Parashat Shelach Lecha: The faith of women is overlooked and the result is catastrophic

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֣ישׁ אֶחָד֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶחָ֜ד לְמַטֵּ֤ה אֲבֹתָיו֙ תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ כֹּ֖ל נָשִׂ֥יא בָהֶֽם:

God tells Moses to send men to travel round the land of Canaan, which God is giving to the children of Israel – one man from each ancestral tribe, each one a leader.

So begins the tale of the spies, whose return from reconnoitering the land  bringing stories of the hopelessness of the enterprise led to the people to become so disheartened that the story of the Israelites entering their promised land may easily have ended right here.  Certainly it becomes clear that the people are not yet ready to take the next step, and a prolonged sojourn in the wilderness as a new generation grows and takes over is necessary.

At first sight it seems a bit of an own goal – God tells Moses to send the men, trusted leaders who are – as Rashi says, commenting on the use of the word “anashim” – important and also righteous.  And yet the failure of leadership – apart from the perspectives of Joshua and Caleb – is catastrophic for the generation of the exodus.

The traditional commentators are interested in this story, in what went so badly wrong that the trajectory of the narrative was skewed and the journey that should have taken a short time ended up being one that took forty years.

Clearly there is a problem with the spies. Firstly comes the question of “shelach lecha” – a phrase that sounds so close to the divine commandment to Abraham “lech lecha”, and yet unlike Abraham’s journey of trust in God and of his own spiritual and material growth, this journey seems to be the exact opposite.

The casual reader might assume that a military reconnoitre of the land God is giving would be simple good practise. After all, even though God says “I am giving the land to the Children of Israel”,  surely a back-up plan is sensible.   But the reader trained to read through the Jewish texts will see this differently.

“Shelach lecha” – send “for yourself” – this is not something that God needed Moses to do, it was something that Moses and the children of Israel needed to do. Unlike  “Lech lecha” – Go to/for yourself” this is not a journey of discovery of the self, it is a journey to allay the fears the self already has. It bespeaks a lack of trust in God. The midrashic traditions picks this up – sending the men is a demonstration of lack of faith in God, but there is a further question we must ask. God is telling Moses not to simply have faith, but saying “you can send if you must”.

In the retelling of the story in Deuteronomy (1:20-46) it becomes clear from Moses’ speech that the request to send men does not come from God but from the people.  Moses tells the story like this “Behold, the Eternal your God has set the land before you, go up and take possession of it as the Eternal, the God of your ancestors told you. Do not fear and do not be dismayed. And you came to me, all of you, and said “Let us send men before us so that they will look out the land for us and bring us word of the way by which we should go up, and the cities we will encounter. And it seemed a good idea to me, and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe….”

This now begs the question, if it seemed not unreasonable that the people might want to know more about the land, and God – while not requiring this – did not command against it, then who SHOULD have been sent up to see the lay of the land?

The clue lies in the context of the story. It takes place just after the story of Miriam and the Cushite woman, where Miriam seems to be punished for speaking falsely, for asserting her own importance at the expense of another, and for showing lack of respect for others. A lesson needs to be learned, the question is – who has learned it?

Fantastically Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, (1550 – 1619) the scholar and poet and writer of his own Torah commentary (Kli Yekar) asks this question and answers it: Who should have been sent? The women!

He bases his opinion on a number of midrashic stories where it is the women who show themselves to have more faith than the men. They continue to have babies even when the Egyptian authorities try to murder their new-borns and their men refuse to have sexual relations with them. They protect their baby sons in this time. They refuse to give up their jewellery at first when the golden calf is created.  So when faith is really needed, it is the women who provide it.

The Kli Yekar notes that when the spies bring back their report of the difficulty of taking the land which is well protected and whose people look strong and powerful, the men revolt and want to return to Egypt.  In Chapter 14 the text is clear that while all the people wept, it was the men who said “why did God bring us to this land to fall by the sword, our wives and children will be prey, it would be better to return to Egypt. So they said to each other, let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt” (1:2-4). This establishes the lack of faith of the men for the Kli Yakar who goes on to compare this behaviour with that of the daughters of Zelophechad who specifically ask to be able to own the land of their father who had died without a male heir. For Rabbi Luntschitz this shows – along with all the other examples of women’s faith – that the faith of women is superior to that of the men, and hence if Moses had really wanted to send people on this errand that demonstrated a lack of complete faith in God, he should have sent women who would not have fallen so easily into the fearfulness and desire to return to Egypt rather than go forward into the land.

For the Kli Yekar Moses made a disastrous decision that was informed more by his prejudice about men’s roles and women’s roles and less by any empirical observation as to who had shown real faith in God.  Had Moses sent women to spy out the land (and it doesn’t seem to worry him that women might be functioning as army scouts, unlike some of today’s rabbonim) then they would have returned with the information and framed it in the same hopeful and faithful way that Joshua and Caleb did – it is a tough land to conquer but God is with us.

Add to this that the women have seen what happened to Miriam when she was banished with a skin complaint for her ungracious behaviour that had asserted her importance over the Cushite woman – they know that God is watching closely, that trusting in God is important.

But the men – Moses among them – are caught up with their own status. They are princes, they are leadership, they are important – they are anashim.  They have learned nothing, neither about God’s continued presence nor about humility and faith. Shelach lecha – it is all about them.  And when it fails, the answer is to find another leader from among their ranks and return to business as usual, go back to the safety of the slave routine of Egypt.

As the orthodox world continues to struggle with the role of women, perpetually trying to find ways to put us out of the public space and to assert the norms of the patriarchy, it is sobering to read the thoughts of one rabbi from the 16th century who recognised the need for women to come into the public space and be acknowledged for their own selves.

The Kli Yekar takes his name from the book of Proverbs 20:15 “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel”

He is indeed a rare jewel, he speaks from within the tradition and he speaks a deep truth. Almost all commentators agree that God did not want Moses to send anyone to scout out the land – it was an act of lack of faith. But if someone did have to go to reassure the people, send people whose faith you can trust in- and who better in this case than the people who have demonstrated again and again their trust in God and in a better future?  – The women of the exodus.

Vayakhel Pekudei:What women do and Why women are rewarded as they carry the burden of faith into the future

For the last few weeks it has not been easy to find the women in the Torah readings, but now in Vayakhel the women are up front and unmissable. The mishkan/tabernacle is being made as a response to the failings of the people that led to the creation of the golden calf, an idol to comfort the people in the absence of Moses while he was away on Sinai sequestered with God.

It has become abundantly clear that the people are not yet ready for a God with no physical presence or aide-memoire. The mishkan will remind the people that God is dwelling among them. It is a powerful symbol they will carry around with them as they go on their journey. It will, so to speak, keep the people on the religious straight and narrow.

The details of the mishkan have been given in the last chapters – long dry lists of materials and artefacts. Now the text warms up with the human and emotional dimension:

וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כָּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נָֽדְבָ֨ה רוּח֜וֹ אֹת֗וֹ הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֨ת יְהֹוָ֜ה לִמְלֶ֨אכֶת אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ וּלְכָל־עֲבֹ֣דָת֔וֹ וּלְבִגְדֵ֖י הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ:

 “And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and brought the Eternal’s offering, for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments.” (35:21)

All the people for whom this project truly mattered, everyone who was invested in the creation of the reminder of the divine, brought their gifts. Gifts of valuable materials, gifts of their time, gifts of their dedication to make this work.

And then comes the strangest of verses.  (35:22)

וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֖ים עַל־הַנָּשִׁ֑ים כֹּ֣ל ׀ נְדִ֣יב לֵ֗ב הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ חָ֣ח וָנֶ֜זֶם וְטַבַּ֤עַת וְכוּמָז֙ כָּל־כְּלִ֣י זָהָ֔ב וְכָל־אִ֕ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֵנִ֛יף תְּנוּפַ֥ת זָהָ֖ב לַֽיהוָֹֽה:

And they came, the men upon the women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; even every man that brought an offering of gold to the Eternal.

The construction of the verse is notable and odd. The phrasing “hanashim al hanashim – the men upon the women” suggests that the women carried the men, brought them along with them, that they came first with their jewellery, and only then did the men bring their gifts. All of the emphases on the voluntary nature of the donations, the repetitions that only those who wanted to give did so, culminates in the idea that it is the women who are keen to give their valuables in the service of God, that the men were carried along by the enthusiasm of the women.

The role of the women is reinforced a few verses later:

וְכָל־אִשָּׁ֥ה חַכְמַת־לֵ֖ב בְּיָדֶ֣יהָ טָו֑וּ וַיָּבִ֣יאוּ מַטְוֶ֗ה אֶֽת־הַתְּכֵ֨לֶת֙ וְאֶת־הָ֣אַרְגָּמָ֔ן אֶת־תּוֹלַ֥עַת הַשָּׁנִ֖י וְאֶת־הַשֵּֽׁשׁ: כו וְכָ֨ל־הַנָּשִׁ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָשָׂ֥א לִבָּ֛ן אֹתָ֖נָה בְּחָכְמָ֑ה טָו֖וּ אֶת־הָֽעִזִּֽים:

And all the women who were wise-hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet, and the fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun the goats’ hair. (35:25-26)

The vignette continues with yet another verse emphasising the role of the women in this work:

כָּל־אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשָּׁ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָדַ֣ב לִבָּם֘ אֹתָם֒ לְהָבִיא֙ לְכָל־הַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהוָֹ֛ה לַֽעֲשׂ֖וֹת בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֑ה הֵבִ֧יאוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל נְדָבָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֹֽה:

Every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which the Eternal had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made, the children of Israel brought a freewill-offering to the Eternal v29

The repetition of the activities of the women, of their enthusiasm, their public role in both providing materials and in working those materials for use in the mishkan is surely telling us something important.

The commentators of course have noticed this. While Rashi in the tenth century plays down the idea of ha’anashim al hanashim meaning anything more than the men came with the women, the tosafists of the 12th and 13th century build on the idea of the women carrying the men along. They note the list of jewellery described were essentially feminine possessions and say that the verse is alluding to the men taking the women to bring their jewellery under the impression that they would not want to give it away. Imagine their surprise then when the women are not only willing to give their jewellery for the mishkan, they are actually pleased to do so. This stands in direct opposition to the earlier incident when jewellery was given to the priesthood – the incident of the golden calf, when the midrash tells us – and the tosafists remind us – that the women did not want to give their jewellery to such an enterprise, seeing through the project for the idolatry it was, and the men had torn the jewellery from the ears, fingers and necks of their reluctant womenfolk.

This midrashic interpretation places the women in the role of truly understanding the religious response, and the men showing less emotional intelligence. It is supported some verses later in the creation of the mishkan when the women give their mirrors for the copper washstand.

וַיַּ֗עַשׂ אֵ֚ת הַכִּיּ֣וֹר נְח֔שֶׁת וְאֵ֖ת כַּנּ֣וֹ נְחֹ֑שֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת֙ הַצֹּ֣בְאֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צָֽבְא֔וּ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד:

And [Betzalel] made the washstand of copper, and the base thereof of copper, of the mirrors of the Tzevaot/ legions of serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting. (Ex 38:8)

Who were these women who did service at the door of the Tent of Meeting? What was the service that they did? And why did they have copper mirrors?

They appear also in the Book of Samuel (1Sam:2:22) Now Eli was very old; and he heard all that his sons did unto all Israel, and how that they lay with the women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting.

In both occasions the women are at the door of the tent of meeting, the place where people brought their vows, where the priesthood purified themselves before entering, a liminal space of enormous importance.  The verb צֹּ֣בְא֔ tzaddi beit alef is best known to us as something God does – We often call God Adonai Tzeva’ot, the God of the Hosts/Legions – it  has a military context rather than a religious one.

But in the Book of Numbers we find the verb used to describe something else – not a military action but the service of the Levites done in and around the Mishkan. This verb is the priestly activity, a ministry, something done by the members of the tribe of Levi, whose role is to ensure that the priesthood is able to fulfil its sacred function. (see Numbers 4:23, 35, 39, 43 and 8:24)

So while there is a tendency in tradition to see these women as low status, cultic prostitutes or camp followers, the text does not support this view and indeed it is possible to read it quite differently. The women who give their mirrors to have the polished copper washstand that is so important in the system of ritual purity are women of status and dignity, whose work in ministry is more important to them than what are often seen as the more usual girly activities of makeup and grooming.

The midrash (Tanhuma) again picks up the story of the mirrors, and while it does not give the women any status in the priestly activities (instead ignoring their position at the doorway), it does give them some real honour by telling the story that in Egypt, after the decree of Pharaoh that all baby boys would be killed, the men became despondent. Slavery had sapped their strength and their emotional resilience and they had decided not to create a stake in the future but to live separately from their wives and desist from intercourse or procreation. The women however were not prepared for this to happen, and so they used their mirrors to make themselves as beautiful and irresistible as possible, then going to their husbands in order to seduce them and become pregnant.

It was the role of the mirrors in this activity that is so important. The women had used them in order to show their faith in the future, they were a symbol not only of sexual attractiveness and sensual preparations, they were a symbol of faith, of resilience, of the emotional and religious intelligence sadly lacking in the men.

Rashi quotes this midrash at this verse, and goes even further. He says that Moses [and Betzalel] did not want to take the mirrors (they are listed separately from the earlier donations), presumably because they associated them with sensuality, with women’s actions to initiate sex, but Rashi tells us that God ordered him to take them.

It seems that God is less fearful of women’s bodies and sexuality than Moses was. Indeed God is reported to have said “These mirrors are more precious to Me than anything else”

Because the mishkan is said to have been dedicated on Rosh Chodesh Nisan (the beginning of the new month of Nisan), there is a tradition that the women should be rewarded for their faith, their resilience, their innovation and proactive donations, and given a special holiday on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Over time it appears that every Rosh Chodesh has become  women’s special days, when no work is done and women celebrate and enjoy the time.  Many women and women’s groups celebrate Rosh Chodesh together, but I wonder how many realise that the root of this tradition is the power and resilience of the women when the men failed to live up to what was necessary. I wonder how many women realise that the ease  which the women had to initiate intimacy, the ministry which they offered at the liminal border between the sacred space and the secular space, the understanding the women showed to not offer their jewellery for idolatry but to run to offer it for the mishkan – all of this is in our tradition and deserves to be highlighted. For it isn’t only the women for whom this story is unfamiliar, it is particularly those men who have studied and who know these texts but who choose not to teach or to publicise them.

If we learn anything from these verses is that the women had a role every bit as important and active as the men, that they were not only routinely alongside but that they were also on occasions the leaders, the ones who carried the flow, the agenda setters.

Vayakhel means to bring together a community. Pekudei has a number of meanings, to visit, to account, to calculate, to encounter. When we read these texts we need to remember that a community is accounted, encountered and needs ALL its members.

Behukkotai:rebukes that remind us we must work together

Sidra Behukotai ends the book of Leviticus, and while frequently read in conjunction with sidra Behar, it differs from it substantially in the tone of the narrative. It opens by describing the blessings and rewards that the Israelites will receive if they uphold the covenant with God and follow the mitzvot that are the conditions of that covenant, and ends  with a brief series of teachings about tithing, the sanctification of voluntary gifts to the Temple, and about vows. But the centre of this short sidra is the passage known as the rebukes – tochecha – when Torah lists the tragedies that will befall us should we abandon God’s covenant and our obligation to do mitzvot.

One particular verse stands out for me as being emblematic of the tochecha: In Leviticus 26:23-24 we read:

“Ve’im b’eileh lo tivasru li, v’halachtem imi keri, v’halachti af ani imachem b’keri,v’hikeiti etchem gam ani sheva al chatoteichem.” (And if after these [punishments] you are not disciplined/corrected but [instead] will walk ‘keri’ with me, then I will walk, even I, with you in ‘keri’, and I will smite you, yes me, seven times for your sins”)

This word, which is found right at the heart of this narrative of rebuke, appears nowhere else in Torah in this grammatical form, yet in this text we find it repeated seven times within twenty sentences (vv 21,23,24,27,28,40,41) forcing us to notice and explore it. Our behaviour clearly b’keri has terrible consequences. And yet it is not clear what the writer means by it.

Many classical commentators follow Rashi and Maimonides and understand the root of the word to be k.r.h – meaning something that happens by casual chance or by accident (mikreh), though it may also be translated as being in opposition or contrary, or indeed it may come from the root k.r.r meaning to be cold.  But we also know that when used in bible, the apparent casual chance of the text is not ever quite what it seems to be on the surface, but instead is a coded phrase used to let us know that something of significance is about to happen.  So it is that Ruth meets Boaz the language of k.r.h is used to alert us to the significance of her choosing his field to glean in.   There is something curious about a phrase used to describe a chance that is not exactly chance, a casual encounter of enormous significance, but that is how the word keri is used, and to find it so definitely  emphasised in the text of the tochecha means we need to look closely at just what God means when God says “If you walk ‘keri’ with me, then most definitely I will walk ‘keri’ with you.

The three most common teachings about this are: the classical idea expressed by Rashi and Maimonides that there is a lack of interest or intention in walking God’s way – a sort of going through the motions without really caring or understanding or being principled in doing God’s will; The extension of this mechanistic approach of indifference which is developed by R.Samson Raphael Hirsch of modern orthodoxy, and which overlays on the classical understanding the idea that when we do God’s will b’keri it is essentially not simply a casual coincidence but a phenomenon that happens when our will and God’s will coincide so that while it feels we are doing God’s will with intention, in reality we are following our own self-interest and priding ourselves on acting with more righteousness than should be claimed; and thirdly the position of the founder of the ethical mussar movement R.Israel Salanter who layers in the idea of coldness to the behaviour to suggest that when we walk with God b’keri it is that we follow God’s commandments not only mechanistically but also without any warmth or passion for it – there is no possibility of our doing the mitzvot changing us or developing our relationship with the creator.

I like this idea that if we follow God’s commandments to the letter, but without any passion – without committing ourselves and our hopes and fears – that this is viewed by God as b’keri: casual indifferent and cold religion. It bespeaks irrelevance – the acting out of what is required but in no way coming from the commitment of the self.  It is act but not attitude. How do we bring God closer into the world if we do not ourselves make the effort to make the world a better place? How do we bring ourselves closer to God if we pay attention more to how things look than how things are?

The warning in the tochecha, of all the things that will go wrong if we act b’keri – is so powerful an imperative that we are told that not only will God mirror our indifference, God will go further and punish us seven fold – the designation of maximalist or absolute punishment, the other end of the spectrum from casual/chance/indifferent.  If anything is designed to catch our attention, it must be the severity of this response.

And after it all, the horror story painted so dramatically of famine and war and terror and starvation and expulsion and yearning and pain – there comes this: “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land….And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the Eternal.”

God promises to remember – to actively recall the relationship of Covenant between God and the Jewish people which will never be broken no matter how badly behaved we might be. And God compounds this by naming the Avot, the three founding patriarchs of the Jewish people, and unusually lists them in reverse order, the only time this is found in bible.

This bringing in of the patriarchs leads to the concept of zechut avot, the merit of our ancestors, which we can call upon to weight our case before the heavenly court. The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah) explicates this, asking  “Why are the Avot listed backwards? To say: If the acts of Jacob are not worthy, then the acts of Isaac are worthy, and if the acts of Isaac are not worthy, then the acts of Abraham are worthy. The acts of each one is sufficiently worthy that the world can be saved for his sake.”

Rashi mitigates this a little, saying Why are they listed backwards? As if to say: Jacob, the youngest, is worthy of that; and if he is not worthy, behold, Isaac is with him, and if he is not worthy, behold, Abraham is with him and he is worthy.”

It is, I think, a little dig or reminder to the Jews of modernity – the greatest zechut/merit is that of Abraham, and as time goes on the merit is by its nature in decline. So we need to add the merit of our ancestors rather than assume any one is sufficient by itself. We, so much further away from biblical times are expected to have less merit than the founding patriarchs – so how much more do we need each other to fulfil our task. If we just do our tasks with indifference, or follow God’s will where it coincides with our self-interest, or do not attempt our holy task with all the passion and awareness we could bring to it, then we will fail. And to do our holy task well enough we must do it together, in community, with shared and common interest. We need not only the combined merit of our ancestors in tough times, we need the combined merit of our fellow human beings. Only in this way, by working together to make the world a better and holier place, by rebuking each other where necessary, by paying attention to what we do and its effect on others – only in this way will we create the blessing we yearn for.

Vayetzei: We become who we can imagine and dream we can become.

There is so much deceit in this week’s Torah reading. Deceit and dreaming. Jacob is on the run from his brother Esau, having deceived their father into giving him the blessing meant for Esau, the blessing of the firstborn. He falls in love with Rachel, the younger daughter of his uncle Laban, only to be deceived on the wedding night and given Leah her elder sister instead. In order to achieve the wages owed to him he strikes a deal with Laban which means he can selectively breed a huge flock of animals, something Laban was clearly not expecting. While Laban is away, Jacob sneaks away with Rachel and Leah and his household including a large flock of animals. Rachel steals the household gods and hides them, something she keeps from everyone. When Laban pursues them she lies about having them – a lie that will lead to her own death.  Deception follows dishonesty, it is a sorry read for those who would like to find bible reading an uplifting experience.

And yet – at the same time as all the double dealing and the cheating, something else seems to be happening. Alongside the scheming is a growing sense of God, a sense of awe; an understanding that the individual is neither alone in the world nor irrelevant to it.

The understanding begins as Jacob sleeps, when he senses the presence of God in a lonely isolated place on the road, and perceives that that presence is caring and watchful.  It grows as he learns to love selflessly – Jacob works for fourteen years in order to pay Laban so as to marry the woman he loves. Once his beloved younger wife has a son, Jacob realises it is time for him to go home, he himself is in danger of absorbing too many of the dubious values of his father in law Laban and somewhere deep inside himself he knows that needs to protect this beloved son from doing so also. It turns out that the rather unreliable and devious Jacob we met at the beginning of the sidra is in fact capable of deep love and loyalty; he is rooted in the landscape of his family, his untrustworthy personality and selfish behaviour are not the full measure of the man.

What are the mechanisms that bring about this deeper understanding? They seem to be a combination of dreams and imaginings. Whatever happens on that lonely night by the roadside on the way to Haran, Jacob begins to transform his world. As he sleeps he dreams of angels mounting a ladder to heaven and other angels descending a ladder to the earth. He hears God speak to him, renewing the covenant made between God and Abraham and God and Isaac. He believes the covenant is now also with him. And then he awakes. Torah never clarifies if this is truly a religious encounter or a product of the imagination of Jacob, something of his own that yet provides him with a new understanding and insight. Whatever it is, Jacob begins to understand that God can be present in his life.

Rashi suggests that when Jacob says “The Eternal is present in this place and I, I did not know it”, he means “had I known, I would not have slept in such a holy place. And yet, had he not slept there he would never have known it to be a holy place. So paradoxically, in order to understand the sacredness of the place, Jacob had to trust his own inner self, his own imagination, his own ability to create and transform the world. And this is what brought about a change in him, allowed him to become a better self.

As Jacob dreams, as he imagines possibilities, he begins to form them and make them real. He wakes knowing with certainty now that he is the true inheritor of the blessing, the one with whom the covenant is made. From that moment on he seems to be a different person – one with a purpose beyond his own gratification and enjoyment. While dreaming or imagining the encounter with God, he effectively created the outcome of such an encounter, he became the next possessor of the covenant.  The power of our dreams or imagination should never be dismissed. We become who we can imagine and dream we can become.

Nitzavim Vayelech: Standing Up – for each other and for our common humanity.

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In Nitzavim Moses warns that “The secret things belong to the Eternal our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah.”  (Deuteronomy 29:28). It sounds perfectly reasonable as a sentence until one starts to look a little closer – what are the secret or hidden things being referred to here? What are the revealed? And why the need to state the distinction? It is an obscure verse and open to much conjecture.

Rashi understands this verse as one where Moses reassures the people who are standing and accepting the covenant for all time and all Jews – even those not yet born. They must be afraid that they will be held responsible for things about which they knew nothing, as part of some Jewish collective responsibility – indeed we are told in Talmud (Shevuot 39a) that” Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la zeh – all Israel are responsible, one for the other.” So in Rashi’s eyes Moses is explaining that any sins that were openly committed and that we might have been able to prevent or mitigate – these we remain responsible for. But actions done in secret, about which we can have no knowledge – these are left for God to deal with; and he goes on to explain that God will indeed punish sins that are not publicly known about, if they are not acknowledged or mitigated.

One of the great themes of the end of the book of Deuteronomy is ‘arvut’ – the mutual responsibility between Jews. As the leadership of Moses is coming to an end, he clearly foresees a splintering of the group, maybe the challenge of a number of different leadership candidates, and he does his best to prevent this by stressing the communal nature of our relationships with each other. So here we are reminded: we are part of a single people bound by a single covenant. We cannot afford to ignore what each other is doing, or to challenge what we see to be against the values of our tradition, or to excuse something as fringe or marginal or not impacting upon us.

There is a something else that adds to the oddity and opacity of this verse – in the scroll the words ‘for us and our children’ with dots over each letter. The reason for this scribal notification is not known, but it drags our attention to the verse asking for us to pay even more intense attention to it.

We read in the Talmud: Why are there dots over ‘for us and our children’ and the ayin of ‘ad’? To teach that they were not punished for the hidden things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan – the words of Rabbi Judah. Rabbi Nehemiah said to him: Is one ever punished for the hidden things? Doesn’t it say: to eternity? Rather, just as one is not punished for the hidden things, so they were not punished for the revealed things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan. (Sanhedrin 43b)

The Talmud seems to imply that the collective responsibility only comes into being once the Jews had arrived in the land, that the peoplehood only becomes absolute at the point they have a land. This idea has evolved as the Jewish people fulfilled the Abrahamic promise by being dispersed all over the world, and as the land became metaphor more than reality for so much of Jewish history to grow into a sense of collective arvut – of responsibility for more than our Jewish community but for the different communities of which we are part, and certainly our identities have become more complex and overlain with different relationships. We grow into our communities when we have shared purpose, shared values, shared space. But the dots over the phrase “for us and our children” direct us to look deeper and closer, and again Rashi comes to our aid. Rashi, (commenting on Psalm 87:6) suggests that “the hidden things are not sins, but people” – that while many Jews have left Judaism either through historical circumstance or through assimilation, and their children may never even know of their Jewish history and backgrounds, Rashi understands that their Jewish roots are never forgotten by God.

Now this may make some people uncomfortable. In Nitzavim we were entered into a covenant without either assent or consent – by our descending from Jewish parentage we are part of this covenant whether we like it or not. Jewishness is something that is given to us whether we wanted it or not. Similarly, the understanding of a verse around this covenant is that we can never escape it – even if we no longer are aware of being part of the Jewish people, by virtue of heritage all who descend from that time will find themselves brought back into it. One thing that it does do however is to bring into focus that we cannot really know anyone’s yichus, and that we should trust God’s judgement over our own. It also means that we cannot be narrow in our understanding of who is in our community, with whom we share responsibility – the obligation to care for others extends beyond the confines of family or known community, out to the whole human world – the arvut is rightly broadened out to include all the groups among whom we live.

This verse about the hidden and the revealed reminds us that we cannot know everything about the world. It reminds us that we have responsibility for what we do or should know about – and it also reminds us that one of the things we know is that we cannot know for sure where the boundaries of our community lie, only that they extend into the human race.

Danny Siegel wrote a wonderful poem which speaks to us in the same way, a poem I love to read and use to remind myself of the extensiveness of arvut:

“If you always assume/ that the person sitting next to you/ is the messiah/ just waiting for some simple human kindness/ You will soon come to weigh your words/ and watch your hands/ and attend to your responsibilities./ And/ if he so chooses/ not to reveal himself in your time/ It will not matter. (Danny Siegel, ‘A Rebbe’s Proverb (from the Yiddish)’)

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Toledot: Rebecca resurfaces

It has always interested me that Isaac went to supplicate God after twenty years of childless marriage. (We are told in v20 that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebecca and in v26 that he was 60 at the birth of the twins).  What was he doing in the intervening years? And why did he go ‘lenochach ishto” a phrase that is almost always translated as “on behalf of his wife”, yet which only here is translated in this way – for le’nochach actually means to be “in front of/ straight/ before”.

Rashi picks up the point, but with a sharp twist. He understands the phrase to mean not that Isaac supplicated on behalf of Rebecca, but together with her, saying that “this is to be interpreted as ‘opposite’, i.e. he stood in this corner and prayed and she stood in the other corner and prayed”, but then adds an acid comment to the rest of the verse “God let Himself be entreated of him” : “but not of her”

What are we to make of this? It seems that the text is telling us that Isaac is pleading with God in the presence of his wife, but our usual reading of the text does not place her in the action but rather she is the passive object of her husband’s beseeching prayer. When we do see Rebecca it is some months later, clearly in pain, and she does not hesitate to go to God,  and her stance is not to implore but “lidrosh” to ask, to find an answer.

                It seems that not only at the end of his life is Isaac a weaker and less assertive person than his wife. When Rebecca cooks a kid for Jacob in the style of Esau’s venison, so that her favoured child will be the beneficiary of the special blessing for the firstborn, she is true to her character.  She is an equal with her husband and decision making for the family belongs also to her. When Rebecca goes to God and says “im ken, lamah zeh anochi” – if it is to be like this, why am I?” she is asking for a reason for her suffering. And God takes her seriously and tells her of the two nations in her womb, and most critically, that the older shall be subservient to the younger. In view of this knowledge it is no surprise that she manipulates who shall be the recipient of the blessing – it was decided all those years earlier before the boys were born.

I always used to be a little irritated that it looked like Isaac was the one who begged God for a child without consultation with Rebecca, but studying more closely I can see that not only was Rebecca there, she was powerfully present, and integral to the process of the transmission of the blessing. And if Rashi wants to score a little point that it wasn’t her prayer for a child that was answered, well, that is ok by me, it even makes me smile. And it makes me wonder if that great biblical scholar who lived in a house with his wife and three daughters maybe needed to assert himself a little to show that his prayer counted too.

 

Chayei Sarah, the value of each of her lives as seen from the perspective of her death

      Sarah’s death is recorded unemotionally and briefly – her age, her location, and then the focus is on Abraham who came to mourn her and to bury her appropriately

      More interesting is that it her death is recorded in the context of her life. We are told
“And these were the lives of Sarah. A hundred years and seven years and twenty years were the years of the lives of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba–the same is Hebron–in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.” (Gen 23:1-2)

      Linguistically this announcement is a strange construction, and we can’t help wondering about it, and seeing it in its immediate context of the story of the binding of Isaac – that Sarah’s reaction to Abraham’s treatment of Isaac, her only son whose wellbeing meant everything to her, was to be living away from Abraham and ultimately to die of her distress.

      It may be that Sarah did die of the heartbreak occasioned by learning of the Akedah, of what Abraham was prepared to do to Isaac in order to pass a test of loyalty from God. But her death is of much less relevance here than her life – more specifically in the Hebrew text, her lives.

      Rashi tells us that this odd construction means that at one hundred years old Sarah was like she was at twenty in respect of sinning, (meaning that she did not sin till she was one hundred, since before the Torah God did not punish the sins of those under 20 years) and at twenty she was as beautiful as an innocent and perfect young girl of seven. And Rashi further tells us that the repetition of the word “years” indicates that all the years of her life were equal in value. (Rashi, Tractate Shabbat 89b).

      This may not exactly resonate with us, but the thought behind it does – that Sarah’s life was made up of different segments, and each period, though maybe not quantitatively long, is of equal value to other times of our lives. Also, that we carry elements of each episode of our lives with us, building up a portfolio of memories and experience to contribute to who we become.

      Sarah was a woman who lived a long and complex life. Married to a half brother with an orphaned nephew (Lot) to bring up, she travelled extensively away from Ur of the Chaldees through Canaan to Egypt, then back, and seems to have live in Philistine territory and also in Beer Sheva and finally Hevron. She wanted a child but did not conceive until old age, and then she fought hard for that child (Isaac) to receive his inheritance. Twice she entered the harem of the ruling king in order to protect Abraham from death, and twice she was returned to him. She was clearly not a doormat however – It was Sarah who decided to bring God’s prophecy about by giving Hagar to Abraham in order for him to conceive a son. Sarah was the one who told Abraham then to remove that son Ishmael from proximity to their own child Isaac, and an unhappy Abraham, protesting to God, was told to obey her. Sarah was a woman fully in control of her own life and pretty controlling of others lives too. By the time of her death the only thing she did not seem to have, was a relationship to Isaac, possibly because in her destroying the relationship between the two half brothers, she also destroyed the trust between herself and her son.

      But her life was clearly full and fulfilled. While not perfect, she was a woman who contributed to her world extensively – one might also note here that when Abram and Sarai had their names changed in order to signify their new position in relation to God, Abram had the letter ‘hay’ added to his name to make it Abraham, and to add the letter used to describe God to his own name, whereas Sarai had the ‘yod’ in her name removed and a ‘hay’ returned. in effect a letter worth the numerical value of ten was removed, half was given to her husband and half to her (‘hay’ has the numerical value of five) – from which one might deduce that all the godliness that came into Abraham’s life came to him from Sarah, who had a surfeit.

     Be that as it may, Sarah’s life was made up of a number of lives, and each of them had value and impact. Each of us too has a number of lives, as children, in different work or leisure roles, in different family constructions and so on. For some of us we go on and on, adding shorter and longer sections to the span of our time on earth, for others that span is cut short through illness or accident or war. But what is important is not the quantity of years we live, but the quality and richness of the experiences we have while we are living. Our lives are not to be measured and judged simply by length of time, but about how we live the years given to us. A shorter but well lived life is a triumph and a complete whole in itself.