Sunday, November 4, 2007

Ziknah: between old and young

We just got the fresh news that the oldest Icelandic sea mollusk recently died at the age of 435 years old, beating ocean whales (only 140 or so) and other odd animals. The noting point as concerns the Icelandic mollusk is that it develops specific lines, the same way tree trunks do and this is how the scientist got to its probable age. It was indeed a very respectable age, true and it is strange that no other living animals show the same features at the present. Life grows short. In the Caucasus, there are some famous areas where the elders, mostly men, can live far beyond 120 years old, with tea yogurts and a quiet atmosphere. Anyway, it depends where because the region is politically on fire. Also some Mongolian and Ainu people in Japan (Hokkaido).

There is no age to blossom up. It may happen only right out of a sudden because life is too difficult, eventually boring. For example, there is this wonderful socio-cultural tendency that is still very trendy and can bring people to repeated strokes, early Alzheimer, Parkinson: it consists in exercising strong pressure on the working manpower. This also drowns the management. This basically allows supporting medical research.

So this week, Shabbat Chayyei Sarah (the lives of Sarah), mainly reports about the death Abraham's wife. The texts of the reading portion are Bereishit 23:1-25:18 for the sidra and the First Book of the Kings (Malachim) 1:1-31. There are different points of similitude as always required for the haftarot (prophetic readings) de dame leh = for the sake of similarity (Megillat 29b). So there are some common points. Sarah, Abraham's wife and lifelong companion, is 127 years and the passes away. Compared with some TaNaKh records, it is still rather young, but let's accept that there happened a drastic life shortening of human life after the Flood - Mabul.

Now she was almost the same century-old when she bore little Yitzchak. With regards to Abraham's paternity, some Sages have questioned whether Abimelech eventually could have been the true progenitor (cf. the oath sworn by Abraham to Abimelech in Gen.1:22-24). But who counts?) When our theologians and scientists will get to retroactive DNA tests, maybe we would get some answer.

Abraham is indeed very important. He is the man of faith, total faith, that kind of faith that if we would only have the idea to make one or two of the tests he went through could bring us close to some cave and quietly die there. The Christian tradition insists on Abraham's unique acts of faith colored with some mixture of liberty and morals (Epistle to the Hebrews 6:3, repeated 21 times). Still he had envisioned the whole of the Torah. It does not mean that his lifestyle and intelligence of societal connections. In treatise Bava Bathra 145, Abraham's patience is mentioned by Satan who did not trust so much Job's faith in God.

There is something common with Job's different tests. Firstly, let's consider Sarah's destiny. To be honest, we almost know nothing about her life, personal background, family links with Abraham. They had left Haran together for the big journey through atmospheric mirages and human visions. I underscored in a previous article that his mom might have been quite something! But Sarah knows how to get her husband slammed, she governs her husband's sexual life in a rather late period of their life. And she takes the lead casting away poor Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Abraham successfully passed all divine tests. He always obeyed his wife til she departed.

It is not evident that there was some "Women Lib" group in the South, near Beer-Sheva at that time nor that matriarchs were suffragists and combat-addicted. From the most ancient times, the TaNaKh and the Jewish tradition - then (normally) followed by Christianity, chose womanhood, femininity, for the real conduct of a Jewish household. This is why there are so many clashes. This includes gentleness, tenderness, wit and gracefulness. Hebrew is naturally a plural form: "chayyei Sarah - the lifes of Sarah" that it is usual to translate as a singular. Sarah’s lives might have been the different levels she could accept such a husband, his tests with God and his projects. It is not sure that she could adhere to the full faith, whatever “laughter”. In this aspect, she has faced the attitudes of paganism and idolatry. It is easier to make a real account of Rebecca’s, Rachel’s and Leah’s biography. She brought her husband to get more out of him. The burial at the Cave of Machpelah is the founding of the Jewish nation. It was bought from the Hittite in a way that certainly could be perilous. Still, the memory developed till now into Eretz Canaan and Israel. Curiously, it includes the splits after the Sarah’s burial, Abraham’s marriage to Keturah and his decision to give all his heritage to Isaac alone.

In the haftarah, Melech David is getting very old. Thirty years ago, in Agron Street (Jerusalem), there was a nice “electrical heating devices” shop called “Shunammite”. It was a cute way to recall the exceedingly beautiful young “naarah – virgin/girl”, Abishag, who was brought to the King to give him some warmth. She became his “sochenet – attendant” or protection though “the king was not intimate with her – lo yad’eh” (! Kings 1:4). At least no heritage for Abishag! She is all the time “covering him” while a ruthless fight is ongoing among the true heirs. Now, things are very simple, just open the gazette and you will get the same dramas everywhere. There could be some arguments for the non-kosher presence of Abishag, but he was the king and knew that all his emotional and idolatry would prevent him from building the Temple in Jerusalem.

Adonijah, son of Hagit, had a standard rebellious idea: to gather a small party with Yoab, the priest Abiathar and they had a party. The Prophet Nathan did not participate to the sacrificial feast of meat, sheep. Nathan told Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, that her son might have some problems with the succession. She ran straight to the king, bowed down and down again. She explained her torment…she and Solomon feared to be considered as traitors. Covered by Abishag during thee explanations, the king saw the prophet Nathan coming in, bowing low his face to the ground.

The point of the week, let’s put it that way for a blog, is precisely the prophet Nathan. He was at the beginning of Melech David’s love story with Bathsheba. She was Uriah’s wife who had been intentionally sent in order to perish on the battlefield. There are different explanations. But their first baby died. Nathan firstly came to comfort the king, saying it was a miserable situation, but that the king was stronger, mightier… till God told him to stop that nonsense. Nathan was asked to oblige the king to repent. This was the real problem, because at that time – as in the present, advisors, counselors, think-tanks depend on the good will of the mogul of the time. And even being a prophet, Nathan could be sent to some remote place. Interestingly, King David did not write his psalm 51 of penance. He might have written some verses, but the prophet was also his secretary.

It is evident that Prophet Nathan’s intervention in view to get the confirmation that Solomon would reign as King of Israel came in due time. Still, he is afraid. And this is intriguing. Strangely how the older a ruler is, the more people can be scared of his decisions. The prophet Nathan “said – amarta”. The translation is not that simple: you said is basic. Indeed, he hesitates: have you said…? (Rashi). Or, you must have said that Adonijah will succeed you (1 Kings 1:24). He plays on suppositions. But the prophet, as any prophet in Israel had another duty. At this point, it is also clear that the prophet might have to prove that king did confirm his son Salomon as his heir. It is a prophetic action in that sense that he witnesses all the actions and misdeeds that still had not removed the king. There are times when the believers miss this courage of the faith.

“Up to Abraham’s days, there was no distinction in appearance of old age” (Sanhedrin 107b). The role of the prophet is “if your nation is decaying in faith, fence her = prevent her from being trodden”. (Berachot 9: 14c).

It is interesting to note that, in the early Church, the development of the communities happened through the Synagogues as “motherly breasts” and very strong-minded women, like Lydia who obliged Paul of Tarsus to accept her assistance He said “We could not refuse her invitation” (Acts of the Apostles 16:14).

Curiously, one must pay a lot of respect to old people. But at the same time, Israel’s experience recalls that great age may become a time of powerful temptation towards idolatry.