Ha’azinu – what might we say and write when we confront our own mortality?

Moses knows he is going to die.  Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.

I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up.  What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.

It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely.   His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”

It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.

We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.

Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.

The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world.  Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.

Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone.  I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the  setting that is 1500 years after his own life.  It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b.  Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.

So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.

All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave.  I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.

Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me.  The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth.  Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.

Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them.  He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way.  The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.

There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational.  Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature.  Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed  in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.

As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned.  Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.

Vayeshev: the crime of selling a person

“Behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said to his brothers, “what profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brothers listened to him.
And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt. And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. And he returned unto his brethren, and said: ‘The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go?’ (Gen 37:25-30)… And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand of the Ishmaelites, that had brought him down thither. (39:1)…[And Joseph said] For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ (40:15)

The first story of human trafficking is told here in sidra vayeshev, and sadly it is a story that resonates to this day in the lived experience of the six to eight hundred thousand people estimated to be trafficked across international boundaries each year, and the 20 – 30 million people who are currently estimated to be living in slavery.
Like many who are trafficked today, Joseph is young and vulnerable, he is (to be) sold off by family members, and while presumably sold for labour it is not impossible he could have been sold for sex (certainly Potiphar’s wife has expectations in this area). He finds himself at the mercy of a well organised people trafficking structure, sold through the agency of the Midianites to the Ishmaelites who go on to sell him in Egypt along with their other products. Today human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It reportedly generates a profit of over £21 billion every year of which £10 billion is made in industrialized countries. Human trafficking is big business. And it causes enormous suffering.
Bible begins by telling us that human beings are created in the image of the Divine, from which we understand the basic and absolute value of human beings. Just as God is indivisible and of infinite worth, so is humanity indivisible and of infinite worth. We might construct all kinds of models in our heads about class, ethnicity, gender, power, social status, geographical cultural and historical connections, but bible keeps reminding us of the one basic truth: human beings are one group, connected ultimately to the earth on which we live, connected deeply and irrevocably to each other.
The bible as a document is powerfully engaged with this idea, and with how it plays out in the power relationships that humans participate in, that shape our society. It knows how easy it is to abuse power, how simple to turn a blind eye to it happening in both the intimate details of our lives and in the macro environment in which we are live. It knows about the human tendency to construct realities that favour ourselves over others, to neglect or ignore what does not speak to our own self-interest or conform to our idea of reality. Bible provides the nudge, the spur to remind us that not only is there more to the world than our own experience, it repeatedly teaches us that there is an obligation on us to pay attention outside of our comfort zone, a requirement to see the world as God sees it – a fragile and beautiful place filled with fragile and beautiful creatures engaged in a process of improvement but simultaneously undermining and subverting that process out of ignorance or selfishness or thoughtlessness or greed.
We see ourselves in the texts; we recognise the themes and the motifs that play through the stories and we know that we are being prompted to respond.
So when we read the story of Joseph, defenceless in the pit after his brothers’ intervention, saved from being murdered but arguably paying the even greater price of being traded from group to group with no protection and no idea of what the end of his journey may be, powerless and frightened, a product not a person, about whom no one will care what happens – we have to pay attention and we have to respond. There are estimated to be between six and eight hundred thousand people having a similar experience ever year in our world. And we should care.
In the book of Exodus, in the legal code following the giving of the ten commandments and the covenant made between God and Israel, comes the instruction “And one who steals a person and sells them, or if a person be found in their possession (as merchandise), they shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:16). Deuteronomy repeats the command: “If a person be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and he deal with him as a slave, and sell him; then that thief shall die; so shall you put away the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 24:7). In the biblical world clearly people were bought and sold, seen as chattels to be profited from, and already the voice of the text is outlawing the behaviour. By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) (for e.g. Sanhedrin11:1) the death penalty for human trafficking is discussed and accepted – a mark of how seriously the crime is taken to be and this is continued in the Gemara (5th Century CE) (e.g. Sanhedrin 86a)
In the medieval period there are responsa again underlining the importance of challenging the prevalence of abducting and selling human beings – for example Maimonides (12th C) tells us that Torah views the kidnap of a person as the most serious form of theft that is strictly prohibited on pain of death under the Noachide code and in the eighth of the Ten Commandments, ( Laws of Theft 9:1-6) and also teaches that redeeming captives is more important than supporting the poor, because captives are in danger of their lives (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyyim 8:10). Rabbi Joseph Colon (1420-1480) warns that a person who has the ability to save a trafficked person yet delays doing so is “like one who sheds blood.”… the responsa can be found in every century, in every place, demonstrating that the crime of trafficking human beings can equally be found in every century and in every place – including, sadly, our own.
So what should we do? Firstly, we should not ignore the issue, not assume that it is not happening because we have not noticed it, nor that it “wouldn’t happen” in our bit of the world. Secondly we should educate ourselves on the signs, so that we are alert to the possibility of trafficking. These can be found here: http://www.stopthetraffik.org/uk/page/spot-the-signs
Community_Signs_2

And we can also think through the ways we live and the choices we make – are the clothes or food we want to buy surprisingly cheap indicating that the makers/pickers are on low wages? Is there an ethical policy in place in the financial transactions we make? Are we sufficiently educated about the real cost, the real chain by which products come to us, the reality faced by people who find themselves in economic bondage to others?
The tragedy of human trafficking is that it hides in plain sight. Bible knew that and tried to give us the tools to see. We are in need of such tools even today. Let the words of Joseph speak to us again “For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ And remind us that the lack of freedom for those who are trafficked is real, a dungeon from which they cannot escape and a place where no meaning can be gleaned.

Bemidbar: Shaped by our daily choices we are in a dynamic state of becoming.

Politicians are fond of describing their wilderness years when, unwanted by the electorate or maybe by the new leadership of their party, they languish unlistened to and alienated on the borders of the important events until they can be brought back into the mainstream and be useful once more

This week we enter the wilderness years – the book we are beginning to read is called “Bemidbar” –“in the desert”, but the reality of the Hebrew midbar is not one of emptiness and alienation from life, quite the reverse.

 Bemidbar takes us to a place rich in meaning and profound in experience. Not a place of biding out time while the inadequate and unaspirational generation of Exodus dies out, allowing a new braver generation untainted by the experience of slavery, to emerge. But a place of construction and development, of encounter and learning, of creating a people with a shared understanding of themselves and their context, and a shared vision of who they will become. The midbar is a place of preparation, a gestational place where the forming and shaping and becoming takes place.

 To be a religious person is not an absolute finished state. To be a Jew is not a once and for all event. It is a daily set of choices about how to behave, what principles to prioritise. Just as every morning we choose to get up and to face the world and what it might bring, so we choose to express ourselves as Jews on a daily basis. Some days are better than others of course. Some days the choices are clear, other times they are a struggle. We proceed from choice to choice and the time in between is not empty time, it is the time we use to help us to proceed, to digest and process what is happening.

 Bemidbar – the wilderness years – are just that for the children of Israel. They are not able just to move from 430 years of slavery in Egypt to freedom and autonomy in the land of Israel. They need time to learn, to explore their new identity, to consider and think about and digest all the implications of building a Jewish society in its own land for the very first time.

Some are afraid and effectively paralysed, unable to make any choice at all. Some want to return to the safety of what they knew regardless of how bad it was for them. Others want a society they can control, their priorities acted upon. Some will follow for a reward of some kind. Most need time to get their heads around it.

Throughout the period in the desert, from the middle of Shemot (Exodus) to the end of Bamidbar (Numbers) we are not in empty time and space but in liminal time and space. We are between two stats of being; we are in the dynamic state of becoming. We all need such times, be they to contemplate how to cast our votes, or time to understand and respond to a life change – a new birth, a change in status be it marital or professional, a time to grieve a loss. There are any number of changes we deal with on a regular basis. We need the space between one reality and another, time to locate ourselves in the new reality and to say goodbye to the old one. Every day we make choices, to live, to do (or not) what we need to do. We don’t randomly drift through the world, whether we admit it or not we live choice filled lives.

 But to make such choices we need time, space, information, support, challenge, external and internal expectations.The bible reflects this in the midbar, in the desert, where there are all the above and more. Before we leap to decisions we may live to regret – be they political or personal, ethical professional or relational, we should inhabit the liminal space, take our time and reflect, and see ourselves not as alienated and removed but as engaged in the religious activity of the thought-full, mind-full awareness of how our lives are lived.