19 Elul – reorienting ourselves in order to see our lives more clearly

19th Elul

No sin is so light that it may be overlooked. No sin is so heavy that it may not be repented of. –Moses Ibn Ezra

There are times when we might feel satisfied with our teshuvah, we have worked and reflected and surely that is enough. There are times when we feel that what we have done cannot be undone, and this weighs heavily on us and may sap our will to teshuvah.

But every morning we wake  up to a new day, the morning prayer reminds God and us that we were born with a pure soul, that creation is remade each day, that there is always a way back however many imperfections we may embody.

Indeed our imperfections are part of our humanity. We are not angels, we have free will and that includes the ability to make choices which are not necessarily the best ones for us or for the world.

The word for “sin” is freighted with meaning that is not part of the Jewish understanding. “Hata’a” is a term used in archery for missing the mark that is aimed at – and the arrow landing elsewhere instead. Teshuvah – return – is about reorienting one’s aim to get closer to the target, albeit further on in our life than originally hoped for.

Reflection, regret, re-orienting ourselves will help us in the coming year to become more of our best selves. There is nothing in our way but ourselves.

 

 

Elisheva: challenging the patriarchal structure with her mixed feelings. Parashat Va’era

Early in the sidra is a partial genealogy, which leads us rapidly to the Levitical line. A genealogy of the Levites takes us from Levi through Kohat to Amram father of Aaron and Moses. Unusually, three women are named in this genealogy:

Amram married Yocheved the sister of his father, and she gave birth to Aaron and Moses (Miriam is not mentioned here).

Aaron married Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon; and she bore him Nadav and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar.

Eleazar Aaron’s son took him one of the daughters of Putiel to wife; and she bore him Pinchas.

It is unusual for the wives to be named in these genealogies and so we must explore this further to see what Torah is trying to tell us.   Amram and Yocheved are nephew and aunt –both descendants of Levi, so Aaron and Moses are, so to speak, doubly Levitical.

It is not clear who Putiel is – he appears only here. Nor do we know how many daughters he had, or the names of any of them.

But Elisheva is given a much fuller ‘yichus’ – she is the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon and we know from later in bible that her tribe therefore is that of Judah.  Not much is known of Amminadav, but Nachshon features further in text and tradition.  We learn in the book of Numbers that under God’s instruction, Nachshon ben Amminadav was appointed by Moses as ‘Nasi’, leader/prince of the Tribe of Judah (Num. 1:7), to stand with Moses and to help him lead the people.  We can also see that through Boaz he will be a direct ancestor to King David; and curiously he sits exactly half way in the biblical genealogy that leads directly from Judah to David.

Because of his descent from Judah and his many regal descendants, Nachshon is praised in the rabbinic literature. Most famously – even though the biblical text does not mention him there – he is said to have shown real faith at the Reed Sea. The Israelites having left Egypt after the final plague, found themselves trapped. In front of them was the water and behind them the furious pursuing army. They complained bitterly to Moses asking why he had brought them there only to die in the wilderness.  And while they were standing there, each one angrily refusing to go further, and while Moses was praying to God for help, Nachshon ben Amminadav jumped into the water and when it reached his nostrils, the waters parted. (BT Sotah 36a; Mechilta Beshalach)

This is the brother of Elisheva, a man apparently of great qualities – and as Elisheva is introduced to us as his sister – an unnecessary addition in the generational genealogy- it is assumed that something else is being alluded to here beyond the blood relationship. Elisheva brings into the Priestly line that will descend from her and Aaron the qualities of leadership embodied by her own family which will provide the Royal line.

Elisheva will give birth to the four sons of Aaron, two of whom, Nadav and Avihu, will suffer a terrible and violent death shortly after being inducted into the priesthood. The other two will continue the hereditary line of the Cohanim – the Jewish priests.   She is, with Aaron, the root of the priestly tradition. And she also brings together the two formal leadership roles within the biblical tradition – she brings the royal line of Judah which is already generations old, (Judah having been blessed by Jacob on his deathbed as being the Royal line), together with the brand new line of hereditary priesthood.

Elisheva is understood in tradition to be a woman who had reason for great pride and joy by virtue of her relationships to male leaders:  The Talmud (Zevachim 102a) tells us that on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan “Elisheva had five additional joys over other daughters of Israel. She was the sister-in-law of the king (Moses), the wife of the High Priest (Aaron), her son (Elazar) was the segan (deputy high priest), her grandson (Pinchas) was anointed for war, and her brother (Nachshon) was a prince of the tribe of Judah [and the first of the twelve tribal leaders to make a gift offering for the inauguration]  One can add to this list that it was Betzalel ben Hur her nephew  of the tribe of Judah, who was the architect appointed by God to build the Mishkan.

Talmud however goes on to note “yet she was bereaved of her two sons”

I find this extraordinary. The Talmudic text is well aware that Elisheva, like Aaron, is bereaved of two of her adult children in a moment – destroyed when beginning their work as priests, but offering strange fire before God. We don’t really understand what happened here – were they drunk? Idolatrous? Inefficient?  Improperly dressed? – but we do understand that they die instantly. And we also understand that while a male response is described to these deaths, (Moses speaks to Aaron about God’s demands for the priesthood, Aaron is silent, Mishael and Elzaphan the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron are instructed to bring the bodies out of the mishkan and put them outside the camp, Elazar and Itamar are instructed about their priestly duties, along with Aaron…) Nothing is said about the response of Elisheva, the mother of the dead boys.

Aaron is famously silent – we are told this and it is understood that he is able to accept that the greater good of the priesthood is more important than the individual fates of his two sons. But his enigmatic silence is at painful odds with the complete erasure of the response of Elisheva. I cannot for a moment imagine that she would have taken the deaths quite so phlegmatically.

In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 20:2) we see the situation from the viewpoint of Elisheva. “Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, did not enjoy happiness in this world. True, she witnessed the five crowns [attained by her male relatives] in one day…but when her sons entered to offer incense and were burnt, her joy was changed to mourning.”

The Midrash not only allows her mourning, it accepts that the deaths of her sons affected her profoundly so that even the achievements of her other male relatives would not give her any happiness.  Mourning as a parent is all-consuming. It is not ever something that one can recover fro;  the best that can happen is that joy can once again be experienced tinged with sadness, with an awareness that life is incomplete and will remain so.

Elisheva, the woman who brings together the lines of power and leadership – monarchy and priesthood, who is the foremother therefore of all those who have to care for the people, who have to lead it thoughtfully and in is best interest; Elisheva, matriarch and founding spirit of all the leaders whose job is to serve, to provide security, to be thoughtful about the impact of their decisions in the wider world –  brings not only the qualities of power that leadership needs, she brings another quality – the awareness of incompleteness and imperfection that we must live with.

It is a truism that peace/shalom is never fully here – the most we have is an absence of conflict and we must work to stop such conflict breaking out and gaining ascendancy. Our hope for each other uses the prefix le – leshalom, TOWARDS shalom, rather than b’shalom –IN/WITH peace because we are constantly striving towards it – we only reach our individual shalom when we are dead, as the biblical language confirms.  It is also true that every joy we have in life is good but it is temporary and it is always susceptible to change. We live in a world of uncertainty and entropy, change will happen and we must be able to cope with it.

Elisheva had so much in life – she came from a successful and value driven family, she married into another one, she had children and grandchildren, she features (albeit briefly) in bible. But as the midrash tells us, she did not enjoy happiness in this world, she lived in the liminal space where the pain of her mourning, and her awareness of the continuing fragility of the lives of those we love can  tinge, if not overshadow all happiness.

At a Jewish wedding there is a tradition to break a glass at the end of the ceremony. There are many reasons given – to scare away demons who may be lurking and to remember the destruction of the Temple  are two of the most famous, but the most likely is to remind everyone in the room that joy is transitory and good times must be enjoyed when we encounter them.

Life is hard and we shall all encounter a mixture of good and bad, of ease and difficulty, of problems and effortlessness as we go through it.  We will all meet difficulties, many of us will face fear and anxiety, some of us will have to deal with tragedy. We cannot allow fear or pain or sadness to overwhelm us but neither must we suppress the realities that they exist.

Elisheva encountered both extreme highs and lows of life. Bible is silent on her way of dealing with it, but rabbinic tradition uses her as a model, in the full knowledge that the people it is writing for would also face good times and bad, and needed to find resilience beyond that of blind faith. Elisheva lives on after the tragedy of the deaths of her sons, she continues to experience joy and sadness, she is able to experience both but neither of them can be untouched by the other. She is a human being who copes with life.

The name Elisheva can mean either “my God has sworn an oath” or it can mean “my God has satisfied”. What is the oath that is sworn? That God will remain our God through the ages, through good times and bad. And in what way is Elisheva ‘satisfied’? She has had a lot of good in her life, which enables her to deal also with the bad.

We learn from Elisheva that we can both enjoy life and mourn for what we no longer have, or might never have. We must live with the mingling of light and dark, knowing that each will tinge the other but each must be lived through. We learn that holding a constant sense that we are still connected to God, even in the dark times, even when may be afraid or sad or even angry with God, will help us through our lives.

No one gets away with a life that has no loss and no pain. No one escapes pain – it is an elemental human condition and closely allied to the ability to love. The men around Elisheva take refuge in their status, but Elisheva stands out, a scion of the royal line, the mother of priests. She may appear to have everything, but what matters can be taken away in a heartbeat and then the “everything” shows what it truly is – momentary, material, and irrelevant. Elisheva reminds us that relationships not only underpin our lives, they provide connection and the place to be ourselves. Everything else will pass.

God learns about humanity, and God and Noah learn to live with imperfection

Parashat Noach contains both the story of the Great Flood with Noah and the Rainbow, and the story of the Tower of Babel. It is the source of much of what our children think they know about the bible and all of us probably have in our head the picture of the Ark with a giraffe’s head popping out of the roof, and a tower that looks quite a lot like the one at Pisa.

But there is SO much more to these stories than nursery decorations and we read them as fluffy children’s stories to the detriment of our understanding about what religion is really for.

For what we see in parashat Noach is the first description of God learning in response to the actions of humankind. And we begin to see humanity also starting to learn something important about what we are, and what God is. In last week’s sidra we read about the two different creation stories, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the first murder – fratricide – in the story of Cain and Abel. It ends with God’s dismay at the evil humanity has committed on the earth and the decision to blot out everything created, with the exception of Noach.  Almost as if the Creation was a hobby to be done and erased at a whim.

Now Noach is problematic in so many ways. He never speaks to God at all, either to agree or to argue.  Nor does he speak to the other people in the world to warn them to change their ways and repent in order to gain God’s favour. He takes his time getting on to the boat, only doing so when the rising waters force him to do so, leading rabbinic commentators to suggest his faith is not so strong after all. His first act on returning to dry land is to build an altar (the first ever to do so in bible), and then to sacrifice by burning fully some of the animals he has saved.  He builds a vineyard and makes wine, he gets drunk and his sons see his nakedness. He curses the children of Ham who was the son who had seen him and told the others.  

He isn’t exactly the role model we would like to have had, and yet we are all b’nei Noach, the descendants of Noach – we have to deal with the flawed and slightly repellent individual the bible depicts in the text. And so does God. God has to see that Creation can’t be erased and rebuilt repeatedly; that built into humanity is a series of flaws that we – and God – just have to deal with.  The text tells us that when God smelled the olah, the burned offering that was sacrificed on the very first altar with the intention of creating a conduit between human beings and God, then God paid attention, smelled the sweet savour and resolved never again to curse the ground for the sake of humankind. And that God did so BECAUSE God understood that humanity is essentially and integrally imperfect. God resolves that whatever Creation is, God will work with it rather than try to suppress or destroy its reality.  And of course the sign of the promise from God is the rainbow, a symbol both of violence and of the beauty to be found even in the most grim of situations.

So both humanity (in the guise of Noach), and God demonstrate in this sidra that there is finally an understanding on both sides of our frailty and likelihood to mess up. And both humanity and God begin to see that once we acknowledge the shortcomings we have, we can get on with living better. God changes the divine mind, and Noach tries, albeit with some hiccups, to deal with all the things life has thrown at him. 

There are of course some that he simply can’t deal with. He is a survivor of catastrophe and he drinks in order to blot out memories. He has poor relations with his youngest son Ham, though he manages to relate rather better to Shem and Japhet, albeit in a way that could be seen by modern eyes as divisive of them. He has saved the world and allowed it to be destroyed at the same time.

What we know after the stories of Noach is that humanity is always going to be complicated, fraught, dafka – but that we will continue to try to reach God in our own imperfect ways, and that if we do so, then God will always respond. God may not like it, but is resigned to our deficiencies. We may not like all that God does, but are prepared to challenge and if necessary to forgive God. Our relationship isn’t perfect, there is an element of co-dependency, but together we and God find how to live with each other in the world we are jointly responsible for maintaining.

Not really a story for the kids after all.