Thursday, June 14, 2007

Chazak o chalash: strength and weakness

Could we compare two events that are apparently totally different and not connected? Yesterday, Shimon Peres became the ninth president of the State of Israel. Living memory of this State and its up-building, he has been present in almost all decisive moments of the implementation and development of the Jewish State.
Born in Poland, he came to Israel in 1936 and has been present on the acting scene from Ben Gurion to today. It has often been said that he is a "loser." Easy to say, but not so obvious and when the two opponents left the scene yesterday; either it meant that he was chosen by absence of competitors or maybe it was a sort of silent plebiscite. Anyway, the man had be active over all the decades with much constancy, swinging along the mud and troubled waters of a new-old state that did not know much about how to run politics and diplomacy.

At the end of the year, newly elected president Shimon Peres will initiate a mandate that should endure seven years. Along with all the blessings and wishes that accompanied this final aliya to the top of the Israeli State, the moral and personal credit aspect is very significant. He sketched out different peace processes together with Yitzchak Rabin. Not only with the Palestinians, but also in all the region, with the envisioning of future networking collaboration between the Arab neighboring countries, in particular Jordan.
We can be very superstitious or on the verge of some magic Kabbalah, but rumors have to go on that he had been “cursed” by the Rav Itzchak Kaduri as also the Gerer Rebbe. Now, in our culture cursing and blessing are intermingling and change from hours to weeks and years. It is indeed appealing that the final touch came with the full blessing of his election by Rav Ovadya.

On the same day, at a session of the Iriyah (City Hall of Jerusalem), for seemingly the fourth time in a row, late Rav Yeshayahu Leibowitz was refused to be given the name of a street in Jerusalem. Chemist, professor at the Hebrew University, Talmudist and co-editor of the famous Encyclopedia Judaica, it is exact that the man of God had the chic to curse and use crude words, ideas or expressions. The problem is that he was very into brainstorming and thinking. He admitted once that his critics were harsh but he argued that, in a very hard society as Israel, such expressions really exposed meaningful positions.
Is the IDF “Nazi” for their misconduct after 1967? Is it really possible to say, for a rabbi, that the Kotel/Western Wall turned to be now a sort of “discotheque” because of praying excessive folklore? It was far too violent. But the man was questioning the society in which he was living and has always reminded others of the real significance of faith and observance of the Mitzvot. Let’s say that when Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg passed away on Sivan 24 (06/10), the young and very open rosh yeshivah had spent his 58 years to reach out to various forms of Hassidism as well as secular matters such as theater, as a part of the true Jewish interrogation at the present. He was quiet and viewed Judaism through the glances of Arts and Films as well as philosophy.The parshat hashavua is “Korah – Now Korah, son of Izhar of Kohat son of Levi” and the portion includes Bemidbar/Numbers 16:1-18:32. And gung-ho again, guys! A new clash blows up and enflames the elite of the descendants of Reuben: Korah, Dathan and Abiram son of Eliab together with 250 chiefs of the community. They accused Moses and Aaron of having gone too far and, as usual, asked: “Why do you raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?”

Always the same rampant quest; why am I not above everybody and why do you take the lead? Is the question so churlish?
Korah and the group perfectly agreed to the exodus and the fled from Egypt. We cannot know with precision how the Books of the TaNaKH have been written and the chronological order of the Mitzvot or ordinances. But Again, Korah would have preferred to remain in Egypt. At least a country they knew, with secured slavery and normal food, not these quails and unknown manna. Moreover, there was no contest among the people: we cannot really speak of an egalitarian proletarian union of tribes, but it was sufficient to be the son of a Hebrew name and the name was respected.

The structure appeared with the requirement to manage the tribes. You remember the good advice given by Jethro to Moses to assign the “anshey chayil – men of wisdom, government.” It seems then that something happened with the giving of the Mitzvot. We are all equal.
Well, this is also a statement that sounds like a magic slogan. Human societies are definitely obsessed by a profound drive to embody the reality that all humans are equal. In terms of health, wealth, capacities, work, chances, hopes, desires, accidents we experience that equality merely appears as a dream and not a basic social and human, psychological care. This is because we are far from digging out the sense of the Mitzvot and the Written and Oral Laws and all the insights of the Sages. Equality does not mean that we are even, clones living with clones at any level or rate. Some post-Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. “Be like other men and don’t consider yourself exempt from the laws of morality (Numeri Rabba 9,3). Or, “divide it into equal shares, for what it is worth, reasonable” (Sanhedrin 106a). This is the human way to value and thus it does take into account what the Talmud and the Tradition says.

In terms of divine status, the mitzvot are far above and beyond what we may understand. It is easy then to speak of some treachery or disloyalty. This is why it is so important that God underscored Moses’ humbleness. Human rights exist but they cannot be a lobby or transformed to permanent contesting bodies. Korah questions Moses and rebels with his group because the Mitzvot, creating various functions of priests, levites and children of Israel, were only starting to function. The Mitzvot are both to be accomplished in time and over our own time and generation. They do not evolve. We evolve and then amplify the meaning of God’s speech in the wilderness. The more we read these reading portions right now, the more can we be astounded by the fact that the structure determined by God and given to Moses an utmost pattern of service and this is foreign if not totally alien to most societies, with counter-examples in the historic development of the monotheistic faith. Not the faith that is invariant and thus adapts to maximize God’s Presence. But the way we focus more on ourselves as humans and cannot reach this balance that corresponds to “equality.”
Korah and his followers had another claim: they were all equally “holy” (kedoshim). This is a constant pretence and concern. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew society could think that it has been called to some unique and exceptional destiny. The destiny is unique, but it is in order to sanctify the world and its inhabitants and become ordinary coworkers of God in the creation that is still in a state of expansion: “asher bara Elokim la’assot- that God created and continues to develop” (Bereishit 2:3).

The pretence to be “positively untouchable” because definitely protected by God is dangerous because faith first exposes to danger without imperiling the tribes as a structure of service. Human frustrations have often reached such peaks that, instead of focusing on God, some groups preferred to systematically deny the existence of the priests, Levites and Bnei Israel and level down, certainly not up, the specific responsibilities. Korah could maybe question Moses because the Israelites had not reached the Land of Canaan.
The point is that any mitzvah or commandment requires much time to be understood in the context of our history. Nonetheless, it is certain that if we were to meet Jews of the time of Moses, in the wilderness, with Korah and the followers’ claims, we still would perfectly – I guess immediately – feel in our mishpuche – our people but also the same issues and realistic problems of who we are.

Some rabbis did interrogate whether the protection of Holy One extended in Jewish history to some kind of covering and pardoning trespasses. This is more present in the books of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
We started with Shimon Peres and the Rav L. Leibowitz. Maybe each of them and a lot of people try to achieve something that can only viewed partially at the present. We might also consider another point of view debated in the Talmud. We are called to accomplish the mitzvoth, without judging them or justifying who we would pretend to be. Measuring the “length, depth, width, breadth” we can accomplish a commandment would be rather ridiculous. On the other hand, some rabbis taught that a human being’s destiny may consist in trying to get to the farthest possible point in the accomplishment of a mitzvah that copes with a spiritual and personal project. It does not mean that the person would succeed. And this is important. Because we are seeds of future, not only of what we think that we have achieved in this world.

Christianity is going through very hard time in the Middle-East. In Iraq, priests and lay people are constantly murdered and the Assyro-Chaldean Churches who sowed the Semitic form of celebration brought from Jerusalem by the Apostle Thomas is shattered. The same phenomenon seems to destroy some parts of the Muslim society. Power and will for power is a constant test. Say, if people suddenly feel loose and would surrender they would only appear as weak shlemazls, no luck, no prestige, no courage. Courage may fail at the present, in particular among the youth. It is so wondrous to see how a pure and instinctive struggle for life can attest that we continue to walk on a road…a long way that turns back like a boomerang to “good”. .

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