Thursday, August 9, 2007

Reeh: meaningful visions and choices

Mishney Torah or Book of Deuteronomy repeatedly teaches the Commandments in order to inscribe them in the heart of every Israelite that lived out till the time close to the entrance into the Land of Canaan/Eretz Israel. The Kabbalat Mitzvot or traditional acceptance of the light yoke of the Mitzvot/Commandments is given by God and confirmed, then recurrently hammered out and determined with precision so that the people could accept these teachings as taking full part in mental reflexes of a nation of redeemed slaves.

The parshat shavua or reading portion of this week is "Reeh = See (I/God am setting before you today a blessing and a curse" in Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). Again, God reinforces Moses and the Israelites with a spirit that will allow them to combat idolatry and destroy all the idols, pagan altars and worships after their take-over of the Land of Canaan. This is a real theological question, still pending in the present. In this Mishney Torah, God repeats His Commandments of loving care in order to redeem all the nations and souls.

The uniqueness of what is said by God to the Bney Israel in the Sinai is proven by His trustful and loving care. Religion and faith have too often paved the way to horrible stiffness and certitude and ‘divine’ approval in the slaying of those whom have been considered heretical or spiritually wrong. The "acceptance of the Commandments" is so much beyond any human evidence that God requires humility and insights instead of self-justification. The problem is real as concerns "national" identity. Is it strictly a national specificity to be called to be Jews or would it also involve a profound spiritual and theological significance that presupposes a certain freedom of choice.

On many occasions, Israeli society would impose Judaism to people who come from foreign backgrounds. They would only achieve true Jewishness after a long-term process of understanding the Mitzvot and the core of the living moral and divine prescriptions. Thus, the Jewish tradition is strongly opposed to act by force to go through the giur/(turning of non-Jews to Judaism). Indeed, our present situation in Israel resembles the time when the ancestors entered the Land of Canaan, but it only seems similar. In our generation, after nearly 3,000 years, the problem is different because of the deployment of monotheism in numerous manners that we still have to know and not reject systematically. Then souls are all human and, firstly and ultimately, belong to God. Thus, who is allowed to touch or alter in-depth identities for political or national reasons that are limited by definition?

The reading portion of this week starts with the interjection: “Reeh – Look, see”. This is the very particularity of this week as we come closer to Ellul that precedes Tishri, New Year’s autumnal month. The original root has different meanings connected with “sight and meeting”. Thus, “He who sees comes to a place” (Berachot 9,1). “Look upon the blood of this ram as if it were the blood of an offering” (Bereshit Rabba 1) or “Mah raah? What did he see, i.e. what is the reason of such a situation (Baba Bathra 123a). “Nirah – it looks like, appears”: “He had said that things were nirin = supposedly acceptable”.

As also: “What has been considered as fit on one feast and then discarded may again become fit” (Sukkot 33b). There are some interesting extensions to the word: “re’iyah = sight, seeing, glance” as in “the faculty of sight – for childbirth” (Niddah 31a) but also “appearance, ascent to the Temple, aliyah): “the appearance in the Temple (pilgrimage, cf. Ex. 23:17) since all males have the obligation to appear in the Temple (Hagigah 1, 1; Peah 1,1). Finally, the word means “evidence, proof”: “It rests on him to produce evidence that he is an Israelite” (Baba Kamma 3:11; Ketubot 23a/15b (in Aramaic).

This week we are called to envision the goal of the most important Mitzvot. This is first the capacity to choose to receive from God a blessing and not a curse (“bracha uqlalah”). This is the “shtey drachim – two ways” options. Let’s say it is not easy.

Nobody would spontaneously choose to be cursed by God!! For instance, some alcoholics would start drinking in order to socialize. They finally meet with many lonely people in despair. From quenching thirst and feeling on the top of the world till drying any mouth pleasure, solitary addiction seemingly leads to self-destruction and hopelessness. More and more people in Israel drink beer, spirits and liquors and the cheerful get it down the neck can turn to some family hell or personal curse.

The same happens with those addicted to drugs. I used to find legless rolling drunken men and a few women illegally lodged in some cave in the outskirts of Jerusalem. They felt a bit fragile, as many broken souls, because of their tragic backgrounds. Curiously, they only could get out of such a hell by a personal decision, knowing that, being under the weather, God could bless them again and again.

Indeed the main purpose of the sidra is propositioned in two real, test-proof mitzvoth / commandments. Alcohol, drug-addicts, prostitutes and sex-addicts should be considered like true “poor and needy folk”. There are dissocialized inmates who feel cursed by their environment or their own mental stand, or were the victims of traumatic pasts and need God’s help to reinvigorate their egos. Assistance is very Jewish.

The first medical and social care system in Eretz Israel was developed by the Ultra-Orthodox Jews. This traces back to our portion. “There will be no one in need – efes ki lo yihyeh eviyon” as stated in Deut. 15:4 “because the Lord is sure to bless you in the Land that the Lord you God is giving you to occupy”. The word is special: “eviyon = poor, distressed” “who is distressed because he longs for everything (Baba Metsia 111b).

Then there is another verse, specified after this first mitzvah which states: “There will never cease to be some in need on the earth (eviyon bekerev haaretz), therefore I command you: open your hand to the poor and the needy (“le’aniyecha uleeviyoncha”) neighbor/brother in your land” (Devarim 15:11). The same is said in the Gospel: “Jesus said: you will always have the poor and needy with you.” (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8).

How come that the first verse seems to secure all the inhabitants and the second one commands the mitzvah, which is in the heart of Judaism? It should be noted that these commandments are given together with the “shemittah – year of remission, especially of the debts” (Deut. 15:9-18). By the way the coming year 5768 is a shemittah – a year of remission. We are facing here the same quest as for “Shma’ Israel – Hear Israel” that is a pure and strict commandment to revere God without expecting any reward. The same happens with regards to the poor and the needy.

It is true that we are a in a terrible period of impoverishment. Statistics and ads show that thousands of children and numerous unemployed, old pensioners (Shoah survivors in between…) don’t have enough food or resources. Some charity movements or volunteers do wonderful work to correct these situations. In Israel, there is a widely “tzedakah” acting system that corresponds, to some extent, to the Muslim “zakat – charity money”.

The Christian Churches have been always very generous towards the local Arab people (hospitals, elderly homes), also providing some money and assistance to the Jews in many ways and for various purposes. Interestingly, the Greek-Melkite (Catholic) Patriarch Gregorios III (Lutfi Laham) who served many years in Jerusalem as archbishop, developed and continues to enhance with his hierarchy a strong network of assistance to the poor, the sick, the elderly people as a fundamental part of the religious love towards God and the humans.

This is the point: if we pretend that we love God, we firstly have to show that we are able to love our fellow people whom we see. Look at this psalm: “The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises all who are bowed down, the eyes of all look to you, and you given them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living one” (Tehillim 145:14-16).

The “You” form is both applicable to God and to the human beings. It is incumbent to the believers to show a real love of the neighbors/fellow people / others / enemies and, in return, God largely provides His blessings. This is exactly the same move as for Yom Kippur. On the Day of “At-one-ment”, the Jews are called to forgive each other and then be pardoned by God as a consequence of their mutual love and choice of blessing and not curse. It may look a bit dreamy… In Israel, as in many countries, some secular organizations would seemingly show more charity and assistance than the religious groups.

For the Jewish tradition, “’ani – poor / ‘aniyut - poverty” must be combated and is considered as a shame as regards social stand that leads to diseases, filth, immorality, sloth and depravation. But it is should be noted that the shemittah / year of remission of the debts and rest of the earth allows another consideration of “poverty”. Human beings must give a “leave, holiday time, refreshing year” to the earth that nourish. Of course, the Jews can reverse the mitzvah by hiring non-Jews, but the mitzvah is great and nice toward the soils that also need some vacation.

The observance of the shemittah shows that the faithful totally entrusts his life in God and respects the living, anticipating a year for the remission of debts and permanent agricultural production. Credit cards, money provisions (loans, overdrafts), virtual aspects of financial transfers alarmingly affects numerous families or individuals in the country.

Thus, Judaism values the spiritual wealth of the poor who expect everything from God alone and confide in the Providence / Hashgachah. This implies a good knowledge of who we are and a lot of self-control that is challenged by a system of consumption that has increased in Israeli society since 1967. “Israel asked the Lord: who are Your people? He said: the poor (ani’im)” (Ex. Rabba 31, Avot 1,5). In the Gospel, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20), Jesus praises the “aniyut deruchot = poverty of spirit”.

Saint Francis of Assisi is called “Poverello – Little poor man” in Italian. 800 years ago, he launched a thanksgiving movement of freedom and pure love for the poor, praising God in His creation. The Baal Shem Tov and the Chassidic groups appeared in a similar context. Poverty does not mean “poor thing!” On the contrary, it shows that every single soul is worthy and that everything is possible.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Chug: circle, feasts, balls...

I had a look at the first wonderful and amazing pictures showing the red landscapes on Mars, the red planet ("ma'dim", Numbers Rabba 4, Shabbat 156b); then I randomly surfed on the Jerusalem Post site online and found an interesting article about Israeli women getting more and more blond or dying their hair blond, a way to neutralize the inter-tribal modern Hebrew State differences. Indeed, hair often seems to turn to light blond, though it sometimes maybe a heavy darkening blond.

Still, it is baffling how many women from the Baltic area have natural red hair and light pale skin in these old Jewish communities with freckles and "admoni" - red - reddish" was the color of the hair of Saul and King David. Today, women would have long curly red hair or very short red hair cut. It is rather frequent and quite evident in a hot and colorful country. “Redness” is an ancient and meaningful symbol in Judaism as in most cultures of the world. We often don't know that Africans (we have the Ethiopians), Asians are born red haired, which is seemingly due to some features of chromosome 16. Blood-oath, what a crash-hot ridgy-didge that we are the colors of the world and bloody reddish complies with our carrot-like preferences!

There is a "little" wilderness town in South Australia, Oodnadatta, not that too much far from Alice Springs located in the North, well it depends on the speed of your truck. Fifty five years ago, it was still a sort of wild expedition, even if Aussies were already very forward, to travel in the area. Was it the end of the world? Or a more original point for a better understanding of whom humans are? Some World War II veterans and concentration camps survivors were propositioned to emigrate there and they could develop their enterprises abandoned in some European city, make money and get wealthy. True, they did not settle in Oodnadatta, but rather in Melbourne, Sidney and Canberra. Good on 'em!

This is why I could have spent my young days in Australia, but it could have been in British Columbia too which, at the present has a lot of Israeli inhabitants and tons of Ukrainian workers that arrived 160 years ago... and conquered the Western Canadian Provinces. How strange and intriguing that sixty years after the end of the war, the descents of the Russian, Jewish and various Soviet Union Displaced People that lived in Harbin (China) were allowed to move to Dairen/Port Arthur, then to Hong Kong and were dispatched to the United States, Canada, Argentina and Australia. Today they come back to Israel in Spanish, English and a touch of Yiddish with some Ladino... You bet! The world is so small and history such a mishmash... Or maybe there is more.

Now, before I brushed up my Greenlandic and Nunatsiavut Inuit (optional) writing consisting of syllable letters in the shape of bear foot marks in the snow, I discovered very early the richness of two Australian aboriginal tongues: Pitjantjatjara and Aranda spoken in the region north of Oodnadatta. This doesn’t look like the full quid in our Israeli context, Mars, red haired and Adam. Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek are indeed the language in which God delivered His Mitzvot to the Israelites. As stated in Sota 7,1, He does understand all the languages of the world. We must be careful with that. It does not mean that we understand anything, but God value any parlance because He better knows than we do what each of them represents for a perception of His Divine Presence. Yes, Inuits as Australian aborigines have been murdered or encouraged to die out through diseases, alcohol and despair.

Curiously, a lot of religions focus stubbornly on the primacy of their sacred tongues: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Slavonic, Gheez (Ethiopian), Sanskrit, Tibetan and some many other languages. The point is that it is fascinating to understand how the Pitjantjatjara and Aranda speakers, for whom the hand (as our ”hamsa”) and wet imprint of the hands on hot stones could explain the Presence of God, the Only One that revealed His Paroles and Commandments in the Sinai. Apparently, they had no words to express that God shaped human beings in His image and likeness.

Still, by using animal descriptions and body imprints in the sand or on wet stones, they could get to this conviction that HaShem had created them and all beings. The problem was for the Christians (mainly the Anglican Church) to prove that “flesh and blood”(in Hebrew, “bassar vadam = mortal human) could resurrect. In their case as also among the Inuits or the Namibian Bushmen (Nama), the quest excludes any idea of “mental disability”. We are not the knowing ones facing a world of ignorance. On the contrary, at the present, Jewishness requires the development of huge projects in order to reinvigorate the Yiddishkayt traditions that drowned during the Shoah. We have lost the direct contact with the world of the wilderness and the instinctive intuition and feelings of what we cannot understand nor seize: the realm of the Mitzvot.

Within a few days, we shall enter new month Ellul that prepares for the time of Rosh HaShanah without any feast until New Year. It is a month of silent meditation. So the Jews can be red, blond, black and curly, this is a major concern with regard to the en vogue heads; anyway, but hair is always related to redemption: “My iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hair of my head (mesa’arot rashi) and my heart fails me” (Tehillim 40:13; 69:5). The Gospel adds some Talmud-rooted sayings: “Do not swear by your head for you cannot make one hair white or black” (Matthew 5:36 – obviously some people today may think that hair dyeing is natural) or “And even the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:30).

Heads and hair are very spiritual elements of our bodies and it is absolutely appealing that parts of our being correspond to divine realities. Hebrew “silsel = to lift up, swing (cf. salal = battery power!). Tractate Rosh HaShanah 26b states: “A handmaid said to one (rabbi) twirling his hair “how long will you curl your hair”, which meant “(why do you) turn the Law into all directions”. We are very good, too good at “twirling” the Law. On the other hand, our desire to be trendy, a la mode, does not mean that we are aware that there is nothing new in fashion, haircuts or natural skin colors that spread widely and speedily throughout the planet. Israel is obviously “cosmic-fashion” at this point as its inhabitants came from all parts of the world, introducing the most faraway cultures. And now, we get to Mars the Red… Let’s say the universe expands like an ellipse as shown by J. Kepler. We are also expanding and growing, overcoming all the hindrances we tend to find out in order to restrict our apprehension and understanding of life.

On this Monday, August 6th 2007 is the 62nd anniversary of the first nuclear/atomic bombing over Hiroshima at 8.15 am., local time. A so-called gadget “Little Boy” was nuked up as “a song of death” (Baghavad Gita (11,32) read by J.R. Oppenheimer on July 16, 1945 citing his personal translation of the text: “I am Death, the destroyer of the worlds”. The exact version should have been: “I became Time and my task, at the present, is to destroy” in a place called “Trinity” where the scientists blew up the first nuclear bomb. The Nazis collected the hair of exterminated victims murdered by Zyklon B gas in order to make soap.

The cream of the crops of the modern scientists launched the process of some future possible Sodom without being gods. They were Jews and Christians and referred to some alien famous poetry fascinated by a hopeless spirit of destruction. How strange and even bizarre that these scientists chose August 6th, the day on which the Western Churches celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus: as he was speaking with Moses and Elijah, he appeared whiter and brighter for a short while of eternity, eternal life with God (Matthew 17:2). At the present, we are all nuking each other potentially, from Modern Persia that would displace the Israelis as refugees to the European Community in search of its Christian (and Jewish, if any…) background to some nuking software in Libya. The aliens are cooking the world in a sort of fragmenting micro waver, while we segment Eretz Israel into ethno-cultural self-searches. Still, “the Lord of Hosts established the world by His wisdom, and by His understanding stretched out the heavens… and He makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth” (Jeremiah 51:15-16).

“Chag” means “feast” as also “chagigah” which is very “festive”. We love feasts. Israeli society loves to joyously celebrate events with balloons and bubbles, cakes and simple gifts. We may not be very conscious that our feasts are like elliptic dances stretching out to more and more wisdom. Thus, they participate in the expansion of space inside of creation, intruding like whirling circles. “Chagog = to dance, whirl, go circling, wheel”. The TaNaKh says: “I was there when He drew a circle on the face of the (void) deep / Ani bechuko chug al pney tehum” (Proverb 8:27). Thus, God “sits above the circle of the earth / chug haaretz and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers”. Many things draw back to “circle” without framing in Hebrew: “Kadur = circle, round, ball, pill” as in “kadur haaretz = earth, globe” or “kadur regel = football” that may often be used to say that there is a messy situation or conflicts.

“Kadar = to be arched, rounded” as in: “The sign of eggs of clean birds (sign of life) arched on the top and rounded, i.e. rolling” (Hullin 64a). The Gospel, in particular the Book of Apocalypse / Revelation, scrolls up and down the same gyrating movement in the vision of the 24 elders sitting around the Throne of glory. They elliptically unfold the scroll of eternity that “love is strong and even stronger than death. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame” (Song 8:6).