Vayelech: the time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our choices is upon us. or: the bnei mitzvah of the people of Israel

Eight years ago one of my dearest friends was about to be seventy years old, and she decided to celebrate this momentous and biblical age by having her batmitzvah. I had tried to persuade her to do this for years and she had brushed me off; it is typical of her that she made her choice by herself on a date that had such resonance, and then throw herself into study and thinking for herself.  We talked a little about the date and the sidra, and then she chose to direct her own study and do her own research. Luckily she sent me a near final draft. I say luckily because she never read this drasha or celebrated that long awaited day, for with everything planned and organised and ready to go, she suffered a cataclysmic and sudden bereavement and the weekend was taken over instead with grief and shock and the arrangements to honour the dead.

We spoke a while afterwards about her celebrating her batmitzvah on a different date but we both knew that was not really going to happen. The anticipated joy would never be the same, the shadow of grief never quite left her, and she too would depart this world suddenly and unexpectedly and quite dramatically, leaving the rest of us a small flavour of the shock she had experienced on the day of her birthday batmitzvah, to grieve and to question, and to process the reality of what happens when a life is torn from the world without warning.

Checking my computer recently, and thinking also of her as I do at this time of year, I came across an email where she had sent me this draft of the drasha she was to give to the community she had been at the heart of for so many years. With the permission of her children, I want to share it here.

“Vayelech is the shortest parsha in the Torah. It is 30 verses long, and I don’t recall ever hearing it read. In non-leap years like this one it is linked with Nitzavim. When I read Nitzavim-Vayelech they held together. They are followed next week by Ha’azinu which, when I looked it up I discovered is one the 10 Shirot [songs] conceived or written as part of the Almighty’s pre-Creation preparations. The only one still to be written is the song we will sing when the Messiah comes. 

We are coming to the end of the Torah. This name, given to the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is better translated as Teaching. We are coming to the end of the month of Elul the month in which we begin to prepare for the approaching High Holy Days, and in the coming week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah which in turn is followed by the 10 days of penitence and Yom Kippur. Then in roughly a month’s time on Simchat Torah we will finish reading the Teaching, the end of Deuteronomy, and seamlessly begin Bereishit – Genesis – again. 

Vayelech must contain the most important rite of passage in the whole history of our planet. But we will come to that.  

Israel is camped in its tribal groups on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to cross. The preceding parsha, Nitzavim, tells of Moses addressing the whole of Israel, in preparation for entering the land God has promised them. He reminds them they are standing before God, and is clear that every person is included in this relationship.

 [my son] tells me I can tell one joke… a clear example of don’t do as I do, do as I say …but I have two, and we will come to the second soon. A very good friend sent me a card, writing in it “I saw this, and thought of you.” The cartoon was a line drawing of 2 dogs, the larger one saying: “I understand more commands than I obey.” I hope you agree with me, that this is arguable!

Moses and God know from experience that the Children of Israel will fail to follow God’s Teaching. 

Moses warns those listening to him that the consequences of disobedience will be that the land will become desolate, but mitigates this by prophesying they will make t’shuvah, return to the right way, and God will reconcile with them and bring them back.

 And he says something that has always troubled me:  that the commandment he is giving to them and so to us “is not beyond you, or too remote. Not in Heaven, or across the sea. It is very close to you… in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.”

 What I have never been sure of is what this is, what it is that is in my heart, and in my mouth?  Not the 10 Commandments – too many!    And not the 613 mitzvot buried in the text. And then the man who is not my chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said quite plainly on radio 4, no less, what it is, even quoting where I should find it. It is found in Genesis chapter 18, vv 17 – 19, where God is choosing Abraham because he deals with his household with Tzedakah and Mishpat:  two words which together give the meaning of justice tempered with mercy. This is how we hope God will deal with us on Yom Hakippurim.

 And finally Moses said that we have a choice, God has given us the choice of life and death – blessing and curse. We should choose to love God and walk in God’s path and keep God’s commandments. And just as the penalties for not doing so have been listed, the rewards of obeying are explained. 

What we have been told is that all Israel is equally bound by this covenant, regardless of social position or occupation. And that even if we disobey God’s Laws there can be future redemption.

Further, we know that obedience to God’s Laws is within our scope. 

And also that we are to have that freedom to choose that sets us apart from the animals.

 And then we come to today’s portion, .Vayelech “And he went” which is the beginning of the rite of passage for the Children of Israel.

 There is to be a change of “Top Management”. This is the day of Moses’s 120th birthday, and Moses has finally accepted that it is also his death day. It’s been hard for Moses to come to terms with his mortality, and he has behaved a little like a child trying to justify not going to bed, not just yet. There’s no time to discuss this today, try reading Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews. God has been forbearing with this servant with whom God has been in conversation for the last 40 years.

 In this time the generations born into slavery have died, and the people who are born into freedom have known no other Leader. Moses has taught them, settled disputes, referred knotty halachic problems directly to God, and brought back the answers. It is explained that God will go with them, and lead them across the Jordan. Further, that although Moses may not go, they will have Joshua.

 Moses has been frightened of dying, and the Almighty has shown him Aaron’s painless death. God is giving him the signal honour of dying on the anniversary of his birthday, and although Moses is not to be allowed to cross the Jordan God has taken him to look down upon the land.

 Moses is kept busy on this day – there are the tribes to address, and writing enough copies of the Teaching to give one to each tribe, and lodge one in the Ark of the Covenant. This is talked of as a witness against the people, but I suppose it’s the master copy, and proof of God’s promises and provisions. Moses writes The Scroll to the very end, until it is finished, which is taken to mean that it is prophetic, containing as it does an account of his death. Further, the Almighty gives him a message to deliver, and a song of 43 verses, one of the 10 Shirot, to teach to the people.

  How many people do you think there were, camped by the river? How many going into the Promised Land?

 Jacob went to Egypt with 72 souls in his household. A rabble of 600,000 freed slaves left Egypt – and these were the men of fighting age. Add their relatives – minimally a wife each, one child. – Not parents and siblings – this could cause doubtful accounting – a conservative estimate would be 1,800,000 people. No wonder manna was needed!

Nor was it just Jews who escaped Egypt, plenty of escapee opportunists would have taken the chance, and been the “strangers within your gates” who are to have equality under the covenant with Jacob’s descendants.

 The instruction was given for this to be read every seven years in the shemittah year. All Israel is commanded to gather at Succot in the place God has appointed (eventually the Temple in Jerusalem) and the King read to the people from the Scroll.

 And the chapter ends with the prediction that Israel with turn away from God, and that God’s reaction would be to turn God’s face away from them – but also with the promise that their descendants will not forget the words which will remain in their mouths.

 So what is happening?

 It seems that with the completion of the Torah and our entry into the Promised Land, our Creator considers we are grown up. We have the Torah; we have the record in it of discussions and decisions. We are aware that we can judge matters between human beings – but not matters between human beings and God. We cannot deal with these because it is not our business to govern or over-rule another’s conscience.

 God will not appoint another Moses – there is to be no dynastical continuity. No further theophanies. Israel has become a nation of priests with everyone having access to the Almighty and to God’s mercy.

 And when we begin Genesis all over again, we go back to Creation and the dysfunctional families of Adam and Noah. When we come to Abraham, look out for the Teaching and how it is built on chapter by chapter.

 And where’s the second joke? – listen to the translation.”

Sadly, we never heard the second joke. And the poignancy of some of the comments in the drasha make for difficult reading for those who knew her and knew her later story, though the mischief of her personality comes through this text for me, as does her clear and certain faith in God. This was a woman who, as administrator in the synagogue, would regularly leave open the door to the sanctuary in her office hours “because God likes to go for a walk”, but actually so that visitors would feel able to enter and sit and offer their prayers or order their thoughts. She would tidy up the siddurim and make sure they were properly shelved, saying that upside down books “gave God a headache”, to cover her need to honour God by keeping the synagogue neat. She spent hundreds of hours talking to the lonely, reassuring the frightened, supporting the vulnerable. She spent hundreds of hours creating the databases and systems to ensure that the synagogue ran as effectively as it could. And the roots of all this voluntary caring for the synagogue community was her own life’s struggles and her awareness that if God considers we are grown up now, with equal access to the Almighty and no “top management” to direct us, then we had better get on with it, with the work of creating and sustaining the world with tzedakah and mishpat, with righteousness and justice.

In this period of the Ten Days, as we reflect on the lives we are leading, the choices we are making, and the mortality that will come for us all, either with or without warning, I read her drasha as a modern ”unetaneh tokef”, and, as I was for so many years when I was her rabbi and she my congregant, I am grateful for the learning I had from her.

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017

 

 

 

 

Ki Tavo: Moses’ words echo today – what of us will echo in the future?

Ki Tavo includes the famously difficult passage known as the tochecha, the red lines of society’s expectations laid down mainly in the form of the cursing of the one who disobeys, but there is a great deal more in this speech which is part of the series given by an increasingly anxious Moses as he approaches his death. The whole thrust of the book of Deuteronomy is given life by Moses’ desperate wish to help the Israelite people continue on their journey with God after he is no longer around to help them. So here we have the ritual of sacrificing the first harvested fruits of the land to God carefully spelled out – the fruits should be put in a basket, taken to a specific place of worship, given to the priest of the time – and one of the earliest bits of liturgical speech is also given here – the people must say to the priest “I profess this day to the Eternal­­­­­­­­­ your God that I am come unto the land which the Eternal swore to our ancestors to give us”. The priest will take the basket and place it at the altar, and then the speech is to continue: “A wondering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great mighty and populous. And the Egyptians dealt badly with us and afflicted us and laid upon us hard bondages. And we cried to the Eternal the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression. And the Eternal God brought us out from Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness and with signs and with wonders, and God brought us into this place and has given us the land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And I have brought the first of the fruit of the land which you O God have given me”.

The whole script is prescribed – and after it what shall happen – you will then worship God, you will rejoice in all the good that God has given to you, and so on.

The text is familiar to even the most distanced of Jews – it is the basis for the text of the Haggadah that we read at Pesach. Word for word Moses’ script is recited when we remember the Exodus from Egypt at the Seder each year. The actual figure of Moses may never have been allowed into the Haggadah in case people should begin to believe that it was his leadership rather than God’s that took us on our journey into peoplehood and covenant, but that becomes irrelevant when we realise that something far more important has been imported untouched by the editorial process of the book – the direct prayer of Moses is embedded in the text as if in amber. The rabbinic statement that a scholar does not ever die fully if his teachings are remembered – phrased evocatively as “his lips move in the grave when his words are recounted” – means that Moses’ teaching really has been passed down the generations and his humanity and presence really do remain among us.

As we move towards the Yamim Noraim we are prompted to remember those who taught us our religious and ethical values, and it is a custom in this period to visit the graves of those family members and teachers who have died. We are going to be facing our own ‘day of judgement’ to spend at least one day looking at our lives from the perspective of our own death as we abstain from food and drink and the normal everyday activities we do every other day of the year. We weigh up our actions in the past year and maybe further; consider who we have been, what lessons can be inferred from how we have lived our lives. So the question we have to ask of ourselves now is – how have we done? How are our actions an expression of our values? Will we have been a strong link in a chain or an irrelevant and vestigial structure appended to the community without much adding to it?

Every year our liturgical calendar gives us time to consider whether our lives are going in a direction we can be proud of, whether our lived lives are an valuable addition to the world we care about or not. So will the text of our lives be read in the generations to come or as we pass into eternity will we also be forgotten, no stories remembered with warmth and love, no wisdom or behaviour of ours held close to those still in the world? Our legacy does not have to be high profile or high achieving. But how we lived our lives should matter.

vati grave

illustration is the grave of Walter Rothschild in Jewish Cemetery Lausanne

Parashat Pinchas: the Daughters of Zelophehad

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There is a maxim I learned at the Leo Baeck college whose truth has sadly been borne out many times in my career as a rabbi  – “where there is a will, there is a “broyges” (a Yiddish word meaning anger/ dispute)

Inheritance can be one of the most fraught areas of family relationships.  Even the best regulated and most even tempered families can discover the pain of frustrated expectation, begin to equate inheritance with love, fall out with each other and end relationships of decades standing once a death has occurred. 

The daughters of Zelophehad were the first people in the biblical narrative to query the inevitability of inheritance, though not the first to be upset about what they did or did not receive. 

These five women feel the injustice of their father’s lack of legacy strongly, they want his name to continue into the future, and it matters to them that the physical legacy he left was to be diverted to people who were not his direct descendants, simply because of gender.  They band together and approach Moses with their case, and Moses is perplexed – what should he do in the face of this determined group of improbable heirs?  As we know, he approached God with his problem and is told that the daughters of Zelophehad speak well, they should indeed inherit their father’s estate, and his name should be allowed to be remembered. 

So they inherit, but soon, as we learn in Deuteronomy and later in the book of Joshua, limits are afterwards put upon the inheritance of daughters, the old need for land to stay within the tribe takes precedence, and the case law established by these five brave women is constrained, though not repealed.

          Inheritance is a strange phenomenon. I think of Abraham, the Ur-ancestor, who tells God that there is no point making a covenant with him because he is childless and his estate will all go to a member of his household, Eliezer of Damascus.  This text made so much more sense to me once I too became a parent – somehow life focuses more when there is a child to pass on to.  And it doesn’t really matter in what area the transmission takes place – tradition, values, wealth, family stories, family name – simply knowing that someone will take it into the next generation makes a difference. 

Yet of course there are many ways of ensuring an inheritance besides that of having a child.  Alexander Pope spoke of his books embodying his legacy. Teachers know that the impact they make on students can reverberate into the next generations, and the Talmud tells us that when a student recalls a teaching in the name of their teacher, it is as if that teacher’s lips move in the grave.  (BT Yevamot 97a)

Anyone who makes a relationship of trust with another knows that the legacy of that relationship will continue until the end of the life of the partner – and maybe even for longer.  What we do, and how we behave with other people, has a lifetime far longer than we expect or think about, the impact of our actions resonates for far longer than we can imagine.

          Inheritance is a strange phenomenon.  It is one of the defining things to give meaning to our lives and at the same time can rupture our connection with the future and the past if not properly organised.  It is something we would do well to consider deeply, to make serious plans about, and to consider the impact and the consequences of what it is we bequeath to the world as a result of our life.

          We are used to the idea of making wills – documents which record what we want to happen to our possessions after our death.  Many of us have made a will and have found that contrary to superstition the making of a will has not somehow brought about our untimely demise. 

But there is more to think about than who gets the jewellery and who gets the house and car. Inheritance is far bigger than possessions – it is, as the daughters of Zelophehad so rightly recognised, what we bequeath about with how we lived our lives and how what we learned or made sense of is transported into the world where we no longer will be. 

There is in Judaism the tradition of making a regular and updated ethical will. The idea is simple yet so important – besides worrying about who gets what of our material possessions, we spend the time thinking about what values we want to transmit, what lessons we have learned that we want our chosen beneficiaries to understand, what was really of importance in our life that we want not to be lost along with the trivia.  It is a valuable exercise, to create an ethical will, in which we put down in black and white what really has mattered to us, be it simple good behaviour or the imperative to tzedakah; be it the need for the discipline of a prayer life, or the permission to doubt God as much as one likes, as long as you still engage in the doubt. 

There is a powerful tradition of writing the personal ethical will as part of the preparation for the High Holy Days – in other words to begin to do so at this time of year, as we take stock of our lived life and try to make judgements about it, and create a framework for the future in order to live a life more in harmony with what is important to us. 

It gives us the space to think about ourselves. Not simply as amassers of material goods, nor as people who just get on with life without much thought for any deeper purpose than to live well enough and be successful and good enough – but as human beings who consider that our lives must have meaning and that that meaning is something to be nourished and cherished and transmitted into the future. 

I heartily recommend that you consider what it is you want your legacy to be. I recommend that you not only make a will, but that you tell your children what that will contains, so that you minimise the broyges after your departure from the scene. 

I also recommend that you consider what you want your spiritual legacy to be – not something unattainable or perfect and not something that you yourself don’t actually manage to do – but that you distil your values, your belief system, your sense of who you are and why you exist, and write on a plain sheet of A4 some of the truths you have learned which have sustained you on your journey through life, and which you would like to project through your nearest and dearest into the future.

What will your legacy be?

Will it be one of infighting for your possessions, of indifference to your existence on this world?

 Of minor irritations or major frustrations? 

Will your legacy be framed in such a way that people will recognise your contribution to the world, or will it simply be a dividing up of the goods?

I have always been so impressed with Zelophehad and with his daughters.  What he owned is irrelevant to me, that his name continued is one of indifference, but the fact that he and his wife bred 5 such superb daughters, who had confidence and tact, who held together to fight for what they felt to be right – that is a legacy to be proud of, an inheritance for which he – and his wife – deserve to be remembered.