Saturday, May 10, 2014

Hump Day

This Saturday is hump day. No, the calendar has not been re-jiggered to redefine a week; the last people who did that ended up being sent to the guillotine.
I'm referring instead to the seven-week period of counting between Passover and Shavuot, Sefirat haOmer. For the first 24 days, we are closer to the Exodus; for the last 24 days, we are closer to the Giving of the Torah. But Day 25, the fourth day of the fourth week, is smack in the middle. This year, it's the Sabbath when we read Parashat Behar, the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus (OK, 25:1-26:2), which famously starts with the unique verse, "Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying."
The Kabbalists associated certain attributes with each day of the Omer, and the twenty-fifth is netzah of netzah. Netzah is the Kabbalistic trait associated with Moses, and the root has many meanings in Scripture, from victory to eternity to conductorship (orchestra, not train).
The connection of Behar to Sefirat haOmer is quite strong, as the former also revolves around a count of seven cycles of seven, in its case leading to the jubilee year. 49 is clearly an important number in the Torah and of the Torah.
It is thus not surprising that the Talmuds relate this verse to Moses' experience on Sinai (Psalms 12):
Lord's sayings are pure sayings, like silver refined in a furnace, purified seven times over.
However, there is a difference between the approach of the Babylonian Talmud and the approach of the Jerusalem Talmud. The former states (Rosh Hashana 21b), citing Rab and Samuel:
Fifty gates of understanding were created in the world, and all were given to Moses save one, as it says, "Yet you have made him but little lower than God."
The latter (Sanhedrin 4:2) records:
Rabbi Yanai said: “If the Torah were given cut and dried, no one could withstand it! What is the reason? ‘LORD spoke to Moses.’ He said before Him: ‘Master of the World, tell me: what is the Halakha?’ He said to him: ‘Follow the majority' (Ex. 23:2)—if most vote for acquittal, he is innocent; if most vote for conviction, he is guilty. Indeed, the Torah may be expounded forty-nine ways to defile, and forty-nine ways to purify."
According to the BT, the number forty-nine represents a linear progression through successive gates, ultimately reflecting the limits of humanity. According to the JT, there are 49 sets of parallel approaches, allowing Halakha to respond (democratically) to the changing demands of society around it.
On this day, it behooves us to embrace the netzah of Torah--the battle, the timelessness, the symphony.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Yom haNaxmaut

Another Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) has come and gone. The flags have been folded, the barbecues have been extinguished, the fireworks have been fired. We, as a nation, are now done commemorating the events of 1948, and we can go get our miniature lambs ready for Lil’ Passover. (I could explain that, but I don’t think it would help.)
Except, of course, that a week from now one out of five Israelis will be celebrating Nakba Day. This is the day that many Arabs and Muslims mark as the anniversary of the catastrophe of Israel’s founding. So Nakba Day and Yom HaAtzmaut both commemorate the events of 14-15 May, 1948, but from two very different points of view.
After all, there can be no overlap between the two. Even if there are Jews who fast and mourn on Yom HaAtzmaut, seeing the day as an expression of defiance of God’s will (or unbridled jingoism), and even if there are non-Jewish Israelis, Christian, Druze, Bedouin and even some Muslims, who celebrate Israel’s independence, there’s still nothing shared between the two experiences. The establishment of the State of Israel is either triumph or tragedy, mandate or massacre, redemptive rapture or racist ruin, joy or genocide. The Middle East, after all, is where Venn diagrams go to die.
Well, the funny thing about Yom HaAtzmaut is that it falls exactly two weeks after the final day of Passover in Israel. The Midrash (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, ed. Mandelbaum, Appendix 2) notes something interesting about the holiday: the Torah never tells us to rejoice during this holiday. The phrase “And you shall rejoice on your holiday” is applied to both Shavuot and Sukkot in Deut. 15, but never to Passover. It even explains that this is the reason we abbreviate our celebratory Hallel prayer during most of the festival.
Why is joy not mentioned there? Because the Egyptians died during it. Thus, you find that all through the seven days of Sukkot, we recite Hallel, but on Passover we recite Hallel only on the first day and night because, as Samuel explained (Proverbs 24:17), “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.”
So on Passover, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, we limit our joy because the Egyptians, AKA the bad guys, died.
In fact, if we look at the other holidays that celebrate our victories over bad guys, we find a similar reluctance to rejoice in the fall of the wicked. As bloody as the Scroll of Esther is, it clearly contrasts the dispensation of Ahasuerus (Esther 8:11), “to destroy, to kill and to annihilate all the soldiers of every people and country who distress them, children and women, and their booty to plunder,” with the fulfillment: “the Jews gathered to send forth their hands upon those who sought evil against them” (9:2). It is “men” whom they kill, “and they did not send forth their hands upon the plunder.” Why is there no Hallel on Purim? “Its reading is its Hallel” (Talmud, Arakhin 10b) Of course, nowadays we fast on the day that the battle took place, 13 Adar.
Hanukka has eight full days of Hallel, but what is interesting here is that our rabbinic sources ignore the military victories in the Book of Maccabees, instead speaking of the miracle of oil. Hanukka is followed by a major fast day as well. It is reinterpreted in Megillat Taanit as a three-day fast reflecting our complex relationship with Greek culture.
So in our victories over Persia, Greece and Egypt, we recognize the complexity of our battles for survival and for independence. We realize the humanity of the other side. Can we not do that today?
Now, I’m not calling for fueling our Independence Day barbecues with burning Israeli flags. But does it really need to be a zero-sum game? Are we incapable of recognizing the real suffering of the other side? Is the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem a worse opponent than Pharaoh? Was Arafat worse than Haman? Is Abu Mazen worse than Antiochus?
I know what you’re saying: keep dreaming. There’ll be thunderstorms in Jerusalem on Independence Day before that happens.
Well, at the moment, it’s raining, with thunder and lightning, in the Holy Land. At least that’s something we can all get behind.