A new 2018-19 series of articles shared on the roots and the prospects that unite Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions to the realm of Jewishness and Hassidism, Compared semantics and exegetical “paysages” by archpriest Alexander A.Winogradsky Frenkel (Patriarchate of Jerusalem). Below the thirteenth article: “”Plants And Born To Grow”.
Upcoming 21st of January 2019, Tu bishvat – 15th Shvat 5779, will mark the celebration the Jewish calendar New Year of the Trees/Eylanot-ראש השנה לאילנות. An agronomic annual rendezvous with nature and fruit, plants and flowers, trees. It can be very healthy to give charities and help promoting planting new trees before the feast, after the Shabbat and, in general throughout the year. It is also a time to buy fresh fruit and remember to pay some unpaid tithes, if any, or to pay some for the development of agricultural products.
Bouquets of flowers should show our spruce (like wood) and stylish feelings towards our sweethearts. This also happens to be the 70th anniversary of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament, first convened on February 14, 1949). It is interesting to consider the meaning of this “Gathering” beyond political twist. The Scriptural tradition reminds us that the 120 members should grow because “The fruit of the righteous (p’ri tzadik) is a tree of life” (Proverbs 11:30) and “There is hope for a tree (la’etz tikvah), if it is cut down, it will renew itself and its shoots will not cease” (Job 14:7). Quite a challenge for any “convening parliament” composed of so diversified members of different languages, cultures, religions.
The reading portion of the week is from Exodus 13:17-17-16 for Shabbat “Beshallach\בשלח“: “And Pharaoh let the people go “.116 verses (pesukim) = 58 to go and get free combined with 58 conflicting ones, but the general atmosphere was corny, grouchy, definitely not a mind blower. The main issue is expressed toward the end of the portion: “Hayesh HaShem beqirbenu im eyn/היש ה’ בקרבנו אם אין – Is the Lord present among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). This reading portion can be easily paralleled with the upcoming feast of the Theophany of the Lord and his revelation in the waters of the Jordan River on January 17-18 in the Eastern Orthodox Julian calendar of Jerusalem and other jurisdictions worldwide.
Miracles are natural. They are daily stuff. We may not care or be aware that small or bigger events positively change and even save our state of mind, life, physical and material, financial position. The problem is the same in Exodus. Did they really want to be delivered from bondage? Or enjoy some refreshing time in the wilderness? Something has pushed the Israelites to follow Moses’ injunction to leave “Mitzra’im\מצרים (Egypt) = place of imprisonment”. Not only a jail, but Egypt was very famous for being a place of graves and tombs.
Versatility should be noted in the events of this week. Stubborn Pharaoh finally conceded that Moses could leave the country with more than 600.000 people. Then, all of a sudden, the ruler felt wrongful, mistaken and ran after the Hebrews (Ex. 14:3). By the way, when the Israelites were fleeing from Egypt, God said: “The people may have a change of heart (“pen-yinachem ha’am\פן-ינחם העם“) when they saw the war and would have chosen to return to Egypt (Ex. 13:17). The onions were so delicious when tasted in prison activities! They had not been free for centuries and slavery is hard but somehow secure. It does not involve anyone into personal armed conflicts. God stiffened both the hearts of Pharaoh and of the Hebrews.
Pharaoh clumsily pursuit his slaves; his army perished in the waters. God knew that the Israelites might be “waking up” from some involuntary dream of a refreshing sea-shore cruise and decide to cancel their ticket, going back to slavery jail. Thus, He made their way longer. The scene is grandiose, not that Hollywood style if we consider the local places and events. Did the waters split at the Yam Suf\ים סוף – The Sea of the Reeds?
There are doubts about the grandeur of the event. Let’s say that liberty implies a certain splendor. But the site is small and not proven to be splitting that much. Yam Suf is the “Sea of the Reeds”, not really the Red Sea. This refers to a place of humility as suggested by the name of the location: the “reeds – suf\סוף. This aspect is rarely taken into account. Ordinary men and women, people who fled from Egypt someway under condition of anonymity. Without much intimate conviction, they reached at least the deadline of human bondage. And this is at times unbearable. This sea marks an end (sof\סוף), the humbling moment that swirls a life into a totally new and unexpected direction. The right and left side walls of the waters allowed them to pass the sea on dry ground! With a cloud of darkness and a pillar of fire that panicked the Egyptians in the morning. A destruction conducted with mastery “between good and evil” (Talmud Tanchumah Bereishit 12).
But please! God, Moses, more miracles! We are not awfully afraid. We are only scared because we don’t feel secure. This makes the “chom\חום“ – “protective wall-warming” barely real. And still, they got saved. This may explain why we cannot “see” God; we would die. But we “see” Him in miracles. When the miracle has humbled and reinvigorated us, it clutches definitely to our very existence. At the Yam Suf – Sea of the Reeds, a world was overcome and destroyed: slavery.
Indeed, we do believe that slavery has been destroyed. Or, is it a process that has to be renewed and continuous repeated, generation after generation: to release souls and bodies and clear the blonds, undo the locks, the bounds and wounds of absence of real freedom. Pious hierarchs, clergy and laity love to parrot about people getting free, unlashed from slavery by the grace of God and untouchable Divine Presence. We ought to be very cautious with such a discourse. It can be truly misleading. It has been often used in all congregational structures to rule over those who seek divine protection and care. In the end, it may fall into human, too inhumane thirst for power. This kind of false spiritual domination is worse than any slavery because then, preaches tend to explain the sense of liberation in view to capture and reduce the existence of the living souls or creatures. This can take lives to be understood as a true human experience.
Thus, the prominent “shirat HaYam\שירת הים – Song of the Sea” in Exodus chapter 15 is essential. Its verses account facts that the Israelites did undergo, but the whole text – in Hebrew – is at the imperfect tense. It is an ongoing, present and future daily involvement that any Jewish believer continues to live with and through. Prophetess Miriam is thus chanting it with a choir of women and shows the full unity of the people and the coming generations. The Christian Orthodox reader chants it as a messianic breakthrough and serenpidity.
The Christians experience a rather similar situation as Paul of Tarsus states: “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for what we see not, then do we with patience wait for it (ܒ݁ܰܡܣܰܝܒ݁ܪܳܢܽܘܬ݂ܳܐ ܡܩܰܘܶܝܢܰܢ = bamsaybərānūṯā məqawēnan, by endurance that expects with conviction, faith in Peshitta, cf. Romans 8:24-25). Or, in another epistle: “Our ancestors were all under the cloud and passed through the sea, into Moses. All ate the same spiritual food (manna) and all drank the same spiritual drink…Yet God was not pleased with most of them and they were struck down in the desert… God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial He will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it/ܠܰܡܣܰܝܒ݁ܳܪܽܘ – lamsaybārū = to endure, overcome time and attempts, tests, cf. Peshitta” (1 Corinthians 10:1-5.13).
In Israel, people often adopt some scatterbrained dispersion attitudes. In-gathered? Right; but Jews can recognize Jews as wool-gathering groups of people. We are hardly conscious that they have constantly been saved by God’s outstretched arm: The Mighty One undoubtedly ensnared all humans from death. Still, they need to complain as Moses’ flock. The Christians also need to but they don’t dare. Humility or fake freedom-slavery rules drift to often from the Narrow Path that allows entering the Kingdom with redeemed joy. It is exact that, considering some torturous diseases, lifelong ones, handicaps, mental or physical defects, all the sufferings of social and economic indigence and humiliation… true! the humans would firstly require substantial assistance. But God has the nerve – if not the chutzpah (arrogance) – to entrust faith and His kingdom to His children.
The Israelites experienced a lot of miracles along the journey paved with terrible tribulations and tragedies. Who and why can’t stand bitter waters? There, they will suddenly rock on some fresh sources. Some would have preferred to die in Egypt with a piece of real bread, even dried thin wafers. But en route to freedom, the Lord provided flesh (fat fowls) at night and “manhu/מן הו‘ – what’s that (manna)” the bread that falls from heaven for a full month in the morning, i.e. one extra portion for the Shabbat. Because the exodus included a resting day, the institution of the Shabbat traces back to before the Torah was given.
So, they were sitting put in the wilderness, expecting a seventh portion of manna, they had already swallowed the day before. As concerns the “selav/שלו – quails” or supper, the phenomenon is known in the region at specific times. The name of these fat birds is somehow connected by a distortion of the initial consonant (“s” to “she”) with the root: “resting, overweight, pleasure” as today “shalwah\שלוה“. At Massa and Meriba (Trial and Quarrel), the Israelites felt a special thirst that Moses resolved by striking the rock with his rod and a lot of water quenched the complaining nation that still had to make a new comment: “Is the Lord present among us, or not?” God had the endurance to oblige the Israelites to fight Amalek at Rephidim. A victory against Evil and idolaters that is reminded every day in the morning prayer and still a combat that continues “The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages”(Exodus 17:16).
The real problem is “emunah/אמונה – faith”. Crossing the Sea of the Reeds, yes, the Israelites saw the death of Egypt in the sea and “vaya’aminu baHaShem uvMoshe avdo – and they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses (Ex. 14:30). But they did not get to the point that they were incorporated, i.e. shaped into a living body – and evolving into the process of getting totally free, boundless. Faith still appears as a dead-end, a deadline… and period!
Indeed, this generation had a lot of faith, but failed when Moses came down with the Torah and, subsequently, they died in the wilderness. They will rest forever in the sand of the desert: “midbar/מדבר = place where God speaks”: they slept into death in a place that looks void and empy, and, still, it is different from what they had known in the Land of Egypt and its polytheistic graves.
The Hebrew word for “wilderness” is uttered and written as the word “(one) speaks”. It pre-supposes that, in the Sinai, those who perished because of their disobedience, got overshadowed by a special Divine Presence. The Amalekites would be exterminated by David, but Maimonides underscored that the Jews had the task to bring them to the Noahide rules, i.e. the basic respect and true worship of the Life-giving God, in a peaceful way. The believers in the Lord don’t have the task to kill, but to correct, to remedy, to repair those who wanted to exterminate those marked by the seal of faith, resurrection, world-to-come.
Miracles happen every day. They happen everywhere, anytime, reaching out to anybody, they are transgenerational by nature and substance. Still, most people require “proofs, evidences”. God has nothing to prove: He gives miracles. We are more sensitive to calamities, but God can strengthen and save the living.
When the Churches confess that Jesus was born to a virgin young woman, walked on the waters, healed the sick and resurrected Lazarus/Eleazar, it does not suffice to say that we believe in Him. His acts require to have faith beyond any natural faith. The basic acts of faith are long to be integrated. In that sense, holiness consists in overcoming doubts and life tragedies, especially in the natural and supernatural realm of the Mitzvot. Rabbi Akiva, tortured by the Romans, uttered the “Shm’a Israel/שמע ישראל, Hear Israel” proclaiming his lifelong faith, beyond any mistake, lack of understanding.
On the eve of Tu BiShvat and New years of the Trees, it may be useful to say that “everything was very good- tov me’od” and that we can go ahead of the Yam Suf with confidence.
There are very striking trees in the world. Very ancient trees. We discovered that mankind might have appeared in Africa, along the East side part of the Ethiopian down to Mozambique and the South-Africa. Most ancient skulls and bones have been found there even if other very old traces were dug out in Ukraine and along India and Central asia, China.
South Africa has special trees: “Witgat” is the “Tree of Life” in Afrikaans. It is also called the “Cradle tree” or “Wiegbos/boom”. In Psalm 1:3, it is said that the believer in God is “like a tree transplanted (shatul/שתול) into the middle of the waters (al palgey mayim/על פלגי מים”).
We are in a period of “re-birth” and “birth again” is very trendy in some sects and spiritual congregations. The psalm says more: that the believer is not only planted. He/she is transplanted like a new heart that can replace a defective organ nowadays. The same happens to these magnificent African trees, and all trees that symbolize “human beings” and their/our renewal. Though there is a tradition that the thorny crown that was placed on the head of Jesus of Nazareth came from the now Holy Cross (a Georgian monastery in Jerusalem) whose aspect was linked to the South-African “cradle-tree”.
If we are not able to correct ourselves, we may trust that we shall be given some extra time for a repair. This is the attitude of loving-kindness. Others prefer to remove the branches and sometimes the roots as well. Jesus said to wait on the third year and then after one more year of patience, to cut the tree… John the Baptist did not show the same mood of meek patience: he proclaimed that it can be useful to make use of an ax to erase (“And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire”, Matthew 3: 10).
We may not feel that so often, but as humans we are just like in a cradle, all of us, like little birds in their nests and the trees welcome us to immense infinite hope.
On January 18-19, the Eastern Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, the other Oriental Churches of the Holy Land and in particular the Armenian Church celebrate at the Jordan River (Israeli and Jordanian sides) the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist and Forerunner. The splitting and passing of the Red Sea are considered as a sign of this cleansing and redeeming process. The Jews became free when they definitely left Egypt. But their freedom got significant when they accepted to receive the Oral and Written Law (Torah and Mishnah) and be aware of the necessity to act with true morals, ethics. Just the way the Sabeans thought that John the Baptist’s baptism was sufficient till they heard that the fulfillment came in the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, i.e. the Feast of Pentecost.
Jesus was not baptized by any Church or ecclesiastical denomination at the Jordan River. He went through a “rite” performed by a man who acted without being officially recognized by any ruling authority of his time. He came to undergo some sort of “mikveh – bath of purification (for persons or instruments)” proposed by John in the desert, as other God-seekers used to come to other “masters”.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition proposes another reflection: when Jesus went down the waters and rose immediately, he sanctified the entire creation (Mark 1:10). He came then to pave the way to new “plantation, new breeding, growing abilities” for both human souls and the redeeming of the nature, the Earth and the galaxies and the wonders of agricultural and animal realities.
It is quite moving to see so many individuals spring from the river side of the Jordan into the water and try to catch the Cross that they had launched from the top of the sandy sanctuary. As if baptism, in the East, has to be confirmed. It is permanent. It is performed once for ever and still, let’s taste its flavor there where the Lord speedily came out to announce salvation and faith.
In Jordan, these days, there is a very similar practice, definitely comparable to the Jewish 15th of Month Shvat. It is called the Arbour Day when the King and the Queen of Jordan do plant new trees, also this week indeed. Baptism is planting a soul a body, totally immersed down into the waters as a human body compared to a tree (cf. Psalm 1, read daily at Vespers).
Mankind and creation are thus sanctified in Jesus being the Beloved Son… Listen to Him!