Pesach and the Seder Plate: the lesson of hope

The festival of Pesach has an extraordinary amount of symbolic and/or coded practises.  The items on the seder plate – the burned egg (beitza) for the additional festival sacrifice of thanksgiving (chagigah) brought during the three pilgrim festival, is also a symbol of fertility and of life.  Hard boiled and touched by flame it has no “speaking” role in the service, but reminds us of both hardship and survival. The charoset, a mixture of wine nuts and fruit, is generally said to symbolise the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves in their building work (its name, first found in Mishna Pesachim 20:3 shows it to have become part of the seder ritual, though there is debate as to whether the charoset is mandatory.) Eaten first with the matza and then with the bitter herbs before the meal, it embodies a confusion of meanings – if it has apples as in the Ashkenazi tradition, it is to remind us of the apple trees under which, according to midrash, the Israelite women seduced their husbands in order to become pregnant – their husbands not apparently wanting to bring a new generation into the world of slavery. If it has dates and figs, as in the Sephardi tradition, it is to remind us of the Song of Songs, read on Pesach, an erotic work which supposedly alludes to the love between God and Israel, as well, of course, as being rich in the symbolism of fertility. The wine-dark colour is supposed to remind us of the blood placed on the doorposts of the houses to stop the Angel of Death from entering, and the blood into which Joseph’s torn coat was dipped to show his father that he had most likely been savaged by a wild animal – the moment from which the Pesach narrative is born.

The zeroa, the shank bone of a lamb, is a reminder both of the lamb roasted on the night of the exodus (exodus 12:8-9) and of the korban pesach, the lamb brought as paschal sacrifice when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Along with the egg it forms the “two cooked dishes” required by the Mishnah, and the “pesach” together with the matza and the bitter herb (maror), is one of the three objects we are required to discuss in order to fulfil the obligation of the Seder according to Rabban Gamliel. While the zeroa represents the paschal sacrifice, in fact there are a variety of traditions as to what can go on the plate – as it means an arm or a shoulder – so chicken wings can be used, or – should one go further into the etymology where it is used to mean “to spread out” – chicken necks and in fact any meat – even without a bone – can be used (Mishnah Berurah). But for vegetarians there are other possibilities. A beet is an acceptable symbol for the zeroa according to Rav Huna (Pesachim 114b) and it does “bleed” onto the plate in meaty fashion. Vegetarian punsters in the English language are fond of using a “paschal yam”. And for the greatly squeamish a model bone – be it fashioned from craft putty or from paper – can stand in symbolically.

The zeroa also represents the “outstretched arm” with which the bible tells us God first promised redemption from slavery (Ex.6:6) and then took us out of Egypt (Deut 26:8). It resonates and possibly also references Moses’ outstretched arm over the sea of reeds which caused the waters to part and then to return, although a different verb us used here (Exodus 14)

The maror – the bitter herb – is actually only one of two bitter herbs on most plates, the other being the hazeret. Hazeret was usually the bitter leaves of romaine lettuce, and the maror is generally represented by grated horseradish root. However the Mishnah (Pesachim 2:6) gives us five different vegetables that could be used: as well as hazeret and maror there is olshin, tamcha, and char’chavina. Such a lot of bitterness we can sample! According to Talmud, it is the hazeret rather than the maror which is preferred, though somehow we have reversed the order, and often the hazeret remains on the plate to puzzle the seder participants as to its purpose. Some mix the two for each time we eat the bitter herbs, some use one for the maror and the other for the Hillel Sandwich, some leave the hazeret untouched….. The bitter taste is in memory of the bitterness of the slavery – and yet we mix it with the sweet charoset, or eat it with the matza

And then there is the Karpas. Often described as the hors d’oeuvres to turn a meal into a banquet (with the afikomen functioning as dessert), it is eaten dipped into the salt water early in the seder ritual. The word Karpas is not used in the Talmud, which mentions only yerakot – (green) vegetables. Indeed the word only appears in bible once –in the book of Esther – where it means fine linen cloth. It has, one assumes, come into the haggadah through the Greek “karpos” – a raw vegetable – but its connection to the fine linen and its place at the beginning of the seder makes it possible to see it as referencing the coat of Joseph dipped in blood by his brothers – the beginning of the connection with Egypt which will lead us eventually to the exodus and the seder.

The word and the food is open to much speculation. One drash I like plays on each letter of the word: When we look at the four letters of this word kaf, reish, peh and samech, we discover an encoded message of four words which teaches a basic lesson about how to develop our capacity for giving.

The first letter “chaf” means the palm of the hand. The second letter “reish” denotes a person bent down in poverty. When taken together these two letter/words speak of a benevolent hand opened for the needy.

But what if you are a person of limited means, with precious little to give? Look at the second half of the word Karpas. The letter “peh” means mouth, while the final letter “samech” means to support. True, you may not be capable of giving in the material sense, but you can always give support with your words.

Seen in this way, the Karpas is a reminder not just of the springtime with its fresh green leaves, but of our ability to show compassion for others and to support them whatever our circumstances. We dip the Karpas into salt water – which represents the tears shed by the slaves as they worked, and also maybe the water of the Reed Sea which presented a terrible obstacle to the fleeing slaves as the army of Pharaoh charged behind them to recapture them – so the ritual of dipping the Karpas reminds us that however much grief today brings, however painful our circumstances and great our fear of what is happening to us, the ability to empathise and to support others is the quality that will help us in our daily living.

The Karpas is for me the Pesach symbol par excellence, because it combines most powerfully both distress and hope. As a token of the new green of springtime, the bright taste of the parsley awakens a delicious sense of fresh hopefulness. Dipped into the salt water, that hopefulness is immersed in grief – and yet its taste still comes through. While each of the Seder plate symbols – along with the matza which is both the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation – is a potent combination of both pain and joy, the Karpas is the clearest encapsulation of this lesson. Coming right at the beginning of the Seder, it is a harbinger of the Pesach story and reminds us that hope survives through tears and through difficult times.  And hope is the prerequisite for survival.

My teacher Rabbi Hugo Gryn wrote that his father taught him that one can survive without food for three weeks and with no water for three days, but one cannot survive without hope for even three minutes.  The Pesach Seder begins with the encoded lesson – hope survives. We can tell the story of the slavery, of the plagues, of the fearful night of the angel of death, of the darkness and uncertainty, of the panicked leaving without knowing the destination and the crossing of the sea while pursued by the horses and chariots of the vengeful army. We can tell the story of the failed rebellion against Rome and the many oppressions over the generations. We can tell the story and taste the bitterness without fear or distress because the first thing we do after blessing the wine and washing our hands is to dip a fresh vegetable into salt water, bless the creator of the fruit from the ground, and taste the hope even through its coating of misery and grief.

This year has been a Seder like no other for most of us. Alone or separated from loved ones in lockdown, unable to source some of the usual Pesach foodstuffs or anxious about supplies, the story of the plagues has been thrown into sharp relief, no longer in the realm of fairy-tale but bluntly and frighteningly here. We cannot know yet how this story will end. Whether our masks and sheltering in place will keep us safe; whether we or our loved ones will hear the swoop of the wings of the Angel of Death. Everything is up-ended, but the message of the Seder supports us. Amidst fear and distress, through grief and terror, we hold on to hope. Hope is the beginning of our journey and it is our companion through life. The Hebrew word “tikvah” – hope – comes from the word for a cord or a rope. Threaded through the Seder, threaded through the generations who come to the Seder, binding us together through time and space, hope is what holds us in life and to life.

While the Haggadah is often described as the story from slavery to redemption, it is far more importantly the book that imbues us with hope – however long the redemption will take. And it ends with the hope “Next year in Jerusalem” – not necessarily a literal expectation, but a hope for new horizons, new possibilities, a hope for a better world.

 

Praying for Healing – a look at the sources

Can also be found on sefaria at https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/227042?lang=bi

 

1.      1…Genesis 20:17

(17) Abraham then prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his slave girls, so that they bore children;
 

בראשית כ׳:י״ז

(יז) וַיִּתְפַּלֵּ֥ל אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּרְפָּ֨א אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־אֲבִימֶ֧לֶךְ וְאֶת־אִשְׁתּ֛וֹ וְאַמְהֹתָ֖יו וַיֵּלֵֽדוּ׃
2…..Numbers 12:10-13

 As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales. And Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.” So Moses cried out to the Eternal, saying, “O God, pray heal her!”
במדבר י״ב:י׳-י״ג

(י) וְהֶעָנָ֗ן סָ֚ר מֵעַ֣ל הָאֹ֔הֶל וְהִנֵּ֥ה מִרְיָ֖ם מְצֹרַ֣עַת כַּשָּׁ֑לֶג וַיִּ֧פֶן אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶל־מִרְיָ֖ם וְהִנֵּ֥ה מְצֹרָֽעַת׃ (יא) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אַהֲרֹ֖ן אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י אַל־נָ֨א תָשֵׁ֤ת עָלֵ֙ינוּ֙ חַטָּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֥ר נוֹאַ֖לְנוּ וַאֲשֶׁ֥ר חָטָֽאנוּ׃ (יב) אַל־נָ֥א תְהִ֖י כַּמֵּ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר בְּצֵאתוֹ֙ מֵרֶ֣חֶם אִמּ֔וֹ וַיֵּאָכֵ֖ל חֲצִ֥י בְשָׂרֽוֹ׃ (יג) וַיִּצְעַ֣ק מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אֵ֕ל נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ׃ (פ)
3 ….Exodus 15:26

(26) He said, “If you will heed the Eternal your God diligently, doing what is upright in God’s sight, giving ear to God’s commandments and keeping all God’s laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Eternal am your healer.”

4 Asher Yatzar

שמות ט״ו:כ״ו

(כו) וַיֹּאמֶר֩ אִם־שָׁמ֨וֹעַ תִּשְׁמַ֜ע לְק֣וֹל ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ וְהַיָּשָׁ֤ר בְּעֵינָיו֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְהַֽאֲזַנְתָּ֙ לְמִצְוֺתָ֔יו וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֖ כָּל־חֻקָּ֑יו כָּֽל־הַמַּֽחֲלָ֞ה אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֤מְתִּי בְמִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לֹא־אָשִׂ֣ים עָלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה רֹפְאֶֽךָ׃ (ס)
אֲשֶׁר יָצַר

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם

אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה

וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים.

גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ

שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם

אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר

וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשֹוֹת.

Blessed are You, God, our God, sovereign of the universe, who formed humans with wisdom and created within us many openings and many hollows. It is obvious in the presence of your glorious throne that if one of them were ruptured, or if one of them were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and stand in your presence.

Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and performs wonders

 

5    Siddur Ashkenaz, Weekday, Shacharit, Amidah, Healing

(1) Heal us, O God, and we shall be healed, save us and we shall be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete healing to all our wounds,

(2) (Prayer for a sick person: May it be Your will in front of You, O Eternal, my God and the God of my ancestors, that You quickly send a complete recovery from the Heavens – a recovery of the soul and a recovery of the body – to the the sick person, insert name, the son/daughter of insert mother’s name, among the other sick ones of Israel.)

(3) for You are God and Sovereign, the faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are You, O God, Who heals the sick of Your people Israel.

 

סידור אשכנז, ימי חול, תפילת שחרית, עמידה, רפואה

(א) רְפָאֵנוּ ה’ וְנֵרָפֵא. הושִׁיעֵנוּ וְנִוָּשֵׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתֵנוּ אָתָּה. וְהַעֲלֵה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה לְכָל מַכּותֵינוּ.

(ב) תפילה בעד החולה: יְהִי רָצון מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱלהַי וֵאלהֵי אֲבותַי. שֶׁתִּשְׁלַח מְהֵרָה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם. רְפוּאַת הַנֶּפֶשׁ וּרְפוּאַת הַגּוּף לְחולֶה פב”פ בְּתוךְ שְׁאָר חולֵי יִשרָאֵל:

(ג) כִּי אֵל מֶלֶךְ רופֵא נֶאֱמָן וְרַחֲמָן אָתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, רופֵא חולֵי עַמּו יִשרָאֵל:

6 Siddur Ashkenaz, Shabbat, Shacharit, Keriat Hatorah, Reading from Sefer, Mi Sheberach, For Sickness (includes man and woman) 2

 

For a Woman:

May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon bless [First Name, daughter of Mother’s Name], for which [name of person asking for the prayer] vows to give charity for her sake. As reward for this, may the Holy One, Blessed Be God, be filled with mercy for her, to heal her and to strengthen her and to enliven her, and quickly send her a complete healing from heaven to all her limbs and organs, among the other sick of Israel, a healing of the spirit and a healing of the body. On Shabbat: On Shabbat we do not cry out, and healing will soon come. Now, speedily, and in a time soon to come, and let us say, Amen.

סידור אשכנז, שבת, שחרית, קריאת התורה, קריאת התורה, מי שברך, לחולים ב׳

(ב) לנקבה:

מִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ אֲבותֵינוּ אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקב משֶׁה וְאַהֲרן דָּוִד וּשְׁלמה הוּא יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַחולָה פב”פ בַּעֲבוּר שפב”פ נודֵר צְדָקָה בַּעֲבוּרָהּ, בִּשכַר זֶה הַקָּדושׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יִמָלֵא רַחֲמִים עָלֶיהָ לְהַחֲלִימָהּ וּלְרַפְּאתָהּ וּלְהַחֲזִיקָהּ וּלְהַחֲיותָהּ, וְיִשְׁלַח לָהּ מְהֵרָה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם לְכָל אֵבָרֶיהּ וּלְכָל גִּידֶיהָ בְּתוךְ שְׁאָר חולֵי יִשרָאֵל, רְפוּאַת הַנֶּפֶשׁ וּרְפוּאַת הַגּוּף בשבת: שַׁבָּת הִיא מִלִזְּעוק וּרְפוּאָה קְרובָה לָבוא. ביו”ט: יום טוב הוא מִלְזּעוק וּרְפוּאָה קְרובָה לָבוא, הַשְׁתָּא בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב. וְנאמַר אָמֵן:

7 Siddur Ashkenaz, Shabbat, Shacharit, Keriat Hatorah, Reading from Sefer, Birkat Hagomel 1

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who has bestowed every goodness upon me.
סידור אשכנז, שבת, שחרית, קריאת התורה, קריאת התורה, ברכת הגומל א׳

(א) ברכת הגומל: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם. הַגּומֵל לְחַיָּבִים טובות. שֶׁגְּמָלַנִי כָּל טוב:
8. Siddur Ashkenaz, Shabbat, Shacharit, Keriat Hatorah, Reading from Sefer, Birkat Hagomel 2

[The community respond with ]Amen! May the One who has bestowed goodness on you continue to bestow goodness upon you forever!
 

סידור אשכנז, שבת, שחרית, קריאת התורה, קריאת התורה, ברכת הגומל ב׳

(ב) הקהל עונה אמן. ואומרים:

מִי שֶׁגְּמָלְךָ טוב. הוּא יִגְמָלְךָ כָּל טוב סֶלָה:

 

9 Siddur Ashkenaz, Weekday, Maariv, Blessings of the Shema, Second Blessing after Shema (Hashkiveinu)

Lie us down to peace, Adonai our God, and raise us up to life, our sovereign , and spread over us the shelter of your peace, and direct us with good counsel before You, and save us for the sake of your name, and look out for us, and keep enemies, plagues swords, famines, and troubles from our midst, and remove Satan from in front of us and from behind us, and cradle us in the shadow of your wings, for You are God who guards us and saves us, for You are God. Our gracious and merciful sovereign. Guard our going out and our coming to life and to peace, from now and ever more.

(On Weekdays) Blessed are You, Adonai, who guards your People Israel forever.

 

סידור אשכנז, ימי חול, מעריב, ברכות קריאת שמע, השכיבנו

(א) הַשְׁכִּיבֵנוּ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ לְשָׁלום, וְהַעֲמִידֵנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ לְחַיִּים. וּפְרוש עָלֵינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלומֶךָ. וְתַקְּנֵנוּ בְּעֵצָה טובָה מִלְּפָנֶיךָ. וְהושִׁיעֵנוּ לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ. וְהָגֵן בַּעֲדֵנוּ: וְהָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אויֵב דֶבֶר וְחֶרֶב וְרָעָב וְיָגון. וְהָסֵר שטָן מִלְפָנֵינוּ וּמֵאַחֲרֵינוּ. וּבְצֵל כְּנָפֶיךָ תַּסְתִּירֵנוּ. כִּי אֵל שׁומְרֵנוּ וּמַצִּילֵנוּ אָתָּה. כִּי אֵל מֶלֶךְ חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם אָתָּה: וּשְׁמור צֵאתֵנוּ וּבואֵנוּ לְחַיִים וּלְשָׁלום מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עולָם: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ שׁומֵר עַמּו יִשרָאֵל לָעַד:

 

10

Beit Yosef, Orech Chaim 236

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan says that one needs to follow the evening G’ulah directly with the evening T’filah. We might see Hashkiveinu as a pause, but instead we should see it as an extension of the G’ulah. We should view it just like the preface “Adonai S’fatai, Open my lips,” which was instituted as a part of the T’filah. We see Hashkiveinu as an extension of the G’ulah in that when God plagued Egypt, he caused a great fear upon the people [amidst the darkness]. They prayed to the Holy One, that the Angel of Death would not come to their houses to inflict death upon them. Hashkiveinu is a reminder of the fear the Israelites faced during the time of redemption; therefore it is a part of the ​G’ulah

 

 

11 Jeremiah 15:18

Why must my pain be endless, My wound incurable, Resistant to healing? You have been to me like a spring that fails, Like waters that cannot be relied on.
 

ירמיהו ט״ו:י״ח

(יח) לָ֣מָּה הָיָ֤ה כְאֵבִי֙ נֶ֔צַח וּמַכָּתִ֖י אֲנוּשָׁ֑ה֙ מֵֽאֲנָה֙ הֵֽרָפֵ֔א הָי֨וֹ תִֽהְיֶ֥ה לִי֙ כְּמ֣וֹ אַכְזָ֔ב מַ֖יִם לֹ֥א נֶאֱמָֽנוּ׃ (ס)
12  Jeremiah 17:14

(14) Heal me, Adonai and let me be healed; Save me, and let me be saved; For You are my glory.
ירמיהו י״ז:י״ד

(יד) רְפָאֵ֤נִי יְהוָה֙ וְאֵ֣רָפֵ֔א הוֹשִׁיעֵ֖נִי וְאִוָּשֵׁ֑עָה כִּ֥י תְהִלָּתִ֖י אָֽתָּה׃

 

13 Psalms 41:2-8

 Happy is the one who is thoughtful of the wretched; in bad times may the Eternal keep them from harm. May the Eternal guard them and preserve them; and may they be thought happy in the land. Do not subject them to the will of their enemies.  The Eternal will sustain them on their sickbed; You shall wholly transform their bed of suffering.  I said, “O Adonai, have mercy on me, heal me, for I have sinned against You.”  My enemies speak evilly of me, “When will he die and his name perish?” If one comes to visit, he speaks falsely; his mind stores up evil thoughts; once outside, he speaks them. All my enemies whisper together against me, imagining the worst for me.
תהילים מ״א:ב׳-ח׳

(ב) אַ֭שְׁרֵי מַשְׂכִּ֣יל אֶל־דָּ֑ל בְּי֥וֹם רָ֝עָ֗ה יְֽמַלְּטֵ֥הוּ יְהוָֽה׃ (ג) יְהוָ֤ה ׀ יִשְׁמְרֵ֣הוּ וִֽ֭יחַיֵּהוּ יאשר [וְאֻשַּׁ֣ר] בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְאַֽל־תִּ֝תְּנֵ֗הוּ בְּנֶ֣פֶשׁ אֹיְבָֽיו׃ (ד) יְֽהוָ֗ה יִ֭סְעָדֶנּוּ עַל־עֶ֣רֶשׂ דְּוָ֑י כָּל־מִ֝שְׁכָּב֗וֹ הָפַ֥כְתָּ בְחָלְיֽוֹ׃ (ה) אֲ‍ֽנִי־אָ֭מַרְתִּי יְהוָ֣ה חָנֵּ֑נִי רְפָאָ֥ה נַ֝פְשִׁ֗י כִּי־חָטָ֥אתִי לָֽךְ׃ (ו) אוֹיְבַ֗י יֹאמְר֣וּ רַ֣ע לִ֑י מָתַ֥י יָ֝מ֗וּת וְאָבַ֥ד שְׁמֽוֹ׃ (ז) וְאִם־בָּ֤א לִרְא֨וֹת ׀ שָׁ֤וְא יְדַבֵּ֗ר לִבּ֗וֹ יִקְבָּץ־אָ֥וֶן ל֑וֹ יֵצֵ֖א לַח֣וּץ יְדַבֵּֽר׃ (ח) יַ֗חַד עָלַ֣י יִ֭תְלַחֲשׁוּ כָּל־שֹׂנְאָ֑י עָלַ֓י ׀ יַחְשְׁב֖וּ רָעָ֣ה לִֽי׃
14  Psalms 6

For the leader; with instrumental music on the sheminith. A psalm of David. O Eternal, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury. Have mercy on me, O Eternal, for I languish; heal me, O Eternal, for my bones shake with terror. My whole being is stricken with terror, while You, Eternal —O, how long! O Eternal, turn! Rescue me! Deliver me as befits Your faithfulness. For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?  I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed, I melt my couch in tears. My eyes are wasted by vexation, worn out because of all my foes. Away from me, all you evildoers, for the Eternal heeds the sound of my weeping. The Eternal heeds my plea, the Eternal accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated.
תהילים ו׳

(א) לַמְנַצֵּ֣חַ בִּ֭נְגִינוֹת עַֽל־הַשְּׁמִינִ֗ית מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִֽד׃ (ב) יְֽהוָ֗ה אַל־בְּאַפְּךָ֥ תוֹכִיחֵ֑נִי וְֽאַל־בַּחֲמָתְךָ֥ תְיַסְּרֵֽנִי׃ (ג) חָנֵּ֥נִי יְהוָה֮ כִּ֤י אֻמְלַ֫ל אָ֥נִי רְפָאֵ֥נִי יְהוָ֑ה כִּ֖י נִבְהֲל֣וּ עֲצָמָֽי׃ (ד) וְ֭נַפְשִׁי נִבְהֲלָ֣ה מְאֹ֑ד ואת [וְאַתָּ֥ה] יְ֝הוָ֗ה עַד־מָתָֽי׃ (ה) שׁוּבָ֣ה יְ֭הוָה חַלְּצָ֣ה נַפְשִׁ֑י ה֝וֹשִׁיעֵ֗נִי לְמַ֣עַן חַסְדֶּֽךָ׃ (ו) כִּ֤י אֵ֣ין בַּמָּ֣וֶת זִכְרֶ֑ךָ בִּ֝שְׁא֗וֹל מִ֣י יֽוֹדֶה־לָּֽךְ׃ (ז) יָגַ֤עְתִּי ׀ בְּֽאַנְחָתִ֗י אַשְׂחֶ֣ה בְכָל־לַ֭יְלָה מִטָּתִ֑י בְּ֝דִמְעָתִ֗י עַרְשִׂ֥י אַמְסֶֽה׃ (ח) עָֽשְׁשָׁ֣ה מִכַּ֣עַס עֵינִ֑י עָֽ֝תְקָ֗ה בְּכָל־צוֹרְרָֽי׃ (ט) ס֣וּרוּ מִ֭מֶּנִּי כָּל־פֹּ֣עֲלֵי אָ֑וֶן כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֥ע יְ֝הוָ֗ה ק֣וֹל בִּכְיִֽי׃ (י) שָׁמַ֣ע יְ֭הוָה תְּחִנָּתִ֑י יְ֝הוָ֗ה תְּֽפִלָּתִ֥י יִקָּֽח׃ (יא) יֵבֹ֤שׁוּ ׀ וְיִבָּהֲל֣וּ מְ֭אֹד כָּל־אֹיְבָ֑י יָ֝שֻׁ֗בוּ יֵבֹ֥שׁוּ רָֽגַע׃
15 Psalms 121

A song for ascents. I turn my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come? My help comes from the Eternal, maker of heaven and earth. God will not let your foot give way; your guardian will not slumber; See, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps!  The Eternal is your guardian, the Eternal is your protection at your right hand.  By day the sun will not strike you, nor the moon by night. The Eternal will guard you from all harm; God will guard your life.  The Eternal will guard your going and coming now and forever.
 

תהילים קכ״א

(א) שִׁ֗יר לַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת אֶשָּׂ֣א עֵ֭ינַי אֶל־הֶהָרִ֑ים מֵ֝אַ֗יִן יָבֹ֥א עֶזְרִֽי׃ (ב) עֶ֭זְרִי מֵעִ֣ם יְהוָ֑ה עֹ֝שֵׂ֗ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ׃ (ג) אַל־יִתֵּ֣ן לַמּ֣וֹט רַגְלֶ֑ךָ אַל־יָ֝נ֗וּם שֹֽׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ (ד) הִנֵּ֣ה לֹֽא־יָ֭נוּם וְלֹ֣א יִישָׁ֑ן שׁ֝וֹמֵ֗ר יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ה) יְהוָ֥ה שֹׁמְרֶ֑ךָ יְהוָ֥ה צִ֝לְּךָ֗ עַל־יַ֥ד יְמִינֶֽךָ׃ (ו) יוֹמָ֗ם הַשֶּׁ֥מֶשׁ לֹֽא־יַכֶּ֗כָּה וְיָרֵ֥חַ בַּלָּֽיְלָה׃ (ז) יְֽהוָ֗ה יִשְׁמָרְךָ֥ מִכָּל־רָ֑ע יִ֝שְׁמֹ֗ר אֶת־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃ (ח) יְֽהוָ֗ה יִשְׁמָר־צֵאתְךָ֥ וּבוֹאֶ֑ךָ מֵֽ֝עַתָּ֗ה וְעַד־עוֹלָֽם׃
16 Psalms 130

(1) A song of ascents. Out of the depths I call You, O God. (2) O God, listen to my cry; let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy. (3) If You keep account of sins, O God, who will survive? (4) Yours is the power to forgive so that You may be held in awe. (5) I look to the Eternal; I look to God; I await God’s word. (6) I am more eager for the Eternal than watchmen for the morning, watchmen for the morning. (7) O Israel, wait for the Eternal; for with the Eternal is steadfast love and great power to redeem. (8) It is God who will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.
תהילים ק״ל

(א) שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֑וֹת מִמַּעֲמַקִּ֖ים קְרָאתִ֣יךָ יְהוָֽה׃ (ב) אֲדֹנָי֮ שִׁמְעָ֪ה בְק֫וֹלִ֥י תִּהְיֶ֣ינָה אָ֭זְנֶיךָ קַשֻּׁב֑וֹת לְ֝ק֗וֹל תַּחֲנוּנָֽי׃ (ג) אִם־עֲוֺנ֥וֹת תִּשְׁמָר־יָ֑הּ אֲ֝דֹנָ֗י מִ֣י יַעֲמֹֽד׃ (ד) כִּֽי־עִמְּךָ֥ הַסְּלִיחָ֑ה לְ֝מַ֗עַן תִּוָּרֵֽא׃ (ה) קִוִּ֣יתִי יְ֭הוָה קִוְּתָ֣ה נַפְשִׁ֑י וְֽלִדְבָר֥וֹ הוֹחָֽלְתִּי׃ (ו) נַפְשִׁ֥י לַֽאדֹנָ֑י מִשֹּׁמְרִ֥ים לַ֝בֹּ֗קֶר שֹׁמְרִ֥ים לַבֹּֽקֶר׃ (ז) יַחֵ֥ל יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֶל־יְה֫וָה כִּֽי־עִם־יְהוָ֥ה הַחֶ֑סֶד וְהַרְבֵּ֖ה עִמּ֣וֹ פְדֽוּת׃ (ח) וְ֭הוּא יִפְדֶּ֣ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל מִ֝כֹּ֗ל עֲוֺנֹתָֽיו׃

 

17II Chronicles 16:12-13

(12) In the thirty-ninth year of his reign, Asa suffered from an acute foot ailment; but ill as he was, he still did not turn to the Eternal but to physicians. (13) Asa slept with his fathers. He died in the forty-first year of his reign
דברי הימים ב ט״ז:י״בי״ג

(יב) וַיֶּחֱלֶ֣א אָסָ֡א בִּשְׁנַת֩ שְׁלוֹשִׁ֨ים וָתֵ֤שַׁע לְמַלְכוּתוֹ֙ בְּרַגְלָ֔יו עַד־לְמַ֖עְלָה חָלְי֑וֹ וְגַם־בְּחָלְיוֹ֙ לֹא־דָרַ֣שׁ אֶת־יְהוָ֔ה כִּ֖י בָּרֹפְאִֽים׃ (יג) וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב אָסָ֖א עִם־אֲבֹתָ֑יו וַיָּ֕מָת בִּשְׁנַ֛ת אַרְבָּעִ֥ים וְאַחַ֖ת לְמָלְכֽוֹ׃
18 I Kings 17:17-22

(17) After a while, the son of the mistress of the house fell sick, and his illness grew worse, until he had no breath left in him. (18) She said to Elijah, “What harm have I done you, O man of God, that you should come here to recall my sin and cause the death of my son?” (19) “Give me the boy,” he said to her; and taking him from her arms, he carried him to the upper chamber where he was staying, and laid him down on his own bed. (20) He cried out to the Eternal and said, “O Eternal my God, will You bring calamity upon this widow whose guest I am, and let her son die?” (21) Then he stretched out over the child three times, and cried out to the Eternal, saying, “O ETERNAL my God, let this child’s life return to his body!” (22) The Eternal heard Elijah’s plea; the child’s life returned to his body, and he revived.
מלכים א י״ז:י״זכ״ב

(יז) וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה חָלָ֕ה בֶּן־הָאִשָּׁ֖ה בַּעֲלַ֣ת הַבָּ֑יִת וַיְהִ֤י חָלְיוֹ֙ חָזָ֣ק מְאֹ֔ד עַ֛ד אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־נֽוֹתְרָה־בּ֖וֹ נְשָׁמָֽה׃ (יח) וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־אֵ֣לִיָּ֔הוּ מַה־לִּ֥י וָלָ֖ךְ אִ֣ישׁ הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים בָּ֧אתָ אֵלַ֛י לְהַזְכִּ֥יר אֶת־עֲוֺנִ֖י וּלְהָמִ֥ית אֶת־בְּנִֽי׃ (יט) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלֶ֖יהָ תְּנִֽי־לִ֣י אֶת־בְּנֵ֑ךְ וַיִּקָּחֵ֣הוּ מֵחֵיקָ֗הּ וַֽיַּעֲלֵ֙הוּ֙ אֶל־הָעֲלִיָּ֗ה אֲשֶׁר־הוּא֙ יֹשֵׁ֣ב שָׁ֔ם וַיַּשְׁכִּבֵ֖הוּ עַל־מִטָּתֽוֹ׃ (כ) וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֔י הֲ֠גַם עַל־הָאַלְמָנָ֞ה אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֨י מִתְגּוֹרֵ֥ר עִמָּ֛הּ הֲרֵע֖וֹתָ לְהָמִ֥ית אֶת־בְּנָֽהּ׃ (כא) וַיִּתְמֹדֵ֤ד עַל־הַיֶּ֙לֶד֙ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ פְּעָמִ֔ים וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֔י תָּ֥שָׁב נָ֛א נֶֽפֶשׁ־הַיֶּ֥לֶד הַזֶּ֖ה עַל־קִרְבּֽוֹ׃ (כב) וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע יְהוָ֖ה בְּק֣וֹל אֵלִיָּ֑הוּ וַתָּ֧שָׁב נֶֽפֶשׁ־הַיֶּ֛לֶד עַל־קִרְבּ֖וֹ וַיֶּֽחִי׃
19 II Kings 20:1-7

(1) In those days Hezekiah fell dangerously ill. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came and said to him, “Thus said the Eternal: Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die; you will not get well.” (2) Thereupon Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Eternal. He said, (3) “Please, O Eternal, remember how I have walked before You sincerely and wholeheartedly, and have done what is pleasing to You.” And Hezekiah wept profusely. (4) Before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Eternal came to him: (5) “Go back and say to Hezekiah, the ruler of My people: Thus said the Eternal, the God of your father David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears. I am going to heal you; on the third day you shall go up to the House of the Eternal. (6) And I will add fifteen years to your life. I will also rescue you and this city from the hands of the king of Assyria. I will protect this city for My sake and for the sake of My servant David.”— (7) Then Isaiah said, “Get a cake of figs.” And they got one, and they applied it to the rash, and he recovered.—
מלכים ב כ׳:א׳-ז׳

(א) בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֔ם חָלָ֥ה חִזְקִיָּ֖הוּ לָמ֑וּת וַיָּבֹ֣א אֵ֠לָיו יְשַׁעְיָ֨הוּ בֶן־אָמ֜וֹץ הַנָּבִ֗יא וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֵלָ֜יו כֹּֽה־אָמַ֤ר יְהוָה֙ צַ֣ו לְבֵיתֶ֔ךָ כִּ֛י מֵ֥ת אַתָּ֖ה וְלֹ֥א תִֽחְיֶֽה׃ (ב) וַיַּסֵּ֥ב אֶת־פָּנָ֖יו אֶל־הַקִּ֑יר וַיִּ֨תְפַּלֵּ֔ל אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹֽר׃ (ג) אָנָּ֣ה יְהוָ֗ה זְכָר־נָ֞א אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֧ר הִתְהַלַּ֣כְתִּי לְפָנֶ֗יךָ בֶּֽאֱמֶת֙ וּבְלֵבָ֣ב שָׁלֵ֔ם וְהַטּ֥וֹב בְּעֵינֶ֖יךָ עָשִׂ֑יתִי וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ חִזְקִיָּ֖הוּ בְּכִ֥י גָדֽוֹל׃ (ס) (ד) וַיְהִ֣י יְשַׁעְיָ֔הוּ לֹ֣א יָצָ֔א העיר [חָצֵ֖ר] הַתִּֽיכֹנָ֑ה וּדְבַר־יְהוָ֔ה הָיָ֥ה אֵלָ֖יו לֵאמֹֽר׃ (ה) שׁ֣וּב וְאָמַרְתָּ֞ אֶל־חִזְקִיָּ֣הוּ נְגִיד־עַמִּ֗י כֹּֽה־אָמַ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵי֙ דָּוִ֣ד אָבִ֔יךָ שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ אֶת־תְּפִלָּתֶ֔ךָ רָאִ֖יתִי אֶת־דִּמְעָתֶ֑ךָ הִנְנִי֙ רֹ֣פֶא לָ֔ךְ בַּיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֔י תַּעֲלֶ֖ה בֵּ֥ית יְהוָֽה׃ (ו) וְהֹסַפְתִּ֣י עַל־יָמֶ֗יךָ חֲמֵ֤שׁ עֶשְׂרֵה֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּמִכַּ֤ף מֶֽלֶךְ־אַשּׁוּר֙ אַצִּ֣ילְךָ֔ וְאֵ֖ת הָעִ֣יר הַזֹּ֑את וְגַנּוֹתִי֙ עַל־הָעִ֣יר הַזֹּ֔את לְמַֽעֲנִ֔י וּלְמַ֖עַן דָּוִ֥ד עַבְדִּֽי׃ (ז) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְשַֽׁעְיָ֔הוּ קְח֖וּ דְּבֶ֣לֶת תְּאֵנִ֑ים וַיִּקְח֛וּ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עַֽל־הַשְּׁחִ֖ין וַיֶּֽחִי׃

20

Hezekiah continued: I have received a tradition from the house of my father’s father, from King David, the founding father of the dynasty of kings of Judea: Even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not prevent himself from praying for mercy. One may still hold out hope that his prayers will be answered, as was David himself when he saw the Angel of Destruction, but nonetheless prayed for mercy and his prayers were answered.  (Berachot 10a)

21

Physicians Prayer (attributed to Maimonides)

[daily prayer of a physician before visiting his patients, translated from a Hebrew manuscript of a celebrated Hebrew physician of the 12th century. Translation reprinted from Dr. Harry Frieden­ wald, Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin, August, 1917.]

Almighty God, You have created the human body with infinite wisdom. Ten thousand times ten thousand organs have You combined in it that act unceasingly and harmoniously to preserve the whole in all its beauty the body which is the envelope of the immortal soul. They are ever acting in perfect order, agreement and accord. Yet, when the frailty of matter or the unbridling of passion deranges this order or interrupts this accord, then the. forces clash and the body crumbles into the primal dust from which it came. You send to humanity diseases as beneficent messengers to foretell approaching danger and to urge him to avert it.

You have blest Your earth, your rivers and Your mountains with healing substances; they enable Your creatures to alleviate their sufferings and heal their illnesses. You have endowed us with the wisdom to relieve the suffering of his brother, to recognize his disorders, to extract the healing substances, to discover their powers and to prepare and to apply them to suit every ill.. In Your Eternal Providence You have chosen me to watch over the health and the life of Your creatures. I am now about to apply myself to the duties of my profession. Support me, Almighty God, in these great labours that they may benefit humankind, for without Your help not even the least thing will succeed.

Inspire me with love for my art and for Your creatures. Do not allow thirst for profit, ambition for renown and admiration, to interfere with my profession, for these are the enemies of truth and of love for humankind and they can lead astray in the great task of attending to the welfare of Your creatures. Preserve the strength of my body and of my soul that they ever be ready to cheerfully help and ·support rich and poor, good and bad, enemy as well as friend. In the sufferer let me see only the human being. Illumine my mind that it recognize what presents itself and that it may comprehend what is absent or hidden. Let it not fail to see what is visible, but do not permit it to arrogate to itself the power to see what cannot be seen, for delicate and indefinite are the bounds of the great art of caring for the lives and health of Your creatures. Let me never be absent minded. May no strange thoughts divert my attention at the bedside of the sick, or disturb my mind in its silent labours, for great and sacred are the thoughtful deliberations required to preserve the lives and health of Your creatures.

Grant that my patients have confidence in me and my art and follow my direction and my counsel. Remove from their midst all charlatans and the whole host of officious relatives and know-all nurses, cruel people who arrogantly frustrate the wisest purposes of our art and often lead Your creatures to their death.

Should those who are wiser than I wish to improve and instruct me, let my soul gratefully follow their guidance; for vast is the extent of our art. Should conceited fools, however, censure me, then let love for my profession steel me against them, so that I remain steadfast without regard for age, for reputation, or for honour,- because surrender would bring to Your creatures sickness and death.

Imbue my soul with gentleness and calmness when older colleagues, proud of their age, wish to displace me or to scorn me or disdainfully to teach me. May even this be of advantage to me, for they know many things of which I am ignorant, but let not their arrogance give me pain. For they are old, and old age is not master of the passions. I also hope to attain old age upon this earth, before You, Almighty God!

Let me be contented in everything except in the great science of my profession. Never allow the thought to arise in me that I have attained to sufficient knowledge, but vouchsafe to me the strength, the leisure and the ambition ever to extend my knowledge. For art is great, but the mind of humanity is ever expanding.

 

  22 (A DAY OF DISTRESS

A day of distress and anguish,

and I think of your message.

You’re fair,

and justice shapes your mouth and heart.

5 I remember your words which calmed me

when trouble came near,

and hope for your view and deliverance.

In all of your goodness you’d sent your servant—

in bed, still a boy—

10 seraphs to greet me.

They sat alongside me, and Micha’el spoke:

Thus saith the Eternal, who contends in your cause:

When you pass through the waters I will stay you,

and the rivers will not overwhelm you

15 when your enemies come.

And Gabriel, too, his companion

beside your chariot,

heard of my fate and reported:

When you wade through fire you will not be burned;

20 I will speak to the flame which will not harm you.

These are words I’ve held like a sword.

Though I stand before swords, I count on your blade.  Shmuel haNagid

(HaNagid, Shmuel and Peter Cole.  Selected Poems of Shmuel HaNagid. Princeton University Press, 2016.)

23 HIS BROTHER’S ILLNESS

And my uncle Isaac fell ill, God have mercy upon him,

in the year 4801 [1041], and his heart went out to him and he said:

My limbs thicken with

strong premonition,

and my vision

blurs with tears as it sharpens;

and grief is budding 5

along my mind,

like weeds after

rains that smother the furrows.

Pleasure recedes

and sickens me now. 10

What good is sweetness

when one’s brother lies ill?

Let me make account

and not, my Eternal, him, for my weakness.

If I err — 15

would you punish another?

Then what of the error,

remaining within?  (Shmuel haNagid, loc cit)

 

 

 

24 The Chief Rabbi’s Prayer  (Rabbi Ephraim Mervis)

20th March 2020/24th Adar 5780    The Chief Rabbi has composed this special prayer to be recited at home at a time of your choosing. In addition, Psalms 91, 121 and 130 can be added.

אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָמַּיִם   Heavenly Father,

We turn to You at this time of deep global concern, to bestow Your mercy upon all the inhabitants of our vulnerable world, which is now so seriously afflicted.

Almighty God, who sustains the living with lovingkindness, supports the fallen and heals the sick, grant consolation to the bereaved families and send a speedy and complete recovery to all who have contracted the virus, as the Prophet Jeremiah declared:

כִי אַּעֲלֶׁה אֲרֻכָה לָךְ וּמִמַּכוֹתַּיִךְ אֶׁרְפָאֵךְ, נְאֻם השם

“For I will restore health unto you, and I will heal you of your wounds, says the Eternal”.

Bless with strength those who are suffering. Bless with resilience those in isolation. Bless with hope those who are despondent. Bless with wisdom all those who seek a cure and bless with compassion all those who offer comfort.

Bless the leaders of our nations. Give them and their advisors knowledge and foresight to act with wisdom and sincerity for the wellbeing of all whom they serve.

Bless the doctors, nurses, all healthcare professionals and key workers who tirelessly seek to heal and help those affected, while in so doing put themselves at risk.

Open our hearts in prayer and our hands in generosity to guarantee that the physical distance this virus creates between us will be bridged through compassion and kindness.

Almighty God of healing and hope, at this time of heightened global awareness of our mutual interdependence, enable all of humankind to appreciate the strength that comes from being united in concern and love, rather than divided with hate and prejudice. As we look to the future, may You endow all people with the capacity to build and sustain societies of unity, tolerance, harmony and peace.

O Eternal, our Rock and Salvation, lead us speedily from despair to hope, from fear to trust and from the dread of death to the celebration of life.

וַּאֲנִי תְפִלָתִי-לְךָ השם, עֵת רָצוֹן

May this prayer of mine come before You at a propitious time.

וְכֵן יְהִי רָצוֹן

And may this be Your will, Amen.

 

25Proverbs 3:8

(8) It [trust in God] will be a cure for your body, A tonic for your bones.
משלי ג׳:ח׳

(ח) רִ֭פְאוּת תְּהִ֣י לְשָׁרֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝שִׁקּ֗וּי לְעַצְמוֹתֶֽיךָ׃
26 Proverbs 4:20-22

(20) My child, listen to my speech; Incline your ear to my words. (21) Do not lose sight of them; Keep them in your mind. (22) They are life to him who finds them, Healing for his whole body.
משלי ד׳:כ׳-כ״ב

(כ) בְּ֭נִי לִדְבָרַ֣י הַקְשִׁ֑יבָה לַ֝אֲמָרַ֗י הַט־אָזְנֶֽךָ׃ (כא) אַל־יַלִּ֥יזוּ מֵעֵינֶ֑יךָ שָׁ֝מְרֵ֗ם בְּת֣וֹךְ לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ (כב) כִּֽי־חַיִּ֣ים הֵ֭ם לְמֹצְאֵיהֶ֑ם וּֽלְכָל־בְּשָׂר֥וֹ מַרְפֵּֽא׃
27 May it be Your will, O our God,

that we be allowed to stand in places of astonishing light

and not in dark places,

and may our hearts know no pain,

and may our vision not be so clouded

that we would not see all the blessings of Life

that You have given us.

(Rabbi Alexandrai’s prayer (or the prayer of Rav Himnuna)  Berachot 17a)

 

28 Rav Dimi said,

“Whoever visits one who is ill contributes significantly

to that person’s recovery. (Nedarim 40a)

 

29 One who feels pain in his head should engage in Torah study, as it is stated: “For they shall be a graceful wreath for your head.” One who feels pain in his throat should engage in Torah study, as it is stated: “And chains about your neck.” One who feels pain in his intestines should engage in Torah study, as it is stated: “It shall be health to your navel” (Proverbs 3:8). One who feels pain in his bones should engage in Torah study, as it is stated: “And marrow to your bones” (Proverbs 3:8). One who feels pain in his entire body should engage in Torah study, as it is stated: “And health to all their flesh” (Proverbs 4:22).  (Eruvin 54a)
30

A Prayer for the Health and Healing of Healer

May the One who blessed our ancestors

Bless all those who put themselves at risk to care for the sick

Physicians and nurses and orderlies

Technicians and home health aides

EMTs and pharmacists

And bless especially / an individual or other categories of health workers/

Who navigate the unfolding dangers of the world each day,

To tend to those they have sworn to help.

Bless them in their coming home and bless them in their going out.

Ease their fear. Sustain them.

Source of all breath, healer of all beings,

Protect them and restore their hope.

Strengthen them, that they may bring strength;

Keep them in health, that they may bring healing.

Help them know again a time when they can breathe without fear.

Bless the sacred work of their hands.

May this plague pass from among us, speedily and in our days.

— Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, March 2020

 

 

31 from AJC haggadah Passover Prayer in the Age of Coronavirus

Why is this night different from all other nights? Why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?

On this Passover, when a pandemic threatens our collective health on an unimaginable scale, we are called to respond with the power of our humanity, with the Divine spirit implanted within us, with our legacy of hope and determination to prevail.

We pray for the at risk, the isolated, the stricken, the mourners.

We pray for those who have dedicated their lives to keeping us healthy—doctors, nurses, health-care workers—and all who sustain our hospitals and health-care institutions— existing and makeshift—operating under trying circumstances.

We pray for the first responders—police officers, fire fighters, military personnel who have been marshalled to the cause—all who are responsible for the safety of our communities.

We pray for our elected officials, who can save lives with wise leadership.

May God bless all of our public servants and watch over them.

On this Passover, when so many are separated from one another at a traditional time of being together, we reach out to one another with renewed love and compassion. When someone is missing from our Seder table, we tell their story as if they are with us. When there is personal sadness, we respond with communal solidarity, empathy, and fortitude.

On this Passover, not “all who are hungry can come and eat” and not “all who are in need can come and celebrate Passover.” In response, we commit all the days of our year to a heightened awareness of Passover’s values—to freeing the enslaved, to feeding the hungry, to sheltering the homeless, to supporting the poor. We rededicate ourselves to rekindling and cherishing our Passover traditions for all the years of our future, when light will overcome darkness, when health will overcome infirmity.

Dear God, “Spread over us Your canopy of peace . . . Shelter us in the shadow of Your wings . . .Guard us and deliver us. . . Guard our coming and our going, grant us life and peace, now and always.”

“This year we are slaves, next year we will be free.”gadns • AJC Director of Interre    A Seder Responsive Reading in the Age of Coronavirus

As we fill our four cups of wine, we pray for a time when our cups will yet again be overflowing.

As we wash our hands, we affirm our role in protecting ourselves and others.

As we dip in salt water, we cry the tears of a planet besieged.

As we break the matzah, we long to be made whole.

As we ask the four questions, we search for the answers that elude us.

As we remember the ten plagues, we contemplate our own.

As we imagine our own redemption from Egypt, we aspire to be free.

As we sing Dayenu, we beseech, may our efforts to combat this pandemic be enough.

As we eat the matzah, we contemplate our impoverished state.

As we consume the bitter herbs, we empathize with another’s pain.

As we enjoy the haroset, we remember the sweetness which awaits us.

As we search for the afikomen, we pray to be connected to our missing pieces.

As we welcome Elijah, we pray for redemption.

As we sing songs of praise, we remain grateful for all of God’s gifts.

 

 

 32 A Prayer for a Person Isolated from a Loved One Due to Coronavirus

by  Rabbi Marci Bloch

Hold me God…hold me now.

I am afraid.

My (husband/ wife/ sister /brother /child /mother /father /loved one) is alone, and my heart is breaking.

I want so bad to hold his/ her /their hand and comfort him /her /them—

but I can’t.

Help me to know that even though I am not physically there with him/ her/them….

I am very much there.

Give me hope, oh God.

Help me to put all my trust in his/her/ their doctors and his/ her/their medical staff to make the right decisions.

Fill my loved one’s lungs with air and restore him/her to life.

Protect him/ her/ them, watch over him/ her /them, heal him /her /them.

Give me strength, oh God in this hour of darkness to know you are there holding me.

Amen.

 

 

33 PRAYER FOR THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

Eternal One, Rock of our lives, we turn to you in the midst of this coronavirus crisis, seeking refuge and a foothold – and also encouragement as we try to find our own courage.

As social distancing prevents us from experiencing the joys of life in community, may the need to withdraw and stay well be accompanied by the urge to reach out to others with compassion and care and to forge and renew connections, even in the absence of physical contact.

Recalling the trials of those who went before us and their endurance and survival, may we find the strength to endure even in the face of pain and loss, and the insight to know that this challenging time will pass.

As the natural world renews itself, may we be inspired by the wonders and marvels of the Earth to discover through this crisis pathways to renewal and new hope.

And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah   Brighton& Hove Progressive Synagogue March 2020 – Adar 5780

 

34 Prayer during Coronavirus TimesEternal Our God, Source of our life and our Sovereign, be a shield about us, turning away every disease and destruction. Grant us hope and a future of shalom, peace. Be merciful over us and grant recovery to everyone, because You are the most kind and compassionate Sovereign of all.

Blessed are You, who listens to the prayers.

שְמַע יִשְרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד

אָנָּא יְהוָה, הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא;

אָנָּא יְהוָה, הַצְלִיחָה נּ

God, we beseech You, save us now!

God, we beseech You, let us prosper!

 

(Rabbi Andrea Zanardo, Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, March 2020)

 

35 This evening, we join with the rest of the world in praying for a quick and positive end to the crisis in which we find ourselves. We pray for those who are sick and dying, and for those tending to their care.

We pray for their families, and for those who are most anxious about getting sick.

We pray for leaders faced with making difficult choices with lasting consequences.

We pray for students whose hopes for celebrating their accomplishments have been thwarted.

We pray for all those in the work-force who have been – and who will be – directly impacted by the need for social-distancing.

Tonight, I offer a prayer that comes to us from our liturgy, which we call “Hashkiveinu.” It is a nighttime prayer that asks God for protection and blessing. It seems fitting to offer these words tonight:

 

הַשְׁכִּיבֵֽנוּ, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽנוּ, לְשָׁלוֹם, וְהַעֲמִידֵנוּ שׁוֹמְרֵֽנוּ לְחַיִּים

 

Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise us up, our Guardian, to life renewed. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace. Guide us with Your good counsel; for Your Name’s sake, be our help. Shield and shelter us beneath the shadow of Your wings. Defend us against enemies, illness, war, famine and sorrow. Distance us from wrongdoing. For You, God, watch over us and deliver us. For You, God, are gracious and merciful. Guard our going and coming, to life and to peace evermore.”

 

36 Out of the depths I call to you, God hear my prayer.  I face the unknown and the unknowable and I cannot do this alone.  It is said that You formed human beings in wisdom, creating our bodies complex and sensitive for us to live through in fullness, and yet so sensitive and complex that it may become impossible for us to remain alive should some small change occur in them.  And so I wait for You, my soul waits and hopes for You to answer. My soul waits for You more than ever before because I cannot do this alone.  I desire life, I love the days I live, I want to have more of them. To feel again the sunshine on my skin, to see again the happiness of the faces of those I love, to look forward again with pleasure. And now I sit in the depths, in the cool dark of the now, and my soul waits for the morning and for You. You are said to be the healer of all flesh, so I ask You now for healing.

And should Your answer come to tell me the future will not be mine, then be with me, redeem my soul and let me take refuge in You, for none who take refuge with you shall remain in the depths. (Sylvia Rothschild: Prayer in illness and distress)

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.