Thursday, December 27, 2007

Kerem, the vineyard of fine wine

We start to read a new Book as parshat hashavua - weekly reading, i.e. "Shemot - (the) Names" in Hebrew, called "Exodus or the flight from Egypt, the house of slavery" in usual translations and traditions. In Hebrew, it is normal to refer to the first words of Biblical Book: "Ve'eleh shemot Bney Yisrael = these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming from his household" (Shemot/Exodus 1:1). We penetrate the history of a specific small Jewish rooted family. They entered Egypt out of hunger, were saved by Joseph, their sold son and brother that redeemed them and made them honored by Pharaoh. But the title also underscores in Hebrew that, eleven brothers entered a foreign country that, at first glance, welcomed them and provided them with a lot of wealth in the most fertile region of Goshen.

To begin with, the sons of Israel were accepted. There might have been other troubles or famines, as time passed. Then, a new Pharaoh showed up who did not know Joseph. The problem we have to face is that Jews are either too few, or too many -multiply or disappear. History has also shown how they were plundered, massacred. There is a point that should be highlighted. The Book of Shemot (Names) prolongs the history initiated in the Book of Bereishit (Commencement) -Genesis of all the universe, beginning with the creation of the world, planets, sun, moon, stars, vegetable and animal creatures and finally the humans. The Jewish tradition insists on that aspect. After thousands of years, Jews are trained to the fact that micro-groups of ten-twelve people can suddenly grow to millions after some centuries or eventually collapse in some circumstances

Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem into the humble family of a carpenter with a prestigious priestly and Davidic backgrounds. He started with three Galilean disciples, then 12 that extended to 70 or 72 and finally there are millions of disciples. On the other hand, they did disappear, as the Jews, from some regions, often for the same reasons of rejection or collapse. This is why it is important to take into account this Book of Shemot because it obliges to humble ourselves: Shemot means "Names" and the Jewish people were conceived as in the image and likeness of God-Elohim (Gen. 1:27) (HaShem - the Only Name) and they only belong to This Name or aim to testify to this Holy Name. Jews have no other reason to exist than to engrave God's Presence into a without soul. This allows another connection to "Shem", Noah's son who is the ancestor of the Semites, dwelling in a place "there (sham)" where The Name is present.

Then, Exodus, from Greek "going - way out", explains the development of a nation in a hostile context. They came to be blessed with food and wealth. They are forced into bondage and seem to be satisfied with their slavery when God decides to save them against their will. We can hardly figure out today what happened by the time of Moshe/Moses. This account is much relevant, consequential and far-reaching: we trace back this week to the roots of a call to permanent freedom, definitive release from bondage and the extravagance of being born to be constantly free over and over again. This implies other invariants: relations with the pagans and the Gentiles, reluctance to move up, to admitting that freedom is worthier than any brick-building non-volunteering tasks ordered by hating rulers.

There are some similarities - definitely normal if we quietly consider historic developments - between the birth of the Jewish boy Moshe, saved from killing all Israelite newborns and being adopted by the sister of Pharaoh (Shemot 2:5-11) and the birth of Jesus, the murder of all the Jewish babies ordered by Herod. He fakes to be willing to praise the newborn and wants to know where he was born in order to slay him (Matthew 2:1-12). Then, another Joseph (son of Jacob, (Matthew 1:16)) is told in a dream: "Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt." Thus, Herod became furious and ordered the slaughter of the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, citing Prophet Jeremiah (31:15): "a voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children and she could not be consoled since they were no more." The Church recalls the "Children massacred by Herod" soon after the Nativity of Jesus. When Herod died as a tyrant, Joseph "took the child and his mother and went to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael), but fearing Herod's son, they settled in Nazareth (Matthew 2:21-23).

There is a fathomable similarity between the two accounts: to fathom consists to measure "with outstretched arms" as God always did and does. Exodus 6:6 (or Deuteronomy 4:34) is cited in almost every single Jewish prayer: bizro'a nituyah = with outstretched arm (I will redeem you). In both cases – commemorated at the same time, with parallel and dissimilar views – Jews and Christians firstly recall the birth and saving of Moshe and, on the other hand, the birth and saving of Jesus. In both cases the will to power is so resolute, violent and mighty that murders are preferred to life. Of course, it was totally bizarre for the enslaved Jews to be protected by the man they considered as the son of Pharaoh. Again, we face "appearance" vs "being" as when Joseph appeared to his brothers as an Egyptian manager. Yes, our generation never experienced the singularity of the parsha - reading of this week because we went through thousands of years of pagan hatred and two millennia of estranged bewilderment with other monotheistic communities. Jews settled too often in various parts of the world with the impression that - remaining somehow or totally faithful to the Jewish traditions - they would be protected by some sort of rulers. This is the tragic bluff that deceived generations. This is one or the most intriguing and pending questions today in Israel as in the diaspora.

There might be more. God can be reduced to a set of ordinances, some of which we comply with. There are those that we systematically reject. This is the dialogue between God and Moses at the bush that does not burn up "has'neh bo'er ba'esh vehas'neh eynenu ukal" (there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed – Ex. 3:26). God said to Moshe: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob". The root of the word "S'neh - thorn bush" is connected to Aramaic/Hebrew (different spelling): "sina - hatred, removal". Because God is different, totally alien to whom we think we are when we disguise, hide ourselves or try to be high-profile in this world. Such a bush changes any moment into times of eternity and any jealousy into wiping out wickedness. This is what Rabbi Yehiel Michal of Zlotshov explained when he said that Abraham had accomplished all the 613 Mitzvot / Commandments. He declared that Abraham loved God more than any other human, idea or concept. This is what Moshe progressively discovers: being "dressed" as a foreigner to his own people, he does return to them because of the constantly renewed Divine love and faithfulness to a call. From Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, till Joseph and the 12 sons of Israel, the Jews have been alien (they do not enjoy the same rights as the local citizens). Even if Machpelah can only be considered as theirs as "the burial site bought by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite" (Gen. 50:13). There are tons of small or bigger nations that hate each other for racial, cultural, social, economic reasons. This week, we have to face the kernel reason: Jews only exist to attest that, from nil, God calls to being, enhancement, unexpected growth and freedom. Eretz Yisrael is given to the twelve sons of Israel as a permanent lease for life. Thus, Judaism is bringing forth nonperishable seeds of reality, survival and hopeful continuance.

When Israel states that it comes back to Eretz Yisrael, how do they prove to be seeds of freedom? Moses was thus given a password to speak to the enslaved Jews: God has a Name: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (Shemot 3;14).This Name continues to convulse and reshuffle our daily lives and paths. It corresponds to I am Who I am – frankly, it sounds stiff; correct, but inelastic and aloof. God is merciful... The burning bush without consuming reveals that God's Name means: I will (not 'shall') be/come the Who to the fullest of Who I will be/come. This sounds jet-set stylish, but read again, please: it is a motion without automatics; or I will become/develop to exist to the fullest the One (Who)I will live to the full.

The Haftarah is read from Isaiah 27:6-28:13 (Ashkenazim) - Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 (Sephardim) - Ezekiel 17:1:-14 (Yemenites). The readings focus on the vineyard that is fruitful and gives excellent wine. This vineyard shows the fertility of God’s Word in our souls to reach equilibrium. It is this New Year challenge.

Someway, Jesus summarized what God proposes to any Jew and believer: "Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head" (Matthew 8:20). Indeed, we start, this week and with 2008, a huge trip in the go-getting Name of the Lord!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Herayion: a time of birthing

In the night from 24th to 25th of December 2006, the Western Churches, i.e. the Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican (Episcopalian in Israel - more Lutheran in the Palestinian Territories) most Christian congregations will celebrate the "Nativity of Jesus": Christ... who took flesh and became a man (Nicaene Creed). The Eastern Orthodox Church of Jerusalem (the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem historically assures the spiritual assistance to all Christian Orthodox believers living in present-day Israel, Territories under Palestinian Authority, Jordan), the Russian, Serbian, Georgian and Romanian Orthodox Churches together with the ancient Orthodox Syrian-Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian Churches will celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on January 6th to 7th, 2007. For various reasons, the ancient Apostolic Armenian Church is the only denomination to honor the feast on January 18-19, celebrating both the Nativity and the Baptism of Jesus (on January 16th in Armenia). The Greek-Catholics who follow the same rites as the Eastern-Orthodox but recognize the Pope of Rome - as also the Maronites (originally from Lebanon), Chaldeans (from Iraq), Syrian and Armenian Catholics will mark Christmas with the Roman Catholic Church.

Except in some specific areas as the Old City of Jerusalem, some parts of Galilee and the Palestinian Territories, the Israeli citizens, Jews and others, but also the tourists, are less and less accustomed to see any Christian clergy. It is a real question: both the Jews and all the Christians refer to the verses: "The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin... (Exodus/Shmot 34:6-7) which constitute the 13 Divine Middot (Attributes) or AHaVaH as fulfillment of Love and Justice. After 2000 years, from the time of the early Christian Community, the Church developed and spread over the world, along with the dispersion of the Jewish communities. There are 13 official Churches recognized by the State of Israel as the heritage of the Ottoman rule, to begin with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, then the Roman Catholics - the Franciscans ensure the Custody (the guardians) of the Holy Places in a wide region from Cyprus and Turkey through the Near East.

The Armenians have a prestigious patriarchate, a famous library, wonderful voices and chants. With the exception of one verse: "The community of the believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possession was his own but they had everything in common" (Acts of the Apostles 4:32), the Christian faith developed in spite of internal clashes among the apostles (Paul of Tarsus and Barnabas, Peter) and as time passed the numerous sects that existed or showed. Thus, we do face at present the same wise statement made by Gamaliel II (famous rabbi whose Paul was a disciple), member of the Sanhedrin: "Fellow Israelites, be careful what you are about to do to these men (Jesus believers)... Let them go. For if this endeavor or activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God" (Acts of the Apostles 5:34-39).

The substrate of the Jewish newcomers and Israeli society has shown conflicting and troubled relationships with Christianity, which is a real question. Why hatred and estrangement has prevailed over the basic Commandments and Attributes of Love? In a country where all the nations of world have come for some reason, Christianity offers a kaleidoscope of colorful diversity that hides the tragic history of the local Christians, often murdered. They are trapped in the splits that affected, from abroad, the unity of the Church along the centuries.

On the other hand, more and more Israelis - at all levels of the society - want to understand, get closer to what happened with the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth two millennia ago. Whatever attitude, acceptance or rejection, Christianity is present everywhere in this country. It is evident that Christian believers have been living and here and all over the Middle-East over 2000 years, developing churches, monasteries, religious arts, along with the synagogues, later Islam. Scientific and theological books are now published in Hebrew paving the way for some kind of dialogue beyond suspicion. Each Church and their monasteries have huge intellectual instruments stored throughout history (libraries, research institutes and printing houses in most languages used by comparative theology). It should be a wonderful prospect to try to match competences...

"Nativity" implies that a child is born. In the case of Jesus, there is no certainty about his exact date of birth. His place of birth has also being questioned: Nazareth (Natzor = the consecrated / Nazarene one, Nestar = hidden) or Beyt Lechem (Bethlehem = the house of Bread [Hebrew: "lechem"] or Flesh [Arabic: "lacham/lachma"])? This directly connects the taking flesh of Jesus to food and satisfaction, healing and salvation (Yehoshu'a = "God saved, saves and will save" - the name is declined as most Semitic overtime tenses). This lines with "veachalta vesava'ta - you will eat and be satisfied" (Deuteronomy 8:1) and, in general, with the Birkat HaMazon (Blessing after Meals) as defined in Tractate Berachot 33-48 about nourishment as "bessorot tovot - good tidings" (HaRahman). In Hebrew, "bassar" means : "flesh, meat, rejoicing, announcing". Jesus said - and this is still a pending inquiry: - "I am the bread that came from heaven". They said: "Is this not the son of Joseph?" Jesus said: "I am the bread of life. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" - "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" - Then many of his disciples said: "This is too hard. How can we accept it?" (John 6:34-59). Whoever we are, beside any historical tragedies, Jesus constantly requires facing a supernatural, meta-historical, beyond all possibilities challenge of creed, faith or acceptance. This is what Moshe Mendelssohn, translator of the Bible into German, spoke of the “extreme challenge of Christianity” which is a part of every believer's path.

Jesus' conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a young woman (Heb.: "almah" - Gk. "parthenos", virgin (Isaiah 7:14), betrothed to Joseph who did not reject her and is cited in the two Gospels, that speak of his birth (Matthew and Luke). Interestingly, the Nativity was considered as a minor Feast almost until the middle of the 5th century, thus after the Councils that asserted that Jesus was truly God and Man ("k'Aloha wa k'bar Adam", in Assyrian sequences).

With regards to his day of birth, it is possible to cope with the general link of December 25th that corresponds to January 6th in the Julian calendar. Paul of Tarsus recalls that Jesus was born "under the Law" (Galatians 4:4). "Babe Jesus" was firstly exposed in Saint Francis of Assisi's crèche (there is a wonderful Ethiopian icon showing Mary breastfeeding her child). At least, the baby indeed looked like anyone of us. The Prophet said: “How welcome on the mountain are the footsteps of the herald (mevasser) announcing good (tov) announcing salvation/victory (yeshu'ah), telling Zion: Your God is King!”(Isaiah 52:7). Gospel means "Good news, tidings, from O. Norse "Gudsspjall": Good or rather God's good upgrading in time. Gk. "evangelion" (Good messenger/herald; cf. "angel"), Lat. "ad-nuntiatio" (announcing) and allows to consider the conception of the child on March 25 (Annunciation) and his birth nine months later, i.e. on December 25.

Still it would be relevant to consider Jesus’ birth according to a Jewish time-schedule. True, he never stepped down, during his life, from the Jewish Law and its Commandments (Matthew 5:18) as they were in force at his time. On January 1st (01/14, Julian calendar), the Greek Church of Jerusalem, as all the Christian Orthodox - celebrate the "brit" - circumcision (hagia peritomia) of Jesus, showing a regular breach with paganism that wanted to abolish this basic commandment.

It should be noted that one feast, Sukkot (Feast of the Booths), disappeared when the specific Church cycles were created. The Eastern Church celebrates X-Mas (Mass of X - Christ, i.e. Nativity) at the end of the 30-31st week after Pentecost, thus focusing on the giving of the Holy Spirit. The Western Churches proclaim a time of "Ad-ventus" or "advent - coming". The joy of the hallowed night (Germ. Weihnachten) often veils that the point is to expect the second coming of Messiah Jesus in glory. The move toward future beyond recurring feast is an essential feature of Christian and Jewish Feasts.

We might have some encrypted date of birth in various sequences of the Gospel. "In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah" (Luke 1:5). We know that this means he served in August as provided for his priestly division. Considering the time of birth of John the Baptist - six months earlier than Jesus (Luke 1:21.26.56), we must add ca. 15 months from that service in August to eventually determine Jesus' birth by the eschatological or end of time feast of Sukkot.

The fascinating aspect is the consider that "rooted in and grounded in love, we may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth... and be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:18-19).