27 Ellul: From certainty to doubt – the journey of faith that prepares us for the Yamim Noraim via psalm 27

It has become traditional among Ashkenazi Jews to read psalm 27 in the morning and evening prayers from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, a custom first mentioned by Jacob Emden in his siddur published 1745. One suggestion for why this psalm became so important to this long period of reflection is the first line – “God is my light and my salvation” which was glossed by the rabbis as referring to Rosh Hashanah (Light) and Yom Kippur (Salvation), and the further reference to the sukkah in verse 5 leads to the extension of the period of reading.

It is an extraordinary psalm, turning on its head the traditional journey of penitential prayer from darkness to light, and instead begins with great confidence before descending into fear and anxiety, and then the psalmist seems to force himself into a more hopeful frame of mind.

The psalm divides into three sections, each with its particular mood and style.  The first six verses show an almost superhuman faith and confidence that God will support the psalmist against whatever comes to try to harm him. But then from verse 7 doubt begins to creep into psalmist’s mind. Beginning by asking God to hear when he calls, he descends into his terror of abandonment – not only by his own parents but by God’s face also being hidden from him. By verse 12 he is fearful, begging  God not to deliver him to his enemies. False witnesses are rising against him, there is the prospect of terrible violence. In this middle section the psalmist speaks directly to God in the second person, unlike the bookended sections where God is spoken of in the third person. And yet, even as he addresses God directly, it is clear that he cannot be certain God is listening.

The third and final section does not take us to any uplifting certainty – indeed the rather complacent faith of the beginning of the poem has been stripped away, and the psalmist is left with the need to remind himself of the need for courage, to hope for a salvation that may or may not come.

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַֽאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹוָֽה:

The final line, with the psalmist telling himself to be strong and to strengthen his heart/ mind, bookended with “wait in expectation for God” is about as high an aspiration for Elul as can exist.

 

The earliest confidence of the psalm is that of the unthinking believer, who simply never questions and who holds the kind of faith that is unsustainable when it meets reality. The doubt and fear that enter the heart of the psalmist in the middle section are reasonable responses to the crises and everyday pains of life – We can feel alone and abandoned, God does not answer our prayers as we would like, and it is the qualified confidence, the need for hope, the expectation of a better outcome that feels real and normative.

 

The very middle of the psalm has a line that is so ambiguous it almost defies translation, yet clearly is the pivot of the piece. In verse 8 we read

לְךָ֤ ׀ אָמַ֣ר לִ֭בִּי בַּקְּשׁ֣וּ פָנָ֑י אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ:

 

It is variously understood to mean

“On Your behalf, my heart says, “Seek My presence.” Your presence, O Lord, I will seek” or

“My heart says to you “Seek me out”—[because] I am seeking you out God.”

Or (Rashi’s understanding) “on Your behalf my heart says ‘Seek out My face”, and the second half of the verse is the psalmists response “I will seek Your face”

Or “To You my heart spoke, my face sought out your face God”

Or ““Of You my heart said “seek My face”, Your face God I do seek” (Robert Alter)

Who exactly is speaking in this verse? Is God sending a message to humanity via their hearts, calling on them to reach out for God? Is this a reciprocal statement where we ask God to seek us because we are seeking God?

The ambiguity speaks to the moment. There is no real clarity in faith, no real certainty that all will be well. Communication with God is often realised after the event, when we recognise we were praying, or when we feel comforted without fully being aware of when or how that comfort came about.

There are so many reasons given why the Ashkenazim read  this psalm 100 times in 50 days, from the idea of salvation in verse one, to the  “coded message” of the word  לׄוּלֵ֣ׄאׄ

in verse 13, (It spells Elul backwards). Whenever there are many answers to a question, we can know only that the answer is not known. But I think this psalm has a powerful capacity to challenge us at this time, to remind us that blind faith is complacent and childish, that doubt and fear are reasonable and normal human responses to life, and that the only real way through is to strengthen one’s self, to hope, to believe and know that hope is a reasonable tool to deal with doubt and fear. And with that message ringing in our ears we travel through Ellul onto Rosh Hashanah and the Yamim Noraim….

Chukkat – how fear can curdle the humanity of societies; or: we won’t forget the heartless Edomites and our heartlessness won’t be forgotten either

It is Refugee Week, the week that takes place across the world around World Refugee Day on 20th June. And while we are horrified by the stories coming from the Mediterranean, with the Aquarius and her sister ships picking up frantic and vulnerable refugees floating on leaky and overcrowded boats in their attempts to seek safety and then desperately looking for a country who will offer them refuge, while we are shocked and appalled by the photos coming from the USA of traumatised and desperate children who have been separated from their parents and caged up in warehouses, while we watch people become dehumanised on our screens or in our newspapers, the bible quietly and insistently sends us a message. Tucked into the more dramatic events in parashat Chukkat come these seven verses:  And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: ‘Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the travail that has befallen us; how our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and our ancestors; and when we cried to the Eternal, God heard our voice, and sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt; and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of your border. Let us pass, I pray you, through your land; we will not pass through field or through vineyard, neither will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go along the king’s highway, we will not turn aside to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your border.’  And Edom said to him: ‘You shalt not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against you.’ And the children of Israel said to him: ‘We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of thy water, I and my cattle, then will I give the price thereof; let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt.’ And he said: ‘You shalt not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; wherefore Israel turned away from him (Numbers 20:14-21

A frightened people want to pass near the borders of Edom on their way from misery and torment in one country as they journey to find safety. And they are refused. They try to be diplomatic, they offer to pay for any damage or any resource used, they are desperate to come through this land to get to safety, but not only does Edom refuse to let them do so, they come out with an army to prevent them from coming anywhere near.

What are Edom so afraid of? Why do they chase this group away in such a hostile manner? In what way does it benefit them? In what way might they honestly be threatened?

Edom is understood to be the city of Esau – a close relative, the brother of Jacob. But there is no warmth to be found in this story. The people move to Mt Hor and back towards the sea of reeds, in order to travel around Edom but quickly find themselves in the same position with Sihon, the king of the Amorites.  The story is retold in Deuteronomy, when nearly forty years after the first attempt God reminds the people not to provoke Edom, who have been given this land by God, and this time they are allowed to go through.  But should we expect today’s refugees to wait for nearly forty years to find some peace, put down some roots, get on with their lives?

In today’s world we find that we are living in one of the largest forced displacement crises ever recorded. Over 65 million people are on the move, force to flee their homes and look for safety elsewhere.   Last year, 362,376 people arrived in Europe via sea. Just under half were women and children. About a million people from outside Europe claimed refugee status in the twelve months just gone.. But contrary to the narratives so many media offer, most refugees are actually taken in and cared for by poorer countries than those of Europe. The UN’s Refugee Agency estimates that nearly nine in ten of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries. Take a moment for that to sink in.  Ninety percent of the world’s refugees are taken care of by countries that can themselves barely afford to do so. And yet they do. And meanwhile the richer countries act like the Edomites and refuse even the polite and diplomatic requests to travel through, the offer to pay for resources, to desperate need to be safe – preferring to show force and to send the refugees away to try to find another way to safety

The name Edom is used as rabbinic code for Rome. Rome, the powerful and wealthy head of the huge and spreading Empire which did not care for the vulnerable or the stranger but only for its own status and power. Our tradition speaks of Edom with disdain, it is the model of behaviour that is unacceptable, it is the model we do not wish to be like. Bible reminds us repeatedly to care for the stranger, the vulnerable in society, the ones who have fallen to the bottom of the societal pile.  And yet here we are, watching an American administration quote biblical verses as ‘proof’ of the right to separate children from their parents and lock them up without comfort or care. The Independent Newspaper has reported that up to 2,000 children migrant children have been separated from their families in just six weeks in the USA. We are watching an Italian government minister try to take a census of the Roma community, in order to expel those who do not have Italian citizenship. We know that here in the UK there is still indefinite detention for people whose paperwork is not completely full and in order, we see a terrible rise in xenophobia and people being attacked in public spaces for being foreign. We have a Home Office who is proud of operating a “hostile environment”, and a Prime Minister who was the architect of the policy and remains proud of it, even as we see the how the Windrush Generation were treated with disdain and with no respect, as we hear the stories of families split apart, of people’s live shattered at the whim of some ill though out and  bureaucratic policy. As we mark refugee week, as we read Chukkat with its focus on death and purity, with its narratives of the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, with its record of the actions of Edom to the vulnerable migrants known as the children of Israel, we weep.

If we had to write a history of the world right now, if we had to write of the 65 million people fleeing violence or war in their own homes, of the talk of locking up people and indefinite detention for those without the right papers, if we had to record the stories of the people picked up on the Mediterranean Sea, in fear of drowning but prepared to take the risk as being less awful than staying put, if we had to record the fear of travelling communities, of people who have been uprooted from their homes – what would the people reading our history say? How would they look on an administration quoting Bible to justify their abuses of power to the most vulnerable? How would they look at a Europe which takes a tiny percentage of the mass of rootless and fearful people, and which squabbles over who is taking enough of the “burden”?

In Chukkat we read of the red heifer, the ashes of which will purify the impure and make impure the pure. It is a chok, a law without reason, done only on the grounds of faith. In refugee week 2018 as we read the parasha we see that there is no reason, only the belief that we must keep people out at all costs – even at the cost of their lives, as we increase the impurity in our world by denying the most vulnerable their dignity.

The antidote to causeless hatred is causeless love. We are a long way from it right now, but we can hope that the outrage will finally be enough to make the necessary changes, that the political will to care for people because they are people will be found, that refugees may soon find places to call home.

Parashat Chukkat reminds us that the world is a scary place, that resources are finite and that death will come to us all. But it reminds us too of the dignity of refugees, of the humanity of the people travelling to find safety, of their connection to us, and that history will record and we will be judged. May that be enough to bring change and rest for those who so sorely need it.

 

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Korach: reading the Bad Boys of the Exodus can help with the Bad Boys of Brexit

Reading Bible reminds us again and again that people are the same, whatever age they live in, and that politics is also essentially unchanged over the centuries. Some people have principles, others appear to have only causes, and one repeatedly seen cause is sadly that of increasing their own power and status.

Yes, they will dress it up – in a tub-thumping speech to the leader they may say “you are taking too much on yourself, all the people are holy” or they may use the language of the demagogue explicitly reminding others that only they are following “the will of the people” and everyone else is betraying them. Often the speaker is privileged and wealthy, yet somehow acts as if they are one of the less advantaged, and speak against some notionally distant and uncaring governing elite.

So Korach, cousin of Aaron and Moses, was a member of the tribe of Levi, singled out for special status. The midrash tells us that he was very wealthy (indeed the phrase “as rich as Korach” in Hebrew equates with the modern slang “filthy rich” and Bemidbar Rabba 18:15 tells us that Korach was the comptroller in Pharaoh’s palace and was in charge of the keys of his treasuries, and later on is clear that he was not the most disinterested or honest supervisor, but took many of the riches for himself (Bemidbar Rabba 22:7)   And yet his language implies that he is simply the spokesperson for the downtrodden and ignored, as he whips up a populist movement to his own agenda.

There can be no doubt that Korach is one of the “Bad Boys of the Exodus”. And of course he gets his comeuppance, as the duel of the firepans of incense leads the rebels to their unnatural deaths while Aaron and his family are confirmed in the priesthood and the copper from the firepans is to be used to plate the altar to remind everyone that the priesthood is of the family of Aaron (See Numbers 17)

God, having taken out the leadership of the rebellion, is keen to finish the job, sending a plague upon the whole community, and Aaron and Moses have to rush to help save them from the consequences of this rebellion.

Sometimes bible has a way of speaking to the current moment in an eerie and extraordinary way. Here in the UK we have our demagogues, almost to a man wealthy and privileged and with a deep urge to seize power. The leadership of the Brexit project – the “Bad Boys of Brexit” are generally personally wealthy, have a background of privilege in terms of education and family connections, and have manipulated people who have been ignored or suppressed into somehow believing that they are just like them. The newspapers they write for or control drip poisonous xenophobic tropes, see the European Union as other, indeed as enemy. They deliberately whip up the ideas of treason, seeing enemies and betrayal everywhere. For years stories about “the other” have published which show the poor patriotic English person being cheated, lied to, ignored in favour of foreigners.  Forget the ideology of working for European peace, if you read these papers you would believe that laws are imposed on us by foreigners who don’t consult, don’t expect us to have a voice, don’t care about us, only about our money which they want from us. These years have done their work, the mob are roused, with threats of violence against anyone with a different narrative, from Members of Parliament down. And real violence against anyone perceived as “other”. For me the nadir was the headline “enemies of the people” in the Daily Mail (4.11.17), with photos of three High Court Judges who “defied {the} Brexit voters” and who could trigger a constitutional crisis. What had the Judges done? They had ruled that Parliament must be consulted before the Government could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would start the UK’s formal process of EU withdrawal.

In the story of Korach, the rebels are spectacularly –and unnaturally – dealt with, going down into the bowels of the earth which then closed over them. But the continued effect of their poison and lies meant that God was prepared to continue cleansing the people – by plague. It took the desperate interventions of Moses and Aaron to change that terrible outcome, and to get the people once more back on track to achieve their goal, of entry into the Promised Land.  We learn from this that the power of the rabble rouser and demogague continues long after they have stopped. It takes courage and thoughtful intervention, facing the problem and the poison and combatting it with a different narrative, to slowly root out the worst of it.

But the human desire for grabbing power and for seeing others as foreign or other does not go away. It must be recognised and it must be contained, for it will never leave us. There will always be those who rise up in every generation to pervert justice and kindness for their own benefit and we need to be aware of this and on our guard, fighting and fighting for the values of understanding our shared humanity, of having compassion for the other  rather than fear or hatred.  It is interesting to see that some psalms are written by the bnei Korach – the sons or descendants of Korach. Korach does not go away, but becomes part of the community – and we have to be aware that the tropes of Korach’s rebellion are still entwined within our groups.

How our current situation, of growing populist movements and politicians will end, we don’t yet know.  We see that the language of snide demagoguery continues, we see that wealth has been acquired through odd and secretive ways from outside the community (just as Korach had appropriated his wealth immorally from Egyptian stores). We see parties or individuals gaining power by whipping up xenophobia and hatred while implying that they are on the side of the poor and dispossessed.  No God is going to come and cause the earth to open – we are on our own with this one. But we should take heart from the biblical text. Ultimately Korach loses, the people are back on track and the violence and plague abates. It takes work and pain and fear and tears. But ultimately Korach will lose again.

 

 

Sukkot: Our plans make God laugh but we hope and trust anyway – what else can we do but rejoice in the life we have?

Putting up the succah in our autumnal garden some of last year’s birch leaves fall out of the folds of the s’chach and I am transported back to memories of the year gone by, aware suddenly of the passing of time, of what has changed and what is changing.

Autumn brings a special kind of melancholy. Some flowers and fruits are at their peak, the pears plumply falling on the lawn; the apples – those that have not been enjoyed by the birds – full and round. Many plants are still flowering profusely and as I look at them I know with sadness that soon  I will have to disrupt this joyful performance in order to dig them up and save them for next year, or cut them back to prevent the frost damaging their tender stems.

In the garden it feels a bit like a last hurrah. The squirrels are busily collecting acorns and conkers to bury against a hard winter; the birds are gorging on berries, the bees checking each bloom for the last sweet drops they may give up. The air has a chill, leaves are already creating an unwanted blanket over the flower beds, my gardener’s instincts are warning me not to leave the tidying up – what my mother calls ‘putting the garden to bed’ –  too  late. If I do, the price will be the slimy stems of frost damaged annuals, happy slugs and other pests doing their damage in comfort, and the bone chilling experience of wrestling with dead or dying vegetation fixed into the unyielding soil.

Autumn brings with it a sense of dying even while life is climaxing.  We have more than a shiver of recognition of our own mortality. And the Jewish festivals have been resonating with the season – We begin a new year with reflection and awe as we undergo Judgment Day – Yom HaDin; we follow through the Ten Days of Repentance (the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah) as we acknowledge our shortcomings and mistakes, until Yom Kippur enables us to, so to speak, slough off the burden of guilt that has been weighing on us, having done all we can to remedy what we have done.  We tidy up the garden even as we are enjoying its beauty; we cover over and put to bed the nagging thoughts about things we can no longer do anything about. We prepare for the future by cleansing the landscape of our lives.

And because all work like this takes longer than the original plan, and indeed is an ongoing act throughout the year, Jewish tradition reminds us that the Gates of Repentance stay open until the end of the Succot festival.

With all the intimations of death within life, with all the resonance of mortality and melancholy the season brings, we are commanded in bible to treat the festival of Succot with joyfulness. It is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our joy. We must rejoice before God with the products of the land, the pri etz hadar (fruit of the beautiful tree), the palm, the myrtle, the willow of the brook.

As a gardener I notice that these plants all grow in Israel in different parts of the country – for such a tiny piece of land the different micro-climates are extraordinary.  The lulav, coming from the palm tree, fruits most happily where it is hot and dry – while it grows in the coastal areas, in truth it is a tree that disdains humidity and far prefers the semi –desert conditions. The myrtle (hadas) prefers the cooler mountainous areas. The aravah (willow) needs to be close to a consistent water supply (hence “willows of the brook”) and the etrog grows best in the lower coastal areas and the valleys.  These four symbols of Succot encompass all the growing conditions a gardener could work in, and it is a rarely lucky horticulturist who finds themselves able to work them all in one garden.  I would love more acid soils and less shade in my garden, but such is life, one works with what one has.

We bring together vegetation from all areas of Israel, symbolising not only geographical or horticultural diversity but also different times in our lives- the hot semi desert when growth and change seem impossible, the cool perspective when we can see, if not always reach, our next stage, the times when life flows fast around us and the times when the horizon is very distant and unimaginable.

On Succot we telescope the year with its possibilities into this composite symbol; indeed we telescope our lives with its many experiences both good and bad into the celebration of the festival, and we rejoice before God for our very selves. We know that no life is untouched by sorrow, that no-one escapes from living without experiencing problems and pain, but we know too that our lives are something to be thankful for, to celebrate and enjoy.  The autumnal adumbral presentiments of change – of life and death and rebirth – make us pause for a moment to notice the change, the growing and the dying back, the fruiting and the flowering.

Why are we commanded to rejoice at the very time we are facing the bleakness of the  winter? I think it is an assertion of hope, of trust that the world will once again flourish and flower, that life, even as it is in the process of completing one cycle, is readying and preparing the next. We are facing a dormancy but not an ending. We rejoice because we have confidence that we are not alone, that our lives are not isolated, but that a thread of something beyond us will connect us in time and space. The very succot we build and live in, fragile and uncomfortable and with little protection from the elements, remind us that when all the physical defences and supports we take for granted are gone, we are still together, still in community, still under the protection of God.  When we tie together the arba’a minim, we not only become aware of the larger world, shaking it East, South, West, North, Upwards and Downwards in petition for the water our land needs at this time, we also become aware of the composite peoplehood we are a part of. The midrashim that link the parts to the parts of the body, the “types “ that make up community, the geography of the Land of Israel – all of them have one thing in common. If we care for each other and live in community, sharing what we have, comforting those in pain or distress, recognising the humanity of the other, then we are stronger, we can face the Autumn and the Winter, we can depend on the thread of life that may seem impossible to see, that may lie dormant under unpromising conditions.

We rejoice on Succot because with all of the fears, all of the uncertainty, all of the sudden awareness of the transience of our materiality, we remember that we are part of a greater whole, and God, even if not obvious to us, underpins us and supports us and keeps us alive to say the she’he’cheyanu prayer at this season. We none of us know what our future holds for us and while we might make plans for it these are at the most provisional. As the Yiddish saying goes: Der mentsh tracht und Gott lacht – Human Beings make plans and (this is why) God laughs

דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט

All we can do is live in the moment, aware of the fragilities of life and aware too that life goes on – and hope that we will see the next season and the next.

 

Parashat Shelach Lecha: The faith of women is overlooked and the result is catastrophic

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֣ישׁ אֶחָד֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶחָ֜ד לְמַטֵּ֤ה אֲבֹתָיו֙ תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ כֹּ֖ל נָשִׂ֥יא בָהֶֽם:

God tells Moses to send men to travel round the land of Canaan, which God is giving to the children of Israel – one man from each ancestral tribe, each one a leader.

So begins the tale of the spies, whose return from reconnoitering the land  bringing stories of the hopelessness of the enterprise led to the people to become so disheartened that the story of the Israelites entering their promised land may easily have ended right here.  Certainly it becomes clear that the people are not yet ready to take the next step, and a prolonged sojourn in the wilderness as a new generation grows and takes over is necessary.

At first sight it seems a bit of an own goal – God tells Moses to send the men, trusted leaders who are – as Rashi says, commenting on the use of the word “anashim” – important and also righteous.  And yet the failure of leadership – apart from the perspectives of Joshua and Caleb – is catastrophic for the generation of the exodus.

The traditional commentators are interested in this story, in what went so badly wrong that the trajectory of the narrative was skewed and the journey that should have taken a short time ended up being one that took forty years.

Clearly there is a problem with the spies. Firstly comes the question of “shelach lecha” – a phrase that sounds so close to the divine commandment to Abraham “lech lecha”, and yet unlike Abraham’s journey of trust in God and of his own spiritual and material growth, this journey seems to be the exact opposite.

The casual reader might assume that a military reconnoitre of the land God is giving would be simple good practise. After all, even though God says “I am giving the land to the Children of Israel”,  surely a back-up plan is sensible.   But the reader trained to read through the Jewish texts will see this differently.

“Shelach lecha” – send “for yourself” – this is not something that God needed Moses to do, it was something that Moses and the children of Israel needed to do. Unlike  “Lech lecha” – Go to/for yourself” this is not a journey of discovery of the self, it is a journey to allay the fears the self already has. It bespeaks a lack of trust in God. The midrashic traditions picks this up – sending the men is a demonstration of lack of faith in God, but there is a further question we must ask. God is telling Moses not to simply have faith, but saying “you can send if you must”.

In the retelling of the story in Deuteronomy (1:20-46) it becomes clear from Moses’ speech that the request to send men does not come from God but from the people.  Moses tells the story like this “Behold, the Eternal your God has set the land before you, go up and take possession of it as the Eternal, the God of your ancestors told you. Do not fear and do not be dismayed. And you came to me, all of you, and said “Let us send men before us so that they will look out the land for us and bring us word of the way by which we should go up, and the cities we will encounter. And it seemed a good idea to me, and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe….”

This now begs the question, if it seemed not unreasonable that the people might want to know more about the land, and God – while not requiring this – did not command against it, then who SHOULD have been sent up to see the lay of the land?

The clue lies in the context of the story. It takes place just after the story of Miriam and the Cushite woman, where Miriam seems to be punished for speaking falsely, for asserting her own importance at the expense of another, and for showing lack of respect for others. A lesson needs to be learned, the question is – who has learned it?

Fantastically Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, (1550 – 1619) the scholar and poet and writer of his own Torah commentary (Kli Yekar) asks this question and answers it: Who should have been sent? The women!

He bases his opinion on a number of midrashic stories where it is the women who show themselves to have more faith than the men. They continue to have babies even when the Egyptian authorities try to murder their new-borns and their men refuse to have sexual relations with them. They protect their baby sons in this time. They refuse to give up their jewellery at first when the golden calf is created.  So when faith is really needed, it is the women who provide it.

The Kli Yekar notes that when the spies bring back their report of the difficulty of taking the land which is well protected and whose people look strong and powerful, the men revolt and want to return to Egypt.  In Chapter 14 the text is clear that while all the people wept, it was the men who said “why did God bring us to this land to fall by the sword, our wives and children will be prey, it would be better to return to Egypt. So they said to each other, let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt” (1:2-4). This establishes the lack of faith of the men for the Kli Yakar who goes on to compare this behaviour with that of the daughters of Zelophechad who specifically ask to be able to own the land of their father who had died without a male heir. For Rabbi Luntschitz this shows – along with all the other examples of women’s faith – that the faith of women is superior to that of the men, and hence if Moses had really wanted to send people on this errand that demonstrated a lack of complete faith in God, he should have sent women who would not have fallen so easily into the fearfulness and desire to return to Egypt rather than go forward into the land.

For the Kli Yekar Moses made a disastrous decision that was informed more by his prejudice about men’s roles and women’s roles and less by any empirical observation as to who had shown real faith in God.  Had Moses sent women to spy out the land (and it doesn’t seem to worry him that women might be functioning as army scouts, unlike some of today’s rabbonim) then they would have returned with the information and framed it in the same hopeful and faithful way that Joshua and Caleb did – it is a tough land to conquer but God is with us.

Add to this that the women have seen what happened to Miriam when she was banished with a skin complaint for her ungracious behaviour that had asserted her importance over the Cushite woman – they know that God is watching closely, that trusting in God is important.

But the men – Moses among them – are caught up with their own status. They are princes, they are leadership, they are important – they are anashim.  They have learned nothing, neither about God’s continued presence nor about humility and faith. Shelach lecha – it is all about them.  And when it fails, the answer is to find another leader from among their ranks and return to business as usual, go back to the safety of the slave routine of Egypt.

As the orthodox world continues to struggle with the role of women, perpetually trying to find ways to put us out of the public space and to assert the norms of the patriarchy, it is sobering to read the thoughts of one rabbi from the 16th century who recognised the need for women to come into the public space and be acknowledged for their own selves.

The Kli Yekar takes his name from the book of Proverbs 20:15 “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel”

He is indeed a rare jewel, he speaks from within the tradition and he speaks a deep truth. Almost all commentators agree that God did not want Moses to send anyone to scout out the land – it was an act of lack of faith. But if someone did have to go to reassure the people, send people whose faith you can trust in- and who better in this case than the people who have demonstrated again and again their trust in God and in a better future?  – The women of the exodus.

Vashti: a heroine not just for Purim #nastywoman

The story of Vashti is found in the first chapter of the book of Esther. We are introduced to her as she makes a feast for the women in the royal household, paralleling the feast made by the king for the men. There is no description of her feast, unlike the detailed account given of the King’s event where the extravagance of the decorations, the furniture, the utensils and the food and wine are described in all their excessive bling.

After seven days of feasting and drinking, the King decides to show off to the assembled hordes and bring his beautiful wife to his event, and the text does indeed tell us that she was “tovat mar’eh” – good to look at. He sends the seven eunuchs (sarisism) who served him to bring Vashti before him, wearing the crown royal (no other clothing is described leading the commentators to assume she was to appear naked before her husband and his friends). But Vashti refused to come at the king’s command given via his sarisim, and this angered the king greatly.

The King asked his advisors what legal consequences should follow for the Queen Vashti having refused to do the request of the King as relayed by his sarisim.

It is a strange few verses. First we are told that the King said to the wise men who understood the times – but we are not told what he said, instead there is a narrative insertion to tell us that this was his custom before those who knew law and judgment. And what does it mean that the wise men understood the times? That they were political advisors? that they were close to public opinion? Then we are given the names of the seven princes of Persia and Media – are these the wise men or are these a different group? We know that they were sitting right next to the king at the feast, that they were the first/highest in the kingdom; and we know too that they saw the king’s face.

Then comes the question – oddly phrased as a legal enquiry, and in the third person. “’What shall we do to the Queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she has not done the bidding of the King Ahasuerus by the chamberlains (sarisim)?”

And what is the position of sarisim? Is the request greater or smaller because of their involvement? Why is their presence and role as messengers repeatedly pointed out? Is Vashti offended that the message has come through them? Is she asking for a direct conversation with the King?

It is Memucan, one of the princes of Media who responds. And he exaggerates and inflames the situation in an extraordinary way. “’Vashti the !ueen has not only done wrong to the King, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples that are in all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the Queen will become known to all women, [and the effect will be] to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes.  It will be said: The King Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the Queen to be brought in before him, but she did not come. And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the Queen say the like to all the King’s princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath.”

Suddenly the Queen’s refusal to attend her husband’s banquet in order for her beauty to be appreciated by his friends is escalated into an insult to all the peoples in the 127 provinces ruled over by the King. Suddenly she is a role model to every woman who will now defy their husbands – or at the least find them contemptible.

It makes you wonder about Memucan, about his own sense of self, his arrogance and his male privilege which seems to mask a very thin skin and a deep fear of women finding him laughable.  If twitter had been around he would surely have tweeted “Vashti is a nasty woman. Disobedient and harmful. Arrogant! Bad!  #nastywoman”

He has a solution to the threat that Vashti’s behaviour might cause if other women heard of it and wanted to emulate it:

“If it please the King, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus, and that the King give her royal estate to another that is better than she.”

She is to be banished from ever coming to the King again. She is to be stripped of her title and her possessions. She is to be treated as a bad woman – there will be others who are ‘tovah mimena’ – better than her.

And so Vashti disappears from the story. And just to rub in the reason for her treatment we are told that letters were sent in every language of the empire to remind the people “that every man should bear rule in his own house”

Vashti is a pawn in a game about explicitly retaining and building up male power and privilege. Anyone who challenges the status quo will be callously punished and that punishment held up as an example to anyone else who might think about challenging in the future.

To that extent, she is a foreshadow of the struggle of the Jews in this self-same Empire. She chooses not to kowtow to the servant/sarisim/chamberlain just as Mordechai chooses not to kowtow to that servant of the King – Haman. But unlike him she has no other channel of communication – what does the book of Esther learn from this? That the Jews are going to need a number of routes of communication if they are to survive the experience of living under a petulant dictator with enormous powers at his disposal. They are going to need to build many different and diverse relationships.

The midrashic tradition treats Vashti with great unkindness – seeing the need to denigrate her in order to build up the passive and obedient Esther. Both women become pawns in the game of male power and privilege, and they are set up against each other in a literary fiction in order to heighten the reader’s understanding of which is the right way to respond.

So poor Vashti, whose name means ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’ in Persian becomes a cautionary tale in the hands of the rabbinic tradition of the Talmud. They decide there is a connection in her name with the Hebrew verb “shoteh” – drinking, and suggest she was alcoholic and thus her disobedience was done in her cups.

They decide that when the king specifies she must come wearing her crown, that she is supposed to wear nothing else – her immodesty is legendary.  But then the Midrash suggests that she refuses to do so not because she is appalled at the request, but because she has a defect – a skin rash, a tail, leprosy – and the men will find her ugly.

There is a Midrash that she is of much grander ancestry than her husband – she is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and daughter of Belshazar, while Ahasuerus began life as the servant of her father. The problem – that she never lets him forget that she had a more powerful and higher status ancestry, she was a nagging and bitter wife, the sort of wife who would try to emasculate her husband with every opportunity. Of course she deserved her punishment, the arrogant woman.

And while she was busy trying to oppose her husband, the Midrash posits that she humiliated the other women, in particular those who were powerless, the Jewish maids whom she made work on Shabbat, whom she made work without their clothes – all this because she was called on the seventh day of the feast, and the punishment had to fit the crime, so this extraordinary crime was deduced.

Poor poor Vashti. She is indeed a cautionary tale. Beware of men in power who are scared of mature and confident women.

The story that she could not come and dance naked because she had a defect has an extra layer – that the Angel Gabriel came and fixed upon her not a tail, but a penis. Vashti is the ultimate unfeminine woman, the woman who challenges men on their own terms, the woman who behaves like a man.

You get the feeling that the storytellers who needed to diminish Vashti in this way had their own problems. They feared women who were in control of their lives, who were not dependant and therefore not in a supplicatory position in their relationships.

And you hope that the writers of this aggadic hate-fest are safely in the past. That men no longer fear women routinely, that we can see the stories for what they are – the projections of people who inadequately prepared to relate to others on an equal basis.

But of course we read this story on a yearly basis for a reason. We see that irrational fear of others never leaves the discourse entirely, that be it a woman who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of her husband or a Jew who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of a political force, or a human being who refuses to bow to an ideology of hatred, the battle continues.

Vashti is the bellwether, the indicator that something is deeply wrong in the system that is meant to be delivering good governance. Right now we see a President signing acts against religious groups or a Prime Minister choosing to use vulnerable groups as bargaining chips in their negotiations. Right now we see children and families fleeing from war and terrorism being refused sanctuary in a country which could easily afford to help them if it chose to do so.  Right now we are seeing bellwethers warning us that fascism is on the rise in Europe, that the learning and structures that were set up after the second world war to prevent such horror happening again are being forgotten, being overridden, being despised.  What will happen to our bellwethers if we don’t pay attention to them? Vashti disappears from the Esther narrative in a scant twelve verses. How quickly the world can change and progress and goodness erode into nationalism and hatred, into asserting power over the vulnerable, into anger that burns so fiercely that everything is consumed.

Vashti comes to tell us something important. A feminist icon she may be, but more importantly she brings a reminder that when we act out of fear of the other, out of fear of losing our privilege, a whole world can disintegrate and many people suffer.

Elisheva: challenging the patriarchal structure with her mixed feelings. Parashat Va’era

Early in the sidra is a partial genealogy, which leads us rapidly to the Levitical line. A genealogy of the Levites takes us from Levi through Kohat to Amram father of Aaron and Moses. Unusually, three women are named in this genealogy:

Amram married Yocheved the sister of his father, and she gave birth to Aaron and Moses (Miriam is not mentioned here).

Aaron married Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon; and she bore him Nadav and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar.

Eleazar Aaron’s son took him one of the daughters of Putiel to wife; and she bore him Pinchas.

It is unusual for the wives to be named in these genealogies and so we must explore this further to see what Torah is trying to tell us.   Amram and Yocheved are nephew and aunt –both descendants of Levi, so Aaron and Moses are, so to speak, doubly Levitical.

It is not clear who Putiel is – he appears only here. Nor do we know how many daughters he had, or the names of any of them.

But Elisheva is given a much fuller ‘yichus’ – she is the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon and we know from later in bible that her tribe therefore is that of Judah.  Not much is known of Amminadav, but Nachshon features further in text and tradition.  We learn in the book of Numbers that under God’s instruction, Nachshon ben Amminadav was appointed by Moses as ‘Nasi’, leader/prince of the Tribe of Judah (Num. 1:7), to stand with Moses and to help him lead the people.  We can also see that through Boaz he will be a direct ancestor to King David; and curiously he sits exactly half way in the biblical genealogy that leads directly from Judah to David.

Because of his descent from Judah and his many regal descendants, Nachshon is praised in the rabbinic literature. Most famously – even though the biblical text does not mention him there – he is said to have shown real faith at the Reed Sea. The Israelites having left Egypt after the final plague, found themselves trapped. In front of them was the water and behind them the furious pursuing army. They complained bitterly to Moses asking why he had brought them there only to die in the wilderness.  And while they were standing there, each one angrily refusing to go further, and while Moses was praying to God for help, Nachshon ben Amminadav jumped into the water and when it reached his nostrils, the waters parted. (BT Sotah 36a; Mechilta Beshalach)

This is the brother of Elisheva, a man apparently of great qualities – and as Elisheva is introduced to us as his sister – an unnecessary addition in the generational genealogy- it is assumed that something else is being alluded to here beyond the blood relationship. Elisheva brings into the Priestly line that will descend from her and Aaron the qualities of leadership embodied by her own family which will provide the Royal line.

Elisheva will give birth to the four sons of Aaron, two of whom, Nadav and Avihu, will suffer a terrible and violent death shortly after being inducted into the priesthood. The other two will continue the hereditary line of the Cohanim – the Jewish priests.   She is, with Aaron, the root of the priestly tradition. And she also brings together the two formal leadership roles within the biblical tradition – she brings the royal line of Judah which is already generations old, (Judah having been blessed by Jacob on his deathbed as being the Royal line), together with the brand new line of hereditary priesthood.

Elisheva is understood in tradition to be a woman who had reason for great pride and joy by virtue of her relationships to male leaders:  The Talmud (Zevachim 102a) tells us that on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan “Elisheva had five additional joys over other daughters of Israel. She was the sister-in-law of the king (Moses), the wife of the High Priest (Aaron), her son (Elazar) was the segan (deputy high priest), her grandson (Pinchas) was anointed for war, and her brother (Nachshon) was a prince of the tribe of Judah [and the first of the twelve tribal leaders to make a gift offering for the inauguration]  One can add to this list that it was Betzalel ben Hur her nephew  of the tribe of Judah, who was the architect appointed by God to build the Mishkan.

Talmud however goes on to note “yet she was bereaved of her two sons”

I find this extraordinary. The Talmudic text is well aware that Elisheva, like Aaron, is bereaved of two of her adult children in a moment – destroyed when beginning their work as priests, but offering strange fire before God. We don’t really understand what happened here – were they drunk? Idolatrous? Inefficient?  Improperly dressed? – but we do understand that they die instantly. And we also understand that while a male response is described to these deaths, (Moses speaks to Aaron about God’s demands for the priesthood, Aaron is silent, Mishael and Elzaphan the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron are instructed to bring the bodies out of the mishkan and put them outside the camp, Elazar and Itamar are instructed about their priestly duties, along with Aaron…) Nothing is said about the response of Elisheva, the mother of the dead boys.

Aaron is famously silent – we are told this and it is understood that he is able to accept that the greater good of the priesthood is more important than the individual fates of his two sons. But his enigmatic silence is at painful odds with the complete erasure of the response of Elisheva. I cannot for a moment imagine that she would have taken the deaths quite so phlegmatically.

In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 20:2) we see the situation from the viewpoint of Elisheva. “Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, did not enjoy happiness in this world. True, she witnessed the five crowns [attained by her male relatives] in one day…but when her sons entered to offer incense and were burnt, her joy was changed to mourning.”

The Midrash not only allows her mourning, it accepts that the deaths of her sons affected her profoundly so that even the achievements of her other male relatives would not give her any happiness.  Mourning as a parent is all-consuming. It is not ever something that one can recover fro;  the best that can happen is that joy can once again be experienced tinged with sadness, with an awareness that life is incomplete and will remain so.

Elisheva, the woman who brings together the lines of power and leadership – monarchy and priesthood, who is the foremother therefore of all those who have to care for the people, who have to lead it thoughtfully and in is best interest; Elisheva, matriarch and founding spirit of all the leaders whose job is to serve, to provide security, to be thoughtful about the impact of their decisions in the wider world –  brings not only the qualities of power that leadership needs, she brings another quality – the awareness of incompleteness and imperfection that we must live with.

It is a truism that peace/shalom is never fully here – the most we have is an absence of conflict and we must work to stop such conflict breaking out and gaining ascendancy. Our hope for each other uses the prefix le – leshalom, TOWARDS shalom, rather than b’shalom –IN/WITH peace because we are constantly striving towards it – we only reach our individual shalom when we are dead, as the biblical language confirms.  It is also true that every joy we have in life is good but it is temporary and it is always susceptible to change. We live in a world of uncertainty and entropy, change will happen and we must be able to cope with it.

Elisheva had so much in life – she came from a successful and value driven family, she married into another one, she had children and grandchildren, she features (albeit briefly) in bible. But as the midrash tells us, she did not enjoy happiness in this world, she lived in the liminal space where the pain of her mourning, and her awareness of the continuing fragility of the lives of those we love can  tinge, if not overshadow all happiness.

At a Jewish wedding there is a tradition to break a glass at the end of the ceremony. There are many reasons given – to scare away demons who may be lurking and to remember the destruction of the Temple  are two of the most famous, but the most likely is to remind everyone in the room that joy is transitory and good times must be enjoyed when we encounter them.

Life is hard and we shall all encounter a mixture of good and bad, of ease and difficulty, of problems and effortlessness as we go through it.  We will all meet difficulties, many of us will face fear and anxiety, some of us will have to deal with tragedy. We cannot allow fear or pain or sadness to overwhelm us but neither must we suppress the realities that they exist.

Elisheva encountered both extreme highs and lows of life. Bible is silent on her way of dealing with it, but rabbinic tradition uses her as a model, in the full knowledge that the people it is writing for would also face good times and bad, and needed to find resilience beyond that of blind faith. Elisheva lives on after the tragedy of the deaths of her sons, she continues to experience joy and sadness, she is able to experience both but neither of them can be untouched by the other. She is a human being who copes with life.

The name Elisheva can mean either “my God has sworn an oath” or it can mean “my God has satisfied”. What is the oath that is sworn? That God will remain our God through the ages, through good times and bad. And in what way is Elisheva ‘satisfied’? She has had a lot of good in her life, which enables her to deal also with the bad.

We learn from Elisheva that we can both enjoy life and mourn for what we no longer have, or might never have. We must live with the mingling of light and dark, knowing that each will tinge the other but each must be lived through. We learn that holding a constant sense that we are still connected to God, even in the dark times, even when may be afraid or sad or even angry with God, will help us through our lives.

No one gets away with a life that has no loss and no pain. No one escapes pain – it is an elemental human condition and closely allied to the ability to love. The men around Elisheva take refuge in their status, but Elisheva stands out, a scion of the royal line, the mother of priests. She may appear to have everything, but what matters can be taken away in a heartbeat and then the “everything” shows what it truly is – momentary, material, and irrelevant. Elisheva reminds us that relationships not only underpin our lives, they provide connection and the place to be ourselves. Everything else will pass.