Bo: We may not be at the end of days, but the locusts are swarming now.

And the Eternal said to Moses: ‘Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts that they may come up upon the land of Egypt, and eat every herb of the land, even all that the hail has left.’ And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Eternal brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all the night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts. And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the borders of Egypt; very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such.  For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left; and there remained not any green thing, either tree or herb of the field, through all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 10:12-15)

The eighth of the disasters to come upon the Egyptians was that of the swarms of locusts, completing the devastation of the crops begun by the hail.

I remember the locust cage in the biology lab at school. The bright lights keeping the box warm and the locusts absolutely quiet and still: and the sudden and quite terrifyingly loud jumping and swarming when I put my hand into the box to feed them. The banging and whirring and jumping made my heart pound, even though I knew they were safely contained and anyway would not bite or sting.

That memory stayed with me – I can still feel the sudden violence of the movements, hear the bodies crashing against their confinement and my heart rate echoing their rapid thumping.

Reading the story of the swarming locusts in parashat Bo I can return to that memory and its accompanying visceral anxiety in a heartbeat. And now another layer of understanding is added as I read the reports of the locusts swarming in East Africa. Just like those in the biblical text they are consuming every last bit of vegetation needed for the people and for the animals to survive.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) this is the worst swarming in Kenya for a biblical sounding 70 years. It estimated one swarm there to be around 2,400 square kilometres (about 930 square miles); it could contain up to 200 billion locusts, each of which consumes its own weight in food every day. They can move up to 150 kilometres (90 miles) in one day. If unchecked, the numbers could grow 500 times by June, spreading to Uganda and South Sudan, becoming a plague that will devastate crops and pasture in a region which is already one of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world.

These locusts are not a phenomenon designed to show the power of God against those who do not recognise it – they are a natural and obvious consequence of the extreme weather events suffered in Africa in the last few years – drought, wildfires, floods, landslides, extreme temperature, fog and storms.

According to data maintained by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels, Africa recorded 56 extreme weather events in 2019 and 45 extreme events in 2018. Nearly 16.6 million people were affected due to natural disasters in 29 African countries last year.

The locusts came this year after a year of extremes which included eight cyclones off East Africa, the most in a single year since 1976.  The cyclones themselves are linked to higher-than-usual temperature differences between the two sides of the Indian Ocean – something meteorologists refer to as the Indian Ocean Dipole (or the “Indian Niño”) warmer sea temperatures in the western Indian Ocean region, with the opposite in the east. This unusually strong positive dipole this year has meant higher-than-average rainfall and floods in eastern Africa and droughts in south-east Asia and Australia. We have seen the resulting overwhelming bush fires in Australia, but maybe the news of the heavy downpours devastating parts of East Africa has been less prominent. In the Horn of Africa there was up to 300% above average rainfall between October and mid-November, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.  The resultant floods and washing away of villages, soil and people, has also been horrific.

We have a Famine Early Warning Systems Network. We have a Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. We have a Food and Agriculture organisation which is part of the UN.  We know what the changes in climate and environment mean, not only for the people currently facing devastation, but for our interconnected and fragile earth. What it means for us all.

I never read the story of the plague of locusts with the same dispassion as that of the frogs. Frogs always seemed dear and sweet beings, who may be found in a cool cellar, or around a garden pond – they are generally seen as symbolising life or harmony, they are beneficial to the garden, they squat patiently in damp corners or sit on lily pads…

But the plague of locusts is fraught with all the visceral and atavistic responses to the harsh rattling of their wings, and the sudden jumping, flying, swarming – let alone the ability to consume their own weight in vegetation every day.

The bible tells us that the locusts would

וְכִסָּה֙ אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֔רֶץ וְלֹ֥א יוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ

“Cover the eye of the earth, and one would not be able to see the earth” (10:5)

The eye of the earth will be covered, and he will be unable to see or understand the land – this is the message Moses will give to Pharaoh before the locusts will come, followed by the deep tangible darkness and finally the death of the first born.

There is a connecting theme of darkness, of blindness, of inability to discern in these final three plagues. It is a theme that resonates for us today – even with all the monitoring and the early warning systems, we are unable – or rather we are unwilling – to discern what the earth is telling us.   We are unwilling to really understand and to see that the disasters unfolding in different parts of our world are connected to each other and to us. Like the Pharaoh we stubbornly continue along our path in the face of the increasingly terrible events, until forced to wake up and cede to reality. This is plague number 8, there are two more steps in the biblical narrative until the final and most horrific event of all. There is – just – time for our politicians to wake up and cede to the reality of environmental disasters as a consequence of the change in our climate.  Like Moses and Aaron, we must communicate loud and clear to the prevailing powers, if we are to avoid the final devastation.

The land we stand on is holy – turning, looking and paying attention….

L’italiano segue l’inglese

וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה הָיָ֥ה רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֛אן יִתְר֥וֹ חֹֽתְנ֖וֹ כֹּהֵ֣ן מִדְיָ֑ן וַיִּנְהַ֤ג אֶת־הַצֹּאן֙ אַחַ֣ר הַמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיָּבֹ֛א אֶל־הַ֥ר הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים חֹרֵֽבָה: וַ֠יֵּרָ֠א מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהוָֹ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל:  וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה מַדּ֖וּעַ לֹֽא־יִבְעַ֥ר הַסְּנֶֽה: וַיַּ֥רְא יְהוָֹ֖ה כִּ֣י סָ֣ר לִרְא֑וֹת וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, to Horeb. And the angel of the Eternal appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.  And Moses said: ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’   And when the Eternal saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: ‘Moses, Moses.’ And he said: ‘Here I am.’   (Exodus 3:1-4)

I cannot read this story this year without thinking of the fires burning without end, in California, Australia and the Amazon rainforests.

When Moses passed the bush that burned but was not consumed, he made the conscious choice to “turn aside and look at the great sight”, but more than that, he asked the question – how come this burns in such an extraordinary way?

There is at least one reading of this passage which asks why Moses? Why Moses, who had been born to Hebrew parents but brought up in the Egyptian palace; whose identity was fragile and dislocated and whose temper was hot, who had murdered in anger and then run away to the desert when discovered– why was Moses chosen for the role of leading the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and towards their promised ancestral land?  Why Moses? Why was the stutterer and outsider, belonging fully in neither Egyptian society nor Israelite community, the one to hear the words of God?

It is possible that many people passed that burning bush, and simply ignored it. It may be that God was waiting for someone to turn aside – that Moses wasn’t chosen per se, but his behaviour was unusual enough for him to become chosen. He paid attention.

How long does one watch a fire to notice that it is not consuming the material that is burning? If you have ever watched a bonfire you would know that it isn’t easy to watch a conflagration and see the clear diminishing of the contents. It takes quite some time to be obvious.

So Moses stopped his journey to turn and watch. He looked at what was presumably not an uncommon sight, and watched it for a long time. Moses was “chosen” because he was curious enough and open enough to stop his usual activity and to pay attention to what was happening.

We cannot be unaware of the devastation of the burning earth in different parts of the globe, caused in part by our own lifestyle choices. Yet we are passing by without looking, and allowing our policy makers to pass by too, ignoring what is happening – or worse denying it.

The burning forests and fields will not be ignored. Every year that passes as our world becomes warmer and more polluted, as the climate see-saws and changes, is a year that we are wasting if we want to act on the warnings.   Agriculture, factories, cars, power stations – are all contributing to the increasing temperature. The “greenhouse gasses” are increasing at an alarming rate – there is more C02 around in the atmosphere now than at any time in human history.

Moses heard the voice that told him what to do. We actually know what we have to do –we have no need of a supernatural voice.  As David Attenborough commented: “This is an urgent problem that has to be solved and, what’s more, we know how to do it – that’s the paradoxical thing, that we’re refusing to take steps that we know have to be taken.”

Moses was told to take off his shoes; the land he stood on was holy ground. All our ground is holy ground, all our earth is sacred. It is beyond time now to stop, to notice, to recognise what we are doing to our earth, and to take the steps to demand from the powerful governments and organisations that are refusing to act for our world to do so, and fast.

 

La terra su cui siamo è sacra, girati, osserva e presta attenzione

                Mosè pascolava il gregge di Ithrò, suo suocero, sacerdote di Midian e guidando le pecore di là del deserto arrivò al Monte del Signore, al Chorev. Un inviato del Signore gli apparve attraverso una fiamma di fuoco di mezzo ad un roveto e osservando si avvide che il roveto ardeva per il fuoco ma non si consumava. E Mosè disse fra sé: voglio avvicinarmi a vedere questo grande  fenomeno, come mai questo roveto non si consuma.’   Quando il Signore vide che egli si avvicinava per osservare il fenomeno, gridò dinnanzi a lui di mezzo al roveto: ‘Mosè, Mosè.’ Ed egli rispose: ‘Eccomi.’   (Esodo 3:1-4)

Quest’anno non posso leggere questa storia senza pensare ai fuochi che bruciano senza fine, in California, in Australia e nelle foreste pluviali amazzoniche.

Quando Mosè arrivò al roveto ardente che bruciava e non si consumava, fece la scelta consapevole di avvicinarsi e guardare il grande fenomeno ma, soprattutto, pose la domanda: come può esso bruciare in maniera così straordinaria?

C’è almeno una lettura di questo passaggio che chiede: perché Mosè? Perché Mosè, che era nato da genitori ebrei ma cresciuto nel palazzo egiziano, che aveva identità fragile e dislocata e temperamento caldo, che aveva ucciso con rabbia e poi era fuggito nel deserto quando venne scoperto, perché Mosè fu scelto per il ruolo di condurre gli schiavi ebrei fuori dall’Egitto e verso la loro ancestrale terra promessa? Perché Mosè? Perché un balbuziente e straniero, quello che  non apparteneva pienamente alla società egiziana né alla comunità israelita, era quello che ascoltava le parole di Dio?

È possibile che molte persone abbiano superato quel roveto ardente e lo abbiano semplicemente ignorato. Può darsi che Dio stesse aspettando qualcuno che si girasse, che Mosè non fosse stato scelto di per sé, ma che il suo comportamento fosse abbastanza insolito da essere scelto. Ha prestato attenzione.

Per quanto tempo si deve guardare un fuoco per notare che non sta consumando il materiale che sta bruciando? Se avete mai visto un falò, sapete che non è facile osservare una combustione e vedere la chiara diminuzione di ciò che sta bruciando. Ovviamente ci vuole un po’ di tempo.

Quindi Mosè fermò il suo viaggio per avvicinarsi e guardare. Guardò ciò che presumibilmente non era uno spettacolo insolito, e lo osservò a lungo. Mosè fu “scelto” perché era abbastanza curioso e abbastanza aperto da interrompere la sua solita attività e prestare attenzione a ciò che stava accadendo.

Non possiamo ignorare la devastazione della terra in fiamme in diverse parti del globo, causata in parte dalle nostre scelte di vita. Eppure stiamo passando senza guardare, e permettendo anche ai nostri responsabili politici di passare, ignorando ciò che sta accadendo, o peggio negandolo.

Le foreste e i campi in fiamme non saranno ignorati. Ogni anno che passa mentre il nostro mondo diventa più caldo e più inquinato, mentre il clima si fa altalenante e cambia, è un anno che stiamo sprecando se vogliamo agire in base agli avvertimenti. Agricoltura, fabbriche, automobili, centrali elettriche, tutto ciò sta contribuendo all’aumento della temperatura. I “gas serra” stanno aumentando a un ritmo allarmante, c’è più C02 nell’atmosfera ora che in qualsiasi momento della storia umana.

Mosè udì la voce che gli diceva cosa fare. In realtà sappiamo cosa dobbiamo fare: non abbiamo bisogno di una voce soprannaturale. Come ha commentato David Attenborough: “Questo è un problema urgente che deve essere risolto e, per di più, sappiamo come farlo; questa è la cosa paradossale, che ci stiamo rifiutando di prendere misure che sappiamo devono essere prese”.

A Mosè fu detto di togliersi le scarpe; la terra su cui si trovava era terra santa. Tutta la nostra terra è terra santa, tutta la nostra terra è sacra. È ormai il tempo di fermarsi, notare, riconoscere ciò che stiamo facendo sulla nostra terra e fare i passi per chiedere ai governi potenti e alle organizzazioni che si rifiutano di agire per il nostro mondo, di farlo e velocemente.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

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.

 

 

Vayeshev:a reminder that we cannot occupy the same space as previous generations,we create the world anew.

L’italiano segue l’inglese

Rabbi Yocḥanan says: Everywhere that it is stated: And he dwelt, [וישב] it is nothing other than an expression of pain, of an impending calamity, as it is stated: “And Israel dwelt in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25:1). It is stated: “And Jacob dwelt in the land where his father had sojourned in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1), and it is stated thereafter: “And Joseph brought evil report of them to his father” (Genesis 37:2), which led to the sale of Joseph. And it is stated: “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen” (Genesis 47:27), and it is stated thereafter: “And the time drew near that Israel was to die” (Genesis 47:29). It is stated: “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree” (I Kings 5:5), and it is stated thereafter: “And the Eternal raised up an adversary to Solomon, Hadad the Edomite; he was of the king’s seed in Edom” (I Kings 11:14). (Sanhedrin 106a)

Rabbi Yochanan bar Nafcha, was a great aggadist and also a leading Talmudic scholar. His words should be taken seriously. Essentially his comment is that whenever someone settles down too comfortably on the land, it is the prelude to uncomfortable – or worse – happenings.  The verse that names this sidra reads “And Jacob dwelt [וישב]  in the land where his father had stayed, in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1)

What is the tragedy that is being signalled?

Rashi comments at length on this verse and links it with the next verse which reads rather abruptly “These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph being seventeen years old……” Rashi observes: “Another comment on this verse is: וישב AND HE ABODE — Jacob wished to live at ease, but this trouble in connection with Joseph suddenly came upon him. When the righteous wish to live at ease, the Holy one, blessed be He), says to them: “Are not the righteous satisfied with what is stored up for them in the world to come that they wish to live at ease in this world too! (Genesis Rabbah 84:3)

We find ourselves in this text rather uncomfortably sandwiched between Jacob’s father who lived in Canaan, and his son, Joseph who is about to be sold into slavery in Egypt, and who will never return to the land as a living man, but whose bones will be brought back after the exodus.

The tragedy is Jacob’s. His older sons do not like the two sons of Rachel, who has died giving birth to Benjamin. The sibling hatred will play out and change the lives of many. But I think if we are to follow Rabbi Yochanan closely, we will see that the tragedy that unfolds is less to do with the sons of Jacob repeating and intensifying the sibling rivalry between him Jacob and his twin brother Esau, and more to do with Jacob’s repeating his own father Isaac’s actions.

Jacob settles not just in the Land of Canaan, he settles “b’eretz migurei aviv” – in the land where his father had been a visiting stranger. The phrase is apparently extraneous – once we know he is in Canaan we have the information we need, so this rather odd extra must be able to tell us something. And of course, it does.

Jacob is repeating the actions of his father Isaac – at least in part. Isaac had moved to the Philistine city of Gerar during famine and had deceived the king Abimelech saying his wife was his sister – as his father had done. He went to dig and reclaim the wells his father had dug, but was chased away each time and ended up in Beersheva having finally dug a well he could keep – which he called Rechovot (Genesis 26:23ff) and then in Beersheva he met God, accepted the Covenant in his own right, and pitched his tent and dug a well there. It took him a while, but he eventually stopped replaying his father’s life and created his own space and used his own agency.

Jacob however encamped where his father had camped. It seems he was looking for a quiet life without actually doing the work to enable it. And in his doing so, his unquestioning repeating of his father’s actions without making the necessary changes to either make the space his own, or to bring up to date his relationship with the land, he precipitates the tragedy.

What do we learn from this? It is that we cannot live the same life as our parents; we cannot simply step into their shoes and claim their experience. The world moves on and we must move on with it. We may inherit artefacts from them – even houses or land – but we cannot just use them or live in them without change. For that way brings stagnation and ultimately our lives would narrow and dry up. As LP Hartley wisely wrote “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”

The joy of the Jewish tradition is not that we do things exactly as our forebears did – we innovate, we decorate, we edit, we create a new thing from the old. (see Isaiah 43) If we really did things in exactly the same way, we would not be living Judaism, we would be living in a museum.

The same is true of Jacob here in sidra vayeshev. He is encamped on the land as if he is his father. But land changes, its needs are dynamic; one cannot treat it the same way year in and year out.

Rashi quotes Genesis Rabbah on this verse and it is an uncomfortable – or rather it is a challenging read. “Are not the righteous satisfied with what is stored up for them in the world to come that they wish to live at ease in this world too! (Genesis Rabbah 84:3)

We are not to expect to live an easy life in this world – not that we need expect difficulty, but we must expect to work at it, to be challenged by our surroundings, however familiar they are to us. We cannot sit back and just do what our forebears did, we live in a different world, and our children will live in a different one again. It is up to us to live in our world, to face modernity in our time, to deal with the realities of now. If we just try to conserve or preserve the past our existence will be futile and pointless. We have to use the past as our guide, but not allow it to bind us too tightly, because our reality is not the reality of our forebears.

This is true also in how we live in and treat our world. For many years the sea became a dumping ground, taking pollution away from our awareness – only now are we truly seeing the effects of those years. For many years oil and petroleum based products were freely created and wasted. It seemed to earlier generations that the resources of the earth were infinite – we now know they are finite. For many years we were happy to pump emissions into the air and assumed they dispersed and became safe – we now know differently…..

We live not in the more innocent world of the past, but in a world where we can measure the pollution and the climate change, where we see the floods and the droughts, the famines and the devastations, and where we can see our part in their creation.

We live in our time, but we keep an eye for the next generations, just as the second verse of this chapter reminds us Jacob did. What will we do to enable the next generations to have a cleaner, safer world? Or will we also encamp on the land that does not truly belong to us, and use it without real responsibility, until tragedy becomes inevitable?

 

Vayeshev: ricordiamoci che non possiamo occupare lo stesso spazio delle generazioni precedenti, ma possiamo creare di nuovo il mondo.

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild, il 17 dicembre 2019

 

 

            Il rabbino Yochanan dice: Ovunque sia affermato: E dimorava, [וישב] non è altro che un’espressione di dolore, di una calamità incombente, come si afferma: “E Israele dimorò a Shittim, e il popolo cominciò a  fornicare con le figlie di Moav ”(Numeri 25: 1). Si dice: “E Giacobbe si stabilì nella terra in cui suo padre aveva soggiornato, nella terra di Canaan” (Genesi 37: 1), e in seguito si affermò: “E Giuseppe portò loro del male a suo padre” (Genesi 37 : 2), che ha portato alla vendita di Giuseppe. E si afferma: “E Israele dimorò nella terra d’Egitto nel paese di Goshen” (Genesi 47:27), e in seguito si afferma: “E fu vicino per Israele il giorno della morte” (Genesi 47:29 ). Si dice: “E Giuda e Israele dimorarono sani e salvi, ogni uomo sotto la sua vite e sotto il suo fico” (I Re 5: 5), e in seguito si afferma: “E l’Eterno fece levare un avversario contro Salomone, Hadad l’idumeo; che era della stirpe reale di Edom” (I Re 11:14). (Sanhedrin 106a)

 

Il rabbino Yochanan bar Nafcha era un grande aggadista, nonché un importante studioso talmudico. Le sue parole dovrebbero essere prese sul serio. In sostanza, egli nota nel suo commento come ogni volta che qualcuno si stabilisce troppo comodamente sulla terra, è il preludio a eventi scomodi, o peggio. Il verso che da il nome a questa sidrà recita: “E Giacobbe dimorò [וישב] nella terra in cui era stato suo padre, nella terra di Canaan”. (Genesi 37: 1)

 

Qual è la tragedia che viene segnalata?

 

Rashi commenta a lungo su questo versetto e lo collega al versetto successivo, che recita in modo piuttosto brusco: “Queste sono le generazioni di Giacobbe, Giuseppe che ha diciassette anni …”, egli osserva: “Un altro commento su questo versetto è: וישב E DIMORÒ: Giacobbe desiderava vivere a proprio agio, ma improvvisamente  ebbe questo problema collegato a Giuseppe. Quando il giusto desidera vivere a proprio agio, il Santo, (benedetto sia Lui), gli dice: ‘I giusti non sono soddisfatti di ciò che è conservato per loro nel mondo a venire, che desiderano vivere a proprio agio pure in questo mondo!’” (Genesi Rabbà 84: 3)

 

Ci troviamo, in questo testo piuttosto scomodo, tra il padre di Giacobbe che viveva a Canaan e suo figlio Giuseppe, che sta per essere venduto come schiavo in Egitto e che non tornerà mai più da vivo nella terra, ma le cui spoglie saranno riportate dopo l’esodo.

 

La tragedia è di Giacobbe. Ai suoi figli più grandi non piacciono i due figli di Rachele, che è morta dando alla luce Beniamino. L’odio tra fratelli si svilupperà e cambierà la vita di molti. Ma penso che, seguendo da vicino il rabbino Yochanan, vedremo che la tragedia in divenire riguarda meno i figli di Giacobbe, che ripetono e intensificano la rivalità fraterna tra lui e il fratello gemello Esaù, e ha più a che fare con lui stesso e la sua ripetizione delle azioni del padre Isacco.

 

Non solo Giacobbe si stabilisce nella Terra di Canaan, ma si stabilisce “b’eretz migurei aviv“, nella terra in cui suo padre era stato straniero in visita. Apparentemente la frase non è rilevante, una volta che sappiamo che egli è a Canaan abbiamo le informazioni di cui abbiamo bisogno, questa aggiunta piuttosto strana deve quindi servire a dirci qualcosa. E ovviamente così è.

 

Giacobbe sta ripetendo le azioni di suo padre Isacco, almeno in parte. Isacco si era trasferito nella città filistea di Gerar durante la carestia e aveva ingannato il re Abimelech presentando sua moglie come propria sorella, così come aveva già fatto suo padre. Era andato a scavare e recuperare i pozzi che già suo padre aveva scavato, ma ogni volta ne fu cacciato e, dopo aver scavato finalmente un pozzo che poteva tenere, che chiamò Rechovot, finì poi a Beersheva (Genesi 26: 23ff). A Beersheva successivamente incontrò Dio, accettò l’Alleanza a pieno titolo,  piantò la sua tenda e scavò un altro pozzo. Gli ci volle un po’, ma alla fine smise di ripetere la vita di suo padre, creando il proprio spazio e il proprio agire.

 

Giacobbe, tuttavia, si accampò dove si era accampato suo padre. Sembra che stesse cercando una vita tranquilla senza realmente operare per potersela consentire. E nel fare ciò, nel ripetere automaticamente le azioni di suo padre senza apportarvi le modifiche necessarie per personalizzare lo spazio o per aggiornare il proprio rapporto con la terra, fa accelerare la tragedia.

 

Cosa impariamo da questo? Che non possiamo vivere la stessa vita dei nostri genitori; non possiamo semplicemente metterci nei loro panni e rivendicare la loro esperienza. Il mondo va avanti e dobbiamo procedere con esso. Potremmo ereditare da loro dei manufatti, persino delle case o dei terreni, ma non possiamo usarli o viverci senza apportarvi dei cambiamenti. Perché altrimenti ci sarebbe stagnazione e, alla fine, la nostra vita si restringerebbe e si prosciugherebbe. Come scrisse saggiamente L.P. Hartley: “Il passato è una terra straniera, lì fanno le cose diversamente”.

 

La gioia della tradizione ebraica non è fare le cose esattamente come le facevano i nostri antenati: innoviamo, abbelliamo, modifichiamo, creiamo una cosa nuova dalla vecchia (vedi Isaia 43). Se facessimo davvero le cose esattamente allo stesso modo, non vivremmo l’ebraismo, vivremmo in un museo.

 

Lo stesso vale per Giacobbe, qui nella Sidrà Vayeshev. È accampato sulla terra come se fosse suo padre. Ma la terra nel suo cambiare presenta bisogni dinamici: non la si può trattare allo stesso modo anno dopo anno.

 

Rashi cita Genesi Rabbà su questo versetto, ed è scomodo, o meglio, presenta una lettura stimolante: “I giusti non sono soddisfatti di ciò che è in serbo per loro nel mondo a venire, che desiderano vivere a proprio agio anche in questo mondo!” (Genesi Rabbà 84: 3)

 

Non dobbiamo aspettarci di vivere una vita facile in questo mondo, non che dobbiamo aspettarci difficoltà, ma dobbiamo aspettarci di lavorare, di essere sfidati da ciò che ci circonda, per quanto familiare sia. Non possiamo sederci e fare semplicemente ciò che i nostri antenati hanno già fatto, viviamo in un mondo diverso e i nostri figli a loro volta vivranno in un mondo diverso ancora. Sta a noi vivere nel nostro mondo, affrontare la modernità dei nostri tempi, affrontare le realtà di oggi. Se proviamo semplicemente a conservare o preservare il passato, la nostra esistenza sarà vana e inutile. Dobbiamo usare il passato come nostra guida, ma non permettere che esso ci leghi troppo strettamente, perché la nostra realtà non è la realtà dei nostri antenati.

 

Questo vale anche per il modo in cui viviamo e per come trattiamo il nostro mondo. Tenendo lontano per molti anni l’inquinamento dalla nostra consapevolezza il mare è diventato una discarica e solo ora stiamo ne stiamo davvero vedendo gli effetti. Per molti anni i prodotti a base di petrolio sono stati creati e sprecati liberamente. Alle generazioni precedenti sembrava che le risorse della terra fossero infinite: ora sappiamo che sono limitate. Per molti anni siamo stati felici di liberare emissioni nell’aria e abbiamo pensato che si disperdessero e diventassero innocue, ora sappiamo che è diverso …

 

Non viviamo più nel mondo innocente del passato, bensì in un mondo in cui possiamo misurare l’inquinamento e i cambiamenti climatici, dove vediamo inondazioni e siccità, carestie e devastazioni, e dove possiamo riconoscere la nostra responsabilità nell’averli prodotti.

 

Viviamo nel nostro tempo, ma teniamo gli occhi aperti per le generazioni future, proprio come fece Giacobbe, come il secondo verso di questo capitolo ci ricorda. Faremo qualcosa per consentire alle prossime generazioni di avere un mondo più pulito e sicuro? O ci accamperemo sulla terra che non ci appartiene veramente e la useremo senza una reale responsabilità, fino a quando la tragedia diventerà inevitabile?

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

Vayishlach – the death of Deborah whose wisdom is mourned

L’italiano segue l’inglese

וַתָּ֤מָת דְּבֹרָה֙ מֵינֶ֣קֶת רִבְקָ֔ה וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר מִתַּ֥חַת לְבֵית־אֵ֖ל תַּ֣חַת הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ אַלּ֥וֹן בָּכֽוּת:

And Deborah the nurse of Rebecca died, and she was buried below Beit El, under the oak tree. And its name was called “Oak Tree of Weeping” – Allon Bacut  (Genesis 35:8)

This is the first – and last – we will hear of this particular Deborah, although of course the story – and song – of a more famous Deborah will appear in the Book of Judges.

But this Deborah is more of a puzzle. Rashi tries to solve the mystery by saying “How came Deborah to be in Jacob’s house? But the explanation is: because Rebekah had promised Jacob (Gen. 27:45) “then I will send and fetch thee from thence”, she sent Deborah to him to Padan Aram to tell him to leave that place, and she died on the return journey. I learned this from a comment of R. Moses HaDarshan (the exegete and Rosh Yeshiva of Narbonne)

What does the bible tell us? That a woman named Deborah had been the nursemaid of our matriarch Rebecca. That she died on the journey back to the land, shortly before Rachel died giving birth on the road from Beit El, and that her grave was marked not by a pillar of stone as Rachel’s was, but by a well-known oak tree, whose name refers to mourning.

Eleven verses separate the deaths of the two women. One cannot but wonder if there was a connection – whether the loss of Deborah, “meineket Rivka”– meant a loss of the wisdom she held around childbirth and nurturing.  One cannot help comparing the two graves – one under a “tree of weeping”, the other by the roadside with a stone pillar “that is there till this day” (v20) .

When we read the text, we generally focus on the terrible experience of Rachel, who in her agony calls the child whose birth is killing her “son of my pain/sorrow” before she dies – and the fact that his father breaks the convention and renames the child “Benjamin”. We see this complex and traumatic death and birth, and our minds leap ahead to the problems of the sons of Rachel. Poor Deborah, the nursemaid of Rebecca, is left to her grave under the mysteriously named tree.

The Book of Jubilees also tells the story of the death of Deborah, nursemaid to Rebecca, and it adds a few details

“And in the night, on the twenty-third of this month, Deborah Rebecca’s nurse died, and they buried her beneath the city under the oak of the river, and he called the name of this place, “The river of Deborah,” and the oak, “The oak of the mourning of Deborah.”” (Jubilees 32:25ff)

So Deborah dies on what is now Simchat Torah, and there is not only an oak tree but also a river to mark her resting place. Simchat Torah is the date when we both end and begin the yearly Torah reading. There is a moment of death and of rebirth; a cliff-edge experience  as we see the land in front of Moses’ eyes and hear of his death but do not enter the land of Israel, immediately followed by a retelling of the creation of the world.  What can we make of a death that takes place on this date, marked by the flowing river water and the weeping tree?

The title of Deborah, “meineket Rivka” means that she literally fed Rebecca as her nursemaid. Given that Rebecca’s own children had children by now, one must ask what that role would have been, what Deborah would be “feeding” Rebecca for her to still be known by this title? It is generally understood that she was the transmitter of an important wisdom to enable Rebecca to function fully as the matriarch she was. This understanding is embodied in “Meineket Rivka” which is the title of the first known Yiddish book written by a woman – Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner of Prague – a book of ethical wisdom and piety which included stories from Talmud and midrash, and in which the writer differentiates between the wisdom of the body (guf) and the wisdom of the soul (nefesh)

The wisdom of Deborah was surely also both practical and spiritual, dealing with both material matters (body) and “beyond material” matters. The name Rebecca means “to join” or “to connect” or even to “tie firmly”.  The wisdom Deborah passes on to Rebecca must then be to help her to join heaven to earth, to use both the aspects of body and of soul to create a more fulfilled world.  The markers by her grave reflect her wisdom – the tree, planted in the ground, slow growing oak, represents the “guf” – the body or earthly realm. The river, fast moving and ever changing represents the “nefesh” and the flow of life.

The wisdom that Deborah brings – even if it is never explicit in biblical text – is alluded to at her death.  To get a fuller understanding of this almost disappeared woman, we must turn to the natural world and its symbolism.  The oak tree weeps. Someone who understood the relationship between the natural environment and the purpose of the human being in the world, has gone. The wisdom she held is partly transmitted and partly has to be learned again by another generation.

We have many texts in bible and in rabbinic literature which allude to the relationship between humanity and the earth, and how that relationship informs our relationship with God and our ability to fulfil our purpose. We learn from previous generations and we absorb from them much wisdom. But inevitably some is lost, some is deemed irrelevant, some is inconvenient and quietly forgotten. And then we have to relearn what once was understood.

The weeping tree standing guard over Deborah’s grave beneath Beit El is a living reminder of our role and responsibility in the world. The demonstrable loss of wisdom after her death, as well as the flow of life relentlessly moving onward, remind us that there is no once and for all event, but that we are part of a dynamic process, learning and relearning how to live in the world while expressing the ethics and values of what we now call the Jewish tradition. One might say that we are still called by natural objects  and events  to bring us back to our purpose in the world–  the rain forests being destroyed, polluted waters around the world, climatic events never before seen etc call to us to learn and relearn the wisdom of our tradition, so as to bring forth a world we can live in well, and pass on respectfully to the next generations.

image of the grave of Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner, author of meineket Rivka in Prague

Vayishlach – la morte di Debora, la cui saggezza è rimpianta

 :בָּכֽוּת אַלּ֥וֹן  שְׁמ֖וֹ  וַיִּקְרָ֥א  הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן  תַּ֣חַת  לְבֵית־אֵ֖ל מִתַּ֥חַת  וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר רִבְקָ֔ה מֵינֶ֣קֶת דְּבֹרָה֙ וַתָּ֤מָת

E Debora, la nutrice di Rebecca, morì e fu sepolta sotto Beit El, ai piedi della quercia. E il suo nome divenne “Quercia del pianto” – “Allon Bacut” (Genesi 35: 8)

Questa è la prima, e ultima, volta che sentiremo parlare di questa particolare Debora, anche se, ovviamente, la storia, e la canzone, di una Debora più famosa appariranno nel Libro dei Giudici.

Ma questa Debora è più di un enigma. Rashi cerca di risolvere il mistero dicendo: “Come è arrivata Debora nella casa di Giacobbe? E la spiegazione è: poiché Rebecca aveva promesso a Giacobbe (Gen. 27:45) ‘allora ti manderò a prendere da lì’, mandò Debora da lui a Padan Aram per dirgli di lasciare quel posto, e lei morì nel viaggio di ritorno”. L’ho appreso da un commento di R. Moses HaDarshan (esegeta e Rosh Yeshivà di Narbonne)

Cosa ci dice la Bibbia? Che una donna di nome Debora è stata la balia della nostra matriarca Rebecca. Che morì sulla strada di Beit El durante il viaggio di ritorno verso la terra poco prima che Rachele stessa morisse di parto, e che la sua tomba non fu contrassegnata da una colonna di pietra come quella di Rachele, ma da una ben conosciuta quercia,  il cui nome si riferisce al lutto.

Undici versi separano la morte delle due donne. Non si può non chiedersi se ci sia una connessione, se la perdita di Debora, “meineket Rivka“, non significhi una perdita della saggezza custodita sui temi del parto e della cura. E non si può fare a meno di confrontare le due tombe: una sotto un “albero del pianto”, l’altra sul ciglio della strada con un pilastro di pietra “che è lì fino ai nostri giorni” (verso 20).

Quando leggiamo il testo, ci concentriamo generalmente sulla terribile esperienza di Rachele, che nella sua agonia chiama il bambino la cui nascita la sta uccidendo “figlio del mio dolore/dolore” prima di morire, e il fatto che suo padre rompa la convenzione e rinomini il bambino “Beniamino”. Vediamo questa morte complessa e traumatica e la nascita, e le nostre menti vanno in avanti verso i problemi dei figli di Rachele. La povera Debora, la balia di Rebecca, viene lasciata nella sua tomba sotto l’albero misteriosamente chiamato.

Anche il Libro dei Giubilei racconta la storia della morte di Debora, nutrice di Rebecca, e aggiunge alcuni dettagli:

“E nella notte, il ventitreesimo mese di questo mese, Debora la nutrice di Rebecca morì e la seppellirono dietro la città sotto la quercia del fiume, e chiamarono questo luogo ‘Il fiume di Debora’, e la quercia ‘La quercia del compianto di Debora’”. (Giubilei 32: 25 ss)

Quindi Debora muore nel giorno dell’odierna Simchat Torà, e non solo c’è una quercia, ma anche un fiume a segnare il luogo del suo riposo. Simchat Torà è la data in cui sia finiamo che iniziamo la lettura annuale della Torà. C’è un momento di morte e rinascita, un’esperienza di netta cesura in cui vediamo la terra davanti agli occhi di Mosè e sentiamo parlare della sua morte senza poter entrare nella terra di Israele, immediatamente seguiti dalla ripetizione della creazione del mondo. Cosa possiamo farne di una morte che avviene in questa data, segnata dall’acqua fluente del fiume e dall’albero piangente?

Il titolo di Debora, “meineket Rivka“, significa letteralmente che ha dato da mangiare a Rebecca in quanto sua nutrice. Dato che ormai gli stessi figli di Rebecca avevano figli, c’è da chiedersi cosa abbia comportato quel ruolo, cosa avrà “dato da mangiare” Debora a Rebecca per essere conosciuta con questo titolo? Resta generalmente inteso che fu la trasmettitrice di un’importante saggezza, che consentì a Rebecca di fungere pienamente  da matriarca. Questo significato è rappresentato in “Meineket Rivka”, che è il titolo del primo libro yiddish noto che sia stato scritto da una donna, Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner di Praga: un libro di saggezza etica e pietà che includeva storie di Talmud e midrash, e in cui il la scrittrice distingue tra la saggezza del corpo (guf) e la saggezza dell’anima (nefesh)

La saggezza di Debora era sicuramente sia pratica che spirituale, trattando sia le questioni materiali (il corpo) sia quelle “al di là dei materiali”. Il nome Rebecca significa “unire” o “connettere” o anche “legare saldamente”. La saggezza che Debora trasmette a Rebecca deve quindi essere quella di aiutarla a unire il cielo alla terra, a usare sia gli aspetti del corpo che dell’anima per creare un mondo più compiuto. Gli indicatori della sua tomba rispecchiano la sua saggezza: l’albero, piantato nel terreno, una quercia a crescita lenta, rappresenta il “guf” (il corpo o il regno terrestre), il fiume, in rapido movimento e continua evoluzione, rappresenta il “nefesh” e il flusso della vita.

La saggezza di cui Debora è portatrice, anche se mai esplicitata nel testo biblico, è menzionata alla sua morte. Per comprendere appieno questa donna quasi scomparsa, dobbiamo rivolgerci al mondo naturale e al suo simbolismo. La quercia piange. Qualcuno che ha capito la relazione tra l’ambiente naturale e gli obiettivi dell’essere umano nel mondo è scomparso. La saggezza che possedeva in parte è trasmessa, in parte deve essere riappresa da un’altra generazione.

Abbiamo molti brani nella Bibbia e nella letteratura rabbinica che alludono al rapporto tra l’umanità e la terra, e come quella relazione informi la nostra relazione con Dio e la nostra capacità di realizzare i nostri scopi. Impariamo dalle generazioni precedenti e assorbiamo da loro molta saggezza. Ma qualcosa inevitabilmente si perde, qualcosa viene considerato irrilevante, qualcos’altro è scomodo e silenziosamente dimenticato. Così poi dobbiamo riapprendere ciò che una volta fu compreso.

L’albero piangente che fa la guardia alla tomba di Debora dietro Beit El è un promemoria vivente del nostro ruolo e responsabilità nel mondo. La dimostrabile perdita di saggezza seguita alla sua morte, così come il flusso della vita che si muove incessantemente in avanti, ci ricordano che non esistono eventi definitivi, ma che siamo parte di un processo dinamico, imparando e riapprendendo come vivere nel mondo mentre esprimiamo l’etica e i valori di ciò che ora chiamiamo tradizione ebraica. Si potrebbe dire che siamo ancora chiamati da oggetti ed eventi naturali che ci riportano al nostro scopo nel mondo: le foreste pluviali vengono distrutte, le acque inquinate in tutto il mondo, eventi climatici mai visti prima ecc. Ci chiamano per imparare e reimparare la saggezza della nostra tradizione, in modo da far nascere un mondo in cui possiamo vivere bene, da trasmettere rispettosamente alle prossime generazioni.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

vayetzei – the mandrakes in the narrative have something to tell us

And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah: ‘Give me, I pray, from your son’s mandrakes.’   And she said unto her: ‘Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? and would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?’ And Rachel said: ‘Therefore he shall lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.’  And Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said: ‘You must come in to me; for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ And he lay with her that night. And God heard Leah, and she conceived, and bore Jacob a fifth son. (Genesis 30:14-17)

The vignette is usually passed off as part of the rivalry and dysfunction between the two sister wives of Jacob, the older one less beautiful and unloved, the younger one loved but barren. Leah has possession of some mandrakes which, in the ancient world appeared to have a number of useful properties- they were prophylactic against disease, the fragrance of them was thought to be an aphrodisiac (see Song of Songs 7:13 where the word play between “duda’im” (mandrakes) and “dodim” (lovemaking) makes this point eloquently (and is presumably why Leah has them).  They were thought to be an aid to fertility –which is presumably why Rachel wants them.

But it raises many questions, as well as giving us an insight into the relationship between human beings and the natural world.

Reuben brings the mandrakes to his mother, having found them in the field during the harvest. But why does he do this? It is unlikely that he is intervening in the marital problems of his parents. But the value of the plant is clear – Rachel is prepared to give Jacob up for the night to sleep with her sister and rival, in order to take possession of the mandrakes. The transaction is immortalised in the name of the child conceived that night – Issachar – “man of hire”

Humanity has used plants for our own benefit from the very beginning of biblical time.  The human being is placed in a garden where almost every piece of vegetation is for their delight or use. Only two trees have fruit which must not be tasted, and interestingly the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which midrash thinks of as a pomegranate and which since the vulgate translation is often thought of as an apple – is, according to one Christian myth (physiologos) a mandrake – for its associations of sexual desire.

The mandrake has a special place in myth, helped no doubt today by its appearance in the Harry Potter books where its somewhat magical –even occult – nature is explored. A member of the nightshade family, its fruit, leaves and large root have medicinal and narcotic properties. Because the root often divides and bears a likeness to torso, legs and arms, the plant is anthropomorphised, with a belief that it screams when taken from the ground and whoever hears the scream will soon die. (And so a technique was developed where it was tied to a dog who was then tempted with meat at a distance. The dog would run, the plant would be uprooted, and the human gatherer would remove their ear plugs and come to collect it from the safe distance they had been standing). It is associated with evil spirits and demons, believed to be created by the semen of hanged men.

The history of the mandrake is a paradigm from which we can learn much. It is a plant that can be both toxic and healing, is treated as being both prophylactic and promoter of fertility, has been anthropomorphosed with tales of its quasi human, quasi demonic being.  While it has now pretty much disappeared from medicinal use, its legend lives on. And it is this that reminds us that we didn’t always treat vegetation as mindless and passive, to be used by us without any thought except how we could continue to use it.  But bible is clear repeatedly that the vegetation of our world is to be respected and honoured. The garden of Eden was to be guarded and cared for, not ravished and run into the ground. Deuteronomy asks if fruit trees are human that we might cut them down in wartime for siege weapons, and reminds us that the tree must be protected as it cannot escape the hostilities. The book of Judges has Jotham’s parable of the trees who want to choose a king over them – and the reasons why the trees sensibly choose not to become that figure but instead allow the lowly – and treacherous bramble to take the role. The candlestick in the tent of meeting is described using botanical language, the book of Kings tells of Naboth’s vineyard which he vainly tries to protect as the inheritance of his ancestors that cannot be sold or uprooted, the rules of the sabbatical year to let the land rest…. The thread of the importance of living and sustainable vegetation that must be respected and indeed honoured, winds through Jewish texts and Jewish customs. How we care for our environment, how we think of the vegetation as well as the animals – is a powerful imperative and lesson for today.

We no longer believe mandrakes are the chosen home of demons so must be treated with care, but we do know that treating the plants  – from the lowliest grasses to the loftiest trees – is an obligation for us to take seriously. Why did Reuben collect the mandrakes during the wheat harvest, and give them to his mother – we shall never know, but it is a powerful reminder that plants play a part in our narrative too, even if we barely notice them at first glance.

 

Drawing of mandrakes based on Codex ex Vindobonensis Graecus 1. Dioscurides Neapolitanus XC. Bibliotecca Nazionale de Napoli. Sixth/seventh century.

 

 

Toledot – sometimes we can dig wells, sometimes we have to find other ways

And [Isaac] had possessions of flocks, and possessions of herds, and a great household; and the Philistines envied him.  Now all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth. And Abimelech said to Isaac: ‘Go from us; for you are much mightier than we.’  And Isaac departed thence, and encamped in the valley of Gerar, and dwelt there.  And Isaac dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.  And Isaac’s servants dug in the valley, and found there a well of living water. And the herdsmen of Gerar strove with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying: ‘The water is ours.’ And he called the name of the well Esek; because they contended with him.  And they dug another well, and they strove for that also. And he called the name of it Sitnah. And he removed from thence, and dug another well; and for that they strove not. And he called the name of it Rechovot; and he said: ‘For now the Eternal has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.’  And he went up from thence to Beersheva. (Gen26:14ff)

The story is one of Isaac finding his role both in the Land of Israel and as Patriarch of the family tribe– after a problematic childhood with two parents who each had powerful and somewhat overwhelming personalities. Isaac is clearly a different character, often described as the son of a strong father and the father of strong sons, he seems gentler, less “alpha”, less willing to take what he wants, although admiring of those who can.  But the story is also of the problem of how – and even if – to share resources, in particular the water which has always been a fragile and essential resource for life.

Water stress is a constant problem in Israel, the land which is watered only by the rainfall and should the rains not come, or not come at the right time, there will be drought and famine, and death.

We read in Deuteronomy 10ff “But the land…is a land of hills and valleys and drinks water as the rain of heaven…the eyes of God are always upon it….and if you obey my commandments…I will give the rain of your land in its season, both early and late rains, so you may gather your corn, wine and oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied… Take care less you …turn aside and serve other gods, for the anger of God will be against you and God will shut up the heavens and there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield her fruit and you will perish quickly from off the good land which God gives you”

The Land of Israel has always known water stress; The people Israel have built a theology around it, a routine of mitzvot in order to avert punishment by water, a choreography of teshuvah and fasting when the rains are delayed. It is in the DNA of rabbinic Judaism following the biblical exhortations – lack of rain follows the disruption of our relationship with God

But water stress is also a problem – and a growing one – in the rest of the world, and we know that there the causes and solutions are quite different.

New data reveals that 17 countries – home to one-quarter of the world’s population—face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress, where irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities withdraw more than 80% of their available supply on average every year.

Twelve out of these 17 most water-stressed countries are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The region is hot and dry, so water supply is low to begin with, but growing demands have pushed countries further into extreme stress. Climate change is set to complicate matters further: The World Bank found that this region has the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, estimated at 6-14% of GDP by 2050.

44 countries – one third of the world’s population, already face high levels of water stress. On average in these countries, more than 40 percent of the available supply is withdrawn every year. The World Bank also estimates that by 2025 about 1.8 billion people will live in regions or countries without enough water. Many other factors contribute to water scarcity – such as weak political will, climate variability and groundwater pollution – but climate change makes all of these challenges worse. When threats combine to lead to rapid water stress, the poorest suffer the worst consequences. (https://www.wri.org/news/2019/08/release-updated-global-water-risk-atlas-reveals-top-water-stressed-countries-and-states)

In the past decade floods, storms and fires, heatwaves and droughts have been increasing in frequency and in intensity. It is clear that this is a consequence of climate change.  The top 20 warmest years on record have occurred in the last 25 years, with 2017 the hottest without the contribution of El Nino.  The effect of this warming climate is an increasing impact on the water resources available to populations, and the effect of that drought will of course be famine, mass movement of desperate populations, potentially even war.

Isaac tried to reclaim the resources his father had used and presumably owned, but was no match for the resident population and each time moved on. It is a story of tribal struggle, of becoming a resource migrant, of learning that one cannot behave as we have been doing earlier, we must find new solutions to the problem of managing our resources alongside all who need to share them.

Abraham was insistent Isaac should never leave the land, but we know his descendants were forced by famine to go into Egypt where ultimately their fate was that of oppression and slavery. Returning to their own land after so many years away was a journey fraught with danger, but also requiring them to acknowledge that they would not take any of the resources of the land through which they were passing. (see Moses’ appeal to the King of Edom Numbers 20:17): “Let us pass I beg through your land, we will not pass through field or vineyard, nor will we drink of the water of the wells, we will go along the King’s Highway and will not turn right or left till we have passed your border” But Edom said to him “you will not pass through me, I will come out with a sword against you. And the children of Israel said: ‘We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of your water, I and my cattle, then will I give its price;  only let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt.’ And he said: ‘Thou shalt not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand.”

This is the reality to this day. “Economic migrants” has become a term of abuse – how much more so when thousands of people fleeing water shortages, drought and famine will beg to come through or to our land? And what will our fate be when the floods wash away soil and crops, damage or destroy our houses?  We are already seeing the effects of what rabbinic Judaism terms “judgement by water”.

We could go the route of ancient Israel and make teshuvah. Not by fasting and praying necessarily but by changing our behaviour, becoming more mindful of the wastage of water in our own lives. Whether it be use of water in our homes – leaving taps running, long showers etc., or awareness of the way the products we buy are using water )it was a shock for me to discover that the making of one small chocolate bar is takes 21 litres), whether it be smarter plumbing (or simply a brick in the toilet cistern) , we all need to learn how to conserve our water supplies.  It may seem an odd thing to read in rainy and flooded England currently (other countries too), but the floods here are the other side of the coin of drought there, and they wash away infrastructure, soil and crops leaving agriculture and transport vulnerable.

Isaac moved to Rechovot – the broad place where there was space for him and his family to live and to thrive. We don’t have that option. Climate change and water stress is a global phenomenon, a global emergency. We are all responsible for each other, we are all responsible for the earth and her resources. It is time for the tikkun, to help heal the world and to treat her with the respect she deserves.  As the psalmist writes:

The earth is the Eternal’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.  For God has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.  (Psalm 24)

If you want to read more about water stress and ways to help:

 

https://blog.ucsusa.org/pablo-ortiz/the-world-is-in-a-water-crisis-and-climate-change-is-making-it-worse

https://www.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/state-of-the-climate/

https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/08/17-countries-home-one-quarter-world-population-face-extremely-high-water-stress

https://www.watercalculator.org/water-use/climate-change-water-resources/

https://washmatters.wateraid.org/climate-change

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/07/it-takes-21-litres-of-water-to-produce-a-small-chocolate-bar-how-water-wise-is-your-diet

https://friendsoftheearth.uk/natural-resources/13-best-ways-save-water-stop-climate-breakdown