Thursday, September 18, 2008

Avodah: Ora et labora - pray and work

In his "Brief an den Vater" (Letter to the Father - his dad), Franz Kafka reports how little František (his name in Czech) was stunned by his father answering his question on Yom Kippur's eve at the synagogue: "What is sung right now”? The father could simply point out the words in the "machzor\מחזור - festive prayer book" without even looking at the book or reading anything! Although more note books of Hebrew exercises were found after his death than manuscripts and books, Kafka - as the many Jewish Pragerjuden (Prague Jews) who spoke German - lived in a transitional society that still endures and affects in many other ways, the Jews as also non-Jewish believers who choose a secular lifestyle of quality. Prague, Budapest and Vienna are the best a la page tours for Israelis in search of their “nebech” (simpleton, poor thing in Czech) roots with strudel (now computerized for net domiciles) and “prst crz krk = finger through the throat” gustoes of uneasiness). The Pragerjuden exerted a special impact on our new-old society.

Let's put it that way: All humans may pray somehow, somewhere, for some reason. Each individual - even say a believer in waterlily deities, full animist or atheist, may address some demands or requests to some superior deity or intercessor. Thus, people would mainly focus on themselves and their capacities to shape a god out of wood, fruit, earth, animals. Some pet addicted may get it with their dogs, cats, or pigeons. Why not? They simply mirror their demands to idols that are under their control and their expectations are primarily self-centered, anthropological by nature. Curiously, their demands to some "deity" appear to be a monologue. Mythologies and their numerous deities are importance because they explain how humankind could get to the One God. Salomon was a very wise king but he fell because of the multitude of his wives and concubines who worshipped all sorts of gods. The same tendency shows at the present.

On the other hand, the Jewish tradition is deeply connected with God as the Bore HaKol Yakhol\בורא הכל יכול, the creator of heaven and earth, time and space. The Jews are indeed either in timeless contact, dialogue with the Adon Olam (Master of Universe, of time, Visible and implicitly invisible world) or emotionally, spiritually, intellectually challenged by Avinu Malkenu\אבינו מלכנו (Our Father, Our King), Avinu shebashamayim\אבינו שבשמים (Our Father Who is in heaven) or HaShem\השם (Name of the One God - the four consonants which was solemnly uttered on Yom Kippur as reminded on that day. HaShem HaMeforash\השם המפורש would rather presuppose that God is "staying aside".

We may think that prayers have been predetermined for ever and cannot change. Praying is linked to time and space. In many aspects, it relies, in the Jewish tradition, upon the first verse of Bereishit\בראשית/Genesis: "In the beginning (bereishit\בראשית: to begin with after an action which is not defined), God created (cut, shaped, thought out; Talmud Sanhedrin 38b) a) the heaven and b) the earth (HaAretz, i.e. a rush - "ratz", according to a dynamic will (ratzon). The Italian Galileo was condemned because scholars then thought the world is stiff and does not move. True Judaism and monotheism underscore that our earth and endless galaxies are on the move. This rotating system imprints, in a positive way that still maybe be unbearable because of changes, all the components of the world, including human beings. These are the last shaped creatures, but God designed mankind with a special body that evolves in a specific and limited room, with a limited space and cultural history.

Prayers developed in a context where there is a strong feeling that "panta rhei" (Greek, all things are in flux = Sanskrit: "sam-sara") and that night turns into day, sunset and night again, by space and time-related areas. Judaism and Christianity as Islam are aware to develop inside the realm of time and that prayers can change the course of time (Habakuk 3:11 when sun “stopped”).

Hebrew "Hitpallel\התפלל - to pray" comes from "palal\פלל = divide" or "pillel": to arbitrate, intercede, e.g. pray as in the Talmud where "these are rising actions" (Shabbat 55b) or in "to tarry a while in thoughts and then lehitpallel - utter the prayer" (Talmud Berakhot V:1). Indeed, prayers have often been a simple conversation with God, sometimes arguing talks (as Abraham about Sodom (Genesis 18:24-33), but always free speech, meditation, demands, requests, supplications, implorations, expectations. Silence or uttered words (Hannah, Samuel’s prophet is the model for Jewish praying), songs, complaints. All traditions insist on the fact that one must pray slowly. Written words appear always new for who pays some attention. The Jews are praying racers, not in the sense that they should read quickly. On the contrary, they should “ruminate” the word of God (“yehgeh\יהגה”, cf. Psalm 1:2) and not hurry up like the heathens. The same is taught by Jesus: “In praying do not babble like the pagans who think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:6-8).

In Hebrew, we use “avodah\עבודה” for both our professional activity and “Divine Service”. These are the two facets of one call: how to work, breath and have serious talks with God, hear Him. The word does suggest that we are “servants – avadim, but not slaves!” This is a call to make holiness visible in society. Saint Benedict use to say the same in Latin: “Ora et labora” (pray and do your work). Yiddish has caught up with insights non-Hebrew words from Gentile Christianity showing the profundity of soul demands: “oren\ארען” = Latin: orare, to pray”; “bentshen\בענטשען” as in “lomir bentshen\לאמיר בענטשען” for the Prayer after Meals (Birkat Zimmun\ברכת זימון, introduction) = Latin: benedicere, to bless”; “molyen zikh\מאליען זיך” = Polish: modliwy sie/Russian: pomolit'sia\помолиться, to pray, implore”; “davenen\דאווענען” = French: “divin”, divine – or maybe Aramaic “davun\ܕܒܘܢ - דבון” (to languish)”.

Some people are reluctant to work and rely upon social organizations to fund them, others go on strike or stubbornly refuse to change and can split from society. The same in the world of prayers! Some would never accept prayers or argue about the phrases. All sorts of schools and tendencies exist. Judaism has systematically linked praying and body movements, members on the move. The Quakers shake, mostly in silence… Modern Eastern Orthodoxy insists on the importance of equanimity and personal equilibrium. Western Catholicism includes music instruments that are forbidden in most Oriental Churches as in Orthodox Judaism since the Magrefah, sort of organ of the Temple, is destroyed.

Prayers are often repeated. They constitute a pedagogical tool that allows us to grow at any age. It should not be taught in a rebuking way. Paul of Tarsus wrote: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up with the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Prayers can be found on the net, but praying cannot be computerized and is not virtual.

Then, home atmosphere, cooking, family activities, dialogues and times for privacy do constitute a whole part of praying goings-on. Judaism and the Oriental Churches regulate in various ways the sexual life of husbands and wives in order to renew the freshness of love and desire. Intimacy in a family is a major praying activity that makes parents and children alive and enjoying the Presence of God. Kosher food rules and the very similar importance of healthy food in the Churches ( more in force in the Christian Orthodox Churches) insist on getting aware that humans witness for more respect toward everybody and the products of the earth.

Charities, volunteering activities constitute a great achievement as the result of a radiant life of prayers. Encounters are the same as said in the Sayings of the Fathers/Pirkey Avot\פרקי אבות (3:4) and the Gospel (Matthew 18:19-20): “when two or three are gathered in the Name either the study of the Torah or God’s Name” His Presence is a light in their midst.

This teaching about "prayers" was partly published in the "Zevach todah\זבח תודה - thanksgiving sacrifice" that I proposed for the Hebrew communities in 1989 after 10 years of liturgical creation in accordance with the Jewish and Christian traditions. It was based upon the imperative of the Jewish way to utter prayers to God as the Word and the One Who creates, reinvigorates, sustains and maintains us alive. There is one constant teaching which is a fundamental: Hebrew definitely underlines that a servant of God is a man/woman who is a "eved Elohim - עבד אלהים". On the other hand, "eved\עבד" implies that the servant/server are connecting with God and serving Him in a free bond - it is a work: עבודה - avodah. Pope Benedict XVI referred to this saying of Benedict of Nursia: "Ora et labora" in his lecture at the Collège des Bernardins" in the presence of the French intellectuals.

For the 1500 anniversary of Saint Sabba, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem had organized a special session with a series of lectures about the impact of the saint upon the development of the then Palestinian praying services and divine liturgies. Archbishop Aristarchos had insisted upon the fundamentals of monasticism and the structure of the prayers that linked Jerusalem and the Judaean desert original tradition with the rules implemented by Benedict of Nursia. These common bases are significant, in particular when the faithful have abandoned or lost the meaning of their rites.

Praying is a free task, a task that leads to freedom; God's paroles and human parlance come together and can show the Oneness of communities united by true spirituality.

av Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel

September 19, 2008 - יט דאלול תשס"ח

Photograph: Jerusalem, oneness of numerous prayers.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tochechot / Reproofs

There is a rather strange verse in the Gospel. After his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples to get some fish to eat. They were on the beach. "Simon-Peter (Kaipha\כיפא) went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three (153\קנ"ג) of them" (John 21:11). The intriguing point is that before the decision of the Sages at Yavneh and when the Temple was still extant, the Torah was not read over one sole year as we do at the present, but over a period of three years. There were153 parashiyot\פרשיות / Torah reading portions. Each reading portion is like a "shanah\שנה", if not a "rosh hashanah\ראש השנה - cappo d'anno (It.) = (the) cape of a year" that instructs us according to the demands "tiftach\תפתח = open the gates" during Neylah of Kippur / the closure of the Day of Atonement\נעילת יום הכפורים. Thus we turn the cape of a certain period of time, or a page, we round along new openness or closets.

Interestingly, although Jews and Christians are rarely aware of that, the Early Church adopted the same weekly pattern of readings. The Syrian-Orthodox and the Assyrian Churches did keep in Aramaic four basic readings. They are meant to allow people to get a deeper understanding of time. Why history continues though cannot circle back and forth, mainly over one year as most Churches do at the present.

In 1965, at the end of the Second Council of Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church decided - only as regards the Latin rite, , to break down the readings in three different cycles suggested over three years. They also reintroduced large portions from the Bible. The Byzantine Churches retained a systematic envisioning of time "spreading-expansion" that is definitely structured upon the basis of the Jewish series of weekly readings. Thus, the Anglican and Episcopalian Churches read "lessons", which correspond to the order of age and time deployment. The very first verse of the Hebrew Torah does not describe a big bang or a set of fragmentation that led to the creation of heaven and (rotating) earth.

Let's have a Zen or frightful crashing party. It is important to feel this move, immense energizing impulse that may seem to be partially or totally irrelevant and so short-timed. At any age, a verse, a word can reach out to our understanding of events, without any prior premonition. Then, each instant teaches individuals and congregations about the relevancy of what others would consider as indistinctive and lacking exact goals or prospects.

As the (Jewish) year floats till its untouchable and invisible borders preceded by the “yamei slichot\ימי סליחות – days of penance”, the engrossing nature of the present ending-up life & Torah portion looks like some sort of chaotic breaking cut. A bit difficult to understand? The parashyot/פרשיות - weekly reading portions inspirate our cultures and societies in order to cure all trends towards imbalance. We are supposed to read these reading portions and their related haftarot\הפטרות / readings from the Books of the Prophets. They progressively instillate new insights into daily life.

Thus, Hebrew is quite peculiar because of the great variety of interpretations that are proposed by changing the vowels and phrases. Tradition imperatively to read aloud and physically feel (bowing) the Oral Law that brings forth the special style of Mishnah and comprehensiveness.

Good, we supposedly went out of the Land of Egypt, the House of serfdom. We are free. And we ARE. And God… He does exist / He is life-giving. He does direct our lives. He is One. His goal: humans are One, only one singled out humankind. At the present, Israel has no guaranteed and secured borders. Cities turn to be towns distanced by villages. We emerge with difficulty from years of complex societal shame that corrupts us in different ways. The problem is how to make it a cohesive relevant challenge inside the Jewish spiritual life and move ahead into the future. Things are new by definition for the Jewish tradition: past and present are "gone" seconds after seconds, centuries, thousands of years that are egal to one day, "yom etmol\יום אתמול = yesterday's day". This is why Judaism is definitely optimistic, futurist: past and present are movements of forthcoming eternity, when time will not kill or hurt anymore. "Omnia vulnerant, ultima occit - all (hours) hurt, the last one kills" is unknown to hope beyond hope and suffering in Jewishness.

This week, the reading portion is “Ki tavo\כי תבא = When you have to come (into the land)” in Devarim\דברים / Deuteronomy 26:1- 29:8. Curiously, the portion scrolls up and down again the wonders that happened with the very first Mitzvot / Commandments given by God since the way out of Egypt. Again, the words try to clarify what seemingly remains obscure to human hearts. We love to blind ourselves. The last verse of the portion sums up God’s indication: “Therefore diligently observe the words of this covenant so that you may deal wisely (“taskilu et kol asher ta’asun\תשכילו את כל אשר תעשון”)” (Deut. 29: 8). Yes, Moses reminds “that his/our ancestor was a wandering Aramean… who lived as an alien and a poor number (vayagar sham b’mitei me’at\ויגר שם במתי מעט = poor as dead and low”)in Egypt” (Deut. 26:5). He recalls that the land of Israel “is flowing with milk and honey - eretz zavat chalav ud’vash\ארץ זבת חלב ודבש” (Deut. 26:9.27:3). He mentions the offering of the first fruit and the tithe to be given to the Levites, the foreigners, the orphans and the widow. This deals with the “orlayim\עורליים / first fruits” and the “reshit ‘on\ראשית עון” as regards the firstborns.

In entering New Year 5769, we quit or, let's say, that God memorizes 5768. How did we behave with regards to to remitting all debts and offering the first fruits of a soil that was given a rest?

It does not mean that we can unify. Does it show that we are involved in dialogs, good deeds? How do we accept to gather together? The Lord clearly and repeatedly asks us to build up unity through the Mitzvot. We are in ages when "breaking the stones sounds more real than assemble them".

The “divrei haberit\דברי הברית = the words of the Covenant” announced by the Holy One are also linked to “devorim\דבורים = bees” that collect the nectar in a sort of oneness task. Numerous believers – in particular in the One God (various style and moods) – may humble themselvesf, preferably suggesting the others to bow, kneel down and acknowledge they are right. Faith is not a race and impose respect.

Two weeks before 5769, the reading portion recalls that we have no power over God. This also implies that nobody has any right to self-glorification, pride. This week, God seriously warns us, again and again, as in the first commencements (rishonim\ראשונים) that He can bless and He can curse. This does not apply to our enemies – No! He can curse us as Jews or Christians. He can curse those who fake to accept the Mitzvot and dishonor them. There is no place for playing the fool with that. We often do play the fool anyway. How God would decide to “remove his chosen” and erase them? The problem is that He can do that. We did experience that. We are indeed the survivors of the many floods. We should pay some attention: hurricanes, storms, earthquakes, monsoons, tycoons and tsunamis may be signals to get rid of our nonsense and look into wisdom.

True, “I (God) wonder whether in this generation there is one that accepts “admonition / tokhechah\ תוכחה” (Tractate Arakhin 16b) and “Man loves reproofs (“tokhechot\תוכחות”). For as long as reproofs are in the world, ease of the mind comes upon the world as also good and blessing” (Tamid 28a). But Judaism has a one time word, full of ambiguity and realism to describe the position of the true believer: “He’emirechah hayom\האמירך היום – a hiphil verbal form = (The Lord) has obtained your agreement / promise / reached that you said – admitted – recognized as His treasured people as He promised you, and to keep His commandments” (Deut. 26:18). Here is the point, the real one, based on the paradox of faith. “Yoqer yaamir\יוקר יאמיר… Prices increase and go high” (Sota 49, 72) because “recognition, promise, agreement” may at times be confused with “arrogance, pride, pretence”.

In the positive sense, “he’emir\האמיר = to admit, recognize” creates a sort of constant link or bond between God and human beings as the bride is engaged with her bridegroom. This relates to the offerings of the first fruits that can be traced back to the way out of Egypt. The mitzvah to don the tefillin / phylacteries is performed as a bridal attachment (Hosea 2:21-22; compared to the Song of Songs and Menachot 60b about “the Throne of Glory / Kisse HaKavod\כיסא הכבוד”).

John the Evangelist states something similar in the Book of Revelation: “The Spirit and the bride say “Come – Marana tha\מרנא תא -ܡܖܥܐ ܬܐ” and let everyone who hears say: “Come\תא - ܬܐ” (cf. Piyyut “Akdamut milin\אקדמות מילין – Before saying any word”) (Apocalypse 22:16).

This bridal commitment has to be reinforced and this is also a matter of concern in our society. Indeed, we utter words as God spoke His words and they are trustworthy, because we experience as numerous generations before us that they are seeds of what we look for: truth, hope and life.

av Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel

September 15, 2008 – טו דאלול תשס"ח

Photograph: The whole TaNaKh on a rice grain, university of Haifa (technion)