The paradox that is Pinchas plays out also in Jeremiah or: the murderous zealot in the cause of God while the despairing prophet gives us hope

There is no literary connection between the torah reading of Pinchas and the designated haftarah- the connection is instead calendrical as this week we begin the cycle of haftarot that will take us to Tisha b’Av, the blackest day of our calendar – and from there to Rosh Hashanah, the day of our judgment and the new year.

The three shabbatot before Tisha b’Av each have a traditional special haftarah reading that deals with the punishment that will befall the people who forget the God of the covenant. They are known as t’lat d’fur’anuta’ the “three of affliction” or of rebuke.  As we enter the first of the three, which signal not only the coming remembrance of the cataclysm that was Tisha b’Av, but also that we are on the run up now to Rosh Hashanah, we are provided with a good deal of food for thought as we must begin to measure ourselves and our lives, to try to comprehend the circumstances and environment  in which we are living.

The prophet Jeremiah lived at the end of the 7th century BCE. The Northern Kingdom had been destroyed and its inhabitants dispersed and lost. Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was in danger of the same fate. Jeremiah recognised this, and he offered both despair and hope in his prophecy. The religious and social conditions of the time were not good – idolatry was rife, and Josiah’s reforms were partial and weak, and did not survive long after Josiah’s death.  People were disconnected from the source of their religious traditions to the point where they even felt that the misfortunes of their country could have been caused by their not offering incense to other gods during the time of Josiah’s reforms. It is likely that there were even human sacrifices being offered at this time, justified as being a return to the true religion, a perversion of Judaism that appalled Jeremiah.

People were being stigmatized as being treacherous; they could not trust one another or build up strong relationships. Social injustice existed on all levels of society, and was barely even noted, so ordinary had it become to mistreat the poor in society. The world of Jeremiah is one we might recognise today, society breaking down, all kinds of fantasies floated as if they might be genuine, fake news and loss of trust in the leadership.

And what does Jeremiah talk about?  He talks about contract, about the covenant that the Jews have with God, about how there is a special obligation of loyalty upon Israel, and that even if Israel does not offer this loyalty, even if destruction follows, the curious truth is that the special relationship between God and the Jews, implied by the covenant, will not be broken. In all of the despair he shines an odd ray of hope.

It is a strange conception that we have an unbreakable contract of obligation to God.  It is almost impossible for us to imagine an agreement which, even if broken on both sides, remains binding. And yet it is at the heart of our history, it is our raison d’être and our aspiration. A Jew cannot repudiate the covenant for all time, even if we appear to despise it or ignore it. The obligation and the special relationship remain in place. I am  reminded of the perennial Jewish complaint to God- “We realise that we are the chosen people, but can’t you just go and choose someone else for a change”.  The answer, of course, is “even if I do, it doesn’t preclude Me from continuing to choose you!”

Reading Jeremiah is to know that we have an inescapable destiny.  The folkloric Yiddish form – that something is bashert, that something is meant to happen in the grand scheme of things – has probably helped the Jewish people to get through all manner of crises. Yet Jeremiah, for all his despair at what is going on around him, is paradoxically aware both of a kind of predestination and of the critical importance that free will will have in any outcome – he is prophesying about the impact of the individual’s choices.  He begins his prophecy in a way that shows he believed he had been called with by God:  “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.  Before you were born, I set you apart.  I have appointed you a prophet to the nations”

Jeremiah develops the twin concepts of predestination and free will.  He rails at the people precisely because he knows that their chosen behaviour is dangerous and wrong, but that they can choose to behave a different way and different outcomes will occur. Predestination is not the same as determinism.  As Mishnah Pirkei Avot comments: All may be foreseen, but freedom of choice is given”  or as Mishnah Berachot frames it “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven”: That is, whatever God may or may not perceive, it doesn’t have to mean that it will necessarily happen.  Unlike the covenant which binds us eternally however many times we may break it, we do have the power to escape what may seem to be our destiny – even a small change in behaviour can lead to a massive change in outcome.  It is in our hands to shape our lives.

Medieval philosophers understood this well. Maimonides comments that we enter the world with a variety of propensities and possibilities, but what use is made of them is our own doing.  Modern science has come to the same conclusion – we may be able to map out a whole variety of genes, but we still can’t guarantee our predictions about the bearers of those genes – even genetically identical twins can live completely different lives.

We read the 3 haftarot of rebuke and affliction every year in the 3 weeks before we commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples.  We can’t undo the history, but we can listen to the message – we know what is required of us, we know the likely outcome of our ignoring what God requires of us, we can change the future.

After Tisha b’Av our liturgical tradition decrees that there come 7 haftarot of consolation – more than double the words of warning and pain – a perfect number of weeks of grieving and moving on. From this Shabbat until Rosh Hashanah there are ten weeks of preparation, mirroring the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the work we do from this period will intensify in urgency and feeling.   The liturgical calendar is being carefully patterned and manipulated to encourage us on a religious journey towards new beginnings. The message is being hammered home – the covenant may be ignored or unfulfilled but it has not broken, we remain obliged to our relationship with God.  Our future is foreseen in all its possibilities but we remain in charge of what will actually be – we have the choice to behave well, and if we choose not to do so we are well aware of the consequences.  But even the consequences, dire as they may be, never rule out the possibility of change, of, to use a very old fashioned word – redemption.  From the reading of the first haftarah of affliction until Rosh Hashanah we have ten weeks – the clock is ticking and, as we read in Pirkei Avot, “the work is great and the Master of the House is waiting.”

 

Bein HaMetzarim: The Days of Distress to which we are still contributing

The three weeks that separate the fast of the 17th Tammuz, the date that the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and the 9th Av, the date on which we commemorate the destruction of both the first and second temple are known as “bein ha’metzarim – בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים – within the straits.” It is a phrase taken from the third verse of the book of Lamentations which speaks of the desolation of post destruction Jerusalem, and of the exile and wanderings of her surviving displaced people.

The three weeks have become a discrete period of time, characterised by mourning customs and by an increasing sense of danger, and have their own flavour and liturgical reminders – the three haftarot of rebuke which take us up to Tisha b’Av are related to the date rather than the Torah reading for example, and many Jews forgo eating meat or drinking wine and eat more simple meals. The idea is to immerse in the mourning, to give up the ordinary joys of good meals or new clothes. Instead we are supposed to be reflecting on our mortality, on the limited time we have to act in this world. We are supposed to be finding a way through all the busyness of life to the core business of being alive – to connect to each other and to the world, to make the world a better place for our being in it.

The quasi mourning customs for the three weeks increase in intensity up till Tisha b’Av itself, from 17th Tammuz till Rosh Chodesh Av, from Rosh Chodesh Av till the end of the 8th day, and then the black fast itself. There are different traditions in different parts of the Jewish community to signify the mourning period, but an awareness of the period of bein ha’metzarim thrums in the background. In a time of mourning for the unity and safety of the Jewish people in their ancestral and promised homeland we are all that bit more thoughtful, aware of each other and their sensitivities, aware of the Talmudic description (Yoma 9b) of sinat hinam – that Jerusalem was destroyed because of Jewish disunity and the baseless hatred the Jews of the time had for each other.

So here we are bein ha’metzarim, in the days of distress, the narrow straits of danger and fear where we are supposed to be reflecting on our own contributions to sinat hinam. And it comes as no real surprise that the disunity in Israel is growing, that the gap between rich and poor, haves and have nots, men and women, Jews and others, Haredim of all hats and footwear, Dati’im (people very strict in Jewish law) and those who have other ways of being a religious Jew, Religious and secular – the gap is widening; There is quite the opposite of a physical bein ha’metzarim growing in Israeli society – there is a gulf between people and peoples, but sadly the sinat hinam is still there and flourishing, contributing to that abyss that separates the human beings.

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the women of the wall went, as they do every Rosh Chodesh except that of Tishri, to pray at the foot of the wall that retains and supports the Temple Mount, the Kotel. They have been praying on Rosh Chodesh there, early in the morning, for over a quarter of a century. Women who come together from the very orthodox through the religious spectrum through to the cultural and feminist women who support their sister’s needs. For the last few months, having been forbidden to use a Torah scroll from the many that are kept at the Kotel, they have brought in their own. They have had to smuggle their scroll into the Kotel, as now no one is supposed to bring their own scroll for their own use, an exercise of power and control by the ultra-fundamentalist group currently in charge of the Kotel plaza. There is no religious meaning behind this rule – women can read from scrolls and do so all over the world.

And on Rosh Chodesh Av this year, Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, a board member of Women of the Wall, was arrested not at the checkpoint, but after she had entered the Kotel Plaza with a scroll in her backpack. The arrest warrant reads: “The suspect was arrested on 17.07.2015. From her hands was confiscated a Torah scroll in the colours of blue and gold which was involved in the conducting of the crime. Also confiscated was an orange and grey rucksack.”

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the date on which the mourning intensifies for the nine days that lead to Tisha b’Av, a woman was arrested and handcuffed and taken to the police station at the Kotel, and the warrant also apparently arrested the Torah Scroll “which was involved in the conducting of the crime”

Words fail me at this point. We are truly bein ha’metzarim, in the days of distress, of narrow vision, of causeless hatred.

We managed, with the help of God, to leave Mitzraim – the place of slavery, the doubly narrow place, the slavery in Egypt. But having left Egypt and having returned to the Land, we have brought the narrowness of vision, the narrowness of self-interest, the narrowness of a failed empathy and imagination with us.

Will we be able to leave it again?

photo of Rachel Cohen Yeshurun with her arrest warrant taken from facebook wall of Women of the Wall Nashot haKotelrachel cohen yeshurun with her arrest warrant