Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Yichus: nepotism or prophetic pedigree

In the past few decades, specific professions have appeared due to the development of new techniques and applications: films, movies, cartoons, the realm of music, electrical tunes, long-term soap operas on TV for the most visible part of the high tech development. This also concerns the world of the media in all its variety: news, newspaper magazines, audio - video, virtual, web, internet. Some grandfather appeared to be a pioneer in some actions, and his children followed by their grandchildren until now continue to work in the same field of activity. In some cases, it is easy to explain because they had their entries in the framework of a professional milieu and we love to select those we know and are similar to us. The rule is not always true and it may even not function at the best, but this is a human tendency.

The last parashat hashavua Chayei Sarah (the lives of Sarah) shows how from a situation of aperture and wide opening to the outside world, we tend to restrain ourselves and others, till it even evolves into a series of human breaches: Abraham had three women (at least) and chose to disfavor Ishmael and Katurah's children in order to privilege Yitzchak beyond any reasonable measure.

In the haftarah, the prophet Nathan is the old court handyman and behind-the-scenes operator that tried to assist, save and correct King David. He is a personal and professional prophet. This sounds a bit strange today. It can be terribly perilous for a prophet to change into a carpet-like servile yesman. It is easy, too easy and comfortable; and still it looks uncomfortable to crawl to a potentate, a top-manager, executive or a simple egg-headed watchdog. Is it a life to caress the man or the woman like a kissy-kissy brown-nose, in the political or civilian sectors of activities? At the present, Nathan would have been a mixture of prime minister, private assistant and secretary, man of confidence. I met a lot of characters of excellence who had acute insights into the development of specific situations, keep known and refrain to required any front visible privilege. They are the true rulers in a difficult context in which their behind-the-scenes presence allows for the growth of what often could be cut off very quickly.

Indeed, the prophet Nathan could have been less flexible, not too much: just a bit more strict on different issues. In his quality of God’s prophet, he certainly did not depend upon any decision taken by his boss, Melech David. Don’t get me wrong: he had to accomplish his task fully for the benefit of the king of Israel. Nathan has always acted with much honesty. In the same situation, all things being equal and whatever professional level concerned, workers cheat their companies on the widest and most unbelievable scales: telephone, browing the internet for hours, files, papers, pens, items of any sorts just abused by any personnel. And money! It has nothing to do with the Saying of the Fathers: “Mine is yours and yours is mine proposed by Hillel as the highest level of sharing and conscience (Avot 5:10). It has nothing to do with the first proposition of “mine is mine, so speaks the ignorant (am haaretz). It shows how a working group and society are subject to moral deleting, misusing its tools, instruments of work, narcissistic “selves” embattled in tiny short-used, short-timed mean portions for “myself, not you”. In this respect, we are archaic, like the first men of the caves. In Yiddish, Yid – Jew used to implicitly mean “a (real) human being”, just as Mentsh – from Germ. Mensch which only a Jew can use to speak of another Jew.

Thus, the prophet Nathan was responsible in the face of God for King David's adultery and project of assassination of his rival, Uriah, the official husband of Bathsheba. He should have vehemently protested and could even have called the priests to ban the King. Instead, he was submitted (not obediently) and wept at his king’s mourning for his adultery lover and did not have the nerve to yell at the former shepherd was found unexpectedly in the fields to be crowned as king of Israel. Nathan was crawling to Melech David because it is easier in a familiar company to bow and scrape and play some sycophant game waiting for the one who will be kicked out next.

In the forthcoming Shabbat Tol’dot (history, generation), Yitzchak is his dad’s righteous good old boy married to a sly cunning foxy woman, Rivkah, chosen because she knew how to be good with pets (she gave water to the camels). Today, it makes her incredibly human. Generations that should continue from our homeland, Chaldea. At this point, we are frankly on the verge of committing hideous crimes as thousands years later, we, as descendants, let our birthplace (Ur-Kasdim in Chaldea) be reduced to nil in the present.

Yichus = pedigree in Hebrew. Yiches (Yid.) is a source of pride or pretence. How strange and funny that a lot of Semitic roots mean “to connect, link” as for yachas: to connect, be connected, trace the connection of events and descents. This is a typical DNA thing that ties up historical events, blood parentage and memory. “In Israel, families should be of traceable descent”, states Kiddushin 70b adding: “See this one is of nobler birth because he stopped quarrelling” (Kiddushin 71b).

The radical of the word is moving: chus (to bend over, have affection for) as in “You took pity on the gourd…” (Jonah 4:10). “The Law has much affection for man’s small property because they are valuable” (Nega’im 12, 5); in Aramaic, “chassiya” means “pardon” and is the name of the sacrament of confession in the Assyrian-Chaldean Church. “Pedigree = pe de gru in Old French = footprints of birds, especially herons”. It is really too cute to consider our genealogy as prints of birds connected with some divine imprint transmitted from generation to generation.

What can really be transmitted? When I arrived in Israel forty years ago, things were more or less clear. I cannot track back the details but it is a matter of fact that my family, as many Jews who lived in the Ukraine, and were a mixture of rabbis and wheat merchants to begin with; incidentally, one parent had been in charge of the Romanian fleet at Istanbul during World War II. He had bought land and properties for the Jewish Agency. Israel meant a lot, far more than a shelter. It was not a dream. It was a daily breathing uttered through the air of the prayers that led back to Abraham and envisioned the ingathering of the exiled.

Yichus/Yiches? After 80 years of manifold disasters (Ukrainian civil war, Russian revolution, World War I and II, deportation and extermination of the whole family, both sides – 400 killed), the “footprints of the Jews” in my native region of South Ukraine had turned to a full loss of physical survivors. But I experienced something unique. My mother, a survivor of all the series of events, taught me the profundity of the blessing Yatzar HaAdam – Who fashioned human being with wisdom and the importance to give full priority to forgiveness as a sign of future and creativity. In that sense, she taught me the value and meaning of a true yichus. I might have already written this: she was considered as losing her mind by her friends and fellow survivors, when she decided that her son would perfectly speak German and know the German culture because I belong to the generation of reconciliation with the Germans. Thus, I spent some time as a young child in Bischofshofen, not far from Salzburg (Austria) among former Nazi peasants and then started to learn how twisted minds are mainly the produce of knitting up and down confused and tormented history, avoiding facing the book that may mirror their guilt and erase hope. But they were human beings and that was the most difficult thing to explain, even at the present. German women raise Israeli Oriental children at the present.

This why it is particularly beautiful and significant – as a spiritual sign of respect towards Jerusalem, the Jewish people and all the inhabitants of the Holy Land that the Conference of the Austrian bishops, headed by Christoph Schoenborn, Cardinal and Archbishop of Vienna, have decided to meet in Jerusalem. The cardinal had launched, some years ago, a “Versoehnung – pardon” process in the split city of Vienna. He is very concerned by the existence of Israel and the Jewish tradition. At present, they will spend some days here as a sort of spiritual renewal and retreat, which is new and courageous. The prelate has close contacts with Pope Benedictus XVI. When he was a student, he wrote his dissertation about “Saint Sophronios of Jerusalem”, who headed the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem (560 – 638), ordered the services of prayers, and a few months before his death, could with insightful wit, conclude an agreement with the caliph Umar I (Al Kittab, the Umariya Covenant).It is still in force and recognizes the full religious and civil rights of the Christians of Jerusalem. He did act with a spirit of prophetic yichus.

Indeed, Judaism lost so many communities throughout history. There is no DNA in memory, even if Jews can be terrific memorizing racers. It is not a pride, a privilege. Yichus makes sense for those who see whereto our footprints can follow a path designed for more tolerance and creativity.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Ziknah: between old and young

We just got the fresh news that the oldest Icelandic sea mollusk recently died at the age of 435 years old, beating ocean whales (only 140 or so) and other odd animals. The noting point as concerns the Icelandic mollusk is that it develops specific lines, the same way tree trunks do and this is how the scientist got to its probable age. It was indeed a very respectable age, true and it is strange that no other living animals show the same features at the present. Life grows short. In the Caucasus, there are some famous areas where the elders, mostly men, can live far beyond 120 years old, with tea yogurts and a quiet atmosphere. Anyway, it depends where because the region is politically on fire. Also some Mongolian and Ainu people in Japan (Hokkaido).

There is no age to blossom up. It may happen only right out of a sudden because life is too difficult, eventually boring. For example, there is this wonderful socio-cultural tendency that is still very trendy and can bring people to repeated strokes, early Alzheimer, Parkinson: it consists in exercising strong pressure on the working manpower. This also drowns the management. This basically allows supporting medical research.

So this week, Shabbat Chayyei Sarah (the lives of Sarah), mainly reports about the death Abraham's wife. The texts of the reading portion are Bereishit 23:1-25:18 for the sidra and the First Book of the Kings (Malachim) 1:1-31. There are different points of similitude as always required for the haftarot (prophetic readings) de dame leh = for the sake of similarity (Megillat 29b). So there are some common points. Sarah, Abraham's wife and lifelong companion, is 127 years and the passes away. Compared with some TaNaKh records, it is still rather young, but let's accept that there happened a drastic life shortening of human life after the Flood - Mabul.

Now she was almost the same century-old when she bore little Yitzchak. With regards to Abraham's paternity, some Sages have questioned whether Abimelech eventually could have been the true progenitor (cf. the oath sworn by Abraham to Abimelech in Gen.1:22-24). But who counts?) When our theologians and scientists will get to retroactive DNA tests, maybe we would get some answer.

Abraham is indeed very important. He is the man of faith, total faith, that kind of faith that if we would only have the idea to make one or two of the tests he went through could bring us close to some cave and quietly die there. The Christian tradition insists on Abraham's unique acts of faith colored with some mixture of liberty and morals (Epistle to the Hebrews 6:3, repeated 21 times). Still he had envisioned the whole of the Torah. It does not mean that his lifestyle and intelligence of societal connections. In treatise Bava Bathra 145, Abraham's patience is mentioned by Satan who did not trust so much Job's faith in God.

There is something common with Job's different tests. Firstly, let's consider Sarah's destiny. To be honest, we almost know nothing about her life, personal background, family links with Abraham. They had left Haran together for the big journey through atmospheric mirages and human visions. I underscored in a previous article that his mom might have been quite something! But Sarah knows how to get her husband slammed, she governs her husband's sexual life in a rather late period of their life. And she takes the lead casting away poor Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Abraham successfully passed all divine tests. He always obeyed his wife til she departed.

It is not evident that there was some "Women Lib" group in the South, near Beer-Sheva at that time nor that matriarchs were suffragists and combat-addicted. From the most ancient times, the TaNaKh and the Jewish tradition - then (normally) followed by Christianity, chose womanhood, femininity, for the real conduct of a Jewish household. This is why there are so many clashes. This includes gentleness, tenderness, wit and gracefulness. Hebrew is naturally a plural form: "chayyei Sarah - the lifes of Sarah" that it is usual to translate as a singular. Sarah’s lives might have been the different levels she could accept such a husband, his tests with God and his projects. It is not sure that she could adhere to the full faith, whatever “laughter”. In this aspect, she has faced the attitudes of paganism and idolatry. It is easier to make a real account of Rebecca’s, Rachel’s and Leah’s biography. She brought her husband to get more out of him. The burial at the Cave of Machpelah is the founding of the Jewish nation. It was bought from the Hittite in a way that certainly could be perilous. Still, the memory developed till now into Eretz Canaan and Israel. Curiously, it includes the splits after the Sarah’s burial, Abraham’s marriage to Keturah and his decision to give all his heritage to Isaac alone.

In the haftarah, Melech David is getting very old. Thirty years ago, in Agron Street (Jerusalem), there was a nice “electrical heating devices” shop called “Shunammite”. It was a cute way to recall the exceedingly beautiful young “naarah – virgin/girl”, Abishag, who was brought to the King to give him some warmth. She became his “sochenet – attendant” or protection though “the king was not intimate with her – lo yad’eh” (! Kings 1:4). At least no heritage for Abishag! She is all the time “covering him” while a ruthless fight is ongoing among the true heirs. Now, things are very simple, just open the gazette and you will get the same dramas everywhere. There could be some arguments for the non-kosher presence of Abishag, but he was the king and knew that all his emotional and idolatry would prevent him from building the Temple in Jerusalem.

Adonijah, son of Hagit, had a standard rebellious idea: to gather a small party with Yoab, the priest Abiathar and they had a party. The Prophet Nathan did not participate to the sacrificial feast of meat, sheep. Nathan told Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, that her son might have some problems with the succession. She ran straight to the king, bowed down and down again. She explained her torment…she and Solomon feared to be considered as traitors. Covered by Abishag during thee explanations, the king saw the prophet Nathan coming in, bowing low his face to the ground.

The point of the week, let’s put it that way for a blog, is precisely the prophet Nathan. He was at the beginning of Melech David’s love story with Bathsheba. She was Uriah’s wife who had been intentionally sent in order to perish on the battlefield. There are different explanations. But their first baby died. Nathan firstly came to comfort the king, saying it was a miserable situation, but that the king was stronger, mightier… till God told him to stop that nonsense. Nathan was asked to oblige the king to repent. This was the real problem, because at that time – as in the present, advisors, counselors, think-tanks depend on the good will of the mogul of the time. And even being a prophet, Nathan could be sent to some remote place. Interestingly, King David did not write his psalm 51 of penance. He might have written some verses, but the prophet was also his secretary.

It is evident that Prophet Nathan’s intervention in view to get the confirmation that Solomon would reign as King of Israel came in due time. Still, he is afraid. And this is intriguing. Strangely how the older a ruler is, the more people can be scared of his decisions. The prophet Nathan “said – amarta”. The translation is not that simple: you said is basic. Indeed, he hesitates: have you said…? (Rashi). Or, you must have said that Adonijah will succeed you (1 Kings 1:24). He plays on suppositions. But the prophet, as any prophet in Israel had another duty. At this point, it is also clear that the prophet might have to prove that king did confirm his son Salomon as his heir. It is a prophetic action in that sense that he witnesses all the actions and misdeeds that still had not removed the king. There are times when the believers miss this courage of the faith.

“Up to Abraham’s days, there was no distinction in appearance of old age” (Sanhedrin 107b). The role of the prophet is “if your nation is decaying in faith, fence her = prevent her from being trodden”. (Berachot 9: 14c).

It is interesting to note that, in the early Church, the development of the communities happened through the Synagogues as “motherly breasts” and very strong-minded women, like Lydia who obliged Paul of Tarsus to accept her assistance He said “We could not refuse her invitation” (Acts of the Apostles 16:14).

Curiously, one must pay a lot of respect to old people. But at the same time, Israel’s experience recalls that great age may become a time of powerful temptation towards idolatry.