Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chayei Sarah - born to bless

As time passes, we seem to face more and more periods of peaks of violence that cool down and we expect some other troubles that should affront us with renewed mental or physical aggressiveness. We facing rough times of spiritual, societal and identity probation.

The forthcoming weekly portion is "Chayei Sarah\חיי שרה - the span of Sarah's time" which accounts her death. It concludes with the burial of Abraham. Let's say this is the main purpose of the Shabbat. How to bury foreigners who pass away abroad, far from their birthplace and will repose in a new homeland promised by God.

Abraham showed a rare and then unique act of loving-kindness, maybe "charity\חסד-chesed" toward his life companion. He was about to abandon her to Pharaoh. He had the nerve - definitely not the courage! - to introduce her as his sister in Egypt. This caused a sort of "plague" before the real plagues: Pharaoh got seriously ill and kicked the strange couple out of the country. They left much quicker than by Moses' time (Bereishit/Genesis 12:14-17)!

The Jewish tradition considers that Abraham did not love (le'ehuv\לאהוב) Sarah but they did spend their life together and were true life companions. He showed compassion (rachamim-rachmunot\es\רחמים-רחמונות) in buying a cave at Machpelah\מערת שדי מכפלה for 400 silver Shekels (quite a fortune at that time) to bury his long-life and life-long wife Sarah in the land of the Hittites. Abraham was considered as a "stable" resident (sort of ger toshav\גר תושב). Love showed by steps: it was more emotional with Yitzchak and Rebecca and reach out to the fulfillment of love with Yaakov\יעקב who travailed 14 years and was even cheated by his step-father to marry his beloved Rachel\רחל.

But the point is that Abraham was not rejected by Ephron the Hittite. He was not told to bury Sarah in his homeland, Ur-Kasdim\אור-כסדים, in Mesopotamia. Ephron the Hittite took the cash and said : "Go and bury your dead". Thus Machpelah passed from Ephron to Abraham at the local merchants' rate "as a burial place". Indeed, Abraham was also buried there (Genesis 25:10). This act of "traded" compassion turned to a seeds of life good action. Abraham paid cash but the tomb became the grounding place for the life of the Jewish people and descent. This is a the birthing place for all monotheistic spiritual tribes, whatever splits or schisms concerned. The cave at Machpelah at Hebron and in the neighborhood of Efrat-Gush Etzion\אפרת-גוש עציון. This tracks back to Bethlehem\בית-לחם as the kernel place of the birth of a spiritual nation: the city of David. The original village of Ishmael and Jesus of Nazareth. Today, vineyards grow again in all the area. Machpelah, then Hebron and Bethlehem link us to the grafting of a wandering God-seeking couple. They could peacefully and legally plant their bones to blossom with the promise of a numerous lineage. (How cute it is to think that yesterday, the National Insurance Law celebrated its 55th anniversary! is it an anniversary or a memorial day? It is a miracle that normally applies to every resident in the country - Sarah and Abraham could not envision such a system...).

The journey of this exceptional - say a bit "history-symbolic" couple of our ancestors, dedicated their life to combating paganism, amorality and human sacrifice. They truly believed and passed a new covenant, not with some stone or hand-made deities. The new covenant given by the Living God and the God of the living (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) is plugged in in the flesh and the soul. We are reluctant at the present to recognize that this tomb at the cave of Machpelah is the original location and well from which life was sown. Indeed, Sarah and Abraham trusted in the Omnipresent Lord and Abraham argued with Him to save a handful of sinners who lived at Sodom.

Sarah and Abraham! True, Sarah showed to activate the process. It is too easy to point out that Abraham, isaac and Jacob were the three first "patriarchs - avot\אבות. it is intriguing that women played a major role in the acceptance of the monotheistic creed. Everybody knows that Hebrew "father/av-אב" has a feminine gender plural form. It combines male and female all-human creativity in encountering God and submitting unto His Will.

The new covenant in Abraham opened up the gates and paved the way for the giving of the two Laws (Torah and Mishnah/Oral and Written Law) at the Sinai. Sarah took up the privilege to bear Yitzchak unexpectedly. It made her burst into laughters. She laughed because future is always a matter of laughing. So unexpected, unforeseeable, impossible for the human conscience and understanding. The Jewish tradition considers that Abraham knew and observed in advance all the Commandments/Mitzvot of the Written and Oral Laws (the Bible and the Talmud). Sarah and Abraham faced a spiritual combat. They chose the One God of the living in opposition to the pantheon of idols, ruthless violence and hatefully hostile evictions/deportations mirrored by idolatry deities in their "sky and cloud high".

Jesus said something very similar to his disciples about this path: "As you go, do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic or sandals or walking stick. The laborer deserves his keep” (Matthew 10:10).

At the present, we face doubts and uncertainty. We need objects that seemingly intervene or help our connection with the Most High. Traditions have for long been swinging between pious rope of bones, stones, wool, beads and amulets of all sorts. Look at the Tibetan skulls, elbows, leg bones used as trumpets or praying tools. The Zoroastrians have kutsi/ropes with small knots, very likely to the Jewish fringes/tzitzit\ציצית . They are worn as necklaces, the same way Ethiopian Christians do. The first Christians had special signals to identify themselves in hostile environments. They would not wear crosses or even fish. Faith was obvious, though clashes could be very harsh among the believers in the early Church.

We love tombs and graves, coffins, caskets. We have tons of soap operas, TV serials and sitcoms. OMG! Good gracious! killings, murders are showed in these serials with more and more reality show basic instinct: the first stories were soft, some killer and guns, shots. Today, there are chip-chopped limbs, corpses, live on air postmortem examinations. Criminologists can have a love affair among freezing storage boxes. Reposing individuals are cut down during long autopsy investigations. It is trendy. Death and funerals/burials became a cultural trendy trading activity. "Life is too short and too expensive: make your repose low cost!" is a real ad in some European countries.

The "new covenant" passed by God with Abraham is not a low-cost cheap deal or gentlemen agreement passed for acquiring a long-term blood-redeemed cave at Machpelah. We feel often too dirty and death-imprinted. We wandered in awe through a death culture that topped in the 20th century. Gas - a lot of gas - from world war I till the extermination camps. Let's say that the war in Iraq will stop in 2011. Just a supposition. It will stop one way anyway. But are we aware that the cradle of monotheism and of the early Semitic Churches has been slowly destroyed over all these years of fighting for oil? With much arrogance and ignorance toward the existing believers. This is the cursing part of our fate.Iraq is former Mesopotamia and Sumer, the cradle of civilization. There was the birthplace of the soothsayers who paid a visit to king Herod and to the child in Bethlehem. They may have studied the Oral law transmitted by the local Jews who did not return to Jerusalem by the time of Cyrus.

Are we born to curse or to be cursed? Just the opposite! but it requires a lot of pardon and alertness, awareness. Exactly the same spirit that Sarah and Abraham had to breathe in along their journey through tests and visions of seeds. They knew that sowing change deadlines into life starting marks.
Jesus stated that: "Except a corn/grain of wheat fall into the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it die, it brings forth much fruit. He that is fond [ho philon-φιλων \ is fond] his life shall lose [apolluei\απολλυει = destroy] it; and he that hates [ho mison-μισων \ hates] his life in this world shall keep it unto eternal life" (John 12:24-25). In Talmudic Hebrew and Aramaic "chit\chita\חיט-חיטא " means "wheat" and also "nipples, protuberances": "The Lord revives the chita-חיטא/grain, protuberance of life" as stated in Sanhedrin VI, 23c.

We tend to understand this as negative and contradictory feelings. "Hates his life" is not an act of despise. It is an act of reversing, altering process: just as "enmity" and difference" are linked in Hebrew shoneh\שונה - change - shanah\שנה - evolve vs sinah\שנא-שנאה - feud. It further develops in the burning bush "sinai -" where "The One Who always is and was and will be in the process of being/becoming" renews the covenant passed with Sarah and Abraham, Rebekkah and Isaac, Rachel/Leah and Jacob-Israel.

"Pulsa d'nura\פולסא דנורא" is a typical Talmudic expression in Aramaic used in Tractates Baba Metzia 47b, Hagiga 15b or in Leviticus Rabba 37 ("pulsin\פולסין")."Pulsa\פולסא = a disk, circular, round plate or even a ring" used as measure of weight or money ("pilas\פיל(א)ס”). This is comparable to a payment coin of great importance in the Middle-East and our cultural backgrounds. A woman nearly got mad in sweeping her house until she found the "lost coin". Then she called her friends and they had a joyous party (Luke 15:8).

By extension, "pulsa d'nura" were fiery disks put on whipping lashes (Talmud Baba Metzia 85b) envisioned as a punishment against sinners in heaven (i.e. after death...) in the absence of a any presupposed Divine pardon (Yoma 77a). Rashi would have considered this "harsh condemnation" as an equivalent to the "cherem\חרם= ban or eviction from the community".

Since the Second Temple is not "extant - qayam\קים" and there sacrifices are suspended without the existence of a coherent and legal Sanhedrin, death sentences are not applicable. Then, any attempt to evict somebody from a Jewish community is very problematic since the Era of Enlightenment, a secular movement that appeared in Christened Europe.

The "pulsa d'nura" would be a sort of alternative "death curse" pronounced against one or some individuals who profoundly offended or trespassed the Jewish laws in force. It has been noticed that "death penalties" are not in force in Judaism since Jews are called to bless and not to curse (Genesis 22:18). The "cherem" or eviction from the community is no more in force. It is easier to circumventsuch a decision, though not everywhere. The Churches could initially pronounce anathemas (ban) or excommunications, i.e. the faithful could were either excluded from the Sacraments. It can be exerted with much power in some places, but there are more and more way-out possibilities.

Death curses or "pulsa d'nura" have been at the kernel of the very in-depth debate and essential fight led by the secular Jews and the various practicing Jewish ultra-orthodox groups who did allow a constant death-facing survival of Jewishness in hostiles environments. Eliezer Ben Yehudah, the reviver of the living Modern Hebrew tongue was seemingly the first "Israeli" to be picked on such a death curse as it was unthinkable for pious Jews to speak the language of G-d. But the need for a common language convinced that Hebrew was the most convenient and resourceful solution. Still until recently, Yiddish would have remained the only "national" colloquial in very orthodox quarters or specific groups.

Death curse was also cited about late PM Yitzchak Rabin, eventually against Shimon Peres vs. Moshe Katzav as both were candidates to the presidency of the State. Late Rav I. Kaduri and Menachem Mendel Shneerson intervened as spiritual leaders. Though some authorities protested against the existence of such curses - pulsa d'nura, if any. Last... the curse was cited with regard to the pullout from the Gaza Strip and Ariel Sharon.

Cursing appears to recurrently be a violent and very passionate, emotional reaction in the Semitic and religious way of thinking faithfulness to God's Commandments and the pagan aspect or secular attitude of social bodies that do not commit their lives with the requirements of faith.

"Charam" (ban, expel somebody) is often heard in Arabic.Physical violence and spitting at the Christian clergy or ignoring them by closing the eyes are frequent in Jerusalem. In return, mutual ignorance stigmatizes the wounds of aggressive positions that often influenced each group in the name of ritual purity. Thus, the long-life loving-kindness shown by Abraham and Sarah wandering towards their identity is a good example of hospitality and love of those whom we do not know, and they met the angels at Mamre's oaks.

Each day, the Jewish communities start to pray with the words of Bilaam, the prophet who had been paid to curse Israel. He was pushed to understand that he was wrong; his she-donkey had the correct attitude. She refused to move, laid down and told him how to behave. He converted and said: "How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel\מה טבו אהליך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל" (Numbers/VaYikra 24:5).

av Aleksandr [ Winogradsky Frenkel]

November 19/6, 2008 - 21 Cheshvan 5769 - כ"א דחשון תשון תשס"ט

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