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.

 

 

The land we stand on is holy – turning, looking and paying attention….

L’italiano segue l’inglese

וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה הָיָ֥ה רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֛אן יִתְר֥וֹ חֹֽתְנ֖וֹ כֹּהֵ֣ן מִדְיָ֑ן וַיִּנְהַ֤ג אֶת־הַצֹּאן֙ אַחַ֣ר הַמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיָּבֹ֛א אֶל־הַ֥ר הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים חֹרֵֽבָה: וַ֠יֵּרָ֠א מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהוָֹ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל:  וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה מַדּ֖וּעַ לֹֽא־יִבְעַ֥ר הַסְּנֶֽה: וַיַּ֥רְא יְהוָֹ֖ה כִּ֣י סָ֣ר לִרְא֑וֹת וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, to Horeb. And the angel of the Eternal appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.  And Moses said: ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’   And when the Eternal saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: ‘Moses, Moses.’ And he said: ‘Here I am.’   (Exodus 3:1-4)

I cannot read this story this year without thinking of the fires burning without end, in California, Australia and the Amazon rainforests.

When Moses passed the bush that burned but was not consumed, he made the conscious choice to “turn aside and look at the great sight”, but more than that, he asked the question – how come this burns in such an extraordinary way?

There is at least one reading of this passage which asks why Moses? Why Moses, who had been born to Hebrew parents but brought up in the Egyptian palace; whose identity was fragile and dislocated and whose temper was hot, who had murdered in anger and then run away to the desert when discovered– why was Moses chosen for the role of leading the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and towards their promised ancestral land?  Why Moses? Why was the stutterer and outsider, belonging fully in neither Egyptian society nor Israelite community, the one to hear the words of God?

It is possible that many people passed that burning bush, and simply ignored it. It may be that God was waiting for someone to turn aside – that Moses wasn’t chosen per se, but his behaviour was unusual enough for him to become chosen. He paid attention.

How long does one watch a fire to notice that it is not consuming the material that is burning? If you have ever watched a bonfire you would know that it isn’t easy to watch a conflagration and see the clear diminishing of the contents. It takes quite some time to be obvious.

So Moses stopped his journey to turn and watch. He looked at what was presumably not an uncommon sight, and watched it for a long time. Moses was “chosen” because he was curious enough and open enough to stop his usual activity and to pay attention to what was happening.

We cannot be unaware of the devastation of the burning earth in different parts of the globe, caused in part by our own lifestyle choices. Yet we are passing by without looking, and allowing our policy makers to pass by too, ignoring what is happening – or worse denying it.

The burning forests and fields will not be ignored. Every year that passes as our world becomes warmer and more polluted, as the climate see-saws and changes, is a year that we are wasting if we want to act on the warnings.   Agriculture, factories, cars, power stations – are all contributing to the increasing temperature. The “greenhouse gasses” are increasing at an alarming rate – there is more C02 around in the atmosphere now than at any time in human history.

Moses heard the voice that told him what to do. We actually know what we have to do –we have no need of a supernatural voice.  As David Attenborough commented: “This is an urgent problem that has to be solved and, what’s more, we know how to do it – that’s the paradoxical thing, that we’re refusing to take steps that we know have to be taken.”

Moses was told to take off his shoes; the land he stood on was holy ground. All our ground is holy ground, all our earth is sacred. It is beyond time now to stop, to notice, to recognise what we are doing to our earth, and to take the steps to demand from the powerful governments and organisations that are refusing to act for our world to do so, and fast.

 

La terra su cui siamo è sacra, girati, osserva e presta attenzione

                Mosè pascolava il gregge di Ithrò, suo suocero, sacerdote di Midian e guidando le pecore di là del deserto arrivò al Monte del Signore, al Chorev. Un inviato del Signore gli apparve attraverso una fiamma di fuoco di mezzo ad un roveto e osservando si avvide che il roveto ardeva per il fuoco ma non si consumava. E Mosè disse fra sé: voglio avvicinarmi a vedere questo grande  fenomeno, come mai questo roveto non si consuma.’   Quando il Signore vide che egli si avvicinava per osservare il fenomeno, gridò dinnanzi a lui di mezzo al roveto: ‘Mosè, Mosè.’ Ed egli rispose: ‘Eccomi.’   (Esodo 3:1-4)

Quest’anno non posso leggere questa storia senza pensare ai fuochi che bruciano senza fine, in California, in Australia e nelle foreste pluviali amazzoniche.

Quando Mosè arrivò al roveto ardente che bruciava e non si consumava, fece la scelta consapevole di avvicinarsi e guardare il grande fenomeno ma, soprattutto, pose la domanda: come può esso bruciare in maniera così straordinaria?

C’è almeno una lettura di questo passaggio che chiede: perché Mosè? Perché Mosè, che era nato da genitori ebrei ma cresciuto nel palazzo egiziano, che aveva identità fragile e dislocata e temperamento caldo, che aveva ucciso con rabbia e poi era fuggito nel deserto quando venne scoperto, perché Mosè fu scelto per il ruolo di condurre gli schiavi ebrei fuori dall’Egitto e verso la loro ancestrale terra promessa? Perché Mosè? Perché un balbuziente e straniero, quello che  non apparteneva pienamente alla società egiziana né alla comunità israelita, era quello che ascoltava le parole di Dio?

È possibile che molte persone abbiano superato quel roveto ardente e lo abbiano semplicemente ignorato. Può darsi che Dio stesse aspettando qualcuno che si girasse, che Mosè non fosse stato scelto di per sé, ma che il suo comportamento fosse abbastanza insolito da essere scelto. Ha prestato attenzione.

Per quanto tempo si deve guardare un fuoco per notare che non sta consumando il materiale che sta bruciando? Se avete mai visto un falò, sapete che non è facile osservare una combustione e vedere la chiara diminuzione di ciò che sta bruciando. Ovviamente ci vuole un po’ di tempo.

Quindi Mosè fermò il suo viaggio per avvicinarsi e guardare. Guardò ciò che presumibilmente non era uno spettacolo insolito, e lo osservò a lungo. Mosè fu “scelto” perché era abbastanza curioso e abbastanza aperto da interrompere la sua solita attività e prestare attenzione a ciò che stava accadendo.

Non possiamo ignorare la devastazione della terra in fiamme in diverse parti del globo, causata in parte dalle nostre scelte di vita. Eppure stiamo passando senza guardare, e permettendo anche ai nostri responsabili politici di passare, ignorando ciò che sta accadendo, o peggio negandolo.

Le foreste e i campi in fiamme non saranno ignorati. Ogni anno che passa mentre il nostro mondo diventa più caldo e più inquinato, mentre il clima si fa altalenante e cambia, è un anno che stiamo sprecando se vogliamo agire in base agli avvertimenti. Agricoltura, fabbriche, automobili, centrali elettriche, tutto ciò sta contribuendo all’aumento della temperatura. I “gas serra” stanno aumentando a un ritmo allarmante, c’è più C02 nell’atmosfera ora che in qualsiasi momento della storia umana.

Mosè udì la voce che gli diceva cosa fare. In realtà sappiamo cosa dobbiamo fare: non abbiamo bisogno di una voce soprannaturale. Come ha commentato David Attenborough: “Questo è un problema urgente che deve essere risolto e, per di più, sappiamo come farlo; questa è la cosa paradossale, che ci stiamo rifiutando di prendere misure che sappiamo devono essere prese”.

A Mosè fu detto di togliersi le scarpe; la terra su cui si trovava era terra santa. Tutta la nostra terra è terra santa, tutta la nostra terra è sacra. È ormai il tempo di fermarsi, notare, riconoscere ciò che stiamo facendo sulla nostra terra e fare i passi per chiedere ai governi potenti e alle organizzazioni che si rifiutano di agire per il nostro mondo, di farlo e velocemente.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Parashat Noach: how to avert the severity of the climate change decree

What are we to understand about the biblical story of Noah? How are we to relate to a God who allows such terrible destruction? How are we to relate to Nature, and the world in which we live?

Coming so soon after the story of the Creation of the world – there are just ten generations between Adam and Noah – the story bears witness to the much more complex relationship between human beings and the earth than we sometimes read from the earliest chapters in the Book of Genesis.

As we read in the first chapter, the earth and all its accoutrements – plants fish, birds and beasts – are created before human beings, and God sees them as being good. They are not created for the human being but exist in their own right. While the vegetation is available as food for the human, the animals are not so designated.  As Maimonides commented “The right view, in my opinion is that it should not be believed that all creation exists for the sake of the existence of humanity. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes, and not for the sake of something else.” (Moreh Nevuchim 3:13).  The Tosefta (late 2nd century text) asks “Why were human beings created last in the order of creation?” and answers itself “So that they should not grow proud, and we can say to them ‘even the gnat can claim it came before you in Creation’” (Tosefta on Sanhedrin 8:3)

We are created within and alongside nature. Nature, in this biblical viewpoint, is not created as a tool for us to treat as we choose, but exists both symbiotically with us and independently of us.

When God blesses humanity with the benediction to be fruitful and multiply, to populate the world and to steward it, this is not something that changes the power in the relationship, but instead formalises  the responsibility we have to sustain both ourselves and our world.  The natural world is not given to us unconditionally, but exists in relationship with us. It is not subservient to us, but is the place where we may thrive together, or may fail together.

Many readers of Bible are tempted to read the first chapters of Genesis and find a divinely created supremacy of humanity. After all, we are the only ones created in the divine image, whatever that may mean. While all the vegetation and animals are created to be able to sustain themselves and produce offspring, only humans are told to multiply and to range over the expanse of the earth.

So one might want to read into the text the sovereign authority of the human being in the natural world, but the bible would like to warn us that this is a misreading of great proportion. While the earlier story has words which are potentially problematic, particularly in how they are understood (“subdue the earth/ have dominion over”) (Genesis 1:28), the story of the Garden of Eden clarifies the relationship – the human is placed into the garden to serve it and to guard it”. And while we read in the Midrash that “God showed Adam all of the beauty of the Garden of Eden, and God said, “See my works, how lovely they are, how fine they are. All I have created, I created for you” – we must note that the Midrash continues with the warning “Take care not to destroy My world, for if you ruin it, there is no one to come after you to put it right” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

Once the first human beings are expelled from the Garden of Eden, nature will become even less benign a partner, and more of a problem as we scratch our living from the earth through the sweat of our brow; the relationship of serving the land changed to one of working it.

But even more clear a warning to us not to read ourselves as somehow permitted to use the natural world as we see fit and for our own purposes, without thought of the effects of our actions, is the story of the great flood in the time of Noah.

The bible makes a clear connection between the behaviour of the people at that time – corrupt and violent – and the bringing of the flood.  As we will find later, in times of famine for example, or the plagues visited upon Egypt, Nature is a tool in the hands of God, used as a necessary corrective when humanity chooses arrogance and enormous self-centredness over the obligation to serve and to guard….  As we find in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 8:12 (c200CE) commenting on verse 28 of the first chapter of Genesis:

God said, “I will make humankind in My image, after My likeness. They shall rule [ve-yir·du]…the whole earth”.… God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it;    and rule [u-re·du]…all living things…”  Rabbi Hanina said: “If humankind merits it, God says u-re·du [rule!]; while if humankind does not merit it, God says yé·ra·du [let them (the animals) rule].” (or Let them [human beings] descend [from their position of mastery]

 

The flood is a cataclysmic event. The bible records: “Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. And all flesh perished that moved upon the earth, both fowl, and cattle, and beast, and every swarming thing that swarmed upon the earth, and every human being; all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, whatsoever was in the dry land, died.  And God blotted out every living substance which was upon the face of the ground, both human, and cattle, and creeping thing, and fowl of the heaven; and they were blotted out from the earth; and Noah only was left, and they that were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days. ” (Genesis 7:20ff)

The destruction is incalculable, bringing death to every living thing outside of the sanctuary of the Ark. Plants and animals and birds – all gone in the space of a few months, along with the majority of human beings.  Bible sees this as a consequence of the will of God, who having seen the corruption and wickedness endemic in the world, regrets ever having made it and chooses to wipe most of it out and begin again.  The story is a retelling of much older flood stories, where there had been no moral conclusion drawn, simply the random destruction of the earth and her inhabitants by water, at the whim of indiscriminate and uncaring powers.

It is clear from biblical texts that Nature is, by its very existence, to be respected and held in some careful awe.  Again and again we are reminded that God is the creator of not just us, but of the rest of the world; Again and again we are reminded that our time here is short and we have but a fragile hold on life.  As Kohelet writes “one generation goes and another comes, but the earth abides forever” (1:4)

The mystical tradition teaches that the universe is the garment of God (Zohar 3:273a), a position also taught by the Hasidic tradition: “All that we see, the heaven, the earth and all that fills it – all these are the external garments of God” (Shneur Zalman of Liady)

There is a persistent thread within all streams of Judaism to remind us that reading the beginning of Genesis must be done most carefully – that should we derive the idea that humanity is somehow so exceptional that we are beyond the rules of nature, and beyond the obligations and morality expected of us by God, then we will indeed pay the price for that arrogance, and the price will be extracted by natural environmental events. As the unetaneh tokef prayer recited so recently in the Yamim Noraim reminds us, we will surely die, and the list of ways of us dying is instructive:

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague…….  But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.”

Repentance, prayer and righteousness may avert the severity of the decree. One might put it into more modern terms – we abuse the bounty of the natural world, are careless of its resources, wilfully blind to the effect of our actions but the actions of  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – this may avert the severity of the climate change already with us.

There is more – to Repair, to allow animals and land to rest; Regenerate;  Give animals freedom to range and to live a good and healthy life… Plant trees and grassland rather than paving over our environment, allow grasses to flower and insects to roam and feed, avoid pesticides and ensure our garden birds can eat safely….. these are the ways we can begin to avert the severity of the changes in our environment.

God saves Noah but repents the destruction after the event. The terror and trauma of the survivors is clear in the stories that follow, the rainbow a necessary but insufficient marker of security – the world may never again be totally destroyed by flood – but there are other ways we can destroy our world. The postdiluvian world is more complex, more violent and more painful than before. It is another kind of expulsion from Eden. Now every other animal – all living beings – will fear human beings (Genesis 9:2)– after all, it was human behaviour that had caused the destruction. Humanity is now permitted to eat anything that moves that has life – not just the vegetarian diet of before. Interestingly this permission is given only AFTER Noah has built an altar and sacrificed some of the animals on it in order for the smoke to reach God. Only the blood is forbidden to be eaten, says God. And anyone who takes the life of another – their life shall be required by God. There is a violent abrupt awareness of the flawed nature of humanity; the language is stark, unblinkingly focussed – it is ferocious.

After the flood, Noah leaves his ark, plants a vineyard and gets drunk. It is part of the story we don’t often tell. The trauma of the survivors is plain to see, the desperate fumbled attempts to rebuild the world which leads to the tragedy of the tower of Babel.

Humanity may indeed survive climate catastrophe, may go on to rebuild a new world. But would it not be better for us all to avert the evil in the decree, to help each other to rebuild this world to be a better example of what we would really want to create.