8th Elul: building bridges in all directions

8th Elul

The Psalmist asks “Eternal God, what are human beings that you should care for them, mortal creatures that you should notice them?” (psalm 8)

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 it is also some of 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.

 

6th Elul :We don’t abstain from helping others if we want to call ourselves religious

6th Elul

“If someone comes to you for assistance and you say to them, ‘God will help you,’ you become a disloyal servant of God. You have to understand that God has sent you to aid the needy and not to refer them back to God.”  (the Lelover Rebbe)

There is an old joke of the person who refused to follow the warnings of a coming flood and persisted in stating that as a person of faith, they knew that God would not let them come to harm. The rains came and the person stayed in their house, moved onto an upper floor and prayed. Suddenly a boat came floating past the window – “quick –get in” said the person in the boat, but the faithful person replied “I will pray and God will save me”. The rain continued, the boat came again, and again the person refused to get in, citing God’s protection of the righteous.

The next morning found the flood even higher, the person had climbed onto the roof of the house, and watched as the rain continued. Suddenly the boat reappeared. “Quick, get in, we won’t be able to come back after this it is too dangerous”. Once more their offer was refused. The flood waters covered the house and shortly afterwards the soul of the faithful person stood before God. Furious, they demanded to know why they had drowned when they had been demonstrating their faith in the goodness and salvation of God. And the Divine Voice replied “who do you think sent the boat?”

In this world we may or may not have a strong faith in God, but we do have a responsibility to each other and to ourselves. And that responsibility extends way past any category of who deserves and who does not, who is like us or how we would like to be, and who is very different.

For those of us who see ourselves as people of faith, it is not enough –not nearly enough- to expect that faith to save us or save anyone else. It is a requirement of our faith that we use it to increase our activity in the world for good, that we recognise that we have our own agency, and we must use it.

It is not enough to say “the Government has a plan” or “there are organisations for these situations or these people” or “other people are helping”. It is not enough to tut and frown and say “what a shame but it is not our responsibility” When people need help, it is our human obligation to give that help. For the Lelover it was an obligation based on being a loyal servant of God. Jewish texts repeat this message in a myriad ways. But however one frames it, the bottom line in Judaism is that we don’t abstain from helping others, we must not abstain – this is our primary work in the world.

 

 

 

 

Kedoshim Tihyu: Holiness lies in the interconnected world, in our relationships and our responsibilities

Parashat Kedoshim takes its name from the phrase it begins with: “Kedoshim tihyu, ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem” – You will be Kadosh, as I the Eternal your God Am Kadosh.  (Leviticus 19:2)

The root K.D.Sh appears 152 times in the Book of Leviticus, and while usually translated as “separate/distinct” or “holy”, it has a richer and more complex life within Jewish thought than to be boundaried in such a way. It is difficult to fully explicate this word, in part because Kedushah is an attribute of the essence of God, and something we human beings are to pursue in our behaviour and being, the result of such pursuit is attachment to the Divine, understood in mystical tradition as the ultimate goal of all our spiritual strivings.

The 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu deVidas explains in his mystical and meditative work (Reishit Chochma) that fleeing evil and doing good creates within us the ability to receive holiness from God. Holiness is a Divine response to our actions, and inhabits and shapes our soul, creating the possibility for communion with God.

Holiness exists in two different frameworks in bible: one is the sanctity of the priesthood and temple rituals which is the focus of much of this book of Leviticus; the second is the sanctity of peoplehood, of the whole community, as is underscored with the first verse of this sidra – “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You (voi) shall be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).”. It is this second framework that speaks to us. Holiness is an aspiration for a community much more than a state for priest and temple. The focus moves a little away from the ritual rooted in the sacrificial system and more towards the ethical rooted in community living.

Avoiding evil and doing good seems to the main thrust of much of what is contained in the apex of the holiness school of guidance, found in Leviticus chapter 19.(Full holiness Code found Leviticus 17-26) According to Sefer haChinuch, there are 13 positive and 38 negative mitzvot in sidra kedoshim, guiding us towards doing good things, and away from improper behaviour.

We are used to categorising these mitzvot (commandments) in Kedoshim as either Ritual ones or Ethical ones, but there is another way to see these imperatives that does not divide them into different and separate types, but functioning instead together, as part of a whole and complex system.

The commandments that guide us towards holiness can be understood as being ecological in structure –together they are a description of the web of relationships that unite the people, the land, the environment including both flora and fauna, and God.  Together they both set the balance that allows each component to flourish, each constituent to be in harmonious relationship.

There are curious parallels that signal the interconnectedness if one looks – for example the law of pe’ah forbids us to cut the edges of the land (19:9) and the edges of the human head and beard (19:27). People and land are treated in the same way, albeit for different motivations.

The section of bible known to us as “holiness code” (Leviticus 17-26) can be understood as a coherent and unified corpus, which aims to bring together –  through varied and diverse subject matter, terminology and historical perspective – the connection of people and land. Specifically here people and land which each have a distinct relationship with God. The people are to aspire towards ideal behaviour; the land is to embody the sacred.  Each generation is to learn and understand the principles that underlie this text, to draw out and fulfil those principles in their own time and their own context. The texts play with time. This is the generation of the desert being told how to behave in the land they have settled. We are simultaneously at Sinai shortly after the exodus from Egypt, in the desert as a travelling and unrooted people, and in the Land of Israel as the people who are responsible for the welfare of both land and society.

The effect of these time distortions within the text is to reinforce the timelessness of the message and of those to whom the message is addressed – to remind us that each generation of the people Israel is to understand that we too are part of the web of relationship. Just as the Pesach Haggadah reminds us that each of us is to consider ourselves part of the generation that was freed from Egyptian slavery, so here we are reminded that the relationship between people, land and God is one we are firmly held within.

This year the message of the ecology, the web of the relationships and the connections between plants, animals, people, and the environment, has never been so powerful to me, and the balances and imbalances between these relationships cry out for our attention.

We are living in a time of climate change happening with unprecedented speed. Everything is being affected and generally not for the good of the world. Be it the insect populations diminishing or disappearing due to insecticides, or else the changes in weather which have disrupted their breeding; or the crops blighted by drought or to-heavy rains; be it the animals whose habitats are changing around them, leaving them ill equipped to survive, or the people who face tsunami or cyclones, or drought or blistering heat – we are once again forced to pay attention to the interdependability of our world, and to note how our behaviour is unbalancing not only our own context but the future world of our children.

When one reads this section of Leviticus not to tease out the ritual or ethical behaviours we feel ourselves commanded to follow, but to become more fully conscious of what it means to hear the imperative to holiness that we must pursue in order to come closer to God, it is impossible to ignore how the impetus to Kedushah is situated within the web of relationships between people, animals and land. The book of Genesis (2:15) tells us we have a responsibility to steward the land, to keep it in good order and fully functioning, we have to work it responsibly and mindfully. The book of Deuteronomy reminds us that should we not care properly for the land and for the people we will be expelled from living in the land, reminds us too that God is watching how people treat the land that is so special to God (Deut 11:12) And all the books of bible repeatedly remind us that we are not inheritors of this world by right, but that we are privileged to live here and have a role we must play, relationships we must nurture, transmission we must be part of. How we live our lives matters not just to us or our close family or generation, how we live our lives is part of the ecology of the world and how it will thrive – or not

Imitatio Dei, the imitation of the attributes of God, holds a central place in Jewish thinking, right from the creation of people b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. We cannot absorb God nor become God, we cannot understand or encompass God, but we still have the obligation to come closer to Kedushah. The Talmud phrases it best, I think, like this:  “Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina said: (Deuteronomy 13:5) “After God you shall walk.” And is it possible for a person to walk after the Presence of God? And doesn’t it already say (Deuteronomy 4:24) “Because God is a consuming flame”? Rather, [it means] to walk after the characteristics of God. Just as God clothed the naked [in the case of Adam and Chava]… so, too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God visited the sick [in the case of Avraham after his brit milah]…so, too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God comforted the mourners [in the case of Yitzhak after Avraham’s passing]…so, too, should you comfort the mourners. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God buried the dead [in the case of Moshe]…so, too, should you bury the dead” (Sotah 14a:3-4)

It is a lovely description of how to imitate God to make the world a better place. But as our liturgy reminds us three times a day in the Aleinu prayer, it is our duty “letaken olam b’malchut Shaddai” To repair and maintain the world with the sovereignty of God. This is bigger than the cases suggested by Rav Hama – for the sovereignty of God is more than the relationships between people, important as they are. Instead I think the phrase is referring to the Kedushah we find in the Holiness Section of Leviticus – we must maintain and repair the relationships not simply bein Adam v’Chavero (between people) but bein Adam v’Olam – between people and the living beings – animal and vegetable – on this earth.

How we treat the earth – the rainforests with its trees often logged mercilessly and the environment of the animals who live there decimated and unsustainable; the rivers we clog with chemicals or detritus, the seas filled with plastic and becoming toxic to so many who swim in them, be they small turtles or huge orcas; the air in cities that are filled with pollutants, the fields we drench with fertilizers or insecticides, the animals and birds we so carelessly damage, the environment we so thoughtlessly injure, the casual littering and the mindless consumption of limited resources – all of this is in direct contradiction to what we are told about Kedushah, the holiness we should be striving to attain.

In London this week a 16 year old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, came to speak to Parliament and also to the many protestors of Climate Change who brought our cities to a standstill as they sought to persuade the government, by non-violent action, to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to zero. The group “Extinction Rebellion” which has a Jewish section also held a Seder outside the Parliament buildings, linking the traditional ten plagues to the many threats to the earth if greenhouse gas emissions are not massively reduced, and global warming brought below two degrees.  They linked too to the damage to seas and air and land we are increasingly seeing happen. (The group is also protesting in Milan, Rome and Torino and in other countries too).

Reactions were mixed to the protests – in part because of the inconvenience caused to daily living, in part to vested interests, in part to political games-playing. But what became clearer to me was not just the science the protesters were drawing our attention to, but the religious values we have been ignoring for so long.

For when we categorise mitzvot into ethical or ritual, meaningful or opaque, spiritual or mundane, we mask over something else – the inter-relatedness of our world, which the mitzvot are designed to help  us to understand if only we would pay attention, the web of relationships between us and our environment, between animals and plants and humans and land and God.

When God tells the people that we must strive for Kedushah, an essential attribute of the divine, we often put this into the domain of the heavens, and forget that we live on the earth. We forget that the web of relationships is planet wide, that it involves trees and plants and soil and animals and insects….   Holiness demands from us the awareness of these relationships, and a response that values them.  “Le’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai” – to maintain and repair the world with divine ruling” – that is out task, and it is not in the heavens or far from us, but in our everyday interactions with the created world.

(sermon given 2019)

 

 

Vayetzei : the lessons of Jacob’s hat

Many years ago an older colleague explained to me the origin of religious Jews covering their heads with this remark – “It comes from parashat Vayetzei, where we are told ‘Vayetzei Yaakov – Jacob went out’ – you don’t think he went out without a hat do you?

It isn’t exactly a joke, nor of course is it a real proof-text for a religious behaviour. But it does shine a light onto a process that we often disregard – the bridge between biblical text and religious expression.

First let me get out of the way the reality that the practise of covering the head – either at all times, or during prayer, or during prayer and study of torah – does not come from parashat vayetzei, though its history and origin is somewhat mysterious and there is no actual mitzvah to do this – it is custom and practise rather than commandment

Mishnah Sanhedrin, chapter ten, includes the teaching “These have no share in the World to Come: (Olam haBa): One who says that [the belief of] resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, [one who says that] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and one who denigrates the Torah.”

Now this is interesting. Nowhere in fact does Torah teach of the physical resurrection of the dead. The closest texts are Isaiah 26:19 (Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, You who dwell in the dust!— For Your dew is like the dew on fresh growth; You make the land of the shades come to life.) and Daniel 12:2 “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence”

Yet from these poetic and figurative expressions comes, by the early Talmudic period, the rabbinic idea not only that physical resurrection is possible, but that anyone who does not believe in it forfeits their place in the world to come. The idea is also embedded in the Amidah prayer,in the gevurot blessing, which references the power of God to give life to the dead six times in a fairly short blessing, and which was probably written early in the 1st century BCE.

Another maxim from the same colleague – the more answers rabbinic tradition gives to a question, the more we know that there is no single answer to the question and each response is an attempt to make sense of a problem. So when we see the idea of God giving life to the dead six times in one blessing we can see the determination that this must become authoritative belief, leading us to see that at the point the amidah was written, it clearly was not yet a stable principle of faith.

So when we look at the mishna Sanhedrin 10:1 again, we see that it is an interpolation into an otherwise strictly legal text. It is demanding that three principles are mandatory, the red lines of the argument. Phrased in a way that says “all Jews achieve olam haba except Jews doing these three things” reads to me rather like the apocryphal note in the margin of a sermon – “argument weak, shout louder”.

The principle of belief in the dead living once more is ambiguous – is this something that will only happen at the end of days? Is it physical resurrection? Is it the continuation of the self, the soul? Is it something we can nuance – that the dead live on in our memories, in our actions, that the actions they did while living are impactful after their death?

It is the later part of the statement that has caused many more problems for us – What do we mean when we say that Torah is from heaven (min hashamayim)? What did the rabbis of the mishnah mean by it?

This idea has proved to be one of the most difficult and controversial ones of rabbinic Judaism.  While Maimonides coded the idea into his thirteen principles of faith, which have become de rigeur for a section of the Jewish world  – the eighth principle is “ I believe by complete faith that the whole Torah now found in our hands was the exact same one given to Moses, may peace rest upon him.”

But what does this mean? What did Maimonides mean by “Torah” or by “given to Moses”  It is unlikely that he meant that God literally dictated the entire text of the five books of Moses to Moses at Sinai.

Maimonides was a product of his time.  The time in which he lived was a time when Christians, Muslims and Karaite Jews were all challenging the Jewish world, his thirteen principles were a formulation to argue against people saying that the Jews had altered torah to exclude references to their religions, and against the idea that Torah could be added to and rewritten.

Each of us are products of our time. Each of us swim in a sea of habit and shared assumptions we barely notice, and a sea of change and challenge we notice all too easily and which either cause us to retreat behind the assumptions we cannot see to challenge, or to venture out and have to deal with the dissonance.

Most Jews think that covering the head with kippah or streimel, cap or bowler hat – is a religious act mandated from Torah. It is not. It does not appear in Talmud either except in one comment in tractate Kiddushin which also suggests that one should not walk fully upright – both of them referring to an awareness of the glory of God in the world of which we should be in awe at all times, and another in tractate Shabbat that suggests that covering the head /being aware of the presence of God – might have a tangible effect on behaviour.

Head covering seems to have come about as a response to the world around us, where covering or uncovering the head showed respect to a greater power. Indeed when I was young I often saw people doffing their cap in the presence of those they perceived to be their social superiors, or removing hats as a funeral cortege passed by. Why do Jews put a hat on when the rest of the world takes it off? Davka. Why do we think the custom has the force of law – because we are used to it, we no longer notice its origin in social constructs.  The same is true when we try to distort the concept of torah min hashamayim. Torah from God – mediated through human beings – this was the standard understanding until Maimonides forced the issue into one of orthodox belief, putting people inside or outside Judaism.

Jacob went out – and of course he put on his hat. But the question today is – would any of the many different streams of the orthodox world recognise him as being part of the community of Klal Yisrael?  Would they see a Jew under that hat?

 

 

Bereishit: men and women created equally and mutually

Genesis has two creation stories, each with a different structure and a different name for God. The first, with the numbered days of the first week, has Elohim create humanity in God’s image at the end of the process, and this humanity is neither singular nor male. “Vayivra Elohim et ha’adam b’tzalmo, betzelem Elohim bara oto, zachar u’nekeivah bara otam” (1:27)

The second, where humanity was created even before the Garden of Eden was made, has one human fashioned from the dust of the earth, and placed into Eden. But it is already clear that one living being is a lonely being, so God creates the animals and birds. The human names them but does not develop a mutual relationship with them, and ultimately God has to create more human beings in the world. To do this, God does not create a new thing, but takes from the existing human to form the being who will be in relationship with it.

How we translate what God takes from the first being is critical to how we understand gender politics. And how it has been translated in the past is a direct outcome of such politics. For God takes מִצַּלְעֹתָיו  – from the side of the first human, and not, as it is frequently translated, a rib from it. This root appears over forty times in bible, and is never translated as anything other than “side” except in this passage, and first found in the Septuagint. If we look more closely we see that the word always describes something that is leaned upon, or (in the case of Jacob) limped upon. So what is bible telling us with this word? When God divides the Adam into ish (man) and isha (woman), the two are equal. One might ask why this understanding disappeared when bible is so clear?

 

(written for “the bible says what?” series for the progressive Judaism page of the Jewish News)

 

Sukkot: the people, the land, the relationships that connect us

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals mandated in Bible, forming a particular cycle of harvest celebrations with Pesach and Shavuot, yet unlike them in the passage in Leviticus which details the festivals, Sukkot is given an extra dimension – it is not only an agricultural celebration but also one that reminds us of the foundational story of our people.  “The fifteenth day of this seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you will keep the feast of the Eternal seven days …And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree (hadar), branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook and rejoice before the Eternal .. You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:34-43

This explicit link to the exodus, to the people’s vulnerability and dependence on God, brings a powerful richness to our celebration. Unlike the Spring/Summer celebrations of Pesach and Shavuot, with hope and new life bursting forth, the autumnal setting of Sukkot brings intimations of the dark, hard winter days ahead, the leafless trees, the sleeping earth, a quasi-death experience. Sukkot comes six months after Pesach, and it builds and develops the themes of that festival. Unlike the intense dramatic ‘high’ of the plagues and our leaving slavery in Egypt that Pesach provides, Sukkot marks the “ordinary and everyday” struggle to stay alive and safe. It reminds us that our freedoms are fragile, that even basic necessities are not automatically given to us, that life is made up of routine hard graft and of effortful striving. And in this quotidian mundane activity, God is also present, even if less obvious to us.

Sukkot is a festival of autumnal abundance in preparation for months of wintertime scarcity. But at the same time it draws our attention to our two most basic frailties, our need for water (for ourselves and our crops) and for shelter.  The sukkah itself represents the fragility of our homes, with the “s’chach” open to the skies even as the abundant fruit is hanging from it, and the arba’a minim shaken as an almost magical ceremonial to bring rain in the right season.

The four components, held together as they are shaken, are a fascinating concatenation of concepts. Biblically mandated, the palm, myrtle, willow and etrog can represent such a complexity of characteristics. One midrash suggests that together they represent the whole community, all of whom have value and are included in the ritual – the hadar fruit, the etrog, has taste (Torah) and aroma (Mitzvot); the palm has tasty fruit but no smell, (ie represents those who have torah but no good deeds); the myrtle leaves smell wonderful but it has no fruit (mitzvot but no torah), and the willow has neither taste nor smell (no torah and no mitzvot). Every community has people with each of these categories. When we pray before God, each person is important.

Another view is that each one represents a different part of the land of Israel- so the palm tree which loves a hot dry climate grows well in desert areas, the myrtle thrives in the cooler mountains regions, the willows grow only near the streams and waterways that flow all year, and the etrog is most comfortable in the lower coastal areas and the valleys. Israel has a series of microclimates, each represented here.

Or one can understand the arba minim to represent our history from Egypt to settlement: so the lulav would represent wandering in the desert, the willow- crossing the Jordan, the myrtle our settling in the mountains and the etrog the establishment of orchards.

And there is also a midrash that the arba’a minim represents each human being – the palm being the spine, the myrtle the eyes, the willow the lips and the etrog the heart, and we come in supplication to God because we understand how fragile our existence truly is.

Whichever symbolism resonates, the core truth is the same. We are in this world together, our survival is not guaranteed, we need to work together and support each other even as we celebrate a plentiful harvest.  We need to be aware of scarcity, that we can all be affected, that only by sharing and by working together can we create a more harmonious world.

Sukkot is given four names in bible: “Chag ha’Asif”[i] – the festival of ingathering; “Chag ha’Sukkot”[ii] – the Festival of Booths; He’Chag[iii] – THE festival; and “Chag l’Adonai”[iv] the Festival of the Eternal. Of these, the third name – the festival par excellence – gives us most pause for thought, for it reminds us that Sukkot is the most important festival.

Why is this? The symbols of the festival remind us that EVERY person in our society is important; each one needs the dignity of their own home and the security of knowing that basic needs will be met; (Talmud Berachot 57b tells us a home of one’s own increases self-esteem and dignity). They remind us that we are all journeying, that while we may have the illusion of a stable rooted existence, the world turns and our fortunes can turn with it. They remind us that we all have responsibility for the environment and for how we treat our world, that damage to our environment and changes to our climate affects us all. They remind us that we are dependent on factors that are beyond our control. Yet with all of this unsettling symbolism, the rabbis call this festival “z’man simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing, based upon the verses in Leviticus.  Why does Sukkot make us so happy, this festival of wandering and of fragility? I think because it reminds us of our human commonality and the power of human community. We are connected to God and we are connected to our land, we are connected to our foundational stories and to our historic experiences, but for any of this to truly matter, we must be connected to each other.

[i] Exodus 23:16; exodus 34:22

[ii] Leviticus 23.34; Deuteronomy 16:13,16

[iii] Ezekiel 45, 25, 1 Kings 8, 2, Ezekiel 45, 25 and 2 Chronicles 7, 8

[iv] Leviticus 23:39

(written for the “Judaism in 1000 words” section of Movement for Reform Judaism website)

Vayelech: the time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our choices is upon us. or: the bnei mitzvah of the people of Israel

Eight years ago one of my dearest friends was about to be seventy years old, and she decided to celebrate this momentous and biblical age by having her batmitzvah. I had tried to persuade her to do this for years and she had brushed me off; it is typical of her that she made her choice by herself on a date that had such resonance, and then throw herself into study and thinking for herself.  We talked a little about the date and the sidra, and then she chose to direct her own study and do her own research. Luckily she sent me a near final draft. I say luckily because she never read this drasha or celebrated that long awaited day, for with everything planned and organised and ready to go, she suffered a cataclysmic and sudden bereavement and the weekend was taken over instead with grief and shock and the arrangements to honour the dead.

We spoke a while afterwards about her celebrating her batmitzvah on a different date but we both knew that was not really going to happen. The anticipated joy would never be the same, the shadow of grief never quite left her, and she too would depart this world suddenly and unexpectedly and quite dramatically, leaving the rest of us a small flavour of the shock she had experienced on the day of her birthday batmitzvah, to grieve and to question, and to process the reality of what happens when a life is torn from the world without warning.

Checking my computer recently, and thinking also of her as I do at this time of year, I came across an email where she had sent me this draft of the drasha she was to give to the community she had been at the heart of for so many years. With the permission of her children, I want to share it here.

“Vayelech is the shortest parsha in the Torah. It is 30 verses long, and I don’t recall ever hearing it read. In non-leap years like this one it is linked with Nitzavim. When I read Nitzavim-Vayelech they held together. They are followed next week by Ha’azinu which, when I looked it up I discovered is one the 10 Shirot [songs] conceived or written as part of the Almighty’s pre-Creation preparations. The only one still to be written is the song we will sing when the Messiah comes. 

We are coming to the end of the Torah. This name, given to the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is better translated as Teaching. We are coming to the end of the month of Elul the month in which we begin to prepare for the approaching High Holy Days, and in the coming week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah which in turn is followed by the 10 days of penitence and Yom Kippur. Then in roughly a month’s time on Simchat Torah we will finish reading the Teaching, the end of Deuteronomy, and seamlessly begin Bereishit – Genesis – again. 

Vayelech must contain the most important rite of passage in the whole history of our planet. But we will come to that.  

Israel is camped in its tribal groups on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to cross. The preceding parsha, Nitzavim, tells of Moses addressing the whole of Israel, in preparation for entering the land God has promised them. He reminds them they are standing before God, and is clear that every person is included in this relationship.

 [my son] tells me I can tell one joke… a clear example of don’t do as I do, do as I say …but I have two, and we will come to the second soon. A very good friend sent me a card, writing in it “I saw this, and thought of you.” The cartoon was a line drawing of 2 dogs, the larger one saying: “I understand more commands than I obey.” I hope you agree with me, that this is arguable!

Moses and God know from experience that the Children of Israel will fail to follow God’s Teaching. 

Moses warns those listening to him that the consequences of disobedience will be that the land will become desolate, but mitigates this by prophesying they will make t’shuvah, return to the right way, and God will reconcile with them and bring them back.

 And he says something that has always troubled me:  that the commandment he is giving to them and so to us “is not beyond you, or too remote. Not in Heaven, or across the sea. It is very close to you… in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.”

 What I have never been sure of is what this is, what it is that is in my heart, and in my mouth?  Not the 10 Commandments – too many!    And not the 613 mitzvot buried in the text. And then the man who is not my chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said quite plainly on radio 4, no less, what it is, even quoting where I should find it. It is found in Genesis chapter 18, vv 17 – 19, where God is choosing Abraham because he deals with his household with Tzedakah and Mishpat:  two words which together give the meaning of justice tempered with mercy. This is how we hope God will deal with us on Yom Hakippurim.

 And finally Moses said that we have a choice, God has given us the choice of life and death – blessing and curse. We should choose to love God and walk in God’s path and keep God’s commandments. And just as the penalties for not doing so have been listed, the rewards of obeying are explained. 

What we have been told is that all Israel is equally bound by this covenant, regardless of social position or occupation. And that even if we disobey God’s Laws there can be future redemption.

Further, we know that obedience to God’s Laws is within our scope. 

And also that we are to have that freedom to choose that sets us apart from the animals.

 And then we come to today’s portion, .Vayelech “And he went” which is the beginning of the rite of passage for the Children of Israel.

 There is to be a change of “Top Management”. This is the day of Moses’s 120th birthday, and Moses has finally accepted that it is also his death day. It’s been hard for Moses to come to terms with his mortality, and he has behaved a little like a child trying to justify not going to bed, not just yet. There’s no time to discuss this today, try reading Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews. God has been forbearing with this servant with whom God has been in conversation for the last 40 years.

 In this time the generations born into slavery have died, and the people who are born into freedom have known no other Leader. Moses has taught them, settled disputes, referred knotty halachic problems directly to God, and brought back the answers. It is explained that God will go with them, and lead them across the Jordan. Further, that although Moses may not go, they will have Joshua.

 Moses has been frightened of dying, and the Almighty has shown him Aaron’s painless death. God is giving him the signal honour of dying on the anniversary of his birthday, and although Moses is not to be allowed to cross the Jordan God has taken him to look down upon the land.

 Moses is kept busy on this day – there are the tribes to address, and writing enough copies of the Teaching to give one to each tribe, and lodge one in the Ark of the Covenant. This is talked of as a witness against the people, but I suppose it’s the master copy, and proof of God’s promises and provisions. Moses writes The Scroll to the very end, until it is finished, which is taken to mean that it is prophetic, containing as it does an account of his death. Further, the Almighty gives him a message to deliver, and a song of 43 verses, one of the 10 Shirot, to teach to the people.

  How many people do you think there were, camped by the river? How many going into the Promised Land?

 Jacob went to Egypt with 72 souls in his household. A rabble of 600,000 freed slaves left Egypt – and these were the men of fighting age. Add their relatives – minimally a wife each, one child. – Not parents and siblings – this could cause doubtful accounting – a conservative estimate would be 1,800,000 people. No wonder manna was needed!

Nor was it just Jews who escaped Egypt, plenty of escapee opportunists would have taken the chance, and been the “strangers within your gates” who are to have equality under the covenant with Jacob’s descendants.

 The instruction was given for this to be read every seven years in the shemittah year. All Israel is commanded to gather at Succot in the place God has appointed (eventually the Temple in Jerusalem) and the King read to the people from the Scroll.

 And the chapter ends with the prediction that Israel with turn away from God, and that God’s reaction would be to turn God’s face away from them – but also with the promise that their descendants will not forget the words which will remain in their mouths.

 So what is happening?

 It seems that with the completion of the Torah and our entry into the Promised Land, our Creator considers we are grown up. We have the Torah; we have the record in it of discussions and decisions. We are aware that we can judge matters between human beings – but not matters between human beings and God. We cannot deal with these because it is not our business to govern or over-rule another’s conscience.

 God will not appoint another Moses – there is to be no dynastical continuity. No further theophanies. Israel has become a nation of priests with everyone having access to the Almighty and to God’s mercy.

 And when we begin Genesis all over again, we go back to Creation and the dysfunctional families of Adam and Noah. When we come to Abraham, look out for the Teaching and how it is built on chapter by chapter.

 And where’s the second joke? – listen to the translation.”

Sadly, we never heard the second joke. And the poignancy of some of the comments in the drasha make for difficult reading for those who knew her and knew her later story, though the mischief of her personality comes through this text for me, as does her clear and certain faith in God. This was a woman who, as administrator in the synagogue, would regularly leave open the door to the sanctuary in her office hours “because God likes to go for a walk”, but actually so that visitors would feel able to enter and sit and offer their prayers or order their thoughts. She would tidy up the siddurim and make sure they were properly shelved, saying that upside down books “gave God a headache”, to cover her need to honour God by keeping the synagogue neat. She spent hundreds of hours talking to the lonely, reassuring the frightened, supporting the vulnerable. She spent hundreds of hours creating the databases and systems to ensure that the synagogue ran as effectively as it could. And the roots of all this voluntary caring for the synagogue community was her own life’s struggles and her awareness that if God considers we are grown up now, with equal access to the Almighty and no “top management” to direct us, then we had better get on with it, with the work of creating and sustaining the world with tzedakah and mishpat, with righteousness and justice.

In this period of the Ten Days, as we reflect on the lives we are leading, the choices we are making, and the mortality that will come for us all, either with or without warning, I read her drasha as a modern ”unetaneh tokef”, and, as I was for so many years when I was her rabbi and she my congregant, I am grateful for the learning I had from her.

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017