Mishpatim – following God’s time and learning the lessons of God’s world

In amongst the diverse laws of Mishpatim, laws about slaves and murder, about kidnap and assault, about how to treat parents, damage to livestock, theft, seduction, damage to crops, sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, loans, treatment of the enemy in war, bribery etc. we have the statement

“Six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the abundance of it; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat. Similarly you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your olive grove. (Ex 23:10-11)

 This instruction is repeated and expanded in Leviticus chapter 25, verses 1-7:

And the Eternal spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath for the Eternal. Six years shall you sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its produce. But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Eternal; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows by itself from your harvest, you shall not reap, and the grapes of your untended vine, you shall not gather [in quantity, as if to sell]; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. And the sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for you, and for your servant and for your maid, and for your hired servant and for the traveller who sojourns with you; and for your cattle, and for the wild beasts that are in your land, shall all the abundance be for food.”

And even more so in Deuteronomy:

At the end of every seven years you shall make a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he lent to his neighbour; he shall not exact it of his neighbour and his brother; because God’s release has been proclaimed…..If there be among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which the Eternal your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy fellow;) but you shall surely open your hand to them, and shall surely lend them sufficient for their need. Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying: ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand’; and your eye be evil against your needy fellow, and you do not give to they; and they cry out to the Eternal against you, and it be sin in you. You shall surely give to them, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give; because for this thing the Eternal your God will bless you in all your work, and in all of the works of your hands. For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shall surely open your hand unto your poor and needy fellows, in your land. If your fellow, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, they shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you shalt let them go free. And when you let them go free, you shall not let them go empty; you shall furnish them liberally out from your flock, and your threshing-floor, and your winepress; of that which the Eternal your God has blessed you, shall you give to them. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Eternal your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing to-day.’ (15:1-2, 7-15)

 The concept of a sabbatical year, a year when the land is not worked, planted or harvested, but instead allowed to lie fallow, and any produce that grows despite the lack of planting or maintenance is available to anyone, is a biblical innovation that promotes three different social “goods” – allowing the land to lie fallow and recuperate, setting free the Jew who had sold themselves into bonded labour, and the annulment of debts which, if allowed to grow unfettered, would prevent a family ever  leaving poverty.

(The Jubilee, after every seven cycles of sabbatical years, had the added feature of returning any hereditary land and property to their original ownership or their descendants).

The rest for the land is not only about recuperation and restoration – the bible tells us that the consequence for not observing the sabbatical year is exile.  So clearly this is more than an agricultural technique co-opted into a ritual observance – there is further learning to be gained from this mitzvah. What does the enforced rest from working the land do to make our failure to comply mean we are punished so severely?

When we added to the other factors specific to the sabbatical year – those of freeing slaves and annulling debts – it seems that the common theme is to remind us that “ownership” is a fragile phenomenon; that we cannot presume to do what we like with what we own because the ultimate owners are not us. We are simply the stewards, the possessors of the usufruct, holding it on temporary loan and required to return it in good condition.

In the shemittah year, the landowner and the landless are made equal. Both must search for their food – and this mitzvah is not a brief event. For a full year the rights of the landowner and the rights of the landless are the same. For a full year the land is allowed to rest. All people and all animals are able to eat from the produce that grows without help – fruits from the trees, any crop that had self-seeded, any perennial vegetable.

Living like this for a year must reset so many societal assumptions.  Not only is private ownership suddenly not a given, the land cannot in this year be locked away from others – they must have access to glean what food they can. The land itself is expected to rest – something we rarely ask today of our earth, instead we fertilize and spray and burn and rotate in order to get something more from the land. But in the biblical shemittah year the land is like a person, getting its own Shabbat.  In the cycle required by God, six days of labour followed by a day of rest; six years of the landowner sowing and harvesting followed by a full year of “hefker”, of the produce of the land being available to all – we are reminded that we live to a different expectation, we live to a divine expectation.

 

 

After prayer, introspection, critique and teshuvah, the time for action is now

The Jewish year has a number of cycles, and one cycle has just concluded – from the seventeenth Tammuz which happens three weeks before Tisha b’Av in the early summer time, till Shemini Atzeret /Simchat Torah, the conclusion of the Yamim Noraim, more than thirteen weeks later, we have been focusing on how our behaviour impacts upon the world, how what we do really matters. The destruction of the Temple and the Exile from Israel in the year 70CE was caused, according to our tradition (and firmly based in the historical narrative) on “sinat hinam” – acts of causeless hatred, where Jews betrayed other Jew; Individuals did not value others; Greed and selfishness overtook care and compassion. With the effects of the destruction of Jerusalem resonating in our souls we go through the summer and on to the high holy days mindful of the words of Talmud Sanhedrin 37a    “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if they destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if they saved an entire world.” The text goes on to make clear that the destruction and the saving are not necessarily of the life itself, but of the quality of that life.

Simchat Torah ends this particular cycle – while of course also beginning another, that of the weekly progression of readings from the scroll. But Simchat Torah now also marks for us the greater focus on the outcomes of the Yamim Noraim – the importance of repairing the world, of righteous behaviour and of acts of compassion – the three Jewish principles of Tikkun Olam, of Tzedek and of Gemilut Hasadim.

For a quarter of the year, from the middle of Tammuz, through Av, Ellul and more than half of Tishri we have been prompted through liturgy and festivals to consider repeatedly about how we are behaving in the world, reminded again and again that there are consequences and impacts arising from our choices. We have drilled down from the sweep of Jewish history into the capacities of each individual soul to enact change both for themselves and for the world. And now, with Simchat Torah and the return to the beginning of bible, which reminds us of our universalistic beginnings, of God as Creator of the whole world, interested in every person and every action, it is time to change our focus back to the wider world in which we live. We have thought hard about our own failings and tried to make ourselves better, now it is time to try out our newer better selves, to go into the world and try to make a difference. As the new year of Torah readings begins, they nudge us to find something new and pertinent in the familiar. There is much to do close to home – be it working for our communities so that everyone feels valued and becomes connected. Be it working for more fairness in the workplace, for the safety and security of those who find themselves lost or in poverty, or homeless. And from within our own community we can also work to help those further away, the refugees currently risking their lives while fleeing terrible circumstances in their own country, the dispossessed and isolated because of war or disease. We can add our voices to those who protest where humanity is cruel or thoughtless to others, we can demand of our leaders that they behave according to the values they say they espouse.  We remind ourselves of the teaching in the Talmud Sanhedrin 37a    “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if they destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if they saved an entire world.” The text goes on to make clear that the destruction and the saving are not necessarily of the life itself, but of the quality of that life.

olive harvest rhr

The time for contemplation is over, the time for action is now

image from rabbis for human rights co-ordinating volunteers to help Palestinian farmers harvest their olives.

VOLUNTEERS NEEDED THIS WEEK FOR THE OLIVE HARVEST IN THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES!
We need folks to sign up to join us for the harvest THIS Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. For those of you who have already signed up, now is the time for you to work with our office to specify a date. Please email info@rhr.israel.net or call 02 678 3876 to sign up. Dates are also available until Nov 6th.

Tenth of Tevet – the day of remembering those who died in the Shoah

Today is the tenth of Tevet, an historic day of mourning for the Jewish people for it is the date on which in 588 BCE Nebuchadnezzar responded to King Zedekiah’s rebellion and besieged the city of Jerusalem (2Kings 25:1-2), and bible also records that the word of God came to Ezekiel telling him “”O mortal, write for yourself the name of this day, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem”  (Ezekiel 24: 2).  Exile to Babylon became certain from this date, even though the city held out for some time, falling three years later when on 17th Tammuz the city walls were breached and three weeks after that on the 9th Av the Temple was destroyed. By the time of Zechariah (c520 BCE) the custom of fasting on this day was established.

While this fast was originally a response to the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel for seventy years, it was never seen as only the commemoration of an historic response, but also a response to the suffering of the people. Because of this, and because of the Talmudic dictum that “Good things come to pass on an auspicious day, Bad things come to pass on an unlucky day” (Ta’anit 29a), the tenth of Tevet became seen as an appropriate day on which to commemorate all who died in the Shoah, particularly all those whose date of death was unknown. In 1949 the Israeli Chief Rabbinate declared that “the day on which the first churban (destruction) commenced should become a memorial day also for the last churban,” and two years later this became the official date for the yahrzeit of those who have no recorded date of death.

Yet the Government of Israel chose a different date to commemorate the events of the Shoah, “Yom Ha’Zikaron le Shoah ve la’Gevurah” The Day of Remembering the Shoah and Heroism was passed in Israeli law in 1953 and was originally chosen to be observed on the 14th Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – clearly the Gevurah, the Heroism, was to be a major component of the observing of this day, a deliberate and explicit way to counter the “lambs to the slaughter” accusations of the victimhood of the Jewish people.

There were a number of problems with this date – the month of Nisan is traditionally a month of joy, associated with redemption and Pesach, and to hold a day of mourning in it cut across customs and norms. Particularly, the 14th Nisan is just before Seder night and so the date was moved to the 27th Nisan, which means that it is now observed the week before Yom ha’Atzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day.

And this is where I become uncomfortable. I have always found the link of a week between Yom HaShoah to Yom Ha’Atzma’ut means that we link the two dates in an improper way. The yearning by the Jewish people for their own land once more is millennia old. The practical developments for this to happen began many years before the Shoah, with the work of the Zionist movement which grew out of growing anti-Semitism in post enlightenment Europe. While the events of the Shoah may or may not have had an effect on the speed the establishment of the State of Israel, it does not rest fundamentally upon it – the ties between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are deeper, longer, and far more complex than it being a response out of the guilt of Europe to solve the “Jewish Question”.  The linkage between the Shoah and the State of Israel has also led to a corrupted narrative that the Jews of the Diaspora were by definition weak and helpless, negating the rich traditions of learning, art, science and being of the Jews who lived in Europe for so many generations.

To have this date on the tenth of Tevet rather than in Nisan would not only realign our observance to traditional timing, it would mean that we would remember all those who died in the Shoah the week after finishing celebrating Chanukah, a festival that grew out of militaristic triumph and that was reinterpreted by rabbinic tradition with the addition of a miracle to become a religious reminder that even in dark times God is with us. To remember our unknown dead, and all those who died at the hands of a great power bent on destroying us just one week after we celebrate the victory of those who fought a great power bent on destroying the particularity of the Jewish people would give us a better sense of perspective. We would be reminded that no battle is ever won for all time and we need to remain aware of the need to combat evil wherever we find it;, that however clever our military strategies we also need to be aware of the reason for our continued existence – that we are a people of God whose work is to increase holiness in the world, just as we increase the level of holiness through the days of Chanukah.