We come near to the New Year - Rosh HaShanah 5768. Throughout this year 5767, we have tried to share the meaning of the annual cycle of the parashyiot or reading portions that have to be read per annum by the faithful Jews throughout the weeks that give a special unique rhythm to our months and relationship to God, to other Jews and to our fellow people as humankind.
A year is a set of a peculiar number of days and nights, hours, minutes and seconds that pass and are stored by God (Sukka 62b). I often speak of "shlishiyot - thirds" because we want to slowly be so speedy at the present that we would like to compact tiny segments of immeasurable time wickets to the world-to-come. The specificities of these parashiyot or readings consist in the continuous and perpetually renewed and repeated description, study, scanning, discovery of each word of the Torah.
Moreover, each consonant is inspired by changeable vowels or phrase sequences. Then, our lives, life paths or styles, choices or inability to make up our minds and get forward, shape each year into the form of collectivity and alien “portions”. There is a very strange verse in the Gospel. Jesus says to the disciples to get some fish to eat, after his resurrection and they were on the beach. "Simon-Peter (Kaipha) went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three (153) of them" (John 21:11). The intriguing point is that before the decision of the Sages at Yavneh and when the Temple was still extant, the Torah was not read over one sole year as we do at the present, but over a period of three years. There were153 parashiyot / Torah reading portions. Each reading portion is like a "shanah", if not a "rosh hashanah - cappo d'anno (It.) = (the) cape of a year" that instructs us according to the demands "tiftach = open the gates" during Neylah of Kippur / the closure of the Day of Atonement. Thus we turn the cape of a certain period of time, or a page, we round along new openness or closets.
Interestingly, although the Jews as the Christians are rarely aware of that, the Early Church adopted the same weekly pattern of readings. The Syrian-Orthodox and the Assyrian Churches did keep in Aramaic four basic readings that develop the meaning of time over one year as most Churches do at the present. The Roman Latin Church decided, after the Second Council of Vatican that ended in 1965, to break down the readings over three years, reintroducing large portions from the Bible. The Byzantine Church has retained a systematic envisioning of time "spreading-expansion" that is definitely structured upon the basis of the Jewish series of weekly readings. Thus, the Anglican and Episcopalian Churches read "lessons", which correspond to the order of age and time deployment. The very first verse of the Hebrew Torah does not describe a big bang or a set of fragmentation that led to the creation of heaven and (rotating) earth. Yes, let's have a Zen or frightful crashing party. It is important to feel this move, immense energizing impulse that may seem to be partially or totally irrelevant and so short-timed. At any age, a verse, a word can reach out to our understanding of events, without any prior premonition. Then, each instant teaches individuals and congregations about the relevancy of what others would consider as indistinctive and lacking exact goals or prospects.
As the (Jewish) year floats til its untouchable and invisible borders preceded by the “yamei slichot – days of penance”, the engrossing nature of the present ending-up life & Torah portion looks like some sort of chaotic breaking down shivering of our cultures and societies in a climatic context of imbalance. We are supposed to read with new insights the parashiyot / reading portions and their related haftarot / readings from the Books of the Prophets. Hebrew is quite peculiar because of the great variety of interpretations that are proposed by changing the vowels and phrases. There is also the imperative reference to the Oral Law that brings forth another style of Mishnah and comprehensiveness. Good, we supposedly went out of the Land of Egypt, the House of serfdom. We are free. And we ARE. And God… He does exist / He is life-giving and He does direct our lives. He is One. His goal: humans are One, only one singled out humankind. At the present, Israel has no guaranteed and secured borders. Cities turn to be towns distanced by villages. We emerge with difficulty from years of complex societal shame that corrupts us in different ways. The problem is how to make out of it a cohesive relevant challenge inside the Jewish spiritual life and move up to the future. And to approach the New Year which is a Shemittah / year of remission with much renewed insights.
This week, the parshat hashavua / reading portion is “Ki tavo = When you have to come (into the land)” in Devarim / Deuteronomy 26:1- 29:8. Curiously, the portion scrolls up and down again the wonders that happened with the very first Mitzvot / Commandments given by God since the way out of Egypt. Again, the words try to clarify what seems to remain obscure or at least opaque to the human heart. The last verse of the portion sums up God’s indication: “Therefore diligently observe the words of this covenant so that you may deal wisely (“taskilu et kol asher ta’asun”)” (Deut. 29: 8). Yes, Moses reminds us “that his/our ancestor was a wandering Aramean… who lived as an alien and a poor number (vayagar sham b’mitei me’at = poor as dead and low”) in Egypt” (Deut. 26:5). He recalls that the land of Israel “is flowing with milk and honey - eretz zavat chalav ud’vash” (Deut. 26:9.27:3). He mentions the offering of the first fruit and the tithe to be given to the Levites, the foreigners, the orphans and the widow. This deals with the “orlayim / first fruits” and the “reshit ‘on” as regards the firstborns. It should be important to come to 5768 with the ability to remit all debts and offer the first fruits of a soil that needs a rest. But, basically, we know that by heart. What is the point of newness on the eve of this shemittah year (year of remission)? Any believer, any member of a monotheist denomination may quote by heart these commandments.
It does not prove our unity or benevolence or shows our acceptance of togetherness according to the Mitzvot of the Lord. The country is broken down, the region is parting, and war flames lash not so far from a land that will rest for one full year while others would nuke it. It is intriguing that we will have to work more in the coming year than the earth for which every Jewish soul prays so that it could produce good fruits and flow with milk and honey. The “divrei haberit = the words of the Covenant” announced by the Holy One are also linked to “devorim = bees” that collect the nectar in a sort of oneness task. By the way, queen bees are endangered and suffer from an unknown disease that strongly affects the animal at the moment. Pitcairn Island honey is strictly protected. It constitutes the main income of the descent of the Bounty mutinies. The same process develops in Europe and other continents.
“Foot yawly come yah- why come to that?” as Pitcairn mutinies’ descent say at the present. Because, believers can hardly listen to any warning words, hear and accept them to the full. Any believer – in particular in the One God (various style and moods) – may humble himself, preferably suggesting the others to bow and kneel down. Considering the failure of any mission in India, Gandhi used to stigmatize how all sorts of Jews and Christians peacefully could live and work together, e.g. in Cochin. And the reading portion, two weeks before 5768, a year of remission, summons that nobody has any right to self-glorification, pride. This week, God seriously warns us, again and again, as in the first commencements (rishonim) that He can bless and He can curse, not our enemies – No! He can curse us as Jews, He can curse those who fake to accept the Mitzvot and dishonor them. There is no place for playing the fool with that. But we do continue to play the fool anyway. How God could decide to “remove his chosen”? The problem is that He can do that and we experienced that. And when He does, we have a set of arguments, worked out over the ages to turn that either into some modern apikoros-style (“we doubt, we are secular”). A Jew can hardly say he is an atheist, Gotyenu (Yid. “good gracious”). It sounds arrogantly provocative even if the person means it. But newly-converted Jews (it is an inter-faith process anyway) and some dippy posers might treat themselves or their gurus as smashing ones. At this point, we are really survivors of all the floods and should be take care and behave because hurricanes, storms, earthquakes and tsunamis may be signals to give our nonsense a break and get wiser.
True, “I (God) wonder whether in this generation there is one that accepts “admonition / tokhechah” (Tractate Arakhin 16b) and “Man loves reproofs (“tokhechot”). For as long as reproofs are in the world, ease of the mind comes upon the world as also good and blessing” (Tamid 28a). But Judaism has a one time word, full of ambiguity and realism to describe the position of the true believer: “He’emirechah hayom – a hiphil verbal form = (The Lord) has obtained your agreement / promise / reached that you said – admitted – recognized as His treasured people as He promised you, and to keep His commandments” (Deut. 26:18). Here is the point, the real one, based on the paradox of faith. “Yoqer yaamir… Prices increase and go high” (Sota 49, 72) because “recognition, promise, agreement” may at times be confused with “arrogance, pride, pretence”.
In the positive sense, “he’emir = to admit, recognize” creates a sort of constant link or bond between God and human beings as the bride is engaged with her bridegroom. This relates to the offerings of the first fruits that can be traced back to the way out of Egypt. The mitzvah to don the tefillin / phylacteries is performed as a bridal attachment (Hosea 2:21-22; compared to the Song of Songs and Menachot 60b about “the Throne of Glory / Kisse HaKavod”).
The Evangelist John states something similar in the Book of Revelation: “The Spirit and the bride say “Come – Marana tha” and let everyone who hears say: “Come” (cf. Piyyut “Akdamut milin – Before saying any word”) (Apocalypse 22:16).
This bridal commitment has to be reinforced and this is also a matter of concern in our society. Indeed, we utter words as God spoke His words and they are trustworthy, because we experience as numerous generations before us that they are seeds of what we look for: hope and life.