Friday, July 11, 2008

Sechvi: insightful animals

In these days of terrible heat... well not that pathetic for the area to tell the truth, but anyway we may feel a sort of natural compassion for animals. Jerusalem is full of pregnant cats, some are so lucky to have a permanent residence near one, two or more restaurants and coffee-shops, while others sniff around as good street NFA pets where they might get some nice bones or grains.

During summer time, it is a real mitzvah to feed homeless animals. It is nice to see along the ways - inside the Old City - but also in many other places, pieces of bread. Spontaneous groups or individuals do gather for informal catering system allowing the pigeons, other birds or dogs to get even fresh meat. The mitzvah may apparently not be founded on the same mitzvot reference. In the Old City, the Christian spirit might firstly consider it is just normal to feed animals. Then, it somehow tracks back to Jesus' remark: "Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them… not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them." (Matthew 6:25-34). As regards the Jewish part, it is normal to be kind with animals and the commandment that prohibits to torn a limb from a living animal shows a great respect. There can be a lot of personal fondness or emotional frustration, loneliness involved in such behaviors. I often heard when listening to some of these small groups how the Shoah background was present in terms of absence of care, humanity and just be given simple basic food. At the top of the showing, at the present, is the wide development of these high and longhair puddles or greyhounds if not some huskies. That's quite a real acculturating process that lines with the general aliyah movement!

I know a Chinese dog from Russia ( I mean he is a pet boo...) that only eats rice and really developed a ghetto spirit: totally scared by any cat or mouse.

Local animals are more donkeys and camels. Camels show for terribly short tours for children and reckless grownups. The tour consists in getting up and down the camel, smiling at the beast, walking a few meters on his back and bye.. But camels are sweet and cute: they can store liters of water to quench their thirst. We don't have vultures... maybe safer! They swallow corpses like the Mazdean/Zoroastrian towers of death at Bombay. The Jewish tradition has always praised the people who took care of creatures: Jews should remember that they are a nation of shepherds and flock care-takers. David was the last and forgotten son gone somewhere to graze the lambs and ewes... He was the right one to reign as a king. Rebekkah is the model of the nice girl who gave waters to Eliezer's camels. This was the good sign to become Itzchak's wife. Jews should be, by nature, "rachamim bney HaRachamim - רחמים במי הרחמים - compassionate as they are the children of the Merciful God" (Beitzah 32b). Thus, the Jewish ethics towards animals is summed up in this verse: "The righteous respects the life (nefesh\נפש) of his beasts" (Proverbs 12:10). Still, the Talmud accounts how some famous Sages could be rude with their beasts, e.g. Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi who is blamed for not having shown compassion towards a calf. Curiously, it is more humane to respect a calf that is to be slaughtered than to put down insightful verses of the Mishnah.

This definitely relates to the reading portion of this week: “Balak” in the Book of Bemidbar/Numbers 22:2-25:9. This Gan Eden atmosphere of wonderful deer and gazelles combining charming swiftness and tenderness, love and perfect beauty plus wisdom is at the heart of the weekly reflection. To begin with, a nasty deal that should commit an idolatrous God-fearing magician called Balaam with Balak, son of Zippor. The Moabites were alarmed that the people who had left Egypt had completely defeated the Amorites and were heading towards Moab. Thus, the best way was to consult an expert in divine affairs and to curse the Israelites so that they would either perish or be done before even trying to fight Balak. Let’s say that there was a sort of wide range of gods and goddesses, deities who could either put a spell, a curse or a blessing on our brothers/sisters, parentage, tribe but imperatively on our enemies. This is our major life activity: how can we curse others without harming ourselves (too much)? Balak just behaved accordingly: he sent the elders of Moab to contact a good professional “magush\מגוש – magician”. Because these elders were themselves versed in “ksamim beyadam\קסמים בידם – diviners, charmers having divination at hand”. “He began to make divinations by throwing arrows and sundry objects” (Eycha Rabba 1) states that a charmer makes use of carved or chipped objects (qessem\קסם). We use the word in Modern Hebrew to say that a person is “cute”, which does imply that s/he is chipped up or cut down. There is also linked to the present use of the word “icon” as we love to have “cult characters” at the present. As a usual paradox in the Jewish tradition, it is also said: “He who makes himself a carver, i.e. a skilful worker in the words of the Law shall finally become a leader through them” (Sanhedrin 9, 6). Old Norse “Spjall” – English: “to spell out = explain step by step” had initially this aspect of “carving” that is strictly forbidden by God’s Commandments. There is no possibility to bewitch or to attract people by enchantment in the monotheistic tradition. Not kidding, because it is evident that persuasion plays that game of “carving fascination” in our daily life. This consists indeed in hexing, exercising witchcraft and at this stage there is a strong connection between Balak’s attitude and our ways of living and acting in the present. Let’s go on and consider the way we parade all the time with our egos; when millions of teens and “immature” adults change and enhance their trade mark look on the net. Specific sites allow them selling their images and features, contact abilities. We can charm through photoshop and apparently overcome a damned boring loneliness. We might then get aware of how we progressively frame ourselves into this carving of self-idolatry, maybe driven by some irresistible compulsion. There is a constant motto and rallying war cry on the web: “This is not true – you/we/people fake, lie or hide who and what they are”. This is exactly at the core of the essential reading portion of the week.

Balaam is a diviner. He is not a believer in the One God. But he listened to God’s voice and refused to be paid in order to curse the Israelites. This is meaningful because of the above quotation from Talmud Sanhedrin 9, 6: a carver instructed in the Laws’ word will become a leader, at least a true man of God. At this point, Balak sent more distinguished dignitaries who would richly reward Balaam. Again there is a heart-to-heart talk between God and Balaam who confesses the Lord and refused house, silver and gold. Then God put a sort of test (not to say a charm). “You may go with these men. But whatever I command you, that you shall do, said the Lord” (Num. 22:20). There is a subtle move to which we are pretty much accustmed as individual souls. God told Balaam to do what He will tell him to do. Is Balaam the wicked diviner described throughout the Tradition? In particular, when some so-called scholars, insist on describing Balaam as lining up with Jesus. It basically allows disputing with Christianity. Faith in the One God never relies, by no means, on splitting or conflicting twisting textual irrelevant interpretations. This concerns all beliefs, but in particular the dramatic history that affected the relationships between Judaism and Christendom.

It is very difficult not to put love – i.e. pure love - on sale as a flat, a car, a cupboard, simple objects when there is no farthing left and no true trust in the Providence. The problem with Balaam is to know whether he was vainglorious (Rashi) or that he “could and shall not disobey God’s will”(Chumash and Onkelos). This should be noted with regards to Balaam as a diviner. There is no specific reason to accuse him of being “vainglorious” or “seduced and attracted by wealth” which is in contradiction with the Canticle: “If man offers all his wealth for love he would be laughed to scorn/despised to the maximum” (Shir 8:7).

Balaam had an ass. Let’s say he had a she-donkey in order to avoid misunderstanding words. During the 23rd Egyptian Dynasty (749-21) it was normal to write such legal statements as: “If you don’t agree with that decree, may a donkey copulate (fuck) with you”. We are often totally antiquities-style in our search to be trendy… Interestingly, God grew angry when He saw that Balaam was joining Balak’s emissaries. He placed two defenders: His angel standing in the way with a sword and the she-donkey/aton. Now, does your favorite pet appears to be your best counsellor? Okay pets can bite some foreigners in between, but would your domesticated animal tell you bemamash/בממש for true who you really are? On the one hand, Balaam had the angel of God and he was beating the poor she-donkey that stubbornly did not want to move. Then the Lord opened the “aton’s” mouth: She said: “Why have you beaten me three times?” Balaam admitted the donkey had always served him correctly. The Lord unveiled Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel; thus he bowed down with his nostrils to the ground (“Vayikod vayishtachu le’apav\ויקוד וישתחו לאפיו”).

The fascinating part of the episode is the revolving attitude of the faithful diviner. He did know God and listened to Him. He was ordered to go with God’s enemies in order to curse Israel. And thus, God protected him as his best friend the aton/she-donkey did. “Aton\אתון” is a special word. In Daniel 3:9 it is stated: “Who ever will not fall down and worship (the statue of gold) shall be thrown into a burning fiery furnace (lego-atun nura\לגו אתון נורא)”. In this prophetic verse against idolatry, the word symbolically refers to God’s anger before redemption.

It could be possible to mention the numerous quotations linking Balaam, as a negative personality, to Jesus of Nazareth. It may be far more interesting to open other ways. Balaam is the pagan diviner that recognized the living God and bowed totally down (Ps. 95:6). God and his she-donkey switched his tongue from cursing to blessing to such an extent that till now, when entering a synagogue, we say: “How fair are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings Israel!” (Num. 24:5). Judaism always relies and complies with the words of converted pagans and this is a major aspect of the Jewish faith (cf. Jonah, Ruth). The three Magi that came from the East to see the new born child Jesus in Bethlehem also refused to bow down before Herod and did not tell him where the child was laying, which shows a real connection with the Tradition (Matthew 2:1-12).

Finally, God shows animals as instruments of the redemption and true faith or apostasy. Balaam had beaten his donkey three times without being aware of the good she was calling upon him. The first morning blessing praises the “sechvi\שכוי – rooster, cock – but also conscience!” to have the capacity to distinguish night from day. When Jesus is judged, Peter-Kaipha is sitting around near the fire. Jesus had told him: “This very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times… He went out and began to weep bitterly (Matthew 26:75).

It should be the task of all clerics to kick us like the she-donkey. Or do we have roosters?

July 8th, 2008 - ו דתמוז תשס"ח (at midnight = the 6th of tamuz)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

CHUQ: The mitzvah of purifying love

The Hebrew Mitzvot are numerous and diversified. This Shabbat is called "Chukkat - חוקת " and present the account, in Bemidbar/מדבר \Numbers chapter 19, of the commandment to slaughter the red heifer or parah adumah\ פרה אדומה whose blood and ashes should be sprinkled over the altar and purify the people. This is the kind of actions that are not very en vogue at the present. But cultural attitudes are often totally unexpected.

Last week, I celebrated at the cemetery of Mount Zion, the godovchina\годовчина or first anniversary of the pasing away of a person whom I had buried. Exact day, one year later. Same place for what the Jews call a יארצייט\yohrtzayt - a yiddish word that really corresponds to the spirit of the Slavic word. The family came from Baku, Azerbaidjan, but were totally intermingled and included both Christian Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Armenians, Azeris, other Caucasian nationalities. They used both Russian and Hebrew as their tribal Esperanto. As usual, we had a meal after the memorial service at a family restaurant. Tons of food, all sorts of lambs, meat, chickens, fish with rice and vegetables. Far too excessive and a bit like a banquet linking both memory for the living and the dead to meet on that annual day. This is also new Israel or Israel as it shows today. But, to begin with, these very nice and for the bigger part educated people, had asked to bring the lamb and mutton alive and to slaughter them on the spot. They could not get the permission which is basically evident, but still proves how cultural behaviors and rituals may cope with blood actions or ashes. The Buddhists do use ashes with water in a manner that is not so far from the red heifer ritual prescribed for the purification of the people. Ash Wednesday that marks the beginning of the Latin Rite Great Lent also consists in imposing ashes on the forehead and/or the hand of the faithful though it is a very simple act without specific reference to the red heifer and the slaying of a cow. Chukim\חוקים are "not rationnally understandable or explainable commandments". God has spoken and declared, ordered; man must accept the Word. We hate orders and why should we obey without understanding or at least without discernment?

The "parah adumah\פרה אדומה " is special in the Jewish tradition: "par\פר " means "steer, bull". It allegorically refers to the Jews in their offering of their lives for the redemption of mankind. This is the way Jonah was retained three day in the belly of the big fish as making a sacrifice for the fishmen who had thrown him into the water.Strength and weakness, inteligence and some sort of blindness characterize bulls. "Adumah\אדומה " is "red (Fr. "rousse")" as Adam was taken from the earth\adamah - אדמה ."Adom" is red like blood\dam - דם and silently runs in the veins of the living. In Avodah Zara 24b, Adom/red means the sacrifice of the red heifer as the general offering of human sacrifice to God that is either linked to life/birth or death and prolongement of life (shoshana aduma\שושנה אדומה = menstrual women bleeding). Edom\אדום turned by vowels from the red color to the Edumites and thus the Egyptians, and later the Romans, the Roman empire. It was finally associated with a negative attitude toward Christianity.

Pouring a unique cow's blood and ashes in lustral waters over the altar is not a magic act. It is not idolatry. This is the most difficult part of our teachings. It apparently makes no sense. No human mind or spirit can get to a partly or full comprehension of what such a mitzvah may imply. It is like love or pardon: we cannot comply anyone to love anybody. We may spend our lives just like single portions of some nice or less appetizing products in sale in supermarkets. The Jewish teaching is different. It focuses on "more than more". It is not evident or given to love. Daily speech just shows that: "we could kill by love die out of love". This makes no sense. This is not love. There is a huge part of irrationality in atonement and true love.

In that sense, Israel does need the presence of any ministering people, parroting the Name of God and making the living on the souls of the local inhabitants. True faith must lead to unity or coherence with regards to history and human destinies.

The Ukraine is, for a big part, a major country of reference and origin for the Jews who built Israel. There is a tough link between the State of Israel and its founders and this area of the Southern fundamental region of the Rus of the Slavs. In the Antiquity, the Jews already lived in Odesa, Cherson, Sebastopol that the Scythian people had conquered. It is possible to speak of a sort of tragedy in the relationships between the Jewish and Ukrainian/Subcarpathian nation. The mitzvat parah adumah/ commandment of the red heifer would suggest that we had to pardon. That God may marry couples in love since He ended the creation of the world. The first things that God did: He repented with Noah of His will to destroy the universe and the earth. This is a unique example that God Himself did repent. And then, He put a sign on the forehead of Cain who had killed his brother. This means there is no measure to how much we are born to pardon. We cannot oblige anybody to pardon and forgive. There are souls and there are times, places where this becomes the sign of true hope and resurrection.

On Friday night, in the harbor of Haifa, the Ukrainian Ambassador of Ukraine in the State of Israel welcomed different personalities on board the short visiting Ukrainian ship "Hetman Sahaydachniy". It is the kind of event that is both discreet and significant. There is a large Ukrainian community in Israel. It is composed of different levels of Israeli citizens, legal and illegal workers, people who would spend some years in Israel (sometimes switching to the Palestinian Territories). The community has some difficulties in setting up real organizations and associations. There was something very moving at seeing Israeli soldiers of Ukrainian descent with their family or girl/boy friends, speaking Hebrew, Ukrainian and Russian.

Yes, there have been murders committed by the Ukrainians since the Jews lived in the country. Again, Yad VaShem shows that, in the present, the number of "Righteous among the Nations" that saved the Jews during World War II is higher than for any other nation. And it is thus important, on such a shabbat of the red heif and "beyond rationality pardon" to insist on this "gentle, maybe gentlemen's agreement link" that is authentic and rich of cultural, spiritual insights for the future.

It was indeed moving to look at the people: from Mr. Moshe Maniovich, lawyer but mainly veteran of the Ukrainian and Israeli armies. We are coming in July and August to the 1020th anniversary of the Baptism of the Rus' of Kiev/Kiyv. It cannot get reduced to some internal and political conflict in the Ukraine and among the multi-faceted Christian, Jewish, Muslim denominations. There is a spirit that is indeed present in Israel. This spirit helped the Jews, maybe unwillingly or without much awareness, to build up a modern state that faces a lot of common contradictions with the Ukrainian society.

In 1902, in Nikolaiev/Mykolaiyv, was born Menachem Mendel Schneersohn who became the last Rebbe of Lubavitch, and died on the 3rd of tammuz 5754, i.e. fourteen years ago. I hope to write more notes about the interesting ties that could be found between the Rebbe and Paul of Tarsus. Undoubtedly, i is not possible to ignore the way the Rebbe could contact all Jewish communities, whether Ashkenazi, Sephardi or Oriental - his "universal" call and also to the Gentiles in Christianity. In modern times, it suggests a special ability to all mankind, first to the Jews, then the Gentiles. This is strangely very Paulinian. It is evident that some tendencies developed by the Chabad (Lubavich movement) may be questioned. It is a very creative path to what is at the heart of Jewishness: the indissoluble clutch to the Mitzvot and their giving of life.

Israel is totally entitled to know who, how the Jews have been murdered by a widely baptized Europe. On the other hand, she has also the task to pave the way when a red heifer may show; at this point, the Rebbe of Lubavich will help as curiously Paul of Tarsus and the saints that God is acting far beyond our will and understanding. Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytskiy of L'viv remains a powerful and Light of God for the darkest days of all Ukrainians.

Some years ago, I baptized a child in a town of the South of Israel. When I entered the flat, grandad spoke Ukrainian with his wife, the only tongue she had - he welcomed me in Yiddish; the other generations spoke Ukrainian, Russian, some Russyn dialect and Polish (from Subcarpathia to Poland), Yiddish and Hebrew. This is the same as for the above Caucasian family: Israel is boiling up with a spirit of newness. It mixes up and shapes new situations. Indeed, Messiah comes and Christians witness that He will come in glory.