Thursday, December 25, 2008

Sechel tov: acumen

"One day is like thousand years, - k'yom etmol\כיום אתמול = like yesterday" (Tehillim 90:4). We live in a country that is fascinated, obsessed and dramatically anxious about the burden of history to open up the gates of future.

This is the challenge that Israel has decided to face eagerly, with passion. At the moment, it fades among some youths with mixed feelings of "can't help", "what to do?", a sort of easy-going life that is not so sweet, but happens in a wonderful homely family atmosphere. We need cuddling and act as if our faces turned to some chalamish\חלמיש - shuttled sniper-like rocky looks (Jeremiah 5:3). Just look at people, in particular in Jerusalem.

Our people usually have usually mild, tender faces and looks, like the flesh of the gazelles and the hinds which are a futurist spiritual must or mitzvah (Song 2:7). They would often seem blind, blocked and opaque or, when the nation demonstrates, cruelty, fanatic, zealot spirit or wrath may overcome our speech and thus affect our relationships to others.

We are in the days of Hanukka 5769 and the twinkling lights lit every night should remind us, beyond any folklore or opposition to other religions, that the Temple of the Jewish spirit survives and miraculously reinvigorates "al hanissim veal hateshu'ot\על הניסים ועל התשועות - because of the wonders and saving actions" taken by God till nowadays. This 1000 years = 1 yesterday's day thing is fantastic. It only proceeds from a revelation. Just test it: Jews will describe a landscape and say, today (or yesterday) there is nothing here? Wait, a normal Jew will say, don't worry, we have time, no emergency, if not today or tomorrow, then in 100, 200, 500 years there will be something that will grow and improve the life of the inhabitants. It does not mean there won't be any problems, you bet! We can't live without problems! Israel without problems is like a dried out or more correctly a dreamy source in the wilderness.

We come to Shabbat Miqetz\מקץ . It was at the end of two years (and Pharaoh was dreaming)? (Bereishit 41:1-44:17). Pharaoh has dreams. These are not day-dreams; they are envisioning nightmares. There are the good/fat and the bad/lean cows. Only a son of Israel-Yaakov\יעקב-ישראל, the imprisoned Joseph could tell him to cool down because things are very simple. Firstly, Pharaoh will have to face two series of seven years. The first part is terrifically milky and prosperous, the second one, he will stay with nil (= "not a bean" in Latin).

This week, the haftarah\הפטרה (prophetic reading) is taken from the First Book of the Kings /Melachim Alef\מלכים א' 3:15-4:1. It is at the heart of age-long tests that God proposes to the human beings: what do we expect from God?

Solomon asked something special of God: he did not ask for some material instruments of power or wealth. He asked for more insight, for chochmah\חכמה = wisdom. If young people could know (have experience) and elderly people could only have the strength! True, but the youths sometimes would need to be capable to do things and later on to get ready to know and understand. This week, King Solomon is totally new in his reign over Israel. The haftarah underlines how he instinctively could discern who the true mother of a baby. Two nashim zonot\נשים זונות ? women prostitutes are disputing a child and the young king gave it to the real mom. He acted with wisdom and common sense. He had awoken from a dream to exercise right and justice for the sake of his own being chosen by God. The women were who they were but responded to sincere or insincere maternal feelings.

In Hebrew, chacham\חכם = wise, to grow wise, be a scholar, stimulate a person's mind by ingenious suggestions. By the time they will resurrect, they will be finally able to meet to discuss their pending cases with more insights? (Niddah 70). The insights consist in going far beyond past and present, but rather to envision a situation as a whole and fulfillment. This includes a birthing capacity and chakhamah\חכמה = midwife, a knowhow that is the model of true wisdom (patience till right time, insights, self-control and authority). The Talmud may at times make strange statements: Avira de'ar'a Israel machkim\ אוירה דארע ישראל מחכים= the climate (atmosphere) of Eretz Israel makes wise? (Bava Bathra 158b). At least, chachmot bantah beytah\חכמות בנתה ביתה = (all forms of) wisdom(s) built her house and carved its seven pillars? (Mishley/Prov. 9:1).

This refers to the Shechinah or the Divine Presence, but the house is stable as the Temple was. Bereishit/Genesis is a book of dreamers whose brain world comes to be fashionable and real. Lawrence of Arabia's "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" is certainly a masterpiece with regards to his experience of unifying the Arab tribes while Israel was trying to conceive the baby State of Israel.

Now, the problem with this weekly portion and related prophetic reading is how we understand worshiping today and whom we would worship. We can be very superstitious. Dreams are like a certificate of authenticity given by God to every Jewish soul that every single soul can have full access to knowledge and understanding, thus including the chinuch haMitzvot\חינוך המצות ? the teaching of the Commandments as living and burning lights.

King Solomon had returned a child to his rightful mother: she did not want him to be cut by the sword! Eh, the king was really wise to get to that wisdom! Hagios Nikolaos is the saint that cared for children and supposedly still distributes gold or presents. Wisdom consists in helping the children. Here they are the true kings, far too much most of the time. Indeed, they need supported and not abandoned to their own search or solitude. Wisdom is parallel to the joys of the feasts of the Lights.

On the one hand, we pathetically look for miracles that can save us from pitiful situations. God is indeed merciful and full of loving-kindness. Still, rain falls on the righteous and the unjust. Millions of babes, men, women, children die out of hunger, poverty. Wisdom also means that we are able to build up and not systematically to destroy. We seem to be much too spoiled at this point. We got fat or phat. We need the fat cows because they allow us passing across bad times of need. Still, our lives develop or scroll down as if it is absolutely impossible to control human fate and personal destinies.

In the upcoming years we may, in the Western societies, to get to more in-depth understanding of the gentleman's agreement passed by God with Satan in the prologue to the Book of Job. Rich or poor, wealthy or needy, humans have the right not to be deceived by the spiritual leaders. On the contrary, "spiritual guides or heads" have to bow and kneel down to earth and take upon themselves the sins or misdeeds of their fellow people and carry them to the Divine Presence. This is the normal way an Eastern Orthodox priest hears a confession.

In Israeli society we rarely think in terms of solidarity with any single soul. We select our people and friends, acquaintance among our "chosen ones". It can be hurtful. It may be totally wrong. Joseph tested his brothers. He required the presence of his younger brother Benjamin. He tested them by accusing them of theft; his brothers could have stolen the cup.

In times of famine, deprivation and indigence, souls sink down and often turn to be ruthless. The days after Nativity usually remind in all denominations that some individuals were killed for the sake of the Messiah; the children murdered by Herod and St. Stephen, i.a.

King David was a young shepherd. God chose him unexpectedly. He sent his lover's husband to war in order to kill him; the son he had with Batsheva did not live. Still, he remains the Messiah in the Jewish tradition. He wrote - with the assistance of his inspired secretaries and other men the best of the Jewish prayers of the heart - the Tehillim\תהילים - the Book of the Psalms. He was banned on building the Temple. And the same happened with his son, Solomon. A man who had the insights to ask for more wisdom in order to lead his people. He got the wisdom. In the end, he had so many women that they drove him away from the Way and the kingship of Israel split.

Joseph's brothers did not understand they were meeting with their brother. It would be good for us to feel that we are pardoned. Evil deeds and crimes, transgressions often change us into ruthless icy stones. Joseph slowly brought his brothers to feel they were delivered: freed and birthed to new times. This is a good omen for us today.

av Aleksandr [winogradsky frenkel]

December 26/13, 2008 - 29 Kislev 5769 - כ"ט דכסלו תשס"ט
Marc Chagall's flight to Egypt

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Gone with the Flood, a child is given

Strange times... and by the way, why should they seemingly be strange or a bit bizarre? Some months ago, the shopkeepers and restaurant owners at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem got stunned by the sudden waves of tourists and pilgrims arriving from former communist countries. They stared in particular at the huge crowds of Russians that visit the Holy places of Christianity. They asked me "in shock": how long will it endure?" We had gone through months, 7 years of absence of real tourism. In Bethlehem, big hotels, many guest-houses had been built for the 2000th. The rooms were empty and some walls were falling down.

Today is the 27th of Kislev 5769\כ"ז דכסלו תשס"ט, the day that, in the Jewish tradition, commemorates how the Flood rains stopped. God decided by His own penance not to erase the living from the earth or to destroy His creation. Tonight is the eve of the Feast of the Nativity for the Westerners and all the Christian Churches and movements that follow the Gregorian calendar. This concerns the whole world because this calendar has been adopted by most countries in the secular and business world. The Protestants adopted it lately and maintained for a long time the use of the Orthodox Julian calendar. Nonetheless, it would be ridiculous to split at this point. All the media in the world account how the "Patriarch of Jerusalem" went today to the Manger Square in Bethlehem, entered the basilica of the Nativity. In fact, after he went down the grotto located under the Orthodox Church, he will celebrate the midnight Mass in the Church of Saint Catherine. We cannot help, but the world seems to forget at the moment that the Roman Catholic Church had first canceled the Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem and then reestablished the see toward the end of the19th century. It is not canonical to have two "patriarchs" in the same city. It was not possible for Jerusalem, the fifth and last patriarchate which was recognized in 451AD.!!! There had happened all the events but it took time before Jerusalem got some recognition from the "sister" Churches. In the news, there is a full ignorance and confusion about who is who and what events happened and why, rooted in which cultural and spiritual backgrounds and soils.

Frankly, it is known that we have to humble ourselves in the face of God. But competition can give the way to some humbling the others and let them think that history developed like a bliss of love kissing. Definitely not. At the present, the whole of the Christian world in the Holy Land (Israel, Palestine and Jordan) is swarming and buzzing around about which denomination is first.... It is a silent, foxy mental fight. Nobody would argue about who is second or third! Indeed, people would not really mind. The main problem is not raised by ranking and honors.

The question is whether we understand the historic thread that started with a group of believers at mount Zion, continued by the development of the early Church in Jerusalem composed of Jews that decided to adopt the Gentiles, the Holy Sepulcher. With regards to the Nativity of Jesus, the Christian texts mention he was from Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, the city of King David, was rescued from the murder of the children organized by king Herod (The Innocent children) and returned from Egypt to Eretz Israel\ארץ ישראל and lived in Galilee, Nazareth. This is the same apparent confusion that we fall into, trapped by our human desires and goals. The whole life of Jesus is dealing with miracles that are beyond nature. It has nothing to do with our subcomputation about who is first and/or last and vice versa.

Indeed, Nativity can only make sense if we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Resurrection is at the heart of the Jewish and Christian faith, though in separate moods at the moment. Resurrection means that Jesus is born to everlasting life and thus the believers expect his (second) coming. It is simple: either Jesus is the Messiah or he is not. The same question is pending at the present. When Jesus was born, the shepherds sang the glory of God, the Magi (the three wise men) brought their presents to the "king", to the new-born. They came from the East, certainly Gentiles or proselytes who had been taught by the Jews of Persia or Mesopotamia. There was a very strong and vivid expectation of the coming of the Messiah in a time of great political and economic turmoil in the area.

The Nativity of Jesus is not really known with much precision. The New testament was firstly written over decades after the death of Jesus and the main witnesses. There are some evident marks, given in a very Semitic way: the census decreed by Caesar Augustus when Cyrenius was governor of Syria (Luke 1:1-2); then the verse "The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilatus being governor of Judaea, and Herod being the tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests" (Luke 3:1-2).

This statement constitutes a special mark given by Evangelist Luke who was a proselyte and wrote to the Gentiles. But we miss formal and precise information. This is on line with the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth; either we believe or we do not believe; either we have doubts or we trust. And this is at the core of the Christian faith, because no human being was born a Christian. This is something that deals with personal and intimate conviction received and accepted by other believers. The challenge is exceptional and immense. Faith has nothing to do with might, power, proclaiming and preaching abiliities.

This is why Nativity is not the main aspect of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course it is essential. But his "birth to eternal life" three days after his crucifixion at the Golgotha opened up the realm of faith in the resurrected Messiah or Christ. This is very deeply felt in the Holy Land: the Christians are not those who celebrate the birth of Jesus. The "taking flesh of the Savior (salvation = yeshu'ah - ישועה ) is comparable to the "bessurot tovot - בשורות טובות - good tidings, "rejoicing taking flesh" in Hebrew and in many thanksgiving Jewish writings and prayers about "food"). Still, as long as we shall maintain intellectual speculations and surveys, we can reach many points of parallelisms. We remain in the realm of "arguing competition". Humble faith in God - whatever manner - means to mirror God's encounter with human souls. It has nothing to do with fights, ranks, pro's and con's.

Thus, when the Evangelist reports: "(the other day - after Jesus died on the Cross - the chief priests and the Pharisees came together to Pilate saying: we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive 'after three days, I will rise again'. Therefore command that the sepulcher be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night and steal him away and say to the people 'He is risen from the dead'; so the last error shall be worse than the first". Pilate said to them: you have a watch; go your way and make it as sure as you can." So they went and made the sepulcher sure, sealing the stone and setting a watch". (Matthew 27:65-66).

It should be underscored how two lines are significant: a strong knowledge of all the possible roots of the Gospel, including the Nativity with faith in the resurrection. From the time of his birth till his death, Jesus faced and overcame the defying powers of idolatry, credulity and virtual influence. X-mas has nothing to do with trading, business, embattled spirits. We have to look at the symbols and not lose our minds in them. Nobody will ever birth again Jesus as the Messiah. He will not be found anew in a manger. Jesus did not know about X-mas carols, X-mas gifts. When the Church celebrates the "taking flesh and coming of Jesus" she announces his coming in glory as stated in the Creed. His birth and resurrection are thus reflection the oneness and uniqueness of events that can only be contemplated with faith and is linked to Love.

I answered one year ago to my fellow people at Jaffa Gate that the move is only starting at the present. I use to tell them that they can't rally imagine what will be going on in the upcoming years and decades or centuries, provided that the situation will not change. This sounds a bit paradoxical. While Christianity seemingly has to abruptly face the reality of Islam in all of the Arab countries and the Middle-East, there are crowds of pilgrims and tourists rush to the Holy Land, in particular to Palestinian Bethlehem. The city is now under Muslim control and law. The visitors arrive via Israel. This is a new move that will grow. It is a very simple matter: the Russian faithful have always come to the Holy Sites. They are never afraid by wars, conflicts. They come to pray and spend some time in the footsteps of Jesus.

The Federation of Russia and most Orthodox faithful from the former communist countries will come because they reconnect with a very old tradition. Then, there are other republics at the present: citizens of Ukraine, Baltic counties, Central Asia, Caucasus, Georgians, Armenians. This definitely raises the number of the numerous and big groups of pilgrims who are ready to come.

This years there is a sort of paradox: on the one hand, the Gaza Strip remains a kind of "trash" area, of people living in inhumane conditions. It is a place of lawlessness, with tunnels bringing in narcotics and throwing desperate snipers on the Negev. The Via maris has nothing to do with the ancient tribes of all Mediterranean nations. It is a real prison and framed area fenced by the will of the superpowers. What kind of Nativity time? What way to the Sea? What Samshon? Jungle supported by jungle. On the other hand, the Judaean region lost its Christian inhabitants who left the country, most it should also be known that most of them are today in the Merkaz\מרכז - Central part of Israel. More and more Jerusalem Easterners and Christians who left Bethlehem, Beit Jala or Beit Sahur ask for the Israeli Identity card they were proposed and refused four decades ago. The Old City of East-Jerusalem is more and more under Muslim comtrol and the Sha'ariya tends to be applied as general rule. There is only one or two Christian leaders left.

In this intriguing atmosphere that show the revolving perpetuum and renewal of history, the 13 heads of the Churches sign their season's greetings una voce in a formal order and without full respect for the standardized ranking among them. Don't think this is a political statement. Volens nolens, I admit the historic reality that the Rum Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is headed by the Greek monastics in Jerusalem. It is also the case in the Sinai, at the Mount Ekatherina monastery. The Arab Palestinian clergy is intermingled, descent of mixed couples composed of Greek wanderers and settlers and local Arabs and/or Near East survivors of the genocide perpetrated in Asia Minor by the Ottoman empire. The [British] Anglican (Episcopalian) in the North and the [German] Lutheran in the South: colonization does not disappear from frightened scary memories that are at pain with updating.

Thirty years ago, it was clear that Bethlehem was losing the soul of Christianity just as it happens at the present in Iraq, the original cradle of monotheism. But one thing was evident, just evident but difficult to anticipate: the rush of the pilgrims coming from abroad as a part of the tremendous memorizing capacity of unexpected faith revivals.It only starts. The move will develop and spread: the Russians will come en masse. Nothing is small or narrow with the Russians. It is always wide, broad, immense.

The Palestinians had not thought of that though many of them studied in Soviet universities and have their shops today in Jerusalem and in the Old City. The Jews who came to build the State of Israel from the time of the first Aliyah in the 1880s arrived from the Russian empire. They continue to arrive. They are not Russian, Ukrainian, Bielorussian, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, or Tadjiks or from Caucasus. They are newcomers to Israel and many of the clergy and the Muslims would hardly cope with such a change that grows more and more real along the decades.

It is time for the Christian world to recognize Judaism and Israel for who they are. Not to connect diplomatically with some hopes that the construction will soon fall down and die out. It will not. The Churches are not lost. They are stumbling in trouble. The Churches are today under Israeli control. They never could contemplate such an "ab-surdum" that, at first glance, does not correspond to any traditional teaching of Christendom. There is a big misunderstanding about the eschaton and the end-of-time expectations (cf. St. Paul's epistle to the Romans ch. 9-11).

Israel has her views and train their specialists with regards to the views that Jews may consider Christianity with her specific vision. It often drifts away from the normative teachings and surveys that developed in the ecumenical period that followed the second world war and the awakening of some European consciousness about what has been done against the jews throughout ages of stiff ignorance and rejection. At the present, Christianity is presented to the foreigners in a "new Israeli" way that slowly integrates something that is personal and does not necessarily match with the traditional Jewish points of view.

The remnants of the traditional Churches would try to "convert" any soul to whatever denomination. Islam is often attacked as trying to convert by force the local Christians - in particular women. Still, the Holy Land area will always be a place of encounter, a shelter, a place of transition, with much flexible cultural and mental sensitivity.

The Church of Jerusalem is basically one or she does not exist and will not survive. I would never make any difference among the "members of the local Jerusalem community". It is evident that this unity rises from huge linguistic and cultural identity backgrounds and feelings. But the Church is born of the Holy Spirit and shall endure because of that, beyond any human or organizational framework or patterns.

This why the way only opens up for new relations between the faithful. For decades, the Russian Church has been separated from the ecumenical dialogue in Jerusalem. She also maintains a certain theological distance and prudently considers the way the other Christian denominations behave in a post-Ottoman ruled period.

Whatever financial and economic crash concerned, the Russian faithful will show with various multitudes. They also arrive from the Ukraine, from Asia, America. Thus, Christendom only starts in this birthing 21st century. Most of the Churches would speculate about "new paganism, new catechization". Faith always needs to be reinvigorated. Indeed, the task is huge for all community of faithful.

We may think that the universal extension of religious proclamation all over the planet is diminishing in the Holy Land and in the Near and Middle East. We go through very cruel times and troubles. This is true. The way seems foggy and dark, with all sorts of humans embattled in dizziness. In the coming years, as it showed this year already, thousands and thousands of pilgrims will visit the Holy Sites. This goes far beyond any tactical and political prospects. True, it causes again and again "the fall and rising of many [in Israel]" (Luke 2:34). It remains a sign of contradiction for any human soul.

I usually add to the locals that the move only begins because they don't know the incredibly rich and great fighting spirit of the Eastern Orthodox as also of the ancient Oriental Churches. It is a prophetic move. It is not limited to the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Christianity does not die out in the Middle East. Faith is like the snake shown by Moses in the desert and raised up like Jesus on the stake. This is why the point is to be able to embody and assemble the Body marked by the sign of eternity and Love. A new "skin" grows and changes the aspect of what is visible. It does not alter the meaning of redemption.

In the forthcoming years, Asian, North and South American pilgrims will come to Bethlehem as today bigger flocks of Philippinos and Chinese, Japanese. Jerusalem is dual: heavenly and earthly and the keys of death cannot prevail.

"For with God nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1:37).

Av Aleksandr [winogradsky frenkel]

December 25/12, 2008 - 28 deKislev 5769 - כ"ח דכסלו תשס"ט