Mishpatim – following God’s time and learning the lessons of God’s world

In amongst the diverse laws of Mishpatim, laws about slaves and murder, about kidnap and assault, about how to treat parents, damage to livestock, theft, seduction, damage to crops, sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, loans, treatment of the enemy in war, bribery etc. we have the statement

“Six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the abundance of it; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat. Similarly you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your olive grove. (Ex 23:10-11)

 This instruction is repeated and expanded in Leviticus chapter 25, verses 1-7:

And the Eternal spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath for the Eternal. Six years shall you sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its produce. But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Eternal; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows by itself from your harvest, you shall not reap, and the grapes of your untended vine, you shall not gather [in quantity, as if to sell]; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. And the sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for you, and for your servant and for your maid, and for your hired servant and for the traveller who sojourns with you; and for your cattle, and for the wild beasts that are in your land, shall all the abundance be for food.”

And even more so in Deuteronomy:

At the end of every seven years you shall make a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he lent to his neighbour; he shall not exact it of his neighbour and his brother; because God’s release has been proclaimed…..If there be among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which the Eternal your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy fellow;) but you shall surely open your hand to them, and shall surely lend them sufficient for their need. Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying: ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand’; and your eye be evil against your needy fellow, and you do not give to they; and they cry out to the Eternal against you, and it be sin in you. You shall surely give to them, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give; because for this thing the Eternal your God will bless you in all your work, and in all of the works of your hands. For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shall surely open your hand unto your poor and needy fellows, in your land. If your fellow, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, they shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you shalt let them go free. And when you let them go free, you shall not let them go empty; you shall furnish them liberally out from your flock, and your threshing-floor, and your winepress; of that which the Eternal your God has blessed you, shall you give to them. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Eternal your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing to-day.’ (15:1-2, 7-15)

 The concept of a sabbatical year, a year when the land is not worked, planted or harvested, but instead allowed to lie fallow, and any produce that grows despite the lack of planting or maintenance is available to anyone, is a biblical innovation that promotes three different social “goods” – allowing the land to lie fallow and recuperate, setting free the Jew who had sold themselves into bonded labour, and the annulment of debts which, if allowed to grow unfettered, would prevent a family ever  leaving poverty.

(The Jubilee, after every seven cycles of sabbatical years, had the added feature of returning any hereditary land and property to their original ownership or their descendants).

The rest for the land is not only about recuperation and restoration – the bible tells us that the consequence for not observing the sabbatical year is exile.  So clearly this is more than an agricultural technique co-opted into a ritual observance – there is further learning to be gained from this mitzvah. What does the enforced rest from working the land do to make our failure to comply mean we are punished so severely?

When we added to the other factors specific to the sabbatical year – those of freeing slaves and annulling debts – it seems that the common theme is to remind us that “ownership” is a fragile phenomenon; that we cannot presume to do what we like with what we own because the ultimate owners are not us. We are simply the stewards, the possessors of the usufruct, holding it on temporary loan and required to return it in good condition.

In the shemittah year, the landowner and the landless are made equal. Both must search for their food – and this mitzvah is not a brief event. For a full year the rights of the landowner and the rights of the landless are the same. For a full year the land is allowed to rest. All people and all animals are able to eat from the produce that grows without help – fruits from the trees, any crop that had self-seeded, any perennial vegetable.

Living like this for a year must reset so many societal assumptions.  Not only is private ownership suddenly not a given, the land cannot in this year be locked away from others – they must have access to glean what food they can. The land itself is expected to rest – something we rarely ask today of our earth, instead we fertilize and spray and burn and rotate in order to get something more from the land. But in the biblical shemittah year the land is like a person, getting its own Shabbat.  In the cycle required by God, six days of labour followed by a day of rest; six years of the landowner sowing and harvesting followed by a full year of “hefker”, of the produce of the land being available to all – we are reminded that we live to a different expectation, we live to a divine expectation.

 

 

Behar: to treat with respect is the essence of holiness

The bible is very clear – everything we have belongs to God and is at best ‘on loan’ to us. And we have to treat it properly and with respect. Even the land must be allowed to rest, rather than be worked to produce more and more. Besides giving the land a chance to return to a good condition, the sabbatical year also meant that all people, whether they were rich or poor, would find themselves dependant on what the land produced naturally, as all of them would have to collect and gather the food that was there, rather than the usual experience of the richer ones harvesting a good amount and leaving a proportion in the field for the poor to glean. This would have been a transformational experience in that the ones who always had food would become aware of the conditions the poor faced all the time, and one imagines that the bible hoped this learning would motivate them to help support the needy.

Leviticus is a book that is primarily about the ritual system and how holiness is created, and reading some of the narrative here we become aware of the agenda of social justice that is threaded through it, how the world cannot be made perfect if justice is not available for all. Even during the shemitta year, the year when the land is to rest and recuperate, the obligation for tzedakah for the poor continues – in other words just because you are tightening your belts, you don’t forget the needs of others who rely on the help they get from society in order to survive.

Everything we have belongs to God and is, at best, on loan to us. When we harvest the land we leave food for the poor. When we help a fellow human being who is in financial difficulties we give them their dignity and are not to charge interest on any loan we give. The laws remind us that even the money we have is not ours to use as we please. It is a conditional loan, to be partially used for the benefit of others.

As we look into an uncertain future where politically, socially, financially we know that times will be tough and we will almost certainly feel ourselves to have lost some of the security we felt in earlier times, the message that comes through this part of Leviticus could comfort us a little – and could teach us a lot. We must – even now -continue our obligation to a just society where the gap between rich and poor must be actively narrowed (if not removed) on a regular basis. We must – even now – continue our commitment to tzedakah, to the dignity of our fellow human beings, and to our land. And if we maintain our understanding that each of us has a part to play in bettering the world, and that sometimes that process requires us to start again in a different way, then even now when following news sites may leave us feeling impotent angry and depressed, we can stop, take stock, and get on with helping to create a healthier and holier world.

 

 

Chanukah Readings: It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

Bible tells us that the first thing that God did having created the heavens and the earth was to utter the words “Let there be light”, and there was light. God saw the light was good, and God divided the light from the darkness, and so began the ordering of a world which would ultimately sustain and nourish humanity, and they in turn would work with God to continue the process of perfecting creation.

Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, comes to remind us of the need to continue that work, even though it might sometimes seem that the darkness is all enveloping, and the world has reverted to the state of primordial chaos filled with terrifying uncontrolled forces that is contained in the phrase “tohu va’vohu”

Just as light was the catalyst for the world to develop into a place where we could live and thrive, so too light is the response we must make when faced with a darkening world. Just as bible commands that a light was to be continually burning in the tent of meeting outside the veil of testimony, and the priesthood had to tend to it evening and morning in order to keep it in good order as an eternal statute for the generations, (Exodus 27:20 and Lev 24:2) so too we need our ner tamid, our continually tended and burning light, to remind us not only of God’s compassionate and watchful presence in the world, but also of our obligation to bring God’s presence further into the world. As the book of Proverbs tells us,” Ki ner mitzvah, v’torah or : the commandment is a lamp and torah is light” – to act as God wishes us to act brings light into our world. (6:23)

Chanukah, like all festivals of light, comes in the winter darkness to remind us that the glow of even a small candle can alleviate the deep darkness, and as the Talmud reminds us “the candle of one person can bring light to many people” (Shabbat 122a)

There are many small candles lit in the world, many people doing good work in creative and imaginative ways, tending to the ner tamid, keeping the light of hope alive. Our High Holy Day confession includes the phrase “Al cheit she’chatanu lefanecha b’tim’hon ley’vav – For the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair” and I must confess that each time I read the news of what is happening in the world, the way so many people are terrorised and terrified, violently murdered or imprisoned or forced to live hand to mouth, treated without compassion or empathy, uprooted and fleeing for their lives or stuck in a societal stratum below any human dignity, I give in, for a while, to despair. And when I see how governments oppress and harass their own people whom they are supposed to protect and support, close their eyes to the pain of their public and to the social justice values of civil society I succumb to frustration and fury that “they” are misusing their power so freely, unchallenged and unrestrained. And I come close to despair.

But then I remember those many people and organisations, those many small candles lit and tended to, which challenge the dejection and despondency and allow me to hope, to connect, to believe that the prophetic values of the Hebrew bible are not only alive and well, but are fighting back hard to be heard and to be seen, to bring light back into the world

So here are eight organisations of civil society in Israel who bring me hope. Eight organisations in whose light we see God’s light, who speak out for justice because, like Rav Kook, they do not have the power to keep silent. One for each of the nights of Chanukah: as you light the small flame of each candle, remember the words of Isaiah “I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do for them, and not forsake them.” (42:16)

 

First Night of Chanukah:   Tag Meir – The Tag of Light

Founded in Jerusalem in 2011 in response to Tag Mechir (price tag), this is the largest grassroots organisation in Israel that works against hate crime and religious racism in Israel. Transcending religious divides, Tag Meir is an umbrella organisation for a coalition of groups who support and campaign for democratic and Jewish value of justice for all the people. It protests violence and responds to victims of violence. Tag Meir’s mission is to connect different groups in Israeli society in the battle to eradicate racism and violence, and to educate for tolerance and empathy, as well as creating public events to raise and amplify the voice of those committed to democratic values. They offer Israelis the chance to voice their opposition to violence, to publicise it to all who need to hear, from Government to the victims themselves. They hold demonstrations and vigils, they pay condolence calls to victims of terror, they repaint over racist graffiti, they offer material support to religious places defaced. They meet with politicians and decision makers to end incitement and inflammatory rhetoric. Their motto : Or Bimkom Terror – Light instead of terror.http://www.tagmeiren.media-sb.co.il/

 

tag meir

Second night of Chanukah :   The Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Centre in Akko

The vision and life’s work of Mohammed Fahili, this is the only Jewish- Arab Community Centre in Israel. It began in 1985 as a simple after-school club run by volunteers and located in the communal bomb shelter of a poor neighbourhood, this was part of an effort by the local Jewish and Arab residents to improve their living environment.  In 1991 the Clore Israel Foundation funded the construction of a purpose-built community centre.

The Centre’s aim is to provide high-quality, low-cost activities for Akko’s residents regardless of ethnicity or ability to pay. It functions as an important part of the community, offering enrichment programmes from infants to pensioners, allowing the people of Akko to meet over shared interests and needs, informally connecting people and building strong relationships. Many of the children that they cater for are from large, poor families and are vulnerable to the dangers of street life.  They help combat school drop-out by offering extra-curricular activities and programmes, nurturing Akko’s children to help them achieve a future. They also offer vital programmes for women and a cultural club for pensioners from the Former Soviet Union.

The Centre is an independent, voluntarily funded, not-for-profit, non-political and unaffiliated organisation.  It is funded almost entirely by voluntary donations from people who believe in the importance of their work in creating a better future in the region.

 

Fahili himself is an inspiration a candle in a dark room. With courage, humility and perseverance he has created an oasis of hope, a meeting place, a model for how Israeli society can be. http://ajcenter.org.il/

fahili

 

 

Third night of Chanukah:  Hiddush For Religious Freedom and Equality

Founded in 2009, Hiddush works through advocacy and public education to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Taking as its platform the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which states “”The State of Israel … will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion … it will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience” Hiddush is a partnership between Israeli Jews and World Jewry to ensure that this guarantee remains at the centre of the Israeli Government’s policy.
www.hiddush.org

 

 

Fourth Night of Chanukah:  YTheater Project Jerusalem

Founded in September 2009 in Jerusalem, this is the Israeli-Palestinian Community Theatre for a Change. YTheater engages Israelis and Palestinians together in a creative process of empowerment and responsibility. Using activist community theatre methods, it builds relationships, nurtures civic virtues, and helps the participants to work together strategically. YTheater runs workshops for Jewish, Arab, and Anglo youth and young adults to empower leadership.

 

“We are Palestinians and Israelis. Our lives and world-views usually exclude one another. We agree about almost nothing.   We are positioned in opposition. Our souls are on the line. We burn with the passion of the Middle East. We grope for new pathways – to break through impasses, to un-lock the grid of violence, and to mend what is broken. Creating theatre is our shared language; the stage is our meeting point. We are Muslims, Jews, Christians and Druze who collaborate. We struggle, we do not whitewash. We face difference and difficulty with caring and respect. Awe for life feeds our commitment to persevere, to create, to pry open our own hearts and the hearts of our audiences and participants. YTheater Project Jerusalem explores, interprets and innovates. We delve deeply into our behaviour, traditions, and societies.  We critique, provoke, and even, humbly, propose.In a region raw with conflict and pain, we rehearse for better life together. We are contributing to the infrastructure for better Palestinian and Israeli civil society.  YTheater builds relationships that heighten confidence and active will toward peace.”       Website    http://ytheater.org

 

 

Fifth night of Chanukah:        The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, founded in 1998, is Israel’s leading organization protecting the rights of refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. For over 15 years Hotline staff and volunteers have been visiting Israel’s immigration detention centres to monitor conditions, meet with detainees and provide paralegal intervention and legal representation. We represent some of the most vulnerable people in Israel and advocate for government policies consistent with a just, equal and democratic Israel.

By combining client advocacy with impact litigation, policy initiatives and public outreach, we aim to achieve broad-based, systematic improvements in policies and practices ensuring that the human rights of migrants in Israel are respected.

Their main activities are Crisis Intervention, Legal Action and Public Policy and Education.       Website http://hotline.org.il/en/about-us/

Sixth Night of Chanukah: The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality

In 1997, a group of concerned Arab and Jewish residents of the Negev (the southern desert region of Israel) established the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality to provide a framework for Jewish-Arab collaborative efforts in the struggle for civil equality and the advancement of mutual tolerance and coexistence. The Forum, also known as “Dukium” in Hebrew, is unique in being the only Arab-Jewish organization established in the Negev that remains focused solely on the specific problems confronting the Negev.

The Forum’s activities and projects are based on the principle of Arab-Jewish cooperation and among their members are leaders of the Negev Arab community and academics. As a joint Jewish-Arab group we maintain a balance and equal partnership in the bodies of the organization as well as in the decision-making processes.

NCF is engaged in a wide range of grassroots activities. They have worked with community leaders in “unrecognized” Bedouin villages to deliver vital basic services to their communities. In the spirit of coexistence, Bedouin residents and Jewish volunteers work together to provide clean water, nursery schools, access roads and rubbish removal systems to over a dozen villages.

In collaboration with other NGOs, the NCF has filed legal petitions against discriminatory practices affecting Bedouin communities in the Negev. For example, as a result of a joint petition submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005, the government agreed to properly dispose of sewage flowing through Um Batin. Other petitions have led to the establishment of health clinics in ten unrecognized villages and to the prohibition of toxic crop spraying.   Website www.Dukium.org

Seventh Night of Chanukah:    Breaking the Silence

“Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavour to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.

We collect and publish testimonies from soldiers who, like us, have served in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since September 2000, and hold lectures, house meetings, and other public events which bring to light the reality in the Territories through the voice of former combatants. We also conduct tours in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills region, with the aim of giving the Israeli public access to the reality which exists minutes from their own homes, yet is rarely portrayed in the media.

Founded in March 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron, Breaking the Silence has since acquired a special standing in the eyes of the Israeli public and in the media, as it is unique in giving voice to the experience of soldiers. To date, the organization has collected testimonies from over a 1,000 soldiers who represent all strata of Israeli society and cover nearly all units that operate in the Territories.”

 

Eighth Night of Chanukah:        Shomrei Mishpat: Rabbis for Human Rights

“Founded in 1988, Rabbis for Human Rights is the only rabbinic voice in Israel that is explicitly dedicated to human rights. Representing over 100 Israeli rabbis and rabbinical students from different streams of Judaism, we derive our authority from our Jewish tradition and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our mission is to inform the Israeli public about human rights violations, and to pressure the State institutions to redress these injustices. In a time in which a nationalist and isolationist understanding of Jewish tradition is heard frequently and loudly, Rabbis for Human Rights give expression to the traditional Jewish responsibility for the safety and welfare of the stranger, the different and the weak, the convert, the widow and the orphan.

RHR works primarily in the following 4 fields:

Socioeconomic Justice Work in Israel:

Rights of the Poor: RHR focuses on raising awareness and lobbying the Knesset for better economic rights for impoverished Israelis at the national level. At the local level, our Rights Centre in Hadera helps hundreds of Jews and Arab citizens obtain socioeconomic rights that have been denied to them, and run empowerment and advocacy groups of local Arab and Jewish citizens  from the Hadera area who focus and advocate for policy changes of their choosing.

Rights to Public Housing: RHR provides legal representation for public housing tenants in Beit She’an, Beersheva, and Hadera whose housing does not meet their needs or who are facing eviction.

 

Human Rights Work in the Occupied Territories: For example the Olive Tree Campaign: RHR works year round with Palestinian farmers from several dozen villages in the Occupied Territories, to ensure that they can regularly access their agricultural lands, often denied to them because of their proximity to Israeli settlements.. During Tu B’shvat, we purchase and bring hundreds of Israeli and international volunteers together with Palestinians to plant some 2,500 olive trees in areas where settlers have cut, uprooted and/or burned trees in acts of vandalism and arson.

Challenging Land Confiscation in the Occupied Territories: RHR works to legally prevent or reverse the takeover of Palestinian lands in Area C, and ensure that Palestinian farmers can safely access those lands. We continually monitor the implementation of previous rulings on land access issues.

Promoting Human Rights Education in Israel: RHR works in 12 pre-military academies, exposing every year some 600 young Israelis to our human rights teachings based on our rabbinic interpretation of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. We believe that teaching human rights to young people who then continue onto their army service better equips them to deal humanely with the realities on the ground.

 

Human Rights Yeshivas: For more than a decade, RHR has been teaching about human rights and Judaism to Israeli university students. We currently run 2 human rights yeshivas, with a total of 40 participants. Students who participate in the program receive a stipend, and intern in a human rights or social change organization in order to understand more deeply the challenges facing Israeli society.”

 

RHR_logo_for-Site

 

LIGHTING THE CHANUKAH CANDLES: BLESSINGS

Candles are added to the Chanukiah from right to left but are lit from left to right.

(On the Shabbat of Chanukah, light the Chanukah lights first and only then the Shabbat candles)

Light the shamash first, then use it to kindle the rest of the Hanukkah lights. As you do, say or sing:

Baruch atah Adonai ,Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah   Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy through doing the mitzvot, and commands us to light the lights of Chanukah.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she-asah nissim la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem Baz’man hazeh. Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

 

And on the first night only, add the blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she’hecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.

 

As you light the other lights (or after you have finished lighting) recite the following:

Hanerot halalu anu madlikin / Al ha’te’shu’ot v’al ha-nissim v’al ha’nifla’ot, Sheh’aseeta la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem biz’man hazeh/ Al y’dei kohaneh’cha ha’kedoshim; V’chol sh’monat Y’mei Chanukah Hanerot halalu kodesh hem, V’ein lanu reshut le’hishtameish ba’hen/ Ela lirotan bilvad, k’dei lehodot ul’haleil le’shimcha hagadol Al nisse’cha Ve’al niflotecha Ve’al yeshu’ote’cha.

We kindle these lights to commemorate the saving acts, miracles and wonders which You have performed for our ancestors, in those days at this time, through Your holy priests. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your saving acts.

 

Eight Other Readings about Light and Mitzvot

 

“We live in a dark time. In a world ravaged by war, prejudice, disease, and now, an economic crisis that will put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of suffering. We need to bring more light. And to bring the light, we need to become the Maccabees- a people of faith who believed that liberty is worth fighting for, that human dignity is worth fighting for, and that justice is worth fighting for.” (Rabbi Sid Schwarz)

 

 

“If you offer your compassion to the hungry and you feed the famished creatures, then your light will shine in the darkness and your gloom will be like noonday” Isaiah 58:10

 

“When you think about someone or something that inspires you, the expression with the word נֵר would be Ner Le-Raglav- נֵר לְרַגְּלָיו. Literally, the expression means “a candle by his leg” but the contextual English translation for this expression would be “guideline” or “guiding principle.” I would add to this the meaning of “someone that you can follow”,  as it appears in Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” “נֵר-לְרַגְלִי דְבָרֶךָ; וְאוֹר לִנְתִיבָתִי.”

 

“According to the Created Worlds and Destroyed Worlds interpretation of the Bible, the passage in Genesis follows a major destruction of the world previous to our own. The light mentioned in Genesis 1:3 was a supernatural light that had the power to repair elements of the previously destroyed world. Day one of creation records the day when this supernatural light of repair was introduced into our current world. Day two records the start of the repair of the atmosphere and water. Day three describes the completion of the repair of the atmosphere and water and the repair of plant life. Day four describes the repair of the Earth’s relationship to the Sun, Moon, and stars. Day five describes the repair of marine life and winged creatures. Day six describes the repair of land animals and man.

 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

 

But the path of the righteous is as the light of dawn, that shines more and more unto the perfect day. (Proverbs 4.18)

 

“The Holy One said to Israel “My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us, you and I go and give light to Zion. Arise, give light, for your light has come (Isaiah 60:1)” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 21:1)

 

The Launch of Tzelem at the Speaker’s Rooms 28th January 2015

https://i2.wp.com/static.wixstatic.com/media/79c59a_82884f3f11aa41e2874a41b3d97566d5.png_srz_p_630_467_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_png_srz

In the beautiful and opulent surroundings of the State Rooms of the Speaker’s Apartment in Westminster over 60 Rabbis and Cantors from the different Jewish streams in the UK came together to launch a new organisation: Tzelem- the Rabbinic  Voice for Social and Economic Justice in the UK.

Founded on the Jewish principle that we are all created in the image of God (b’tzelem Elohim), Tzelem builds on the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew bible which speaks of the vital importance that social and economic justice is available for everyone.  Jewish tradition has long advocated the rights of the marginal and the powerless, and our teachings are rich in texts calling for us to take part in asserting those rights, and standing up in the face of the powerful in order to achieve them.

It is the purpose of Tzelem to continue this tradition by critiquing the issues at the root of our society that keep the vulnerable and powerless exposed and helpless.  We aim to take action in order to change the structures that maintain the marginality of the weakest in society, and to change the way they are viewed.

Four Rabbis spoke from their own close experience of mental illness, child poverty, homelessness and immigration. It was a sobering experience made even more poignant in the surroundings in which we heard it, to be told that one in four children in Britain do not have adequate nutrition. It was painful to hear stories of the rapidly downward cycle into homelessness that left people without hope for the future, or so ill after exposure to the elements that their whole self fragmented. It was moving to see a colleague speak of his own struggle with bipolar disorder and the depression that accompanied it made all the more difficult because of the fear of stigma, disapproval and rejection.

 Rabbis and Cantors, like other clergy, see every strata of society and this is one of our strengths and one of the reasons we must be a driving force in contributing to a fairer society. Our texts and tradition demands it of us, and so does the lived experience of our role. We see what is often hidden from other members of society – the desperation, the poverty, the lack of hope, the pain and the willingness to ignore the weak and vulnerable in the busyness of life. Tzelem has come like a ray of hope into the worlds of many colleagues. We have watched other faith traditions step forward and demand justice and economic security for all members of our society and we spoke out as individuals each in our own milieu, but the creation of this platform with rabbis and cantors from across the spectrum of observance has given us energy and hope that our voice will be amplified, that together the voice of Judaism and its demands for justice for all will be heard in all the corners of the United Kingdom.

At our launch we reminded ourselves of what our tradition demands of us, and we reminded ourselves of the poverty and the pain that exist within the communities in which we live. We cannot stand by while the pain of our fellow human beings calls out to be addressed and ameliorated. As Hillel wrote two thousand years ago “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself then what am I? And if not now, when? (Avot 1:14)

For more on the texts of the launch and on Tzelem, see http://www.tzelem.uk/#!Launch-Resources/c14bu/7293522D-5710-49E6-BA0A-8E5986FA912A

shall your brethren go to war and you sit here? reflections on parashat mattot at my farewell service

“The tribes of Reuben and Gad approached Moses and the leadership saying ‘If we have found favour in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession; do not bring us over the Jordan.’ And Moses said to the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” 32:5,6

This question asked by Moses of the two cattle owning tribes is one that resonates so poignantly today. “Shall your brethren go to war, and shall you sit here?”

We have been watching anxiously as Israel has been slipping once more into war. And as we obsess over the news feeds and the reporting, the analysis and the social media links, we wonder about what is our role? how could we sit here while our fellow Jews are at war? And what is it that we should be doing?

In a skype conversation earlier this week with Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, we asked him to talk us through the very serious issues facing Israel that his organisation is engaged with and the list was long and depressing– serious economic poverty among many Israelis both Jewish and Arab , the problems of the asylum seekers and of the Bedouin in the Negev, the children who are traumatised by the stress of normal everyday living, the crisis of the unemployed and underemployed…. The reality is that while Israel is facing war, all the same problems are still there in her society, many of her people are insecure and vulnerable not just to the rockets coming over from Gaza and from the North but simply their place in society is not protected. He spoke of the work that RHR (known in Hebrew as shomrei mishpat, guardians of justice) has done not only in taking many cases to court in order to gain protection for people, but also in working with the government to mitigate some of the more draconian laws. He spoke with pride of the work done by Idit Lev to develop a policy to help the most underprivileged and of how Government was even beginning to work at funding it – only to say that now we don’t know what money there might still be, it may all have gone in the artillery into Gaza. We sat and listened to the analysis of all that must be addressed in Israeli civic society, conscious that when Israel is at war it is so easy to put these issues into the ‘pending’ file as the rockets being fired from both sides take centre stage in our attention.

He also spoke of the Jewish texts on self-defence, of the rodef, the pursuer, and the principles and laws that dictate the rules of self-defence, and of how we find a way through the tangle of feelings and thoughts that I guess most of us have been enmeshed in recently. Jewish law lays out a general principle of self-defence based on a Biblical case of a thief invading a private home at night (Ex. 22:1-2),: We read in tractate Sanhedrin “The Torah decreed, ‘If [the rodef] comes to kill you, kill him first’” (Sanhedrin 72a). But the rabbis also limit this principle extensively, recognizing the enormous danger of providing a legal way to bypass the judicial process and essentially allow murder. So rabbinic law provides that force must only be used if it will prevent a particular victim from being killed; such force must not be premeditated but rather a spontaneous act when life is in immediate danger ; and no more than enough force is to be used – in other words if you can achieve your objective without having to kill the rodef, then if you do so this principle will not defend you – you will still be liable for murder. Rabbinic law also clarifies explicitly that any self-defence in this case must not harm any innocent third-party. The verse: “Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (M. Sanhedrin 8:7) is used to teach us that everyone who is aware in a situation must attempt to save innocent people from life-threatening danger.

The law of the rodef, the pursuer, is complex and problematic, and because it is based in biblical precedent, while it is bound by many rabbinic constraints it continues to live as a principle, both for our benefit in some circumstances and for a problematic approach to our realpolitik in others. But there is another kind of rodef we find in Mishnah – the rodef shalom. In Pirkei Avot we find that Hillel says “Be a student of Aaron, a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace (rodef shalom), a lover of people who brings them closer to Torah.”

What does it mean to be both a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace? One response from Rabbi Shmuel de Ozedah (16th century Tzfat, Land of Israel) suggests that the phrase ‘lover of peace’ refers to oneself and one’s immediate world, while the ‘pursuer of peace’ refers to the one who brings peace about between people. He writes “one needs first to love peace for oneself, and since it is a good thing in our own eyes and we love it for ourself, we will be drawn to go and bring peace about between others”

The concept of the rodef moves in a process from its earliest incarnation of avenging the death of blood relative to permitting us to defend ourselves – even if necessary pre-emptively – against attack, and further it is the structure within which we can create a more peaceful world.

So how are we to be to be a rodef shalom, the figure that Hillel exhorts us to be? In a 4th Century text (Avot d’Rabbi Natan) we find this explication: “The phrase teaches us that a person should be a pursuer of peace among people, between each and every one. If a person sits in their own place and is silent, how can they pursue peace among people, between each and every one?! Rather, one should go out from one’s own place and go searching in the world and pursue peace among people.”

And so it seems that we come full circle. Moses speaking to the tribes of Reuben and Gad asks “‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” The author of Avot d’Rabbi Natan challenges us that to pursue peace we have to go out from our own place and go searching into the world in order to bring peace about. And Rabbi Shmuel de Ozedah says “we need first to love peace for ourself, and since it is a good thing in our own eyes and we love it for ourself, we will be drawn to go and bring peace about between others”.

Sitting here and knowing that people we love and care for are potentially in danger, that the Land of Israel is once more at war, that many innocent people on both sides are becoming collateral damage rhr2is a painful and uncomfortable place.

Sitting here and watching the news on our various pieces of technology, we feel powerless and frightened, angry and misunderstood – and we desperately want peace. Across the world, many of us fasted this week on 17th Tammuz along with Muslims fasting for Ramadan – and then broke fast as two peoples together – as a way of making a statement that we want to have peace. (The hashtag on twitter was #hungryfor peace). Across the world many of us have sent supportive messages to family and friends, have signed petitions and donated money to organisations busy in building up relationships across the boundaries even while these relationships are under strain. But what else can we do?

It became clear to me this week just how conflicted I felt in my wanting to continue helping the social justice campaigns in Israel at a time when Israel is at war. Could we criticise an unjust situation perpetuated by Israel while she is facing such a serious time? Conversation with colleagues and friends here showed I was not alone in my anxiety, and it was interesting how the same conversation with colleagues and friends in Israel was different. They recognised the unease we feel in hutz la’aretz, the desire not to add to the criticism or the pressure. But they also recognised that we cannot sit quietly just because our brethren have gone to war – the critical issues of social justice do not go away, and to mask them because of the matzav, the emergency situation – is to abdicate our responsibility to our brethren.

So: to be a rodef for peace we need first to love peace for our own nation – including all the different groups who live within it, and then to go out to gain peace between Israel and her neighbours. To be a rodef for peace we need to agitate for the rights of all who live within Israel, as well as to drive dialogue and mediation between Israel and her enemies. And in that mode I tell you about this week’s events in Al Arakib, a Bedouin village in the Negev where despite the freezing of the Begin Prawer plan legislation until the Supreme Court decides the ownership of the land, the State is bypassing the judicial process and once again bulldozing this village, while the inhabitants who live in its only remaining secure structure, the cemetery, are fasting for Ramadan.

Can we stand by even though Israel is at war on its borders and its cities are vulnerable to missiles even though protected by the iron dome? I think we cannot, and I ask for you all to not stand by but to be rodfei shalom, people who agitate for peace. In the words of Isaiah 57:19 Shalom Shalom lerachot ul’karov amar Adonai שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב, אָמַר יְהוָה- Peace, peace, to the one that is far off and to him that is near, says the Eternal.

When Moses asks the two tribes ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?’ it is a rhetorical question. He is asking a number of things of them, and laying down some expectations. One of them is that they support their fellow Israelites as they fight for their land. One of them is that they don’t just sit comfortably and take no responsibility for their own community, and one of them, one which speaks deeply to me, is that we are one people, one community, regardless of all the differences of practise and of opinion that are so vehemently expressed wherever you look in the Jewish world. The Talmud reminds us (Shevuot 39a) Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all of Israel are responsible for each other. It comes in the context of sinning, where if one Jew sees another about to sin, they have the obligation to step in and prevent them. We have real responsibility for each other, and according to Jewish law that communal responsibility is an obligation. Working for the health of community and the well-being of everyone within it is a primary obligation from which much else of value follows.

I chose to work as a community rabbi because I believe in Judaism and I believe in community. I chose to work in South London for so many years because I see in this area a reflection of what I grew up with – a community that can overcome its differences and work together for shared principles and values, that takes its place in the world and that recognises the interconnectedness of our lives. I wrote in Kehillah about this, about the role of community in our lives and the need to nurture it and build it. I would like to finish with the words I ended that article with:

A Jewish community is more than a place for prayer, though that is at its heart. It is a place for gathering, for shared purpose, for organising support for each other as we all face life’s trials. It is a place of safety and for challenge, for learning and for teaching, for deepening our understanding about ourselves and enacting our life’s purpose.

For me as a Jew, as well as as a Rabbi, the building and nurturing of a community has been a source of energy and a source of comfort. And I know that the work will go on here. The words of Rabbi Tarfon speak in my mind “Lo Alecha ha’Melacha Ligmor, VeLo Atah Ben Chorin LeHibatel Mimena” We are not expected to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from engaging with it.

So I wish for you to “gei gesundeheit” to go well with the continuing journey. And “Chazak ve’ematz”, be strong and of good courage as you enter the next chapter of community life.