Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tammuz-Av: Months of destruction or construction?

During the four weeks that commemorate the destructions of Jerusalem and of the Temples, from Tammuz 17 to Av 9, men used to wear the tefillin shel rosh (the phylacteries of the head) in order to think with more penetration and insights about the repeatedly historical events that led to the destruction of the City of Peaces- Yerushalaim and the Holy Temples - Batey HaMikdash. We saw how the tefillin were the first mitzvah to be given to the Jewish people by the time of the Exodus from the land of slavery, the country that first accepted the children of Jacob for their blessings and reduced them to some sort of acceptable and even satisfactory bondage when the days of Joseph escaped from their memory.

The tefillin thus reminded us that God is close to our heart and calls us to implement good deeds; these are the tefillin shel yad (of the hand/arm), usually the left arm that is close to the heart. The tefillin shel rosh, put like a diadem on the forehead show that we tend to move according to God's will and project. This is not so obvious in daily life. Then, it may be interesting to consider the tefillin as a brain-thinking instrument. When the ancestors came out of Egypt, the Lord did know that they would be tempted to return to their country of slavery. The Israelites did regret their daily bread there - hard work, not very humane, but still providing security of a binding and imposed employment. It is far better than wandering in the Sinai, eating quails or tamarisk rare species of dew that was the manna.

This year, we pass through the summer months of Tammuz and Av, appealing times of peace for Eretz Israel as the neighboring countries, also expecting a shalom tziburi (a societal time of calm), within the Israeli society and its numerous components. But the Jews are aware that this summer period has repeatedly seen months of despair, destruction, hunger, deportation, and killing. Indeed, why destruction and fights, murders and ruins quiver permanently like drums and hammers attacking life and pulse the humans to annihilation? From Tammuz 17 to the Ninth of Av, the Jews should be more conscious of their own historical destruction as a consequence of their/our lack of faithfulness or righteousness in God's choice and proposed actions. The time of te'uvah (abomination) is so strange, bizarre: we are called to ‘peru, revu, mil'u et ha'aretz’ - to be fertile, multiply, conquer/achieve the earth (the world, the universe in reality) as a developing living body (Bereishit 1:28). All the Prophets, in particular Jeremiah who saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation to Babylon, insist on this self-destroying "abomination" that recurrently leads the Jewish people as all the Nations to idolatry and inconstancy.

The Jewish community and, subsequently, the Israelis have gone through so many tortures and persecutions and are scarcely recognized by the Nations of the world. Thus, they would not utterly, openly accept to take the yoke of this “abomination” that is still at the heart of our relationship to God and how He responds to us. I speak in terms of the Jewish traditions, because it is evident that any explanation provided from outside of this coherence makes no sense for the Jews.

The parshat hashavua or reading portion of this week is Matot = Moses spoke to the rashey hamatot, the heads of the tribes (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and is extended by a second portion Mase’ei = these are the mase’ei, the marches of the Israelites from out of the land of Egypt (Midbar 33:1-36:13).

Curiously, it is quite usual to say that Moses gave the laws governing the oaths and vows (nedarim, isarim). This is not exactly the case. Moses speaks to the heads of the tribe – rashey hamatot, which means something specific. The commandment to “leave father and mother” (Gen. 2:24a) basically consists in being not alone. It mainly implies to have a family, a tribe in view to fight idolatry. Midrash Yelamdeinu includes a “mate’ - rod” who is found throughout the whole history of Israel. It is connected to “mitah – bed, family, descent” rooted in “nata/nata’ = to lay hands, plant”. As Moses could provide water with his tick, the mate’ can be “kol mate’-lechem shavar = God destroyed every staff of bread” (Tehillim 105:16). Thus, as stated in the midrash, this rod symbolizes “the bread of life”, the combat between idolatry and the eventuality to die and not surrender to idol worshiping. As we arrive at the end of the reading of the Book of Numbers/Midbar, we can mention how Jacob crossed the Jordan River with this rod, Moses worked miracles in front of Pharaoh (Ex. 4:3; 7:10). David slew Goliath with this mate’/rod (1 Samuel 17:40) and the rabbinic tradition said it became his scepter kept in the Temple as the sign of his kingship. Different words can be used in Hebrew to refer to the “tribes: mishpachot/families; shivtei Israel/tribes of Israel”. In this key reading of the week, the Tanakh (Old Testament) sums up the whole of the Hebrew destiny: born to fight idols, kin connections that shall develop in God’s Kingship over the universe and the Divine Presence in the Temples. This lines with our commemorating the four weeks that led to the destruction of this miraculous structure because of acts of abominations (te’uvah) committed by the Israelites.

It should be noted that the reading portion does not determine the meaning of vows and oaths. They are of extreme importance in the spiritual life of each Jew and the Jewish communities. Some rabbis link these nedarim (vows) included in the parashah “Matot”, read in summer during the four weeks of reflection about destructions, to the “Kol Nidrey – all the vows and oaths” pronounced (in Aramaic) in the 8th century in the Babylonian academy of Sura and in Europe since the 12th century at the beginning of the Day of Atonement for the annulment of forced vows. There is an emotional impact connected with this text, but the rabbis have always been rather reluctant to such a prayer considering that Jews are free from any forced commitments imposed by non-Jews.

On the other hand, the reading portion underscores that men (fathers and husbands) can release their wives’ and daughters’ vows and declare them non valid. Well, Women’s Lib definitely protested…but maybe things are not so simple. In the previous reading portion “Pinchas”, we saw how sexual intercourse collectively accomplished as an act of idolatry with pagan women, led the priest Pinchas to outrageously make use of his zeal against idolatry.

God killed the Israelites with a violent plague. In this weekly portion, men seem to regulate the spiritual vows of women. Is it not rather that they first have to respect their own vows and not fall into idol worshiping commitments? The slaughter of the Madianites, led by Moses and the priest Eleazar with the participation of 1,000 males of each tribe (matot) was accompanied by some special promises. Reuben and Gad should receive the land along the Jordan… negotiations, gentle-tribe agreements… The slaughter of the Madianites, in which Balaam perished, exterminated all their males while their women and children survived. “Moses said: “You have spared every female… that are the very ones who induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord…slay also every male among the children and every woman who has known a man carnally” (Numbers 31:15-17 - Parshat Pinchas).

This slaughter includes all the parameters of human hatred and human difference. It requires a lot of insightful reflections and in-depth studies to consider this text as showing faith in God. Thus, as they were en route to cross the Jordan and enter Eretz Canaan, it would be normal to question how such murders can anyhow participate in the sanctifying action of praising the name of the Lord. Are life and death so parallel that it does not matter whether humans give life or kill? Destroy or build? ‘Even when they say, “As the Lord lives / chai HaShem”, they lie and their swearing is false’ (Jeremiah 5:2). In the prophetic reading (haftarah), the same Prophet echoes Moses’ requirement: “Do not defile the land which you will inhabit” (Bemidbar 35:34) by these words: “You entered and defiled My land and made my heritage my abomination” (Jeremiah 2:7). Indeed, the real problem is not to be in the Holy Land or to make it holy by our forces. We cannot, any of us – make it holy. Eretz Israel is sanctified by the development and the living respectful compliance with God’s birthing Mitzvot (good deeds) that make this land a special place where the Holy One dwells and reveals His Presence to all the Nations (Tehillim 87:5).

Say, it is the same as when we plant trees and have beautiful gardens, with source waters and fertile soils. Purity of heart can go beyond the tragedies of any destruction. It takes time, a lot of time, but time has no measure for who loves without destroying. The four weeks of “abomination” should, at the present, be turned into a thoughtful and wise reflection about construction. Israel is born to construct and not to obstruct, in particular herself, which has often been a huge temptation. Judaism has to accept elements that were or are still very hostile, just as the others are entitled to consider Judaism as possibly being negative towards them.

This week, the Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates the Apostles, Jesus chosen disciples who were in despair after his death (Luke 24:13-35, the unfaithful disciples on the road at Emmaus) and reminds Peter and Paul of Tarsus. Then, there will be the various feasts of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Again, it deals with a generating process of construction. How come we are hypnotized by exclusion? The Jews have the birkat haminim/malshinim – blessing against the heretics. The Christians can be self-convinced that they replace Judaism. Moreover, in these days of troubles and identity searching, Rome just “revamped” her determination: “The only Church is the Catholic Church that recognizes the primacy of the Pope (the bishop of Rome)”.

There is more: the Pope of Rome authorizes the use of the traditional mass book in Latin practiced until 1962. The reactions are classical. Are the Jews “veiled” (blind) again on Good Friday? Interestingly, we hardly can pass over the 11th century when two envoys came to Constantinople and excommunicated the Oriental Patriarch. Times of violence and carnality, with prostitutes put by force on the thrones of the patriarchs of Constantinople and later Jerusalem. Metropolitan Cyril of Smolensk, Moscow Patriarchate, made a wise statement today: “At least, we know what they (the Catholics) think of themselves and who they think they are. Nothing is new, but at least it is said and it makes things clear”.

We experience in this State a unique situation of permanent renewal. The four weeks of Tammuz-Av, repeated creeds and definitions that show the limits of how and where God is acting should enable us be less shy and have more courage to meet other human beings.

We've lived through such devastating destructions that it is just the right minute to share, even for only a few seconds, the joy of being together on this soil sanctified by God and humans.

Kever: perpetual leave or vacations on hold?

You know, summer is hot, a bit dehydrating and, right now, it is so cute to be tanned. We are expecting tourists but they seem to be shy. On the other hand we have a lot of "teyarim mekomim - local, interior citizenship tourists". They love to travel through the country and discover the Old-New Land = Israel. Some tours are obviously organized by Northern bus or tour agencies. They are not that many in the South, but the Negev is Ben Gurion 's envisioning prophecies for the future of Israel. And numerous citizens are not so sure that Israel will survive over decades and centuries. Is it a Zodiacal reading of some recurrent end of time anxiety that fits so well to the Jewish soul? Or, is this rather the consequence of a miracle that is so great and unexplainable, undecipherable. It continues to grow and show benefits. So, let's go through landscapes and towns, areas without true borders but changeable inhabitants.

Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Tadjiks, Thais, Baltic Sea immigrants; oh! and these numerous Anglos that arrive by full waves of planes to visit Israel, try Israel, test Israel and feel they are so Jewish when they are back home. The Filipinos? Some days they show up with their Israeli husbands and kids in the Old City of Jerusalem for lunch in an Arab restaurant. We are in summer, the only period of the year - you can just feel it is summer because of that - when touring foreigners stubbornly want to wear a kippah while eating a sandwich with ham in a Christian beyt-kafeh (coffee shop) or eat meat skewers and drink a cafe latte.

Among the "mekomim” (local) Israeli visitors, there are the God-seeking ones. Well, it actually depends. A few days ago, Jaffa Gate got a rush of North American Russian-speaking youths. These Eastern Orthodox young people were so impressive: they hurried to the Holy Sepulcher and then cleaned out the table of the bagel-bread seller. A few minutes before this rush, came the Israeli-acculturated former Soviet tourists, en route to the "svyatye mesta” (the Holy Places). New cameras with huge zooms, sunglasses, red hair-brushing, nude shoulders, short pants and sandals, they were also heading to the Holy Sepulcher with a long visit to the shuk (market) to buy some typical souvenir of their sanctifying journey in the heart of the monotheistic life and livelihood. They might go back home to Afulah, Petach Tikva Ashkelon and Beersheva with crosses, incense and icons. They will also buy the Peruvian bow, sometimes with some adequate arrows, if any.

Then, you have the standard tourists, from abroad. This year is marked by the arrival of Poles, new Russians that can also be new Christian Orthodox believers. The guided tours are not the same as they used to be; that is before the matzav (situation) started six years ago. One warning is common to all small or bigger groups: “Be careful-zehirut": do not speak to the Arabs, do not open your purses, bags, "be suspicious".

Frankly, this is not fair. Decades ago, pious Jews would have never walked through the shuk (Arab market) to get quicker to the Western Wall. At the present, Stetsons-covered males, i.e. men also wearing the arba'a kanfot (4 sides = small Tallits showing the fringes) normally go through the Christian quarter with wives and babies in prams. They would buy items at non-kosher grocery stores and discuss the price of anything with all sorts of shopkeepers. There is an interesting trend: just enter the Old City through Jaffa Gate and get into the shuk directly; or go around through the left. Jews and Arabs would start interacting with some sort of tolerance. Say, there is certainly some kind of business to develop and this simply belongs to the basic and spontaneous heritage of our Middle-East culture.

Who is afraid? People who never speak to foreigners and can hardly can get in touch with their neighbors in the present. Ten years ago, all members of any denominations would have greeted each other warmly. This warm wink decreased to some cold hello by the time the matzav deteriorated in 2000. At this point, people would barely greet but look at each other as chimpanzees in a zoo and whisper some odd comments. Twenty years ago, I used to have groups of foreign students (Roots and prospects of Judaism and Christianity) who were attending my “lectures”. The tour operator told me then that the groups were special: we were not focusing on silent thus “living stones”, i.e. on encounters with different people in their various work or community activities. He told me that most groups were trying to avoid meeting people and having to share opinions or ideas. This implied a lot of explanations and discussions.

The Holy sites are very convenient: every guide has his own historical point of view or school of reference and therefore specific “experts” who would meet the groups. But there is something that increased and now reaches the top of self-hedonism: each individual has a guidebook. No need to speak with anybody. Just speak with yourself and then explain the environment to your friends. Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox tradition considers that “interior speech” is a sin, because it shows a lack of communication with God and with other humans, if any.

Tourism here is also the best way to develop a sound dating system. “Shiduchim” are a true mitzvah and a good action. But this is the same as with the stones. Dating can turn to be ‘stones drinking coffee with stones’, not compulsorily salt stones like Lot’s wife. It is seemingly easier to avoid speaking with the others, or to mock them. A book cannot replace the richness of human beings and encounters. A book may give the impression that written things are evidently exact.

It may not encourage thinking and searching for new ways of reflection. Let’s call that ‘a dubious situation’. Eyn safek (there is no doubt) shows that there might be a problem. The Hebrew root safak = to divide, strike, clap (hands), attach, engraft. Sefek = sufficiency. “Wait until you arrive at a condition of doubt, i.e. till you are in doubt about your own state of sin or maybe you did not commit any sin” (Keritot 4,3 (25b). German “Zweifel”, Dutch “twijfel” refer to a twofold possibility of choice. Doubts can be strongly efficient. This is definitely true when we cannot avoid taking clear decisions. Thus, it corresponds to some sort of jumping into real actions and commitments. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is the dubious question of a mentally sick character who cannot relate to himself. We often speak of our contemporary society as being full of uncertainty. The Semitic and Talmudic root would presuppose that “things can be divided in order to attach in a new and more creative way, or to engraft, like trees”.

This is why speech and encounters have such an inestimable value. The more they raise questions and even positive disputes, the better our collectivity can be challenged; and it is enabled to cross-examine its ‘seeds of life’. We do face a real issue in a State that must assume such extravagant multi-faceted backgrounds. Indeed, there are numerous variables that propose all kinds of orientations. But we may get lost just because some sort of vacuum. Most pocket prayer books that are published at the moment in Hebrew include a lot of prayers to be said when visiting the tombs of the tzaddikim (righteous). From the cave of Machpelah to the tomb of Josef, Rachel, Eretz Israel is dug out with kevarot (tombs). It has been an ancient Jerusalemite tradition for some inhabitants to reside in cemeteries (Mark 5:3). “When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place”, said Yaakov-Israel (Bereishit 47:30). This is why stones are so important to us: they are the only proof we have through the Scripture that our Avot (ancestors) were buried here. In the time of great suffering that we recall during the present months of Tammuz and Av, the prophet stated: “Because man did not kill me before birth so that my mother might be my grave/vatehi li immi kivri” (Jeremiah 20:17). Kavar = to cave out, to arch, to bury. But the meaning is special and can be said in Yiddish e.g.: “’kh vel lign in a keyver – I would like to lie in a grave” but the answer immediately echoes: “ver hot gezogt az ikh zol shtarbn? Who said I should die?” The Jewish experience is much similar to this interrogation: “Nice, give me a break, but still, I shall not die”.

In this country we are fascinated by caves, excavations, graves, tombs, even empty ones. They are the memorizing force of days when God gave to our ancestors their full identity. Have a real look please at our co-citizens and the inhabitants of this land: they often look like babes that just hardly can stand to be outside of their moms’ wombs and wonder how they can still be alive without the umbilical cord. “They differ as to whether the uterus can open to pass the embryo” (Niddah 21a). “When a womb gets open – petichat kever- you ought to violate the Shabbat for the sake of life” (Shabbat 129b). There is a kind of similarity that makes things parallel from birth to burial: “The Lord buried the dead, so you too you must bury them” (Sota 14a).

The whole of the Jewish history is a question of ‘housing’: mom’s womb or ‘makom’ or Beyt (Temple). The dead are not born to die but to revive. In between, the experience of Jewishness is to avoid framing itself into silence, strict righteousness or ignorance of others. The big challenge consists of overcoming all these fears. This is why it is such a key element to develop our capacities to meet others without reluctance and to enable all possible ways of dialogues.

The Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem may often give the impression of full distortions among the six Churches that have some praying spaces inside of the building in the present. No. Any person, of any belief and origin is totally free to enter the place provided they allow themselves to go there. Thus, it maybe the unique place in the world that encompasses to that extent the mystery of human souls. The Tomb is empty. It is called Anastasis in Greek: “Place of Resurrection”.

Jesus said strange words to a man who wanted to bury his father: “Let the dead bury the dead” (Matthew 8:22). This is in contradiction with all the Mitzvot (good deeds). This seemingly relates to the fact that those who don’t confess to the Living God – thus through their speech and talking capacities – are like dead or tombs. Mechayeh metim = resurrecting/reinvigorating the dead is at the core of the Jewish reality, as also of the Christian one however estrangement happened along the ages. A society can tour around its past, there is a moment when encounters allow to get excavated for the best of life.