The fruit of the goodly tree – the curious case of the etrog: or “what does the Etrog have to do with the Jewish people and land.

L’italiano segue il testo inglese

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals – the shalosh regalim – where the bible (Leviticus 23) tells us that the people must come to Jerusalem with their harvested produce, to give thanks to God.

We read “The fifteenth of this seventh month shall be the feast of booths for seven days to the Lord… Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast to the eternal seven days: on the first day shall be a Sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a Sabbath. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree hadar, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook… You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:33ff

Fascinatingly, this text about Sukkot gives us two reasons for its celebration – both an agricultural one with the celebration of the harvest, and a theological one, reminding us of our dependence on God during (and after) the exodus from Egypt.

In fact Sukkot is referenced in bible in a number of different ways. The book of Exodus repeatedly calls it “Chag haAsif – the Festival of Ingathering”; In Leviticus and Deuteronomy it is referred to as Chag HaSukkot – the Festival of Booths/Sukkot; In the Books of Kings, Chronicles and Ezekiel it is called simply “HeChag” –THE Festival; and in Leviticus in the text quoted above it is called “Chag Adonai” – the Festival of God. The first two names are clearly agricultural in origin – they reference the acts of harvesting and of living in small booths in the fields during the harvesting/birthing of animals. The second two are clearly more theological/national in origin. It remains for the rabbinic tradition simply “HeChag” The festival par excellence. And the rabbis have one more name for it, again deriving from the Leviticus piece quoted – it is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing.

What is this joy about? Is it because we have an abundance in the Autumn, before the harshness of the winter sets in? Is it because we not only are faced with out vulnerability as we live on and work the land, but because we also are secure in God’s protection?

In the Talmud (Sukkah 11b) there is a debate – Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva are trying to understand the verse “That your generations will know that I made the Children of Israel live in booths [sukkot] when I brought them from the land of Egypt..” Rabbi Akiva understands these to be literal physical booths, while Rabbi Eliezer understands them as metaphor – these booths are the clouds of glory that descended from God to protect the wandering Israelites in the desert.  If we were to follow Rabbi Eliezer we would understand that the mercy of God protects us, and in particular if we would see the context of Sukkot as part of the set of Autumn Festivals, then these clouds continue to hide our sinfulness and give us even longer to repent and return to a merciful God. Given that there is a tradition that one can continue to do the work of Elul/Rosh Hashanah/ Yom Kippur right up to the last day of Sukkot – Hoshanah Rabbah, this metaphorical understanding of the Sukkah is a way to give us extra time with a patient and merciful God waiting to offer us protection – something surely to be joyful about.

The text in Leviticus, besides telling us both the agricultural and the theological/peoplehood reasons for this festival, and giving us the command to rejoice before God (no other festival has this commandment), tells us to take four different plants – only two of which, the palm and the willows of the brook, are named. The others- the fruit of goodly trees, and the branches of leafy trees, require some interpretation.

The Book of Nehemiah describes an event that occurred on the date of Rosh Hashanah during the early Second Temple period. We are told that all the people gathered themselves together as one into the broad place that was before the water gate in Jerusalem; that they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which God had commanded to Israel.  Later in the same chapter we find: “Now they found written in the Law, how that the Eternal had commanded that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month; and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: “Go forth to the mountain, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim. And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness (Neh. 8:14-17).

This is clearly a description of Sukkot, yet there is no etrog, rather the branches of olives and wild olives, and the leafy tree is named here as the myrtle. There is also no mention – unlike the passage in Leviticus – of putting the four species together and enacting a ritual with them. Indeed, it is clear to the people of Nehemiah’s time that these branches are for the creating of the booths/sukkot, and this is also reflected in a Talmudic discussion (BT Sukkah 36b – 37a), that Rabbi Meir says a sukkah can be built of any material, whereas Rabbi Judah, basing himself on the description in the Book of Nehemiah, says it can only be built with the woods of the four species.

It seems also, that the fruit of the goodly tree should, by rights, be the olive. It was and it remains a staple in the agriculture of the region, the oil used as both food and fuel for lighting, for medicine and for religious ritual. The olive also is harvested around this time. When you factor in the statement by Jeremiah (11:16) “16 The Eternal called your name a leafy olive-tree, fair with goodly fruit”, it seems a bit of a no-brainer that the fruit of the goodly tree would be the olive

Yet we have instead, the rather ambiguous fruit – the etrog. Why?

The earliest text probably is that of 1st -2nd century Targum Onkelos, the first translation of the bible (into Aramaic), which has a habit of also interpreting the text, and which clearly writes “the fruit of the etrog tree”. Josephus (1st century Romano-Jewish writer) also describes the use of the Etrog when he writes about the festival. The Talmud (TB Sukkot 34a) tells the story of the Hasmonean king and High Priest Alexander Yanneus (103-76 BCE) who was not respectful of the ritual of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (the ceremony of the water libation) and was pelted with etrogim by the angry worshippers.  The Hasmonean coins of the period show etrogim, and it was clearly an important symbol of the nation at that time.

I wonder if the etrog came to be one of the four species (arba’a minim) because it had a particular quality that the rabbis wanted to add to the ritual – and what that quality might be.

By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) the etrog is part of the group of the four species. While it is practically inedible in its raw state, it does have a particularly lovely smell should you scratch the skin a little with your nail. The old joke usually told about Israelis being like the sabra fruit, that they might be prickly and unedifying on the bush, but deliciously sweet when opened, is maybe better designed for the etrog – they appear to be firm dense and unyielding, but the smell of them when touched is exquisite. They also have another quality – leave most fruits and they will soften and rot. The etrog will generally wither and harden, but not rot, and the smell continues for a long time – not for nothing are they a favourite to make as the spice box for havdalah.

There are midrashim that talk about the four species describing the different people in a community – the date palm has taste but no smell, and describes the one who knows much torah but does not do good deeds. The myrtle has smell but no taste, the one who does good deeds but knows little Torah. The willow has no taste or smell – denoting the person who neither learns Torah nor does good deeds; and the Etrog has both taste  and smell – the ideal. We put them together in our sukkot ritual waving of the arba’a minim – because every community has people of each kind, and every community needs people of each kind.

There is a midrash that the four species resemble a whole person – the willow leaves look like lips, the myrtle leaves look like eyes, the palm is the spine and the etrog – the etrog is the heart. Again, we need to use our  whole bodies when we worship.

But the midrash I like best, and the one I have the feeling was the reason for the Etrog joining the branches of the other trees, is that each of the four species is a distinct botanical type, each quite different from the other.

The palm trees love hot and dry climatic conditions – they don’t fruit well in the humid coastal areas, but like to be in dryer, desert conditions. And so the palm branch represents the desert areas of the Land of Israel.

The myrtle thrives best in the colder and mountainous regions of the northern parts of the Land, and the willow needs to be in the areas close to the yearlong streams of water ; The etrog does best in the irrigated land of the lower coastal areas and the valleys.

The Land of Israel, small as it is, is a land of micro climates, and each one of the arba’a minim represents a different climate and so a different part of the Land. Sukkot is par excellence the festival of agriculture, of the awareness of the need for rain to fall appropriately and in timely fashion. The three trees named are, to a gardener’s eye, representative of three quite different climates. The olive is no such sensitive plant, so a different plant should be chosen to represent the carefully farmed areas of the land.

The shaking of the Lulav, the connection with harvest and agriculture, the pouring of water at Simchat Beit HaSho’eva – this is a festival both of thanksgiving and of request for the coming year. The shivering of the palm leaves as one shakes the lulav sound like the rain pattering onto the ground. What good would it be if one part of the land is well irrigated if another part suffers drought or floods?

As we become ever more aware about the problems of the changing climate – the hurricanes, the floods, the delayed monsoons, the scorching drying sun which allows fires to spread so quickly – we begin to realise what an interconnected world we live in, that what happens in one part of the world impacts upon us all.

So when we pick up the four species, let’s focus on the lesson it give us, in particular the substation of the etrog for the olive, to remind us that we are all inhabitants of the same earth, all individual parts of a greater whole, and lets do what we can to protect the earth, the crops, the rivers and the deserts, the frozen areas of the poles and on the mountains, the glaciers and the seas… Sukkot is all about how we respect water, Mayim Hayim, the giver and supporter of life.. and how we respect the world and its Creator.

 

Il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto – il curioso caso dell’Etrog: o “cosa ha a che fare l’Etrog con il popolo ebraico e la terra d’Israele”.

Di rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato il 13 ottobre 2019

Sukkot fa parte delle shalosh regalim, una delle tre feste di pellegrinaggio, per cui la Bibbia ci dice che il popolo debba giungere a Gerusalemme con i prodotti dei propri raccolti, per ringraziare Dio.

In Levitico 23, si legge “…Il quindicesimo giorno dello stesso settimo mese è la festa di Sukkot, (delle capanne), in onore del  Signore, che dura sette giorni…. Ma il quindicesimo giorno del settimo mese, quando raccoglierete i prodotti della terra, festeggerete la festa del Signore per sette giorni; nel primo giorno vi sarà astensione dal lavoro e nell’ottavo giorno vi sarà astensione dal lavoro. E vi prenderete il primo giorno un frutto di bell’aspetto, rami di palme e rami dell’albero della mortella e rami di salice …. Nelle capanne risiederete per sette giorni …. affinché sappiano le vostre generazioni che in capanne ho fatto stare i figli di Israele quando li ho tratti dalla terra d’Egitto … ”

Questo testo su Sukkot, in maniera affascinante, ci offre due ragioni per la sua celebrazione: una agricola, con i festeggiamenti per il raccolto, e una teologica, a ricordarci la nostra dipendenza da Dio durante (e dopo) l’esodo dall’Egitto.

Effettivamente, Sukkot viene menzionata nella Bibbia in diversi modi. Il libro dell’Esodo la chiama ripetutamente Chag HaAsif , “la festa del raccolto”; in Levitico e Deuteronomio viene indicata come Chag HaSukkot, “la festa delle capanne”; nel Libro dei Re, nelle Cronache e in Ezechiele è chiamata semplicemente HeChag, “LA festa”; infine in Levitico, nel testo sopracitato, la si chiama “Chag Adonai, la festa di Dio”. Le prime due denominazioni sono chiaramente di origine agricola: fanno riferimento all’atto del raccogliere e del vivere in capanne nei campi durante la stagione del raccolto e le nascite del bestiame. La terza e la quarta sono in origine più chiaramente più teologico-nazionali. Per la tradizione rabbinica resta semplicemente HeChag, la festa per eccellenza. E per essa i rabbini hanno ancora un altro nome, sempre derivante dal pezzo del Levitico citato: Z’man Simchateinu, il momento della nostra gioia.

In cosa consiste questa gioia? Perché abbiamo l’abbondanza dell’autunno, prima che inizi la durezza dell’inverno? Perché non solo affrontiamo la nostra vulnerabilità mentre viviamo e lavoriamo la terra, ma perché siamo anche sicuri nella protezione di Dio?

Nel Talmud (Sukkà, 11b) c’è una discussione: rabbi Eliezer e rabbi Akiva stanno cercando di capire il versetto “Che le tue generazioni sapranno che ho fatto vivere i Figli di Israele in capanne [sukkot] quando li ho portati dalla terra di Egitto…” rabbi Akiva interpreta, alla lettera, che si tratti di capanne, in senso fisico, mentre rabbi Eliezer le intende come metafora: queste capanne sono le nuvole di gloria discese da Dio per proteggere gli Ebrei erranti nel deserto. Seguendo rabbi Eliezer, potremmo dire che la misericordia di Dio ci protegge, in particolare se vedessimo il contesto di Sukkot come parte del complesso delle feste autunnali, allora queste nuvole continuano a nascondere il nostro peccato e ci danno persino più tempo per pentirci e fare ritorno a un Dio misericordioso. Esiste una tradizione secondo cui si può continuare a fare il lavoro introspettivo di Elul, Rosh Hashanà e Yom Kippur fino all’ultimo giorno di Sukkot,  Hoshanà Rabbà, questa interpretazione metaforica della Sukkà è un modo di darci del tempo con un Dio paziente e misericordioso che attende di offrirci la sua protezione, ed è sicuramente qualcosa per cui essere felici.

Il testo in Levitico, oltre a raccontarci le ragioni sia agricole che teologiche e nazionaliste di questa festa, e a darci il comando di rallegrarci davanti a Dio (nessun’altra festa ha questo comandamento), ci dice di prendere quattro piante diverse, solo due delle quali, la palma e il salice, vengono nominate. Le altre, il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto e i rami di alberi frondosi, richiedono una certa interpretazione.

Il Libro di Nehemia descrive un evento accaduto alla data di Rosh Hashanà durante il primo periodo del Secondo Tempio. Ci viene detto che il popolo si radunò come un tutt’uno nell’ampio spazio che si trovava davanti alla porta dell’acqua a Gerusalemme; che parlarono a Esdra, lo scriba, per portare il libro della Legge di Mosè, che Dio aveva comandato a Israele. Più avanti nello stesso capitolo troviamo: “Allora trovarono scritto nella legge che il Signore aveva dato per mezzo di Mosè che i figli di Israele dovevano abitare in capanne durante la festa del settimo mese. Così pubblicarono in tutte le loro città e a Gerusalemme questo bando: “andate in montagna e protatene rami d’ulivo, d’olivastro, di mirto, di palma, e dell’albero folto, per farne capanne, come è scritto”. Il popolo ci andò: portarono a casa rami e si fecero capanne, ognuno sul suo tetto, nei loro cortili, , nei cortili del Tempio, sulla piazza della porta delle Acque e su quella della porta d’Efraim. Tuta l’adunanza, quelli che erano tornati dalla cattività, fecero così capanne e vi abitarono. Dal tempo di Giosuè figlio di Nun, fino a quel giorno, i figli d’Israele non avevano celebrato così: la gioia fu grandissima. Ezra diede lettura alla Legge di Dio ogni giorno, dal primo all’ultimo,. La festa si celebrò per sette giorni; l’ottavo giorno, ci fu solenne adunanza, come prescritto. (Neh. 8.14-17)

Questa è chiaramente una descrizione di Sukkot, eppure non c’è l’etrog, piuttosto i rami d’ulivo e olivastro, e l’albero frondoso qui è chiamato mirto. Non c’è nemmeno menzione, a differenza del passaggio nel Levitico, del mettere insieme le quattro specie e con esse porre in atto un rituale. In effetti è chiaro al popolo dei tempi di Nehemia che questi rami sono per la creazione di capanne/sukkot, e questo si riflette anche in una discussione talmudica (BT Sukkà 36b – 37a), in cui rabbi Meir afferma che una sukkà può essere costruita con qualsiasi materiale, mentre il rabbi Judah, basandosi sulla descrizione del Libro di Nehemia, afferma che può essere costruita solo con il legno delle quattro specie.

Sembra anche che il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto dovrebbe, per diritto, essere l’ulivo. Era e rimane un punto fermo nell’agricoltura della regione, l’olio era usato sia come cibo che come combustibile per l’illuminazione, la medicina e il rituale religioso. E l’oliva stessa viene raccolta in questo periodo. Quando si considera l’affermazione di Geremia (11:16) “Il Signore ti aveva chiamato ulivo fiorente, adorno di magnifici frutti.” Leggendo ciò sembrerebbe ovvio che il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto debba essere l’oliva.

Eppure abbiamo questo frutto piuttosto ambiguo: l’etrog, il cedro. Perché?

Il primo testo probabilmente è quello del Targum Onkelos del I-II secolo, la prima traduzione della Bibbia in aramaico, che ha l’uso di interpretare il testo e che scrive chiaramente “il frutto dell’albero del cedro”. Anche Giuseppe Flavio (storico ebreo romano del I secolo) descrive l’uso del cedro quando descrive la festa. Il Talmud (TB Sukkot 34a) racconta la storia del re e sommo sacerdote asmoneo Alessandro Ianneo (103-76 a.C.), che non rispettava il rituale di Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (la cerimonia della libagione dell’acqua) e fu colpito con dei cedri da dei devoti arrabbiati. Le monete asmonee del periodo recano dei cedri, che evidentemente erano un simbolo importante della nazione in quel momento.

Mi chiedo se l’etrog sia diventato una delle quattro specie (arba’a minim) a causa di una qualità particolare che i rabbini volevano aggiungere al rituale, e quale potrebbe essere stata questa caratteristica.

Al tempo della Mishnà (II secolo d.C.) il cedro fa parte del gruppo delle quattro specie. Mentre è praticamente immangiabile allo stato grezzo, ha un odore particolarmente gradevole se gli si graffia la buccia con l’unghia. Un vecchio detto comune riportava che gli israeliani sono come il frutto del sabra, il fico d’india, che potrebbero essere spinosi e poco attraenti sul cespuglio, ma deliziosamente dolci quando aperti, forse la similitudine si adatterebbe meglio al frutto del cedro: sembra essere rigido e irremovibile, ma il suo profumo, quando viene toccato, è squisito. Hanno anche un’altra qualità: la maggior parte dei frutti lasciati sull’albero si ammorbidisce e marcisce, il cedro invece appassisce e si indurisce, ma non marcisce, e l’odore continuerà a lungo: non per niente è uno dei frutti più utilizzati  per  preferiti da utilizzare nella scatola delle spezie per l’Havdalà.

Secondo alcuni midrashim, le quattro specie descrivono le diverse persone di una comunità: la palma da dattero ha sapore ma non profumo, quindi descrive la persona che conosce la Torà, ma non compie buone azioni. Il mirto ha profumo ma non ha sapore, corrisponde a colui che compie buone azioni ma conosce poco la Torà. Il salice non ha sapore o profumo e denota la persona che non impara la Tora né fa buone azioni; infine l’Etrog ha sia sapore che profumo: l’ideale. Uniamo gli arba’a minim, le quattro specie, nel nostro rituale di Sukkot perché in ogni comunità ci sono persone di ciascun tipo e perché ogni comunità ha bisogno di persone di ciascun tipo.

In un altro midrash le quattro specie vengono paragonate a una figura umana: le foglie del salice sembrano labbra, le foglie di mirto sembrano occhi, la palma è la spina dorsale e l’etrog… il cedro è il cuore. Nuovamente, abbiamo bisogno di usare tutto il nostro corpo quando preghiamo.

Ma il midrash che preferisco, e che ho la sensazione stia stato il motivo dell’aggiunta del cedro ai rami degli altri alberi, è che ciascuna delle quattro specie è un tipo botanico distinto, ognuna abbastanza diversa dall’altra.

Le palme amano un clima caldo e secco: non producono buoni frutti nelle zone costiere umide, ma necessitano di condizioni più asciutte e desertiche. E così il ramo di palma rappresenta le aree desertiche della Terra di Israele.

Il mirto prospera meglio nelle regioni più fredde e montuose delle parti settentrionali della Terra e il salice ha bisogno di stare vicino a un corso d’acqua per tutto l’anno; L’etrog rende meglio nelle terre irrigate delle zone costiere inferiori e delle valli.

La Terra di Israele, per quanto piccola, è connotata da microclimi, e ognuno degli arba’a minim rappresenta un clima diverso e quindi una parte diversa della Terra. Sukkot è per eccellenza la festa dell’agricoltura, della consapevolezza della necessità che la pioggia cada in modo appropriato e tempestivo. I tre alberi nominati sono, per un giardiniere, rappresentativi di tre climi piuttosto diversi. L’ulivo non è una pianta così sensibile, così andrebbe scelta una pianta differente per rappresentare le aree della Terra coltivate con cura.

Lo scuotimento del Lulav, il legame con il raccolto e l’agricoltura, l’acqua di Simchat Beit HaSho’eva: questa è una festa di ringraziamento e di richiesta per il prossimo anno. Il tremolio delle foglie di palma mentre si agita il Lulav suona come la pioggia che batte sul terreno. Dove sarebbe il vantaggio se una parte del terreno fosse ben irrigata e un’altra parte soffrisse di siccità o inondazioni?

Man mano che diventiamo sempre più consapevoli dei problemi del cambiamento climatico, degli uragani, delle inondazioni, dei monsoni in ritardo, del sole cocente che inaridisce e consente agli incendi di diffondersi così rapidamente, iniziamo a renderci conto in che mondo interconnesso viviamo, tanto che se qualcosa accade in una parte del mondo avrà un impatto su tutti noi.

Quindi quando raccogliamo le quattro specie, concentriamoci sulla lezione che ci dà, in particolare la sostituzione dell’ulivo con il cedro, per ricordarci che siamo tutti abitanti della stessa terra, siamo le singole parti di un tutto più grande, e facciamo ciò che possiamo per proteggere la terra, i raccolti, i fiumi e i deserti, le aree ghiacciate dei poli e sulle montagne, i ghiacciai e i mari …

Il significato di Sukkot riguarda completamente il modo in cui rispettiamo l’acqua, mayim hayim, elemento che dona e sostiene la vita, e in come rispettiamo il mondo e il suo Creatore.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[iv] Leviticus 23:39

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

Sukkot: Our plans make God laugh but we hope and trust anyway – what else can we do but rejoice in the life we have?

Putting up the succah in our autumnal garden some of last year’s birch leaves fall out of the folds of the s’chach and I am transported back to memories of the year gone by, aware suddenly of the passing of time, of what has changed and what is changing.

Autumn brings a special kind of melancholy. Some flowers and fruits are at their peak, the pears plumply falling on the lawn; the apples – those that have not been enjoyed by the birds – full and round. Many plants are still flowering profusely and as I look at them I know with sadness that soon  I will have to disrupt this joyful performance in order to dig them up and save them for next year, or cut them back to prevent the frost damaging their tender stems.

In the garden it feels a bit like a last hurrah. The squirrels are busily collecting acorns and conkers to bury against a hard winter; the birds are gorging on berries, the bees checking each bloom for the last sweet drops they may give up. The air has a chill, leaves are already creating an unwanted blanket over the flower beds, my gardener’s instincts are warning me not to leave the tidying up – what my mother calls ‘putting the garden to bed’ –  too  late. If I do, the price will be the slimy stems of frost damaged annuals, happy slugs and other pests doing their damage in comfort, and the bone chilling experience of wrestling with dead or dying vegetation fixed into the unyielding soil.

Autumn brings with it a sense of dying even while life is climaxing.  We have more than a shiver of recognition of our own mortality. And the Jewish festivals have been resonating with the season – We begin a new year with reflection and awe as we undergo Judgment Day – Yom HaDin; we follow through the Ten Days of Repentance (the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah) as we acknowledge our shortcomings and mistakes, until Yom Kippur enables us to, so to speak, slough off the burden of guilt that has been weighing on us, having done all we can to remedy what we have done.  We tidy up the garden even as we are enjoying its beauty; we cover over and put to bed the nagging thoughts about things we can no longer do anything about. We prepare for the future by cleansing the landscape of our lives.

And because all work like this takes longer than the original plan, and indeed is an ongoing act throughout the year, Jewish tradition reminds us that the Gates of Repentance stay open until the end of the Succot festival.

With all the intimations of death within life, with all the resonance of mortality and melancholy the season brings, we are commanded in bible to treat the festival of Succot with joyfulness. It is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our joy. We must rejoice before God with the products of the land, the pri etz hadar (fruit of the beautiful tree), the palm, the myrtle, the willow of the brook.

As a gardener I notice that these plants all grow in Israel in different parts of the country – for such a tiny piece of land the different micro-climates are extraordinary.  The lulav, coming from the palm tree, fruits most happily where it is hot and dry – while it grows in the coastal areas, in truth it is a tree that disdains humidity and far prefers the semi –desert conditions. The myrtle (hadas) prefers the cooler mountainous areas. The aravah (willow) needs to be close to a consistent water supply (hence “willows of the brook”) and the etrog grows best in the lower coastal areas and the valleys.  These four symbols of Succot encompass all the growing conditions a gardener could work in, and it is a rarely lucky horticulturist who finds themselves able to work them all in one garden.  I would love more acid soils and less shade in my garden, but such is life, one works with what one has.

We bring together vegetation from all areas of Israel, symbolising not only geographical or horticultural diversity but also different times in our lives- the hot semi desert when growth and change seem impossible, the cool perspective when we can see, if not always reach, our next stage, the times when life flows fast around us and the times when the horizon is very distant and unimaginable.

On Succot we telescope the year with its possibilities into this composite symbol; indeed we telescope our lives with its many experiences both good and bad into the celebration of the festival, and we rejoice before God for our very selves. We know that no life is untouched by sorrow, that no-one escapes from living without experiencing problems and pain, but we know too that our lives are something to be thankful for, to celebrate and enjoy.  The autumnal adumbral presentiments of change – of life and death and rebirth – make us pause for a moment to notice the change, the growing and the dying back, the fruiting and the flowering.

Why are we commanded to rejoice at the very time we are facing the bleakness of the  winter? I think it is an assertion of hope, of trust that the world will once again flourish and flower, that life, even as it is in the process of completing one cycle, is readying and preparing the next. We are facing a dormancy but not an ending. We rejoice because we have confidence that we are not alone, that our lives are not isolated, but that a thread of something beyond us will connect us in time and space. The very succot we build and live in, fragile and uncomfortable and with little protection from the elements, remind us that when all the physical defences and supports we take for granted are gone, we are still together, still in community, still under the protection of God.  When we tie together the arba’a minim, we not only become aware of the larger world, shaking it East, South, West, North, Upwards and Downwards in petition for the water our land needs at this time, we also become aware of the composite peoplehood we are a part of. The midrashim that link the parts to the parts of the body, the “types “ that make up community, the geography of the Land of Israel – all of them have one thing in common. If we care for each other and live in community, sharing what we have, comforting those in pain or distress, recognising the humanity of the other, then we are stronger, we can face the Autumn and the Winter, we can depend on the thread of life that may seem impossible to see, that may lie dormant under unpromising conditions.

We rejoice on Succot because with all of the fears, all of the uncertainty, all of the sudden awareness of the transience of our materiality, we remember that we are part of a greater whole, and God, even if not obvious to us, underpins us and supports us and keeps us alive to say the she’he’cheyanu prayer at this season. We none of us know what our future holds for us and while we might make plans for it these are at the most provisional. As the Yiddish saying goes: Der mentsh tracht und Gott lacht – Human Beings make plans and (this is why) God laughs

דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט

All we can do is live in the moment, aware of the fragilities of life and aware too that life goes on – and hope that we will see the next season and the next.

 

Bilhah and the man who mistook his wife for his bed

The last sidra in Genesis brings the denouement of the narratives of the rivalries in the founding family down the generations.  Many of the themes we have seen in earlier texts return to be developed or reworked so that a number of outstanding threads can be tied off. Both Jacob and Joseph will die in this sidra, the deaths and burials of the patriarchs and matriarchs will be recalled as Jacob requests he be buried not in Egypt but in the Cave of Machpela where all but Rachel have been laid to rest. There is a deathbed blessing where the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, are blessed in a scene resonant of the blessings of Jacob and Esau by their father Isaac.  Except here the process of the blessing is explicit, both boys are present together, as is their father who tries to correct Jacob when he offers the ‘senior’ blessing to the younger boy. Jacob, whose eyes are now as dim as his own father’s had been, knows exactly what he is doing and refuses to be corrected, instead offering a blessing that harks back to the words given to his own mother when she enquired of God why she was in such pain – “[the older] also shall become a people, and shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.”

Reference is made to the dream Jacob had as a young man leaving Canaan where he encountered God and received the covenantal blessing, and the struggle at the Ford of Jabok when he received the name “Israel”. And then he calls his other sons to his bedside to offer them words of – well, words that are described traditionally as blessing, but seem to me to be words of challenge and bluntly painful truth. In the text, only Joseph and his two sons are the recipients of a beracha, the verbal root is not used for any of Jacobs other sons.

I had set myself the task of writing about the women who often hide in plain sight in the weekly sidra. Sadly in Vayechi, the matriarchs are all mentioned, but only in terms of their burials. There are two other women alluded to in the text –the mother of Ephraim and Manasseh,  Osnat/Asenath the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On (see https://rabbisylviarothschild.com/2016/12/30/miketz-the-strange-case-of-the-disappearing-women-2/ to read about her) and Bilhah, the maid of Rachel who also bears sons with Jacob on behalf of Rachel and whose status seems to move around in the texts . While she is not named here, the event between Reuben and her years earlier are recalled to devastating effect on Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, who should have been taking his place as the next link in the generational chain, but who is set aside instead, leaving the field clear for Joseph instead.

When we first meet Bilhah in Paddan Aram she is a servant maid: shifcha   השִׁפְחָ  belonging  to Laban and given by him to his younger daughter Rachel on her marriage, just as Zilpah had been given to Leah. (Gen 29:29)

When Rachel fears she will not be able to conceive a child, she gives Bilhah her שִׁפְחָה to Jacob as a wife – isha  הלְאִשָּׁ (Gen 30:3ff), and Bilhah has again been described in this passage as her maid, while  using a different word אֲמָתִי – a servant even less respected in the household than a shifcha.  The word shifcha is used again when Jacob divides his family across the ford of Jabok while fearing what Esau might do to them and her status with Zilpah and their sons is defined when they are put at the head of the procession, in the most danger. After Rachel’s death the narrative refers to her as פִּילֶגֶשׁ – pilegesh, often translated as concubine, but having real legal and social status, and therefore more correctly seen as a kind of secondary wife.

Bilhah herself never speaks. Yet as the mother of Dan and Naftali – albeit as a surrogate for Rachel – she is an ancestress. Even with the surrogacy/adoption process of her children, she and Zilpah (Leah’s maid) are still described as wives of Jacob (for eg Gen 37:2) but they are essentially only seen in relationship to their children. Her relationship with Rachel is coldly transactional from Rachel’s viewpoint. We don’t of course have any record of Bilhah’s feelings. So when Leah names the sons born to Zilpah there is at least some joy in the names and rationales she chooses (Gad= Fortune has come; Asher = happiness) but when Rachel names the sons born to Bilhah there is no such pleasure (Dan=God has judged me; Naftali=I have wrestled with my sister and won) so it seems that poor Bilhah really is only an object to those around her, her body to be used by both Jacob and by Rachel.

Bilhah is surely a candidate for being one of the saddest women in bible. And things only get worse for her after Rachel’s death. She now belongs to Jacob (she is his pilegesh) and in an almost entirely animal dynamic, Reuben his oldest son decides to stage a challenge to the older man by having sex with her.

The text in Genesis 35 is brief, but we can read into it if we look carefully:

 וַיְהִ֗י בִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֔ן וַיִּשְׁכַּ֕ב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֑֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵֽ֑ל   פ

  וַיִּהְי֥וּ בְנֵי־יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר:

“And Israel dwelt in that land, and Reuven went, and he bedded Bilhah the pilegesh/secondary wife of his father, and Israel heard      [break in the text but not in the sentence]

and the sons of Jacob were twelve.”

Why is there a physical break in the written text? What is it telling us is missing in the story?

What does Israel hear – can it be the screams of pain and distress by the woman Bilhah who has been so victimised by his arrogant eldest son? There is no story of kindness between them as in the story of Dinah and Shechem that is often called rape – so just how terrible must this abuse of power been that poor Bilhah had to endure? And why is her protest erased?

Nothing is said at the time, at least insofar as the text reveals, but Jacob clearly does not forget, and so in our portion this week reference is made in his deathbed words to Reuben.

 רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣רִי אַ֔תָּה כֹּחִ֖י וְרֵאשִׁ֣ית אוֹנִ֑י יֶ֥תֶר שְׂאֵ֖ת וְיֶ֥תֶר עָֽז: פַּ֤חַז כַּמַּ֨יִם֙ אַל־תּוֹתַ֔ר כִּ֥י עָלִ֖יתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אָ֥ז חִלַּ֖לְתָּ יְצוּעִ֥י עָלָֽה:

“Reuben, you are my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you have not the excellency; because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it–he went up to my couch!”

I don’t know what I find more appalling. The act of Reuben who mindlessly slept with/raped a woman because he wanted to challenge his father and lay claim to his wife, or the ultimate response (after a long silence) by Jacob, who does not even name the woman, but refers to her as “my couch” יצוע, . To these men she is not a person, not a human being at all, but a possession akin to a beautiful piece of furniture whose only function is to show the status of its owner.  When Jacob tells Reuben that he no longer has the status and promise of the eldest son because of this action, it is because ‘hilalta’ – you have profaned/defiled – not the woman but his bed.  And the fact that he repeats the image of his bed being misused, (almost in a staged aside of disbelief at the actions of his son), only makes it clearer to us just how they ignore and erase the act done to this woman – she is either ‘mishk’vei avicha’ the beds of your father (the place where he has sex) or y’tzui – my couch.        Again contrast with the story of Dinah when Shimon and Levi justify their own horrific violence against Shechem with the question that hangs at the end “shall they treat our sister like a prostitute?” Yet here, there is no avenging the act done to Bilhah – she may be the mother to two of their brothers, yet she is less than nothing to them.

Bad as this text is in its erasure of Bilhah and her pain and outrage, sadly there is a tradition which goes on to blame her for Reuben’s act.

In the pseudopigrapha – specifically the text “the Testament of Reuben” we find the need to besmirch and defame Bilhah is given free rein. Written possibly in the second Temple period it follows the literary conceit of a farewell address written by the sons of Jacob. The words ascribed to Reuben tell his descendants not to be sexually profligate in youth as he had been when he slept with his father’s wife, as he had been struck by an illness and only the prayers of his father had saved him. He continues:

Pay no heed to the face of a woman, nor associate with another man’s wife, nor meddle with affairs of womankind. For if I had not seen Bilhah bathing in a covered place, I would not have fallen into this great iniquity. For my mind taking in the thought of the woman’s nakedness, suffered me not to sleep until I had wrought the abominable thing. For while Jacob our father had gone to Isaac his father, when we were in Eder, near to Ephrat in Bethlehem, Bilhah became drunk and was asleep uncovered in her chamber. Having therefore gone in and beheld nakedness, I wrought the impiety without her perceiving it, and leaving her sleeping I departed.”

There are echoes here of Noah, of Lot and his daughters, of David and Batsheva. But whereas they were not held responsible for their actions, here Bilhah bathed where she could be seen, got drunk, slept in a lewd position and was not even aware of the rape – shades of what used to be called “contributory negligence”.

Rabbinic literature does not only not help Bilhah, but it seems more concerned with protecting the reputation of Reuben, even while explaining why the status that should have been his went to Judah. The Mishnah (Megillah 4:10) suggest that the verse should not be translated when read out in the synagogue, so that the people who did not know Hebrew would not learn about it.  Talmud (BT Shabbat 55b) has R.Shmuel bar Nachman quoting R. Jonathan and saying “Anyone who says that Reuben sinned is wrong, for it is said “now the sons of Jacob were twelve” so all were equal [in sin]..and when bible says he slept with Bilhah the concubine of his father, it means only that he moved his father’s bed without permission and scripture ascribes blame AS IF he had slept with her.” The rabbis are falling over themselves to find Reuben innocent of the terrible act that bible records quite bluntly. They are unaware of either the person or of the plight of Bilhah. How true it is that we don’t notice what is not important to us, but make our world only out of what we see and care about.

Bilhah is the ultimate victim – only her name and those of her two sons are known and recorded. Her life of service begins with being owned by Laban, then Rachel, then Jacob, then Reuben. What else happens to her? Who knows – no one seems to have cared.

Occasionally there is a move towards adding Bilhah and Zilpah to the matriarchs in our prayers. I have always been ambivalent about this, as neither of the women has any relationship with God or prayer that might add to ours. But I am pressingly aware that Bilhah and Zilpah bore and mothered sons to Jacob, they are the ur-ancestors of the twelve tribes just as the ancestors we name. And their story is as much part of our history. A real violence has been done to them – and in particular to Bilhah who is objectified beyond any awareness of her humanity. Her story must once again be told and the gross act of abuse condemned. It is said that the Shechinah weeps over the exile of the children of Israel. The weeping of Bilhah abused at the hands of those same children must also be heard and acknowledged.

Kedoshim: increasing kiddush hashem and diminishing hillul hashem.

It has long been the habit to refer to all the Jews who historically were killed for adhering to their faith in times of persecution as having died “al Kiddush Hashem” and this idea has also become attached to the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah – they have become kedoshim through their deaths and are  elevated to the status of martyrdom.  I understand the comfort that may be derived by those who mourn their murdered family and friends to see their status as that of kedoshim, but I have always found this slide of the terminology to be problematic. To me martyrdom should be a conscious choice. To me their murder is a Hillul Hashem, and no holiness can be found within it, only in the responses both at the time and afterwards to protest, to remember, to mourn, to live on.

I am uncomfortable also in the loss of the full name of Yom haShoah, which is actually “Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah”— literally the “Day of (remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Heroism.” All choice has been removed from our remembering – both the lack of choice of those who were rounded up and unable to protest, and the powerful choices made by those who did protest, or who were partisans or who hid themselves or others from the evil around them.  By diminishing the heroism, by diminishing the choices people made from their own humanity and their ethical imperatives, it seems to be we lose out on Kiddush Hashem as people are able to bring it about. Instead we focus on the Hillul Hashem of those who mindlessly or not destroyed the hopes and lives of so many and we coat the victims in martyrdom as if to bring honour to their destinies.

Yom HaShoah was created to remember those we have defined as kedoshim either through martyrdom or through protecting God’s creation when others were trying to destroy it, and the date was chosen by the Government of Israel to remember them. It is no coincidence that the date chosen by the politicians was out of sync from the date that would have been chosen by rabbinic tradition, and instead of being placed on a traditional day of mourning such as tenth Tevet or Tisha b’Av it was placed a week before the celebration of the Israel Independence Day – Yom ha’Atzma’ut. This placing has led to a connection in the minds of many, that the outcome of the murder of the 6 million is the creation of the modern State of Israel.

For me this is deeply problematic. Not only does it submerge the many prior years of political Zionism that worked to create a Jewish state, but it builds the state on the martyrdom of the ‘kedoshim’, many of whom were not natural Zionists in life.  In so doing, it changes the nature of the contract with the land we have had since this Torah text was given – that we have the land of Israel because God has given it to us, and we have a responsibility to live on it in a way that promotes Kiddush Hashem. Sidra Kedoshim makes clear that our continued living on the land of Israel depends on our living lives of kedoshim, ethical lives where the vulnerable are protected, the land is cared for, and where a lived awareness of the focussed attention of God and the desire to behave as God would wish us to do should always be part of our daily routines. By making the idea of ‘kedoshim’ the historical foundation of the State rather than the aspiration of the contemporary society we reduce the imperative to behave in holiness. And that is dangerous, for if we are not acting to promote Kiddush Hashem we run the risk of sliding into its shadow, of Hillul Hashem. If we believe we have an entitlement not given to us by Torah but by the deaths of innocents then we can easily act from that sense of entitlement, and we forget the conditions given here in Leviticus that the land will not tolerate our bad behaviour.

The rabbis of the Talmud spoke of being kedoshim as living in such a way as to imitate the divine qualities of mercy and kindness.  They specifically ruled out imitating the parallel divine attribute of strict justice often seen as working in balance with divine mercy and which may impose conditions for the way the mercy might be applied. They are advocating undiscriminating kindness to others in order both to achieve kedoshim and to increase the presence of God in the world. I am reminded of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote “when I was young I used to admire clever people, now I am older I admire kind people” and I hope that beyond admiration, we remember the vulnerable and the powerless and those who sought to help and protect them, and in remembering our own experience of helplessness and oppression we too strive to increase kindness in our world.

 

Chanukah Readings: It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

Bible tells us that the first thing that God did having created the heavens and the earth was to utter the words “Let there be light”, and there was light. God saw the light was good, and God divided the light from the darkness, and so began the ordering of a world which would ultimately sustain and nourish humanity, and they in turn would work with God to continue the process of perfecting creation.

Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, comes to remind us of the need to continue that work, even though it might sometimes seem that the darkness is all enveloping, and the world has reverted to the state of primordial chaos filled with terrifying uncontrolled forces that is contained in the phrase “tohu va’vohu”

Just as light was the catalyst for the world to develop into a place where we could live and thrive, so too light is the response we must make when faced with a darkening world. Just as bible commands that a light was to be continually burning in the tent of meeting outside the veil of testimony, and the priesthood had to tend to it evening and morning in order to keep it in good order as an eternal statute for the generations, (Exodus 27:20 and Lev 24:2) so too we need our ner tamid, our continually tended and burning light, to remind us not only of God’s compassionate and watchful presence in the world, but also of our obligation to bring God’s presence further into the world. As the book of Proverbs tells us,” Ki ner mitzvah, v’torah or : the commandment is a lamp and torah is light” – to act as God wishes us to act brings light into our world. (6:23)

Chanukah, like all festivals of light, comes in the winter darkness to remind us that the glow of even a small candle can alleviate the deep darkness, and as the Talmud reminds us “the candle of one person can bring light to many people” (Shabbat 122a)

There are many small candles lit in the world, many people doing good work in creative and imaginative ways, tending to the ner tamid, keeping the light of hope alive. Our High Holy Day confession includes the phrase “Al cheit she’chatanu lefanecha b’tim’hon ley’vav – For the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair” and I must confess that each time I read the news of what is happening in the world, the way so many people are terrorised and terrified, violently murdered or imprisoned or forced to live hand to mouth, treated without compassion or empathy, uprooted and fleeing for their lives or stuck in a societal stratum below any human dignity, I give in, for a while, to despair. And when I see how governments oppress and harass their own people whom they are supposed to protect and support, close their eyes to the pain of their public and to the social justice values of civil society I succumb to frustration and fury that “they” are misusing their power so freely, unchallenged and unrestrained. And I come close to despair.

But then I remember those many people and organisations, those many small candles lit and tended to, which challenge the dejection and despondency and allow me to hope, to connect, to believe that the prophetic values of the Hebrew bible are not only alive and well, but are fighting back hard to be heard and to be seen, to bring light back into the world

So here are eight organisations of civil society in Israel who bring me hope. Eight organisations in whose light we see God’s light, who speak out for justice because, like Rav Kook, they do not have the power to keep silent. One for each of the nights of Chanukah: as you light the small flame of each candle, remember the words of Isaiah “I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do for them, and not forsake them.” (42:16)

 

First Night of Chanukah:   Tag Meir – The Tag of Light

Founded in Jerusalem in 2011 in response to Tag Mechir (price tag), this is the largest grassroots organisation in Israel that works against hate crime and religious racism in Israel. Transcending religious divides, Tag Meir is an umbrella organisation for a coalition of groups who support and campaign for democratic and Jewish value of justice for all the people. It protests violence and responds to victims of violence. Tag Meir’s mission is to connect different groups in Israeli society in the battle to eradicate racism and violence, and to educate for tolerance and empathy, as well as creating public events to raise and amplify the voice of those committed to democratic values. They offer Israelis the chance to voice their opposition to violence, to publicise it to all who need to hear, from Government to the victims themselves. They hold demonstrations and vigils, they pay condolence calls to victims of terror, they repaint over racist graffiti, they offer material support to religious places defaced. They meet with politicians and decision makers to end incitement and inflammatory rhetoric. Their motto : Or Bimkom Terror – Light instead of terror.http://www.tagmeiren.media-sb.co.il/

 

tag meir

Second night of Chanukah :   The Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Centre in Akko

The vision and life’s work of Mohammed Fahili, this is the only Jewish- Arab Community Centre in Israel. It began in 1985 as a simple after-school club run by volunteers and located in the communal bomb shelter of a poor neighbourhood, this was part of an effort by the local Jewish and Arab residents to improve their living environment.  In 1991 the Clore Israel Foundation funded the construction of a purpose-built community centre.

The Centre’s aim is to provide high-quality, low-cost activities for Akko’s residents regardless of ethnicity or ability to pay. It functions as an important part of the community, offering enrichment programmes from infants to pensioners, allowing the people of Akko to meet over shared interests and needs, informally connecting people and building strong relationships. Many of the children that they cater for are from large, poor families and are vulnerable to the dangers of street life.  They help combat school drop-out by offering extra-curricular activities and programmes, nurturing Akko’s children to help them achieve a future. They also offer vital programmes for women and a cultural club for pensioners from the Former Soviet Union.

The Centre is an independent, voluntarily funded, not-for-profit, non-political and unaffiliated organisation.  It is funded almost entirely by voluntary donations from people who believe in the importance of their work in creating a better future in the region.

 

Fahili himself is an inspiration a candle in a dark room. With courage, humility and perseverance he has created an oasis of hope, a meeting place, a model for how Israeli society can be. http://ajcenter.org.il/

fahili

 

 

Third night of Chanukah:  Hiddush For Religious Freedom and Equality

Founded in 2009, Hiddush works through advocacy and public education to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Taking as its platform the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which states “”The State of Israel … will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion … it will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience” Hiddush is a partnership between Israeli Jews and World Jewry to ensure that this guarantee remains at the centre of the Israeli Government’s policy.
www.hiddush.org

 

 

Fourth Night of Chanukah:  YTheater Project Jerusalem

Founded in September 2009 in Jerusalem, this is the Israeli-Palestinian Community Theatre for a Change. YTheater engages Israelis and Palestinians together in a creative process of empowerment and responsibility. Using activist community theatre methods, it builds relationships, nurtures civic virtues, and helps the participants to work together strategically. YTheater runs workshops for Jewish, Arab, and Anglo youth and young adults to empower leadership.

 

“We are Palestinians and Israelis. Our lives and world-views usually exclude one another. We agree about almost nothing.   We are positioned in opposition. Our souls are on the line. We burn with the passion of the Middle East. We grope for new pathways – to break through impasses, to un-lock the grid of violence, and to mend what is broken. Creating theatre is our shared language; the stage is our meeting point. We are Muslims, Jews, Christians and Druze who collaborate. We struggle, we do not whitewash. We face difference and difficulty with caring and respect. Awe for life feeds our commitment to persevere, to create, to pry open our own hearts and the hearts of our audiences and participants. YTheater Project Jerusalem explores, interprets and innovates. We delve deeply into our behaviour, traditions, and societies.  We critique, provoke, and even, humbly, propose.In a region raw with conflict and pain, we rehearse for better life together. We are contributing to the infrastructure for better Palestinian and Israeli civil society.  YTheater builds relationships that heighten confidence and active will toward peace.”       Website    http://ytheater.org

 

 

Fifth night of Chanukah:        The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, founded in 1998, is Israel’s leading organization protecting the rights of refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. For over 15 years Hotline staff and volunteers have been visiting Israel’s immigration detention centres to monitor conditions, meet with detainees and provide paralegal intervention and legal representation. We represent some of the most vulnerable people in Israel and advocate for government policies consistent with a just, equal and democratic Israel.

By combining client advocacy with impact litigation, policy initiatives and public outreach, we aim to achieve broad-based, systematic improvements in policies and practices ensuring that the human rights of migrants in Israel are respected.

Their main activities are Crisis Intervention, Legal Action and Public Policy and Education.       Website http://hotline.org.il/en/about-us/

Sixth Night of Chanukah: The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality

In 1997, a group of concerned Arab and Jewish residents of the Negev (the southern desert region of Israel) established the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality to provide a framework for Jewish-Arab collaborative efforts in the struggle for civil equality and the advancement of mutual tolerance and coexistence. The Forum, also known as “Dukium” in Hebrew, is unique in being the only Arab-Jewish organization established in the Negev that remains focused solely on the specific problems confronting the Negev.

The Forum’s activities and projects are based on the principle of Arab-Jewish cooperation and among their members are leaders of the Negev Arab community and academics. As a joint Jewish-Arab group we maintain a balance and equal partnership in the bodies of the organization as well as in the decision-making processes.

NCF is engaged in a wide range of grassroots activities. They have worked with community leaders in “unrecognized” Bedouin villages to deliver vital basic services to their communities. In the spirit of coexistence, Bedouin residents and Jewish volunteers work together to provide clean water, nursery schools, access roads and rubbish removal systems to over a dozen villages.

In collaboration with other NGOs, the NCF has filed legal petitions against discriminatory practices affecting Bedouin communities in the Negev. For example, as a result of a joint petition submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005, the government agreed to properly dispose of sewage flowing through Um Batin. Other petitions have led to the establishment of health clinics in ten unrecognized villages and to the prohibition of toxic crop spraying.   Website www.Dukium.org

Seventh Night of Chanukah:    Breaking the Silence

“Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavour to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.

We collect and publish testimonies from soldiers who, like us, have served in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since September 2000, and hold lectures, house meetings, and other public events which bring to light the reality in the Territories through the voice of former combatants. We also conduct tours in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills region, with the aim of giving the Israeli public access to the reality which exists minutes from their own homes, yet is rarely portrayed in the media.

Founded in March 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron, Breaking the Silence has since acquired a special standing in the eyes of the Israeli public and in the media, as it is unique in giving voice to the experience of soldiers. To date, the organization has collected testimonies from over a 1,000 soldiers who represent all strata of Israeli society and cover nearly all units that operate in the Territories.”

 

Eighth Night of Chanukah:        Shomrei Mishpat: Rabbis for Human Rights

“Founded in 1988, Rabbis for Human Rights is the only rabbinic voice in Israel that is explicitly dedicated to human rights. Representing over 100 Israeli rabbis and rabbinical students from different streams of Judaism, we derive our authority from our Jewish tradition and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our mission is to inform the Israeli public about human rights violations, and to pressure the State institutions to redress these injustices. In a time in which a nationalist and isolationist understanding of Jewish tradition is heard frequently and loudly, Rabbis for Human Rights give expression to the traditional Jewish responsibility for the safety and welfare of the stranger, the different and the weak, the convert, the widow and the orphan.

RHR works primarily in the following 4 fields:

Socioeconomic Justice Work in Israel:

Rights of the Poor: RHR focuses on raising awareness and lobbying the Knesset for better economic rights for impoverished Israelis at the national level. At the local level, our Rights Centre in Hadera helps hundreds of Jews and Arab citizens obtain socioeconomic rights that have been denied to them, and run empowerment and advocacy groups of local Arab and Jewish citizens  from the Hadera area who focus and advocate for policy changes of their choosing.

Rights to Public Housing: RHR provides legal representation for public housing tenants in Beit She’an, Beersheva, and Hadera whose housing does not meet their needs or who are facing eviction.

 

Human Rights Work in the Occupied Territories: For example the Olive Tree Campaign: RHR works year round with Palestinian farmers from several dozen villages in the Occupied Territories, to ensure that they can regularly access their agricultural lands, often denied to them because of their proximity to Israeli settlements.. During Tu B’shvat, we purchase and bring hundreds of Israeli and international volunteers together with Palestinians to plant some 2,500 olive trees in areas where settlers have cut, uprooted and/or burned trees in acts of vandalism and arson.

Challenging Land Confiscation in the Occupied Territories: RHR works to legally prevent or reverse the takeover of Palestinian lands in Area C, and ensure that Palestinian farmers can safely access those lands. We continually monitor the implementation of previous rulings on land access issues.

Promoting Human Rights Education in Israel: RHR works in 12 pre-military academies, exposing every year some 600 young Israelis to our human rights teachings based on our rabbinic interpretation of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. We believe that teaching human rights to young people who then continue onto their army service better equips them to deal humanely with the realities on the ground.

 

Human Rights Yeshivas: For more than a decade, RHR has been teaching about human rights and Judaism to Israeli university students. We currently run 2 human rights yeshivas, with a total of 40 participants. Students who participate in the program receive a stipend, and intern in a human rights or social change organization in order to understand more deeply the challenges facing Israeli society.”

 

RHR_logo_for-Site

 

LIGHTING THE CHANUKAH CANDLES: BLESSINGS

Candles are added to the Chanukiah from right to left but are lit from left to right.

(On the Shabbat of Chanukah, light the Chanukah lights first and only then the Shabbat candles)

Light the shamash first, then use it to kindle the rest of the Hanukkah lights. As you do, say or sing:

Baruch atah Adonai ,Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah   Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy through doing the mitzvot, and commands us to light the lights of Chanukah.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she-asah nissim la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem Baz’man hazeh. Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

 

And on the first night only, add the blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she’hecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.

 

As you light the other lights (or after you have finished lighting) recite the following:

Hanerot halalu anu madlikin / Al ha’te’shu’ot v’al ha-nissim v’al ha’nifla’ot, Sheh’aseeta la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem biz’man hazeh/ Al y’dei kohaneh’cha ha’kedoshim; V’chol sh’monat Y’mei Chanukah Hanerot halalu kodesh hem, V’ein lanu reshut le’hishtameish ba’hen/ Ela lirotan bilvad, k’dei lehodot ul’haleil le’shimcha hagadol Al nisse’cha Ve’al niflotecha Ve’al yeshu’ote’cha.

We kindle these lights to commemorate the saving acts, miracles and wonders which You have performed for our ancestors, in those days at this time, through Your holy priests. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your saving acts.

 

Eight Other Readings about Light and Mitzvot

 

“We live in a dark time. In a world ravaged by war, prejudice, disease, and now, an economic crisis that will put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of suffering. We need to bring more light. And to bring the light, we need to become the Maccabees- a people of faith who believed that liberty is worth fighting for, that human dignity is worth fighting for, and that justice is worth fighting for.” (Rabbi Sid Schwarz)

 

 

“If you offer your compassion to the hungry and you feed the famished creatures, then your light will shine in the darkness and your gloom will be like noonday” Isaiah 58:10

 

“When you think about someone or something that inspires you, the expression with the word נֵר would be Ner Le-Raglav- נֵר לְרַגְּלָיו. Literally, the expression means “a candle by his leg” but the contextual English translation for this expression would be “guideline” or “guiding principle.” I would add to this the meaning of “someone that you can follow”,  as it appears in Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” “נֵר-לְרַגְלִי דְבָרֶךָ; וְאוֹר לִנְתִיבָתִי.”

 

“According to the Created Worlds and Destroyed Worlds interpretation of the Bible, the passage in Genesis follows a major destruction of the world previous to our own. The light mentioned in Genesis 1:3 was a supernatural light that had the power to repair elements of the previously destroyed world. Day one of creation records the day when this supernatural light of repair was introduced into our current world. Day two records the start of the repair of the atmosphere and water. Day three describes the completion of the repair of the atmosphere and water and the repair of plant life. Day four describes the repair of the Earth’s relationship to the Sun, Moon, and stars. Day five describes the repair of marine life and winged creatures. Day six describes the repair of land animals and man.

 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

 

But the path of the righteous is as the light of dawn, that shines more and more unto the perfect day. (Proverbs 4.18)

 

“The Holy One said to Israel “My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us, you and I go and give light to Zion. Arise, give light, for your light has come (Isaiah 60:1)” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 21:1)

 

mattot massei – a modern take on the cities of refuge

first written 2009.

ImageStaring out of the window in the media-briefing centre in Sderot, looking at a huge and ugly concrete wall right outside, I read the word ‘miklat’ and for a moment I was surprised. I know the word from bible rather than ulpan, where the arei miklat, the cities of refuge, are created. As our bus had entered the town, we were given a briefing – in the event of a rocket coming over from Gaza, if you are still on the bus, get down into the passageway and hope. If not, then run like crazy for one of the bomb shelters that are dotted every few yards – the miklat.

Miklat is a word that is repeated ten times in the 34 verses we read today. A miklat is a place of safety, a place of escape, a sheltering place.  Reading today’s portion my mind immediately went back to the experience in Israel – where one didn’t feel very safe nor sheltered. Seeing the word then on the shelters all over the Sderot area, and seeing the words now in this sidra, the two experiences come together. The words for refuge, the designation of the cities of refuge “arei miklat”, of “miklato” (the refuge of the innocent manslayer) — are tied up in Modern Israeli experience as bomb shelter or air raid shelter, the hoped for asylums from the constant and unpredictable attacks on the people there.

In fact the tradition of signing the areas of refuge, something I found so remarkable and so distressing in the unexceptional and stolid nature of those constructions everywhere in Sderot, has long and honourable roots.  The Talmud records that: “Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’acov said: The words miklat, miklat [refuge, refuge] were inscribed at crossroads, so that the [inadvertent] manslayer might see them and turn in the right direction.” (BT Makkot 10b)

The Cities of Refuge were towns in the Kingdom of Israel and Kingdom of Judah at which the perpetrators of manslaughter – done without malice or forethought – could claim the right of asylum; These manslayers were not enemies of those they had killed, nor had they intended to hurt them, but they had killed them by accident, and outside of these cities, blood vengeance against such perpetrators was allowed by law. The Torah names just six cities as being a city of refuge: Golan, Ramot-Gilad, and Bosor, on the east of the Jordan River, and Kedesh (on the Lebanese border), Shechem, and Hebron on the western side.

Just listing the names of the arei-miklat is a poignant experience. Almost all of these places are in disputed political geography today, and far from being places of calm or sanctuary.  While on sabbatical I spent some time in Israel – in particular a day in the south Hebron hills and in the city of Hebron itself. The tension and aggression in the area was palpable, and rather than have ‘miklat miklat’ signposted at crossroads, there were checkpoints and watchtowers, and in the city closed streets and terrible graffiti. It was the very opposite of a place of refuge.

What was the purpose of providing the Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge?

The author of Sefer Ha-Chinuch suggests three reasons for a manslayer to flee to a city of refuge (positive commandment 410):

The first is “So that he regret his deed, suffering the pain of exile, which is almost like the pain of death, for a person becomes separated from his loved ones and the land of his birth, and must live out his days among strangers.”

Secondly “there is an element of improving the world … for it saves him from the blood avenger killing him when he did not willfully do wrong, for his act was unwitting.”

And finally  “There is yet another benefit:  so that the relatives of the person who was killed not have to constantly see the killer in the place where the unfortunate act was committed, for all the ways of the Torah are for peace and tranquility.”

Pain and suffering reflect the emotional state of the manslayer, protecting him from the blood avenger shows concern for his safety and physical preservation, and distancing him from the relatives of the person killed brings about an improvement in society, keeping the family of the person killed from having to see the person who shed his blood, at least for a certain period of time.

Rabbi Judah Zoldan asks “Aside from these explanations, there are several other issues that should be considered: what other understanding and view of the value of life will the manslayer have when he leaves the city of refuge, upon the death of the high priest?  What does the manslayer do with his life for the period that he resides in the city of refuge?  Does he learn and internalize a different view of the value of life and of a person’s responsibilities for his actions?  What rehabilitative process does the manslayer experience there, and under whose guidance?

        From the time I spent in Sderot and in Hebron, these questions have been haunting me. I saw both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living, not in cities of refuge, but in cities of pain, trapped geographically and spiritually in what can only be described as a living hell.  There are, it seems, few innocent manslayers here, but mostly people who are to some extent complicit in the events. Be they suicide bombers prepared to blow themselves up alongside people from the ‘other’ population, or settlers appropriating land for their ideology of triumphant nationalism; be they eighteen year old kids in the IDF not questioning their orders, or the rabbis who write up the terms of engagement against the other, everyone it seems is adding to the heat of events.  There is little reflection, slight repentance, no improving of the world. Rehabilitation and the development of a different view of the value of life is noted mainly for its absence.  And yet –

While I was in the Hebron hills I met a man called Ezra Nawi. He is a Jewish Israeli man, an Iraqi born in Basra, whose trade in life is plumber. He is also a human rights activist, and with persistent non-violent activity he helps the local population to stay on their lands. The day I met him, he was constructing some kind of solar powered electrical generator with what appeared to be some string, some metal, and other Heath Robinson materials, for a family of Arabs whose settlement was being continually disrupted, even though they had papers dating back to the Ottoman times to prove the land was theirs.  There is a video on You Tube of him protesting the treatment meted out to his friends, and what is the most sad for me is him calling out to the border police “I was also a soldier but I did not demolish houses….The only thing that will be left here is hatred, only hatred will be left here”, as an Arab woman screams out “May God never forgive you. May God destroy you”

        The original cities of refuge were designed to keep society safe, to palliate the effect of the blood relative having the power – and obligation – to avenge the death of an individual.  The manslayer who had not killed intentionally, who did not have an animus towards the one who died, was able to find a place of peace within the Levitical cities, and to stay there in safety reflecting upon the results of their actions.  It was designed to bring about peace, rather than allow a feud to build up between families. It was designed to remove the hatred from the situation, taking the hated one away from those who could not bear to see him, taking the thoughtless one to a place of thoughtfulness.

        There are many many peace activists in Israel, Jewish and Arab people who take refuge not in places but in their own integrity, who try to bring about a better world by seeing this one as it really is and imposing the values of the truly religious individual upon it – noticing and valuing the other, noticing when our side gets it wrong, witnessing the conflict peacefully. Alongside Ezra Nawi there is Rabbis for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence – an organization of young Israeli soldiers who are confronting Israeli society with what is being done in their name; Ta’ayush, (2004)  (Arabic for “life in common”), a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership. They say of themselves “A future of equality, justice and peace begins today, between us, through concrete, daily actions of solidarity to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and to achieve full civil equality for all Israeli citizens.”  There is MachsomWatch, in existence since 2001,  an organisation of peace activist Israeli women against the Israeli Occupation of the territories and the systematic repression of the Palestinian nation. They call for Palestinian freedom of movement within their own territory and for an end to the Occupation that destroys Palestinian society and inflicts grievous harm on Israeli society. 

The cities of refuge may be gone, transformed into cities of dispute. Nowadays the only places of miklat are bomb shelters reminding everyone of how much the hatred has grown, how rampant and chaotic the response to it. But there are at least anshei miklat – people who provide a kind of refuge when all around are causing pain and sorrow. Through them I hope that the lands of Israel and of Palestine will soon find true refuge from the terror that stalks them day and night, and that the refuge all of us seek will be found as a result of their actions.  They need our support and our active help. Please do find out more about them and offer them some miklat that we can provide – to know that they are not forgotten and not uncared for. To know that the image of God is not hiding in this world, but is out and about in the work of all of us who choose to do it.