Saturday, January 10, 2009

What kind of living?

The Jewish world consists of a continuous and steady blessing process, from getting awaken in the morning to washing the hands, putting on the great prayer shawl, donning the tefillin [phylacteries] and a series of daily repeated actions: eating, learning, working and praying.

We move ahead in life under the guidance of "uttered words\מאמרות - m'amrot". They emphasize how sacred, beautiful and new it is to be alive and enjoy the marvels of our environment, the nature, humans, animals... We bless our homes, cats, friends, wives or husbands or betrothed; we say (or at least should say) blessings upon our cups of tea, peanut cream, wine, water or mitz\מיץ (fruit juice), when seeing a rainbow, a scholar, a person we have not seen for one year. The problem is to avoid getting like automatons.

Or to bless anything that only relates to ourselves. Some spend their day scorning the others. They love taking a sort of selfish breath. There is a very close link in Judaism between blessings and curses. And we are quicker to judge people and curse them than to curse ourselves, G-d forbid! The problem of this systematic recognition that holiness is everywhere in the world may be tiresome.

It may be boring to handle perpetual blessings that ring up like bells (some would only try on a trip to Israel). It is definitely not evident to bless, true! And to accept that these words work indeed. They do heal and cure, they repair individuals, communities, nations and why not? yes blessings - i.e. words uttered in the name and spirit of the Creator - can do it and be a great remedy. Now, please, think it over! how do we behave when we socialize or when we refuse to meet with others? : this neighbor, co-worker, politician, actor, doctor, we ought to bless them!?

And simply this cracked-up auntie who could give a loan on a free basis; she is just a mess as we - her family - and some of her friends agreed at some anti-defamation meeting last week. Well, we all turned to "lashon hara'ah\לשון הרעה - vicious gossiping, venomous speech", but it was so refreshing! This is maybe worse than any defects: to say wrong, malicious and killing words against anybody in our thoughts while uttering holy blessings. Indeed, sometimes we desperately need enemies. There are special moments though: for example when people die. An energizing flash of peaceful meditation and possible care. Last wills can be intriguing.

In this weekly reading portion “Vayechi\ויחי - (and Jacob) lived”, Israel [Jacob] is about to die. He calls his son Joseph, meets with Menashe and Ephraim and, seemingly dim, blessed Ephraim (junior) instead of Menashe (senior) with his right hand.

By accomplishing this peculiar gesture, he foresaw a greater and more fruitful descent. It is important that their grandfather confirmed their adoption in the Tribes. Thus, whatever link existed through Dinah, Joseph's sons were not Jewish by their mother. Nonetheless, each Shabbat, a family father blesses his children in recalling their names. Israel asked Joseph to bury him in the Land of Canaan. Then he called each of his sons and blessed them with very relevant phrases and statements about their characters and specific future for each tribe. It should be noted how he blessed “Simon and Levi (who) are a pair (achim); their weapons are tools of lawlessness…let not my person be included in their council… cursed be their anger so fierce… I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel” (Gen./Bereishit 49:5-7).

This sounds a bit rude. Jacob-Israel is quietly ending his life abroad but with his family and a prophetic future that shall be accomplished by his sons. The patriarch (third “av\אב = father) ends his days with decency, after a life of labor and cheat. He grew old as a man and became mature in the face of God. Isaac would not have blessed Yaakov and Esau the way Israel blessed his sons. The twins were then competitors bogged down in lentil soup, birthright and blessing capture with a mom’s push; this does not show the same grandeur as leaving the world without any lady’s care, honored by Pharaoh (70 days of wailing decreed in Egypt after Yisrael’s death).

Still he departs in exile, envisioning his gathering with Abraham at Machpelah cave. Yaakov has a remarkable demand to Joseph in such circumstances: “Place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty (chesed ve’emet\חסד ואמת)” (Gen. 47:29). Both a paternal symbolism and a recall of his injury forever as Israel. Joseph will receive Simon and Levi’s portions but he must witness for the fragility of unexpected divine assistance.

The problem of Jewishness is that Abraham's children being are called to bless all the peoples, without exception. They are called to teach and show evidence that blessing is a real activity and a set of manifold sources to living good things. Who can do it and accept that "blessing" is a "living", a human, economical, historical and spiritual free birthright without any privilege or presupposed return or repayment? blessings? Is this a living? Blessing cannot be disguised or fake. Bilaam experienced this and his cursing turned into a blessing of Israel. His tongue twisted because of the intervening of his she-donkey. He was a pagan soothsayer; his words are uttered by all the Jews that start to read the morning prayer after the putting on of the tefillin: "How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel\מה טבוו אהליך יעקב. משיכנתיך ישראל (BeMidbar 24:5). Even if they might be disguised in brilliant dressings or sketch out foxy know-hows.

“Blessaðu” is still normal in Icelandic to say “Hello” in a polite way. “God bless” is Christian and interfaith Anglo. The word is related to “blood” (Old Germanic: “Blothisojan = to sprinkle blood on the altars”). The Anglo-Saxon word got sweeter by a mistake when specialists thought the root was the same as for “to bliss” which is lovely. Indeed, “bless” corresponds to the meaning of sacrifices (korbanot\קורבנות), the blood of lambs at Pessah (and Christian Easter), as the “Aid al Adha” (Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice) in which so many sheep and lambs were slaughtered in a way that tracks back to Abraham and Isaac’s binding to the Prophet: “like a sheep being led to slaughter, like an ewe dumb before those who shear her” (Isaiah 53:7;cf. Preparation of the Gifts in the Byzantine Orthodox tradition).

In Hebrew, the usual word is “brachah\ברכה”(blessing) and “barech\ברך” (to bless). It is basically connected with “beri – bara\ברי-ברא” (to create) that initially consists “to perforate” – “think out a plan”. “When the Lord wanted to create man (adam\אדם), He first created (thought out) all the means of his support and then created Adam (Talmud Sanhedrin 38b – Gen. Rabba 8).

It should be noted that, indeed, Adam is a “bar\בר” (son) of the same root as “to create”. Thus, a blessing consists in “sorts of perforations", holes, apertures allowing to instill strength, growth, refreshing, new creation. God proposes to screw us up although we don’t feel hurt nor see any holes! To begin with, the words of blessing renew and achieve something of what we got since we exist and live in a defined environment.

A sort of spiritual, legal piercing! The “Laying of the hands” is thus important in the Jewish tradition in a kind of “sacrificial offering” that changes the life of the blessed: the hands were exerting a pressure upon the head (semichah\סמיכה; samech\סמך = stamp, perforate). “Samech”, the name of the fifteenth letter /s/ means “punch” as the thin knife used by the shochet\שוחט (kosher slaughterer) to speedily kill the animal that must die immediately and be kosher. Blessings imply a change from death to life. Interestingly, the weekly reading is called “Vayechi” (And Jacob lived) because his death and repose at Machpelah introduce a new move of fertility and growth linking generations by means of blessings.

Then, “barekh\ברך” means “to cave out, select, choose, point out”: “HaQadosh Baruch Hu\הקדוש ברוך הוא” (The Holy One, Blessed He be) as in Talmud Pessahim 118a, Who, in turn, praises and blesses His creation, not the contrary. “hivrikh\הבריך” develops the action: “to form a knee, to graft a plant, wine” as “two good shoots (proselytes) have been engrafted to Ruth” (Talmud Bava Kamma 38b; cf. Epistle to the Romans 11:13 about the Gentiles engrafted to share the roots of the olive tree without boasting).

Moreover, a blessing implies the growth of “birkai\ברכי” (shoots, branches) who will be satisfied with waters. As it is regular in the Semitic tongues, positive and negative aspects can alternate in paradoxal ways according to the context: “barekh\ברך” can also mean “to blaspheme”: “…Until he blasphemes the Lord by His name” (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a). This is a very profound and sensitive experience that blessing and cursing are closely tied, as love and hatred, praising and scorning, mocking.

This is a very specific call to bless people and be a mark of blessings. In the case of Israel, it is a “congregational, community, international” service of God. This is the core meaning of Israel’s destiny because blessing intrudes that we take over the sufferings and the joys of the nations. This call cannot be superseded or seized by mental or physical "raping actions of capture". On hte other hand, the monotheistic believers have a part in the same call to blessing, as shown in Bilaam's prophecy.

Blessings comply with the order of the words as in the verse: “Bo’u\באו (come), nishtachaweh\נשתחוה (bow down til earth), venikhra’ah\ונכרעה (kneel down) venivrachah\ונברכה (bend the kneels to be blessed) lifney HaShem ossenu\לפני ה' עשענו (in the face of God Who makes us)” (Psalm 95:6, said before reading the Psalms in the Jewish and some Christian traditions). This move is special because it induces yeridah\ירידה (falling, getting to nil) and then olah\עולה (raising) with the blessing. In the Scroll of Esther, Mordechai refused to kneel and bow down before Haman (Esther 3:2-5). This movement is reversed compared to the psalm.

The three Wise Men who came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem acted according to the correct order of the verse, i.e. giving thanks to God for the new born child (Matthew 2:11). As we read this portion, the Oriental Churches have celebrated the Nativity of Jesus on January 6-7 in Bethlehem, the city of David. The King's depose is also read this week as Haftarah (Additional prophetic reading) in the Jewish tradition (1 Kings 2:1-12).

“Yechi!\ויחי” ! The weekly reading recounts the death of Yaakov-Israel in exile. “Yechi\יחי” = may he live” is similar to Batshevah’s cry: “yechi adoni David le’olam va’ed – may my Master David live forever\יחי אדני דויד לעולם ועד” (Kings 1:1-31).

King David is also considered as a messianic character as reminded in the prayer (New Month/Moon): "David, king of Israel is living and enduring\דוד מלך ישראל חי וקים ". He had abandoned Bethlehem, built, combated and killed his enemies or competitors. On the other hand, Yaakov-Israel could be murdered several times. The same prophetic call to universal blessing echoes from Bethlehem, as David is “Messiah” in the Jewish tradition and “yechi\יחי – may live or he lived” incites to bless our society with the mark of goodness and hope in these days of terrible hardships.

It seems that burying the ancestors is a major activity in the first book of the Scripture. Funerals and burials constitute a constant concern in this first account that deals with the history or destiny of all humankind. It is a constant quest and interrogation: Adam and Eve left the Gan Eden where there was an empty tomb guarded by the Cherubim. Cain hid from the face of God after he had killed his brother Abel. Jealousy showed already in archaic times with the same spirit of competition as today: who is best, first, beloved by God. Why should my sacrifice be better than ours or yours?

Thus, Abraham bought a cave and buried Sarah. Isaac and Rebekkah joined them in the same land. Being abroad, Jacob and Joseph also desired to rest with their fathers. This means that their burial was reversed into a source for the living. This is something that hardly can be understood at the present.

We are facing a huge, tremendous, immense, tantamount challenge. This is simply mentally unbelievable: who can accept that the return to Zion cannot be reduced to a political or philosophical quarrel and contest. We are in a unique situation: who could ever think that Joacob would be buried with Abraham at Machpelah? It is the same area as Efrata-/Efrat and Bethlehem.The same challenge as for David and Jesus whose name means "[Yah] saved, saves and will save". Who can really comprehend that the question is that God entrusted by oath of a permanent renting [not possession] a Land to Abraham and his seed/descending [Romans 9:4-6]. The cave where they were buried is a source of life. This is defies reason, it is more than any challenge. It explains that we may have to wait for years, decades, centuries before the living graft of humans can be recognized. We are embattled in recognizing that God chooses life and sustains it.

Av Aleksandr [winogradsky frenkel]

January 10/Dec. 29, 2007 – 15 deTevet 5769 - י"ט דטבת תשס"ט
dried grape trees in Jerusalem
Ein Karem Orthodox church of St. John the Baptist

No comments: