Thursday, September 6, 2007

Shuv: toward the highest effort

What profits will we remember of the year 5767? Is it possible to understand anything and to detect God's projects that so many would eventually deny? Just a real look! Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born little Catholic nun passed away ten years ago, in Calcutta, amidst dying corpses, crematories. She was beatified - first step toward her full recognition as a saint - by late Pope John-Paul II. The fervent faithful gathered for the pope’s funeral then required the Catholic Church his immediate canonization.

A sort of "on air" event required after his death but that is still on hold, following the normal process of the Church tradition. Our civilization is divided into the speediest instant messengers, some up-to-the-second thrilling tempo of life and a burden-like, often shameful and scandalous waste of time and competences. And see, since the 4th of Tevet 5766 (January 4, 2006), Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been sleeping while we splash and flounder with kassams on Sderot, the resignation of the president while Shimon Peres averted the Eyn HaRa' / Evil Eye and, overshadowed by all the blessings of our tzaddikim, will lead Israel into the "shemittat karka'ot veshemittat kesafim = the year of remission and for the Land of Israel, its qarqa'ot / soil that will remain uncultivated and the remittance of the debts" in 5768. The grounds and soils as the bottom of a certain period that shows again every seven years, like a "karka'it shel sefinah - the bottom of a ship" (Yevamot 116b) that, in terms of years, arrives at some deadline, a time of rest and forgiveness (for land (adamah) and humans (bney Adam).

In the course of 5767, we roved here and there and rambled in the search of some long-term solution. Our ancestors wandered from Ur-Kasdim down to Egypt and back to the Land of Canaan. Abraham erred - because he was seeking God or it would be more adequate to say that God took him on a journey. He was - as we often shared it here - "bekhom hayom - in the very heat of the day". Together with Sarah, he was struggling along throughout wide spaces and unknown people, but he did it consistently, cheating at times but overcoming all the "nissayonot / tempting tests proposed by God while Sarah could have a grin or some laugh. No real problem: it was still prophetic. We read quite the same with Moses’ story. He constantly remained a man of faith in the context of impossible challenges.

The media scoop that brought forth the “night of the faith” or “darkness” through which Mother Teresa went for some time over thirty years of her life is an important feature of anybody’s relationship to God. Elie[zer] Wiesel’s first account written after his experience in the concentration camp of Auschwitz echoes this profound darkness and abandonment: “Di Nacht – the Night”. The young survivor of a “Nacht und Nebel – night and fog” period could hardly describe what is beyond any description. As numerous survivors, it took time before he could only smile. Thousands of pious Jews got away from their ancestors’ faith in the living God and until today, it remains a very painful and open wound for a great number of souls. It is an act of divine loving-kindness that some men and women, survivors and their children could surface after the Churban (Extermination) with something parallel to the seeded steadfast, inflexible though not rigid emunah / confidence-faith of Abraham, Moses or Job. In this respect, the rather joyous spiritual traditions experienced by the Sephardim and Oriental Jewries do reinvigorate and everywhere allow curing the scars left by history. Indeed, sarcastic and cynical attitudes mirror how the twentieth century had thickly been marked by darkness and despair.

True, the communist terror and various forms of genocides in different countries (South Africa, Turkey, Cambodia, Rwanda) would also enter in some sort of conflict with the light shown at Mamre’s oaks. The Russian Eastern Orthodox monk, saint Silouan the Athonite, declared: “Keep your soul in hell and do not despair”, which definitely links the Oriental tradition with the powerful rise and revival of Judaism. But say, that “night” is en vogue. It makes sense because it allows showing that people who dedicated their lives to God could – like anybody else – be terribly affected by some total privation or defect of God’s Presence. A young French Catholic nun, saint Therese of Lisieux, who died at the age of 26, was the first to describe with remarkable insights her experience of “night, or divine apparent absence” as a spiritual test. Jewish and Christian, Muslim renewal and sometimes stiff attitudes contrast and might come into conflict with this experience of a spiritual “eclipse / tzimtzum” that affected the last century in many aspects.

Nonetheless, there is a profound gap between the Jewish and Christian approaches with regards to this darkness or “night”. The parshat hashavua or reading portion of this week is a twofold one; the second portion is usually read after Rosh HaShanah. These Shabbat readings “Netzavim-Vayelech” are thus to be found in Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 and 31:1-30. We should bear in mind the following Shabbat Teshuvah that will include the reading of the song Ha’azinu which concludes Moses’ life and introduces to the coming Day of Atonement.

We experience how short our memory can be. This is true in our own lives and records. We may be swirling in a world of pictures, takes, shots, videos and films. Images are stored en masse and fade. Days pass, disappear and change. They may facedly give the impression of some deja-vu. Fashion swings that way.

There is a special way for Jewishness to apprehend tenses. But Judaism cannot focus on any positive “night or darkness, absence of eclipse / tzimtzum of God”. Christianity has it as a part of natural Gentile and “heathen-rooted” tendency. It turns to be a positive experiment because it shows that God chooses and man may feel as left aside, abandoned. The most difficult part for Jews is to admit that such a spiritual posture is not linked to idolatry and that faith in God may show as “ from under ashes or dust” (cf. Gen. 3:19; “Al efer tashuv – you shall return to dust”). The so-called “culture of death” has reigned over too many events that affected Christianity in the past century. On the other hand, Jews may forget that they are proposed two ways, once again, for the last time before Autumnal New Year: blessing or curse. Indeed we ask that the year end with its curses and that New Year start with God’s blessings.

Does it mean that we enjoy any real free will and free choice? Pre-destination and absence of free will or conscience have prevailed throughout the Christian history and that souls are at stake. The Catholic Church revised this essential point during the last Council that ended in 1965. The Oriental and Orthodox Churches are less flexible until now, though they mainly focus on conversion, return to God and resurrection. Indeed, our freedom depends, as concerns Judaism, on how the Mitzvot are so real and abide our souls that everything only depends on God.

The reading portion proposes a set of choices to which we are submitted beyond any personal decision. True, we are called to bless, to build, support, save, cure and help. Daily life may be rather a burden that misses simple justice too much. We have seen that during the year: “shuv – again, return, renew” is the main spiritual and human tendency. Judaism is shaped to value life and not death. Life supersedes anything and this is the exceptional spiritual plus that Judaism brought and maintains, and somehow sustains among the Nations. It is the real challenge of the hardships faced in the timid development of a dialogue with the Christians. This is the terrible difference between Jews and Christians. Just as the night would seemingly be considered as a positive sign of humbleness, death may be a temptation to see if survival is possible. Judaism focuses on a choice: take the good measure of your days and nights and why should God extend them?

“Veshavta ad HaShem – you will return to (= until) the Lord” (Deut. 30:2). Hebrew says “ad – until” because God expects that the believers or humans in general turn, convert, respond in a swiveling and revolving move toward God until they reach Him in the “ad = eternity, world-to-come, forever” and not only for a while, say even a “year”. And the same verse continues: “You (gather) them again (“shav”) those that were scattered (“shvutecha – deported that you call back and return”). Jesus also spoke of newness, of making all things new. But this is at the core of what Rosh HaShanah and the reading portions want to teach us this week. This kind of newness that is a perpetual call to all human being that has a breath of life: indeed things are new.

Then, it is true that there are different schools. Either people are too scared to place their bets or would say they don’t care. There are tons of clichés: life is too short; I do what I want; this is my decision. The real challenge in the “teshuvah – conversion, penance, response, revolving return forever to God” is that it requires that every soul is ready to invest the maximum, more than anything they think to possess in order to get to that point. This is the highest effort that surpasses every effort. That’s the point. It sounds not inhumane and still it shows the price of life. A Jewish Chassidic group has this year this kind of wishes, showing a multi-handicapped who calls to turn to Life. At first, such season’s greetings may rebuke. But they are real.

They are authentic as when I see my heavily handicapped daughter breathing with difficulty. Still, she enjoys life and breathes faith at home and at her work. Just as so many injured, sick or disabled often may show us. It is not possible to fool them with pious words about God. This means that the highest effort is a personal move that also can reinforce the weak. The “shemittah – year of remission and rest of the land” is also one of the best examples of what the Shulchan Aruch teaches about the significance of the highest effort.

“Remember us for Life, King Who desires Life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, Living God”.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Birobidzhan: "Shulem, Friends!

Elul 20th, 5767 corresponds to the generally accepted calendar date of September 3rd, 2007. The Eastern Orthodox Churches started the new liturgical (cycle of prayers) year and thus they are, in the West on September 3rd, 7516 (of the creation) that will be celebrated on September 14th, 7516 in the Church of Jerusalem, Russia and other Julian Eastern Orthodox calendars. There is a significant difference between the Jewish traditional year of the creation of the universe and the Christian Orthodox year of the foundation of the worlds. Calendars are definitively PG / parental guidance and not U / universal and we do behave as naughty kids towards Our Father Who is in heaven / Avinu shebashamayim.

Canada celebrates Labour Day on September 3rd. A sort of prior-to-Thanksgiving Day that starts on October 8th, 2007 in Canada while the United States will have their Thanksgiving on November 22nd, 2007. This is due to the period of harvesting in the different regions. But Labour Day in Canada on 09/03 has been instituted on the first Monday in September since the 1880s. Something that unexpectedly matches with the first Aliyah to Eretz Israel or with the overwhelming violence of the pogroms organized against the proletarian shtetl-Jewish village in the czarist Russian Empire.

The proletarians were mostly needy people as were the Ukrainians who fled to Canada by the same time and settled in the Western Provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia. Nothing to do with the 09/03 institution of a Labour Day. Interestingly, the 1880s were years of fighting for civil rights almost everywhere in the Western civilization.

By that time, Toronto appeared to be very advanced in this struggle to get more social and economic justice in the laws governing the general respect of the workers and condition of work. Merely a dream if compared to some wealthy States and moguls. But, the Toronto printers got to their 54-hour work per week and the day was adopted in Canada in 1894 although the socialists (our Bundists to some extent) chose May 1st as the official international Labour Day. Still, the Anglos had to do that their way and the point is that in North America, this corresponds to the time when leaves fall from trees; harvest collects the late crops... The falling of leaves = Fall or Autumn” and Yiddish sings the hit: "'s fal'n di bleter - Leaves are falling", the French best "Les Feuilles mortes" written by the poet Jacques Prevert. There is a touch of French nostalgia, Slavic spleen, Germanic Sehnsucht and Yiddish “miltz un benkshaft”. It is sweet, cute, kind; Hebrew: “dikayon or dichduch” (spleen) or "gagu'im" that are slightly weirder and whirling.

Autumn! We shall soon have the Autumnal Feasts of Rosh HaShanah and Yamim Nora'im, the Day of awe. Nu-u-u, what? I suddenly got aware that the Jewish workers celebrate these days the 70th anniversary of the former Jewish Autonomous Region (in Siberia), namely the seventieth year of the full official recognition of what is today the “Republic” of Birobidzhan, the ever-Jewish autonomous region by the rivers of Amur on the Chinese border. Is it a birthday or a yohrtsayt (anniversary of departed)? Or the departure for a far-reaching envisioned prospect of acting Israeli development in Asia amidst a mixer of blended Russian, Ukrainian, Mongolian, Chinese, Manchu, Jewish descents flavored with some Yiddish if not rebirth of Yiddishkayt / Jewishness.

“Ich habe einen Traum = chalom chalamti (Berachot 55b) = I have a dream”, said the Viennese birth-giving founder Benyamin Zvi Theodor Herzl born in Budapest at the sight of the Dreyfus affair and condemnation. From Basle to Zichron Yaakov, the Ashkenazi Jews erred throughout Her Majesty’s Empire and Commonwealth before the Jewish Congress got the Balfour Declaration allowing the return of the Jews to Zion and Jerusalem.

We were about to toil in Uganda, down the Darfur at that time. On that same year, the Bolshevik Revolution, broke out and remodeled the czarist Russian Empire into a sort on union of comrades. Byelorussia (Belarus) became a haven of creation for the future kibbutzim in Palestine. Some elements of the large Jewish settlements and intelligentsia actively participated in the godless deployment of a fraternal and messianic brave new world of friendship.

Thus, Stalin had his own dream about the Jews and he is the only State builder who donated a piece of land to the Jewish comrades as full members of the communist collectivity. We hardly can say that he presented – hmm? - conferred, or even conceded Birobidzhan to the Jewish “nation”. At this point, it should be noted that both Israel and Birobidzhan (ca. 36,000 sq km) miss exact total surfaces. Stalin, as most leaders of the world from Pharaoh till now, could find the Jews useful at times. Frankly, he would not confess any love toward them. So he created, in 1928, the “Jewish Autonomous Region/Oblast – Yid. Di Yiddishe Avtonome Geg’nt” by the Siberian rivers of the Amur (actually not “love” but “Black River” in Mongolian) along its two tributaries “Bira and Bidzhan”. It is so strange that the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon…) made us weep along two rivers in the Siberian Far East! Maybe some remembrance of Biro Sava = Beer Sheva, where Abraham’s story started?... The official languages are Yiddish and Russian, or vice versa. Some legal status updates happened in 1934 and then it became “full-autonomous” in 1937, i.e. seventy years ago. After the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, it recently redeployed its activities.

This “inspired if not inspiriting” project sought to gather in all the workers of the Jewish nation inside the Soviet Union. Jewish hard-working labor force and toiling cosmopolitan manpower were encouraged to settle in this remote non-cleared virgin and wild area in order to thaw out the land and somehow get frozen there…A taste of Hirsh Glick’s “Zog nit kaynmol = Never say you are going on your last way”, the song of the Partisan. Yiddish was reformatted with Hebrew letters that removed any trace of traditional TaNaKh and Talmud spelling. It was really a dream that lined with the traditional “von ot siuda – get away from us, you Jews” to flicker with the flame of the Jewish toiling workers’ bravery and international chevurah / fraternity that had been launched in 1925 in Belarus.

Still, please do note that this assignment of the Jews corresponded, in the fundamentals of the Soviet spirit, to the laws governing the Union. Each nation had the right to enjoy some land allotment, a homeland. Stalin is the only politician who, with the Soviet communist regime, decided to apportion a tiny and apparently ridiculous part of the “empire” to the Jews and thus founded some kind of Jewish “country, home if not State”. Irrationality met with extravagant right. In comparison, the Mormons were chased, hounded down till they settled in Utah. No Canadian province, United States, European, African or Asian authority has ever proposed the creation of a “Free republic and haven for the Jews”.

There is a spiritual curiosity: in czarist Russia as under the communist Soviets, each inhabitant of the immense territory belonged to a “nation” and, subsequently, was a citizen of the former USSR. We have the same in Israel. There are firstly the “Jewish (national” and then the “Nations”. The Eastern Orthodox Church seemingly reflects identities according to “ethnicities”.

We can say that, though it sounds a bit bizarre, Israel was created as the State of the Jews according to the paradox of a divine concession memorized and kept living in the Scriptures. When our “nuke-oriented” Persian neighbor suggests that each European country should be ready to give asylum to Israeli refugees, he quietly can make such a statement because no European or other nation ever thought of giving some alms of land ownership to a Jewish autonomous or self-governed region. On the other hand, Eastern Europe and Oriental Christianity are undisputedly linked by their faith that, in principle, unites the faithful beyond their ethnicity which constitutes an important and positive element.

The Soviet communist system also dreamed of uniting all the hard-working proletarians. Of course, the Jews did not get the cream of the crops: I met quite a lot of strong-minded former communist and international Labor activists who settled there and sometimes showed up unexpectedly in Europe and Israel. Along the Bira lived some sorts of “fayne biryes = nice, well-educated creatures (Yid.)”, i.e. either real spiritual characters or stiff-necked lost people, as the Polish Jews say. From the 2nd to the 15th of September – with the exception of 09/03! – Birobidzhan celebrates its 70th anniversary with many events scheduled at Sholom-Aleichem Street (City Palace of Culture). It begins with a memorial of the end of World War II and then different meetings: a chess tournament, a festival of Jewish and Yiddish movies (“I love you, Birobidzhan”), dances, with the participation of different ethnics: Ukrainians from Kharkiv and Chinese, Mongolian living in the neighboring areas.

Since 1991, there are astounding development of the Yiddish language and cultural life although the major part of the country had always been non-Jewish – quite an extraordinary situation of paradoxes. There is a rebirth of Judaism, synagogues and an Israeli rabbi lives in the country with his big family. This takes place not so far from this remote “end of Europe”, eh yes, Birobidzhan is part of the Russian Federation and thus reaches out to the border of Europe that falls down the harbor of Vladivostok. I met in Jerusalem a Christian God-seeker who had traveled from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok with two priests – one Orthodox, the other was Catholic - showing the relics of a renowned saint. They also trekked along Birobidzhan, and they were so surprised to see the slow growth of this Jewish Region.

It is also very intriguing to follow up how the Jews will meet the opportunity to support a region located in the heart of Asia, not far from Harbin where so many Jews had lived till the end of World War II. The area seemingly extends Europe to the core of Asia. But the location is unique. Siberia attracts Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Manchu and Mongolians. It is linked to Japan and Philippines… We do have all these people as guest workers in Israel.

Beyond the tragic events that affected the Jews who, for a great part, arrived from Eastern countries in Israel, this miniature autonomous region of Birobidzhan retains something of the socialist communist atheist system that tried to rule the world and in between delivered Auschwitz. Is it foolish / meshigene mazeh or understandable / mistume (min-hastam) that Yiddish, born on the Rhine a thousand years ago was about to disappear many times. Still, it became the truncated national language of a ghostly Jewish Autonomous Region that today tries to use it more wisely. Miracles substantiate the words of the Prophet: “My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Zay gezint, Birobidzhan!