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

 

 

 

 

Parashat Vayelech, Shabbat Shuvah and thoughts for the asseret y’mei teshuvah

The Mishnah tells us that “Everything is foreseen, nonetheless free will is given”. How can we come to terms with a God who knows what tragedies will happen, yet who does nothing to prevent it, and who will, in the words of this sidra, “Hide the divine countenance from us”, allowing us to be ready prey for our enemies?

And If God anticipates and even knows what the future might bring, of what significance is our own free will?

The problem arises again and again in bible, beginning in the book of Genesis with the eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden, and mirrored here at the end of Deuteronomy with God’s disclosure to Moses about what will happen after his death.

The contradiction is addressed in traditional Judaism with the mishnah I began with, the idea that God’s omniscience includes a complete awareness of human nature and of how people will behave, yet God also allows us to make our own choices from the full spectrum of possible actions. And the mishnah takes the idea further by telling us that “Everything is in the hands of God, except the fear of God” – in other words, from the rabbis’ perspective, God has chosen to limit Godself in one important aspect so as to allow human beings to do that which makes us so special to God and makes us in God’s image – we are able to exercise choice.

The idea of limiting God – even of God choosing to limit Godself – is one which comes close to blasphemy, and yet that is the boundary with which we have to work, for it is the area in which we exist.

The mystical tradition tells us that when God decided to create the world, God first had to draw back, to create some space in which God was not, so that God could create a distinct entity that was not-God. Having created the world in this space-that-was-not-God, God then breathed something of Godself in the form of divine light, or holy sparks. These holy sparks are said to be the manifestation of God with which we work and struggle, the immanence of God in the place where God has chosen to limit Godself.

Our tradition tells us that God has chosen, for the sake of the existence of humanity, to limit God’s active presence in our world, and has given us the choice to either accept or to ignore God’s presence; to either attempt to meet God’s requirements or to turn our backs on God. God’s wish is clearly that we search for relationship, that we obey the mitzvot and in so doing partner God in completing the work of the creation of the world – but in no way will God push us into having to accept that position, nor will God intervene in history to change what we do, or to alter the consequences that will arise from how we choose to behave.

If we turn our back on God, if we choose to be alienated from God, then the consequence will be that God is hidden from us. God is limited by our human freedom to engage – or not to engage. As the writer of Deuteronomy wrote: ‘Lo bashamayim hi” – it is not in heaven that you need to say ‘who will go there for us…” And as the psalmist echoed “The heavens are the domain of God, but the earth has been given to human kind”. We have this world in which to exercise our choice, and our choice must be informed by having Torah, by being able, as Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs once said, to think God’s thoughts after Him.

In this world of extremist teachings and of secular explanations it becomes easy to either blame God for terrible and tragic events, or else to find other places to lay blame – a government’s foreign policy maybe, the anonymised disaffection or alienation of a mass of people, capitalism. What seems to get lost is the actual and personal decisions made by individual people, the choices to act or not to act, the thoughtfulness and stage by stage process of decision making. Individual autonomy and responsibility gets submerged in the rhetoric of blame and anger, glib reasoning and political analysis tries to explain away real and personal choices.

“Everything is foreseen and yet free will is given. Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven…” We have a God who has deliberately limited Godself in our world to allow us to express unhindered our essential humanity and our freedom to choose. Our tradition shows us again and again that God took a chance when God created human beings to be free – every narrative in bible demonstrates that God, like us, must therefore bear the consequence of our freely chosen actions. God’s knowledge of what could be and what will be remains – what Nachmanides calls ‘knowledge in potential’ – yet God’s action can only be done through human channels. The responsibility for how the world will be is ours alone, for the choices are ours alone – millions of individual and personal choices continually being made.

During these ten days of Teshuvah, of our returning to our root of Being, we have the opportunity to read and to reflect, to study, to think and to pray. We have the opportunity to put right what we can put right, to apologise for what we can no longer amend, to act choicefully to make our world a better place. We have the choice and we have the responsibility. We can begin to seek God’s presence, to confront God’s hidden face. As God said to Joshua at the beginning of his journey – hazak v’ematz… be strong and resolute, v’anochi ehyeh imach – for I will be with you.