Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Sheket: resting in turmoil

The Feast of Succot will soon be over. The etrog / Citrus "big heart" will either turn to some jam or prolong the feast and the historical "ushpizin - special guests, visitors" chosen as time markers will apparently leave our world. We will be able to add some smell of etrog over the year during the havdalah - service distinguishing the Shabbat from the ordinary days. We read the "megillat Kohelet - scroll of the Ecclesiastes" that could be understood either as a sort of fatality that continues each year. Newness and seeding forces that sprinkle out of the divine invisible forces may often be too challenging. Good Pope John XXVIII used to say that we are "uomini di pocca fede - people with little faith".

In these days of harvesting, we would prefer to assemble and rejoice, feel together and forget for a short while that daily life removes all make-up and useless pretended struggles for life. There is an interesting root in Talmudic Hebrew: "QaT - QaTa" that means "to pluck" and "be a fragment, chip". It is linked to "Qataf - to harvest". It is written: "If he plucks, thus gains anything, the plucks a piece of coal - if he loses, he loses a pearl" (Terumot 8, 45d). This saying means that a man risks his life for a trifle. A small chip that firstly appears as meaningless, senseless and vain. Let's put it in other words. In Pessikta Rabba deRabbi Kahana 21, it is said: "that student is a chip from the rock of Mount Sinai”, which should change him into a rare precious stone of knowledge spared from the rocky wilderness of the Sinai and the Giving of the Luchot (Tablets) (cf. Sanhedrin 4, 22a “qetoa”). This is what is great in Jewishness and all the Jewish traditions: from gambling and trifling we are basically called to hear God’s voice Who assembles chips and cuts or diminish our pride or selfishness to shape things “fine” – “qatat” as stated: “the one who beats (“meqatqet – makes even by beating”) to make the web close or to make the woof even” (Shabbat 12, 13c). Curiously, John the Baptist has something rather similar: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase but I must decrease. The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all (John 3:29-31).

This echoes the upcoming Shabbat Bereishit with the new reading of the account of the Creation in the Book of Genesis. It refers to the shaping, making even and fine of our universe and the planets, in particular, the Earth. The reader is called the “Chatan Bereishit – the bridegroom of Genesis” as to attest that God did shape the world and not the humans; and humankind did not wake up by some sophisticated or unreasonable project. All beings come into the world in order to pass over - depart. The major effect is that we grow old from the very first day we come out of our mother’s womb but we cannot grow old. On the contrary, a believer, might progressively get to the point, eventually preceded by terrible pains and sufferings, that s/he quits timeless eternity to live through an age that terribly extended from the original big bang. Thus, we are young “chaps” as regards the bridegrooms who are cut in time to get creative as family, job and learning partners. This is a reversed envisioning of our life, our duration.

There is a problem of lack of confidence: we would like to build, but are quick to destroy. It is so strange to spend some time in a Danish city garden. The children can fight like anywhere else, but if they get the material, they will always start to build something and avoid any destroying. This might explain why the Danes created the “Lego” or construction games. It is amazing to look at these little boys and girls naturally playing peacefully with a spirit of building something.

As always in the Semitic realm, “QaTaTa = quarrel, dispute, discord (music, sounds)” with a preference to one sole and unique example: “beyno l’veynah – relations between (man and woman, spouses). “Qatatah” is the exact opposite to “shalom – peace”. “if husband and wife have a strong dispute before his death (of the husband), they are vain” (Yevamot 15, 1).

The root developed into an engrossing word: “sheqet – silence”. Considering the Talmudic references mentioned above that enroot the basic meaning of the word, things are not so simple in the TaNaKh and the Oral Law. “Shaqat haolam – the world remained undisturbed” (Avodah Zarah 3a, Yalkut Habakuk 563) reflects a statement found both in Genesis and the Book of Job: “VeHu yishqit be’olamo = He (the Lord) is and remains unconcerned about His world (Gen. Rabbah 36; cf. Job 36:29). This could suggest that God might be careless (“shalev”) or feel too much “at ease” with His creation. Russian saying states: “Every uttered word is a lie and silence covers a lot of sins (Saint Seraphim of Sarov). The problem is that “the ease of the wicked / resha’im is bad for themselves as for the world” (Sanhedrin 8, 5).

It should be noted that true silence is positive in the Jewish tradition. Silence may resemble a destruction: for example, in Hebrew, the sheva consists in removing a vowel and change it into some sort of “silent” /e/ sound: “shalom > sh’lom ha’ish – peace > the peace of the man”. Indeed, “sheva” corresponds to “shoah – destruction”. Nonetheless, “silence” shows “quietness, be even, balanced, at ease”. Silence may introduce some fear (death) or narcissistic self-mirroring that opens up the dreams of some suffering souls. “Shakut = a forehead that recedes abruptly”, which can be good for donning the tefillin (Berachot 43b).

On the other hand, silence is merely a reality. Absolute dumbness, total absence of decibels is not possible. Even gesture and the language of the deaf and dumb include their uttering some moaning, groaning or raw sounds produced by the throat.

From August till now, a lot of international personalities died and their lives had been deeply affected by the Shoah: on September 22nd, Marcel Marceau, born Mangel-Werzberg in Strasbourg into a Jewish family at the age of 84. In 1944, his father, a shochet / kosher butcher and was murdered in Auschwitz. He was obliged to leave the Alsace and joined the Free French Forces, then worked as a liaison officer with General Patton’s army. He perfectly spoke English and, when the war was over, he decided to become an actor. True, he found his way in renewing the art or the ancient Italian pantomime or “l’art du silence – the art of silence”. In 1947, he created the silent character of “Bip” the clown that drew into silence the soft and fragile “Arlequin” and “Baptiste” he had interpreted in various mimodramas. I saw him very often on the stage – it was frail and powerful, like Chaplin’s mute films. It is certain that mime Marceau chose to revive humanity through gesture and bones, pantomiming animals, butterflies or the extraordinary “Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death” two minute mimodrama that summed up whole series of human destinies. He performed everywhere in the world and the international language of silence got his a huge prestige in Japan: the No theater and the Japanese combined with Kan Ji Chinese ideograms immediately attained the soul of silence as a universal language. He remained an actor, especially in Mel Brook’s “Silent Movie”. He also influenced Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk”.

Mime and pantomime were definitely popular in Antiquity and was reinvigorated from the time of the Commedia dell’Arte till some rescued actors. “Bip” has a wide family. Mime Marceau used to say that life had been so fragile and tragic that this form of art of silence was the best way for him to show the beauty of the world.

It is indeed a world that sowed revival in the silence chosen by numerous survivors in order to continue their struggling for life. On the other hand, Marcel Marceau was a choreographer who could pave the way for a speechless art that reaches out to every heart. This is also at the core of “sheket – silence”: to act with tact (Lat. “tacitus – being silent”) and not reticence (“reticere – keep silent”).

Is there any reason to confide in God? The Hoshanah Rabbah sequence “Mevasser mevasser veomer – He comes to embody and announce the good news” is one of the mos spolendid piyutim / chants that can give some hope to share. Job’s final exclamation: “I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6) echoes the original Abraham’s words to God for the sake of Sodom: “I am but dust and ashes” (Bereishit 18:27).

It is not a repeated nihilistic statement: these men entrusted everything to God, every thing and silence brought them as it is proposed to us in the same way. It substantiates full trust in God for chipped – not broken but fine humans.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Kohelet: overall harvesting

Are we going to dwell in huts, booths, tents, tabernacles? or succot? On Tishri 15, 5768, the Jewish Community celebrates the harvesting feast of the Booths. They are commended to gather and bring all samples of the numerous produce of the land before - slow-slowly the grounds may take a one-year leave wherever possible though it is a law of the shemittah, rest for the grounds.

A succah is and only can be a sicce and Succot can only be "Sicces". This Shabbat is called "Shabbat chol HaMoed Sukkot - Shabbat of the (ordinary) weekdays of the Feast of Succot", intermediate days that may occur for Pesach and "Zeman Simchatenu - the time of our rejoicing", i.e. "the Feast of the Tabernacles". As decades, years and shemittot (years of remittance) pass, this festival grows into a widely popular and rejoicing time, beside the fact that a lot of Israelis would then decide to travel abroad. The reading portion is taken from the Book of Vayikra / Leviticus 22:26-23:44 that recounts the time of "appointed festivals - moadim - pl. of "moed" (Lev. 23:4). This tracks us back to the creation of the world: God had set up the "me'orot birkiyah hashamayim - lights in the dome of the sky" to distinguish as a sign "le'otot lemoadim - for the appointed times of encounter" (Gen. 1:14). Days and years pass, "moed - moadim" are appointed - invariant times of special encounter between God and the beings. Just as the Shabbat, Pesach - Shavuot (Spring New Year and first harvest of Passover-Pentecost), Rosh HaShanah-Yom HaKippurim (Autumnal New Year and Day of Atonement) and Succot (Feast of the Booths - Autumnal New Year Harvest). On these Fall harvesting days that developed into the Canadian and then American Thanksgiving Days also related to the local late harvests, the Jews chose to reckon salvation. Judaism starts New Year in accordance with the Sumerian, Chaldean and Gilgamesh computing system based on return, pardon and assembling the whole Community of Israel. There was a time when New Year started with Pesach and the Law-giving Pentecostal harvest. Curiously, it makes more sense for the South hemispheric countries, from Argentina, South Africa to Australia as they reach Springtime…

Succot is a good period for reflecting with insights on Jews and Judaic, Judean and Jewishness. Succot is also the perfect seven-day period to allow speculating upon non-Jews, Gentiles, Nations of the world, others, “not us” indistinctively. Then, the problem is that we still thoughtfully interrogate ourselves about who we are and not how we are linked to others and vice versa.

To begin with, we have very poor soil produce memorizing capacities. From the time of the exile in Babylon, we have been city-addicted or compelled to reside in towns. We know what “apartheid” means because like in the Cape of Good Hope, we were compulsorily fenced in townships (Afrikaans: pondokkies), our “shtetlech” and their ghettos. But “by the rivers of Babylon, (as) we were sitting and wept” (Tehillim 137:1; cf. Blessing after Meals), we apparently forgot about the feast of the Booths and progressively got astray from hut-building, even the limited three wall sample (Succa 3a). No hut, no booth, maybe some tent in specific oriental areas and this absence of Succot celebrated lasted quite a long time. “Tabernacles” really sounds “Gentile” at the present because it means a place or ornamental box for the Divine Presence (Eucharist), especially in the Roman Catholic world while the Byzantine speak of a “Tsiyon – Zion” that is placed on the offering altar in the Eastern-Orthodox Churches.

The produce would rather be used in the synagogues and we do have a lot of accounts written by Christians comparing the lulav – palm branch with the palm branches waved during the Christian Holy Week. Still, in the long periods of dispersion, the Jews forgot the taste and flavor of the produce required in Eretz Israel - Holy Land : the lulav – palm branch (strictness / flexibility in faith), etrog – big lemon – citrus (big heart, love to every/anybody, gentleness and delicacy/good smell), hadas – myrtle (charm and seduction, sweet heartedness but no persistency) and aravah – willow (thirst quenching and fear to get bone dried) that should be gathered together and waved in a special way (Succa 37b): toward the four winds, the heavens, the earth, symbolizing the overflowing wealth and prosperity, abundance of Divine love for each creature and human being as chanted during the Hallel (cf. Tehillim 118:

The Jews could hardly enjoy all these produce outside of Eretz Israel. And there is undoubtedly no need to build some succot during the Feast of Passover or even on Shavuot / Pentecost days. As mentioned in a previous article, it is interesting to note that the Feast of Succot does not exist per se in any Christian Church or denomination, contrary to all the other Jewish festivals that got included into the Christian festive calendar. The Christian scholars and traditions would show that all things got “accomplished” in Jesus of Nazareth. Both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic liturgies insist on the (Second) Coming of Jesus in glory, which corresponds to the two Messiahs: (the suffering) Ben Joseph and (glorious) Ben David of the Jewish tradition. The Gospels recount the conception and birth of Jesus of Nazareth. They might also suggest that he was born during the Feast of Sukkot. This is simply based upon the calculation of time starting with Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, who accomplished his priestly service as a member of the Abijah order in the Temple (always in August), the visit paid by Mary to her cousin Elisabeth, Zechariah’s wife, at Eyn Karem. She was pregnant for five months and, in the sixth month, Mary also became pregnant (Luke 1:1-33). This shows the delays and allows calculating the possible birth of Jesus in the time of Succot.

For the Jewish Community, Succot is thus not the feast of some huts or booths. It is the festival that prolongs the journey throughout the wilderness of a world that may ignore God’s Presence. Strangely enough, it is appealing that some Christians would join Succot (as Shavuot) because of the strong impact of harvesting thanksgivings in the North American Christian culture. On the other hand, it includes the mitzvah of hospitality to all the ushpizin (guests) from those who were the pioneers and paved the way for redemption and the end of ages (Yevamot 61b). During the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor, Jesus was speaking to Moses and Elijah. Both disappeared while Shimon-Peter asked Jesus if he could not build three “dwellings – sukkot”: “one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matthew 17.4); “not knowing what he said” adds the proselyte Evangelist (Luke 9:33).

Indeed, Succot is the “tsel tsila – overshadowing shade” feast of a trip trough eternity. Shades cover shades and “fencing or wall separations” are definitely not the point, in this festival. True, Jews can recall that they dwelt under tents in the desert. But is it credible to think backwards as we a new year starts and introduce humankind into brand new days, weeks and months? The Jewish tradition usually adds a “megillah – a scroll” reading to the major Festivals. These scrolls underline that Redemption and God’s reign concerns every nation. At Shavuot / Pentecost, Megillat Ruth explains how a Moabite woman and Noemi joined the community of Israel. At Kippur, the Book of Jonah described how the Ninivites turned to God and repented under ashes.

When there is a Shabbat between the beginning of the feast of Sukkot and its conclusion on Shemini Atseret (Day of the joyous assembly), it became a custom (minhag) to read the Megillat Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is considered as a scroll and it seemingly depicts a plain if not dubious attitude toward faith in God and the lack of hope in this world. Say it sounds a bit blasé. Just as some people would love to show off at times. There were long disputes as whether to include or not this megillah/scroll into the canonical Books of the Scriptures. Interestingly, Judaism and Christianity did not feel at ease with the Song of the Songs too. As if extreme love and doubt could defy God’s existence and presence. Is Kohelet a preacher, eventually the son of David (Eccl. 1:1, 2:7,9)? Or, is it the “gathering call, the one call that assembles the faithful”? Is “hevel – vanity – hevel havalim – vanity of vanities” a worldly nonchalant and disillusioned repeated motto for empty and futile senselessness? This question is real and deeply affects a large part of Israeli society. “Absurd” is now a common word in English as it is also in Russian. On the other hand, the Feast of Sukkot is a time of rejoicing. It is possible for some people to be caught up in the dizzy aspect of festivities, food, pleasures even when joy can be felt in the study of the Scripture. “Hevel” also means “vapor”. Latin and Greek don’t presuppose a positive interpretation of the word. Hebrew could eventually be interpreted in the sense of “a light existing spirit” that can be sustained.

There is more: Succot means encountering, dating and freely share the treasure we receive and can share at any minute like glimpses compared to shades that do make sense. Just as we are normally called to pardon anybody on Yom Kippur, we can feel as a special gift to meet and welcome each other under a sukkah. Each of us embodies something of the time & space limited framework of palm roofs that meet with others. “The end of the matter; all has been heard – sof davar hakol nishma’” (Eccl. 12:13) induces that every divine matter and parole can be heard and thus accomplished to the full. Fear God and keep His Mitzvot for this is the whole (duty of) man – ki zeh kol ha’adam” (Eccl. 12:13b).

“Mah yitron – what advantage is there for man (Eccl. 3:9)?” is a general tempo that runs along the scroll. But the Mitzvot cannot be compared to any advantage. We have the task to question ourselves about who we are, where and with whom we go? And to put the question mark on who the other humans are. The response is – if we follow the Hebrew text of Kohelet – that all the Mitzvot embody the human beings. The Commandments make sense and gather all humans without exclusion. And that! Wow! This is more than any dreams, fancies, free hugs and “make love not war”. Booths allow overshadowing branches to make bread and butter out of futile vapors and get hooked to unfailing hope.

Chag Sukkot sameah! Happy Feast of Succot!