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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ten Days of Return: Calling out to God determined to be heard

The Psalmist asks “Eternal God, what are human beings that you should care for them, mortal creatures that you should notice them?”

The question is carefully posed. We recognise that we are indeed fragile presences on the earth, our lives barely impacting in time or space, yet we confidently assert that God notices us and cares about us. We wear celebratory white during this season of penitence because we know that God will forgive us if we sincerely repent.

Our tradition provides us with a strong sense of ourselves. We are at one and the same time both “dust and ashes” and “the beloved children of the Sovereign”. We are mortal and yet we are bound up in immortality. We are fully individual and also we are a small part of a whole creation. It takes a particular view of the world to be able to hold both all the opinions at the same time, yet the Jewish mind is asked to somehow encompass them all, just as our liturgy speaks of God in a variety of ways all at the same time. And it is this dynamic tension that traditionally nurtures our distinctive identity and sense of self.

Yet how easily could we agree with the Psalmist today? Are we able to put a direct question to God? And even if we are comfortable with that relationship, would we dare to remind God that a precondition of the conversation is that God must pay attention to us and care for us? For many of us the easy familiarity of the covenantal relationship is lost and we struggle to find a bridge to that place. This is what the month of Ellul is for, and the Ten Days of Return. It is the work of the High Holy Days.

We may no longer be sure of God; we may wonder about the purpose of prayer. And yet part of us doesn’t want to let it all go; we want to return to that clarity that gives meaning to our lives. The Psalmist had many doubts and fears, but he knew his worth in relation to God. It is time for us to reclaim that knowledge, to search ourselves and to begin to really know ourselves. This understanding is the foundation of the bridge we build into the future, the bridge we build back to the knowledge of God.

מָה-אֱנוֹשׁ כִּי-תִזְכְּרֶנּוּ;    וּבֶן-אָדָם, כִּי תִפְקְדֶנּוּ.