Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Message for Yom Haatzmaut

ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו
The Nascent Flowering of our Redemption

ברך את מדינת ישראל ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו

This quote, representing the most powerful and controversial component of the prayer for the state of Israel, was coined by the then chief Rabbi Herzog in 1948. It has become the mantra of the religious Zionist movement and the nemesis of the Haredi world due to its religious connotations.

In a word, if you accept the veracity of this statement you believe that the creation of the (secular) state of Israel represents a stage in the return to Zion, redemption or messianic age (depending on your preference for terminology). Rejecting this statement on religious grounds places you in a camp unwilling or unable to confer upon the events of the past 62 years any particularly religious title due to their secular origins as well as contemporary secular establishment.

And so, three small words can present a divide so seemingly insurmountable as to cause a chasm within the Orthodox Jewish community.

The words chosen by Rabbi Herzog are quite unique—'reishit, tzmichat, geulateinu'. Reishit means the beginnings, first stages; the second word seems to be a repetition of the first—tzmch. The first reference to the word tzmch—צמח in the Torah is to the creation of plants and vegetation: Bereishit 2:5,9--
וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה, טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ, וְכָל-עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה, טֶרֶם יִצְמָח every shrub had yet to develop, all vegetation yet to emerge.
וַיַּצְמַח ה' אֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה, וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל God created from the ground all trees of visual delight and delectable to eat.
The word reappears with the description of Pharaohs dream of the miraculous bundles of wheat, as well as in describing the destruction of the plague of barad (hail)—all focusing on this idea of generation, creation, emergence.

Thus, the phrase seems to declare that we are in an era of "first of the emerging", the initial, initial stages of the vegetative development—of redemption! Well, what is the first of the first? How should we understand the earliest stages of development? The answer might stem from understanding the source of the word tzmch, emergence, or perhaps, flowering.

How does a plant grow? There are four stages it undergoes from seed to plant to earth: vegetative, reproductive, senescence (old age) and dormancy . The first stage is the topic for discussion here: vegetation.

( Based on an internet article by Pan, Wendy "Plant Growth Stages - How Plants Grow
It starts with a seed. The seed, like a fertilized egg in human beings, has an inner and outer shell. In the initial stages of development the seedling is sustained by the inner food store inside the seed, similar to a mother's womb. In this state it is able to create the root stem which will nourish the plant and enable it to grow. When the gestational period succeeds and the seed is ready to move to the next level—to manifest, it penetrates the protective coating of the shell in two directions. The root stem grows downwards towards the moist earth, while the shoot rises towards the sunlight, the 'outside' and the future.

This process continues with the root continuing to be nourished from the earth, while the shoot sprouts forth into leaves and surges towards the sun, expanding and emerging. When the seedling has matured, when roots and leaves develop simultaneously, when the vegetative, first stage is complete—
A flower emerges!

(God's) Nature begins with a seed. The seed can refer to a physiological phenomenon—plants, animals, humans, or it can refer to an idea, a philosophy, a movement! The world begins with bereishit, a seed, a first. Monotheism was reintroduced with Abraham's upward glancing towards the heavens, the kernel of a future movement to which billions would adhere. Redemption began with a seed, or in the perception of the midrash, a conversation between a daughter and her parents, to not give up despite the desperate times, to try once more, perhaps something will emerge, that flower from the thorns.

Medinat Yisrael began with a seed. A seed in Vienna. A seed in the mind of an unflappable, relentless, secular Austrian, who envisioned a future and did not stop until his dying day in pursuit of that initial, initial germination.

That seed developed an outer and inner shell, a secular, nationalist, cultural vision, nourished ultimately by the traditional, spiritual, pintele yid feeling. That seed penetrated the idea stage into action, pursuing external governments and monarchies as well as awakening internal Diaspora Jewry to the dream and to the responsibility of turning it into a reality.

That seed developed, germinated, found nourishment and gestated, until on November 29th, 1947, nations of the world recognized the Herculean triumph of a nation returning to their land, of a people connecting to their heritage, of a family joining together again from the four corners of the earth. That seed joined forces with another man of vision and action, who helped it burst forth on May 14th, 1948, and became a reality for the entire world.

Immediately, two forces began moving in opposite directions: a root began to entrench throughout the Diaspora, a base for financial, political, emotional support as well as a shoot which surged forwards into the land, to those heroic figures who tilled the land, transformed the wasteland, and fought valiantly in defense of the land, and the nation so that it could finally produce branches and leaves--shade, serenity, peace and prosperity—a flower!

Sixty-two years have passed, and as we look around our remarkable little land we have to ask ourselves: What have we accomplished? Our world leading scientists and hi-techers, start up nation and military superpower? Our unparalleled center of Torah and our refuge for any Jew in distress? Our passion and kindness, chessed and morality? What have we done?

The answer, I think, is that we have begun! The initial, initial germination, the nascent steps towards emergence, the symbiotic relationship between Jews in the Promised Land and Jews in the Diaspora, the striving towards the delicate balance between rational, open-minded, moral, democratic thinking and the adherence to the mystery, the humility, the traditions and heritage of our Torah as our guide and our light.

We have begun the process so succinctly and eloquently described by Rabbi Herzog 62 years ago. We are on our way towards the flower!

May it be His will and ours, that we live to usher in the stage where our seed will have matured into a righteous shoot which will be a harbinger for the flowering of our redemption.

Yom Haatzmaut Sameach!

ה הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם-ה', וַהֲקִמֹתִי לְדָוִד צֶמַח צַדִּיק; וּמָלַךְ מֶלֶךְ וְהִשְׂכִּיל, וְעָשָׂה מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה בָּאָרֶץ. 5 Behold, the days come, says the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous shoot, and he shall reign as king and prosper, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
ו בְּיָמָיו תִּוָּשַׁע יְהוּדָה, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁכֹּן לָבֶטַח; וְזֶה-שְּׁמוֹ אֲשֶׁר-יִקְרְאוֹ, ה' צִדְקֵנוּ. 6 In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely; and this is his name whereby he shall be called, The LORD is our righteousness.
ז לָכֵן הִנֵּה-יָמִים בָּאִים, נְאֻם-ה; וְלֹא-יֹאמְרוּ עוֹד חַי-ה', אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. 7 Therefore, behold, the days come, says the LORD, that they shall no more say: 'As the LORD lives, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt';
ח כִּי אִם-חַי-ה', אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָה וַאֲשֶׁר הֵבִיא אֶת-זֶרַע בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ צָפוֹנָה, וּמִכֹּל הָאֲרָצוֹת, אֲשֶׁר הִדַּחְתִּים שָׁם; וְיָשְׁבוּ, עַל-אַדְמָתָם. 8 but: 'As the LORD lives, that brought up and that led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all the countries whither I had driven them'; and they shall dwell in their own land.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lo Lanu--Not for Us!

לא לנו—Not for Us!

Psalm 115

1 Not for us, O Lord, not for us, but rather to Your Name give honor, for Your Loving-kindness, and Your truth.
2 Why should the nations say: 'Where is now their God?'
3 But our God is in the heavens; whatever pleased Him He has done.
4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.
5 They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not;
6 They have ears, but they hear not; noses have they, but they smell not;
7 They have hands, but they handle not; feet have they, but they walk not; neither speak they with their throat.
8 They are like them, those that make them; all those who trust in them.
9 O Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield!
10 O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield!
11 Those who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield.

12 The Lord has remembered us, He will bless--
He will bless the house of Israel; He will bless the house of Aaron.
13 He will bless them that fear the Lord, both small and great.
14 The Lord should increase upon you more and more, you and your children.
15 Blessed are you to the Lord who made heaven and earth.
16 The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but the earth He gave to the children of men.
17 The dead will not praise the Lord, neither any that go down into silence;
18 But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for ever.

A few questions to begin:
How does this psalm flow from the previous one focusing on Exodus from Egypt? Who is the psalm's audience and what is its ultimate message?

The psalm splits into two (leading to the break in Hallel) symmetrical halves with the former invoking Israel, house of Aaron and the fearers of God (9,10,11) to trust God, while the latter invokes God to respond to the same players in blessing (12, 13). The first half makes reference to the irrationality and ultimate uselessness of engaging in idolatry with a call to segments of the population to internalize that fact and to believe that God truly assists and defends. Perhaps herein lies the continuity between the miracle theme in psalm 114 and the notion of God's protection in ours.

Why do miracles occur? In general, God lets nature take its course, lets man make his choices, his. Sometimes, in moments of intense love God changes nature. Why?

Generally, veering from natural order reflects a deserving person or nation who is worthy of this unique break in the world. It often acts as an exclamation to all that God's people are beloved and chosen.

In fact, we usually choose the story of the Exodus as the greatest proof for the 'election' of Israel. "Asher bachar banu mikol am, ve'romemanu mikol lashon" (You have chosen us from every other nation, and lifted us from every language). This message rings clear in the very nationalistic tenor of the holiday which emerges from the Hagadah narratives as well as the first song of Hallel, "betzeit Yisrael mimitzrayim". The mitzvah of retelling and re-experiencing the story of Passover is presented on two levels, a physical realm and a spiritual one (Rav and Shmuel debating in Talmud Pesachim). Both stories, though, reflect a very personal connection between God and His 'elected' nation.

However, we must always be cautious to not allow that 'election' to be misconstrued as elitism and hyper-worthiness. We must not confuse our redemption with spiritual arrogance. In fact, never once in the narrative of the Exodus story is there a reference to the worthiness of Israel. The holiday is a scathing rebuke of Egypt and its lack of God consciousness rather than a meritorious display of affection to His cherished people…"Forty ninth level of impurity"…

In this context, psalm 115 delivers a powerful intellectual blow." It's not about us!" We are confronted with humility, indeed anonymity! "Lo lanu, lo lanu! Because it was really about Your honor!" We recognize the battle waging between the King of Kings and the dark forces in the world that reject Him and we join in the mission to enlighten about truth, absolute kindness and trusting in God.

Verse 9 begins with Israel, moves to the priestly elite and then expands to all in the world who fear God to put their trust in Him. This trust is an act of blind faith for until verse 12 there is no recompense. We are left hanging on a precarious religious cliff, wondering if we have enough courage to place our faith in God without assurance of protection. This audience of Israel, Aharon and those who fear God run through the length of the Hallel psalms with the 'trust' motif in the beginning of the psalm, the 'bless' motif in the middle and the 'thank or praise' psalm at the end of the following psalm.

The psalm exhorts Israel and the elite class and all God fearing people to believe; not to take pride or pleasure in the comfort of God's zone. It reminds us all that the world might be anthropo-oriented but it is still theo-centric (to paraphrase Rav Soloveitchik). The first word (repeated) acts as a reminder to all that the gloriousness of Passover does not bequeath upon its subjects the Holy Grail but encourages them (and us) to serve God in humility and even anonymity all the while knowing that 'it is not for us but for Him'.

השמים שמים לה' והארץ נתן לבני אדם

And yet, ultimately, the dead cannot praise Him; the land belongs to us as is the responsibility to survive, endure, ensure our future and the future of mankind. We need to follow the path through humility and trust to reach a point where:
ואנחנו נברך י-ה מעתה ועד עולם הללוי-ה we (all) will bless God from now until eternity.