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.”

 

Shelach Lecha: holding onto our values while the world looks in another direction: or How to combat populism

“And Joshua bin Nun and Caleb ben Jephunneh, who were of those who spied out the land, tore their clothes. And they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land.  If the Eternal delight in us, then God will bring us into this land, and give it to us–a land which flows with milk and honey.  Only rebel not against the Eternal, do not fear the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defence is removed from over them, and the Eternal is with us; fear them not.’  But all the congregation bade stone them with stones, when the glory of the Eternal appeared in the tent of meeting to all the children of Israel.” (Num 14:6-10)

Twelve men, representative from each tribe, have been sent to reconnoitre the land of Israel, and they come back with the same report but with two different conclusions. The land is very good and fertile, but the inhabitants are strong. Ten believe that it would be impossible to take the land and it is better not to try, two insist that trusting in God and refusal to be afraid will mean that they will indeed succeed.

What makes Joshua and Caleb so different from the others? Why are they able to hold onto their vision when the others are overcome with fear?  And why are they prepared to go against the popular narrative of the majority?

These are questions that have never lost their relevance. We are in a world of growing political populism where minorities and a supportive legal framework are both under attack as a large portion of the population are manipulated to support something that is not to their benefit.

To stand up against the narrative of a vocal and fearful majority requires one to be both principled and courageous.  To put ones hope in a better future, to take the risk and make the leap of faith, to not be seduced by an immediate gratification or intimidated by the actions of others requires a strength of mind and soul that may seem superhuman – except that history is littered with such examples. The survival of Judaism and of Jews is a direct result of generations of people holding onto their principles with courage, teaching their children to be Jews even in a frightening and dangerous world. I pay tribute to my father, Edgar Rothschild, whose faith and determination never wavered, even though as a refugee child separated from his beloved parents, his younger life was miserable and lonely. His activism in our local synagogue – itself with its share of people whose arms bore tattooed identification numbers – was extraordinary and life affirming, and his determination to pass on a warm and loving and practical Judaism was so powerful. I pay tribute to my brother, Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild, whose work in post war Europe has been an uphill struggle to reintroduce authentic Reform Jewish life where none exists and some would prefer it to stay that way. I pay tribute to Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck who worked to create the rabbinic college in London that bears his name. I could list and list the people who held to their principles, who screwed up their courage and continued in the face of a majority who would rather have an easier life.

 

The dying Moses said to the people as well as to Joshua –“Chazak ve’Emat…lo tirah v’lo techat” “Be strong and of good courage…. do not be afraid, do not be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8). It is hard to do, yet we have many examples before us. It is, I think, a quintessentially Jewish way to stand up and to be counted, to continue to hope in the face of despair, to knowingly take the risk of the leap of faith because we have a vision of something larger and more important than ourselves. Yet the bible story reminds us that it is also a human characteristic to avoid difficulty – for every Abraham there is a Jonah, for the two spies who were brave enough to stand up, there were ten who played to the fears of the crowd.

 

Progressive Judaism sees itself as a descendant of Prophetic Judaism – precisely the quality of courage and vision prepared to confront the comfortable views around. We are Jewish not simply as an accident of birth, but as an active choice in how we live in the world. In the words of Edmund Fleg: “I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind. I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks every possible sacrifice of my soul. I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps. I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes…I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; people will complete it….I am a Jew because Israel places Humanity and his Unity above nations and above Israel itself. I am a Jew because above Humanity, image of the Divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine. (Pourquoi je suis juif.1928)

 

So as we read the story of the spies this week, let’s think of those who doggedly hold on to Jewish values while the world looks in the other direction. Let’s take on the mantle of holding onto the vision of a good land, while political leaders whip up racist and xenophobic mobs. Let’s stand up against a narrative that others people who are not like us – be it in the UK, in Europe, in the USA, in Israel, and remember that we must hold onto our courage and our good faith, not let fear or dismay overtake us, but hold on to hope. Joshua and Caleb were the only two of the whole population who eventually entered the land. Their hope and their faith in a better world kept them going. Let’s hope that our hope and faith in a better world will do the same for us.

 

(written for EUPJ parashat hashavua page 2018 and first published there)

Yom haZikaron la’Shoah ve’la’Gevurah: The day for remembering the Shoah and for remembering the Bravery.

vati passport 1Tonight we begin Yom HaZikaron la’ Shoah ve’la’Gevurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה – The day for remembering the Shoah and the Heroism.

Around six million Jews and five million others were targeted by the Nazis and were murdered in the Shoah. LGBTQ people, Travellers (Roma), Communists, the mentally or physically frail, Jehovah’s witnesses, the people who opposed the decrees – they too perished simply for being who they were.

From 1933, as German Jews were stripped of having legal and economic status, till 1945 when Hitler was finally defeated, the Shoah was not one large act but a huge multiplicity of smaller and ongoing acts, and the bravery and heroism we also remember was equally often the actions of individuals whose values led them to refuse to partake or support, or to support hidden Jews, or to resist in numerous quiet ways.

My family have, as have many families like us, threads of stories about what happened to us.  The voices to tell the stories are few – we have had to collect and collate information from many different sources, we have had to research and visit places in Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Switzerland… to try to find the streets and the buildings, and rarely the cemeteries, where our family members found some rest for a short while before journeying onwards.  Some stories come from memories recounted to us when we were young and the teller was feeling particularly open or vulnerable, some stories are found in legal documents, in letters, in photographs, in lists of names for deportation.   Some stories are embedded in the names given to us at birth, in recipes, in particular family traditions. My family, like the families of many like us in the UK and America, have made deep roots in a very short time in the new places we live in now, others find themselves unable to come back from the violent uprooting they suffered, and so remain consistently rootless.

The pain we memorialise on Yom HaShoah travels down the generations. The silence of survivors doggedly refusing to tell their stories until almost too late, has been more profound and more powerful than speech. The anguish of families torn apart, with most disappeared or murdered, has an effect on the remnant that survives, be it spoken of or be it suppressed. I can still hear my 87 year old father asking – “but have I got any other family in the world besides the family I created? And “I wonder what my father would have thought of me”

The enormity of the Shoah is too much to process. The pain of individuals is too much to bear.

And yet we must continue to tell the story as best we can. We can tell the stories within our families, we can tell the stories of one community, one street, one house, one person. It comes down again and again to the personal stories, the fear and loss of individuals, the pain and terror of one human being.

And we must alongside tell the stories of bravery and heroism. The family with the same name as a Jewish family living in an apartment block who gave their papers to the Jewish family when the Gestapo came to call. The people who warned small children playing out –“don’t go back home, the soldiers are there, find somewhere else to go but don’t go home”. The people who hid Jews in their homes at their own risk, who faced down authorities and refused to accede to their demands, who gave out visas or forged documents to help people escape certain death.

One thing we learn is that fascism starts small, with many small acts of distortion – seeding fake news, calling out truth as if it is fake, skewing and manipulating public opinion, destroying trust in any source of information, acts of violence that are not confronted, racist dog-whistling, gaslighting – the process of driving a person to question their own sanity through deliberate psychological manipulation. This last – coming from the play by Patrick Hamilton “Gas Light” which premiered 1938 – is done not only by individuals but by governments and nation states. Hitler made promises, asserted facts and then later would act as if this had never happened.  The destabilising effect of what you know to be true suddenly apparently being false or non-existent is increasingly apparent once more in the politics of Trump, of Brexit, of the populist parties gaining power in Europe.

Fascism starts with many small acts of distortion. It is neutralised by clarity, transparency and truthfulness.

It is neutralised too by every act being called out for what it is at the level at which it occurs. Every taxi driver ranting on about a Brexit dividend or with a racist agenda, every dinner guest, every work colleague. Politeness is the enemy of honesty on occasion and allows the hatred to flourish as the hater believes their agenda is agreed.

The small acts of heroism alongside and during the Shoah are what gives me faith in the future, gives me a hope for the present, and also directs my own actions. I cannot stand idly by and hear racism, anti-European rhetoric, anti-Muslim spew. I will not stand idly by.  We must have faith in our own perceptions and our own values and not allow the gaslighting. We must be strong in what we know to be right – human dignity for all, support and care – and resources – for the vulnerable, honesty and transparency in our politics.

The word Shoah probably comes from a root meaning to ravage, to destroy, to devastate and is connected to the word used in the ten commandments – la’shav (do not take the name of the Eternal God La’shav) – meaning empty or vain, desolate or ruin.  One of my favourite glosses on this root as it appears in the third commandment is that we must not damage the world in the name of God, not destroy others – who also hold the reflection of God within them – for a misplaced sense of what God must be like.

I love too the modern midrash on the root Shoah which is made up of the three Hebrew letters Shin, Alef Hei.

The letter Shin has a shushing sound. A soothing sound we make to frightened children, the sound when there is nothing to say except “I’m here with you”

The letter Alef is silent; it reminds us of the silence of Aaron in the face of the sudden death of his sons, the shocked inability to respond at all as we freeze in our horror at the reality of what we are facing.

But the letter Hei, often used to designate the name of God, reminds us that at the end of it all, God is still with us. And it too has a soft and gentle sound, the sound of breathing.  At the end of the Shoah- even after all this time since the end, we can still say nothing to remedy or to heal the dislocation and pain we still endure and live with, but God is still with us, and we are still able to breath and to live, and to look forward in the hope of a life of peacefulness and with all the breath we have to fight the forces that would take that peace away.

 

photo of my grandfather’s reisepass with the red J firmly stamped.

Tisha b’Av – the low point of the Jewish year and lessons we can learn

On Tisha b’Av we remember and  commemorate the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. A culmination of a three week period of mourning, which begins with the Fast of the 17th Tammuz, commemorating the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the destruction of the First Temple.   In the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) we read that “Five things happened to our ancestors on the 17th Tammuz, and five on the 9th Av (Tisha B’Av). On the 17th of Tammuz the tablets [containing the Ten Commandments] were broken; the daily sacrifice was discontinued; the walls of Jerusalem were breached; Apustamus, a Greek officer, burned a Torah scroll; and an idol was erected in the sanctuary of the Temple. On the Ninth of Av it was decreed that the generation of the desert would not enter the Land of Israel; the first temple was destroyed; the second temple was destroyed; Betar, (the last Jewish stronghold after the destruction of Jerusalem), was conquered; and Jerusalem was ploughed under. When the month of Av enters we diminish our joy.”

It is quite a list. The tradition is to cluster bad things together on one date, rather than to spread the pain of Jewish history throughout the year, colouring our days with mourning. So there are texts that tell us that on Tisha B’Av the First Crusade began, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, and to bring us more up to date the First World War broke out on Tisha b’Av. There is a good case for observing Yom HaShoah on this date in years to come, adding the cataclysm of our times to the tragedies of our ancestors.  Others would like to explicitly add Kristallnacht, which took place on the 9th of November, the eleventh month, a sort of secular resonance with the 9th day of Av.

We need a day to focus on our mourning, a day for remembering the violence and pain of our history. And one day each year is really enough, it contains what would otherwise be uncontainable and which could overlay our national narrative and suffocate us with grief. As a Reform Jew for whom the traditional yearning for the return of the Temple is problematic, I find the only way to deal with Tisha b’Av is to place it in the context of the three weeks of increasing sadness known as “bein ha-metzarim” – within a narrow and constrained place, and then to reflect on our history, remember, acknowledge, and move on. It is no surprise to me that the 7 weeks of haftarah readings from Tisha b’Av towards Rosh Hashanah are all about hope, about return to God, about opening out to possibility and the future – we move from between the straits (bein ha-metzarim) into the wide open space of freedom to think, feel, remember and explore . Then comes Rosh Hashanah, time to make a new start, a new promise to our best selves, a new commitment to the future.

The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)

Sinat Chinam is equivalent to three huge sins together. It caused the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jewish people from their land for almost two thousand years. So what do we do about the hating without cause, the prejudging of others, the gratuitous dislike of the other. This is not necessarily an overpowering feeling that we are in thrall to, a visceral and ancient reflexive response that we can do nothing about. The responsa indicate that sinat chinam can be about simple ignoring of the humanity of the other, about not bothering to talk to them, to meet with them, to find out about them. Through sinat chinam we diminish the goodness in the world, as we refuse to recognise the goodness in each human person, to see them as valuable and possessing intrinsic worth. We have seven weeks now to reflect on how we treat others, both those we know and those we share our living spaces with – be it on the daily crowded train commute or the queue at the till, the person at the other end of the telephone or member of our own circle. We have seven weeks after Tisha b’Av to try to notice the humanity of each person we meet, and so to think about how we behave towards them. This is good work of teshuvah, for in meeting the other and recognising the spark of God within them, we become ready to face the spark of God within ourselves, the voice that reminds us that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will stand in the presence of the heavenly court as we judge our lives so far, and the perspective of that court will be mediated with our own attempts to be the best person we can really be.

Chukkat: Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess and one of the leadership triumvirate

We have learned this week of the death of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved of the tribe of Levi. Born in Egypt, the oldest child in the family with two younger brothers Aaron and Moses, Miriam kept faith with the religious tradition of her ancestors in the darkest times, even prophesying the birth of her youngest brother Moses and predicting that he would be the one who would deliver their people to freedom (BT Sotah11- 12b). Along with her brothers she was part of the leadership that brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Sadly she has not lived to see the end of the journey, but her leadership – particularly of the women – was critical to its success.

Miriam had a particular affinity with water. Even her name reminds us of it, variously translated as ‘bitter seas’ (Mar Yam) or even “doubled water” (depending on whether one sees the letters mem reish as deriving from bitterness or of water. We first meet her at the water’s edge, saving her little brother Moses adrift in the Nile reeds. (Exodus 2:4-9) She is a powerful figure at the Sea of Reads and her song of praise became the basis for the rather more famous (and more fully recorded in bible) song of her brother, Shirat haYam. (Exodus 15) Luckily the Dead Sea Scrolls have recorded more of her verses than the biblical editor thought fit to include.(4Q365).  And of course we must not forget Miriam’s well which followed her in the wilderness and which provided much needed refreshment for the Children of Israel, was a miracle provided because of her merit. (Ta’anit 9a).

Bible called her a prophet and indeed Miriam was a great prophet of Israel, though sadly she has no book named for her prophesies, an oversight to be much deplored.

Her name might also allude to the idea of rebellion – a role model for all Jews, Miriam thought for herself and did not acquiesce to the ideas of others without challenge. It was this characteristic that gave her the will to challenge her parent’s decision (and that of the other Jewish adults) to no longer have relations in order that no children would be born – some say that they all divorced so as to prevent a new generation being born into slavery. But Miriam’s refusal to be party to this pessimistic arrangement meant that not only did she and her brother Aaron dance and sing at the remarriage of their parents, but that other families followed suit. Her rebellious spirit was vital in keeping the people alive and hopeful. (BT Sotah 12a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 6). Indeed such was her role in preserving the last generation to be born in Egypt, there are some who say that the midwife Puah was in fact Miriam herself.  In part this connects to her rebellious nature. There are those who say that she was insolent (hofi’ah panim – lifted her face) toward Pharaoh when she heard his edict to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrew women, and looked down her nose at him. She told him: “Woe to you on the Day of Judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you.” Pharaoh was so enraged at her behaviour that he wanted to kill her. She was saved only because Yocheved intervened, saying “Do you take notice of her? She is a baby, and knows nothing” (Ex. Rabbah, 1:13).  Miriam found it hard to keep her mouth shut at that, but luckily she did so.

While it is not clear who Miriam married – indeed if she married at all – there are some who say she married Caleb and other who say she married her uncle Uzziel. Clearly these marriages were unimportant in the public sphere in which she worked, but it is said that her children were sages and kings because she had stood up to the evil decree of Pharaoh and also persuaded the Hebrews to continue to procreate. Bezalel is said to have descended from her, as is King David.

While this writer does not see the need to describe family for Miriam – either to explore whether she married or had children – it is gratifying that the midrashic tradition felt, in its own terms, that she deserved to be rewarded for her integrity and willingness to speak truth to power. We note that the sons of Moses walk out of history and that two of Aaron’s sons offer strange fire to God, with only the younger two continuing into priesthood, with its ultimately difficult and chequered history.

Miriam was musical, a great timbrel player, and a wonderful song leader and dancer who lifted the spirits of all who saw her. Her liveliness and optimism, coupled with a strong character and a willingness to speak out, make her a superlative role model for Jews everywhere. Her association with water, the living waters from which everything can draw its sustenance, is no accident. Water flows where it will, as did Miriam.

Even when Miriam criticised the fact that her brother Moses had married a Cushite woman and apparently put away Zipporah, the wife of his youth and mother of his two sons, she did so from a position of integrity, challenging her younger brother’s autocratic behaviour and as a result of her good and close relationship with Zipporah, a Midianite woman married into the Israelite leadership family (Sifrei on Numbers 12). She was concerned that Moses was no longer visiting Zipporah who was thus condemned to having no marital comfort and would not be able to bear more children.(Avot de R.Natan ch 9; Sifrei Zuta 12:1; sifra Metzorah 5).

While she was smitten with a skin disease as punishment for the harshness of her words, it must be noted that the whole camp waited for her to heal before moving on. For seven days even the Shechinah, as well as the priests and the Israelites stayed in camp while her tzara’at took its course (Mishnah Sotah 1:9) and it is well understood that this exceptional treatment was a reward for her work supporting Moses as a baby and enabling him to be reunited safely with is mother as his wet nurse, as well as helping in the leadership of the people in the many desert years.

While Miriam died on tenth of Nisan in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, (Sifrei on Devarim 305) her death is recorded here in Chukkat along with that of Aaron. All three of the siblings are buried on the heights of Avarim close to the land of Israel, and Miriam, like her brothers  would later, died by the kiss of God as her soul was gently drawn back from her body (BT baba batra 17a), an ending known as the death of the righteous.

She will not be forgotten. In modern times she is remembered at the Pesach seder with a Cup of Miriam filled with water, and a special prayer; while others add a piece of fish to the seder plate to reference her particular affinity with water.

Sadly however the characteristics of Miriam are sometimes hidden from view or even actively ignored – her prophecy and the determination she had to make her voice heard by people more senior than her are a fundamental part of her character. She spoke out, her voice was heard and followed – in both her capacity to advise and in her song leading, even if her brother then took credit for some of her best works. She was not quiescent in the face of a community that didn’t want change, or that was prepared to put up with injustice and oppression. She was active in both the birth and the rearing of Moses, keeping faith with her idea that here was a child who could be a leader and redeemer of the people. She was an equal partner in leadership, she had her own ideas and her own way of going about things. She was nobody’s ‘yes woman’. Her integrity, her strength of character, her fluidity, her determination to keep life happening, all meant that Miriam’s was a voice that shaped the people, she was heard in the public space, she was respected even when she sometimes said things in a less than careful way, she was warm and caring and people knew it. Moses could be distant, his shyness and insecurities causing him to hide away sometimes. Aaron could be arrogant in his priestly garments and status. But Miriam was accessible to the people and they loved her for it, as she spoke out on their behalf and fought for their rights.

Both the editors of the received text and the creators of midrash have not always dealt kindly with her. There is a rabbinic propensity to see her as bitter or as rebellious to the established order, her voice (already edited at the song of the sea) is not heard again in bible after the episode of the tzara’at; her death is reported without ceremony or sadness.  There are some notable exceptions to the blurring of Miriam in history. The prophet Micah tells us of God’s comment “I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (6:4). I cannot help but think that her gender was a problem to later commentators and redactors, something that sadly continues to this day. Yet Miriam is described in bible as a prophet, she sings her own song, she leads the people and she keeps her brothers safe and in relationship with the people.  She is patently a popular leader. When we lose Miriam we lose a righteous and able leader. When we lose the stories of her we risk losing the participation of modern women in the public sphere, rebellious, sassy, open, fluid, willing to speak truth to power and to challenge both adversaries and relatives who would rather we were quiet.

Some women have suggested fasting on the tenth of Nisan as her yahrzeit. That is fine should women want to do this, but I would suggest that we would do her greater honour by speaking out, by rebelling against injustice and against the desire to push women into the private and domestic sphere where they might more easily be controlled, and by bringing the swirling waters of justice and of challenge into the society in which we live.

Toledot: there are more generations and more branches in our family tree than we notice – meet Mahalat bat Ishmael the fragrant bringer of hope

וַיַּ֣רְא עֵשָׂ֔ו כִּ֥י רָע֖וֹת בְּנ֣וֹת כְּנָ֑עַן בְּעֵינֵ֖י יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִֽיו: ט וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶל־יִשְׁמָעֵ֑אל וַיִּקַּ֡ח אֶת־מַֽחֲלַ֣ת ׀ בַּת־יִשְׁמָעֵ֨אל בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֲח֧וֹת נְבָי֛וֹת עַל־נָשָׁ֖יו ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה:

“And Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan were displeasing to Isaac his father. So Esau went to Ishmael and he took Machalat the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nevayot over his women/ in addition to his other wives, for a wife for himself.”

So ends the sidra of Toledot. It began with Isaac marrying Rebecca and pleading with God for her to have children. Having conceived twins who are struggling within her, Rebecca is informed that she will give birth to two nations who would be not be equal. The firstborn, Esau, was red and hairy. The second born was holding on to his brother’s heel so they named him Jacob (heel). Esau became a skilled hunter and was the favoured child of his father, but Jacob remained close to home and his mother. The bible recounts the story of Esau coming home famished after a hunting trip and selling his birthright blessing for some of the delicious red stew that Jacob had made.

The narrative continues with the story of a famine and Isaac goes to the Philistine King Abimelech for support, having been told by God to not leave the land as his father had done. Isaac settled in Gerar, and for fear of being killed because of Rebecca’s beauty, he follows the example his parents had given and told Abimelech that Rebecca was not his wife but his sister. Abimelech however found the lie out, and in order not to attract punishment from God, warns the Philistines not to mistreat the couple.   Isaac grows wealthy and the Philistines begin to hate and envy him to the point where he is unsafe. Isaac moves his household away to Rechovot, and then has an encounter with God at Beersheva where he receives the covenant of blessing. Abimelech, understanding that Isaac is the heir to his father’s relationship with God seeks a peace treaty with him which is sealed with a feast.

Now we return our focus to the family. Esau married two Hittite women, Judith bat Be’eri and Basemat bat Elon, and Isaac and Rebecca are bitterly upset.

Now we come to the last phase of Isaac’s life. He is old, his sight is poor, he knows it is time to give the blessings to his sons. He asks Esau to hunt and prepare a dish of his game for him after which he will bless him. Rebecca overhears, and, when Esau is gone, she instructs Jacob to bring her young goats in order for her to make a meal for Isaac that Jacob can take him and receive the blessing. Jacob does not think this will work- Esau is hairy, Jacob is not. Isaac on touching his son will understand the deception and may curse him. Rebecca responds by taking the curse upon herself, and demands that Jacob do as she has told him. She makes coverings from the skins of the goats and food from the flesh, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing and sends him to his father. The text is ambiguous as to whether Isaac recognises which of his sons is with him, but he goes with the flow, blessing Jacob with the special blessing. Esau returns, discovers his blessing is already given to his brother and in his distress asks his father for another. Isaac blesses him with abundance, but also with the hope that he will one day break the yoke of subservience to his brother. Esau’s fury is a danger to Jacob and so his mother arranges that he is sent to safety with her family under the pretext that this will keep him away from Canaanite women and help him to marry within the family group.  Esau hears this, understands that his first two choices of wife were not acceptable to his parents, and so he goes to Ishmael his uncle in order to marry Machalat, his cousin, the daughter of Ishmael.

Machalat is family. She is the daughter of Ishmael the beloved son of Abraham and of Hagar, whom God comforts when she and her son are near to death in the wilderness having been expelled from the camp. Hagar is the first person who is recorded as giving a name to God.   We are told that “she called the name of the Eternal who spoke to her, You are El Ro’ee (a God of seeing)” (Gen 16:13)  So Machalat is the grandchild of a woman who encountered God.

There are two biblical texts naming the wives of Esau, and they do not exactly coincide. One tells us the three wives are Yehudit bat Beeri, Basemat bat Elon and Mahalat bat Ishmael (Gen 26) whereas the second tells us they are Adah bat Elon, Basemat bat Ishmael and Oholivamah bat Anah (Gen 36).  The gemara resolves the problem by saying that Basemat/Machalat were the same woman, and whereas the name Basemat means fragrant, Machalat comes from the same root as forgiveness – mechilah – and that in marrying her all the sins of Esau were forgiven (JT Bikkurim 3:3)This would explain how, when the brothers meet up again years later, Esau is warm and welcoming, having given up the bitterness and anger caused by his brother’s betrayal, he too, having been forgiven, is able to forgive.

Basemat, whose name implies great sweetness, gives Esau a son and names him Re’u-El –friend of God. Is it accident that the name plays with and even seems to echo the name her grandmother gave to God – El-Roee? What is clear is that while Esau has many other children, only this son is named with a reference to God.

It feels like a hint – Hagar and Basemat were not destined to be part of the main thread of the narrative, but they were important nevertheless, they had their own very good relationship with God and their lives impact upon our history.

The bible may not be focussed on these women, or on this lateral branch of the family tree, but it considers them important enough for them and their descendants to be recorded. We know about Rebecca, her initial infertility and her later challenge to God once her difficult pregnancy was begun. We know how she took care to direct the narrative so that Jacob would become the link in the chain of tradition. We know about Sarah, her initial infertility and her derisive laughter in responding to God’s telling her that she would yet bear a child to be the link in the chain of tradition. But the bible reminds us there were other women who also had encounters with God, yet who did not go on to become matriarchs in our tradition.

Our historic commentators do not much notice these women, and if they choose to do so it is usually to make a point about the men they are connected with, and to be honest, they are not often kind to the women nor interested in them and their experience. But now we have a different set of lenses, modernity chooses to unpeel the layers of patriarchy and look again at the unvarnished text. Machalat the daughter of Ishmael appears to be a woman who, like her grandmother, knows God. Her marriage to Esau seems to change him, their son is a friend of God, the same God who appeared to abet Esau’s trauma. She brings forgiveness – mechilah – and she brings hope. Hope for the brothers who were destined to be in an unequal power relationship but whom we see later in life are both wealthy, settled family men. And in bringing the hope that transforms the relationship of brothers born to struggle against each other, surely she can be the touchstone for us in our generation when we know we are not forced or destined to hate each other. Machalat bat Ishmael, she brings the fragrance of hope and optimism. She deserves to be noticed.

 

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Image is “Mahalat” [Yishmael’s daughter, Esav’s wife] by Siona Benjamin

A Key on the Seder Plate: Remembering those who are detained indefinitely while their applications for asylum are being processed.

keysforfreedomImagine the fear of being subject to indefinite detention. No way of knowing how long you will be there,” feeling like you have been put into some sort of human storage facility” (Ajay from Freed Voices).  Imagine trying to keep your sense of self, already damaged by the treatment you have received earlier in your own country, the torture and abuse you have fled, leaving behind family and home in an attempt to save yourself.  Imagine the dangerous journey to freedom, the cold and the heat, the hunger and the insecurity, the anxiety for those you have left behind, the fear of what the future will hold.

Imagine then arriving at a country of sanctuary, hopeful, grateful, ready to work hard to create a new home and make new relationships, to build a good future. And then imagine the bureaucracy, the suspicion, the black hole you fall into as you try to do all the things that will bring a new start. Imagine the xenophobia, the misery, the violence of those who are losing all hope. Imagine that your innocence is questioned, that being locked up without any time structure is seen as normal. Imagine the limbo you find yourself in, no end in sight, nothing to hold on to. In 2015, 255 people had been detained for between one and two years, 41 for over two years.  But these figures exclude the many people who are held in prisons under immigration powers, so the true figure is likely to be significantly higher.  Detention is justified as a way to deport people, but the majority of people detained for more than a year are not ultimately deported.

There is no clarity or transparency in the process. It just grinds on slowly – at least you hope it is grinding on – how would you know if you are not forgotten?  How do you hold on to your humanity when others see you only as a statistic, and a hostile statistic at that?

As one detained asylum seeker said:    “In prison you count the days down to your release, but in detention you count the days up and up” (Suleymane from Freed Voices”)

In 2015 official figures report that almost three thousand people were placed on suicide watch, eleven of them children.  And the figures for suicide attempts inside these centres is going up. The mental health of detained asylum seekers becomes further fractured by the fear, the lack of any clear process or time structure, the prison conditions in which they are held.

As Richard Fuller MP said at an interfaith event hosted by Tzelem and Rene Cassin in the House of Commons yesterday (20th April 2016) “the system is costly, it is inefficient, and it is unjust”. It costs £70 thousand a year to hold someone in detention in Colnbrook detention centre – money that could be used for their rehabilitation and to facilitate their entry into society.

The UK is the only European country with indefinite detention for asylum seekers. The immigration bill is coming back to the Commons with many amendments from the Lords, one of which is to set a time limit of 28 days. As we go into Pesach, our festival of freedom, let’s do all we can to remember and to hold in our hearts and minds the frightened people held in indefinite detention in our own country. Put a key on your Seder plate and pledge to work for the freedom of all people to live in security and peace, to work for the ordinary and common desire we all share to be able to get on with our lives without fear.