Thursday, July 19, 2007

Devarim: to repeat or hear for the first time?

We arrive to some sort of "end of time, end of year" period. Every year, in summer, the four/three-week Tammuz to Av recurrence should bring the attention of the Jews to the meaning of kayitz (summer), connected with ketz (end). There are the “K'tzey haolam - the end of the world as a space" and the prospect of finishing the year, a time of harvesting (Bereishit 8:22 or Tehillim 74:17: "You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter).

Many Sages of Israel have often presupposed that Shabbat "Devarim" that commences with the reading of the parshat hashavua/portion Devarim-Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22. : "Eleh haDevarim/ These are the words (that Moses said to all Israel beyond the Jordan)" aimed to repeat what God had said previously to Moses from the very first verse of Bereishit/Genesis till their approaching of the Land of Canaan from the Eastern pat of the Jordan River.

We should note and with much awareness that the fifth Book of the Written Torah encompasses many actions that all exclusively deal, at first glance, with the achieving part of the exodus and the final entrance of the Israelites into the Land of Canaan after some 39 years of wandering and various tribulations in the wilderness. This is correct and still not totally exact. Indeed, the Book suggests that God confirmed Moses with all the historic data that happened since the flight from Egypt and obliged the Jewish people to err in the desert before getting allowed to cross the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua Bin Nun. Moses concludes his own mission and gets ready to die “somewhere” on Mount Nebo, reckoning all the events that he carried out with a God's predilection.

But the Book is called “Mishney Torah – repetition of the Law” that wrongly became in all translations “Deuteronomy = the Second Law”. Why is it slightly inexact? “Second Law” might be misinterpreted as a new or different giving of the Torah, as supposedly accomplishing what was not perfect and complete at the Mount Sinai. This has some veracity but is still not the real purpose of the Book. Then, from the Second Book of the Chumash (Five Books of Moses), the actions are trying to develop in view to allow the Israelites to return to the Land of Canaan and penetrate the region that was promised by God to the Avot (Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-Israel). Long series of a journey full of hardships and misunderstandings among the Israelites as regards how God meant to implement this redemption project and what benefits the Israelites can get having “anshey chayil – men of power and judgment”.

Then they were given the Written and Oral Laws (Matan Toratenu) after they behaved as childlike troubleshooters with the Chet-ha-egel (the golden calf sin). It was more a kind of accessories and jewelry melting party. But Moses intervened and repeated the major elements of the Divrot – Ten Commandments, the building of the Mishkan -Tabernacle. VaYikra is the Book of the Levites or how to get closer to holiness and sanctify God as a priestly nation. Finally, BeMidbar-Numbers shows how the Israelites did finish the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle but were not able yet to penetrate the Land.

Some tongues have specific ways of expressing the idea of what appears “secondly”. Russian has “vtoroi = second as following first and introducing a third thing, if any”. But “drugoi = second in the sense of “other, different” as “innyi”. “Mishney Torah does not really refer to some second, third or more Torot/Laws’. Indeed, Moses undertook to expound how God spoke to the Israelites at Horeb. But his account is not showing some yearning for the past. On the contrary, although this might sound like a paradox: this account opens the way to the future. “Mishney = elements to be repeated” because the Book of Devarim – Deuteronomy includes a sort of “eleventh” Mitzvah/commandment: “Shma’ Israel” (Deut. 6:4-9). “Leshanen = to repeat” is a pedagogical method.

God insists that specific Commandments have to be repeated constantly by the Israelites, maybe thus with more insights and prophetic capacities. This is why, “kaytz – harvest, end” allows envisioning as true factors the capacity for the Jews to get enhanced harvesting seasons in the future.

Apparently, Moses recounts what has happened during the exodus and the wandering in desert. He rather anticipates how the Israelites will have to comply with the Mitzvot and the tests they overcame in the search for the way to the Land of Canaan. Again, the Land of Canaan or Eretz Kanaan/Israel, is not a “new” conquest. It will turn to series of fighting confrontations with the local inhabitants. But, it is indeed, in an unusual manner, the homecoming of the Avot/ancestors’ descent according to a Divine promise that defies time, space and human understanding.

The spiritual experience of Israel is that “destructions” as those of the Temples (Ninth of Av) are timeless and lead to time and motion comprehensiveness of repairing actions. God accepts and tolerates us but “ad matai – until when?” (Tehillim 4:3). The Jews are normally trained to exert their living memory as looking through the tragedies of the past in order to repair and create anew what have been destroyed of damaged. Many contemporary rabbis have underscored the strong connection that ties up the weekly portion with the haftarah (prophetic portion) read on that Shabbat Chazon (Shabbat of the “Vision”) in Isaiah 1:1-27. Tisha beAv (9th of Av) marks a peak since the year 70 (C.E.) in the symbolic and emotional, spiritual life of the Jewish experience.

History and calamities rushed at Judaism and 9th of Av corresponds at the present to events definitely linked to a special period of history, i.e. the emergence and spreading of Christianity, the pretence of false messiahs (Bar Kochba) and the penance of famous Jewish Sages (R. Akiva). Thus, the following events are supposed to have happened on the 9th of Av: Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70; plowing of the Temple Mount by Turnus Rufus and Jerusalem became the pagan city of Aelia Capitolina in 71; the defeat of Bar Kochba in 135; the first crusade launched by Pope Urban II in 1095; the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1295 and the final expulsion of all Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492. Some former Soviet religious sites are called “New Aelia Capitolina!” Shabtai Tzvi’s destiny as false messiah also intermingles with this key date.

We should never forget that Jews read the Prophet Isaiah’s Chazon/vision on the Shabbat before Tisha BeAv for a reason that has nothing to do with the nations’ attitude and abominations against the Jews. When he wrote, hundreds of years after Moses’ last account in Devarim: “Oy, goy chet/ oy - sinful nation / am kaved avon – people laden with iniquity… Your country lies desolate; your cities are burnt with fire…What is to Me the multitude of your sacrifices… I do not delight in the blood of bulls, of lambs or of goats” (Is. 1:4.7.11). “Eycha hayta lezonah/ Oy how the faithful city has become a whore” (Is. 1:21) include the title cry of the Hebrew Book of “Lamentions – Eycha” – read on the 9th of Av. Is it not strange and spiritually highly significant that the Devarim/Deuteronomy starts with the same cry of lament and interrogation uttered by Moses about the Israelites: “Eycha essa levadai – how can I bear the heavy burden of your disputes all by myself?” (Deut. 1:12). “Eycha – how, how come?” also shows in the Song 1:7 (“eykana” in Song 5:3; Esther 8:6). This refers to the main quest after the meaning of life in good as in evil.

Indeed, “eycha” is firstly to be found in the Book of Bereishit/Genesis as Adam and Eve have disobeyed God’s commandment not to eat from the fruit. It should be noted that Judaism as the Oriental Christian Churches do not accept the concept of “the origin sin”. The sin consisted in disobeying God’s word. Thus, in the Gan Eden, God’s call to Adam at the end of the day was: “Ayecha (eycha) – how, where are you?” (Gen. 3:10). When God exclaimed this question and summoned Adam rather softly to hear the truth, “eycha” implies a fault, a rupture between God and His creature. Thousands of years still leave Judaism in a sort of incapacity to admit we have to be obedient to God and not to what we think, in our opinion, that God is willing. There is a profound experience of cry from the entrails in this very short and exceptional word.

This is why Devarim/Deuteronomy is indeed “Mishney Torah”: We will see that the Book does not repeat many Mitzvot/Commandments and this is a very intriguing point too. On the contrary, Devarim brings forth new commandments. The Book achieves and implements the destiny of the Jewish nation but there has been a harsh dispute why not to start the TaNaKh with Bereishit, i.e. the creation of the world and every human being created “in God’s Image and Likeness” (Gen. 1:26).

It would be rather shortsighted, narrow-minded to focus, on these days of fast and penance, on the tribulations that Christianity imposed upon Judaism. Judaism did suffer a lot and with much cruelty from the pre-Christian anti-Judaism and the first destruction of the Temple on 9th of Av 587(bce) and that day (1312 bce), the spies/scouts dissuaded the Israelites to penetrate the Land of Canaan (Taanit 9b). We are going through nine days of fast till Tisha BeAv, not because the others did harm, attack, imperil, slaughter, kill and destroy, in many ways, the different traditions and the faithful of the Jewish communities.

But the task of Judaism is not to roll up into some shelter and, in return, only accuse the Christians of the wounds and scars of history against the Jews. Some Christian Churches have taught with much despise and ignorance of the Scripture that the Jews had killed Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel, as the catechism of the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches show that all mankind (both Jews and Gentiles) have put Jesus to the Cross. It would be pitiful and not be responsible not to combat the deep mutual ignorance that separates most religious communities.

On these days of fast, the Jews focus on the abominations that led to the destruction (churban) of the Temples. We have been scapegoats from the time of the exile in Egypt, so it is incumbent on the Jewish spiritual leaders and communities to avoid any scapegoat-making in return or some kind of revenge. Christian catechism as the transmission of the Jewish faith is an immense task that has often been defective, at different levels and in a constant trend to get estranged. How can we today, in Israel, tame each other in a peaceful reflection? We apparently cannot dialogue at the present, Catechism comes from Greek “to echo”, similar to “mishney torah – repeat repeatedly and looking forward, ahead of who we are .

“I have set the land before you: go in and take possession of the land that I swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants after them” (Gen 1:8). “Eycha! How, where in the world! How come?” It is such an extravagant and awesome event that turns death into life and we are really born to bless, only expecting any echo of faith (= “amen”)...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Panim/punimer: countenance, mug and features

In a very famous low voice sung sort of poem, the French Greek but mostly Jewish music writer Georges Moustaki wails: "With my face of foreigner ("cup of a dago" is more exact) / of wandering Jew / and of Greek shepherd...". The words are scarcely audible with a touch of artistic charm and sex-appealing pathos while his fingers hardly reach the cords of a big guitar. Yes, we have three decades of hits continuously reprogrammed in Israel because we love to feel history down to the pits of all roots, even sound records. And a real talent to appear as a miserable shlimazl - the rejected all-alien that still would attract any mermaid slowly dancing on the beach. He had written the famous best "Je ne regrette rien - No, I don't regret" and "Mylord" sung by the genius Edith Piaf whose crisping vocal cords could damn crowds of fans. They can't be compared with Yossi Banai who put some songs into Hebrew with much feelings and skillful insights of universal experiences. The Beatles' "Help" echoes the Swedish Abba group's "Money, money" hit that still advertise how they want to spicily get "in a rich man’s world". At that time, the Soviets were languishingly praising "The evenings of Moscow" - peace was secured by the Choir of the Soviet Army - while the Chinese were tuning about "proletarians who ought to love proletarians and enhance culture among the rice cultivators". Wham got into Georges Michael’s “wake me up before you go”.

We belong to a generation of broadcasted sounds, especially rhythmic in English; it doesn’t matter if it is not in Hebrew: as the Queen rock opera Freddy Mercury sang “We are the champions”. He was the Zoroastrian pop singer followed by Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit” to develop the good odor. Rap, R ‘n B paved the way to the boys/girls bands like the “Spice girls”. Oh! and our Sarit Haddad recites the "Shma Israel" in a song in which she does confess with a good tempo "Ani achshav levad / I am now alone". I don't buy that and would rather email or "sms" to her a "YouTube" shortcut of "the song of the Partisans" in Yiddish: "Du zolst nit zogn az du geyst dem letzten veg / don't say you are going on the last way", hammered by our courageous people, maybe Chava Alberstein's version because she is so us. Now, we have “Push the button” in three tongues. This is music and sound point.

The problem is to manage all Ipods, MP3 players, Iphones. Full equipment presupposes computers, laptops (‘nayad’ sounds so sweet), notebooks, cell phones and cellular’s, with recording memories, images, pictures, videos, films, tape-recorders; yes! And then 160 satellite television channels plus some competitors, all the singers of the universe... I get my personal breaking news directly from all my computerized tool bars. Is it still a bit mebulbal (confused)? Thus, it would be good to feel so connected that it would even allow me to reach out to find some boo, a buddy (post-Friends generation) in Palau. No Jews there. Just unbelievable! Impossible.

Look! Ten years ago, I was watching the news, beshidur chai (live) from a small Japanese storm-beaten island. Two Japanese soldiers were explaining that they would never surrender to US Forces and would rather commit hara kiri (ritual suicide); they were expecting the response of the Emperor of Japan whose divinity had been abolished by a decision taken by Gen. Mac Arthur. Then, what a chance! I was fully instrumented to know that World War II (supposedly) was over and there, in the hell of remote stormy islands, two valiant soldiers were still fighting ghostly foes. And I thought of Abraham Avinu, of course. From Ur-Kasdim to Haran down to Egypt, up to the terebinths of Mamre and Machpelah, you see, Grandpa, we shall overcome some day, but at the right time, the right place, not like these two rescued chaps that emerged from some odd abashment between past and future.

This bewildering point is the synchronic (same-time) occurrence of events that connect us with diachronic (time-crossing) situations that happened in different locations. We have it in Israeli society. It requires a lot of watchful and judicious attention and understanding. Some inhabitants not only behave as if they were living some centuries ago. Their ways of thinking can show us the contemporary outlasting of men and women from the various ages. And simultaneously, we can check or survey the disruptions that affected the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Middle-Eastern collectivity, in particular as regards their relationships to faith. Thus we can meet people that “express” the time of the Temple (the Mandianites of our weekly reading “Matot” that heard of John the Baptist, but not Jesus’ baptism, cf. the Sabba’im), but also Yemenites who developed the Zohar and still use Aramaic.

Ethiopians show us very ancient practices connecting Judaism and early Christianity. Some former Soviets would link the Scythian Crimea of the Antiquity and the Khazars that converted to Judaism and disappeared in the 7th century. In the 9th century, Grand Duke Volodymyr (Vladimir) of Kiev dramatically chose the Byzantine Oriental Christian faith then expressed in one Orthodox and Catholic Church after having consulted the Jews and the Muslims. Their presence in Israel is often positioned with some aggressiveness towards a long-century experience of confrontation with Islam and the Mongolians. We can also meet with contemporaries of Rav Luria’s disciples and the yeshivot of Safed that go to the same supermarkets as some monks from the Hagion Horos (Holy Mount Athos). They observe the rules of Eastern Orthodox Christian regulations. They do explain more accurately than any breaking news how Rome and Constantinople split in 1054 and cannot repair the situation at the moment.

Let’s come back to the caring hospitality shown at Mamre’s Oaks by Abraham Avinu and his laughing wife at the announcement of her birthing a son. The scene has been drawn, designed, painted. We have tons of icons with and without the patriarch and Sarah. No film, no picture, no video and, of course, no canned laughter. They were two wilderness NFA Arameans dwelling under some big tent, without ID cards and photos. They were not dotting the I’s of their pods, phones, MP3 players, world TV networks. They got one (several indeed) Divine breaking news whose developments are prolonging at the present. “I bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the sea-shore; all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants because you have obeyed My command” (Bereishit 22:17-18).

Now, by the time of Abraham and Sarah, there were no computers, mobiles, SMS messages, instant messengers, ICQ (born on the Israeli coast), Trillian and others connecters. Identity was a ‘word is a word’. Either you say the truth or you are fined and can eventually be killed in an oral cultural environment. Abraham, for instance, became afraid and presented Sarah to King Abimelech of Gerar as being his sister (Gen.20:1-18). A world of visions, nightmares, dreams and talks, well online chats with the Lord. This is the silent world counter-point of our multi-media stuff. We swirl in a super high tech mall or mart of sounds, cries, music drone dizziness and may lose our identity.

In Hebrew, panim (face) comes from the root panah (to turn one’s face). In Gen. Rabba 91: pney haaretz (the wealthy); “she can cover her nakedness/appearance” (Berachot 24a, Niddah 14b). “The Torah has a law for each of which there are 49 ‘clean’ and 49 ‘unclean’ ways of interpretation” (Cant. Rabba 2,4). “This question must be brought inside and even to the innermost” (Bava Metzia 16a). In the context of Abraham at the terebinths of Mamre, the ancestor had no proof of identity as we can check today. Hebrew “Panim” is a plural because of the numerous aspects of an identity. Like the ‘face of a watch’, a human shows a visage and a backside without expression. But appearance and countenance reveal an image, not necessarily who we are indeed. We are overcome with images and looks that do not exhibit the heart of the souls. A decade ago, the famous ‘Facebook’ was created in Harvard. It is doubled with “Piczo” or drawing natural sites for the development of contact networks. Just as ‘Myspace’ (which is very musical) and the various albums and blogs, they question our identity as holders of the ‘imprint, mark’(chotam) – Gr. “sphragis” and not only our self-esteem which is a basic virtue according to the Jewish rabbinic tradition.

For the Jewish tradition, our ‘faces’ (it curiously gave the Yiddish plural form “punimer”) are not narcissistic. If millions of self-addicted people spend hours in vamping up a virtual online presumed contact way to show off who they are or think they are, our self-esteem can be brought to the measure of our suffering of personal solitude; we might even feel abandoned in an immense universe of whirling voices, sounds, changing or photoshopped images. Would Abraham or the Sages have naturally coped with the hi-tech world in which we live? In all of the times, the challenge has been to overcome fears, panics to feel alone and to face the 'burden of some survival'. There is a sort of parallel between Sarah’s laughter and our swiftly virtual “lol”. Is it a desperate search for some kind of existence? In Israel, we constantly face “chopped” images of a wide God’s Likeness that is going through a sort of puzzlement.

It is said: “An extra measure of love was made known to the humans as they were created in God’s Image” (Avot 3:14). This also explains why Adam was unique and created singly: it allows every human being to get aware of the fact that s/he is personal has the same likeness as God and thus be saved –each soul encompasses the whole universe” (Sanhedrin 4:5). But this is not what we may see in daily life. We go through passivity and self-content. Modern techniques are a plus for a society as far as they allow it to improve its welfare and capacities. But the realm of visible things or people is nothing compared to the vast and immeasurable source of capacities that are beyond our sights and envisioning skills. This absence of plenitude may be a spiritual challenge in times of licentious, loose and libertine turmoil.

Jesus made an intriguing statement: “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and no town or house divided against itself will stand” (Matthew 12:24). We have the tools utilized for building ourselves up and not being sleepy or spaced out. We don’t reach immortality or more power because we have records and archives at hand. Abraham’s blessing is stronger than anything we can share and thus requires a deft touch of reality.