Thursday, February 28, 2008

Vayakhel: the real taste of All Israel

Thursday Feb 28, 2008

Shall we have some snow or not in Jerusalem before Shabbat Vayakhel-Pekudei? People seem chilly these days after some snow, at least in Jerusalem. The real weather forecast states that spring-summer are near and usually they show when the youths will wear cotton T-shirts letting the navel breathe with full visibility. Clothing and fashion are again on the spot in the reading portions of this week: firstly parshat hashavua Vayakhel (Shemot 35:1-38:20 - And then Moses convoked) followed by Pekudei (Shemot 38:21-40:38 - These are the records of the Tabernacle). This long series of verses describing how to construct the Mishkan (Tabernacle - God's dwelling) is not a reprint of what God had instructed to carry out before the "chet HaEgel - the sin of the golden calf". There are similarities and more: we assist to a hammering party. Each letter is screwed, nailed and hooked into the building process so that every human being could understand what implies that God has His Dwelling among the Israelites.

Israelis progressively forget that they did live in huts, cabins, huge tents (ma'abarot) or caravans. I still know several people who - maybe for some personal reasons - continue to live in odd caravans. A lot of people are rather lodged in third-rate conditions, in hotels. There have been a lot of progress since Trumpeldor's time (1916) and Golda Meir's installation near the swamps. In 1975, visiting in Vienna (Austria) a place for the homeless and refugees, we had been astonished that everywhere people were up-to-the-minute as regards cloths and fashion and they had access to all sorts of TV satellites. The situation is rather similar today even if Israel has to face a permanent fight against poverty, hunger, lack of food, health protection, the increasing amount of homeless. We are mutating to down-sliding impoverishment, need and insolvency. Still, the Israeli society is basically rich and wealthy. Our frenzy consumption, credit and monetary corruption show that we line with other spoiled economic systems; this was definitely not at the heart of the ingathering of the Jews in Eretz Israel. True, a lot for people are compelled to live humbly, with much restricted resources and, at the same time, they must acculturate to a country on build. Whether secular, partly religious, the Israeli society was born because of the ethical, spiritual hardships overcome in the course of the Exodus and the construction of the Mishkan. This was certainly not a political prime TV show news with politic-dealers. When we consider today Nahmanide’s famous words "that the Book of Exodus deals with the first exile... and the redemption of it" we maybe find the phrase true, intriguing, questioning, arousing or rubbish. It sounds like a professional statement for rabbis and Co Ltd. Faith becomes at the present a job or a way to learn the Jewish traditions without being involved professionally or socially. Politics save the universe with Heads of the States summits that replace Antiquity’s gods and goddesses banquets. They have nothing to resolve and too many fledging advisors to feed.

At the present, the Israeli society would have to make an enormous spiritual effort to read the Torah portions of this week with total confidence in God alone. The Jewish community has - also scattered throughout the world - simple "anay'im - simple believers", that love the Torah and the Mitzvot with such insights as to feel that nothing will ever shake fundamentals. We pathetically need some spiritual voices to clearly prove and be heard that this week of reading the end of the Exodus should let us reconsider how the Shekhinah/Divine Presence descending on the Tabernacle is calling us to get out of "galut - exile and reach ge'ulah - redemption". We desperately need the kind of guy or girl (quite a possible sketch today) who somehow is like David, the incognito youngest child, the real mentsh (humane human being w/heart), not head over heels self-willed and stiff-necked. Candidate(s) should only have heard of the Torah, the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and be maven (have expertise in good heart).

"A'nan" is a very precious word in the TaNaKh and the Talmud. It means "to make cloudy" as we say "yom me'unan = cloudy day" (Yoma 28b, Nega’im 2,2), or "to gather clouds, augur from clouds" (Targum 2 Kings 21:6; Luke 12:54 refers to weather and times and delays forecast). The root is linked to "anah - to answer = begin to speak" as in "and all (the cless) repeated each sentence after him" (Sota 5,20c). "me'uneh = fasting" (Toseft. Taanit 2,7). This explains the connection with "ani = poor, humble": "if one has an enemy, does one wish him to be poor or rich?" (Milah 17a) and : "The Jews became poor again" (Ketubot 33a) or : "Let the poor be members of your household (Avot 1,5). The word 'anan' is very often used in the sens of 'protection, cover' such as in this interesting verse: "as long as Sarah lived, a cloud was tied (anan kashur) over the entrance of her tent and when she died, the cloud ceased" (Bereishit Rabba 60). This verse encompasses all the future developments relating to the Shechinah/Divine Presence and indeed the construction of the Mishkan., then the Temples/Batey Mikdash. The word is also to be found throughout the life, ministry and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and in most epistles as a specific mention of the Spirit and the Divine Presence. In the Song of the Songs (2:6):" "his right arm embraces me' that means the cloud of the Divine Presence in the world-to-come" (Shir Rabba). Moses gathered, convoked the Israelites (vayakhel), i.e. he showed to fulfillment of the Kahal - Holy Congregation (cf. blogs "Kahal/12/18/07 - Kehilah/07/01/07"). God gave ordinances, mitzvot and the people deviated.

Human herd instinct is trivial and prefers molten materials. they think they can manipulate such stuff. Even quixotic personae would not imagine to put a portion of cloud into a fridge... We do sell fresh Jerusalem air box. We want to own God. we could put Him into some box. No way! Moses does check that the Mishkan /Tabernacle is perfect according to God's requirements. Still, God covers the Holy Place with His Shechinah in the shape of a cloud that no man can hook or capture.

The parshat Vayakhel (reading) starts with the heart of what the Kahal/Whole Congregation means for the Jewish tradition: "On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death" (Ex. 35:2). The Ten Paroles do not require to murder a person who trespassed this commandment. But the Shabbat is not something that vaguely starts from Thursday afternoon to some indefinite Friday or Friday afternoon and stumbles between a "sof shavua = week end" that would sound like a "British tea time break" The Shabbat does not belong to any human being (Mark 2:27), cannot be postponed whatever tricky games we may do with our clocks. Anyway, God’s Presence "thickens His Presence" with specific solar, lunar and time schedules that will overshadow the world with a "neshamah yetara - additional soul surplus, or Divine Presence surplus" (Shemot 40:35). It took one year from the Rosh chodashim (beginning of all months) and the first day of month Nissan. Just as money, economics, socializing with God is on constant fluctuation. God obliged, requested His people to build His Dwelling with perfection: this means they had to go far beyond any idols. They had to be moltenin in order to become good-hearted and "tender". They built the Tabernacle. There were seemingly no more gold rings and accessories roasted with the calf. The half-shekel participation served to make the hooks for the pillars of the Mishkan (Ex. 38:28). Good. Then, God will for ever cover them with clouds and the Shabbat. Rashi thought - true in the Galut (diaspora) - that the TaNaKh should commence with the "rosh chodashim - the beginning of all months" and the Feast of Pesach. He mainly lived and studied the Scriptures in France and Germany, i.e. in a Christianized area.

We are not in the same situation in the State of Israel. To begin with, we are not in the diaspora, but we often behave as if we never knew that Eretz Israel was in our bones and minds throughout the dispersion. The prayers for rains or good harvesting in Jewish tradition are calling to God for Eretz Israel, then for any other place in the world. But this is not a DNA nationalistic ethnical, "my culture-my tongue-not yours" claim to God or a notice of strike action. God continues to show His clouds. The Shabbat is not Jewish, Israeli. It introduces the Community to the perfect achievement of the creation and comes to abide the whole world from week to week.

This is the challenge we have to face in Israel. This is why the Sages acted with much insights and wisdom. They decided that the TaNaKh does start with the Book of Genesis/Bereishit and the shaping of the first "universal" human beings. Not only that: The genesis of Passover is not in the Book of Exodus. The Book is that of the Name/Shemot of those who were the descent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Israel did not originate with the Mishkan, nor the Exodus, but the faith of God in all His creation and Jacob's wrestling and dream of a ladder. The commandment of the Shabbat states: "You shall not do any work - you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your cattle, the stranger who is within your settlements" (Ex. 20:10). Oh, we are very good at twisting this commandment. Whatever sort of human we are, the Shabbat invisibly engraves God's Presence in time. Some Chassidic rabbis said they would, in the absence of any reference point, be able to recognize the time of the Shabbat. We feel its presence.

This presupposes that we can be open, not scared by others or the liberty provided by God. Some people would then think the situation is unbearable. Puzzling, what! With all the nations and spiritual denominations present in Israel, it would mean something like a 28 hours total break? Rashi said that the "Gentiles of our generation are not ovdey zara" - idolaters (he meant the "Christians"). Now, it might be a plus to have some Christians who seem to work on Shabbat. Then Muslims stop on Fridays. Mutual authentic recognition and consideration do not rely on economic or emergency situations. They have more to do with how we can get aware that we live under the same clouds.

Each year, the Christian Orthodox have a special memorial celebration on the Sunday before Great Lent. On this Sunday, there is a special call to remember all the souls who lived and returned to God. We forget that we don't live in a culture of death. This was maybe possible before the One God has been announced throughout the world. We live in a culture of testing, temptation: some have killed God and would like to revive Him. Then they think they own God, which is a nonsense. On the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Byzantine Church commemorates a Syrian monk, saint John Climax (7th c.) who spent his life in the Sinai and wrote "The Ladder of Divine Ascent" that combats laziness (akadia), apathy (apatheia) and proposes to contemplate Easter as an elevating process. He was abbot at Raitho, not far from the place where Moses proposed this spiritual ascent to the Israelites. Yes, this week we are challenged to show that we are true humans.

Chazarah: Turn back

Thursday Feb 21, 2008

A lot of things are read this Shabbat which includes two parshiyot shavua/reading portions: the first weekly reading refers to Shabbat "Ki Tissa - When you take (a census of the Israelite people)" (Shemot 30:11-34:35) - the second Shabbat is one of the four special Shabbatot before Pesach: Shabbat Parah dealing with the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah) described for the ritual of purification thirty days before the Feast of Passover(Bemidbar/Numbers 19:1-22). The haftarah -Prophets' portion is read from the Book of Ezekiel 36:16-38 and adds some intensity to the requirement to get clean, renewed before the Feast of Pesach.

Forty days ago, the Israelites were on the move to Mount Sinai. We already discussed the problem of faith, confidence, spleen and regret for having abandoned Egypt, slavery and the local onions. Finally, they agreed to "nishma' vena'aseh - to do and to listen" to God's words and commandments and launched big building works, firstly with the construction of the Mishkan (Dwelling of the Shechinah - the Divine Presence). Last week, the Israelites helped Aaron and his sons to be correctly clothed for the sacrifices and ensure their priestly functions. This was more a sort of fashion and accessories design. This week, the pure and neat divine design mitzvot/commandments ordered by God turn to a twofold design process: God in person engraved the Ten Divrot (Ten Paroles) on two tablets and handed them down to Moses. But Aaron, harassed by wild crowds, voraciously hungry for "worshipping", had collected all the gold rings the people had brought from Egypt to melt them into a deity around which they started to have festive meals. They invoked the metallic egel/calf after having offered to him burnt-offerings. This fake-god fashion design ordered by the priest Aaron shows how people can easily go wild or mad when they lose a strong and authentic direction toward God. In Egypt as in the Sumerian civilizations, men and women could be covered with rings, bracelets, necklaces of gold, silver, whatsoever. We have the same and some males and females can be totally pierced with such accessories.

Haircut, fashion, piercing may be a must for some people raving up in light-flashing discotheques, maybe with one idol for the night. Many non-pierced groups with visionary mentors would also rage together around sculptures made of wood, precious stones or metals.This is more an instinctive belly-call as shown in the reading portion: festive meals, gluttony, offerings that can turn to be today rhythmically correct by using wildlife protection incenses, soul music and a soupcon of religiosity.

We are 29 days before the Feast of Purim and indeed the question to know whether we might or not feel the presence of the absence of God. The question is pending: can we play the fool with God’ actions, be He present (HaMakom = the Omnipresent) or "Hester panim - hiding (His) Face)". This weekly portion includes 22 times the word Panim (Face) as referring to God. The major question is to envision God as the Only Giver. He may be present, absent, speak or keep silent: "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" - I shall be(come) the fulfillment of Who I am (becoming) as He stated to Moses (Ex. 3:14). But "egel - calf" has a lot of rabbinic backgrounds that are presuppose our desires for cults, absence of deity and slowness to seek God's Face. It maybe hard at times to acknowledge we were shaped in His Image.

"The day the Israelites made the golden calf in the desert was ominous to Israel" (Shabbat 1, 17). The Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the priestly clothes were God's commandments. The gold rings boiled into a calf consisted in making a farce of what God had ordered. We face the same problem at the present. "Agal" means "to make round, circle" as the "agulah = a round heap of debris"(Pessahim 8,36a) and "agalta" = "the head-star of the Ox" (Taurus, Steer) (Berachot 58b) that still can be fixed by the "eglah - red heifer" (Kiddushin 8a).

In the meantime, Moses is urged by the living God to go down the mountain! Is there a kind of subtle divine jealousy? God had written His Words on the Tablets (Luchot) and He had given them to Moses. And down the mount, Moses saw from afar this roaring knees-up with the calf of gold. The trustworthy Yehoshua accompanied Moses who shattered the Tablets. Is it possible? Two gods to be destroyed face to face. Because Moshe did break God Himself as he burst into fragments the Divine Luchot (tablets). And he ordered to burn the beast. On the one hand, God's autograph was reduced to nil by the Prophet while the priest grilled up the last jewels brought from Egypt. They were gone with the wind, as the onions of the Nile. On the other hand, God could not accept to be beaten by molten deities. Again, He convokes Moses to the mount and gives him two new Tablets. Bringing them down to the Israelites, Moses could not see that his face was radiant "ki karen or panav alav" because he had spoken with God (Shemot 34:29.30). "Karen" has the same root as "keren - horn" or the trumpets that sound, echo and explode into rays, also with much light. He brought the two new Tablets, i.e. that God sparkles and mirrors His glory as Moses had approached Him. The fragments of the two Tablets were taken to the Land of Canaan in the Tabernacle. The word "luach" has multifold meanings. In Modern Hebrew, "luach haz'manim = time-table, schedule". There is an interesting saying: "The second Luchot/Tablets and the broken Luchot were both preserved in the ark, so don't despise an old scholar when his memory forsakes him" (Berachot 9b, Bava Bathra 14a).

Our memory may be affected by some troubles. Alzheimer sounds a modern disease. Memory was imperiled when humans got aware of the fact they can think. Our daily life and various commitments exert a real pressure. It often causes dramatic damages on our memories. Judaism acknowledges that the Torah is the only genuine and reliable sign of the God's Presence and Existence. Humans have destroyed documents. Moses shattered the Tablets.

"Luach = agenda" and means that God was dating (it is indeed a love affair) in a very special way with the Israelites. It is difficult to line along with an agenda. Both sides cannot look at each other immediately. Then, Moses had disappeared for a very long time. So let's go dating with the one we molt. It is much easier, "do-it-yourself". And the calf might have the profile we want him to have. This is a major issue in our spiritual tendencies to bleat like sheep and goats flocking up with our pundits. This Tablet dating rendez-vous that God progressively proposed to the Israelites is unique in history. This love affair has been tragic at times. It still develops, beyond all ages, an unparalleled love and life affair. The "Luchot/Tablets" were legible from both sides. It means that the Torah is open to all the universe as God truly is the "Melech Ha'olam - King of the universe".

Except one letter in the Book of Jeremiah, the Torah has preciously been safeguarded over thousands of years. It is our privilege and mostly the responsibility of our generation that the children of Israel return en masse to Eretz Israel. This is only a part of what the Jewish Traditions. From the date at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people were taught to abandoned everything and thus never to despair. This is a teaching shared for the sake of all human beings, without distinction. We lost the Land, our independence, the Temples. We have the Torah and how to be faithful to God's Commandments. It is amazing that we still could not breed a "red heifer - parah adumah" also compared as a counter-poison to the golden calf.

We live in a country where bank accounts are lodged in the weirdest tax havens of the world. Official services would only accept payments in cash to avoiding real bookkeeping. Nonetheless, the chetzi-shekel (half-shekel) would allow the census of the adults and measure a collectivity, making each Jew a full partner to another one. We have the Torah and we are born to recall and understand how and why God was destroyed in His writing and in the shape of a fake worthless golden calf. On the other hand, the Luchot/Tablets can hang around our necks, be engraved on rings: they are the legitimate mark of God’s Presence that can reach out to every Jew throughout the world and the betterment of ethics and maybe correct us in the many turbulences that affect our complex societal situation.

The Christian Orthodox Church will commemorate "The Sunday of the Prodigal Son" (Luke 15: 11-32).This is the third week of the Great Lent for the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church starts it later. But it is a time of reflection on turning back to God. Jesus gives a "mashal - enigmatic account" that is well-known: a man had two sons. One of them decides to ask his heritage and to live on his own. He goes on a trip, a sort of Indian journey or Himalayan trekking on dad's money. Because the problem is that he doe not understand what it means to be an heir and manage a heritage. Finally, he got penniless, without the assistance of our new style two New Shekel coin, the cute shnekel... Spent everything in gluttonies, with women and he was about to eat the karub grains left for swines. He did not want to work. So he got a brilliant, great idea: turn back home (lachzor = to return; chazarah: return, chazir: pork, recurrent sign of uncleanness) and ask for forgiveness to his father. And the father, told that his son is back after having wasted everything, gives him his ring (the power over his house and properties), ordered to kill the fatted calf and to make a banquet because his son "was dead and he is back, he was away and he is living". The brother is so jealous. But the father tells him that they never separated and he never asked anything. But this other one was dead.

The departed do not return home to be welcomed that way. It is because we have a poor conscience of how wonders can turn weirdest hells into blessings. Struggle for survival may erase from our minds that God does pardon the wildest sins...The problem is find how this has nothing to do with a lotto-bingo, and still...

Chatunah: Sealed to be one

Monday Feb 18, 2008

"To wed or not to wed?" What does it mean to enter into a marriage and what for? This could be the "happy end" conclusion of some normal Valentine after-tomorrow day. How can we, both with regard to Jewish and Christian rites, match today in Israel with the first stated mitzvah/commandment: "p'ru ur'vu umil'u et haaretz - be fertile, and increase and fill the earth and master it"? (Ex. 1:28). After God fashioned the rib (or "side - tzela'") into a facing-up help and soul-mate for Adam (ezer kenegdo), it is said: "Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife (be'ishto) so that they be "bassar echad = one, one flesh, one good prophetic announcement" (Bereishit. 2:24). It should be noted that Jesus refers and insists and confirms the importance of this commandment. It is also a human right and requirement. He added: "So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate." (Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:7, that continues about divorce).

The "Ten Paroles/Divrot" consider the matter as a prohibition: "lo tin'af - You shall not commit adultery" (Shemot 20:13), though the midrash explains that "God strongly sneezes out of furious anger (Heb. "af")" (Midrash Shemot Rabba 20,3).The real purpose maybe stressed by Paul of Tarsus quoted Genesis 2:24, concluding: "This is a great mystery" (Ephesians 5:32). The apostle meant a mystery of connection between God and His Kahal (Community). His views about Jesus are thus important in this context because it shows that Christianity fully took up the Jewish tradition for which "marriage, wedding, match, betrothal" are the key and utmost vital mark of holiness between humans and, indeed, called "kiddushin - sanctifications"

Now, we live in the State of Israel. There is no civil marriage in the country. Thus, this creates a new form of spiritual interrogation. We face a paradox: the whole Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance to get married, establish a family, have children and see the children of their children… in a legal way that also relies upon a strict and very developed understanding of the status and role of women. Marriage is a must, a blessing. Divorce (get= divorce bill) would deeply affect every partner. The Talmud states that it causes God to weep upon His heavenly altar (Gittin 62b) because the only thing He is doing since He created the world is to marry people.

The problem is that in Israel, there is no majority to accept to be married by the Orthodox Rabbinate. Nu-nu... Or they may not be able to go through the procedures. An Israeli citizen or a pious Jewish person may totally belong to the children of Israel and still not be recognized by the Rabbinate. Then, the Orthodox Rabbinate is the only body to be legally entitled to perform weddings and deliver the required ketubah (certificate of marriage). Generations of North American people would not be able to show their ancestors' ketubot as the people from the former Soviet Union. In the former USSR, "being a Jew" was a "nationality" that often showed to be in full contradiction with the real origin of the person. Anyone could simply be declared as a Jew because of their paternal or maternal line. The Law of Return accepts civil marriage certificates. But very few were married under the chupah - canopy and as "Jews, officially recognized by the Rabbinate". Local sabras, born in the country, or people who were raised here, often prefer to travel abroad or contact some authorized foreign delegations (embassies). In some cases, this raises very serious cultural problems with psychological identity interrogations: whatever statistics, it is evident that a lot of non-Jews, people of any faith arrived and settled in Israel in the past 60 years. During the war in some parts of Central Europe and Balkans, a lot of newcomers arrived showing documents of some parents or relatives who had lived some time in Israel in the 50ies, then left back to their home countries. In case, they had both Jewish and Christian documents.

Biographies can be absolutely amazing and it often appears that people are all together Jewish, Christian and Muslim, i.e. legally, according to the right of the concerned denominations. This chidush/new unique aspect of the Israeli society shows how terrific, wild and off-the-wall we are in a civilization that develops its energetic socializing capacities. There is another hint: people can get married abroad in any legal country - and then renew many times the same manifold marriage-divorce process in the officially recognized Christian Churches or at some Islamic Courts. Yes, many people are legally compelled not to marry or to cope with problematic lawless give-and-takes.

This is the legal identity dash. There is also the individual clue. In the new-old State of Israel, wandering Jewishness often turned to risky and gambling sort of adultery journeys or settlements. They grow because of the general hedonistic or self-centered tendency to selfishness and loneliness. Stability requires a lot of efforts in matching with the special one. This is a long-term experience. Now, the real touch is love. Not desires of any kinds, but to make these efforts for the sake of love. And not necessarily because two got damned crazy about each other, share common views or interests as also their families. There is more: to love because God can match two persons. True, any marriage is firstly a partnership with God. At least it may lift up and inspire even those who would be deceived by any clerical administration. It happens too often. I discussed with a woman and her daughter. She told me she was not Jewish. Her daughter was cool about going to the Army. The mother, a physician, was divorced. She suddenly asked: "What is more important: to be Jewish or non-Jewish, or is there more?" I said: "Love is more important than anything". She got very surprised and agreed.

The Jewish marriage is short: a) Kiddushin (Sanctifications) are immediately followed by the Nissu'in (marriage under canopy). Talmud Kiddushin 1:1 states that the woman can be married (acquired/qanah) by receiving some value - or a contract (the Ketubah is a part of the marriage today) or by having sexual intercourse with the man. Thus, during the Kiddushin, the woman does not say anything, doing more in accepting her husband. The Kiddush and cup of wine reminds: "Your wife shall be a fruitful vine within your house, your sons like olive saplings around your table" (Psalm 128:3). The bridegroom puts a ring on his bride's index and says: "at mekudeshet/ you are consecrated to me by this ring according to the Law of Moses and Aaron". "Mekudeshet/being consecrated" points out, in return, that the woman blesses and brings "some sanctifying abilities" to her husband. Curiously enough, the Eastern Orthodox marriage service has about the same words. In Bessarabia-Romania, some Christian Orthodox rituals, in the 19th century, included the Hebrew word said to the bride, showing a strong ritual proximity (when the bridegroom gives the ring to his bride).

In the Jewish tradition, the whole service recalls that the "chatan - bridegroom" is welcomed by his wife, as entering the Temple (Mikdash): "Ve'ani berov chasdekha (and I with Your abundant love) avo veytecha (enter Your house)" (Psalm 5:8). Then, she is given the Ketubah/bill of marriage ("writ") that is strictly legal and aims to protect her financially in case of a divorce. A second cup of wine is given with seven blessings about, God's glory, man's fashion, the barren (ekeret) fertility, children and the return to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 33:10-11) climaxing in the full jubilance (10 different words) of the new "one flesh" (Isaiah 62:5) as each marriage restores this unity of joy between Adam and Eve (Tractate Bava Bathra 75a). Thus, "chatan = to covenant, tie, be connected, protect" means "bridegroom" who "by his fructifying rain" (Berachot 59b), gladdens his "kallah = fulfillment help-mate", contrary to "ba'al" (husband) who exercises apparent power (Taanit 6b). The cup of wine is then broken, which is usually considered as a memorial of the Temple destruction.

Judaism insists, on Shabbat eve that the husband praise his "eshet chayil - woman of virtue" by reading verses from Proverbs/Mishaley 31:10-31. Indeed, he acknowledges: "Batach bah lev ba'alah /in her confides the heart of her husband - veshalal lo yechsar / and he lacks no good thing - g'malat'hu tov ve lo ra kol yemei chayeiah / she is good not bad to him all the days of HER life" (Proverbs 31:2-3).

The Eastern Orthodox marriage celebration consists in two parts: the betrothal is followed by the wedding. The interesting point is that all the readings come back again and again to the fact that the bridegroom leaves his father and mother to cling to his wife. And these portions show the importance of the spiritual clutch that is set up, in one flesh - progressively into a new family entity. In contrast with the Roman Catholics who often celebrate a mass, the Byzantine tradition cancelled the Liturgy a long time ago, considering that the new spouses dedicate themselves, individually and to each other. There is also a cup of wine and the kiss. Strangely enough, people show very shy. It is the first "life" kiss. The last one is given during the burial of a dead person.

There is a tremendous paradox: Jews - and thus the Christians - have described how womanhood saves humanity and manhood. Women pay a huge price for the sake of their identity and dignity. Male power and stubborn machism often disregarded marriage, somehow deconsecrating themselves. "No man can live without a woman, nor a woman without a man because both of them cannot live with the Presence of God (Shechinah)." (Talmud Berachot 9:1).

Simanim: Awaiting signs or miracles

Thursday Feb 14, 2008

This Wednesday 13th of February 2008 corresponds to the 7th of Adar 5768. It may be useful from time to time to recall what precise date we are or will be according to our socializing agendas. The Christian Orthodox are on February 1st and the Muslims on Safar 6, 1429 since they started the month "safar" as we entered in Adar. Just in case you want to wish someone a happy day or remind that Judaism celebrates the "petirat Moshe Rabbenu = the death of Moses". By the way, it also the supposed date of his birth. It happens quite often that people would die, whatever age, but with a sort of chic to reach their birthday and pass away as if achieving a cycle. Moses is the matching personality between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the Jewish tradition it is also a day dedicated to the study of the Scriptures.

Moses was born in an unknown place on Adar 7, 2368 (1393 BCE) and died on his 120th birthday, i.e. Adar 7, 2488 (1273 BCE) somewhere on Mount Nebo facing the Land of Canaan. He died on a leap year and in a month that includes of lot of events for the spiritual life of the Jews. On the 1st of Adar, God had sent the 9th plague to Pharaoh and over Egypt in the shape of a thick darkness. Adar is the month of the Feast of Purim and the providential rescue of the Jews by Queen Esther in Persia. The first gate was built in the walls of Jerusalem and the construction of the Second Temple was also achieved in this month (3 Adar 3412 = 349 BCE).

In a few days, we shall joyfully commemorate Purim. The account appears like a fairy tale and still it is more real than any virtual scenario. It might thus be useful to stop some seconds on the meaning of the Vidui of confession of sins in the Jewish tradition and much in use as a specific sacrament of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches (and some other denominations). Indeed, (saint) Krikor of Narek (Naregatsi), is one of the most famous Armenian writers and theologians who wrote in a very Biblical style. Apart his wonderful "Song of the Songs" that echoes the Jewish text and midrashim, his "best" is without contest "The Book of Lamentations", interestingly published in Marseille (France) in 1673. It is a long and very insightful, profound reflection about spiritual development from penance to quietness. It is worth saying that the great Western Roman Church theologian saint Thomas of Aquinas paraphrased many parts of his long poem.

In Hebrew, the "Vidui – confession" is at least pronounced three times a day. It aims to cure, heal through the way of speech and soul remittance in God's hands as said "HaShem beyadech afkid ruchi / Lord into Your hands, I entrust my spirit/soul/life - padita oti HaShem El Emet / You redeem me, Lord of Truth"(Psalm 31:6-7). The following verse is intriguing: "I detest those who rely on empty folly ("Havley-shav" = empty minds driven to destruction) and trust in the Lord. In the Oriental Church, the night prayers include a demand of pardon.

Judaism has developed special activities into very proficient professions of excellence as a full part of the impact exerted by the Written and Oral Laws on the Hebrew way to secure social welfare, well-being and wellness. Jews love when people feel healthy and comfy. Thus, the rabbinic tradition strongly defended and found ways to correct or reach some sort of balance, soul and body equilibrium and equanimity. Quite a challenge! Yes, Jews love to be physicians (to heal), assist and defend all kinds of victims (lawyers, advocates, judges) for the sake of Justice and Rights and, finally writers, journalists, reporters to inform the world about true events. They combat ignorance by means of written or oral words. This would prove, even in any secular society or choice of lifestyle, how Jewish traditions have engraved the spirit of the children of Israel throughout the ages for the benefit of theirs and the possible enemies.

True, suffering, diseases, social defects show that faith, teaching and learning of God's projects have proven to be gigantic, mammoth and prodigious instruments of screwing the mysteries of life defects and unease that can be remedied by permanent research. At this point, Judaism has no price of excellence, but the example of Moses, the model of the displaced person and loser but he was awkward to speak, totally given to God's most unbelievable projects, ready to sacrifice his life and death for the sake of his people and all the humans.

When somebody is sick, we wish in Hebrew: "refuah shlemah - full, complete recovering, healing". "What needs to be remedied? It is a divine decree that may be averted by man's repentance"(Talmud Rosh HaShanah 17b, cf. Isaiah 4:10). It may be irreverent and sacrilegious, somehow calumnious to refer to sin or to a divine defect that people have to face waves of terrible diseases that take decades or centuries to be cured at the price of extreme sufferings. Faithful and clerics of all denominations maybe tempted to cite some Scriptures. They might also be so terrified that they stay put, speechless. There is still a link between the Vidui and diseases. Some heavily sick persons may have insights about the real value of our days. "Whatever Jeremiah spoke and prophesied evil, Isaiah came and healed, i.e. restored" (Pessikta Rabbati 29/30). This "repair" belongs to the heart of Jewishness, with a touch of joy beyond any oy's.

In Hebrew "asham = guilt", and was a special offering of atonement" and is linked with the root "satam = to lie in wait for, to bear a grudge against, persecute". Thus "sina'h s'tunah = a hidden hatred". The Vidui (confession) starts with the word "ashmanu - we have sinned" that means that we might have twisted against ourselves or others a sort of hidden and broken hatred that requires the repair of "restoration". R. Nachman of Breslov suggested a wonderful "Tikun klali - total repair" set of prayers that combines some Tehillim/Psalms. Because we are imaging God Himself as "icons" who have been shaped in His Image and Likeness. It is a miracle to see how people can still be alive, beyond any explanation or rationalization.

Rabbi Suziyah was a famous rabbi. He felt he was called to a great achievement for God's love in this world. So he went to his mashgiach (say, counseling rabbi) and told him how he had the wonderful project to help any soul to get rid of their sins. He asked his rabbi to get him (with God's permission, of course) to see everybody's sins in order to heal them and save the souls. Good enough. He got it! And then, R. Suziyah could not sleep anymore. He could see all the sins everywhere, all the way, night and days. He arrived worn out, totally dead beat at his rabbi and told him to stop such a crazy hell of a vision. The rabbi answered he got what he had asked... No way to cancel such spiritual gifts. R. Suziyah suddenly humbled himself and said he would ask God to get him to go down to hell with the sinners and take up their sins in order to raise again and help them be released, delivered of such pains. This is far more difficult and thus the job of any good spiritual counselor. This is the living accomplishment of the Mitzvot.

Yiddish is a digging-in scrutinizing tongue that reveals and may suggest some speech or psycho-analytic ways of healing. Is it the "Mume-lush'n - mom-tongue" or the "language of women"? It conveys with insightful acumen a lot of words borrowed to more than 25 languages; it is puzzling like Esperanto, but deeply humane and heart-melting. Yiddish faces and grasps the haunting demons of sins and sickness, folly, madness. "Leytzim - the clowns, crazy demons yakking up for all the evil they do", "sheydim, dibbukim - devils, demons", "chitzoynim - outlaws or spirits of impurity", "tzedreyte ruches - foolishly twisted poltergeists". These words and their related phrases seemingly show more senselessness and delirium than wisdom and equanimity. And still, they do bring us close to more reason and

We should be very cautious in our way to use and not to misuse or abuse any soul with faith and the way God runs our lives. A century ago, it was usual to find in the Eastern European prayer-books these few words: "al-tehi shoteh - do not (use this prayer-book) to mislead anyone to craziness or make the fool of these prayers". It needs a lot of words to explain something that can reduce us to automatons. And this is frightful.

It is true that a lot of people are attracted by irrationality. All sorts of soothsayers, sorcerers, witches practice in the country as in most parts of the world. Jews have experienced how to fight and overcome any fear or hindrances. It is definitely present in a kind of unuttered capacity to pardon and to heal. Jesus of Nazareth has walked throughout the country "healing all torments and diseases", expelling demons and possessed souls and bodies. This is the language of "signs - simeia in Greek (Heb. "simanim"/nissim" that indeed maybe considered as miracles.

There might be a reason for this steadfast combat against fear, fright, anguish: making everything new is God's night and day action. And numerous people - who would even say - are just haunted by what seems sealed. But "making things new" means that the world only starts, today and tomorrow. This should be positively challenged without mocking the heritage given by our traditions. "A thousand may fall at your left side, ten thousand at your right, it shall not reach you. Because you took the Lord - my refuge, the Most High - as your haven, no harm will befall you, no disease touch your tent" (Tehillim/Psalm 91:7-10). We ask for "refuah shlemah - total recovering"; can we all, as a society, ask for "emunah shlemah - total faith/confidence" and accept whatever response.

Trumah: how many new shnekels for a soul

Thursday Feb 07, 2008

We enter a special time with the beginning of new month Adar 5768: the weekly parshiyot hashavua (reading portions) will lead us to the feast of Pessah/Passover. Four special shabbatot are dedicated to paving the spiritual way of the Jewish communities to leaving the Land of bondage, being present at the Sinai; then to receiving the Written and Oral Law, at Shavuot or Jewish Pentecost. This allows us to prophetically envision the development of God's actions and projects in our society, in particular in the State of Israel and the numerous issues we have to face and resolve here.

Along with the Jewish community, the Churches present in the Holy Land - and basically the Eastern Orthodox one - together with the Catholics, Armenians, Copts, Syrian-Orthodox, Ethiopians who have been present here since the beginning of Christianity will go through a time of intense fast or Great Lent, marked by different calendars but a general penitential attitude that will lead them to the feast of Easter on March 23 for the Western and April 27 for the Oriental Churches, i.e. unusually before the Feast of Pesach on Nisan 14 (April 19) for the Catholics and the Protestants. This is contradiction with a decision of the Nicene Council in 325. By that time (4th century), and definitely disconnecting Jesus' resurrection from Passover, we can really that the Christian sects had grown up into independent entities or patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch. Jerusalem became an independent patriarchate (a local Church headed by a bishop/metropolitan and a local synod, i.e. managed by local clergy and lay people) only in 451. To begin with, the five patriarchates were in full communion of faith even if some very harsh theological disputes caused violent debates and temporary reciprocal excommunications everywhere. The point is that Jerusalem and Eretz Israel (the Holy Land) is the unique place where Jesus of Nazareth spent all his life. He rarely went outside of this area. The Patriarchates developed as an extension of the message proclaimed by the Christians all over the world. Today, there are more patriarchates, like Moscow (Russia), Bucharest (Romania), Beograd (Serbia), Sofia (Bulgaria) and many independent (autocephalous = "self-headed") Churches like Greece, Cyprus, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland... In 1054, the Church of Rome separated from the other patriarchates. In general, it is interesting to note how the Church of Rome split many times in the West, giving birth to the Protestant (Lutheran and Calvinist) movements, then the Church of England (Anglican) that spread through the world as the Episcopalian Church. Other denominations were created from these Christian ruptures (Mennonites who developed in North America, Baptists, Presbyterians, and others).

In some way, the Christian Churches in the Holy Land and in the State of Israel, substantiate in various colorful rites, vestments, languages, cultures something of what the civilization of the Yiddishkayt has met in her dispersions/galut. Today's situation in the Ukraine is very inquisitive: the country has three or four separate Christian-Orthodox patriarchs, a Greek-Catholic major archbishop, Roman Latin, Apostolic and catholic Armenians, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and ancient Calvinists and all kinds of Ashkenazi and Sephardic groups incl. Breslov (Rabbi Nachman) or the Chabad (Lubavitch) and other Chassidic movements. I mention the Ukrainians because a great amount of Israelis are of Ukrainian origin, even if they had been deported during WWII to Uzbekistan or other Central Asian or Far-Eastern areas of the former Soviet Union.

This week, parshat Trumah (Shemot/Ex. 25:1-27:19) depicts at length how the Israelites should build the Mishkan (Tabernacle) or first housing for God's Presence and various utensils, vessels, the pieces of manna and the luchot or Tablets of the Law. Numerous verses and words explain the species of wood that should be used, the measures, gold, two Cherubim of gold, bowls, ladles, jars and jugs and on the "shulchan = table (not yet an altar)" the "lechem panim = showbread". The same continues with the shaping of the candelabrum or "menorat zahav = the menorah made of pure gold". Shemot 26 details the cloths that should decorate and protect the Mishkan/Tabernacle. Say, as Rabbi Y. Leibowitz used to point out: God did not use so many words and verses to outline the creation of the world!

True, though the Talmud is extensive on the matter. The creation of the world, the way-out from Egypt and the land of bondage were decided by God Himself. Humans had to accept and develop. Evidently they tried to demolish the creation by means of specific crimes or trespasses. This is a constant temptation for humans to test God or to destroy Him or His creation. It is the same today with the misuse of products that destroy either the eco-system or affect the health of the living. Still, everywhere people are frantic of how to decorate their flats, villas, houses. Interior architecture is en vogue, with sophisticated taste or touch of personal pleasures and flavors. The Mishkan/Tabernacle and all the vessels were not realized as a magnificent wilderness architectural national, ethnical, one-cultural project. God gave a series of mitzvot/commandments to structure His sacred space in the wilderness in order to meet with His people ("Veno'adeti lecha – and I shall meet with you" (Ex. 25:22).

Encounters with God never depend on human will, though He might know we should need and we can send Him some alerts. The Mishkan did not reflect a Unesco architectural heritage of humanity. God often says that in the Scripture, especially in the Tehillim/Psalms: "Tefillah le'Ani = Prayer to the Poor"(Psalm 104:1). He is the "Poor - 'ani" or the "Hoshana prayers" (Sukkot). God is in need of humane care and social entertainment, i.e. He loves when humans pray and act to be good and show humanity. God loves when tight and close, authentic connections do increase between Him and the humans; then, among the humans because He matches them to get to (some sort of) oneness. This is why all the splits that affected Judaism and Christianity as we can see them in Israel are fascinating. They are so thought-provoking, but also so artistic, splendid, magnificent or humble and spiritual. God wants us and not only our creative capacities. This week, the point is that the Israelites accept to build a house to the One Who does not need any dwelling because the world and each creature is His home.

This is a wonderful reading portion at a time when we are as "evil-possessed" by ethnical nationalism and cultural or faith-traditional fences. This often deals with properties, shapes of places of worship, languages, gestures, vestments. Compare with parshat Yitro (Ex. 20:19-23), the altar is not the same, nor the materials (no silver or gold). It is interesting to visit the Beyt Hatfutzot (Museum of the Diasporas) in Tel Aviv to contemplate the great diversity of buildings of worship in the Jewish dispersion. A lot of wealth, ornamental eye-pleasing materials. Gold and silver, wood, as in the Churches compose a world that flirts with paganism. God gave His Torah, repeated it in a "neutral" place called "midbar" (desert, wilderness) in Hebrew. Nothing to do with "emptiness"; or Russian "pustynya, from "pustoi = empty" or Germ. "Wueste - desert/uninhabited". In Hebrew, on the contrary, "midbar" is the unique place where only One Person, i.e. God could speak and be heard - Hu medaber (He speaks/ Hu dibber /He spoke) something clear and audible. Midrash Canticle Rabba 8 says: "Though the Temple is in a desert, you are bound to observe the sacredness of its precincts as it is ruined at the present". It means that we have to consider more. God did not give the Law in Eretz Israel or the Land of Canaan. He did not speak in a house, under a huge pop-event folk tent. We are not even sure of the exact location, because it does not and cannot belong to anybody, any nation. It obliges every person, Jew or non-Jew to consider their existence and human flesh and bones, body as the real dwelling of God as every Jew states when waking up: "Modeh ani l'cha = I give You thanks, o God, that You restored my soul within me (bi)".

On this Shabbat "Trumah", we should remember that the priests had no properties, no possessions. They used to receive the "trumot - offerings", which is the "removal lifted up as the ashes from the altar" (Yoma 22a). Every body , every soul has the capacity to melt till opening their hearts to God's Shekhinah (Pessikta Rabba 21) and also for Paul of Tarsus who wrote: "You are a naos (temple) of God" (1 Corinthians 3:16). But do we look at the present as shining God's face and likeness? There are tremendous resources in Israel and the Jewish society to give alms, to make real sacrifices for others. It is also time to encounter others with a thirst to discover the richness of our incredible multifaceted society.

The ancient Drachma quoted in the Gospel disappeared when the Euro was created. Today the US Dollar, the new Euro are slowly and dangerously dropping down, This year, it is thus funny to hear how the media are delighted about the raise of the "New Shekel"! And there is more: now, we have a Two Shekel coin, spontaneously called "shnekel". It cannot prevent a very monetary-sick system from collapsing. It gives a touch of tenderness in a ruthless trading conquest for power. The two months of Adar remind us that we belong to God. He is not ours.

Yelif: Memorizing the future

Sunday Feb 03, 2008

Some years ago, by some remote chance, I survived a series of operations which implied total anesthesia followed by a rather long coma. When I woke up just by some Providence, I had faced death and was told that some 10 years earlier I would simply "lig'n in a kever - repose in cemetery". Things were new and this "ad shaarey hamavet - till the gates of death" experience looked like a renewal with some losses. Repeated and prolonged anesthesia - the operation is still a questioning accident because I was not sick - affected my memory, except for specific things which had been stimulated in various contexts. On the other hand, I am awfully grateful to the daily studying of the daf yomi (the Talmudic daily page) since my early age. It sustained my memory and humbled me a lot about "knowledge" changing it into a series of life experiences. I met a wonderful a professor of Talmud who, just before World War II began, had the insights to make a journey through the Lithuanian yeshivot, a world that was unknown to him. There he did experience the importance of what his own father had repeated along his adolescence: "laernen, laernen, tumid laernen - to learn, learn and learn always more". God protected him in a way and he became a forced worker/prisoner in a German farm during WWII . The farmer wanted to take some care of him and often gave him some thick Bockwurst (pork sausages) that the talmudist faked to take into his mouth and was quick to spitting out. When he came back and started to teach the Mishna and the Gemara, he used to apologize: he had forgotten everything and was "discovering" the subject with new eyes and a partial absence of correct language and memory. In this context, he was a true survivor. Thus, in a different way, I felt after all these sleeping hours, that waking up was a miracle and that the pedagogy of Talmud had allowed me to impulse some neurons and jog how to track back my memory knitting past and present through this special training.

Talmud Yoma 10a ascertains that before being delivered a Jewish child has a perfect knowledge of the Torah and the Mitzvot (Commandments), the Jewish traditions and the Oral Law, i.e. the Talmud. After his birth, he forgets all that and has to acquire it again in order to be able to go through his life. As if all spiritual and century-long tradition was inscribed in his ADN system as a son of Israel before his birth and disappears when he enters the world in order to make no difference with other people, except the duty to be a subject of the Law (Pirkey Avot 1:1; Galatians 4:4).

This is why Judaism is firstly and resolutely focusing on learning and teaching, which has been considered for centuries as a sacred and long-life educational system to cope with faith and discover a wealth of spiritual gifts and joys. Knowledge about Godly matters doesn't come out of some green cheese or blue moon. This requires a lot of time-tiring training hours, consistency, patience and perseverance. The Jewish world of knowledge is not related to some aesthetic wisdom method or technique. It does not include aerobics, fitness (maybe it should?), Japanese tiny sand gardens for meditation with seeds of reduced bonsais. To begin with, Jewish teachings flow naturally like a river that grows into channels and connect oceans of Aramaic and Hebrew words - without vowels - that may be read in different ways, traditions (massorah) or "fashions". Again, the vowels are the colorful vocalic "helps" or "neshamot - souls" that allow to utter "consonants = bones (etzamot)". It is quite probable that this is what Paul of Tarsus meant when he said "the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 3:6). And when he declared that each believer is "a letter", this positively echoes that each Jew has to write a Torah, at least a letter to be interpreted in numerous ways. A letter is "ot - pl. otiyot" = miracles, signs, marks" that encompass the many possibilities or opportunities to govern one's life and to help the others.

"Learning" is definitely and "professionally" Jewish. In Israel, people will speak at length of their "limudim - studies" that are often considered as a minimum, could be better etc. Still, there is a real thirst for knowledge that come from the positive Commandments.

The Jewish life entirely relies upon the world of the Mitzvot. It is a bit brusque and stated too shortly. But the whole of the Jewish life consists of a self-evident respect and joyous accomplishing the test to achieve the realm of the Mitzvot; from before the time of a birth till burial and faith in the resurrection of the dead. Then it is undoubtedly a humble task overshadowed by spiritual substantial principles that may penetrate our lifestyles in order to make us free and occasionally heal others.

The Pirkey Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) are read for the better part of the year on the Shabbat and are included in Tractate Nezikin (Damages). Along with the Book of Job, they are one of the world's best-sellers because of their simple, incisive and profound wisdom. "Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and handed it down to Yehoshua; Yehoshua to the Elders (Zeqenim); the Elders to the Nevi'im (Prophets); the Prophets handed it down to the Anshey Knesset HaG'dolah (The Men of the Great Assembly = 120).These said three things: "Be prudent in judgment, raise up many disciples (ha'midu talmidim) and make a fence (va'assu seyag) for the Torah" (Avot 1:1).This means that we follow a series of commitments that trace back to Moses, though even Abraham did respect the entire Law because "he loved" (Tractate Berachot 56b). The essential teaching element is based on handing down, communicating, repeating and grooming disciples. This often looks like an exploit for a pack of self-centered or egoistic singletons. At the present, with a small team you can make quite a living promoting discs, CD's-DVD's and some lectures. It is much more difficult to really get to what would definitely help the youth, elders, newcomers, professionals in their lives. Before the Shoah, in a rather poor and needy context, the realm of the Mitzvot could help unveil some difficult aspects of our lives.

Rabbi Rabinowicz had written a perspicacious version of a Talmud text about mice and dogs that provided Louis Pasteur with some instructions as how to find his rage vaccine. The last Rebbe of Lubavitch, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was consulted about astronomic and geophysical issues. But the Chabad Lubavitch movement is one of the trendiest if not most up-to-the-minute groups which developed a strong pattern to teach how to practice the Mitzvot.

It can be only en vogue in the present to say a blessing including the words: "Asher kidshanu bemitzvotav - Who sanctified us by your commandments"; either religion is too present and on the verge of boring, either it enables to get closer to the meaning of words or traditions that need to be explained. In Hebrew and Aramaic, "teaching" and "learning" are close and lead to each other. The "Shema Israel - Hear Israel" (Deut. 6:4; cited three times in the Gospel) confesses and instructs: "Veshinantam levaneikha - You will teach/repeat/infuse to your children, vedibarta bam - and you will speak with and about these words, in your house, on the way, going up or down to bed". This makes teaching similar to conversations, activities, inserting faith and Godly into secular deals and changing the society to its betterment. Indeed, as Jews need to protect the realm of God by walls, fences and hedges for the sake of The Most High, these are not human or cement barriers, nor negative frames as in the ghettos or shtetlech. Universality requires encasement in order to emanate and come forth to full coherence. It is a back and forth, in and out movement toward everyone, in any place. "To repeat" = "shanah, sheni" implies that learning echoes to a "year (shanah)" time that can change us (shanot) and memorize good and bad, tragic and joyous events that make then sense over duration. Israel has created a special body: "ulpan" in order to allow the newcomers to learn Hebrew quickly. "alef - yelif" means "to get accustomed, to learn" (Avot 1:13 : to make a proper use of the learning of the Crown of the Torah). "Lamad - lamed" = "to study" which describes a process of training, practice: "I learned much from my teachers, more from my fellowmen, most from my pupils", states Tractate Makkot 10a.

Now, this constant learning/teaching system allows to question God and the world back and forth and find ways to resolve human cross-questions. Words are turned into permanent paradoxes and traditional inquiries (sheilot) in view to correct or envision reality with more insightful responses (teshuvot - responsae).

Some Jewish groups do or did not accept this tradition of handing down a tradition: the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection, the Samaritans, the Karaites who reject the Oral Law. Just as the Christians do not include the Talmudic tradition.

This may be a consequence of some questions about the times and delays in the Mitzvot and in the spiritual experience reported by the Gospel. The Christians often point out that Jesus gave "new commandments" (John 13:34; 1 John 2:7). The Jewish attitude toward the Mitzvot is that - either sichliyot (intellectually acceptable) or shimiyot (to be accepted only for the sake of God) - they exist beyond any real "taamei hamitzvot - reason or explanation". Learning allows the opening of the gates of future because history is more articulate than we can imagine.

God "mechadesh maasey vereishit - renew the acts of the commencement". Learning should sustain us in feeling such motions. "Not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the Law until all things have taken place. Thus, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven"(Matthew 5:17-19).

Livnot: a call to build

Thursday Jan 31, 2008

How can we define a "community"? As the assembly of grownups assuming their mature adulthood, maybe later than some decades ago? Or some Banot/barey mitzvot (respectively for girls and boys,12 and 13 years-old) that could exercise their full religious duties, found a family and lead a congregation? It sounds a bit dreamy, but youths can sometimes raise their parents (Malachi 3:24: "to turn... the hearts of the children to their fathers"). A great number of newcomers are thus assisted if not taught the Israeli way of living by late teens who give them a click of Hebrew and a touch of administrative know-how. Still, it is difficult to consider them as self-sufficient or being totally responsible for themselves and others.

We are used to consider that a community is led by heads. Synagogues have rabbis, churches rely upon clergy. Both traditions refer to "semichah - ordination" - "chirotonia - laying of the hands" in Greek that is in force in most Christian traditions; with "new breaches" in some Jewish and Christian denominations which decided to ordain women (mainly Conservative, Reformed for the Jews and Episcopal / Protestant movements for the Christians).

Still, should communities restrictedly mirror some of their strong-minded heads! Let's say that we firstly envisage communities as a gathering of grownups, some of them having many young families and children, other more elderly people. A "kehilah - community" reflects a wide spectrum that ranges from kindergarten to elderly home companionship. In some cases, people would not stand the presence of children or get nuts with them. Women? They have their space, not always so opaque to others.

We rarely envision our community of faith and prayer as a living body mainly composed of former or future babies and, as a rule, as a process of birth. In Israel, there is no civil regulation of the legal wedding system to have babies in a secular way. Except if you go on a short journey to Cyprus or some other countries, some few embassies. But this has raised a lot of problems for the "chilonim - seculars". Well, Jerusalem Teddy Kollek was openly an apikoros (sort of secular Jew with questions), a son of the former Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Jewry. He was still a Jew, a character he received by birth.

I mainly speak now about how we cope with what is considered as "a birthright" - Israel is the State where any Jew may come, settle, be assisted to arrive, get full rights and duties before even having got to what the Israeli society presupposes today in its diversity. They are entitled to "return" to Israel because of their specific ties with Eretz Yisrael and the way the State can accept them as legally members of this community.

During World War II, as the Jewish community in Palestine was going through hellish times, there was a strict obedience to the rules and laws governing the a common attitude of all those who wanted to reach the independence of a Jewish State. Indeed, from Rav Kook to any "non-believing Jew", they all focused on unity of action. Some groups (e.g. Stern) were disapproved in their ways and called to maintain a spirit of unity. It appears that, at the present, the same factors seem to show, in particular among some teen female settlers who would disobey the rule of the civil Israel law. The question is thus whether their action can be considered as positive, coherent or if it is not parallel to the acts of disobedience during the war. Is or can a multi-fragmented society get to the awareness of oneness. Building requires unity. Israel face the paradox of building beyond societal standards.

It is written: "God created man (et haadam) in His Image (betzalmo), in the Image of God He created him; male and female ("zachar uneqavah") He created them"(Bereishit 1:27). But usual translations are wrong by definition. We could argue that this concerns one "adam" prototype composed of two vital elements, maleness and femaleness. This is linked to an incarnating process that fashions a body and substantiates the human developments. "Ki Atah qanita chliyoti – You created/acquired my kidneys (conscience)" - Tesukeni bebeten immi - You fashioned me in my mother's womb" (Psalm 139:14). Then what about "zachar uneqavah – male and female"? Good, "humankind" has "males and females". We live in a very unisex society (clothes, accessories, behaviors), sometimes on the verge of androgyny. Curiously the recent TV series dealing with the lives of hospital physicians, show more and more cases of "undetermined" sexual identity at birth. We might be either confused or driven toward some "abnormal defects". There is this very ancient daily prayer that sounds firstly a bit special but is indeed very down-to-earth if not even hard-boiled: "Blessed are You, Lord of the Universe…/ Who fashioned man with wisdom (chochmah) and many neqavim/openings (mouth, nostrils) and chalulim/cavities (stomach, brains) within him (Shacharit).As often in Semitic tongues, each word is repeated to underscore the importance of this human structure. "Zachar" (after the root seemingly underwent a change in the middle letter /ch/) means "to remember, recall". "Zechrut" = male genitals (Talmud Sanhedrin 10:28d, Avodah Zara 44a), but also a "fructifying system, germ for plants, eggs" (Talmud Shabbat 7:9d). Memory and germinating factors mix up to produce life. Not only memory, but human decisions, brains, heart, feelings cause a man to look for a woman not only to "speak with" but to create a community", sort of joint-venture at times. "Neqavah" determines "women as openings, orifices" as in "in the cavity (neqava) wherein the pearl is seated" (Talmud Shabbat 90a).

There we have something that may often put aside in defining our communities. Man - as any animal or plant - but with the specification of making use of brains, will, conscience is the only creature to enjoy the same capacities as God to "fashion humans by birthing" and thus building families, tribes, communities that repeat what they were told: generations generate history open to the future of living bodies and souls. This is why the Halachah requires that every male give life by "clinging to his wife/woman - davaq bishto (Bereishit 2;24) - not the opposite. Males are the depositaries of a seminal memory that allows fashioning, shaping and creating other human beings. This is an exceptional, totally sacred and natural capacity and, to begin with, the mark of a human identity. God said it was not good for him to be alone (Gen.2:18). Thus, Eve (Chavah) repairs this loneliness as "ezer kenegdo - helper facing Adam" and flowing out God's imprints of male memory in shaping embryos, babies till they birth.

This is why men must observe the bound-to-time Mitzvot/Commandments while women are seemingly not time-bound (a few exceptions are mentioned in Talmud Qiddushin 33b). Women are naturally bound to time because of their machzor (menstrual cycle and time of fecundity). Say that women are living throughout their life with the showing and disappearance of a fruitful physical and mental (thus also spiritual) calendar. This agenda basically corresponds, per days, to the lunar Jewish month.

We can then give whatever explanations about the fact that the character of being a Jew is transmitted by the mother. It has a very special meaning: "You drew me from the womb, made me secure at my mother's breast. I became Your charge at birth; from my mother's womb, You are my God" (Psalm 22:10-11).

Being a Jew is a call in utero. Every human being is fashioned according to God's image and likeness. Before being delivered to this world, a Jew is already a child of God's Israel. On the other hand, no human being was born a Christian. Whatever origin, Christianity implies to be baptized. Interestingly, in case of emergency, every human - whatever backgrounds or beliefs - can perform a baptism. But no one was ever born a Christian. This is a problem for some nations that often consider they would have gotten some privileges because of their specific Christian backgrounds. Some Christian communities disappeared (North Africa, Arabia, Tibet, China, Mongolia).

On the other hand, sacredness has to be preserved and respected as the mark of God. This call in utero is unique and can somehow be compared to the Temple and the Shechinah (God's Presence). Indeed, the community of Israel starts before birth. Medical monitoring from the earliest days of conception allows at the present another positive attitude towards what a community is and our responsibility.

Quoting the Jewish tradition about the Shechinah, Paul of Tarsus said: "Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy". (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

Patata: Gossip or Justices

Thursday Jan 24, 2008

The weekly Parshat hashavua - reading portion "Yithro" is the happy end and restart of Shemot/Exodus - Part 1. Moses meets with Yithro, his father-in-law, his wife Zipporah and their two children, Gershom and Eliezer. The people of Israel were dwelling under tents and were meeting with Moses every day from the morning until sunset". "Vayeshev Moshe lishpot ha'am - and Moses was sitting to magistrate the people, nation". The word has a large lexical scope. Its root is rather funny and diverting at first glance: "shafat = "to divide, decree, decide, judge, criticize", as "it was a generation that judged its judges" (Bava Bathra15b ) as " shifta (Aramaic) = childish" are linked to Aramaic: "patata" = gossip, confusing speech, from "patat" = to break, to talk flippant.

The typical "patata" example is when a person repeats things again and again in a parrot-fashion, like in the Talmud: "God be with you" (Leviticus Rabba 32). It should be noted that actions involving judging, deciding or ruling were viewed as the consequence, or at least, comparable to childlike and even childish activities. You know the same as when children play to be rulers, physicians in a hospital, lawyers - jobs that Jews love to exercise as professionals and after years of studies. The Oriental way of judging makes it also very vivid, psychedelic at times.

Moshe Rabbenu was a nice man. Very obedient to Yithro, his father-in-law, a pagan priest of Madian. Grandpa Yithro maybe considered as the first righteous among the nations. He saved Moses, gave him his daughter Zipporah. A thoughtful wife: she has proven to be an adult ever since they met and reminded her husband to circumcise their kids. This weekly portion is significant in many constant aspects that are essential for the spirit of Judaism : Shemot 18:1-20:23. The haftarot (prophetic readings) are from Isaiah 6:1-7.9:5.6(Ashkenazim, Yemenites); 6:1-13 (Sephardim).

Nowadays, we love sessions and run from one yeshivah to another meeting, workshops, video online conferences and discussions. This stress is utterly maddening and insane, what! Yithro had a serious talk with his son-in-law. Of course, it was normal at that time for people to meet constantly outside the tents were normal; at least, Moses was sitting and "was regulating" the situation. The result, by the way, can be even more profitable than all these online overseas video-meetings. Wilderness and oral culture people know how to resolve things much quicker than we do. But our ancestors could not eat properly, wash, pray or take care of their wives and children with normal refreshing kisses. Yithro said to Moshe: "What is this that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit as a magistrate alone while all the people stand about you from morning from evening?" Moses replied: "It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God (chukei HaElohim vetoratav)" (Shemot 18:16). Yithro said: "You do not do the right thing; you will surely wear you out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone... You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God... You shall also seek out from among the people capable men - anshey chayil who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs... let them judge at all times... make it easier for yourself by sharing the burden with you" Moses did so and heeded his father-in-law". This is the first major event in the process of management after the exodus. Frankly, Moses did not look like some self-centered, power-thirsty supreme guide. He just delivered the Israelites from the worse sort of despotic slavery and led them to freedom. Yithro introduced with Moses the rule that "courage"(sic) and "adult subject of the Law" qualities suppose to make free under condition of anonymity and the prejudice of others? This is a moral question right now among a lot of other related issues of co-responsibility. Prejudice and responsibility presuppose the existence of at least two people... free from bondage and "subject of the law", i.e. open.

But the point is to know to which laws and teachings Moses was referring during these long sessions. The question is that the Israelites - as Moses - never had experienced power or any ruling administration system. They just had fled from Egypt with Pharaoh's temporary consent. This has been an immutable law for the Jews throughout history to do things in accordance with the Nations' acquiescence. This does not rely upon any consent of Christians or Muslims, just Non-Jews. Cyrus of Persia - a pagan Messiah for the Jewish tradition - allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. In 1947, in totally different conditions and the matter is still a slant, the United Nations agreed for the creation of the State of Israel, thus the return of the Jews to Eretz Israel. Thus, who counseled Moses to set up a "governing body of judges"? His father-in-law, the pagan priest of Madian, did. He was the second non-Jew, with Pharaoh's daughter, who had saved Moshe.

Moses chose "capable men = anshey chayil" as we have "eshet chayil - women of virtue". Israel is not based on power or might. It is called to function with judgment, brains, wisdom, discernment between what is right or wrong, good or evil. Yithro showed that "governmental" capacities belong to natural Law and had been erased from the slaves' memory. On the other hand, God's free bond allows the Jews not to rule but exert justice. King (and Messiah) David, his son Solomon lost their minds and broke the seal of the Commandments by their ethical and spiritual misconducts. This shows that we are facing - maybe right now - the same problem: how society, disputes, judges and God can get to an agreement in order to comply with righteousness? Is it accidentally if a free State of the Jews only existed twice and for short periods. Yithro's counsel to Moshe is still pending: to find the required "anshey chayil", those capable to regulate and administrate the people and bring forth true rectitude to the Nations. God's words are the same as in the wilderness: "All the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh" - Shemot 19:2-6).

Then Moses and the Israelites leave Yithro and come to Mount Sinai. They will hear and listen to the Ten Paroles/Divrot. There is a special move that should be noted: Moshe was "judging" without any written law, but quoting God's teachings. The first Giving of the Ten Commandments is at the heart of the Jewish moral and spiritual attitudes between man and humans and humans with God. They ram all the Mitzvot into a compact way of living. God repeatedly addressed the humans and, in this portion, the Israelites with principles that are parallel to the Seven Noahide Laws. In the Ten Commandments, the two first were directly heard by all the Israelites. But the people were scared and Moses heard the other eight Paroles and transmitted them to the children of Israel. All the Commandments deal with justice and presuppose the existence of a "court - din/mishpat". This is a major specification of the Noahide laws not to harm an animal and to judge in court.

In many places in the world, justice can be exercised either by professionals or by ordinary citizens or mixed courts/justices. They can refer to habits and customs or special laws, legal articles. The Sumerian civilization had developed the first known legal code of justice that deeply influenced the TaNaKh and the Talmud. Which system had been in use in Egypt, then in the wilderness? Oral Law that presupposed the compliance with a written law did not exist at that time for the Israelites. Or then, a wilderness oral (natural) law accompanied by the oral Giving of the Ten Commandments? "One thing God had spoken (achat dibber Elohim); two things have I heard (shtayim-zu shama'ti) (Psalm 62:12). This is what the Pirkey Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) confirms: Oral Law was given to Moses at the Sinai along with the Written One. For the moment, this week, we are in full oral speech which signals a birth point. Oral law is tracing back to "early ages if not primitive times" of basic wisdom and allow to methodize, organize, regulate and govern with insights and not through the prism of blurring smokes.

The Oral Law has accompanied Judaism throughout its dispersion. The selection of the canonical books of the Bible have varied from the Jewish decisions at Yavneh till the early Church that spread and split into different jurisdictions and Creeds. The Oral Torah has poorly been comprehended by most Churches as a part of the Giving of the Law at the Sinai. The Eastern Orthodox Churches replaced it by the "Tradition of the (Christian) Fathers". But both the "Ten Paroles" and the Gospel have been preceded by a long time of oral teaching that it would be convenient to revitalize.

Moses, as Jesus of Nazareth, called their people not to be afraid: "al-tira'u – have not fear". Different sorts of fears (pachadim) constitute a set of psychological symptoms that may alert us about our reactions to all the events we have to face or cope with. Dialogue is a way to cure this. This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Week of prayer for the Unity of the Christians. God is One and can’t be divided. This Week corresponds to the difficult travail that set up a pagan priest and Moses to show how redemption can make sense in a society.

TU bishvat: plant and love

Thursday Jan 17, 2008

On the 22nd of January 2008, Tu bishvat - 15th Shvat 5768, will mark the celebration the New Year of the Trees/Eylanot. An agronomic annual rendezvous with nature and fruit, plants and flowers, trees. It can be very healthy to give charities promoting planting of trees before the feast, after the Shabbat and, in general throughout the year. It is also a time to buy fresh fruit and remember to pay some unpaid tithes, if any, or to pay some for the development of agricultural products. As the feast starts on Shabbat eve, bouquets of flowers should show our spruce (like wood) and stylish feelings towards our sweethearts. This also happens to be the Knesset 59th anniversary. The Scriptural tradition reminds us that the 120 members should grow because "the fruit of the righteous (p'ri tzadik) is a tree of life" (Proverbs 11:30) and "there is hope for a tree (la'etz tikvah), if it is cut down, it will renew itself and its shoots will not cease" (Job 14:7). It is very meaningful on this day of 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. In these hard times of moral interrogation about political ethics and individuals, it might be fit to consider all State institutions as a forest ready to act with righteousness and hope.

The parshat hashavua - reading portion of the week is Shemot/Exodus 13:17-17-16 for Shabbat "Beshallach": "And Pharaoh let the people go ".116 verses (pesukim) = 58 to go and get free, 58 conflicting ones, but the general atmosphere was corny, grouchy, definitely not a mind blower. The main issue is expressed toward the end of the portion: "Hayesh HaShem bekirbenu im eyn - Is the Lord present among us or not?" (Shemot/Ex. 17:7). The haftarah (prophetic readings) is from the Book of Shoftim/Judges 4:4-5:31, with slight changes from the Shkenazim to the Yemenites.

Miracles are natural. They are daily stuff. We may not care or be aware that small or bigger events positively change and even save our state of mind, life, physical and material, financial position. The problem is the same in Exodus. Did they really want to be delivered from bondage? Or enjoy some refreshing time in the wilderness? Something has pushed the Israelites to follow Moses' injunction to leave "Mitzra'im (Egypt) = place of imprisonment". Not only a jail, but Egypt was very famous for being a place of graves and tombs.

Versatility should be noted in the events of this week. Stubborn Pharaoh finally conceded to Moses to leave the country with a population of more than 600.000 people. Then, all of a sudden, the ruler felt wrongful, mistaken and ran after the Hebrews (Ex. 14:3). By the way, when the Israelites were fleeing from Egypt, God said: "The people may have a change of heart ("pen-yinachem ha'am") when they see the war and return to Egypt” (Ex. 13:17). They had not been free or centuries and slavery is hard but somehow secure. It does not involve in personal armed conflicts. God stiffened both the hearts of Pharaoh and of the Hebrews.

Pharaoh clumsily pursuit his slaves; his army perished in the waters. God knew that the Israelites might be "waking up" from some involuntary dream of a refreshing sea-shore cruise and decide to cancel their ticket, going back to slavery jail. Thus He made their way longer. The scene is grandiose, not that Hollywood style if we consider the local places and events. The waters split at the Yam Suf - The Sea of the Reeds? Nu? There are doubts about the grandeur of the event. Say that liberty implies a certain splendor. But the site is small and not proven to be splitting so much. Yam Suf is the "Sea of the Reeds", not really the Red Sea. This refers to a place of humility as suggested by the name of the location: the "reeds - suf": a deadline. Botanically speaking, this is not bombastic nor flamboyant, but humbling. This aspect is rarely taken into account. Ordinary men and women, people who fled from Egypt someway under condition of anonymity. Without much intimate conviction, they reached at least the deadline of human bondage. And this is at times unbearable. This sea marks an end (sof), the humbling moment that swirls a life into a totally new and unexpected direction. The right and left side walls of the waters allowed them to pass the sea in dry ground! With a cloud of darkness and a pillar of fire that panicked the Egyptians in the morning. A destruction conducted with mastery "between good and evil" (Talmud Tanchumah Bereishit 12).

But please, God, Moses, more miracles! We are not awfully afraid. We are only scared because we don’t feel secure. This makes the "chom" - "protective wall-warming" barely real. And still, they got saved. This may explain why we cannot "see" God; we would die. But we "see" Him in miracles. When the miracle has humbled and reinvigorated us, it clutches definitely to our beings. At the Yam Suf - Sea of the Reeds, a world was overcome and destroyed: slavery. Wow, this can take lives to be understood as a true human experience.

Thus, the prominent "shirat HaYam - Song of the Sea" in Exodus chapter 15 is essential. Its verses account facts that the Israelites did undergo, but the whole text - in Hebrew - is in imperfect tense. It is an ongoing, present, future daily involvement that any Jewish believer continues to live through. And the Prophetess Miriam, chanting it with a choir of women shows the full unity of the people and the coming generations.

The Christians experience a rather similar situation as Paul of Tarsus states: "For we were saved in hope. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But I we hope or what we do not see, we wait with endurance" (Romans 8:24-25). Or: "Our ancestors were all under the cloud and passed through the sea, into Moses. All ate the same spiritual food (manna) and all drank the same spiritual drink...Yet God was not pleased with most of them and they were struck down in the desert... God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial He will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it" (Corinthians 10:1-5.13).

In Israel, we often have some scatterbrained galut/dispersion attitudes. Ingathered? Right; but Jews recognizing Jews as wool-gathering groups of people. We are hardly conscious that we have constantly been saved by God's outstretched arm: He undoubtedly ensnared us from death. Still, we need to complain as Moses' flock. The Christians also need but they don't dare. It is exact that, considering some torturous diseases, lifelong ones, handicaps, mental or physical defects, all the sufferings of social and economic indigence and humiliation, the humans would firstly require substantial assistance. But God has the nerve - if not the chutzpah (arrogance) - to entrust faith and His kingdom to hokey children.

The Israelites got many miracles along the journey. We can't stand bitter waters? There we get some fresh sources. We had better died in Egypt with some bread: cool, guys: the Lord provides flesh (fat fowls) at night and "manhu - what's that (manna)" the bread that falls from heaven for a full month in the morning, i.e. one extra portion for the Shabbat. Because the exodus included a resting day, the institution o the Shabbat before the Torah was given. So they were sitting put in the wilderness, expecting a seventh portion of manna, they had already swallowed the day before. As concerns the "shelav - quails" or supper, the phenomenon is known in the region at specific times. These fat bird name comes from the root: "resting, overweight, pleasure" as today "shalwah". At Massa and Meriba (trial and quarrel), the Israelites felt a special thirst that Moses resolved by striking the rock with his rod and a lot of water quenched the complaining nation that still had to comment: "Is the Lord present among us, or not?" God had the endurance to oblige the Israelites to fight Amalek at Rephidim. A victory against Evil and Idolaters that is reminded everyday in the morning prayer and still a combat that continues "The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages"(Shemot 17:16).

The real problem is "emunah - faith". Crossing the Sea of the Reeds, yes, the Israelites saw the death of Egypt in the sea and "vaya'aminu baHaShem uvMoshe avdo - and they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses (Ex. 14:30). But they did not get to the point that they were getting totally free, boundless. Faith still appears as a dead-end. True, this generation had a lot of faith, but failed when Moses came down with the Torah and they died in the wilderness. They will rest forever in the sand of the desert: "midbar = place where God speaks", not in some polytheist Egyptian grave. The Amalekites will be exterminated by David, but Maimonides underlined that the Jews had the task to bring them to the Noahide rules in a peaceful way.

Miracles are daily, they happen everywhere, anytime, reaching out to anybody. Still, most people require "proofs, evidences". God has nothing to prove: He gives miracles. We are more sensitive to calamities, but God strengthens.

When the Churches confess that Jesus was born to a virgin young woman, walked on the waters, healed the sick and resurrected Lazarus/Eleazar, this requires to have faith beyond any natural faith as Moses Mendelssohn once declared. But the basic acts of faith are long to be integrated. In that sense, holiness consists in overcoming such doubts and life tragedies, especially in the natural and supernatural realm of the Mitzvot. Rabbi Akiva, tortured by the Romans, uttered the "Shm'a Israel, Hear Israel" proclaiming his lifelong faith, beyond any mistake, lack of understanding.

On the eve of Tu BiShvat and New years of the Trees, it maybe useful to say that "everything was very good- tov me'od" and that we can go ahead of the Yam Suf with confidence.

Peru: grow and multiply

Tuesday Jan 15, 2008

Judaism has inherited some rules governing daily life that are directly connected with the Temple. Thus, Judaism is known for its strict attitude toward purity and cleanness. Well, some streets could be cleaner, more decent. People could avoid spitting anywhere, anyhow. True, they would scream at you if you take a flower or a bud from a plant. At this point, it is even worst than removing the mother bird from her nest to take her offspring, which is both inhumane, not vegetarian nor vegan. This commandment of Deuteronomy 22:6-7 that protects the mother bird, her eggs and fledglings and only allows taking the young bird is unique. It shows that the Mitzvot are substantially ethical. Maimonides wrote about the "great pain of the animals" in such circumstances (Guide to the Perplexed, III, 48). The Noahide law prohibits the removing of limbs from a living animal. It is of the same caring vein. Plants and animals have been created before human beings. Thus, they must be respected, preserved as signs of the world's beauty. Plants are growing as a consequence of such a wonderful miracle in this country that every flower is wondrously marvelous.

There is seemingly a certain gap between this idealistic view, the legal rules that protect some species and our moral attitude in the present. This has been described, scanned, viewed, analyzed, revised and contemplated: Israel might have a series of ethical problems. Frankly, are we all broken up or the bones of the same bones?

"Chevrah chavritit = full solidarity"? How can we be non-judgmental and still responsible for our actions? How do we commit ourselves to any action done by any inhabitants because we all together face the challenge of good and evil? This is why the " tumah vetoharah = impurity and purity" laws are so important. By the time of the Temple, they allowed to protect the sanctity of the Place and of the people. The Torah, in Number chapter 19, determines the three major "impurities": leper, sexual life control and contact with the dead or corpses. Various Talmudic treatises deal with these matters (Taharot/Purities, Niddah / Menstruals, Nega'im / Leper, Ohalot / Corpses).

Leper is alas a very extant disease; Niddah is supposedly one of the Talmudic guidelines to enjoy a decent and respectful sexual life. In Israel, we are used to death of people, usually buried very quickly. In the West, there is rather a sort of fear of death which is hidden as a basic human experience. Tumah vetoharah show that impurity can be turned into purity, not by magical washing machine powders or "nikayon - cleaning products", but by a moral conduct. The Apostle James depicted it in a way that is very close to the permanent Jewish tradition: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained in the world." (James 1:27). To keep unstained (pure, separate) in the world is what allows us, as believers and/or God-seekers to accept the Commandments or Mitzvot.

The whole process of Judaism is to comply with certain rules that are sometimes not understandable: the mikveh or ritual bath is of that inquisitive nature. Well, it sounds evident that cleanness is better than dirt. Vessels are also to be washed and cleaned carefully as described in Talmud Kelim. The observance of the laws governing kosher items constitutes a vital question for a thoughtful and humble attitude toward our society and environment. KoSHeR is linked to "gashar" (to bridge) and is related to a correct and healthy use of food, tissues, textiles, products, utensils, tools, devices, gadgets. On the other hand, "tref" comes from "taraf" (unclear, non-kosher, Talmud Sanhedrin 43a). Many rules, as going to the mikveh/ritual bath are indeed "chokim" or "beyond any reasonable explanation" and "obvious" commandments at the same time. Yes, morals can be full of contradictions. The accomplishment of the Commandments brings more of divine wisdom to a world that often looks "treyf - split". The 613 Mitzvot also allow human nature to articulate rational and irrational positions.

Yochanan Ben Zakkai was present on the Temple Mount after the Holy of Holies had been destroyed. He was watching at the site where so many corpses were lying. He answered once to his panicked disciples: "By your lives! A corpse cannot make anybody unclean, nor can the waters make clean; in both cases, God alone can change something because He is the Great King" (Pessikta de Rav Kahana 40a/b). Purity is at the heart of Jewish and Christian morals. Not at the lowest available price! There is a price of excellence in achieving the one or many Commandments. At the first Synod of Jerusalem (45/52), Bishop James wrote a letter in the name of the early Church. Being a Jew, he released the sole Gentile part of the Church from the observance of the 613 Mitzvot, but imposed the major Noachide rules to the Gentiles. Interestingly, this verse points out a constant link: "(Jesus said) unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:20). It shows how huge and difficult the challenge is, as the "Pharisees = perushim" are those who are unstained in the world and, as the Christians, believe in the resurrection of the dead. Purity also means to care those who in contact with a death situation, such as orphans and widows. There is more than "charity-gemilut chassadim". Eastern Orthodox Churches have also developed many rules to cope with similar issues as "impurity/purity" such as long periods of sexual abstinence during fasts, purity or protection of natural elements and food. These rules are lining with the kosher regulations in many aspects.

The "mikveh - pl. Mikvaot" is connected with the Temple service. The High Priest had to bathe before the Day of Atonement, but in fact much more often. "Ma'yan" = "fountain, source, sprinkling waters (Tractate Mikvaot 5,1, "a bubbling well" Nedarim 41b), also: bowel, womb, inside (Talmud Niddah 28b)" and is linked to "ayin" which is a "source" and the "eye". "Ma'ayanot chochmah = the well-springs of wisdom"(Tractate Tosefta Sota 15,3b). Mikveh implies the construction or utilization of living (flowing) waters. They may either fall from clouds in the shape of rains or snow, provided that it melts... Strange how, each year, we franticly expect snow in Jerusalem and nobody required them to get into a mikveh...

Struggle for purity is a fight against deterioration or wearing effect of time, not the fact of growing old. In the morning prayers, the Jews say: "My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure. You created it, You fashioned it. You breathed it into me... Blessed are You, Lord, Who restores souls to dead bodies - neshamot lef'garim metim". Thus, men and women are proposed to go through this cleansing bath that is more than a spa, a sauna or Turkish baths. A checking person may help the woman and eventually the man to be sure that every part of the body has been cleansed accordingly. The Jew rises from under the living water as a new-born. Let's say that insensitive and stonyhearted people can thus melt like frozen ice into a thoroughly nice drizzle of renewed minds and skins. Jewish tradition suggests bathing this way repeatedly. The Orthodox, Conservative and Chassidic movements require it every week. On the other hand, when an individual becomes a Jew, s/he should go once to the mikveh (i.e. "aggregating action to the community"), which has been refused by the Ethiopians who came to Israel as Jewish newcomers.

Interestingly, the Judeo-Christian baptistery in Nazareth is definitely similar to any mikveh. Seven stairs lead down to the pool through all the steps of temptations. Getting out of the water (baptizein), the person has been purified for the rest of his life and climbs up through the various degrees that bring to holiness. The Christian Orthodox baptism is still very close to the Jewish mikveh / purifying bath. Some Churches usually pour some water over the head of the person.

Jews and Christians among themselves often came into harsh conflicting discussion about "living waters". This is due to a problem of the respect for souls and spiritual identities. The real "Living water" bath maybe only understood with the courageous statement of R. Leo Baeck who was in a prisoner in Theresienstadt. He declared: "Who has revealed to the world the sense for the purity of conduct, for the purity of family? Who has given to the world, to the attention of mankind, the Image of God? The spirit of the Prophets in Israel and the revelation of God to the Jewish people."(cited by J.Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, p.25).

Even if somehow, we are prompted to get purified, we are overshadowed by a simple traditional statement outlined by Jesus of Nazareth: "You may be the children of your heavenly Father, for He makes the sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). In this very special year, what can make us grow and multiply without being strangers to each others; and to be try to lessen the burden of distant arrogance between individuals and communities.

Shvat: Drizzling drops of hope

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.