Vayelech: the time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our choices is upon us. or: the bnei mitzvah of the people of Israel

Eight years ago one of my dearest friends was about to be seventy years old, and she decided to celebrate this momentous and biblical age by having her batmitzvah. I had tried to persuade her to do this for years and she had brushed me off; it is typical of her that she made her choice by herself on a date that had such resonance, and then throw herself into study and thinking for herself.  We talked a little about the date and the sidra, and then she chose to direct her own study and do her own research. Luckily she sent me a near final draft. I say luckily because she never read this drasha or celebrated that long awaited day, for with everything planned and organised and ready to go, she suffered a cataclysmic and sudden bereavement and the weekend was taken over instead with grief and shock and the arrangements to honour the dead.

We spoke a while afterwards about her celebrating her batmitzvah on a different date but we both knew that was not really going to happen. The anticipated joy would never be the same, the shadow of grief never quite left her, and she too would depart this world suddenly and unexpectedly and quite dramatically, leaving the rest of us a small flavour of the shock she had experienced on the day of her birthday batmitzvah, to grieve and to question, and to process the reality of what happens when a life is torn from the world without warning.

Checking my computer recently, and thinking also of her as I do at this time of year, I came across an email where she had sent me this draft of the drasha she was to give to the community she had been at the heart of for so many years. With the permission of her children, I want to share it here.

“Vayelech is the shortest parsha in the Torah. It is 30 verses long, and I don’t recall ever hearing it read. In non-leap years like this one it is linked with Nitzavim. When I read Nitzavim-Vayelech they held together. They are followed next week by Ha’azinu which, when I looked it up I discovered is one the 10 Shirot [songs] conceived or written as part of the Almighty’s pre-Creation preparations. The only one still to be written is the song we will sing when the Messiah comes. 

We are coming to the end of the Torah. This name, given to the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is better translated as Teaching. We are coming to the end of the month of Elul the month in which we begin to prepare for the approaching High Holy Days, and in the coming week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah which in turn is followed by the 10 days of penitence and Yom Kippur. Then in roughly a month’s time on Simchat Torah we will finish reading the Teaching, the end of Deuteronomy, and seamlessly begin Bereishit – Genesis – again. 

Vayelech must contain the most important rite of passage in the whole history of our planet. But we will come to that.  

Israel is camped in its tribal groups on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to cross. The preceding parsha, Nitzavim, tells of Moses addressing the whole of Israel, in preparation for entering the land God has promised them. He reminds them they are standing before God, and is clear that every person is included in this relationship.

 [my son] tells me I can tell one joke… a clear example of don’t do as I do, do as I say …but I have two, and we will come to the second soon. A very good friend sent me a card, writing in it “I saw this, and thought of you.” The cartoon was a line drawing of 2 dogs, the larger one saying: “I understand more commands than I obey.” I hope you agree with me, that this is arguable!

Moses and God know from experience that the Children of Israel will fail to follow God’s Teaching. 

Moses warns those listening to him that the consequences of disobedience will be that the land will become desolate, but mitigates this by prophesying they will make t’shuvah, return to the right way, and God will reconcile with them and bring them back.

 And he says something that has always troubled me:  that the commandment he is giving to them and so to us “is not beyond you, or too remote. Not in Heaven, or across the sea. It is very close to you… in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.”

 What I have never been sure of is what this is, what it is that is in my heart, and in my mouth?  Not the 10 Commandments – too many!    And not the 613 mitzvot buried in the text. And then the man who is not my chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said quite plainly on radio 4, no less, what it is, even quoting where I should find it. It is found in Genesis chapter 18, vv 17 – 19, where God is choosing Abraham because he deals with his household with Tzedakah and Mishpat:  two words which together give the meaning of justice tempered with mercy. This is how we hope God will deal with us on Yom Hakippurim.

 And finally Moses said that we have a choice, God has given us the choice of life and death – blessing and curse. We should choose to love God and walk in God’s path and keep God’s commandments. And just as the penalties for not doing so have been listed, the rewards of obeying are explained. 

What we have been told is that all Israel is equally bound by this covenant, regardless of social position or occupation. And that even if we disobey God’s Laws there can be future redemption.

Further, we know that obedience to God’s Laws is within our scope. 

And also that we are to have that freedom to choose that sets us apart from the animals.

 And then we come to today’s portion, .Vayelech “And he went” which is the beginning of the rite of passage for the Children of Israel.

 There is to be a change of “Top Management”. This is the day of Moses’s 120th birthday, and Moses has finally accepted that it is also his death day. It’s been hard for Moses to come to terms with his mortality, and he has behaved a little like a child trying to justify not going to bed, not just yet. There’s no time to discuss this today, try reading Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews. God has been forbearing with this servant with whom God has been in conversation for the last 40 years.

 In this time the generations born into slavery have died, and the people who are born into freedom have known no other Leader. Moses has taught them, settled disputes, referred knotty halachic problems directly to God, and brought back the answers. It is explained that God will go with them, and lead them across the Jordan. Further, that although Moses may not go, they will have Joshua.

 Moses has been frightened of dying, and the Almighty has shown him Aaron’s painless death. God is giving him the signal honour of dying on the anniversary of his birthday, and although Moses is not to be allowed to cross the Jordan God has taken him to look down upon the land.

 Moses is kept busy on this day – there are the tribes to address, and writing enough copies of the Teaching to give one to each tribe, and lodge one in the Ark of the Covenant. This is talked of as a witness against the people, but I suppose it’s the master copy, and proof of God’s promises and provisions. Moses writes The Scroll to the very end, until it is finished, which is taken to mean that it is prophetic, containing as it does an account of his death. Further, the Almighty gives him a message to deliver, and a song of 43 verses, one of the 10 Shirot, to teach to the people.

  How many people do you think there were, camped by the river? How many going into the Promised Land?

 Jacob went to Egypt with 72 souls in his household. A rabble of 600,000 freed slaves left Egypt – and these were the men of fighting age. Add their relatives – minimally a wife each, one child. – Not parents and siblings – this could cause doubtful accounting – a conservative estimate would be 1,800,000 people. No wonder manna was needed!

Nor was it just Jews who escaped Egypt, plenty of escapee opportunists would have taken the chance, and been the “strangers within your gates” who are to have equality under the covenant with Jacob’s descendants.

 The instruction was given for this to be read every seven years in the shemittah year. All Israel is commanded to gather at Succot in the place God has appointed (eventually the Temple in Jerusalem) and the King read to the people from the Scroll.

 And the chapter ends with the prediction that Israel with turn away from God, and that God’s reaction would be to turn God’s face away from them – but also with the promise that their descendants will not forget the words which will remain in their mouths.

 So what is happening?

 It seems that with the completion of the Torah and our entry into the Promised Land, our Creator considers we are grown up. We have the Torah; we have the record in it of discussions and decisions. We are aware that we can judge matters between human beings – but not matters between human beings and God. We cannot deal with these because it is not our business to govern or over-rule another’s conscience.

 God will not appoint another Moses – there is to be no dynastical continuity. No further theophanies. Israel has become a nation of priests with everyone having access to the Almighty and to God’s mercy.

 And when we begin Genesis all over again, we go back to Creation and the dysfunctional families of Adam and Noah. When we come to Abraham, look out for the Teaching and how it is built on chapter by chapter.

 And where’s the second joke? – listen to the translation.”

Sadly, we never heard the second joke. And the poignancy of some of the comments in the drasha make for difficult reading for those who knew her and knew her later story, though the mischief of her personality comes through this text for me, as does her clear and certain faith in God. This was a woman who, as administrator in the synagogue, would regularly leave open the door to the sanctuary in her office hours “because God likes to go for a walk”, but actually so that visitors would feel able to enter and sit and offer their prayers or order their thoughts. She would tidy up the siddurim and make sure they were properly shelved, saying that upside down books “gave God a headache”, to cover her need to honour God by keeping the synagogue neat. She spent hundreds of hours talking to the lonely, reassuring the frightened, supporting the vulnerable. She spent hundreds of hours creating the databases and systems to ensure that the synagogue ran as effectively as it could. And the roots of all this voluntary caring for the synagogue community was her own life’s struggles and her awareness that if God considers we are grown up now, with equal access to the Almighty and no “top management” to direct us, then we had better get on with it, with the work of creating and sustaining the world with tzedakah and mishpat, with righteousness and justice.

In this period of the Ten Days, as we reflect on the lives we are leading, the choices we are making, and the mortality that will come for us all, either with or without warning, I read her drasha as a modern ”unetaneh tokef”, and, as I was for so many years when I was her rabbi and she my congregant, I am grateful for the learning I had from her.

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017

 

 

 

 

Chukkat – how fear can curdle the humanity of societies; or: we won’t forget the heartless Edomites and our heartlessness won’t be forgotten either

It is Refugee Week, the week that takes place across the world around World Refugee Day on 20th June. And while we are horrified by the stories coming from the Mediterranean, with the Aquarius and her sister ships picking up frantic and vulnerable refugees floating on leaky and overcrowded boats in their attempts to seek safety and then desperately looking for a country who will offer them refuge, while we are shocked and appalled by the photos coming from the USA of traumatised and desperate children who have been separated from their parents and caged up in warehouses, while we watch people become dehumanised on our screens or in our newspapers, the bible quietly and insistently sends us a message. Tucked into the more dramatic events in parashat Chukkat come these seven verses:  And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: ‘Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the travail that has befallen us; how our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and our ancestors; and when we cried to the Eternal, God heard our voice, and sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt; and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of your border. Let us pass, I pray you, through your land; we will not pass through field or through vineyard, neither will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go along the king’s highway, we will not turn aside to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your border.’  And Edom said to him: ‘You shalt not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against you.’ And the children of Israel said to him: ‘We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of thy water, I and my cattle, then will I give the price thereof; let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt.’ And he said: ‘You shalt not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; wherefore Israel turned away from him (Numbers 20:14-21

A frightened people want to pass near the borders of Edom on their way from misery and torment in one country as they journey to find safety. And they are refused. They try to be diplomatic, they offer to pay for any damage or any resource used, they are desperate to come through this land to get to safety, but not only does Edom refuse to let them do so, they come out with an army to prevent them from coming anywhere near.

What are Edom so afraid of? Why do they chase this group away in such a hostile manner? In what way does it benefit them? In what way might they honestly be threatened?

Edom is understood to be the city of Esau – a close relative, the brother of Jacob. But there is no warmth to be found in this story. The people move to Mt Hor and back towards the sea of reeds, in order to travel around Edom but quickly find themselves in the same position with Sihon, the king of the Amorites.  The story is retold in Deuteronomy, when nearly forty years after the first attempt God reminds the people not to provoke Edom, who have been given this land by God, and this time they are allowed to go through.  But should we expect today’s refugees to wait for nearly forty years to find some peace, put down some roots, get on with their lives?

In today’s world we find that we are living in one of the largest forced displacement crises ever recorded. Over 65 million people are on the move, force to flee their homes and look for safety elsewhere.   Last year, 362,376 people arrived in Europe via sea. Just under half were women and children. About a million people from outside Europe claimed refugee status in the twelve months just gone.. But contrary to the narratives so many media offer, most refugees are actually taken in and cared for by poorer countries than those of Europe. The UN’s Refugee Agency estimates that nearly nine in ten of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries. Take a moment for that to sink in.  Ninety percent of the world’s refugees are taken care of by countries that can themselves barely afford to do so. And yet they do. And meanwhile the richer countries act like the Edomites and refuse even the polite and diplomatic requests to travel through, the offer to pay for resources, to desperate need to be safe – preferring to show force and to send the refugees away to try to find another way to safety

The name Edom is used as rabbinic code for Rome. Rome, the powerful and wealthy head of the huge and spreading Empire which did not care for the vulnerable or the stranger but only for its own status and power. Our tradition speaks of Edom with disdain, it is the model of behaviour that is unacceptable, it is the model we do not wish to be like. Bible reminds us repeatedly to care for the stranger, the vulnerable in society, the ones who have fallen to the bottom of the societal pile.  And yet here we are, watching an American administration quote biblical verses as ‘proof’ of the right to separate children from their parents and lock them up without comfort or care. The Independent Newspaper has reported that up to 2,000 children migrant children have been separated from their families in just six weeks in the USA. We are watching an Italian government minister try to take a census of the Roma community, in order to expel those who do not have Italian citizenship. We know that here in the UK there is still indefinite detention for people whose paperwork is not completely full and in order, we see a terrible rise in xenophobia and people being attacked in public spaces for being foreign. We have a Home Office who is proud of operating a “hostile environment”, and a Prime Minister who was the architect of the policy and remains proud of it, even as we see the how the Windrush Generation were treated with disdain and with no respect, as we hear the stories of families split apart, of people’s live shattered at the whim of some ill though out and  bureaucratic policy. As we mark refugee week, as we read Chukkat with its focus on death and purity, with its narratives of the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, with its record of the actions of Edom to the vulnerable migrants known as the children of Israel, we weep.

If we had to write a history of the world right now, if we had to write of the 65 million people fleeing violence or war in their own homes, of the talk of locking up people and indefinite detention for those without the right papers, if we had to record the stories of the people picked up on the Mediterranean Sea, in fear of drowning but prepared to take the risk as being less awful than staying put, if we had to record the fear of travelling communities, of people who have been uprooted from their homes – what would the people reading our history say? How would they look on an administration quoting Bible to justify their abuses of power to the most vulnerable? How would they look at a Europe which takes a tiny percentage of the mass of rootless and fearful people, and which squabbles over who is taking enough of the “burden”?

In Chukkat we read of the red heifer, the ashes of which will purify the impure and make impure the pure. It is a chok, a law without reason, done only on the grounds of faith. In refugee week 2018 as we read the parasha we see that there is no reason, only the belief that we must keep people out at all costs – even at the cost of their lives, as we increase the impurity in our world by denying the most vulnerable their dignity.

The antidote to causeless hatred is causeless love. We are a long way from it right now, but we can hope that the outrage will finally be enough to make the necessary changes, that the political will to care for people because they are people will be found, that refugees may soon find places to call home.

Parashat Chukkat reminds us that the world is a scary place, that resources are finite and that death will come to us all. But it reminds us too of the dignity of refugees, of the humanity of the people travelling to find safety, of their connection to us, and that history will record and we will be judged. May that be enough to bring change and rest for those who so sorely need it.

 

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Biblical Empathy at the exodus from Egypt

Bible tells of ten plagues that struck all Egyptian people in the battle between God and Pharaoh, culminating with “God smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon and all the firstborn of cattle….there was a great cry in Egypt for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” The Egyptians hurried the Israelites away, giving them everything they asked for – jewellery, animals, clothing, gold, because they said “We are all dead”.

One can only imagine the grief, the terror and anguish of the Egyptians on that night, the night that we celebrate as “leil shimurim – night of vigil”, now Seder Night. As we celebrate and remember the story of our liberation, we are also observing the anniversary of these deaths, and on Seventh Day Pesach we will recall the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers, drowned as the waters closed over them while they pursued the escaping Israelites.

The bible tells the stories unflinchingly, recording the screams of the people facing their dead at midnight, the fear and distress of the Egyptian forces caught on the seabed unable to flee as the waters roll back.  It tells of the real human cost of our freedom. And Jewish tradition picks up this theme so that our observance of Pesach not only tells the story of the Israelites gaining freedom, but also the story of grief and fear experienced by those cast as our enemies.

The book of Proverbs tells us “when your enemy falls, do not rejoice” and rabbinic tradition reminds us to lessen any  joy gained at the expense of others. So we recite only half-hallel for the last six days of Pesach, we take out drops of wine at our Seder while recounting the plagues, and  remind ourselves that freedom  comes at a cost that we must never forget.

 

written for and first published by London Jewish News “the bible says what?” column March 2018

Ha’azinu – what might we say and write when we confront our own mortality?

Moses knows he is going to die.  Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.

I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up.  What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.

It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely.   His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”

It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.

We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.

Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.

The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world.  Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.

Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone.  I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the  setting that is 1500 years after his own life.  It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b.  Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.

So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.

All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave.  I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.

Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me.  The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth.  Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.

Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them.  He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way.  The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.

There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational.  Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature.  Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed  in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.

As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned.  Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.

Chukkat: the fully lived life is not about length, but about limits or serious anger, serious consequences

The shadow of death hovers over parashat Chukkat.  It begins with the instructions for the ritual slaughter of the red heifer, and the cleansing rituals that those who had contact with a dead body must follow, and it records the deaths of both Miriam and of Aaron. It tells of the deaths by plague of those who rebelled against Moses’ leadership and it ends with two mighty battles.

One can read the whole Sidra as being about the coming to terms with mortality, and the limits of human existence.

At the centre of the Sidra is a powerful story which also deals with the limits of a human being. We hear of an incident which seems on the face of it quite minor, yet which has far reaching impact.  After the death of Miriam, the people complain about the lack of water, and God commands Moses to take Aaron’s  rod – the one which sprouted leaves and flowers when left overnight in the Mishkan – and with that miraculous sign in his hand, to order a rock to produce water in front of all the people waiting there.  Moses does indeed take the rod, but instead of using words, he strikes the rock. He seems to be at the end of his patience, angry and fed up with the people he is leading. Water gushes out at his action, but God informs him that because of his behaviour, he will not now enter the land he is leading the people towards.

It has been said about Moses that all of his sins – whether the impulsive murder of the Egyptian task master in his youth, the breaking of the stones containing the commandments, or the striking of the rock – show elements of anger and violence, of his unbridled self will and of his temporarily ignoring the real and present will of God.  A modern commentator (Rabbi Norman Hirsch) wrote that “the sin of Moses at Meribah is characteristic of the man, one of a series of sins, and serious. Why serious? Because civilization depends upon humility.  Without a sense of limits that flows from the awareness of a moral law and an ethical God, every brutality, every corruption, every atrocity becomes possible”

When people allow themselves to act without limitations, to let their anger overtake them, and to forget the reality of other people – their needs, their fears, their humanity – then atrocities not only become possible, they become inevitable. Once humility is overridden, and once people forget that God’s will is rooted in moral and ethical imperatives rather than in pride or land or material  success – then there are no boundaries, and our own characteristics and needs take over for good or for ill.

Moses fails ultimately in the job he has been set to do. His failure is in his unwillingness to control the righteous indignation he feels on behalf of God.  It shows itself in his need to demonstrate to others the rightness of his analysis.  His failure doesn’t lie in the feeling of anger as such, but in the way he uses it and allows it to use him.  In this story the demise we are witnessing isn’t to do with physical death, nor with a metaphysical response to the end of life – this time the fatality is Moses’ leadership and his ability to take the people into their next stage of the journey.  Because Moses shows that he is unable to change himself, his anger is ultimately stronger than him, and because he doesn’t seem to believe any more that he should rein his emotions in to prevent doing damage around himself, his leadership will come to a premature end.

Anger is not in and of itself a negative emotion.  Anger against an injustice can be a powerful propellant for change.  It can be a constructive force leading to a different way of being in the world.  Jewish tradition does not judge anger negatively, nor does it preach a tradition of humility for the sake of it.  If anything the two sentiments are simply different sides of the same coin, and either of them used to the exclusion of the other are likely to produce unfortunate events.  But anger that is allowed to dominate, anger that clouds the vision to such an extent that nothing else can be seen, is a very dangerous quality, and not even Moses could be allowed to indulge himself in it.

The thread that runs through the narrative here in Chukkat is that of the limits to a life.  Einstein wrote that “there is a certain satisfaction in the fact that natural limits are set to the life of an individual so that at its conclusion it may appear as a work of art”, and certainly in retrospect one can often discern a pattern that may not have been obvious during the living of the life – a pattern that suddenly shows a completeness not otherwise seen.  This is certainly the case both with Aaron and with Miriam, who leave nothing of importance undone by the time of their deaths. But for Moses this is sadly not true – he never deals fully with that all consuming rage and so it breaks out repeatedly in his life – one can even see traces of it in his resistance to dying and to passing on his authority to Joshua.  One lesson we learn is that length of life is not necessarily the same as fully lived life – in 120 years Moses is still unable to resolve his issues satisfactorily and even God becomes weary.   Moses limits his own life because he pays attention only to his own feelings and not to those of the people around him. It remains a flaw in his character to the end, and something that niggles us as we read torah to this day.  How come Moses wouldn’t – or couldn’t – overcome it? And if he couldn’t do it – what chance do we have with our own character flaws?

I suppose the answer lies in the continuation of the story. After Moses’ outburst God tells him that because of it he will not be leading the people into the Promised Land. At that point Moses would have been justified in giving it all up, but instead he seems to have picked himself up and found a way to continue leading the people to their destiny – even while knowing that he would not now share in it.

He shows that his vision can still be clear, that he can get over his attacks of despair or of rage and function as a proper leader, leaving his own needs to one side.

The story of Moses’ striking of the rock challenges us to look at our own characters, our own willingness to forgo humility in favour of some more selfish need, our own repeated patterns of behaviour.  It reminds us of the needs for limits – both those which emerge from a sense of an ethical God, and the boundaries around our own existence – both of which should contain any excesses we might otherwise consider.  The story reminds us too of the force that anger has that can mask any self awareness or awareness of the other, the way we can forget the humanity of the people around us – with tragic consequences should we go on to act on that ignorance.  And it reminds us of the power of keeping going, even when the future may seem dark and hopeless, for in that keeping going some redemption may come.

Chayei Sarah: confronting the reality of death, make preparations, do the work

death pic

Confronting the reality of death is always hard, and for Abraham this is no exception. The text that begins with the phrase “the life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty and seven years, these were the years of the life of Sarah, and Sarah died…” is the introduction to a protracted negotiation for her burial place.

In the twenty verses of the narrative, only three touch on Abraham’s emotional state “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke unto the children of Heth, saying: I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ In the story as first presented we see that he seems to quickly move from mourning and weeping to making the practical arrangements so that the body of his wife can be buried and removed from before him.

Sarah’s is the first documented burial in bible – up until now the narrative has dispassionately informed us of the death of individuals without much more detail. Yet clearly this burial he is arranging is not an unknown rite. The children of Heth recognise his need and open the negotiations with the offer that he may take his choice from their sepulchres, telling him that no one would withhold their own plot from him should he want to use it. So clearly there was already a well- established proactive structure in place of prepared graves by the time Sarah died, not surprising given the need to quickly dispose of the bodies of the dead. Yet our foundational family did not seem to have made this provision. Was it because as an immigrant family they had not got a sense of ‘owning’ the land they had come to? Or because they had not quite struck roots in the land of Canaan and were still travelling? It is odd that Sarah died in Hebron when Abraham was clearly in Be’er sheva. Were they living separately? The midrash tells of Sarah’s death being caused by her horror that her husband would be prepared to sacrifice their son so had she left Abraham in order to strike out alone? Was any previous plan to have a grave left behind in the tangle of confusion that this relationship trauma had caused, and Sarah’s new place of abode forced Abraham into making new arrangements?

It does seem odd that they had not made plans for their deaths. They were a long way from the graves of their ancestors, (and indeed Terach the father of Abraham had also died in Haran away from his homeland of Ur Chasdim) so they would have had to innovate in their new lives in the new country. Were they hoping for some guidance in the moment? Were they wondering if they would be staying in the land or moving onwards again? What was behind the need for Abraham to have to negotiate for a family plot while in the grief of immediate bereavement? If as a Jewish community we have learned one thing, we have learned of the importance of community support in times of death and bereavement. The chevra kadisha (holy fellowship) which is appointed by every Jewish community to care for the dead, goes back at least to the time of Rabbi Hamnuna (3rd Century CE). The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 27b) tells us This also said Rav Judah as reporting Rav: When a person dies in town, all the townspeople are forbidden from doing work. R. Hamnuna once came to Daru-matha, he heard the sound of the funerary-bugle [and] seeing some people carrying on their work, he said: Let the people be under the shammetha [ban]! Is there not a person dead in town? They told him that there was an Association (chevra kadisha) in the town. If so, said he to them, it is allowed you [to work].”

It provides a fascinating insight into the way the whole community was responsible for taking these practical arrangements from the mourners, and for arranging the dignified care and disposal of the body of the dead. This mitzvah took over from the need to work for everyone in town. There was a notifying sound when someone had died so that everyone would know of the death, and clearly in some places that R.Hamnuna knew, this sound was the prompt to everyone to down tools and go to help. Yet in Daru-matha they were even more organised, having deputed the responsibility to a group of skilled volunteers, much as we do to this day.

This leaves time for the mourner to use more than the 15 percent of time that Abraham was able to give in the narrative, to their grief. They can focus entirely on their loss, on the person they loved, on evaluating and processing and making sense of what has happened. And here Abraham has something very powerful to teach us.

We are told וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ:

Abraham came ‘lispod´ for Sarah and livkotah’

Lispod is the word we use for giving the hesped – for speaking of the dead and telling the story of their life, from where they had come and how the journey had been, assessing and evaluating the real life that was lived, rather than eulogising or praising the person- at least not paying fulsome tribute unrealistically or without the fuller context of the way they lived their life. ‘Hesped’ means to cause to cry – in other words to really understand who we have lost and so to really feel the cost and pain of the death. Only after Abraham has done this, comprehended the full meaning of the life of Sarah, and thus the full extent of his loss, does he cry/mourn.

Sometimes when people die we like only to say good things about them – even unrealistic and unbelievable good things, instead of focussing on who they were, on why they had the damage or the pain or the anger they carried, on how they did or did not deal with the hurts and disappointments every life brings. There is a tendency to quote another midrashic gloss taken from the names of three sidrot in the book of Leviticus – “Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor – After death speak holiness”. And this is a good maxim, but it is not the way of true mourning if we think the holiness /kedoshim means to tell ‘white lies’ or gloss over the reality of the complexity of every lived life.

To truly speak holiness of the dead is to recognise them in their full humanity. To see the flaws as well as the wonders, the spectrum of attributes they held and the way they allowed themselves to be. We need to see the fights they fought, the pain they felt, the love they gave, the achievements they realised, the relationships they worked on, the memories they embodied, the losses and the gains. Whatever the story behind the separation of Sarah and Abraham at her death and the lack of dignified burial space planned for earlier, Abraham teaches us something very powerful. See the person who died, give them their full rights as full human beings who lived fully human lives, and only then cry for yourself and for the loss of them. Confront the reality of them and their deaths, and go on to live your life in the light of that understanding.hevra kadisha(images from Czech republic: Hevra Kadisha building in Prague)