Friday, January 4, 2008

Hamatteh: A staff for power or miracles

This weekly Torah reading portion is called "Va'era'" (God "appeared" to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) in the Book of Shemot/Exodus 6:2-9:35. Quite a big show and a one time sorcerer program! There are intermingled affairs and situations: the portion starts as God says to Moses that He is the God Who appeared, revealed, declared His project to a specific three generation tribe whose bones rest in peace at Machpelah cave in the Land of Canaan. According to Talmud Arakhin 15a/b and Mishnah Avot 5:4, this fabulous human history developed over three times ten generations, till the final splitting of the Waters at the Red Sea. Then, ten plagues echoed these decades as a phenomenal miracle against the Egyptians.

Thus, it should be noted that if plagues are the syndrome, God is the main decider. The context shows how the enslaved Jews were moaning to be delivered from their bondage. The whole portion is a sort of teaching that will finally peak with the first sacrifice of the lamb and "Seder Pesach - Passover Service".

Again, names are important in this event of apparent virtuoso wizard championship. God says to Moses: "Ani HaShem = I am the living Lord" but I revealed Myself to your forefathers as El Shaddai" (Ex. 6:2). It is more a Bereishit/Genesis Name which incidentally is mainly present in the TaNaKh or the Aramaic translations (Targum Onkelos) to identify God when mankind is confronting wickedness. Job and his friends only refer to Shaddai. Is He the God Who protects from the "devils/evils - shed/im" (Talmud Yoma 75a: "as the demon changes into many color appearances, so did the manna into various tastes")? The reference to Manna is important because it implies a connection with salvation by providing food as after the exodus from Egypt. Or, for instance, "Shad = female breast" that is essential for the child as the Manna" (Tosefta Sota 4,3). "she-ddai lo" would suggest that "Stop, enough for God!"; or it suffices. Hebrew "Dai (she-dai) = stop, over, finished" indeed means "it suffices, it is enough". Penetrating the process of delivery from bondage, we discover that some things suffice or be considered by God as enough. The Haggadah of Pesach - the Account of the Delivery during the Passover night - has a song linked to each plague and the response is "Dayenu - it would have been sufficient for us" if only one plague had convinced Pharaoh and his assistants.

Yes, God's Name "El Shaddai" predetermines that God has a long-term project that goes far beyond the short-sighted views of all the actors. Moses can hardly speak and his brother Aaron exercises a prophetic role parallel to the Egyptian sorcerers' job; this maybe considered as anticipating Aaron's need for the spiritual insights, divinely inspired to Moses in order to avoid falling into idolatry (Golden Calf). It can be compared to Job's test directly decided by an agreement passed between God (Elohim - El Shaddai) and Satan - the Adversary (the obstructive one). Job is not locked up in slavery. A wealthy, prosperous and contented man, he suddenly becomes the subject of a deal between God and Satan. Indeed, a Gentlemen's transaction concerning his soul and human balance, taken without any preliminary contractual discussion with the people concerned. No way! Job would never dare organize a marching-in demonstration in a pre-Jerusalem suburb. He did not know that the top of Super-deities had a pact, with a provision required by God, "Satan should not touch the integrity of Job's soul = make him mad"("raq alav al-tishlach yadcha - don't lay your hand upon him" - Job 1:12) Nor would the enslaved moaning Jews give a hand to Moses and his brother Aaron. Slavery is naturally human and power divine, at least secularly gorgeous. It seemingly provides human beings with a blessing not to think, nor to babble as children do in the presence of superpowers. This churlish simpleton behavior is even more pregnant in the sphere of spirituality: when heads lose faith and swirl in some foggy nonsense that fakes devotion. Other faithful will continue to pay respect to such puppets. Indeed, spiritual conflicts are comparable to match or lighter sparks that chuck out, just out! and oust people into more bondage. Internationally en vogue networking systems propose games that consist in buying and selling our friends as "human pets"... and make a fortune out of addicting virtual enslaving.

Again, this portion obliges us to remember what Talmud Pessahim 10,4 insistently raps on our conscience: "Arami oved avi - my father was a fugitive Aramean... the Lord freed us from the Land of Egypt with a mighty hand, an outstretched arm, awesome power, by signs and portents (uv'otot uvmoftim - Deut. 26:5-9)". These verses are read each year by the Jews at Rosh HaShanah; each day we are summoned to understand we are on a way. Parshat Va'era' is the only one that so strongly insists on the miracles and signs shown by God to humankind. Scientists might be doubtful. The account sounds mythological and hardly matches with any reviewed historic calendar? And these two pitiful chaps - Moses and Aaron - whose yikhes (pedigree) lineage tries to explain they are normal brothers (Ex. 6:14). Geography does not justify some plagues though the desert quails do fall at a certain time, in a certain area each year...but what Red Sea: a narrow channel?

On the other hand, plagues are "makkot" in Hebrew. The battlefield shows how feeble humans, but true faithful in the living God, can face wizards who may fool them down till the pagan Pharaoh and his staff are reduced to less than any lest - lesser than nil, nothing, which is the meaning of "makkah" ("makke" in Yiddish, when nil can quietly drive to grinning). "Makkot" only affect idolaters that mock and challenge God. Strange how whatever news, situations, conflicts concerned, everyone is "strong" at the moment. Some people, somehow, somewhere might admit they have problems. Still, everybody is strong. When we read this portion of the week, we are on the verge to feel we are done with a series of factors: darkness and light, blood, locusts, hail. Wonders and plagues surpass any social strength. Thus, it is a question: why do faithful target power and strength? "The Lord has prepared the healing of the wound ("refuah lemakkah"; Tractate Megillah 13b).

Thus, the last "makkah - plague" is the death of all the firstborns in the Land of Egypt, including Pharaoh's son. This prolongs the first portion of Shemot read last week and the murder of all Jewish boys in Egypt: Moshe is saved by miracle. Jesus was born in Bethlehem and Herod proceeded to the killing of all the children. In this apparently mythological recount, there is one thing we have experienced as human beings: recurrent slaughtering of the firstborns and babies in order to cancel life. It should be noted that in the murder of Jewish boys (Moshe and Jesus), the memory tracks back as to a specific personality, "a fugitive Aramean" who destroyed the idols and cut off from his pagan parentage... not until his great-grandson Benyamin, the first child to be born in the Land of Canaan.

We assist, at the present, to the alarming and abominable consequence of systematic mass murders of babies. Some other trendy or rather experimental groups would prefer male and/or female "sterilization" that affected some wealthy or Third World nations. Either hedonistically and self-centered as in Germany and Scandinavia, or unable to feed and educate in restricted room (Japan). Curiously, a Jewish midrash states that by the time of Exodus, Jewish women began to beget children "like hens" at an overrated unheard-of level (Exodus Rabba 6,3; though the daily birthing was maybe overestimated).

The death of Pharaoh's son and of all Egyptian firstborns suddenly twitched the ruler, gave him an uncontrollable jerk and real fear of the Living One God. This is also a question: are rulers so perverse and mulish that only death may convince them that life is a treasure of incredible value? We are, at the present, after the time of Passover liberation. Our main contemporary concern seems to be a sort of idolization of any clerics. Moshe did not enter the Land of Canaan because he was responsible for his people that dared deifying the Golden Calf. Quiz of the week parsha: who are they our modernistic Aaron and interfaith metal idol cooks?

One thing is awe-inspiring: when the children of Israel will sing the song of liberation, they will sing it in a low voice, which we continue to do. Jews were freed from bondage at the cost of a nation-wide death of firstborns. This should always prevent us from despising any foreigner, especially at the present as we live in Eretz Israel.

On January 18-19, the Eastern Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, the other Oriental Churches of the Holy Land and in particular the Armenian Church celebrate at the Jordan River (Israeli and Jordanian sides) the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The splitting and passing of the Red Sea are considered as a sign of this cleansing and delivery process. The Jews only became free when they definitely left Egypt. Jesus was not baptized by any Church or denomination at the Jordan River. He came to undergo some sort of "mikveh - bath of persons or instruments" proposed by John in the desert. "Our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of they were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea" says Paul of Tarsus (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). The Christian Orthodox tradition proposes another reflection: when Jesus went down the waters and rose immediately, he sanctified the entire creation (Mark 1:10).

Again, is this week portion the account of the gigantic crash between mythical deities? Or, on the contrary, it would show how El Shaddai calls the living to bring forth holiness and freedom.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Avot: Revival or re-inspiriting Hebrew

This 30th of December 2007 corresponds to the 21 (kuf-alef) Tevet 5768. As we end an international calendar of Western Christian origin, this day marks the Hebrew date of birth - 150 years ago - of Eliezer Yitzchak Perlman in Luzhky, a small town swindling on the border between Lithuania and Belarus. Before the Shoah, it was a big Jewish settlement. It is strange how calendars and dates can intermingle, showing different aspects of a prismatic reality that we love to break down and eventually disfigure or mutilate. The 19th century has given very strong personalities and we are their descents, a part of the heritage. This is a normal process for each generation, in any culture. With regard to Judaism, the whole of the Yiddishkayt, Jewishness, Hebrew identity and quests have been shaken to the deepest of our entrails by persecutions, pogroms, migrations, secularity and assimilation to non-Jewish lifestyles. In Israel - not to speak of the galut - dispersion - we prospectively are the growing seeds that slowly revive numerous aspects of the Hebrew and Jewish existence. It is not a question of memory. The process does include memory but directly places it to another level that is classic in Judaism. Memory does not trace back: it opens up to go forward, ahead and beyond all probabilities.

At the present, the reviver of the Hebrew language has a street in almost all of the Israeli cities. The strange phenomenon is that in these streets in particular, as in rehov Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, people will definitely speak or start talking in English. True, English is our trendy Aramaic or Esperanto. We do develop a local Israeli Yinglish Pidgin. The methods used to teach Hebrew to newcomers (I would also say to some yeshive-bucherim or Talmudic schools) can be terribly defective. 150 after his birth in a common Jewish East-European shtetl, Eliezer Yitzchak Perlman, inspired by something resembling the eight lights of Hanukkah, tremendously helps re-embodying the Klal Israel, the Community of Israel. But his anniversary seems vaguely celebrated. I tracked all possible books about his life and context that could be published in the coming days. The gaon, genial man of intuition, who incarnated such a huge challenge look like our local kabtzanim (needy)...they will survive, anyway, anyhow. When Perlman became Ben Yehuda, he wrote the Otzar, the Treasury of the Hebrew language that remains unique. I grew up with his dictionaries next to my bed. Indeed, Hebrew had never died and many groups, movements were using Hebrew in Europe, especially for trading and different relationships, incl. discussing about the Scriptures. Eliezer ben Yehuda and the two sisters who successively married and assisted him turned Hebrew into a carnal quest, a living challenge facing what could still appear as a Quixotic dreamy vision. He made it grow as a wonderful linguistic instrument. Ben-Zion Ben Yehuda was the first baby not allowed to hear the lullaby naturally sung by his mother in Russian. He could be schizophrenic, autistic. The correct experience is to visit the Qumran's scroll hall at the Israel Museum and see how teens spontaneously reconnect with the forefathers and the text of Prophet Isaiah. This presupposes a gigantic and prodigious mental experience, a prophetic boost.

Similar experiences may be compared with Hebrew throughout the 19th century in Europe. Ivar Aasen created the country-side and coast Norwegian language (Nynorsk). Croatian, Modern Greek, Faroese or the eldest European tongues like Icelandic and Lithuanian or Latvian, many speeches got recognition or paved their way to renewal in times of nationalism. And this issue of nationality increased throughout the 20th century. It continues to reshape borders and mental cultural borderlines (e.g.: Kosovo, Mindanao, Timor, Bask land, Ireland). Is it relevant with regards to Hebrew revival and Ben Yehuda's unique experience? This constitutes a part of the modern debate. As T. Herzl and most of the builders of the State of Israel, he was born in a context of hatred that was leading to "national freedom" or some solution to be freed from humiliation and new serfdom, poverty.

The celebration of his 150th anniversary should allow digging deeper into other relevant and basic insights linked with the Hebrew spirit of prophecy. This is certainly the major factor that is less en vogue at the present. But it should be underlined that Ben Yehuda's father, Leib Perlman, was a Chabad hassid. He died when his son was five and the boy turned to the adepts of the Haskalah - Jewish enlightenment. It means, that, even widely supported by the secular Jews, the revival of Hebrew does include specific features of the Lubavitch Chabad movement. The famous Tanya's reflection of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi about how "sounds are produced in cavities that cannot produce naturally produce any sound" (Ruach Piv, Shaarey Yichud 7). Speech and sounds are of divine and prophetic nature. We may get astray of something that sounds banal to our ears at the present even if most Hebrew-speakers would ask anybody from where they learnt the tongue. Ulpanim are definitely secular and the link with the prophetic aspect of the language, its "divine mamashut/essence" is definitely not evident or underscored. As the Chabad directly linked the Ashkenazim to the North African Jews, E. Ben Yehuda naturally spoke Hebrew with Jews from Algiers.

There was an old Yiddish vitz/joke: in a Tel Aviv bus, a mother stubbornly discusses with her son in Yiddish while the boy answered in Hebrew. A man told her to stop because Hebrew was the language of the future... The mom sharply said: "Good, but I don't want him to forget that he is a Jew". This joke showed around 1940... Curiously it could make sense today with the comeback of Yiddish. But Hebrew is the only paternal tongue. That was the quarrelsome point for Ben Yehuda’s son who got some Russian because a mother has to educate in a tongue that can be suckled like her own personal milk. Hebrew is the language of Avinu, Malkenu - Our Father, our King , Avinu shebeshamayim - our Father /Who is in heaven (not "are/art" according to the Jewish blessing grammar). We can hear many "speculations or fancies" about the language God spoke with Adam and the ancestors (Avot), still it sounds to be Hebrew and not Aramaic and nobody excavated the original earthen pot DVD on air from Mount Sinai. Who knows, Moshe maybe spoke Hebrew with a touch of then-Yiddish pronunciation like David Ben Gurion? Hebrew is universal and this is a dramatic point at the moment in a State where it apparently confirms a citizenship and existential identity given by mothers.

This is a theological problem that questions both Jews and non-Jews. Over thousands of years and indeed in the past two thousand years, Hebrew has mainly been "scriptural". During the week, one spoke Yiddish and lush’n haqoydesh af shabbes - and the Holy Tongue on Shabbat. On the other hand, Rashi commented the TaNaKh by using a wide French lexicon grounded in the Champagne vineyards. This has created a gap that can lead to some "spiritual tongue-twisters or slips". Israel is the State of the Jews (Judenstaat) that requires Hebrew as a common living language gathering very different groups of native origins. Judaism has always included or "grafted" people who took up them the realm of the Mitzvot. By the time of Jesus, proselytes were numerous. Thus, Judaism is not only national; it is connected to the faith of Israel.

This 150th anniversary of the birth of Eliezer Ben Yehuda interrogates in a way that we would prefer to avoid in these times of turbulences. Interestingly, the daily tongue develops with huge influences from all kinds of languages (Russian, Amharic, English and of course Arabic, inter alia). Over 40 years, the language gained in numerous ways to express humor, playful sentences, slang and sciences. It is indeed the real living tongue of the Israelis of all origins and of many Jews based abroad. It does not mean that Jews and Non-Jews use it alike. This constitutes a point of subtlety that is not rooted in some "nationalism" but in "relating to the Father in heaven". It may at times make no sense for the secular, intermingled groups for whom Hebrew is a linguistic Esperanto.

Hebrew has been present in the Churches from the very beginning. Hebrew is not simply a medium that can be translated. It carries out the Father’s revelation and reaches to the mamashut (Yid. mamushes). Hebrew refers essentially/substantially to the Talmud connected with the Mitzvot. It speaks out daily the Talmud daf yomi, daily study page. One year ago, I gave a lecture and underlined "that because of the tremendous gap between Judaism and Christianity appeared an strong estrangement. True, people pray in Hebrew. But, for the bigger part, they do not take into account - as Churches and individuals - the huge spiritual impact that always linked the Talmud with the spirit of the Bible, not the Gospel. And it might take centuries before we get to that point. It is still the prospective meeting point, if any.

It is good if Hebrew is used for the better knowledge of Judaism in the Church; but there is no need to make some folklore of it or "to christen" Jewishness and even Israelity. Israel relies upon both the Written and Oral Laws.

The Hebrew date of the birth of Eliezer Ben Yehuda corresponds in the Eastern Orthodox Church to the Sunday of the Forefathers that led to Jesus. It insists on the fact that, from Adam to Zacharias, Daniel, they showed total faith in God. It is a good day to show gratitude for the spiritual renaissance or continuous birthing of the prophetic tongue that abode the Fathers (avot).

Happy New Year 2008!