Thursday, June 7, 2007

Bishgagah: unwittingly

The parshat hashavua "Shelach lecha" or this weekly reading portion "Send (men to scout the Land of Canaan)" recounts one of the most famous episodes of the TaNaKH about the spies, and includes essential Jewish Mitzvot/Commandments in the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers 13:1-15:41.

It is time to march into the Land of the Avot/Ancestors. Moses decides to assign twelve men from the ancestral tribes to scout the land = latur et-eretz Kena'an (Num. 13:17), have a real look at the country, the inhabitants, a full spying survey with much discretion and know-how. At this point, this is a typical and very proficient activity of Israel over the world. Moses did not send the men the same way we have a pending problem with Jonathan Pollard. He was not on a "tour". In Hebrew, "tur" means "to spy", still in a way that implies to walk, go around, be awake and on alert, go on foot (regel/leg - meragel = spy in Modern Hebrew). "You have espied the Land and found fault with God's Tent", says Talmud Shebuot 47b, echoing Numbers Rabba 16, 20: "You have espied the faults of the Land of Israel".

A good spy, for the Talmud, is Aaron: "The great spy (Aaron) died who had espied for them the road of life" (Yoma 1:38b). The Israelite spy is a man of God who is accomplishing a sort of divine mitzvah for the benefit of the whole community of Israel. In this view, our spies should not be corrupt... totally under self-control... not utter any slander... of rumors, and we should not hear any blah-blah about them in return.
The perfect shomer/guardian of the integrity and rigor is also the model of the bney chorin/ free men (and women). Numerous names come then to our minds, especially of those people who, in terrible days when Jews were persecuted and for the sake of the State of Israel, offered their lives with courage and silence. Israelis have developed amazing and witty tricks to confound the enemies. We love thrillers, but curiously the good old-fashioned Israeli spies are more of the Lamed-Vavnikim sort (the 36 unknown tzaddikim/righteous that save the world) than full-tanned oriental green-eyed guys and girls jumping from beds to couches with guns, poisoning pills, killing kisses, pocket bombs and Holy Land bullets. Everybody knows the joke of a man who answers – in the middle of a dark night in Tel Aviv – that he is Yaakov the violinist, but that Yaakov the spy lives on the fourth floor, up there…

Moses sent the twelve men and they had a wonderful tour. They brought gorgeous fruits, clusters of grapes and pomegranates after forty days of scouting. The report was disparate. Exceptional landscapes and country, but the inhabitants seemed a bit bizarre. How difficult to recognize the people after an absence of 400 years! Land of milk and honey, but the inhabitants are powerful; their cities are fortified and terribly large. This is dangerous, reported ten of the men who saw the Amakelites and the mighty Hittites. They got scared.
Worse than everything: they even met with very tall men, something like 100 XXXL size guys, the Nephilim, that had disappeared since Gen. 6:4. There, they were looking at the Sons of the Covenant like grasshoppers, and the “spies” did have the courage to look back. These ten also spread some rumors that the country they saw devours the inhabitants and they successfully slandered around so that the Israelites wanted to return to good old Egypt.

Slander is called to disappear by nature, said the Sages. But the reaction of these “reporters” is exactly the same as what we hear about our Israeli society and the country at the present. We all have our dreamy Nephilim, extra sized ghosts. We look at each other so often like grasshoppers or chimpanzees in a zoo. And the land is wonderful but no oil, only honey and milk fruits and grapes, olives.
Indeed we are fortified. Everybody is even fortified here. And always better or more threatening than in Egypt. When we find some family connection from America to Israel, we may discover we have a “rich” uncle in some Rehov Ben Yehudah, who owns a tiny falafel stand or pizza corner. But what a location! Well, this week, we should maybe pray for our spies… and all the honest spies because the problem is that they are very buddy-buddy and interconnected and can easily be spoiled.

On the other hand, it is really difficult to account the truth and keep balanced. Caleb and Joshua exposed what they had seen and that it was possible to conquer the land. They said “Do not fear the people of the country for they are our “lachmenu =bread=food (prey)”. “Milchamah = war” in Hebrew does mean that we are no more in a situation of rather natural hospitality in the tribal culture. We doubt, suspect, attack or flee. “Mi’lchamah = it is no more possible to share the same meal/food/bread, which induces a state of war, a conflict”. This is very significant in spiritual life and also as regards the Christian bread sharing rooted in the Kiddush partaking of bread. Caleb and Joshua underscored that the Israelites should not rebel against God.
Now, “kibush, conquest” shows more than the way we even use the word at the present. In the case of the Israelites – again in revolt against God and Moses and willing to return to Egypt – we must consider something else. They got out of the womb of some foreign “fostering” country, i.e. Egypt, symbolically a “house of slavery”. Let’s say that the wilderness, in the Sinai, is a place of dizziness, tests, wandering and giving of the Torah. It is time for the Israelites to behave as grownups and face the conquest of their own identity, the fulfillment of their being. They cry exactly as spoiled children do. And the rumors just match with what they fear: why getting ahead to the Land of Canaan? True, the same question is pending in the present as regards the apparently unexpected renewal of a Jewish State and of the Arab nation, Semitic heritage in the region.

Curiously, I will send these lines to my contact at the BlogCentral, early on the 7th of June, the civil date when forty years ago, I felt a total change in my life in entering the Old City of Jerusalem, a upside down turn on my route. But then, the present reading portion obliges us to consider how we behave in terms of righteousness or deep injustice. When Caleb and Joshua witness that the kibush, conquest is possible, how can we show today that the Israelites do not rebel against God? In our time, it is more questionable. The real interrogation is how to get to a target that does not harm but will allow building actions. No unjust expropriations but a progressive and comprehensive “Semitization” of the Israeli society in the Middle East.
Indeed, the false rumors conveyed by the ten men, their lies and betrayal of Moses’ mission are constant stuff. We are reluctant to grow, to become adults. Adulthood is so frightening for some Jews because of the monstrous experience of history. This is why – even it sounds as some kind of a vitz /joke – good scouting eyes and brains allow growing spiritually. No way to compare with some servile traitors conveying sugary gossiping reports to some potentates.

The point is to be found in the accomplishment of the first commandment given to all beings: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it “vekhivshua””(Bereishit 1:28). We must be careful not to damage human souls and this is quite a challenging problem for our society. “Kibush” is also the means of subduing evil, pride and will of useless conquest, preventing overbearing what is proper to others”, states Pessikta Zutrathi 197a (Buber Ed.). On the other hand, reaching out to our own self-control allows enhancing oneself and sometimes a society.
Thus, it makes sense that the Jewish tradition proposes the systematical reading of the Pirkey Avot – Sayings of the Fathers, a portion of the Talmud Tractate Nezikin (Damages) from Pesach to Shavuot, usually till Rosh Hashanah in most congregations today. The book is included in most Shabbat prayer books and is composed of five chapters plus one (Kinyan Torah=acquisition of the Torah) brought from a minor Tractate “Kallah”. As the Book of Job or Lamentations, the Sayings of the Fathers (Avoth according to Mishnaic Hebrew) is one of the best-sellers and most read books in the world. It is very ethical, down-to-earth and spiritual, crude and full of wisdom and thus can bring some reflection, insights and responses to all humans in search of who they are.

This also deals with our weekly reading portion. The spies or scouts were to examine with insightful and ethical eyes the realm of the country. Interestingly, at the end of the parshah, God gives the commandment to hold the tzitzit / fringes at each corner of the garments with a blue cord (techelet), “to look at it, observe them so that you don’t follow your heart and eyes /velo tituru (scout astray, make the wrong tour) acharei levavchem veacharei eyneichem (in lustful urges)” (Bamidbar 15:39-40). The commandment to look and observe the tzitzit in order to achieve and accomplish all the Mitzvot held in hand and upon our eyes is basic and extant for every Jew. They introduce to a daily viewing and consideration of how to behave with decency and dignity.
It is not a problem of “derech haaretz = morals” that obliges every soul to make healthy use of their brains and will. In the reading portion, it is repeatedly mentioned that “if something was done unwittingly = le/bishgagah”, there were some provision to be observed. This traces back to the wondrous prayer of Yom Kippur: “Forgive us, cleanse us, atone us, all the House of Israel as the inhabitant who resides in her midst (leger hagar betocham) / ki kol ha’am bishgagah (because all the nation, people, community) has erred unwittingly. The word is linked to “meshugah – insane, fool, foolish” that became Slang Yinglish “shmeggegeh” (just sounds so lovely and exact!). We could say “weird, weirdo, spaced out without any drugs except our ego’s pressure”.

The word “mussar” is usually considered as the correct word for “ethics”, or authentic tradition of good behavior. But the commandment to look at the tzitzit is not moral, not ethical. Who can know what is inside of a soul? Morals or ethics suggest attitudes or pave the way to measure how we dare or not behave toward ourselves and the others. The twelve men were called to more: to see and not to get astray from a path that they might consider dangerous. Our lives can be imperiled by many events or situations. We can then choose to respond like Caleb and Joshua, by taking over the truth and facing it. In that view, the Mitzvot are not moral, ethical, judgmental, pleasing. They show our connection with God and how we accept him. Moses was very humble and thus could not enter the Land taking upon him the lack of faith of the Israelites.
On the second Sunday after Pentecost, the Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates the local Saints. Interestingly, in the 4th century, seemingly in the Celtic Roman Catholic Church of the West, the Church of Rome decided to recall the Saints on November 1st and then All the Souls (Departed) that were defunct (had accomplished their officium/task) on the following day, showing a sort of hope in wintertime.

The Orthodox Church celebrates the Saints as those who lived in the Pentecostal breathing-in of the Spirit. Firstly, all the Saints as last week and now the local Saints. Thus, the Palestinian Saints track back to the Avot, the ancestors and all the prophets of the Bible. From the time before Abraham till the cave of Machpelah, the Land of Canaan and Eretz Israel, each territory of the ancestor tribes and Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Arabia till so far away… God-seekers scout souls and soil and teach how to share wittingly.

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