Rosh Chodesh Tammuz is so different than other Roshei Chodashim. I doubt that you know what Tammuz actually means. Of course it is possible that you have no particular desire to assimilate this particular bit of information, but then again, who am I to say? I will tell you what it means at the end of the letter. That should keep you reading!
A hint, and some reflections on the nature of language.
The word Tammuz is actually not Hebrew. It is Aramaic, the language that was spoken in Babylon. We never really made a complete linguistic recovery from that period when we headed back to Israel (and the majority stayed put; after 70 years Babylon which had been conquered by Persia). It was a place where we found a niche, far from the horrors of the Roman occupation of Israel, and in a relatively tolerant environment. The language that we had learned to speak on foreign soil was our language. It didn’t take long for this to occur. It was only 70 years earlier that the exile had begun.
Although Hebrew (or Lashon Kodesh, the Holy Tongue) was never forgotten, it also was never really alive again as the language that you woke up to in the morning and went to sleep with at night. It was the language of prayer, of holy books that were always part of our lives as a much beloved family member. There were always people who chose to speak Lashon Kodesh, but for the majority Aramaic was their native tongue.
Maharal points out the reason this happened. Lashon Kodesh no longer expressed us.
Although the language is holy, and the holiness of the Jewish People is real, the bond between what could have been the language that gives expression to this kind of holiness, and the lives we actually live is not always that steady. Lashon Kodesh is the language with which Hashem created the world, it is also unique in this that it has no word that isolates physical intimacy from its spiritual and emotional component. This is both its virtue and its liability. If a language isn’t a “good fit” for you, you will find yourself adjusting the language to fit, or end up speaking another language. Modern Hebrew is the perfect example of this phenomena. Ben Yehuda, often referred to as the father of modern Hebrew, and he author of its most popular lexicon was a purist. He tried to find Heberw words that fit into contemporary experience. What happened was that even when he though of words that work, modern Israeli’s are comfortable using phrases like Veeken (week end), breksim (brakes) and totalreck. The words take you to the West, a place that many young secular Israeli’s feels at home in even more than in Yerushalaim.
One of the big questions that you may find yourself asking when you think about your Jewish identity, is why we have one. It’s not land (at present the majority of Jews still don’t live in Israel), nor is it language (hmmmm. There must be a reason that I am writing this letter in English. You speak it, and in honesty, for the most part, it is also the language of my self-talk. It isn’t culture. The culture of say a Jew living in LA is different enough from the culture of a Jew living in Addis Ababa force you recognize that history and culture aren’t the bond that made us a people. It also isn’t religion. In case you live in a cave and aren’t quite aware of what goes on outside cool doom, many Jews in both LA and Addis are not religious. We are still a single people, and the Jew in LA or Addis is no less Jewish than the one in Yerushalaim. No one knew the answer to what actually makes us a people than Bilaam and Balak, this week’s parsha’s anti-heroes.
What did they know, and why did they care, and what does any of this have to do with you?
When Balak the king of Moav hired Bilaam to curse the Jews there was more going on there than a HR deal in which someone is hired for a job and collects a small fortune in compensation. Bilaam was a profound mystic, who had a deep grasp of the underlying unity of Hashem’s creative power. For him, this kind of knowledge was egocentric. I was more a search for ego fulfillment than it was a channel for devotion. Hashem opened doors for him that He had never opened for a non-Jew.
Bilaam’s grasp of reality was so great that he could use his tongue the way an archer uses arrows. He could verbally make accusations that were not unfounded, and demand that justice be done. He was threatened by us. Our existence forced him into a secondary role in the world’s stage. Jew’s Each of the blessings he was forced to give (as you can see in the Parshah, parshat Balak which is in BaMidbar) was an alternative glance at a piece of reality that could be easy seen as negative but true.
What’s Wrong With Us?
The first Bilaam did was to focus on only one part of the Jewish Nation’s encampment. He didn’t want to see the whole. The picture of Klal Yisrael, the Jews as a united group is so awesomely great that there is no weak spot to attack. Wherever you look for the rise of moral values, sensitivity towards others, add acts of kindness, we are there. When you look for seeing Hashem’s unity so that you recognize that each person comes from one original source, as does every microbe and every galaxy, you will find Jewish people there ceaselessly looking for meaning (sometimes more successfully sometimes less so). When you look at us as we sometimes are; hopelessly fragmented, embattled against ourselves, unable to find the magic ingredient that unites us, you see us as Bilam did.
He began his blessing by saying, “Who can count Yaakov’s earth”. We do mitzvos without abandoning the physical world. The comparison with the earth also has a deeper side. Maharal’s Earth is the “mother” of everything that grows. So are we. Every meaningful spiritual road starts at Sinai. It is the source of all of the great world religions. They base their principles and teachings on the revelation that Hashem gave to us, giving us the empowerment that we have to touch every seeker. If you were to ask everyone who lives in Yerushalaim, for instance, “Is your life touched by the Jews and the Torah”? The answer would be be that if they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish the answer is yes. Spiritual ambition is engraved on the soul of even the least observant Jew.
The earth also consumes. It reduces even the strongest metals to rust and nothingness. We have faced the greatest civilizations, watch their decline, and outlive the challenges that they presented.
What’s right with us, and what does this have to do with today’s reality?
One of the problems that we face, is that we don’t know ourselves well enough. We have lost our language as a result of assimilating the way the people who surround us express their version of the search for meaning. You may not know yourself well enough to find the moral stamina to face the current reality of watching the disintegration of society. We have been down this road before.
It’s time to see yourself through Bilam’s eyes. Recognize that you have the potential to live a life that nurtures and that at the same time confronts everything that is false in the world surrounding you.
WHAT DOES TAMMUZ MEAN?
AHA! I didn’t lie!
Tammuz is the name of the ancient Babylonian sun god. It tells you that you have lived in this kind of distorted culture and survived. You come from people who lived with every sort of depravity and stayed “awake” enough to have Torah flourish the way it does today in Jewish enclaves that are surrounded by today’s version of depravity. The words of Kaddish, probably one of the prayers that have survived exile the best, are in Aramaic!
I don’t know what kind of challenges you face. Ironically, from the parshah, I do know one solution.
Your deepest holiest
Tziporah Gottlieb (yes I know that you know who I am, but I love my new name)