Thursday, June 14, 2007

Chazak o chalash: strength and weakness

Could we compare two events that are apparently totally different and not connected? Yesterday, Shimon Peres became the ninth president of the State of Israel. Living memory of this State and its up-building, he has been present in almost all decisive moments of the implementation and development of the Jewish State.
Born in Poland, he came to Israel in 1936 and has been present on the acting scene from Ben Gurion to today. It has often been said that he is a "loser." Easy to say, but not so obvious and when the two opponents left the scene yesterday; either it meant that he was chosen by absence of competitors or maybe it was a sort of silent plebiscite. Anyway, the man had be active over all the decades with much constancy, swinging along the mud and troubled waters of a new-old state that did not know much about how to run politics and diplomacy.

At the end of the year, newly elected president Shimon Peres will initiate a mandate that should endure seven years. Along with all the blessings and wishes that accompanied this final aliya to the top of the Israeli State, the moral and personal credit aspect is very significant. He sketched out different peace processes together with Yitzchak Rabin. Not only with the Palestinians, but also in all the region, with the envisioning of future networking collaboration between the Arab neighboring countries, in particular Jordan.
We can be very superstitious or on the verge of some magic Kabbalah, but rumors have to go on that he had been “cursed” by the Rav Itzchak Kaduri as also the Gerer Rebbe. Now, in our culture cursing and blessing are intermingling and change from hours to weeks and years. It is indeed appealing that the final touch came with the full blessing of his election by Rav Ovadya.

On the same day, at a session of the Iriyah (City Hall of Jerusalem), for seemingly the fourth time in a row, late Rav Yeshayahu Leibowitz was refused to be given the name of a street in Jerusalem. Chemist, professor at the Hebrew University, Talmudist and co-editor of the famous Encyclopedia Judaica, it is exact that the man of God had the chic to curse and use crude words, ideas or expressions. The problem is that he was very into brainstorming and thinking. He admitted once that his critics were harsh but he argued that, in a very hard society as Israel, such expressions really exposed meaningful positions.
Is the IDF “Nazi” for their misconduct after 1967? Is it really possible to say, for a rabbi, that the Kotel/Western Wall turned to be now a sort of “discotheque” because of praying excessive folklore? It was far too violent. But the man was questioning the society in which he was living and has always reminded others of the real significance of faith and observance of the Mitzvot. Let’s say that when Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg passed away on Sivan 24 (06/10), the young and very open rosh yeshivah had spent his 58 years to reach out to various forms of Hassidism as well as secular matters such as theater, as a part of the true Jewish interrogation at the present. He was quiet and viewed Judaism through the glances of Arts and Films as well as philosophy.The parshat hashavua is “Korah – Now Korah, son of Izhar of Kohat son of Levi” and the portion includes Bemidbar/Numbers 16:1-18:32. And gung-ho again, guys! A new clash blows up and enflames the elite of the descendants of Reuben: Korah, Dathan and Abiram son of Eliab together with 250 chiefs of the community. They accused Moses and Aaron of having gone too far and, as usual, asked: “Why do you raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?”

Always the same rampant quest; why am I not above everybody and why do you take the lead? Is the question so churlish?
Korah and the group perfectly agreed to the exodus and the fled from Egypt. We cannot know with precision how the Books of the TaNaKH have been written and the chronological order of the Mitzvot or ordinances. But Again, Korah would have preferred to remain in Egypt. At least a country they knew, with secured slavery and normal food, not these quails and unknown manna. Moreover, there was no contest among the people: we cannot really speak of an egalitarian proletarian union of tribes, but it was sufficient to be the son of a Hebrew name and the name was respected.

The structure appeared with the requirement to manage the tribes. You remember the good advice given by Jethro to Moses to assign the “anshey chayil – men of wisdom, government.” It seems then that something happened with the giving of the Mitzvot. We are all equal.
Well, this is also a statement that sounds like a magic slogan. Human societies are definitely obsessed by a profound drive to embody the reality that all humans are equal. In terms of health, wealth, capacities, work, chances, hopes, desires, accidents we experience that equality merely appears as a dream and not a basic social and human, psychological care. This is because we are far from digging out the sense of the Mitzvot and the Written and Oral Laws and all the insights of the Sages. Equality does not mean that we are even, clones living with clones at any level or rate. Some post-Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. “Be like other men and don’t consider yourself exempt from the laws of morality (Numeri Rabba 9,3). Or, “divide it into equal shares, for what it is worth, reasonable” (Sanhedrin 106a). This is the human way to value and thus it does take into account what the Talmud and the Tradition says.

In terms of divine status, the mitzvot are far above and beyond what we may understand. It is easy then to speak of some treachery or disloyalty. This is why it is so important that God underscored Moses’ humbleness. Human rights exist but they cannot be a lobby or transformed to permanent contesting bodies. Korah questions Moses and rebels with his group because the Mitzvot, creating various functions of priests, levites and children of Israel, were only starting to function. The Mitzvot are both to be accomplished in time and over our own time and generation. They do not evolve. We evolve and then amplify the meaning of God’s speech in the wilderness. The more we read these reading portions right now, the more can we be astounded by the fact that the structure determined by God and given to Moses an utmost pattern of service and this is foreign if not totally alien to most societies, with counter-examples in the historic development of the monotheistic faith. Not the faith that is invariant and thus adapts to maximize God’s Presence. But the way we focus more on ourselves as humans and cannot reach this balance that corresponds to “equality.”
Korah and his followers had another claim: they were all equally “holy” (kedoshim). This is a constant pretence and concern. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew society could think that it has been called to some unique and exceptional destiny. The destiny is unique, but it is in order to sanctify the world and its inhabitants and become ordinary coworkers of God in the creation that is still in a state of expansion: “asher bara Elokim la’assot- that God created and continues to develop” (Bereishit 2:3).

The pretence to be “positively untouchable” because definitely protected by God is dangerous because faith first exposes to danger without imperiling the tribes as a structure of service. Human frustrations have often reached such peaks that, instead of focusing on God, some groups preferred to systematically deny the existence of the priests, Levites and Bnei Israel and level down, certainly not up, the specific responsibilities. Korah could maybe question Moses because the Israelites had not reached the Land of Canaan.
The point is that any mitzvah or commandment requires much time to be understood in the context of our history. Nonetheless, it is certain that if we were to meet Jews of the time of Moses, in the wilderness, with Korah and the followers’ claims, we still would perfectly – I guess immediately – feel in our mishpuche – our people but also the same issues and realistic problems of who we are.

Some rabbis did interrogate whether the protection of Holy One extended in Jewish history to some kind of covering and pardoning trespasses. This is more present in the books of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
We started with Shimon Peres and the Rav L. Leibowitz. Maybe each of them and a lot of people try to achieve something that can only viewed partially at the present. We might also consider another point of view debated in the Talmud. We are called to accomplish the mitzvoth, without judging them or justifying who we would pretend to be. Measuring the “length, depth, width, breadth” we can accomplish a commandment would be rather ridiculous. On the other hand, some rabbis taught that a human being’s destiny may consist in trying to get to the farthest possible point in the accomplishment of a mitzvah that copes with a spiritual and personal project. It does not mean that the person would succeed. And this is important. Because we are seeds of future, not only of what we think that we have achieved in this world.

Christianity is going through very hard time in the Middle-East. In Iraq, priests and lay people are constantly murdered and the Assyro-Chaldean Churches who sowed the Semitic form of celebration brought from Jerusalem by the Apostle Thomas is shattered. The same phenomenon seems to destroy some parts of the Muslim society. Power and will for power is a constant test. Say, if people suddenly feel loose and would surrender they would only appear as weak shlemazls, no luck, no prestige, no courage. Courage may fail at the present, in particular among the youth. It is so wondrous to see how a pure and instinctive struggle for life can attest that we continue to walk on a road…a long way that turns back like a boomerang to “good”. .

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

B'chom hayom: in the very heat of the day

The heat is waving here and there tough and dry air. In Jerusalem, the air can still be very slightly refreshed towards the end of the day by a swift wind that remains still imperceptible in the bigger part of the country. One of the consequences of such a heat is a sort of "siesta - hesychia (Greek)" atmosphere.

Either people would really have a nap in the afternoon or some slowdown of their activities. Sleeping - not only to have a nap - is a major creative activity along the Great Sea (Mediterranean Sea) that resembles to some relaxing sojourn, for a limited number of hours, in the belly of the Big Fish, supposedly the "whale", that hosted Jonah before he went to Nineveh (Mesopotamia). He was onboard a ship when a terrible tempest broke up and the sailors got so scared that they suspected one of them, namely cast the lots and got to the idea that "Jonah the Hebrew" was the initiator of the storm.

Jonah thus declared when he was heaved overboard after they had cast the lots: "I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land - Ivri anochi veHaShem Elokei hashamayim ani yare" (Jonah 1:9). The seamen cried out to the Lord an intriguing prayer: "Lord, do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person! For You, O Lord, have brought this about" (Jonah1:14). The Book of Jonah is read every Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement as the reminder that Jonah, against his will to begin with, accepted to proclaim the yoke of Heaven and after having reposed in the Big Fish throughout the city of Nineveh that converted to God.

As we enter the month of Tammuz on Friday 15th of June, we shall go along the days of heat. They pave the move to the penitential act of conversion: the destructions of Jerusalem, deportation to Babylon, the extermination of the two Temples. There are different days of fast during that period, that starts on Tammuz 15th and leads to Av 9th (Destruction of the Temples).

How curious that this area of the world is so inhabited by an intense and effective power of death. It is maybe more sensitive because of the message of hope and resurrection, afterlife, world-to-come that spread from Jerusalem and Eretz Israel till the ends of the world.
As if heat could be a sign of life and, at the same time, call to quarrels and fencing hatred. It is thus quite amazing how millions of people have fought in the name of God in this area and got embattled in harsh conflicts, full of passions, bloodsheds, assassinations. The cause of God is like a permanent war against death.

Still, deathly eradication and destruction, extinction and extirpation from this world would seem the most fascinating and appealing trace of divine Presence “underneath”. It is correct that we live in very strange times of mental strangulation and ruthless sophisticated manslaughter in the Middle East. We are living in a region where there is just a switch between life and death. It is obvious everywhere, a bit more here. The rule is simple and tragic or, on the contrary, magnificent: every minute should be a full breath of gratitude or marvel, down-to-earth gladness.
The paradox of Eretz Israel, at this point, is that the society is exceptionally dynamic, although it lacks real time of peace and suspension of constant death threats. There can be mobs in Paris and its suburbs, at times terrorists in Europe and in particular in Germany or Italy. Any guy can so quietly enter any supermarket in the United States – it is even a sort of recurrent symptom – and just shoot down the clientele and the employees; thus, this a different attitude toward the real challenges of life and death.

South American people can be totally fascinated by death. A famous Russian Jewish film avant-garde found a shelter in Mexico during World War II because he was married to a Mexican painter, a hot-tempered colorful native. She actually used to clash with him and threaten to kill him with a huge knife, a dramatic scene – just because she could not refrain this profound call for blood that never happened. Whatever unbelievable killings were committed during the conquista of Latin America, in particular by the churches, we can only be stunned by the numerous and century-long human sacrifices offered by the Amerindians who used to remove the hearts of the victims as a sign of life-giving! The same occurred in Africa, Asia with repulsive savage masochism.
The Israeli society is at pain with a kind of uncertainty. Yes, we ought to back the survival of Israel, but in a way that is so diverse and unclear that everybody could think s/he is entitled to do anything except harming his/her own self. Or not really protest in case of obvious violations of human rights.

Abraham was a wandering Aramean (Deut. 26:5). He used to sit “b’chom hayom – in the very heat of the day”, under an open tent and to welcome those who were passing along the way (Gen. 18:1). He was peacefully giving hospitality to those who needed a rest when the heat was reaching its peak. On the other hand, Saul slaughtered the Ammonites till the heat of the day (1 Samuel 11:11; cf. 2 Sam. 4:5). Heat can also be a matter of remuneration as in Jesus’ parable to give one talent pay to all the workers, those who bore the burden of the day and those who came for an hour (Matthew 20:11; cf.Avodah Zarah 10b).
“Cham = hot, hot-tempered, warm, boiling” is a basic Semitic and thus Hebrew word, rooted in “H-H-M – hot, warm, to boil”, mainly referring, in the Talmud, to water and cleansing activities or to special colors (as “red”, the same as today some women would love to have red hair or, in between, some strawberry dye close to red). It may relate to rituals: “The bathers began to heat the water on the Shabbat (Shabbat 40a). Teaching: “Warm yourself by the fire of the scholars and try to associate with them (Avot 2,10). “Hammam = Turkish baths, the sort of sensual Oriental vaporous bath and massaging” that is upgraded in our spas.

In terms of heating as healing processes, “chacham” turns to “chum = heat and heal, excite” as also “to be hot, covet, carnally excited”. “I had a desire for his embrace” (Niddah 20b) and “He got so hot that he was (healed) by his pollution, though not once but again and again (Niddah 43b). On the other hand, “This is a land which all great men were anxious to possess” (Tanhumah Mishpatim 17) connects carnal desires and hotline with a deeper feeling of anxiety and insecurity, which is quite frequent.
The word is very intriguing, indeed. “Chum” swindles from heat to departure. “Arouse the feeling of the people when delivering my funeral address for my soul (I) shall be present” (Shabbat 153a, about a righteous man because people were speaking warmly of his memory). “b’khol chumma’o = in his full heat = youth”. Curiously, this heat that is the sign of daytime and life dynamics, including confrontations, implies, in the Semitic realm, some need for limitation of space and accessibility.

The Old City of Jerusalem is partly surrounded by the “chomot – Walls (of the Old City)” that are much frequented from the different places where one can climb up and down along the Gates. We have a very poor historic and cultural memory; say, we prefer not to know. From the time of Abraham to Jericho, everything in this region was a matter of fortification, walls of protection. And each time, throughout history, the main issue is to know how to cool down the fever (chamah), quench excitement (chamad /chamda) and reduce anger (chemah, cf. Daniel 3:13.19). “It is not possible to live without (moral) protection”, states Talmud Yevamot 62b (cf. Jeremiah 31:21). “Chomah = fortification” is currently used in Talmud Megillah (1:1- 5b) to designate walls or a “protecting lake” that serves as fortifications.
This is something we do not accept easily and that is totally misunderstood abroad for various reasons. The essence of Judaism is to be in need of protection. Firstly, Jewishness requires to be protected by God or the Divine Presence, the Shechinah. Then, there is a permanent lack of comprehension. Pious Jews, the world of “Jews in prayers” cannot mix in any way with the non-Jewish or Gentile world, and somehow some part of secularized Judaism. This is even ridiculous to pretend that a “Non-Jew” can enter that world freely and deliberately.

There is an immeasurable gap between pious Jewishness and any connection between this society segment and the non-Jews. There is an earth-to-heaven line that cuts it as an invisible wall of fortification. Something we often see here in microclimates and rain: rain on your left, no rain on your right! But people often misunderstand that because they think in terms of framing and ghettos created by hatred against pious Jewries. Decades ago, Fr. Marcel Dubois, a Dominican, who was the first Christian to teach Christian Philosophy at the Hebrew University, wittingly answered that “every Catholic congregation was usually fenced in”, i.e. that those who are not members of that specific community are not allowed to enter the bigger part of the monastery, or very rarely. We never think in terms of “positive” separation and thus often consider situation with much framed points of view.
“In the very heat of day,” Abraham was pretty much exposed to killings, alienation. His tent was open. In this region, we are still living on the pattern of this radical “cham/chum”. Are there some linguistic “reality words”? “Cham = father-in-law” (from the same root) and “chamot = mother-in-law”. This is amusing because this parentage is supposedly very inquisitive and even nosy in their children’s lives. Some are delicious; and good that they exist, because their grandchildren’s parents often have to rely on them financially and in learning how to reach adulthood.

There is a meaningful example of the presence of such a Semitism in the Gospel when Jesus started preaching and met with Shimon-Kaipha whose “mother-in-law was laying sick with a fever” (Aramaic “eshata – fire” lines with Greek “puressousa –had a fire = fever”). In Hebrew, the specificity of the “chom/cham” is present twice, i.e. redundantly: chamuto = his mother-in law, “chom = fever”. And the “wall of sickness” is lifted up. (Mark 1:29).
There is a stimulating deutero-canonical (apocryphal) Book – not recognized by the Jewish and Protestant Bible, but accepted and rather widespread in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches: Tobit; a fragment of the book was found at Qumran. It deals with God’s Tovah/tobiyah, goodness. Tobit is a kohen (priest) who strangely spends his time collecting and burying the dead slain by Sennacherib in Nineveh. At the present, it seems bizarre because the kohanim are not allowed to be in contact with the dead. The point is that it had not always been like that in the Jewish tradition even if we must accept the present development. When the Temple was existent, the priests were offering the daily sacrifices. They had no properties and no tribe territory. They were given the charities of the sacrifices. And thus, they were indeed in contact with burnt-offerings, i.e. with dead animals slaughtered for the sanctification of the Name. They were making their living with dead animals.

Our messy situation in the Middle East is going through fire, anger, fever and irrationality. It is marked by law infringements and lack of true respect for human beings and souls. Abraham’s hospitality in the very heat of the day at Mamre’s Oaks (Marc Chagall’s painting is the icon I chose for this blog) seems to be a real mitzvah as also to assist all the dead that multiply and loosen unclear fences that pull off at the moment.