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

What does the bible say about voting?

God’s will was communicated to the High Priest through the Urim and Tumim, the earliest recorded “voting device”, but generally in bible leadership was not achieved by democratic decision.

That said, bible gives us guidance about qualities in leaders, helping us decide how to use our votes.

Jethro advises Moses “Provide from the entire people able people who fear God, trustworthy and hating bribes…to be their rulers”(Ex 18), and Moses tells Israel “Take from every tribe men of wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and.. make them rulers over you. (Deut 1:13)

Hosea provides a picture of inappropriate government: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” “They have set up kings, but not from Me, made princes, and I knew it not; of their silver and gold have they made idols” and warns of the consequences. Proverbs teaches “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.(29:2) and reminds us of the perils of short termism: “The lip of truth shall be established for ever: but a lying tongue is but for a moment.”

So what do we learn? Political candidates should be from across the population rather than a political class; they should be trustworthy, able to understand their role and bring a knowledgeable mind to their work. They should have integrity; not be swayed by the interests of the wealthy or lobbyists, nor interested in material gain. They should be working for the benefit of the whole people and not prioritise short-term political gains above long term. And bible has another insight – we should watch who politicians associate with. “Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man do not go: Lest you learn their ways, and get a snare to thy soul.” Because “when the wicked rise, people hide themselves away”

following the majority for wrongdoing – plus ca change…

The bible says “don’t side with the majority to do wrong”

The chapters following the giving of the Ten Commandments at  Sinai are filled with a variety of do’s and don’ts covering debt slavery, treatment of servants, murder, manslaughter, legal compensations etc. and after the injunction against repeating false rumours and being a malicious witness to protect the guilty, comes this statement– “don’t follow the majority for evil”. As a verse it has an interesting life. Talmud uses it to infer the principle of majority in decision making “Do follow the majority for good”, from which comes the idea of majority verdicts in legal trials.

But Rashi argues differently, reading within the textual context he argues that it really means that if one sees many people perverting justice, you shouldn’t just blindly follow them, even if they are the majority actors.

In the febrile atmosphere of Tory elections, Brexit, unbalanced relationships with other countries etc, we have seen the limitations of following a majority decision thoughtlessly, and seen that this can be not just wrong but devastating to our well-being. Friendships have strained beyond repair, family relationships grown tense; trust in our political leadership is low and hostility has grown where we believed there was acceptance of the other in our society.

Bible already knows of fake news: “Shema Shav”, it knows about defending the guilty with malicious testimony, deflection, or supporting them publicly and daring others to continue their quest for honesty or justice. It know that a crowd isn’t always right, that it’s easy to be swept along with the prevailing opinions or find one’s critical voice silenced. Don’t follow the majority to do wrong, don’t side with the largest group simply because they’re larger and louder if their values are not good and their behaviour inappropriate or worse. The bible knows, and shouts out its warning.

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.

 

 

 

Tisha b’Av: looking back, looking forwards

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

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

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

 

first written for publication in London Jewish News

Balak: the lies of leaders are a danger to us all; or “the tendency to fake news is all ours”

 

לֹ֣א אִ֥ישׁ אֵל֙ וִֽיכַזֵּ֔ב וּבֶן־אָדָ֖ם וְיִתְנֶחָ֑ם הַה֤וּא אָמַר֙ וְלֹ֣א יַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְדִבֶּ֖ר וְלֹ֥א יְקִימֶֽנָּה:

God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent [the agreement]: when God has said, will God not do it? Or when God has spoken, will God not make it good?

Balaam is speaking to Balak, explaining why he cannot perform the cursing of the people of Israel. He has tried, even though he knew from the outset that this was a professional job that was doomed to failure, but whether it was vanity or a belief he could change God’s mind, or simply the money was so good he thought it worth the shot – in this final exchange between Balak the King of Moab and the well-respected gentile prophet whose relationship with God is documented in bible, Balaam has to tell Balak that however many bulls are sacrificed on however many mountain tops, the cursing of the people of Israel is not going to happen. Indeed, after one final attempt following this exchange, Balaam will open his mouth and declare the words “Mah tovu ochalecha Ya’akov” – (how good are your tents” and the blessing of the Israelites that follow them.

It is a well-known story, beautifully crafted with humour and some mystery and growing tension, and a crowning blessing. But it is the phrase that Balaam tells Balak that stuck out for me this year – God is not a human being who would tell lies, not a human being who goes back on their word, but God speaks and it will happen, God says and it will be established.

Lo Ish El, vi’chazeiv – “God is not a man, a teller of lies. God is not Someone who says they will do something and then go back on their word”. And it struck me just how powerful these words are, when spoken to a political leader.  For by implication at least, Balaam is speaking truth to power and pointing out to Balak that he, the King of Moab, is someone who might lie, offering one thing and doing another.

We are living in a world where our leaders and those in power are doing just that too. Every news broadcast seems to bring yet another story of people who lied in order to manipulate a vote – famously at the referendum for Brexit when many were swayed by the words on a bus chartered by the official campaign to leave: “We send the EU £350 million a week let’s fund our NHS instead” because they understood it to mean that  a vote for Brexit would mean the money sent to the EU would be given to the NHS instead, only to be told later “let’s give” is not a promise, and any monies that MIGHT be given to the NHS would not have to even approximate £350 million. Chris Grayling said that the promised £350 million per week was ‘an aspiration’, not a promise, Nigel Farage also immediately backtracked saying it was “a mistake”. Iain Duncan Smith also backtracked, denying promising the money would be spent on the NHS, saying ‘It is not a promise broken, I never said that through the course of the election, what I said was we will be able to spend the lion’s share of that money’.

Lies are told about migrants – while we know that immigration brings with it the forces that will help an economy thrive, the narrative of the right wing politicians is of displacing native workers, using resources that were not created by them, both taking jobs AND claiming benefits etc. By whipping up fear of “the other”, politicians are able to displace the blame for previous poor decisions on funding hospitals and schools, investing in the future etc. and by such misdirection and distraction keep themselves in power and keep the populace obedient.

Lying is part of the political discourse – the famous saying by the 17th century diplomat and politician Sir Henry Wotton “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” has aged well. We know that many public servants have learned to cherry pick information to give to their leaders so as not to incur their fury, or ministers hiding difficult decisions by releasing them when people might easily miss them. Famously as the twin towers burned on September 11th, British politicians and their spokespersons thought it a good day to “bury bad news”

We can watch the White House press conferences open-mouthed in horror as obvious and easily checkable lies are promulgated as truths. Just yesterday, Trump announced to a rally “We love the countries of the European Union. But the European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States.”  Note that “of course”.  He was not challenged; suddenly it appears that the European Union, the project set up after the war to build relationships within Europe, was designed to be an enemy of America.

The examples go on and on sadly. Misinformation, Fake News, Lies, or as the British MP Alan Clark called it “Being economical with the actualite” (when giving evidence in a trial about what he had told Parliament about what was happening) – we are sadly used to those in power having little regard for honesty, truthfulness, or the integrity of doing what they say and saying what they do. While it is not in fact an essential prerequisite for holding power, it has become an ingrained habit in many. Balak too no doubt, whose name means “to lay waste”, whose fear of the Israelites, their large number and what they had done to the Amorites, first consults with the elders and then calls on Balaam to curse the people who are coming towards his land. He will not take no for an answer. He offers wealth and honours, and curiously “v’chol asher tomar elai, e’esse” whatever you say to me [to do] I will do  – something that Balaam will later throw back at him in his words about God quoted at the beginning of this piece.

What can we make of this? Balaam is telling Balak that God does not lead by lying to the people, by misinformation or going back on promises. On the one hand this is a statement of faith in the faithfulness of God – the people and God have a covenant, it is unbreakable and it will continue.

But it is also saying something about people – in particular but not exclusively about leaders. We are so used to being lied to, misinformed or not informed, promised things before an election that mysteriously vanish once the election has been held, told that information in “sensitive” or “confidential” and therefore must be kept from public view; we are becoming used to social media platforms churning out partial truths and television presenters allowing their interviewees to speak unchallenged and unexamined.

Yet the model for leadership is presented here by Balaam is a good one. Not to lie. Not to renege on an agreement.  To do what one has said one will do. To speak and to follow through about what was said.

Jewish tradition has always recognised that for some, leadership is an aspiration in order to enhance the self – to gain wealth or respect or status. It has also always recognised that leadership concentrated in the hands of too few is dangerous – hence the biblical model of the monarchy, the priesthood and the third office- prophet or judge or elder. None has all the power; there are checks and balances built into the system

The Talmud reminds us that “One who is appointed over a community becomes the servant of the community,” (Horayot 10b), the (12th century) tosafot on Mishnah Sanhedrin (7:2) comments “One who is wise, humble and fearful of sin may be made a community leader. There are many such statements in our texts.

Leadership is a position requiring less ego and more humility – look at Moses, leader par excellence, whose leadership alongside that of Aaron and Miriam was marked by doubt and by questioning. Leadership involves not only holding the vision of which direction to go, but building the consensus among the community in order to bring them with.

We have forgotten – or maybe simply let go of – the importance of the qualities of service to the community of those in a leadership role and allowed it to become inflated and self-important, laying waste to communities as it does so. We have too many “Balaks” in positions of power and we are allowing them to increase fake news and lies in the public discourse and destroy the communities so carefully and painstakingly built up over the years. Talmud Yerushalmi has a sobering reminder for us ““As the leader, so the generation; as the generation, so the leader.” (Talmud Yer. Arachin 17a)

 

 

 

Chukkat – how fear can curdle the humanity of societies; or: we won’t forget the heartless Edomites and our heartlessness won’t be forgotten either

It is Refugee Week, the week that takes place across the world around World Refugee Day on 20th June. And while we are horrified by the stories coming from the Mediterranean, with the Aquarius and her sister ships picking up frantic and vulnerable refugees floating on leaky and overcrowded boats in their attempts to seek safety and then desperately looking for a country who will offer them refuge, while we are shocked and appalled by the photos coming from the USA of traumatised and desperate children who have been separated from their parents and caged up in warehouses, while we watch people become dehumanised on our screens or in our newspapers, the bible quietly and insistently sends us a message. Tucked into the more dramatic events in parashat Chukkat come these seven verses:  And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: ‘Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the travail that has befallen us; how our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and our ancestors; and when we cried to the Eternal, God heard our voice, and sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt; and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of your border. Let us pass, I pray you, through your land; we will not pass through field or through vineyard, neither will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go along the king’s highway, we will not turn aside to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your border.’  And Edom said to him: ‘You shalt not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against you.’ And the children of Israel said to him: ‘We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of thy water, I and my cattle, then will I give the price thereof; let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt.’ And he said: ‘You shalt not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; wherefore Israel turned away from him (Numbers 20:14-21

A frightened people want to pass near the borders of Edom on their way from misery and torment in one country as they journey to find safety. And they are refused. They try to be diplomatic, they offer to pay for any damage or any resource used, they are desperate to come through this land to get to safety, but not only does Edom refuse to let them do so, they come out with an army to prevent them from coming anywhere near.

What are Edom so afraid of? Why do they chase this group away in such a hostile manner? In what way does it benefit them? In what way might they honestly be threatened?

Edom is understood to be the city of Esau – a close relative, the brother of Jacob. But there is no warmth to be found in this story. The people move to Mt Hor and back towards the sea of reeds, in order to travel around Edom but quickly find themselves in the same position with Sihon, the king of the Amorites.  The story is retold in Deuteronomy, when nearly forty years after the first attempt God reminds the people not to provoke Edom, who have been given this land by God, and this time they are allowed to go through.  But should we expect today’s refugees to wait for nearly forty years to find some peace, put down some roots, get on with their lives?

In today’s world we find that we are living in one of the largest forced displacement crises ever recorded. Over 65 million people are on the move, force to flee their homes and look for safety elsewhere.   Last year, 362,376 people arrived in Europe via sea. Just under half were women and children. About a million people from outside Europe claimed refugee status in the twelve months just gone.. But contrary to the narratives so many media offer, most refugees are actually taken in and cared for by poorer countries than those of Europe. The UN’s Refugee Agency estimates that nearly nine in ten of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries. Take a moment for that to sink in.  Ninety percent of the world’s refugees are taken care of by countries that can themselves barely afford to do so. And yet they do. And meanwhile the richer countries act like the Edomites and refuse even the polite and diplomatic requests to travel through, the offer to pay for resources, to desperate need to be safe – preferring to show force and to send the refugees away to try to find another way to safety

The name Edom is used as rabbinic code for Rome. Rome, the powerful and wealthy head of the huge and spreading Empire which did not care for the vulnerable or the stranger but only for its own status and power. Our tradition speaks of Edom with disdain, it is the model of behaviour that is unacceptable, it is the model we do not wish to be like. Bible reminds us repeatedly to care for the stranger, the vulnerable in society, the ones who have fallen to the bottom of the societal pile.  And yet here we are, watching an American administration quote biblical verses as ‘proof’ of the right to separate children from their parents and lock them up without comfort or care. The Independent Newspaper has reported that up to 2,000 children migrant children have been separated from their families in just six weeks in the USA. We are watching an Italian government minister try to take a census of the Roma community, in order to expel those who do not have Italian citizenship. We know that here in the UK there is still indefinite detention for people whose paperwork is not completely full and in order, we see a terrible rise in xenophobia and people being attacked in public spaces for being foreign. We have a Home Office who is proud of operating a “hostile environment”, and a Prime Minister who was the architect of the policy and remains proud of it, even as we see the how the Windrush Generation were treated with disdain and with no respect, as we hear the stories of families split apart, of people’s live shattered at the whim of some ill though out and  bureaucratic policy. As we mark refugee week, as we read Chukkat with its focus on death and purity, with its narratives of the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, with its record of the actions of Edom to the vulnerable migrants known as the children of Israel, we weep.

If we had to write a history of the world right now, if we had to write of the 65 million people fleeing violence or war in their own homes, of the talk of locking up people and indefinite detention for those without the right papers, if we had to record the stories of the people picked up on the Mediterranean Sea, in fear of drowning but prepared to take the risk as being less awful than staying put, if we had to record the fear of travelling communities, of people who have been uprooted from their homes – what would the people reading our history say? How would they look on an administration quoting Bible to justify their abuses of power to the most vulnerable? How would they look at a Europe which takes a tiny percentage of the mass of rootless and fearful people, and which squabbles over who is taking enough of the “burden”?

In Chukkat we read of the red heifer, the ashes of which will purify the impure and make impure the pure. It is a chok, a law without reason, done only on the grounds of faith. In refugee week 2018 as we read the parasha we see that there is no reason, only the belief that we must keep people out at all costs – even at the cost of their lives, as we increase the impurity in our world by denying the most vulnerable their dignity.

The antidote to causeless hatred is causeless love. We are a long way from it right now, but we can hope that the outrage will finally be enough to make the necessary changes, that the political will to care for people because they are people will be found, that refugees may soon find places to call home.

Parashat Chukkat reminds us that the world is a scary place, that resources are finite and that death will come to us all. But it reminds us too of the dignity of refugees, of the humanity of the people travelling to find safety, of their connection to us, and that history will record and we will be judged. May that be enough to bring change and rest for those who so sorely need it.

 

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