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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

הָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אוֹיֵב דֶבֶר וְחֶרֶב וְרָעָב וְיָגוֹן

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Toledot: lessons on the control of resources and why we should resist the power

 046-welfare-state

Within the powerful narrative of sibling rivalry and family betrayal of parashat Toledot there runs another, equally powerful and important theme – the control of resources of food and water and how the manipulation of this control distorts everything around it.

Two stories of deception and duplicity frame this sidra, both pivot on the manipulation of food and drink. In Genesis 25:27-34 we have the story of Esau coming in hungry from his venison hunting, and selling his birthright blessing to Jacob for the red lentil stew that Jacob has cooked and whose savoury smell tempted Esau whose appetite was so sharp he felt he would die if he did not eat it. In Genesis 27 we have the story of the blind and ailing Isaac asking Esau to go and hunt him a last meal of venison, after which he would give him the blessing of the firstborn before he died. The same motifs and words come up again and again: blessing; death; venison; In one story food is withheld until the blessing sworn over, in the other the blessing is withheld until the food is eaten. The stories play with each, resonate and mirror each other, but each of them uses food and the control of resource to put one party at a disadvantage to the other.

In the middle of these two stories of blessing and feasting, of manipulation and betrayal comes quite a different narrative. In Chapter 26 we have a story that begins with famine, specifically a new famine that is not the one faced by Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca go to the Philistine Abimelech king of Gerar to find food. God tells Isaac not to leave for Egypt as his parents had done in the previous famine, but to stay on the land and the blessing first given to Abraham would be his. Isaac stays in Gerar, but in a parallel to the story of his parents he tells everyone that Rebecca is his sister rather than his wife, as he clearly fears for his life should the truth be known. Abimelech notices the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca and chastises Isaac – someone could easily have taken Rebecca for a wife and the community would have been punished, and Abimelech places his protection on the couple. The result was that Isaac sowed the land and immediately reaped “me’ah she’arim” a hundredfold return on his work, and God blessed him and all his work. He became richer and richer, with huge flocks and herds, a great household, and this drew the envy of the surrounding Philistines.

I must confess that I find this extraordinary – why should he reap so much for his work? Surely enough would have been enough, and it would surely have been inevitable that such astonishing wealth would attract the unwelcome interest of those who had less than he, but let us pass on for now…

There follows a rather sad narrative of Isaac and the herdsmen of Gerar fighting for the wells that had belonged to Abraham and should therefore now belong to his son. Bible rather laconically tells us that “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”. It is not clear if this was an earlier event to prevent others taking the water after Abraham had left, or if this was a reprisal motivated by jealousy of Isaac’s wealth, or even if this was an attempt to erase any historical roots that Isaac would have had to the area. The wells don’t seem to have been taken over, strange in a world where water is so precious, but filled in – at least until re-dug by Isaac’s men when the fight over the water between the herdsmen became serious. Finally Isaac moved far enough away – first to Rehovot (meaning wide or spacious) and then to Beersheba (meaning 7 wells) – and an uneasy truce prevailed, cemented by Abimelech making a treaty with him having seen that God was with him – a curious treaty hedged with diplomatic ambiguity, asking that Isaac not hurt the people of Gerar, “as we have not touched you and as we have done you nothing but good, and have sent you away in peace…..” (v29)

In this curious narrative, resonant of the earlier stories of Abraham and Sarah, showing Isaac as both a hungry frightened migrant and as a wealthy possessor of animals and land, and finally as a synthesis of these – wealthy but insecure on the land and moved on further and further into the desert, we have the crux of the story. Control of necessary resources is everything. It doesn’t matter how much you possess if you don’t possess the basics of food, water and space to live on. You can be manipulated and dealt out of your rights by the person or group who has control over these, and who can take everything else of value from you. For all that Isaac reaped a hundredfold from his first planting, his wealth meant nothing as long as he was not secure for his immediate needs. Ultimately we are all in thrall to our basic needs. Bible already recognises what Abraham Maslow later put into his theory of the hierarchy of needs – that to live our lives fully we must first meet certain criteria: his first two sets are “Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.” And when these are met, then “Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.” Only then are we in a place where we can grow well.

Why does bible frame the narrative of the Philistine King Abimelech and Isaac between the two stories of family manipulation and betrayal which both use food and immediate desire/need to control events?

One can only guess at the mind of the editor of the text. But in my mind I see that controlling others through controlling the access to resources they need is a human behaviour done to both those we are in close relationship with and those with whom we do not have such relationship. It is an atavistic strategy hard-wired into us, presumably for survival, but it is not a laudable strategy, and it seems to me that the structure of the biblical narrative is trying to remind us of this. The alienation of Jacob and Esau is painfully intensified through this behaviour. The pain between Isaac and Rebecca, and each of the participants in the deceptions reverberates through the text, as does the frustration and impotence of Isaac trying to claim his father’s wells and being chased off his land with violent encounters. There is nothing good to come out of this story except by negative example. We who control resources may wish to use them to control the behaviour of others, but we should think hard and long about giving in to this strategy. For history teaches that empires come and empires go, that there is a turning and a spinning of the world, and that what is in our grasp now may not be in our grasp in the future. How would we want those who control the resources to behave to us? As the famous first century rabbi Hillel framed the golden rule ‘That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.’ (BT. Shabbat 31a)

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both cartoons by the wonderful Jacky Fleming