“There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese!”
In one of my favourite childhood movies, a gang of mice pranced about the film screen singing these words. There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese.
In An American Tail, the protagonist is a seven-year-old Jewish mouse named Fievel Mousekewitz. In his home country, the mice are terrorised by cats. They struggle to eat and sustain their traditions. His whole family dreams of making the journey across the Atlantic to a new country where they won’t face these problems any more.
In America, they imagine, the cats, which represent persecution or kossacks or fascists or pogroms, won’t exist any more. After years of not eating, America will provide them with every food they have imagined. Over the ocean, even the streets will be paved with cheese.
As the plot unfolds, the mice arrive in New York. Fievel discovers that America’s streets are no more cheesy than the old country’s, and that cats are just as prevalent. In their new land, they will also be hungry, and persecuted, and tired, just as they were in the old. Their dreams could not be realised by moving from one country to another.
In this week’s parashah, Moses sends out scouts to survey the land of Israel. He asks twelve envoys to go into the country they expect to possess and report back on its contents.
I imagine this must have been a moment of great trepidation. We today know what other countries look like. We are able to travel abroad; we meet migrants from foreign places; we have access to people anywhere in the world through media in the palms of our hands.
Not long ago, such journeys were rare. People did not know how expansive the globe was or how similar and different people around the world would be to them. Perhaps travelling merchants brought fantastical tales from places they had never been. Some maps were marked with warnings of sea monsters and dragons. For the Israelites making the journey to Canaan, it would have been their first time leaving their valley in Egypt. Anything could await them on the other side.
When they came back, ten gave their report. The land has fertile soil, with large grapes growing on vines. But the people who live there are numerous and giant. We looked like grasshoppers to them. The cities are walled, fortified, and guarded. We have no chance of taking that land, and, even if we could, it will swallow up everyone who inhabits it.
Caleb and Joshua disagreed. They offered a minority report. We can do it. We can take this land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. As long as you obey God and Moses, you can capture that place and live the life you have fantasised about.
According to our story, the other ten scouts were struck down with plagues and punished for their transgression. How dare they give such a negative report?
Only Joshua and Caleb go on to enter the Promised Land. Rabbinic commentaries make much of how courageous and optimistic those men were. They had faith. They believed in God’s strength and their own.
But here’s the thing. Joshua and Caleb were lying. That land was not flowing with milk and honey. They really were outnumbered. They really were about to take on fortified cities. It really was unlikely that an exhausted band of runaway slaves were going to be able to conquer an entirely new country.
All Joshua and Caleb were offering were politicians’ promises. They were giving false hope to keep people in line and stop them rebelling against Moses.
They say, at this moment, God decided that this generation would not enter the Promised Land. They were too rebellious and stubborn. Only Joshua and Caleb, who actually believed in God, would be permitted admission. This was their punishment: they will not know what the Land of Israel looks like, and they will wander further.
But, if they had entered the land, the whole Israelite people would have seen that the first ten scouts were right. They would have realised that Joshua and Caleb had fleeced them. They would have seen that Moses promised them a land that did not exist.
Preachers often lament how sad it was that Moses never saw the Promised Land. But how much sadder would it have been if Moses had reached it? Imagine if Moses had travelled all those miles, given up everything, fought with everyone, and struggled endlessly, only to see that the much-vaunted land of his ancestors was just another desert.
The lands of Israel are no more fertile than the plains on the east side of the Jordan. They are filled with inhospitable desert. While the Israelites have had to fight with Amalekites and Moabites to reach their destination, in the new country they will battle Canaanites, Philistines and other tribes. For all the promises of peace, the war is not over.
Moses had brought the Israelites away from Egypt promising freedom. In the new country, there will still be slaves. There will still be priests and kings to subjugate them. There will still be debts to pay and unaffordable rents and famines and strife. They will still see death, sickness, and injustice.
How tragic would it have been for Moses to reach that land flowing with milk and honey, where he would find that it had neither. The Promised Land was not as promised.
There were still cats in America. The streets were not paved with cheese.
At the conclusion of An American Tail, the mice eventually band together to defeat the cats. Using their cunning, technology, and finding surprising friends, they build a contraption to scare away their evil persecutors. They learn that there will be cats, but that they have to work in solidarity if they want to defeat them. They discover that streets are not paved with cheese, but that, if they find some, they can share it, and in those moments they will feel sated and free.
None of the spies could really give a report on the land, because it wasn’t a place they were going. It was somewhere they imagined they might build by common endeavour.
They could have said: “That land does not flow with milk and honey. But it could. We could make it feel like it was.”
Maybe we don’t learn those things from speeches and scouts’ reports. We only learn how to work together by doing it. We only discover what we are capable of if we try.
Only by working together can we make a world that flows with milk and honey.
Together, we can free the world of cats and pave the streets with cheese.
Month: June 2022
But Ruth was a Moabite
In the Louvre, there is a towering stele, engraved with glyphs in an ancient language. Cast into the stone are the words purported to come from King Mesha of Moab. It tells of how the kingdom of Israel waged war against the Moabites and subjugated them.
He tells how King Omri decided to destroy the house of Moab forever. How he occupied land and oppressed the people. How the Israelites demanded tribute from the Moabites and forced them to send hundreds of men as captive slaves.
And our sources? Our sources agree. The Bible tells the same story. In the book of Kings, Mesha, king of Moab, is described as a sheep breeder who had to hand over 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. He is treated as a despised servant, mocked for his weakness at being conquered. Our Bible groats that the Moabites were utterly destroyed.
But. But Ruth was a Moabite.
Ruth came from the plains of Moab where there was famine and joined herself to Naomi’s household. She joined with them and was a model of love and kindness. She was strong and noble. Ruth is still the model of decency. And she was a Moabite.
These weeks, we turn to the book of Numbers. Almost the entirety of this chapter is a polemic against the Moabites. It tells of never ending war. It talks about how the Moabites feared the Israelites strength and number; how the Israelites went and crushed them. It triumphantly promises that a scepter shall rise out of Israel and smash the forehead of Moab. Death to Moab. Death to the Moabites.
But… Ruth was a Moabite. Ruth was a Moabite. Could she be included in these celebrations of ethnic cleansing? How could anyone do that to Ruth?
In the Psalms, God jokes that Moab is a washpot. The basin in which God’s feet are cleaned. Ezra laments in disgust that Israelites would ever marry Moabites. Numbers calls the Israelites who married Moabites harlots. Deuteronomy treats this intermarriage as a sin.
But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And their story is the one we turn to when we want to understand true love. Their union is how we imagine all marriages should be. For them, marriage wasn’t a problem. It was a joy. Who could forbid such a thing?
When King David took power in Israel, he set out to conquer and destroy the Moabites. He trapped them in the valley and allowed nobody to leave. He split the Moabite camp in two with a line. On one side, he massacred them. He killed them without exception. On the other side, he enslaved them, and kept them as degraded servants.
But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And they has children. And grand-children and great-grandchildren. And one of those descendants was David. Yes, King David, too, was a Moabite by ancestry. He was a product of one of those forbidden unions.
In so many places, the Bible speaks of destroying and degrading the Moabites. Only a few verses in one solitary book speak of Ruth as a Moabite, and position her as a source of love and the originator of the Israelite nation.
The Bible is not so much a book, but a library in discussion with itself. It is a compendium of different contradicting voices.
Somewhere, at some time, some voice thought it was important to say that Ruth was a Moabite. And she was a model of love and kindness. And she took better care of her family than anyone could. And she was the pinnacle of loyalty and devotion. And she was the grandmother of King David. And she was a Moabite.
You might wonder why anyone would bother. The entire Bible is a torrent of hatred against Moabites. Every word is oppositional. All the history speaks of war and conquest. Why would one lone author put their head above the parapet to suggest something otherwise? Why would it be worthwhile to say that Ruth was a Moabite?
But think about it. There are countless verses of contempt for Moabites, and only one that suggests they are worthy of love. And which one do we remember? Does anyone today feel any animosity towards the ancient tribe east of the Jordan? Does anyone still take pride in Israel’s long-gone military victories against its neighbours?
No. But people remember that Ruth was a Moabite.
Empires rise and empires fall. Nations come in and out of being. The names of kings and warriors are lost to the ages. But one loving word can last a thousand lifetimes.
The voices of hatred and jingoism are fleeting. They cannot be sustained. But the voice of love – the voice of humanity – that speaks out across centuries and spans generations. It lasts long after the malaise has subsided.
Ancient Israel was a great kingdom. It was able to conquer lands and bring neighbouring nations to their knees. It could compel people to erect stone monuments to their own misery. And the thought of it makes us, at best, uncomfortable.
But, now, all we take pride in is love. The love our people have had for their God. The love our leaders have had for their Torah. The love they have had for each other. They love they have had for strangers.
Gentle words. Small memorandums of compassion. Fleeting acts of kindness.
A verse. Ruth was a Moabite. Remember that, Ruth was one of them.
Shabbat shalom. Chag sameach.
Will there still be Jews?
A young Talmud scholar moves from Lithuania to London. Years later he returns home to visit his family.
His mother asks: “Yossele but where is your beard?”
“Oh, mama, in London, nobody wears a beard.”
“But do you at least keep Shabbat?”
“No, mama, in London people work all the time. We have to make money.”
“Oy vey. But do you still keep kosher?”
“Mum, I’m sorry, kosher food is expensive and hard to find.”
“Yossele…” she says. “Are you still circumcised?”
Thus joke points to a perennial Jewish anxiety: will people stay Jews? Will Judaism continue?
In every generation, a study is published, fearfully proclaiming that Jewishness is declining, which will be swiftly followed by rabbinic pronouncements about how to save it, philanthropists putting money into projects that engage young Jews, and various pundits proclaiming that this proves exactly what they had always said.
Why, when this problem has been repeatedly highlighted, has Judaism nevertheless continued, and Jewishness never seen the burial it was foretold?
For starters, it turns out that many of the things that people assured us would mark the end of Judaism were not that threatening after all. At the start of the Enlightenment, Orthodox leaders agonised that, if Jews went to universities, they would be needlessly subjected to heretical ideas and turn their backs on religion. In the end, Judaism and academic study proved more than compatible.
The fear about Jews losing their beards turned out not to be so troubling either. After all, half the Jewish people had never been able to grow them! In the 90s, the great moral panic centred on mixed marriages, which, experience has shown, only grew the Jewish population, rather than diminishing it.
So, why all the worry? In fact, these concerns undoubtedly go back to the beginnings of Jewishness. In the book of Ruth, we read a story of a young woman faced with the choice of whether to remain with the Jewish people. Either she could stay with her mother-in-law and run the risk of never marrying; or she could return to her original village and begin her life again.
Being Jewish was the harder option. Being Jewish was riskier and unknown. Ruth’s sister, Orpah, chose to leave the Jews and rebuild. Ruth chose Judaism.
She must have seen something in it that made her want to stay. Perhaps it was the God, or Naomi, or the people, or the way they lived. Judging by what she said, it was a combination of all of these. She chose the harder option, because it was the more beautiful one.
That has always been the way with Judaism. High risk. High reward. Hard to maintain. Worth maintaining.
That is why we feel anxiety about Jewish continuity. We know that it is not the easy option. It takes work. So we look around for people who will do it.
Our rabbis understood this feeling well. They told a story of the revelation at Sinai: that, on the day when God gave the Israelites the commandments, God raised Mount Sinai over their heads and told them to accept them. If they took them on, they would live. If not, the mountain would come crashing down on their heads and make the desert their grave.
“Choose life” wasn’t advice. It was a threat. Of course, they accepted.
But, said the rabbis, there were other times when they took on the commandments too. When there were no threats from God but plenty from the ruling powers. They point to the story of Esther, when the Jews lived under Persian imperial rule and could have been slaughtered for practising their religion. God did not appear to make promises or offer consolation. But they chose Judaism anyway.
This is a narrative of how Judaism has been continued. On an individual level, this is what happens to many of us. As children, we go to synagogue because our parents tell us to. We live their ways and eat their food because we have no other choice. Now, as adults, we turn up because we want to. There is no compulsion to attend. We do it because we have found in it something beautiful and worthwhile.
This is true, too, of our history as a community. There was a time when we had no choice but to be Jewish. Think of the periods when Jewishness was stamped on our passports and our job application papers; when being Jewish determined what jobs we could do and where we could live. We kept up Judaism because we had no other choice.
But now we have reached a time when it is a choice. Nobody is making us be Jewish. We sustain it because we want to. You who have turned up this morning could have gone anywhere. You could have done anything. But you chose to come here. Like Ruth and Esther, you decided that something in Judaism was beautiful and worthwhile.
You decided that this religion and these festivals have meaning. That is why I’m not really worried about Jewish continuity. I know that you are keeping it alive. I know that, in every generation, as long as there are a good few people who think Judaism is worthwhile, it will be.
On Shavuot, we renew our covenant with God. We take on the Torah once more. We decide to keep the flame of Jewish truth burning.
And, because of that, Judaism lives on.