Lech Lecha – the story of a famine which displaces vulnerable people needs to be heard

When Abram and Sarai, his nephew Lot and the souls they had made in Haran travelled on God’s instruction to the Land of Canaan, they arrived and stopped at Shechem, where Abram built an altar and where God promised that land to his descendants. Abram journeyed on, via the mountain near Beit El, where he built another altar, and continued southwards travelling the length of the land of Israel until they exited the Land on its southern border with Egypt.

It reads rather as an anti-climax to that famous imperative in the first recorded encounter between God and Abram:

 וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ:

God said to Abram “Go for yourself from your land and your birthplace, and from the house of our father, to the land which I will show you”

No introduction, no explanation, no conversation – just a command to go elsewhere, the trust that the journey will have an end is implicit, God will show Abram the place when he gets there.

But it isn’t exactly what happens. Because there is famine in the land – very heavy famine.  Abram and Sarai will die if they stay there, so, prefiguring the Joseph narratives, they travel into Egypt for refuge.

Famine appears with grim frequency in bible. Each of the patriarchs will suffer serious famine – Abram goes to Egypt, Isaac goes to the Philistine King in Gerar rather than go to Egypt(Gen 26:1). Jacob and his sons go down into Egypt to buy food when the famine takes hold. The book of Ruth describes the famine that led Ruth and Elimelech to flee to Moab (Ruth 1:1). In David’s time there was a famine lasting three years (2Sam 21:1). The story of Elijah records the famine in the land (1Kings 17:1) and in Elisha fed the famine starved people of Gilgal (2Kings 4:38). Famines are also recorded in Jerusalem in the time of Tzedekiah (2Kings 25:3) (see also Jeremiah’s painful description of the drought 14:1-6) and in Canaan in the time of Nehemiah (Neh. 5:3)

The Land of Israel was dependent on the rainfall for its crops and trees, so drought and therefore famine were always to be feared. There was also fear of pests or diseases that would destroy the crops (Joel 1:4ff)and which we see most dramatically in the plague in Egypt just before the Hebrew slaves were able to leave.

War and sieges would also bring famines – again described in biblical texts with painful clarity. Famine, along with Pestilence and the sword (war) (Dever v’Herev v’Ra’av) appears regularly in a triumvirate in the Hebrew bible (cf. Jer. 14:12; 21:7, 9; 24:10; Ezek. 6:11,) and has entered the liturgy in both Avinu Malkeinu and in the Hashkiveinu prayer  (second blessing following shema)

הָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אוֹיֵב דֶבֶר וְחֶרֶב וְרָעָב וְיָגוֹן

 

Talmud also discusses the problems of famine. We read in Ta’anit 5a “Rav Nachman said to Rabbi Yitzḥak: What is the meaning of that which is written: “For the Eternal has called upon a famine and it shall also come upon the land seven years” (II Kings 8:1)? Specifically, in those seven years, what did they eat?

Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rabbi Nachman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said as follows: In the first year they ate that which was in their houses; in the second year they ate that which was in their fields; in the third year they ate the meat of their remaining kosher animals; in the fourth year they ate the meat of their remaining non-kosher animals; in the fifth year they ate the meat of repugnant creatures and creeping animals, i.e., any insects they found; in the sixth year they ate the flesh of their sons and their daughters; and in the seventh year they ate the flesh of their own arms, to fulfil that which is stated: “Each man shall eat the flesh of his own arm” (Isaiah 9:19).”

The starvation and breakdown of social norms that famine brought can be seen across the literature.  In the Talmud we read the pitiful story of one of the wealthiest women in Jerusalem, Marta bat Baitos who could not buy food with all her silver and gold, and who died after picking out the grain from the animal dung she stepped on (Gittin 56a;  Josephus mentions the eating of children in Jerusalem during the Roman War (Wars 6:201–13). There are at least three historical references to famine caused by the observance of the Sabbatical year, one during the siege of Jerusalem by the forces of Antiochus IV (Ant. 12:378), one in the war of Herod against Antigonus (Ant. 14:476) and one during Herod’s reign (Ant. 15:7).

Drought, with the rains withheld, has generally been theologised into punishment for transgressions, a tool wielded by God when we do not follow the rules that acknowledge God’s ownership of the land by bringing tithes both to thank God and to feed those who cannot grow food for themselves,  and when we fail in our our obligations to the Land to treat it well and allow it to rest.

Rabbinic responsa are also very sensitive to drought and famine, with a growing list of actions to pray for rain with special prayers added into the liturgy, fasting etc. So seriously did the rabbis take the realities of famine that they permitted emigration from the land of Israel in the case of famine, albeit only when survival would become extremely difficult(BB 91b; Gen. R. 25).

Rabba bar bar Ḥana says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: They taught that it is prohibited to leave Eretz Yisrael only if money is cheap, i.e., not excessively difficult to obtain, and produce is expensive, similar to the case in the baraita where two se’a of wheat are sold for a sela. But when money is expensive, i.e., it is difficult to earn money for sustenance, even if the price of four se’a of grain stood at a sela, one may leave Eretz Yisrael in order to survive.(BB91b)

Basing themselves on Genesis 41:50 the rabbis (Ta’anit 11a) also forbade procreation during the years of famine.

Our tradition knows about the difficulties of living and thriving in a world where the rains may not come, where crops may fail and people may starve. It understood that while famine may come as a result of war, it is more likely to be because we, the human stewards of the world, do not treat the world as it must be treated, and the consequences of this lack of care will come to haunt us.

Abram and Sarai left their home to reach the land God had promised, but having reached it they immediately became environment migrants. The land would not let them stay and thrive, they had to put themselves at greater risk and depend on a foreign power to survive.   This part of their story is not often emphasised – the great journey to the promised land is a far more palatable thread to take from this sidra, but the short verses that tell of the famine that would have killed them should they have stayed are maybe more instructive in these times of climate change happening across the globe as a direct result of human carelessness and greed.

Lech Lecha is the call to activism – Get up and go, make something happen! We Jews are called as our ur-ancestors were called. We should pay heed to the increasingly serious warnings our planet is giving us, and return to the work of stewarding, protecting and  supporting a healthy and diverse world.

 

 

A talk given at Stand Up to Racism, Unite against Fascism

Michael Rosen wrote a poem called Fascism: I sometimes fear…

“I sometimes fear that people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress 

worn by grotesques and monsters

as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. 

Fascism arrives as your friend. 

It will restore your honour, 

make you feel proud, 

protect your house, 

give you a job, 

clean up the neighbourhood, 

remind you of how great you once were, 

clear out the venal and the corrupt, 

remove anything you feel is unlike you…

 It doesn’t walk in saying, 

“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”

I am the child of a man displaced in childhood by the holocaust, the grandchild of a man who died from the results of his treatment in Dachau, a member of a family dislocated from its various places of origin, washed up as refugees a number of times in recent history. My known and documented roots go back in over 600 years to Byeloruss, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, France and Spain, and each time the family story of leaving is one of trying to escape irrational ethnic and religious hatred with only a handful of possessions to start again.

One thing I have learned is that history does repeat itself, and that much as we may protest ‘never again’, the reality is that genocides continue, that racism continues, that hatred for the other continues. I am not a believer in the idea that the more we explain why we shouldn’t be doing it, the more people will stop doing it. It doesn’t happen in campaigns to promote healthy behaviour; it doesn’t help in campaigns against damaging behaviours.

The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)

Essentially this 5th Century Document collecting much earlier traditions is telling us that baseless hatred of the other is worse than the three most appalling behaviours it can imagine, all put together – and it destroys everything of value if we allow it to take root.

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, commented on this teaching : “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam. (Orot HaKodesh v.3)

It is one of his most famous teachings and is often quoted – if we only treat the world with love that has no base in reason but is simply freely offered, then we will rebuild it and challenge the irrational hatred by our love for the other.

But there is something rather deeper in his work that is not as often explained. He asks why it is that people have an unreasonable and irrational hatred of the other, and goes on to explain that is not, as we commonly assert, because of the behaviour of the other, but the reason and source of our hatred is firmly rooted in our own selves. All of our own selves.

He teaches that while we may give ourselves reasons for why we do not trust others, or hate them, (their clothing, their cooking, their keeping themselves to themselves, their strange belief system, whatever….) actually these are simply created to comfort ourselves and to distract ourselves from a hard truth.

The source of our hatred comes, he teaches, from our own fundamental life force, which is both the important force for our growth and development, and which we need in order to flourish and to thrive – but which is also an important element in our desire to survive, and hence it opposes everything that it experiences as different and therefore potentially threatening to our own ability to succeed in life. In other words, our baseless hatred of the other is inherent in our humanity, a perversion of a necessary trait for our survival.

At first sight this is dispiriting, but it is not impossible to deal with once we decide to recognise it. For the reality is that the fear or hatred of the other which fuels all the racism we see in the world, shares a root with our life force, which includes the love of life, the desire to thrive, to live in a good and nurturing world. They are two sides of one coin, and it is possible to transmute the hatred by seeing the good in what we default to as negative or dangerous, by seeing the humanity in the other.

Elsa Cayet was the only woman killed at Charlie Hebdo, killed because she was Jewish, albeit not a conventionally practising Jew, and while she was not religiously observant, she followed in the tradition of challenging everything she encountered, and demanded an intellectual analysis and response.

Her final article, published posthumously in the magazine, declared:

“Human suffering derives from abuse. This abuse derives from belief—that is, from everything we have had to swallow, everything we have had to believe.”

The point she is making is that all too often we simply swallow the words of others, the perspectives that difference equals danger, or at least a different practise has less value than our way, a person not like us has less humanity than us. She goes on to remind the reader that we have to confront our primal fears and certainties, have to think about them, critique them, take responsibility for them, and not allow them to shape us, to sentence us to unthinking assumptions that may well lead us to hatred of the other.

I stand here, the child of a family whose paternal generations just before mine were almost entirely murdered, because of causeless hatred or indifference to suffering because of a refusal to see the ‘other’ as part of the same life force that supports everyone; whose maternal ancestry experienced the same hatred in other parts of the world in earlier times. I stand here a Rabbi who has worked within the Jewish community, active in interfaith work and intercommunity meetings, because, in part, one of my teachers truly believed (along with Rav Kook) that if we encounter the other in ordinary situations we begin to realise that their humanity is identical to ours, that the conclusion of our life force that difference is dangerous, cannot survive the meeting with such difference. I stand here to say that in our own lifetimes and our own towns and cities, the words “never again” are being drowned out once more by fear and hatred of people who are swallowing the beliefs of their deepest survival instincts without any examination of them. And we must speak out. We must insist that we look for the good, for the shared humanity, rather than focus on the different and see only that which scares us. We must demand that the values of Life – of a commitment to freedom, of valuing difference and diversity, of the inclusion of all peoples in our society, of causeless love rather than causeless hatred take precedence in our worlds.

We stand together against all who cause divisiveness amongst our communities, who shout a rhetoric of hatred, who use the fears and anxieties of people against us and our shared interest. And we stand together against those who seek to control the hatred for their own interests. Let us take on board the teaching of Rav Kook and remind ourselves that we can neutralise the damage working together with causeless love.

Talk Given at Stand up to Racism event at House of Commons 29th January 2015