Friday, December 21, 2007

Chayim: is blessing a real living?

The Jewish world consists of being under a continuous guidance of uttered words that emphasize how sacred, beautiful and new it is to be alive and see the marvels of our environment, nature, humans, animals... We bless our homes, cats, friends, spouses or possible partners. We supposedly say blessings upon our cups of tea, peanut cream, wine, water or mitz (fruit juice), when we see a rainbow, a scholar, go on a trip. The problem is to avoid becoming like automatons. Or to bless anything that only relates to ourselves and spend our day in scorning the others, just to take a sort of selfish breath.

There is a very close link in Judaism between blessings and curses. And we are quicker to judge and curse others than to curse ourselves, G-d forbid! The problem with this systematic recognition that holiness is everywhere in the world may be tiresome. It may be boring to handle perpetual blessings that ring up like bells (some would only try on a trip to Israel). It is definitely not evident to bless, true! And to accept that these words are indeed efficient. Look: this neighbor, co-worker, politician, actor, doctor, we ought to bless them!? And simply this cracked-up auntie who could give a loan on a free basis; she is just a mess as we - her family - and some of her friends agreed at some anti-defamation meeting last week.

Well, we all turned to lashon hara'ah (vicious gossiping, venomous speech), but it was so refreshing! This is maybe the worse defect of the thing: to say wrong, malicious and killing words against anybody in our thoughts while uttering holy blessings. But we so desperately need enemies. There are special moments though: for example when people die. It becomes an energizing flash of peaceful meditation and possible care. Last wills can be intriguing.

In the "Vayechi - (and Jacob) lived" parshat hashavua (reading portion of the week) Israel was about to die and called his son Joseph, got acquainted with Menashe and Ephraim and, seemingly dim, blessed Ephraim (junior) instead of Menashe (senior) with his right hand. He foresaw a greater and more fruitful descent for him. It is important that their grandfather confirmed their adoption in the Tribes, because, in spite of some link through Dinah, Joseph's sons are not Jewish by their mother. Nonetheless, each Shabbat, a family father blesses his children in recalling their names. Israel asked Joseph to bury him in the Land of Canaan. Then he called each of his sons and blessed them with very relevant phrases and statements about their characters and specific future for each tribe. It should be noted how he blessed “Simon and Levi (who) are a pair (achim); their weapons are tools of lawlessness…let not my person be included in their council… cursed be their anger so fierce… I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel” (Gen./Bereishit 49:5-7).

This sounds a bit rude. Jacob-Israel is quietly ending his life abroad but with his family and a prophetic future that shall be accomplished by his sons. The patriarch (third 'av' = father) ends his days with decency, after a life of labor and cheat. He grew old as a man and became mature in the face of God. Isaac would not have blessed Yaakov and Esau the way Israel blessed his sons. The twins were then competitors bogged down in lentil soup, birthright and blessing capture with a mother's push; this does not show the same grandeur as leaving the world without any woman's care, honored by Pharaoh (70 days of wailing decreed in Egypt after Yisrael's death). Still he departs in exile, envisioning his gathering with Abraham at Machpelah cave. Yaakov has a remarkable demand to Joseph in such circumstances: "Place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty (chesed ve'emet)" (Gen. 47:29). It is a paternal symbolism recalling forever his injury forever as Israel. Joseph will receive Simon and Levi's portions but he must witness for the fragility of unexpected divine assistance.

The problem of Jewishness - being a people called to bless all the other peoples and to teach them how to bless and not to kill in anyway - is indeed that the Jews are naked, without any possession or at least aware they are nil and temporary.

"Blessadhu" is still normal in Icelandic to say "Hello" in a polite way. "God bless" is Christian and interfaith Anglo. The word is related to "blood" (Old Germanic: "Blothisojan = to sprinkle blood on the altars"). The Anglo-Saxon word got sweeter by a mistake when specialists thought the root was the same as for "to bliss" which is lovely. Indeed, "bless" corresponds to the meaning of sacrifices (korbanot), the blood of lambs at Pesach (and Christian Easter), as the "Aid al Adha" (Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice) in which so many sheep and lambs were slaughtered in a way that tracks back to Abraham and Isaac's binding to the Prophet: "like a sheep being led to slaughter, like an ewe dumb before those who shear her" (Isaiah 53:7;cf. Preparation of the Gifts in the Byzantine Orthodox tradition). This is important these days when the Muslims celebrate the Hajj to Mecca and the sacrifices (of Ishmael left by Abraham).

In Hebrew, the usual word is brachah (blessing) and barech (to bless). It is basically connected with "beri - bara" (to create) that initially consists "to perforate" -- "think out a plan". "When the Lord wanted to create man (adam), He first created (thought out) all the means of his support and then created Adam" (Talmud Sanhedrin 38b - Gen. Rabba 8).

It should be noted that, indeed, Adam is a "bar" (son) of the same root as "to create". Thus, a blessing consists in sorts of perforations, holes, apertures allowing to instill strength, growth, refreshing, new creation. God proposes to screw us up although we don't feel hurt nor see any holes! Say that the blessing firstly renews or achieves something we got since we (and our diversified environment) exist, were shaped, receiving a special mark. A sort of spiritual, legal piercing! The "Laying of the hands" is thus important in the Jewish tradition in a kind of "sacrificial offering" that changes the life of the blessed: the hands were exerting a pressure upon the head (semichah; samech = stamp, perforate). "Samech", the name of fifteenth letter /s/ means "punch" as the thin knife used by the shochet (kosher slaughterer) to speedily kill the animal that must die immediately and be kosher. Blessings imply a change from death to life. Interestingly, the weekly reading is called "Vayechi" (And Jacob lived) because his death and repose at Machpelah introduce a new move of fertility and growth linking generations by means of blessings.

Then "barekh" means "to cave out, select, choose, point out": "HaQadosh Baruch Hu" (The Holy One, Blessed He be) as in Talmud Pessahim 118a, Who, in turn, praises and blesses His creation, not the contrary. "hivrikh" develops the action: "to form a knee, to engraft a plant, wine" as "two good shoots (proselytes) have been engrafted to Ruth" (Talmud Bava Kamma 38b; cf. Epistle to the Romans 11:13 about the Gentiles engrafted to share the roots of the olive tree without boasting). Then, a blessing implies the growth of "birkai" (shoots, branches) who will be satisfied with waters. As it is regular in the Semitic tongues, positive and negative aspects can alternate in paradoxal ways according to the context: 'barekh' can also mean 'to blaspheme': "...Until he blasphemes the Lord by His name” (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a). This is a very profound and sensitive experience that blessing and cursing are closely tied, as love and hatred, praising and scorning, mocking.

This is a very specific call to bless people and be a mark of blessings. In the case of Israel, it is a "congregational, community, international" service of God. This is the core meaning of Israel's destiny because blessing intrudes that we take over the sufferings and the joys of the nations. Blessings comply with the order of the words as in the verse: "Bo'u (come), nishtachaweh (bow down til earth), venikhra'ah (kneel down) venivrachah (bend the kneels to be blessed) lifney HaShem ossenu (in the face of God Who makes us)" (Psalm 94:6, said before reading the Psalms in the Jewish and some Christian traditions). This move is special because it induces yeridah (falling, getting to nil) and then olah (raising) with the blessing. In the Scroll of Esther, Mordechai refused to kneel and bow down before Haman (Esther 3:2-5). This movement is reversed compared to the psalm. The three Wise Men who came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem acted according to the correct order of the verse, i.e. giving thanks to God for the new born child (Matthew 2:11). As we read this portion, the Western Churches will celebrate the Nativity of Jesus on December 24/25 in Bethlehem, the city of David whose death is also read as haftarah (Prophetic reading) in the Jewish tradition (1 Kings 2:1-12).

"Yechi!" the weekly reading recounts the death of Yaakov-Israel in exile. "Yechi" = may he live" is similar to Batshevah's cry: "yechi adoni David le'olam va'ed - may my Master David live forever" (Kings 1:1-31). He had abandoned Bethlehem, built, combated and killed his enemies or competitors. On the other hand, Yaakov-Israel could be murdered several times. The same prophetic call to universal blessing echoes from Bethlehem, as David is "Messiah" in the Jewish tradition and "yechi - may live or he lived" incites to bless our society with the mark of goodness and hope in these days of hardship.

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