Ha’azinu – what might we say and write when we confront our own mortality?

Moses knows he is going to die.  Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.

I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up.  What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.

It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely.   His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”

It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.

We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.

Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.

The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world.  Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.

Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone.  I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the  setting that is 1500 years after his own life.  It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b.  Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.

So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.

All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave.  I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.

Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me.  The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth.  Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.

Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them.  He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way.  The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.

There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational.  Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature.  Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed  in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.

As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned.  Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.

Behukkotai: redemption requires ongoing action.

The sidra Bechukkotai ends the book of Leviticus, and concludes with the verse “These are the commandments which the Eternal commanded Moses for the children of Israel in Mt Sinai”

A book which is primarily dealing with the ritual system overseen by the hereditary priesthood, a book whose rabbinic name is Sefer Cohanim (The Book of the Priests), is seen by itself as holding a much wider remit, putting into context the sacrificial cult of priest and altar, clarifying the notion that the relationship between God and Israel is available to each and every person, and is framed into the construct of covenant.

            At the beginning of the sidra we are told of the great blessing which will be given to the people if they observe the Torah, 11 verses detailing the blessings of economic stability, peace and prosperity, and finally God’s presence among the people. This is followed by the tochecha – the admonition and curse, with 30 verses which warn of the destruction of the land, the destruction of the nation and their exile, for the sin of violating the commandments.

This set of warnings, which here are told to Moses by God in the desert, are repeated in an even more concise and forceful manner by Moses just before his death forty years hence.

When you study these two versions of the warnings, and compare then with other biblical texts warning about destruction and exile, you find a curious and certainly deliberate absence. Usually the warnings which are found in bible end with the promise of Teshuvah – that God will restore us from our captivity as soon as we return to God. The certainty of ultimate redemption is spelled out for the reader. If we actively seek God then God will redeem us. But the rebuke in this sidra, like its parallel text in Deuteronomy, does not state that redemption will surely come. Instead , at the end of chapter 26 of Leviticus (arguably the original end of the whole Torah), after the warnings of destruction and exile, we are told   “I will 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 God goes on to say “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”(26:42,44-5)

These verses, which resonate in this text, are ones which countless generations of Jews have held close. They are a huge comfort to many generations, yet they do not talk of redemption or of return to the Land. What they tell us is that God continues to remember the covenant – but they don’t tell us what that means. The covenant is remembered by God and so we are not lost however dark our days may be. The fact that the patriarchs are named in reverse order is used as the proof text for the tradition of Zechut Avot – the merits of our ancestors which we can call upon in difficult times. If our own merits do not help us than we enlist those of Jacob. If his don’t do the trick then we enlist the merits of Isaac and finally we can call on the merits of Abraham, who, as the first person to make a covenant with God will surely come to our aid.

            The tradition of Zechut Avot – that the merits of our ancestors will be added to our own at the time of judgement, and so will enable us to survive, is debated at length in the rabbinic literature and there are those who claim it continues to operate, and those who claim that the merit has been exhausted – our own sins by now far outweigh any ancestral good deeds. But all the commentators agree that whatever the status of Zechut Avot, the covenant made with our ancestors remains in force, it is the covenant which effectively ensures our continuing existence and our continuing meaning.

            Within the bible there are two types of covenant – there is the Noachide Covenant when God promises that the natural order will not change, a promise made by God which does not require any action or even response from people. Then there is the covenant as understood by Abraham and his descendants, the covenant that is described by God who does not forget. This is a covenant of mutuality – mutual obligation, mutual understanding, mutual responsibility. “I will be your God and you shall be My people” – there is an interdependence here, a way of defining and identifying through the other party in their relationship. This covenant is still in force even at the end of the tochecha – it remains in force because God remembers it. But there is no promise of redemption because redemption is not an automatic consequence of God remembering – we need the concept of mutuality – whether the covenant can be executed will depend not only on God remembering but on US remembering. For the people to find redemption they must act properly, responsibly, within the terms and conditions of the covenant.

            In the midrash we are told that:

“Three things were given to Israel conditionally – the Land of Israel, the Temple, and the Kingship of the House of David. And two things were given unconditionally – The Torah and the hereditary priesthood”

What is not mentioned is redemption – we have no automatic right to such a state of being, no magic formula of faith in God which will ensure that we are saved. Judaism teaches us, (and it bases its teaching from within the two passages of the tochecha), that we are in a position of covenant with God, that we have all the rights and obligations and responsibilities that such a relationship entails, and that the purpose of such contract is not that we individually save our souls through our belief, but that we work to save the world through our actions which themselves are rooted in the contract/covenant relationship we have accepted with God.

That contract can never be broken, whatever we do or don’t do, wherever we are, and however we view ourselves. Because God remembers the covenant, and God remembers the land. And God waits for us too to remember, and having remembered, to act.

 

From Purim to Pesach – the flavour of slavery as we prepare for the scent of freedoms

By tradition the days from Purim to Pesach have a character all their own – that of mental preparation and of physical hard work. For if tradition tells us that Rosh Chodesh Adar brings with it increasing joy, we know that it also sounds the starting pistol in the race to make everything ready for Pesach.

There are those who search through every book on their shelves, for crumbs fallen as the reader fed their body as well as their mind. There are those who begin at the top of the house and ruthlessly unearth every speck of leaven from the pockets of jackets hanging in wardrobes to the linings of handbags and suitcases put away after earlier outings.

There are some who ruthlessly scrub every surface be it inside or out, regardless of whether food could possibly come into contact or not, and there are those he maniacally turn out pot and pan drawers, cutlery containers and the shelves of artefacts kept unused just in case one might want a fish kettle/ pasta maker/ mousse mould.

From Purim to Pesach the traditionally minded Jewish householder experiences a little of the flavour of slavery our ancestors experienced in Egypt. The injunction for this story of redemption from slavery to become our own personal story is taken quite literally as servitude to the ideal of a sparkling clean leaven free home means sore back muscles, peeling fingernails and a pervasive smell of bleach on the fingers of the zealous leaven hunter.

There is, I know, a wonderful feeling of satisfaction when the work is done, the house a no-go zone for non pesachdik condiments, the shopping done, the Seder table set and the ritual foods ready along with the feast that follows. But alongside the satisfaction is the niggling sense that we need to remember that a clean house and communally enjoyed meal is not the purpose of the exercise. It is only the route towards considering the meaning of freedom.

We are to think ourselves beyond the physical and emotional labour necessary to prepare for it, in order to experience the meaning of the Seder in all its rich complexity. Having a nice meal with extended family, all work done for the moment, is not the point, however enjoyable it may be. We are having Pesach and the Seder meal in order to remember. The event is to memorialise through reliving and retelling a story that must belong to us. It is to remember our past and the formative narrative of our redemption by God. It is to make our memory something that does not simply narrate or contain the past, but something that causes us to be active in the present.

What are we doing when we memorialise, when we ‘remember’ the story of our people as if it is our own experience? We are ‘remembering’ in the sense of putting something together,‘re-membering’. We are putting together the experiences that formed us as a people and thinking about how they are still playing out in the world we live in today – both giving us our own identity as Jews and giving us understanding of all who share the experience of oppression and lack of freedoms. And from this understanding we begin to notice that we are not the only people who have a narrative of pain, we are not the only ones who are looking to be and to stay free.

The most repeated sentence in bible is “Remember you were a slave in Egypt”. Why so? It cannot be simply to remember painful times in order to dwell on them or be grateful that they are gone. It must be because action has to emerge from our remembering. Our remembering of what it was like to be oppressed and burdened has value only if we work to remove such oppression and trouble from the world we inhabit now.

These days we often understand this command to remember our own slavery as being the nudge that should give us empathy towards those who are suffering without freedoms – that we are somehow more likely to care for the downtrodden and the disenfranchised because of our own history and experience. But there is at least one medieval source which tells us almost the opposite – that once we have escaped our own pain it is easier to deny it, to treat others badly as we were once treated in order to  keep our distance from the experience. So the injunction to remember our slavery is repeated so often in our texts precisely because we are more, rather than less likely to ignore the pain of others. There are resonances in modern psychological thought – that we repeat the dysfunction of our childhood experiences in our own families, a vicious cycle that takes mindful and conscious effort to break out from.  If this is so, how much more so does the journey from Purim to Pesach and the climax of the haggadah narrative force us to remember our own suffering in order to help others whose suffering is happening right now.

            The festival of Purim allows us to explore the dark sides of our world and of ourselves. The festival of Pesach does the same. But it gives us something extra – the knowledge that if we work together we can change our world. At the exodus from Egypt not only the Jews escaped slavery – an erev rav  (mixed multitude of people) took the opportunity to escape too.  May our Pesach every year mean that other people reach freedom alongside us, that we are moved to make this happen, that we remember our own stories of oppression and work to ensure that for every person and every people there will be a time when they too will be able to recite their own story as historical narrative rather than present reality.  

 

Parashat Tetzaveh. Shabbat Zachor

 “And it will be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, you shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17)

            So we read on the Shabbat before Purim, the Shabbat when we remember the gratuitous hatred shown to the Children of Israel as they fled from Egypt, echoing the hatred shown by Haman, said to be descended from the Amalakites, and we remember too the gratuitous hatred shown to Jews ever since.

            It is a text which has come to be something of an emblem for Jews – the act of remembering, so sacred to our tradition, is to be used in this one case to blot out the individuals concerned, to erase their names from history.

            As Jews we fear only one thing – we fear disappearing entirely, so that no trace of us is found.  One thinks of Isaiah’s phrase, poignantly taken up by the holocaust remembrance centre in Israel – “I  will give in My house and within My walls a monument and a memorial (yad v’shem) better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off.  (56:5).  Yad v’shem – a hand and a name. 

            Almost everything we do as Jews is in some way about remembering, and what we remember can be linked to two grand themes – Creation and Exodus/Redemption.  All our festivals, whether agricultural in their origins or not, are linked to Creation and to Redemption – think of Pesach, Redemption of our people and Creation of peoplehood.  Shavuot, building on Pesach, brings us the meaning of our Redemption – Torah.  Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the cycle of time, a new start which may yet lead us to Redemption, Yom Kippur helps us leave behind and create again.  Succot is of course Creation led, with the underlying theme that our Redemption can come only from God, Simchat Torah neatly begins with the almost – Redemption of the Jewish people and focuses us again into the Creation story.  Chanukah and Purim, the two post biblical festivals are both about Redemption too, with the possibilities of starting again afresh.

            In our rich and complex Jewish tradition, we constantly and ritually remember the two experiences which mould us – the Creation which we experience newly every day, and the Redemption to which we are committed to work.  We remember where we come from and where we are going to.  That is our most sacred behaviour.  And so it is particularly shocking to be told to remember so as to be sure to erase all memory.

Such an instruction is a creative betrayal of that which we hold most sacred.  Nothing could be more designedly dumbfounding, more completely against our instincts.  Our whole imperative is to remember so as not to lose completely.

            Yet the special reading on Shabbat Zachor, designed to emphasise the response to Purim which will shortly follow, tells us that not everything or everyone should be remembered, that there are certain events the enormity of which means that they must be buried away forever.  They are beyond our capacity to deal with, beyond our ability to create anew or to bring to Redemption.  Few and far between – one thinks inevitably of the go’el who would not marry Ruth for the sake of his descendents, and who is named only Poloni ben Poloni – Mr X – in the text – these events where enforced erasing of the memory of a human being serve to point up the importance of conserving the memory.  Shabbat Zachor says it all – Shabbat Remember! 

            Nowadays we have so much to remember – and extra days have been added to our calendar with Yom ha Shoah, and Yom ha Atzma’ut, the depths and heights of the last century.  We are programmed to remember, to allow history to live again in us.  We just have to ask ourselves what we should be remembering, and how. 

            The text we read as part of Shabbat Zachor begins “And it will be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, you shall not forget”, places the enforced forgetting and erasing in a context – it begins with a future time “It will be”.  This reminds us of one very important lesson – we don’t have to worry yet about what we might erase or forget, that will be for the unspecified future.  Right now our task is to remember and to document and to keep alive, it is not, absolutely not, to do anything else.