Friday, December 21, 2007

Chayim: is blessing a real living?

The Jewish world consists of being under a continuous guidance of uttered words that emphasize how sacred, beautiful and new it is to be alive and see the marvels of our environment, nature, humans, animals... We bless our homes, cats, friends, spouses or possible partners. We supposedly say blessings upon our cups of tea, peanut cream, wine, water or mitz (fruit juice), when we see a rainbow, a scholar, go on a trip. The problem is to avoid becoming like automatons. Or to bless anything that only relates to ourselves and spend our day in scorning the others, just to take a sort of selfish breath.

There is a very close link in Judaism between blessings and curses. And we are quicker to judge and curse others than to curse ourselves, G-d forbid! The problem with this systematic recognition that holiness is everywhere in the world may be tiresome. It may be boring to handle perpetual blessings that ring up like bells (some would only try on a trip to Israel). It is definitely not evident to bless, true! And to accept that these words are indeed efficient. Look: this neighbor, co-worker, politician, actor, doctor, we ought to bless them!? And simply this cracked-up auntie who could give a loan on a free basis; she is just a mess as we - her family - and some of her friends agreed at some anti-defamation meeting last week.

Well, we all turned to lashon hara'ah (vicious gossiping, venomous speech), but it was so refreshing! This is maybe the worse defect of the thing: to say wrong, malicious and killing words against anybody in our thoughts while uttering holy blessings. But we so desperately need enemies. There are special moments though: for example when people die. It becomes an energizing flash of peaceful meditation and possible care. Last wills can be intriguing.

In the "Vayechi - (and Jacob) lived" parshat hashavua (reading portion of the week) Israel was about to die and called his son Joseph, got acquainted with Menashe and Ephraim and, seemingly dim, blessed Ephraim (junior) instead of Menashe (senior) with his right hand. He foresaw a greater and more fruitful descent for him. It is important that their grandfather confirmed their adoption in the Tribes, because, in spite of some link through Dinah, Joseph's sons are not Jewish by their mother. Nonetheless, each Shabbat, a family father blesses his children in recalling their names. Israel asked Joseph to bury him in the Land of Canaan. Then he called each of his sons and blessed them with very relevant phrases and statements about their characters and specific future for each tribe. It should be noted how he blessed “Simon and Levi (who) are a pair (achim); their weapons are tools of lawlessness…let not my person be included in their council… cursed be their anger so fierce… I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel” (Gen./Bereishit 49:5-7).

This sounds a bit rude. Jacob-Israel is quietly ending his life abroad but with his family and a prophetic future that shall be accomplished by his sons. The patriarch (third 'av' = father) ends his days with decency, after a life of labor and cheat. He grew old as a man and became mature in the face of God. Isaac would not have blessed Yaakov and Esau the way Israel blessed his sons. The twins were then competitors bogged down in lentil soup, birthright and blessing capture with a mother's push; this does not show the same grandeur as leaving the world without any woman's care, honored by Pharaoh (70 days of wailing decreed in Egypt after Yisrael's death). Still he departs in exile, envisioning his gathering with Abraham at Machpelah cave. Yaakov has a remarkable demand to Joseph in such circumstances: "Place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty (chesed ve'emet)" (Gen. 47:29). It is a paternal symbolism recalling forever his injury forever as Israel. Joseph will receive Simon and Levi's portions but he must witness for the fragility of unexpected divine assistance.

The problem of Jewishness - being a people called to bless all the other peoples and to teach them how to bless and not to kill in anyway - is indeed that the Jews are naked, without any possession or at least aware they are nil and temporary.

"Blessadhu" is still normal in Icelandic to say "Hello" in a polite way. "God bless" is Christian and interfaith Anglo. The word is related to "blood" (Old Germanic: "Blothisojan = to sprinkle blood on the altars"). The Anglo-Saxon word got sweeter by a mistake when specialists thought the root was the same as for "to bliss" which is lovely. Indeed, "bless" corresponds to the meaning of sacrifices (korbanot), the blood of lambs at Pesach (and Christian Easter), as the "Aid al Adha" (Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice) in which so many sheep and lambs were slaughtered in a way that tracks back to Abraham and Isaac's binding to the Prophet: "like a sheep being led to slaughter, like an ewe dumb before those who shear her" (Isaiah 53:7;cf. Preparation of the Gifts in the Byzantine Orthodox tradition). This is important these days when the Muslims celebrate the Hajj to Mecca and the sacrifices (of Ishmael left by Abraham).

In Hebrew, the usual word is brachah (blessing) and barech (to bless). It is basically connected with "beri - bara" (to create) that initially consists "to perforate" -- "think out a plan". "When the Lord wanted to create man (adam), He first created (thought out) all the means of his support and then created Adam" (Talmud Sanhedrin 38b - Gen. Rabba 8).

It should be noted that, indeed, Adam is a "bar" (son) of the same root as "to create". Thus, a blessing consists in sorts of perforations, holes, apertures allowing to instill strength, growth, refreshing, new creation. God proposes to screw us up although we don't feel hurt nor see any holes! Say that the blessing firstly renews or achieves something we got since we (and our diversified environment) exist, were shaped, receiving a special mark. A sort of spiritual, legal piercing! The "Laying of the hands" is thus important in the Jewish tradition in a kind of "sacrificial offering" that changes the life of the blessed: the hands were exerting a pressure upon the head (semichah; samech = stamp, perforate). "Samech", the name of fifteenth letter /s/ means "punch" as the thin knife used by the shochet (kosher slaughterer) to speedily kill the animal that must die immediately and be kosher. Blessings imply a change from death to life. Interestingly, the weekly reading is called "Vayechi" (And Jacob lived) because his death and repose at Machpelah introduce a new move of fertility and growth linking generations by means of blessings.

Then "barekh" means "to cave out, select, choose, point out": "HaQadosh Baruch Hu" (The Holy One, Blessed He be) as in Talmud Pessahim 118a, Who, in turn, praises and blesses His creation, not the contrary. "hivrikh" develops the action: "to form a knee, to engraft a plant, wine" as "two good shoots (proselytes) have been engrafted to Ruth" (Talmud Bava Kamma 38b; cf. Epistle to the Romans 11:13 about the Gentiles engrafted to share the roots of the olive tree without boasting). Then, a blessing implies the growth of "birkai" (shoots, branches) who will be satisfied with waters. As it is regular in the Semitic tongues, positive and negative aspects can alternate in paradoxal ways according to the context: 'barekh' can also mean 'to blaspheme': "...Until he blasphemes the Lord by His name” (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a). This is a very profound and sensitive experience that blessing and cursing are closely tied, as love and hatred, praising and scorning, mocking.

This is a very specific call to bless people and be a mark of blessings. In the case of Israel, it is a "congregational, community, international" service of God. This is the core meaning of Israel's destiny because blessing intrudes that we take over the sufferings and the joys of the nations. Blessings comply with the order of the words as in the verse: "Bo'u (come), nishtachaweh (bow down til earth), venikhra'ah (kneel down) venivrachah (bend the kneels to be blessed) lifney HaShem ossenu (in the face of God Who makes us)" (Psalm 94:6, said before reading the Psalms in the Jewish and some Christian traditions). This move is special because it induces yeridah (falling, getting to nil) and then olah (raising) with the blessing. In the Scroll of Esther, Mordechai refused to kneel and bow down before Haman (Esther 3:2-5). This movement is reversed compared to the psalm. The three Wise Men who came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem acted according to the correct order of the verse, i.e. giving thanks to God for the new born child (Matthew 2:11). As we read this portion, the Western Churches will celebrate the Nativity of Jesus on December 24/25 in Bethlehem, the city of David whose death is also read as haftarah (Prophetic reading) in the Jewish tradition (1 Kings 2:1-12).

"Yechi!" the weekly reading recounts the death of Yaakov-Israel in exile. "Yechi" = may he live" is similar to Batshevah's cry: "yechi adoni David le'olam va'ed - may my Master David live forever" (Kings 1:1-31). He had abandoned Bethlehem, built, combated and killed his enemies or competitors. On the other hand, Yaakov-Israel could be murdered several times. The same prophetic call to universal blessing echoes from Bethlehem, as David is "Messiah" in the Jewish tradition and "yechi - may live or he lived" incites to bless our society with the mark of goodness and hope in these days of hardship.

Kaddish: General Kaddish 5768

This early week blog intends to reflect upon common sources, roots or mixers between Kahal Israel (the Community of Israel) and Christianity at a special level on the eve of the Yom Kaddish klali - General Kaddish Day on the 10th of Tevet 5768 / December 19, 2007.

With regard to our personal lives, politics, economics, emotions, psychology, the media, time passes and disappears with "no return". Let's take the example of death: we live with deadlines. They could be goal points. But deadlines imply a final ineluctable end, period. In Hebrew, we love to say at the present: besofo shel davar = finally; nobody would speak of a betechilato shel davar (to begin with). We can't wait for things to start, and still know that there is an end and no comeback. In 1975, at the end of the wars in Cambodia, Lao and mainly Vietnam, I met a lot of Asian refugees. Thirty years have passed and some even became Israeli citizens. A lot settled in North America and Europe. Along with the Tibetans, they allowed the world to become more Tao (the Way), Kungfu, Shiatzu or Tantric (Tibetan Buddhism). Some women and children refugees had been raped by pirates who attacked their little overcrowded boats. Women would even avoid being interviewed by men officers and were lighting candles in churches, certainly not in a pagoda (temple).

The tranquility of the Awaken (Buddha) relies upon the fact that life consists of suffering and to get control of our ego till it dies. Similarly, "fighters" in former Yugoslavia would have assembled their enemies (whether Catholics or orthodox or Muslims) and set them on fire till they would all perish in terrible suffering. I saw parallel atrocities with Lebanese refugees of all origins in 1976 and later. My wife's sister-in-law has lost all her family in the savage killing organized by the Nazis in Oradour-sur-Glane (France) in 1942: they had gathered all the inhabitants in the village church and the barns and slaughtered them all. I have no family left: more than 400 members of my family (both sides) were slaughtered by the Nazis, mostly in concentration camps. But it is so usual here that it is at least worth trying to be a real mentch, fond of humanity.

The problem with "emunah" (faith, confidence) is that we cannot easily get to such a conviction. This requires trust: we often were deceived, then Understanding: who understands us and are we in-depth committed to understand someone, others, close or foreign, ourselves? Creeds and beliefs would often turn to repeat stiff-necked or obstinate secure dogmas. Job's peacefully stated after his horrible test: "Indeed, I spoke without understanding of things beyond me, which I did not know. Hear now and I will speak; I will ask and You will inform me. I had heard you with my ears, but I see You with my eyes..." (Job 42:3-4).

This year, Thursday 19th of December 2007, corresponds to the 10th of Tevet 5767. It is the day when "in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it, and they built towers against it all round" (II King. 25:1). Prophet Ezekiel carefully recorded the "exact day - et-etzem hayom hazeh“ (Ezekiel 24:2) which marks the beginning of the Churban/destruction of the First Temple. Asarah beTevet (Tevet 10th) is thus a fast day. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has also decided that it is the Yom HaKaddish HaKlali - General Kaddish memorial day for all those who perished on unknown dates during the Shoah. This underscores a strong link between the Temple and us as living divine dwellings, made of sinews, muscles, bones, limbs, brains (cf. Prophet Ezekiel 37). It means that we shall leave 2007 after a mourning day for those who perished, because, whatever personal moral attitudes, they had the mark of God's blessing to witness that love (life) is fierce(r) as (than) death - ki 'azah khamavet ahavah (Song 8:6).

The Kaddish is one of the most ancient prayers said by the Jews. It tracks back to the exile in Babylon. This Aramaic word means "holy" and the whole text is in this language, except the famous "osseh shalom bimromav - He Who makes peace in the High, may also make peace upon us and upon All Israel and say Amen" (with variants), which is in Hebrew and sung upon landing in Israel or other conventions. The point is that there are five different texts of the Kaddish to be said on various occasions. The Prayer is in Aramaic, the then colloquial tongue and understood by everybody, both Jews and non-Jews, which was important for the proclamation of God's Reign that embraces every creature. Although the "Kaddish yatom - orphan's (mourner's) Kaddish" is the most famous text, none of the Kaddish variations focus on death. They exclusively refer to life, God as life-Giver, His Name, Kingdom, Reign over the creation. Many Jews who lived in remote places have often kept with much respect the transliteration in Russian, Latin, Arabic, Greek, Chinese script of the text that they would recite without understanding the meaning of the words. They would even be very surprised to discover it is an utmost strength-empowering prayer for more blessings. In Yiddish, Kaddishele is the one who is chosen to say the prayer for some people without descent.

True, nobody confessing the God of the Living is alone or left without "blessed memory - zichrono/a livrachah" ("vechnaia pamiat - eternal memory" in the Byzantine Churches, with lists of names read at some Services). It is evident that, at the Yad VaShem Memorial Center, the constant recall of the 1.500.000 children whose names are pronounced in Hebrew, Yiddish and English insists on humans killed in their early age.

To begin with, the prayer was uttered after learning a portion of the Torah or the Talmud or a sermon delivered by rabbis. Rabbinical Kaddish (deRabbanan) continues to be a major blessing after learning. The rabbis teach God's Scriptures to disciples who embody the community. Upon Israel and her rabbis and their disciples (students), and upon all those busy in the Torah, here and in every other site, that they and you have peace, grace and kindness, mercy and long life, and abundant nourishment, salvation from their Father (Avuhon) Who is in heaven and say: Amen.

Faith proceeds from a community that accepts to be taught and thus turns to God and His teachers from generation to generation. This is fundamentally a dynamic action.

The Orphan's (or mourners') Kaddish Yatom was seemingly adopted rather lately 13th c.). It shows how it firmly imprints us with life and does not refer at all to death. It is recited everyday during the thirty days of mourning, and the yohrzeit - anniversary of death. It must be pronounced slowly and with much respect. Burial Kaddish (de'itchadata) focuses on the world-to-come, the rebuild of Jerusalem and the Temple, opening an era of ulma'qar pulchana nuchra - the erasure of foreign (pagan) worship from the earth and the renewal of the Service to the Holy One.

The very kernel of the Kaddish always starts with the wonderful words based on Prophet Ezekiel 38:23: "Itgaddal veyitqaddash... Exalted and sanctified be the Great Name (of God) in the world that He created according to His Will and may His Kingdom reign (be established), may His salvation blossom and His anointed come near (not Ashkenazi text), in your lifetime and in the days of All the House of Israel, speedily and soon and say: Amen."

Full Kaddish (Shalem) inserts: "Titqabel na tzlot'hon... May the supplications and prayers of All Israel be received by her Father Who art in heaven (Avuhun divshamaya, also in Aramaic)". This lines word for word with Jesus’ prayer as he taught his disciples how to call upon the heavenly Father: "Our Father Who art in heaven (Avun divshmaya) - hallowed be Your Name (yitqadash Shmekha) –-may Your Kingdom come - Your Will be done (khirute)" (cf. Matthew 6:9-14).

As the civilian calendar shifts, it is maybe good that it corresponds to the General Kaddish memorial day and the fast of Tevet 10th. We are imperiled with wars, immoral breaches, cultural and spiritual downfalls. The world is submitted to violence, misery. On this shemittah year, the earth is sick with warming-up threats. Here, some visitors would wander along all possible fences and walls except offer a prayer at the Western Wall where Jesus stood daily (Luke 19:47). Unexpectedly, the Kaddish comprehends those who, as so many of our citizens, were Jews for a very small part of their identity and though sentenced to death, a lot of Christians, Gypsies, people entrapped by error or miserable informers, gays and lesbians, Slavs and communists, disabled and mentally sick. Kaddish does look back into the past... On the contrary, it envisions how the living may produce life and enjoy it without harming it.

Indeed the Kaddish includes the words that let us climb up from earthly humans to their heaven Father and backwards as a ladder or even an escalator... in our days, speedily and soon.

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Original: Av_a blog 39: Emunah: death or faith.

Friday, December 29th, 2006 - 8 deTevet 5767