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December 18, 2014 / 26 Kislev, 5775
 
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Posts Tagged ‘ancient israel’

A Sense of History

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Parshat Ki Tavo begins with the ceremony of bringing first fruits to the Temple. The Mishnah (Bikkurim 3) gives a detailed account of what happened:

Those who were near to Jerusalem brought fresh figs and grapes, and those who were far away brought dried figs and raisins. Before them went the ox, its horns overlaid with gold, and with a wreath of olive leaves on its head.

The flute was played before them until they came near Jerusalem. When they were near to Jerusalem, they sent messengers before them and bedecked their first fruits. The rulers and the prefects and the treasurers of the Temple went forth to meet them. All the craftsmen in Jerusalem used to rise up for them and greet them, saying: “Brothers, men of such-and-such a place, you are welcome.”

The flute was played before them until they reached the Temple Mount. When they reached the Temple Mount, even King Agrippa would take his basket on his shoulder and enter in as far as the Temple Court.

It was a magnificent ceremony. In historical context, however, its most significant aspect was the declaration each individual had to make:

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.… Then the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10).

This passage is well known. It became the text expounded as part of the Haggadah on Seder night on Pesach. Its familiarity, though, should not blind us to its revolutionary character. Listening to these words, we are in the presence of one of the greatest revolutions in the history of thought.

The ancients saw the gods in nature, never more so than in thinking about the harvest and all that accompanied it. Nature does not change. Natural time is cyclical – the seasons of the year, the revolution of the planets, the cycle of birth, death and new life. When the ancients thought about the past, it was not the historical but a mythical/metaphysical/cosmological past – the primeval time-before-time when the world was formed out of the struggle between the elements.

That is precisely what did not happen in ancient Israel. It might have been otherwise. Had Judaism been a different kind of religion, the people bringing first fruits might have recited a song of praise to God as the author of creation and sustainer of life. We find several such songs in the Book of Psalms:

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make music to our God on the harp.
He covers the sky with clouds;
he supplies the earth with rain
and makes grass grow on the hills. [Psalms 147:7-8]

The significance of the first fruits declaration is that it is not about nature but about history: a thumbnail sketch of the sequence of events from the days of the patriarchs to the Exodus and then conquest of the land. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi gave the best analysis of the intellectual transformation this involved:

“It was ancient Israel that first assigned a decisive significance to history and thus forged a new worldview … Suddenly, as it were, the crucial encounter between man and the divine shifted away from the realm of nature and the cosmos to the plane of history, conceived now in terms of divine challenge and human response … Rituals and festivals in ancient Israel are themselves no longer primarily repetitions of mythic archetypes meant to annihilate historical time. Where they evoke the past, it is not the primeval but the historical past, in which the great and critical moments of Israel’s history were fulfilled … Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people” (Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, pages 8-9).

This history was not academic, the province of scholars or a literary elite. It belonged to everyone. The declaration was recited by everyone. Knowing the story of one’s people was an essential part of citizenship in the community of faith. Not only that, but it was also said in the first person: “My father … Then the Lord brought us out of Egypt … He brought us to this place.” It is this internalization of history that led the rabbis to say: “In each generation, every person should see himself as if he personally came out of Egypt” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:5). This is history transformed into memory.

To be a Jew is to be part of a story that extends across forty centuries and almost every land on the face of the earth. As Isaiah Berlin put it:

“All Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews are steeped in history. They have longer memories, they are aware of a longer continuity as a community than any other which has survived … Whatever other factors may have entered into the unique amalgam which, if not always Jews themselves, at any rate the rest of the world instantly recognizes as the Jewish people, historical consciousness – sense of continuity with the past – is among the most powerful” (Against the Current, page 252).

Despite Judaism’s emphasis on the individual, it has a distinctive sense of what an individual is. We are not alone. There is no sense in Judaism of the atomic individual – the self in and for itself – we encounter in Western philosophy from Hobbes onwards. Instead, our identity is bound up horizontally with other individuals: our parents, spouse, children, neighbors, members of the community, fellow citizens, fellow Jews. We are also joined vertically to those who came before us, whose story we make our own. To be a Jew is to be a link in the chain of the generations, a character in a drama that began long before we were born and will continue long after our death.

Memory is essential to identity – so Judaism insists. We did not come from nowhere; nor does our story end with us. We are leaves on an ancient tree, chapters in a long and still-being-written story, a letter in the scroll of the book of the people of the Book.

There is something momentous about this historical sense. It reflects the fact – itself one of the great themes of the Bible – that it takes time for human beings to learn, to grow, to rise beyond our often dysfunctional and destructive instincts, to reach moral and spiritual maturity and create a society of dignity and generosity. That is why the covenant is extended over time and why, according to the Sages, the only adequate guarantors of the covenant at Mount Sinai were the children yet to be born.

That is as near as we get to immortality on earth: to know that we are the guardians of the hopes of our ancestors, and the trustees of the covenant for the sake of the future. That is what happened in Temple times when people brought their first fruits to Jerusalem and, instead of celebrating nature, celebrated the history of their people from the days when “My father was a wandering Aramean” to the present. As Moses said in some of his last words to posterity:

“Remember the days of old;
consider the generations long past.
Ask your father and he will tell you,
your elders, and they will explain to you.” [Deuteronomy 32:7]

To be a Jew is to know that the history of our people lives on in us.

Searching for the Past at Tel Shiloh

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

I was thinking about writing about Israel’s possible new coalition government, what I think of PM Binyamin Netanyahu and the chutzpadik new political power Yair Lapid, but Arlene Kushner says it so well that I suggest you read her article aptly titled Outrage.

Here in the Holy Land, there’s one month in the Jewish Calendar that typifies “spring” as the poets would describe it, and that’s the month of Nissan, miracles and the holiday of Passover, Pesach.  As has been my practice for quite a few years, I go to pray at Shiloh HaKeduma, Tel Shiloh, the site where the Biblical Mishkan,Tabernacle rested/was located for 369 years after the Exodus from Egypt, from the time of Joshua until the death of Eli the High Priest.  For almost four centuries, Shiloh was the religious and administrative Capital of the Jewish People/Nation.

 

 

Recently, archaeologists have been back to Tel Shiloh looking for ancient treasures and secrets to show what life had been like in Biblical times when Jewish pilgrims came to Shiloh to pray.

 

 

 

Visit Shiloh Musings.

What Judea & Samaria Mean to the Jewish People

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

For Jews, the ancient tribal territories of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and west Menasheh – a.k.a. Judea and Samaria or the West Bank – form the very heartland of the homeland. Sadly, ceding these central areas to the Arabs remains a political possibility and far too many Jews who are disconnected from their history and heritage are wholly unaware of what these crucial regions of the Land of Israel mean to Jewry collectively.

Here, then, is a précis outlining the provinces’ most important geographical sites, figures, and historical contexts, in the hope of underscoring their great significance to all the People of Israel:

1. Samaria (Shomron) – Capital of the Omride kings of Israel (Omri, Ahab, Joram, etc.), and the ancient center of a thriving wine and oil industry. Mentioned in I & II Kings and II Chronicles, as well as by the prophets Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Obadiah. Samaria also appears in Josephus and its orchards are praised in the Mishnah. The ruined city was later possessed by Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai, rebuilt and renamed Sebaste (Sabastiyah) by Herod the Great and controlled by Jewish king Agrippa I until the Roman occupation and colonization. The prophet Elisha is said to be buried here, as is the Jew known as John the Baptist.

2. Shechem – Situated in the narrow valley between Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, Shechem is where Abraham built an altar under the oak of Moreh; where Jacob encamped, bought a field, and buried idols and earrings; where Dinah was raped and brutally avenged; and where Joseph the Righteous is buried. Here Joshua drew up the Mosaic statutes, erected a stone monument under the oak tree, and convened the elders and judges of Israel before his death, adjuring them to pledge allegiance to God. Gideon’s sons fought over the city after that great judge’s death. King David twice versified the city in the Psalms. King Rehoboam was crowned here and King Jeroboam was elected here and made it his initial capital. Shechem is also a Levitical city and one of the biblical cities of refuge. Vespasian built Neapolis (Nablus) on the ruins of the destroyed city, which is also mentioned by the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah, Josephus, and in the Midrash Rabbah. For the sectarian Samaritans, Shechem equals what Jerusalem is to mainstream Jews.

3. Mount Ebal (Eval) – Here Joshua built an altar of unhewn stones and made a peace sacrifice to God following the fall of Ai, also inscribing and reading the Torah before the Israelites and in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. The taller counterpart of Gerizim, toward which the Levites pronounced the Mosaic curses.

4. Mount Gerizim – Where the other half of Israel stood listening to Joshua, and toward which the Levites pronounced blessings. The smaller counterpart of Ebal is known foremost as the holy mountain for Samaritans, who celebrate Passover atop its peak. It is also where Johanan Hyrcanus destroyed the pagan shrine built by the Seleucids, and where the Samaritan leader Baba Rabbah built a synagogue.

5. Shiloh – From this town Joshua made plans with the assembled people to finish apportioning the land to the tribes. Shiloh was for centuries home to the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and the Ark of the Covenant after the settlement in Canaan, and where the High Priest Eli and his sons officiated. The first religious center of the Israelites, to which Elkanah made an annual pilgrimage and where his barren wife Hannah vowed to consecrate a son to God if she could conceive. After giving birth to the prophet Samuel, Hannah recited her song of praise here. Mentioned repeatedly in Jeremiah, Shiloh was also home to the prophet Ahijah.

6. Ma’aleh Levonah – Site of the first major Maccabean battle and victory, in which Judah Maccabee defeated the Syrian Greeks and killed the Samarian mysarch Apollonius, taking his sword for himself.

7. Gilgal – First campsite and base of Joshua and the Israelites upon entering Canaan, where Joshua erected the twelve stones gathered from the Jordan River, and where the people celebrated Passover and circumcised those born in the desert. The prophet Samuel also judged Israel here, and King Saul was crowned at this sacred site. The prophets Elijah and Elisha passed through the city prior to Elijah’s whirlwind ascent. Gilgal was a Levitical city in the time of Nehemiah. Mentioned by the prophets Amos and Hosea, and in the Talmud.

New Finds from First Temple Period at Motza

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

Temple and rare cache of sacred vessels from Biblical times discovered at Tel Motza
Rare evidence of the religious practices and rituals in the early days of the Kingdom of Judah has recently been discovered at Tel Motza, to the west of Jerusalem. In excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is currently conducting at the Tel Motza archaeological site, prior to work being carried out on the new Highway 1 from Sha’ar HaGai to Jerusalem…According to Anna Eirikh, Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily and Shua Kisilevitz, directors of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The ritual building at Tel Motza is an unusual and striking find, in light of the fact that there are hardly any remains of ritual buildings of the period in Judaea at the time of the First Temple. The uniqueness of the structure is even more remarkable because of the vicinity of the site’s proximity to the capital city of Jerusalem, which acted as the Kingdom’s main sacred center at the time.” According to the archaeologists, “Among other finds, the site has yielded pottery figurines of men, one of them bearded, whose significance is still unknown.”

Photograph: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

…”The current excavation has revealed part of a large structure, from the early days of the monarchic period (Iron Age IIA). The walls of the structure are massive, and it includes a wide, east-facing entrance, conforming to the tradition of temple construction in the ancient Near East: the rays of the sun rising in the  east would have illuminated the object placed inside the temple first, symbolizing the divine presence within. A square structure which was probably an altar was exposed in the temple courtyard, and the cache of sacred vessels was found near the structure. The assemblage includes ritual pottery vessels, with fragments of chalices (bowls on a high base which were used in sacred rituals), decorated ritual pedestals, and a number of pottery figurines of two kinds: the first, small heads in human form (anthropomorphic) with a flat headdress and curling hair; the second, figurines of animals (zoomorphic) – mainly of harnessed animals…

Photograph: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

… “The finds recently discovered at Tel Motza provide rare archaeological evidence for the existence of temples and ritual enclosures in the Kingdom of Judah in general, and in the Jerusalem region in particular, prior to the religious reforms throughout the kingdom at the end of the monarchic period (at the time of Hezekiah and Isaiah), which abolished all ritual sites, concentrating ritual practices solely at the Temple in Jerusalem.”

So, is the Biblical narrative reliable?

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Postcard From Israel: Bet She’an

Monday, December 24th, 2012

Although only about a tenth of the archaeological site of Bet She’an has been excavated, it has to be one of the most fascinating places to visit in Israel. First settled in the Chalcolithic period in the fifth millennium BCE, it became the seat of Egyptian rule in the late Canaanite period and the governor’s residence can be seen at the top of the Tel, which has some twenty settlement strata including a walled Canaanite city and an Israelite fortress.

During the Hellenistic period, the city of Nysa-Scythopolis was founded – falling to the Hasmoneans in 107 BCE. After the Roman conquest, the city became one of the ten cities of the Decapolis and magnificent public buildings were constructed, including several bath-houses and a spectacular 7,000 seat second century theatre. At its height, some 30 to 40 thousand people lived in the city, but in 749 CE it was destroyed in the massive earthquake which hit the area.

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Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/blogs/cifwatch/postcard-from-israel-bet-shean/2012/12/24/

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