in any detail at all, yet here we have two separate declarations given verbatim, and the recital of these two passages have become counted in rabbinic tradition as positive commandments in their own right.

‘Mikkra Bikkurim’, the recital of the declaration of the first fruits, contains within it phrases that eventually were imported wholesale to become part of the Pesach Haggadah, going over the history of the exodus and the terrible painful situation that had preceded it, and personalising that history.  Vidui Ma’asrot, the Confession of Tithes, focuses on the completed observance of the mitzvah of giving tithes, but goes on to ask God ‘s help for the future. These two declarations begin with simple statements of action, but then move way beyond the actual observation of the commandments in the present moment to add meaning and weight.  They don’t stop with acknowledgement, but instead push the speaker and the hearer forward, beyond thanksgiving and into a place of deepened understanding.   Bikkurim takes the speaker into the past, the ancient ancestral past of a time when the land was not so settled and fruitful, of the time of Jewish suffering and slavery in Egypt, and of the redemption from that position.  It roots the speaker in history, and deliberately contrasts the situation of the speaker – their security in their own land, their economic and agricultural prosperity – with the insecurity, poverty and misery of the people in earlier times.

This then is followed by the Vidui Ma’asrot, which ends with the words “look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the land which you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey”

It is a prayer which notes the history – but only in terms of a passing nod to the ancestral promise that God would deliver to them a land fertile and prosperous. More than anything this is a petition for the future, a request for God to pay attention to the land and the people, a wish for a bright and untrammelled destiny.

Four mitzvot are contained in this section.  Two of them require the physical transference of the wealth of agricultural prosperity from their owner to others less economically secure – first the sacrifice of the first fruits of the ground, which is to be given to God via the priesthood of that time; secondly the giving of tithes to those who have no means of supporting themselves – the landless stranger, the ones who have no economic supporter to care for their produce, the Levites.  The food is to be shared out, no-one is to be hungry or uncared for in this system, and no one is to believe that they have absolute rights of ownership just because they are working this land at this time.

But the other two mitzvot are speeches, and they have become far more prominent in the text somehow than the actions to which they refer at the beginning.  The speeches provide a continuum of historical experience; they locate the actions of giving in a system of time and give meaning to the present in a religious dimension as well as a chronological one.  They provide a worship experience almost unprecedented in Torah. But they also provide a context and a philosophical understanding we can learn from today.

Taken together the two speeches trace time and interleave the lonely and painfilled vulnerability of the ‘arami oved avimy father was a wandering Aramean’ – into a world where God can be asked to look after, bless and care for Israel, both people and land.  Simultaneously wealth can be acknowledged and rejoiced over while the reminder of the fragility of any economic security is overtly stated.  A dialectic is set up between the history of Israel and the role of God.  It becomes clear that without full awareness of the history leading up to this moment there can be no understanding of the present, and certainly no awareness of what the future might hold.  Our history impacts upon us and informs our present.  Any awareness of future must be rooted in past as well as current experience.

At its most simple, the thanksgiving and joy for any prosperity of today can only be properly achieved when accompanied by an understanding of past sadness and pain; only by awareness of the depths of depression can one understand the heights of exaltation.  But there is much more to the two declarations than this.  They cry out for us to examine our lives and our history before beginning to draw conclusions about our present existence; to understand where we and others are rooted before making plans for the future.

We are approaching the last week of the month of Ellul, traditionally a time for examining our lives, for considering our situations and for trying to make changes for the better in our existence.  We cannot do this in a vacuum.  We have to take into account our history, all the experiences that have fed into who we are today, the sad as well as the happy, those that cause us pain as well as those of which we feel proud.  We have to accept the reality of what has been our own story, before we can begin to see where we might journey on towards. And like those who declared the Mikra Bikkurim and the Vidui Ma’asrot we have to see the place of other people in our story, and to look for the presence of God in it too, even if only to ask God to notice and pay some attention to our lives.

Looking at the texts of the two prayers, maybe we also have to be able to say that we have taken some action already, have recognised our responsibility to act in our world to make it a better place.  These prayers remind us that while we examine our lives, we must see ourselves as part of a whole greater than ourselves. What we do in the world out there has impact, how we behave towards others matters – and maybe most importantly how we see ourselves in relation to others – and them in relation to us – be it in an historical or a geographical perspective, in a theological or political or even a societal dimension, that is the essence of our understanding.  Our lives cannot be limited to here and now. Our existence cannot be so narrow as only to focus on those we know, or those we care about personally.  Judaism has always taught us to operate in the broader world and at this time, when we are liable to focus down into ourselves religiously we should remember the imperative built into the two declarations which begin the sidra of ki Tavo.

 

 

The paradox that is Pinchas plays out also in Jeremiah or: the murderous zealot in the cause of God while the despairing prophet gives us hope

There is no literary connection between the torah reading of Pinchas and the designated haftarah- the connection is instead calendrical as this week we begin the cycle of haftarot that will take us to Tisha b’Av, the blackest day of our calendar – and from there to Rosh Hashanah, the day of our judgment and the new year.

The three shabbatot before Tisha b’Av each have a traditional special haftarah reading that deals with the punishment that will befall the people who forget the God of the covenant. They are known as t’lat d’fur’anuta’ the “three of affliction” or of rebuke.  As we enter the first of the three, which signal not only the coming remembrance of the cataclysm that was Tisha b’Av, but also that we are on the run up now to Rosh Hashanah, we are provided with a good deal of food for thought as we must begin to measure ourselves and our lives, to try to comprehend the circumstances and environment  in which we are living.

The prophet Jeremiah lived at the end of the 7th century BCE. The Northern Kingdom had been destroyed and its inhabitants dispersed and lost. Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was in danger of the same fate. Jeremiah recognised this, and he offered both despair and hope in his prophecy. The religious and social conditions of the time were not good – idolatry was rife, and Josiah’s reforms were partial and weak, and did not survive long after Josiah’s death.  People were disconnected from the source of their religious traditions to the point where they even felt that the misfortunes of their country could have been caused by their not offering incense to other gods during the time of Josiah’s reforms. It is likely that there were even human sacrifices being offered at this time, justified as being a return to the true religion, a perversion of Judaism that appalled Jeremiah.

People were being stigmatized as being treacherous; they could not trust one another or build up strong relationships. Social injustice existed on all levels of society, and was barely even noted, so ordinary had it become to mistreat the poor in society. The world of Jeremiah is one we might recognise today, society breaking down, all kinds of fantasies floated as if they might be genuine, fake news and loss of trust in the leadership.

And what does Jeremiah talk about?  He talks about contract, about the covenant that the Jews have with God, about how there is a special obligation of loyalty upon Israel, and that even if Israel does not offer this loyalty, even if destruction follows, the curious truth is that the special relationship between God and the Jews, implied by the covenant, will not be broken. In all of the despair he shines an odd ray of hope.

It is a strange conception that we have an unbreakable contract of obligation to God.  It is almost impossible for us to imagine an agreement which, even if broken on both sides, remains binding. And yet it is at the heart of our history, it is our raison d’être and our aspiration. A Jew cannot repudiate the covenant for all time, even if we appear to despise it or ignore it. The obligation and the special relationship remain in place. I am  reminded of the perennial Jewish complaint to God- “We realise that we are the chosen people, but can’t you just go and choose someone else for a change”.  The answer, of course, is “even if I do, it doesn’t preclude Me from continuing to choose you!”

Reading Jeremiah is to know that we have an inescapable destiny.  The folkloric Yiddish form – that something is bashert, that something is meant to happen in the grand scheme of things – has probably helped the Jewish people to get through all manner of crises. Yet Jeremiah, for all his despair at what is going on around him, is paradoxically aware both of a kind of predestination and of the critical importance that free will will have in any outcome – he is prophesying about the impact of the individual’s choices.  He begins his prophecy in a way that shows he believed he had been called with by God:  “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.  Before you were born, I set you apart.  I have appointed you a prophet to the nations”

Jeremiah develops the twin concepts of predestination and free will.  He rails at the people precisely because he knows that their chosen behaviour is dangerous and wrong, but that they can choose to behave a different way and different outcomes will occur. Predestination is not the same as determinism.  As Mishnah Pirkei Avot comments: All may be foreseen, but freedom of choice is given”  or as Mishnah Berachot frames it “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven”: That is, whatever God may or may not perceive, it doesn’t have to mean that it will necessarily happen.  Unlike the covenant which binds us eternally however many times we may break it, we do have the power to escape what may seem to be our destiny – even a small change in behaviour can lead to a massive change in outcome.  It is in our hands to shape our lives.

Medieval philosophers understood this well. Maimonides comments that we enter the world with a variety of propensities and possibilities, but what use is made of them is our own doing.  Modern science has come to the same conclusion – we may be able to map out a whole variety of genes, but we still can’t guarantee our predictions about the bearers of those genes – even genetically identical twins can live completely different lives.

We read the 3 haftarot of rebuke and affliction every year in the 3 weeks before we commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples.  We can’t undo the history, but we can listen to the message – we know what is required of us, we know the likely outcome of our ignoring what God requires of us, we can change the future.

After Tisha b’Av our liturgical tradition decrees that there come 7 haftarot of consolation – more than double the words of warning and pain – a perfect number of weeks of grieving and moving on. From this Shabbat until Rosh Hashanah there are ten weeks of preparation, mirroring the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the work we do from this period will intensify in urgency and feeling.   The liturgical calendar is being carefully patterned and manipulated to encourage us on a religious journey towards new beginnings. The message is being hammered home – the covenant may be ignored or unfulfilled but it has not broken, we remain obliged to our relationship with God.  Our future is foreseen in all its possibilities but we remain in charge of what will actually be – we have the choice to behave well, and if we choose not to do so we are well aware of the consequences.  But even the consequences, dire as they may be, never rule out the possibility of change, of, to use a very old fashioned word – redemption.  From the reading of the first haftarah of affliction until Rosh Hashanah we have ten weeks – the clock is ticking and, as we read in Pirkei Avot, “the work is great and the Master of the House is waiting.”

 

Balak: the lies of leaders are a danger to us all; or “the tendency to fake news is all ours”

 

לֹ֣א אִ֥ישׁ אֵל֙ וִֽיכַזֵּ֔ב וּבֶן־אָדָ֖ם וְיִתְנֶחָ֑ם הַה֤וּא אָמַר֙ וְלֹ֣א יַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְדִבֶּ֖ר וְלֹ֥א יְקִימֶֽנָּה:

God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent [the agreement]: when God has said, will God not do it? Or when God has spoken, will God not make it good?

Balaam is speaking to Balak, explaining why he cannot perform the cursing of the people of Israel. He has tried, even though he knew from the outset that this was a professional job that was doomed to failure, but whether it was vanity or a belief he could change God’s mind, or simply the money was so good he thought it worth the shot – in this final exchange between Balak the King of Moab and the well-respected gentile prophet whose relationship with God is documented in bible, Balaam has to tell Balak that however many bulls are sacrificed on however many mountain tops, the cursing of the people of Israel is not going to happen. Indeed, after one final attempt following this exchange, Balaam will open his mouth and declare the words “Mah tovu ochalecha Ya’akov” – (how good are your tents” and the blessing of the Israelites that follow them.

It is a well-known story, beautifully crafted with humour and some mystery and growing tension, and a crowning blessing. But it is the phrase that Balaam tells Balak that stuck out for me this year – God is not a human being who would tell lies, not a human being who goes back on their word, but God speaks and it will happen, God says and it will be established.

Lo Ish El, vi’chazeiv – “God is not a man, a teller of lies. God is not Someone who says they will do something and then go back on their word”. And it struck me just how powerful these words are, when spoken to a political leader.  For by implication at least, Balaam is speaking truth to power and pointing out to Balak that he, the King of Moab, is someone who might lie, offering one thing and doing another.

We are living in a world where our leaders and those in power are doing just that too. Every news broadcast seems to bring yet another story of people who lied in order to manipulate a vote – famously at the referendum for Brexit when many were swayed by the words on a bus chartered by the official campaign to leave: “We send the EU £350 million a week let’s fund our NHS instead” because they understood it to mean that  a vote for Brexit would mean the money sent to the EU would be given to the NHS instead, only to be told later “let’s give” is not a promise, and any monies that MIGHT be given to the NHS would not have to even approximate £350 million. Chris Grayling said that the promised £350 million per week was ‘an aspiration’, not a promise, Nigel Farage also immediately backtracked saying it was “a mistake”. Iain Duncan Smith also backtracked, denying promising the money would be spent on the NHS, saying ‘It is not a promise broken, I never said that through the course of the election, what I said was we will be able to spend the lion’s share of that money’.

Lies are told about migrants – while we know that immigration brings with it the forces that will help an economy thrive, the narrative of the right wing politicians is of displacing native workers, using resources that were not created by them, both taking jobs AND claiming benefits etc. By whipping up fear of “the other”, politicians are able to displace the blame for previous poor decisions on funding hospitals and schools, investing in the future etc. and by such misdirection and distraction keep themselves in power and keep the populace obedient.

Lying is part of the political discourse – the famous saying by the 17th century diplomat and politician Sir Henry Wotton “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” has aged well. We know that many public servants have learned to cherry pick information to give to their leaders so as not to incur their fury, or ministers hiding difficult decisions by releasing them when people might easily miss them. Famously as the twin towers burned on September 11th, British politicians and their spokespersons thought it a good day to “bury bad news”

We can watch the White House press conferences open-mouthed in horror as obvious and easily checkable lies are promulgated as truths. Just yesterday, Trump announced to a rally “We love the countries of the European Union. But the European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States.”  Note that “of course”.  He was not challenged; suddenly it appears that the European Union, the project set up after the war to build relationships within Europe, was designed to be an enemy of America.

The examples go on and on sadly. Misinformation, Fake News, Lies, or as the British MP Alan Clark called it “Being economical with the actualite” (when giving evidence in a trial about what he had told Parliament about what was happening) – we are sadly used to those in power having little regard for honesty, truthfulness, or the integrity of doing what they say and saying what they do. While it is not in fact an essential prerequisite for holding power, it has become an ingrained habit in many. Balak too no doubt, whose name means “to lay waste”, whose fear of the Israelites, their large number and what they had done to the Amorites, first consults with the elders and then calls on Balaam to curse the people who are coming towards his land. He will not take no for an answer. He offers wealth and honours, and curiously “v’chol asher tomar elai, e’esse” whatever you say to me [to do] I will do  – something that Balaam will later throw back at him in his words about God quoted at the beginning of this piece.

What can we make of this? Balaam is telling Balak that God does not lead by lying to the people, by misinformation or going back on promises. On the one hand this is a statement of faith in the faithfulness of God – the people and God have a covenant, it is unbreakable and it will continue.

But it is also saying something about people – in particular but not exclusively about leaders. We are so used to being lied to, misinformed or not informed, promised things before an election that mysteriously vanish once the election has been held, told that information in “sensitive” or “confidential” and therefore must be kept from public view; we are becoming used to social media platforms churning out partial truths and television presenters allowing their interviewees to speak unchallenged and unexamined.

Yet the model for leadership is presented here by Balaam is a good one. Not to lie. Not to renege on an agreement.  To do what one has said one will do. To speak and to follow through about what was said.

Jewish tradition has always recognised that for some, leadership is an aspiration in order to enhance the self – to gain wealth or respect or status. It has also always recognised that leadership concentrated in the hands of too few is dangerous – hence the biblical model of the monarchy, the priesthood and the third office- prophet or judge or elder. None has all the power; there are checks and balances built into the system

The Talmud reminds us that “One who is appointed over a community becomes the servant of the community,” (Horayot 10b), the (12th century) tosafot on Mishnah Sanhedrin (7:2) comments “One who is wise, humble and fearful of sin may be made a community leader. There are many such statements in our texts.

Leadership is a position requiring less ego and more humility – look at Moses, leader par excellence, whose leadership alongside that of Aaron and Miriam was marked by doubt and by questioning. Leadership involves not only holding the vision of which direction to go, but building the consensus among the community in order to bring them with.

We have forgotten – or maybe simply let go of – the importance of the qualities of service to the community of those in a leadership role and allowed it to become inflated and self-important, laying waste to communities as it does so. We have too many “Balaks” in positions of power and we are allowing them to increase fake news and lies in the public discourse and destroy the communities so carefully and painstakingly built up over the years. Talmud Yerushalmi has a sobering reminder for us ““As the leader, so the generation; as the generation, so the leader.” (Talmud Yer. Arachin 17a)

 

 

 

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