Thursday, September 20, 2007

Slichah: the challenge of remittance

As it happened quite often during the past year, major Feasts fall on a Shabbat in 5768. This is the case for Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonement, the 25 hour fast and return to God that will start on Friday 21st and end on Saturday 22nd - 9 and 10 of Tishri. The feast takes precedence over the Shabbat. This mainly implies to respect the fast (no food or beverage), the abstention from washing or shaving, wearing leather and having sexual intercourse during all that period. Hugs and kisses, "breakfasting" family and community suppers are then joyously allowed and recommended after the closure of the heavenly Gates (Seder Neylah) and the havdalah service (distinction between sacred and ordinary days). It may be strange but forgiveness shows many similarities with resting and renewing over the Shabbat and the seventh day is definitely in harmony with this shemittah'ing year for the restful time of Eretz Israel and ecological reflection about human beings living in a pilot plant area as Israel. Remittance of debts is then a plus that should change the relationships of a rather large part of our population. This is not a dream…

Seven years of war too. Before he fell asleep Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explained at length in different interviews and meetings that the State of Israel is embattled in a long-term process and that the war situation might be last for quite a long time. Over the past seven years, terror attacks could be stopped by a terrible effort to develop and correct the intelligence services. We had one (first) Lebanon war II, a pullout that dismantled the cities developed in the Gaza Strip that is at the present outlawed by a terror-reigning system. Gush Katif evolved into outcasts with unemployment. Impoverished Arabs swarm like bees or wasps in overcrowded cities and got taken hostage. It is a more and more shameful scandal that should interrogate human consciousness. A place of drug transit and sniper shooting that, over years, deeper and deeper harm desperate households and strongholds of settlements. And, as if we all in the region would deny the Lord Who had some “aftermath” walk or stroll at dusk when the breeze is so cool, we sadly built in these seven years the fences and walls that put the wind up various communities and framed us from those whom we consider as aliens; worse: it also made us alien to each other. We do need a Sabbatical year but hardly accept to consider 5768 as a true year of remittance and pardon.

When aliens become foreigners, estranged, bizarre in our views and own suspicion, we cannot be astounded, in return, to be considered with the same lack of respect, honesty, decency. In that particular case, we alienate ourselves without getting higher. But Judaism and Jewishness precisely constitute a positive opening-up teaching process and monitor to defeat any kind of rejection. Yom HaKippurim is the most sacred, the most precious – priceless and exquisite – D-Day of the Jewish year. Just as each Shabbat is the dearest and invaluable refreshing time for having a reflection stroll and break the walls of our own repulsive enmities. Still forgiveness and pardon are uttered with much piety by any believer but may be expressed with much reluctance. We take then the risk to be liars or lightheaded. “Selach, mechal, kaper lanu – forgive, remit and atone us” is the greatest spiritual and societal challenge because we expect to be ransomed by God and we enjoy the free choice and obligation to release all the people we know. We know the vitz / joke of two born enemies meeting on Yom Kippur; and one says to the other: “I wish you all the best you can wish on yourself”. The answer is clean cut: “Don’t start again right now, will you!” Yom HaKippurim is the inspiriting set of 25 hours of move from human frailty and weakness to a real awakening awareness of the existence of a community. We are given a chance to get conscious that sins and transgressions can be wiped out (by God) and enter a year of bright creativity. Still, do we believe in pardon?

My son told me recently that he was very interested by a permanent question. Firstly, of course, how and who are we Jewish? Good enough – then, how he feels Jews are and how he feels Jewishness. He used to answer that being a Jew/ess does not depend on any personal and individual opinion or self-conviction. There are tons of ways to be Jewish; but he underscored the fact that Judaism is not only a private “feeling”: it is shared and given inside of a community. In last year blog “Tiftach – open the gates” (09/29/06), I tried to connect this Kippur experience to the unity of the pardon: “at-ONE-ment” that reinforces the Klal Israel. As a young adult, my son would be more “emotionally” involved because young people are emotional. Feelings are not only a matter of privacy and individuality. Feelings are “on air” with a lot of connections and debugging clashes. Indeed, being Jewish and acting as a believer or simply showing some requirement to being a member of the Jewish community includes the move of warming our hearts and souls til pardon becomes a personal reality, and thus can be extended to a community and to any soul. You bet! Nothing to do with being in the land of Nod! This requires having the guts and the nerve to face who we are and to proceed to a substantial repair.

The texts read on Yom HaKippurim are: Vayikra / Leviticus ch.16-17; Bemidbar 29:7-11 and the haftarah / prophetic reading portion: Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14. There is an additional prophetic reading for the Day of Atonement, i.e. the reading of the Book of Jonah (haftarah). All the prayers said during the fast, focus on penance and return to God. It should be noted that the blessing “Shehecheyanu = Who maintained us living and gave us to be living and allowed us to reach this period” is parallel to the closure of the Day / Neilah and the Birkat Kohanim / priestly blessing (Numbers 22:6). Whatever transgression involved, humankind is overshadowed by a powerful life-breathing-in Godly blessing and pardon. In the meanwhile, “Yom HaKippurim/Day of Atonement atones for transgressions of man in his relationship to God, but as for transgressions between man and man there is no expiation on the Day of Atonement until wrongful acts have been corrected and repaired.” (Mishnah Yoma 8, 9). Rabbi Jacob Tam, the grandson of Rashi changed the intention of the introducing “Kol Nidrey – all the vows (annulment)” pointing out that past vows cannot be canceled, but vows should be free, without pressure and “From this Yom HaKippurim till the next Day of Atonement”. This very ancient text is in Aramaic and focuses on our relation to God (Nedarim 23b). Interestingly though absolutely evident, numerous vows and prayers insist the spiritual pressure exercised by the Gentiles either to convert and accept Christianity by force but it should be underscored that the Jews had been persecuted and obliged to abandon the Mitzvot long before the Jewish and Christian communities separated and banned each other. The pagans, heathens and barbarians exerted a terrible compelling strain, obliging the Jews to deny their call to worship the Lord of the Universe. The Kol Nidrey should also invite the Israelis to respect the vows freely taken by others, provided that they don’t harm them.

We often had the opportunity to point out how little people appreciate true freedom. Oh yes, freedom would be on every mouth. A banal motto! We may have to face a problem: that, we may fast, stop drinking and eating – indeed we know that after the havdalah of the Shabbat we shall meet with our friends and families, congregations and not with those who are against us and enjoy a nice supper. Then we ritually observe Kippur, barely the moving spirit of this Day of pardon. When we are ransomed, redeemed by God and not sharing with our reconciled enemies the best Jewish recipes from all over the dispersion.

This is why the “Vidui / Confession of sin” is a masterpiece of insights that traces back to the the Antiquity (Yoma 87b). It starts with: “Ashamnu (we have sinned)” and continues in Hebrew alphabetical order. It is the same text that is read three times a day, but on that special move of forward turning to God, it recounts the depths of human distance amidst the beings and between humans toward God. “We transgressed, acted perfidiously, robbed, slandered, acted with perversion, wickedness, willfully sinned and acted with violence; imputed falsely, counseled evil, lied, scoffed, rebelled; provoked disobedience, iniquity, wantonly transgressed, oppressed, stiff-necked; committed evil, acted perniciously, done abominations, went astray and led others astray” (“ti’avnu, ta’inu, tit’a’nu” are redundantly so expressive").

Thus, in different series of penitential prayers, we must also try to “materialize” this introspection in order to dare, often with courage, apologize and ask for forgiveness those that we have offended. The usual greeting “shalom uslichah – greetings and pardon” tends to disappear. It is too formal and void. This also shows how far we may be from the real necessity for the Community of Israel to receive Divine atonement because of their spiritual consciousness that God sustains life and respect. Otherwise, Jews among themselves and Christians and others may get hurt, deceived, distrustful and feel abandoned or rejected.

We are both united and profoundly divided, on the verge of suspecting the “others turning to aliens”. There is a need to apologize for the indecent social and medical care conditions of the Shoah survivors who live in Israel. If Jewish Israelis sell the grounds, even fictively, to non-Jews, in particular Arabs, Christians or Muslims, this means that we can accept that God’s pardon has no borders or fence, walls in the sky. Maybe this Yom Kippur we would not lead astray from God those who seek Him or want to feel free to develop their own reflection. HaShem malach… God has reigned, reigns and will reign” is at the heart of true release and remittance of souls. This does not exclude any breathing soul that getting new forces anywhere in the world and especially in Israel.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have included this spirit of pardon in their usual prayers. “Let us ask the Lord to pardon and atone our transgressions and faults” is a constant demand as also “forgive, dismiss and release all the transgressions and faults, sins…” The Faithful has to accomplish a huge task by proving that God shows His holiness and thus gives the possibility to sanctify His words, the land and any soil and the people. “For I do not desire the death of the one deserving death, says the Lord God; “vehashivu viheyu – therefore return (ahead to God) and live” (Ezekiel 18:32). Atonement implies to envision a year of freedom and openness.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Leruah hayom: The cool of the day

Rosh HaShanah launches the process of the Yamim Noraim - the Ten Days of awe that lead to boxing round two of our struggle for a balanced life, personal growth and favorable judgment in 5768. The moving and intriguing aspect of this year is that it is a shemittah one, a time of remittance of debts and resting for the land. In both cases, the problem resembles a quest that can only be unsolved. It would apparently be much harder to release debts than to fictively sell land to Muslims and Christians that would infringe the rule allowing the grounds to rest for one full year, a sabbatical year.

This sounds more like North American brain-storming need for a year break out of daily concerns rather than the essence of Judaism: the earth, that nourishes its inhabitants and far more than these residing people because of world trading of produce, Eretz Israel, and no other grounds on Earth - this is the point - are entitled to take a break. This should allow Jews and other inhabitants of the Land understanding the value of our days.

The same aspect should be considered with regards to money and pending debts. The wealthiest countries of the world - the industrial rich ones as the G8 spend their time and funds in redeeming the poor countries, wiping out the debts of undeveloped or even rich countries. Strangely enough the United States, France, Germany and other members of this G8 also ask for remittance of their debts on a regular basis. In Israel, this implies something else: we all would "like to live in a rich man's world" as Group Abba swings it almost three shemittot. I too often meet with people, in particular newcomers, who drastically changed their living standards upon their arrival in Israel and dramatically fell from the bottom of their often renewed financial baskets to some street or cave surviving system. It is amazing and quite an interrogation to become squatters in Eretz Israel for a one year period, provided that we do trust the land will legally be returned to pious Jews. Shemittah implies a sort of salvation that surpasses all available gambling games. For the poor it does involve that “in God we trust” our lives.

Where else in the world, usually fascinated or burdened by fate and bad luck, can we hear that “it is possible to correct the future” for the small people and Land of Israel that are like a “pilot plant”? This shows that we are duly inspirited from Above, beyond all kinds of parties, blessings or curses because we are indeed an old-new – ancient-renewing nation that only can look forward as our ancestors did. Any Israeli should be able to say that the sound of the shofar for two major feasts falling on a Shabbat: New Year and the Day of Atonement would activate and energize them to envision all ways of repairing the future with much vitality.

This is the language of faith, of the Jewish faith that precisely does not belong to any Jewish or non-Jewish first or second cousin-like related believers. Faith or thinking postures full of authentic, playful doubts show the form of the talent that is sealed in our history for the best of life. This is also how faith started: we have a siddur – standard usual prayer-book for common days and a machzor – a special prayer-book for the cycle of a specific Feast or series of connected Festivals. “Siddur” definitely tracks back to “order, arrangement, successive order” while, by a sort of contrast, “machzor” marches in the traces of a revolving move that recurrently moves ahead, back and forth, but always looks ahead. Indeed, time is not arranged as a successive and repeatedly unchanged motto. Nonetheless, we know that something happened at some starting point that develops daily and cycles ahead of us showing a real connection between God and humankind.

Franz Kafka is maybe the typical Jew full of “angst/anxiety”, imprisoned in A Jewish Prague city made of Czech (Kavka = Jackdaw), peculiar German speech, some Yiddish and a personal dream to settle in Palestine. The Jews of Prague – before World War II – strongly contributed envisioning the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Israel. But, on Yom Kippur’s eve, the young Franz regarded his father with fear and some distrust. He could show to the boy the Hebrew line that was chanted but would not read it. Curiously, we are still strongly embattled in the same ritualized situation. We would know ton of pious words to cry to God, but we would often utter them without paying attention.

Rosh HaShanah implies that we start to read the Chumash* * (Five Books of Moses) from the beginning, i.e. Bereishit / Genesis. It is good and fundamental that we recall the shaping of all the creation, creatures, vegetables, animals and humans. Till the shaping of Eve, God and Adam had a one-way relationship: God spoke; Adam did give a name to his environmental realm. He would not ask for a partner. On the other hand, God understood that Adam was alone. And therefore, he could repair his future by creating Eve. Now, the point is that there is a delightful, frankly tasteful verse in: “(Adam and Eve) heard the sound (Qol) of Elokim having a walk in the garden at (the time of) the evening breeze (“leruah hayom”); and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” (Bereishit 3:8). It was a time when God was getting some fresh air… not really hanging out. But He was having a break, which also means that the day was breaking, cooling down. “The cooling air of the day = evening, dusk” conceived and generated wisdom (Gen. Rabba 15, 22) and “a praying spirit” (Berachot 31a). And then the encounter: God and the two human beings start a real talk, the first one: “I am naked (arum)”, says Adam. “Who told you were naked? – “The woman whom you gave to be with me” – “The serpent, added the woman”. This was the first real talk based on apparent punishment only. Surprisingly, this is the original point of every liturgy and prayer.

This is first direct relationship that connects God to the humans. It should be noted that the contact seeker is God Himself. “Ayyekkah – How, where now (are you)” echoes, as we know, the cry of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah’s Lamentations: Eychah. Say that we would hardly replace our “hi!, Hey!, Hello!” or “Eyfo at/ah? – Where are you?” by “Eyyekkah!”. We do think sometimes we are like gods. No, in Arabic “Wen inte? – where are you?” is also parallel to Modern Hebrew: “How are you doing?” ”Hi” is rather Germanic (“hei”, Gr. “aia”; comp. Russian: “aga”) and lately spread through Kansas Indian dialect. Anyway, this event is considered by the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Churches as the major event of the “fall or original sin” (Augustine of Hippo). Judaism considers it as “chet adam harishon – sin of the first being” that corresponds to the “ancestral/initial sin” in the Eastern Orthodox Church . The Jews as the Eastern Orthodox Churches do not accept the guilt of that sin. Instead, they underscore that God said: See, the man (Haadam) became like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and live for ever” (Gen. 3:22).

The putting of the tallit gadol (great prayer shawl) and donning of the tefillin (phylacteries) in the present form of Judaism may not enable us envisioning what God did during this first dialogue with Adam and Eve. They got aware of their nakedness. “Arum” is very subtle in Hebrew: “naked, shameful, lewd” but also “prudent, deliberate, wise”: “The sane/arum has no reason to walk with the fool” (Pessikta Shim’u 118b). And thus He clothed them. This is what we do when we put on the tallit gadol. The Eastern Orthodox Byzantine rite has it in a peculiar way: normally, before he starts the celebration, the bishop goes in the middle of the church wearing only a cassock. It indicates that he is “naked” and simply clothed by God. He will progressively add different garments that “clothe” him as to disappear and give way to God’s glory. The garments are very similar to those of the High Priest described in the Book of Leviticus.

God cried out: “ayyekkah – where now, how!” when the breeze allows the day making a transition to night and the upcoming hours when light will shine again, according to the different time zones. “How” and “now, there (“ko”)” strongly pronounced in Hebrew by the redundantly stressed consonants. Dialogues always require overcoming strong emotional feelings or individual anxiety, stress. Indeed, God is the Master of the Universe, the Bore HaKol Yachol - the Creator of all things. But, by creating the worlds and our planet where human beings showed progressively, He entered in a unique sort of conversation. “Davening” from Yid. “davenen” is certainly rooted in French “divin (divine service)” but may be linked to “davat’: davai= give!, okay so what!, go on! (or stop it, as you prefer!)”. God called, Adam and Eve responded. This is why, in the Jewish tradition, as well as in the Orthodox, Catholic and Christian tradition too, the day starts at the end of the previous day, by the time of the breeze when God’s walk launched the initial talk with the first couple and the snake. There are now “Jewish watches” that automatically switch at sunset to the following Hebrew date.

We might presume that there was no time expansion, no time schedule or zones in the Gan Eden. Interestingly, the dialogue will start with the birth of Adam and Eve’s children: Cain and Abel and the launching of birthing, i.e. generation, which means history in Hebrew.

Praying will develop along this reciprocal attitude: God longs after the humans and their wellbeing. Humankind stands in a contact that gives consistency to time and years: “Evening and morning and at noon “asichah – I shall converse, have a talk” and “veehemeh - cry aloud” with and to the Lord and He will hear my voice” (Tehillim 55:17).

(**) Interestingly, we are rarely conscious of the fact that new readings are not limited to the Torah but also include the "haftarot - texts from the Books of the Prophets" and the "Megillot-Scrolls" for specials Festivals plus a permanent renewal of the Tehillim-Psalms...