Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Nachamu: comfort

The Rav of Berdichev as all the Sages of the Jewish tradition have detailed at length how God's loving-kindness covers all troubles and destructive forces with patience. "Hope leads to redemption" and this strong belief is amazingly showing again and again throughout Jewish history.

Both Judaism and Christianity persist and breathe of some inescapable though diversified "absence" in terms of "tzimtzum\צימצום", i.e. God’s eclipse, cache, sort of concealment. This Shabbat is called "Va'etchanan\אתחנן - and I shall pray (implore, petition) You" and the parshat hashavua / weekly portion is read in Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11.

The reading portion begins with a specific word used by Moses. He has a special demand to God. He is recollecting all the actions that led from serfdom to the gates of entering the Land of Canaan/Israel. Then Moses speaks out his mind. This is an important moment because he is known for his humbleness and never asked nor begged for any personal favor. With regard to the attitude of the Israelites as the struggle he conducted against Pharaoh, Moses proved to have acted with a rare, singular spirit of equanimity and fortitude.

He feels that his own life must come to the end because God will not allow him to enter the land. He prays, with much intensity, in order to bend or change his own destiny. And he feels scared. He had faced death all along the journey, but had brought Jacob’s descent out of the land of “death and idolatry”. He knows that humans are born to die. Nonetheless, God truly is the Lord of the living. In Hebrew, His Name clearly indicates that humankind is called to cross the barriers of dust and reduction to nil: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh\אהיה אשר אהיה – I am to be/become the Whole (Total) One Who I will perpetually become (again and again for ever)”.

The move implies to depart and accept to be a "defunct" servant and leader, i.e. leave his service (Latin "defunctus" = officium, function, task, duty) and give up his body and soul to the Life-giving Lord. As if the certitude that there is a world-to-come and a resurrection from the dead could be compared to some place of concealment, still invisible.

“Etchanan\אתחנן” belongs to the words used for depicting the posture of the faithful in the Temple during the offerings. The body bows down to the earth while the head is placed on the right hand. “Chanan\חנן= to show loving-kindness”. Moses dedicated his life to the true emunah\אמונה/faith and worship, thus prescribing the Mitzvot to donning the tefillin/phylacteries and instructing how to build up the Mishkan/Tabernacle. “Tachanun\תחנון – supplication” later became the fervent petition pronounced every morning at Shaharit\שחרית / Morning-dawn prayer and also Minchah-arbit\מנחה-ערבית/ Dusk,Evening prayer, except on holidays and newness events (New Moon).

It is more extensive on Mondays and Thursdays after the 18 Benedictions Amidah. This habit to recite personal petitions seems to track back to the Temple Service and maybe earlier in the Tent of the Meeting. It is a “nefillat apayim\נפילה אפיים – falling on the face (nostrils) without prostration to avoid any confusion with pagan rites. It was substituted by reclining on the left and the right side (Megillah 23a; Avoda Zara 4,1).

Tachanun became a sort of confession of sins and a plea for repentance and salvation (Daniel 9:3; Ezra 9:6; Nehemiah 1:4, cf. the reconstruction of the Temple). “Chanan\חנן = to cover, caress, grace, favor” as in “You graciously endow man with knowledge (Amidah\עמידה: “chonen dat\חונן הדעת”, Shabbat 104a). It also means “to come to rest” (Berachot 30b) as in the Birkat Kohanim / priestly blessing “vayichuneka\ויחונך = and cover you with His grace” (Num. 6:22). The blessing was peacefully used by Saint Francis of Assisi who used to make the sign of the “Tau-tav\תו, last Hebrew letter on the forehead of his brethren.

God told Moses to say a much peculiar detail to the Israelites: “You shall not prolong your days in the Land, but shall utterly be destroyed (“hishamed tishamedun\השמד תשמדון”). And the Lord shall scatter you among the nations and you shall be left few in number among the heathen, whither the Lord shall lead you” (Deut. 4:26-27). Interestingly, tachanun introduces in the Jewish prayer the recitation of the Shema Israel/Hear Israel (Davarim 6:4) which is one of the major element of the weekly Torah portion.

As regards the Ten Commandments that progressively were removed from the Jewish prayer in order to make a distinction with the Christian services, the Mishney Torah/Deuteronomy introduces special elements to allow the Israelites to enhance their prayer after the sin of the golden calf. The original Hebrew version of the repetition of the Ten Divrot/Paroles shows that 17 letters have been added to the text usually cited from Exodus 20. The tradition considers that it shows how “goodly” God is, i.e. “t/ט(9)-o\ו(6)-v\ב(2) = ”. This also insinuates that, in the Mishney Torah\משני תורה or “repetition of the Torah”, God is willing to repair or give full capacities to the Israelites to repair their errors and track back to the first days of the creation, when He stated that the work of creation was “tov meod\טוב מאד – very good “ (Gen. 1:31). Newness and constant renewal is the basic motto that keeps humans alert with regard to the blessing “mechadesh maasey vereshit\מחדש מעשי בראשית – (The Lord Who) permanently renews and makes new the acts of creation”.

Still how come that Moses presents to God such a petition? His brother Aaron died before and was also told that he could not enter the Land. Well, Aaron did not show any spirit of patience and immediately forgot about God when he saw that the Israelites were in need to marinate with an old-fashioned pagan golden calf worshiping flava. He was too much “outdoors” in this wilderness.

Moses is unique in acting with authentic humbleness. His example is unique for the Jews as also for the Christians. In the name of God, Moses told the Israelites that few of them would reside in the Land and not for a long period of time. You bet! He even warns them about their future in the country, i.e. that they will be destroyed and scattered. What a great sign of hope and consolation! This should relly be taken into acount today in Israel. God's gifts are no way answering to requirements.

Let’s simply draw a parallel with Jesus of Nazareth. Paul of Tarsus wrote about him: “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (i.e. abomination)” (Philippians 2:8). This does correspond with the weekly portion that deals with “obedience”; i.e. with the ability to hearing and acting together in full respect with God’s Mitzvot. Nonetheless, there is an real connection between the repetition of the Ten Divrot/Paroles and the sincere desire expressed by the Israelites to sanctify everything that is linked to the Land.

Resting on Shabbat is matched with the exodus: “Remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Shabbat day” (Devarim 5:15). And thus comes the mitzvah to “honor your father and mother… that your days may be prolonged and that it may go well with you, in the land in which the Lord your God gives you” (Deut. 5:16). It is thus evident that the following commandment deals with slaying: “lo tirtzeach\לא תרצח – you shall not kill, remove life from any human being” (Devarim 5:16).

This is the point on the Shabbat following Tisha BeAv: hundreds and hundreds of years after Moses approached God with his personal petition to enter the Land of Canaan, God, repeats = extends with tenderness the code of the Ten Divrot/Paroles He obliges the Israelites to be aware that He - the Holy One - will never forget any tiny sign or letter (Hbr. tag\תג-תגין) while humans may lose their memory and hide their misdeeds into some cache (Cf. Jesus preaching about the prohibition to erase any iota or small sign from the Torah in the Gospel of Saint Matthew).

The Beyt HaMikdash\בית המקדש/Temple was the LIVING House of God and the Romans razed it defiling the sanctity of the place and scattering the Jews. This was simply foretold to Moses as a possible consequence of the Israelites’ lack of respect of the Mitzvot. It is still pending at the present. We do have the Western Wall but the tachanun/supplication insists on the possible rise of the Living Beyt. “May it be Your Will, Lord… to have mercy on us, forgive all our sins, atone all our iniquities… that the Beyt HaMikdash be rebuilt speedily and in our days, that we may offer before You the burnt-offering… as You have prescribed in Your Torah through Moses Your servant” (Shaharit/Morning prayer tahanun). The same demand is said in the Graces after meals/birkat hamazon\ברכת המזון .

Can we only imagine God playing some role game and “Boo-yaa!”, Jews are damned for ever because others thought they survived and continue to outlive for the sake of some spiritual archaeology? Everything is prophetically on the move with God, gyrating and twirling ahead. We might one day– maybe not in our generation but this is not so important – really see the rebuilding of the Temple. This view has nothing to do with any Hollywood-like script and the salvation of some believers. I am not interested in politics either.

It is clear in this sidra / portion that the presence of the Jews in the Land maybe endure or cease in accordance with the Mitzvot. The Mitzvot never disappeared and constitue a huge part of all the heritage of Christdendom. Some may not be able - for spiritual reasons - to get to that point. It has nothing to do with flamboyant scenarii mixing power and might.

We may feel unconcerned by the question that is parallel to Moses’ petition: The Holy Sepulcher is the Empty Tomb, the Anastasis (place of Resurrection). Christianity proclaims that Jesus is risen from the dead, but nobody can prove it. It can only be inspirited by the Spirit and faith. Others cannot believe that to the full. It belongs to the intimate conviction of our souls. Jesus was condemned by the Jewish High Priest Kaipha and rejected by his first apostle Kaipha /Simon-Peter. (Matthew 26:74; Luke 22:61; John 18:27). He was then crucified by the pagan nations symbolized by the Romans.

Judaism continues its path without the House of Jerusalem while Christianity faces the time of the Empty Tomb. There is definitely no contradiction but a terrible historical estrangement that locks up our creeds. The Christian faith is based on the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who declared: "Destroy this Temple, in thre days I shall rebuild it". Christians can hardly understand that the Mikdash\מקדש was and remains a LIVING- QAYAM\קים "body". It was made of living stones. It is not visible in the present, just as Jesus is not visible in this world. The Sacraments of the Eucharist should be analyzed in the Jewish "shulchan\שולחו " and "eulogical" presence of the TaNaKh. The point is that both Christian and Jews expect the "coming of the Lord". This might be related to God's Shechinah in the rebuilding of the Temple and the SEcond coming in glory of the Resurrected.

Still we can comfort/nachamu\נחמו as Prophet Isaiah wrote in his vision (40,1). It is a miracle that God continues to have confidence in any human being, incl. all believers. This is a permanent scoop: are we able to understand that He trusts in us and not that we trust in Him firstly. Are humans really like on swoll scrubs or, yes, hope is graven in our beings and we shall never wreck again, God forbid.

av Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel
August 12, 2008 - 11 deAv 5768 - יא דאב תשס"ח

Western Wall at night
The major cupola of the Katholikon in the Greek Orthodox Church of the Anastasis (Holy Sepulcher)

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