Tuesday, 28 Jul 2015

Written by Roberta Harris Eckstein

Shabbat Nachamu / Parashat Va’etchannan

I’ve been looking around the internet for words of wisdom about this week’s parashah that might stimulate my creative juices, so that I could write some words of wisdom for you.  The problem is that the section of Va’etchannan that we read [ie. Deuteronomy 6:1 – 7:11 at the outside] contains a real dilemma and one that no one, as far as I can see in an afternoon of surfing the net, has addressed – and I don’t blame them one bit.

The first passage is the Shema; well and good – I could tell you about Rashi’s commentary on the Shema or discuss the ways in which the Shema might influence our lives today. It is, after all, the central document of the Jewish faith.  It could even be called a dogma, though it isn’t really that since only the first line is a categoric statement of what Jews must believe; the rest is about the Socratic question, ‘How should a person live?’ – and if we rephrase the question as ‘How should a Jew live?’ we have the answer in these verses.

So far, so good: but what follows is emphatically not good at all.  Look at verses 10 and 11 for starters: Israel will enter the land and live in

‘great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – and you will eat your fill’

This makes us uncomfortable right away, but there is much worse to follow. Chapter 7 begins with the dispossession of the seven peoples of Canaan who are already living in the land – and not only that: we are to defeat them and ‘doom them to destruction’: we may on no account intermarry with them or worship their false gods – that bit I can understand I suppose, since intermarriage is seen by them as inevitably leading to apostasy.  But do we really have to kill them and destroy their holy places to boot?  Verse 16 (which is beyond our reading for this year) says clearly

‘You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity’

By this time we are really unhappy; what are we to do with such ideas in our Torah?  We have no way to make our peace with them.  And yet we believe the Torah to be, if not a divine Law to be followed without hesitation, then certainly a guide as to how we should live our lives.

It is not surprising, then, that there is little to be found on these passages on the internet – at least on the part of it I surfed.  So how can they be made acceptable for Progressive Jews now?  Not easily, until we remember how many centuries have passed since these words were written down for us.  Our ancestors were fighting for their lives and a homeland, while we are comfortably situated, for the most part, in the nations of our exile.  Ethical ideas and humane concepts have developed among us and others.  Few of us would behave now as the Israelites did then, although the desperate asylum seekers of Calais do perhaps act violently in order to gain a foothold among us; but they are unlikely to want to try to wipe out the entire population of these islands!

The development towards a modern ethical system came with Baruch Spinoza and his contemporaries throughout Europe. He lived in 17th century Amsterdam and he was put under cherem for heresy by his Portuguese synagogue community.  He certainly believed that the Hebrew Bible was the work of many hands over a long period of time and that it could be studied by rational methods of criticism, as we do now.   His magnum opus was his work on Ethics that became so influential in the development of European thought.  Ethics is one of the cornerstones of Israelite thought, too – we only have to think of the Ten Commandments to be convinced, leave alone the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19.

So we are no longer the people who slaughtered the inhabitants of the land they took for their own and claimed, in retrospect, that their God told them to do it.  We have changed, just as society around us has changed.  We recognize that what our ancestors did in those days is not what we would do today.  It is this recognition that makes some of us so uncomfortable with the stance taken by the present Israeli government, which in many ways seems to be adopting policies that have more in common with the Biblical narrative than with our 21st century understanding of how we would like the State of Israel to behave.

This coming Shabbat is called ‘Shabbat Nachamu’ from the first word of the Haftarah passage taken from Isaiah 40 – we read verses 1 – 21.  This is the first of the seven  ‘Shabbatot of Consolation’, which succeed the traditional tragedies of Tisha B’Av and lead up to Rosh Hashanah.  ‘Nachamu’ may be translated as ‘Take comfort’ – or in the famous words of the King James Bible ‘Comfort Ye’.  Possibly we are being told take comfort in the knowledge that we would not behave as our ancestors did; that the world has moved on and that Israel has moved with it.  But the terrorists of this world – and I will name Da’ash (IS or Islamic State) as the worst of them – keep returning us to the world of ancient cruelties.  Perhaps then, we should use the reading of ‘Nachamu, nachamu ami’, not as ‘Comfort yourselves, comfort yourselves, my people’ but rather in the midrashic sense of ‘Comfort me – your God – comfort me, my people’.  There are still so many unbelievable horrors being inflicted on this planet, that God, Who created us with freewill, also needs comfort from us, needs the knowledge that many of us have, for the most part, moved on.  And perhaps, just perhaps, we could be comforted by the belief that one day the world will become a more ethical place for all of humankind.
Roberta Harris Eckstein

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.