Vayelech: the time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our choices is upon us. or: the bnei mitzvah of the people of Israel

Eight years ago one of my dearest friends was about to be seventy years old, and she decided to celebrate this momentous and biblical age by having her batmitzvah. I had tried to persuade her to do this for years and she had brushed me off; it is typical of her that she made her choice by herself on a date that had such resonance, and then throw herself into study and thinking for herself.  We talked a little about the date and the sidra, and then she chose to direct her own study and do her own research. Luckily she sent me a near final draft. I say luckily because she never read this drasha or celebrated that long awaited day, for with everything planned and organised and ready to go, she suffered a cataclysmic and sudden bereavement and the weekend was taken over instead with grief and shock and the arrangements to honour the dead.

We spoke a while afterwards about her celebrating her batmitzvah on a different date but we both knew that was not really going to happen. The anticipated joy would never be the same, the shadow of grief never quite left her, and she too would depart this world suddenly and unexpectedly and quite dramatically, leaving the rest of us a small flavour of the shock she had experienced on the day of her birthday batmitzvah, to grieve and to question, and to process the reality of what happens when a life is torn from the world without warning.

Checking my computer recently, and thinking also of her as I do at this time of year, I came across an email where she had sent me this draft of the drasha she was to give to the community she had been at the heart of for so many years. With the permission of her children, I want to share it here.

“Vayelech is the shortest parsha in the Torah. It is 30 verses long, and I don’t recall ever hearing it read. In non-leap years like this one it is linked with Nitzavim. When I read Nitzavim-Vayelech they held together. They are followed next week by Ha’azinu which, when I looked it up I discovered is one the 10 Shirot [songs] conceived or written as part of the Almighty’s pre-Creation preparations. The only one still to be written is the song we will sing when the Messiah comes. 

We are coming to the end of the Torah. This name, given to the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is better translated as Teaching. We are coming to the end of the month of Elul the month in which we begin to prepare for the approaching High Holy Days, and in the coming week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah which in turn is followed by the 10 days of penitence and Yom Kippur. Then in roughly a month’s time on Simchat Torah we will finish reading the Teaching, the end of Deuteronomy, and seamlessly begin Bereishit – Genesis – again. 

Vayelech must contain the most important rite of passage in the whole history of our planet. But we will come to that.  

Israel is camped in its tribal groups on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to cross. The preceding parsha, Nitzavim, tells of Moses addressing the whole of Israel, in preparation for entering the land God has promised them. He reminds them they are standing before God, and is clear that every person is included in this relationship.

 [my son] tells me I can tell one joke… a clear example of don’t do as I do, do as I say …but I have two, and we will come to the second soon. A very good friend sent me a card, writing in it “I saw this, and thought of you.” The cartoon was a line drawing of 2 dogs, the larger one saying: “I understand more commands than I obey.” I hope you agree with me, that this is arguable!

Moses and God know from experience that the Children of Israel will fail to follow God’s Teaching. 

Moses warns those listening to him that the consequences of disobedience will be that the land will become desolate, but mitigates this by prophesying they will make t’shuvah, return to the right way, and God will reconcile with them and bring them back.

 And he says something that has always troubled me:  that the commandment he is giving to them and so to us “is not beyond you, or too remote. Not in Heaven, or across the sea. It is very close to you… in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.”

 What I have never been sure of is what this is, what it is that is in my heart, and in my mouth?  Not the 10 Commandments – too many!    And not the 613 mitzvot buried in the text. And then the man who is not my chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said quite plainly on radio 4, no less, what it is, even quoting where I should find it. It is found in Genesis chapter 18, vv 17 – 19, where God is choosing Abraham because he deals with his household with Tzedakah and Mishpat:  two words which together give the meaning of justice tempered with mercy. This is how we hope God will deal with us on Yom Hakippurim.

 And finally Moses said that we have a choice, God has given us the choice of life and death – blessing and curse. We should choose to love God and walk in God’s path and keep God’s commandments. And just as the penalties for not doing so have been listed, the rewards of obeying are explained. 

What we have been told is that all Israel is equally bound by this covenant, regardless of social position or occupation. And that even if we disobey God’s Laws there can be future redemption.

Further, we know that obedience to God’s Laws is within our scope. 

And also that we are to have that freedom to choose that sets us apart from the animals.

 And then we come to today’s portion, .Vayelech “And he went” which is the beginning of the rite of passage for the Children of Israel.

 There is to be a change of “Top Management”. This is the day of Moses’s 120th birthday, and Moses has finally accepted that it is also his death day. It’s been hard for Moses to come to terms with his mortality, and he has behaved a little like a child trying to justify not going to bed, not just yet. There’s no time to discuss this today, try reading Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews. God has been forbearing with this servant with whom God has been in conversation for the last 40 years.

 In this time the generations born into slavery have died, and the people who are born into freedom have known no other Leader. Moses has taught them, settled disputes, referred knotty halachic problems directly to God, and brought back the answers. It is explained that God will go with them, and lead them across the Jordan. Further, that although Moses may not go, they will have Joshua.

 Moses has been frightened of dying, and the Almighty has shown him Aaron’s painless death. God is giving him the signal honour of dying on the anniversary of his birthday, and although Moses is not to be allowed to cross the Jordan God has taken him to look down upon the land.

 Moses is kept busy on this day – there are the tribes to address, and writing enough copies of the Teaching to give one to each tribe, and lodge one in the Ark of the Covenant. This is talked of as a witness against the people, but I suppose it’s the master copy, and proof of God’s promises and provisions. Moses writes The Scroll to the very end, until it is finished, which is taken to mean that it is prophetic, containing as it does an account of his death. Further, the Almighty gives him a message to deliver, and a song of 43 verses, one of the 10 Shirot, to teach to the people.

  How many people do you think there were, camped by the river? How many going into the Promised Land?

 Jacob went to Egypt with 72 souls in his household. A rabble of 600,000 freed slaves left Egypt – and these were the men of fighting age. Add their relatives – minimally a wife each, one child. – Not parents and siblings – this could cause doubtful accounting – a conservative estimate would be 1,800,000 people. No wonder manna was needed!

Nor was it just Jews who escaped Egypt, plenty of escapee opportunists would have taken the chance, and been the “strangers within your gates” who are to have equality under the covenant with Jacob’s descendants.

 The instruction was given for this to be read every seven years in the shemittah year. All Israel is commanded to gather at Succot in the place God has appointed (eventually the Temple in Jerusalem) and the King read to the people from the Scroll.

 And the chapter ends with the prediction that Israel with turn away from God, and that God’s reaction would be to turn God’s face away from them – but also with the promise that their descendants will not forget the words which will remain in their mouths.

 So what is happening?

 It seems that with the completion of the Torah and our entry into the Promised Land, our Creator considers we are grown up. We have the Torah; we have the record in it of discussions and decisions. We are aware that we can judge matters between human beings – but not matters between human beings and God. We cannot deal with these because it is not our business to govern or over-rule another’s conscience.

 God will not appoint another Moses – there is to be no dynastical continuity. No further theophanies. Israel has become a nation of priests with everyone having access to the Almighty and to God’s mercy.

 And when we begin Genesis all over again, we go back to Creation and the dysfunctional families of Adam and Noah. When we come to Abraham, look out for the Teaching and how it is built on chapter by chapter.

 And where’s the second joke? – listen to the translation.”

Sadly, we never heard the second joke. And the poignancy of some of the comments in the drasha make for difficult reading for those who knew her and knew her later story, though the mischief of her personality comes through this text for me, as does her clear and certain faith in God. This was a woman who, as administrator in the synagogue, would regularly leave open the door to the sanctuary in her office hours “because God likes to go for a walk”, but actually so that visitors would feel able to enter and sit and offer their prayers or order their thoughts. She would tidy up the siddurim and make sure they were properly shelved, saying that upside down books “gave God a headache”, to cover her need to honour God by keeping the synagogue neat. She spent hundreds of hours talking to the lonely, reassuring the frightened, supporting the vulnerable. She spent hundreds of hours creating the databases and systems to ensure that the synagogue ran as effectively as it could. And the roots of all this voluntary caring for the synagogue community was her own life’s struggles and her awareness that if God considers we are grown up now, with equal access to the Almighty and no “top management” to direct us, then we had better get on with it, with the work of creating and sustaining the world with tzedakah and mishpat, with righteousness and justice.

In this period of the Ten Days, as we reflect on the lives we are leading, the choices we are making, and the mortality that will come for us all, either with or without warning, I read her drasha as a modern ”unetaneh tokef”, and, as I was for so many years when I was her rabbi and she my congregant, I am grateful for the learning I had from her.

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Chukkat: how to remove the ritual impurity that is confusion so that we see the world more clearly

The sidra Chukkat is named after the instructions about the red heifer – instructions that even the learned commentators on Hebrew bible found mysterious and puzzling beyond understanding. A person made ‘tum’ah’ – unclean through contact with a corpse, was to be sprinkled with special water made with the ashes of a sacrificed perfectly red cow with absolutely no blemish upon it. The ritual is given in great detail over five verses, and is described as Chukkat Olam – a law for all time.

In the midrash Tanhuma, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is described as telling the outer world that this ritual is one of exorcism, of ridding oneself of something awful – but tellingly to his own disciples he declares “the corpse does not defile, nor does the water cleanse. The truth is that the ritual of the red heifer is simply a decree of the Sovereign above all Sovereigns, and we are not permitted to transgress it…”

So our portion is named for a ritual that has no rational meaning, and that we cannot in truth really understand – something that we just do because God tells us to do it. It is a difficult concept to embrace in the twenty first century for modern progressive Jews.

But maybe we might understand it more if we don’t focus on the nature of this law as being an illogical diktat from on high, but we look instead at the nature of tum’ah that the ritual is designed to remove.

In the 19th Century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented on the relationship between tum’ah – described as ritual impurity, and timtum – confusion. He suggested that the connection between them was that of the intensity of physical experience, that what renders a person ‘tam’ei’(ritually impure) is the state of being emotionally overwhelmed and unable to focus on the present context. This idea builds on the Talmudic comment that the nature of tum’ah is one ‘she’metamem et halev’ – one that blocks or paralyses the heart. Essentially to be ritually impure means to lack any mindfulness of self or context, to not be able to locate oneself fully in the world.

Ritual impurity – tum’ah – then can be seen as a function of the clarity of our consciousness, or lack of it. It is something that has to be removed, unblocked, or given a new frame and lens through which to understand what is happening and so change our response to it.

Suddenly this apparently irrational ritual of the red heifer has meaning – we have to do something to change our world view, do something to clarify our perceptions and to move on.

It is no accident I think that the sidra also contains the reporting of the deaths of first Miriam and then Aaron. When Aaron dies the community mourns and sheds tears for him for thirty days, but in the case of Miriam’s death the mourning is not reported – instead we are told that the source of the water dried up and the Israelites became thirsty and frightened.

A frequently quoted Midrash on this text tells us that Miriam had been the source of water for the Israelites, so that when she died the water too went away, but Rabbi Moshe Alsheich’s comment is I think more interesting – “Because they did not shed tears over the loss of Miriam the source of their water dried up”.

Because the children of Israel did not know what to do at the sudden loss of the woman who was the source of water, the source of life, their response was one of confusion – timtum – and of anger. We know about the anger because its most potent expression was that of Moses in response to the anger of the people. Against God’s instruction simply to speak to the rock he made an emotional speech accusing the people of rebellion and then he struck the rock not once but twice in front of the community, and the water poured out of it. Moses’ anger almost burns the page as we read it. Bereaved, lost, his world turned upside down, and with a community who are simply unable to cope with what has happened, his response is to give way to his fury – a completely human reaction but unfortunately not one that was helpful to anyone. Both he and the community are trapped in a state of tum’ah – blind confusion where no possibilities of renewal can be perceived, where everything is terrible and lost and lonely, and the future a bleak and frightening place.

The anger is the first response of the timtum, but it is ultimately a very damaging one – for this anger Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. The healing response comes after the death of Aaron when we are told “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron for thirty days”. These tears are curative, part of the necessary process of mourning. And restorative life giving water comes in response to the waters shed in the tears.

The tears bring relief from tum’ah, from the intense confusion and pain and depression caused by the loss of Miriam and Aaron. But tears alone do not bring full cleansing – the waters of the ritual are mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, the emblematically perfect animal sacrificed for this ritual.

What can we use instead of the ashes to help ourselves out of the state of tum’ah?

Some mix whiskey with their water, but it will only help the tears to flow and ultimately prolong the state of timtum.

Some sacrifice themselves, their joy in life, their interest in the world, sinking into depression and despair.

Some sacrifice their future, holding on the state of anger and confusion, in order to punish the one who put them there.

Many rabbinic traditions (BB10a) suggest that instead of ashes we use tzedakah – for as our liturgy for the Yamim Noraim tells us, tzedakah, acts of righteousness and charity, save from death (proverbs10:2) or at least will blunt the severity of the decree against us.

Tzedakah, deeds of righteousness and charity, along with our freely flowing tears and expressions of our inner pain, do seem to be the way towards cleansing ourselves from our state of tum’ah, our pain filled confusion of timtum. But it is hard to do. Maybe this is why the heifer of the bible had to be so perfect, so completely red, so unusual that few have ever been born. It is hard but not impossible. For the people did it – they learned to mourn for Aaron fully, they learned to let go of the feelings of fear and confusion and express them in a structured and ultimately contained way. Only after that did they begin to live again, and to go on to new things, symbolised by the water which once again was accessible to them, the living waters of restoration and new ways of being.