Mikketz: how knowledge and understanding still requires wisdom if we are to avert environmental disaster

 

Pharaoh dreams of seven fat healthy cows feeding by the river, which are devoured by seven sickly cows; then of seven full and healthy ears of corn devoured by seven thin ears of corn, in each case the devourers looked no fuller or healthier for what they had consumed.  Joseph, the interpreter of dreams, is summoned from prison in order to explain the Pharaoh’s dreams.

They are, he announces, dreams of warning of what God is about to bring to Egypt; seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. There are two dreams because of the speed in which events will begin.

Joseph then goes further than his brief. He is brought to interpret the dreams, but having done so he adds to the narrative- a chutzpah that could have had terrible consequence

“Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.

But luckily Pharaoh is impressed. Having asked (rhetorically) if such a man can be found to fulfil this plan, he turns to Joseph and says:  As God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than you.’  And Pharaoh said to Joseph: ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’

The three qualities –da’at (knowledge), binah (discernment) and chochmah (wisdom) come together in this verse indicating that Joseph doesn’t just know what the dream is saying, but that he can imagine the devastation indicated and can formulate and carry out a plan to mitigate it.

The dreams tell the very worst scenario – not only will extended famine come after the good years, but it will consume every aspect of those good years, they will not be remembered or even be able to be imagined – so say the classical commentators noting that when the sickly cows/corn absorb the healthy ones, there is no increase in well-being, no noticeable change at all. The desolation will be so complete it will be as if there was never anything else.

But the intervention of Joseph, with his combined knowledge, discernment and wisdom, was enough to keep Egypt, and even the surrounding areas, fed in the years of famine. The all-consuming famine was survived by the people – albeit they lost control of their land to Pharaoh as the price they paid for their food.

The Maharal of Prague teaches that the solution to the problem of famine in the dream was itself provided in the dream. The fact that the sickly cows and corn absorbed their healthy counterparts was a key to resolving the oncoming disaster – because it taught that there must be work done in the first seven years that would enable the next seven to be survivable. For him preparation in the face of oncoming devastation would enable the people to survive. His teaching primarily addresses the lacunae in the text – why would Joseph overstep his position and offer a solution? How does Pharaoh know that his interpretation was correct, and recognise both the importance of his plan  and the scale of his abilities? But the teaching gives us hope. We can prepare, we can begin to imagine and to mitigate the oncoming changes in our world. We can ensure that people have the resources to survive and sustain ourselves come what may.

In today’s world we once again face droughts and famines, as the global climate changes and watercourses dry up or rain washes away fertile soil. This is something we know, and we are beginning to understand the longer term consequences of much of our activity of the last century. We have both da’at and binah – knowledge and understanding. But is seems to me we have not yet taken on board the need for wisdom.  Joseph had a plan that did not stop the famine, but did mean that no one went hungry – he was proactive rather than reactive. He could imagine the worst case and worked to avert it. It is a lesson – an a quality – we need to acquire quickly if we are not to be overwhelmed by our own environment.

 

Vayishlach – the death of Deborah whose wisdom is mourned

L’italiano segue l’inglese

וַתָּ֤מָת דְּבֹרָה֙ מֵינֶ֣קֶת רִבְקָ֔ה וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר מִתַּ֥חַת לְבֵית־אֵ֖ל תַּ֣חַת הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ אַלּ֥וֹן בָּכֽוּת:

And Deborah the nurse of Rebecca died, and she was buried below Beit El, under the oak tree. And its name was called “Oak Tree of Weeping” – Allon Bacut  (Genesis 35:8)

This is the first – and last – we will hear of this particular Deborah, although of course the story – and song – of a more famous Deborah will appear in the Book of Judges.

But this Deborah is more of a puzzle. Rashi tries to solve the mystery by saying “How came Deborah to be in Jacob’s house? But the explanation is: because Rebekah had promised Jacob (Gen. 27:45) “then I will send and fetch thee from thence”, she sent Deborah to him to Padan Aram to tell him to leave that place, and she died on the return journey. I learned this from a comment of R. Moses HaDarshan (the exegete and Rosh Yeshiva of Narbonne)

What does the bible tell us? That a woman named Deborah had been the nursemaid of our matriarch Rebecca. That she died on the journey back to the land, shortly before Rachel died giving birth on the road from Beit El, and that her grave was marked not by a pillar of stone as Rachel’s was, but by a well-known oak tree, whose name refers to mourning.

Eleven verses separate the deaths of the two women. One cannot but wonder if there was a connection – whether the loss of Deborah, “meineket Rivka”– meant a loss of the wisdom she held around childbirth and nurturing.  One cannot help comparing the two graves – one under a “tree of weeping”, the other by the roadside with a stone pillar “that is there till this day” (v20) .

When we read the text, we generally focus on the terrible experience of Rachel, who in her agony calls the child whose birth is killing her “son of my pain/sorrow” before she dies – and the fact that his father breaks the convention and renames the child “Benjamin”. We see this complex and traumatic death and birth, and our minds leap ahead to the problems of the sons of Rachel. Poor Deborah, the nursemaid of Rebecca, is left to her grave under the mysteriously named tree.

The Book of Jubilees also tells the story of the death of Deborah, nursemaid to Rebecca, and it adds a few details

“And in the night, on the twenty-third of this month, Deborah Rebecca’s nurse died, and they buried her beneath the city under the oak of the river, and he called the name of this place, “The river of Deborah,” and the oak, “The oak of the mourning of Deborah.”” (Jubilees 32:25ff)

So Deborah dies on what is now Simchat Torah, and there is not only an oak tree but also a river to mark her resting place. Simchat Torah is the date when we both end and begin the yearly Torah reading. There is a moment of death and of rebirth; a cliff-edge experience  as we see the land in front of Moses’ eyes and hear of his death but do not enter the land of Israel, immediately followed by a retelling of the creation of the world.  What can we make of a death that takes place on this date, marked by the flowing river water and the weeping tree?

The title of Deborah, “meineket Rivka” means that she literally fed Rebecca as her nursemaid. Given that Rebecca’s own children had children by now, one must ask what that role would have been, what Deborah would be “feeding” Rebecca for her to still be known by this title? It is generally understood that she was the transmitter of an important wisdom to enable Rebecca to function fully as the matriarch she was. This understanding is embodied in “Meineket Rivka” which is the title of the first known Yiddish book written by a woman – Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner of Prague – a book of ethical wisdom and piety which included stories from Talmud and midrash, and in which the writer differentiates between the wisdom of the body (guf) and the wisdom of the soul (nefesh)

The wisdom of Deborah was surely also both practical and spiritual, dealing with both material matters (body) and “beyond material” matters. The name Rebecca means “to join” or “to connect” or even to “tie firmly”.  The wisdom Deborah passes on to Rebecca must then be to help her to join heaven to earth, to use both the aspects of body and of soul to create a more fulfilled world.  The markers by her grave reflect her wisdom – the tree, planted in the ground, slow growing oak, represents the “guf” – the body or earthly realm. The river, fast moving and ever changing represents the “nefesh” and the flow of life.

The wisdom that Deborah brings – even if it is never explicit in biblical text – is alluded to at her death.  To get a fuller understanding of this almost disappeared woman, we must turn to the natural world and its symbolism.  The oak tree weeps. Someone who understood the relationship between the natural environment and the purpose of the human being in the world, has gone. The wisdom she held is partly transmitted and partly has to be learned again by another generation.

We have many texts in bible and in rabbinic literature which allude to the relationship between humanity and the earth, and how that relationship informs our relationship with God and our ability to fulfil our purpose. We learn from previous generations and we absorb from them much wisdom. But inevitably some is lost, some is deemed irrelevant, some is inconvenient and quietly forgotten. And then we have to relearn what once was understood.

The weeping tree standing guard over Deborah’s grave beneath Beit El is a living reminder of our role and responsibility in the world. The demonstrable loss of wisdom after her death, as well as the flow of life relentlessly moving onward, remind us that there is no once and for all event, but that we are part of a dynamic process, learning and relearning how to live in the world while expressing the ethics and values of what we now call the Jewish tradition. One might say that we are still called by natural objects  and events  to bring us back to our purpose in the world–  the rain forests being destroyed, polluted waters around the world, climatic events never before seen etc call to us to learn and relearn the wisdom of our tradition, so as to bring forth a world we can live in well, and pass on respectfully to the next generations.

image of the grave of Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner, author of meineket Rivka in Prague

Vayishlach – la morte di Debora, la cui saggezza è rimpianta

 :בָּכֽוּת אַלּ֥וֹן  שְׁמ֖וֹ  וַיִּקְרָ֥א  הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן  תַּ֣חַת  לְבֵית־אֵ֖ל מִתַּ֥חַת  וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר רִבְקָ֔ה מֵינֶ֣קֶת דְּבֹרָה֙ וַתָּ֤מָת

E Debora, la nutrice di Rebecca, morì e fu sepolta sotto Beit El, ai piedi della quercia. E il suo nome divenne “Quercia del pianto” – “Allon Bacut” (Genesi 35: 8)

Questa è la prima, e ultima, volta che sentiremo parlare di questa particolare Debora, anche se, ovviamente, la storia, e la canzone, di una Debora più famosa appariranno nel Libro dei Giudici.

Ma questa Debora è più di un enigma. Rashi cerca di risolvere il mistero dicendo: “Come è arrivata Debora nella casa di Giacobbe? E la spiegazione è: poiché Rebecca aveva promesso a Giacobbe (Gen. 27:45) ‘allora ti manderò a prendere da lì’, mandò Debora da lui a Padan Aram per dirgli di lasciare quel posto, e lei morì nel viaggio di ritorno”. L’ho appreso da un commento di R. Moses HaDarshan (esegeta e Rosh Yeshivà di Narbonne)

Cosa ci dice la Bibbia? Che una donna di nome Debora è stata la balia della nostra matriarca Rebecca. Che morì sulla strada di Beit El durante il viaggio di ritorno verso la terra poco prima che Rachele stessa morisse di parto, e che la sua tomba non fu contrassegnata da una colonna di pietra come quella di Rachele, ma da una ben conosciuta quercia,  il cui nome si riferisce al lutto.

Undici versi separano la morte delle due donne. Non si può non chiedersi se ci sia una connessione, se la perdita di Debora, “meineket Rivka“, non significhi una perdita della saggezza custodita sui temi del parto e della cura. E non si può fare a meno di confrontare le due tombe: una sotto un “albero del pianto”, l’altra sul ciglio della strada con un pilastro di pietra “che è lì fino ai nostri giorni” (verso 20).

Quando leggiamo il testo, ci concentriamo generalmente sulla terribile esperienza di Rachele, che nella sua agonia chiama il bambino la cui nascita la sta uccidendo “figlio del mio dolore/dolore” prima di morire, e il fatto che suo padre rompa la convenzione e rinomini il bambino “Beniamino”. Vediamo questa morte complessa e traumatica e la nascita, e le nostre menti vanno in avanti verso i problemi dei figli di Rachele. La povera Debora, la balia di Rebecca, viene lasciata nella sua tomba sotto l’albero misteriosamente chiamato.

Anche il Libro dei Giubilei racconta la storia della morte di Debora, nutrice di Rebecca, e aggiunge alcuni dettagli:

“E nella notte, il ventitreesimo mese di questo mese, Debora la nutrice di Rebecca morì e la seppellirono dietro la città sotto la quercia del fiume, e chiamarono questo luogo ‘Il fiume di Debora’, e la quercia ‘La quercia del compianto di Debora’”. (Giubilei 32: 25 ss)

Quindi Debora muore nel giorno dell’odierna Simchat Torà, e non solo c’è una quercia, ma anche un fiume a segnare il luogo del suo riposo. Simchat Torà è la data in cui sia finiamo che iniziamo la lettura annuale della Torà. C’è un momento di morte e rinascita, un’esperienza di netta cesura in cui vediamo la terra davanti agli occhi di Mosè e sentiamo parlare della sua morte senza poter entrare nella terra di Israele, immediatamente seguiti dalla ripetizione della creazione del mondo. Cosa possiamo farne di una morte che avviene in questa data, segnata dall’acqua fluente del fiume e dall’albero piangente?

Il titolo di Debora, “meineket Rivka“, significa letteralmente che ha dato da mangiare a Rebecca in quanto sua nutrice. Dato che ormai gli stessi figli di Rebecca avevano figli, c’è da chiedersi cosa abbia comportato quel ruolo, cosa avrà “dato da mangiare” Debora a Rebecca per essere conosciuta con questo titolo? Resta generalmente inteso che fu la trasmettitrice di un’importante saggezza, che consentì a Rebecca di fungere pienamente  da matriarca. Questo significato è rappresentato in “Meineket Rivka”, che è il titolo del primo libro yiddish noto che sia stato scritto da una donna, Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner di Praga: un libro di saggezza etica e pietà che includeva storie di Talmud e midrash, e in cui il la scrittrice distingue tra la saggezza del corpo (guf) e la saggezza dell’anima (nefesh)

La saggezza di Debora era sicuramente sia pratica che spirituale, trattando sia le questioni materiali (il corpo) sia quelle “al di là dei materiali”. Il nome Rebecca significa “unire” o “connettere” o anche “legare saldamente”. La saggezza che Debora trasmette a Rebecca deve quindi essere quella di aiutarla a unire il cielo alla terra, a usare sia gli aspetti del corpo che dell’anima per creare un mondo più compiuto. Gli indicatori della sua tomba rispecchiano la sua saggezza: l’albero, piantato nel terreno, una quercia a crescita lenta, rappresenta il “guf” (il corpo o il regno terrestre), il fiume, in rapido movimento e continua evoluzione, rappresenta il “nefesh” e il flusso della vita.

La saggezza di cui Debora è portatrice, anche se mai esplicitata nel testo biblico, è menzionata alla sua morte. Per comprendere appieno questa donna quasi scomparsa, dobbiamo rivolgerci al mondo naturale e al suo simbolismo. La quercia piange. Qualcuno che ha capito la relazione tra l’ambiente naturale e gli obiettivi dell’essere umano nel mondo è scomparso. La saggezza che possedeva in parte è trasmessa, in parte deve essere riappresa da un’altra generazione.

Abbiamo molti brani nella Bibbia e nella letteratura rabbinica che alludono al rapporto tra l’umanità e la terra, e come quella relazione informi la nostra relazione con Dio e la nostra capacità di realizzare i nostri scopi. Impariamo dalle generazioni precedenti e assorbiamo da loro molta saggezza. Ma qualcosa inevitabilmente si perde, qualcosa viene considerato irrilevante, qualcos’altro è scomodo e silenziosamente dimenticato. Così poi dobbiamo riapprendere ciò che una volta fu compreso.

L’albero piangente che fa la guardia alla tomba di Debora dietro Beit El è un promemoria vivente del nostro ruolo e responsabilità nel mondo. La dimostrabile perdita di saggezza seguita alla sua morte, così come il flusso della vita che si muove incessantemente in avanti, ci ricordano che non esistono eventi definitivi, ma che siamo parte di un processo dinamico, imparando e riapprendendo come vivere nel mondo mentre esprimiamo l’etica e i valori di ciò che ora chiamiamo tradizione ebraica. Si potrebbe dire che siamo ancora chiamati da oggetti ed eventi naturali che ci riportano al nostro scopo nel mondo: le foreste pluviali vengono distrutte, le acque inquinate in tutto il mondo, eventi climatici mai visti prima ecc. Ci chiamano per imparare e reimparare la saggezza della nostra tradizione, in modo da far nascere un mondo in cui possiamo vivere bene, da trasmettere rispettosamente alle prossime generazioni.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

24th Ellul – checking how we are living, ensuring we live on.

During Ellul we are expected to make a “Heshbon Nefesh” – literally an accounting of the soul.  It is a time for honest reflection, a time to look at what we have done, what we failed to do, what we have become as a consequence. The language of the Heshbon Nefesh is business-like – there is a sort of book-keeping element to it as we are reminded, in the words of Pirkei  Avot, that “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the payment is much, and the Master of the House is pressing.”

For some, weighing up a mitzvah against a missed opportunity to do a mitzvah, might be a sensible and comfortable way to proceed. But there are other ways to do this in our tradition, and my favourite is framed as Tzava’ah – the writing of an ethical will.

In order to really make a Heshbon Nefesh we need to clarify and explicate what truly is important for us, to think about our soul at the end of its earthly existence standing before the Holy One. The day is short, the work is great – and God waits to see what we make of our lives.

In the book of Genesis there is an interesting deathbed scene.  Jacob says to his long-lost son Joseph

אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי:

Translated usually as “Now I can die, for I have seen your face [and know that] you are indeed alive.”

Yet the Hebrew is not quite as clear as the translation would have us think – Jacob actually says “I can die this time” – as if there are many deaths in life, and this particular event is the latest in a chain of other deaths.

So what is Jacob really saying when he speaks of more than one death? There is a commentary on this verse that reads it as teaching that while everyone dies physically,  one may also die – or not die – spiritually.  How would one not die spiritually? By ensuring that one’s actions in the world help to sustain it, by leaving a legacy of values as well as of mitzvot, by telling stories that fix in the memory, by teaching others what is truly important in life so that they may use the guidance “b’shem omro” –recalling the memory of the person who helped them to understand.

When God speaks of Abraham just before the destruction of Sodom, God reflects on their relationship and says  (Gen 18:19)

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת־בָּנָיו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהֹוָה לַעֲשֹוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

For I have known him in order that he may instruct his children and his household after him, to keep the ways of the Eternal to do צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט righteousness and justice.

The idea that Abraham must instruct (Tza’va’ah) his descendants with the values God wants them to have is particularly powerful in this context. Right now Abraham has only the promise of Isaac to be born, we are about to see a whole city – with parents and children – destroyed. But in this moment of potential and of uncertainty, comes the idea of passing on values into the future. And from here comes the notion of the ethical will (tzava’ah) ,  a document that would go alongside a will detailing what to do with possessions and physical objects of value, and instead detailing the ethics and values the you want your descendants or students or any reader of the document to know and to absorb them into the way they will live their life.

So what do we want to be remembered for? What do we want to pass on as good ethical guidance to those we love? What is the particular wisdom that means that passing it to the next generations we are ensuring we will die only physically, but not spiritually- for we will continue to exist in the stories, the memories, the values and the love the next generations will absorb from us.

Take some time to reflect not just on what we have or have not done, but what we would like to be remembered for, what legacy of memories and illustrative values we would like our lives to model. Writing an ethical will can be transformative, as it helps remind us of what we would like our lives to embody, and that reminder is the template against which our Heshbon Nefesh will be measured.