Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Written by Deborah Blausten

Picture the scene. A car chase, a rooftop finale, a whirl of flashing lights, running figures, blaring sirens, a stand off between arch nemeses, a gunshot, and then, fade to black… As the words ‘to be continued’ appear onscreen, families and friends turn to each other with a mix of exhilaration and anxiety. “So exciting”, “I can’t want to find out what happens”, “oh no, is he dead?”, “wait, I’m confused, what exactly happened?”, “Just tell me already, how does it end?!?”. The rolling credits offer no answer. There is just time for feverish speculation until the sequel, or the next season, arrives to put viewers out of their misery. In the meantime, there is space to contemplate the gravity of what has unfolded, and to address what has been exposed in the moment itself with little clue to its resolution or indeed whether things will ever be the same again.

These cliffhanger moments reflect choices that storytellers make when deciding how to share information with their audiences and they play on the relationship that that audience has built with the journey of the narrative. They are exhilarating because they invite audiences at least momentarily to take the reins and imagine where the story might go; they’re infuriating because they create confusion, anguish, fear for favourite characters, and anxiety that perhaps some storylines will never be resolved. Audiences can be left in the darkest point in a story, with no way to establish clear facts, and no sense of whether some kind of redemption is possible. Yet, the promise of resolution that the story’s continuation presents enables grappling, soul searching, and cultivates discussion.

It is of course not just the storylines of TV shows and film franchises that are divided up into episodes and told over a period of time. Our grand narrative arc of Torah is of course also split into episodes (more familiarly known to us as parashiyot) that we allocate across the year and to further facilitate their telling those episodes are sub-divided into aliyot.

This week’s parashah contains a section known as the ‘tocheichah’, the rebuke. It’s a particularly vengeful piece of text, which follows an explication of the blessings that the Israelite nation can expect to receive should they follow God’s statutes and commandments. The rebuke is strong and in a long series of verses we are told of punishments including catastrophic crop failure, defeat at the hands of enemies, wild beasts that kill the Israelites’ children, famine so severe that people resort to cannibalism, individuals being stalked by all-consuming fear, and the destruction of holy places – in other words, total desolation. It’s not an easy read, even with 21st century news-hardened eyes.

There are some special rules for the reading of this particular episode. In the Talmud (Megillah 31a-b) we learn that there is a mishnaic prohibition against breaking for an aliyah during the reading of the tocheichah. The result is a 36 verse aliyah, which is far longer than one person would usually read. The Gemara offers two reasons for this, the first of which is that were someone to stop reading mid-tocheichah, one might think that they were someone who despised rebuke; the second is that there is a custom not to bless a calamity and were someone to begin an aliyah during this section this is what they would need to do.

Still reeling from reading the parashah in its full and wretched glory, it was the first of these two that caught my attention. What does that mean to say that someone who pauses despises rebuke?

It could mean(as the Midrash Rabbah suggests) that they aren’t willing to accept divine rebuke – perhaps akin to a teenager who walks out of the room when they are told off. The suggestion is hardly complimentary, but I wonder if despising rebuke could also mean something else. Given the rebuke takes a particularly objectionable form, I wonder if stepping away from the Torah at that point because one ‘despised rebuke’ can be read as a commentary on the nature of the threat the text contains. Could it be that the person reading might stop on account of their conscience? That to despise rebuke might mean to take issue with the form in which it is offered?

What is so threatening about stopping in the middle? What responses, emotions, and questions might we encounter if we did stop?

The tocheichah is brought full circle with a reminder that “yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them…I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the LORD.” In other words, a happy ending, or at least one where there is a promise of redemption and a reminder that whilst God has Israel on a long leash, they will not be forsaken.

This resolution, coupled with its delivery as an unbroken reading that is often given in hushed tone, serves to package the tocheichah. Our experience of these difficult, really quite horrible threats, is held and contained within the wider picture of covenant and redemption. Starting and ending on positives (a promise of blessings and then a reminder of the covenant) creates a cocoon whereby the reader is in some way protected from some of the thoughts that they might encounter should there be time to pause in the reading before knowing where it was headed.  The same section of Talmud also tells us that Ezra enacted that the tocheichah must be read before Shavuot, so as to get the curses out of the way with the old year (Shavuot is a new year for fruit trees).

These details- the packaging with it’s positive start and end, a reader not pausing in case someone might make an inference about their motivations, quiet reading, and getting this dreadful section ‘out of the way’ before something good, reflect one way of dealing with problematic ideas. We do not, at least in this instance, dwell on the difficult.

And thus, though on some level I appreciate the cocooning and the sensitivity which appears to underlie it, the impulse that led me to begin this piece with an ode to the cliffhanger wonders how our engagement with this text might change if there was to be a break in exactly the place our ancestors feared; a space to indulge the tension in the narrative; to explore and contemplate the gravity and scale of the rebuke; and to sit with the uncertainty that, in dark moments that reveal a new dimension to a our relationship with God, it can be hard to remember that the promise of redemption is just a few verses away.

Student rabbi Deborah Blausten