Tetzaveh Zachor – ways to get out of the cycle of violence?

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Shabbat Zachor – named for the second scroll reading which signals the imminent arrival of Purim –gives us the instruction to “Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came out of Egypt. How he met you by the way and struck the last strugglers, all those feeble ones at the back, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God.  So it shall be, when the eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land with the Eternal your god gives you as an inheritance, to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Yet the story in the narrative in Exodus is somewhat different.  “Then came Amalek and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moses said to Joshua, Choose men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand at the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said, and fought with Amalek, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went up to the top of the hill. And it happened that when Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed. And when he dropped his hand, Amalek prevailed. Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on each side of him, so that his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the sword. And God said to Moses “Write this for a memorial in a book, and repeat it in the ears of Joshua, for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.  And Moses built an altar and called it Adonai Nissi, (God is my banner) and he said “the hand upon the throne of the Eternal. God will have war with Amalek from generation to generation”

So which is it? Did Amalek come and prey upon the weakest individuals at the back of the caravan of people fleeing Egypt?  Or was it an apparently unprovoked attack while they were encamped? Was there a battle between armies, or was it a stealthy marauding and attacking of the most feeble?  Were Moses and Joshua active in some way, strategizing the battle? Or were they barely aware of the attacks at the end of the line of people? And who exactly is at war with Amalek? Is it God or is it the Israelites? And which of them is responsible for blotting out the memory of Amalek –  a persistent requirement down the generations, as persistent as telling the story of the exodus from Egypt,  the covenant accepted at Sinai, the story of Esther, Mordechai and Haman – all of which we are told to retell, to never allow the memory to be forgotten.

We are told that Amalek does not “fear God” –Amalek do not possesses “Yirat Adonai”

When we look closely at this term – fearing God – it appears to be one used particularly in circumstances that involve the choice to behave ethically.  Whenever someone could take advantage of a weaker person and doesn’t, but instead chooses to behave with moral integrity, they are described as having “Yirat Adonai”. So, for example, the Egyptian midwives who defy the order of the Pharaoh and who don’t kill the new-born baby boys are motivated by Yirat Adonai (Ex1:17). When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and tells them that he will not harm them he says “I fear God” (Gen 42:18). In the “holiness code” is possibly the most clear example – after the warning not to curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block in front of the blind we are told – “v’yareita me’elochecha – but you shall fear God, I am the Eternal”

The fear of God seems to be the awareness of a higher authority, of something beyond the individual and their desires. While religion is not the only generator of ethics, it is certainly a powerful one, and the idea of an eye that sees and an ear that hears – even if others do not – has historically kept many on a better path than they might otherwise have chosen.

The Amalekites seem not to have this corrective in their world view – they see no reason to behave ethically if that should conflict with their own gain or benefit.  They are the paradigm of amorality – and so it seems that God steps in, and the fight to blot out this life without moral guidance is one that takes place in every generation. The reminder to us that for all time we should blot out the memory of Amalek, to remember always to fight the habit of selfishness, of not caring for the weak or the vulnerable. While this greed and disregard for others is externalised into the Amalekites, the reality is that we all carry the tendency within us.  One of my teachers used to say – “it’s all very well being afraid of what God might think, but most of us are more concerned with what other people might think if they knew what we do – if only we cared as much about what God thinks as we do about what other people think, the world would be a better place!”

Yirat Adonai, the fear of God, is sometimes translated as “reverence” or “awe”, but I rather like the idea that one should be a Godfearer.  Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that we live our lives with all kinds of fears – realistic and irrational. Fear of old age, or pain or illness; of death, of loneliness, of poverty or somehow being “found out”. He said fear was something that confuses us and limits us- we never know what to be legitimately fearful of, what is a pointless fear.

“”Fear seems to be a universal malaise…What kind of fear is it that can overtake us, thereby uprooting all other kinds of fears-fears of failure….of rejection … or of disease? Only the fear of the Eternal God! … [During the High Holydays] We pray that this great fear will free us from all the lesser fears which lurk everywhere, upsetting and embittering our lives”

The Adon Olam has a verse based on psalm 118 – “Adonai Li, lo ira” – God is with me, I shall not fear. It is one of my favourite verses. In the psalm the second half of the verse asks “ma ya’aseh li Adam” – what can human beings do to me?  It is the same view of Yirat Adonai as that of Soloveitchik – Because if we have a secure and certain foundation of Yirat Adonai, of fear of God, then all smaller “mortal” fears fall away.

Talmud also sees Yirat Adonai as a necessary part of our relationship with God and our development as human beings, to become the best we can be.  In tractate 31b we read:

“Rabbah bar Rav Huna said, “Any person who has [mastered] Torah learning but lacks Yirat shamayim (reverence for heaven, or God) is like a treasurer who has been given the keys to the inner chambers, but who has not been given the keys to the outer chambers. How can [the treasurer] enter [the inner chamber]?”

In other words, Yirat shamayim is the necessary condition for us to truly understand what Torah is about. Without it, all our learning , all our worldly achievements are pointless. We might know the texts, the legal conclusions drawn from them, but without the element of relationship with God that is played out in our relationship with God’s creation, they remain cold academic prowess – we have missed the point of why we learn Torah.

The autumn festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Yamim Noraim in Hebrew – Noraim having the same root as Yira – fear or awe.  During the amidah we have the “uv’chen” insertions asking God to send Pachad, Eima and Yerucha on Creation –  all words used for fear/ awe or reverence. It was these prayers that Soloveitchik was referencing – once we understand Who to be in awe of, there is no need to tie ourselves up in pointless worry about other people. Yirat Adonai liberates us to perceive what is true and what is simply our own construction of the world. It allows us therefore to reorient ourselves and if necessary to change how we are living our lives, freed from the pressures that might otherwise distort our authenticity and integrity.

So what is the connection to the Book of Esther and the story of Purim?

Besides the fact that we are told that Haman is a descendent of Agag, and therefore descended  from the Amalekites, we see also that he behaves in an extraordinary and deeply amoral way. From the moment he is angered that Mordechai did not bow to him, he appears to overreact dramatically as he thinks only to revenge his injured pride. Indeed, the whole book is predicated on various modes of revenge. – And the motivation to take revenge on others is possibly the furthest away from the humanity we want to be, behaviour that is the polar opposite of Yirat Adonai.

The Book of Esther is famous also for the lack of both name of God and the presence of God – a reminder to us that without any sense of the God of Yirat Adonai we are vulnerable to the forces that surround us, forces that have no guiding morality with which to mitigate or  soften their actions. It is paradigmatically the book of Diaspora – the Jewish experience of being at best at guest and at worst a stranger in someone else’s land; And like the historical experience of Diaspora, one must always be conscious of treading carefully so as not to upset or provoke the host country, never quite knowing when a comfortable existence may suddenly become a precarious one, as the whims of the governing powers shift unpredictably.

But possibly the most painful connection between Megillat Esther and the command to remember and so blot out the Amalekites, is the violence that vibrates through the whole narrative, culminating in the Jewish uprising against those who would destroy them.

Surely there is more going on here than a fictionalising of the fears of a vulnerable diaspora community – however closely these fears follow a terrible historical reality. There is something in the overreaction of Haman to Mordechai – the desire to destroy a whole people because of the actions of one man – that needs closer examination:-

We know that the Amalakites are descended from Esau: bible tells us And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son; and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek (Gen 36:12). The Talmud fills in details:

Timna was a royal princess. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, “I would rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of the other nation.” From her Amalek descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her. (Sanhedrin 99b)

So the enmity between Israel and Amalek is rooted in the far past – and twice the Amalekites were treated badly – when Esau was cheated of the birthright by his younger brother Jacob, and when his daughter in law was rejected for conversion.

This may explain why the aggrieved Amalekites attacked the Israelites shortly after the exodus from Egypt. They are avenging the historical wrong.

But then further reading gives us the story of King Saul who fulfilled the commandment to blot out the Amalekites because of what they did after the exodus  –  and only the king, Agag, survived the massacre. (1 Samuel 15)

Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin. Mordechai was also of the tribe of Benjamin. Was Haman taking revenge not only because of hurt pride, but because he was avenging the massacre of his tribe by the tribal ancestors of Mordechai?

There are a number of literary devices that tie the various stories of the Amalekites and the Israelites to the Book of Esther.( For example the same words are used of the bitter cry of the betrayed Esau, and that of Mordechai when he learns of the plot to kill all the Jews . “ vayitz ‘ak tz ‘akah g ‘dola u’marah”  And he cried a great and bitter cry! ) It is almost as if the generational pain has been programmed into the very DNA of the protagonists.

So when we see the terrible violence play out once again in the Book of Esther, when we consider what it means to remember Amalek so as to blot him out, we see that we too are part of the chain that goes back to the terrible sibling rivalry of the Book of Genesis. It is never truly resolved – Joseph and his brothers find a way through to build a civil relationship but that is scarcely a true and full resolution.

The Book of Esther is a salutary reminder, not only that we are vulnerable to the continued hatred of those who choose not to “fear God”, but we are vulnerable too to playing out the violence in our own generation. It is a chain of attack or be-attacked scenarios, of taking revenge in turn down the generations, with never an end in sight. And the end of the book, with the Jews killing over seventy five thousand of those who hated them and wished to kill them, is not so much a victory as a tragedy.

Maybe we should wipe out the memory of Amalek  by no longer participating in the tit-for-tat violence, but demonstrate our Yirat Adonai by no longer prolonging this hatred. After all, Moses says that the war against Amalek is waged by God – not necessarily by us.

How can we stop the cycles of violence in our world? The Book of Esther provides one way – to fictionalise it, put the acting out into the realm of fancy-dress and carnival. In this way we can fulfil the requirements to remember without bringing the violence into the real world. To remember our ancestral pain without causing hurt to others would truly be acting with Yirat Adonai.

Shabbat Zachor, così denominato per la seconda lettura del rotolo, segnala l’imminente arrivo di Purim e ci dà l’insegnamento: “Ricordati di ciò che ti fece Amalek quando eri in viaggio, allorché uscisti dall’Egitto, che ti assalì sulla strada e colpì tutti coloro che affranti erano rimasti indietro mentre tu eri stanco e sfinito, e non temette Iddio. E quando il Signore tuo Dio ti darà tregua da tutti i tuoi nemici all’intorno nella terra che sta per darti in eredità perché tu ne prenda possesso, cancellerai il ricordo di Amalek di sotto al cielo, non dimenticarlo!” (Deuteronomio 25: 17-19)

Eppure la storia, nella narrazione dell’Esodo, è in qualche modo diversa. “Quindi venne Amalek e attaccò Israele in Refidim. Mosè disse a Giosuè: ‘Scegliti alcuni bravi guerrieri e va’ a combattere Amalek; domani io mi metterò sulla sommità della collina e terrò in mano la verga del Signore’. Giosuè eseguì il comando di Mosè iniziando battaglia contro Amalek, e nello stesso tempo Mosè, Aronne e Chur salirono in cima alla collina. Ora fintanto ché Mosè teneva alzate le sua mani vinceva Israele; quando le abbassava vinceva Amalek. Ma le braccia di Mosè erano pesanti, allora presero una pietra, gliela misero sotto, egli vi si assise sopra a Aronne e Chur sostenevano le sue braccia l’uno da una parte e l’altro dall’altra cosicché le sue braccia poterono sostenersi sino al tramonto del sole. E Giosuè sconfisse Amalek e la sue gente a fil di spada. Il Signore disse a Mosè: ‘Scrivi in un libro il ricordo di questo grande avvenimento e trasmettilo oralmente a Giosuè, ché Io ho stabilito di cancellare la memoria di Amalek di sotto il cielo’. Mosè fabbricò un altare che nominò: Dio è la mia bandiera. E disse: ‘Il Signore pone la mano sul Suo trono, guerra ad Amalek di generazione in generazione”.  (Esodo 17: 8-16)

Quindi, di cosa si tratta? Amalek venne a predare dagli individui più deboli nelle retrovie della carovana di persone in fuga dall’Egitto? O fu un attacco apparentemente non provocato mentre erano accampati? Ci fu una battaglia tra eserciti o avvenne un attacco furtivo con saccheggio verso i più deboli? Mosè e Giosuè furono in ​​qualche modo attivi, pianificando la battaglia? O furono a malapena a conoscenza degli attacchi nelle retrovie della colonna di persone? E chi, esattamente, è in guerra con Amalek? È Dio o sono gli Israeliti? E chi di loro è responsabile di cancellare la memoria di Amalek, una necessità persistente lungo le generazioni, persistente come il raccontare la storia dell’esodo dall’Egitto, del patto accettato nel Sinai, della storia di Ester, Mardocheo e Haman:  tutte cose che ci vien detto di ripetere, di non permettere mai che se ne perda il ricordo.

Ci viene detto che Amalek non “teme Dio”: Amalek non possiede “Yirat Adonai”.

Quando osserviamo più da vicino questa espressione, “temere Dio”, sembra che sia usata in particolare in circostanze che implichino la scelta di comportarsi eticamente. Ogni volta che qualcuno potrebbe trarre vantaggio da una persona più debole e non lo fa, scegliendo invece di comportarsi con integrità morale, viene descritto come “Yirat Adonai”. Quindi, ad esempio, le ostetriche egiziane che sfidano l’ordine del Faraone e non uccidono i neonati, sono spinte da Yirat Adonai (Ex 1:17). Quando Giuseppe si rivela ai propri fratelli e dice loro che non farà loro del male, dice “Temo Dio” (Gen 42:18). Nel “codice di santità” c’è forse l’esempio più chiaro: dopo l’avvertimento di non maledire i sordi, né di mettere un ostacolo davanti al cieco ci viene detto “v’yareita me’elochecha – ma avrai paura di Dio, Io sono l’Eterno”.

Il timore di Dio sembra essere la consapevolezza di un’autorità superiore, di qualcosa al di là dell’individuo e dei suoi desideri. Anche se la religione non è l’unico generatore di etica, lo è comunque in modo potente, e l’idea di un occhio che vede e un orecchio che ascolta, anche quando altri non lo fanno, ha storicamente tenuto molti su un sentiero migliore di quello che avrebbero altrimenti scelto.

Gli Amalekiti sembrano non possedere questo correttivo nella loro visione del mondo: non vedono alcun motivo per comportarsi eticamente quando ciò dovesse entrare in conflitto con il proprio guadagno o beneficio. Essi sono il paradigma dell’amoralità, e quindi sembra che in ogni generazione vi sia l’intervento di Dio e la lotta per estromettere questa vita senza guida morale. Ci viene ricordato che in ogni tempo dovremmo cancellare la memoria di Amalek, ricordandoci sempre di combattere l’abitudine all’egoismo, al non prendersi cura dei deboli o dei vulnerabili. Nonostante questa avidità e disprezzo per gli altri siano esplicitati negli Amalekiti, la realtà è che tutti portiamo dentro di noi questa tendenza. Uno dei miei insegnanti era solito dire: “è cosa buona essere spaventati da ciò che Dio potrebbe pensare, ma la maggior parte di noi è più preoccupata da ciò che gli altri potrebbero pensare se sapessero ciò che facciamo: se solo ci importasse nella stessa misura di cosa Dio pensa di ciò che facciamo così come ci importa di quanto ne pensano gli altri, il mondo sarebbe un posto migliore!”

Yirat Adonai, il timore di Dio, a volte viene tradotto come “riverenza” o “soggezione”, ma mi piace abbastanza l’idea che si dovrebbe essere Timorati di Dio. Joseph Soloveitchik scrisse che viviamo le nostre vite con ogni tipo di paura: realistiche e irrazionali. Paura della vecchiaia, o del dolore o  della malattia; della morte, della solitudine, della povertà o  di essere in qualche modo “smascherati”. Disse che la paura è qualcosa che ci confonde e ci limita: non sappiamo mai di cosa avere legittimamente paura e cosa invece sia una paura inutile.

“La paura sembra essere un malessere universale … Che tipo di paura può sopraffarci, estirpando così tutti gli altri tipi di paure: paura del fallimento … del rifiuto … o della malattia? Solo la paura dell’Eterno Dio! … [Durante le Festività Solenni] Preghiamo affinché questa grande paura ci liberi da tutte le paure minori che si nascondono ovunque, sconvolgendo e amareggiando le nostre vite”.

L’Adon Olam ha un verso basato sul salmo 118: “Adonai Li, lo ira – Dio è con me, non avrò paura”. È uno dei miei versi preferiti. Nel salmo, la seconda metà del verso chiede “ma ya’aseh li Adam – cosa possono farmi gli esseri umani?” È la stessa visione di Yirat Adonai che troviamo in Soloveitchik: perché se abbiamo una base sicura e certa di Yirat Adonai, della paura di Dio, allora tutte le più piccole paure “mortali” svaniscono.

Anche il Talmud vede Yirat Adonai come parte necessaria della nostra relazione con Dio e del nostro sviluppo come esseri umani, per diventare il meglio che possiamo essere. Nel trattato 31b leggiamo:

            “Rabbah bar Rav Huna ha detto: ‘Qualsiasi persona che abbia [padroneggiato] gli insegnamenti della Torà ma manchi di Yirat shamayim (riverenza verso il cielo o Dio) è come un tesoriere a cui siano state date le chiavi delle camere interne, ma a cui non siano state date le chiavi delle camere esterne. Come può [il tesoriere] entrare [nella camera interna]?’”

In altre parole, Yirat shamayim è la condizione necessaria per comprendere veramente di cosa tratti la Torà. Senza di essa, tutto il nostro apprendimento, tutti i nostri traguardi mondani sono inutili. Potremmo conoscere i testi, le conclusioni legali tratte da essi, ma senza l’elemento di relazione con Dio che si gioca nel nostro rapporto con la creazione di Dio, rimangono fredde abilità accademiche: abbiamo perso il punto del perché impariamo la Torà.

Le festività autunnali di Rosh Hashanà e Yom Kippur in ebraico sono chiamate Yamim Noraim e  Noraim ha la stessa radice di Yira: paura o timore reverenziale. Durante l’amidà abbiamo le “uv’chen”,  inserti che chiedono a Dio di inviare Pachad, Eima e Yerucha sulla Creazione, tutte parole utilizzate a significare paura/timore o riverenza. Queste erano le preghiere cui faceva riferimento Soloveitchik: una volta che capiamo di chi avere timore reverenziale, non c’è bisogno di legarci in inutili preoccupazioni per le altre persone. Yirat Adonai ci libera facendoci percepire ciò che è vero da ciò che è semplicemente una nostra idea artefatta del mondo. Ci consente quindi di riorientare noi stessi e, se necessario, di cambiare il modo in cui viviamo la nostra vita, liberi dalle pressioni che potrebbero altrimenti distorcere la nostra autenticità e integrità.

Quindi, qual è il legame con il Libro di Esther e la storia di Purim?

Oltre al fatto che ci viene detto che Haman è discendente di Agag, e quindi discende dagli Amalekiti, vediamo anche come egli si comporti in modo straordinariamente e profondamente amorale. Dal momento in cui si arrabbia per il fatto che Mardocheo non si è inchinato a lui, sembra reagire in modo esagerato, se pensa solo di vendicare il proprio orgoglio ferito. In effetti, l’intero libro è basato su varie modalità di vendetta, e la motivazione del vendicarsi sugli altri è forse quanto più lontano ci sia dall’umanità che vogliamo essere, un comportamento che è diametralmente opposto a Yirat Adonai.

Il Libro di Ester è famoso anche per la mancanza sia del nome di Dio che della presenza di Dio: per ricordarci che senza alcun senso del Dio di Yirat Adonai siamo vulnerabili alle forze che ci circondano, forze che non hanno una guida morale che mitighi o ammorbidisca le loro azioni. È il libro paradigmatico della Diaspora: l’esperienza ebraica di essere nella migliore delle ipotesi ospite e nel peggiore dei casi estraneo nella terra di qualcun altro; E, come nell’esperienza storica della Diaspora, si deve essere sempre consci di procedere con cautela per non sconvolgere o provocare il paese ospitante, senza mai sapere quando un’esistenza confortevole possa improvvisamente diventare precaria, poiché i capricci dei poteri governativi si spostano in modo imprevedibile.

Ma, probabilmente, la connessione più dolorosa tra la Megillat Esther e il comando di ricordare e quindi cancellare gli Amalekiti, è la violenza che vibra attraverso l’intera narrazione, culminante nella rivolta ebraica contro coloro che vorrebbero distruggerli.

Sicuramente qui c’è molto di più che una messa in finzione delle paure di una vulnerabile comunità della diaspora, per quanto da vicino queste paure seguano una terribile realtà storica. C’è qualcosa nella reazione eccessiva di Haman verso Mardocheo, nel desiderio di distruggere un intero popolo a causa delle azioni di un solo uomo, che necessita di un esame più attento:

Sappiamo che gli Amalekiti discendono da Esaù: la Bibbia ci dice “Timna concubina di Elifaz (figlio di Esaù) gli partorì Amalek” (Gen 36:12). Il Talmud dà ulteriori dettagli:

            Timna era una principessa reale. Desiderando diventare proselita, andò da Abramo, Isacco e Giacobbe, ma essi non la accettarono. Così andò e divenne una concubina di Elifaz, figlio di Esaù,         dicendo: “Preferirei essere una servitrice di questo popolo piuttosto che una nobile nell’altra nazione”. Da lei discese Amalek che afflisse Israele. Perchè ciò? Perché non avrebbero dovuto respingerla. (Sinedrio 99b)

Quindi l’inimicizia tra Israele e Amalek è radicata nel lontano passato, due volte gli Amalekiti vennero trattati male: quando a Esaù fu tolto con l’inganno il diritto di nascita da suo fratello minore Giacobbe, e quando sua nuora fu respinta per la conversione.

Questo potrebbe spiegare perché essi, danneggiati, attaccarono gli israeliti poco dopo l’esodo dall’Egitto. Vendicano l’errore storico.

Ulteriori letture ci restituiscono poi la storia del re Saul, che adempì il comandamento di cancellare gli Amalekiti a causa di ciò che fecero dopo l’esodo, e solo il re Agag sopravvisse al massacro. (1 Samuele 15)

Saul apparteneva alla tribù di Beniamino. Anche Mardocheo apparteneva alla tribù di Beniamino. Haman si stava vendicando non solo per l’orgoglio ferito, ma perché vendicava il massacro della sua tribù da parte degli antenati tribali di Mardocheo?

Ci sono un certo numero di dispositivi letterari che legano le varie storie degli Amalekiti e degli Israeliti al Libro di Esther. (Ad esempio, le stesse parole sono usate nel grido amaro del tradito Esaù, e in quello di Mardocheo quando apprende del complotto per uccidere tutti gli ebrei: “Vayitz ‘ak tz’ akah g ‘dola u’marà” E pianse un grande e amaro grido!) È quasi come se il dolore generazionale sia stato programmato nel DNA stesso dei protagonisti.

Quindi, quando vediamo la terribile violenza che si ripete nel Libro di Esther, quando consideriamo cosa significhi ricordare Amalek in modo da cancellarlo, constatiamo che anche noi facciamo parte della catena che risale alla terribile rivalità tra fratelli del Libro della Genesi. Non è mai veramente risolta: Giuseppe e i suoi fratelli trovano un modo per costruire una relazione civile, a malapena una risoluzione piena e autentica.

Il Libro di Esther è un benefico sollecito: non solo siamo vulnerabili al continuo odio di coloro che scelgono di non “temere Dio”, ma siamo anche vulnerabili alla messa in atto della violenza nella nostra stessa generazione. È una catena di scenari “attaccare o essere attaccati”, di vendicarci a nostra volta nello scorrere delle generazioni, senza mai una fine all’orizzonte. E la fine del libro, con gli ebrei che uccidono oltre settantacinquemila di coloro che li odiavano e desideravano ucciderli, non è tanto una vittoria quanto una tragedia.

Forse dovremmo cancellare la memoria di Amalek non partecipando più alla violenza occhio per occhio, e dimostrare il nostro Yirat Adonai non prolungando più questo odio. Dopo tutto, Mosè afferma che la guerra contro Amalek è condotta da Dio, non necessariamente da noi.

Come possiamo fermare i cicli di violenza nel nostro mondo? Il libro di Ester fornisce un modo: mettendola in scena e trasportandola nel regno del costume e del carnevale. In questo modo possiamo soddisfare i requisiti del ricordare senza portare la violenza nel mondo reale.     Ricordare il nostro dolore ancestrale senza causare danni agli altri sarebbe davvero recitare con Yirat Adonai

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

 

Tu b’Av: an especially joyful festival to be reclaimed

The three weeks that lead from the 17th Tammuz (breaching of the walls of Jerusalem)  to the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av) are traditionally a period of mourning, known as bein hametzarim – in the narrow straits. So it is all the more surprising that just one week after Tisha b’Av comes an especially joyful festival – the full moon of Av brings us Tu b’Av – when we are told:

Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel said: Never were there any more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments – borrowed ones, however, in order not to cause shame to those who had none of their own. These clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus the maidens went out and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose; (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)

The rabbis of the Gemara are perplexed – ““On the 15th of Av and on the Day of Atonement,” etc. It is right that the Day of Atonement should be a day of rejoicing, because that is a day of forgiveness, and on that day the 2nd tablets of the Law were given to Moses; but why should the 15th of Av be a day of rejoicing?”

And so begins a fascinating rabbinic journey into what is behind the celebration of the fifteenth (Tu) of’Av :

Said R. Yehudah in the name of Samuel: “On that day it was permitted to the members of the different tribes to intermarry.” Whence is this deduced? Because it is written [Num 36: 6]: “This is the thing which the Eternal has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad,” they claim that “this is the thing” implies the decree was only for that generation, but for later generations the decree doesn’t apply.

  1. Joseph in the name of R. Nachman said: On that day the members of the tribe of Benjamin were permitted to intermarry with the other tribes, as it is written [Judges 21. 1]: “Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying: Not any one of us shall give his daughter unto Benjamin for wife.”

Rabba bar bar Hana said in the name of R. Johanan: On that day the last of those who were destined to die in the desert died, and the destiny was thus fulfilled;

Ulla said: “On that day the guards appointed by Jeroboam to prevent the Israelites from coming to Jerusalem were abolished by Hosea the son of Elah, and he said: ‘Let them go wherever they choose.'”

  1. Matnah said: “On that day permission was given to bury the dead who were killed in battle at the city of Beitar”

Rabba and R, Joseph both said: On that day they ceased to cut wood for the altar, as we have learned in a Baraita: R. Eliezer the Great said: “From the fifteenth day of Av the heat of the sun was lessened and the timber was no longer dry, so they ceased to cut wood for the altar.”

There is a golden rule in rabbinic exposition – the more explanations given for something, the less likely it is that anyone knows what the explanation actually is. Clearly a celebration on the 15th of Av, which coincided with the beginning of the grape harvest, is part of the custom and practise of the Jews by the time of the Talmud, but its origin is already lost in the mists of time.

Let’s look briefly at the Talmudic explanations before looking at the festival itself.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is told in the book of Numbers- a rare piece of case law in that book and a powerful piece of text about women confronting Moses in order to attain fairness under the law. Zelophehad is dead, he had 5 daughters and no sons, and according to the rules of inheritance at that time, the girls would be left without anything. They approach Moses and argue their case, including the fact that their father will be forgotten in his tribe. Moses has to ask God about the merits of the case, and God tells him that the case of these daughters is valid; they should indeed inherit from their father. Later a problem arises, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh – which the family of Zelophehad belong to – also bring a petition to Moses. Should daughters inherit when there is no son, and then marry into another tribe, the inheritance and land that would normally stay within the tribe will be given to the tribe that the woman marries into.

So the law is amended – such women who inherit land from their fathers must marry only within their own tribe – a limiting phenomenon that itself causes problems. So Rabbi Yehuda quotes Samuel by saying that tribes may now intermarry freely – and the date of this decision was the fifteenth of Av on the last year before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel.

The second explanation in the gemara is from a much darker story found at the end of the book of Judges, where a woman staying overnight in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, was gang raped until she died. The other tribes went to war against the Benjaminites who would not give up the criminals for justice, and a ban was proclaimed which meant no one could marry into that tribe. This ban was eventually lifted on the fifteenth of Av. One assumes that this idea comes from the commonality of Tu b’Av to the statement in the Book of Judges ““And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come out of the vineyards, and let every man catch  his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.” (21:21)

The third explanation – This comes from a midrash found in the Jerusalem Talmud amongst other texts, which say that the generation who were to die in the desert because of their connection to the sin of the Golden Calf expected to die on Tisha b’Av. This would cause a problem – if there were to be so many deaths on one day, then who would be able to dig the graves and bury the people? So Moses sent out a decree: On Tisha b’Av everyone must dig their own grave and sleep in it. Those who would die would die, and the survivors would simply have to fill in the graves with the bodies already in them. But many did not die who felt that they too were destined for this fate, and so they continued to sleep in the graves they had dug for themselves until they saw the full moon of Av and realised that Tisha b’Av was well and truly behind them. They would live!

The fourth explanation: King Jeroboam (c900BCE) had challenged Rehoboam the son of Solomon, because of his authoritarian rule, and took the ten Northern tribes with him to his capital Shechem. He built two temples as rivals to the one in Jerusalem (Bethel and Dan) and banned his people from going to worship in Jerusalem.  Fifty years later, the last King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, rescinded the ban – on Tu b’Av – and the joy that ensued is encoded in the festival.

The fifth explanation also involves graves, in this case the ones slaughtered in the rebellion against Rome led by the false messiah Shimon bar Kochba in 135. The massacre of the Jews by the Romans was estimated by one Roman historian as being at least 580 thousand dead and many more taken captive into slavery in other parts of the empire. The majority of the Jewish population was exiled from the land and the land given a new name by the Romans – Syria Palestina – to try to sever the connection between the land and the Jews. Tisha b’Av saw the final destruction of Temple and hopes, and the fortress of Beitar was breached and its inhabitants murdered and left unburied. So Rav Matnah’s explanation for Tu b’Av is that 6 days after the tragedy (some stories say a year and six days), the Romans finally permitted the burial of the slaughtered Jews – on Tu b’Av.

After such dramatic explanations the final one in the list is more prosaic, but also most likely to be the case. Simply that the full moon of Av is around the summer equinox, the days are beginning to shorten and one might be less sure of enough dry weather for the wood cut down for the Temple sacrifices to be sufficiently prepared for its use, and any wood cut down later would be liable to smoke unpleasantly. This explanation is bolstered by the fact that we know of customs in the near East whereby the end of the season for cutting wood is marked by celebration including dancing and music.

So having established that Tu b’Av was being celebrated in Mishnaic times, that the young women would go out into the vines wearing white dresses they had borrowed so as not to be identified by their clothing, that they danced and sang and that clearly a shidduch market was in full swing on that date – the young men would chase them and choose their brides – the rabbinic tradition tried to explain the event using stories of rape, graves, massacre, orphaned women claiming economic rights and hence losing the right to marry outside of their tribe, civil war and rebellion against both internally among the Jewish people and also against an oppressive occupying power. One has to wonder why.

I am reminded of a recent “tweet” that asks why a prominent politician is tweeting terrible racism, and suggests that the deflection is to stop people paying attention to something worse – the statutory rape of underage girls.  Here the rabbinic tradition has a clear story of strong young single women in public space, helping each other with their clothing and “seductively” dancing and singing among the grape vines, with their symbolism of wine and wealth and fertility. So immediately there is a deflection – Beitar! Bnot Zelophehad! Possibly the darkest story in bible of a young concubine gang raped and murdered, whose fate was to be cut into twelve pieces each of which was sent to one of the tribes of Israel! Sin and death and lying in the grave! Rebellion and Massacre!

It seems to me that the Tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnah, c50-200CE) were fine with the celebrations of Tu b’Av and the fact of young girls out on a summer evening enjoying their bodies, their strength and their music, but the Amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemara c200-500CE) were decidedly not. So Tu b’Av became a date more often ignored than celebrated. The single attention was liturgical – Tachanun (the penitential section of prayers of supplication and confession) are not said on Tu b’Av. Only since the modern State of Israel has been established has Tu b’Av been celebrated – it has become a kind of Jewish “Valentine’s Day”, a day for love, for weddings, for romance. The 19th century Haskalah poet Judah Leib Gordon wrote about its celebration in the newly planted vineyards and certainly for the more secular Israelis this is a Jewish festival to take to their hearts.

It’s worth noting the framing of the Mishnah where Tu b’Av is recorded. It is mentioned in the same breath as the most solemn day in the calendar – Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the white fast. On this day people traditionally wear kittels – the white shrouds they will be buried in. The day is a day of joy as well as penitence, because when we have truly repented, God will forgive us. We leave the day lightened by our activities and return more able to continue with living our lives.

There are real similarities between the two festivals, albeit one is a day out of time “as if dead” and the other a day of sensuous delight. Each reminds us of the importance of living our lives as fully and as well as we can. Each reminds us about living” in the now”, each helps us create our future selves.

So – let’s reclaim Tu b’Av, the full moon that follows three weeks of mourning,  that takes place 6 days after the blackest day in the calendar. Let’s remind ourselves that life must continue, joy must be part of our living, that relationships with others matter and that the future is ours to create

Chukkat – how fear can curdle the humanity of societies; or: we won’t forget the heartless Edomites and our heartlessness won’t be forgotten either

It is Refugee Week, the week that takes place across the world around World Refugee Day on 20th June. And while we are horrified by the stories coming from the Mediterranean, with the Aquarius and her sister ships picking up frantic and vulnerable refugees floating on leaky and overcrowded boats in their attempts to seek safety and then desperately looking for a country who will offer them refuge, while we are shocked and appalled by the photos coming from the USA of traumatised and desperate children who have been separated from their parents and caged up in warehouses, while we watch people become dehumanised on our screens or in our newspapers, the bible quietly and insistently sends us a message. Tucked into the more dramatic events in parashat Chukkat come these seven verses:  And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: ‘Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the travail that has befallen us; how our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and our ancestors; and when we cried to the Eternal, God heard our voice, and sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt; and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of your border. Let us pass, I pray you, through your land; we will not pass through field or through vineyard, neither will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go along the king’s highway, we will not turn aside to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your border.’  And Edom said to him: ‘You shalt not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against you.’ And the children of Israel said to him: ‘We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of thy water, I and my cattle, then will I give the price thereof; let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt.’ And he said: ‘You shalt not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; wherefore Israel turned away from him (Numbers 20:14-21

A frightened people want to pass near the borders of Edom on their way from misery and torment in one country as they journey to find safety. And they are refused. They try to be diplomatic, they offer to pay for any damage or any resource used, they are desperate to come through this land to get to safety, but not only does Edom refuse to let them do so, they come out with an army to prevent them from coming anywhere near.

What are Edom so afraid of? Why do they chase this group away in such a hostile manner? In what way does it benefit them? In what way might they honestly be threatened?

Edom is understood to be the city of Esau – a close relative, the brother of Jacob. But there is no warmth to be found in this story. The people move to Mt Hor and back towards the sea of reeds, in order to travel around Edom but quickly find themselves in the same position with Sihon, the king of the Amorites.  The story is retold in Deuteronomy, when nearly forty years after the first attempt God reminds the people not to provoke Edom, who have been given this land by God, and this time they are allowed to go through.  But should we expect today’s refugees to wait for nearly forty years to find some peace, put down some roots, get on with their lives?

In today’s world we find that we are living in one of the largest forced displacement crises ever recorded. Over 65 million people are on the move, force to flee their homes and look for safety elsewhere.   Last year, 362,376 people arrived in Europe via sea. Just under half were women and children. About a million people from outside Europe claimed refugee status in the twelve months just gone.. But contrary to the narratives so many media offer, most refugees are actually taken in and cared for by poorer countries than those of Europe. The UN’s Refugee Agency estimates that nearly nine in ten of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries. Take a moment for that to sink in.  Ninety percent of the world’s refugees are taken care of by countries that can themselves barely afford to do so. And yet they do. And meanwhile the richer countries act like the Edomites and refuse even the polite and diplomatic requests to travel through, the offer to pay for resources, to desperate need to be safe – preferring to show force and to send the refugees away to try to find another way to safety

The name Edom is used as rabbinic code for Rome. Rome, the powerful and wealthy head of the huge and spreading Empire which did not care for the vulnerable or the stranger but only for its own status and power. Our tradition speaks of Edom with disdain, it is the model of behaviour that is unacceptable, it is the model we do not wish to be like. Bible reminds us repeatedly to care for the stranger, the vulnerable in society, the ones who have fallen to the bottom of the societal pile.  And yet here we are, watching an American administration quote biblical verses as ‘proof’ of the right to separate children from their parents and lock them up without comfort or care. The Independent Newspaper has reported that up to 2,000 children migrant children have been separated from their families in just six weeks in the USA. We are watching an Italian government minister try to take a census of the Roma community, in order to expel those who do not have Italian citizenship. We know that here in the UK there is still indefinite detention for people whose paperwork is not completely full and in order, we see a terrible rise in xenophobia and people being attacked in public spaces for being foreign. We have a Home Office who is proud of operating a “hostile environment”, and a Prime Minister who was the architect of the policy and remains proud of it, even as we see the how the Windrush Generation were treated with disdain and with no respect, as we hear the stories of families split apart, of people’s live shattered at the whim of some ill though out and  bureaucratic policy. As we mark refugee week, as we read Chukkat with its focus on death and purity, with its narratives of the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, with its record of the actions of Edom to the vulnerable migrants known as the children of Israel, we weep.

If we had to write a history of the world right now, if we had to write of the 65 million people fleeing violence or war in their own homes, of the talk of locking up people and indefinite detention for those without the right papers, if we had to record the stories of the people picked up on the Mediterranean Sea, in fear of drowning but prepared to take the risk as being less awful than staying put, if we had to record the fear of travelling communities, of people who have been uprooted from their homes – what would the people reading our history say? How would they look on an administration quoting Bible to justify their abuses of power to the most vulnerable? How would they look at a Europe which takes a tiny percentage of the mass of rootless and fearful people, and which squabbles over who is taking enough of the “burden”?

In Chukkat we read of the red heifer, the ashes of which will purify the impure and make impure the pure. It is a chok, a law without reason, done only on the grounds of faith. In refugee week 2018 as we read the parasha we see that there is no reason, only the belief that we must keep people out at all costs – even at the cost of their lives, as we increase the impurity in our world by denying the most vulnerable their dignity.

The antidote to causeless hatred is causeless love. We are a long way from it right now, but we can hope that the outrage will finally be enough to make the necessary changes, that the political will to care for people because they are people will be found, that refugees may soon find places to call home.

Parashat Chukkat reminds us that the world is a scary place, that resources are finite and that death will come to us all. But it reminds us too of the dignity of refugees, of the humanity of the people travelling to find safety, of their connection to us, and that history will record and we will be judged. May that be enough to bring change and rest for those who so sorely need it.

 

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Rescued from the water – from Moses to SOS Méditerranée. A Jewish response to the refugees fleeing to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea

Recently I attended a lecture by Jean-Marc Liling at the conference of the European Union for Progressive Judaism. One of his statements really struck home. Referring to the many migrants rescued from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, he reminded us of how the greatest leader of Judaism found safety having been first hidden in a basket in the reeds on the Nile and then rescued by a woman in the Pharaonic household. She is the one who gives him his name when she adopts him, She calls him Moses/Moshe, because ““I have drawn him from the water – min ha mayim m’shitihu”

Day after day and year after year we hear of the stories of people who are fleeing their homes because of warfare and violence, and who are looking for safety across the Mediterranean sea. Earlier this week the humanitarian group SOS Méditerranée wrote on twitter that its rescue boat Aquarius had taken in 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women. They would take them to a safe port as usual – but the Italian government refused to allow the ship to dock. Even though the mayors of the port cities such as Palermo, Naples, Messina and Reggio Calabria, said they were ready to disobey Salvini’s order and allow Aquarius to dock and disembark in their seaports, the lack of coastguard meant they could not do so. The ship eventually ended up able to disembark its frightened, exhausted and distressed passengers in Spain, after an agonisingly protracted negotiation and a further period of enduring the stormy seas.

Today The Coast Guard ship Diciotti, arrived in the port of Catania, with 932 migrants on board. They were rescued during 7 rescue operations off Libya, and I read that five of the refugees, four pregnant women and a minor, have already been transferred to Sicilian hospitals. On board the ship there are also two corpses, recovered during the rescue interventions.

As a Jew, as a person born with the privilege of a western passport and life, as a human being, I read the stories of these refugees with pity, compassion and some horror.  I am only one generation away from refugee status. My father came as an unaccompanied minor to the UK leaving behind his family in Germany. His father survived Dachau but died stateless –sans papiers – in Switzerland, days after the Swiss Government saw fit to refuse him leave to stay in their country because he was a refugee. My mother was born to parents who fled the anti-Semitic constraints of living as Jews in Eastern Europe. They had arrived there, so family tradition relates, from Spain – when Jews were forcibly converted or killed or fled from the Inquisition.  I am not remotely unusual in the Jewish world. Scratch most Jews and you will quickly find the story of a refugee.

What does Judaism say to us to help us understand?  Right at the beginning of bible Cain asks the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He appears to think that he should not have to be responsible for any other human being, but the answer from God is clear and unequivocal. Yes, we are responsible for each other. We are each other’s brothers and sisters,  we have a human link with each other which cannot be dissolved.

Abraham in Hebron, describes himself as a stranger and sojourner (ger v’toshav Anochi) (Gen 23:3-4) and asks to be allowed to bury his wife.

The most frequent mitzvah in bible is to care for the stranger, the refugee and the vulnerable who live among us – for example- “And if a stranger (Ger) sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong.  The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  I am the Eternal your God. (Lev. 19:33-34)

And Moses, the one who reminds us again and again to care for the stranger and those who live amongst us and need our help – Moses was drawn from the water having been put there to flee a death sentence which had been decreed by a violent political power determined to ethnically cleanse his country.

In the Yizkor section of the British Reform Machzor is a prayer that speaks of the many lives lost in pogroms and in Shoah. It speaks of the laughter that was lost, the poetry never written, the science never developed, the music never composed. It lists all the things that died when the people who should have done them died. Not just the descendants who never got born, but the ideas, the humanity, the connections and the learning of the people, which never had chance to form.  When I think about Moses being rescued from certain death in the water, whose life hung on a thread after the political powers determined to play out their own warped agenda, I cannot now forget the question asked at that lecture. What have we lost as we allow the migrants to die in the Mediterranean Sea? The United Nations estimates that at least 500 people have already died in 2018 trying to cross the central Mediterranean, following some 2,853 fatalities last year.

What have we lost by not caring enough to help these people? Not just lives, though that would be bad enough but all the things that would have come from those lives.

The bible tells us that God says to Cain, who had killed his brother ‘The bloods of your brother cry out to Me’ (Genesis 4:10) — and rabbinic tradition, noting the plural that the sentence is cast in, read  that it is not only  his blood but also the blood of his potential descendants….The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) continues:  Therefore was the first human being, Adam, created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if they saved an entire world. Furthermore, only one human being, Adam, was created for the sake of peace among people, so that no one should say to their fellow, ‘My father was greater than yours….

We are a people whose national and foundational stories are of being refugees. We are a people whose great figures – Abraham and Moses, are themselves refugees, Ivri’im, people who cross over from one place to another, in search of a safe place to be themselves. When, as Jews, we read the stories coming out of the desperate people crossing the sea in leaky overcrowded boats in order to escape a terrible existence – or even death – in their own country, our response has to be practical and immediate. We cannot turn away. We cannot parrot the lines about people being economic migrants or ”just” looking for a better life and absolve ourselves of responsibility.

The boat that docked today in Catania is called Diciotti. It is connected to the word 18. 18 is, in Hebrew, Het Yod – Hai –Life. It seems to me a call to remind us to choose life, not only for ourselves and our families, but for all who need our help for them to also choose life.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild 13th June 2018

Korach: reading the Bad Boys of the Exodus can help with the Bad Boys of Brexit

Reading Bible reminds us again and again that people are the same, whatever age they live in, and that politics is also essentially unchanged over the centuries. Some people have principles, others appear to have only causes, and one repeatedly seen cause is sadly that of increasing their own power and status.

Yes, they will dress it up – in a tub-thumping speech to the leader they may say “you are taking too much on yourself, all the people are holy” or they may use the language of the demagogue explicitly reminding others that only they are following “the will of the people” and everyone else is betraying them. Often the speaker is privileged and wealthy, yet somehow acts as if they are one of the less advantaged, and speak against some notionally distant and uncaring governing elite.

So Korach, cousin of Aaron and Moses, was a member of the tribe of Levi, singled out for special status. The midrash tells us that he was very wealthy (indeed the phrase “as rich as Korach” in Hebrew equates with the modern slang “filthy rich” and Bemidbar Rabba 18:15 tells us that Korach was the comptroller in Pharaoh’s palace and was in charge of the keys of his treasuries, and later on is clear that he was not the most disinterested or honest supervisor, but took many of the riches for himself (Bemidbar Rabba 22:7)   And yet his language implies that he is simply the spokesperson for the downtrodden and ignored, as he whips up a populist movement to his own agenda.

There can be no doubt that Korach is one of the “Bad Boys of the Exodus”. And of course he gets his comeuppance, as the duel of the firepans of incense leads the rebels to their unnatural deaths while Aaron and his family are confirmed in the priesthood and the copper from the firepans is to be used to plate the altar to remind everyone that the priesthood is of the family of Aaron (See Numbers 17)

God, having taken out the leadership of the rebellion, is keen to finish the job, sending a plague upon the whole community, and Aaron and Moses have to rush to help save them from the consequences of this rebellion.

Sometimes bible has a way of speaking to the current moment in an eerie and extraordinary way. Here in the UK we have our demagogues, almost to a man wealthy and privileged and with a deep urge to seize power. The leadership of the Brexit project – the “Bad Boys of Brexit” are generally personally wealthy, have a background of privilege in terms of education and family connections, and have manipulated people who have been ignored or suppressed into somehow believing that they are just like them. The newspapers they write for or control drip poisonous xenophobic tropes, see the European Union as other, indeed as enemy. They deliberately whip up the ideas of treason, seeing enemies and betrayal everywhere. For years stories about “the other” have published which show the poor patriotic English person being cheated, lied to, ignored in favour of foreigners.  Forget the ideology of working for European peace, if you read these papers you would believe that laws are imposed on us by foreigners who don’t consult, don’t expect us to have a voice, don’t care about us, only about our money which they want from us. These years have done their work, the mob are roused, with threats of violence against anyone with a different narrative, from Members of Parliament down. And real violence against anyone perceived as “other”. For me the nadir was the headline “enemies of the people” in the Daily Mail (4.11.17), with photos of three High Court Judges who “defied {the} Brexit voters” and who could trigger a constitutional crisis. What had the Judges done? They had ruled that Parliament must be consulted before the Government could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would start the UK’s formal process of EU withdrawal.

In the story of Korach, the rebels are spectacularly –and unnaturally – dealt with, going down into the bowels of the earth which then closed over them. But the continued effect of their poison and lies meant that God was prepared to continue cleansing the people – by plague. It took the desperate interventions of Moses and Aaron to change that terrible outcome, and to get the people once more back on track to achieve their goal, of entry into the Promised Land.  We learn from this that the power of the rabble rouser and demogague continues long after they have stopped. It takes courage and thoughtful intervention, facing the problem and the poison and combatting it with a different narrative, to slowly root out the worst of it.

But the human desire for grabbing power and for seeing others as foreign or other does not go away. It must be recognised and it must be contained, for it will never leave us. There will always be those who rise up in every generation to pervert justice and kindness for their own benefit and we need to be aware of this and on our guard, fighting and fighting for the values of understanding our shared humanity, of having compassion for the other  rather than fear or hatred.  It is interesting to see that some psalms are written by the bnei Korach – the sons or descendants of Korach. Korach does not go away, but becomes part of the community – and we have to be aware that the tropes of Korach’s rebellion are still entwined within our groups.

How our current situation, of growing populist movements and politicians will end, we don’t yet know.  We see that the language of snide demagoguery continues, we see that wealth has been acquired through odd and secretive ways from outside the community (just as Korach had appropriated his wealth immorally from Egyptian stores). We see parties or individuals gaining power by whipping up xenophobia and hatred while implying that they are on the side of the poor and dispossessed.  No God is going to come and cause the earth to open – we are on our own with this one. But we should take heart from the biblical text. Ultimately Korach loses, the people are back on track and the violence and plague abates. It takes work and pain and fear and tears. But ultimately Korach will lose again.

 

 

Parashat Pinchas:Religion is designed to protect us from our shadow side

The actions of Pinchas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron have been a real problem to commentators on bible from earliest times. The Israelites were sinning, committing idolatry and cavorting with the Midianite women and God had ordered the leaders of these people to be killed. But Pinchas, apparently roused to zealous fury by the sight of an Israelite man with a Midianite woman who were shamelessly transgressing in full view of Moses and the weeping frightened people waiting by the door of the Tent of Meeting, thrust a spear through the misbehaving couple.

It was summary justice, conducted without any of the due process of warning, without trial where both sides of the story could be told, without witnesses speaking, without the judicial process that would protect the accused and offer mitigating outcomes. Pinchas’ action was simply outrageous, contravening all the rules set up to protect society.  Put simply he murdered two human beings because he was ‘zealous for God’. He is the icon of proponents of violence in the name of religion.

But while God may seemingly reward Pinchas (and also the people as the plague is suddenly stopped), the ambiguity of the text and many responses of tradition make clear that violence in the name of God is unacceptable. The third century sage Rav condemned him, saying that the judgement on the two people he had killed was only to be made by God, and while the action might be within the parameters of law given on Sinai, “God who gave the advice should execute the advice”.  In the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) we read that “Pinchas acted against the will of the wise men”, and of the comment by  Rabbi Judah bar Pazzi who says that Pinchas was about to be excommunicated for his action and that this was only averted when God intervened to save him.  God’s declaration that this zealousness and its murderous outcome was done without any personal motivation whatsoever, done only for the honour of God, was what saved Pinchas from the legal process about to take place, but even then it is understood that only such absolute purity of motive is acceptable, and only God can know the full motives of any heart.

Zealousness or vengeance on behalf of God – it is a problem that has never left religion.  God says that Pinchas was “vengeful/zealous/carrying out My vengeance  for My sake (be-kano et kinati     בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם).

קַנָּא is an attribute of God, albeit one that moderns find problematic. We know, because bible tells us, that the plague on the people was an aspect of divine קַנָּא, also that God introduces Godself to the people at Mt. Sinai as “El Kana” (Exodus 20:4). And whatever the difficulty we might have with knowing that God is not only love, not only sweetness and light, but that God is complex and contains within divinity the full spectrum of possibility, it seems to me that in the way this text is written, as well as the majority of rabbinic responses to it, we are made to understand that this attribute is one that should properly be left to God. For who among us is so pure of heart that we can know that there is no other motive, no selfish desire or egoistic drive mixed in with our religious zeal?

Violence and vengeance is part of the human psyche.  The book of Genesis tells us that Cain (whose name  קַיִן echoes the sound קַנָּא, although it comes from the root meaning acquisition rather than vengefulness) murdered his own brother in anger when his own hopes were frustrated. He too was given something by God – the mark of Cain placed on him to protect him from those who would hurt him. Within ten generations of Cain the earth is filled with wickedness and violence, so much that God was sorry that s/he had ever created human beings (Genesis 6:5ff) and wanted to blot them off the surface of the earth, saving only one family, that of Noach, who was relatively less wicked than others. God told Noach “The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” (Gen 6:13)

From the beginning of bible, it is clear that when God made human beings in the divine image, this included the shadow side of that image. It becomes the job of religion not to excise that which cannot be eliminated, but to recognise it and to find ways to constrain it, limiting the driver of zealousness to the point of making it impotent, making it impossible for people to act from this belief/feeling.  Hence the Talmudic narrative which clarifies that Pinchas is defended by God because uniquely he has entirely pure motives for his act, with no personal impetus whatsoever.

Talmud also contains the idea that “the [torah] scroll and the sword came down from heaven tied together” – a teaching by the 3rd century Rabbi Eleazar of Modi’in. It derives from the Rabbinic idea that Torah was a complete and perfect work even before it was given to the Israelite people at Mt Sinai, and ties it together with the idea that violence/vengeance was also one of the earliest actions demonstrated in humanity. It is often quoted to suggest that both are necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, but in fact the statement of Rabbi Eleazar goes on:- “God said to Israel, ‘If you observe the Torah that is written in the one, you will be saved from the other. If you do not, then you will be destroyed/injured by it”

The teaching is clear however: Both violence and religion are intertwined and archetypal in people, but the work of religious tradition is to try to separate them, not to allow the violence which is endemic within us to overpower us, but instead to follow the will of God in order to subdue this first and primal response.

When God gives Pinchas the covenant of peace, he is not rewarding him for an achievement, he is constraining him from further violence, just as the mark of Cain is constraining others from further violence.

The problem we face today is how to constrain those who feel zealousness for God, of whatever tradition and whatever religion, so that they understand that, in the words of the final song of Moses, Ha’azinu, God says  לִ֤י נָקָם֙ וְשִׁלֵּ֔ם “Vengeance and Recompense is Mine”.

It is not our work to punish or avenge in the name of God, we leave that to God. But it is our work to educate ourselves and each other that acts of violence in the name of religion or in the name of protecting the honour of God are unacceptable, beyond any parameter in this world, and will not make the perpetrators religious martyrs or otherwise glorified. Religion is designed to protect us from our shadow side, from acting on our anger and from narrowing our perspective so we no longer see the humanity of each other. If it is not doing this, then it is religion that needs to evolve in order to fulfil this function.  And that is a job for people – not God – to do: And if not now, when?