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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 So what is happening?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017

 

 

 

 

Shofetim: We all have a role to play in the ongoing deliverance of Justice

In his last days, Moses is deeply concerned with the future good governance of the people.  Today’s sidra begins with his instructing the people: “shoftim v’shotrim titein lecha b’chol sh’areicha asher Adonai eloheicha notein lecha lishvatecha, v’shaftu et ha’am, mishpat tzedek”

Judges and officers you will give for yourselves in all your gates, which the Eternal your God gives you, lishvatecha (either in every town and settlement or else each tribe would have its own access to the judiciary); and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

Justice is clearly to be for everyone, in every place, the same. The legal system must not be open to undue influence, it must strain to judge each person with “mishpat tzedek”, righteous justice, and indeed Moses goes on to require “tzedek tzekek tirdof” – that the people must actively pursue this righteous behaviour, not be passive consumers of the justice or expect someone else to make it happen.

Moses goes on to detail what will become the different strands of leadership within the Jewish world of the time – first the monarchy, then the priesthood, then the prophets.  And there is much to be said about the way power is organised in this model: there will be a monarchy only if the people want this, and the instructions about this role are curiously more about what the king could NOT have and do, rather than what the king must do for the people: So there is to be no foreign power or return to Egypt, no building up of horses or wives or personal wealth, and the  honourable positive exception is that the king must write for himself a “mishneh haTorah hazot al sefer mi’lifnei ha’cohanim ha’levi’im” And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law [Torah] in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites” and the king must read this book regularly in order not to separate himself from the people and to ensure that the king (and also the people) continue to follow the Torah of God.

There is to be the hereditary priesthood from the tribe of Levi, who will own no land but “Adonai hu nachalato” God is their inheritance and so they will eat from the offerings brought to God and they will control the ritual and the religious life of the people.  The prophets will come later, each one is to be a mouthpiece for God and will speak what God commands them, and the people are warned how to detect a true prophet from a false one.

Powerful and separate roles – that of judge, of sovereign, of priesthood, and of prophet – each holds a different power and each has a different job to do. The separation of powers is critical in the good governance of the people and has already evolved in Moses’ lifetime. But there is one role that is not spelled out yet is critical for the others to function.

The sidra begins “shoftim v’shotrim” and while it reminds us first that the shoftim, the judges will judge each person with “Mishpat tzedek – righteous Justice”, it seems to take for granted the role of the shotrim. Variously translated as “officers”, “bailiffs” these are the people who ensure that the judgments are carried out, that justice is done.

Rashi explains that the Shoftim are the judges who consider the cases and who render decisions. The Shotrim are the executive officers who translate the law into reality. In our world the Shoftim are both the legislature and the judiciary who must be independent and who must have the public good of a just society at the forefront of all they do, while the Shotrim would be the carriers out, the branch who must execute and implement, and if necessary enforce the laws decided by the shoftim.

Bring that forward into today’s world and we can understand just how critical a role the shotrim play.  There is, of course, some overlap and some dual-role activity. Our Parliamentarians are both the legislature in that they write and decide the laws, but they also have a responsibility to their constituency to ensure that justice will be pursued. Our Judges both interpret the law as it is written and create it case by case “on the ground”, and they must ensure that not just the law as it is codified shall be enacted, but that justice should be done – even if that means straining the legal language on occasion. Law as an ideal construct will of necessity not always speak to the situations of real human beings, and in such cases the shotrim must ensure that justice will be actively pursued.

Bible reminds us that for good governance there must be several different and separated roles so that power can be spread among them and not concentrated in too few hands. But this sidra is particularly interested in justice as part of that governance, and provides not only for the law-makers the shoftim, but for the justice enablers, the shotrim. Sometimes there may be a dissonance between the two, sometimes they will work well. Rashi suggests that the shotrim were there to ensure that the words of the shoftim are carried out, even going so far as to suggest chastising those who were not doing so.  But in the context of the separation of powers in this sidra, as well as the overarching theme of justice, I wonder if this can be right, whether their role is not to chastise the people but to ensure that justice matches the law.

As we sit in late preBrexit Britain, watching our legislature hide behind legal loopholes such as that the result of the advisory referendum cannot be challenged precisely because it was advisory, or that the findings of fraud and cheating are not reasons to legally annul the resultant vote;  when we see Jeremy Corbyn and the current leadership of the Labour Party tie itself into knots about the antiSemitism in the party, finding all kinds of jargon and spurious disciplinary or investigative processes to distance themselves from responsibility for their own behaviour; When we watch Boris Johnson cynically using dog whistle racism to shore up his own position in a party that is so afraid of the far right fringe that it has lost any sense of its own purpose; Then more than ever we cry out for the shotrim, the people who are not the leadership but whose purpose is to ensure that the leadership promotes justice rather than legalistic nuances.

Who are the shotrim? Well they are not defined in the text. They must clearly be people who have the ability to act as officers of governance. They must clearly be people for whom justice is the overriding value. They are, I think, people like you and me, who step up and speak up for justice.  For me the shotrim are embodied in people such as Carole Cadwalladr, who campaigns for transparency in the murky political world of Brexit, or the pro-bono lawyers who are challenging government at every turn. They are the leaders of civic society working for and demanding a safe haven for refugees, the boats of MSF literally fishing bodies out of the water of the Mediterranean.

But we don’t all have to be quite so all-consumed or so dedicated to do our bit towards being shotrim. We simply have to keep our focus on ensuring that justice is delivered equally for everyone, remind out government of this requirement, volunteer or write letters, become activists for a cause. It is our role to be human beings who care for the rights of other human beings. Put like that, it shouldn’t be too onerous a task. And it is a task we must accept for justice to thrive.

 

 

 

Rescued from the water – from Moses to SOS Méditerranée. A Jewish response to the refugees fleeing to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea

Recently I attended a lecture by Jean-Marc Liling at the conference of the European Union for Progressive Judaism. One of his statements really struck home. Referring to the many migrants rescued from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, he reminded us of how the greatest leader of Judaism found safety having been first hidden in a basket in the reeds on the Nile and then rescued by a woman in the Pharaonic household. She is the one who gives him his name when she adopts him, She calls him Moses/Moshe, because ““I have drawn him from the water – min ha mayim m’shitihu”

Day after day and year after year we hear of the stories of people who are fleeing their homes because of warfare and violence, and who are looking for safety across the Mediterranean sea. Earlier this week the humanitarian group SOS Méditerranée wrote on twitter that its rescue boat Aquarius had taken in 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women. They would take them to a safe port as usual – but the Italian government refused to allow the ship to dock. Even though the mayors of the port cities such as Palermo, Naples, Messina and Reggio Calabria, said they were ready to disobey Salvini’s order and allow Aquarius to dock and disembark in their seaports, the lack of coastguard meant they could not do so. The ship eventually ended up able to disembark its frightened, exhausted and distressed passengers in Spain, after an agonisingly protracted negotiation and a further period of enduring the stormy seas.

Today The Coast Guard ship Diciotti, arrived in the port of Catania, with 932 migrants on board. They were rescued during 7 rescue operations off Libya, and I read that five of the refugees, four pregnant women and a minor, have already been transferred to Sicilian hospitals. On board the ship there are also two corpses, recovered during the rescue interventions.

As a Jew, as a person born with the privilege of a western passport and life, as a human being, I read the stories of these refugees with pity, compassion and some horror.  I am only one generation away from refugee status. My father came as an unaccompanied minor to the UK leaving behind his family in Germany. His father survived Dachau but died stateless –sans papiers – in Switzerland, days after the Swiss Government saw fit to refuse him leave to stay in their country because he was a refugee. My mother was born to parents who fled the anti-Semitic constraints of living as Jews in Eastern Europe. They had arrived there, so family tradition relates, from Spain – when Jews were forcibly converted or killed or fled from the Inquisition.  I am not remotely unusual in the Jewish world. Scratch most Jews and you will quickly find the story of a refugee.

What does Judaism say to us to help us understand?  Right at the beginning of bible Cain asks the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He appears to think that he should not have to be responsible for any other human being, but the answer from God is clear and unequivocal. Yes, we are responsible for each other. We are each other’s brothers and sisters,  we have a human link with each other which cannot be dissolved.

Abraham in Hebron, describes himself as a stranger and sojourner (ger v’toshav Anochi) (Gen 23:3-4) and asks to be allowed to bury his wife.

The most frequent mitzvah in bible is to care for the stranger, the refugee and the vulnerable who live among us – for example- “And if a stranger (Ger) sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong.  The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  I am the Eternal your God. (Lev. 19:33-34)

And Moses, the one who reminds us again and again to care for the stranger and those who live amongst us and need our help – Moses was drawn from the water having been put there to flee a death sentence which had been decreed by a violent political power determined to ethnically cleanse his country.

In the Yizkor section of the British Reform Machzor is a prayer that speaks of the many lives lost in pogroms and in Shoah. It speaks of the laughter that was lost, the poetry never written, the science never developed, the music never composed. It lists all the things that died when the people who should have done them died. Not just the descendants who never got born, but the ideas, the humanity, the connections and the learning of the people, which never had chance to form.  When I think about Moses being rescued from certain death in the water, whose life hung on a thread after the political powers determined to play out their own warped agenda, I cannot now forget the question asked at that lecture. What have we lost as we allow the migrants to die in the Mediterranean Sea? The United Nations estimates that at least 500 people have already died in 2018 trying to cross the central Mediterranean, following some 2,853 fatalities last year.

What have we lost by not caring enough to help these people? Not just lives, though that would be bad enough but all the things that would have come from those lives.

The bible tells us that God says to Cain, who had killed his brother ‘The bloods of your brother cry out to Me’ (Genesis 4:10) — and rabbinic tradition, noting the plural that the sentence is cast in, read  that it is not only  his blood but also the blood of his potential descendants….The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) continues:  Therefore was the first human being, Adam, created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if they saved an entire world. Furthermore, only one human being, Adam, was created for the sake of peace among people, so that no one should say to their fellow, ‘My father was greater than yours….

We are a people whose national and foundational stories are of being refugees. We are a people whose great figures – Abraham and Moses, are themselves refugees, Ivri’im, people who cross over from one place to another, in search of a safe place to be themselves. When, as Jews, we read the stories coming out of the desperate people crossing the sea in leaky overcrowded boats in order to escape a terrible existence – or even death – in their own country, our response has to be practical and immediate. We cannot turn away. We cannot parrot the lines about people being economic migrants or ”just” looking for a better life and absolve ourselves of responsibility.

The boat that docked today in Catania is called Diciotti. It is connected to the word 18. 18 is, in Hebrew, Het Yod – Hai –Life. It seems to me a call to remind us to choose life, not only for ourselves and our families, but for all who need our help for them to also choose life.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild 13th June 2018

Korach: reading the Bad Boys of the Exodus can help with the Bad Boys of Brexit

Reading Bible reminds us again and again that people are the same, whatever age they live in, and that politics is also essentially unchanged over the centuries. Some people have principles, others appear to have only causes, and one repeatedly seen cause is sadly that of increasing their own power and status.

Yes, they will dress it up – in a tub-thumping speech to the leader they may say “you are taking too much on yourself, all the people are holy” or they may use the language of the demagogue explicitly reminding others that only they are following “the will of the people” and everyone else is betraying them. Often the speaker is privileged and wealthy, yet somehow acts as if they are one of the less advantaged, and speak against some notionally distant and uncaring governing elite.

So Korach, cousin of Aaron and Moses, was a member of the tribe of Levi, singled out for special status. The midrash tells us that he was very wealthy (indeed the phrase “as rich as Korach” in Hebrew equates with the modern slang “filthy rich” and Bemidbar Rabba 18:15 tells us that Korach was the comptroller in Pharaoh’s palace and was in charge of the keys of his treasuries, and later on is clear that he was not the most disinterested or honest supervisor, but took many of the riches for himself (Bemidbar Rabba 22:7)   And yet his language implies that he is simply the spokesperson for the downtrodden and ignored, as he whips up a populist movement to his own agenda.

There can be no doubt that Korach is one of the “Bad Boys of the Exodus”. And of course he gets his comeuppance, as the duel of the firepans of incense leads the rebels to their unnatural deaths while Aaron and his family are confirmed in the priesthood and the copper from the firepans is to be used to plate the altar to remind everyone that the priesthood is of the family of Aaron (See Numbers 17)

God, having taken out the leadership of the rebellion, is keen to finish the job, sending a plague upon the whole community, and Aaron and Moses have to rush to help save them from the consequences of this rebellion.

Sometimes bible has a way of speaking to the current moment in an eerie and extraordinary way. Here in the UK we have our demagogues, almost to a man wealthy and privileged and with a deep urge to seize power. The leadership of the Brexit project – the “Bad Boys of Brexit” are generally personally wealthy, have a background of privilege in terms of education and family connections, and have manipulated people who have been ignored or suppressed into somehow believing that they are just like them. The newspapers they write for or control drip poisonous xenophobic tropes, see the European Union as other, indeed as enemy. They deliberately whip up the ideas of treason, seeing enemies and betrayal everywhere. For years stories about “the other” have published which show the poor patriotic English person being cheated, lied to, ignored in favour of foreigners.  Forget the ideology of working for European peace, if you read these papers you would believe that laws are imposed on us by foreigners who don’t consult, don’t expect us to have a voice, don’t care about us, only about our money which they want from us. These years have done their work, the mob are roused, with threats of violence against anyone with a different narrative, from Members of Parliament down. And real violence against anyone perceived as “other”. For me the nadir was the headline “enemies of the people” in the Daily Mail (4.11.17), with photos of three High Court Judges who “defied {the} Brexit voters” and who could trigger a constitutional crisis. What had the Judges done? They had ruled that Parliament must be consulted before the Government could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would start the UK’s formal process of EU withdrawal.

In the story of Korach, the rebels are spectacularly –and unnaturally – dealt with, going down into the bowels of the earth which then closed over them. But the continued effect of their poison and lies meant that God was prepared to continue cleansing the people – by plague. It took the desperate interventions of Moses and Aaron to change that terrible outcome, and to get the people once more back on track to achieve their goal, of entry into the Promised Land.  We learn from this that the power of the rabble rouser and demogague continues long after they have stopped. It takes courage and thoughtful intervention, facing the problem and the poison and combatting it with a different narrative, to slowly root out the worst of it.

But the human desire for grabbing power and for seeing others as foreign or other does not go away. It must be recognised and it must be contained, for it will never leave us. There will always be those who rise up in every generation to pervert justice and kindness for their own benefit and we need to be aware of this and on our guard, fighting and fighting for the values of understanding our shared humanity, of having compassion for the other  rather than fear or hatred.  It is interesting to see that some psalms are written by the bnei Korach – the sons or descendants of Korach. Korach does not go away, but becomes part of the community – and we have to be aware that the tropes of Korach’s rebellion are still entwined within our groups.

How our current situation, of growing populist movements and politicians will end, we don’t yet know.  We see that the language of snide demagoguery continues, we see that wealth has been acquired through odd and secretive ways from outside the community (just as Korach had appropriated his wealth immorally from Egyptian stores). We see parties or individuals gaining power by whipping up xenophobia and hatred while implying that they are on the side of the poor and dispossessed.  No God is going to come and cause the earth to open – we are on our own with this one. But we should take heart from the biblical text. Ultimately Korach loses, the people are back on track and the violence and plague abates. It takes work and pain and fear and tears. But ultimately Korach will lose again.

 

 

Shelach Lecha: holding onto our values while the world looks in another direction: or How to combat populism

“And Joshua bin Nun and Caleb ben Jephunneh, who were of those who spied out the land, tore their clothes. And they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land.  If the Eternal delight in us, then God will bring us into this land, and give it to us–a land which flows with milk and honey.  Only rebel not against the Eternal, do not fear the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defence is removed from over them, and the Eternal is with us; fear them not.’  But all the congregation bade stone them with stones, when the glory of the Eternal appeared in the tent of meeting to all the children of Israel.” (Num 14:6-10)

Twelve men, representative from each tribe, have been sent to reconnoitre the land of Israel, and they come back with the same report but with two different conclusions. The land is very good and fertile, but the inhabitants are strong. Ten believe that it would be impossible to take the land and it is better not to try, two insist that trusting in God and refusal to be afraid will mean that they will indeed succeed.

What makes Joshua and Caleb so different from the others? Why are they able to hold onto their vision when the others are overcome with fear?  And why are they prepared to go against the popular narrative of the majority?

These are questions that have never lost their relevance. We are in a world of growing political populism where minorities and a supportive legal framework are both under attack as a large portion of the population are manipulated to support something that is not to their benefit.

To stand up against the narrative of a vocal and fearful majority requires one to be both principled and courageous.  To put ones hope in a better future, to take the risk and make the leap of faith, to not be seduced by an immediate gratification or intimidated by the actions of others requires a strength of mind and soul that may seem superhuman – except that history is littered with such examples. The survival of Judaism and of Jews is a direct result of generations of people holding onto their principles with courage, teaching their children to be Jews even in a frightening and dangerous world. I pay tribute to my father, Edgar Rothschild, whose faith and determination never wavered, even though as a refugee child separated from his beloved parents, his younger life was miserable and lonely. His activism in our local synagogue – itself with its share of people whose arms bore tattooed identification numbers – was extraordinary and life affirming, and his determination to pass on a warm and loving and practical Judaism was so powerful. I pay tribute to my brother, Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild, whose work in post war Europe has been an uphill struggle to reintroduce authentic Reform Jewish life where none exists and some would prefer it to stay that way. I pay tribute to Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck who worked to create the rabbinic college in London that bears his name. I could list and list the people who held to their principles, who screwed up their courage and continued in the face of a majority who would rather have an easier life.

 

The dying Moses said to the people as well as to Joshua –“Chazak ve’Emat…lo tirah v’lo techat” “Be strong and of good courage…. do not be afraid, do not be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8). It is hard to do, yet we have many examples before us. It is, I think, a quintessentially Jewish way to stand up and to be counted, to continue to hope in the face of despair, to knowingly take the risk of the leap of faith because we have a vision of something larger and more important than ourselves. Yet the bible story reminds us that it is also a human characteristic to avoid difficulty – for every Abraham there is a Jonah, for the two spies who were brave enough to stand up, there were ten who played to the fears of the crowd.

 

Progressive Judaism sees itself as a descendant of Prophetic Judaism – precisely the quality of courage and vision prepared to confront the comfortable views around. We are Jewish not simply as an accident of birth, but as an active choice in how we live in the world. In the words of Edmund Fleg: “I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind. I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks every possible sacrifice of my soul. I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps. I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes…I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; people will complete it….I am a Jew because Israel places Humanity and his Unity above nations and above Israel itself. I am a Jew because above Humanity, image of the Divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine. (Pourquoi je suis juif.1928)

 

So as we read the story of the spies this week, let’s think of those who doggedly hold on to Jewish values while the world looks in the other direction. Let’s take on the mantle of holding onto the vision of a good land, while political leaders whip up racist and xenophobic mobs. Let’s stand up against a narrative that others people who are not like us – be it in the UK, in Europe, in the USA, in Israel, and remember that we must hold onto our courage and our good faith, not let fear or dismay overtake us, but hold on to hope. Joshua and Caleb were the only two of the whole population who eventually entered the land. Their hope and their faith in a better world kept them going. Let’s hope that our hope and faith in a better world will do the same for us.

 

(written for EUPJ parashat hashavua page 2018 and first published there)

Chukkat: Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess and one of the leadership triumvirate

We have learned this week of the death of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved of the tribe of Levi. Born in Egypt, the oldest child in the family with two younger brothers Aaron and Moses, Miriam kept faith with the religious tradition of her ancestors in the darkest times, even prophesying the birth of her youngest brother Moses and predicting that he would be the one who would deliver their people to freedom (BT Sotah11- 12b). Along with her brothers she was part of the leadership that brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Sadly she has not lived to see the end of the journey, but her leadership – particularly of the women – was critical to its success.

Miriam had a particular affinity with water. Even her name reminds us of it, variously translated as ‘bitter seas’ (Mar Yam) or even “doubled water” (depending on whether one sees the letters mem reish as deriving from bitterness or of water. We first meet her at the water’s edge, saving her little brother Moses adrift in the Nile reeds. (Exodus 2:4-9) She is a powerful figure at the Sea of Reads and her song of praise became the basis for the rather more famous (and more fully recorded in bible) song of her brother, Shirat haYam. (Exodus 15) Luckily the Dead Sea Scrolls have recorded more of her verses than the biblical editor thought fit to include.(4Q365).  And of course we must not forget Miriam’s well which followed her in the wilderness and which provided much needed refreshment for the Children of Israel, was a miracle provided because of her merit. (Ta’anit 9a).

Bible called her a prophet and indeed Miriam was a great prophet of Israel, though sadly she has no book named for her prophesies, an oversight to be much deplored.

Her name might also allude to the idea of rebellion – a role model for all Jews, Miriam thought for herself and did not acquiesce to the ideas of others without challenge. It was this characteristic that gave her the will to challenge her parent’s decision (and that of the other Jewish adults) to no longer have relations in order that no children would be born – some say that they all divorced so as to prevent a new generation being born into slavery. But Miriam’s refusal to be party to this pessimistic arrangement meant that not only did she and her brother Aaron dance and sing at the remarriage of their parents, but that other families followed suit. Her rebellious spirit was vital in keeping the people alive and hopeful. (BT Sotah 12a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 6). Indeed such was her role in preserving the last generation to be born in Egypt, there are some who say that the midwife Puah was in fact Miriam herself.  In part this connects to her rebellious nature. There are those who say that she was insolent (hofi’ah panim – lifted her face) toward Pharaoh when she heard his edict to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrew women, and looked down her nose at him. She told him: “Woe to you on the Day of Judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you.” Pharaoh was so enraged at her behaviour that he wanted to kill her. She was saved only because Yocheved intervened, saying “Do you take notice of her? She is a baby, and knows nothing” (Ex. Rabbah, 1:13).  Miriam found it hard to keep her mouth shut at that, but luckily she did so.

While it is not clear who Miriam married – indeed if she married at all – there are some who say she married Caleb and other who say she married her uncle Uzziel. Clearly these marriages were unimportant in the public sphere in which she worked, but it is said that her children were sages and kings because she had stood up to the evil decree of Pharaoh and also persuaded the Hebrews to continue to procreate. Bezalel is said to have descended from her, as is King David.

While this writer does not see the need to describe family for Miriam – either to explore whether she married or had children – it is gratifying that the midrashic tradition felt, in its own terms, that she deserved to be rewarded for her integrity and willingness to speak truth to power. We note that the sons of Moses walk out of history and that two of Aaron’s sons offer strange fire to God, with only the younger two continuing into priesthood, with its ultimately difficult and chequered history.

Miriam was musical, a great timbrel player, and a wonderful song leader and dancer who lifted the spirits of all who saw her. Her liveliness and optimism, coupled with a strong character and a willingness to speak out, make her a superlative role model for Jews everywhere. Her association with water, the living waters from which everything can draw its sustenance, is no accident. Water flows where it will, as did Miriam.

Even when Miriam criticised the fact that her brother Moses had married a Cushite woman and apparently put away Zipporah, the wife of his youth and mother of his two sons, she did so from a position of integrity, challenging her younger brother’s autocratic behaviour and as a result of her good and close relationship with Zipporah, a Midianite woman married into the Israelite leadership family (Sifrei on Numbers 12). She was concerned that Moses was no longer visiting Zipporah who was thus condemned to having no marital comfort and would not be able to bear more children.(Avot de R.Natan ch 9; Sifrei Zuta 12:1; sifra Metzorah 5).

While she was smitten with a skin disease as punishment for the harshness of her words, it must be noted that the whole camp waited for her to heal before moving on. For seven days even the Shechinah, as well as the priests and the Israelites stayed in camp while her tzara’at took its course (Mishnah Sotah 1:9) and it is well understood that this exceptional treatment was a reward for her work supporting Moses as a baby and enabling him to be reunited safely with is mother as his wet nurse, as well as helping in the leadership of the people in the many desert years.

While Miriam died on tenth of Nisan in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, (Sifrei on Devarim 305) her death is recorded here in Chukkat along with that of Aaron. All three of the siblings are buried on the heights of Avarim close to the land of Israel, and Miriam, like her brothers  would later, died by the kiss of God as her soul was gently drawn back from her body (BT baba batra 17a), an ending known as the death of the righteous.

She will not be forgotten. In modern times she is remembered at the Pesach seder with a Cup of Miriam filled with water, and a special prayer; while others add a piece of fish to the seder plate to reference her particular affinity with water.

Sadly however the characteristics of Miriam are sometimes hidden from view or even actively ignored – her prophecy and the determination she had to make her voice heard by people more senior than her are a fundamental part of her character. She spoke out, her voice was heard and followed – in both her capacity to advise and in her song leading, even if her brother then took credit for some of her best works. She was not quiescent in the face of a community that didn’t want change, or that was prepared to put up with injustice and oppression. She was active in both the birth and the rearing of Moses, keeping faith with her idea that here was a child who could be a leader and redeemer of the people. She was an equal partner in leadership, she had her own ideas and her own way of going about things. She was nobody’s ‘yes woman’. Her integrity, her strength of character, her fluidity, her determination to keep life happening, all meant that Miriam’s was a voice that shaped the people, she was heard in the public space, she was respected even when she sometimes said things in a less than careful way, she was warm and caring and people knew it. Moses could be distant, his shyness and insecurities causing him to hide away sometimes. Aaron could be arrogant in his priestly garments and status. But Miriam was accessible to the people and they loved her for it, as she spoke out on their behalf and fought for their rights.

Both the editors of the received text and the creators of midrash have not always dealt kindly with her. There is a rabbinic propensity to see her as bitter or as rebellious to the established order, her voice (already edited at the song of the sea) is not heard again in bible after the episode of the tzara’at; her death is reported without ceremony or sadness.  There are some notable exceptions to the blurring of Miriam in history. The prophet Micah tells us of God’s comment “I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (6:4). I cannot help but think that her gender was a problem to later commentators and redactors, something that sadly continues to this day. Yet Miriam is described in bible as a prophet, she sings her own song, she leads the people and she keeps her brothers safe and in relationship with the people.  She is patently a popular leader. When we lose Miriam we lose a righteous and able leader. When we lose the stories of her we risk losing the participation of modern women in the public sphere, rebellious, sassy, open, fluid, willing to speak truth to power and to challenge both adversaries and relatives who would rather we were quiet.

Some women have suggested fasting on the tenth of Nisan as her yahrzeit. That is fine should women want to do this, but I would suggest that we would do her greater honour by speaking out, by rebelling against injustice and against the desire to push women into the private and domestic sphere where they might more easily be controlled, and by bringing the swirling waters of justice and of challenge into the society in which we live.

Parashat Korach : The women behind the men emerge. Take a bow Ms On ben Pelet

The rebellion of Korach is a powerful and pivotal moment in Torah, as the leadership of Moses and Aaron is challenged by their cousin who proclaims that they have taken too much of the power for themselves, that all the people were holy, and Moses and Aaron are raising themselves up above the ‘kehal adonai’ the community of God.

With Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, all of them grandchildren of Reuben the oldest son of Jacob, Korach the great grandson of Levi, third son of Jacob and ancestor of Moses and Aaron, musters 250 men of stature – this is emphasised in the text: “n’si’ei eidah, k’ri’ei mo’ed, anshei shem – princes of the congregation, elect men of the community, men of renown”.

The testosterone level is so high in this story we can practically smell it. The clashing of antlers of the big beasts jousting for power and control. There might be a pretence about the need for all the people to be recognised as holy, but the reality is clear that this is a palace coup, and Moses doesn’t know what to do.

A great deal has been written about this, but I want to focus today on one of the more minor characters, On ben Pelet. Because while he is there at the beginning of the revolution he is missing from its denouement. And he doesn’t appear again.  The other rebels go down into the yawning pit as the earth opens, On ben Pelet however simply disappears from history.  Why?

The midrash provides a wonderful explanation. His wife gets involved. In this testosterone soaked challenge the men have essentially lost the plot. Where there are reasonable grounds for saying that Moses and Aaron have taken on too much of the leadership, there is no accountability and there is no transparency, the plotters went too far themselves, scenting regime change. It takes, in the view of the midrash, the calm and thoughtful intervention of the women we never really see (except as witnesses to the divine destruction of the hard line conspirators).

Talmud tells us this: (BT Sanhedrin 109b-110a)

“Rav said: On, the son of Pelet was saved by his wife. Said she to him, ‘What matters it to you? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korach] becomes master, you will be nothing but a disciple.’ He replied, ‘But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.’ She said, ‘I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, “seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them. [So,]’ she proceeded, ‘Sit here, and I will save you.’ She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down inside [the tent]. Then she sat down at the entrance and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated. Meanwhile, Korach’s wife joined them [the rebels] and said to him [Korach], ‘See what Moses has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother’s sons he made vice High Priests. If Terumah is brought, he decrees, Let it be for the priest; if the tithe is brought, which belongs to you [i.e., to the Levite], he orders, Give a tenth part of it to the priest. Moreover, he has had your hair cut off, and makes sport of you as though you were dirt; for he was jealous of your hair.’ Said he to her, ‘But he has done likewise!’ She replied, ‘Since all the greatness was his, he said also, Let me die with the Philistines. Moreover, he has commanded you, Set [fringes] of blue wool [in the corners of your garments]; but if there is virtue in blue wool, then bring forth blue wool, and clothe your entire academy with it.  And so it is written, Every wise woman builds her house — this refers to the wife of On, the son of Pelet; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands — to Korach’s wife.”

The Talmudic midrash sees the minor figure of On ben Pelet, notices his disappearance by the end of the story, and pins this on the even more minor figures of “the wives”.

The unnamed wife of On ben Pelet is a politician to her fingertips. She can see that her husband is of lowly status and is never likely to amount to much. Whoever wins in the rebellion, he will never be an important part of the hierarchy. He isn’t much of a catch, one gets the feeling, but he is hers and she would rather he were alive than dead. Whether this is love or not is irrelevant, his fate would have repercussions on her status, she does not want to be the widow of a dissident – that would make her even more vulnerable than she is now.

So, in time honoured fashion, she gets him drunk. We think of Boaz and Ruth, of Noah and his daughters, of Yael and Sisera – when a woman wants to get a man pliant and to do her bidding it seems, the answer is to ply him with intoxicants. The drunken On ben Pelet is ushered into the tent to sleep it off. But this is still not enough to ensure he doesn’t rouse and put himself – and her – into danger. So she sits at the entrance with loosened hair – immodest, sexually charged, a terror to the scouts who may come to demand his presence. Like Rachel she uses her body to prevent anyone coming to search. And her husband slumbers on all unknowing.

On ben Pelet is, in the story, a nudnik, a schlemiel, scion of a great family maybe, but incompetent and easily led. He needs all the skills of his competent wife to survive. And it would be lovely if the midrash ended there. But no, the Talmud having decided on a verse in Proverbs (14:1) feels the need to explicate the other half of it.

“Every wise woman builds her house; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands.”

The wise woman here is clearly aligned with the wife of On ben Pelet, but who is the foolish wife? After all, 250 men joined Korach, Datan and Abiram in the failed rebellion.

It is interesting to me that the midrash decides that the parallel is with the wife of Korach – the main protagonist in this affair. And more than that, they give her great knowledge and legalistic reasoning – this is an educated woman able to debate and hold her point.

She begins first with the nepotism: Moses has made himself king. He has made his brother the High Priest, he has made his brother’s sons vice High Priests – something that is new to this text. Then when the Terumah offering is brought, it is immediately taken up by his own close family. This food (or oil or wine) can only be eaten by the Cohanim. Korach being only a Levite, is not permitted to have use of it.

Then she points out the tithing which would go to the Levites – Moses had set a limit of a tenth to go to the priests.

Then she moves on to the cut hair done as part of the purification rites. Before her husband can object she layers meaning over it – Moses was jealous of Korach’s lovely hair. He now laughs at him once the hair is cut off and Korach is, presumably, less attractive. No matter that Moses also had his hair cut according to Korach, his wife clearly believes that the impact on Moses was much less than that on her husband. Moses comes out the winner.

Now she moves onto ritual grievances. Moses had told them to wear blue threads on the fringes of their garments, but this is simply tokenistic in her eyes – if blue is to be worn as a mark of honour, then the whole garment should be blue. Otherwise, her reasoning seems to be, there is no real honour, just pretence, a token and perfunctory nod to the status of her husband; Korach is damned by faint praise and his wife notices.

She is painted as an intelligent and ambitious woman. Curiously she too seems to have the upper hand in the relationship – and she gives Korach the intellectual underpinnings for his challenge.

But her ambition for her husband is too much. He is not a strategist, not really a leader. Having made his alliances his own thirst for power comes through – why else would On ben Pelet feel uneasy having agreed to join the alliance? Korach cannot deviate from the path he is on. He doesn’t seem to realise that the atmosphere is changing, that his leadership is doomed.

His wife too is given no more voice. Who knows whether she had she would have been able to persuade her husband to reverse his challenge. Instead we see from the text that Datan and Abiram, their wives and children, stand at the doorways of their tents; And we see the earth opening and everything that pertained to Korach was swallowed up alive into the pit. The 250 men who were offering their own incense were destroyed by divine fire. Yet curiously Korach and his wife are not mentioned in the text as explicitly as Datan and Abiram were. Did Mrs Korach have one last trick up her sleeve? Did they melt away from the scene of destruction they had caused, in the hope of living to fight another day?