Yom haZikaron la’Shoah ve’la’Gevurah: The day for remembering the Shoah and for remembering the Bravery.

vati passport 1Tonight we begin Yom HaZikaron la’ Shoah ve’la’Gevurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה – The day for remembering the Shoah and the Heroism.

Around six million Jews and five million others were targeted by the Nazis and were murdered in the Shoah. LGBTQ people, Travellers (Roma), Communists, the mentally or physically frail, Jehovah’s witnesses, the people who opposed the decrees – they too perished simply for being who they were.

From 1933, as German Jews were stripped of having legal and economic status, till 1945 when Hitler was finally defeated, the Shoah was not one large act but a huge multiplicity of smaller and ongoing acts, and the bravery and heroism we also remember was equally often the actions of individuals whose values led them to refuse to partake or support, or to support hidden Jews, or to resist in numerous quiet ways.

My family have, as have many families like us, threads of stories about what happened to us.  The voices to tell the stories are few – we have had to collect and collate information from many different sources, we have had to research and visit places in Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Switzerland… to try to find the streets and the buildings, and rarely the cemeteries, where our family members found some rest for a short while before journeying onwards.  Some stories come from memories recounted to us when we were young and the teller was feeling particularly open or vulnerable, some stories are found in legal documents, in letters, in photographs, in lists of names for deportation.   Some stories are embedded in the names given to us at birth, in recipes, in particular family traditions. My family, like the families of many like us in the UK and America, have made deep roots in a very short time in the new places we live in now, others find themselves unable to come back from the violent uprooting they suffered, and so remain consistently rootless.

The pain we memorialise on Yom HaShoah travels down the generations. The silence of survivors doggedly refusing to tell their stories until almost too late, has been more profound and more powerful than speech. The anguish of families torn apart, with most disappeared or murdered, has an effect on the remnant that survives, be it spoken of or be it suppressed. I can still hear my 87 year old father asking – “but have I got any other family in the world besides the family I created? And “I wonder what my father would have thought of me”

The enormity of the Shoah is too much to process. The pain of individuals is too much to bear.

And yet we must continue to tell the story as best we can. We can tell the stories within our families, we can tell the stories of one community, one street, one house, one person. It comes down again and again to the personal stories, the fear and loss of individuals, the pain and terror of one human being.

And we must alongside tell the stories of bravery and heroism. The family with the same name as a Jewish family living in an apartment block who gave their papers to the Jewish family when the Gestapo came to call. The people who warned small children playing out –“don’t go back home, the soldiers are there, find somewhere else to go but don’t go home”. The people who hid Jews in their homes at their own risk, who faced down authorities and refused to accede to their demands, who gave out visas or forged documents to help people escape certain death.

One thing we learn is that fascism starts small, with many small acts of distortion – seeding fake news, calling out truth as if it is fake, skewing and manipulating public opinion, destroying trust in any source of information, acts of violence that are not confronted, racist dog-whistling, gaslighting – the process of driving a person to question their own sanity through deliberate psychological manipulation. This last – coming from the play by Patrick Hamilton “Gas Light” which premiered 1938 – is done not only by individuals but by governments and nation states. Hitler made promises, asserted facts and then later would act as if this had never happened.  The destabilising effect of what you know to be true suddenly apparently being false or non-existent is increasingly apparent once more in the politics of Trump, of Brexit, of the populist parties gaining power in Europe.

Fascism starts with many small acts of distortion. It is neutralised by clarity, transparency and truthfulness.

It is neutralised too by every act being called out for what it is at the level at which it occurs. Every taxi driver ranting on about a Brexit dividend or with a racist agenda, every dinner guest, every work colleague. Politeness is the enemy of honesty on occasion and allows the hatred to flourish as the hater believes their agenda is agreed.

The small acts of heroism alongside and during the Shoah are what gives me faith in the future, gives me a hope for the present, and also directs my own actions. I cannot stand idly by and hear racism, anti-European rhetoric, anti-Muslim spew. I will not stand idly by.  We must have faith in our own perceptions and our own values and not allow the gaslighting. We must be strong in what we know to be right – human dignity for all, support and care – and resources – for the vulnerable, honesty and transparency in our politics.

The word Shoah probably comes from a root meaning to ravage, to destroy, to devastate and is connected to the word used in the ten commandments – la’shav (do not take the name of the Eternal God La’shav) – meaning empty or vain, desolate or ruin.  One of my favourite glosses on this root as it appears in the third commandment is that we must not damage the world in the name of God, not destroy others – who also hold the reflection of God within them – for a misplaced sense of what God must be like.

I love too the modern midrash on the root Shoah which is made up of the three Hebrew letters Shin, Alef Hei.

The letter Shin has a shushing sound. A soothing sound we make to frightened children, the sound when there is nothing to say except “I’m here with you”

The letter Alef is silent; it reminds us of the silence of Aaron in the face of the sudden death of his sons, the shocked inability to respond at all as we freeze in our horror at the reality of what we are facing.

But the letter Hei, often used to designate the name of God, reminds us that at the end of it all, God is still with us. And it too has a soft and gentle sound, the sound of breathing.  At the end of the Shoah- even after all this time since the end, we can still say nothing to remedy or to heal the dislocation and pain we still endure and live with, but God is still with us, and we are still able to breath and to live, and to look forward in the hope of a life of peacefulness and with all the breath we have to fight the forces that would take that peace away.

 

photo of my grandfather’s reisepass with the red J firmly stamped.

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.

 

Rosh Hashanah Sermon  : unetaneh tokef prayer and the day for judgement.

 “B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun, uv’yom tzom kippur yea’ha’teymun -On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed”

One of the most powerful themes in the liturgy for the Yamim Noraim is this one:- the idea that in heaven on this day there are opened three different books – one for the totally righteous, one for the totally wicked, and one – the largest one by far – for the people who have both good and bad deeds on our record, who must be weighed up and judged on a case by case basis.

The unetaneh tokef prayer – which came into use in Ashkenazi tradition in the Amidah since the 11th century (and is used in some Sephardi traditions just before the Mussaf service) but which is built on a much older poem from the Byzantine Period in Israel (circa 330–638) is a powerful liturgical poem for the Yamim Noraim, from which the quotation above is taken. It goes on to tell us what is also decided on this day: : How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who shall rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, etc”  but goes on to remind us that” But Penitence, Prayer and Good Deeds can annul the Severity of the Decree.”

 The Book of Life:  Its earliest Jewish appearance is in the book of Exodus just months after the exodus from Egypt, when the Ten Commandments are given on Sinai and Moses returns to see people having despaired of his return and created a golden calf to worship. Moses returned to God, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray You, out of Your book which You have written.’  And God said to Moses: ‘whoever has sinned against Me, that one will I blot out of My book. Ex 32:32-35

We tend to see the Book of Life in terms of the unetaneh tokef prayer – a document that records everything, collecting the evidence determining who shall live and who shall die in the coming year, rewarding or punishing according to the life already lived. Yet the two ideas – that there is a Book written about our Life, and that reference to such a book enables the heavenly sentencing on Judgment Day (that is Rosh Hashanah), do not have to be so entwined.

The idea of a heavenly Book of Life seems to have originated in Babylon, with Babylonian legend speaking of the Tablets of Destiny, lists of sins and wrongdoings of people, who should be blotted out of existence. Scholars believe it probably referred to some kind of Eternal life, an end of time Judgment. Our Rosh Hashanah liturgy however sees the document differently, causing us to pray for a better and longer earthly life.

While the Mishnah tells us (Avot 2:1) “Consider three things that you may not come within the power of sin. Know what is above you—a seeing eye, and a hearing ear, and all your deeds are written in a book”, it also tells us “All Israel have a portion in the world to come”. Eternal life is, in effect, a given – the Book of Life is not so much about our eternity as about the actual record we each create as we live and go about our lives. The Sefer Hasidim pointedly adds that God is in no need of a book of records; saying “the Torah speaks the language of human beings”; that is, “this is a metaphorical statement to remind us that everything we do is a matter of record, and this record builds to describe and create testimony about each human life – its actions, its meaning, its impact on the world, its memory and memorial”.

The Book of our Life is not, in reality, simply a record of good and bad deeds, to be weighed up each Rosh Hashanah Judgment day when the book is opened.  It is the ultimate repository of who we are. We are, in effect, the sum of our actions and our memories. When our lives are stripped of memory they are stripped of meaning and of purpose. Purpose and meaning ultimately rely on a context and an awareness that is provided for us by our use and recording of memory.

In the last few weeks of Torah readings we have been reading about Moses’ rehearsing to and reminding the people of Israel about their history, their purpose, their connection with the Divine Being and its purpose, and the ethical and religious principles they agreed to when they entered the Covenant with God at Sinai, – an Eternal covenant, and one into which we bring our children. The whole of the book of Deuteronomy is in effect a Memory Book, a Book of Life, a record and proof text for who we are and what we are about. It is Moses’ last effort to implant within us a sense of our history and our purpose, a text to take with us into our future.

In just the same way as Torah gives meaning and purpose to the wider Jewish identity, our very personal existence depends on our own memory, mission and morality – remembering where we came from, what we are called on to do, and how we are called on to do it. And  this information is what creates each of our books of life, which we are invited to open and to read during Ellul, and then from Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur.

Our continued existence as thoughtful and purposeful human beings depends upon what is written in our own Book of Life. Who we really are will form who we will become. If we pay no attention to our own historical reality, to the memories of ourselves and of our people which we rehearse regularly in religious ritual both at home and in the synagogue, then slowly but surely we will lose touch with our root meaning – that which in religious terms would be called Covenant.

If we no longer tell the stories of our past, and find meaning within them that can speak to the modern world, then we will lose our particular purpose, and our lives will indeed become simple accountancy columns – so much fun versus so much pain, so many good deeds versus so many mean ones.  If we distance ourselves from the moral teaching of our tradition, and create a morality based instead on convenience or on what feels right in some unsubstantiated way, then we are in danger of losing our way, of making decisions not using our inherited system of values but on what suits us or fits in with our limited world view.

Memory, Purpose  and Morality – these bring the awareness of where we are the and the connection to where we come from; they create the understanding that our life must be lived with a purpose that is connected to our peoplehood, our roots – however we want to define memory; and a set of overarching values that are not about our own gratification or benefit but about a world view that takes in more than our own selves or our narrow context. This is what Moses was trying to explain in his last speeches recorded so clearly in the book of Deuteronomy – distilling both the history and the learning of the earlier books of Torah.  It is what we must try to do now, as we open our personal Book of Life and read it in order to understand something deep and vital about how we are living our own lives. Not just to reflect on things that are pricking our conscience a little or on the irritations and anxieties of other’s behaviour towards us. But to consider our memory, our  purpose in the world and the morality that both feeds and drives us.

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. This is as true of a nation state as it is of a religious identity as it is of an individual person. 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.

It is important that we ask both for ourselves and also for all the people Israel to be able to critically understand the purpose and meaning of existence. For we are not alone here, not individuals on a journey to personal enlightenment so much as a group who are bound – since Sinai – in Covenant with God. We are a people, responsible each for the other, created to support each other and the values we share in the world.

We are a people, responsible each for the other, seeing ourselves as partners in co-creating with God the world in which we live, responsible for the enactment of the divine message of shleima – wholeness and integrity, in our world.

Torah tells us the world is not finished and perfect, it is up to people to complete and to perfect it.

We work on ourselves. That may be more or less difficult, more or less possible, and ultimately it is between ourselves and God just how well we manage.

For most of us our personal Book of Life is readable, at least in solitude, with a modicum of privacy to protect our dignity. We remember our childhoods, at least enough to draw from them the lessons we need as adults. We mostly have at least a sketchy knowledge of our family history over the previous generations – the name of a town or shtetl, the name of an ancestor recalled in our own, the stories that emerge when the family get together for a lifecycle event or festival. We can reconstruct enough of our past to gain a sense of our purpose and, as the bible says, the apple does not fall far from the tree – our family history is often surprisingly circular, and we maintain the values and traditions of our past in some way.

But when we become a group, then it is harder to examine our actions, to take joint responsibility for things we either know nothing about or maybe feel angry about.    We all belong to many different groups and we have responsibility for them– to hold each to account, to remind each of their past and their purpose. In particular at this time we think about the group we belong to called “Jewish Peoplehood” and “Israel”, and remind each other that Israel’s very existence depends on its memory, on its mission, and its morality.

Our memories are held in a book – the Book of Life for the Jewish people is Torah and its descendant the Rabbinic tradition of responsa and innovation. If we forget the values that are given to us there then we forget who we are and what we are about, we will ultimately fall apart, unnourished, unrooted, unconnected.

So when we think about the Book of Life this year, consider it a Book that actively maintains us and our purpose, defines our identities and our values so that we can work in the world in a consistent and meaningful way. And think too about the greater Book, the one that records the behaviour of our whole people. And with both of these volumes open and read lets think about what we want to be written in the coming year, so that when we leave here today we can begin to take up our meaning and our purpose, rooted in our values and our morality, and review and record the memories we want to be acted upon and remembered.

 

Serach bat Asher:the woman who authenticated Moses and went alive to paradise. Parashat Vayigash

Last week’s torah portion ended on a cliff hanger. A missing cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph demands that Benjamin remain in Egypt as his slave. Judah begs Joseph to allow him to take Benjamin’s place as Jacob will not survive Benjamin’s loss. At this point Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. They are – understandably – astonished that the young frightened boy they left in the pit so many years ago has become this most powerful Egyptian official.  Meanwhile Pharaoh learns that Joseph’s brothers are in Egypt and tells Joseph to invite Jacob and the entire household to come live in Egypt in the land of Goshen. So Jacob and Joseph have an emotional reunion. The family work as shepherds, the famine continues, and Joseph manages the country, selling grain for land until by the end of the famine Pharaoh owns all of the land in the country, except for that owned by the priests. Once the famine ends, Joseph gives seed to all the people telling them that they must repay Pharaoh with one fifth of their harvest.

Joseph is at the centre of the complex threads of the narrative, but look around the stage and other figures come into view. Those who caught my attention this year are the ones who are barely sketched out, yet who are noted in the genealogical lists, and this always bears further examination. There is the Canaanite woman, unnamed, who bears a son – Saul – to Shimon, apparently a different mother than that of his other five sons. She reappears again in the list in Exodus (Ch. 6) as the mother of Shimon’s son Saul, and yet other Canaanite women who bore sons to the family are not singled out like this – we already met the unnamed wife of Judah, introduced only as the daughter of the Canaanite Shua, whose children Er and Onan so dishonoured Tamar in Gen 38, yet she is not mentioned here.

Then there are the other unnamed wives we find in verse 5:  “And Jacob rose up from Beer-Sheva; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him.” And there is the somewhat ambiguous language of verse 7 where we are told of “[Jacob’s] sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into Egypt.”

Only two ‘daughters’ are mentioned here by name – Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah whose sad story has already been told, and Serach, the daughter of Asher, granddaughter of Jacob and Zilpah, the maid of Leah. Yet the word ‘daughters’ is in the plural – there were clearly other women who were born into the household, even though they remain unnamed and indeed uncounted in the famous statement that seventy souls went down to Egypt with Jacob.  Is the number seventy to be understood literally here, in which case there has to be some creativity with the arithmetic in the names listed here? Or is it the symbolic number it is often used as elsewhere. Seventy is the multiplication of two perfect numbers (seven and ten), it is the number of elders appointed to help Moses (Num 11:16), the number of nations and languages after the flood. Seventy symbolises a whole world, and we know that Jacob brings a whole world of his wives, his children and of his grandchildren – both sons and daughters, yet the listed names show only two female descendants – Dina, and Serach bat Asher.

So who is Serach bat Asher and why is her name remembered? No story remains extant in the narrative, but there are some tantalising intimations.

She appears here in the list of those who left Canaan to go to Egypt, and she appears also in the census at the end of the Israelites sojourn in the desert (in Numbers 26:46).  That is it as far as bible is concerned, but the aggadic literature is intrigued by this woman who apparently lives for over four hundred years and whose name bookends both the leaving of Canaan and the return to the Land.

The first function of Serach bat Asher is to hold memory. She links the generation of the ancestors to the generation of the exodus, from the “family” of Israel to the post-Sinai “people” of Israel.  She is the original “oral tradition”, and the midrash (Pirkei d’rabbi Eliezer) has her validating Moses as the man who will redeem the Israelites from Egypt, as she knew the secret sign given by Joseph to his brothers to signify that divine deliverance was imminent.

So not only does she link the generations and hold the memory of the divinity, she also provides the authority and authenticity of the leadership. The man from whom rabbinic tradition derives its whole substance is essentially given his legitimacy by the woman, Serach bat Asher. Something to think about as we hear the howls of outrage in some quarters when women scholars are finally given the respectful title that recognise their abilities.

According to the midrash Serach was a musician and a singer. When the sons of Jacob wanted to tell him that Joseph was still alive, they feared that the shock of the news might kill him, so they enlisted the talents of Serach who revealed the information to him gently. In response he blessed her, and said “the mouth that told the news that Joseph is alive will never taste death” (see Midrash hagadol on Gen 46 and Targum pseudo Yonatan)  This blessing gave Serach immortality, and like the prophet Elijah some traditions tell of her going to heaven while still living.

Serach was not only the link between the patriarchal generations and the post Sinai people. She was also the possessor of all kinds of hidden or lost knowledge that she would reveal when appropriate. So, for example, she knew the place where Joseph’s body was kept in Egypt, and when the time came for Moses to take the bones out with the people of Israel in accordance with the promise made to Joseph on his deathbed (Exodus 13) it was Serach who could lead him to the coffin. She explains biblical text, in one midrash she corrects a rabbi’s teaching about the splitting of the reed sea, saying that the waves looked like a wall rather than a lattice work. And in the story in the book of Samuel when a wise woman averts a crisis that Yoav, the captain of the army of King David, is not dealing with well – the midrash assumes that this is Serach bat Asher, and gives her the words “I am the one who completed the number of Israel; I am the one who linked the faithful to the faithful, Joseph to Moses” (Bereishit Rabbah)

Serach bat Asher is never married in the midrashic literature. Yet this does not stop Nachmanides suggesting she is named in the census because her descendants would inherit land. The aggadic tradition creates a life filled with miracles and wisdom, with courage and scholarship, a woman whose life extends for hundreds of years and who teaches about redemption. And yet at the same time she barely registers on the awareness of many students of Jewish tradition, and it is Elijah who catches our imagination, who visits every brit milah and pesach seder, whose chariot drives our stories of messianic redemption.

Serach bat Asher does not wander our world, unlike Elijah. And while there is a Sephardic tradition that she died in the twelfth century – there was even a grave site in Isfahan – she disappeared long before she was so conveniently laid to rest.  This confining of her seems to be almost deliberate – she is just too much for the medieval Jewish world to accept, she has been veiled and contained and controlled. Her name – which may well be a cognate of the verb samech reish chet – would mean to be abundant, to be excessive, to go free, to loosen the hair, to roam; yet more often dictionaries suggest that her name is just a variant of Sarah – to be a princess. And we know what happens to princesses in most fairy stories – they end up locked in the tower and hidden.

So may Serach bat Asher find her way back to her freedom to walk in the world, correcting rabbinic teachings which close things down and reminding us of the signs that show who truly speaks the words of God. Her job was to remember, to reveal, to connect us to our foundational stories, to open the world for us. We need her to cut through the thickets that have grown up since those stories were recorded. Serach bat Asher, another woman’s voice in our tradition that was quieted over time, calls to us once more.

 

 

 

 

With increasing joy, we explore our dark side: Purim thoughts

purim shadowPurim is possibly the hardest Jewish festival to explain, to Jews and non Jews alike. A festival whose roots are not in Torah, whose story is found in the only biblical book not to mention God, Megillat Esther is also notable for its lack of references to the Land of Israel, or to Temple rite, or any recognisably Jewish expression. Instead we know this festival for noise making, drinking to excess, the celebration of violence, and some distinctly “unreligious” behaviour and clothing.
Set in Persia in the third year of the King Ahasuerus (said to be Xerxes, King of Persia in the 5th Century BCE), a Jewish man named Mordechai allows his niece Esther to go forward in the beauty contest to be queen after Vashti has been expelled for insubordination. Esther duly becomes that mythical creature, a Jewish princess, but does not reveal her Jewish identity to anyone until plans for genocide against the Jews are unveiled by Haman, the King’s senior minister, and Esther finds herself in a position of potential influence of the King. Esther persuades the King that Haman must be removed from power but tragically the decree, once made, cannot be retracted and so the only remedy is to command the Jews to defend themselves against the attacking Persians. So on the date chosen by casting lots (Purim), the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, five hundred attackers are killed in Shushan, the capital city and seventy five thousand are killed in the rest of the empire. No material possessions are taken – this was simply an act of self defence. The next day, (14th Adar) was designated a day of celebration of the survival, and Esther sends a letter throughout the Empire commanding an annual commemoration of the event.
There is no evidence of Esther or of this particular event outside of the megillah, but the genre of the story of course is one we know well – that Jews living on sufferance in a land that is not their own find that they become disliked or scapegoated or simply political pawns in someone else’s power game. It could be because they are successful in the land and become the victims of jealousy, or else that they are not successful and seen as parasites. Whatever the pretext, the historical Jewish experience has been of differing levels of insecurity and an apprehensive reliance on the goodwill of a host community; usually the apprehension has had a good basis as in difficult times the Jewish community have traditionally been vulnerable. This festival then does not mark an agricultural milestone nor a theological event, but it does speak to the lived experience of a people in Diaspora.
The Havdalah service with which we mark at the end of the Sabbath on a Saturday night is a bittersweet event – we are leaving behind the solace of the Shabbat, and entering a working week once more, with its concomitant expectation that we are facing all the problems of the outside world once more. The service begins with a number of verses taken primarily from the book of Psalms and from the prophet Isaiah, which refer to the protection of God and the hope for divine salvation. One verse stands out for me in this collection of verses that hope for relief from a worrying world – that from the book of Esther “La’yehudim ha’yetah orah ve’simcha ve’sasson viykar The Jews had light, happiness, joy and honour”. (Esther 8:16) which is followed by a heartfelt addition – the response: “Cayn tihyeh lanu – May it be the same for us”. The use of this verse here in the service marking the end of shabbat and the start of the working week, and the response which is added to it liturgically, speaks to me of the clear and frequent anxiety of the Jewish community who, having taken time out from the world to create the Shabbat experience of security, peacefulness and warmth within their homes now know that this time out of time is over for the week and they have to get through another six days in a hostile world before having the possibility of experiencing this peace again.
Purim is unusual because it is a fantasy which we act out for one day each year and for this small amount of time all the usual rules are relaxed. Drinking is encouraged, there is a carnival atmosphere as people wear fancy dress and may even abandon the prohibition of cross dressing (OH 696:8). We joyously and noisily blot out the name of Haman as the Megillah is being read aloud in the synagogue. We celebrate the reversal of our usual story – for once we are the victors not the victims. For once we get to stand up and fight back. In the short space of this festival we act out a revenge fantasy against all those who blindly want to destroy or humiliate us.
But this is not without a degree of conflicted anxiety. While the need to imagine winning against one’s enemies for at least one day a year was clearly understood, at the same time the effect of this fantasy being enacted in a public show was not ignored. Right back Talmudic times (Megillah 7a) we read that Rav Shmuel bar Yehudah taught that Esther had to plead for her story to be told. This is something quite unique in tradition where remembering is the essence of our activity.
“Rav Shmuel Bar Yehudah said: “Esther sent a message to the Sages: “Place me in Jewish memory for all generations!” But the sages replied “Your story would incite the nations against us.”. However Esther replied: [It’s too late for that.] My story is already recorded in the chronicles of Medean and Persian kings.”
– In other words, while the celebration of the story of Purim might damage interfaith relationships, and even potentially contribute a pretext for a pogrom, it could not be hidden away and therefore might as well be told.
There remain a large number of apologetics in our tradition to mitigate the effect of the festival – for example one comment on Esther 9:5 “And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, slaughtering and exterminating; and they did to their enemies as they wished.” Is that the words “vaya’asu besone’eihem kiretzonam” — “they did to their enemies as they wished” is understood to mean that the Jews acted the way their enemies had wished to do to them – in other words this is simply a reversal of the active and passive objects of the verbs, not a new activity.
In the early life of Reform Judaism there was a question whether Purim should continue to be marked – it seemed to the fastidious European reformers to be distasteful, noisy, cruel, uncivilized – all the things we had moved on from, or so we thought. But any idea of removing it from our calendar has long gone – it has become clear that Purim is a necessary festival, allowing us to explore our darker side in safety and with clear and certain boundaries for a very short time each year. Even though we are now not a people who are entirely dependent on a host community but have a land of our own, the story of Purim retains its importance and its meaning for us and we have to express our pain and frustration at having been the scapegoat in so many places over so many generations. The question now is of course, how we engage with our dark side outside of Purim, how the pain which some say our history has bred into our DNA can be dealt with so that it is not suppressed but is acknowledged while not being allowed to colour our judgements today. This is a priority for our generation and those who follow us. As we rightly celebrate our survival through centuries of persecution, and our ability and right to fight for that survival keeping our values and responsibilities intact we should remember the importance of keeping perspective and limits that the festival also highlights, and remember too that our identity is based on the how we behave all the days of the year.

Nitzavim – standing together, united in our diversity

Parshah Nitzavim is always read on the Sabbath immediately before Rosh Hashanah. In part that is fortuitous – a wrinkle of the calendrical cycle.  

In part though there is a deeper connection, because it reminds us that all the people will indeed be standing together in the presence of God during the Yamim Noraim; and in part, I think the reason is because the importance of this speech of Moses – it is one that is critical for the people – Do not forget where you come from, what you are called to do, what you will have to give an account of. And do not forget that you are one people.

The unity of the Jewish people, standing together, all voices being heard from the richest to the poorest, the oldest to the youngest – choose any spectrum you like – ALL the Jewish people are, says Moses, “Nitzavim, Culchem” – standing present, all of us. We are all part of the whole; each of us has a role to play and a gift to give. Tradition teaches that everyone who will ever become a Jew also stood at Sinai – we too were there, accepting the covenant and agreeing to its obligations.

So the unity of the Jewish people is paramount, in prayer during the Yamim Noraim all of us should be there. However sinful we may feel ourselves (or others) to be, our liturgy calls us all together to pray in one community.  And the unity of the Jewish people is paramount in memory and mission – in how we fulfil what we are called to do. Tragically it seems to me that this unity is unravelling in so many ways. Many Jews feel less and less bound to the community, less willing to give the time or the thought that is needed to help them and the community thrive. And many Jews feel out of sorts with the community – be it defined as the establishment, the synagogue, the State of Israel, the traditions, the rituals, the beliefs or behaviours of other Jews.

I think we all have reservations about what it means to be one people. We all wonder why, in hard pressed times, we are expected to give so much of ourselves. We look at other sectors of the community and shake our heads. I for one find the hareidisation of Judaism horrifying, others of course will find the feminising of Judaism equally odd.  In Israel there is a growing gulf between the dati’im (observant of all the legalities) and the hilonim (secular Jews whose identity is Israeli)  The issue is, how to we still live with each other – how do we find the common ground of the covenant made at Sinai and stand, all of us together?  How to we make a bridge or a series of connections that allow us to stay one people without all having to bend to one common denominator, but instead allow our diversity to be one of the values we cherish? Nitzvavim reminds us we are all there – from the leaders of the community to the most menial, men, women and children. Diversity is built into our unity. Now we need to work at building unity from our diversity.