Monday, February 21, 2011

Suez Canal hit by Earthquake (or: Earthquakes and Redemption)

At 3 a.m. on Monday morning, a 5.9 earthquake hit the Suez Canal entry and surrounding areas, 48 hours before two Iranian ships are expected to transit the canal to the Mediterranean. The quake lasted for a half hour and caused no damage. Originally, the ships were going to pass through the Canal Monday morning. Now, the ships are scheduled to make the passage early Tuesday morning.

The Suez Canal is the modern-day body of water that connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. It is the strategic and economic asset in the region. All of Israel's wars have involved economic or military threats via Suez. Iran's warships are carrying missiles to Syria, but their more significant goal is to take advantage of turmoil in the Middle East to stage a display of power and influence in the region by navigating the various bodies of water unencumbered. If Iran can sail freely through the Mediterranean and deliver weapons to Israel's northern enemies, it might as well be crowned King of the Middle East.

In this highly tense situation, what is the significance of an earthquake, hours before Iran's attempted ascent? In Ezekiel, a large earthquake in Israel is predicted during the war of Gog and Magog. Many have theorized that Iran is the prime aggressor in this apocalyptic war, having made no secret of its stride against Israel. 

According to one interpretation, the Splitting of the Red Sea, the miracle by which the Israelites crossed from Egypt to the Sinai desert to receive the Torah and proceed to the Promised Land, was in fact a tidal earthquake. In 1068, an earthquake in Ramla, Israel was documented in Jewish historical texts as causing water to disappear entirely from the River Jordan, while the Mediterranean "turned to land for two days". Interestingly enough, the earthquake this morning occurred in the Suez Canal, which is the body of water which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, or the sphere of Egypt's influence to the sphere of Israel's influence, which could be seen as a modern-day parallel to the Exodus route.

In Greek thought and polytheistic belief, earthquakes are related to the rage of the gods against humans. In Jewish thought, earthquakes are directly related to moral behavior of human beings. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 64a), earthquakes are understood as divine retribution for sins of failing to adequately fulfill the commandments associated with living in the Land of Israel, such as tithing, for building mass entertainment hubs on the background of the destruction of the Temple, and for the sin of homosexuality. Furthermore, all sages agree that earthquakes are caused by fissures, divides and arguments among the Jewish people.

Perhaps the most important lesson on earthquakes is found in a famous phrase from Isaiah's description of an earthquake during God's judgment of the earth in the end of days:

רֹעָה הִתְרֹעֲעָה, הָאָרֶץ; פּוֹר הִתְפּוֹרְרָה אֶרֶץ, מוֹט הִתְמוֹטְטָה אָרֶץ. נוֹעַ תָּנוּעַ אֶרֶץ כַּשִּׁכּוֹר, וְהִתְנוֹדְדָה כַּמְּלוּנָה; וְכָבַד עָלֶיהָ פִּשְׁעָהּ, וְנָפְלָה וְלֹא-תֹסִיף קוּם. וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, יִפְקֹד יְהוָה עַל-צְבָא הַמָּרוֹם בַּמָּרוֹם; וְעַל-מַלְכֵי הָאֲדָמָה, עַל-הָאֲדָמָה(ישעיה כ"ד י"ט-כ"א)

The earth has broken; the earth has crumbled; the earth shakes. The earth sways like a drunken man, and it sways like a lodge, and its transgression shall weigh down upon it, and it shall fall and not continue to rise. And it shall come to pass on that day, that the Lord shall visit punishment upon the host of heaven on high and upon the kings of the earth on the earth. (Isaiah 24:19-21)

The phrase 'It shall fall and not continue to rise' is a theme throughout Jewish exegesis, whose major current is the spiritual and national revival of Israel. The same phrase appears in the book of Amos, this time seemingly describing Israel herself as falling irreparably (in the Hebrew, the Land and the People are feminine subjects that both take feminine verbs and are therefore used interchangeably in the two verses):

נָפְלָה לֹא תוֹסִיף קוּם בְּתוּלַת יִשְׂרָאֵל נִטְּשָׁה עַל אַדְמָתָהּ אֵין מְקִימָהּ.

She has fallen, shall not continue to rise; the virgin of Israel is abandoned on her soil, there is none to raise her up. (Amos 5,2)

In the Talmud, this verse is interpreted with a profound twist, which turns the deep fall into a deeper rise. In the opening of Masechet Brachot, Rabbi Yochanan explains that the letter Nun (נ) is missing from the acrostic Pslam 145 (Ashrei) because the verse that would have begun with Nun describes the fall of Israel's enemies, as it says in the verse: "She fell and will not rise again": In the West, he explains, this verse was interpreted by parsing the phrase differently: Rather than "She fell, will not continue to rise, Virgin of Israel", the verse is read (which works according to the Hebrew grammar) 'To fall - she will not continue. Rise, Virgin of Israel!" Rabbi Nachman Bar Yitzchak then says that King David knew this teaching by divine prophecy, as the next line he wrote begins with the words: God supports all the fallen.

And this is exactly the dynamic that enables the transition from the seemingly irreparable state of downtroddenness to reattained heights. In Tikkunei Zohar, this very verse is used over and over as signaling Israel's final redemption, which will come from above, when Israel is weak from exile and has almost given up, and in need of divine intervention.

נָפְלָה לֹא תוֹסִיף קוּם, וְלֵית לֵיהּ עִלּוּי וְסִלּוּק אֶלָּא בִידָא דְקוּדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא, דְאָזִיל שְׁמָא קַדִּישָׁא לִימִינָא וְאוֹקִים לָהּ. (תיקוני זהר נ,א)

She fell and will not rise again, and she has no way to rise other than in the hands of the Holy Blessed One, whose holy name comes to her right and lifts her up. (Tikkunei Zohar 50,1)

דִּבְזִמְנָא דְאִינוּן יִשְׂרָאֵל מְלוּכְלָכִין בְּטִנּוּפִין דִּשְׁאָר עַמִּין, נִשְׁמָתָא דְאִיהִי שְׁכִינְתָּא אָמְרַת, (שיר א, ו) אַל תִּרְאוּנִי שֶׁאֲנִי שְׁחַרְחֹרֶת, וּצְלוֹתָא נָפְלַת, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (עמוס ה, ב) נָפְלָה לֹא תוֹסִיף קוּם בְּתוּלַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְכַד נָפְלַת שְׁכִיבַת לְעַפְרָא בֵּין רַגְלִין, וְהָא אוּקְמוּהוּ (רות ג, ז) וַתְּגַל מַרְגְּלוֹתָיו וַתִּשְׁכָּב, וְאִיהִי מְצַלֵּי לְקוּדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא דְיוֹקִים לָהּ מֵעַפְרָא, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (שם, ט) וּפָרַשְׂתָּ כְנָפֶךָ עַל אֲמָתְךָ כִּי גוֹאֵל אָתָּה. (תיקוני זהר נ,ב)

When Israel are filthy in the dirt of the nations, the soul of the Shechina (the lowest of the 10 divine emanations of God, the Divine Presence in this world) says: Do not look at me, that I am blackened, that prayer has fallen (i.e. the people do not even have the strength or the voice to pray, to call out to God for help), as it is written: 'She has fallen and will not rise again virgin of Israel," and when she fell to lie in the dust between the legs, as it says: "She revealed his ankles and lay down" (Book of Ruth 3:7) -- this is prayer to the Holy Blessed One, He Who Lifts her up from the dust, as it says "And you spread your wings on your servant, for You are a Redeemer" (Ruth 3:9) (Tikkunei Zohar 50,2)

In the Zohar, feet and legs are often metaphors for the Shechina, the last of the ten Divine Emanations (Sefirot) which brought this world into being. Shechina is also associated with speech, prayer and expression, which is both the Divine and human mechanism for bringing worlds into being: for God, through creation, and for humans, through prayer and study. Therefore, according to the Zohar's read, when Ruth revealed Boaz's ankles, this is a metaphor for finding a voice with which to pray, uncovering that which covers God's presence and closeness in any and every situation, and this revelation and expression is what lifts her up form the dust in which she had lay down, signifying her ultimate redemption, as alluded to by the use of the root of 'geulah' = redemption, throughout the book of Ruth.

From these passages we learn that an earthquake is related to the notion of falling. Although the verse from Amos' harsh prophecy seems to paint a doomed picture for Israel, deeper interpretations reveal that it actually signals the LAST fall, the fall from which she will be raised, this time in God's hands. The impetus to the rise that will inevitably follow the fall is prayer, as described by a metaphor of revealing that which is hidden, which brings about the transition from the lying in the dust to coming under God's wings. In summary, an earthquake raises all of these associations, ultimately indicating that the current state of Israel and the Jewish people is but a vehicle for us to reach out to God and rise in an elevation after which there will be no further fall.

In the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi tells King Kuzar that the Jewish people are in a closer state to God than they would be if they were not in exile (Part 1, 114). The King challenges him: Perhaps I would believe you if Your humility were voluntary, but this sounds like an after-the-fact justification, i.e. you are only "explaining away" your suffering, but surely you would do without it, if you were so able. The Jew responds:
You have touched our weak spot, King of the Kuzar. If the majority of us, as you say, would learn humility towards God and His law from our low station, Providence would not have forced us to bear it for such a long period. Only the smallest portion among us thinks thus. Yet the majority may expect a reward, because they bear their degradation partly from necessity, partly of their own free will. For whoever wishes to do so can become the friend and equal of his oppressor by uttering one word, and without any difficulty. Such conduct does not escape the just Judge. If we bear our exile and degradation for God's sake, as is meet, we shall be the pride of the generation which will come with the Messiah, and accelerate the day of the deliverance we hope for.
The "weak spot" that the Jew describes in the face of the King of Kuzar is one of two times in the Kuzari in which the Jew admits that the King's questions and challenges are accurate. The other place is when the Jew is asked by the King why the people did not jump to return to the Land of Israel:
The King: If what you say is true, surely the Jewish people have fallen short of their duty by not endeavoring to reach that place? Your founding fathers chose it as an abode in preference to their birth places, and lived there as strangers rather than as citizens in their own country. This they did at a time even before the Shechinah was visible, when the country was full of unchastity, impurity, and idolatry; nor did they leave it in times of dearth and famine except through God’s explicit permission, they even directed their bones to be buried there. Yet when Ezra and Nehemiah called the people to return home during the time of the Second Temple they simply weren’t interested in leaving the exile, how could that be?
The Rabbi: Indeed your reproach is a severe one; it is in fact this lack of reaction that ultimately kept the Divine promise with regard to the Second Temple from being fulfilled. Divine Providence was ready to restore everything as it had been at first, if all of our people had willingly consented to return, but only a part was ready to do so, whilst the majority and the aristocracy remained in Babylon, preferring dependence and slavery, and unwilling to leave their houses and their affairs.
Could it be that Hashem is ready to redeem us, and all we have to do is let it happen?

אמר רבי יוחנן מפני מה לא נאמר נו"ן באשרי מפני שיש בה מפלתן של שונאי ישראל דכתיב (עמוס ה, ב) נפלה לא תוסיף קום בתולת ישראל במערבא מתרצי לה הכי נפלה ולא תוסיף לנפול עוד קום בתולת ישראל אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק אפילו הכי חזר דוד וסמכן ברוח הקדש שנא' (תהלים קמה, יד) סומך ה' לכל הנופלים:

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