Parashat Yitro: the first learning of the people is that the earth belongs to God

L’italiano segue l’inglese

“If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)

The setting is shortly before the giving of the Torah at Sinai. God has called Moses up the mountain and told him what he must say to the Israelites encamped below.  There is about to be a particular agreement made between them and God, and embedded in it will be a special relationship – conditional on the people of Israel obeying God and keeping the covenant, they will become a “segulah” – a treasure, and they will become a nation with a special priestly role in the world. The idea is repeated in several places in bible, but in this (first) iteration, is the additional phrase “Ki li col ha’aretz” – all the earth is Mine”

There is a parallel passage in the book of Leviticus – in parashat Behar, which claims to be reporting  that which was said at Sinai, we are told “(25:23) “ And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and settlers with Me” Ki li ha’aretz” – for the earth is Mine.

At Sinai, when the people meet God, the message is made very clear –the earth and all that is in it is ultimately the possession of God. The plagues which had allowed them to be free of their slavery – these were phenomena of God. Sinai and her mysterious  shaking/smoking/shofar is also a manifestation of God’s power in the world. God is fully in charge of the earth – the world and everything in it is subject to God and God’s will.

At Sinai in parashat Yitro and beyond, the people will receive not only the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments – they will also receive the Mishpatim, all the laws and sub-clauses of the covenant with God. And many of these are to do with proper treatment of the land.  In the resonant text in Leviticus quoted above, they will receive the laws of shemittah and yovel – the cycle of letting the land rest, and of liberating and redistributing the land itself every 50 years.

When God introduces Godself to the people, it is with the phrase “for all the earth is Mine”. In part this is a necessary clarification of monotheism – there is only the one God, not the many manifestations beloved by the ancient world of agricultural peoples. But it is also the clarification that we are not – and never shall be – the owners of the earth. We are at best its stewards; it can never be sold to others or worked into barrenness. It is not something to be exploited or used to give us status or power over others. As the psalmist writes (Psalm 24)

לַֽ֭יהֹוָה הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְי֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ: ב כִּי ה֖וּא עַל־יַמִּ֣ים יְסָדָ֑הּ וְעַל־נְ֝הָר֗וֹת יְכוֹנְנֶֽהָ: ג מִי־יַֽ֭עֲלֶה בְהַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֑ה וּמִי־יָ֝קוּם בִּמְק֥וֹם קָדְשֽׁוֹ: ד נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּבַ֢ר לֵ֫בָ֥ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹא־נָשָׂ֣א לַשָּׁ֣וְא נַפְשִׁ֑י וְלֹ֖א נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לְמִרְמָֽה: ה יִשָּׂ֣א בְ֭רָכָה מֵאֵ֣ת יְהֹוָ֑ה וּ֝צְדָקָ֗ה מֵאֱ֘לֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעֽוֹ:

The earth is the Eternal’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein

For God has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods. Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Eternal? and who shall stand in God’s holy place?  The one who has clean hands, and a pure heart;  who has not taken My name in vain, and has not sworn deceitfully.  That one shall receive a blessing from the Eternal, and righteousness from the God of salvation.

Our agreement with God is predicated on our good relationship with the land. And the land’s fertility and accommodation to us is predicated on our good relationship with God, as described in the covenant at Sinai and beyond. In our relationship with God, the land has agency, is both sign and symptom of our connection.

There is already a hint of the overarching power of God in the world, and the meaning this gives our role in the world, in two earlier places in bible – both of which involve “outsiders”. When Malchitzedek, priest and king of Salem, greets Abram after the war of the four against the five, he makes a sacrifice of celebration, and says (Gen 14:19)

בָּר֤וּךְ אַבְרָם֙ לְאֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ:

Blessed  is Avram of the Most High God, owner of the heavens and the earth

Later, when Moses speaks to Pharaoh after the plague of hail, Pharaoh entreats Moses to ask God to cease the thunderstorms and the people will go free – and Moses replies “as I leave the city I will spread my hands to God and the thunder will cease…so that you will know that the earth belongs to God. (Exodus 9:29)

The plagues are not only for the Pharaoh or for the Egyptian people to understand the power of God in the world, they are also for the Israelite people trapped in slavery – the God who will lead them out of their misery is the ultimate power, who owns heaven and earth and all that is in them and on them.

So when God tells Moses to tell the encamped ex-slaves down below that God is the owner of heaven and earth, it is not new information, but is being stated here because the covenant depends on their – and our – understanding that we do not own the earth, that we are temporary residents upon it, that our behaviour will dictate whether we are able to live out our days in comfort and plenty – or not.

This week as we celebrated the minor festival of Tu Bishvat, we are reminded that of all the fruit we harvest, a portion must be given in tithe – to go to the priesthood, the vulnerable, those without land to create their own food supply. For the first three years (Tu bishvat is the cut-off date for the years since planting) the fruit will not be eaten (orlah), then the system of tithing (maaser sheni  and maaser  ani) would make the owner of the tree liable for giving a tenth of its produce to the Jerusalem Temple and to the poor.

Harvesting the fruit of a tree is labour intensive work. Giving away a portion of the fruit means we are constantly aware that the tree does not ultimately belong to us – we have use of it, we take care of it, but we cannot own it, nor the land it is rooted in.

As the people camp at the foot of Mt Sinai, the first learning they do is to understand that the earth and everything on it belongs to God.  Whatever our contract with God gives us or demands from us, ultimately this is God’s earth and we are sojourners and settlers who must treat it well or lose the privilege of the land.

We have grown used to ignoring this idea, to buying and selling land and natural resources, to plundering and over-fertilizing and gouging and sowing and tilling and harvesting as we like. We have grown used to making the land serve us rather than we serve it. Tu biShvat, and the words of God in introduction from Sinai  in this sidra come to remind us. “The earth and its fullness belong only to God”.

Parashat Ithrò: il primo apprendimento del popolo è che la terra appartiene a Dio

Di rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato l’11 febbraio 2020

Ordunque se voi obbedirete alla Mia voce e manterrete il Mio patto sarete per me quale tesoro tra tutti i popoli, poiché a Me appartiene tutta la terra. E voi sarete per me un reame di sacerdoti, una nazione consacrata”. (Esodo 19: 5-6)

Lo scenario si colloca poco prima della consegna della Torà al Sinai. Dio ha chiamato Mosè sul monte e gli ha detto cosa doveva dire agli israeliti accampati più sotto. Sta per esserci un accordo particolare tra loro e Dio, e in esso si inserirà una relazione speciale, subordinata al fatto che il popolo di Israele obbedisca a Dio e mantenga l’alleanza: diventeranno una “segulà“, un tesoro, e diventeranno una nazione con un ruolo sacerdotale speciale nel mondo. L’idea si ripete in diversi punti della Bibbia, ma in questa (prima) iterazione, c’è la frase aggiuntiva “Ki li col ha haaretz” – tutta la terra è Mia”.

C’è un passaggio parallelo nel libro del Levitico: nella Parashat Behar, che afferma di riferire ciò che è stato detto al Sinai, ci viene detto (25:23) “E la terra non deve essere venduta per sempre; poiché la terra è mia; poiché voi siete estranei e coloni con Me“, Ki li ha’aretz, “poiché la terra è Mia”.

Al Sinai, quando il popolo incontra Dio, il messaggio è reso molto chiaramente: la terra e tutto ciò che è in essa è, in definitiva, possesso di Dio. Le piaghe che avevano permesso agli ebrei di essere liberi dalla loro schiavitù erano fenomeni di Dio. Anche il Sinai e il suo misterioso scuotimento/fumo/shofar è una manifestazione del potere di Dio nel mondo. Dio è totalmente responsabile della terra: il mondo e tutto ciò che è in esso è soggetto a Dio e alla volontà di Dio.

Al Sinai, nella parashà di Ithrò, e anche oltre, il popolo riceverà non solo le Asseret haDibrot, i Dieci Comandamenti, ma riceverà anche i Mishpatim, tutte le leggi e le sotto-clausole del patto con Dio. E molti di questi hanno a che fare con un adeguato trattamento della terra. Nel testo risonante del Levitico sopra citato, riceveranno le leggi di shemittà e yovel: il ciclo per lasciare riposare la terra e per liberare e ridistribuire la terra stessa ogni cinquanta anni.

Quando Dio si presenta al popolo, è con la frase “perché tutta la terra è mia”. In parte questo è un necessario chiarimento del monoteismo: esiste solo un solo Dio, non le molteplici manifestazioni amate dall’antico mondo dei popoli agricoli. Ma è anche il chiarimento che non siamo, e non saremo mai, i proprietari della terra. Nella migliore delle ipotesi siamo i suoi amministratori; non potrà mai essere venduta ad altri o portata alla sterilità. Non è qualcosa da sfruttare o utilizzare per darci status o potere sugli altri. Come scrive il salmista (Salmo 24)

לַֽ֭יהֹוָה הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְי֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ: ב כִּי ה֖וּא עַל־יַמִּ֣ים יְסָדָ֑הּ וְעַל־נְ֝הָר֗וֹת יְכוֹנְנֶֽהָ: ג מִי־יַֽ֭עֲלֶה בְהַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֑ה וּמִי־יָ֝קוּם בִּמְק֥וֹם קָדְשֽׁוֹ: ד נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּבַ֢ר לֵ֫בָ֥ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹא־נָשָׂ֣א לַשָּׁ֣וְא נַפְשִׁ֑י וְלֹ֖א נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לְמִרְמָֽה: ה יִשָּׂ֣א בְ֭רָכָה מֵאֵ֣ת יְהֹוָ֑ה וּ֝צְדָקָ֗ה מֵאֱ֘לֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעֽוֹ:

            Al Signore appartengono la terra e ciò che essa contiene.

            Poiché Dio ha fondato la terra sui mari e l’ha basata sui fiumi. Chi è degno di salire al monte del Signore e chi potrà stare nel luogo a Lui consacrato? Colui che ha le mani nette ed è puro di cuore; che non si è rivolto a cose false né ha giurato per ingannare. Egli otterrà benedizione dal Signore e la giustizia dal Dio che lo salva.

Il nostro accordo con Dio si basa sul nostro buon rapporto con la terra. E la fertilità e la sistemazione della terra per le nostre esigenze sono basati sul nostro buon rapporto con Dio, come descritto nell’alleanza del Sinai e oltre. Nel nostro rapporto con Dio, la terra ha un ruolo, è sia segno che sintomo della nostra connessione.

C’è già un accenno al potere globale di Dio nel mondo, e il significato che questo conferisce al nostro ruolo nel mondo, in due precedenti luoghi della Bibbia, entrambi i quali coinvolgono “estranei”. Quando Melchisedek, sacerdote e re di Salem, saluta Abramo dopo la guerra dei quattro contro i cinque, fa un sacrificio di celebrazione e dice (Gen 14:19)

בָּר֤וּךְ אַבְרָם֙ לְאֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ         Benedetto tu sia,  Abramo,  dal Dio Altissimo, padrone del cielo e della terra.

            Più tardi, quando Mosè parla al faraone dopo la pestilenza della grandine, il faraone invita Mosè a chiedere a Dio di cessare i temporali e il popolo sarà libero, e Mosè risponde “Appena uscito dalla città stenderò le mani verso il Signore in segno di preghiera e allora i tuoni cesseranno… … affinché tu riconosca che la terra appartiene a Dio”. (Esodo 9:29)

Le piaghe non servono solo per far capire al faraone o al popolo egiziano il potere di Dio nel mondo, ma anche al popolo israelita intrappolato nella schiavitù che il Dio che li condurrà fuori dalla sua miseria è il potere supremo, che possiede il cielo e la terra e tutto ciò che è in loro e su di loro.

Così quando Dio dice a Mosè di dire agli ex schiavi accampati più sotto che Dio è il proprietario del cielo e della terra, non si tratta di informazioni nuove, ma la dichiarazione viene fatta qui perché l’alleanza dipende dalla loro, e nostra, comprensione che non possediamo la terra, che siamo temporaneamente residenti su di essa, che il nostro comportamento determinerà se siamo in grado di vivere i nostri giorni in tutta comodità e abbondanza, o no.

Questa settimana, quando abbiamo celebrato la festa minore di Tu B’Shvat, ci è stato ricordato che di tutto il frutto che raccogliamo, una parte deve essere data in decima, per andare al sacerdozio, ai vulnerabili, ai senza terra per creare il loro approvvigionamento di cibo. Per i primi tre anni (Tu B’Shvat è la data limite per gli anni dalla semina) il frutto non verrà mangiato (orlà), quindi il sistema della decima (maaser sheni e maaser ani) renderebbe responsabile il proprietario dell’albero per la donazione di un decimo dei suoi prodotti al Tempio di Gerusalemme e ai poveri.

La raccolta del frutto di un albero è un lavoro ad alta intensità di fatica. Dare via una porzione del frutto significa che siamo costantemente consapevoli che l’albero non ci appartiene in via definitiva: ne abbiamo uso, ce ne occupiamo, ma non possiamo possederlo, così come la terra in cui è esso è radicato.

Mentre il popolo si accampa ai piedi del Monte Sinai, il suo primo apprendimento è capire che la terra e tutto ciò che vi è in essa appartiene a Dio. Qualsiasi cosa il nostro contratto con Dio, ci dia o esiga da noi, in definitiva questa è la terra di Dio e siamo residenti e coloni che devono trattarla bene o ne perderemo il privilegio.

Ci siamo abituati a ignorare questa idea, ci siamo abituati ad acquistare a vendere i terreni e le risorse naturali, a saccheggiare e all’eccessivamente fertilizzare, a scavare, a seminare, a lavorare e a raccogliere come ci piace. Ci siamo abituati a farci servire dalla terra piuttosto che a servirla. Tu b’Shvat e le parole di Dio introdotte dal Sinai in questa sidra vengono a ricordarci. “La terra e la sua pienezza appartengono solo a Dio“.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

Bo: We may not be at the end of days, but the locusts are swarming now.

L’italiano segue l’inglese

And the Eternal said to Moses: ‘Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts that they may come up upon the land of Egypt, and eat every herb of the land, even all that the hail has left.’ And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Eternal brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all the night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts. And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the borders of Egypt; very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such.  For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left; and there remained not any green thing, either tree or herb of the field, through all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 10:12-15)

The eighth of the disasters to come upon the Egyptians was that of the swarms of locusts, completing the devastation of the crops begun by the hail.

I remember the locust cage in the biology lab at school. The bright lights keeping the box warm and the locusts absolutely quiet and still: and the sudden and quite terrifyingly loud jumping and swarming when I put my hand into the box to feed them. The banging and whirring and jumping made my heart pound, even though I knew they were safely contained and anyway would not bite or sting.

That memory stayed with me – I can still feel the sudden violence of the movements, hear the bodies crashing against their confinement and my heart rate echoing their rapid thumping.

Reading the story of the swarming locusts in parashat Bo I can return to that memory and its accompanying visceral anxiety in a heartbeat. And now another layer of understanding is added as I read the reports of the locusts swarming in East Africa. Just like those in the biblical text they are consuming every last bit of vegetation needed for the people and for the animals to survive.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) this is the worst swarming in Kenya for a biblical sounding 70 years. It estimated one swarm there to be around 2,400 square kilometres (about 930 square miles); it could contain up to 200 billion locusts, each of which consumes its own weight in food every day. They can move up to 150 kilometres (90 miles) in one day. If unchecked, the numbers could grow 500 times by June, spreading to Uganda and South Sudan, becoming a plague that will devastate crops and pasture in a region which is already one of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world.

These locusts are not a phenomenon designed to show the power of God against those who do not recognise it – they are a natural and obvious consequence of the extreme weather events suffered in Africa in the last few years – drought, wildfires, floods, landslides, extreme temperature, fog and storms.

According to data maintained by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels, Africa recorded 56 extreme weather events in 2019 and 45 extreme events in 2018. Nearly 16.6 million people were affected due to natural disasters in 29 African countries last year.

The locusts came this year after a year of extremes which included eight cyclones off East Africa, the most in a single year since 1976.  The cyclones themselves are linked to higher-than-usual temperature differences between the two sides of the Indian Ocean – something meteorologists refer to as the Indian Ocean Dipole (or the “Indian Niño”) warmer sea temperatures in the western Indian Ocean region, with the opposite in the east. This unusually strong positive dipole this year has meant higher-than-average rainfall and floods in eastern Africa and droughts in south-east Asia and Australia. We have seen the resulting overwhelming bush fires in Australia, but maybe the news of the heavy downpours devastating parts of East Africa has been less prominent. In the Horn of Africa there was up to 300% above average rainfall between October and mid-November, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.  The resultant floods and washing away of villages, soil and people, has also been horrific.

We have a Famine Early Warning Systems Network. We have a Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. We have a Food and Agriculture organisation which is part of the UN.  We know what the changes in climate and environment mean, not only for the people currently facing devastation, but for our interconnected and fragile earth. What it means for us all.

I never read the story of the plague of locusts with the same dispassion as that of the frogs. Frogs always seemed dear and sweet beings, who may be found in a cool cellar, or around a garden pond – they are generally seen as symbolising life or harmony, they are beneficial to the garden, they squat patiently in damp corners or sit on lily pads…

But the plague of locusts is fraught with all the visceral and atavistic responses to the harsh rattling of their wings, and the sudden jumping, flying, swarming – let alone the ability to consume their own weight in vegetation every day.

The bible tells us that the locusts would

וְכִסָּה֙ אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֔רֶץ וְלֹ֥א יוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ

“Cover the eye of the earth, and one would not be able to see the earth” (10:5)

The eye of the earth will be covered, and he will be unable to see or understand the land – this is the message Moses will give to Pharaoh before the locusts will come, followed by the deep tangible darkness and finally the death of the first born.

There is a connecting theme of darkness, of blindness, of inability to discern in these final three plagues. It is a theme that resonates for us today – even with all the monitoring and the early warning systems, we are unable – or rather we are unwilling – to discern what the earth is telling us.   We are unwilling to really understand and to see that the disasters unfolding in different parts of our world are connected to each other and to us. Like the Pharaoh we stubbornly continue along our path in the face of the increasingly terrible events, until forced to wake up and cede to reality. This is plague number 8, there are two more steps in the biblical narrative until the final and most horrific event of all. There is – just – time for our politicians to wake up and cede to the reality of environmental disasters as a consequence of the change in our climate.  Like Moses and Aaron, we must communicate loud and clear to the prevailing powers, if we are to avoid the final devastation.

Parashà Bo:

Potremmo non essere alla fine dei giorni, ma le locuste stanno brulicando.

di rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato il 27 gennaio 2020 

  Il Signore disse a Mosè: “Stendi la tua mano sulla terra d’Egitto per l’invasione delle locuste in modo che invadano il paese e distruggano ogni erbaggio della terra, tutto quanto ha risparmiato la grandine”. E Mosè stese la sua verga sulla terra d’Egitto, e il Signore fece soffiare un vento orientale sul paese tutto quel giorno e la notte seguente; al sorgere del mattino, il vento dell’est trasportò le locuste che si elevarono su tutta la terra egiziana e si andarono a posare in tutto il territorio egiziano in modo straordinario; mai prima di ciò si era visto un fenomeno tale né, dopo, nulla di simile accadrà. E le locuste ricoprirono la faccia di tutto il paese, cosicché tutto si  oscurò; e le locuste divorarono ogni erba, ogni frutto d’albero che era stato risparmiato dalla grandine; e non rimase alcunché di verde degli alberi, né alcun erbaggio della campagna in tutto il paese d’Egitto. (Esodo 10: 12-15)

L’ottavo dei disastri che colpirono gli egiziani fu quello degli sciami di locuste, che completarono la devastazione delle colture iniziata con la grandine.

Ricordo la gabbia delle locuste nel laboratorio di biologia a scuola. Le luci intense che mantenevano il contenitore caldo e le locuste assolutamente silenziose e immobili: l’improvviso e terrificante rumoroso saltare e sciamare al momento di mettere la mano nella scatola per dar loro da mangiare. I colpi, i ronzii e i salti mi facevano battere forte il cuore, anche se sapevo che erano tenute in sicurezza e che non mi avrebbero in nessun modo morso o punto.

Quel ricordo è rimasto con me: sento ancora l’improvvisa violenza dei movimenti, sento i corpi schiantarsi contro il loro confinamento e sento il mio battito cardiaco far eco ai loro rapidi tonfi.

Leggendo la storia delle brulicanti locuste nella parashà Bo, in un battito di ciglia torno a quel ricordo e alla sua compresente ansia viscerale. E ora si aggiunge un altro livello di comprensione mentre leggo i resoconti delle locuste che brulicano nell’Africa orientale. Stanno consumando ogni ultimo pezzetto di vegetazione necessario alle persone e alla sopravvivenza degli animali, proprio come quelle del testo biblico.

Secondo l’Organizzazione delle Nazioni Unite per l’Alimentazione e l’Agricoltura (FAO), questo è il peggior sciame in Kenya da settant’anni, che risuonano biblici. Si stima che lo sciame sia di circa duemila-quattrocento chilometri quadrati e potrebbe contenere fino a duecento miliardi di locuste, ognuna delle quali consuma ogni giorno cibo pari al proprio peso. Possono spostarsi fino a centocinquanta chilometri in un giorno. Se non controllato, il numero potrebbe aumentare di cinquecento volte entro giugno, diffondendosi in Uganda e nel Sud Sudan, diventando una piaga che devasterà i raccolti e i pascoli in una regione che è già una delle più povere e vulnerabili del mondo.

Queste locuste non sono un fenomeno progettato per mostrare il potere di Dio contro coloro che non lo riconoscono: sono una conseguenza naturale e ovvia degli eventi meteorologici estremi subiti in Africa negli ultimi anni: siccità, incendi, alluvioni, frane, temperature altissime, nebbia e tempeste.

Secondo i dati conservati dal Centro di ricerca sull’epidemiologia delle catastrofi a Bruxelles, l’Africa ha registrato cinquantasei eventi meteorologici estremi nel 2019 e quarantacinque nel 2018. Quasi 16,6 milioni di persone sono state colpite da catastrofi naturali in ventinove paesi africani lo scorso anno.

Le locuste sono arrivate quest’anno dopo un anno di fenomeni estremi che ha incluso otto cicloni al largo dell’Africa orientale, il maggior  numero in un solo anno dal 1976. I cicloni stessi sono collegati a differenze di temperatura più alte del solito tra le due sponde dell’Oceano Indiano: qualcosa che i meteorologi chiamano “Dipolo dell’Oceano Indiano” (o “Niño indiano”), ovvero temperature del mare più calde nella regione dell’Oceano Indiano occidentale e il contrario ad est. Il dipolo positivo insolitamente forte di quest’anno ha significato precipitazioni e inondazioni superiori alla media nell’Africa orientale e siccità nel sud-est asiatico e in Australia. Abbiamo visto gli incendi boschivi che ne derivano in Australia, ma forse la notizia dei forti acquazzoni che devastano parti dell’Africa orientale è stata meno importante. Nel Corno d’Africa ci sono state piogge fino al 300% superiori alla media tra ottobre e metà novembre, secondo la Famine Early Warning Systems Network. Anche le conseguenti inondazioni e il loro spazzar via villaggi, suolo e persone sono stati raccapriccianti.

Abbiamo una rete di rapidi sistemi di allarme per le carestie. Abbiamo un centro di ricerca sull’epidemiologia delle catastrofi. Abbiamo un’organizzazione alimentare e agricola che fa parte delle Nazioni Unite. Sappiamo cosa comportino i cambiamenti nel clima e nell’ambiente, non solo per le persone che attualmente affrontano devastazioni, ma per la nostra terra interconnessa e fragile. Sappiamo cosa ciò significa per tutti noi.

Non ho mai letto la storia della piaga delle locuste con la stesso distacco di quella delle rane. Le rane sembrano sempre esseri cari e dolci, che possono essere trovati in una fresca cantina o intorno a uno stagno del giardino: sono generalmente viste come simboli della vita o dell’armonia, sono benefiche per il giardino, si accovacciano delicatamente in angoli umidi o si siedono su un giglio …

Ma la piaga delle locuste è irta di tutte le risposte viscerali e ataviche al duro tintinnio delle loro ali e all’improvviso saltare, volare, sciamare, per non parlare della loro capacità di consumare ogni giorno vegetazione pari al proprio peso.

La Bibbia ci dice ciò che le locuste possono fare:

וְכִסָּה֙ אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֔רֶץ וְלֹ֥א יוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ

Ricopriranno la faccia della terra così da non essere in grado vedere la terra” (10: 5)

La faccia della terra sarà coperta e non si sarà in grado di vedere o comprendere la terra: questo è il messaggio che Mosè trasmetterà al faraone prima che arrivino le locuste, seguite dalla profonda e tangibile oscurità e infine dalla morte dei primogeniti.

C’è un tema di collegamento tra oscurità, cecità, incapacità di discernere in queste ultime tre piaghe. È un tema che risuona per noi oggi: anche con tutti i sistemi di monitoraggio e di allarme rapido, non siamo in grado, o piuttosto non siamo disposti, di discernere ciò che la Terra ci sta dicendo. Non siamo propensi a capire veramente e a vedere che i disastri che si verificano in diverse parti del nostro mondo sono collegati tra loro e con noi. Come il faraone, continuiamo testardamente lungo il nostro cammino di fronte a eventi sempre più terribili, fino a quando non siamo costretti a svegliarci e cedere alla realtà. Questa è la piaga numero otto, ci sono altri due passi nella narrazione biblica fino all’evento finale e più orribile di tutti. I nostri politici hanno appena il tempo di svegliarsi e cedere alla realtà delle catastrofi ambientali a seguito del cambiamento del nostro clima. Come Mosè e Aronne, dobbiamo comunicare forte e chiaro con le potenze prevalenti, se vogliamo evitare la devastazione finale.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Va’era – signs and wonders are warnings: ignoring them may cost more than we can bear

L’italiano segue l’inglese

When Pharaoh instructed the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah to kill every new-born Hebrew baby boy (Exodus 1:15,16) he clearly thought he was responding  appropriately to the Egyptian nationalist fear that the population of Hebrews living amongst his people was increasing at an alarming rate and might become what we would now call a “fifth column”.  The murdering of the male children would ensure they could never grow into a military force, the keeping alive of the female children would ultimately provide both labour and more Egyptian children.

Besides the fact that, like all practitioners of the Great Replacement Theory, the fearers  were inventing a conspiracy against themselves that simply did not exist, and using it to try to control and oppress others – Pharaoh’s move acted against the promise of God to Abraham, a promise of many descendants and great fruitfulness.

For a while the actions of Shifra and Puah mitigated any effect of his decree – but they could not do so forever. In the biblical understanding of the world and the covenantal promise with God, something was seriously awry with decree of murder against new-born Hebrew boys, and the equilibrium had to be restored.

The conversations between Moses and God  begin with God noticing the pain and sorrow of the Hebrew slaves (3:6ff) and entering history  in order to address the problem of their oppression. God tells Moses to introduce himself and his experience to the Israelite people, and then go with the elders of that community to Pharaoh to request a three day ceremonial to God in the wilderness. At this point God notes that Pharaoh will not accede to the request, except with a “yad hazakah – a mighty hand”, and that God will smite Egypt with God’s “nifla’ot   נִפְלְאֹתַי” – wondrous events, and after that Pharaoh will let them go (Exodus 3:16-20)

When Moses objects that he will not be believed by the Israelites, God gives him two “signs אֹתוֹת” , and then offers a third – prefiguring the Nile being turned into blood, but on a much smaller scale (Exodus 4:1-9)

These two words – “signs” and “wonders” are the words used for most of what we today tend to describe as “plagues”. And in fact the word מגפה – translated as plague – does not occur until very much later in the narrative – in Exodus 9:14. Six events happen before the word is used – the Nile water is turned to blood, many frogs appear, followed by lice or gnats, then flies appear everywhere, the cattle and other animals become diseased, then everyone – human and beast – breaks out in boils. Only after Pharaoh is unmoved by the distress of everyone including his own magicians, does God say “For I will this time send all My plagues on your person (heart), and on your servants, and on your people; that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth.”(9:14)

There follows the extraordinary thunderstorm of hail and of intermittent fire that struck and devastated everywhere in the land of Egypt  – except the land of Goshen where Joseph had first settled his family:   “there was hail, and fire flashing up amidst the hail, very grievous, such as had not been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.  And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both human and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field.  Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail. (9:24-26). This is where our sidra ends. Next week’s reading continues the narrative with its climax: locusts which destroy all the remaining vegetation, the thick and tangible darkness that lasts for three days (except in Goshen) and finally and most terribly of all, resonating with Pharaoh’s original decree and even more extensive – the death of the first born child of every person from Pharaoh to the slave women and the cattle.

We tend when we read this narrative to fix on the battle between Pharaoh and God – and ask ourselves just why God allows so many to suffer in order to get Pharaoh to understand and the slaves to be able to leave.  We look at the patterning – the warnings and the lack of warnings; the Pharaonic response to allow the Hebrews to go -which he then revokes. The “hardening of the heart” – what it means, who does it and why…. But this year I noticed the very simple words “nifla’ot” and “ot” – the wonders and the signs – all of which describe nothing very magical but a logical sequence of consequences – stagnant polluted water leading to dead fish and escaping frogs; lice, flies, diseased animals and human beings as the biting insects and disease vectors grow in the surroundings – only with the odd mix of ice and fire does the nature of the “message” change – now something is deeply deeply unnatural, the world is in chaos, the normal expectation of weather systems is destroyed –and so it goes on.

In this narrative we see God “speaking” to human beings in a series of signs, of odd and unexpected activity. Only when these signs have been comprehensively and frequently ignored, do we move on to the real plagues – the all-consuming locusts who leave neither food nor seed, the darkness and the deaths within every family.

The world we live in is also experiencing the signs of work of creation being dismantled. We have chosen to challenge God or science – take your pick – and assumed that we can continue to create and consume energy, continue to pump rubbish into our waterways and seas, continue to behave as if we are not the care-takers of the world but the owners and rightful plunderers of it.

The signs have been with us for some time – strange weather systems, hotter summers, droughts, famines, torrential floods, tsunamis…… These are not plagues but they are warnings that all is not well, that our choices are disturbing the equilibrium of our world, that if we continue to behave as we have, there will be tragic consequences.

Va’era – segni e prodigi sono avvertimenti: ignorarli può costare più di quanto possiamo sopportare

Quando il Faraone diede istruzioni alle levatrici ebree Shifra e Pu’à di uccidere ogni neonato maschio ebreo (Esodo 1: 15,16), pensò chiaramente di rispondere in maniera appropriata ai timori nazionalisti egiziani che la popolazione di Ebrei, che viveva in mezzo al suo popolo, fosse in aumento con un tasso allarmante e che sarebbe potuta diventare quella che oggi chiameremmo una “quinta colonna”. L’assassinio di bambini maschi avrebbe garantito che essi non sarebbero mai diventati una forza militare, il mantenimento in vita delle bambine alla fine avrebbe fornito sia manodopera che più bambini egiziani.

Oltre al fatto che, come tutti i praticanti della Grande Teoria della Sostituzione, stava inventando una cospirazione inesistente contro se stesso e la usava per cercare di controllare e opprimere gli altri, la mossa del Faraone agiva contro la promessa di Dio ad Abramo, una promessa di molti discendenti e grande fecondità.

Per un po’ le azioni di Shifra e Pu’à mitigarono qualsiasi effetto del suo decreto, ma non poterono farlo per sempre. Secondo la visione biblica del mondo e nella promessa dell’alleanza con Dio, il decreto di uccidere tutti i neonati maschi ebrei era qualcosa di fortemente sbagliato, e l’equilibrio doveva essere ripristinato.

Le conversazioni tra Mosè e Dio iniziano con Dio che nota il dolore e la disperazione degli schiavi ebrei (3: 6 sgg) ed interviene nella storia per affrontare il problema della loro oppressione. Dio dice a Mosè di presentare se stesso e la sua esperienza al popolo israelita, e poi andare con gli anziani di quella comunità dal Faraone per richiedere un cerimoniale di tre giorni a Dio nel deserto. A questo punto Dio nota che il Faraone non acconsentirà alla richiesta, se non per mezzo di una “yad hazakà – una mano potente”, e quindi Dio colpisce l’Egitto con le sue “nifla’ot נִפְלְאֹתַי”, eventi meravigliosi, dopo di ciò il Faraone li lascerà andare. (Esodo 3: 16-20)

Quando Mosè obietta che non verrà creduto dagli israeliti, Dio gli dà due “segni אֹתוֹת”,  quindi ne offre un terzo, prefigurando il Nilo trasformato in sangue, ma su scala molto più piccola (Esodo 4: 1-9)

Queste due parole: “segni” e “meraviglie”, sono le parole usate per la maggior parte di ciò che oggi tendiamo a descrivere come “piaghe”. E in effetti la parola מגפה , tradotta come peste, non compare che molto più tardi nella narrazione, in Esodo 9:14. Sei eventi accadono prima che la parola venga usata: l’acqua del Nilo viene trasformata in sangue, compaiono molte rane, seguite da pidocchi o moscerini, quindi compaiono mosche ovunque, il bestiame e altri animali si ammalano, quindi tutti, umani e animali, si riempiono di bubboni. Solo dopo che il Faraone è indifferente all’angoscia di tutti, compresa quella dei suoi maghi, Dio dice: “Questa volta manderò tutte le mie piaghe sulla tua persona (cuore), sui tuoi servi e sul tuo popolo; che tu possa sapere che non c’è nessuno come Me in tutta la terra” (9:14).

Segue lo straordinario temporale della grandine e del fuoco intermittente che colpì e devastò ovunque il paese d’Egitto, tranne la terra di Goshen dove Giuseppe aveva inizialmente insediato la sua famiglia: “c’era grandine e il fuoco si accese in mezzo alla grandine, molto intensa, come non era stato in tutto il paese d’Egitto da quando era diventato una nazione. E la grandine colpì in tutto i paese d’Egitto tutto ciò che era nel campo, sia umano che bestia; e la grandine colpì ogni erba del campo e spezzò ogni albero del campo. Solo nella terra di Goshen, dove erano i figli d’Israele, non c’era grandine” (9: 24-26). Qui è dove termina la nostra sidrà. La lettura della prossima settimana continua la narrazione con il suo apice narrativo: locuste che distruggono tutta la vegetazione rimanente, l’oscurità densa e tangibile che dura tre giorni (tranne a Goshen) e, infine, e più terribile di tutto, in risonanza con il decreto originale del Faraone e ancora più ampio, la morte del primogenito di ogni persona, dal Faraone, alle donne schiave e al bestiame.

Si tende, nella lettura di questa narrazione, a concentrarsi sul conflitto tra il Faraone e Dio, ci si chiede perché Dio permetta a così tante persone di soffrire per far capire a Faraone e che gli schiavi possano andarsene. Osserviamo il modello: gli avvertimenti e la mancanza di avvertimenti; la risposta faraonica per consentire agli ebrei di andare, che viene poi revocata. L’ “indurimento del cuore”, cosa significa, chi lo fa e perché … Ma quest’anno ho notato le parole molto semplici “nifla’ot” e “ot”, le meraviglie e i segni, che non descrivono nulla di molto magico, ma una sequenza logica di conseguenze, acqua inquinata stagnante che porta alla morte dei pesci e alla fuga delle rane; pidocchi, mosche, animali ed esseri umani malati mentre gli insetti pungenti e i vettori di malattia crescono nei dintorni, soltanto con lo strano mix di ghiaccio e fuoco cambia la natura del “messaggio”: ora è qualcosa di profondamente innaturale, il mondo è nel caos, la normale aspettativa dei sistemi meteorologici viene distrutta, e così via.

In questa narrazione vediamo Dio “parlare” agli esseri umani in una serie di segni, di strane e inaspettate attività. Solo quando questi segni sono stati completamente e frequentemente ignorati, passiamo alle vere piaghe: le locuste che consumano tutto e che non lasciano né cibo né seme, l’oscurità e la morte all’interno di ogni famiglia.

Anche il mondo in cui viviamo sta vivendo i segnali dello smantellamento del  lavoro di creazione. Abbiamo scelto di sfidare Dio o la scienza, a voi la scelta, e abbiamo ipotizzato che possiamo continuare a creare e consumare energia, continuare a pompare immondizia nei nostri corsi d’acqua e nei nostri mari, continuare a comportarci come se non fossimo gli assistenti del mondo ma ne fossimo i proprietari e i legittimi saccheggiatori.

I segni ci accompagnano da un po’ di tempo: strani sistemi meteorologici, estati più calde, siccità, carestie, inondazioni torrenziali, tsunami …… Queste non sono piaghe ma sono avvertimenti che non tutto va bene, che le nostre scelte stanno disturbando l’equilibrio del nostro mondo, che se continuiamo a comportarci come abbiamo fatto finora, ci saranno conseguenze tragiche.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

Biblical Empathy at the exodus from Egypt

Bible tells of ten plagues that struck all Egyptian people in the battle between God and Pharaoh, culminating with “God smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon and all the firstborn of cattle….there was a great cry in Egypt for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” The Egyptians hurried the Israelites away, giving them everything they asked for – jewellery, animals, clothing, gold, because they said “We are all dead”.

One can only imagine the grief, the terror and anguish of the Egyptians on that night, the night that we celebrate as “leil shimurim – night of vigil”, now Seder Night. As we celebrate and remember the story of our liberation, we are also observing the anniversary of these deaths, and on Seventh Day Pesach we will recall the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers, drowned as the waters closed over them while they pursued the escaping Israelites.

The bible tells the stories unflinchingly, recording the screams of the people facing their dead at midnight, the fear and distress of the Egyptian forces caught on the seabed unable to flee as the waters roll back.  It tells of the real human cost of our freedom. And Jewish tradition picks up this theme so that our observance of Pesach not only tells the story of the Israelites gaining freedom, but also the story of grief and fear experienced by those cast as our enemies.

The book of Proverbs tells us “when your enemy falls, do not rejoice” and rabbinic tradition reminds us to lessen any  joy gained at the expense of others. So we recite only half-hallel for the last six days of Pesach, we take out drops of wine at our Seder while recounting the plagues, and  remind ourselves that freedom  comes at a cost that we must never forget.

 

written for and first published by London Jewish News “the bible says what?” column March 2018

Parashat Bo: Darkness and Light

The final three plagues that occur in this week’s sidra, appear on first reading to be difficult to categorise until we see a thread that connects them – that of darkness itself. The swarm of locusts cut out any light from the sun, forming a thick cloud of living destruction. The bible tells us “they cover the eye of the land so that no one can see it”. The three days of darkness of the ninth plague meant that the Egyptians could not see each other or to move around at all – “they could not get up from where they were”. And the last terrible plague, that of the killing of all the first-born, took place at midnight.

What is the nature of darkness that links these events?

The ninth plague of darkness lasted for three days, imprisoning the Egyptians in their homes and completely isolated from each other. The Egyptians had refused to allow the Israelites three days of freedom to journey into the wilderness to worship God (Exodus 5:3) were now being given a sort of measure for measure punishment. The darkness is so thick as to be tangible, a suffocating total absence of possibility; no connection, no sense of self or other, can be experienced within it.

Darkness seems to be a metaphor for slavery, for whatever is the opposite of freedom to be. It is the metaphor for isolation, for fear and complete helplessness. The first thing that God does at the Creation is to bring about Light, separating it from the primordial swirling atmosphere. Without light nothing else would be possible.

The Midrash, commenting on the first verse of psalm 22, which reads: “To the chief musician: upon the rising of the morning star, a psalm of David: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? [Why are You] so far from saving me, from the words of my roar?”
tells us that it is darkest immediately before the dawn:

“At night, though it be night, one has the light of the moon, the stars, the planets. Then when is it really dark? Just before dawn! After the moon sets and the stars set and the planets vanish, there is no darkness deeper than the hour before dawn. And in that hour the Holy One answers the world and all that are in it: out of the darkness God brings forth the dawn and gives light to the world.” (Midrash Tehillim)

It goes on to play with the words ‘shachar’ meaning ‘dawn’, and ‘shachor’ meaning ‘blackness’. The worst state to be in, spiritually and emotionally, is in the place of deepest darkness, yet it is also the place from which God responds to us, and from which we can begin again.

All of us have times when we feel the lack of freedom to be, when we are isolated from others or anxious or hopeless or depressed. We all understand the words of the psalm, when we feel forsaken and drowned out by the roaring in our minds. This is never a good feeling nor one we want to stay in for any length of time, but it is part of the human experience and something we can use on our journey to understand ourselves and our lives.

It took the darkness – the three different kinds of it – to bring Pharaoh to an understanding of the power of God. It takes the darkness in our own lives to really help us understand how good so much of our lives actually is.

Rabbi Milton Steinberg, in his essay  “To Hold With Open Arms” wrote:
“After a long illness I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience; all there is to it. And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment…The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the building- the golden glow of sunlight.
It touched me too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing. And as I basked in its glory, there ran through my mind those wonder words of the prophet about the sun which some day shall rise with healing on its wings.
In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy, almost the beatitude I felt. But no, there they walked – men and women and children in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed,. And then I remembered how often I, too had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it, and I said to myself, how precious is the sunlight, but alas how careless of it are we. How precious- how careless. This has been the refrain sounding in me ever since.”

Darkness and light. We need each of them to understand the other. And with an awareness of both, we are able to reach out towards a deeper understanding of our place in the world.

Parashat Bo

The sidra opens with a challenge – the word we use to name this narrative – Bo. God is saying to Moses “Come to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn in order to demonstrate my miraculous signs among them. And so you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your son’s son, what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Eternal.’”

In Hebrew there are two different verbs – la’lechet which means ‘to go’ and which was the imperative used when God first met Abraham – Lech Lecha! And la’vo meaning ‘to come’ which is the verb used here to Moses. Come to Pharaoh!

But at the end of the sidra last week, Moses was outside the city – so from the usage of this verb we can only understand that while Moses was outside and away from Pharaoh, God was within, and close to Pharaoh.

The thirteenth century French commentator, Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, noted this strange usage, and suggested that God was saying that when Moses went to Pharaoh, God would be there with him – in effect he would not be alone as he faced the increasingly paranoid and terrifying king.  This is a lovely reassurance to Moses, but it begs the question – why at this point does Moses need the reassurance? Is he in doubt that God can do what is promised? Does he fear that he will be led into a trap from which there is no escape?

Moses knows from later in the same verse, that God has hardened the heart of Pharaoh yet again. Maybe he was holding on to the hope that Pharaoh would finally yield to the wishes of his advisors, that he would understand that he was in a battle he could not win. But God has put paid to that hope – Pharaoh would, for certain, rebuff him. And this too would be part of God’s plan.

How difficult must it have been for Moses to go through with this. How much must he have wanted God to be actively present alongside him. And then the plagues themselves when they came were all of them about darkness, isolation and terror. As we feel today feel conflicted about God strengthening Pharaoh’s resolve to take the battle between them to the ultimate conclusion, how much more so must Moses have felt, a frightened human being shuttling between the two of them?

An ancient battle is being played out – between Good and Evil, between light and dark. What is different in this rendition of the mythology is that human beings are part of the thread of the narrative, that we must witness and understand what it is we see, we must go on to remember and to tell what we saw and understood.

Those first two verses set the scene ““Come to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn in order to demonstrate my miraculous signs among them. And so you may tell in the ears of your child, and of your children’s children, what I have done to Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Eternal.’”

The final element of the battle is to happen now. And all must know for all time from the process of this battle that God is the one and only and Eternal God.

The  parashah goes on to recount the events leading up to the final night, when the Israelites prepared for their departure from Egypt, and the instructions given to ensure that this core event in our history will be recorded forever in the collective memory of the Jewish people.

The events leading up to and surrounding the exodus from Egypt are embedded in our narrative in so many ways – Kiddush at Shabbat, the Amidah, the Seder, the Hallel. These are signs and signals for us to respond to, we  must consciously understand what we are doing, and tell and retell the narrative to ourselves and others in every generation. All of this so that we may never forget nor misunderstand that God is God.

There are two big themes in Judaism – there is the universalistic one of the Creation of the World and the Creator of all Things who is God of all people;  And there is the particularistic one of the Exodus from Egypt and the particular relationship we Jews have with God. All of our tradition and theology is balanced upon these two major events, the universal and the particular, the creation and the exodus, the whole and the part, the community and the individual.  We create actions and rituals, stories and prayers, all in order to remember that the Eternal is our God, and everything flows from that remembering. But in the smaller and particularistic scale our activity also reminds us that each of us has a consciousness and lives a life of moment and value, and we should not take any part of that for granted.  Each of us makes a contribution, each of us is a witness and our stories weave into the narrative to strengthen and form it.

If we choose not to be part of the story, then everything is weakened because of that choice. We are in it together, a people, a community, who share our narrative and understanding.  We may fear, we may doubt, we may have good reason for both the doubt and the fear. But like Moses, when we take our part in the narrative we should remember the choice of verb used by God – “come – be with Me, I will be with you, you are not alone in this however terrifying it looks”, rather than the verb used in the imperative to Abraham – Go for yourself. 

 In the two imperatives that God uses to force movement, we have moved from the individual to the communal journey. We are no longer alone. However difficult we might find God to be, we have each other and we have the reassurance of our history that however dark it seems to be, the dawn will come.
 

Parashat Va’era

There is so much packed into this sidra – where to begin? Is it with the conundrum of the name of God as presented here? The new and different kind of relationship that God has with Moses in comparison with the Patriarchs? The insight into Moses’ speech difficulties? The hardening of the resolve of Pharaoh by God – and for what purpose? The sudden placing of the genealogy interrupting the narrative flow? The terrible plagues inflicted on the Egyptians? The most amazing (to me, the mother of a primary school child) that the plague of lice could not be repeated by the powerful magicians who could copy other plagues?

One line spoke to me more this year than any other – Moses repeats the words of God who tells the people “I am YHVH and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments, and I will take you to Me for  a people and I will be your God, and you will know that I am the Eternal your God who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians and I will bring you in to the land concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and I will give it to you for a heritage, I am YHVH” and the people “did not listen to Moses because of impatience of spirit and [their] difficult work” (6:6-9)

Literally the words “kotzer ruach” mean shortness of breath or limited spirit and could mean, as Rashi understands it, that they were physically finding breathing hard, presumably because of the severity of the work they had to do. But I find Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s translation as “impatience” more satisfactory. They did not listen to what Moses was saying because they were operating in a different emotional environment, they were focussed only on the here and now, they could not see beyond the next task to be achieved.  Short termism was all they could manage. The Jews were slaves – and had been for some generations – in a land named Mitzraim, “the doubly narrow place”. They had  become habituated to their surroundings and their lives, they had learned how to survive, and that skill was all about having narrow horizons themselves. They could not possibly imagine a future, let alone a future in a different world where they would be quite different themselves. The generation of the exodus were emotionally and intellectually locked down, they suffered failure of imagination as well as failure of faith, their one imperative was to keep their heads down and keep doing what they had always done. They would allow themselves no awareness outside this behaviour. They just wanted to survive but it seems they no longer knew why it was important to survive or what they were surviving in order to become.

This view of “kotzer ruach” of narrowness of spirit and failure to dream of a better future is one that comes into sharp focus for me as I watch the run up to the Israeli elections. The many shifting coalitions as people jockey for votes, the offerings of quick fixes rather than thoughtful change, the lack of focus on life -critical issues in favour of trivial ones, the refusal to engage with the peace process, the social pressures facing so many of the people, the financial pressures that can surely not be sustained, it is depressing to sit here watching a country I love suffering from kotzer ruach, taking short breaths that allow it to continue from moment to moment, but having lost direction, belief, imagination, purpose. In 1897 Theodor Herzl famously wrote “im tirtzu, ein zo agada; ve’im lo tirtzu, agada hi ve’agada tisha’er’,: ‘If you will it, it is no dream; and if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay”. Because he and others thought and planned and imagined and dreamed, a Jewish State was born, but it requires the thinking and planning and imagination and dreaming of its current leadership for it to continue to be what it was set up to be: “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” (Declaration of Independence 1948) (1)

Moses offered hope and deep meaning to the Children of Israel, who could not listen to  him or understand what he was offering and so missed a vital opportunity to not only survive but to thrive as a people of God. I hope and pray that we will not suffer such a failure of imagination and will again, and that those who are able to vote in the coming election will make their voices heard for good, so that the promise “I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God, and you will know that I am the Eternal your God” with all that that extraordinary relationship of covenant and obligation can mean, will happen in our day.

 

(1)  taken from http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/Declaration+of+Establishment+of+State+of+Israel.htm