Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Days of Repentance!

I was alerted to a tradition maintained for thousands of years, a daily prayer of repentance said by orthodox Jews, but not on Sabbaths and festivals. The event that caused King David to write Psalm 25 immediately invoked my fascination. Every day this psalm is read as a personal plea for forgiveness, but I question its broader implications. Strangely this psalm is read immediately following the most sacred point of the daily prayer ritual, so the reader is expected to traverse the highest point of spiritual elevation to the lowest point of repentance. It seems odd these extremes would be juxtaposed; perhaps to draw the reader back to the reality of their human condition? So why this psalm when many others could have been selected?
The event that inspired its writing, toward the end of King David’s reign, caused the death of 70,000 people who lived in Israel's north. David’s ill-fated, self motivated decision to conduct a national census was singled out and blamed. David had chosen this divinely inflicted plague over punishments by human hands. In the aftermath David and others sighted the angel of death poised to destroy Jerusalem, but it stopped, well short of the three days David had agreed, via Prophet Gad to endure on his people as punishment for his census oversight. Immediately the Prophet told him to build an altar where David had seen the feet of the angel standing on the top of Mount Moriah on the threshing floor that belonged to the King of the Jebusites who was still living in Jerusalem's City of David. Why was the nation inflicted when the fateful census was his decision alone?
Here we must turn to commentaries that also ask whether the altar he built was for personal or national use? In those days it had already been decreed that no national altars could be built outside of the temporary sanctuary. Furthermore the Ark of the covenant and elements of the temporary sanctuary had already been transported to the City of David many years prior. However, an altar had not been formally erected and all tribal leaders knew once erected, the altar would mark the spot for the permanent temple. Custom has it that the location of David and Gad’s altar, on the threshing floor, became the beacon by which plans for the permanent temple were finalized by David. His son Solomon completed the temple construction, which was once located somewhere near the site of today’s golden Dome of The Rock on the Temple Mount. According to Jewish law the future permanent altar can only ever be at the very same location Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice, not by any other measure.
Although it may be logical to argue the daily recitation of Psalm 25 reminds that national disloyalty or disrespect for the nation's leader could cause a decision that will bring harm, these traits do not constitute sin. It’s more likely the daily recitation is associated with a recurring event that specifically requires repentance. As you will see from my blog links in the article body, I maintain a view consistent with commentaries that the absence of Israel’s national temple each day is as if each person individually destroyed it. Therefore I conclude, in addition to the many other proofs I have already brought, that Psalm 25 was written because King David knew the altar’s location he selected would lead to the temple’s destruction.
Until we discover the correct and permanent place of the altar and rectify the problem, this psalm will continue to be recited by and for each reader and for that fateful national decision.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Gedaliah who, the determined Jew?

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob re-claimed Canaanite occupied land which amplified competition among the local tribal kings and regional powers. Ancient Canaanites were never dull, especially in the south which was hotly contested by invaders from north, south and east. Egyptians and Libyans controlled the coastal trade route through Gaza to Megiddo. Inland along the flat plains to the northeast competitions was against their Hittite family and eventually returning Israelites under Joshua wrested control of most of the land. Then 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 in Egypt, Jacob’s small family grew to a slave-community of millions living in the eastern Nile delta. After departing the delta, during their 40 year nomadic journey to the promised land they built a temporary sanctuary and nurtured their wounded 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 land 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) 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 grant was small and they may have been expected to expand south into land occupied by the Philistines (descendants of Mitzrayim’s grandson) to accommodate their growth. However, a previous tribal pact entered by Abraham and Isaac provided Philistine immunity in Gaza and their Hittite and Jebusite cousins the Jebusites obtained immunity in Hevron and Jerusalem. After Joshua, toward the end of the period of Israel’s Judges, Samson, a judge from the tribe of Dan married a Philistine woman - Delilah, which changed the course of history at the time. 
Absent a new ruler or king there was little cohesiveness among the incongruous tribes of Israel. Their victories over local kings and dominance over trade routes heightened competition with other tribes and 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. 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 left exposed to conflict, contact and trade with Israel's foreign invaders and neighbors.
Around 350 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 Yerovam split from those in the south under Rechavam and Dan's divided territory straddled the divided nation. Around 500 years later the continued 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.