Monday, October 22, 2007

Chomriyut: Beyond saddling a donkey

In modern Hebrew, "chomriyut" means "materialism". It also relates to the physical reality, to the concrete, pragmatic material and substance that can be touched, moved, displaced, changed in a visible way. The "CH-M-R" root in Hebrew as also in Aramaic, and most Semitic languages suggests that the words built upon this radical are "loaded", weighed", heavy or difficult to pile up: "a balanced load (chamar) is like supporting a thing with the thumb on top and the little finger below" (Zevachim 53a).

But the word also refers to "passing a regulation, a law" that can be restrictive. "When they placed themselves under greater restrictions than required by the law, they made a usage of a law = nobody cannot extend any adopted usage only because of analogy or apparent similarities of the situations", states Tractate Niddah 66a.

The perfect example of the radical developed in "chammar = the attendant of beasts of burden, in particular the "chamor = donkey" that is the most exciting clone of materialism as burdening dullness, point of gravity and heaviness. Things may seem to move, but very slowly. The donkey has the right "to rest on the seventh day/Shabbat" and not to be coveted by others (Ex. 20:9-14).

The standards of "chomriyut" are shown in the coming sidra of the week on the Shabbat "Vayera” that includes the reading portion of Bereishit / Genesis accounting the supreme test that Abraham had to face: to offer, slaughter his son Isaac. This is the famous report of the Akedat Itzchak - Binding of Isaac on the wood (Gen. 22:1-19). In response to this test, certainly the heaviest and painful in a human point of view, Abraham did not say a word. He did not moan or groan. “He saddled his ass – yichavesh et-chamoro” (Bereishit 22:3) as reports Bereishit. The word “chavesh” means both “to saddle” and “to imprison, put chains”. At first glance it might seem that the imprisoned creature is the one that is saddled, i.e. the chamor – ass-donkey. This sounds materialistically true and a matter of realism. Abraham’s ass was burdened with the “split wood for the olah – burnt-offering (binding of Isaac). This reading is an essential part of the revelation, our private and public devotion and faith in the God of Israel.

When Abraham “imprisoned” his donkey with a saddle and the loads, he accepted the physical and natural burden of life with the intimate conviction that it is a “light yoke or sacrifice”. This is the meaning of “olah – a sacrifice that climbs up into the air” as of “ol’ – yoke as in ‘Ol’ HaShamayim = the yoke of heaven / the compliance with the Mitzvot”. This burden is light. It does not mean that it makes the way cool, fully understandable and equal. This is a major test for any generation to get to the point. The Gospel brings forth some confirmation of what testing Commandments may be in reality: Jesus also said “My yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matthew 11:30). He does refer to the same realm of the Jewish Mitzvot as they were observed in his time.

Let’s say that Abraham was not light-minded; he was not carefree or frolicsome. He was full of equanimity and light-heartedly faced events and tests with insight. The whole of the event consisted indeed in a “vision – Adonai yera’e” (Gen. 22:14) and a provision given by God in supplying a ram. But it is evident that this account is usually firstly considered as a fairy tale with some ethnological-anthropological societal interpretations on the seemingly rather primitive background of an impossible challenge. We eagerly thirst for some in-depth encrypted meaning of profound spirituality that borders esotericism and hidden key clarification provided with passwords acquired on a credit line. This is the best of our virtual world at the moment.

Still, some years ago, some Christian monks got rightly fascinated by the fact that the celebration of the Eucharist (Bread and Wine becoming the Body and Blood = living body of resurrected Jesus) in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions is definitely rooted in the Seder Pesach, the Ordinance of the account and celebration of the Jewish Passover. The roots are evident. They are far more difficult to explain and understand. Thus, they called, in a spirit of dialogue, a chief rabbi in order to get the correct comments. They asked the rabbi to explain the meaning of the Eucharist. The chief rabbi had frequented the Christians, but the Eucharist could hardly mean any reality in his own life. The monks spoke with him of the spiritual heavenly bread; he answered that the paschal lamb had to be slaughtered in accordance with the laws of the shechitah (kosher slaughtering of animals) and then cut into pieces after having been roasted. He did say but simple stuff: to take a knife and slaughter the animal as was done in ancient times. The monks suddenly visualized in the slaughtering that there was a real problem of dialogue and understanding of spiritual experience that got estranged.

Now, in what sense is it comparable with the “primitive” text about the Akedat Itzchak – Binding of Isaac? True! A donkey is reputed to be dull. Abraham was maybe performing some odd ritual inherited from pagan human sacrifices. A vision that turns to be resolved by a divine provision of a ram in replacement of a 38-year-old boy to be slaughtered, just for a test? We love tests and find them everywhere in magazines or professional human resource controls. If the scene was to happen in the present – even in the vicinity of Mount Moriah or elsewhere else – the police, army, ambulance and other assistance services might be called. We may be tempted to reduce the authentic challenge of spirituality to any “materialistic or psychologically explainable framework”.

It is normal, in Jerusalem – but this is an international phenomenon that shows in different ways – to see godly people. Many years ago, I incidentally saw two Jesus, each of them accompanied by the twelve apostles and the following women. They started to shriek, cry and fight till the police, totally untouched by the quarrel, obliged them to cool down. That was long before the present war situation began. Today, spirituality requires “being clearly defined and predetermined”…

Abraham left his “own self” to find that God alone supports, nurtures, sustains and accomplishes His will. This is why, along the ages, the Jewish Shaharit – Morning prayer that is often a private prayer, included specific texts that would recall the urging necessity to uplift our souls, looking for more freshness: “Do not make your prayer routine, but address free supplications and petitions to God” (Berachot 28b). Shaharit is built like a rising sun four level structure allowing the soul to refresh from the dark and sleep at dawn. The “Binding of Isaac” reading became then a daily reading included in this rising up morning service. The text aims at elevating the soul from the heaviness, dullness of the material physical reality in order to accept God’s will in our own lives. But this sounds, at first, like a donkey speech repeatedly written or hooked down in a parrot fashion. Clerics of all religions have a sort of innate expertise in proposing easy-going yokes that turn to become real burdens.

There is maybe more. Struggling against thick apathy and physical weightiness requires getting rid of worldly enjoyments. This is maybe why the Israelis love to tour in the monasteries. The Old City of Jerusalem remains an unequaled area where crowds cross crowds and people “meeting without encountering”, just like people exchanging glance in a short glimpse of time that refreshes as from old. It is so intriguing to note that the account of the Binding of Isaac is read everyday during the Jewish Morning prayer and also constitutes an essential element of reflection for the Christians with regards to Jesus’ sacrifice. A true Christian soul would not really come to the same conclusions as the Jews when reading this account. The experience is biased by spiritual practice and experiment. But for the main part, the supreme effort that allows struggling and going beyond oneself and pass through death into the Life of the world-to-come remains the major challenge. It presupposes the capacity to face total solitude without being submitted to despair.

We belong to a generation that loves to be connected and still “prefers to keep loose ties” and unchained bonds. We are an unsaddled generation buying one-portion dishes, pleasuring in one-shot experiences that may be shared by numerous anonymous egos. We may click and quit, fall in love and cast away. This cannot help: solitude is not loneliness. It is not a lonesome silence full of anxiety. It is when we feel that we intrinsically share the same human experience that traces back and extends historical proofs.

Twenty nine years ago, on October 16, 1978, the Roman Catholic Church elected Karol J. Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II. He was born in Wadowice, in the diocese of Cracow where he had been assigned as archbishop. Auschwitz-Birkenau is located in his territory. He had been to school with Jews, Gypsies, Armenians, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Slovaks. In October 1986, the first ecumenical assembly at Assisi gathered the representatives of the major religions of the world. In this year of the 800th anniversary of Francis of Assisi, a new international prayer will take place at Napoli (Italy). Pope Benedict XVI is also rescued from the Nazi cancer. Bartholomeos I, Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, has also been educated in the international context of Istanbul (Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Syrian-Orthodox). The first Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Tikhon, firstly served in the United States, backed the translation of the prayers into the Aleutian language (Alaska), and then became a metropolitan in Vilnius where he frequented all the various local believers.

Abraham’s saddling of his donkey continues to be the prevailing question of how to reach the supreme effort that goes beyond physical weight and apathy.

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