Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Who Really Wants Peace?

Israel just wants to live. We don't ask anything of the world, whose history towards our people is blood-spattered. We just want to live in peace, without bombs, terrorists and hostile armies probing us constantly for any sign of weakness of which to take advantage.

What other country has army musicians who sing of dreams "when we will no longer need guards" on the walls of our cities?

Here is one of my favorite Israeli songs, by Dan Almagor and Beni Nagri, called Guard of the Walls:

אני עומד על החומה
עומד בגשם לבדי וכל העיר העתיקה
מונחת לי על כף ידי אני מביט בה מאוהב
אני עולה לכאן תמיד סתם להביט
אבל עכשיו אני נמצא כאן בתפקיד.

כן, כן, מי חלם אז בכיתה
כשלמדנו לדקלם על חומותייך ירושלים
הפקדתי שומרים
שיום יגיע ואהיה אחד מהם.

אני עומד על החומה
עומד מקשיב אל הקולות
קולות השוק והמהומה
קריאות רוכלים ועגלות
הנה הוא קול המואזין
הנה דינדון הפעמון אבל עלי להאזין
אם אין שום נפץ של רימון.

אני עומד על החומה
רועד מקור ומסתכל הנה שקעה כבר החמה
שומר מלילה מה מליל אור הירח במלואו
שוטף חומות ושערים מתי יבוא היום שבו
לא נזדקק עוד לשומרים.

I stand on the wall,
In the rain, alone, and the Old City
Is in my palm, while I gaze at it, enraptured,
I come up here often to view it,
But now I am here on duty.

Oh, who dreamed back then, in school,
When we learned to recite "Upon your walls,
O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen,"
That one day I would be one?

I stand on the wall,
Listening to the voices
of the bustling marketplace,
Calls of merchants and sounds of carts,
There is the voice of the Muazzin,
And the ting-a-ling of a bell, but I must be certain
That there is no explosion of a grenade.

I stand on the wall,
Shivering with cold, and watching the sun set,
Standing guard from night, under the full moon,
As it bathes the walls and gates.
When will the day come when
Finally we will need no more guards?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Prophecies of Destruction and Redemption

On the arid plateau of Masada, the dry, hot wind has parched all that was left after the deaths of the Jewish rebels. Among the archeological finds in the area were a number of desiccated seeds from the now extinct Jerusalem Palm tree. In the past few years, scientists in Israel have induced these seeds to sprout forth new life -- life that has been two thousand years frozen in time, waiting for the return of the land's rightful inhabitants. Yechezkel prophesies, "ואתם הרי ישראל ענפכם תתנו ופריכם תשאו לעמי ישראל כי קרבו לבא". Rashi explains, "כשתתן א"י פריה בעין יפה אז יקרב הקץ ואין לך קץ מגולה יותר": "When the land of Israel gives forth its fruits freely, the redemption is near, and there is no clearer sign of the redemption than this..." What a miraculous realization of this Rashi! This inspired part of the following ideas.

In one of his sichot to his students, Rabbi Lichtenstein chooses to compare the task and prophetic endowment of Moshe to that of Yirmiyahu, whose calling by God is the substance of our haftarah. In reading his words, I developed what I believe to be an interesting take on the distinction between Moshe and Yirmiyahu, which I hope to expand upon as the years progress.

Let us examine the inception experiences of both Moshe and Yirmiyahu. The first difference that immediately presents itself is age. Yirmiyahu is a young man, while Moshe was chosen when he was already a mature man, at eighty years old. Also, it is important to note the manner in which each candidate responded to God's invocation. Moshe protests against his appointment as messenger of God for days, and when he finally culminates with his speech impediment as an excuse, God loses patience, as it were. On the other hand, Yirmiyahu seems quite willing, and his only hesitation is that he is too young to be a leader. As soon as Hashem assures Yirmiyahu that He will be with him, the young prophet moves forward with faith and complacency. Why is it that Moshe, the more mature one, searches for more excuses than Yirmiyahu?

Upon closer reflection, we notice that the two prophets are actually being called to quite different tasks. God summons Moshe to the unimaginable task of raising a nation of slaves out of the sweltering heat of their oppression. He then would have to bring this stiff-necked people through a desert, fighting them each step of the way. He would feel so strongly the futility of his task at times, that he would ask to be relieved of his position. And he would bring the nation from the heights of Sinai to the depths of the golden calf, finally leaving them, his dearest desire unfulfilled, and leave his student to bring them into the Promised Land. God tells Moshe, "I will be with your mouth" (Ex. 4:15). "With" implies a dialogue, a co-participation. Almost in a partnership with Hashem, Moshe is to be the prophetic leader of the Jews.

On the other hand, Yirmiyahu is to walk the streets and alleys of Jerusalem, prophesying its destruction. He was not meant to be a leader. Indeed, more often than not, reviled by his brothers, he finds himself the outsider, and the very enemies of Israel release him from his fraternally induced incarceration on the eve of the burning of the city. Yirmiyahu is most definitely not a leader. Whereas God is "with" Moshe's mouth, and there is an element of teamwork, God "places his words" in Yirmiyahu's mouth (compare to the prophetic experience of Bilam). There is monologue here, no dialogue. He is a prophet only, a mouthpiece for the message of God.

Because of Moshe's role as leader and prophet, he is a completely public figure. He separates from his wife, and is praised by Rashi (Ex. 19:14) for his neglect of his own affairs, finding time only for the matters of the nation. For Moshe, no national suffering can be dealt with as a tragedy with private mourning. When God threatens the nation with destruction for the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe draws his dialogue with God into sharp relief, carrying on a spirited, almost disrespectful argument with God, in which he successfully arbitrates the salvation of Israel. All of the nation's troubles are his, and he responds to them as an intercessor, not as a private citizen.

In contrast, we do not find Yirmiyahu attempting to change the decree against Jerusalem. And when it is finally enflamed, he joins the chained ranks of Jewish prisoners. He seeks no audience with God, he has no special connection to utilize and mitigate the suffering. Instead of the monologue of God which he faithfully transmitted, now all that Yirmiyah can produce is a dirge-like monologue of his own, the book of Eicha. In it, and as an equal to them, Yirmiyah is found lamenting the suffering of his brothers, crying into the howling wind of the dark abyss, receiveing no particular response from God. Relieved of his mission as mouthpiece, he reverts to the status of individual member of Israel, pained as they are by hester panim, that iron curtain that has descended between God and His people.

And through these distinctions emerges the defining characteristic of the two men's roles: exile and redemption. Moshe represents a vivid image of the redemption: the rise of Israel's honor and respect, and with this, the rise of that intimate dialogue between God and His chosen ones. Moshe leads the Jews through his special relationship, his interactive prophetic nature. On the reverse side, Yirmiyahu is the prophet who ushers in the exile. He is no leader, for the Jews will have no centralized leader in their dispersion. He is rather a prophet of doom, and he signifies the beginning of the end of prophecy. Eventually, as the Rambam implies, God's word to Man became so mundane in the eyes of humanity, that the phenomenon of prophecy ceased altogether.

This is so because of the general principle that the leader of the nation reflects the spiritual position of Israel at that time (Arachin 17a). When the Jews follow the law and are on a spiritual and national high, they are in the redemptive mode. When this is not the case, the prophecy takes on the form of Yirmiyahu's, and eventually ends.

This interaction with God changing from dialogue to monologue can perhaps be encapsulated as the seed of the Jerusalem Palms. When the dialogue relationship begins to lose its potency, Hashem allows it to desiccate, as it were, into the monologue. Indeed, as the Jewish people spread out over the world in their exile, prayer took the place of sacrifice, and the monologue of the Jewish nation represents the freezing of our special intimate national relationship with God, preserved by Him until the time that redemption again becomes the paradigm, when humankind finds a new hunger, "no hunger for bread or thirst for water, rather for the word of God!"

When Man finds himself parched for a taste of this life-giving intimacy, this dialogue with God, then the shift from exile to redemption (begins) is made. However, this process is also a long and arduous one, and according to the Gaon from Vilna, must begin as our present history teaches us, with a physical re-awakening and movement towards Israel, and then the spiritual one.

Rabbi Hirsch teaches that the purpose of our three weeks of mourning is not to simply to grieve over the past. We are particularly meant to reflect on where we are in our present situation, and compare that to the ideals of the Torah. And so, as his first message to the Jews, and the last verses of our Haftarah, Yirmiyahu begins his book with a prophecy of the youthful vigor of Israel. This is not only a look back at the Mosaic prophetic paradigm, but a look far into the future, past all the suffering that will fill the sad pages of the book of Jeremiah, into the redemption of the distant future, whose stages we today are experiencing.

We look during these three weeks not only at our defection from our mission that led to Jerusalem's destruction, but also at the "youthful love" of our nation, following God into the wilderness, and we remind ourselves of our purpose in this world: to bring ourselves back to that reality, and to be willing to sacrifice for it!

With this, our Tish'a B'av takes on meaning not only as a period of mourning, but one of renewing our strength, re-aligning ourselves to our task, and rededicating ourselves to the redemption, which we pray and act for every day.

May we merit it quickly!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bilaam's Lion

In this week's portion, Bilaam is asked by Balak to curse the Jewish nation. He comes, and is literally reined in by God Himself, forced to praise the very nation he wishes to obliterate. In two parts of his praise for the nation, he refers to Israel as a lion. In the first (Bamidbar 23:24), he states: "הן עם כלביא יקום וכארי יתנשא", "The nation, like a (young) lion will stand, as a lion will rise up". In the second (24:9), "כרע שכב כארי וכלביא מי יקימנו", "[the nation] bends and lies down as a lion, and as a lion (cub) who will raise it up?"

First of all, I point out that traditionally, the word לביא has been taken to mean lion cub, as opposed to ארי which seems to be a full-grown lion. I have not been able to confirm that there exists this distinction in biblical Hebrew or in related languages, and would appreciate any input from others in this matter. However it is clear that traditional sources seem to make this distinction. My translation above injects the traditional sense in parentheses.

What is interesting about these verses, which appear in separate prophecies of Bilaam, is that they seem to complement each other, and the second seems to finish the train of thought left incomplete by the first. First, a young cub (clearly representing the nation of Israel) rises up, and then is a grown lion, and afterwards, we see the grown lion lie down, and a cub rise afterwards. What is going on here?

I believe that these prophecies, from the mouth of one of the worst enemies of Israel, contain not simply blessings, but fundamental information regarding the eternity and ultimate recognition of Israel's special task and teachings that is being transmitted to Moav, and, also, any nation that decides to engage in the extermination of the Jewish People. After all, Bilaam did not speak to Israel, but to her enemies; clearly his message was pertinent to them. What could be more relevant to those who wish to destroy us, than to teach them of the purpose of Israel, and warn them of their eternity, and the futility and suicidal nature of attempting to destroy it?

And so, what is the lesson? It seems to me that these verses are a hint to the ever-renewing vitality of Am Yisrael, the concept of בדמייך חיי. Let us follow the stages of the prophecy. First, Israel grows in strength from a לביא to an ארי. This is in the context of "getting up", קימה. The cub first rises, and then, after it is established as a nation, it becomes great, powerful and respected as it reaches maturity, יתנשא. This rise in prominence is a direct result of its maturing attitude towards its teleological purpose in the world. עם ישראל is special precisely when it follows the dictates of the Torah, and produces a society within geographical boundaries. When we accomplish this, we demonstrate the sublime truth and fidelity of God and His Torah. The nations will marvel, רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה...אשר לו חוקים צדיקים. (Although Judaism rejects Calvanistic theories of success implying Divine approval for the individual, it is clear from the second chapter of שמע that these principles do hold true for the national life of Israel.)

And thus Israel continues, worthy of its strength, as a powerful lion at the height of its perfection, as long as the Jews remain standing, upright, in their fulfillment of their Torah.

However, when the nation falters and becomes less than steadfast in their convictions and actions, when the ארי of Israel begins to lie down, kicking out in disdain for its national destinity and mission, things change. As the second passage relates, the grown lion can end up lying down, and lose the respect and position that it had before, כרע שכב כארי. When the nation leaves the path of קידוש ה, which it maintains only through national felicity to God's Torah, then even as a mature lion at the pinnacle of his strength, it cannot continue. It begins to weaken, lie down, and its vitality flags. Exile, debasement and condemnation await the nation of Israel when it does not follow God's Torah.

And yet, the story is not over, and the weakened lion's demise does not end with his death. Rather, the verse wonders at his re-emergence once again as a לביא, as a young, versatile lion cub, ready to rise in the ranks again. כלביא מי יקימנו: who would have thought to raise him up again as a young lion poised again to rise in prominence? No nation in the history of the world has survived exile and degradation as long as Israel has and still maintains its unique position amongst the other nations. We never stopped yearning and planning our return to our land and our Father in Heaven's graces. And when, finally, we do rise again, it is with the vigor and vitality of a cub again! Who would have believed this possible?

And yet, this wonder at the rise-from-the-ashes regeneration, is precisely what our national life consists of. From the depths of our greatest failures we rise to ever-new heights, demonstrating the miraculous nature of our national existence. This is the symbolism of the New Moon, the regeneration out of the lowest point and this is why the moon symbolizes Am Yisrael. When Israel returns to God, God comes forward, as it were, to accept her, and glorious victory is snatched from the depths of the dark despair. בדמייך חיי!

Israel's enemies, with their missile launches and militaristic posturing, would do well to remember this lesson from their prophet. עם ישראל חי!