Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר אתכם מכל חטֹאתיכם לפני ה’ תטהרו

For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins.

Leviticus 16:30

Five times on Yom Kippur, we say the Ashamnu, the shorter prayer of confession. As a community, and with musical accompaniment, we read out a list which might be considered slanderous if attributed to any of us by another person. However, we freely admit to all of the sins on the list.

What have we really done? What do we think we have done? What do others think we have done?

There are generalized sins which we admit to, because that’s how the liturgy goes.

There are the sins we think of in private prayer.

There are sins we don’t know about which somebody else thinks we have have committed.

Certain hurts, like being snubbed or bullied – it’s easier to know when we suffer from them than it is to know when we do them.

What I’d like us to discuss, the bottom line, is how we feel when we say the prayers of repentance; whether we can identify with the words or if they don’t feel right. The print out is about the prayer beginning Ashamnu, We have sinned and it lists quite specific types of sin.

There is a prayer (Days of Awe pp644 – 645), written by Rabbi Lionel Blue, z”l, which includes a confession of insincere confession.

Apology, confession and repentance – how far do they overlap? Can apologies and confessions be insincere? Repentance, which, perhaps, takes place in the heart, seems less likely to be insincere.

Does gratitude have any common borders with repentance? And – perhaps more likely – does forgiveness?

Then there are the unfair things which are leveled against us, sometimes by strangers eg, a driver in a hurry or a zealous tweeter; sometimes by our nearest and dearest, eg ‘You never listen,’ ‘You don’t help.’

We admit our shortcomings to a person unlikely to judge us: a therapist, or a counsellor or God.

Is the sense of guilt an index of wrongdoing or is it a personality trait?

We live in a society where there is sometimes a requirement for a public apology, even for historical events. The American House of Representatives issued an apology for slavery, as well as an apology to Native Americans and to Hawaii for the overthrow of their kingdom. Tony Blair is often pressed to apologize for the war in Iraq. If a nation apologizes for an historical wrongdoing, is it worth anything unless they pay reparations?

We say sorry to each other, especially ahead of Yom Kippur. I know of one case when the person receiving the apology was on the point of gracious acceptance when he realized it was Shabbat Shuva and then interpreted the apology as an act of flagrant passive-aggression.

There is a view that an apology should have three components, regret, which means owning one’s deed and not evading responsibility;  compensation, which means doing one’s best to put it right, and a promise that one will at least try not repeat the offence

Let’s look at the sins listed in the Ashamnu. We should note that, unlike the Al chet shechatanu lefanecha, the Ashamnu is specific about different typs of sin or wrongdoing. But the prayer is introduced by a reference to sin: aval anachnu v’avotenu chatanu.

Edith Piaf declared in her moving song, ‘Je ne regrette rien,’ that she regretted nothing. So, is there something to be said for regretting nothing? Is it as authentic recognition of the good and the bad in one’s life? The metaphor of sweeping away has something in common with our own prayer, taken from the prophet Isaiah (44:22): ‘Behold I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.’

*

The discussion took place on Yom Kippur 5778 while the Mussaf service was in progress in the main synagogue hall.. Most people felt that apologies could occur for outward form, without genuine repentance. Being on the receiving end of an apology was valued; regarded as a healing experience. Gratitude and forgiveness were discussed. Institutional apologies were discussed and the view was expressed that they too had a healing effect.We noted that the Ashamnu prayer was translated in Yamim Noraim in a way which kept the acrostic form of the prayer but was very free with the line by line translation. There was discussion of the sin of gossip/lashon hara in particular. A distinction was made between gossip and betrayal.

Although the Ashamnu lists sins we have committed, there was an interest in what would be a proper response to perceived injuries against us.

As always, the point of the discussion was not to reach conclusions, but for its own sake.

We returned to the main hall in time for the Minchah service.

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GerizimDeuteronomy 27: 9 – 26  Ki Tavo

This event takes place towards the end of the forty years in the wilderness and in the last days of Moses’ life. Moses  prepares the Israelites for their new life after his own death, in the promised land, under the leadership of Joshua.

He then delineates a ceremony of blessings and curses which will take place after the Israelites have crossed the Jordan, at which time Moses will no longer accompany them. The leadership will have passed to Joshua. The tribes will be divided into two groups. Six tribes are to stand on Mount Gerizim, to the south, and pronounce blessings. The other six are to stand on Mount Ebal, north-east, and pronounce curses. The tribes sent to Gerizim are Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. The tribes who have the unfortunate job of presiding over the curses are Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali. The curses are spoken by Levites who anathemize those who make graven images; those who treat their parents badly; those who move a neighbour’s landmark; those who lead the blind astray; those who subvert the cause of widows and orphans; those who sleep with their father’s wife, with their sister, or their mother-in-law; those who have sex with an animal, those who commit physical assault in secret, paid assassins and those who do not adhere to these commandments.

There are twelve curses, matching the number of the tribes.

Mount Ebal is in biblical Shechem, now Nablus on the West Bank.

There are several questions raised by the text and not answered. Why are the curses issued from Mount Ebal, which later became the site of an Israelite altar, constructed from stones? Why are the blessings from Mount Gerizim, which later became the Sanctuary of the Samaritan sect?

Some commentators – Samson Raphael Hirsch for example – reasoned that Gerizim was fertile and Ebal rugged. In the thirteenth century, Nachmanides noted that as Gerizim, was to the south, it was at the right hand when one faced east to pray. It’s also suggested that the southern position of Gerizim placed it in the territory of Judah  while Ebal stood in what was to become the Northern Kingdom.

As for the Samaritan view of the sanctity of Gerizim, this is somewhat backed up by a passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls version of Deuteronomy, which says:

When you have crossed the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about  which I charge you today, on Mount Gerizim, and coat them with plaster.  And there, you shall build an altar to the Lord your God.

The verse in the Masoretic text, that’s the chumash you may have in front of you, and in our Sefer Torah, says:

And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. (Deuteronomy 27:4)

Then there’s the question of who were Samaritans. The name comes from Shomrim, meaning keepers or guards, just as the geographical area of Samaria is called Shomron in Hebrew. They claim descent from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and split with  mainstream Israelite observances by locating their sanctuary on Mount Gerizim. At that time, the period of the judges, the official sanctuary was in Shiloh. The Samaritans have their own version of the Pentateuch, written in a script resembling palaeo-Hebrew and containing mostly minor but numerous variations from our Masoretic text. We don’t know the age of the Samaritan pentateuch, but some of these variations occur likewise in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek Septuagint, so it’s old, perhaps from the time of the Second Temple. The Samaritans don’t count the prophets or the hagiographa – the Ketuvim – as scriptural. They just have the five books of the chumash.

Now there’s another question  without any definite answer, relating to this Torah reading. How were the tribes divided? What did it signify, if your tribe was doing the blessings from Gerizim or the curses from Ebal? It seems to me that the tribes doing the blessing, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin are the A list, with the possible exception of Issachar. Those standing on Mount Ebal are Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali. The tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher were  descended from Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. Reuben and Zebulun are the oldest and youngest sons of Leah. It is also interesting that the descendants of the Ebal tribes are less notable than the royal, priestly and messianic issue of the Gerizim tribes.

According to my counting, twelve curses are to be uttered on Mount Ebal and, as you will hear, a dozen times it is repeated that all the people will say Amen. Their peoplehood is expressed in the unity with which they accept the Torah of Moses and shun the ways which are forbidden, cursed. As you know, the word ‘amen’ is connected with the word for faith, emunah, but it has traveled a long way, as it appears in the Greek of the New Testament and is used in Muslim prayer with the same meaning. I find there is something a bit magical about the word Amen. Listen to it, as it’s repeated in out Torah reading, from Deuteronomy 27.

published in The Journal of Progressive Judaism, no 7, November 1996. Author: Gillian Gould Lazarus as Gillian Gould

SPOILERS included

Fauda is an Israeli television series first broadcast in 2015, about an Israeli undercover operation in the West Bank, specifically aimed at a wanted Palestinian terrorist. It’s now available on Netflix. Languages are Hebrew and Arabic and the actors are Israelis and Palestinians. The series was popular among both Israelis and Palestinians.

The characters are well developed so that no one is portrayed without humanity. Acts of kindness occur as well as acts of violence. The brotherhood of men at arms is shown to be sometimes profound and sometimes illusory. Many characters are vengeful, some hot-headed, some manipulative, some cautious. Many are driven by fanaticism and we can understand why. The antagonist is a Hamas leader whose innocent brother was killed – collateral damage – on his wedding day. The protagonist’s brother-in-law was killed brutally at the instigation of the terrorist. All the women are anguished due to the roles played by their loved menfolk.

I watched, on the edge of my seat, because, as with all good drama, it was easy to feel the fear and imagine the pain. One could feel pity, if not empathy, for the beautiful bride whose groom is shot by Israelis; the Israeli agent whose girlfriend is blown up in a Tel Aviv bar by the grieving widow; the Israeli captured by Hamas, the philanthropic doctor, the elderly sheikh who blesses the terrorists and is ultimately killed by the Israelis; the Israeli captain who drives the action and talks on the phone to his children about burgers and ketchup. At the soft centre of the story is a love affair between the Israeli protagonist and the Palestinian doctor who does not know that he is an Israeli agent. He seems to fall in love with her even while practising the deception.

The series depicts acts of brutality but also unlikely friendships across the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Are the handshakes and amicable conversations entirely specious? I don’t know, but would like to think they are not. After all, the production team and actors worked together on the most sensitive of subjects, with brilliant results and the series is a success on both sides of the divide.

It would be quite possible for Israeli viewers to see the Israeli characters as righteous and likewise for Palestinians regarding the Palestinian operatives This is to the credit of Lior Raz, writer and lead actor, who, with the rest of the cast, created rounded, realistic characters.

Fanaticism is always a topic of interest in fiction and drama, and also in our Tanakh. Who is more fanatical than Abraham, prepared to slaughter his son in obedience to God’s word? Fanatics fascinate, while their acts are questionable. Watch them from the edge of your seat but do not emulate them. Don’t emulate Abraham avinu, at least, not in terms of his fathering skills. In my view, Abraham’s finest moment was when he said ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth act justly?’ (Genesis 18:25) He was arguing with God, on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom, in case there were righteous people among those destroyed.

This Abraham is our father, not the problematic dad of Ishmael and Isaac.
In Fauda, both Doron and Abu Ahmad are motivated by revenge and their perceptions of justice, to the extent that they are not deterred by collateral damage.

There is always collateral damage and only three people got out of Sodom alive. It would appear that God did not find ten just people there to save. The matter is not alluded to after Abraham’s intercession.

May 2017

For a man who was slow of speech and meeker than anyone alive, this is quite a speech, where Moses addresses the Israelites on the last day of his life. Haazinu hashamayim meaning ‘Give ear O heavens,’ are the opening words of the penultimate sidra in our scroll. Moses does not speak of himself at all, except to say, ‘I speak’ and ‘I call,’ for this long poem which comprises his speech is a song of praise to God. Moses refers to God as Tsur, meaning rock, Elyon, meaning the highest and Avicha kanecha, your Father who made you. Many of the sayings in this portion are familiar from our liturgy. The poem invokes the infidelity of the Israelites, contrasted with God’s faithfulness and justice. The people of Israel are called Jacob and Yeshurun, meaning ‘the upright’ in the sense of upright morality, yet Moses accuses thrm of being wayward and provocative. Nevertheless, he says, God shelters them beneath His wings.

This poem in Deuteronomy 32, is called The Song of Moses. You might be reminded of Shirat ha Yam, the Song at the Sea, in Exodus 15, which is sometimes called the song of Moses and Miriam. There are other songs in the bible – notably the Psalms of David, but also Deborah’s song in Judges and Hannah’s in 1 Samuel. Jonah sings a song of praise inside the whale. The Song of Songs is an entirely poetic book of the bible, attributed to Solomon but Jeremiah also has a song book, much more mournful in tone: the Book of Lamentations.

Some of these songs do not mention the life and situation of the putative singer and would not look out of place in the book of Psalms.

The Song of Moses takes place on the final day of his life but these are not his last words. Like Jacob, he blesses the individual tribes before his death in a speech which begins with the words ‘Vezot ha berachah – And this is the blessing.’ After he has finished speaking, God sends him to the top of Mount Nebo and shows Moses the promised land, which he will never reach. Moses dies there on the mountain, and thus the fifth book of the pentateuch is brought to a close. On Simchat Torah, we shall be reading the last part of Vezot Haberachah, right at the end of Deuteronomy, as we conclude the cycle of Torah readings, before beginning again at once with Bereshit.

October 2016

Yom Kippur 2016/ 5777
For afternoon study at Sha’arei Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue

While the Yom Kippur mussaf service is going on, there’s room for the whole congregation in one hall, but when we join the main service for Minchah, the numbers gradually increase so that, by the time Yizkor starts, both halls will be filled, more or less to capacity. People who, for one reason or another, leave the synagogue during the course of the day, tend to come back for Yizkor, the service for remembering the dead. Some have been bereaved this year, others in years past and some come supported by families, perhaps their children, most of whom, we might reasonably hope, have not yet experienced bereavement.

Mourning, loss and remembering play a great part in our lives, as does the certain knowledge that our own days are numbered.

The comfort of believing that we’ll be reunited with our loved ones after death is not available to many of us, these days, even though, every time we recite the Amidah, we say that God revives the dead,.

Our synagogue has a Minhag Group, open to all members, where all aspects of our religious customs come under discussion. One topic which came up, time and time again, because members raised the subject, was the way we handled bereavements and yahrzeits, in synagogue services, for example, before kaddish and in the form of notifications: community email and notice board. There was sometimes a question of which mourners would be named. ‘Father of member’s name,’ would be typical at a yahrzeit, but what if the member isn’t in shul for the yahrzeit? Or, he’s in shul, but wants us to mention that the deceased was grandfather to his children or grandchildren, who are not in shul? Usually, the shaliach tsibbur will read all the names gladly.

Is the feeling which makes the reading of names important different from the feeling that makes us erect a tombstone, light a yahrzeit candle or visit a grave?

Are these questions connected with memorializing, rather than grieving, or is there an overlap? Do social norms influence the way we remember? People sometimes weep when the name of their loved one is read out before kaddish, so it must happen that the respectful ritual of the yahrzeit interacts with the painful sense of loss.

How do we memorialize? With prayers, tombstones, donations; a newborn child of the family may be named after the deceased. We speak of those we have lost, look at photos, movies, voice recordings, if we have these mementos. We research history and genealogy. We value things which belonged to them and things they valued. We feel the loss and, if we lose someone close to us, our lives are never the same.

Psalm 103 tells us that life is short and lives are forgotten, sooner or later. We know this is true for us, as well as those who have gone ahead. How do we want to be remembered, if indeed we expect to be remembered? Some of us contribute to science, the arts, education or the well-being of humanity. Some of us have children. Some of us write wills.

At the Bafta and Oscar award ceremonies, every year now, they play a montage of images of those from the film industry who died in the past year. The names and professions are written underneath the smiling faces. Some are world famous, others are cameramen or costume designers, whose faces most of us don’t recognize. The music accompanying the montage of images adds to their poignancy.

There is a memorial fountain in Hyde Park to Princess Diana. Rabin Square, formerly Kings of Israel Square, in Tel Aviv is named in memory of Yitzhak Rabin. The very famous have airports named after them – not just Kennedy, De Gaulle, Ben Gurion, Indira Gandhi, but Marco Polo and Leonardo da Vinci, and also John Lennon, John Wayne and George Best.

There are prescribed prayers for entering a cemetery, including mechayah hametim. In the El Male Rachamim, we pray for the peace of the soul of the departed; that God will shelter them eternally and bind their soul in the bond of life.

Is the survival of the soul taken for granted in these prayers, or is it a liturgical convention, to speak as if death were not the end of life?

If we are not convinced of a supernal afterlife, is the nature of memorializing in this world even more important?

While I was writing this, an item came on the news about Jo Cox, the murdered MP, and the work she was doing to support a volunteer civil defence organization of neutral, unarmed Syrians, called the White Helmets. It was said that the White Helmets rescue people from danger without ascertaining who they are, or what side they’re on. It seems to me that, if they save lives, and Jo Cox effectively supported their work, that would be one kind of everlasting memorial.

By the next time I open this document, I have read that the White Helmet organization has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It has also been referred to by those who oppose it, as a wing of Al Qaeda. The truth or falsity of this assertion cannot make an iota of difference to the way Jo Cox is remembered. Or can it?

Can we even know what will be memorable, what will have a good outcome and what will be ephemeral, a candle in the wind, as they say, or a flower of the field?

As for ‘everlasting to everlasting,’ me-olam v’ad olam, we invoke it in our liturgy, but, for many of us, it’s just an expression, the poetry and metaphor of prayer.

In death as in life, good intentions can be lost and legacies compromised, but those we loved, we remember with love as long as we live.

milk and honey

I never take much notice of the Eurovision Song Contest, least of all the songs, but I sometimes watch the voting, with some slight interest in how countries often vote in clusters. The Balkan countries back each other and the Danes and Swedes seem to have a reciprocal arrangement, while the UK and Ireland give each other a bounce on the voting board, as if Gerry Adams had never existed.

The strange thing is that neighbouring countries are as likely to go to war across the border as to appreciate each other’s musical artistry.

I wondered how it would have worked in biblical antiquity. After all, the Ammonites and the Moabites were related to Terach, same as Abraham, and even the wicked Amalekites were descended from Isaac, via Esau.

As for the Canaanites whose land is spied out by Moses’ agents, would they bestow their douze points on the Israelites, or take revenge on them by giving everything to the Jebusites, the Amorites and the Hittites?

The spies Moses sent into Canaan brought back disheartening reports of giants inhabiting the land, but they’d noted that it was rich and fertile and they coined the phrase, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.

The word supposed to mean giants is Nephilim, fallen ones, suggestive of fallen angels, in other words, beings possessed of supernatural power. Everyone was afraid, except for Joshua and Caleb, who were convinced that they could gain the land by conquest. As usual, the people blamed Moses for bringing them out of Egypt, where they said they’d been better off. You can imagine how they would have been ready to give Egypt all their points in the North East Africa Song Contest.

The people were so rebellious that God said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me?’ and was about to smite them with a plague, only Moses pleaded with God, on behalf of the Israelites. God then replied ‘Salachti kidvareycha’ – ‘I have forgiven, according to your word.’

However, that generation of Israelites wandered forty years in the wilderness and never reached the promised land, with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, who had not despaired or rebelled against God.

Joshua would go on to enjoy good relations with a Canaanite woman called Rahab, who sheltered Joshua’s Israelite spies before the Battle of Jericho, described in the book of Joshua. In Midrash, Rahab is a beautiful prostitute, or possibly an innkeeper, and these midrashic versions are quite romantic because Joshua marries Rahab, even though she’s a Canaanite. The people across the border – what are they, enemies or neighbours? And can they sing?

 

written on the day of an EU Referendum in the UK, 23 June 2016


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