Sunday, December 1, 2013

On writing about Chayei Sarah (Genesis, 23:1 – 25:18)

October 2013

It was my turn to present a drashah for Shabbat at Temple – and it went both well and not so well. It went not so well in part because I did not read what I had prepared. But for the same reason, because I spoke about something else, it went well. And then again, at the end, not so well.

The drashah is given at the tail end of the service. Plenty of time beforehand to sit and think about what one is about to say. Usually only a few people are there, under thirty souls, and their attitude is mostly one of interest and acceptance. Some of them say that they themselves would not want to give a drashah, whereas I enjoy both the preparation and the delivery. I experience a pleasurable anxiety, a kind of gentle tickle, when reading what I’ve written.

When preparing a drashah, it is worthwhile researching wise people’s commentaries on the portion of the week, until one finds something that resonates in one’s heart and can use what they say as a basis for further discussion.  But this time, nothing seemed interesting, and so the drashah turned on what was on my mind; it wasn’t about the parashah, though a link to the portion was squeezed in at the end, out of a sense of duty; that link was actually a bit forced, not really right.

One should start by reading the week’s portion itself. But this parashah was familiar - no need to read it again. Instead, my mind focused on something that was bothering me at Temple, and in the course of writing about it a helpful suggestion presented itself which might sort things out. It seemed worthwhile to talk about it. For once my drashah was ready early, before Friday evening, before the arrival of Shabbat.

On Shabbat morning, before leaving for Temple, my husband still in bed with his breakfast on a tray and the newspaper, there was time to settle myself comfortably in the family room with the Torah, my feet on the red pouf, an hour of quiet before leaving for the service. Enough time to read the parashah. As usual, questions arose.

Sometimes Biblical Hebrew has turns and formulations which I find hard to understand - too remote from today’s spoken Hebrew. Not this time. I read the portion, the parashah, in Hebrew, and at the end of each page, I quickly scanned the translation to make sure I had understood it; I love reading the footnotes, which can take up as much as half the page - small print, the comments of our sages reaching us over the space of hundreds of years (“Und wuss sogt Rashi?” – said members of an Orthodox family I knew, whenever there was a discussion about the rightness of anything – “And what does Rashi say?”). I am lucky to be able to do this.

The parashah is called Chayei Sarah, Sarah’s life, and starts in fact with Sarah’s death and Abraham’s acquisition of the cave of the Machpelah as a burial place. It is offered to him as a gift and he refuses to accept it, he wants to buy it. He wants to buy it in the most incontrovertible way possible, he makes sure all the Hittites witness the transaction, as well as any stranger or visitor who may be passing through the gates of the city. Then he sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac.Eliezer is a trustworthy man, steward of all that Abraham owns. The term used to describe him has been translated as ‘a servant’, but it could also be ‘slave’. His name means ‘My God will help’.

Eliezer arrives at his destination, which is the city of Nahor in Aram-naharaiim. He has stopped just outside the city by the well and it is the time in the evening when the young women come to fetch water. He is anxious about the task he has been entrusted with, so anxious in fact that he prays to Abraham’s God. He says, I shall ask one of the maidens who comes to the well to give me a drink of water and if she offers to water my ten camels as well, of her own initiative, I shall take it as God’s sign that she is the one for Isaac. As he finishes the prayer, Rebekka arrives at the well and Eliezer asks for water, and she hurries, and says Here you are, and I shall bring water for the camels too. She hurries here too, up and down to the well, up and down, filling the trough. Ten camel beasts, that would be a thirsty lot, but there is no shirking on her part. The Torah tells us about these two events, the prayer setting the test, Rebekka fulfilling it. Then later, when Eliezer is talking to Laban, Rebekka’s brother, he tells him the story too – both of the prayer and the realization of it. He doesn’t forget to mention that she hurried. So that the story about Rebekka’s willingness to serve is told four times in one chapter.

The Torah may read like a story book, but it is a book of teaching. One of the ways in which an event can be highlighted is by its repeated telling. Eliezer, a clever man, thinks that what happened at the well is important and tells Laban about it. Pay attention, says the Torah, notice what she does! 

I read the entire parashah, savouring the beauty of the Hebrew, and finding that it makes my heart quicken as usual and I have tears in my eyes. The writing is wonderful. When Eliezer arrives in the Negev with Rebekka, we are shown the scene from Isaac’s point of view: he has gone for a walk in the fields in the evening and he sees from far away camels arriving, and then we are with Rebekka, and she says “Who is this man?”, and when she sees him, ‘…vatipol’ - ‘…and she fell’ - from her camel. (At least that is the simplest translation – there are other interpretations).  It is a very powerful moment, but we don’t know what she is experiencing. She hurries to place herself lower than him. She also veils herself. 

She would have been covered in jewels and fine clothes, would she not? Approaching the home of her bridegroom after the voyage, a bridegroom she is about to meet for the first time, who will see her for the first time, she will have asked to stop for a while as they drew close – though come to think of it, Eliezer probably would thought of this himself and organized a stop so that she might prepare herself, wash her face, comb her hair, put on her bridal attire and array herself in her jewels, silver and gold. She must arrive in the best possible style. And at the sight of Isaac, she fell from her camel. 

At the end, I disgraced myself. When my time to speak arrived, I took my three pages of typed text about the thing that bothered me, and put them face down on the lectern, and I talked to people instead about the parashah itself, which the Rabbi’s wife had read out during the service in a clear voice. I thought I would talk about the parashah and then turn to what I’d written, but that is not what I did. 

What I did say was good, about the four times Rebekka’s willingness is recounted, but then I tried to tell people about my great-grandmother’s sign, and I began to sob, and could hardly get the words out. I embarrassed myself; as I struggled to speak, I wondered whether I really needed to do this, but it seemed important to mention the sign, which would give the right shape to the drashah, to have this twist at the end.

Why is the sign important? In an earlier part of Genesis, in chapter 12, verse 2, God promises Abraham: “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” The first part is what God promises Abraham and the second part is what Abraham has to do in return: to be a blessing. In this week’s parashah, Rebekka demonstrates by what she does and by the way in which she does it that she is indeed a blessing - she does what is needed without holding back. There may also be a further indication, a hint of enlightenment in the fact that there are ten camels, ten being the number of the Sefirot of the Tree of Life. She gives water to the ten of them, in haste, devoting herself to the needs of both humans and beasts.

And this is important to me personally, because by my bed I keep the framed sign which my Aunt Betty gave me long ago, when I asked if there was anything I might have  which came from the house of her grandmother, my great-grandmother, who was called Rebekka,  after the matriarch. Rebekka Gerzon lived in Holland in a town called Groningen and was much loved and respected by her family and her congregation. She died in the 1920s, before the Second World War. The sign is no bigger than a standard sheet of typing paper, and it is no thing of beauty. The frame is recent, some sort of plastic masquerading as wood. Three words are painted in old-fashioned Germanic script, white on a black background, conventionally decorated with a stylised flower. The words say: “Wees een Segen” – which is Dutch for “Be a blessing”.

I cry during services at various times. I don’t know why. I have made up theories about this: maybe it is sentimentality. Or maybe it is that I grew up without this wisdom and without the ritual. I was deprived of it, and I missed it without knowing what I was missing. That loss is linked to the Holocaust. I have spoken about the sign before, and I cried then too, but I feel that this time I truly understood its meaning.
It is deemed natural for a woman to have an attitude of devotion, of caring and service, and maybe it is. Having written this, I realize – at last – that Eliezer is also ‘being a blessing’, he is a servant, a slave to other people’s needs and he does his utmost, with the help of God, to serve well. What a beautiful parashah.


Speech is open to question, the question of when to speak and when to stay silent, what to say and what not to say. Some people think that one must be careful  with one’s words, weighing every one of them, and to others the idea is ridiculous. I have some friends who do not agree that there is any reason or any point in restraining oneself.

In the 19th century, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan was a ‘profound and consummate scholar in all the fields of Torah’. He wrote major works of commentary and added to the understanding of Jewish law. He is best known among those of us who are less learned for his book Chefetz Chayim and that is how he himself is known, named after his book, the Chefetz Chayim

The topic of the book is the harm that can be caused by speech. And this is illustrated in the early part of this Parashah, once in verse 2 when Joseph runs to his father bearing tales about his brothers, and later on when he tells his brothers about his dreams.

Lashon HaRa means 'evil speech', which consists of relating derogatory information about others. It does not matter if this is true or not. It is not acceptable for us to talk about other people’s weaknesses and failures. In fact the recommendation is simply not to talk about people who are not there with you, unless there is a clear need to do so. Because even when you think you are saying something good or even quite neutral about someone, you don’t know what trouble may come from it.

Jewish law distinguishes between gossip, which we call Rechilut and Lashon HaRa. If I were to report to a person that someone has spoken against her or acted against her interests, that has a different name, that is called Rechilut.

I own a book on Lashon HaRa, which my very Orthodox sister kindly sent me at my request. It is a bit embarrassing, because it is written as if the reader is a bit simple. But it is nevertheless full of wisdom. In the introduction it says: “Lashon HaRa has caused the dissolution of numerous friendships, the termination of countless marriages and has generated immeasurable suffering”.

Even if what we say is true, it may nevertheless be wrong of us to mention it. Al pi camah ve camah if it is untrue. Meaning, all the more so if it is untrue.  And if you reflect on how often we are tempted to repeat what we have heard, which is not direct knowledge, you can see how sometimes misunderstandings may arise.

I grew up in a house where this was practiced, and I didn’t know it. This topic wasn’t discussed. I don’t think that my parents were aware that they did this or rather I don’t think they were aware of what they didn’t do or rarely did. There was a man that my father worked with and my mother once mentioned that he called him “That Bastard so and so”. I myself never heard him say that. For me, home was a peaceful place. I was not aware that my parents did not speak about other people much. 

But when I was 18, for the first time it happened that I was living away from home with a group of other girls and people who were not there were reported on, discussed and analyzed, and I was fascinated by it, I found these sessions delicious, great fun! It is nice to feel that you are part of a group, warm and cosy, and that these other people who are in some way deficient are on the outer.  I wasn’t very insightful, didn’t reflect on the fact that if by chance I wasn’t with the group, they might turn their sights on me, and tear me to bits just as well, in just such a juicy and ridiculing way.  

In this parashah, in the second verse, Joseph runs to his father and tells him about his brothers’ misdeeds. Vayaveh Yosef et dibatam ra’ah el avihem. He is at this time 17 years old, it says so in the same verse, and it also there says that despite being 17 years old, well above the age of 13 when a child is supposed to reach maturity, he was childish. And it says that Jacob had a preference for him, which is maybe why he did not rebuke his son and cure him of this bad habit of tale-bearing. 

A footnote in the Soncino Tanach says: “Because Joseph was still a child, he did wrong by telling tales about his brothers and could not foresee where it would lead. Whatever evil he saw in Leah’s sons, he brought to his father." According to Rashi, he accused them specifically of three offences: "...that they ate limbs torn from live animals, that they called the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah slaves and that they were immoral. On these three accounts he was punished, when they sold him they slew a goat, he was sold for a slave and he was accused of immorality by Potiphar’s wife."

Another commentary says: "He spoke evil of all the brothers, which is why they all hated him. He did not reflect on this at the time." That was the journey Joseph had to make to achieve greater understanding.
And immediately after that, in verses 5 to 11,  we have the telling of the two dreams: the Torah says directly, in verse 5:  he told them the dream and they hated him for it. This is the dream about the sheaves of corn, where his sheaf stands straight and their sheaves all bow down to him. And everybody understands immediately what this is about. 

And in verse 8 the brothers say: "And will you indeed reign over us? Or shall you have dominion over us? And they hated him all the more for his dreams and for his words." That is an interesting distinction: for his dreams and for his words. One thing is that he had those dreams, and the other is that he spoke about them. Had he kept quiet about them, they would not have known and both causes would have been removed. 

The dreams showed clearly that he was to be their superior in some way. And it is likely that this was evident to Joseph, that he knew this about himself, that he had greater ability and insight than his brothers, and they would maybe have been aware of this, maybe not. But they would not have liked this little squirt of a boy telling them that he was going to be their superior. It was bad enough that Jacob favoured him above them.

In Joseph’s speech, there is of itself nothing wrong. He is telling about something that happened to him and  no one is suggesting that it was untrue or wrong. But it was unwise: he did not reflect on the effect of his words on his brothers, he did not ask himself how his brothers would feel. For he did not have the ability to reflect at this stage, he was spoilt and happy-go-lucky, all was well in his world and he saw no reason to measure his words. He felt safe. Maybe if his mother had been alive, she would have taught him to be more careful, to be more sparing of other people’s feelings.

Sometimes this whole business of how members of a community talk to each other seems so difficult and tricky that one feels that the only solution is to simply shut up once and for all.  And yet it is said that once someone spent a whole day with the Chefetz Chaim trying to get him to say a single condemnatory thing, a single statement which could be construed as Lashon HaRa, and they did not succeed. I think that it is hard work, but that does not mean that it is not to be undertaken. 

It is an art that seems to me to be very worthwhile.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Parashat Ekev 5772

In courses given at the religious studies departments of many universities, one is taught that all religions seek to reassure people from their greatest fears. On the whole, one can observe that religions promise that, providing people obey the rules dictated in the holy text, they will survive – in the short term by having enough to eat, enough food for themselves and their families, in the sense that their fields will be fertile and provide a good harvest, and their flock will reproduce well and provide more meat for them and in the long term because their God promises that their blood-line will survive down the generations, the god promises that they themselves will also be fertile.

It is repeated over and over in the Tanach that God will provide food and fertility. In Ekev in particular, the promise appears right at the start, in Chapter 7. Here’s a quote: “The Lord will multiply you and bless the fruit of your body and fruit of your land, your corn and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the young of your flock in the land which He promised your father to give to you.”

It is ironic that I am married to an arch-atheist who at this very moment is having to demonstrate scientifically that our first and foremost interest during this life is to keep ourselves safe and sound, and if possible, to have children ourselves or support others close to us in having them. Some would say that this is common sense, but in academic circles this comes under the heading of evolutionary psychology. The question has arisen in this last week. Very suitable for Parashat Ekev.

In the following chapter of the parashah, chapter 8, the tone changes: the first verse is a reminder that there are commandments to be obeyed. The next one that God is responsible for the trials that befell the Bnei Israel these 40 years past in the desert: for the suffering that they endured. These trials are sent so that God may know how we perform under difficult conditions. Will we continue to carry out the commandments? God is responsible for the bad experiences such as the hunger as well as for the manna which came from the sky. He will chastise us – chastise us lovingly, but punish us nevertheless: God-caused suffering. Verse 6 is another reminder of the commandments to be kept. Then follows a reiteration of all the good things that God will make happen, the water, the wheat, the barley, the vine, fig trees and pomegranates, olive-trees and honey. Plenty.

Verse 11: again, a reminder not to forget God’s commandments. Followed by a listing of all the good things about to happen, the herds multiplying, the houses built, the hunger satisfied, and a warning in verse 14 “lest your heart grow haughty” - Do not forget the God who brought you out of Egypt! A reminder of the hardships of the wanderings in the desert, and finally the verse this drashah is about: verse 17 reads: “And you will say to yourself: It is my own strength and the might of my hand which have accumulated this wealth for me”.

In other words, I and I alone have created the situation I am in – all is well with me and truly it is because of my own efforts that it is so. I have overcome the difficulties and I deserve the reward. Whereas everything written shows you that God is the one who has created both the blessings and the curses.

The warning that this self-centered way of thinking is wrong exists in a more extreme fashion elsewhere: the prophet Ezekiel describes Pharaoh as “the great serpent who couches in the midst of his streams, who says: My river is my own, and I have made myself”. Here is a complete denial of any causal agent outside the self. The evil embodied by Pharaoh lies first and foremost in his egocentricity.

This arrogance is something that can arise easily in less extreme forms,; it is a natural way to think, for we all do it to some extent, unless we strive to avoid it or are indeed very wise and humble, like Moses. It is observable in every culture. When all is well with us, when we succeed in life, we are convinced that it is entirely thanks to our own efforts, and we minimize in our own minds the events which are beyond our control, such as sun, water and fertile land and the contributions others may have made to our success.

Maybe we graciously thank them, outwardly acknowledging them, all the while thinking “But really, if it had not been for me, none of this would have happened”. It is an all too human scenario. And it may be true, indeed we may have made a most important contribution.

But those who are on the outside, observing, may see, on the other hand – that this person was born with great gifts or maybe simply one great gift, think of a great musician for instance – and without those gifts he or she would not have succeeded. It could be that this person was born into a family which recognized the gift and did its best to foster it. And then maybe the society was a society which in turn valued people who are gifted and enabled them to flourish. We are all aware of what happens to the poor women born in countries where they are not allowed to leave home, who are prevented from having access to education and training of any kind. To live in New Zealand is a blessing, indeed in most democratic countries, except maybe for some of the poor European ones, today. That we live in a country which is at peace and allows us to flourish. (Who was to know that Greece would descend into turmoil?) That our sons and daughters are not obliged to risk their lives in order to defend our borders. That most of us enjoy some measure of healthcare which enables us to live to ripe old age.

All these things are by and large not in our control. When my great-grandmother was my age, she was a little old lady who wore only black and was quite fragile. She was truly elderly. And here I am, big and strong, and expecting according to statistics to live another 20 years. Not because I am a better person, it is just that I live in a century which has not been decimated by war twice, I have never gone hungry and medicine has greatly progressed. Some would say we are lucky, others would thank God. Our lives are the result of a multiplicity of actions by those whom we know and by many whom we don’t. There is a lot to be grateful for. And suddenly something can go terribly wrong and we find ourselves in the midst of disaster, as happened to all those who were in Christchurch last year.

I was reminded of the serpent in the river very recently. We were at dinner with a group of friends – most of them not from our congregation – and we were talking about the rising inequality in our society. We were all in agreement that the middle classes were increasingly impoverished, that the poor were even poorer and that the 1% were enjoying an huge income at the expense – literally – of everyone else. One of our number could indeed be counted among that 1%, and as you would expect he is a confident chap who does not hesitate to express his views. He said that he could see nothing wrong with inequality. Opposite him sat one very clever man and next to him sat another. A quiet and intense debate took place and an attempt was made to clarify for him how badly things will go for our society if we revert to the situation which existed in the 19th century, when a few people were extremely rich – and others worked a full working day and did not earn enough to feed their families. It became clear in the conversation that the problem for our rich friend was that he felt entitled to all the money he made. What is wrong with inequality he asked repeatedly, in aggrieved tones. I remember a well known religious leader stating categorically that it is immoral for a person to be paid too little for them to support themselves in a decent fashion. At the moment, we are watching the prices go up – recently the petrol again, - and the people who do not earn much or who are on the benefit suffer the most. The conversation turned towards the French revolution, which was triggered by the high price of bread. It was to no avail: we could not make our friend see the wrongs of the situation. He was an embodiment of verse 17 of Ekev: “And you will say to yourself: “It is my own strength and the might of my hand which have accumulated this wealth for me”. Therefore he feels entitled to it. He has forgotten that he has been blessed in many ways.

The translation just quoted is not a literal one. Literally the Hebrew says “And you will say in your hearts".
Why "in your hearts"?

Someone might say that it does not matter what happens in a person’s heart, it is what they say out loud that matters. If you don’t actually say it, you’ll harm no one…In his short article on this topic, Levi Atson writes about politicians: they are careful of their every word so as to say only things which are acceptable, which are politically correct. Except for the slip of the tongue when they actually say what they think,  and all is revealed, the end of a promising career.

Levi Atson writes: “Racism, hate, bigotry, and gossip should be deleted way before the words take the train to the microphone. For once they sit at the station of the mind, it is too late; the train is about to come. And then, there is no turning back.” (Levi Atzon on )

It is important to notice one’s own thoughts, to be aware when they stray too far into arrogance and self-righteousness, to let those thoughts go and remind ourselves that we are not the authors of our own well-being. It is difficult to see where exactly our contribution lies and where the contribution of all the countless people who have fashioned our lives - those who have loved us, nurtured us, taught us, healed us, and also those who have hurt us and harmed us - they may well be the same ones. And what the contribution is of genetics and the weather and events happening far from here or in Parliament down the road.

Our world is one enormous web of interconnectedness over time and space and everyone belongs to it. We cannot hope to understand it or grasp it with our little minds.

So we say Baruch atah Adonai for everything, and in particular for this lovely Shabbat morning.

I wish you Shabbat shalom!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Parashat Pinchas 5772

Parashat Pinchas has three main parts: the story of Pinchas the zealot who murders Zimri and the Medianite, and is deemed to have done a good thing – how is that possible? Then there a part which is admin: the counting of heads, the census of Bnei Israel - which is the second counting to take place in this book, it is not called Numbers for nothing. And the last part is about the sharing out and distribution of the Land to the Bnei Israel.

Having read the parashah, which did not inspire me, there came to mind the fact that my friend Judith Clearwater, in her book Still dreaming, published a drashah on parashat Pinchas. It seemed worth while checking out what she had found to say about it.

 In her drashah, she discusses a turning point in her way of life: she had decided to pull out of some of the things she was doing, to do less. She had sat down and written letters and felt guiltyabout letting people down, and then felt much better once it was done. And that of course is why the drashah must have come to my mind, because that is exactly where I am at right now.

Some of you may be aware that a new editor is being sought for the Bulletin. In Judith’s case, she was quitting because of ill-health. In my case, my health is good and there has been no actual crisis. Rather, it seemed that the Bulletin had grown and the work seemed to take up more and more energy, so that I wasn’t up to doing much on non-Bulletin days. Editing the Bulletin is an enjoyable experience, and an absorbing one. So absorbing that other matters fell by the wayside. Because of that, the time has arrived to do what those Olympic athletes are doing in the UK at the moment - passing the torch from one to another in the lead-up to the games. So now we are looking for another person to take over, and the Bulletin will change again and become a reflection of a different point of view.

What struck me particularly from the vantage point of  the editor was how active our community is and how gifted our members. At first I thought of these events as unique – a book launch, a play, a study group, a poetry group, a baby group, the Klezmer Rebs, Temple Caterers, the annual seder, our bnei mitzvah, articles written  – all these different ways in which people dedicate themselves to something, and perform in ways which affect the rest of us, improving our lives. It was impressive. And then I realised that these events kept coming – there were always more. New people popped up doing different things. The Board changed. The volunteers varied. There was yet again something newsworthy to report, something to be proud of.

Another lesson was taught me over this period: and that is how much goodness there is around, how much people do for each other in quiet ways. It is a bit ant-like in that the individual effort appears small and hardly noticeable at the individual level, but when you have a whole congregation where giving a helping hand is highly valued and tends to happen naturally, it is awe-inspiring to observe, and a privilege to be in a position to witness it during these five years. Our newspapers focus a great deal on what is wrong and harmful in our society – and that is to some extent necessary. It does tend to create in our minds the feeling that the world out there is evil and many people are bent on harm. From the vantage point of an editor, one can see that this is not the case…
I am sure that someone will be found to continue the newsletter and that someone will give it a new form – it will be fun to watch it evolve.

And now to the parashah: the parashah says simply that Pinchas killed Zimri and his Medianite concubine Cozbi bat Tzur. . And then, very surprisingly,  Adonai granted him peace.

The Talmud gives more background to this: Bnei Israel, and the tribe of Shimon in particular, were seduced by Medianite women who were prostituting themselves. Zimri was the chief of the simeonites. People were upset by this behaviour and did not know what to do. In a misguided effort to assert that all was well, and that this was acceptable behaviour, Zimri took the Medianite princess into his tent as a concubine. And Moses did nothing about it. Torah law does not provide for conventional, court-induced punishment for such an offender. However, a law does exist that gives license for "zealots to smite” those who consort with idolatresses. So Zimri was deserving of death according to the Torah. The sentence is not entrusted to the normal judiciary process – it is up to the zealots. 

The commentaries say that the motives of the zealot who takes unilateral action are all-important. In this case he commits a double murder.

Is he acting out God’s wishes, or is he a violent man pretending to be holy? The true zealot is a selfless individual – do we believe such people exist?   If they do, they must be rare. A commentary by an Israeli academic calls Pinchas a great man, because  Pinchas was utterly taken over by pristine, pure religious intention. A normal person would have personal prejudices and inclinations in this matter and therefore ceases to qualify for zealotry. This is confusing. Maybe a zealot performs this murder without anger, calmly, because it needs to be done? No hate, no rage. This is a different act from that performed by suicide bombers who kill themselves in the process, who are encouraged to kill for a reward…

Judaism abhors murder; Judaism abhors killing. The Israeli Courts of law do not order the killing of a man proven to be guilty of murder , except in very rare circumstances. The sage Maimonides said that it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death. Anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof until we would be convicting on a mere whim.

The threshold to proving that someone has committed a murder is very high, there have to have been witnesses who saw the person do it, who heard him say that he was going to do it. So Jewish courts of law only rarely condemn a person to death – in my lifetime it happened as most of you know in Eichmann‘s case. Eichmann was found to be one of the main architects of the Holocaust, responsible for millions of deaths.
This law about smiting the infidels, belongs to a special category, the category of laws that are not taught. These are laws we are “not instructed to perform”. Many laws instruct us what not to perform, but here it is a  law we are not instructed to perform.

If Pinchas had asked for permission to kill Zimri, no one would have granted it. He was allowed to do it, but he had to give himself that permission, he had to break the law against murder all by himself. “The action  is directed entirely at eradicating evil in the name of Heaven. Only under such circumstances is this forbidden act which normally causes impurity transformed to an act which sanctifies.”

G-d said: he  has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. By killing the two, Pinchas stopped a plague that had begun to rage as the result of G-d's wrath against His people. The plague was a plague of immorality.

And G-d said:  "I hereby give him My covenant of peace.”

Just as a man owes gratitude and favor to someone who did him a favor, so here G-d expressed to Pinchas His feelings of peace. (Rashi) G-d says (Torah):”It shall be for him and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of kehunah, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel." The word kehunah means priesthood.

Pinchas had not been anointed as a priest prior to this event. He belonged to the right tribe, as he was Aaron’s grandson. But until that moment, only the older generations had been anointed. Pinchas was made a priest at the moment when he killed Cozbi, because he was a zealot who killed two people for the sake of G-d.

This is very difficult to take on board, and despite working on it and reading about it, I still don’t understand it. What Pinchas did came from a place of wisdom most of us do not know and may never attain. After studying this, it seemed best to say, I don’t understand, and to keep in mind the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” plain and simple. The commandments exist because transgression comes easily to us. We read about murders in the newspaper at almost any time. If it were not so easy to kill, the commandment would not be relevant. This is the law which is taught to us.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Emor 5772 / 2012

Parshat Emor

May 2012

The Hebrew word kadosh, as you no doubt know, means sacred, holy. In the initial chapter of this parashah, words based on the root kadash occur frequently – where Moses and Aaron are told about the priesthood, who can qualify to be a priest, a Cohen and what issues might prevent a person from being one.

First of all they have to be male. Then they must be a descendant of Aaron. This means that Moses himself was not in a position to become a priest, even though he spoke to G-d face to face.

The main issue here is about what is holy and what is not. There are several words that occur over and over again here. The word for holy  appears in many variations. Then there are the words for not-holy, such as tameh and chalul.

The word tameh is often translated as impure. That actually may not do justice to its true meaning. Much has been written about this meaning of tameh, and the simplest interpretation may be to say not-holy. When we use the word impure, we imply something negative, something bad. But that is not the case here. It is as if we said the word up is good, and down is bad.

It is like a light switch – is there any moral value to it being up or down? The position of the light switch is up when we need the light on or down when we no longer need it. This is the kind of difference between kadosh and tameh. These words are very similar to the words tapu and noa in Maori.

There is another word that is used here and that is chalul, which has more of the meaning of a blemish, which means pierced, defiled. The paragraphs go to and fro between holy and not-holy, saying that the priest is supposed to be holy, sacred, and he can’t be holy or sacred if he goes near dead bodies, or marries a certain kind of woman, such as a woman who has been married before and is now single again – either because she is now a widow or because she is divorced.

So we learn that the Cohanim, the priests, are to form an elite with special rules of conduct that do not apply to ordinary people, to the rest of bnei Israel.

For us, inclusiveness is an important value. And much of what is in the Torah is about inclusiveness. Except that here we have the deliberate creation of a caste, whose work brings them closer to G-d than the rest of bnei Israel. It is not democratic, we would say it is not fair. There is no discussion about people’s moral behaviour or how good they are to deserve this honour. On the contrary, it is all an accident of birth, due to being a descendant of Aaron’s.

Things become really distasteful to us, with our 21st century Western world view, in verses 18, 19 and 20 – which list the blemishes which are unacceptable in a Cohen who is to practice the rituals around the sacrifices in the Temple on behalf of bnei Israel. There are many of them – a rash of any kind on one’s skin, or a wound that has not yet healed, anyone who has one arm longer than the other or limps, or has something wrong with his eyes… Verse 21 concludes these descriptions and adds No man of the seed of Aaron the priest that has a blemish shall come near to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire. He has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God.

This is very painful, particularly if you yourself or someone you love has such a blemish. This list is cruel. We are all imperfect, and some of these imperfections are visible ones. The Torah seems to reject people in a most public way.

This appears to be the same rule of perfection which applies to the animals brought to sacrifice. They must be perfect as well. Only the best will do. We don’t have difficulty with that: If you are going to offer something to G-d, it should be the best there is. We evaluate animals according to their bodies. Surely that should be different from the way we evaluate our fellow human beings. So how come the Torah puts the same kinds of demands on the priests as on the animals about to be slaughtered? Where is the injunction to be kind to others, to treat them as we would like to be treated ourselves?  We suffer from being imperfect, most of us try to overcome our faults.
The classic explanation for this - which comes from the Chabad website - and which they call the Classic Explanation – that explanation teaches that the Cohen represents the people to G‑d. However, he also represents G‑d to the people. In this second role, it is vital that he be “perfect,” without spiritual or physical imperfections. This explanation resonates with a world that considered physical deformities as blemishes, and felt that such people could not assume positions of leadership.

The Chassidic Rabbis also say that according to the Zohar, anyone with a disability is born with a higher soul, a more developed soul than a person who is born with a healthy body. What happens if you become disabled later in life, I don’t know. That is something to think about.

The reasoning that reaches this conclusion is intricate and complicated and has to do with the fact that G-d purposefully created an imperfect world. This is a one-sentence summary of a response by Rabbi Eli Popack to a question about this issue, on

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says something else: he says that the ritual of sacrifice is about the soul, about prayer, being in touch with God.  When someone goes up to perform the ritual, the people carrying out the ritual have to be in touch with their spirituality and not be distracted. How does disability distract us? Here is a quote from his drashah – he is talking about Job.
In a series of blows, Job loses everything: his flocks, his herds, his children. Yet his faith remains intact. Satan then proposes subjecting Job to an even greater trial, covering his body with sores.5 The logic of this seems absurd. How can a skin disease be a greater trial of faith than losing your children?

It isn’t. But what the book is saying is that when your body is afflicted, it can be hard, even impossible, to focus on spirituality. This has nothing to do with ultimate truth, and everything to do with the human mind. As Maimonides said, you cannot give your mind to meditating on truth when you are hungry or thirsty, homeless or sick.

In his drashah, Rabbi Sacks teaches an understanding of the Holy – which is difficult to understand.  It seemed best to quote him as he wrote it, though it has been cut a bit to avoid it being too long. Here is how it goes:

G‑d is beyond space and time, yet G‑d created space and time as well as the physical entities that occupy space and time. G‑d is therefore “concealed.” The Hebrew word for universe, olam, comes from the same Hebrew root as ne’elam, “hidden.”.

Yet if G‑d was completely and permanently hidden from the physical world, it would be as if He were absent. From a human perspective, there would be no difference between an unknowable G‑d and a nonexistent G‑d.

Therefore G‑d established the holy as the point at which the Eternal enters time and the Infinite enters space. Holy time is Shabbat. Holy space was the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple.

G‑d’s eternity stands in the sharpest possible contrast to our mortality. All that lives will one day die.

Tum’ah [the fact of being tameh] should therefore not be thought of as “defilement,” as if there were something wrong or sinful about it. Tum’ah is about mortality. Death bespeaks mortality, but so too does birth. A skin disease like tzaraat makes us vividly aware of the body. So does an unusual physical attribute like a misshapen limb. There is nothing wrong about any of these things, but they focus our attention on the physical and are therefore incompatible with the holy space of the Tabernacle, dedicated to the presence of the non-physical, the Eternal Infinite that never dies or decays.

We all know we will one day die, but for the most part we feel part of life. the logic—if logic is the right word—of tum’ah has nothing to do with rationality, and everything to do with emotion Tum’ah means that which distracts from eternity and infinity by making us forcibly aware of mortality, of the fact that we are physical beings in a physical world.

What the Tabernacle represented in space, and Shabbat in time, was quite radical. It was not rare in the ancient world, nor in some religions today, to believe that here on earth everything is mortal. Only in heaven or the afterlife will we encounter immortality. Hence many religions in both East and West have been otherworldly. In Judaism holiness exists within this world, despite the fact that it is bounded by space and time. But holiness, like antimatter, must be carefully insulated. Hence the stringency of the laws of Shabbat on the one hand, the Temple and its priesthood on the other.

The holy is the point at which heaven and earth meet, where, by intense focus and a complete absence of earthly concerns, we open up space and time to the sensed presence of G‑d, who is beyond space and time. It is an intimation of eternity in the midst of life, allowing us at our holiest moments to feel part of something that does not die. The holy is the space within which we redeem our existence from mere contingency, and know that we are held within the “everlasting arms” of G‑d
What caused me to struggle most with this parashah is that it is dualistic: sacred and not sacred, the Cohen and the not Cohen, the acceptable woman and the unacceptable woman, the disabled Cohen and the Cohen who is without disability. Dualism matters because it creates an in-group and an out-group, it opposes inclusiveness, and mostly when you think about it, inclusiveness is what makes the world whole, whereas divisions tend to be harmful, though some division is practical and necessary. For instance, we all agree to divide the streams of traffic on the road, so that one side is for cars going in one direction and the other side is for the cars in the opposite direction. It reduces the chances of accidents.

Here is a quote from Rabbi Sacks’s drashah again:
These laws, together with many others in Leviticus and Numbers—especially the rite of the red heifer, used to cleanse those who had come into contact with the dead—are hard for us to understand nowadays. They already were in the days of the sages. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is famous for saying to his students, “It is not that death defiles, nor that the waters [of the red heifer] purify. Rather, G‑d says, ‘I have ordained a statute and issued a decree, and you have no permission to transgress it.’” The implication seems to be that the rules have no logic. They are simply divine commands.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Parashat Bo - Pesach 2012

The bit of parashat Bo that was read today contains a statement where the Torah relates how G-d smote the Egyptians …Va yehi bachetzi halailah [verse 12:29]. “And it came to pass at midnight that the Lord smote all the first-born…”.

Earlier in the parashah – in the bit before the reading – Moses is quoted as saying, in connection with the same event: “At about midnight – ka chatzot – I will go out into the midst of Egypt…” and he predicts the plague of the first-born – “all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die….”
In connection with this, Rabbi Avivah Zornberg mentions the following Talmudic recommendation in her commentary:‘Teach your tongue to say “I don’t know”, lest you be exposed as a liar’.

It is very heady stuff to be ‘the one who knows’. Not so popular among a person’s friends and relatives, who might call him or her a “know-it-all”. And if they are kind, they might add – “And he - or she - is often right”. Which is of course the person’s un-doing, the bit that keeps  us trapped in this idea that we know  – as mentioned earlier: it is heady stuff, to be in the right.

A visiting friend who lives in France said that her family call her “Madame Je-sais-tout” - Mrs I-know-everything. We both laughed: maybe the fact that there is a name for it in another language reflects how common a failing this is.  But at times, it seems important not to know. When we believe that we know, the idea we have of reality may be skewed. One who knows has erected a barrier to finding out what is happening in fact.Whereas the statement  ‘I don’t know’ implies an open mind. To go back to the parashah: where the Torah mentions when G-d will inflict the plague – the time is given exactly: at midnight.

Moses, talking of the same event says : “At about midnight….”

Before rambling on about this, here is the paragraph in Rabbi Zornberg's book* which caught my attention. She says the essential point about this reading is the precariousness of truth. Truth is a fragile thing, to be handled with care. The handling that is taking place is the talking about it. 

Whenever we open our mouths to speak, we risk being wrong. Moses knows that the plague will strike at midnight, but he says “At about midnight….”

Now some people may be knowingly wrong. When we find out – we may find out some of the time -  we call them liars. Sometimes people are wrong unknowingly, but it may still happen that they are called liars because of it. Certainly they will be less trusted, if only because they did not have the wisdom to acknowledge when they did not know.

So back to Avivah Zornberg: the precariousness of truth. Moses has predicted the plague and she writes
“the slightest of time-gaps – an error of milliseconds in the Egyptian calculation of mean time – will give them grounds to belie Moses’ whole story. Although Moses, and certainly G-d, knows the precise moment of midnight, human language must engage with the approximations and not with the absolute. This is particularly true in speaking about time, where subjectivity is unavoidable.”
And here she mentions the narrative of the night of the plague of the firstborn, the word Ba Chatzi – “at exactly midnight” is used: the narrative is about G-d’s actions and she says the expression describes “the absolute, divine measurement that is beyond human perception”.

She says: “There is no way of absolutely preventing or repudiating the subversive narratives of Egypt…. Moses avoids an arrogant exactness of prediction, he adopts a modest scepticism, which in the Talmud becomes exemplary: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’. …”
The prediction after all had been precise, had it not?
Avivah writes: “The human modesty recommended here takes account of the narratives and probable mis-narratives of others.” You can imagine how, if anything had happened even slightly differently from what was predicted, the Egyptians would pounce and say triumphantly – It is not what you said would happen, you said midnight – well it wasn’t midnight, was it!

There is no way of preventing this – given any chance, events will be misconstrued, and there is no way of overcoming the effect of the misconstruction.
There seems to be wisdom in this – to know that there is nothing to be done, that this is the world we live in – something happens and it may get misconstrued.
Moses was careful not to appear arrogant and a “know it all” – if he’d said “at exactly midnight” he would have been laying the ground for people to jeer and say “Well, was that exactly midnight? I don’t think so!” and ”Who does he think he is? How much control does he believe he has? He speaks as if he himself made the plague happen.” Better to appear a little remote from it. Better to be modest, and not so accurate.

A friend found that she had several house-bound people to visit over a certain period. Except for the first one, she found it an effort to arrive on time – sometimes visits were longer, sometimes shorter, depending on the need.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  These were her friends: she wanted to visit in peace and quiet, stay for as long as was necessary and not get stressed if the traffic was slower than expected as she travelled from one place to another. She felt it was rude to arrive a quarter of an hour later than she’d said. She felt she was being unreliable, and even disrespectful. And in a small way, to say that you’ll arrive say at three and arrive at a quarter past is a kind of lie. Her friends did not complained about this to her, it was her own feeling of guilt and inadequacy – surely there had to be a solution?
A friend who was a social worker told her: “Don’t give an exact time”.
 “What do you mean?”  
"Say “I’ll arrive between three and a quarter past three”."
 Very simple.
And that is what she did. In fact all she did was be more exact not in her arrival time but in the way she spoke about it. She only told the truth - she was more truthful. But it had required an effort on her behalf – it may be that many of you are thinking that they would have thought of this themselves…
It did require an effort and it did involve being exact with her speech.

Being aware of what one is saying and its effect on other people seems to be a life-long work. Sometimes when people come across this idea of taking care with their words for the first time, they say: “But I’d have to watch every word I say! That’s ridiculous!”. And that of course is precisely the thing to do - to attempt to watch every word we say.

The Particulars of Rapture: reflections on Exodus, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (2001, Schocken Books)