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.”

 

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.