Mishpatim: speaking to us today to remind us to take care of the strangers who live amongst us

Introduced in this sidra, and threaded through the rest of the biblical text is a commandment so contemporary and relevant it is as if we can still hear the air vibrate with the divine voice. Here in parashat Mishpatim we are reminded not once, but twice, not to oppress or wrong the stranger:

וְגֵ֥ר לֹֽא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: כא כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן: כב אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַֽעֲקָתֽוֹ:

And a stranger you will not wrong, neither shall you oppress them; for you  were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry” (Exodus 22:20-22)

 וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:

“And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (23:9)

This commandment is the subject of much commentary – not least the number of times it appears in the biblical text.

In the Babylonian Talmud we are told:

“It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: Why did the Torah warn against [wrongdoing] the proselyte in thirty-six, or as others say, in forty-six, places?  Because he has a strong inclination to evil. What is the meaning of the verse, You shall neither wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt?

It has been taught: Rabbi Nathan said: Do not taunt your neighbour with the blemish you yourself have (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b)

Thirty six or forty six repetitions of the warning against wronging a stranger – it is an extraordinary marker of something the biblical tradition holds dear – and a reminder of course that wronging strangers must be something easy to do in any society or the bible and later traditions would not feel the need to hammer home the point.

The reasons given in bible are generally either that having been oppressed ourselves we should take care not to put others into that position because we know the pain of it (remember that you were slaves in Egypt), or that God cares in particular for the vulnerable – and the stranger is repeatedly part of a list that includes the widowed and the orphaned, those with no family or economic security to support them. And both of these are powerful aspirations – that we, who know the pain of being an outsider should not make others outsiders, and that our society must be structured to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and supported, that we should not expect God to do what is our obligation. We see ourselves as doing God’s work when we treat other human beings with dignity and respect, seeing God in them as our shared Creator, and it is telling that there is no blessing formula for our doing this kind of holy work – no beracha thanking God for the commandment, it is meant to be so ingrained in us that it has shaped our very identity.

Post biblical commentators explain this imperative to not wrong a stranger, to care for the vulnerable who are living amongst us, in a number of ways commensurate with their own context. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus, living in oppressive times under Roman rule while the second temple was destroyed and society was fractured and fractious, was concerned that should we treat the strangers amongst us badly they would turn on us and damage us – hence the “strong inclination to evil”.  For Rabbi Nathan of Babylon, who live a generation or so later, the issue was more that the Jewish people were likely to see in strangers things they recognised – and disliked – in themselves and would therefore externalise and reject their own attributes.

Rashi in eleventh century France, seeing the early crusaders sweep through in order the cleanse their society of others, suggests to us that the verse “for you were strangers” is there to remind us that if we hurt the strangers living amongst us they may also denounce and hurt us by reminding ourselves and others that we too are descended from strangers – a “blemish” we share with more modern immigrants by being foreign in the land we are living in.

And the Ramban (Nachmanides) who lived in 13th century Spain, a gentle character most of whose life was untroubled by political upheaval – at least until the disputation of Barcelona when he was already in his seventies – focuses differently on this commandment, saying “Do not oppress the stranger because you think he has no one to defend him; remember how Pharaoh learned that God defends the stranger. God is the shield of the oppressed, the one who sees the tears of those who have no one else to give them comfort. God will save every person from the hands of those stronger than he. God will always hear the cries of the widow and the orphan, the pleas of those who have no one upon whom to rely except their Father in Heaven”

Each of us reads bible in the context of our own experiences, but each of us must take note that there is a particular obligation on us to care for the vulnerable amongst us, be they our own people who have fallen on hard times and who need our support (the widowed and the orphaned) or be they strangers who have come to live alongside us in the land: (The ger). We may tell ourselves different narratives about this obligation, but we must honour it in action. We might remember that Abraham was an Ivri – from across the river – who introduced himself to the people of Het as a resident alien among them, we might see the pain of Moses who called one of his sons Gershon (ger-sham) because he was a stranger among the people he was living with and found it most painful when he had a child away from his own people. We might recognise that we are like the stranger, even if we are settled and they are not. We might recognise the spark of the divine in every human being. We might respond to the ethics of caring for the vulnerable, the orphan, widow and foreigner, or feel the gaze of God on us asking us to do what we know to be the right thing

We might notice that each of these are somehow cut off from their roots, less supported by family than the rest of us, with less available family around them for whatever reason. Indeed Ibn Ezra, himself forced to leave Spain and wander for much of his later life when the incoming Almohad regime began to persecute the Jews, commented on our verse that “The reason for the prohibition ‘You shall not wrong a stranger’ (Exodus 22:20)…is that he has no family roots”

All of which is to say that the normal human desire to create a group of like-people around oneself, to isolate oneself from strangers and  to ignore them, to build a society which excludes them, is known to bible and is firmly disapproved of. Time and again we are warned, reminded, instructed – care for the vulnerable, in particular those who need help, in particular those without a structure to support them, in particular the widow, orphan and foreigner who are trying to survive right by you.

So it is possibly not surprising when one reads that most of Europe is doing all it can to keep the great wave of migration away, to turn its back on the frightened, the poor, the victims of warring groups, the homeless, the desperate. Not surprising, but not acceptable either. And when Israel, a land created by Jews whose historical narrative has been the despised outsider since the fall of the second temple – when Israel behaves without the Derech Eretz, without the ethical and judicial imperatives to look after strangers, it is time for Jews all over the world to step up and remind our people of the most common commandment in Bible, and the obligation to obey it.

Israel was one of the first signatories of the UN convention on Refugees in 1951 and committed herself to making the asylum process and painfree and humane as possible.

Today there are about thirty eight thousand Africans seeking refuge in Israel, who have come mainly from the war torn areas of Sudan and Eritrea. They live mainly in South Tel Aviv. About five thousand children are in this group, and about seven thousand women. The conditions are not good, they are crowded and the local population is also economically and socially vulnerable. The situation has been allowed to spiral so that competition between the different populations means that there is less work, higher rents, little sense of community and enormous pressure on all the people.

Because of a Supreme Court judgment that Israel, which recognises it cannot send the people back to certain danger, can instead send them to a ‘neutral’ third country (understood to be Rwanda or possibly Uganda), the pressure to deport the refugees with their ‘consent’ is growing with a financial incentive to get them to leave or the threat of jail if they refuse.

Asylum applications are complicated and often the paperwork gets lost in the system, so of the approximately fourteen thousand applications filed, only eleven Sudanese and Eritrean refugees have been accepted, with about six thousand refused and the rest lost in the system.

Israel takes pride in being a Jewish state, which means it should be based on Jewish values. The present government is simply ignoring these values. But  the Jewish people are not ignoring these values and many groups are doing their best to change the policy of Government to better align with the most frequent exhortation in bible – love your neighbour as yourself, care for the vulnerable, treat the stranger with the same law as the home born – however you frame it, wherever you delve into the biblical text,  this is our core religious activity.

Jews outside of Israel are protesting to the Government in many ways. Haaretz just reported https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/protests-against-israel-s-deportation-plan-gather-worldwide-1.5804320   After thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya to protest the deportation of asylum seekers from Israel to the African country, thousands more joined them in protest outside Rwandan missions around the world in over a dozen cities….Michael Sfard, a Tel Aviv–based human rights lawyer who represents victims of civil rights violations, told the crowd he is ashamed that his own government “does not live up to the lessons that should have been learned from our own history, from our own collective biography.”

Rabbis for Human Rights are educating and among the activists – see http://rhr.org.il/eng/2018/02/parashat-mishpatim-gerim-midst/

Rabbi Susan Silverman is leading a call to hide asylum seekers facing forced deportation, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/rabbis-pledge-to-protect-african-asylum-seekers-facing-deportation-from-israel_us_5a60f743e4b05085db6096a3

Other Jewish and Israeli human rights organisations are focussing on helping – such as

The Hotline for Migrants and Refugees http://hotline.org.il/en/main/   protects the rights of refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking

CIMI  https://www.cimi.org.il/      the Centre for International Migration and Integration, has been leading a campaign to adopt and advocate young people who first arrived in Israel as unaccompanied minors, among other work to help integrate migrants.

The Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement (Miklat Israel),  is an initiative to hide asylum seekers slated for deportation in private homes. Rabbis and holocaust survivors are among the people providing such sanctuary

עוצרים את הגירוש a grassroots effort to stop the impending deportations through disseminating information, protests, and social media campaigns.

http://www.asylumseekers.org/  Right Now! Advocates for  for Asylum Seekers in Israel and is running an advocacy campaign abroad.

“You shall not turn over a slave who seeks refuge with you. He shall live with you in any place he may choose, within one of your gates. You must not mistreat him” – Deuteronomy 23:16-17.

Let me finish with a text from Sefer haChinuch, an anthology of the mitzvot from 13th century Spain:

“It is for us to learn from this precious commandment to take pity on any man who is in a town or city that is not his native ground and site of the family of his fathers.  Let us not maltreat him in any way, finding him alone, with those who would aid him quite far from him – just as we see that the Torah adjures us to have compassion on anyone who needs help.  With these qualities we will merit to be treated with compassion by the Eternal God Be He blessed”

 

 

photo taken from internet Jewish Chronicle page reporting the story Students and teachers protest against the deportation of African asylum seekers, Tel Aviv, January 24, 2018 Photo: Flash 90

Ki HaAdam Etz Ha’Sadeh – human beings and trees, or “none of us thrive uprooted”

In the book of Deuteronomy in a passage describing the rules for besieging a city we find a curious phrase: “When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field human, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, those you may destroy and cut down, that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with thee, until it fall.” (20:19-20)

It begins with the prohibition against destroying trees, and clarifies that the trees to be protected are those that bear edible produce, but within the arc we find the phrase “ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” and this has always been a verse that has resonated for me far beyond the rules prohibiting scorched earth policies in war. It can be read either as a question or as a statement of truth, either “Are trees of the field [like] human beings?” or “Human beings are [like] trees of the field”

Trees are everywhere in bible, sometimes for good, sometimes less so. Abraham enters the land from Haran via Shechem and arrives at Elon Moreh (the terebinth (oak) tree of Moreh, he  is encamped under the terebinth of Mamre when God comes to him to tell him Isaac will be born, Deborah the nurse of Rebecca is buried under a terebinth tree,   Jacob buries the household idols of Laban under a terebinth, Deborah sits and judges under a palm tree, David fights Goliath in the valley of the Elah (terebinth), Hosea describes idolaters as worshiping at various trees – “They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and offer upon the hills, under oaks and poplars and terebinths, because the shadow thereof is good;

The Israelite religion valued trees but had an uneasy relationship with them insofar as the hated and dominant Canaanite tradition was one of tree worship. The mother goddess Asherah was associated with sacred trees,  Asherah/Asherim  are  described more than thirty times in the biblical narrative as being a cult centred on a pole or stylised tree, or else a sacred grove of trees. It was to be feared and to be rooted out.

And then of course there are famous trees right at the beginning of the biblical narrative – those planted in the Garden of Eden, not only those whose fruit could be eaten, but more particularly the two from which nothing must be taken – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Eternal Life. The trees with which our ambivalence begins.

While the sacred trees of the Asherah/Asherim have been uprooted from the traditions of the biblical Israelite people, we have taken the tree for ourselves –  big time. The candelabrum in the desert tent which transferred to the Temple is modelled on a tree, and botanical terms are used. That candelabrum remains the most ancient symbol of Judaism.  We are used to Torah being described as Etz Hayim, a Tree of Life.  Trees are used in parables and as analogies. Look at Jotham’s use of them to describe the choice of Abimelech as king (Judges 9) or Ezekiel’s use of the cedar and the trees of the field to symbolise Israel and the other nations.  Look at the psalmist who describes the righteous person as like a tree planted by the waters. Wherever you look in bible you can find trees.

So this phrase “Ki Ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” fits into a long and rich tradition and certainly is the subject of a great deal of halachic and aggadic attention and interpretation.

Its plain meanings – the rhetorical question asking whether a tree should pay the price for human greed or stupidity, and the idea that human beings are comparable to trees of the field are both explored, and while for many years I have focused on this as a question which underlies the importance of preserving the fruit trees rather than weaponising them or wasting them in war, this year I found myself niggled into a slightly different direction.

Human beings are [like] trees of the field.

In what way are we like the trees of the field? I think because we put down roots and we reach to the stars. Our roots are hidden away, a complex network of sustaining relationships, anchoring us, holding us to our history, giving us the wherewithal to grow. Our bodies grow, we become a presence in the world that can be fruitful and filled with life. We yearn ever upwards, yet in so doing we can offer shade, shelter, fruit, support to each other. We respond to our environment and we shape our environment.

In the wonderful book “The hidden life of trees” the author Peter Wohlleben writes ““When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you “help” individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbours in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. And there are now a lot of losers in the forest. Weaker members, who would once have been supported by the stronger ones, suddenly fall behind. Whether the reason for their decline is their location and lack of nutrients, a passing malaise, or genetic makeup, they now fall prey to insects and fungi.”

No tree provides everything we need, just as no one person or relationship can provide everything in life:  diversity is important for us. And trees are rarely naturally isolated, even in the biblical desert they generally grow and thrive in groups.  Like trees, we are relational beings, we need each other, we need community.

As the news every day seems to bring yet more stories of those who have been uprooted from their communities because of war and its attendant problems of violence, terror, starvation and chaos, I see how the verse comes alive. Trees are innocent bystanders in war and must be protected. They are the resource from which new society may grow, and to uproot them or damage them may destroy the potential future. As refugees flee into hopeful sanctuary, we know that they are leaving behind a barren landscape where life cannot continue. As refugees enter a new country they bring with them all the possibilities of regeneration, even where despair and terror appears  to have caused irreparable harm – still the hopeful green shoots appear from what looks like the dead stump. People who have been uprooted have lost much more than material possessions – they lose part of their history and much of their future. Their present feels fragile and vulnerable – will they be supported, will they be able to create networks and become part of community, will they be able once more to grow.

As I look at the news stories my heart breaks. Young children alone and scared in Europe, sent by parents desperate to give them a chance at life. Whole families or lone individuals trying to reach safety in rickety boats on treacherous seas.  Victims of trafficking who cannot understand the system which is trying to keep them out. Victims of violence who survive as an act of will. Everyone cut off at the roots, anxiously trying to regrow, to find some shelter and space and sustenance. No one uproots themselves willingly – it is always a final act of desperation.

At Tu b’shevat we celebrate the trees of our land. We plant more, we clear round others so they can reach the light, we mark the new year of life. And this is good, but as the bible reminds us human beings also need what trees need. And so we must find the space for those fleeing the war in their own land to put down roots in ours, help to create the networks of relationships that will support them, give them the wherewithal to flourish. If we protect a material tree from the trauma of war surrounding it, how much more should we be protecting the human being, part of our own family tree, from such trauma.?

 

 

 

 

 

Internet trolls trying to feel better by abusing others -Jewish teaching is for them too. The world is created and can be destroyed with words.

In the uncharted territory of social media we find a variety of inhabitants. Bloggers, tweeters, virtual lifers … and of course trolls. The troll’s sole purpose on the net is to abuse and argue with others, and to cause emotional upset wherever they can.  Many celebrities have their own personal trolls, and wherever women’s issues are mentioned, or politics or race or religion or human rights or refugees – there too trolls convene. The perceived anonymity of the online world means verbal bullying and cruelty seem to them to be acceptable, even justifiable.

Judaism is deeply aware of the power of words, teaching that the world is created by speech.

There is a Chassidic story about a man who gossips about his rabbi, who, realising the wickedness of this behaviour goes to the rabbi to apologise, offering to make amends for the rumours he has spread. The rabbi instructs him to take a feather bolster, cut it open and scatter the contents to the winds, and so he does. When he returned, the rabbi said “now, go and gather up all the feathers”. The man protested that this was impossible, and the rabbi told him, “like the feathers you cast to the winds, the words you spoke can never be recalled, and the damage done can never be undone”.

Like this man, the internet trolls surely cannot imagine the damage that they do, and even deleting the posts will not remove the pain they inflicted.

God said to the tongue “you are kept guarded inside the body, and not only that but I surrounded you with two walls, one of bone (the teeth) and one of flesh (the lips)”

Speaking negatively of others is easily done, and may give us a momentary sense of self esteem. But the cost to our souls is real and the cost to others – both the individual who is demeaned or trolled in social media posts and to civic society and civil discourse – that is real too.

In mythology light destroys trolls, and in Judaism there is an awareness that the light shines on us wherever we are, even in the anonymous depths of the internet. The Rabbis tell us if we remember three things we won’t come into the power of sin: That there is an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and that everything is recorded in a book.

Lech Lecha: We Journey Towards our Selves

Abram’s journey, the expedition which is also the start of the journey of the Jewish people to the land of Canaan, begins with the words “ Lech Lecha” , a strangely poetic and formulaic compound meaning something like ‘go for yourself’ or ‘go into yourself’, or even the rather enigmatic ‘go towards yourself’. Without any introduction God tells Abram to leave his parental home behind, to take his entire family and go to a foreign land he does not, and cannot, know.   Doing this will incur God’s blessing for Abram and his descendants.

   לֵךְ לךָ

The bible tells us tantalisingly little about what is being left behind. There is a little written about Abram’s father Terach, but nothing about his wife, or about Sarah’s parents. But even so, the wrench through which they are torn from their past is almost palpable. We can imagine the feelings of the travellers who may never again see their home and their families, and we can imagine too the desolate feelings of those loved ones who are left behind.

The blessing/promise that God gave to Abram and Sarai comes in four parts: Firstly God promised to make them a great nation. Then there was the offer of divine blessing. This is followed by the promise to make their name great, and finally the exhortation ‘Be a blessing’.

This four fold pledge to Abram and Sarai has been interpreted again and again, and the many and various commentators have each offered vastly differing ideas about what it all means – the only consistent factor is that each commentator expounds within his own particular historical reality so that midrashic commentators who lived in days of peace and prosperity for the Jews as much as for their neighbours could really believe that a great nation would mean they would have many children, that God’s blessing could only mean material prosperity, and a great name imply straightforward fame.

A commentator in medieval Russia or Poland though would not see the text in the same way, “A great nation must mean greatness of quality, not quantity” laments one rabbi who sees the toll that centuries of pogroms have taken on the Jewish population. Another bemoans the fact that for Jews the blessing of wealth is a temporary phenomenon, lasting at the most a generation or two.

The truth is, as we know, that every generation makes its own journey, and every generation has to contend with the situation it finds itself in. In every generation we act out the leaving, we find ourselves at the beginning of something new again, we relive the pain of the parting, the fear of the unknown, the response to a call of blessing or else the need to leave behind something that is no longer a tenable way of life for us. We did it, our parents did it, our grand parents did it – and theirs. And our children too will at some point undertake the journey – the Lech Lecha that is in our essential being.

The creature of popular imagination – the wandering Jew – begins with Abraham, who describes himself as an IVRI – one who has crossed over. Haran, the place where Abram and Sarai lived at the time we met them (they had, after all, travelled with Terach already from Ur of the Chaldees) means ‘crossroads’ – they are par excellence the people who move from one area to another, across boundaries, through the margins. Although promised the land of Canaan they remain essentially rootless for most of the stories, and by the time of Sarah’s death we still don’t have a clear picture of whether they had pitched their tent together and settled down. Only by the time of Abraham’s burial at the cave of Machpelah alongside his wife, do we get a sense that they have finally stopped all their restless travelling.

This continual movement, the habitual crossing of limits and of confines, is probably our greatest – although certainly our most uncomfortable – blessing.   Because we never get too settled we are able to retain a particularity, the clarity of perspective of the outsider, we are able to retain a sense of the ‘otherness’ of the ‘other. We are able to bring many strands and streams of culture and philosophy into how we view the world, how we operate in it., and we move between different worlds with great ease. It seems that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ has become almost a code word for ‘Jew’ in some quarters.

But there is a price to be paid for our being Ivri’im, and it can be a high one. Measured out in suspicion and mistrust, in persecution and even murder, we have many times paid a terrible cost. We know this, but it has never stopped us following the imperatives God gave to Abram – “Lech Lecha” – “Go to and for yourself”; “Hayei Bracha” – Be a blessing.

There is pain in leaving and there is pain in being left behind – and the pain is all the greater when the travelling doesn’t come from active and willing choice, but from the forces around us. In the last few years there have been published a plethora of books of personal stories from the years of the holocaust, an outpouring of memories that have been held and contained quietly within so many people, suppressed while they lived their active lives, attaining qualifications, working hard, marrying and bringing up children. Now is the time to tell the real stories of those Lech Lecha’s, and emerging from these stories is an echo of the pain and confusion of leaving the parental home with its security and its warmth and love. I never fail to be moved to tears when I read of the separation for ever of children and their parents, of partners and friends. This is part of our historical reality, but it is hard to find any sense of God within it.

But there is another part to the Lech Lecha of setting out on the journey, and that is that while bonds are inevitably broken and families ruptured beyond repair, the journey itself brings new experiences, often a broadening of horizons, and most importantly it seems to me that we recreate family and community alongside those with whom we journey.

I am the daughter of a German Jew who came to England as a young teenager alone, leaving parents and extended family behind. I grew up in a synagogue community made up predominantly of survivors, and I remember not only the pain in their eyes, but also the dedicated devotion to create a vibrant and warm synagogue community. I remember the Jews who gave up their time to teach me and the other children of the community bible and siddur, albeit with strongly German accented Hebrew and English. I remember the Jews who gave up their evenings to plan for Jewish festivals to be both educational and fun, the Jews who gave free rein on the bimah to the young teenagers on the community because they knew that everyone should be able to take a service – you never knew when you might find yourself in a place where there was no one able to lead it for you. Few of them had roots more than a few years old in the community, yet they made roots for themselves and for their families. They settled in the main, though their children have generally moved on again to larger cities. But they did indeed make, if not a great nation, then a wonderful Jewish community and a link in the chain of tradition. They may not have noticeably received a divine blessing, but they did make for themselves a good name, and they lived out the imperative to be a blessing. When I look back at the journeys of the generations immediately before mine, the perilous journeys from what seemed to be simply called “Russia” at the beginning of the last century, or the terrified fleeing of Europe in the early middle part of it, and I see the fruits of those journeys, I see that we continually travel towards ourselves, as well as for ourselves. This strangely poetic formula is the only one to do justice to the journey.riga old synagogue memorial (Picture of Synagogue Ruins Memorial in Riga )