Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mikveh Israel, or what Makes Israel Pure?

The Mishnah, the rabbinic guide to matters of halakha (legal regulations and requirement to do with the Law of Moses), contains a tractate describing the high priest's preparations for the Day of Atonement, when he would offer up a sin-offering on behalf of all Israel.
It closes with a reminder, attributed to r. Akiva, of who it is who actually makes Israel clean.

How fortunate you are, O Israel! Before whom are you made clean? Who is it that makes you clean? Your Father that is in heaven! As it is said (Ezek 36:25) "And I will pour clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean"; it says also (Jer 17:13), "the mikveh of Israel is the Lord"- even as a mikveh makes clean those who are unclean, so the Holy One, blessed be He, makes Israel clean.
Mishnah, t. Yoma, 8:7.

The word in bold is usually translated in English as hope, but it was seen as an allusion to the practice of ritual bathing, which was done in what was termed a mikveh. The association is further strengthened by the rest of the verse, which calls the Lord the fountain of living waters. Living water was the essential component in the mikveh, without it one could not become clean.
I'm not too sure that the wordplay isn't Jeremiah's, he certainly picked an unusual form of the word hope.
Whilst actions were paramount in Judaism, the sages recognised that it was God who made them efficacious. In that respect, there was not that big a difference between them and the early Christians.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Man, Why dost Thou Sleep?

The days leading up to Yom Hakippurim (the Day of Atonement) are spent in seeking forgiveness from one's neighbours and from the Lord.
There is a special liturgy for that period, known as slichot- asking for forgiveness.
In the old Sephardic Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem the gabay (one of the synagogue clerks) would before dawn walk down the winding cobblestone leading alleys to every home in the congregation, rapping on windows to call the men for the slichot.
When they entered the synagogue they were greeted by the phrase man, why dost thou sleep? Arise and read the tachanunim (pleadings, a prayer).
That phrase is part of an anonymous piyut (paraliturgical song), but drawn from the Old Testament.
In the book of Jonah, Jonah has run away from the Lord's errand (to call people to repentance) and taken passage on a ship bound for who knows where. A storm arises, which meant almost certain doom to passengers and crew on board ancient ships such as these. Not the sturdiest things ever to sail.

The sailors cry unto theirs gods in prayer and begin lightening the load, throwing things overboard, things such as their stone anchors.

Jonah, oddly enough, goes down below to take a nap. I suppose he could think of nothing better to do, certainly he wasn't going to pray to God if he had just ran away from him.
The captain finds Jonah, wakes him up and asks why is he sleeping instead of praying to his (Jonah's) god. The captain's words in Jonah 1:6 are very colloquial. What for you fell asleep? Wake up cry unto your God, maybe he'll come to his senses over us and we wont be lost (IE perish).

The heathen captain's words form the basis for this piyut.

Man, why dost thou sleep, arise and read the tachanunim
Pour out your conversation, seek forgiveness from the Lord of Lords
Wash and purify and do not tarry, before the days go by
And speedily run for help before
(that is, from) He-Who-Dwells-on-High
From transgression and also from evil flee and fear disasters
Please heed those who know thy name, the faithful Israel
To thee My Lord is righteousness but to us shame

Stand as a man, be mighty and confess your sins
The Lord God seek with a heavy head
(IE not lightly) to atone for transgressions
Because never is there any wonder hid from him
And every thing which is said is read before him
He-Who-Has-Mercy will have mercy on us as a father is merciful to his sons
To thee My Lord is righteousness but to us shame

בֶּן אָדָם מַה לְּךָ נִרְדָּם קוּם קְרָא בְּתַחֲנוּנִים
שְׁפֹךְ שִׂיחָה דְּרֹשׁ סְלִיחָה מֵאֲדוֹן הָאֲדוֹנִים
רְחַץ וּטְהַר וְאַל תְּאַחַר בְּטֶרֶם יָמִים פּוֹנִים
וּמְהֵרָה רוּץ לְעֶזְרָה לִפְנֵי שׁוֹכֵן מְעוֹנִים
וּמִפֶּשַׁע וְגַם רֶשַׁע בְּרַח וּפְחַד מֵאֲסוֹנִים
אָנָּא שְׁעֵה שִׁמְךָ יוֹדְעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶאֱמָנִים
לְךָ אֲדֹנָי הַצְּדָקָה וְלָנוּ בֹּשֶׁת הַפָּנִים

עֲמֹד כְּגֶבֶר וְהִתְגַּבֵּר לְהִתְוַדּוֹת עַל חֲטָאִים
יָהּ אֵל דְּרֹשׁ בְּכֹבֶד רֹאשׁ לְכַפֵּר עַל פְּשָׁעִים
כִּי לְעוֹלָם לֹא נֶעְלָם מִמֶּנּוּ נִפְלָאִים
וְכָל מַאֲמָר אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמַר לְפָנָיו הֵם נִקְרָאִים
הַמְרַחֵם הוּא יְרַחֵם עָלֵינוּ כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים
לְךָ אֲדֹנָי הַצְּדָקָה וְלָנוּ בֹּשֶׁת הַפָּנִים

The piyut is a call for man to wake up, not from any physical sleep, but from a spiritual sleep, and plead with God for forgiveness of sins. Prayers are not to be half-hearted affairs. In language taken from Lamentations 2:19 one is to pour out one's heart like water before God.
Forgiveness is not something one merely asks for. Forgiveness needs to be sought out.
Wash away sins like you would dirt or any other filth, and make yourself clean, that is, pure, before the Lord. This has to be done now, before the days go by and you find that Yom Kippur is here, when the book of life is sealed, and you left it too late.
When you turn to the Lord for help, run towards him.
The word transgression is a translation of pesha, a sin commited specifically against God. It appears in the words of the psalmist (Ps 19:13) pleading with the Lord to keep him from sin.
Don't just leave sin and transgression alone, run from them, lest disaster should occur. In Jewish thought a disaster can mean any divine retribution.
The first verses closes with a plea to the Lord to heed the prayers of those who know his name, another phrase from Psalms, Psalm 9:11.
The final line of both verses is borrowed from Daniel's prayer on behalf of Israel (Dan 9:7) "O lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces."
It is an admission of guilt.
Shame is a shorter and clearer way of translating the idiom bosheth panim.
In the 2nd verse the audience is told to be a man and be mighty in confessing sin.
The word here for man is not ben adam (son of Adam) as it was in the first verse, but gever. Gever implies manliness, which is courage and strength. The word used for be mighty is hitgabar, which draws from the same root as gever, and also means to overcome something.
Seeking for our sins to be covered (atoned for) is not something to be done lightly or flippantly, but with coved rosh, a phrase which does not work in English. The closest approximation is a grave head.
I think that the implication is also not to seek him if you don't mean it or do not intend on being honest, as the piyut continues, every word which is spoken is read before the Lord.
Before adding the obligatory admission of guilt, the poet closes with a statement of faith in and praise for the Lord's vritues.
He will be merciful as a father unto his children.
This echoes verse 13 of Psalm 103, which in itself is a thanksgiving for the Lord's forgiveness.
Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.

Now back to Jonah.

The early sages (B. Talmud m. Megila 34a) had established that Jonah should be read during the mincha (the afternoon prayer services) on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Yochana said that it was because every time the Lord' power is shown, so is his meekness. That is to say, that he is not a God of awful thunderings and threatenings, but one of love and mercy.

In the 14th century, Rabbi Yehudah ibn Shuayib delivered a sermon to his congregation.
The prophecy of Jonah son of Amitai teaches that the Lord is exalted, his mercies are over all his creations, even over the nations of the world, all the more so over Israel... From this thing we learn that the Lord is full of mercy, even though they were heathens who did a great wickedness, so all the more reason that he will forive and accept us in repentance, his own people and the flock of his hand.
Yehudah ibn Shuayib: Derashot Al HaTorah.

The book of Jonah has several examples of proper humility and repentance. The sailors call upon God, though they never knew him, yet do not demand to be saved.
The king of Nineveh leads his people in penitential fasting and prayer, yet does not demand that the Lord save them.
Jonah calls upon the lord from the belly of the great fish, thanking and praising the Lord for his mercy, vowing to do what he has been told.
Jonah's psalm alludes to far more than being saved from drowning, it is also an allegory of his deliverance from hell.
The ancient Hebrew concept of hell was sheol, a place in the deeps.
In Jonah 2:2 he states that out of the belly of sheol cried I and thou heardest my voice. In verse 6 he continues the imagery of sheol. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.

The underlying message of Jonah is that the Lord is merciful to all his creations (even the animals), no least to the self-centered and petulant Jonah.
This idea is further developed by Leah Frankel in an article from the Hebrew journal mayanot.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Iron Beast

I've been listening to a song by the late Meir ariel, an Israeli artist, our very own troubador.
Though a secular Jew, kibbutz-born and raised, he still drew a lot from his roots and the following song is an interesting example of that.
It is based on Daniel's vision of the four beasts representing four kingdoms of the world, but applies the fourth one to our day. It is a sort of modern midrash, it employs the same principles, so those with an interest in that sort of thing will find this a useful excersize as well as a powerful song.
Using Daniel's vision, he conjurs up images of a world dominated by political correctness, television, computers and cell phones.
The song was recorded in 1994, and things have not improved since.
Meir Ariel's Hebrew was very rich, so my English translation pales in comparison.

The age of metal, the era of iron
Reminds of a beast from the vision of Daniel
The beast of metal the beast of iron
Is so similar that I take fright...

In year one of Beltshazzar king of Babel
A vision in a dream did Daniel see
And from the sea rose up four great beasts
And each beast represents a kingdom in the world
And the fourth is different and stranger than its predecessors
Frightening and fearsome and aggressive in its behaviour
With big teeth of iron it eats and shreds
And the rest is trampled by claws of bronze
And she has ten horns and the smallest rises and grows out of them
And as it were eyes of men
And a mouth speaking greath, boasting
Its end will be to be slain and destroyed

The beast of metal the beast of iron
A strange kingdom seen by Daniel
The age of metal the era of iron
So similar that I take fright

All these toothy towers taking a bite out of the blue
All these spikes in graphs
Iron as a crocodile, metal as a mule,
iron as a bird, metal giraffe
iron coated by cunning metal
with a flow of electronis, injected with data
the face of a maid, minds her own business
With the largest network of double agents
All these computers
Which lull to sleep, which tear out
Our fingers from our world

The age of metal, the era of iron
that fourth one seen by Daniel
In night vision in Babel
Has it now come back?

Shreds, tramples, destroys, closes tight together,
And markets it as freedom of speech
Sucks and spits, uses and throws
A bone to investigative reporters of public rights
Horns controlling far, eyes everywhere
A mouth that ceases not to utter
Says what to want, how to think
What to be, what to do and how to behave
And the masses, the masses, half-automated
Struck by silver hammers
Run and run, driven by fast moving and shining images
Wrapped in a declaration of conditions and rights
High on progress and advancements
To work mindlessly and serve
to be used by and oil the
Beast of metal the beast of iron
It reaches everywhere with its appendages
The reign of metal the kingdom of iron
Men are bits of blood and her scales.

It is held that the fourth is Rome
It is held that Rome is Idumea
Just so or perhaps symbolically there is a quite a lot of Rome here today
This whole wide-world colloseum
With peep-holes into the ring
Showing gladiators which are beasts of prey
And blood swamps the subconscious
Change the channel, switch the channel
Wander as you will throughout the world
And think that you are far from all that
It doesn't affect you it is over there
But in the meantime what happens is that
You are another one shooting and shooting
Becoming used to eliminating by a click of a button
Another beast of prey a gladiator

The age of metal, the era of iron
Reminds of a beast from the vision of Daniel
The beast of metal the beast of iron
Is so similar that I take fright...

Chaze haveit bedayin min kal milaya ravrevata di karna memalela
Chaze haveit ad di ktilat cheivta vehuvad gishma veyehivat likdat esha
Ethkeriyat ruchi ana Daniel vechezvey rashi yevahalunani......
(I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake: I beheld even till the beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame. I Daniel was grieved in my spirit in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me...)


תקופת המתכת, עידן הברזל
מזכיר לי חיה מחזון דניאל
חיית המתכת חיית הברזל
כל כך דומה שאני מתבהל...

בשנת אחת לבלטשאצר מלך בבל
חזון בחלום ראה דניאל
ותעלינה ארבע חיות גדולות מהים
וכל חיה מסמלת מלכות בעולם
והרביעית שונה ומשונה מקודמותיה
מפחידה ואימתנית ותקיפה בתנועותיה
עם שיני ברזל גדולות אוכלת וגורסת
והשאר בציפורני נחושת דורסת
ועשר קרנים לה והקטנה מתוכם צומחת וגדלה
וצצות בה כעיני בני אדם
ופה מדבר גדולות מתרברב
סופה להתקטל ולהתחרב

חיית המתכת חיית הברזל
מלכות משונה שחזה דניאל
תקופת המתכת עידן הברזל
כל כך דומה שאני מתבהל...

כל המגדלים המשוננים האלה הנוגסים בתכלת
כל השפיצים האלה בגרפים
ברזל כתנין, מתכת כפרד
ברזל כציפור, מתכת ג'ירפה
ברזל מצופה מתכת ערמומית
מוזרמת אלקטרוניקה, מוזרקת נתונים
פרצוף של שפחה, לא עושה ענינים
עם הרשת הכי גדולה של סוכנים כפולים
כל המחשבים האלה
המרדימים האלה, העוקרים האלה
את אצבעותינו...מעולמנו...

תקופת המתכת, עידן הברזל
הזו הרביעית שראה דניאל
בחזיונות לילה אז בבבל
האם זה עכשיו שוב מתגלגל...?

גורסת, דורסת, הורסת, הודקת,
ומשווקת את זה כחופש דיבור
מוצצת ויורקת, משתמשת וזורקת
עצם לתחקירני זכות הציבור
קרנים שולטות רחוק, עיניים בכל מקום,
פה לא מפסיק ללהג
אומר מה לרצות, מה לחשוב,
מה להיות, מה לעשות ואיך להתנהג
והמונים המונים חצי אוטומטי
הלומי פטישוני כסף סמויים
רצים רצים מפוקדי ריצודים מהבהבים
עטופים במגילה של תנאים וזכויות
מסוממי קידמה והתפתחויות
לעבוד בלי דעת ולשרת
לשמש ולשמן את
חיית המתכת חיית הברזל
לכל מקום יגיעו יונקותיה
שלטון המתכת מלכות הברזל
בני אדם, טיפות של דם וקשקשיה

מקובל שהרביעית היא רומי
מקובל שרומי היא אדום
ממש כך או באופן סמלי יש די הרבה מרומי היום
כל הקולוסיאום הכל-עולמי הזה
עם חלונות ההצצה אל הזירה
המלאה גלדיאטורים שהם חיות טרף
ודם מציף את תת ההכרה
תחליף תחנות תמיר ערוצים
תשוטט כאוות נפשך בעולם
תחשוב שאתה מחוץ לכל זה
לא נוגע לך זה שם
אבל בינתיים בעצם מה שקורה זה
שאתה עוד אחד שיורה ויורה
מתרגל לחסל בלחיצת כפתור
חיית טרף גלדיאטור

תקופת המתכת, עידן הברזל
מזכיר לי חיה מחזון דניאל
חיית המתכת, חיית הברזל
כל כך דומה שאני מתבהל...

חזה הוית באדין מן קל מליא רברבתא די קרנא ממללה,
חזה הוית עד די קטילת חיותא והובד גשמה ויהיבת ליקדת אשא.
אתכרית רוחי אנה דניאל וחזוי ראשי יבהלנני...

Monday, December 7, 2009

And We All Shine On

In the Midrash Tehilim (or the Shocher Tov), which is a commentary on Psalms, there is an interesting section, which compares men to stars.

Praise ye him, sun and moon; praise him all ye stars of light (Ps 148:3).
Who are the sun and the moon? The patriarchs and matriarchs, who are compared (meshulot here could also be in similitude of) to the sun and moon, as it is said, (Gen 37:9) behold the sun and the moon. Who are these stars of light, these are the righteous, as it is said (Dan 12:3), they that turn many to righteousness as the stars, so thus it is said praise him all ye stars of light. From this you learn that everyone has a star in the heavens, and it shines according to his deeds

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

From Promise to Redemption

In the early 1990s, Mom took us kids with her when she volunteered for the summer at the Sepphoris dig. Sepphoris was a large town just north of Nazareth and during New Testament times was the capital of the Galilee and one of the wealthiest, busiest centers of the north. One of the ways of gauging how prosperous the town was is the large amount of high quality mosaics found in the town.
Mosaics were an expensive affair. First, the right kinds of stone had to be found, then broken down into tiny pieces and shaped into squares. This, naturally, was a laborious process.
The pieces then had to be glued to the floor or wall according to the pattern. It took a good eye and an active imagination in order to design the pattern, if more than mere geometrical designs.
One of the most interesting mosaics discovered in Sepphoris was that of the synagogue floor. In a far more sophisticated form, it resembled a subject matter in synagogue mosaics found elswhere in the Galilee. It dates to the Byzantine period, between the 5th or 6th centuries.
The archaeologists at the site dubbed it From Promise to Redemption.
Lets see why.
The bottom panel, most of which, sadly, did not survive, depicts the angels promising Sarah a child, which represents the promise given to Abraham that he would be a great nation. The next two panels are of the Akedah- Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac(technically, however, akedah means the binding). The only part that has been preserved in any detail is a depiction of the two servants and the ass. Valuable pictorial data, of course, but one dearly wishes that we could have seen how they pictured Abraham (in priestly vestments, no doubt).
The Akedah- a central theme in Jewish thought- provides the ultimate example of faith and obedience, the two concepts being inseperable in Judaism.
The middle panel depicts the four seasons (as four maidens), the zodiac and the chariot of the sun. These represent life, but also fate.
Hellenistic astrology exerted a great influence on Jews in general and the sages in particular. It held that the course of one's life was already known, and that through studying the signs and the stars and natal charts derived from them, could be foreseen and predicted. The term horoscope, in fact is a Greek term meaning hour marker.
This science (ths it was considered then) was immensely popular among all strata of society. The sages, like the true philosophers that they were, found it fascinating, but made some changes to fit in with their worldview. Whilst the course of a man's life was predetermined, it could be lengthened or shortened according to the choices he makes. One's life is in one's own hands. Rabbinical literature has many accounts of the sages interacting with astrologers, the latter making predictions of sudden death, the former foiling them by their piety.
In Midrash Tanhuma, an early collection of midrashic material (a midrash is an excursus on a scriptural or theological theme) there is an interesting midrash on the zodiac, contained within the chapter dealing with Deuteronomy 32.

A man is like the twelve mazalot (signs of the zodiac). When he is first born he is like the lamb, but grows in might as the bull (or ox) does. When he grows up he becomes twins, that is complete, and the evil urge grows within him. At first he is as weak as a crab, but later, as he grows, becomes mighty like the lion. And if he sins he becomes as the virgin, and if he continues to sin, is weighed in the balance (the scales). If he holds fast in his rebellion he is brought down to the lowermost Sheol (Hell), Sheol and Gehennom, as a scorpion is flung to the ground and to the deep ditches. And if he returns (that is, repents) he is shot out [of Sheol] as an arrow from the bow...
Immediately he becomes soft and clean as a baby goat, and is purified as in the hour of his birth, and is washed with pure water from a bucket, and increases in happiness as a fish is happy in water, thus he immerses himself at all times in rivers of balsam, and in milk and oil and honey, and eats of the fruit of the tree of life.

Midrash Tanhuma, Haazinu A.

The upper panels depict temple worship, sacrifice and offerings.
The second-to-last panel shows the door into the temple, flanked by symbols of Israel- the menorah, the citron, the lulav (palm leaves) and the shofar, or ram's horn. Not only are these symbols religious, they are also symbols of sovereignity.
In the uppermost panel are two lions flanking a wreath. I'm going to speculate that the wreath represents God, and the lions his power, or by extension, his messengers. They each hold a decapitated bull's head, a symbol of power and triumph. They also appear to be on some sort of cloud.
What the mosaic to me seems to represent is that the fulfilment of a promise is based on our own actions.
Granted, these interpretations are but one possibility of many, and we may never know for sure what was the original intent of those who designed the sepphoris synagogue mosaic.