It is a sort of habit, in the Old City of Jerusalem, but also in many very Jewish circles, to systematically answer to greetings by saying that everything is fine. Things are fine, or at least more or less fine.
Russian is wonderful for this hide and seek word play because it introduces some nuances that would normally be absent in Hebrew.
So things are not going that well, it seems, in the world at the moment. Others simply answer that there is "nothing new under the sun". True, I am told that every day. It is a kind of clerical interfaith parroting Esperanto. The French have a rather old and popular song about a servant explaining the "Madame la Marquise" that everything is wonderful, classy... still the castle is on fire, but everything is fine.
Veeyn-kol chadash tachat hashemesh does not mean there is nothing new... Instead, it presupposes that all things exist and, as a consequence, we are blind to see them new.
It is astounding how the virtual world has conquered our brains and changed, distorted, twisted our perception of the reality. Again, it determined with new parameters our reality. Young computer whizzes have made fortunes out of bytes and bugs. Empires were thus created and continue to be launched. They actively transform and reshape our frontiers, existing and virtual acting capacities. They swindle between technical progress and human enhancement, causing mental mishmash and wandering on their way.
Strange kings and queens, a bit like Solomon looking at an ant lodged in his hand and wondering how powerful he was because he held her fate in his palm. And she answered to him he was nothing because she can flee quicker than he could run but she underlined that the king's hand was a good throne for her. There is something similar in the words of Jesus of Nazareth: "Even Solomon, in all his splendor, was not clothed as one of these birds" (Matthew 6:29; Luke 12:22-31).
Let’s say that things are constantly new. It is like this contemporary eye operation of the cataract: chik chak and there the sight is more acute, God willing, than when a child is born. Colors were turning to darkening yellow and, out of sudden, they are brighter, “newer”. The problem is not to get used to things growing old or common. On the other hand, changes do make personalities, minds, bodies different, if not alien to some possible integrity.
This is the main issue of parshat hashavua Vayetzei – "And (Jacob) went out of the land”, the reading portion taken in the Bereishit 29:10-32:3. The haftarah/prophetic portion is read in the Book of Prophet Hoshea 12:13-14:10 (Ashkenazi; 11:7-12:12 for the Sephardim). It accounts how Yaakov left Beer-Sheva and went to Charan, the original place of Abraham. Jacob’s problem is very real for our generation and historic development. We need to know about our roots. Memory and family backgrounds can be very short-timed: 10 years seem to some like more than a century or two. We are quick at packed-up matters or actions, too quick at thinking. Then, we miss reflection, long-term patient observation of facts and invariant situations. We need short sentences and get tired by long phrases. Interestingly, legal texts (laws) who were always and everywhere written in a very concise tongue, using very few words develop at the present into long paragraphs of confused definitions.
We have the problem everyday in this country. Either we frame ourselves in Hebrew, which allows excluding the aliens, foreigners or considered as such. We clam up and seal down. In many places, people would address each other according to what they think the others are: Ke fadlak (How are you), kak dela (Soviet Russian to ask how you feel), Are you good? is the local Pidgin that closes up any true conversation from the very beginning because the people who meet do not have any common language. It leaves us as if we were without roots.
Jacob’s problem is that his journey to Charan turned to be a way into exile and not in-depth discover of his roots. The major issue that we have to face and to resolve in our own lives and moral conducts is how to stop being twisted and crooked. As a consequence of his mother's decision to back him as her beloved son, Yaakov endorsed the responsibility of having cheated, betrayed, mocked and robbed his father and his brother by a process that is called “substitution”, “chalifah” in Talmudic Hebrew.
It led to falsehood, made his life a hell. And it is indeed fascinating: his father-in-law Laban knew that Jacob was crazy in love with Rachel; still he cheated him during the wedding night and Yaakov got the sister, Leah… without even recognizing her till new dawn! (Gen. 29:25). Nu, he protested! Is this a model of nice and brilliant mishpuche-family atmosphere or more likely to be some sort of professional enslaving nepotism?
Chalifah – chalifim/chalifin firstly means replacement, substitution: “When a scholar dies, who will get us one to take his place (chalifato)?” (Berachot II,5c). This is the very question about whom may take the succession in the Chassidic communities. It started with R. Nachman of Bratzlav who had no son, but continues today in the Chabad and the Szatmar movements. “Chalifot” mean “shoots that replace and prolong”. This sounds positive.
But “chalifah/im/in” is usually negative and covers some treachery, fraudulent actions. Tricky maneuvers, connected with women and sex, are usually showing process as also money. Exchange as a possible double-dealing and crooked target is wonderfully defined in Kiddushin I,6: “As soon as one of the parties to the exchange has taken possession, the other takes the risk for its exchange”. The statement that deals in fact with the acquisition of a woman as a spouse exposes the real nature of the contract: it is a risk. In the case of Jacob, the whole story is crooked: he had no right to the birthright of his brother Esau and did not acquire it personally. He fought to get his identity. He could not think there would be a risk in working to get Rachel. In the end, he received four women that he knew intimately with much obedience to Laban or his wives.
We hate risks. We need to be secured. We collect credit cards and insurance policies. We are not only afraid of some accidents, wounds, injuries. It is important. But it is not the main issue.
The haftarah also recounts Ephraim’s falsehood and the deceit of the House of Israel. “You are a merchant with deceitful scales in his hand, who loves to cheat. Ephraim said: I have certainly become wealthy! I have found power for myself” (Hos. 12:8). The fraudulent aspect of a risk is that we might consider us superior to others, at a personal or societal level without measuring the limits of human capacities.
Jacob’s marital problems give the exact picture of our lives’ risks. He often positioned himself as in a situation of being substituted and cheated. Curiously, it is comparable to Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman who actually told him: “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22). Jesus asked her to come with her husband. She simply answered she had no husband. “You are right in saying that,replied Jesus, because you had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:17). It is traditionally considered that he was speaking of the various covenants that God passed with the House of Israel.
Does a covenant cancel a previous one? Or does it replace it? Is a new covenant a risk taken like when choosing a bride? We face life-long challenges that seem unreal because, at the moment, we prefer wooing like one-day butterflies, and then throw the others away after short instants of apparent satisfaction?
Judaism has often experienced through history this paradox of a profound desire from the non-Jews to replace them, take their birthright as God’s chosen ones. Thus, Israel usurped it for a dish and got the blessing with false hair. The paradox is that it worked and Yaakov really got God’s blessing. The price certainly implies to accept to walk on earth by taking risks. Paul of Tarsus wrote that “to the Israelites are the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship (avodah) and the promises” (to the Romans 9:4). Jealousy and fanatic zeal can lead to think that covenant-bearers can be replaced.
This is the present challenge of the Churches to recognize the full coherence and positive call of the House of Israel. I will take time. In return, the Jewish communities should approach the Churches that have been abiding the Holy Land with more interrogations and insights. This is a bet and a risk because of the past relationships. It is interesting that, these days, the Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, came with the aim to return 700 Torah Scrolls to the Jews. The Ukraine and Israel are bound by the seal of history and these scrolls are not corpses, killed bones. They are the living covenant showing that the God of Israel is living and sustains life.