Monday, February 7, 2011

What graffiti on the Kotel can tell us about Egypt

What messianic graffiiti on the Kotel can teach us about Egypt

delivered Sat., February 5, 2011 / 1 Adar I 5771,
United Synagogue of Hoboken

Who in their right mind would think of writing graffiti on the Kotel, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, the last remnant of the Temple that stood in Jerusalem thousands of years ago?!

This is a question that is asked by many tourists to Israel when they visit the part of the Kotel referred to as “Robinson’s Arch.” This is a section of the Western Wall of the 2nd Temple plaza
that was buried in rubble for thousands of years.

If you visit Robinson’s Arch, you can see a large Hebrew inscription carved into one of the Western Wall’s stones.  It’s actually a quotation from the Haftarah we read this morning, the Haftarah designated for the confluence of Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh [the first day of a Hebrew month].  It’s from the Book of Isaiah, 66:14:  
Ur’item, ve-sas libchem; va-atzmoteichem ka-deshe.  “You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall spring up like grass.”  The inscription actually cuts off in the middle of a word, as if the artist were interrupted in the middle of his work.  It doesn’t look like professional stonecutting; it looks more like graffiti.  Hebrew Biblical graffiti from thousands of years ago.  (That alone is a great reason to visit Israel.  Where else are you going to see Hebrew Biblical graffiti from thousands of years ago?)  

Since this inscription was discovered in 1969, archeologists and historians have been trying to figure out why someone would chisel these words into one of the stones of the Temple.

The first question is, how could someone have chiseled these words, perhaps twenty feet above the pavement.  The presumption is that it was done after the destruction of the Temple, at a time when the rubble was high enough that he could easily have reached that point on the wall.

This is one current speculation: the most likely time for this inscription to have been written
was about 1600 years ago, when, for a brief period of time, a Roman emperor named Julian was friendly to the Jews and even invited them back to Jerusalem to begin the reconstruction of the Temple.  The theory goes, this anonymous stonecarver was so moved at the prospect of the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem that he remembered how, in an earlier time, after an earlier destruction, the prophet Isaiah had given his community hope and inspiration.  Following the destruction of the First Temple, the prophet had reassured them that one day they would return to their homes and their lands, and one day they would rebuild the holy sites that lay in ruins.  
This graffiti artist felt that he was beholding the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words in his own day:  
“You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice!”

Sadly, though, the Emperor Julian died, and any plans to rebuild the Temple were indefinitely put on hold – and so they remain, 1600 years later.

It’s happened so often throughout Jewish history.  Against a backdrop that was often bleak and oppressive, there would be moments of great optimism and hope, that would lead many Jews to the conclusion that God was finally going to fulfill the promises in the prophets, that the oppression and exile were going to end, and Jews would have their sovereignty restored, in a world at peace.

But sadly, so often, that optimism was too good to be true.   Such was the case with the anonymous stonecutter and so many others throughout Jewish history whose hopes were dashed by reality.

Often, this Jewish optimism and hope for redemption were bound up in the belief in a single charismatic individual. One of the most illustrious of the rabbis of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva,
lived nearly 2000 years ago, under Roman oppression.  But there was a Jewish rebellion at that time, led by a warrior known as Bar Kochba.  And Rabbi Akiba was so optimistic that Bar Kochba’s rebellion would succeed and end the degradation of the Jewish people that he proclaimed Bar Kochba as the Mashiach - the Messiah.  But  a more sober colleague responded to him, עקיבא, יעלו עשבים בלחייך ועדיין בן דוד לא יבא  Akiva, ya’alu asavim bi’’hayyayikh ve- adayin ben david lo yavo.  “Akiva!  grass will be growing from your cheeks, while you lie in the grave, and the Mashiach, the descendant of David, will not yet have come.”  [Yerushalmi Taanit 4:5]

In the Middle Ages, too:  At a time of terrible bleakness, the Jewish world was transfixed by the arrival on the scene of a charismatic mystical scholar, Shabbetai Tzevi, whose followers proclaimed him as the Mashiach.  And among the most embarrassing moments in Jewish history were those moments in the mid-1600’s when Jewish communities were so despondent that they were convinced that Shabbetai Tzevi and his followers were sure to come flying overhead on clouds or a magic carpet to bring them all to the land of Israel - and of course their hopes were dashed.

And so it has been with every Messianic movement in Jewish history - the reality doesn’t live up to the hype.  And this makes many contemporary Jews skeptical of messianic movements at all - taking the attitude of Rabbi Akiva’s colleague.  “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  But in every generation there have also been the Messianic dreamers, who read world events as a confirmation that the world is poised for dramatic improvement. And it could be said that without those dreamers, we would forget what we aspire to.

The world this week has been focused on Tahrir Square in Cairo where as many as a million Egyptians have gathered to demand an end to the oppressive regime of Hosni Mubarak. There is so much that resonates with Jews when we hear the voices of the protesters. For our people, Egypt is where our own struggle against tyranny began. Egypt is where the Jewish people first learned to value freedom - and it is natural to feel kinship with Egyptians who are also valuing and working for freedom - there are so many parallels to our own story.  Even the square where the largest protests are taking place - Tahrir Square - has a name that is closely related to an important Hebrew word from OUR story. Tahrir is the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew word ‘Shichrur,’ meaning ‘liberation,’  One of the Hebrew names for Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 is מלחמת השחרור milhemet ha-shihrur. Those of us who remember the euphoria of the fall and winter of 1989, where every day seemed to bring another revolution in another formerly communist country, greet with excitement the possibility of a similar domino effect throughout the Arab world bringing greater freedom to their citizens just as it brought relative freedom to Eastern Europe.  

And then at the same time -- a widespread reaction in the Jewish world and in the United States is that Mubarak may have been a cruel dictator, but at least he has been OUR cruel and stable dictator --Israel’s only ally in the Middle East, maintaining a cold peace - but a peace nonetheless - for these past 30 years.  And if he were to fall, there’s no guarantee that the next government would prioritize peace with Israel - and if the Muslim Brotherhood steps into this power vacuum, as the best-organized of the opposition groups currently, then a worst case scenario is that Egypt could turn into another Iran -- an Islamist state sponsor of terrorism, antagonistic to everything American,  with the goal of wiping Israel off the map - but this time, sharing a border with Israel.

So the debate about this Egyptian popular uprising seems to mirror the debate about messianism throughout Jewish history.  Some people are like the messianic enthusiasts- celebrating with the protesters, looking forward to the collapse of the Mubarak regime, and furious that skeptics are raining on their parade. While others are saying “not so fast”.  This may look like a cause for celebration, but it’s truly a disaster in the making. It will get worse long before anything gets better.

Determining which side is right and which side is wrong is a task too challenging for the Middle East policy experts, and certainly impossible for me.  But what I can do is provide the context of that anonymous stonecutter.  On the one hand, in his prediction that the prophesies of Isaiah were coming true, he was tragically wrong.  And his unfinished quotation stands as a cautionary note for all those who get swept up in messianic fervor.  

But on the other hand -- picture yourself as one of those Israeli archeologists in 1969 who discovered this inscription.  The graffiti artist thought that Isaiah’s words of reassurance and renewal were being fulfilled in his own day.  Not even thirty years after the Holocaust, seeing the Jewish people returned to its land and building a free society,  those Israeli archeologists must have been thinking exactly the same thing. The graffiti artist wasn’t wrong.  he was simply 1600 years ahead of his time.  But he, and others like him, are the reason why that dream stayed alive.

The more I study Jewish history, the more convinced I am that the answer is to strive to balance our enthusiasm with our skepticism. Without the necessary skepticism, we are like Rabbi Akiva, wide-eyed and setting ourselves up for dramatic disappointment.  But if we ONLY have the skepticism, we lose our dream and our motivation to work towards the world’s perfection.

Perhaps this is what  the  paraphraser of Maimonides’
Thirteen Articles of Faith had in mind, writing paradoxically in the Twelfth Article of Faith:  אני מאמין באמונה שלמה בביאת המשיח, ואף על פי שיתמהמה עם כל זה אחכה לו בכל יום שיבוא.  “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiach -- and though he may tarry, despite this I wait for him every day that he should come.”  In other words, integral to the belief in the Mashiach is the belief that the Mashiach will tarry.

And in more contemporary times, the modern Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky wrote:  שחקי שחקי על החלומות - laugh, laugh, at all my dreams,.... אאמינה גם בעתיד אף אם ירחק זה היום, I will believe in the future, even if that day seems far off.