parashat bereishit: what is our part in creation? sermon 2019

Rabbi Simcha Bunem of P’shis’kha is said to have taught that “Everyone must have two pockets. In one are to be the words “For my sake the world was created” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) and in the other “I am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27)

Reading the stories of Creation in parashat Bereishit, one cannot but think of this teaching – for what is the world created? What is our part in this?

The Mishna Rav Bunem quotes from is a long one, the context being how to ensure a witness is appropriate and truthful in court, especially where the trial was of capital cases and other lives are at stake.  It includes the following statements: “for this reason  the human being was created alone, to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul, scripture imputes [guilt] to them as though they had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul, scripture ascribes [merit] to them as though they had preserved a complete world.

Furthermore, [Adam was created alone] for the sake of peace among people, that one might not say to the other, “My father was greater than yours”, and that the heretics might not say, there are many ruling powers in heaven; again, to proclaim the greatness of the holy one, for if a person strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the Holy One  created every person in the stamp of the first person, and yet not one of them is exactly alike. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake” (Sanhedrin 37a)

There is so much in this Mishnah, which is devoted to fair trials and proper process in judicial hearings. We are reminded that all people are equal, that our uniqueness and diversity do not alter the fact we are all from the same Creator. We are reminded that everyone encompasses a whole world, that our having lived will echo down the generations long after we are gone. We are reminded of the power of the one true God, whose greatness and creativity are the wellspring of everything and everyone in this world. All of this emphasises and underlines the absolute and indivisible importance of the life of every human being.

So it is not surprising that the fear of a court of law giving out the death penalty improperly hangs over much of these texts; and even though Torah imposes it for a range of things – such as breaking Shabbat, bringing God’s name into disrepute, some sexual sins, murder etc., the rabbinic tradition – even though essentially acting only theoretically since the Romans had removed the right of Jewish courts to punish- works hard at making such a punishment all but impossible.  Any such court had to have 23 extremely competent and experienced judges on it; should they agree unanimously that the death penalty should be applied the person must be acquitted; The offence being tried had to have been witnessed by two people, who had to have warned the perpetrator before the offence was committed, that this would be a capital offence, etc. etc.  In Mishnah Makkot we read “A Sanhedrin that executes once in seven years is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah Says: once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.”

The sanctity and uniqueness of every single life permeates these rabbinic texts, so much so that every person ever born is obliged to understand that the world was created for them, that they are essential in the world.

Reading back into the two creation stories, this sense of the supremacy and uniqueness of human life – of every human life – is extraordinarily humbling. But at the same time it brings a potentially problematical phenomenon that could cause great arrogance and selfishness.  This, I think, is the reason why we have two pockets in Rav Simcha Bunem’s teaching – we are mortal, made up of very ordinary and rather undesirable elements. The quotation comes from Avram, when he is arguing with God over what will happen to Sodom and Gomorrah. He prefaces his words challenging God with the words that show he recognises his worth, that the chutzpah of his challenge:

וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר

V’anokhi `afar va’efer

“I am but dust and ashes”. Avram knows that his is a breath that can be gone from this world so easily. As psalm 103 puts it “God knows how we are formed, remembers that we are dust. As for human beings, our days are like grass, we flourish like a flower of the field but the wind passes over it and it is gone, and its place knows us no more….”

We are mortal, we have the same worth as the dust and ashes cleaned out of every home each day, we will return to the earth after our lifespan, and melt back into the soil. We are tolerated on this earth only so long as the breath of God animates our bodies, and we should not lose awareness of this lowly and dependant status.

It is generally understood that Rabbi Simcha Bunem wanted us to be able to locate ourselves between these two positions, articulated by the quotations in different pockets. That when we feel low and worthless we remind ourselves that for us the world was created, we are the most beloved creation of the great Creator; that when we feel a little too proud we remind ourselves of our mortality, much as memento mori function in art or in as artefacts we carry with us. Generally memento mori were designed to nudge us along, to motivate our living full lives – a slightly different image to how most people understand the words of Simcha Bunem. Generally his teaching is seen as a way of balancing our sense of self-worth, providing a corrective for our unbalanced sense of ourselves, but I think there is more than this going on.

The two quotations – one from Avram challenging God to behave with righteousness, the other from a mishnah set in the context of potential judicial execution (one might see them as essentially being the same situation) both remind us that for the sake even of a very few good people, rather than destroy the innocent along with the guilty, we must err on the side of protecting everyone present, of defending all those who live, regardless of the beliefs they espouse or the behaviour they enact.

These two quotations work together. Far from being either/or, the two bowls of a weighing scale or a continuum along which we must locate ourselves, they are a reminder that human life, while sacred, has a limited span. So we must use that span as well as we can, and endeavour to live up to the holiness inherent within it as well as allow the holiness of others to have a chance to blossom.

Each of the two quotations holds an extreme position, neither of them are a way for us to encounter the world and thrive. For those who arrogantly assume the world belongs to them, it would be easy to abuse this earth, taking and taking without thought of the future. For those whose self-awareness of our limited mortal state is so acute as to paralyse, our lives would simply fail to grow and we would not develop anywhere near our potential.   In the words of Rabbi Professor Dalia Marx, “I understand the passage as a warning: Both statements caution us against equally dangerous attitudes. Both are indications of an incomplete self, and are laced with a narcissistic thread. An “it’s-all -about-me” stance often reflects a sense of worthlessness. Instead of reaching into either pocket, instead of pampering one’s ego or denying it, we are challenged to use the ego carefully.”

These are not words of comfort to be brought out to make ourselves feel better. They are carefully selected reminders that human beings are the creation of God, and that we are here to do the work of God. We do not have the right to judge others to the point of removing them from this world, we do not have the right to wallow in our own impotence in the face of the politics we face nor to feel this is not our battleground as we are ok.

There is a sin we confess to in the Al Chet prayer we have just been reciting in every service of Yom Kippur – “for the sin we have committed by giving in to despair”.

We each of us despair. We despair the pain of refugees, we despair the problems of climate change and environmental disaster. We despair about the terrorism and racism growing in our world. We despair about the future for our children and the present which seems to chaotic.

The two quotations from Rabbi Simcha Bunem are warnings. We are warned to remember both our value and our mortality, and we are to use the two together to spur ourselves to the work of God – to creation. Some human beings may cause us anger by their behaviour, others may cause us to feel impotent at the situation they find themselves in, yet others may horrify us by their rhetoric – yet we are reminded each of them are created by God, each of them has a place in the world. It is not for us to make decisions about them, our work is to be spurred on to partner God in creation, to use – and to overcome – our ego, our fear and our pride – and to build a world that will be better for our having been in it.

Sermone Bereshit 2019/5780  Di rav Sylvia Rothschild

Si dice che il rabbino Simcha Bunem di P’shis’kha abbia insegnato che “Ognuno deve avere due tasche. In una vi sono le parole ‘Per amor mio il mondo è stato creato’ (Mishnà Sanhedrin 4:5) e nell’altra ‘Io sono solo polvere e cenere’. (Genesi 18:27)”

Leggendo le storie della Creazione nella Parashà di Bereshit, non si può non pensare a questo insegnamento: per cosa viene creato il mondo? Che parte abbiamo in tutto ciò?

La Mishnà dalla quale Rav Bunem cita è lunga, e il contesto riguarda il modo di garantire che un testimone sia appropriato e veritiero in tribunale, soprattutto qualora sia in corso un processo per casi capitali e siano in gioco altre vite. Sono incluse le seguenti affermazioni: “per questo motivo l’essere umano è stato creato singolo, per insegnarti che a chiunque distrugga una sola anima, le Scritture imputano [colpa] come se avesse distrutto un mondo completo; e a chiunque conservi una sola anima, le Scritture attribuiscono [merito] come se avesse preservato un mondo completo.

Inoltre, [Adamo è stato creato da solo] per motivi di pace tra le persone, in modo che uno non possa dire ad un altro: ‘Mio padre era più grande del tuo’ e che gli eretici non possano dire che ci siano tanti poteri al comando nei cieli; di nuovo, per proclamare la grandezza del Signore, perché se una persona conia molte monete da uno stampo, queste si assomigliano tutte, ma il Signore ha creato ogni persona con lo stampo della prima persona, eppure nessuna di esse è esattamente uguale. Pertanto ogni singola persona è obbligata a dire: ‘il mondo è stato creato per me’.” (Sanhedrin 37a).

Vi è davvero tanto in questa Mishnà, dedicata a processi equi e a un’adeguata procedura nelle udienze giudiziarie. Ci viene ricordato che tutte le persone sono uguali, che la nostra unicità e diversità non alterano il fatto che siamo tutti dello stesso Creatore. Ci viene ricordato che in ognuno è racchiuso un intero mondo, che il nostro aver vissuto echeggerà le generazioni molto tempo dopo la nostra scomparsa. Ci viene ricordato il potere dell’unico vero Dio, la cui grandezza e creatività sono la sorgente di tutto e di tutti in questo mondo. Tutto ciò enfatizza e sottolinea l’importanza assoluta e indivisibile della vita di ogni essere umano.

Quindi non sorprende che la paura di un tribunale che emette la pena di morte incomba impropriamente su gran parte di questi testi; e anche se la Torà la impone per una serie di cose,  quali rompere lo Shabbat, screditare il nome di Dio, alcuni peccati sessuali, omicidi etc., la tradizione rabbinica, anche se agendo essenzialmente solo su base teorica da quando i romani tolsero ai tribunali ebraici il diritto di punire, lavora sodo per rendere tale punizione quasi impossibile. Ogni tribunale di questo tipo doveva disporre di 23 giudici estremamente competenti ed esperti; se avessero concordato all’unanimità sull’applicazione della pena di morte, la persona doveva essere assolta; l’offesa in corso di giudizio doveva essere stata testimoniata da due persone, che dovevano aver avvertito l’autore prima che fosse commesso il reato che questo sarebbe stato un reato capitale, etc. In Mishnà Makkot leggiamo: “Un sinedrio che decide un’esecuzione una volta ogni sette anni si chiama omicida”. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azarià dice: “Una volta ogni settant’anni”. Rabbi Tarfon e Rabbi Akiva dicono: “Se fossimo stati membri di un sinedrio, nessuno sarebbe mai stato messo a morte”.

La santità e l’unicità di ogni singola vita permea questi testi rabbinici, al punto che chiunque sia nato è obbligato a capire che il mondo è stato creato per lui, e che lui è essenziale nel mondo.

Rileggendo le due storie della creazione, questo senso di supremazia e unicità della vita umana, di ogni vita umana, dona una straordinaria umiltà. Ma, allo stesso tempo, porta un fenomeno potenzialmente problematico che potrebbe causare grande arroganza ed egoismo. Questo, penso, è il motivo per cui abbiamo due tasche nell’insegnamento di Rav Simcha Bunem: siamo mortali, composti da elementi molto ordinari e piuttosto indesiderabili. La citazione viene da Abramo, quando egli discute con Dio su ciò che accadrà a Sodoma e Gomorra. Abramo premette alle sue parole di sfida verso Dio le parole che mostrano che egli riconosce il proprio valore, e qui sta la faccia tosta della sua sfida:

וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר

V’anokhi `afar va’efer

“Io sono solo polvere e cenere”. Abramo sa che il suo è un respiro che può andarsene da questo mondo facilmente. Come dice il salmo 103 “Dio conosce il nostro istinto. Si ricorda, ricorda che noi siamo polvere. I giorni dell’uomo sono brevi come quelli dell’erba, e la sua fioritura dura come quella di un fiore di campo, poiché basta che un alito divento passi su di lui ed egli non c’è più ed il luogo dove si trovava non lo conoscerà più… ”

Siamo mortali, abbiamo lo stesso valore della polvere e delle ceneri spazzate in ogni casa ogni giorno, torneremo alla terra dopo la nostra vita e ci scioglieremo di nuovo nel terreno. Siamo tollerati su questa terra solo fintanto che il respiro di Dio anima i nostri corpi e non dovremmo perdere la consapevolezza di questo stato umile e dipendente.

Resta generalmente inteso che il rabbino Simcha Bunem voleva che fossimo in grado di collocarci tra queste due posizioni, articolate dalle citazioni nelle due diverse tasche. Che quando ci sentiamo giù di morale e senza valore ricordiamo a noi stessi che il mondo è stato creato per noi,  che siamo la creazione più amata del grande Creatore; che quando ci sentiamo un po’ troppo orgogliosi ci ricordiamo della nostra mortalità, proprio come la funzione del ‘memento mori’ nell’arte o negli artefatti che portiamo con noi. Generalmente i memento mori sono stati progettati per spingerci avanti, per motivare il nostro vivere vite piene, un’immagine leggermente diversa da come la maggior parte delle persone intende le parole di Simcha Bunem. Generalmente il suo insegnamento è visto come un modo per bilanciare il nostro senso di autostima, fornendo un correttivo per il nostro squilibrato senso di noi stessi, anche se penso che ci sia molto di più.

Le due citazioni, una di Abramo che sfida Dio a comportarsi con giustizia, l’altra di una mishnà ambientata nel contesto di una potenziale esecuzione giudiziaria (il che potrebbe essere visto essenzialmente come la stessa situazione) ci ricordano entrambe che per amor di poche brave persone, piuttosto che distruggere gli innocenti insieme ai colpevoli dobbiamo sbagliare per proteggere tutti i presenti, per difendere tutti coloro che vivono, indipendentemente dalle convinzioni che sposano o dal comportamento che mettono in atto.

Queste due citazioni funzionano insieme. Lungi dall’essere “o l’una o l’altra”, o i due piatti di una bilancia o una linea continua lungo la quale dobbiamo sistemarci, ricordano che la vita umana, sebbene sacra, ha una durata limitata. Quindi dobbiamo usare questo arco nel miglior modo possibile e sforzarci di essere all’altezza della santità insita in essa e di permettere alla santità degli altri di avere una possibilità di fiorire.

Ciascuna delle due citazioni ha una posizione estrema, nessuna delle due è un modo per noi di affrontare il mondo e prosperare. Per coloro che presumono con arroganza che il mondo appartenga a loro, sarebbe facile abusare di questa terra continuando a prendere senza pensare al futuro. Per coloro la cui autocoscienza del nostro limitato stato mortale è così acuta da paralizzare, la nostra vita semplicemente non riuscirebbe a crescere e non ci svilupperemmo così da arrivare vicini al nostro potenziale, con le parole della professoressa Rabbina Dalia Marx: “interpreto il passaggio come un avvertimento: entrambe le affermazioni ci mettono in guardia contro atteggiamenti altrettanto pericolosi. Entrambe sono indicazioni di un sé incompleto e sono intrecciate con un filo narcisistico. La posizione ‘tutto ruota intorno me’ spesso riflette un senso di inutilità. Invece di entrare in una delle tasche, invece di coccolare il proprio ego o negarlo, siamo sfidati a usare l’ego con attenzione.”

Queste non sono parole di conforto da mettere in risalto per farci sentire meglio. Sono promemoria accuratamente selezionati: gli esseri umani sono la creazione di Dio e siamo qui per fare il lavoro di Dio. Non abbiamo il diritto di giudicare gli altri al punto di rimuoverli da questo mondo, non abbiamo il diritto di sguazzare nella nostra stessa impotenza quando affrontiamo la politica, né di sentire che questo non è il nostro campo di battaglia quando ci sentiamo bene.

C’è un peccato che confessiamo nella preghiera di Al Chet che abbiamo appena recitato in ogni servizio di Yom Kippur: “per il peccato che abbiamo commesso cedendo alla disperazione”.

Ognuno di noi dispera. Ci disperiamo del dolore dei rifugiati, ci disperiamo dei problemi del cambiamento climatico e del disastro ambientale. Ci disperiamo per il terrorismo e il razzismo che crescono nel nostro mondo. Ci disperiamo per il futuro dei nostri figli e per il presente che sembra caotico.

Le due citazioni del rabbino Simcha Bunem sono avvertimenti. Siamo avvertiti di ricordare sia il nostro valore che la nostra mortalità, e dobbiamo usarli insieme per spronarci all’opera di Dio: alla creazione. Alcuni esseri umani possono farci arrabbiare a causa del loro comportamento, altri possono farci sentire impotenti per la situazione in cui si trovano, mentre altri possono inorridirci con la loro retorica. Tuttavia ci viene ricordato che ognuno di loro è stato creato da Dio, ognuno di loro ha un posto nel mondo. Non spetta a noi prendere decisioni su di loro, il nostro lavoro deve essere incoraggiato a collaborare con Dio nella creazione, a usare, e a superare, il nostro ego, la nostra paura e il nostro orgoglio e a costruire un mondo che sarà migliore per il nostro esserci dentro.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

13th Elul – purpose and meaning structured into our lives

Purpose and meaning, that which gives shape and direction to our lives, does not come out of nowhere. It is shaped by the stories we tell of ourselves and our forebears, by the writings of our historians and our prophets; It is taught to us in our homes and a variety of schools; That which comes to us through our faith tradition is rehearsed in prayer; symbolically enacted in rituals; and recalled periodically in a variety of services and liturgies. Our memories are strengthened by their being recalled and recounted, freshened and sharpened by how we use them.

Without a structure and a system for remembering and teaching, for measuring ourselves against who and what we should be, we ultimately cut ourselves loose from purpose and meaning and have to find roots wherever we can. Each of us must root ourselves in a sense of meaning and purpose if we are to live full lives, and our senses of meaning and purpose must themselves be rooted in something of value and credibility – our family hist­­­ory and its stories, our connection to religious tradition, to a system of values and morals, to our reasons for being – our own humanity.

So when we pray – B’sefer Hayyim nizakeir v’nikateiv lefanecha.Anachnu v’chol amm’cha beit yisrael, le’hayyim tovim v’shalom.

May we and all Your people the family of Israel be remembered and recorded in the Book of Life for a good life and for peace.

We are asking not for a simple accounting exercise in order to creep into heaven, not a weighing up of good and bad in the hope that we have been rather better than not, but that our lives are recorded and our memory maintained and refreshed so that we are better able to observe and take hold of the purpose and meaning of our individual and group existence, that our behavior will align more closely to who we know we could become – articulating the values of human dignity and social justice, of enacting good in the world.

Ki Tavo:

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with two commandments which are connected to the land.  Bringing the First Fruits (known as Bikkurim) (1-11) and the Elimination of Tithes (Biur Ma’asrot) (v12-15).

As one would expect, both of these commandments require action – the first fruits of the ground are to be taken in a basket to God’s designated place, and handed over to the priest there. In the third year the owner of the property must give a proportion of the produce as a tithe that will go to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow.  So far so normal.  But the bible goes on to require speeches to be made while these two  commandments are to be carried out, and, unusually for Torah, it gives the actual texts to be said.  Biblical prayer is usually spontaneous, rising out of the immediate needs of the moment, and rarely recorded in any detail at all, yet here we have two separate declarations given verbatim, and the recital of these two passages have become counted in rabbinic tradition as positive commandments in their own right.

‘Mikkra Bikkurim’, the recital of the declaration of the first fruits, contains within it phrases that eventually were imported wholesale to become part of the Pesach Haggadah, going over the history of the exodus and the terrible painful situation that had preceded it, and personalising that history.  Vidui Ma’asrot, the Confession of Tithes, focuses on the completed observance of the mitzvah of giving tithes, but goes on to ask God ‘s help for the future. These two declarations begin with simple statements of action, but then move way beyond the actual observation of the commandments in the present moment to add meaning and weight.  They don’t stop with acknowledgement, but instead push the speaker and the hearer forward, beyond thanksgiving and into a place of deepened understanding.   Bikkurim takes the speaker into the past, the ancient ancestral past of a time when the land was not so settled and fruitful, of the time of Jewish suffering and slavery in Egypt, and of the redemption from that position.  It roots the speaker in history, and deliberately contrasts the situation of the speaker – their security in their own land, their economic and agricultural prosperity – with the insecurity, poverty and misery of the people in earlier times.

This then is followed by the Vidui Ma’asrot, which ends with the words “look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the land which you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey”

It is a prayer which notes the history – but only in terms of a passing nod to the ancestral promise that God would deliver to them a land fertile and prosperous. More than anything this is a petition for the future, a request for God to pay attention to the land and the people, a wish for a bright and untrammelled destiny.

Four mitzvot are contained in this section.  Two of them require the physical transference of the wealth of agricultural prosperity from their owner to others less economically secure – first the sacrifice of the first fruits of the ground, which is to be given to God via the priesthood of that time; secondly the giving of tithes to those who have no means of supporting themselves – the landless stranger, the ones who have no economic supporter to care for their produce, the Levites.  The food is to be shared out, no-one is to be hungry or uncared for in this system, and no one is to believe that they have absolute rights of ownership just because they are working this land at this time.

But the other two mitzvot are speeches, and they have become far more prominent in the text somehow than the actions to which they refer at the beginning.  The speeches provide a continuum of historical experience; they locate the actions of giving in a system of time and give meaning to the present in a religious dimension as well as a chronological one.  They provide a worship experience almost unprecedented in Torah. But they also provide a context and a philosophical understanding we can learn from today.

Taken together the two speeches trace time and interleave the lonely and painfilled vulnerability of the ‘arami oved avimy father was a wandering Aramean’ – into a world where God can be asked to look after, bless and care for Israel, both people and land.  Simultaneously wealth can be acknowledged and rejoiced over while the reminder of the fragility of any economic security is overtly stated.  A dialectic is set up between the history of Israel and the role of God.  It becomes clear that without full awareness of the history leading up to this moment there can be no understanding of the present, and certainly no awareness of what the future might hold.  Our history impacts upon us and informs our present.  Any awareness of future must be rooted in past as well as current experience.

At its most simple, the thanksgiving and joy for any prosperity of today can only be properly achieved when accompanied by an understanding of past sadness and pain; only by awareness of the depths of depression can one understand the heights of exaltation.  But there is much more to the two declarations than this.  They cry out for us to examine our lives and our history before beginning to draw conclusions about our present existence; to understand where we and others are rooted before making plans for the future.

We are approaching the last week of the month of Ellul, traditionally a time for examining our lives, for considering our situations and for trying to make changes for the better in our existence.  We cannot do this in a vacuum.  We have to take into account our history, all the experiences that have fed into who we are today, the sad as well as the happy, those that cause us pain as well as those of which we feel proud.  We have to accept the reality of what has been our own story, before we can begin to see where we might journey on towards. And like those who declared the Mikra Bikkurim and the Vidui Ma’asrot we have to see the place of other people in our story, and to look for the presence of God in it too, even if only to ask God to notice and pay some attention to our lives.

Looking at the texts of the two prayers, maybe we also have to be able to say that we have taken some action already, have recognised our responsibility to act in our world to make it a better place.  These prayers remind us that while we examine our lives, we must see ourselves as part of a whole greater than ourselves. What we do in the world out there has impact, how we behave towards others matters – and maybe most importantly how we see ourselves in relation to others – and them in relation to us – be it in an historical or a geographical perspective, in a theological or political or even a societal dimension, that is the essence of our understanding.  Our lives cannot be limited to here and now. Our existence cannot be so narrow as only to focus on those we know, or those we care about personally.  Judaism has always taught us to operate in the broader world and at this time, when we are liable to focus down into ourselves religiously we should remember the imperative built into the two declarations which begin the sidra of ki Tavo.

 

 

Tisha b’Av: looking back, looking forwards

From 17th Tammuz we began the “Three Weeks” with a day of fasting to remember the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem. The grieving intensifies from the beginning of Av until we reach the 9th day – the fast of Tisha b’Av, when we mourn the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples.  From early rabbinic times, this period has been seen as a date when terrible things happened to the Jews. The incident of the spies which led to the exodus generation never entering the land is the first catastrophe attributed to Tisha b’Av, but many more have accumulated since. The Talmud tells us (Yoma 9b) that the First Temple was destroyed because of idolatry and immorality, but the second was destroyed even though the Jews were pious and observant. Causeless hatred was rife within the Jewish world, and this brought the cataclysm. Talmud concludes “This is to teach that causeless hatred is as grave as idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together.”

Progressive Jews have abandoned any desire for Temple ritual and while we recognise the disaster that was Tisha b’Av and we mourn the pain, dislocation and vulnerability of our people, we cannot only observe the traditional Tisha b’Av mourning rituals or view it as divine punishment for which we had no agency.  Causeless hatred brought about disaster, Jews hating Jews for no reason. Rav Kook teaches that the remedy must be causeless love for each other, so we must make space for diversity within Judaism and value our differences– this is a direct response to Tisha b’Av, much harder than fasting or lamenting!

But there is another progressive response that comes from our early history. David Einhorn wrote his siddur “Olath Tamid” in the 1850’s and included a service “on the Anniversary of the Destruction of Jerusalem”. The siddur’s name shows how Reform Judaism saw prayers as the successor to the Temple rite, and the service for Tisha b’Av turns tradition around, giving thanks that Judaism could grow and thrive in so many different countries. His prayer speaks of “paternal guidance” to “glorify your name and your law before the eyes of all nations…as your emissary to all…. The one temple in Jerusalem sank into the dust, in order that countless temples might arise to thy honour and glory all over the wide surface of the globe”.  As with all mourning, Jewish tradition is to mark the event and come back into Life.

 

first written for publication in London Jewish News

“He will Rule Over You” a verse misused

While it is true that God says to Eve ‘I will multiply your pains in childbearing; with painful labour you will bring forth children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’, one must remember that extracting a verse from its context can be dangerous.

There are those who read this verse as objectively true. Childbirth is painful; women look for intimacy more than men; men are superior to women. This writer is not one of them.

The passage occurs immediately after the expulsion from Eden. God curses the serpent with separation from other species for beguiling the woman, adding mutual hostility for good measure. Then comes the statement to Eve, and finally Adam is addressed, “Because you listened to your wife and ate the fruit… The ground is cursed …By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.

There are two biblical parallels. God challenges Cain later in almost identical language “sin waits at the door; its desire towards you, but you can rule over it.” The passages mirror each other – Eve’s desire is positive, sin’s negative. Dominating is negative when over Eve, but positive when over sin. And we see another mirror image from before leaving the garden: In Eden Eve’s will dominated and food had been easily obtained. Now we have the reverse: an exercise in irony and dislocation from the perfect.

The statements to Adam, Eve and the serpent must be read within this context of warning that life will never be easy, never be perfect; there will always be temptations, we must work hard to make the best of it.

This verse has been used to justify keeping women subservient to men, overlooking the texts where men and women are created equally. Its misuse compounds the problem of living in an imperfect dislocated world and hides the achievable resolution.

written for and published in Progressive Judaism section of London Jewish News February 2018

Ki HaAdam Etz Ha’Sadeh – human beings and trees, or “none of us thrive uprooted”

In the book of Deuteronomy in a passage describing the rules for besieging a city we find a curious phrase: “When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field human, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, those you may destroy and cut down, that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with thee, until it fall.” (20:19-20)

It begins with the prohibition against destroying trees, and clarifies that the trees to be protected are those that bear edible produce, but within the arc we find the phrase “ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” and this has always been a verse that has resonated for me far beyond the rules prohibiting scorched earth policies in war. It can be read either as a question or as a statement of truth, either “Are trees of the field [like] human beings?” or “Human beings are [like] trees of the field”

Trees are everywhere in bible, sometimes for good, sometimes less so. Abraham enters the land from Haran via Shechem and arrives at Elon Moreh (the terebinth (oak) tree of Moreh, he  is encamped under the terebinth of Mamre when God comes to him to tell him Isaac will be born, Deborah the nurse of Rebecca is buried under a terebinth tree,   Jacob buries the household idols of Laban under a terebinth, Deborah sits and judges under a palm tree, David fights Goliath in the valley of the Elah (terebinth), Hosea describes idolaters as worshiping at various trees – “They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and offer upon the hills, under oaks and poplars and terebinths, because the shadow thereof is good;

The Israelite religion valued trees but had an uneasy relationship with them insofar as the hated and dominant Canaanite tradition was one of tree worship. The mother goddess Asherah was associated with sacred trees,  Asherah/Asherim  are  described more than thirty times in the biblical narrative as being a cult centred on a pole or stylised tree, or else a sacred grove of trees. It was to be feared and to be rooted out.

And then of course there are famous trees right at the beginning of the biblical narrative – those planted in the Garden of Eden, not only those whose fruit could be eaten, but more particularly the two from which nothing must be taken – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Eternal Life. The trees with which our ambivalence begins.

While the sacred trees of the Asherah/Asherim have been uprooted from the traditions of the biblical Israelite people, we have taken the tree for ourselves –  big time. The candelabrum in the desert tent which transferred to the Temple is modelled on a tree, and botanical terms are used. That candelabrum remains the most ancient symbol of Judaism.  We are used to Torah being described as Etz Hayim, a Tree of Life.  Trees are used in parables and as analogies. Look at Jotham’s use of them to describe the choice of Abimelech as king (Judges 9) or Ezekiel’s use of the cedar and the trees of the field to symbolise Israel and the other nations.  Look at the psalmist who describes the righteous person as like a tree planted by the waters. Wherever you look in bible you can find trees.

So this phrase “Ki Ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” fits into a long and rich tradition and certainly is the subject of a great deal of halachic and aggadic attention and interpretation.

Its plain meanings – the rhetorical question asking whether a tree should pay the price for human greed or stupidity, and the idea that human beings are comparable to trees of the field are both explored, and while for many years I have focused on this as a question which underlies the importance of preserving the fruit trees rather than weaponising them or wasting them in war, this year I found myself niggled into a slightly different direction.

Human beings are [like] trees of the field.

In what way are we like the trees of the field? I think because we put down roots and we reach to the stars. Our roots are hidden away, a complex network of sustaining relationships, anchoring us, holding us to our history, giving us the wherewithal to grow. Our bodies grow, we become a presence in the world that can be fruitful and filled with life. We yearn ever upwards, yet in so doing we can offer shade, shelter, fruit, support to each other. We respond to our environment and we shape our environment.

In the wonderful book “The hidden life of trees” the author Peter Wohlleben writes ““When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you “help” individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbours in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. And there are now a lot of losers in the forest. Weaker members, who would once have been supported by the stronger ones, suddenly fall behind. Whether the reason for their decline is their location and lack of nutrients, a passing malaise, or genetic makeup, they now fall prey to insects and fungi.”

No tree provides everything we need, just as no one person or relationship can provide everything in life:  diversity is important for us. And trees are rarely naturally isolated, even in the biblical desert they generally grow and thrive in groups.  Like trees, we are relational beings, we need each other, we need community.

As the news every day seems to bring yet more stories of those who have been uprooted from their communities because of war and its attendant problems of violence, terror, starvation and chaos, I see how the verse comes alive. Trees are innocent bystanders in war and must be protected. They are the resource from which new society may grow, and to uproot them or damage them may destroy the potential future. As refugees flee into hopeful sanctuary, we know that they are leaving behind a barren landscape where life cannot continue. As refugees enter a new country they bring with them all the possibilities of regeneration, even where despair and terror appears  to have caused irreparable harm – still the hopeful green shoots appear from what looks like the dead stump. People who have been uprooted have lost much more than material possessions – they lose part of their history and much of their future. Their present feels fragile and vulnerable – will they be supported, will they be able to create networks and become part of community, will they be able once more to grow.

As I look at the news stories my heart breaks. Young children alone and scared in Europe, sent by parents desperate to give them a chance at life. Whole families or lone individuals trying to reach safety in rickety boats on treacherous seas.  Victims of trafficking who cannot understand the system which is trying to keep them out. Victims of violence who survive as an act of will. Everyone cut off at the roots, anxiously trying to regrow, to find some shelter and space and sustenance. No one uproots themselves willingly – it is always a final act of desperation.

At Tu b’shevat we celebrate the trees of our land. We plant more, we clear round others so they can reach the light, we mark the new year of life. And this is good, but as the bible reminds us human beings also need what trees need. And so we must find the space for those fleeing the war in their own land to put down roots in ours, help to create the networks of relationships that will support them, give them the wherewithal to flourish. If we protect a material tree from the trauma of war surrounding it, how much more should we be protecting the human being, part of our own family tree, from such trauma.?

 

 

 

 

 

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.