Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Choose Now, Speak Now: Gematria for 5772
Ready or not, the Holy Days are upon us. They come right on time in the Jewish Calendar, and the middle of school life and busy family life, sometime during the fall of the year in relationship to the Western Calendar. They come, predictably each year, even when uncertainty reigns and chaos threatens on the stage of world events. This year, even as we try to put our own lives into perspective, hoping for a better year, a good and sweet New Year for ourselves, for family and friends, our hearts and minds turn inexorably to Israel, tiny Israel, threatened with annihilation.
In the early 1990's, when I was pregnant with the child who has grown to be the Catron Kid, (Cowboy in Training) I was serving briefly as Cantorial Soloist for our synagogue when we were between professional cantors. And one late summer Friday morning, when I was sitting in bed sipping my ersatz morning coffee, our rabbi called and with great jubilation said: "We are going to have peace! I want you to sing the Klepper Shalom Rav (the prayer that ends the Amidah) tonight." This was the Camp David Accords, when we really thought that trading land for peace would get us somewhere, and when we really hoped, irrationally, that in Yasser Arafat and Fatah, we really had a partner for talks. Our delusions lasted little longer than my musical career, and for some they have never ended. But by the beginning of the Terror War against Israel, I laid my own delusions to rest.
It was around the time of the High Holy Days 5761 (2000 CE) that the Terror War began in Jerusalem. It was framed by a complicit press as a popular uprising (intifada) against Israeli rule of territories won by the 1967 war. But it was not that, rather it was designed and orchestrated by terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah, funded by Syria and Iran. I remember crying on the morning of Yom Kippur, as we realized that stories unfolding in real time on the internet, stories intended to make Israel look like the aggressor and to make the IDF look like Nazis, were staged for the world media, and that the media was using them to vilify Israel.
In many ways, the beginning of the Terror War was the beginning of my own political awakening, when I began to understand that my parents had been right, and that the ideals of the left would lead inexorably to misery, poverty and war. I remember a heated exchange with an older, wiser friend which led me to admit to myself that the left is almost always and everywhere antisemitic. And so I cried that morning as I stood up on the bimah to chant the Yom Kippur morning Haftarah, which I began with an uncharacteristic personal whispered prayer: "For the sake of the unification of Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) and Shechinah Imeinu (The Presence of G-d Who dwells among us)." It was on that day, at that moment, that I understood exactly how tenuous the existence of Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel) really is.
And over the ensuing years we have watched the systematic murder of Israelis by terrorist suicide bombings, and the creation of a terrorized citizenry by incessant rocket attacks, all accompanied by a propaganda campaign intended to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world. We have seen Holocaust denial spoken from the platform of the United Nations, and we have heard Islamicist thugs and terrorists speak in American universities, praying for the coming of the "Khalifa" (Califate) to thunderous applause. And we have come to understand that no amount of land given over will ever be enough to bring peace to Israel, that our enemies wish to destroy the Jewish state completely, and that not content with that, they will not rest until they have killed every last Jew on the planet, and destroyed the United States as well.
Each Jewish year has an accompanying Gematria, a kind of numerology that derives patterns and meaning from the fact that Hebrew letters are also numbers. Usually people use the patterns to derive some theme for the year that will connect their everyday, Western lives to their spiritual needs and aspirations. Often the Gematria is derived from numerical equation of one Hebrew word to another. For example, the Hebrew word for "nut" (the food, not the mental state) is egoz, which has the same numerical value adding up the Hebrew letters as the Hebrew word for "sin", which is chet. Thus Jews avoid putting nuts into their High Holy Days recipes, because one wants to focus on forgiveness of sin during this time.
The Gematria for finding the theme or meaning for the year is a more sophisticated playing with numbers and letters intended to provide an understanding of what the theme for the coming year is not on a personal level, but also for all the House of Israel and all the world. Human beings are meaning-makers, after all, and our brains are organized to find patterns. Where there are none, we look for them anyway, in order to help us understand not only what is happening and how, but the "why" of events in our lives and in our world. In this way Gematria is not fortune-telling, it does not attempt to reveal an unknown future, but rather it allows a human being to impose a pattern on his uncertainty and formulate a theme and a plan for dealing with it.
We are all dealing with uncertainty at some level. This is the way of the Fourth Turning of the Saeculum, when together we enter a Great Gate in History, and experience changes in familiar patterns of our lives at many levels. For the Jewish people, this time is fraught with more fear and uncertainty, because we see that as the crisis nears its turning point, "never again" is an empty promise, and that we are once again standing in the breech.
With all this in mind, though much of it unconsciously, I turned to my custom of finding a theme for the coming Jewish year. Usually, I find some virtue that I want to focus on, some Hebrew word or phrase that will help me put all of my inchoate longings and desires to improve my life, strengthen my weaknesses, into a plan for action. Last year, the Gematria led me to the Hebrew word Emunah, a reliance upon the goodness of G-d and of life in the face of all kinds of changes and challenges. It was small and very personal, and although it did have connections to what was happening in the world at some level, I did not realize it then. I thought that if I could improve to some degree on this for myself, that it would give me more resilience in dealing with certain personal relationships that have challenges that are beyond my control.
Yesterday I began looking at Gematria for the coming year with the same intent: to find a theme for the year that would challenge me to greater strength of spirit, address certain personal weaknesses, and allow me to move forward with as much grace and purpose and I can muster. In short, I was looking for a personal theme for the year that would match the likely challenges I would face inwardly, and within my family and my work.
That is not what I found. Instead I found this Gematria for the year:
וְאַתָּה, תֶּאְזֹר מָתְנֶיךָ וְקַמְתָּ וְדִבַּרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי אֲצַוֶּךָּ אַל-תֵּחַת, מִפְּנֵיהֶם פֶּן אֲחִתְּךָ לִפְנֵיהֶם
In English: "And you, gird up your loins, and stand, and speak to them everything that I will command you; Do not be broken (scared, dismayed) before them, lest I break (scare, dismay) you before them."
Although this Gematria can have personal implications, it does not really apply to one small person living on the nowhere side of flyover country, for herself. This Gematria cannot be about making small changes to grow virtue where there was none in personal affairs; it seems to be for the Jewish people, here in America and in the rest of the Diaspora, and for those who love liberty throughout the world. It speaks to each of us as individuals, yes, but it requires of us some courage beyond that required to mend our personal breeches in small ways. For this Gematria is from Jeremiah the Prophet, who was called as a young man to speak for the Eternal to Israel on the brink of Crisis, on threshold of one of the Great Gates of History.
The context of this text is the time at which Jeremiah understood that he must speak, he must say what he saw coming, knowing that it was altogether hard and unpleasant words that he had to speak. And he was afraid, knowing that, and knowing the fate of prophets. He was feeling small and young and unworthy of saying what he knew he had to say to the House of Israel. But as Jeremiah well knew, there comes a time in history when all of one's fears and all of one's sense of unworthiness must be disregarded, for the moment of choosing is at hand, and by refusing to choose a side, to lift up one's voice, one has decided anyway.
This is that time. For the past number of years, I have watched and waited, as something awful has been taking shape, and the dreams of those who wish to rule over us have seemed to come to fruition. And when we first raised our voices together, I believed that attending a tea party, holding a sign and banding together a few times a year was all that I had to do. It seemed exciting and yet happy and innocent. Even in 2008 and 2009, at least, I did not believe that raising my voice would become dangerous, that attempts would be made to shut us down--first by ridicule and now, with increasing stridency, by threat of force and chaos.
As I see what is taking shape, and understand that we must raise our voices and take action against it, I have every reason to be afraid. I understand Jeremiah. And yet, in the face of derision and increasing hatred directed against us, it is necessary that I--that we all choose, knowing full well that once we step across the line, there is no turning back. For this we need courage, lev chazach , the strength of heart to do so willingly and with reliance upon the knowledge that for those who are determined, strength will be given.
Through his fear and hesitation, Jeremiah knew that by making a choice, by raising his voice he would be strengthened. For he heard: " This day I have made of you a fortified city, a pillar of iron . . . and they shall fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you." And he understood that once the step is taken, then the strength shall be made straight.
I do not know where this year will take me, and all of us. I know that great and awesome deeds are in the offing. War against Israel, thus far covert, will almost certainly become overt. World economies stand on the brink of destruction. To bring something good out of all of this at the end, to cherish and preserve the value of the individual, the preciousness of liberty and the goodness of life will take all of the courage and strength we can muster. And it seems more and more certain that if we do not choose now, speak now, our silence will rise up and speak against us. As small and weak and unworthy as each one of us may feel, we still are called to stand in breech and raise our voices.
We know that there are no promises that each one of us will come through unharmed, that the stakes are rapidly becoming frighteningly high; but we do have that one small but unwavering flame against the darkness: "I am with you." So long as we are standing on the firm foundation of righteousness, so long as we are unwavering in our commitment to our values and principles, that small flame will warm our hands and guide our heart whatever may come.
Be strong. Be strong. And may we all be strengthened.