Thursday Jan 10, 2008
"Chodesh Shvat - Month of Shvat" is indeed a lovely season in Israel. Rains and after-rains (Arabic: shita = rain), drizzling drops, still chilly at night in Jerusalem and we feel that nature flourishes, buds, burgeons into plants, fruits, junior and senior teen skins. And, on Shvat 15 (January 22nd), the nation will plant trees all through the country. It is the Rosh HaShanah le'eylanot - New year of the trees. Planting trees is a must and an Israeli bang-on rendezvous. "Eleh" is not a cute baby tree-trunk; it is a sort of terebinth in Tractate Shiviit 7:5, i.e. a prominent plant, not a frail lanky branch. Eylanot would impress by some refreshing spring renewal. But trees also express something more: again, a new opportunity to celebrate a feast: as if each month was a "Rosh HaShanah - New Year's elation" along the year.
Waters, mayyim! A tree requires some water, maybe not that much because it copes with the environment. Purifying waters as the Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate the Baptism-Epiphany of Jesus at the Jordan River on January 18-19th. Jews should go to the mikveh (purification pool) and bathe. Indeed, "Al palgey mayim = in the middle of the waters" is peculiar in the psalm: it relates to the rising waters in the Temple: "(the big tree) was beautiful in its height, the length of its branches, because its stock stood by abundant waters" (sharshu al mayim rabbim; Ezekiel 31:7 and the abundant waters in chapter 47). A true disciple does not fear to drown in high waters. This is why mikveh (as Oriental Christian baptism) is full "diving" - the sort of scuba that does not require any air assistance. It is similar to some "shatul/shatil - transplant" as said in the first verses of the initial psalm. It plays on "shadal" (to persuade, entice) as "where there is no man, strive to be a real man" (Tractate Avot 2:5). This implies to be transplanted (shatul) in a life context that would normally cause our death: who can live in the middle of the water. Even a tree would be on the edge. The Jewish tradition - as thus the Christian teaching - have seen, in "mayim khayyim - a source of living, flowing waters", the flourishing source of spiritual forces and renewal in the shape of a permanent transplantation of our existence. Noah's account relates that to the real roots that irrigate every human being's life path.
The parshat hashavua or reading portion of the week is "Bo" in Shemot/Exodus 10:1-13:16):"Bo el-Pharaoh - go to Pharaoh". The haftarah reading: Jeremiah 46:13-26 (Ashkenazim) and Isaiah 17:1-25 (Sephardim). Pharaoh was still embattled at crossing snakes with Moses and Aaron. The locusts invaded the Land of Egypt; no way! Not stubborn, because Aaron also had his mood at times. Moshe is unique in terms of humility. Pharaoh is obstinate but the point is that all this historical and beyond history account is conducted from Above, by the Almighty. This is quite something! For delivery reasons, pigheaded Pharaoh, will provoke the Israelites to organize, against his will, their first festive and kosher lamb al (tzeli) ha'esh (full-roasted) meal (Ex. 12:8)!! We saw in a previous blog that the death of all Egyptian firstborns - and Pharaoh's son as well-, finally inflected the dogged potentate. We could cite numerous tyrants and despots who were lovable daddies and unshakeable dictators. Ceausescu, Pol Pot, Ivan Groznyi (the Terrible), Stalin - both regretted as paternal leaders... Think that our late Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek had the nerve to convince A. Eichmann to liberate 3000 Jews...True. But Eichmann was a dove and a pigeon compared to Pharaoh. Freedom faces more than any rational quest at that price.
The "seh - lamb" will mark the first seder or meal before anyone is freed; its blood will be sign of "protective offering/Passover - bechipazon Pesach"; and while eating entire lambs with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (matzot al marorim), God will pass and kill all the firstborns of Egypt, both man and beast. The Jews are then eating the flesh of the protective sacrifice, the bread of the needy with the herbs that still recalls them the bitterness of their slavery. Throughout Pesach/Passover, the Israelites are poor, nought but still God's instruments. "Haynu avadim -we are slaves" - "Ha lachma de'aniya - this is the bread of poverty" is our living teaching, the true memorizing method of how to learn the value of our days as bney chorin (free people). On the 14th of the month (of Nissan), God allows us to actualize through a year-to-year memorizing meal this covenant of freedom. We read this portion and we shall only celebrate, on the 14th of Shvat, the New Year of the Trees! As if Jews were going merry all through the months to celebrate New Year all the time! Even when we recall early harvest = Pesach or late harvest = Rosh HaShanah in Autumn, God acts with zero'a nituyiah (outstretched arm). He unchains us according to an agenda that firstly delivered our ancestors from Egypt. This calendar is articulated within history and major significant events that surpass nature to bring us into a more metaphysical realm (physis = nature is active in Greek).
"matzah - pl. matzot" = "unleavened bread (root: "dry, pressed bread; also "untanned hide" as in Talmud Kelim 17:15")" which was the bread of the poor. It is made only with water and flour, is thin and is eaten instead of leavened bread during the seven days of the Feast of Pesach. In our days, some matzot are made with fruit juice or onions, but they could not get to that for the first meal! It is also a sign of humility, obedience to God and compassion for the killed firstborns while the Jews were on their way to freedom. Interestingly, Hebrew "MaTZoT" can both be read as "matzot = bread" and "mitzvot = Commandments". During this first Passover night, the Jews are given specific Commandments which are included in the 613 Mitzvot. 1) To commemorate this unique historical night of freedom; 2) to eat whole lambs roasted on the fire without any remains (this should be recalled in every Israeli restaurant all through the year), 3) unleavened bread, 4) with bitter herbs during seven days. These are the first Commandments of the Exodus event. There is one more Commandment which is rarely mentioned in that context: 5) to don the tefillin - phylacteries (Ex./Shemot 13:9). Curiously, most Israeli born people don't like eating matzot...!
The exodus of the Land of Egypt is the top historical Jewish event. It is also an ethical act that brings moral attitudes and produce moral expectations among the Jewish people. The move from slavery to freedom is not just a sort of a leave for holidays in the desert. Say, it works; good enough. If not, then we shall come back and continue to eat the Egyptian sweet onions... No way! Nobody can cheat God's schedule. We will be free: this implies we are freely bound to Commandments that show how much we are enabled to be free.These Mitzvot/Commandments are not orders. They pave a humble, exiguous path to achieving God's will and correspond to the bread of the needy mixed with bitter herbs. Oh, we can bake sophisticated unleavened bread and produce bitter-sweet herbs! Again, the event is both historic and metaphysical. It induces accepting with joy the food of the living Commandments. Paul of Tarsus has the same attitude: "Let's celebrate the Feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). The Oriental Churches focus on leavened bread in opposition with Judaism and the Western Churches, but also positively as leaven makes the bread rise and then is considered as a "sign of resurrection" (challot, the two loaves of Pentecost and Shabbat).
Exodus/Shemot chapter 13 summarizes the commandment of the Feast of the Matzot. Firstborns of Israel will be consecrated to the Lord. Secondly, "Vehayah lecha le'ot al-yad'cha ulezikkaron beyn eyneicha - and this shall be a sign on your hand and as a reminder between your eyes (forehead), in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth". The first mitzvah/commandment is to wear the tefillin or phylacteries. Guess: most people know nothing about that. But this is a key commandment. These are two boxes (batim = houses) made of kosher untanned hide (unleaven). Each of them includes different texts recalling the miracles that God performed in order to release the Hebrews. Made of leather, they should be donned on the left arm (close to the heart) and on the forehead as the new service of bondage that links every bar mitzvah (13 years) to a life-long service of El Shaddai, God Who saves and protects. Thus, the straps bound along the arm show twice the shape of the Hebrew letter "Shin". On the one hand, to wear the hand box (yad) close to the heart because love and compassion come first; then, the head box (rosh) is like a diadem on the forehead because God alone is King. The tefillin do remind that Israel left human slavery to clutch to God's releasing Presence and action, tied up on our bodies for the best of life.