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.

 

.

 

 

 

Racism- the continuing struggle against ‘othering’: a talk at Stand up to Racism 1.3.16

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish born Rabbi who became one of the leading Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, marched arm in arm with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr at Selma in 1965. Afterwards he wrote to him – “When I marched in Selma, I felt that my feet were praying”

heschel at selma

 

The three Selma to Montgomery marches were a non-violent way of highlighting racial injustice in the South of the USA, and contributed to the Voting Rights Act being passed the same year.

Rabbi Heschel wrote deeply and frequently about religion and race, which he felt were antithetical positions. He wrote that “to act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is the beloved child of God. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity.” Such physical and visceral language about racism was reflected in his actions. Already nearing 60 years of age, he marched proudly, putting his body in the firing line for a principle he believed in deeply.

In a lecture given two years earlier he told his audience of Jews and Christians bluntly (National Conference of Christians and Jews on Religion and Race, 14 January 1963.) that

“Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

He was speaking from a deep understanding of Jewish texts. And he was speaking from a position of recognising the commonality of all human beings. When we categorise people by race we stop seeing the uniqueness of each human person. And the greatest and most redemptive human quality is to have kinship, to build relationship with others with empathy and with respect. Heschel brought a wonderful insight to the biblical story of creation. He pointed out that the text speaks of the many kinds of plants and of animals created by God, that each one was different from the others, each one was to become the progenitor of its own species. And then he pointed out that in this text the creation of the human being was very different. There were no parallel species of different colours or characteristics, genders or races. There was one human being – the ‘Adam’, made from the ground itself, fashioned in the image of God. And that human being became the progenitor of all the diverse expressions of humankind. The ur-ancestor from whom we all descend – our humanity is bound up with each other, it has to be, and if we choose to divide ourselves and to hate “the other” then truly we are causing the maximum amount of cruelty for the minimum of thinking.

Bible did not notice race per se. In the ancient world right up to the time of the Greeks and the Romans, race was not the issue that society organised around – but all of the ancient world did notice whether someone was ‘in’ or ‘out’. Whether they were citizens or aliens, whether they came from ‘other places’ or they came from ‘here’. There was always a tendency to try to create a hierarchy, where “we” are the best and “they” are inferior. Hence the power of the biblical text which is consciously addressing these attempts to order humanity by inherent superiority, and which is working to refute it. Later (rabbinic) texts take on the debate. Mishnah Sanhedrin (4:5) includes the phrase “[Only a single person was created] for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”. And.. [Only a single person was created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another. Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.”

While the ancient Roman and Greek worlds were defining people according to geography (from here good/ not from here bad) or status (in the community good/ out of the community bad) the Rabbis of the Midrash were specifically choosing to see all human beings from wherever they came as of equal value. And especially they took on the argument from geography, making explicit that from where someone originated was of no importance in ascribing their value.   Rabbi Meir (2nd century) taught that God made Adam from the dust gathered from the whole world; and Rav (3rd century says): “His head was made of earth from the Eretz Israel; his main body formed from the dust of Babylon; and the various limbs were each fashioned with earth from different lands” .

When we look historically we can see again and again that as the host community sought to belittle and even humiliate people it saw as outsiders or foreigners, be they marked by accent or, skin colour or culture, the force of religion was pitching in the other direction. So the actions of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Warsaw born scion of an orthodox Hasidic family, in the southern states of America in 1965, were a natural progression of Jewish tradition that begins in bible and speaks out against the human habit of ‘othering’ and of creating a hierarchy whereby some are dominant and others are subordinate, where some have more value than others.

This week in synagogues all over the world there is an extra Torah reading – Shabbat Shekalim tells of the census in the wilderness and reminds the present community of the obligation to share the costs of communal resources. The title – the Sabbath of the Shekel – comes about because the census is taken by everyone giving a half-shekel coin, and these, not the people, are what is counted. There are many reasons offered for this way of counting, but one of my favourites is that it shows that while different individuals may have a different nett worth financially, every person is of the same value before God. And why a half shekel coin rather than a full shekel? Because no one person is complete on their own, each of us relies on others to complete us.

When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr both men understood importance of these teachings. Every human being is of infinite and equal value, every human being needs others to help them reach their full potential. Racism causes us to forget both of these lessons, but they remain as true as ever they did, and it is up to us to keep teaching them in the way we live our lives.

 

From a talk given at Stand up to Racism event, Goldsmith College 1/3/16

Vayishlach: a kiss or a bite, it is all in the reading of it

וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו [צַוָּארָ֖יו] וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ:

“And Esau ran to meet him and he embraced him and he fell upon his neck and he kissed him and they wept.”

Francesco_Hayez_061  jacob and esau

In the Torah scroll, the word “vayisha’kei’hu” – “And he kissed him” has a scribal marking – six dots carefully placed over it, drawing our attention and demanding we question the text. But what is the question being asked? Is it that there is an extra word that should not be there? Is the word to be read differently – not “Vayisha’kei’hu    וישקיהו     and he kissed him” ,but “Vayisha’kei’hu    וישכיהו   and he bit him”.   Same sound, but one root letter difference changes everything – from the kiss of reconciliation after years of estrangement, to the betrayal of vulnerability and friendship instead. The midrash plays on this to say that Esau had attempted to bite Jacob’s neck but at the last minute it was turned hard as marble and so his evil intention to destroy his brother was foiled.

Jacob and Esau had struggled even before they were born, causing their mother Rebecca enough pain that she went to enquire of God about what was happening within her body. Each of them was favoured by a different parent, each of them had their own distinct personality: Esau a hunter and a man of the field, Jacob a man who liked to stay at home. If we look at the biblical texts about Esau without the lenses of rabbinic tradition and storytelling, we see a simple uncomplicated man who follows his powerful appetites, his huge physicality determining his behaviour. We see a man who loves his father and is admired by him. We see a man who stays local to his parents, marrying two Canaanite women, and who, when he realises that his parents are not happy with him marrying out of the family, marries the daughter of his uncle Ishmael, mistakenly believing that this is a choice which will please them.

After his brother Jacob had run away from his furious anger having cheated him of their blind father’s covenant blessing, Esau stays near home, becomes wealthy, and settles with his large and prosperous household in Seir. When their father eventually dies Jacob has also come closer to home, having left Shechem and entered Canaan, finally coming home to Hebron. The two brothers buried their father together, the text telling us “and they buried him, Esau and Jacob his sons” (Gen 35:29). It seems as if the reconciliation is complete.

And then we are told (Genesis 36:6)    וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁ֠יו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֘ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו

And Esau took his wives and his sons and his daughters, and all the souls of his household, and all his flocks and his beasts and all he had acquired, which he had gathered in the land of Canaan, and he went to a land because of/ away from Jacob his brother. The bible goes on to tell us that the two brothers had too many animals between them to be sustained on the land together, and so Esau went to Mt Seir, the same is Edom. Rather as Abraham and Lot had separated earlier, in order to keep the tensions of their flocks and shepherds down, so here the twin sons of Isaac separate, and the one who leaves walks out of history. But it reads differently than the story between Abraham and his nephew – there is no recorded tension, no struggles between the shepherds, just the realisation that they each need to find their own space for their burgeoning families.

So why is Esau turned into Edom, into the paradigm for the enemy of the Jewish people when he seems to have overcome his ravening appetites, made something of his life, and made his peace with his twin brother sufficient for the two to mourn their father together? Why the need to draw attention to the kiss of reconciliation and by implication to suggest that not everything was as it seemed?

In rabbinic tradition Esau becomes the code name for the oppressor – Rome.

Rabbi Akiva (c50-135) first glosses the ambiguous statement of the blind Isaac at the time of the blessing of the firstborn son (when he says “The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau”) as being a description of the anguished voice of the Jews/Jacob crying out against oppression perpetrated against them by Rome/ the hands of Esau. And in the middle of the second century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai famously commented that “it is a Halachah/well established tradition that Esau hates Jacob” (Sifre Numbers 69).

It was a fairly clumsy cipher but it did the trick of being able to discuss their oppression and ways to counter it without the oppressors being too easily aware – at least for a time. By the time of Akiva’s student Shimon bar Yochai the Roman oppression was all consuming and he had to go into hiding to survive. No wonder then his belief that the implacable hatred of Rome for the Jews was somehow primal, a Halachah from Sinai, unquestionable and for ever.

But time moves on and we move with it. The power of Rome has long gone and what stays with us is the Biblical text and our obligation to encounter it and understand it in our generation. And in the biblical text Esau is not the figure of evil and hatred that he becomes in later tradition – indeed he is portrayed as running towards his brother to embrace him, they weep together (although this may be relief in the case of Jacob), Esau refuses the gifts Jacob offers to him in tribute. Essentially one might say that Esau has got over his anger. His personality of appetites and passions is sated with his own achievements, wealth and family. For him the fight over the birthright blessing is old news, finished business, dead and gone. The issue now is pragmatic- how do the two wealthy brothers with their large households and flocks and herds live on the land and support their needs? By separating of course, but coming together for the family rite of burial of their father. Esau walks out of history of his own volition, content with what he has.

So isn’t it time to stop the belief that there is a visceral and unquestionable hatred of us by the powers that line up to destroy us, and recognise that for sure there is anti-Semitism in the world, but that is not pre-ordained nor something we are powerless to engage with or combat. It is not primal truth that Esau hates Jacob; that Jacob has to duck and dive to survive. This is a model that has outlived its usefulness, a story that hampers us from proceeding with our lives. We will almost certainly encounter anti-Semitism, just as many of us will encounter other prejudices – against our gender or height or skin colour or sexuality. But this must be faced firmly and responsibly, engaged with, shown for what it is, protested against and other behaviour demanded. If Esau really kissed Jacob on his vulnerable smooth neck, (the part of him so unlike Esau Jacob had queried whether his father would know him by it) and if they had then parted on relatively reasonable terms and been able to come together to bury their father, then maybe we too can create a living peace, one that does not have to be passionate or entangled together, but respectful and honourable. And then maybe we can take those scribal marks off the scroll, and believe that reconciliation really is possible.

image of reconciliation of Jacob and Esau by  Francesco Hayez