3rd Elul: birthday of Menachem Meiri

3rd Elul birth of Menachem ben Solomon Meiri or Ha’Meiri (1249–1306)

The Meiri was a Catalan rabbi, Talmudist and Maimonidean, regarded as one of the most brilliant commentators of his time. His works, which have often been ignored by much of the halachic process since, show a clear and logical – and scientific – approach to our great foundational texts.  He was a philosopher whose learning kept him open to new approaches – from the Jewish Encyclopaedia we read that “Meiri was too much of a philosopher himself to interdict the study of philosophy. Thus, when solicited by Abba Mari to give his adhesion to the excommunication launched against the secular sciences, Meiri wrote him a letter in which he emphatically defended science, the only concession he made being to forbid the study of secular sciences by any one before he has thoroughly studied the Talmud.”

He is especially famous for his writings on Jewish-Gentile relationships, repeatedly holding that the statements against the other nations in the Talmud and the discriminatory laws against them, were only about the long-disappeared idolatrous nations of that time, and in no way were to be used in his contemporary setting.  He was also a clear early voice in support of women’s reading of the Sefer Torah and the Megillah within the community.

Other comments of his are also worth bringing forward for attention– for example on the fractious dispute that has surfaced in our time: Kol b’isha ervah – the idea that a woman’s voice is sexually provocative and must therefore not be heard – also provide useful early texts to remind those who would silence women en masse in public spaces, that their viewpoint is not miSinai. On the nature of Ervah as it relates sexuality he is clear that this is highly subjective. “That a person knows himself and his inclinations” and that Kol B’isha does not apply when one knows that her voice will not be sexually stimulating. And concerning this the Torah says I am the Eternal your God” — indicating that each person must draw an honest and individual boundary”

He rules that even a minor may read from the Torah scroll for the community. He believes that one’s obligation to read the Torah publicly is not one that falls under the halachic concept that a person of lesser obligation cannot perform a commandment on behalf of a person with a greater obligation, for that is holds only for individual obligations and not communal ones. Hence, women too can read from the Sefer Torah.

There are downsides to his writing. In particular I found his comments on who to marry disappointing: Commenting on BT Yevamot 63a where Rav Pappa advises “Be patient and marry a woman who is suitable for you. Descend a level to marry a woman of lower social status, and ascend a level to choose a friend”   Rashi glosses: “Do not take an important woman as your wife, lest she find that you are unacceptable to her” But the Meiri goes further in his commentary -“Never seek a wife among those who are greater than you, lest as a result of her higher standing, she rules over you. Surely then she will not obey you regarding household tasks.”

We are all children of our time, and we have all absorbed the generation norms in which we live, to a greater or lesser degree. The Meiri was of his place and time, but had the courage to speak against much of the prevailing fear of “the other” – be they women or gentiles.  And he continued to be open to knowledge from whatever source, defending the learning of the sciences and a good and rounded education. We need more such voices today.

Kedoshim Tihyu: Holiness lies in the interconnected world, in our relationships and our responsibilities

Parashat Kedoshim takes its name from the phrase it begins with: “Kedoshim tihyu, ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem” – You will be Kadosh, as I the Eternal your God Am Kadosh.  (Leviticus 19:2)

The root K.D.Sh appears 152 times in the Book of Leviticus, and while usually translated as “separate/distinct” or “holy”, it has a richer and more complex life within Jewish thought than to be boundaried in such a way. It is difficult to fully explicate this word, in part because Kedushah is an attribute of the essence of God, and something we human beings are to pursue in our behaviour and being, the result of such pursuit is attachment to the Divine, understood in mystical tradition as the ultimate goal of all our spiritual strivings.

The 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu deVidas explains in his mystical and meditative work (Reishit Chochma) that fleeing evil and doing good creates within us the ability to receive holiness from God. Holiness is a Divine response to our actions, and inhabits and shapes our soul, creating the possibility for communion with God.

Holiness exists in two different frameworks in bible: one is the sanctity of the priesthood and temple rituals which is the focus of much of this book of Leviticus; the second is the sanctity of peoplehood, of the whole community, as is underscored with the first verse of this sidra – “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You (voi) shall be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).”. It is this second framework that speaks to us. Holiness is an aspiration for a community much more than a state for priest and temple. The focus moves a little away from the ritual rooted in the sacrificial system and more towards the ethical rooted in community living.

Avoiding evil and doing good seems to the main thrust of much of what is contained in the apex of the holiness school of guidance, found in Leviticus chapter 19.(Full holiness Code found Leviticus 17-26) According to Sefer haChinuch, there are 13 positive and 38 negative mitzvot in sidra kedoshim, guiding us towards doing good things, and away from improper behaviour.

We are used to categorising these mitzvot (commandments) in Kedoshim as either Ritual ones or Ethical ones, but there is another way to see these imperatives that does not divide them into different and separate types, but functioning instead together, as part of a whole and complex system.

The commandments that guide us towards holiness can be understood as being ecological in structure –together they are a description of the web of relationships that unite the people, the land, the environment including both flora and fauna, and God.  Together they both set the balance that allows each component to flourish, each constituent to be in harmonious relationship.

There are curious parallels that signal the interconnectedness if one looks – for example the law of pe’ah forbids us to cut the edges of the land (19:9) and the edges of the human head and beard (19:27). People and land are treated in the same way, albeit for different motivations.

The section of bible known to us as “holiness code” (Leviticus 17-26) can be understood as a coherent and unified corpus, which aims to bring together –  through varied and diverse subject matter, terminology and historical perspective – the connection of people and land. Specifically here people and land which each have a distinct relationship with God. The people are to aspire towards ideal behaviour; the land is to embody the sacred.  Each generation is to learn and understand the principles that underlie this text, to draw out and fulfil those principles in their own time and their own context. The texts play with time. This is the generation of the desert being told how to behave in the land they have settled. We are simultaneously at Sinai shortly after the exodus from Egypt, in the desert as a travelling and unrooted people, and in the Land of Israel as the people who are responsible for the welfare of both land and society.

The effect of these time distortions within the text is to reinforce the timelessness of the message and of those to whom the message is addressed – to remind us that each generation of the people Israel is to understand that we too are part of the web of relationship. Just as the Pesach Haggadah reminds us that each of us is to consider ourselves part of the generation that was freed from Egyptian slavery, so here we are reminded that the relationship between people, land and God is one we are firmly held within.

This year the message of the ecology, the web of the relationships and the connections between plants, animals, people, and the environment, has never been so powerful to me, and the balances and imbalances between these relationships cry out for our attention.

We are living in a time of climate change happening with unprecedented speed. Everything is being affected and generally not for the good of the world. Be it the insect populations diminishing or disappearing due to insecticides, or else the changes in weather which have disrupted their breeding; or the crops blighted by drought or to-heavy rains; be it the animals whose habitats are changing around them, leaving them ill equipped to survive, or the people who face tsunami or cyclones, or drought or blistering heat – we are once again forced to pay attention to the interdependability of our world, and to note how our behaviour is unbalancing not only our own context but the future world of our children.

When one reads this section of Leviticus not to tease out the ritual or ethical behaviours we feel ourselves commanded to follow, but to become more fully conscious of what it means to hear the imperative to holiness that we must pursue in order to come closer to God, it is impossible to ignore how the impetus to Kedushah is situated within the web of relationships between people, animals and land. The book of Genesis (2:15) tells us we have a responsibility to steward the land, to keep it in good order and fully functioning, we have to work it responsibly and mindfully. The book of Deuteronomy reminds us that should we not care properly for the land and for the people we will be expelled from living in the land, reminds us too that God is watching how people treat the land that is so special to God (Deut 11:12) And all the books of bible repeatedly remind us that we are not inheritors of this world by right, but that we are privileged to live here and have a role we must play, relationships we must nurture, transmission we must be part of. How we live our lives matters not just to us or our close family or generation, how we live our lives is part of the ecology of the world and how it will thrive – or not

Imitatio Dei, the imitation of the attributes of God, holds a central place in Jewish thinking, right from the creation of people b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. We cannot absorb God nor become God, we cannot understand or encompass God, but we still have the obligation to come closer to Kedushah. The Talmud phrases it best, I think, like this:  “Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina said: (Deuteronomy 13:5) “After God you shall walk.” And is it possible for a person to walk after the Presence of God? And doesn’t it already say (Deuteronomy 4:24) “Because God is a consuming flame”? Rather, [it means] to walk after the characteristics of God. Just as God clothed the naked [in the case of Adam and Chava]… so, too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God visited the sick [in the case of Avraham after his brit milah]…so, too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God comforted the mourners [in the case of Yitzhak after Avraham’s passing]…so, too, should you comfort the mourners. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God buried the dead [in the case of Moshe]…so, too, should you bury the dead” (Sotah 14a:3-4)

It is a lovely description of how to imitate God to make the world a better place. But as our liturgy reminds us three times a day in the Aleinu prayer, it is our duty “letaken olam b’malchut Shaddai” To repair and maintain the world with the sovereignty of God. This is bigger than the cases suggested by Rav Hama – for the sovereignty of God is more than the relationships between people, important as they are. Instead I think the phrase is referring to the Kedushah we find in the Holiness Section of Leviticus – we must maintain and repair the relationships not simply bein Adam v’Chavero (between people) but bein Adam v’Olam – between people and the living beings – animal and vegetable – on this earth.

How we treat the earth – the rainforests with its trees often logged mercilessly and the environment of the animals who live there decimated and unsustainable; the rivers we clog with chemicals or detritus, the seas filled with plastic and becoming toxic to so many who swim in them, be they small turtles or huge orcas; the air in cities that are filled with pollutants, the fields we drench with fertilizers or insecticides, the animals and birds we so carelessly damage, the environment we so thoughtlessly injure, the casual littering and the mindless consumption of limited resources – all of this is in direct contradiction to what we are told about Kedushah, the holiness we should be striving to attain.

In London this week a 16 year old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, came to speak to Parliament and also to the many protestors of Climate Change who brought our cities to a standstill as they sought to persuade the government, by non-violent action, to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to zero. The group “Extinction Rebellion” which has a Jewish section also held a Seder outside the Parliament buildings, linking the traditional ten plagues to the many threats to the earth if greenhouse gas emissions are not massively reduced, and global warming brought below two degrees.  They linked too to the damage to seas and air and land we are increasingly seeing happen. (The group is also protesting in Milan, Rome and Torino and in other countries too).

Reactions were mixed to the protests – in part because of the inconvenience caused to daily living, in part to vested interests, in part to political games-playing. But what became clearer to me was not just the science the protesters were drawing our attention to, but the religious values we have been ignoring for so long.

For when we categorise mitzvot into ethical or ritual, meaningful or opaque, spiritual or mundane, we mask over something else – the inter-relatedness of our world, which the mitzvot are designed to help  us to understand if only we would pay attention, the web of relationships between us and our environment, between animals and plants and humans and land and God.

When God tells the people that we must strive for Kedushah, an essential attribute of the divine, we often put this into the domain of the heavens, and forget that we live on the earth. We forget that the web of relationships is planet wide, that it involves trees and plants and soil and animals and insects….   Holiness demands from us the awareness of these relationships, and a response that values them.  “Le’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai” – to maintain and repair the world with divine ruling” – that is out task, and it is not in the heavens or far from us, but in our everyday interactions with the created world.

(sermon given 2019)

 

 

Pekudei – continuing creation gives purpose, recreating creation is our role

The book of Exodus ends with the completion of the portable Tabernacle painstakingly made to God’s exact instructions by the children of Israel. It seems that we have been reading about this building work for weeks – no other event in the journey the Israelites make in the wilderness has been told us in such detail. And now, finally, a year after Moses had told the people to prepare for leaving slavery in Egypt, the place is ready – and Moses is checking the last details, assembling the artefacts,  making sure everything is as it should be.

There is a beautiful symmetry in the torah between the events here at the end of the book of Exodus and the ones at the beginning of the book of Genesis.  And the words used in the narrative here are an echo of those used at the beginning of our text – just as Moses finishes the work he has done (va’y’chal Moshe et ham’lacha) so we are reminded that God in creating the Shabbat, also finishes the work he had done. V’y’chal elohim b’yom hash’vi’i et ha’m’lachto.

We are being deliberately reminded of the work of Creation as the Tabernacle is completed. We are being clearly prompted to understand that the creation of the sanctuary in the wilderness by the children of Israel is a mirroring of the divine creation of the universe.  In making the world God created a home for us, and in the making of the tabernacle we echoed that creation – but for whom are we making a home?  What are the responsibilities we are taking on by behaving within our microcosm like the divine creator of the universe?

When God told the people to make the tabernacle, the instruction was to build the place so that God would dwell among them. The purpose of the Mishkan wasn’t so much the place itself as the process of building with shared intention, the learning for the people was about larger issues than construction  – it was about responsibility for others, about development of relationship, about removing oneself from the centre  and instead becoming part of the whole system.

Building the tabernacle in effect transferred the power and the responsibility of creation from heaven to earth, and God was no longer simply  the Mover behind the creation of the universe, but became part of human experience – Because of the building of the tabernacle, God now dwelled among the people who were created in the image of the divinity, they had built a place for the divine presence to enter the world – not in the tabernacle as such, but in the actions of the people who worked together to bring it into being.

By the end of the book of Exodus, God and people are truly partners in creation. It is an image we continue to use to this day – the idea that the world is not yet completed, that people are completing it.  Unlike the creation of humanity at the beginning of the book of Genesis, the people are required not to be the passive consumers of the garden of Eden, nor are they to be so focussed on making a living that they cannot begin to consider other more metaphysical needs – by the end of the book of exodus we find that we are indeed to work hard in life, but for a greater cause than to earn our daily bread. Our hard work is the necessary ingredient to complete the work of creation begun with the words of God.

Something else emerges from the texts surrounding the building of the tabernacle which adds to our understanding of what it is to take on the responsibility for creation in our sphere as God does for the universe.  Even a brief reading of the stories of the time in the wilderness will reveal a people who are unhappy with their lot, who foment rebellion, who wish to return to slavery rather than face the unknown of the future land.  Already in the year before the building of the Mishkan – a year in which they had seen the terrible things done in Egypt, a year in which they had found freedom – a year in which the people were able to experience the Revelation at Sinai; already the people had rebelled, had complained, had tried to rid themselves of the leadership of Moses, and had begged Aaron to create the golden calf for them to worship.  And yet this should have been the most wonderful and undemanding year of their lives.  They were no longer enslaved, no longer routinely humiliated in the society in which they lived.  They had food every day which simply fell from heaven and lay there for them to collect, their clothing never needed mending, and their shoes never wore out.  All of their material needs were met. The leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam took over all their responsibilities and resolved the disputes that arose, there was absolutely nothing to worry about or concern themselves with.  Like the first humans in the Garden of Eden, everything should have been perfect – yet somehow it wasn’t.

The Midrash notes the continual stream of complaining and notes too that God responded to it compassionately – “it was because of their constant murmurings that the Holy One asked them to put their hand to the making of the Mishkan”  And the response works – the Midrash again highlights the fact that there were no complaints, no rebellions and no conflict recorded during any of the chapters in Torah that describe the building of the tabernacle: “the whole time they were engaged with the work of the Mishkan they did not grumble” (Midrash Pesikta Rabbati).

So what do we learn from this, what did God bring about in the world with this task?

God understood that human beings need a sense of purpose, that we need to have a point to our existence, we need to be able to care about something and to be able to engage in meaningful activity. Without such endeavour we dissolve into bad tempered pointlessness, into destructive behaviour, into misery and self indulgent self-centredness.  Left to our own purposelessness we create a sort of human tohu va’vohu, and it becomes harder and harder for human relationships to take root and for society to develop to the benefit of its members.

If the Midrash is right, that the people complained and the society disintegrated because everyone felt superfluous and without any role or consequence, then the notion of our taking on the task of being creator of our world is even more important, and it is increasingly vital that we consider just how we bring God into our Mishkan.  How are we building the Mishkan today, creating the space for the divine to be experienced in our world? How are we making sure that everyone, not just the leadership or the elite are able to contribute to making our world a better place?  It is a question we have to ask again and again – for the Mishkan is a travelling structure, constantly taken down and put up again, reflecting the reality that we re create our world each day, in every aspect of our lives.

Sukkot: the people, the land, the relationships that connect us

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals mandated in Bible, forming a particular cycle of harvest celebrations with Pesach and Shavuot, yet unlike them in the passage in Leviticus which details the festivals, Sukkot is given an extra dimension – it is not only an agricultural celebration but also one that reminds us of the foundational story of our people.  “The fifteenth day of this seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you will keep the feast of the Eternal seven days …And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree (hadar), branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook and rejoice before the Eternal .. You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:34-43

This explicit link to the exodus, to the people’s vulnerability and dependence on God, brings a powerful richness to our celebration. Unlike the Spring/Summer celebrations of Pesach and Shavuot, with hope and new life bursting forth, the autumnal setting of Sukkot brings intimations of the dark, hard winter days ahead, the leafless trees, the sleeping earth, a quasi-death experience. Sukkot comes six months after Pesach, and it builds and develops the themes of that festival. Unlike the intense dramatic ‘high’ of the plagues and our leaving slavery in Egypt that Pesach provides, Sukkot marks the “ordinary and everyday” struggle to stay alive and safe. It reminds us that our freedoms are fragile, that even basic necessities are not automatically given to us, that life is made up of routine hard graft and of effortful striving. And in this quotidian mundane activity, God is also present, even if less obvious to us.

Sukkot is a festival of autumnal abundance in preparation for months of wintertime scarcity. But at the same time it draws our attention to our two most basic frailties, our need for water (for ourselves and our crops) and for shelter.  The sukkah itself represents the fragility of our homes, with the “s’chach” open to the skies even as the abundant fruit is hanging from it, and the arba’a minim shaken as an almost magical ceremonial to bring rain in the right season.

The four components, held together as they are shaken, are a fascinating concatenation of concepts. Biblically mandated, the palm, myrtle, willow and etrog can represent such a complexity of characteristics. One midrash suggests that together they represent the whole community, all of whom have value and are included in the ritual – the hadar fruit, the etrog, has taste (Torah) and aroma (Mitzvot); the palm has tasty fruit but no smell, (ie represents those who have torah but no good deeds); the myrtle leaves smell wonderful but it has no fruit (mitzvot but no torah), and the willow has neither taste nor smell (no torah and no mitzvot). Every community has people with each of these categories. When we pray before God, each person is important.

Another view is that each one represents a different part of the land of Israel- so the palm tree which loves a hot dry climate grows well in desert areas, the myrtle thrives in the cooler mountains regions, the willows grow only near the streams and waterways that flow all year, and the etrog is most comfortable in the lower coastal areas and the valleys. Israel has a series of microclimates, each represented here.

Or one can understand the arba minim to represent our history from Egypt to settlement: so the lulav would represent wandering in the desert, the willow- crossing the Jordan, the myrtle our settling in the mountains and the etrog the establishment of orchards.

And there is also a midrash that the arba’a minim represents each human being – the palm being the spine, the myrtle the eyes, the willow the lips and the etrog the heart, and we come in supplication to God because we understand how fragile our existence truly is.

Whichever symbolism resonates, the core truth is the same. We are in this world together, our survival is not guaranteed, we need to work together and support each other even as we celebrate a plentiful harvest.  We need to be aware of scarcity, that we can all be affected, that only by sharing and by working together can we create a more harmonious world.

Sukkot is given four names in bible: “Chag ha’Asif”[i] – the festival of ingathering; “Chag ha’Sukkot”[ii] – the Festival of Booths; He’Chag[iii] – THE festival; and “Chag l’Adonai”[iv] the Festival of the Eternal. Of these, the third name – the festival par excellence – gives us most pause for thought, for it reminds us that Sukkot is the most important festival.

Why is this? The symbols of the festival remind us that EVERY person in our society is important; each one needs the dignity of their own home and the security of knowing that basic needs will be met; (Talmud Berachot 57b tells us a home of one’s own increases self-esteem and dignity). They remind us that we are all journeying, that while we may have the illusion of a stable rooted existence, the world turns and our fortunes can turn with it. They remind us that we all have responsibility for the environment and for how we treat our world, that damage to our environment and changes to our climate affects us all. They remind us that we are dependent on factors that are beyond our control. Yet with all of this unsettling symbolism, the rabbis call this festival “z’man simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing, based upon the verses in Leviticus.  Why does Sukkot make us so happy, this festival of wandering and of fragility? I think because it reminds us of our human commonality and the power of human community. We are connected to God and we are connected to our land, we are connected to our foundational stories and to our historic experiences, but for any of this to truly matter, we must be connected to each other.

[i] Exodus 23:16; exodus 34:22

[ii] Leviticus 23.34; Deuteronomy 16:13,16

[iii] Ezekiel 45, 25, 1 Kings 8, 2, Ezekiel 45, 25 and 2 Chronicles 7, 8

[iv] Leviticus 23:39

(written for the “Judaism in 1000 words” section of Movement for Reform Judaism website)

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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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.?