Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What the Blessing of Reuben and Judah can teach Zimbabwe today.

Before he died, the Biblical patriarch Jacob summoned his sons and pronounced blessings upon them. While Christians have tended to focus on the Blessing of Judah as the ancestor of Jesus, Jews and us Rastafarians regard the blessing of each son as significant, with many lessons for humanity today. The portion of the Torah that narrates the Blessing of the Twelve Patriarchs is called Vaychi, (Hebrew, “and he lived”, the opening line of the first verse in the portion) and comprises Genesis 47:28–50:26. It was read in synagogues a few weeks ago, which is why it is still fresh in my mind.

And because it was still fresh in my mind, I was able to apply its teachings in my response to Acting President Phelekezela Mphoko’s call for yet another National Day of Prayer, this one set for the 16th of January, to beseech God to send drought-stricken Zimbabwe the much-needed rain. This call has not exactly been greeted with the usual enthusiasm, even among our ever ardent and ambitious “prophets” and “apostles”, who have never been known to pass up a chance to ingratiate themselves to the regime. It has brought out a few has-beens from obscurity, such as one-time radio presenter and failed parliamentary candidate Eric Knight, who commended the Acting President, saying "Whether genuine or not once government leaders recognise God is central to the country's problems it is definitely a positive maneuver."

I don't want to argue with Knight's words, as they do encapsulate Zimbabwean
sentiments. Even before the advent of Christianity, we were a people who commended ourselves to the mercy of the Divine. This seems to be an integral part of the policy of the Mugabe regime, enduring the flirtations with Marxism, Five-Year Development Plans, ESAP, ESAP II, ZIMPREST, Vision 2020, the Farm Invasions, Economic Turnaround and everything else that punctuates moments in its sorry record. I will never forget those pictures of Zimbabwean Cabinet ministers eagerly taking part in rituals under the supervision of one Rotina Mavhunga, (pictured, right) a spirit medium who said that the ancestral spirits were using her to draw diesel from a rock, ending the fuel crisis. I don't think there is anyone in Zimbabwe's ruling class, even the nonagenarian who is acclaimed by pro-Blacks in America for having so many degrees, who has ever read Immanuel Kant's pamphlet, Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment? (1784)

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

I digress. The Blessings of Reuben and Judah offer profound lessons for Zimbabwe's religious fervour. In the narrative, we learn that Reuben committed the unpardonable sin of sleeping with his father's concubine, Bilhah. For this outrage, Jacob says that "you shall not excel." Reuben became penitent, spending many days praying, fasting, and wore sackcloth. He also abstained from wine and meat. Throughout the Bible, we can see that Reuben was not really a bad person. In fact, he was very religious. He persuades the other brothers against killing Joseph. Indeed, when the brothers incur the wrath of the man they believed to be Pharaoh's Premier, Reuben interprets their fate as divine punishment for their evil deeds.

Judah too was far from perfect. Not only did he dishonour his promise to his daughter-in-law, but he appears to have been a man who sought the company of prostitutes. In fact, it was in this ungodly pursuit that he ended up bedding and impregnating his daughter-in-law. Yet, Jacob blesses him abundantly, passing on the headship over the entire clan to him.

How can this be? Both brothers committed sexual immorality, incest even. Yet, one is cursed, forfeiting his birthright, while the other is exalted. With regards to the collective crime of the 10 older brothers, it was Reuben who first saved Joseph, prevailing on the brothers to throw him into the pit instead of killing him, with the intention of then coming back for him. Judah suggested the alternative of selling their sibling into slavery, but later the brothers were to remind him that if he had told them to return Joseph to their father, they would have done so. As for their sexual immorality, both Reuben and Judah confessed their sin. However, unlike Judah, whose confession saved the lives of his daughter-in-law and their unborn twin children, there were less compelling reasons for Reuben to confess his sin. Not only did he admit his guilt, but he spent his entire life in penance. It is said by the Jewish sages the reason why Reuben was absent at the time of Joseph's sale was that “he was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting.” Yet, remarkably, such an exemplary model of piety was cursed by his father with the words, "you shall not excel."

The explanation for this curse offered by various scholars, such as Rashi, also offers us, i.e. the people of Zimbabwe, a profound lesson that we would do well to consider, especially at this time when yet another call to prayer is being made by our political leadership. The Lubavitch Rebbe notes:

Indeed, as far as personal virtue is concerned, Reuben surpassed Judah, both
in the purity of his intentions regarding Joseph and the intensity of his
repentance over his failings. But Judah was the one who actually saved
Joseph, while Reuben unwittingly placed him in mortal danger. In the same
vein, Judah’s repentance saved three lives, while Reuben’s remorse helped
no one-in fact, had he not been preoccupied with “his sackcloth and his fasting,” he might have prevented Joseph’s sale into slavery.
Accordingly, Reuben retained his rights as Jacob’s firstborn in all that pertained to him as an individual. But Judah surpassed him in the most basic prerequisite for leadership: that concern for one’s fellow must always take precedence over one’s own pursuits, no matter how pious and lofty these pursuits might be. Believing Joseph safe for the time being, Reuben rushed back to attend to his prayers and penance, in effect abandoning him to his fate.
While Reuben prayed and fasted, Judah acted. Judah earned the leadership
of Israel because he recognized that when another human being is in need,
one must set aside all other considerations and get involved. Even if one’s
own intentions are still short of perfection and one’s own character is yet to
be refined. Sometimes, one cannot afford to wait.- Likkutei Shichos(and other sources)

Indeed, Reuben represents the kind of self-absorption that characterises Zimbabwean society, both the leadership and the led, the consequence of which is a nation that tries so hard, but "will not excel." Just as Reuben's preoccupation with his sackcloth and prayers led to first Joseph then all Israel's exile, the current regime's preoccupation with portents and omens and things of the "spiritual realm" has seen some 3 million Zimbabwean leave their native land. It has seen infrastructure crumble, disease and ignorance and despondency spread across the land. The leadership is more concerned with entrenching its rule, and continuing its pursuit of ill-gotten gains. This week alone, it was announced that US$50 million was set aside for new cars. Since his appointment as Vice-President about a year ago, Mr Mphoko has been staying in a US$500/day suite in a Harare hotel after his wife decided she did not like any of the State mansions assigned to the Vice-Presidential family in Harare.

I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.- Amos 5:21-24

There can be no question that Zimbabweans are a very religious lot and are free with displays of piety. But what is lacking is action that actually benefits us as a people. The problems Zimbabwe faces come from the actions of people who, if they had acted differently, would have charted a very different direction for the country. Zimbabwe's problems cannot be simply fasted and prayed away. The choice has always been there for us. We chose to be like Reuben, and like Reuben, we have not excelled. It is time for leaders like Judah and for a nation that will allow itself to be led by Judah rather than Reuben.

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