Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Sheket: resting in turmoil

The Feast of Succot will soon be over. The etrog / Citrus "big heart" will either turn to some jam or prolong the feast and the historical "ushpizin - special guests, visitors" chosen as time markers will apparently leave our world. We will be able to add some smell of etrog over the year during the havdalah - service distinguishing the Shabbat from the ordinary days. We read the "megillat Kohelet - scroll of the Ecclesiastes" that could be understood either as a sort of fatality that continues each year. Newness and seeding forces that sprinkle out of the divine invisible forces may often be too challenging. Good Pope John XXVIII used to say that we are "uomini di pocca fede - people with little faith".

In these days of harvesting, we would prefer to assemble and rejoice, feel together and forget for a short while that daily life removes all make-up and useless pretended struggles for life. There is an interesting root in Talmudic Hebrew: "QaT - QaTa" that means "to pluck" and "be a fragment, chip". It is linked to "Qataf - to harvest". It is written: "If he plucks, thus gains anything, the plucks a piece of coal - if he loses, he loses a pearl" (Terumot 8, 45d). This saying means that a man risks his life for a trifle. A small chip that firstly appears as meaningless, senseless and vain. Let's put it in other words. In Pessikta Rabba deRabbi Kahana 21, it is said: "that student is a chip from the rock of Mount Sinai”, which should change him into a rare precious stone of knowledge spared from the rocky wilderness of the Sinai and the Giving of the Luchot (Tablets) (cf. Sanhedrin 4, 22a “qetoa”). This is what is great in Jewishness and all the Jewish traditions: from gambling and trifling we are basically called to hear God’s voice Who assembles chips and cuts or diminish our pride or selfishness to shape things “fine” – “qatat” as stated: “the one who beats (“meqatqet – makes even by beating”) to make the web close or to make the woof even” (Shabbat 12, 13c). Curiously, John the Baptist has something rather similar: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase but I must decrease. The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all (John 3:29-31).

This echoes the upcoming Shabbat Bereishit with the new reading of the account of the Creation in the Book of Genesis. It refers to the shaping, making even and fine of our universe and the planets, in particular, the Earth. The reader is called the “Chatan Bereishit – the bridegroom of Genesis” as to attest that God did shape the world and not the humans; and humankind did not wake up by some sophisticated or unreasonable project. All beings come into the world in order to pass over - depart. The major effect is that we grow old from the very first day we come out of our mother’s womb but we cannot grow old. On the contrary, a believer, might progressively get to the point, eventually preceded by terrible pains and sufferings, that s/he quits timeless eternity to live through an age that terribly extended from the original big bang. Thus, we are young “chaps” as regards the bridegrooms who are cut in time to get creative as family, job and learning partners. This is a reversed envisioning of our life, our duration.

There is a problem of lack of confidence: we would like to build, but are quick to destroy. It is so strange to spend some time in a Danish city garden. The children can fight like anywhere else, but if they get the material, they will always start to build something and avoid any destroying. This might explain why the Danes created the “Lego” or construction games. It is amazing to look at these little boys and girls naturally playing peacefully with a spirit of building something.

As always in the Semitic realm, “QaTaTa = quarrel, dispute, discord (music, sounds)” with a preference to one sole and unique example: “beyno l’veynah – relations between (man and woman, spouses). “Qatatah” is the exact opposite to “shalom – peace”. “if husband and wife have a strong dispute before his death (of the husband), they are vain” (Yevamot 15, 1).

The root developed into an engrossing word: “sheqet – silence”. Considering the Talmudic references mentioned above that enroot the basic meaning of the word, things are not so simple in the TaNaKh and the Oral Law. “Shaqat haolam – the world remained undisturbed” (Avodah Zarah 3a, Yalkut Habakuk 563) reflects a statement found both in Genesis and the Book of Job: “VeHu yishqit be’olamo = He (the Lord) is and remains unconcerned about His world (Gen. Rabbah 36; cf. Job 36:29). This could suggest that God might be careless (“shalev”) or feel too much “at ease” with His creation. Russian saying states: “Every uttered word is a lie and silence covers a lot of sins (Saint Seraphim of Sarov). The problem is that “the ease of the wicked / resha’im is bad for themselves as for the world” (Sanhedrin 8, 5).

It should be noted that true silence is positive in the Jewish tradition. Silence may resemble a destruction: for example, in Hebrew, the sheva consists in removing a vowel and change it into some sort of “silent” /e/ sound: “shalom > sh’lom ha’ish – peace > the peace of the man”. Indeed, “sheva” corresponds to “shoah – destruction”. Nonetheless, “silence” shows “quietness, be even, balanced, at ease”. Silence may introduce some fear (death) or narcissistic self-mirroring that opens up the dreams of some suffering souls. “Shakut = a forehead that recedes abruptly”, which can be good for donning the tefillin (Berachot 43b).

On the other hand, silence is merely a reality. Absolute dumbness, total absence of decibels is not possible. Even gesture and the language of the deaf and dumb include their uttering some moaning, groaning or raw sounds produced by the throat.

From August till now, a lot of international personalities died and their lives had been deeply affected by the Shoah: on September 22nd, Marcel Marceau, born Mangel-Werzberg in Strasbourg into a Jewish family at the age of 84. In 1944, his father, a shochet / kosher butcher and was murdered in Auschwitz. He was obliged to leave the Alsace and joined the Free French Forces, then worked as a liaison officer with General Patton’s army. He perfectly spoke English and, when the war was over, he decided to become an actor. True, he found his way in renewing the art or the ancient Italian pantomime or “l’art du silence – the art of silence”. In 1947, he created the silent character of “Bip” the clown that drew into silence the soft and fragile “Arlequin” and “Baptiste” he had interpreted in various mimodramas. I saw him very often on the stage – it was frail and powerful, like Chaplin’s mute films. It is certain that mime Marceau chose to revive humanity through gesture and bones, pantomiming animals, butterflies or the extraordinary “Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death” two minute mimodrama that summed up whole series of human destinies. He performed everywhere in the world and the international language of silence got his a huge prestige in Japan: the No theater and the Japanese combined with Kan Ji Chinese ideograms immediately attained the soul of silence as a universal language. He remained an actor, especially in Mel Brook’s “Silent Movie”. He also influenced Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk”.

Mime and pantomime were definitely popular in Antiquity and was reinvigorated from the time of the Commedia dell’Arte till some rescued actors. “Bip” has a wide family. Mime Marceau used to say that life had been so fragile and tragic that this form of art of silence was the best way for him to show the beauty of the world.

It is indeed a world that sowed revival in the silence chosen by numerous survivors in order to continue their struggling for life. On the other hand, Marcel Marceau was a choreographer who could pave the way for a speechless art that reaches out to every heart. This is also at the core of “sheket – silence”: to act with tact (Lat. “tacitus – being silent”) and not reticence (“reticere – keep silent”).

Is there any reason to confide in God? The Hoshanah Rabbah sequence “Mevasser mevasser veomer – He comes to embody and announce the good news” is one of the mos spolendid piyutim / chants that can give some hope to share. Job’s final exclamation: “I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6) echoes the original Abraham’s words to God for the sake of Sodom: “I am but dust and ashes” (Bereishit 18:27).

It is not a repeated nihilistic statement: these men entrusted everything to God, every thing and silence brought them as it is proposed to us in the same way. It substantiates full trust in God for chipped – not broken but fine humans.

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