Lech Lecha – the story of a famine which displaces vulnerable people needs to be heard

When Abram and Sarai, his nephew Lot and the souls they had made in Haran travelled on God’s instruction to the Land of Canaan, they arrived and stopped at Shechem, where Abram built an altar and where God promised that land to his descendants. Abram journeyed on, via the mountain near Beit El, where he built another altar, and continued southwards travelling the length of the land of Israel until they exited the Land on its southern border with Egypt.

It reads rather as an anti-climax to that famous imperative in the first recorded encounter between God and Abram:

 וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ:

God said to Abram “Go for yourself from your land and your birthplace, and from the house of our father, to the land which I will show you”

No introduction, no explanation, no conversation – just a command to go elsewhere, the trust that the journey will have an end is implicit, God will show Abram the place when he gets there.

But it isn’t exactly what happens. Because there is famine in the land – very heavy famine.  Abram and Sarai will die if they stay there, so, prefiguring the Joseph narratives, they travel into Egypt for refuge.

Famine appears with grim frequency in bible. Each of the patriarchs will suffer serious famine – Abram goes to Egypt, Isaac goes to the Philistine King in Gerar rather than go to Egypt(Gen 26:1). Jacob and his sons go down into Egypt to buy food when the famine takes hold. The book of Ruth describes the famine that led Ruth and Elimelech to flee to Moab (Ruth 1:1). In David’s time there was a famine lasting three years (2Sam 21:1). The story of Elijah records the famine in the land (1Kings 17:1) and in Elisha fed the famine starved people of Gilgal (2Kings 4:38). Famines are also recorded in Jerusalem in the time of Tzedekiah (2Kings 25:3) (see also Jeremiah’s painful description of the drought 14:1-6) and in Canaan in the time of Nehemiah (Neh. 5:3)

The Land of Israel was dependent on the rainfall for its crops and trees, so drought and therefore famine were always to be feared. There was also fear of pests or diseases that would destroy the crops (Joel 1:4ff)and which we see most dramatically in the plague in Egypt just before the Hebrew slaves were able to leave.

War and sieges would also bring famines – again described in biblical texts with painful clarity. Famine, along with Pestilence and the sword (war) (Dever v’Herev v’Ra’av) appears regularly in a triumvirate in the Hebrew bible (cf. Jer. 14:12; 21:7, 9; 24:10; Ezek. 6:11,) and has entered the liturgy in both Avinu Malkeinu and in the Hashkiveinu prayer  (second blessing following shema)

הָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אוֹיֵב דֶבֶר וְחֶרֶב וְרָעָב וְיָגוֹן

 

Talmud also discusses the problems of famine. We read in Ta’anit 5a “Rav Nachman said to Rabbi Yitzḥak: What is the meaning of that which is written: “For the Eternal has called upon a famine and it shall also come upon the land seven years” (II Kings 8:1)? Specifically, in those seven years, what did they eat?

Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rabbi Nachman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said as follows: In the first year they ate that which was in their houses; in the second year they ate that which was in their fields; in the third year they ate the meat of their remaining kosher animals; in the fourth year they ate the meat of their remaining non-kosher animals; in the fifth year they ate the meat of repugnant creatures and creeping animals, i.e., any insects they found; in the sixth year they ate the flesh of their sons and their daughters; and in the seventh year they ate the flesh of their own arms, to fulfil that which is stated: “Each man shall eat the flesh of his own arm” (Isaiah 9:19).”

The starvation and breakdown of social norms that famine brought can be seen across the literature.  In the Talmud we read the pitiful story of one of the wealthiest women in Jerusalem, Marta bat Baitos who could not buy food with all her silver and gold, and who died after picking out the grain from the animal dung she stepped on (Gittin 56a;  Josephus mentions the eating of children in Jerusalem during the Roman War (Wars 6:201–13). There are at least three historical references to famine caused by the observance of the Sabbatical year, one during the siege of Jerusalem by the forces of Antiochus IV (Ant. 12:378), one in the war of Herod against Antigonus (Ant. 14:476) and one during Herod’s reign (Ant. 15:7).

Drought, with the rains withheld, has generally been theologised into punishment for transgressions, a tool wielded by God when we do not follow the rules that acknowledge God’s ownership of the land by bringing tithes both to thank God and to feed those who cannot grow food for themselves,  and when we fail in our our obligations to the Land to treat it well and allow it to rest.

Rabbinic responsa are also very sensitive to drought and famine, with a growing list of actions to pray for rain with special prayers added into the liturgy, fasting etc. So seriously did the rabbis take the realities of famine that they permitted emigration from the land of Israel in the case of famine, albeit only when survival would become extremely difficult(BB 91b; Gen. R. 25).

Rabba bar bar Ḥana says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: They taught that it is prohibited to leave Eretz Yisrael only if money is cheap, i.e., not excessively difficult to obtain, and produce is expensive, similar to the case in the baraita where two se’a of wheat are sold for a sela. But when money is expensive, i.e., it is difficult to earn money for sustenance, even if the price of four se’a of grain stood at a sela, one may leave Eretz Yisrael in order to survive.(BB91b)

Basing themselves on Genesis 41:50 the rabbis (Ta’anit 11a) also forbade procreation during the years of famine.

Our tradition knows about the difficulties of living and thriving in a world where the rains may not come, where crops may fail and people may starve. It understood that while famine may come as a result of war, it is more likely to be because we, the human stewards of the world, do not treat the world as it must be treated, and the consequences of this lack of care will come to haunt us.

Abram and Sarai left their home to reach the land God had promised, but having reached it they immediately became environment migrants. The land would not let them stay and thrive, they had to put themselves at greater risk and depend on a foreign power to survive.   This part of their story is not often emphasised – the great journey to the promised land is a far more palatable thread to take from this sidra, but the short verses that tell of the famine that would have killed them should they have stayed are maybe more instructive in these times of climate change happening across the globe as a direct result of human carelessness and greed.

Lech Lecha is the call to activism – Get up and go, make something happen! We Jews are called as our ur-ancestors were called. We should pay heed to the increasingly serious warnings our planet is giving us, and return to the work of stewarding, protecting and  supporting a healthy and diverse world.

 

 

Ekev: justice and mercy, individual and society, unity and interdependence from the Shema to the Days of Awe

Ask most Jews to explain the Shema and chances are they will think only of the first paragraph. They will speak of the Affirmation of the unity of God, the centrality of that belief to Judaism. Many Jewish commentators wax lyrical about the Shema as confession of faith through the ages. There are stories of those who die “al Kiddush HaShem”, prolonging the words of the Shema until they expire, leaving this world with the proclamation of their belief in the one God. Others speak of  the duty to love God that is spoken of in the prayer, the requirement to keep Gods commandments and to teach our children to do so. They remind us of the awareness of God that is to be present at all times and in everything we do – whatever we look towards, whatever our hands are busy with.

So central to Jewish theology is this prayer, that the early leaders of the Reform Movement made a deliberate policy to highlight it during the services, and hence many progressive congregations would stand whilst the first paragraph is being recited, and some even open the ark so as to further underline the point.

But the Shema itself is actually comprised of three paragraphs, and in our zeal to highlight the first we have cast the other two into shadow. We are aided and abetted in this by our own siddur which offers other passages for reading in silence as well as the full text of the shema.

It is not surprising that the reformers were less keen to proclaim the sentiments of the second paragraph, for whilst the first has an underlying principle of Loving God, this one had as its essence the principle of Fearing God.

Here we have the God of Righteous Retribution. The powerful God of Justice whose requirement and commandments must be fulfilled on pain of death. No room for negotiation here, only unswerving dedication and acceptance of the mitzvot will do. This time God is perceived as rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is no middle way and there is no way out. If you truly listen go God, love and obey completely, the rains will come at the right time and the land will be fertile and productive.

If however your heart strays to other gods, then there will be no rain, the land will not produce and disaster will come

The equation is simple and horribly clear. Obeying God means remaining in the land which is lush and fertile; disobeying means the likelihood of a horrible death from famine.  Jeremiah, describing one such drought wrote: “Judah is in mourning, her settlements languish. Men are bowed to the ground and the outcry of Jerusalem rises. Their nobles sent their servants for water; they came to the cisterns they found no water. They returned their vessels empty. They are shamed and humiliated, they cover their heads. Because of the ground there is dismay, for there has been no rain on the earth. The ploughmen are shamed they cover their heads. Even the hind in the field forsakes her new-born fawn because there is no grass. And the wild asses stand on the bare heights, snuffling the air like jackals. Their eyes pine because there is no herbage”( Jer 14:1-6)

Rain in its due season, life giving water, is a gift from God. God may choose to withhold it and so cause wholesale death as punishment. This is the theology of the fundamentalist  who blames the difficulties we experience as punishment for someone’s (usually someone else’s) sin . It is a perception of God that is both childlike and horrific, a god without mercy who dispenses reward and punishment with machine like efficiency and no extenuating circumstances to be taken into account.

Small wonder the Reform Movement had no desire to weight this paragraph with the same glory as its predecessor. Small wonder the MRJ siddur took to printing it out only once, and in other places laconically writes “during the silence the second and third paragraphs of the Shema may be read, or the following” and then gives us uplifting selections from Isaiah, Proverbs or the Holiness Code in Leviticus.

Traditionally the three paragraphs are printed in full whenever the Shema is to be read, and the rabbis of old had other way of dealing with this rather frightening aspect of the almighty. Prayers for rain in their due season are recited in services, the principle prayer being recited during Musaf on the last day of Sukkot and from then until Pesach the sentence “mashiv ha ruach umoreed ha geshem” is inserted into the Amidah (who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall). After Pesach another prayer for dew is recited and there are several other petitionary prayers recited at the appropriate times of the year.

The prayers for rain are amongst the earliest of all the liturgical texts and are clearly a response to the fear of divine threat that would withhold rain as punishment. If these prayers do not work, then the Mishnah lays down another response – that of fasting. The structures become greater the longer the period without rain, from people of merit fasting during daylight hours for three days to eventually the whole community fasting a total of thirteen days, with no washing, little business transacted and so on. The bible may describe certain punishment, but the rabbis modified it to take account of repentance.

Other responses take account of the fact that we do not often see the righteous rewarded nor the wicked punished in everyday life, though the development of the idea of an afterlife is later than the text here in Deuteronomy but once it appears in our philosophy, it means that punishment need not be tied into the agricultural year.

The book of Job was written as a response to the convention wisdom that all who are afflicted in life have in some way deserved it. Maimonides coped with this threat of divine retribution by writing that people should first serve God for a reward in order to learn to serve God without any motive – he took the view here (as with the sacrificial system) that ideal worship has to be learned and will not come without a process of weaning away from other forms. Hence this was a necessary stage in the history of the development of the relationship of the Jewish with God.

A more modern attempt to cope with this difficult second paragraph is to look at it in context with the first. In the first paragraph the underlying principle is love and the wording is in the singular – you will love God and do God’s commandments.  In the second paragraph the underlying principle is that of fear, and through the fear will come the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments – most of which cannot be done without other people.

The wording is in the plural precisely for that reason. One can fulfil the first paragraph alone, but for the second paragraph to be valid, other people are vital. The shema moves from the relationship of the individual with God to relationships within society. For these relationships to work there must be rules and sanctions, boundaries must be set in place for the security of all concerned. Love alone will not enable a society to function smoothly – courts of laws are needed to.

We are moving towards a time of the year when the image of God as Judge is becoming stronger. Soon we shall be entering the moth of Elul with its lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Nachmanides wrote that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgement. Either way both mercy and judgement are part of the unity of God, interdependent and of equal importance just as we see in the full shema.

There is a Midrash that before God made our world God first made and destroyed other worlds. Some were made only with justice but no one could survive. Some God made only with mercy and love but the inhabitants were anarchic and constantly destroyed each other. Finally God made a world with a blend of the two, an imperfect but pragmatic world that worked. And that was when God knew that it was good.