Vayigash: when our relationships with land and with each other are damaged, we have to look at our own role before we can heal the breach.

L’italiano segue l’inglese

There was no bread in all the land;  the famine was very sore so Egypt and Canaan languished… Joseph gathered all the money found in Egypt and Canaan for the corn they bought; and brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. .all the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying: ‘Give us bread; why should we die because our money fails?’ And Joseph said: ‘Give your cattle, and I will give you [bread] for your cattle’. And they brought their cattle.. Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the asses; and  fed them with bread in exchange for all their cattle for that year.  When that year ended, they came to him the second year, and said to him: ‘We will not hide .. that our money is all spent; and the herds of cattle are yours, there is nothing left.. but our bodies, and our lands. Why should we die…both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be bondmen to Pharaoh; and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, and that the land be not desolate.’  So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; every Egyptian sold his field, because the famine was sore; and the land became Pharaoh’s.  And as for the people, he removed them city by city, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a portion from Pharaoh… Joseph said to the people: ‘Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh.  Here is seed, sow the land. And at harvest, you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for your households..’ And they said: ‘you have saved our lives.. we will be Pharaoh’s bondmen.’  (Genesis 47:13-26)

The bible recounts the fruit of Jacob’s having stored away supplies in the seven years of good harvests, to use in the following seven years of famine foretold in Pharaoh’s dream.  Within a few years he is in control of every resource – money, land, animals, even the people belong to the State. And more than that, he has changed the very nature of relationship between people and land. He transfers the people from the land that they had owned and farmed, and moves them to distant cities.

The Hizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoach  13thC France) teaches that Joseph does this because he was afraid that the sale of the fields would be forgotten in time, and ancestral claims resurface. So  in order to protect Pharaoh’s ownership Joseph moved the people away from the fields they had sold. Yet the Hebrew says rather more – Joseph transfers the people from the land to the cities, undermining the relationship set at the beginning of the book of Genesis, where people are created to serve and to guard the land, and instead of being the stewards of nature, the people become the servants of the ruling power.

Population transfer, where people lose their relationship to their ancestral lands, where whole communities are forced to uproot themselves and their families and throw themselves on the mercy of the political powers, has been used to keep populations quiet and unable to rebel since time immemorial, becoming seen formally as a human rights violation only in the 20th century. We modern readers find it painful in the extreme, albeit it is small comfort that the people themselves ask to sell themselves to Pharaoh (v19), and that Joseph never agrees to buy them as slaves – as opposed to buying their labour.  Nachmanides comments “They said that they wished to be purchased as slaves to the king to be treated as he saw fit. But Joseph wanted to buy ONLY the land and stipulated that they would be perpetual leaseholders or tenants of Pharaoh. When Joseph told them (v.23) ‘I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh’, he means NOT that he has acquired them as slaves but rather that through their farmland they will serve him. In truth the king should take 80% of the income and leave you only with 20%, but, says Joseph, I will be kind. You will take the (80%) share due to the landowner and Pharaoh will take the (20%) due to the tenant farmer”

The rabbinic tradition is deeply uncomfortable with the actions of Joseph, and one can argue that the bible is also uncomfortable with how he behaves in concentrating all resources and power into the hands of Pharaoh, diminishing the resource and particularly the relationship of the farmers with their land.  One can read this – and the apologetics which are a major component of the classical commentaries – as a textbook reading of how NOT to treat people trying to sustain themselves in areas of drought and famine. Sending supplies/ giving them enough to live from day to day – is of course an an important first step, and Joseph does what is necessary to keep the people alive by giving them bread, and later seeds to plant –  but exploiting the vulnerability of these desperate people is unacceptable, even if they themselves offer to put themselves in the position of being bought and sold.  The Egyptians become workers on the land of the Pharaoh, essentially they are slaves to the Pharaoh. And the whole narrative of the early chapters of Genesis – that humans would feed themselves by working the land, hard but dignified labour where the land would produce under the benign stewardship of the owner/farmer – is subverted in Joseph’s actions. The relationship between land and worker is disrupted deliberately as the original landowners are dispersed from their ancestral places.

The story does not begin at the famine – we see that in the good years that precede it,  food is not saved by those who produced it, but in the storehouses controlled by Joseph, and used to increase the power of the Pharaoh.

This story shows us how slavery becomes normalised, even welcomed as a way to stay fed and alive.  Even if the people themselves suggest selling themselves once they have no more money or other assets, Joseph’s act of population transfer hardens and fixes the reality of the rupture in the relationship between each family and their land. The move away from one’s land and from country to cities loosens the bonds of community, changing relationships further. Everyone becomes a little more vulnerable and a little more alone. The political class concentrates power in its own hands, the population are less able to resist.

So, when the Book of Exodus opens some 450 or so years later, and the memory of Joseph and his part in cementing the ruling powers is forgotten, we find that slavery is an obvious option for the Egyptians to use against the non-Egyptian people living among them.  The powerful are able to manipulate the ordinary citizens, and the stage is set for further misery.

When Joseph interprets the dreams of the Pharaoh and suggests a solution to ensure that the land and people do not perish in the long famine, he never suggests that this should be the lever to remove the agency and power of the grassroots of the people and allow the Pharaoh to become the owner of land and cattle stocks. The agreement was to ensure that people would be fed, that “the land would not perish during the famine”. In going well beyond his brief, in accepting the absolute power given to him by Pharaoh, in naming his children for “forgetting his father’s house” and for “becoming fruitful in Egypt” , Joseph isolates himself from the values of his own tribe and instead allies himself with the values of a society that does not care for the other.

There will be no tribe of Joseph, just the two half tribes of his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. His own dislocation from land is complete – it is the next generations who will begin the healing of both the human and tribal connection to land and the freedom of every person to live in peace upon it. A journey of healing we are all still making.

 

Vayigash: quando i nostri rapporti con la terra e tra di noi sono danneggiati dobbiamo guardare al nostro ruolo prima di poter curare la violazione.

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild, il 1 gennaio 2020

 

La  carestia era gravissima, tutto il paese mancava di viveri e l’Egitto così come Canaan ne erano stanchi. Giuseppe raccolse tutto il denaro che si trovava in Egitto e in Canaan per i viveri che compravano e lo fece entrare nelle casse del Faraone. Finito il denaro in Egitto e in Canaan tutti gli egiziani si presentarono da Giuseppe dicendo: ‘Dacci da mangiare; dobbiamo morire qui davanti a te se non abbiamo più denaro?’ E Giuseppe disse: ‘Date il vostro bestiame e io vi darò viveri in cambio di esso’. Portarono il  bestiame a Giuseppe ed egli quell’anno diede loro viveri in cambio di cavalli, bestiame ovino e bovino e asini; e così li sostentò con vettovaglie in cambio di tutto il loro bestiame. Finito quell’anno gli si presentarono l’anno seguente e gli dissero: ‘Non ti nascondiamo … che se il denaro è finito e se il bestiame è presso di te, o signore, non rimangono a tua disposizione che i nostri corpi e le nostre terre. Perché dovremmo perire … e con noi le nostre terre? Acquista noi e la nostra terra in cambio di viveri, e passeremo al servizio del Faraone; e dacci della semente, sì che possiamo vivere, e non morire, e i terreni non rimangano improduttivi’. Così Giuseppe acquistò al Faraone tutti i terreni d’Egitto poiché ognuno vendette il proprio campo, oppressi com’erano dalla fame e la terra divenne proprietà del Faraone. Trasferì la popolazione da una città all’altra, da una all’altra estremità del territorio egiziano. Solo non acquistò la terra dei sacerdoti, poiché essi ricevevano dal Faraone un assegno determinato … Giuseppe disse al popolo: ‘Ecco, io ho acquistato oggi voi e le vostre terre al Faraone. Eccovi la semente, seminate la terra. E al momento del raccolto, ne darete un quinto al Faraone, e quattro parti saranno le vostre, per seminare il campo, per il mantenimento vostro , di chi avete in casa e dei vostri figli…’ E dissero: ‘hai salvato le nostre vite … saremo i servi del faraone’”.  (Genesi 47: 13-26)

La Bibbia racconta gli esiti dell’atto di Giacobbe di immagazzinare scorte nei sette anni di buoni raccolti, da usarsi poi nei successivi sette anni di carestia predetti nel sogno del Faraone. Nel giro di pochi anni egli ha il controllo di ogni risorsa: denaro, terra, animali, anche il popolo appartiene allo Stato. E, oltre a ciò, ha cambiato la natura stessa del rapporto tra persone e terra. Toglie le persone dalla terra che avevano posseduto e coltivato e le trasferisce in città lontane.

Hizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoach, Francia del XIII sec.) insegna che Giuseppe lo fa perché teme che col tempo la vendita dei campi sarà dimenticata e le rivendicazioni ancestrali riemergerebbero. Quindi, al fine di proteggere la proprietà del Faraone, Giuseppe allontana le persone dai campi che avevano venduto. Eppure l’ebraico dice qualcosa di più: Giuseppe trasferisce la gente dalla terra alle città, minando la relazione stabilita all’inizio del libro di Genesi, in cui le persone sono create per servire e proteggere la terra, e invece di essere l’amministratore della natura, il popolo diventa il servitore del potere dominante.

Da tempo immemorabile il trasferimento della popolazione, con cui le persone perdono il rapporto con le proprie terre ancestrali e intere comunità sono costrette a sradicare se stesse e le loro famiglie e a gettarsi in balia dei poteri politici, è stato utilizzato per mantenere le popolazioni tranquille e incapaci di ribellarsi e, solo nel XX° secolo, viene considerato formalmente come una violazione dei diritti umani. Noi lettori moderni lo troviamo estremamente doloroso, sebbene sia un po’ di conforto che la gente stessa chieda di vendersi al Faraone (v19) e che Giuseppe non accetti mai di comprarli come schiavi ma, al contrario, di comprare il loro lavoro. Nachmanide commenta: “Dissero che desideravano essere acquistati come schiavi dal re per essere trattati come lui riteneva opportuno. Ma Giuseppe voleva comprare SOLO la terra e stabilì che sarebbero stati perpetui locatari o inquilini del Faraone. Quando Giuseppe disse loro (v.23) ‘Oggi ho acquisito voi e la vostra terra per il Faraone’, significa che NON li ha acquisiti come schiavi, ma piuttosto che attraverso i loro terreni agricoli essi lo serviranno. In verità il re dovrebbe prendere l’80% delle entrate e lasciar loro solo il 20%, ma, dice Giuseppe, sarò gentile. Prenderai la parte dovuta al proprietario terriero (l’80%) e il Faraone prenderà (il 20%) la parte dovuta al contadino locatario“.

La tradizione rabbinica è profondamente a disagio con le azioni di Giuseppe, e si può anche sostenere che la Bibbia sia a disagio proprio con il modo in cui si comporta, cioè concentrando tutte le risorse e il potere nelle mani del Faraone, diminuendo le risorse e in particolare il rapporto degli agricoltori con la loro terra. Si può leggere questo, e le scuse che sono una componente importante dei commenti classici, come una lettura da manuale di come NON trattare le persone che cercano di sostenersi in aree di siccità e carestia. Inviare rifornimenti/dare loro abbastanza per vivere di giorno in giorno è ovviamente un primo passo importante, e Giuseppe fa ciò che è necessario per mantenere in vita le persone dando loro il pane e poi i semi da piantare, ma sfruttare la vulnerabilità di queste persone disperate è inaccettabile, anche se loro stessi si offrono e si mettono nella condizione di essere acquistati e venduti. Gli egiziani diventano lavoratori nella terra del Faraone, essenzialmente sono schiavi del Faraone. E l’intera narrazione dei primi capitoli della Genesi, che gli umani si nutrano lavorando la terra, lavoro duro ma dignitoso in cui la terra produce sotto la benigna gestione del proprietario/agricoltore, è sovvertita dalle azioni di Giuseppe. Il rapporto tra terra e lavoratore viene interrotto deliberatamente quando i proprietari terrieri originali vengono dispersi dai loro luoghi ancestrali.

La storia non inizia dalla carestia: vediamo che nei buoni anni che la precedono il cibo non viene salvato da chi lo ha prodotto, ma nei magazzini controllati da Giuseppe, e utilizzato per aumentare il potere del Faraone.

Questa storia ci mostra come la schiavitù venga normalizzata, persino accolta come modo per rimanere nutriti e in vita. Anche se le persone stesse suggeriscono di vendersi quando non hanno più denaro o altri beni, l’atto di trasferimento della popolazione di Giuseppe indurisce e fissa la realtà della rottura nel rapporto tra ogni famiglia e la loro terra. L’allontanamento dalla propria terra e dal paese alle città allenta i legami della comunità, cambiando ulteriormente le relazioni. Tutti diventano un po’ più vulnerabili e un po’ più soli. La classe politica concentra il potere nelle proprie mani, la popolazione è meno in grado di resistere.

Quindi, quando il Libro dell’Esodo si apre circa 450 anni dopo e si perde il ricordo di Giuseppe e il suo ruolo nel cementare i poteri al comando, scopriamo che la schiavitù è un’opzione scontata che gli egiziani possono usare contro il popolo non egiziano che vive in mezzo a loro. I potenti sono in grado di manipolare i cittadini comuni e il palcoscenico è pronto per ulteriori sofferenze.

Quando Giuseppe interpreta i sogni del Faraone e suggerisce una soluzione per garantire che la terra e le persone non muoiano nella lunga carestia, non suggerisce mai che questa debba essere la leva per eliminare il potere della gente comune e consentire al Faraone di diventare proprietario delle terre e del bestiame. L’accordo era di assicurare che le persone fossero nutrite, che “la terra non sarebbe perita durante la carestia”. Andando ben oltre le direttive, accettando il potere assoluto conferitogli dal Faraone, dicendo ai propri figli di “aver dimenticato la casa del padre” e di “diventare fecondo in Egitto”, Giuseppe si isola dai valori della sua stessa tribù e si allea invece con i valori di una società a cui non importa del prossimo.

Non ci sarà una tribù di Giuseppe, solo le due mezze tribù dei suoi figli Efraim e Manasse. La sua alienazione dalla terra è completa: sono le generazioni successive che inizieranno la guarigione della connessione umana e tribale con la terra e la libertà di ogni persona di vivere in pace su di essa. Un viaggio di guarigione che stiamo ancora facendo.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

 

Mikketz: how knowledge and understanding still requires wisdom if we are to avert environmental disaster

 

Pharaoh dreams of seven fat healthy cows feeding by the river, which are devoured by seven sickly cows; then of seven full and healthy ears of corn devoured by seven thin ears of corn, in each case the devourers looked no fuller or healthier for what they had consumed.  Joseph, the interpreter of dreams, is summoned from prison in order to explain the Pharaoh’s dreams.

They are, he announces, dreams of warning of what God is about to bring to Egypt; seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. There are two dreams because of the speed in which events will begin.

Joseph then goes further than his brief. He is brought to interpret the dreams, but having done so he adds to the narrative- a chutzpah that could have had terrible consequence

“Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.

But luckily Pharaoh is impressed. Having asked (rhetorically) if such a man can be found to fulfil this plan, he turns to Joseph and says:  As God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than you.’  And Pharaoh said to Joseph: ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’

The three qualities –da’at (knowledge), binah (discernment) and chochmah (wisdom) come together in this verse indicating that Joseph doesn’t just know what the dream is saying, but that he can imagine the devastation indicated and can formulate and carry out a plan to mitigate it.

The dreams tell the very worst scenario – not only will extended famine come after the good years, but it will consume every aspect of those good years, they will not be remembered or even be able to be imagined – so say the classical commentators noting that when the sickly cows/corn absorb the healthy ones, there is no increase in well-being, no noticeable change at all. The desolation will be so complete it will be as if there was never anything else.

But the intervention of Joseph, with his combined knowledge, discernment and wisdom, was enough to keep Egypt, and even the surrounding areas, fed in the years of famine. The all-consuming famine was survived by the people – albeit they lost control of their land to Pharaoh as the price they paid for their food.

The Maharal of Prague teaches that the solution to the problem of famine in the dream was itself provided in the dream. The fact that the sickly cows and corn absorbed their healthy counterparts was a key to resolving the oncoming disaster – because it taught that there must be work done in the first seven years that would enable the next seven to be survivable. For him preparation in the face of oncoming devastation would enable the people to survive. His teaching primarily addresses the lacunae in the text – why would Joseph overstep his position and offer a solution? How does Pharaoh know that his interpretation was correct, and recognise both the importance of his plan  and the scale of his abilities? But the teaching gives us hope. We can prepare, we can begin to imagine and to mitigate the oncoming changes in our world. We can ensure that people have the resources to survive and sustain ourselves come what may.

In today’s world we once again face droughts and famines, as the global climate changes and watercourses dry up or rain washes away fertile soil. This is something we know, and we are beginning to understand the longer term consequences of much of our activity of the last century. We have both da’at and binah – knowledge and understanding. But is seems to me we have not yet taken on board the need for wisdom.  Joseph had a plan that did not stop the famine, but did mean that no one went hungry – he was proactive rather than reactive. He could imagine the worst case and worked to avert it. It is a lesson – an a quality – we need to acquire quickly if we are not to be overwhelmed by our own environment.

 

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

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