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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayeshev: the crime of selling a person

“Behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said to his brothers, “what profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brothers listened to him.
And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt. And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. And he returned unto his brethren, and said: ‘The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go?’ (Gen 37:25-30)… And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand of the Ishmaelites, that had brought him down thither. (39:1)…[And Joseph said] For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ (40:15)

The first story of human trafficking is told here in sidra vayeshev, and sadly it is a story that resonates to this day in the lived experience of the six to eight hundred thousand people estimated to be trafficked across international boundaries each year, and the 20 – 30 million people who are currently estimated to be living in slavery.
Like many who are trafficked today, Joseph is young and vulnerable, he is (to be) sold off by family members, and while presumably sold for labour it is not impossible he could have been sold for sex (certainly Potiphar’s wife has expectations in this area). He finds himself at the mercy of a well organised people trafficking structure, sold through the agency of the Midianites to the Ishmaelites who go on to sell him in Egypt along with their other products. Today human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It reportedly generates a profit of over £21 billion every year of which £10 billion is made in industrialized countries. Human trafficking is big business. And it causes enormous suffering.
Bible begins by telling us that human beings are created in the image of the Divine, from which we understand the basic and absolute value of human beings. Just as God is indivisible and of infinite worth, so is humanity indivisible and of infinite worth. We might construct all kinds of models in our heads about class, ethnicity, gender, power, social status, geographical cultural and historical connections, but bible keeps reminding us of the one basic truth: human beings are one group, connected ultimately to the earth on which we live, connected deeply and irrevocably to each other.
The bible as a document is powerfully engaged with this idea, and with how it plays out in the power relationships that humans participate in, that shape our society. It knows how easy it is to abuse power, how simple to turn a blind eye to it happening in both the intimate details of our lives and in the macro environment in which we are live. It knows about the human tendency to construct realities that favour ourselves over others, to neglect or ignore what does not speak to our own self-interest or conform to our idea of reality. Bible provides the nudge, the spur to remind us that not only is there more to the world than our own experience, it repeatedly teaches us that there is an obligation on us to pay attention outside of our comfort zone, a requirement to see the world as God sees it – a fragile and beautiful place filled with fragile and beautiful creatures engaged in a process of improvement but simultaneously undermining and subverting that process out of ignorance or selfishness or thoughtlessness or greed.
We see ourselves in the texts; we recognise the themes and the motifs that play through the stories and we know that we are being prompted to respond.
So when we read the story of Joseph, defenceless in the pit after his brothers’ intervention, saved from being murdered but arguably paying the even greater price of being traded from group to group with no protection and no idea of what the end of his journey may be, powerless and frightened, a product not a person, about whom no one will care what happens – we have to pay attention and we have to respond. There are estimated to be between six and eight hundred thousand people having a similar experience ever year in our world. And we should care.
In the book of Exodus, in the legal code following the giving of the ten commandments and the covenant made between God and Israel, comes the instruction “And one who steals a person and sells them, or if a person be found in their possession (as merchandise), they shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:16). Deuteronomy repeats the command: “If a person be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and he deal with him as a slave, and sell him; then that thief shall die; so shall you put away the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 24:7). In the biblical world clearly people were bought and sold, seen as chattels to be profited from, and already the voice of the text is outlawing the behaviour. By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) (for e.g. Sanhedrin11:1) the death penalty for human trafficking is discussed and accepted – a mark of how seriously the crime is taken to be and this is continued in the Gemara (5th Century CE) (e.g. Sanhedrin 86a)
In the medieval period there are responsa again underlining the importance of challenging the prevalence of abducting and selling human beings – for example Maimonides (12th C) tells us that Torah views the kidnap of a person as the most serious form of theft that is strictly prohibited on pain of death under the Noachide code and in the eighth of the Ten Commandments, ( Laws of Theft 9:1-6) and also teaches that redeeming captives is more important than supporting the poor, because captives are in danger of their lives (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyyim 8:10). Rabbi Joseph Colon (1420-1480) warns that a person who has the ability to save a trafficked person yet delays doing so is “like one who sheds blood.”… the responsa can be found in every century, in every place, demonstrating that the crime of trafficking human beings can equally be found in every century and in every place – including, sadly, our own.
So what should we do? Firstly, we should not ignore the issue, not assume that it is not happening because we have not noticed it, nor that it “wouldn’t happen” in our bit of the world. Secondly we should educate ourselves on the signs, so that we are alert to the possibility of trafficking. These can be found here: http://www.stopthetraffik.org/uk/page/spot-the-signs
Community_Signs_2

And we can also think through the ways we live and the choices we make – are the clothes or food we want to buy surprisingly cheap indicating that the makers/pickers are on low wages? Is there an ethical policy in place in the financial transactions we make? Are we sufficiently educated about the real cost, the real chain by which products come to us, the reality faced by people who find themselves in economic bondage to others?
The tragedy of human trafficking is that it hides in plain sight. Bible knew that and tried to give us the tools to see. We are in need of such tools even today. Let the words of Joseph speak to us again “For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ And remind us that the lack of freedom for those who are trafficked is real, a dungeon from which they cannot escape and a place where no meaning can be gleaned.

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim: Holiness is not a state to achieve, but a process to live by.

א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדשִׁ֣ים תִּֽהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

Sidra Kedoshim is very familiar to us, echoing as it does the Ten Commandments, and taking the soubriquet “the holiness code”. Reform Jews read it on Yom Kippur as a reminder of what the ethical life would look like. We are aware of its physical and spiritual place in the Torah – it lies at the very centre of the scroll, and in the centre of Kedoshim itself is the golden rule – “love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Eternal”.   This law was quoted by Hillel in the first century, albeit cast into the negative “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”; Rabbi Akiva declared it to be the great principle of the Torah. And many Christians know it through its repetition by Jesus, who called it second only to the commandment to love God.

So when we look at the great commandment which acts as a chorus throughout this sidra –“You shall be Kadosh (Holy) as I the Eternal am Kadosh (Holy) – we tend to immediately think of the great dictum which, if followed, will bring about a better world for us all. Indeed, if we behave towards our neighbour with as much care as we behave towards fulfilling our own needs, we would automatically be living more saintly lives than we do now. But the sidra goes on, and the detail in the second half gives a slightly different flavour to the response ‘Be Kadosh as I the Eternal your God am Kadosh”

It goes on to talk about kilayim – not mixing different kinds or species, be they animal or agricultural. It talks about sha’atnez, not mixing wool and linen together in garments. The laws of Kilayim are elaborated in Talmud which expounds and clarifies the laws of this occasionally strange principle.

It goes on to talk about the prohibition of the fruit of new trees – for three years after a tree is planted its fruit may not be used at all, in the fourth year the fruit is used only for religious celebration, after that, it is permitted to use the fruit of the tree.

And then come a whole lots of individual prohibitions or warnings – don’t eat anything with the blood; don’t practise divination or soothsaying, don’t round of the side growth on your head or your beard, don’t mutilate your flesh or mark yourself in any way. Don’t make your daughter a prostitute. Keep the Sabbath and venerate the sanctuary. Don’t turn to ghosts or familiars. Show deference to the old. Don’t wrong the stranger. Don’t falsify weights or measures.

It is such an odd mix, such a strange set of things for the narrator of the biblical text to be perturbed about. Some of the injunctions are self-evidently good to do, others read to the modern eye as ritual behaviour with no obvious meaning and some superstition implicit within them. What are we to make of not rounding the hair of the head? Or of saving the fruit for 5 years before having the use of it?

The second half of sidra Kedoshim challenges our understanding of what it means to be holy. We are out of the spiritual world and solidly into a more practical one. Holiness becomes less a matter of intention and more a matter of action. Holiness becomes something we do in relation to other people as well as a private matter between ourselves and God.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with holiness. Not simply that I found it hard to achieve in my life, but that put as a spiritual and saintly proposition, it made me feel a bit queasy. Maybe it is my solid and gritty northern upbringing, but the way some forms of piety and piousness are expressed don’t make me feel spiritually uplifted, rather they make me want to kick the individual offering their religiosity in such a way.

It has been a consistent feature of my religious life that the most holy people I encounter are also almost universally the earthiest. I recall a verse of a song by my teacher Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Magonet which affectionately described – some may say lampooned – all the people who had seriously affected his religious growth, called “come and join the cavalcade”. The verse that comes to mind goes something like   “it is not easy to watch the prophet speak. He dribbles on occasion and he’s far too fond of sweets”. I won’t reveal which revered teacher is being described, but I can assure you that, of all the great of his generation, he is certainly the one most able to transmit a sense of the immanent yet transcendent God in such a way that it is almost as if a map of the religious journey is in your hand.

I have a problem with holiness – it seems to have acquired in modern parlance a sort of righteousness, the sanctity and piety of which have suppressed any human odour; it seems not to belong to ordinary life, but to the extraordinary and spiritually chaste living of the favoured few. But that is truly not what Jewish holiness is about – for the Jewish mind the act of holiness is one that we do, and we are made holy by our actions – think of all those blessings which begin with the formula – Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, – Who makes us kadosh (holy) by the obligations to do that God puts upon us.   Look at some of the injunctions in Kedoshim – they are about trying to avoid crossing the sort of boundaries which are in place to protect the vulnerable, or to provide some self discipline, or to prevent us falling into a world view of chaos and randomness that would sap the spiritual yearning from the most determined of us.

The bible has a truly blunt and honest view of human behaviour. It doesn’t expect people to be angels – indeed it is well aware that, while made in God’s image, human beings have potentially everything of God’s image within us – we have the potential to do great evil as well as great good.   We have the potential to do nothing for vast stretches of time and by our inactivity to let evil flourish. The bible sees that people, by nature, often behave selfishly, or thoughtlessly. We face the reality that the bible wouldn’t waste time legislating against things that people would never think of doing, or, having thought of them, do. So the lists of prohibitions gives us a fascinating insight into what some people at least, got up to, and we are able to recognise ourselves in the categories of behaviour if not in the particulars. How many of us take our agriculture and food chain for granted, not caring how a crop was grown, what conditions the labourers in the field worked under, what chemicals were used, what the effect on the environment might have been. How many of us care about how the crops were harvested and transported? Yet here in Leviticus there are indicators about what is important – that the crop should be planted thoughtfully, that the harvest is not ours alone, but in some way is also the creation of system we have no power over. And how many of us practise some form of superstitious magic to gain some control over our worlds – maybe not divination or soothsaying any more, but certainly ways in which we try to ascertain the future so as to be able to feel in control. We might not believe in horoscopes or astrological charts, but we derive some obscure comfort from them too often to be able to admit to them having no effect whatsoever. The abdicating of responsibility and the expectation that others will look after us – or not – is one that is ingrained in many of us, usually without the concomitant expectation that we must do our bit to take care of the more vulnerable aspects of the world.

The biblical kedushah is an amazing concept. It is a recognition of our frailty and our vulnerability, of our self centredness and our fear of the world. And it says – this is who we are, and we are going to build on and use these fault lines to strengthen ourselves. Rav Kook too talks a great deal about holiness, and his premise that the more damaged (the more knots we have in his terms), the more complex and convoluted our personalities, the more we have the potential to become something different and holy – as we work through our faults, so we become more experienced about the world, more compassionate about others, more honest about possibilities.

Holiness is not an unachievable goal, nor is it reserved for the good guys who never do anything really wrong. It is the inevitable result of our struggling with ourselves honestly, of our getting to know who we are and making real efforts to adapt that knowledge into the real world. There is nothing other-worldly about the Jewish concept of holiness, nothing necessarily spiritual or ethereal. Holiness is the outcome of our living in the world, of our focusing on the present and being aware of our behaviour and the impact it might have. It is the result of honest dealings and honest struggle. When Jacob met the angelic figure at the Ford of Jabok and struggling all night was permanently wounded in his groin, the supernatural figure blessed him and changed his name to Israel, saying he was one who had struggled with God and prevailed. Yet immediately the name Jacob is used again, as he tries to slide his family past his brother without effecting the reconciliation his brother so wanted. The name Jacob is used interchangeably with the name Israel for the rest of his life. Jacob isn’t any more holy for the experience, just wiser and more thoughtful and occasionally more tuned in to the right behaviour. I take comfort from that double use of name, because it tells me something that makes sense for me. Holiness is not a state to achieve; it is a choice to make every minute of the day, a process which we follow again and again, sometimes taking the holy way, sometimes not. It is in the struggle that we encounter God, that we become a little more what we could be.   We grow in holiness with every encounter, but we remain rooted in the world. And that is the way life should be.