Tuesday, July 7, 2009

In the very heat of the day

The heat is waving here and there tough and dry air. In Jerusalem, the air can still be very slightly refreshed towards the end of the day by a swift wind that remains still imperceptible in the bigger part of the country. One of the consequences of such a heat is a sort of "siesta - hesychia (Greek)" atmosphere. Either people would really have a nap in the afternoon or some slowdown of their activities. Sleeping - not only to have a nap - is a major creative activity along the Great Sea (Mediterranean Sea) that resembles to some relaxing sojourn, for a limited number of hours, in the belly of the Big Fish, supposedly the "whale", that hosted Jonah before he went to Nineveh (Mesopotamia).

He was onboard a ship when a terrible tempest broke up and the sailors got so scared that they suspected one of them, namely cast the lots and got to the idea that the "Jonah the Hebrew" was the initiator of the storm. Jonah thus declared when he was heaved overboard after they had cast the lots: "I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land - Ivri anochi veHaShem Elokei hashamayim ani yare\עברי אנכי וה' אלהי השמים אני ירא" (Jonah 1:9). The seamen cried out to the Lord an intriguing prayer: "Lord, do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person! For You, O Lord, have brought this about"(Jonah1:14). The Book of Jonah is read every Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement as the reminder that Jonah, against his will to begin with, accepted to proclaim the yoke of Heaven and after having reposed in the Big Fish throughout the city of Nineveh that converted to God.

We entered the month of Tammuz on Tuesday 23rd of June and shall go along the days of heat. They pave the move to the penitential act of conversion: the two destructions of Jerusalem, deportation to Babylon, the extermination of the two Temples. There are different days of fast during that period, that starts on Tammuz 15th and leads to Av 9th (Destruction of the Temples).

How curious that this area of the world is so inhabited by an intense and effective power of death. It is maybe more sensitive because of the message of hope and resurrection, afterlife, world-to-come that spread from Jerusalem and Eretz Israel till the ends of the world. As if heat could be a sign of life and, at the same time, call to quarrels and fencing hatred. It is thus quite amazing how millions of people have fought in the name of God in this area and got embattled in harsh conflicts, full of passions, bloodsheds, assassinations.

The cause of God is like a permanent war against death. Still, deathly eradication and destruction, extinction and extirpation from this world would seem the most fascinating and appealing trace of divine Presence “underneath”. It is correct that we live very strange times of mental strangulation and ruthless sophisticated manslaughter in the Middle-East. We are living in a region where there is just a switch between life and death. It is obvious everywhere, a bit more here. The rule is simple and tragic or, on the contrary, magnificent: every minute should be a full breath of gratitude or marvel, down-to-earth gladness. The paradox of Eretz Israel, at this point, is that the society is exceptionally dynamic although it lacks real time of peace and suspension of constant death threats. There can be mobs in Paris and its suburbs, at times terrorists in Europe and in particular in Germany or Italy. Any guy can so quietly enter any supermarket in the United States – it is even a sort of recurrent symptom – and just shoot down the clientele and the employees, the manpower; thus, this a different attitude toward the real challenges of life and death. South American people can be totally fascinated by death.

A famous Russian Jewish film avant-garde found a shelter in Mexico during World War II because he was married to a Mexican painter, a hot-tempered colorful native. She actually used to clash with him and threatened to kill him with a huge knife, a dramatic scene – just because she could not refrain this profound call for blood that never happened. Whatever unbelievable killings were committed during the conquista of Latin America, in particular by the Churches, we can only be stunned by the numerous and century-long human sacrifices offered by the Amerindians who used to remove the hearts of the victims as a sign of life-giving! The same occurred in Africa, Asia with repulsive savage masochism.

The Israeli society is at pain with a kind of apparent uncertainty. Yes, we ought to back the survival of Israel, but in a way that is so diverse and unclear that everybody could think s/he is entitled to do anything except harming his/her own self. Or not really protest in case of obvious violations of human rights.

Abraham was a wandering Aramean (Deut. 26:5). He used to sit “b’chom hayom\בחום היום – in the very heat of the day”, under an open tent and to welcome those who were passing along the way (Gen. 18:1). He was peacefully giving hospitality to those who needed a rest when the heat was reaching its peak. On the other hand, Saul slaughtered the Ammonites till the heat of the day (1 Samuel 11:11; cf. 2 Sam. 4:5). Heat can also be a matter of remuneration as in Jesus’ parable to give one talent pay to all the workers, those who bore the burden of the day and those who came for on hour (Matthew 20:11; cf.Avodah Zarah 10b).

“Cham\חם = hot, hot-tempered, warm, boiling” is a basic Semitic and thus Hebrew word, rooted in “H-H-M\חחם – hot, warm, to boil”, mainly referring, in the Talmud, to water and cleansing activities or to special colors (as “red”, the same as today some women would love to have red hair or, in between, some strawberry dye close to red). It may relate to rituals: “The bathers began to heat the water on the Shabbat (Shabbat 40a). Teaching: “Warm yourself by the fire of the scholars and try to associate with them (Avot 2,10). “Hammam = Turkish baths, the sort of sensual Oriental vaporous bath and massaging” that is upgraded in our SPA’s.

In terms of heating as healing processes, “chacham\חכ.חם” turns to “chum\חום = heat and heal, excite” as also “to be hot, covet, carnally excited”. “I had a desire for his embrace” (Niddah 20b) and “He got so hot that he was (healed) by his pollution, though not once but again and again (Niddah 43b). On the other hand, “This is a land which all great men were anxious to possess (Tanhumah Mishpatim 17) connects carnal desires and hotline with a deeper feeling of anxiety and insecurity, which is quite frequent.

The word is very intriguing, indeed. “Chum\חום” swindles from heat to departure. “Arouse the feeling of the people when delivering my funeral address for my soul (I) shall be present” (Shabbat 153a, about a righteous man because people were speaking warmly of his memory). “b’khol chumma’o\בכל חומאהו = in his full heat = youth”. Curiously, this heat that is the sign of daytime and life dynamics, including confrontations, implies, in the Semitic realm, some need for limitation of space and accessibility.

The Old City of Jerusalem is partly surrounded by the “chomot\חומות – Walls (of the Old City)” that are much frequented from the different places where one can climb up and down along the Gates. We have a very poor historic and cultural memory; say, we prefer not to know. From the time of Abraham to Jericho, everything in this region was a matter of fortification, walls of protection. And each time, throughout history, the main issue is to know how to cool down the fever (chamah\חמה.א), quench excitement (chamad /chamda\חמדה.א) and reduce anger (chemah\חמה, cf. Daniel 3:13.19). “It is not possible to live without (moral) protection”, states Talmud Yevamot 62b (cf. Jeremiah 31:21). “Chomah\חומה = fortification” is currently used in Talmud Megillah (1:1- 5b) to designate walls or a “protecting lake” that serves as fortifications. This is something we do not accept easily and that is totally misunderstood abroad for various reasons.

The essence of Judaism is to be in need of protection. Firstly, Jewishness requires to be protected by God or the Divine Presence, the Shechinah. Then, there is a permanent lack of comprehension. Pious Jews, the world of “Jews in prayers” cannot mix in any way with the non-Jewish or Gentile world, and somehow some part of secularized Judaism. This is even ridiculous to pretend that a “Non-Jew” can enter that world freely and deliberately. There is an immeasurable gap between pious Jewishness and any connection between this society segment and the Non-Jews. There is an earth-to-heaven line that cuts it as an invisible wall of fortification. Something we often see here in micro-climates and rain: rain on your left, no rain on your right! But people often misunderstand that because they think in terms of framing and ghettos created by hatred against pious Jewries. Decades ago, Fr. Marcel Dubois, a Dominican, who was the first Christian to teach Christian Philosophy at the Hebrew University, wittingly answered that “every Catholic congregation were usually fenced in”, i.e. that those who are not members of that specific community are not allowed to enter the bigger part of the monastery, or very rarely. We never think in terms of “positive” separation and thus often consider situation with much framed points of view.

“In the very heat of day”, Abraham was pretty much exposed to killings, alienation. His tent was open. In this region, we are still living on the pattern of this radical “cham/chum-חם\חום”. Are there some linguistic “reality words”? “Cham\חם = father-in-law” (from the same root) and “chamot\חמות = mother-in-law”. This is amusing because this parentage is supposedly very inquisitive and even nosy in their children’s lives. Some are delicious; and good that they exist because, their grandchildren’s parents often have to rely on them financially and in learning how to reach adulthood. There is a meaningful example of the presence of such a Semitism in the Gospel when Jesus started preaching and met with Shimon-Kaipha whose “mother-in-law was laying sick with a fever” (Aramaic “eshata\אשתא – fire” lines with Greek “puressousa –had a fire = fever”). In Hebrew, the specificity of the “chom/cham” is present twice, i.e. redundantly : chamuto\חמותו = his mother-in law, “chom = fever”. And the “wall of sickness” is lifted up. (Mark 1:29).

There is a stimulating deutero-canonical (apocryphal) Book – not recognized by the Jewish and Protestant Bible, but accepted and rather widespread in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches: Tobit; a fragment of the book was found at Qumran. It deals with God’s Tovah/tobiyah, goodness. Tobit is a kohen (priest) who strangely spends his time collecting and burying the dead slain by Sennacherib in Nineveh. At the present, it seems bizarre because the kohanim are not allowed to be in contact with the dead. The point is that it had not always been like that in the Jewish tradition even if we must accept the present development. When the Temple was existent, the priests were offering the daily sacrifices. They had no properties and no tribe territory. They were given the charities of the sacrifices. And thus, they were indeed in contact with burnt-offerings, i.e. with dead animals slaughtered for the sanctification of the Name.They were making their living with dead animals.

Our messy situation in the Middle-East is going through fire, anger, fever and irrationality. It is marked by law infringements and lack of true respect for human beings and souls. Abraham’s hospitality in the very heat of the day at Mamre’s Oaks seems to be a real mitzvah as also to assist all the dead that multiply and loosen unclear fences that pull off at the moment.

av aleksandr [Winogradsky Frenkel]

July 1/June 18, 2009 – 9 deTamuz 5769 - ט' דתמוז תשס"ט

Abomination or (self-) destruction

During the four weeks that commemorate the destructions of Jerusalem and of the Temples, from Tammuz 17 to Av 9, men use to wear the "tefillin shel rosh\תפילין של ראש - the phylacteries of the head" in order to think with more penetration and insights about the repeatedly historical events that led to the destruction of the City of Peaces - Yerushalaim and the Holy Temples - Batey HaMikdash\ בתי המקדש. We saw how the tefillin were the first mitzvah to be given to the Jewish people by the time of the Exodus from the land of slavery, the country that first accepted the children of Jacob for their blessings and reduced them to some sort of acceptable and even satisfactory bondage when the days of Joseph escaped from their memory.

The tefillin thus reminded that God is close to our heart and call us to implement good deeds; these are the tefillin shel yad\תפילין של יד (of the hand/arm), usually the left arm that is close to the heart. The tefillin shel rosh\תפילין של ראש, put like a diadem on the forehead show that we tend to move according to God's will and project. This is not so obvious in daily life. Then, it may be interesting to consider the tefillin as brain-thinking instruments or devices. When the ancestors came out of Egypt, the Lord did know that they would be tempted to return to their country of slavery. The Israelites did regret their daily bread there - hard work, not very humane, but still providing security of a binding and imposed employment. It is far better than wandering in the Sinai, eating quails or tamarisk rare species of dew that was the manna.

This year, we pass through the summer months of Tammuz and Av, appealing times of peace for Eretz Israel as the neighboring countries, in the special conditions governed by the rule of the shmittah or "release of debts and repose of the soil. In response, we are messing around in quiet doubts and some attacks. Jews are aware that this summer period has, repeatedly throughout history, been months of despair, destruction, hunger and deportation, killings. Indeed, why destruction and fights, murders and ruins quiver permanently like drums and hammers attacking life, pulsing humans to annihilation? From Tammuz 17 to the Ninth of Av, the Jews should be more conscious of their own historical destruction as a consequence of their/our lack of faithfulness or righteousness in God's choice and proposed actions. The time of "te.o'uvah - abomination\תועבה" is so strange, bizarre: we are called to "peru, revu, mil'u et ha'aretz\פרו ורבו מלאו את האארץ - to be fertile, multiply, conquer/achieve the earth (the world, the universe in reality)” as a developing living body (Bereishit 1:28). All the Prophets, in particular Jeremiah who saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation to Babylon, insist on this self-destroying "abomination" that recurrently leads the Jewish people as all the Nations to idolatry and inconstancy.

The Jewish community and, subsequently, the Israelis have gone through so many tortures and persecutions and are scarcely recognized by the Nations of the world. Thus, they would not utterly, openly accept to take the yoke of this “abomination” that is still at the heart of our relationships to God and how the Lord responds to us. I speak in terms of the Jewish traditions, because it is evident that any explanation provided from outside of this coherence makes no sense for the Jews.

Curiously, it is quite usual to say that Moses gave the laws governing the oaths and vows (nedarim\נדרים). This is not exactly the case. Moses speaks to the heads of the tribe – rashey hamatot, which means something specific. The commandment to “leave father and mother” (Gen. 2:24a) basically consists in being not alone. It mainly implies to have a family, a tribe in view to fight idolatry. Midrash Yelamdeinu includes a “mate’ \ מטה- rod” who is found throughout the whole history of Israel. It is connected to “mitah – bed, family, descent” rooted in “nata/nata’ \נטה-נטע= to lay hands, plant”. As Moses could provide water with his tick, the mate’ can be “kol mate’-lechem shavar\כל מטה לחם שבר = God destroyed every staff of bread” (Tehillim 105:16). Thus, as stated in the midrash, this rod symbolizes “the bread of life”, the combat between idolatry and the eventuality to die and not surrender to idol worshiping. As we arrive at the end of the reading of the Book of Numbers/Midbar, we can mention how Jacob crossed the Jordan river with this rod, Moses worked miracles in front of Pharaoh (Ex. 4:3; 7:10). David slew Goliath with this mate’/rod (1 Samuel 17:40) and the rabbinic tradition said it became his scepter kept in the Temple as the sign of his kingship. Different words can be used in Hebrew to refer to the “tribes: mishpachot.משפחות/families; shivtei Israel\שבתי ישראל /tribes of Israel”. In this key-reading of the week, the TaNaKH sums up the whole of the Hebrew destiny: born to fight idols, kin connections that shall develop in God’s Kingship over the universe and the Divine Presence in the Temples. This lines with our commemorating the four weeks that led to the destruction of this miraculous structure because of acts of abominations (te’uvah\תאווה) committed by the Israelites. How strange it is that "abomination sounds so claose to "(good) appetite = hunger belly eating desires - te'avon\תאבון".

It should be noted that the reading portion does not determine the meaning of vows and oaths. They are of extreme importance in the spiritual life of each Jew and the Jewish communities. Some rabbis link these nedarim/vows included in the parashah “Matot” read in summer, during the four weeks of reflection about destructions, to the “Kol Nidrey\ כל נדרי – all the vows and oaths” pronounced (in Aramaic) in the 8th century in the Babylonian academy of Sura and in Europe since the 12th century at the beginning of the Day of Atonement for the annulment of forced vows. There is an emotional impact connected with this text, but the rabbis have always been rather reluctant to such a prayer considering that Jews are free from any forced commitments imposed by non-Jews.

On the other hand, the reading portion underscores that men (fathers and husbands) can release their wives’ and daughters’ vows and declare them non valid. Well, Women’s Lib definitely protested…but maybe things are not so simple. In the previous reading portion “Pinchas”, we saw how sexual intercourse collectively accomplished as an act of idolatry with pagan women, led the priest Pinchas to outrageously make use of his zeal against idolatry.
God killed the Israelites by a violent plague. In this weekly portion, men seem to regulate the spiritual vows of women. Is it not rather that they have firstly to respect their own vows and not fall into idol worshiping commitments? The slaughter of the Madianites, led by Moses and the priest Eleazar with the participation of 1,000 males of each tribe (matot) was accompanied by some special promises. Reuben and Gad should receive the land along the Jordan… negotiations, gentle-tribe agreements… The slaughter of the Madianites, in which Balaam perished, exterminated all their males while their women and children survived. “Moses said: “You have spared every female… that are the very ones who induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord…slay also every male among the children and every woman who has known a man carnally” (Numbers 31:15-17 - Parshat Pinchas).

This slaughter includes all the parameters of human hatred and human difference. It requires a lot of insightful reflections and in-depth studies to consider this text as showing faith in God. Thus, as they were en route to cross the Jordan and enter Eretz Canaan, it would be normal to question how such murders can anyhow participate in the sanctifying action of praising the Name of the Lord. Are life and death so parallel that it does not matter whether humans birth or kill? Destroy or build up? “Even when they say, “As the Lord lives / chai HaShem”, they lie and their swearing is false” (Jeremiah 5:2). In the prophetic reading (haftarah), the same Prophet echoes Moses’ requirement: “Do not defile the land which you will inhabit?” (Bemidbar 35:34) by these words: “You entered and defiled My land and made My heritage my abomination” (Jeremiah 2:7). Indeed, the real problem is not to be in the Holy Land or to make it holy by our forces. We cannot, any of us – make it holy. Eretz Israel is sanctified by the development and the living respectful compliance with God’s birthing Mitzvot that make this land a special place where the Holy One dwells and reveals His Presence to all the Nations (Tehillim 87:5).

Say, it is the same as when we plant trees and have beautiful gardens, with source waters and fertile soils. Purity of heart can go beyond the tragedies of any destruction. It takes time, a lot of time, but time has no measure for who loves without destroying. The four weeks of “abomination” should, at the present, be turned into a thoughtful and wise reflection about construction. Israel is born to construct and not to obstruct, in particular herself, which has often shown to be a huge temptation. Judaism has to accept elements that were or are still very hostile, just as the others are entitled to consider Judaism as possibly being negative towards them.

This week, the Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates the Apostles, Jesus chose disciples who were in despair after his death (Luke 24:13-35, the unfaithful disciples on the road at Emmaus) and reminds Peter and Paul of Tarsus. Then, there will be the various feasts of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Again, it deals with a generating process of construction. How come that we are hypnotized by exclusion? The Jews have the “birkat haminim/malshinim – blessing against the heretics”.The Christians can be self-convinced that they replace Judaism.

Interestingly, we hardly can pass over the 11th century when two envoys came to Constantinople and excommunicated the Oriental Patriarch. Times of violence and carnality, with prostitutes put by force on the thrones of the patriarchs of Constantinople and later Jerusalem. Metropolitan Cyril of Smolensk, Moscow Patriarchate, made a wise statement one year ago: “At least, we know what they (the Catholics) think of themselves and who they think they are. Nothing is new, but at least it is said and it makes things clear”. Today the 1020th anniversary of the Baptism of the Kievan Rus' challenges the Slavic Churches with other transitional tests. It is sometimes good to face tests and overcome them.

In Israel, we experience a unique situation of permanent renewal. The four weeks of Tammuz-Av, repeated creeds and definitions that show the limits of how and where God is acting should enable us to less shyness and more courage to meet any human being. We faced and lived through such devastating destruction that it is just the right minute to share, even for only a few seconds, the joy of being together on this soil sanctified by God and humans.

av Alexander [Winogradsky Frenkel]

July 8/June 25, 2009 – 15 deTammuz 5769 - ט"ו דתמוז תשס"ט
תפילין - Tefillin