Thursday, September 6, 2007

Shuv: toward the highest effort

What profits will we remember of the year 5767? Is it possible to understand anything and to detect God's projects that so many would eventually deny? Just a real look! Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born little Catholic nun passed away ten years ago, in Calcutta, amidst dying corpses, crematories. She was beatified - first step toward her full recognition as a saint - by late Pope John-Paul II. The fervent faithful gathered for the pope’s funeral then required the Catholic Church his immediate canonization.

A sort of "on air" event required after his death but that is still on hold, following the normal process of the Church tradition. Our civilization is divided into the speediest instant messengers, some up-to-the-second thrilling tempo of life and a burden-like, often shameful and scandalous waste of time and competences. And see, since the 4th of Tevet 5766 (January 4, 2006), Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been sleeping while we splash and flounder with kassams on Sderot, the resignation of the president while Shimon Peres averted the Eyn HaRa' / Evil Eye and, overshadowed by all the blessings of our tzaddikim, will lead Israel into the "shemittat karka'ot veshemittat kesafim = the year of remission and for the Land of Israel, its qarqa'ot / soil that will remain uncultivated and the remittance of the debts" in 5768. The grounds and soils as the bottom of a certain period that shows again every seven years, like a "karka'it shel sefinah - the bottom of a ship" (Yevamot 116b) that, in terms of years, arrives at some deadline, a time of rest and forgiveness (for land (adamah) and humans (bney Adam).

In the course of 5767, we roved here and there and rambled in the search of some long-term solution. Our ancestors wandered from Ur-Kasdim down to Egypt and back to the Land of Canaan. Abraham erred - because he was seeking God or it would be more adequate to say that God took him on a journey. He was - as we often shared it here - "bekhom hayom - in the very heat of the day". Together with Sarah, he was struggling along throughout wide spaces and unknown people, but he did it consistently, cheating at times but overcoming all the "nissayonot / tempting tests proposed by God while Sarah could have a grin or some laugh. No real problem: it was still prophetic. We read quite the same with Moses’ story. He constantly remained a man of faith in the context of impossible challenges.

The media scoop that brought forth the “night of the faith” or “darkness” through which Mother Teresa went for some time over thirty years of her life is an important feature of anybody’s relationship to God. Elie[zer] Wiesel’s first account written after his experience in the concentration camp of Auschwitz echoes this profound darkness and abandonment: “Di Nacht – the Night”. The young survivor of a “Nacht und Nebel – night and fog” period could hardly describe what is beyond any description. As numerous survivors, it took time before he could only smile. Thousands of pious Jews got away from their ancestors’ faith in the living God and until today, it remains a very painful and open wound for a great number of souls. It is an act of divine loving-kindness that some men and women, survivors and their children could surface after the Churban (Extermination) with something parallel to the seeded steadfast, inflexible though not rigid emunah / confidence-faith of Abraham, Moses or Job. In this respect, the rather joyous spiritual traditions experienced by the Sephardim and Oriental Jewries do reinvigorate and everywhere allow curing the scars left by history. Indeed, sarcastic and cynical attitudes mirror how the twentieth century had thickly been marked by darkness and despair.

True, the communist terror and various forms of genocides in different countries (South Africa, Turkey, Cambodia, Rwanda) would also enter in some sort of conflict with the light shown at Mamre’s oaks. The Russian Eastern Orthodox monk, saint Silouan the Athonite, declared: “Keep your soul in hell and do not despair”, which definitely links the Oriental tradition with the powerful rise and revival of Judaism. But say, that “night” is en vogue. It makes sense because it allows showing that people who dedicated their lives to God could – like anybody else – be terribly affected by some total privation or defect of God’s Presence. A young French Catholic nun, saint Therese of Lisieux, who died at the age of 26, was the first to describe with remarkable insights her experience of “night, or divine apparent absence” as a spiritual test. Jewish and Christian, Muslim renewal and sometimes stiff attitudes contrast and might come into conflict with this experience of a spiritual “eclipse / tzimtzum” that affected the last century in many aspects.

Nonetheless, there is a profound gap between the Jewish and Christian approaches with regards to this darkness or “night”. The parshat hashavua or reading portion of this week is a twofold one; the second portion is usually read after Rosh HaShanah. These Shabbat readings “Netzavim-Vayelech” are thus to be found in Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 and 31:1-30. We should bear in mind the following Shabbat Teshuvah that will include the reading of the song Ha’azinu which concludes Moses’ life and introduces to the coming Day of Atonement.

We experience how short our memory can be. This is true in our own lives and records. We may be swirling in a world of pictures, takes, shots, videos and films. Images are stored en masse and fade. Days pass, disappear and change. They may facedly give the impression of some deja-vu. Fashion swings that way.

There is a special way for Jewishness to apprehend tenses. But Judaism cannot focus on any positive “night or darkness, absence of eclipse / tzimtzum of God”. Christianity has it as a part of natural Gentile and “heathen-rooted” tendency. It turns to be a positive experiment because it shows that God chooses and man may feel as left aside, abandoned. The most difficult part for Jews is to admit that such a spiritual posture is not linked to idolatry and that faith in God may show as “ from under ashes or dust” (cf. Gen. 3:19; “Al efer tashuv – you shall return to dust”). The so-called “culture of death” has reigned over too many events that affected Christianity in the past century. On the other hand, Jews may forget that they are proposed two ways, once again, for the last time before Autumnal New Year: blessing or curse. Indeed we ask that the year end with its curses and that New Year start with God’s blessings.

Does it mean that we enjoy any real free will and free choice? Pre-destination and absence of free will or conscience have prevailed throughout the Christian history and that souls are at stake. The Catholic Church revised this essential point during the last Council that ended in 1965. The Oriental and Orthodox Churches are less flexible until now, though they mainly focus on conversion, return to God and resurrection. Indeed, our freedom depends, as concerns Judaism, on how the Mitzvot are so real and abide our souls that everything only depends on God.

The reading portion proposes a set of choices to which we are submitted beyond any personal decision. True, we are called to bless, to build, support, save, cure and help. Daily life may be rather a burden that misses simple justice too much. We have seen that during the year: “shuv – again, return, renew” is the main spiritual and human tendency. Judaism is shaped to value life and not death. Life supersedes anything and this is the exceptional spiritual plus that Judaism brought and maintains, and somehow sustains among the Nations. It is the real challenge of the hardships faced in the timid development of a dialogue with the Christians. This is the terrible difference between Jews and Christians. Just as the night would seemingly be considered as a positive sign of humbleness, death may be a temptation to see if survival is possible. Judaism focuses on a choice: take the good measure of your days and nights and why should God extend them?

“Veshavta ad HaShem – you will return to (= until) the Lord” (Deut. 30:2). Hebrew says “ad – until” because God expects that the believers or humans in general turn, convert, respond in a swiveling and revolving move toward God until they reach Him in the “ad = eternity, world-to-come, forever” and not only for a while, say even a “year”. And the same verse continues: “You (gather) them again (“shav”) those that were scattered (“shvutecha – deported that you call back and return”). Jesus also spoke of newness, of making all things new. But this is at the core of what Rosh HaShanah and the reading portions want to teach us this week. This kind of newness that is a perpetual call to all human being that has a breath of life: indeed things are new.

Then, it is true that there are different schools. Either people are too scared to place their bets or would say they don’t care. There are tons of clichés: life is too short; I do what I want; this is my decision. The real challenge in the “teshuvah – conversion, penance, response, revolving return forever to God” is that it requires that every soul is ready to invest the maximum, more than anything they think to possess in order to get to that point. This is the highest effort that surpasses every effort. That’s the point. It sounds not inhumane and still it shows the price of life. A Jewish Chassidic group has this year this kind of wishes, showing a multi-handicapped who calls to turn to Life. At first, such season’s greetings may rebuke. But they are real.

They are authentic as when I see my heavily handicapped daughter breathing with difficulty. Still, she enjoys life and breathes faith at home and at her work. Just as so many injured, sick or disabled often may show us. It is not possible to fool them with pious words about God. This means that the highest effort is a personal move that also can reinforce the weak. The “shemittah – year of remission and rest of the land” is also one of the best examples of what the Shulchan Aruch teaches about the significance of the highest effort.

“Remember us for Life, King Who desires Life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, Living God”.

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