Parashat Shelach Lecha: The faith of women is overlooked and the result is catastrophic

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֣ישׁ אֶחָד֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶחָ֜ד לְמַטֵּ֤ה אֲבֹתָיו֙ תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ כֹּ֖ל נָשִׂ֥יא בָהֶֽם:

God tells Moses to send men to travel round the land of Canaan, which God is giving to the children of Israel – one man from each ancestral tribe, each one a leader.

So begins the tale of the spies, whose return from reconnoitering the land  bringing stories of the hopelessness of the enterprise led to the people to become so disheartened that the story of the Israelites entering their promised land may easily have ended right here.  Certainly it becomes clear that the people are not yet ready to take the next step, and a prolonged sojourn in the wilderness as a new generation grows and takes over is necessary.

At first sight it seems a bit of an own goal – God tells Moses to send the men, trusted leaders who are – as Rashi says, commenting on the use of the word “anashim” – important and also righteous.  And yet the failure of leadership – apart from the perspectives of Joshua and Caleb – is catastrophic for the generation of the exodus.

The traditional commentators are interested in this story, in what went so badly wrong that the trajectory of the narrative was skewed and the journey that should have taken a short time ended up being one that took forty years.

Clearly there is a problem with the spies. Firstly comes the question of “shelach lecha” – a phrase that sounds so close to the divine commandment to Abraham “lech lecha”, and yet unlike Abraham’s journey of trust in God and of his own spiritual and material growth, this journey seems to be the exact opposite.

The casual reader might assume that a military reconnoitre of the land God is giving would be simple good practise. After all, even though God says “I am giving the land to the Children of Israel”,  surely a back-up plan is sensible.   But the reader trained to read through the Jewish texts will see this differently.

“Shelach lecha” – send “for yourself” – this is not something that God needed Moses to do, it was something that Moses and the children of Israel needed to do. Unlike  “Lech lecha” – Go to/for yourself” this is not a journey of discovery of the self, it is a journey to allay the fears the self already has. It bespeaks a lack of trust in God. The midrashic traditions picks this up – sending the men is a demonstration of lack of faith in God, but there is a further question we must ask. God is telling Moses not to simply have faith, but saying “you can send if you must”.

In the retelling of the story in Deuteronomy (1:20-46) it becomes clear from Moses’ speech that the request to send men does not come from God but from the people.  Moses tells the story like this “Behold, the Eternal your God has set the land before you, go up and take possession of it as the Eternal, the God of your ancestors told you. Do not fear and do not be dismayed. And you came to me, all of you, and said “Let us send men before us so that they will look out the land for us and bring us word of the way by which we should go up, and the cities we will encounter. And it seemed a good idea to me, and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe….”

This now begs the question, if it seemed not unreasonable that the people might want to know more about the land, and God – while not requiring this – did not command against it, then who SHOULD have been sent up to see the lay of the land?

The clue lies in the context of the story. It takes place just after the story of Miriam and the Cushite woman, where Miriam seems to be punished for speaking falsely, for asserting her own importance at the expense of another, and for showing lack of respect for others. A lesson needs to be learned, the question is – who has learned it?

Fantastically Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, (1550 – 1619) the scholar and poet and writer of his own Torah commentary (Kli Yekar) asks this question and answers it: Who should have been sent? The women!

He bases his opinion on a number of midrashic stories where it is the women who show themselves to have more faith than the men. They continue to have babies even when the Egyptian authorities try to murder their new-borns and their men refuse to have sexual relations with them. They protect their baby sons in this time. They refuse to give up their jewellery at first when the golden calf is created.  So when faith is really needed, it is the women who provide it.

The Kli Yekar notes that when the spies bring back their report of the difficulty of taking the land which is well protected and whose people look strong and powerful, the men revolt and want to return to Egypt.  In Chapter 14 the text is clear that while all the people wept, it was the men who said “why did God bring us to this land to fall by the sword, our wives and children will be prey, it would be better to return to Egypt. So they said to each other, let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt” (1:2-4). This establishes the lack of faith of the men for the Kli Yakar who goes on to compare this behaviour with that of the daughters of Zelophechad who specifically ask to be able to own the land of their father who had died without a male heir. For Rabbi Luntschitz this shows – along with all the other examples of women’s faith – that the faith of women is superior to that of the men, and hence if Moses had really wanted to send people on this errand that demonstrated a lack of complete faith in God, he should have sent women who would not have fallen so easily into the fearfulness and desire to return to Egypt rather than go forward into the land.

For the Kli Yekar Moses made a disastrous decision that was informed more by his prejudice about men’s roles and women’s roles and less by any empirical observation as to who had shown real faith in God.  Had Moses sent women to spy out the land (and it doesn’t seem to worry him that women might be functioning as army scouts, unlike some of today’s rabbonim) then they would have returned with the information and framed it in the same hopeful and faithful way that Joshua and Caleb did – it is a tough land to conquer but God is with us.

Add to this that the women have seen what happened to Miriam when she was banished with a skin complaint for her ungracious behaviour that had asserted her importance over the Cushite woman – they know that God is watching closely, that trusting in God is important.

But the men – Moses among them – are caught up with their own status. They are princes, they are leadership, they are important – they are anashim.  They have learned nothing, neither about God’s continued presence nor about humility and faith. Shelach lecha – it is all about them.  And when it fails, the answer is to find another leader from among their ranks and return to business as usual, go back to the safety of the slave routine of Egypt.

As the orthodox world continues to struggle with the role of women, perpetually trying to find ways to put us out of the public space and to assert the norms of the patriarchy, it is sobering to read the thoughts of one rabbi from the 16th century who recognised the need for women to come into the public space and be acknowledged for their own selves.

The Kli Yekar takes his name from the book of Proverbs 20:15 “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel”

He is indeed a rare jewel, he speaks from within the tradition and he speaks a deep truth. Almost all commentators agree that God did not want Moses to send anyone to scout out the land – it was an act of lack of faith. But if someone did have to go to reassure the people, send people whose faith you can trust in- and who better in this case than the people who have demonstrated again and again their trust in God and in a better future?  – The women of the exodus.

Lech Lecha – leave the idolatry, an instruction we need to hear again and again

What happened before God told Avram “Lech Lecha: Leave, go out from your country and your family and from the house of your ancestors into the land I will show you….”. The text before has given us the genealogy so that we know that Terach was the father of Avram, Nahor and Haran. That Haran had died young in Ur Kasdim, leaving a son, Lot, and two daughters, Milcah and Iscah. That Avram and Nahor had married: Avram married Sarai and Nahor had married Milcah his niece. Sarai was childless, (Milcah we know from later in the book had eight sons (Gen 22))

Terach took Avram his son, and Lot his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law; and they left Ur Kasdim, to go into the land of Canaan; they came to a place rather confusingly called Haran, and they stayed there, and Terach died there.

Why had Terach left Ur Kasdim? Why did he not take all of his family with him? We cannot know, and the question sits tantalisingly as we read the genealogy that details the ten generations after Noah who himself is the tenth generation from Adam. Had God spoken to Terach and told him to leave? Was there some family issue? Maybe this is why we are told of Sarai’s infertility here, a condition which is all the more painful when we later find that her sister in law was producing son after son? Maybe after the death of one of his three sons he just had to leave and start again, taking the surviving grandchild with him, away from the place his father had died in so as to give him a better start. Maybe something happened and he had to leave the area with his less rooted and established descendants. But what? And whatever it was, why did Nahor and Milcah stay?

The book of Joshua gives us the peg on which the midrash can hang a back story: “Joshua said to all the people, thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel. Your ancestors dwelled in old times beyond the River, even Terach the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. And I took your father Abraham from beyond the river, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed and gave him Isaac”. (Joshua 24:2).

So the catalyst for Terach leaving with Avram, Sarai and Lot may have been something to with idolatry:- either that it was an established family practise that God needed to get them away from (presupposing that God had chosen Terach and Avram for the covenant) or that the family did something that challenged the idolatrous practise in Ur Kasdim, and so needed to leave to save their lives.

Hence we have the stories (found in Genesis Rabbah 38.13), of a young Abraham, having destroyed the idols in his father’s shop, telling his father that a woman had wanted to make an offering to the idols, but that the idols had argued over which one should eat first, and one idol had taken a stick and smashed the others. Terach’s response that they are only statues with no understanding elicits Abraham’s stinging rebuke to his father – “why are you worshiping them then”?

It is a powerful story, and often mistakenly found in books of bible stories as if of the same status, but it is really an indicator of the rabbinic dislike of idolatry rather than a likely explanation for why this branch of the family left their land and travelled south (in stages) towards Canaan.

Much of Judaism, from bible onwards, can be read as a polemic against idolatry and for the one-ness of the divinity. There is a constant suspicion of foreign influencers who will bring in the foreign practises of ‘avodah zarah’ (strange worship). What is very clear is that the battle was a continuing one, from which we can see that while worshiping YHVH/Adonai was something that the Israelites were well able to do, worshiping ONLY YHVH/Adonai was much harder. The prevalence of the rightness of having a multiplicity of gods for a multiplicity of purposes was deeply rooted in the psyche of the ancient world, and the Israelites were no exception. And this has remained true today. While we may look at the statues of Greek or Roman gods in the museums of the world and feel no resonance with them, we are not so different from the people who worshiped them sincerely. We too fall into the habit of not being true to the One God, we idolise all sorts of people or ways of being, or objects. We idolise ‘celebrities’ be they in the popular entertainment industry or writers/artists/scientists. We idolise the marketplace, or money and the people who own it. We idolise the products of the fashion industry, fantasise about unlikely and unrealistic situations, really believe that if we were thinner or prettier or more powerful in some way our life would be transformed. Sometimes we make a fetish of political positions, be they left wing or right wing, and we idolise religious leaders too – and that is possibly the most dangerous of all.

I have watched with mounting horror as a Jewish idolisation of Judaism – or at least of a particular interpretation of Judaism – has grown exponentially in my lifetime. It has become something not to help us to survive and to grow and to create security and goodness in the world, but a way of living to be fetishized and followed in cumulative minutiae. Somehow the texts and traditions have become distorted by increasingly narrow and strict interpretations that have managed to cloak themselves in the language of authenticity and normative usage. Somehow there is an idolisation of certain rabbinic leaders, who are treated as more than human, given powers that no rabbinic tradition would authorise or approve, a fetishisation that does not even disappear when they di e- indeed the death is not recognised in some way, the rabbi elevated instead to a kind of Elijah figure or even a messianic figure. Somehow the chumrah (the extra stringency that the very pious took on for themselves) has become the norm in many Jewish communities. And yet the more usual (and I would say authentic) Jewish tradition fights against this tendency, with, for example, the words of R. Isaac recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:1) “do you think that what the Torah prohibits is not sufficient for you, that you take upon yourselves additional prohibitions?” Or the Babylonian Talmud discussing the Nazirite (Nazir 19a) which says “if the one who deprived himself only of wine is called a sinner then how much more so someone who deprives himself of all things”.

The word “orthodox” was brought into Judaism as a response to the “Progressive” or Reform Judaism that developed as a result of the enlightenment. The idea that Judaism has an orthodoxy is essentially an idea from outside of Judaism. It has always been a tradition that recorded debates rather than the results of debates, ideas to steer rather than rulings to stifle. In the ‘orthodox world’ today there are a multiplicity of different interpretations, customs, teachings, activities, beliefs, which shelter under the title of ‘orthodox Judaism’ merely to differentiate itself from a different and more open multiplicity of different interpretations, customs, teachings activities and beliefs sheltering under the rather less powerful ‘non-orthodox’ label. Indeed so diverse has orthodox Judaism grown, that the umbrella term is no longer enough. Now we have ‘ultra orthodox’, ‘hassidic’, ‘observant’, ‘traditional’ ,’modern orthodox’…. Each of which sees itself as the true and sometimes the only heir to Judaism. And each of which is vying for authority and authenticity by multiplying rulings, prohibitions designed to keep adherents away from the modern world, and concentrating power in the hands of the leadership.

Now I am not saying that we progressive Jews don’t also fall prey to idolatry – we tend to idolise social justice and tikkun olam over prayer, ritual and a deep relationship with God. We tend to fetishize universalism at the cost of a particular Jewish identity and lifestyle. Our Jewishness tends towards the culture and cuisine of our people and less towards studying and adopting its texts and scholarship. We all have a problem with idolatry – in that way we are just like our ancestors from biblical times onwards. So we need to return to the beginning. Lech Lecha – go, leave behind the lazy habits and the comfortable assumptions and following what others do, and go back to finding what God wants from us. Don’t leave that journey for others to tell you about, don’t fall into the common culture of everyone else, worshiping what we know to be false. Break the idols we have become dependent upon and leave them behind.

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague

My father was the son of Walter, the son of Alice, the daughter of Leah, the daughter of Rosalie, the daughter of Abraham, the son of Gitel, the daughter of Isaac, the son of Jacob, the son of Meir the son of Shmuel, the son of Yehoshua, the son of Rabbi Pinchas Halevy Horowitz, for whom this synagogue is named and grandson of Aharon Meshulam Horowitz it’s founder: my eleventh great grandfather.

So in a strange sort of way, I feel this Rosh Hashanah that I am coming home.

pinkus synagogue pinkus synagogue4

This family link got me to thinking about the roots and connections, and about the nature of Jewish history which in bible is framed within the structure of ‘toledot’ – generations. Judaism has traditionally passed on its defining ideas and ways of being within the family home and within the extended family we call community. The teaching goes from one generation to the next, the identity formed by watching and doing as much as by any formal learning.

( That said, from earliest times the idea of Judaism being a family tradition alone doesn’t really have traction. Abraham and Sarah famously “made souls” in Haran before leaving on God’s instructions ‘Lech Lecha’ – go, leave your ancestral land and go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:5). These souls are understood to be people they had converted to their faith; in other words, birth is only one doorway into Judaism, and the formation of Jews happens in a wider context than family alone.)

So I was thinking about the genealogical line between me and Pinchas Halevy Horowitz, the 13 generations between us, eight of whom were rabbinic families whose history I know only sketchily, and I wondered about what this relationship might mean, how his life fed ultimately into mine. I wondered too about how Judaism had developed in the almost 400 years since his death, what had changed, what had endured. For the truth about Judaism and about families is that they are not monolithic, they do not stay the same and their natural state is of flux and of change.

So if my ur-ancestor Pinchas was sitting here today in the synagogue that bears his name, what would be familiar to him? What would be radically changed? And what would be the golden thread, the Shalshelet haKabbalah, that ties his community to us, the latest in the toledot line?

There is a famous story in the Talmud (Menachot 29b) “Rabbi Yehudah said, “Rav said, “When Moses ascended to the heavens, he found the Holy One, sitting and attaching crowns to the letters. He said to God “Sovereign of the Universe! What are you doing? God said to him, “There is one man who will exist after many generations, and Akiva the son of Yosef is his name, he will in the future expound on every crown and crown piles and piles of laws.” Moses said “Sovereign of the Universe! Show him to me.” He said to him, “Turn around.” He went and sat behind the students in Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash, and he did not know what they were talking [about]. He became upset but when he heard the students ask “Our teacher, from where do you learn this?” And heard Akiva answer “It is a law [that was taught] to Moses at Sinai” he calmed down.

This very early Talmudic story sets the rabbinic principle that Judaism evolves, and that what was understood or necessary in one generation was not written in stone. Just as Moses would not understand the teachings of Akiva, so would Pinchas Halevy Horowitz not recognise much of the Judaism of the 21st century.  Yet there is a great deal he would recognise. The great themes of this service have remained the same since the Rosh Hashanah liturgy was instituted and the mussaf service in particular is explicit about the leitmotifs of the festival – Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot – the Coronation of God, the time for both we and God to Remember each other, and the blowing of the Shofar. Essentially, the service we have today stays true to the ancient themes of Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah has a number of different names: it is Yom Teruah, the day of blowing of the shofar; Yom haZikaron, the day for remembrance; Yom haDin, the day for judgement; and less well known it is also Yom haKesseh, the day of concealment. The first three are clear to us, we hear the shofar calling us to attention, and speak of standing before God (and also in our own eyes) in order to judge ourselves. We think back over our lives and our actions in order to be able to put things right where possible. But what is the concealment of which our liturgy speaks when we recite “Tiku ba’chodesh shofar, ba’kesseh l’yom chageinu. Ki chok l’yisrael hu, Mishpat lelohei Yaakov. (Psalm 81:4-5) Sound the shofar at the new moon, at the [Kesseh] concealed time for our feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.”

It would make sense in the poetic structure for Kesseh to be the parallel of Chodesh and mean the new moon, and so the psalmist would be speaking of blowing the shofar when the moon is so new it could barely be seen, Rosh Hashanah is the only festival to be celebrated at the beginning of a month rather than at the full moon or later. But Kesseh is an unusual word to use and so it draws our attention. And suddenly the work of this season becomes clearer, though ironically the clarity we gain shows that the work of the Yamim Noraim is to both make transparent and then to obscure some of our past behaviour.

The core meaning of the word Kesseh is to cover or to conceal; the meaning of Kapparah is also to cover over, to hide or even obliterate. We are in the season of concealment – but who is doing the hiding, what is being concealed, where does it go and to what purpose?

One of my favourite teachings of how Jews do teshuvah, the work of this penitential period is that we do not expect to wash clean all our past actions as if they never existed, and start again as if we were newly born souls. Instead we have time to reflect on our past, to face all the things we did that we wish we had not, and all the things we did not do that we wish we had done, and to own up to them, to accept our own actions. We admit to ourselves under the watchful gaze of God, and we repent – an active behaviour in Jewish law that requires us to try to make good the damage we have done, to ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt, to resolve to change how we will act in the future when faced with the choices again. And then, when we have done all we can to repair our past, we are able to let go of it – not to deny it or to disown it, but to cover it (kapparah) to conceal from view (Kesseh) all the things of which we are ashamed and of which we have repented. We know that if we do this, God too will forgive us, the page will turn on our heavenly record so that a clean sheet shows going forward, although the previous pages of the book remains written, just hidden from view and not holding us back in hopelessness. We are shaped by our past but our future is not distorted because of it.

Reading recently about transitional justice I came across an interview with Vaclav Havel and was struck by the similarities in his views. Speaking of dealing with the political past and its effects, he said “It is important to find the right balance, the right approach, one that would be humane and civilized but would not try to escape from the past. We have to try to face our own past, to name it, to draw conclusions from it, and to bring it before the bar of justice. Yet we must do this honestly and with caution, generosity and imagination. There should be a place for forgiveness wherever there is confession of guilt and repentance.” Transitional Justice: Country Studies v.2: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes: Country Studies…Dec 1996 by Neil J. Kritz

Jewish tradition holds that the work of this season – teshuvah – requires us to bring to mind the harsh realities of our failings, to go through a process that ends with us no longer held back by the pain or the shame or the fear of what we have done, and to move forward in our lives. We leave behind, concealed from view but not forgotten or denied, the actions and inaction that stained our souls, that had imprisoned us. This is what we are doing here today, it is what the Jews of this community were doing when this synagogue was built. While some of the language may have altered and some of the prayers been edited, Rabbi Pinchas Halevy Horowitz would recognise what we are doing were he to join us today. As would those whose names are inscribed on the walls, and all the Jews of the generations between the two. We are joined to them by the liturgy of this day, by the shared understanding of the meaning and work of this season, by the timelessness of the tradition that speaks of repentance and return to God, of forgiveness and of moving on, of not denying the past but not being held captive to its power.

The Jews who came before us are held with us in a chain of tradition, their wisdom and experience passed on through the generations and through the communities which welcome people into Judaism We in modernity will one day pass into history, leaving behind a name, some family stories, some wisdom and some love, maybe some descendants, and hopefully a physical memorial of some kind. On that memorial will no doubt be the acronym also found on the walls of this synagogue over the names of those Prague Jews taken and murdered in the camps  ת’נ’צ’ב’ה  It is taken from a verse in Samuel via the memorial prayer and which speaks of the soul being bound up in the bundle of life, an image rather like an unending piece of fabric or carpet, in which the souls of those who came before are part of the weave, necessary to anchor and to hold the structure which will go on being woven as new souls come into the mix. In this image, the lives of those who came before are an integral part of the fabric of our lives, as our lives will help shape the world of those to come. And this knowledge brings both a sense of rootedness and of responsibility to those who came before and to those who will come after.

For the fabric to be strong, the lives must be connected, and even when one thread physically ends, its existence provides the anchor for the later ones. For that anchor to be solid, there must be regular teshuvah, the reflection and balance, the bringing to mind and naming of what went wrong in order to face it, to learn and understand, to apply compassionate and proper justice, and to bring about a conclusion, an end to the pain or bitterness or anger in order to let go, to cover over and to move on with the weave. Whether that image is about each of our individual lives, or scaled up to the life of a family or of the Jewish people as a whole, the lesson and the work remains the same. We reflect and remember, we admit and repent, we try to repair, we do our best to make good, and then we let go and go out into life ready to write on a new page of our Book of Life.

Our Rosh Hashanah Liturgy quotes not only the psalmist but also Isaiah (65:16-17) who describes God as saying “So that the one who blesses in the earth shall bless by the God of truth; and the one that swears in the earth shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from Mine eyes. For now I create new heavens and a new earth, and the past need not be remembered, nor ever brought to mind. Be glad and rejoice in what I can create.”

The work of remembering, of making transparent, of repenting and repairing and of letting go in order to go move on is holy work. The Kesseh or Kapparah of this season mirrors the divine work of creation. This season is the season of penitence in which we wear white; Yom Kippur a joyful fast rather than a time of misery and gloom. The sound of the shofar reminds us of the work we do alongside God, the concealment and covering of a reasonably resolved past nudges us forward to do the work God expects from us. We are tied into the past and we honour from where we came. We are tied into the future, and in order to help bring about the best one we can, we are here together. As links in the shalshelet haKabbalah, the chain of tradition, the golden thread that brings us close to all who prayed the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, it is our turn to Remember, to Repair, to Repent, and to Return. May all who came before us bless us, and may we in turn be a blessing to those who journey with us and those who come after.

Lech Lecha: We Journey Towards our Selves

Abram’s journey, the expedition which is also the start of the journey of the Jewish people to the land of Canaan, begins with the words “ Lech Lecha” , a strangely poetic and formulaic compound meaning something like ‘go for yourself’ or ‘go into yourself’, or even the rather enigmatic ‘go towards yourself’. Without any introduction God tells Abram to leave his parental home behind, to take his entire family and go to a foreign land he does not, and cannot, know.   Doing this will incur God’s blessing for Abram and his descendants.

   לֵךְ לךָ

The bible tells us tantalisingly little about what is being left behind. There is a little written about Abram’s father Terach, but nothing about his wife, or about Sarah’s parents. But even so, the wrench through which they are torn from their past is almost palpable. We can imagine the feelings of the travellers who may never again see their home and their families, and we can imagine too the desolate feelings of those loved ones who are left behind.

The blessing/promise that God gave to Abram and Sarai comes in four parts: Firstly God promised to make them a great nation. Then there was the offer of divine blessing. This is followed by the promise to make their name great, and finally the exhortation ‘Be a blessing’.

This four fold pledge to Abram and Sarai has been interpreted again and again, and the many and various commentators have each offered vastly differing ideas about what it all means – the only consistent factor is that each commentator expounds within his own particular historical reality so that midrashic commentators who lived in days of peace and prosperity for the Jews as much as for their neighbours could really believe that a great nation would mean they would have many children, that God’s blessing could only mean material prosperity, and a great name imply straightforward fame.

A commentator in medieval Russia or Poland though would not see the text in the same way, “A great nation must mean greatness of quality, not quantity” laments one rabbi who sees the toll that centuries of pogroms have taken on the Jewish population. Another bemoans the fact that for Jews the blessing of wealth is a temporary phenomenon, lasting at the most a generation or two.

The truth is, as we know, that every generation makes its own journey, and every generation has to contend with the situation it finds itself in. In every generation we act out the leaving, we find ourselves at the beginning of something new again, we relive the pain of the parting, the fear of the unknown, the response to a call of blessing or else the need to leave behind something that is no longer a tenable way of life for us. We did it, our parents did it, our grand parents did it – and theirs. And our children too will at some point undertake the journey – the Lech Lecha that is in our essential being.

The creature of popular imagination – the wandering Jew – begins with Abraham, who describes himself as an IVRI – one who has crossed over. Haran, the place where Abram and Sarai lived at the time we met them (they had, after all, travelled with Terach already from Ur of the Chaldees) means ‘crossroads’ – they are par excellence the people who move from one area to another, across boundaries, through the margins. Although promised the land of Canaan they remain essentially rootless for most of the stories, and by the time of Sarah’s death we still don’t have a clear picture of whether they had pitched their tent together and settled down. Only by the time of Abraham’s burial at the cave of Machpelah alongside his wife, do we get a sense that they have finally stopped all their restless travelling.

This continual movement, the habitual crossing of limits and of confines, is probably our greatest – although certainly our most uncomfortable – blessing.   Because we never get too settled we are able to retain a particularity, the clarity of perspective of the outsider, we are able to retain a sense of the ‘otherness’ of the ‘other. We are able to bring many strands and streams of culture and philosophy into how we view the world, how we operate in it., and we move between different worlds with great ease. It seems that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ has become almost a code word for ‘Jew’ in some quarters.

But there is a price to be paid for our being Ivri’im, and it can be a high one. Measured out in suspicion and mistrust, in persecution and even murder, we have many times paid a terrible cost. We know this, but it has never stopped us following the imperatives God gave to Abram – “Lech Lecha” – “Go to and for yourself”; “Hayei Bracha” – Be a blessing.

There is pain in leaving and there is pain in being left behind – and the pain is all the greater when the travelling doesn’t come from active and willing choice, but from the forces around us. In the last few years there have been published a plethora of books of personal stories from the years of the holocaust, an outpouring of memories that have been held and contained quietly within so many people, suppressed while they lived their active lives, attaining qualifications, working hard, marrying and bringing up children. Now is the time to tell the real stories of those Lech Lecha’s, and emerging from these stories is an echo of the pain and confusion of leaving the parental home with its security and its warmth and love. I never fail to be moved to tears when I read of the separation for ever of children and their parents, of partners and friends. This is part of our historical reality, but it is hard to find any sense of God within it.

But there is another part to the Lech Lecha of setting out on the journey, and that is that while bonds are inevitably broken and families ruptured beyond repair, the journey itself brings new experiences, often a broadening of horizons, and most importantly it seems to me that we recreate family and community alongside those with whom we journey.

I am the daughter of a German Jew who came to England as a young teenager alone, leaving parents and extended family behind. I grew up in a synagogue community made up predominantly of survivors, and I remember not only the pain in their eyes, but also the dedicated devotion to create a vibrant and warm synagogue community. I remember the Jews who gave up their time to teach me and the other children of the community bible and siddur, albeit with strongly German accented Hebrew and English. I remember the Jews who gave up their evenings to plan for Jewish festivals to be both educational and fun, the Jews who gave free rein on the bimah to the young teenagers on the community because they knew that everyone should be able to take a service – you never knew when you might find yourself in a place where there was no one able to lead it for you. Few of them had roots more than a few years old in the community, yet they made roots for themselves and for their families. They settled in the main, though their children have generally moved on again to larger cities. But they did indeed make, if not a great nation, then a wonderful Jewish community and a link in the chain of tradition. They may not have noticeably received a divine blessing, but they did make for themselves a good name, and they lived out the imperative to be a blessing. When I look back at the journeys of the generations immediately before mine, the perilous journeys from what seemed to be simply called “Russia” at the beginning of the last century, or the terrified fleeing of Europe in the early middle part of it, and I see the fruits of those journeys, I see that we continually travel towards ourselves, as well as for ourselves. This strangely poetic formula is the only one to do justice to the journey.riga old synagogue memorial (Picture of Synagogue Ruins Memorial in Riga )

Parashat Lech Lecha: the covenant of circumcision

This sidra contains a number of different covenants, but the covenant of circumcision is one which continues to resonate with us as a sine qua none of Jewish identity. “God further said to Abraham, As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Genesis 17:9-11  

The Brit Milah is the first of the rites of passage, and it quite literally etches into the child the central values of Judaism, connecting him to the past and future of the Jewish people.   In the midrash (Kohelet Rabbah) we find a story which makes this clear – it tells of a father of a baby who gives to the guests some good wine to drink in celebration, and says “Drink of this wine, and I trust in my God that I shall also be able to give you wine on the day may son marries”. The guests replied with a blessing that is also found in the ceremony – “Just as the child has entered the covenant, so may he also enter into Torah and into good deeds and be married under the Chuppah”. With this blessing is the clear hope that the Brit Milah is the beginning of a child entering the Jewish community, and the expectation that this will be a lifetime’s commitment. The Brit Milah does not make the child Jewish – that is acquired through birth to a Jewish mother – but it gives the child the mark of Judaism, and with it a Jewish identity.

 Brit Milah may or may not have other reasons to support (or not) its usage – some talk of hygiene, of lower levels of cervical cancer in women whose partners are circumcised, of social or psychological reasons to do it-or not. But the reason why Jews have fulfilled the obligation of Brit Milah down the generations – often at serious personal sacrifice or danger – is precisely because it is just that – an obligation, a mitzvah. It symbolises our willingness to be connected to God, it reminds us of the relationship begun between God and Abraham of which we are a part.

 Circumcision is also seen as an act of completion or perfection. The ceremony is understood traditionally to be one of ‘finishing’ the creation of the child, so that we participate with God in the act of Creation. It is also seen as a willingness to submit, to give up a part of the child for the sake of the whole. As Judah HaNasi (c200CE) wrote – “Great is circumcision, for despite all the commandments that Abraham our father carried out, he was called complete (shalem) only with his circumcision, as it is written (Gen 17) “Walk before Me and be perfect” .

 Whatever one’s view about circumcision, it has become the sign not only of the biblical covenant, but of the male Jew. It has been said that it is not so much the mark of a Jewish man, as the mark of a man whose parents have chosen for him to be Jewish, who were prepared to undergo this ceremony in order to enter him into the Covenant. It is the mark of one generation upon the next, the physical expression of what we want for our child. There is much debate as to its meaning – and the changes in its meaning – over the years. Was it simply a transformation of a pagan fertility ritual, done not to a man at puberty or marriage in order to increase sexual potency but to a child at eight days in order to increase spiritual connection? Was it a fertility rite that extended through agricultural practise to human beings – a sacrifice of a small part for a greater good? Was it a divine requirement to cleanse the people, separating the idolatrous ancestors of Abraham from his monotheistic descendants? Or a blood rite parallel to the Temple sacrifice, that found echoes in Christianity and the crucifixion, returning to express salvation through self not another?  It is all these and more, but when one considers the importance of the rite throughout Jewish history it is hard not to see it as a unifying symbol, the mitzvah which most Jews have practised and with which we pass on covenantal Judaism to this day.

Lech Lecha – Learning from Malchitzedek

Aside

 “And Malchizedek King of Shalem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High. And he blessed him, and said: ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God the Most High, who has delivered your enemies into thy hand.’ And he gave him a tenth of all.” Gen 14:18-20).

I have always liked Malchizedek, whose name translates to ‘My King is Righteousness” and who is the king of Shalem. We just have this fragmentary glimpse of him here in the text, and one reference to him in the book of Psalms where he is referred to as a priest – and that is all. Yet he introduces the use of bread and wine with which to thank God, and he also introduces the idea of giving a tenth (tithing).

Who was he? He is a priest long before the Aaronide priesthood is established. He is a King of a city whose name is close in sound to Jerusalem.  He knows God and that God is the Most High who made heaven and earth. He offers blessings.

The Midrash tries to resolve his presence and strains credulity by stating that he is Shem, the son of Noah and a man who officiated as a priest, who taught Torah to Avram within his own academy. (As a rabbinic student I was delighted to be able to take a photograph of Shem’s Torah academy which is, apparently, in a cave in Haifa and had its own benches and books). The Talmud (Nedarim 32b)tells us that “Rabbi Zechariah said in the name of Rabbi Ishmael that God intended to bring forth the priesthood through Melchizedek’s descendants, but because  the text says that Melchizedek blessed Abram before he blessed God, God brought the priesthood forth from Abram’s descendants” (i.e. Aaron).

I prefer not to twist logic in order to give Malchizedek such yichus, and instead see him as one of those individuals who wander through the Hebrew bible who know God but who are not within our tradition. Along with Yitro (Jethro) the father in law of Moses who was also a priest of the Most High God and who taught Moses about worship and about organising justice in the community, Malchizedek is a figure who knows God and who teaches us something about God and about worship.   We don’t have to make him Jewish, we don’t have to own him at all, he is a human being whose tradition relationship to God is completely valid and is outside our own understanding with God.  One of the first lessons Torah teaches is that all humanity is related, and all are created by God. That is why it begins with the creation of the world and of all humanity. Torah is very clear that God is the God of all peoples, that different peoples have their own relationships with God, that ours is only one particular relationship with God. Judaism isn’t the only way to God for people, but it is generally felt to be the best one for Jews.

Malchizedek teaches us that God is bigger than the relationship God has with us. He teaches us that we can learn from other people’s relationships with God, and that we don’t have to diminish them or take them over – we can celebrate that people relate to the Divine in a variety of ways and with a multiplicity of traditions and expressions. That is surely something worth celebrating. And something we should respect and build on.