Thursday, October 25, 2007

Nissayon: Chik-chak or long-term saddling?

When I started my present spiritual activities in Israel, I decided to systematically visit all sorts of people and situations that I had known in my "secular" professional activity of international consultancy and psycho-analysis specializing in interfaith and socio-cultural issues. The point is that mind-searching, linguistic surveys and approaches are nil compared to the dynamics of a soul in spiritual seeking. Israel has also faced too many problems and slowly takes her time in order to resolve the societal problems that break out. On the other hand, it makes it a unique mental and cultural laboratory of the seeds of life, provided that it is developed in order to get to the heart of human nature.

Thus, I visited, inter alia, a lot of places where people could stay for some time or on holiday. For example, hotels constitute a good social activity with a regular, standardized clientèle coming for holidays from all over the world. Other hotels and guest-houses are regularly "commandeered" by the Sochnut - Jewish Agency or another administration to lodge some newcomers / olim chadashim for a certain period of time. I also visited some caravans that, strangely enough, have not totally disappeared. The main purpose was to see how people were living, making their living or staying put without any activity and their will or reluctant to get involved into Israeli society.

In the top-ranking hotels, I found some former-Soviet young men and women who were very eager to assimilate into Israeli society. We have a wonderful youth, both ready to help, make their way and spare their time. Their respect for the legal aspect of society is sometimes very striking. Before the second Intifada started, I wanted once to give a small glass on which was written in Hebrew Lechayim (Cheers) to a Russian young girl who had only spoken Hebrew with me, but had heard me speak Russian all the time on the phone. Her Hebrew was perfect; she would continue to speak Russian with the personnel and was a bit astounded we never exchanged anything in this language. She was nice and ready to help: I am a survivor with a minimal amount of intestine and meals are a major daily concern. On the other hand, it allowed and continues to oblige me - also with the help of the Providence with regards to the related costs and expenses - to be very careful with food and mainly eat in restaurants. These places are essential in the development, changes, restructuring of food tastes and trends in the country.

Okay. So I had never said a word to this young Russian woman, except that it was evident she was trying to find the right dish at the right time. She refused the gift saying that it was not legal! I told her it was a bit ridiculous and that her reaction was nice professionally, but a bit too much. She did not reply and ciao - poka - lehit! I told her later in Russian that frankly a Lechayim mini-glass was not that pathetic and that she could accept such a miniature "present".

She grinned and said she would speak with the top manager. She came back rather quickly with a smile and told me the director had told her she could take the present and had burst into laughter. He wanted to know why I wanted to give her such a Lechayim tiny glass. I told her that, 70 years ago, she and I would have eventually met in a closed wagon en route to some extermination camp. She would never have shown any kindness to me – we might not have tried to save our lives if not our souls and she would not have fed me nicely and with wit because we simply would only have been mincemeat to be reduced into dust. Then, I added that we could at least both make our lives in Israel, for the best of our fellow people and others by participating in building up a world to set up, just the opposite of a world that passed away, olam she-avar. She suddenly looked at me and said she was grateful. She took the present.

At Lod Ben Gurion airport Terminal 3 – Arrivals, there is a huge picture that welcomes the travelers. A photograph showing the ner tamid (light for the children that perished in the concentration camps) reflected 1 million and a half time at the Yad VaShem Memorial. Those who pass by are of all origins and backgrounds. These days, there are a lot of Russian clergy, wearing cassocks, breast crosses. On Sunday, this will be the 150th anniversary of the presence of the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church in the Holy Land.

In May, on the Day of Ascension, the two major branches of the Russian Church, i.e. the Russian Moscow Patriarchate and the Church Abroad, got unified after 80 years of division. Interestingly, the Church Abroad has been vehemently struggling against communism and the Patriarchate of Moscow and claimed, everywhere in the world, to be strictly faithful to the true Russian Christian Orthodox faith. During these decades of separation, the Church Abroad was recognized by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Serbian Church. The showing of the clergy in full and normal clerical dress at the airport, facing this photograph of the “children murdered by Hitler” (cf. Matthew 2:16-18, the murder of the Children killed by Herod) raises questions about our society and how we meet with each other. It shows the real trip, or flight-landing process as proposed in the parshat hashavua – weekly reading portion of Vayeira (the Lord appeared to Abraham at Mamre) (Bereishit 18:1-22:23). The prophetic portion is read in the Second Book of the Kings 4:1-4:37 (Ashk. Yemenites) -23 (Sephardim).

I tried to sketch out some points about this major Shabbat reading in the previous blog. It includes the text that requires much insightful reading capacities to get to its profundity: the Akedat Yitzchak – (the Binding of Isaac on the wood). The nissayon (trip, temptation, test) par excellence. This text is read daily in Judaism and constantly meditated with regards to Jesus’ putting at the stake. It can gather. It may rebuke. The haftarah (prophetic portion) shows how Prophet Elisha saves a widow from poverty. Then he told the Shunamite woman that she would bear a son, a situation comparable to the Angels words said to Sarah. She did bear a son who became sick and died. So “she had her donkey saddled – vetichavosh ha’aton” and urged the servant to bring the beast to the prophet. Elisha “mounted (the bed) and placed himself over the child. He put “his mouth on his mouth – piv al-piv – his eyes on his eyes. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes” (2 Kings 4:24-37).

The Shunamite saddled her donkey (aton - same word used for Balaam’s ass who compelled the man not to curse but to bless Israel). It is somehow connected with Jesus entering in Jerusalem on an ass (Luke 19:30). At least, the “saddling” of the donkey corresponds to the reading portion. Chavashah (saddling) referred to a specific state firstly experienced by Abraham: “Let Abraham’s act of harnessing (anxiety to obey to the full and solely to God’s behest) come and stand as a sign of protection against Balaam’s harnessing (anxiety to curse)” states Bereishit Rabba 55. The spiritual anxiety of what is unknown but definitely fundamental in our lives can turn into a torment that will not pass or be too difficult to overcome. Both Abraham and Balaam confided in God – Abraham is the one who never failed. But in the end, the point is to walk unharmed through the perilous journey of human tests and temptation. The haftarah brings forth the messianic-prophetic aspect of the resurrection of the boy. Zarar (to smash, sneeze) relates to scattering away the power of death and the piv al piv (mouth to mouth) act performed by the man of God reverses the anxiety of harnessing by re-opening the gates of this world for the boy who had departed. In the prophetic portion the boy sneezes seven times; in the Gospel, the resurrected young girl is told to go and get some food (Matthew 9:24; Mark 5:41).

This was the other conversation of the week. A restaurant manager explained to me how employees are hardly reliable. Indeed, an instant generation: “I want now, what I want, not what the others want”, money, wages, bye! He called that the katzar (short-term) look. This is exactly the opposite of Abraham’s experience or meaning of the test of mouth-to-mouth that may resurrect. Theology without history does not mean anything. Thus, Judaism is the historical experience of multi-faceted developments through generations that lead to more hope, morals, prayer and faith. “The supreme effort” required for every Jew does not consist in reducing our forces to what pleases us. It often implies to accept to cross the road with some opacity and “meet others without encountering them” as at Ben Gurion airport terminal 3.

Who could ever think that so many lively elements would raise and show in our generation? As years pass, the joy of liberation (former communist countries) or the burden of war may fade in daily hope that can mutate and concentrate on shortsightedness. With regards to Christian presence or anniversaries and Judaism, times may be near for mutual crossing and respectful recognition. We are often confused by ignorance and lack of in-depth contacts. On October 27-28, the Armenians celebrate the Holy translators of the Scripture, the Russian Orthodox Church their long tradition of pilgrimages and presence in the Holy Land and the Greeks the Okhi (No Day) of protest against the Nazis.

This gives a certain density to our survival beyond all kinds of trials and attempts to give up.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Chomriyut: Beyond saddling a donkey

In modern Hebrew, "chomriyut" means "materialism". It also relates to the physical reality, to the concrete, pragmatic material and substance that can be touched, moved, displaced, changed in a visible way. The "CH-M-R" root in Hebrew as also in Aramaic, and most Semitic languages suggests that the words built upon this radical are "loaded", weighed", heavy or difficult to pile up: "a balanced load (chamar) is like supporting a thing with the thumb on top and the little finger below" (Zevachim 53a).

But the word also refers to "passing a regulation, a law" that can be restrictive. "When they placed themselves under greater restrictions than required by the law, they made a usage of a law = nobody cannot extend any adopted usage only because of analogy or apparent similarities of the situations", states Tractate Niddah 66a.

The perfect example of the radical developed in "chammar = the attendant of beasts of burden, in particular the "chamor = donkey" that is the most exciting clone of materialism as burdening dullness, point of gravity and heaviness. Things may seem to move, but very slowly. The donkey has the right "to rest on the seventh day/Shabbat" and not to be coveted by others (Ex. 20:9-14).

The standards of "chomriyut" are shown in the coming sidra of the week on the Shabbat "Vayera” that includes the reading portion of Bereishit / Genesis accounting the supreme test that Abraham had to face: to offer, slaughter his son Isaac. This is the famous report of the Akedat Itzchak - Binding of Isaac on the wood (Gen. 22:1-19). In response to this test, certainly the heaviest and painful in a human point of view, Abraham did not say a word. He did not moan or groan. “He saddled his ass – yichavesh et-chamoro” (Bereishit 22:3) as reports Bereishit. The word “chavesh” means both “to saddle” and “to imprison, put chains”. At first glance it might seem that the imprisoned creature is the one that is saddled, i.e. the chamor – ass-donkey. This sounds materialistically true and a matter of realism. Abraham’s ass was burdened with the “split wood for the olah – burnt-offering (binding of Isaac). This reading is an essential part of the revelation, our private and public devotion and faith in the God of Israel.

When Abraham “imprisoned” his donkey with a saddle and the loads, he accepted the physical and natural burden of life with the intimate conviction that it is a “light yoke or sacrifice”. This is the meaning of “olah – a sacrifice that climbs up into the air” as of “ol’ – yoke as in ‘Ol’ HaShamayim = the yoke of heaven / the compliance with the Mitzvot”. This burden is light. It does not mean that it makes the way cool, fully understandable and equal. This is a major test for any generation to get to the point. The Gospel brings forth some confirmation of what testing Commandments may be in reality: Jesus also said “My yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matthew 11:30). He does refer to the same realm of the Jewish Mitzvot as they were observed in his time.

Let’s say that Abraham was not light-minded; he was not carefree or frolicsome. He was full of equanimity and light-heartedly faced events and tests with insight. The whole of the event consisted indeed in a “vision – Adonai yera’e” (Gen. 22:14) and a provision given by God in supplying a ram. But it is evident that this account is usually firstly considered as a fairy tale with some ethnological-anthropological societal interpretations on the seemingly rather primitive background of an impossible challenge. We eagerly thirst for some in-depth encrypted meaning of profound spirituality that borders esotericism and hidden key clarification provided with passwords acquired on a credit line. This is the best of our virtual world at the moment.

Still, some years ago, some Christian monks got rightly fascinated by the fact that the celebration of the Eucharist (Bread and Wine becoming the Body and Blood = living body of resurrected Jesus) in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions is definitely rooted in the Seder Pesach, the Ordinance of the account and celebration of the Jewish Passover. The roots are evident. They are far more difficult to explain and understand. Thus, they called, in a spirit of dialogue, a chief rabbi in order to get the correct comments. They asked the rabbi to explain the meaning of the Eucharist. The chief rabbi had frequented the Christians, but the Eucharist could hardly mean any reality in his own life. The monks spoke with him of the spiritual heavenly bread; he answered that the paschal lamb had to be slaughtered in accordance with the laws of the shechitah (kosher slaughtering of animals) and then cut into pieces after having been roasted. He did say but simple stuff: to take a knife and slaughter the animal as was done in ancient times. The monks suddenly visualized in the slaughtering that there was a real problem of dialogue and understanding of spiritual experience that got estranged.

Now, in what sense is it comparable with the “primitive” text about the Akedat Itzchak – Binding of Isaac? True! A donkey is reputed to be dull. Abraham was maybe performing some odd ritual inherited from pagan human sacrifices. A vision that turns to be resolved by a divine provision of a ram in replacement of a 38-year-old boy to be slaughtered, just for a test? We love tests and find them everywhere in magazines or professional human resource controls. If the scene was to happen in the present – even in the vicinity of Mount Moriah or elsewhere else – the police, army, ambulance and other assistance services might be called. We may be tempted to reduce the authentic challenge of spirituality to any “materialistic or psychologically explainable framework”.

It is normal, in Jerusalem – but this is an international phenomenon that shows in different ways – to see godly people. Many years ago, I incidentally saw two Jesus, each of them accompanied by the twelve apostles and the following women. They started to shriek, cry and fight till the police, totally untouched by the quarrel, obliged them to cool down. That was long before the present war situation began. Today, spirituality requires “being clearly defined and predetermined”…

Abraham left his “own self” to find that God alone supports, nurtures, sustains and accomplishes His will. This is why, along the ages, the Jewish Shaharit – Morning prayer that is often a private prayer, included specific texts that would recall the urging necessity to uplift our souls, looking for more freshness: “Do not make your prayer routine, but address free supplications and petitions to God” (Berachot 28b). Shaharit is built like a rising sun four level structure allowing the soul to refresh from the dark and sleep at dawn. The “Binding of Isaac” reading became then a daily reading included in this rising up morning service. The text aims at elevating the soul from the heaviness, dullness of the material physical reality in order to accept God’s will in our own lives. But this sounds, at first, like a donkey speech repeatedly written or hooked down in a parrot fashion. Clerics of all religions have a sort of innate expertise in proposing easy-going yokes that turn to become real burdens.

There is maybe more. Struggling against thick apathy and physical weightiness requires getting rid of worldly enjoyments. This is maybe why the Israelis love to tour in the monasteries. The Old City of Jerusalem remains an unequaled area where crowds cross crowds and people “meeting without encountering”, just like people exchanging glance in a short glimpse of time that refreshes as from old. It is so intriguing to note that the account of the Binding of Isaac is read everyday during the Jewish Morning prayer and also constitutes an essential element of reflection for the Christians with regards to Jesus’ sacrifice. A true Christian soul would not really come to the same conclusions as the Jews when reading this account. The experience is biased by spiritual practice and experiment. But for the main part, the supreme effort that allows struggling and going beyond oneself and pass through death into the Life of the world-to-come remains the major challenge. It presupposes the capacity to face total solitude without being submitted to despair.

We belong to a generation that loves to be connected and still “prefers to keep loose ties” and unchained bonds. We are an unsaddled generation buying one-portion dishes, pleasuring in one-shot experiences that may be shared by numerous anonymous egos. We may click and quit, fall in love and cast away. This cannot help: solitude is not loneliness. It is not a lonesome silence full of anxiety. It is when we feel that we intrinsically share the same human experience that traces back and extends historical proofs.

Twenty nine years ago, on October 16, 1978, the Roman Catholic Church elected Karol J. Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II. He was born in Wadowice, in the diocese of Cracow where he had been assigned as archbishop. Auschwitz-Birkenau is located in his territory. He had been to school with Jews, Gypsies, Armenians, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Slovaks. In October 1986, the first ecumenical assembly at Assisi gathered the representatives of the major religions of the world. In this year of the 800th anniversary of Francis of Assisi, a new international prayer will take place at Napoli (Italy). Pope Benedict XVI is also rescued from the Nazi cancer. Bartholomeos I, Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, has also been educated in the international context of Istanbul (Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Syrian-Orthodox). The first Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Tikhon, firstly served in the United States, backed the translation of the prayers into the Aleutian language (Alaska), and then became a metropolitan in Vilnius where he frequented all the various local believers.

Abraham’s saddling of his donkey continues to be the prevailing question of how to reach the supreme effort that goes beyond physical weight and apathy.