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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Gedaliah who, the determined Jew?

Tzitzit (fringes) cut from clothes of tribe Dan soldiers - The Megiddo Ivory
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob re-claimed Canaanite occupied land which amplified tensions among the local tribal kings and regional powers. Ancient Canaanites were never dull, especially on the south coast, which was hotly contested by invaders from north, south and east. Egyptians and Libyans controlled the coastal trade route north through Gaza to Megiddo. Inland, along the flat plains to the northeast competition was against their Hittite families, but after 300 years returning Israelites under Joshua wrested control of most of the land. Then, some 500 years later came the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians advancing from the north to control access into Egypt and north Africa. Alternative access along the Jordan river and Dead Sea, although important, was often far more hostile.

During their 250 year sojourn, Jacob’s small family grew to a slave-community of millions living in Egypts eastern Nile delta before departing on their 40 year nomadic journey to the promised land. During this time they built a temporary sanctuary and nurtured their fledgling national identity. Their exodus vacated Egypt's Nile delta which became exposed to infiltrators. Torah, the Hebrew Bible, became Israel - the new nation’s constitutional and cultural manifesto. By the time Moses died, he had forged Torah’s principles of law and worship into their collective national psyche, but its open framework enabled fiercely competitive intra-tribal identities to express themselves in priority to apparent national interests.

Moses tasked Joshua to conquer the promised land for the 12 tribes of Israel to settle. Joshua accomplished this by leading each tribe through successive victories over 31 regional kings, each a descendant of Canaan son of Egypt’s founder, Mitzrayim the son of Ham. Ham’s brother Shem was granted the land of Canaan by their father Noah. Their brother Yafeth was given land north and east of Canaan in modern Iraq and Iran. The three regions belonging to Ham (Egypt), Shem (dubiously Canaan) and Yafeth (Mesopotamia) constituted the fertile crescent. The division of this valuable continental junction established the basis for significant regional rivalry.

Dan was the last tribe Joshua assisted to settle their land. It was a difficult allocation for the hotly contested (south of modern day Tel Aviv), but important Egyptian coastal trade route through Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod. The 64,000 eligible members of Dan were made up from only one family known as the Shuchamites, the descendants of Dan’s son Chushim. Dan's initial land allocation required them to expand south into land occupied by the Philistines (descendants of Mitzrayim’s grandson). However, a previous tribal pact entered by Abraham and Isaac provided Philistine immunity in Gaza and their Hittite and Jebusite cousins obtained immunity in Hevron and Jerusalem. Toward the end of the period of Israel’s Judges (a few hundred years after Joshua), Samson - a judge from the tribe of Dan married a Philistine woman Delilah, which changed the course of history at the time.

Garment of captured Shasu 
presented to foreign king
Absent a new ruler or king there was little cohesiveness among the incongruous tribes of Israel. Dissatisfied and left to fend for themselves, the seniors of tribe Dan snaked a path north through Israel's tribal territories in search of easy to conquer land. During the same period Pharaoh Merenptah was pushing north through Israeli tribal land to attack the northern Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh. Tribal Dan, known to the Egyptians as the Shasu, conquered Laish in Israel’s north and settled the area between the Golan Heights and Damascus. Dan's territory was split between the south west (Gaza) and north east (Golan) of Israel. Dan, the disgruntled rear guard of Israel were exposed to continuous conflict, contact and trade with Israel's foreign invaders and neighbors. Their victories over local kings and dominance over trade routes heightened competition with other, tribes and nations, which led to regional tensions between Egypt and their burgeoning northern Hittite and Assyrian foes. The Hittites and Assyrians, predecessors of the Babylonians and Greeks, descended from Yafeth and shared a common Cuneiform language.

Around a hundred years later King David consolidated Israel’s disparate tribes briefly establishing a united kingdom and paving the way for his son King Solomon to finally realize the dream of Israel at peace with a permanent temple in Jerusalem. However, peace between the tribes endured only Solomon’s reign. Immediately thereafter the northern tribes under Solomon's exiled treasurer Yerovam split from those in the south under Solomon's son Rechavam, so Dan's divided territory and presence straddled the nation. Around 300 years later this national division led to the prophecies of Yeshayahu (Isaiah) and Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) who predicted the destruction of Jerusalem by the Assyrians and its ultimate destruction by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar.

Under the Assyrians Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah, a righteous Jew to rule as his proxy, but he was murdered at a feast set by Ishmael ben Nethaniah of the tribe of Yehuda and the remaining Jews who had not already been exiled to Babylon were killed or fled to Egypt. Orthodox Jews observe the fast of Gedaliah immediately after Rosh HaShana in the 10 days of repentance preceding Yom Kippur, perhaps to recall some or all of Israel's sordid, competitive, self effacing history. The month from which the temple's destruction commenced was eventually named after Tammuz the Babylonian deity for food and agriculture and became the lowest point of the the Hebrew calendar.

Peace does not come easy, not for a lack of trying, but for lack of the unification King David tried so hard to realize in the middle of Israel's history. Now at the end of that history Jews the world over are having to find new and creative ways to consolidate their disparate views as the world compresses and apparent circumstance forces their hand to accept the essential ingredients that unify, forge and strengthen their national identity.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

One Rock!

A quick lesson in topography for those who are not familiar. The map of two mountains flattens at the summit, one colored green another blue. The concentric lines surrounding each represents the slope from summit to valley below. This image captures the undulating hills, each with a summit, slope and valley, huddled in Jerusalem’s holy basin.

 Ancient Jerusalem's Holy Basin
The mountain subject of this essay is Mount Moriah with summit colored green, valley boundary in red - it is a single rock, a monolith! On the summit stands the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine to Caliph Omar who conquered Jerusalem in 637 CE.
To its south, Al Aqsa Mosque, further south the Ophel followed by City of David and to its east, the perennial Gihon Spring.

According to Jewish tradition Mount Moriah is the foundation stone of the entire world, yet this tradition was reduced through history and to this day, most people believe the foundation stone to be a rock on the summit somewhere under the Dome of the Rock. This location was designated as the place the Holy of Holies once stood during the period of the first and second temples of Jerusalem. The rectangular area around the summit of Mount Moriah are the remains of the Temple Mount constructed by King Herod toward the end of the second temple era.

I have no doubt King David once built an altar on the summit of Mount Moriah (in the green zone) in accordance with Jewish tradition and no doubt the Holy of Holies of the first and second temples were built on that approximate location within the bounds of the Temple Mount. However, I deeply question whether the King did so to conceal the true location until its rightful time. You see according to Jewish law, then and now, the Holy of Holies obtains its location from the holy altar. For the temple to be a permanent fixture the altar must be located on the place Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice, the place to which his son Jacob returned and made a covenant to build the House of God.

The tradition of this rock can be traced back to many texts, but one in particular, the story of Jacob recalls Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (chapter 35); ‘Now Jacob, on his journey from the house of his father, re-experiences that awe, a déjà vu of his father’s binding. Forced to lie down, arrested upon his journey by the sudden sunset, he experiences a primal fear, "How awesome is this place!" (v. 17). The vision of the ‘ladder’ is intended to be a palliative for that fear, a vision of the foundation of the temple, Beit Elokim (House of God), in that place. There Jacob sets up a monument of twelve-stones-fused-into-one to mark the spot.

matzevah light touched.jpg
Matzevah or monument of Jacob's covenant
According to Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, what did God do? He stretched out His right foot [symbolic of eternity] and sank the stone deep into the earth, as one sets a keystone into an arch. Accordingly, the stone is called, even hashtya, the Foundation Stone, and there is the navel of the world and from there the whole Earth was stretched out [in the Act of Creation], and, upon that stone the temple of God stands.’

The unique stone in the image above is more than 3500 years old and was re-discovered in 2008. Somehow it is stable, sunken into the bedrock and surrounded by small boulders facing east on a high (upper) ridge, on the neck of Mount Moriah, west of the Gihon Spring. It has survived like no other artifact in the City of David. In context, as seen in the image below, it sits in one of four stone carved bedrock chambers exclusively dedicated for holy worship. They contain a grain press an oil press, features for processing small animals and an altar.

High Ridge Art (3).jpg
Upper Ridge West of the Gihon Spring
Archaeologist Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority discovered the stone, known as a matzevah. He recorded it was surrounded by soft, tightly packed earth, it and the entire upper ridge had been purposefully buried (based on other artifacts found in the layers above) by one of the last kings of Judah. Ongoing excavations at the site continue to yield first and second temple items, but soon for the first time in more than 2500 years, the area highlighted in green between the bedrock and this worship complex will be excavated and may inform us of its holy purpose.
Mount Moriah is associated with “HaMakom” meaning “The Place”, but where exactly on the mountain is the place? Where did Jacob locate his matzevah and dream of the ladder that extended to heaven on which angels were climbing up and down. According to tradition it is the head or summit, but according to more mystical sources the place is and will always be the neck. In time we will find out more, but for now the search continues to discover the special purpose of this holy place.