The sedra of Bemidbar - "In the wilderness" - it is usually (though not this year) read directly before the festival of Shavuot, "the time of the giving of the Torah", when we recall the revelation at Mount Sinai. Indeed the opening verse refers to Sinai: "And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai . . ." What is the connection between wilderness and revelation?
The Midrash makes a psychological spiritual point:
Anyone who does not make himself open to all [hefker, literally ownerless] like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah. (Bemidbar Rabbah 1:7)
The desert is neither public nor private space. It belongs to no one. It is completely exposed to the sun and the elements. So must we be - imply the sages-if we are to become the recipients of Torah. To hear its commanding voice we must listen with total openness, absolute humility. Torah speaks to the soul that has learnt the art of silence.
The Egyptian-French poet Edmond Jabès (1912-1991) noted the connection between d-b-r , 'word', and m-d-b-r, 'wilderness'. For him, the wilderness experience is an essential and continuing feature of what it is to be a Jew:
With exemplary regularity the Jew chooses to set out for the desert, to go toward a renewed word that has become his origin . . . A wandering word is the word of G-d. It has for its echo the word of a wandering people. No oasis for it, no shadow, no peace. Only the immense, thirsty desert, only the book of this thirst . . . (From the Book to the Book, 166-67)
For Jabès, the Desert - with its unearthly silence and emptiness-is the condition in which the Word can be heard. There, between sand and sky, the unmediated encounter takes place between G-d and His people. There is something stark and austere about the wilderness, as there is about Judaism. In no other religion do G-d and humanity stand in such direct closeness, engaging in such frank and direct dialogue. Judaism is faith stripped of all accretions of myth - a faith that could only reach its full expression far from the diversions and distractions of urban or rural culture, in a landscape of lonely figures confronting the immensity of nature and hearing the Word from above and beyond. We are, Jabès implies, a desert people, never fully at home, never altogether satisfied, always thirsting for something that eludes us, never feeling that we have yet reached our destination. Judaism is the-word-as-wilderness and the-wilderness-as-word.
For the prophets, the desert signalled something else - privacy, intimacy, a place where Lover and beloved go to be alone with one another. Jeremiah delivers one of the most beautiful lines in the entire prophetic literature. In striking contrast to the impression we receive elsewhere in Tanakh, that the Israelites in the wilderness were quarrelsome and rebellious, Jeremiah speaks of the love and trust of the people, willing to leave all they knew and follow the divine call:
I remember the devotion of your youth,
Your love as a bride -
How you followed Me in the wilderness,
In a land not sown. (Jeremiah 2:1)
In an earlier age, Hosea used the wilderness as a symbol of the betrothal between G-d and the Israelites. G-d had 'married' the people, but they had acted unfaithfully. G-d would punish them. They would suffer disasters. Yet he could not abandon them, so great was His love. So, in an act of reconciliation, he would bring them back and renew their marriage vows in the wilderness, understood as a kind of second honeymoon:
Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will sing as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt. (Hosea 2: 16-17)
But there is a further, immensely significant dimension to the fact that the Torah was given in the wilderness. Israel, alone among the nations of world history, received its constitution even before it had entered its land. There is no analogy to this anywhere else. For every other nation, the land long preceded the laws. A people live in a certain territory. Gradually they begin to associate in ever larger groupings. They fight wars, build settlements, adopt leaders, develop a political structure, and then create a body of legislation to regulate their affairs. Nations develop organically like plants, with their roots in a soil, a landscape. In the history of Israel, and nowhere else, the nation received its laws in the wilderness, before it had even seen, let alone settled, the land. This is one of the great paradoxes of Judaism.
On the one hand, the Jewish story is about the land of Israel. It begins with Abraham's journey toward it. It continues with a second journey in the days of Moses, with the family now become a people. Judaism is a religion of place: the holy land, the physical location in which the people of the covenant are summoned to create a sacred society based on justice and compassion, human dignity and freedom. It was to be stand in the greatest possible contrast to the great empires with which it was surrounded - nations predicated on demographic strength and military power, tyrannical regimes and hierarchical societies with absolute rulers and populations measured in the mass, not the worth of the individual. Judaism has a home, a place where it belongs.
Yet most of Jewish history was spent outside that home. Abraham was forced, by famine, into exile. So was Jacob. Genesis ends with the patriarchal family in Egypt. Deuteronomy ends with Moses in sight of the promised land but not destined to enter it. Jewish history is a story of exiles - to Assyria, then Babylon, then the long series of dispersions from the Roman conquest to the birth of the modern State of Israel in 1948. As Isaiah Berlin noted: 'It was once said by the celebrated Russian revolutionary, Alexander Herzen, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, that the Slavs had no history, only geography. The position of the Jews is the reverse of this. They have enjoyed rather too much history and too little geography' (The Power of Ideas, p. 143).
This paradox is essential to Judaism and what makes it unique among the world's faiths. On the one hand, the G-d of Israel is utterly unlike the gods of the ancient world. He is not confined to this place, that nation: He is everywhere. Yet He is not remote, abstract. He has a home - or, to put it more precisely, He lives among a people that has a home. That is why Judaism is attached to a holy land - but at the same time it remains G-d's people even when in exile from the land.
It is thus no accident that the Israelites received their greatest revelation - the moment that forged them into a nation - outside the land, Bemidbar, 'in the wilderness', the place that is not a place, just as Jacob received his two great revelations (the vision of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, and the wrestling match with a stranger) in the midst of journeys, in places that were between: neither starting point nor destination.
The giving of the Torah in the wilderness is an essential feature of Jewish history. Had the Israelites received the Torah in the land, it would be indissolubly associated with the land. Exile would mean the end of the covenant. It would make no more sense to keep Torah while in exile than to obey the laws of Russia while living in Spain. What made the G-d of Israel different was the fact that He was sovereign of the universe, not a local deity. That is why the Jewish people survived dispersion. Only the G-d of everywhere can be found and worshipped anywhere.
Why money does not bring wealth
8 May 2009
There was a moment on the brink of the financial collapse last summer so symbolic that it could almost be a commentary on our times. At the end of July 2008, Damien Hirst put a sculpture for sale at Sotheby's. It sold for ten-and-a-half million pounds, one of the higher prices ever paid for the work of a living artist. Hirst called it the Golden Calf.
The irony was precise. What happened thirty three centuries ago among the Israelites in the desert happened again in our time. People stopped regarding gold as a medium of exchange, and started seeing it as an object of worship. The result, both times, was a collective madness. Adam bahul al mamono, said the sages, meaning, the pursuit of wealth can make us do irrational things.
It happened in the tulip craze in Holland at the end of the sixteenth century and the South Sea Bubble of 1720. The Florida Real Estate craze in the 1920s contributed to the Great Crash of 1929. Irrational expectation led to waves of investment, reinforced by rising prices, until the boom could no longer be sustained. What happens at such times is that we forget the difference the value of something and its price. Nowhere was this clearer in the latest boom-and-bust than in the case of houses. The value of a house is that it is home. Hebrew combines both ideas in a single word, bayit. It's where we belong and where, if we are lucky, we raise a family. At a certain point, though, some began to think of a house less as a home than as a tax-free capital investment. Value began to take second place to price. House prices began to rise. Even people who had no thought of capital gain were forced to join the race. They sought to borrow more, and banks and building societies duly obliged, devising ways to leverage loans ever higher.
Borrowings lost all proportion to average earnings. People, contemplating what they would get if they put their house on the market, thought they were getting richer, but in real terms they weren't. The value of a house is something altogether different from its price. It was bound to collapse. No one with a long memory doubted it. Even in biblical times, Joseph knew that the years of plenty would be followed by years of famine: the first recorded reference to trade cycles. Worship of a golden calf always ends in tears. What is fascinating, though, is the Torah's antidote. The story of the golden calf is immediately preceded and followed by a command, in both cases the command of Shabbat. The reason is profound.
Shabbat is when we celebrate the things that have value but no price. Husbands sing a song of praise to their wives. Parents bless their children. We take time to have a meal together with family and friends. In the synagogue we renew our sense of community. People share their joys – a new child, a bar or bat mitzvah, an engagement, a forthcoming wedding – with others. Those saying kaddish find comfort for their grief.
Shabbat, when we can neither buy nor sell, forcibly reminds us of the wise words of Ben Zoma: Who is rich? One who rejoices in what he has. A consumer society is based on the opposite: constantly reminding us of what we do not yet have. That is the reason for the paradox that affluence is not reflected in higher self-reported levels of happiness. True happiness means celebrating what God has given us, not what the market wants us to buy.
There is no minimising the pain of this recession. What is truly impressive about our community is that levels of giving remain high, and our welfare agencies are working hard to help people in need. The Jewish values of tzedakah and chessed are still strong, and being exercised daily.
The deep question about the financial and economic crisis is not, When will it end? but, How will we be changed by it? Judaism is not opposed to the market, but it has given us Shabbat to set a limit to our striving. Crises remind us of what really matters: family, friendship and faith, the things that have a value, not a price.
Work is essential to human dignity
15 May 2009
It was one of Maimonides' most penetrating insights. Listing the eight rungs of the ladder of tzedakah, he places highest of all one 'who provides someone with a gift or a loan or a business partnership or in some other way helps him find employment.' The highest degree of tzedakah, exceeded by none, he writes, is to help someone start a business or find a job. In conventional terms this makes no sense at all. Usually we think of charity in terms of what it costs the person who gives. The more you give, the more charitable you are. But often it costs nothing to help someone find a job. Investing in a new business may even bring financial gain. Nothing more eloquently expresses the distinctiveness of Jewish ethics.
Tzedakah does not mean charity. The word is untranslatable since it means both charity and justice, two concepts that are, in English, opposites. If I give someone £1,000 because I owe him this sum, that is justice. If I give him £1,000 because he needs it, that is charity. In English the two cannot be combined. In Hebrew they cannot be separated. That is because in Judaism, we believe that what we have, we do not truly own. We hold it in trust on behalf of God. One of the conditions of that trust is that we share some of what we have with those in need. So in Judaism tzedakah is more than charity. It is a form of social justice.
Social justice means, among other things, caring for human dignity. So the laws of tzedakah focus less on the giver than on the recipient. Jewish law is intensely aware that needing help from others is not only a financial crisis. It is also psychologically traumatic. To lose your job is a blow to self-respect, an essential element of human dignity. So Judaism tells us that, wherever possible, we must try to minimise the embarrassment or shame.
We try to give not only generously but also anonymously, so that people will not know from whom they have received. That is why the highest form of tzedakah is helping someone find a job, because of all forms of assistance it is the one that most effectively gives someone back their independence, dignity and self-respect. The best aid, says Maimonides, is to help someone dispense with the need for aid. That should be a guiding principle for our community in the current recession. It is a terrible shock to lose your job, however much you know that others are losing theirs, and that it is all the result of a global recession for which no one company or country is to blame. Work means independence, which is at the core of human dignity. Even in Eden, said the sages, God gave Adam the dignity of work, placing him in the garden 'to serve and protect it.'
That is why I particularly value the work of the Employment Resource Centre, run by JBD, and Train-E, Trade-E, both of which exist to help people find jobs, start new businesses, or learn new skills that will open fresh avenues of employment. These are organisations where you truly see Jewish values in action.
No one knows how long the current financial crisis or the economic recession, will last. We do know that it is taking a terrible toll. People are losing their jobs, their savings, and in some cases, their homes. Now is the time for us to act as a community. We can all help in some way, sharing our skills with others or offering financial assistance to those in need. Best of all, we can help them find work and an income and a recovered sense of dignity.
Every community should establish a group dedicated to this work, guided by its rabbi, making use of the talents and networking skills of people within the congregation. That was the greatness of Jewish communities throughout the ages. They knew that kol Yisrael arevin zeh bazeh, we are all responsible for one another, and they acted on it. Now is the time to put that principle into practice. God's gifts become blessings when we share them with others.