Chanukah and Christmas: chocolate coins and presents as we celebrate God in the world

On Tuesday evening Jews all over the world will light chanukiot, the 8 branched candelabra used to celebrate the festival of Chanukah. It commemorates the regaining of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE, and its rededication after the occupying Seleucids had defiled it while imposing Hellenic culture over its empire, prohibiting any other religions.  The story of the successful revolt by a small group of pious Jews against the large military power of its day has a touch of the miraculous, and sure enough the narratives first found in the apocryphal first two Books of Maccabees have evolved in their retelling, well beyond the original event.

The dark threads of the story are eclipsed by the reframing in the Talmud, which saw Chanukah as less of a human story of oppression and guerrilla warfare, and more as a demonstration of the divine presence in history. So today we celebrate the miracle of oil staying alight for 8 days rather than one, and we eat foods cooked in oil and play games of chance that refer to the miracle, we give presents each night and generally make merry with friends and family, and think very little of the origin of the rebellion against assimilation with the dominant power.

The date of Chanukah – 25th Kislev – moves around the calendar a little but is always around Christmas. And the date is not the only similarity. Both are festivals rooted in pagan winter solstice where lighting the surrounding darkness is central. Both use tree symbolism – the Chanukiah is based on the Temple Menorah, which bible describes using botanical terms – clearly a Tree of Life, while Christmas uses evergreens – holly, ivy, fir trees – to proclaim Everlasting Life. Both stories are set in times of oppression – the Seleucid Empire and the Roman one, and both embed hope that human oppression is vanquished by divine activity. Both signal God’s presence in the world and both stories have a mythic quality of redemption.

And there are other similarities. In modern times the minor post-biblical festival of Chanukah has taken on some less wholesome aspects of Christmas in a bid to compete for Jewish attention.  Both now struggle against commercialisation overpowering their religious message, both become overindulgent. On Chanukah the ‘gelt’ that began as a way to give children small change to use when playing dreidl quickly grew into a present every evening, as more assimilated communities noticed the joy that Christmas presents brought. Chocolate coins took over. What can you do when your child looks at all the glittering baubles with awe and desire? The festival marking rejecting the dominant culture has assimilated it perfectly. As my young son said to his friend when discussing their different Decembers – “What? ONLY ONE night of Christmas? Poor you”

 This article first published in the London Evening Standard on 11th December 2017

Toledot: the family ties that bind a people together

 Jewish history is told in terms of Jewish family. We chart our progress through the generations, marvelling at how we are able to adapt and to change, to move countries and to begin again, yet never having to begin at the beginning – we take with us the wisdom and the tradition of our ancestors to support and nourish us as we add our own experiences and our own lives to the chain.

We are part of an eternal covenant.  Since Abraham’s first encounter with God that set him off on his journey as an Ivri (one who passes over into a new place), and since the encounter at Sinai when the whole Jewish people – (including all who were yet to be born and all who would willingly join with us) – we have been a family with a powerful tradition that has enabled us to retain our identity despite huge shifts in geography, language, autonomy, and cultural expression.  Whenever one tries to dissect and define Jewish identity, there is immediately a problem that no absolute characterization can be agreed upon – there are secular and religious Jews, culinary and cultural Jews, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Italkit and Romaniot;  there are Jews who passionately believe in a personal God and others who are passionately agnostic. What binds us is the notion of peoplehood – specifically that of toledot – of family.

The word itself comes from the root to give birth, yet we first find it early on in the book of Genesis when God is creating the world: –  אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם:  בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים–אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם.:

“These are the generations (toledot) of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Eternal God made earth and heavens.  (Gen 2:4). 

The term is clearly much more than the physical giving birth – it has to do with developments, with outcomes, with the next stage, and virtually every time it is found in the book of Genesis it has a transitional function, introducing the new and concluding the story of the old.  In the ten passages in which the word is used in Genesis, each time there is an important liminal point –a break but at the same time a kind of continuation.   So for example we have the toledot of the creation of the world which is then left to run, the toledot of Adam whose sons bring chaos into the world, the toledot of Noah, upon whom rest the hopes of mending the world, of the three sons of Noah who are the founding ancestors of the known world, and then the specific genealogy of Shem from whom we descend and which takes us to Abraham. Then we have the generations (toledot) of Abraham, of Ishmael, of Isaac, of Esau and finally of Jacob.

I find it deeply interesting that the bible gives us the generations not only of the line from whom we ourselves descend, but also of those who are connected to us but who are no longer “of” us.  The recording of the other genealogical threads reminds us of what is truly important:- that there is family and family, connections and bonds, and some are closer and others less so, but we are ultimately all one humanity even when our stories and our lineages diverge.

The story today begins with the toledot of Isaac, but is really interested in the fate of his younger son Jacob.  And it is Jacob, shortly to be renamed Israel on account of his own encounter with God, who is the ancestor from whom we generate our own history. In this sidra Jacob is given two blessings by his father: the first is the blessing of the first-born that his father had intended for Esau, the second is given to him as he departed for Paddan Aram to find a wife for himself and to begin a new life. One blessing was about the recognition and importance of the ancestral tradition of covenant, the other was about striking out into new territory. One was concerned with material well being, the other about spiritual direction and the future of the Jewish people.

What becomes clear is the inextricable link between past and future, that to try to have one without the other is to misunderstand the nature of Jewish identity.  And what becomes clear too is that each new generation has to find their journey and their meaning for themselves, building upon what has been given to them by their parents and grandparents, but creating something new as well, to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

Our history really is about toledot – the concluding of the story of one generation and the new story of the next loosely threaded onto it.  With each new generation there is always going to be change, but at the same time we know that the fundamental blessings continue down the years, and that while some of the paths seem to disappear over the horizon and out of our sight, that is only to be expected and accommodated.

We do the best we can in our own generation, and we trust the ones who come after us to have their own encounter to add to the richness that is passed on.  Isaac cannot ever have expected the boy he named from youth as Ya’akov – the bent one, the one who clung to the heel of his brother, the one who delayed – to become Yisrael, the one who struggles with God and overcomes.

 

Sermon for Yom Kippur Shacharit: ki vayom hazeh – on this day

Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before God, you shall be cleansed”  (Lev 16:30)

On Yom Kippur, when the High Priest entered the inner Temple, dressed in special robes and breastplate, the priestly garments including the frontlets on his head, the vestments of fine white linen, he would repeat this biblical verse in each of the three confessions he made.  And the people would crowd around outside in the temple courtyard, listening hard, and when they heard the the glorious and awesome four letter name of God we write as yod hey vav hey, the name which would be uttered only by the High Priest, only within the Holy of Holies, only on Yom Kippur, only as part of the confession ritual, then they would bow down with their faces to the ground and respond with the blessing of God’s name. This annual ritual of confession and sacrifice was a dangerous one, surrounded by mystery, perfumed by the incense, veiled from the community.  Tension mounted as the confessions grew, as the animals were sacrificed and the hopes pinned upon them being favourably received reached some form of expression.

My sympathies have always been with the high priest, upon whose shoulders rested the burden of so much expectation.  The fate of the whole people seems to have been given over to this one man on this one day – so he had better get it right.   The ritual was complicated, the choreography of washing and changing clothes, of sacrifice and prayer awesomely elaborate,  the consequences of making a mistake unthinkable.  We don’t know much from either biblical sources or first temple texts, but by the time of the Second Temple the Day for Atonement was focussed on the actions and intentions of the High Priest, and the role of the people was to listen, to be awe-struck, and to hope that he got it right.

That was then, but since the Temple days Yom Kippur has developed a different set of rituals, and while we re-enact part of the Avodah, the temple service of Yom Kippur, during the mussaf service, experiencing just the echo of the thrilling gravity and overwhelming power of that ceremony, our own liturgy and imagery takes us to a different  religious place.  Yom Kippur is no longer the Day for Atonement for the people Israel, it is by far a more personal and individual experience for we children of modern times.  The High Priest has long gone, the sacrificial system consigned to a stage post in history that no longer speaks to us of religious action, and the corporate nature of the people Israel has been changed as we have become a different category altogether – Jews, and while we consistently create community we see ourselves in the main as individuals, individual Jews.

The structure of the ritual and the philosophical underpinnings of the day have undergone a radical transformation, and so, I would posit, has the meaning of what Yom haKippurim means to us.  While we still translate this obscure name using the invented composite word ‘at-one’, we have changed both meaning and purpose of the day for our own spiritual needs.  I would even go so far as to say that the day is not really about sin and atonement any more – how would we even define those terms today? – but that Yom Kippur for us is about something quite other –  Time. Yom Kippur is about our use of time, about our location in time – it is in particular a day for us to focus on our own mortality.

Interspersed in our machzor with the major themes of sin and repentance, of forgiveness and atonement, we hear the insistently repeated motif of life and death. We talk for example about the Book of Life, we read the Martyrology, we recite a service of Yizkor, our traditional clothing for this day is to wear shrouds and we are called to abstain from the physical  pleasures of living, eating, drinking or washing.  We take a day right out of time and act as if the world outside is irrelevant to us, as if we are, for the moment, temporarily dead.

What message do we take from the prayers and texts as we sit through Yom Kippur.  It is probably true that we examine our lives and find our behaviour wanting.  It is probably the case that we make our stumbling attempts towards recognising and harnessing our own spirituality, yearning as we do for a sense of meaning, for a firm belief in a greater being.  It may well be that we feel momentarily inspired to change some part of our lives, or that we experience the satisfying of a need for connectedness which tends to be submerged during the busy weeks of the rest of our lives.  As the day rolls on, the ancient formulae about sin and loss swirl around us, as do the equally ancient phrases about return and forgiveness.  We know that we are less than perfect and we look for ways to deal with both the knowledge and the reality.   But we cannot retreat into the Yom Kippur of the Temple period and leave the whole religious business to someone else.  The Yom Kippur of our time looks us in the face and says – you are mortal, you only have a limited time on this earth – and you do not even know how limited it may be – so what are you going to do about your life?

Yom Kippur is no longer a day simply of general and ritual atonement. It is a day for us to restructure our lives, to reconcile our realities with our requirements.  Loud and clear through the prayers comes the reminder – we are mortal, we, and those around us do not have all the time in the world, and so if there are things we want to do, we should be planning to do them now, if there are things we need to change, we should be arranging to change them now, if there are things we want to say, we should be saying them now.

Nothing is so precious as time, nothing is so consistently abused. We waste time, we kill time, we fill in time – rarely do we actually use time appropriately.  Yet our tradition has been able to transform a day of communal awe and professional ritual activity, and give it to us in a new form – personal time for us to spend reconciling and reconstructing the lives we are living with the lives we already know we could be living.

As a community rabbi I have sat and listened so many times to the laments which begin ‘if only’, I have witnessed the rapprochements which have sometimes come too late, I have heard the stories of fractured relationships which have entailed years of lost possibilities;  I have met broygas individuals (note for translater – people who have taken offence)  who are determined that the other person should make the first move towards reconciliation – sometimes about an argument the reason for which is lost in history.  We don’t tend to use the word ‘sin’ for such behaviours, but surely to fail to make or maintain relationships in this way is one of the biggest sins we currently commit.   We all live within the constraints of time, we all know what is truly important to do in that time, yet most if not all of us regularly fail to acknowledge that we should be making our priorities so that when the time runs out – be it our own time in this world or the time of a loved one – we have done what was important and responded appropriately, addressing the most meaningful issues of our lives rather than reacting to what is presented as the most urgent.

On the tenth of Tishri the bible tells us to come together as a holy assembly for Yom haKippurim.   It is clearly to be a day of repentance, of hard thinking, of reconciliation and reconstruction of relationship.  We are used to the imagery that reminds us that we are to reconcile and reconstruct our relationship with God, and parts of us are able to do so. And we manage it without the intermediary of the stylised actions of the high priest.  We sit and think and pray, hear the voices inside us as they speak of loss and pain, of comfort and of peace.

But today isn’t only about our working on our relationship with God, it is about using that work and the understanding brought about by such a relationship so that we make substantial changes to our relationships with others.  As Morris Adler wrote:

‘Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be’ .

Yom Kippur has been many things for we Jews during our history.  The most solemn day of our calendar it is described as ‘shabbat shabbaton’ – the Sabbath of Sabbaths.  There is a tradition that when God had finished creating the world, God created the Sabbath, and scripture tells us “uvayom hash’vee’ee shavat va’yinafash” (Exod. 31:16-17) And on the seventh day God stopped all work and restored his soul.  This word va’yinafash is a strange one – often translated as “God rested” it really means something to do with restoring the soul.  From it comes the idea that on Shabbat we are given an extra soul or measure of soul, with which we can discern and taste the world that is more usually hidden from us, we can experience something outside of normal sensation.  If we have an extra dimension of soul on Shabbat, how much more so on shabbat shabbaton – today, Yom haKippurim?  On shabbat we use it to experience a taste of the world to come, but today we can use it for something else entirely – we can use it to understand more about this world and our place within it.  The liturgy of today reminds us about time, about the fleeting nature of our life in this world, about the end which all of us will face.  Yom Kippur gives us the time and the space to consider our part in our world, gives us the extra measure of soul we need to really consider and construct our lives as we mean to live them.  We have about another seven hours today, and the real world will begin to crowd in once more and drown out the world of prayer and thought we have created.  We do not know how much time we will have after that.  So today let’s face the time and let’s spend it wisely, rather than profligately allowing it to run away.   Who knows how many tomorrows there will be?

“Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before the lord, you shall be cleansed” says our machzor, quoting the book of Leviticus.  There is no High Priest to do the cleansing, only ourselves and our dedication and our desire, and of course this very special and holy block of time – today.

Bemidbar: Counting individual human beings or counting potential soldiers – how the text slides and why it should not

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָֹ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר: ב שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם: ג מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תִּפְקְד֥וּ אֹתָ֛ם לְצִבְאֹתָ֖ם אַתָּ֥ה וְאַֽהֲרֹֽן: ד וְאִתְּכֶ֣ם יִֽהְי֔וּ אִ֥ישׁ אִ֖ישׁ לַמַּטֶּ֑ה אִ֛ישׁ רֹ֥אשׁ לְבֵית־אֲבֹתָ֖יו הֽוּא:

And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt saying: “Lift the heads of [count] all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their ancestral houses, in the numbering of the names, every male, by their heads.  From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go out to war for Israel. You will account them by their hosts, you and Aaron. And with you there will be a man from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house”

So begins the book of Numbers, named in English for the two censuses that occur within it, but called in Hebrew “BeMidbar”, “in the Wilderness” We are only one year in to the exodus here, the people are expecting to enter their promised land shortly – this is before the rebellions and the refusals that led this generation (bar Joshua and Caleb) to end their days in the desert.

The narrative gives us detail as to place and time. God speaks to Moses and gives him an instruction that is equally detailed – “lift up the head of every one of the community of the children of Israel, according to their families and according to their ancestral house, in the numbering of their names, every male according to his skull.” The repetition of the head/skull of each person to be numbered, the fact that they are to be counted both according to their family membership and tribal ancestry makes us feel that every single individual is to be noticed and each one carefully recorded in a number of different and personal dimensions. That their heads are lifted means that the face of each individual is seen, this is not the estimation of a crowd but the naming and numbering of every human being.  The phrase “col adat b’nei Yisrael” adds to this reading – not just the children of Israel, a phrase which would have sufficed, but col – every, and adat – witnessing member. And even their names are to be accounted; the uniqueness of each individual clearly matters here.

 

The introduction leads us to the idea that every single person of that mixed group of ex slaves and accompanying rabble is an individual, each one joins and combine with all the others to create the whole people who will become known as “b’nei Yisrael”

So it is a little disconcerting to suddenly find the focus narrowing down, first to males, then to people over the age of twenty who are fit for army service. And the accounting is now to be done not according to families and ancestral roots, but according to ‘tzivotam’ – their groupings or regiments within the army.

War is traditionally seen as a masculine activity, although there is some evidence in the ancient world of female warrior deities, and we know for example of Ahhotep I the 16th Century BCE Egyptian queen who rallied the troops and preserved Egypt; 15th Century BCE Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut was also a warrior who led her troops in war, but these are rarities. As Margaret Mead noted, war is a male pursuit, culturally gendered, and emerges from a climate where young males need to validate their strength and courage. Their interests dominate society and obscure the interests of women, who become marginalised and expected to help behind the scenes in supporting the war effort. Ten years ago it was reckoned that 97% of the world’s uniformed soldiers were male, and in only six national armies do women constitute even 5% of the force.

So as soon as the census narrows down to focus on the young male resources towards the war, all of the other factors, the individuality, the names and family names and ancestral connections, those younger than 20 years of age, those too old to fight, and critically those of the female gender become irrelevant,

Reading the first few lines of this book, it seems that God is interested in knowing each and every participant in the exodus from Egypt by name, interested in Moses and Aaron encountering the humanity and individuality of the people they are leading. The language being used is different from previous times that the people were counted – we have been given a number of the people who left Egypt (Ch. 12) – “about six hundred thousand men as well as women and children”. Later in the book of Exodus  (Ch. 38) we find that there are “six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty men”, over the age of 20, counted by their each giving a half shekel to the building of the mishkan. The language is terse and interested only in the numbers. Yet here in the beginning of Bemidbar there is detail and humanity in the way people are to be seen.

There are a number of words in Hebrew that could be used in order to count a group or calculate a number. The verbal roots:

מ.נ.ה.      ס.פ.ר.    ח.ש.ב.     פ.ק.ד.

 

would all be more normal than to say “lift up the head.  To lift up someone’s head requires paying attention to that person. The only way to physically do it is to approach them face on and to look into their eyes as you raise their heads.  This may be the reason why Rashi comments that “Because they [the children of Israel] are dear to God, God counts them often. God counted them when they were about to leave Egypt. God counted them after the event of the Golden Calf in order to establish how many remained. And now God was about to cause the divine presence to rest on them God counted them again. (Rashi ad loc)

If the numbering at the beginning of the book was in order to express God’s love for the people, and engender loving respect from the leadership for them, then the elision towards counting young men for warfare is tragic, made the more so because of the people now made irrelevant to the narrative, side-lined from the warmth of divine love into becoming people whose contribution is valued as ‘less-than’ the warriors’ is.  When we see that the people so displaced and demoted are the women, the children, the elderly, we can only weep for how the society has diminished and disregarded the people. Yet again the women have been erased from the narrative because it focuses on military might – even though arguably our best biblical general was Deborah. And people at either end of the age spectrum are also devalued, precisely at the time one might argue an awareness of their humanity is most critical.

Margaret Mead argued that “warfare is only an invention” and a bad one at that, and she suggested that it is time we changed our social systems which nurture all the criteria that bring about war. That may be an impossible ask, but it must surely be possible to return to the first few words of God’s instructions to Moses – “raise everyone’s head”. To extend the comment by Rashi, “look into every person’s eyes, see the uniqueness of each person’s humanity, and then, rather than selecting for military power, simply encounter the other person exactly as they are”.

As military might is elevated above humanity and vulnerability;  As the power to fight is valued more than empathy or nurturing or the emotional and mental work needed to keep families or households going, we will always find that some people are marginalised either because of their gender or because of their age. There is a dislocation in the text at the very beginning of the book of being in the wilderness, a choice that wasn’t made or that was made without deep reflection, and the result was forty years in the wilderness for that generation who relied on a model of military might, and yet were anxious it was not going to be enough when it came to the crunch.

In the tiny, almost imperceptible dislocation in the text, from raising the head of each individual and knowing them, their families, their roots to seeing only those who could contribute to the military prowess of the group, a tragedy is seeded, one which resonates with us to this day. And now the wilderness beckons, the place to reflect on the choices made. Maybe one day we will be confident to make the choice of knowing each other’s humanity, and journey together to our promised destination.

Vashti: a heroine not just for Purim #nastywoman

The story of Vashti is found in the first chapter of the book of Esther. We are introduced to her as she makes a feast for the women in the royal household, paralleling the feast made by the king for the men. There is no description of her feast, unlike the detailed account given of the King’s event where the extravagance of the decorations, the furniture, the utensils and the food and wine are described in all their excessive bling.

After seven days of feasting and drinking, the King decides to show off to the assembled hordes and bring his beautiful wife to his event, and the text does indeed tell us that she was “tovat mar’eh” – good to look at. He sends the seven eunuchs (sarisism) who served him to bring Vashti before him, wearing the crown royal (no other clothing is described leading the commentators to assume she was to appear naked before her husband and his friends). But Vashti refused to come at the king’s command given via his sarisim, and this angered the king greatly.

The King asked his advisors what legal consequences should follow for the Queen Vashti having refused to do the request of the King as relayed by his sarisim.

It is a strange few verses. First we are told that the King said to the wise men who understood the times – but we are not told what he said, instead there is a narrative insertion to tell us that this was his custom before those who knew law and judgment. And what does it mean that the wise men understood the times? That they were political advisors? that they were close to public opinion? Then we are given the names of the seven princes of Persia and Media – are these the wise men or are these a different group? We know that they were sitting right next to the king at the feast, that they were the first/highest in the kingdom; and we know too that they saw the king’s face.

Then comes the question – oddly phrased as a legal enquiry, and in the third person. “’What shall we do to the Queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she has not done the bidding of the King Ahasuerus by the chamberlains (sarisim)?”

And what is the position of sarisim? Is the request greater or smaller because of their involvement? Why is their presence and role as messengers repeatedly pointed out? Is Vashti offended that the message has come through them? Is she asking for a direct conversation with the King?

It is Memucan, one of the princes of Media who responds. And he exaggerates and inflames the situation in an extraordinary way. “’Vashti the !ueen has not only done wrong to the King, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples that are in all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the Queen will become known to all women, [and the effect will be] to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes.  It will be said: The King Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the Queen to be brought in before him, but she did not come. And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the Queen say the like to all the King’s princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath.”

Suddenly the Queen’s refusal to attend her husband’s banquet in order for her beauty to be appreciated by his friends is escalated into an insult to all the peoples in the 127 provinces ruled over by the King. Suddenly she is a role model to every woman who will now defy their husbands – or at the least find them contemptible.

It makes you wonder about Memucan, about his own sense of self, his arrogance and his male privilege which seems to mask a very thin skin and a deep fear of women finding him laughable.  If twitter had been around he would surely have tweeted “Vashti is a nasty woman. Disobedient and harmful. Arrogant! Bad!  #nastywoman”

He has a solution to the threat that Vashti’s behaviour might cause if other women heard of it and wanted to emulate it:

“If it please the King, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus, and that the King give her royal estate to another that is better than she.”

She is to be banished from ever coming to the King again. She is to be stripped of her title and her possessions. She is to be treated as a bad woman – there will be others who are ‘tovah mimena’ – better than her.

And so Vashti disappears from the story. And just to rub in the reason for her treatment we are told that letters were sent in every language of the empire to remind the people “that every man should bear rule in his own house”

Vashti is a pawn in a game about explicitly retaining and building up male power and privilege. Anyone who challenges the status quo will be callously punished and that punishment held up as an example to anyone else who might think about challenging in the future.

To that extent, she is a foreshadow of the struggle of the Jews in this self-same Empire. She chooses not to kowtow to the servant/sarisim/chamberlain just as Mordechai chooses not to kowtow to that servant of the King – Haman. But unlike him she has no other channel of communication – what does the book of Esther learn from this? That the Jews are going to need a number of routes of communication if they are to survive the experience of living under a petulant dictator with enormous powers at his disposal. They are going to need to build many different and diverse relationships.

The midrashic tradition treats Vashti with great unkindness – seeing the need to denigrate her in order to build up the passive and obedient Esther. Both women become pawns in the game of male power and privilege, and they are set up against each other in a literary fiction in order to heighten the reader’s understanding of which is the right way to respond.

So poor Vashti, whose name means ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’ in Persian becomes a cautionary tale in the hands of the rabbinic tradition of the Talmud. They decide there is a connection in her name with the Hebrew verb “shoteh” – drinking, and suggest she was alcoholic and thus her disobedience was done in her cups.

They decide that when the king specifies she must come wearing her crown, that she is supposed to wear nothing else – her immodesty is legendary.  But then the Midrash suggests that she refuses to do so not because she is appalled at the request, but because she has a defect – a skin rash, a tail, leprosy – and the men will find her ugly.

There is a Midrash that she is of much grander ancestry than her husband – she is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and daughter of Belshazar, while Ahasuerus began life as the servant of her father. The problem – that she never lets him forget that she had a more powerful and higher status ancestry, she was a nagging and bitter wife, the sort of wife who would try to emasculate her husband with every opportunity. Of course she deserved her punishment, the arrogant woman.

And while she was busy trying to oppose her husband, the Midrash posits that she humiliated the other women, in particular those who were powerless, the Jewish maids whom she made work on Shabbat, whom she made work without their clothes – all this because she was called on the seventh day of the feast, and the punishment had to fit the crime, so this extraordinary crime was deduced.

Poor poor Vashti. She is indeed a cautionary tale. Beware of men in power who are scared of mature and confident women.

The story that she could not come and dance naked because she had a defect has an extra layer – that the Angel Gabriel came and fixed upon her not a tail, but a penis. Vashti is the ultimate unfeminine woman, the woman who challenges men on their own terms, the woman who behaves like a man.

You get the feeling that the storytellers who needed to diminish Vashti in this way had their own problems. They feared women who were in control of their lives, who were not dependant and therefore not in a supplicatory position in their relationships.

And you hope that the writers of this aggadic hate-fest are safely in the past. That men no longer fear women routinely, that we can see the stories for what they are – the projections of people who inadequately prepared to relate to others on an equal basis.

But of course we read this story on a yearly basis for a reason. We see that irrational fear of others never leaves the discourse entirely, that be it a woman who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of her husband or a Jew who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of a political force, or a human being who refuses to bow to an ideology of hatred, the battle continues.

Vashti is the bellwether, the indicator that something is deeply wrong in the system that is meant to be delivering good governance. Right now we see a President signing acts against religious groups or a Prime Minister choosing to use vulnerable groups as bargaining chips in their negotiations. Right now we see children and families fleeing from war and terrorism being refused sanctuary in a country which could easily afford to help them if it chose to do so.  Right now we are seeing bellwethers warning us that fascism is on the rise in Europe, that the learning and structures that were set up after the second world war to prevent such horror happening again are being forgotten, being overridden, being despised.  What will happen to our bellwethers if we don’t pay attention to them? Vashti disappears from the Esther narrative in a scant twelve verses. How quickly the world can change and progress and goodness erode into nationalism and hatred, into asserting power over the vulnerable, into anger that burns so fiercely that everything is consumed.

Vashti comes to tell us something important. A feminist icon she may be, but more importantly she brings a reminder that when we act out of fear of the other, out of fear of losing our privilege, a whole world can disintegrate and many people suffer.

Ki Tavo: creating our own narrative by our own actions. What we do becomes what we are.

“When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, …, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose… You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him; “I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your God that I have entered the land that the Eternal swore to our ancestors to assign us.” …. “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meagre numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labour upon us. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me.” ….. And you shall rejoice in all the good which the Eternal your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of you. (Deut 26:1–3, 5-10, 26:11)

The commandment at the beginning of the sidra is familiar to us, reminding us to tell our story in such a way that we do not just focus on harvest, or on our good fortune, nor even to tell it while recognising that our good fortune is not simply the result of our own effort, but to create a narrative that puts our experience into the context of the historical experience of the Jewish people.

Telling our story is how all of us make sense of our lives. Each of us has a narrative running through our consciousness, each of us notices most easily what fits into that narrative, manages to ignore that which cannot be meshed into the story.  The theme of these days of preparation for Rosh Hashanah – that of opening and reading to book of our lives, emerges in part from the awareness of the stories we construct about our everyday experience.  But while each of us may be the centre of our own continuous narrative, Jewish teaching does not allow us to become self-absorbed. Instead we are expected to see ourselves as part of a whole that is greater than ourselves. We are part of a people. We live beyond this moment – we live in the span of the whole experience of our people.  And the way we express ourselves religiously is woven into our internal and external narrative. We have to become aware not only of the immanent God with whom we can create some form of relationship of “I – Thou”; The God we worship is the God of history, the God who has no limits of time or space. Ever since we accepted Torah, Jews have been taught to see God at work in the world around us, in the historical experience of our people, and in the humanity of others.

Each of us, like the Israelite farmer bringing his first fruits, is required to tell a story, to render an account – before God and to our innermost selves, of who and what we are – a narrative that explains just what it is that spurs us on to action in this world. In telling his story, that farmer was commanded to look beyond his immediate reality to a vision of what his life was to be about. So, we too, are asked, when telling our story, not to ignore the “real world” but to transcend it, to direct our attention away from the concrete trivialities of our material existence and toward those goals, however exalted and “unrealistic,” that God would have us set for our lives.

The liturgical formula that is preserved in the verses at the beginning of ki tavo is a rare example of the prayer life of ancient Israel.  We use it in a number of settings – from the Pesach Haggadah to the liturgy of bikkurim, and its familiarity speaks to us and reminds us that the story of the redemption from slavery which led to the covenant at Sinai is a foundational one for us as Jews. Without it our stories are in danger of sentimentality. But it isn’t just the words that teach us.  We are moved from words to actions. The ritual begins with our declaration to proclaim our understanding and our faith. Then we go beyond the declaration into action – the tachlis.  Having acknowledged the Source of our blessing – God – and told the story of our own historical vulnerability, remembering our impotence and pain, we go on to do something intensely practical – to share the offering with the Levite/ priest and the ger–“the sojourner/stranger that is in your midst.” (Deuteronomy 26:11)

The ger, (Sojourner/stranger) is almost a synonym for the idea of the vulnerable, the one who does not have land or resource, the one without the support of family or landsmen, the person who is quintessentially alone. Today the closest equivalent is likely to be the refugee or the asylum seeker, washed up without possessions in a foreign environment. Torah requires us not only to acknowledge our own good fortune, but to behave directly out of that acknowledging, to routinely share with those who do not have the same good fortune as us.  The act of thanksgiving commanded at the beginning of the sidra leads us to act even before thinking about the action, getting us to do a good thing, to perform a mitzvah, that will shape our understanding of the world, that will shape us.  The requirement to care for the vulnerable enters into the narrative we live by each day, we cannot disregard it.  It is no surprise therefore that tradition teaches that “In the future age, all sacrifices and prayers will be abolished, except that of thanksgiving”. (Menachem of Gallia, in Vayikra Rabbah 9:7).

In this month of Elul as we approach the High Holy Days and we think about what we have done and what we have not done, what we should do and what we fear we will never do, it is important to remember that these days are the white fast, they are days of Awe but they are also days of thanksgiving for all we have, for knowing that God will not desert us, that God will let us find our way if we search. They remind us that we should not forget our past nor think only of our present. They remind us that we have to find the words to tell the story that is true for us, that gives meaning and shape to our lives. And even before we really understand, we have to act.

 

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.