Thursday, January 17, 2019

Tu B'Shevat - Part Two


Today’s date is Shevat 11, 5779.  A special day is approaching – the Fifteenth of Shevat or “Tu B’Shevat” beginning at sunset Sunday and continuing through sunset Monday.  The previous post addressed the full lunar eclipse and the “Super Blood Wolf Moon” that will occur Sunday night.  This time, let’s look at the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, also known as the “New Year of Trees.”



This minor holiday was first mentioned 2000 years ago in the Mishnah, a compilation of oral rabbinic law.  At that time, it marked the beginning of a new “fiscal year” in regards to agricultural tithes.  After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, the relevance of such festivals waned.

Beginning roughly 500 years ago, after the Sephardic exiles settled in what would become present-day Israel they developed a Tu B’Shevat Seder that contemplated the mystical aspects of God and the interconnectedness of Man and Nature.  The Seder included the consumption of fruits and nuts native to Israel: dates, almonds, pomegranates, figs, olives, and more, preceded by the recitation of the Shehechiyanu blessing:

Blessed are You Lord our God,
Ruler of the Universe
Who has given us life,
Sustained us, and
Allowed us to reach this day. 

Meanwhile, what has become known as the world’s first Arbor Day, took place in the small Spanish village of Villanueva de la Sierra (in 1805) launched by a local Catholic priest.  The Spanish writer, Miguel Herrero Uceda  described it:


While Napoleon was ravaging Europe with his ambition in this village in the Sierra de Gata lived a priest, don Juan Abern Samtrés, which, according to the chronicles, "convinced of the importance of trees for health, hygiene, decoration, nature, environment and customs, decides to plant trees and give a festive air. The festival began on Carnival Tuesday with the ringing of two bells of the church, and the Middle and the Big. After the Mass, and even coated with church ornaments, don Juan, accompanied by clergies, teachers and a large number of neighbours, planted the first tree, a poplar, in the place known as Valley of the Ejido. Tree plantations continued by Arroyada and Fuente de la Mora. Afterwards, there was a feast, and did not miss the dance. The party and plantations lasted three days. He drafted a manifesto in defence of the trees that was sent to surrounding towns to spread the love and respect for nature, and also he advised to make tree plantations in their localities.



Who knows, maybe this example inspired those who were resettling Israel.  Eventually, Tu B’Shevat took on new significance as the vision expanded for restoring the long-neglected land, to make it once again a “land of milk and honey.”  The Jewish National Fund (JNF), Israel’s second-largest landowner after the government, was established in Switzerland in 1901 with the purpose of buying and rehabilitating land in Palestine. It largely oversees tree plantings in Israel.  A that time, it was estimated that 2% of Israel was forested.  Now, thanks to the planting of more than 250,000,000 trees, approximately 8% of the land is forested.


David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel, once declared, “I do not know if there is a more fruitful enterprise whose results are as useful as the planting of trees.”

Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of Trees, has become a special day for reforestation efforts, a sort of Jewish Arbor Day.  The holiday is mentioned in the “folk” song “Hashkediyah Porahat” (“Tu B’Shevat is Here”):

Let’s make the land a garden,
With water from the Jordan;
And our land will flow once more
With milk and honey, as of yore.
Tu B’Shevat is here,
The Jewish Arbor Day,
Hail the trees’ New Year,
Happy holiday!



Often, and perhaps again this year, the tree planting ceremony would include a special prayer such as this “Prayer for a Tree Planting on Tu biShvat,” by Rav Ben-Tsiyon Meir Ḥai Uziel (some time before 1942):

Our father in Heaven,
builder of Zion and Jerusalem,
and founder of the kingdom of Israel,
look down from your holy domain in Heaven,
and bless your people Israel,
and the land that you presented to us
that you promised to our ancestors.

Take pleasure in your land
and bestow abundance upon it
from the goodness of your lovingkindness —

Give dew for a blessing
and cause beneficial rains to precipitate in their season
to satiate the mountains of Israel and her valleys
and to water upon them, every shrub, (and) tree, and our plantings.

Make deep their roots and grow their crown
so that they blossom according to your will
among all the trees in Israel
for blessing and for splendor.

And strengthen the hands of all our comrades
who toil in the labor of the holy Earth,
and make her desolate areas fruitful.
Bless, YHVH, their might
and may the work of their hands be favored by you.
Amen



A brief aside – it could be my imagination but there was a time in America when Arbor Day, and the planting of commemorative trees in general, carried greater significance than it does today.  I suspect that such stuff is unfashionable in today’s institutions of “learning” for a myriad of obvious reasons.  Sad, but just another sign of the decline of our civilization.  How refreshing that Tu B’Shevat carries on such a fine tradition.



Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Tu B’Shevat - Part One


For Christmas last month, I got a lovely Jewish calendar. So much information is presented with this particular calendar that it helps me to begin filling in one of the many vast gaps of my knowledge about matters of importance.  


Without some familiarity of the Jewish calendar, it is impossible to fully appreciate Jewish feasts and holidays.  Without an understanding of those festivals, it is impossible to understand many of the events in the Old Testament, other events of the New Testament, and (some would argue with good cause) events that are yet to come.

By Judaic reckoning, one day ends and another begins at sunset, rather than midnight.  That was about the extent of my knowledge on the topic.  Now, I have learned that the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle of 29.5 days.  Hence, each month is 29 or 30 days in length.  The first of each month coincides with the new moon, and the full moon occurs on or about the 15th of the month.

Today’s date is Sh’vat 10, 5779.   A special day, the Fifteenth of Sh’vat is coming up (beginning at sunset Sunday, January 20 and continuing though sunset Monday, January 21.)  Tu B’Shevat is a minor Jewish holiday, known as the “New Year of the Trees.”

This year, the date is drawing considerable attention for another reason.  A Super Blood Wolf full moon will occur this Sunday evening.




Sure, you may know the "super blood wolf moon eclipse" is coming to a sky near you this month. But what exactly does it mean?  Unquestionably, the main event is the total lunar eclipse, also known as an eclipse of the moon, which will start late Sunday, Jan. 20 and finish early Monday, Jan. 21. This type of eclipse happens when the moon passes fully into the shadow of Earth….

A supermoon occurs when the full moon is at the closest point of its orbit to the Earth, which is also called the perigee.  That makes the moon look extra close and extra bright – up to 14% bigger and 30% brighter than a full moon at its farthest point from Earth, known as the apogee, NASA said.

This is the first of three supermoons in 2019. The others will be on Feb. 19 and March 21. Of these, the Feb. 19 full moon will be the closest and largest full supermoon of 2019.

"Blood" moon…is just the reddish color the moon will appear during the total lunar eclipse. The moon won't turn black or vanish from the sky; instead it will appear to be a "reddish copper color," Murphy said, hence the name blood moon.

Although the moon is in Earth's shadow, some sunlight still reaches the moon. The sunlight passes through Earth's atmosphere, which causes our atmosphere to filter out most of the blue light.

According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, Native Americans called the January full moon the "wolf" moon because it appeared when wolves howled in hunger outside the villages.  The almanac said ancient peoples commonly tracked the seasons by following the lunar calendar (vs. today’s solar calendar).  For millennia, people across the world, including Native Americans, named the months after nature’s cues.

If you miss this month's total lunar eclipse, you have to wait until May 26, 2021, for the next one in the USA. The next partial lunar eclipse will be this summer, on July 16, but will be visible only in Africa and portions of Asia.



If I understand it correctly, this will be a total lunar eclipse for viewers in the Southern Appalachians.


Judaism has a tradition of interpreting solar and lunar eclipses. In its discussion of eclipses, the Talmud (Sukkot 29a) specifically described solar eclipses as being a bad omen for the nations. Indeed, the complete solar eclipse that traversed the continental United States in August 2018 ushered in the most devastating hurricane season in US history.

The same source in the Talmud specifies that lunar eclipses are a bad omen for Israel since Israel is spiritually represented by the moon and the Hebrew calendar is figured by the lunar cycles. If during the course of the lunar eclipse the moon appears red, as the upcoming eclipse will be, the Talmud states that this is an omen that great wars will come to the world.

At the end of this section describing the omens contained within eclipses, the Talmud states a disclaimer: “When Israel does the will of God, they have nothing to fear from all of this,” citing the Prophet Jeremiah as a source.



Thus said Hashem: Do not learn to go the way of the nations, And do not be dismayed by portents in the sky; Let the nations be dismayed by them! Jeremiah 10:2

Rabbi Yosef Berger applied this teaching in the Talmud to the current geopolitical situation.

“It’s not that the bad judgment symbolized by the lunar eclipse just disappears,” Rabbi Berger told Breaking Israel News. “It is merely averted to our enemies. In this case, the wars and evil will fall on our enemies. By choosing to be our enemies, the Arab nations have brought the evil that might have befallen Israel upon themselves.”

“This is especially true when the lunar eclipse falls on Tu B’Shvat, a day when only good can happen to Israel.”

The date also marks the halfway point of Donald Trump’s presidency, coming exactly two years after he was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. It should be noted that Trump was born on the night of June 14, 1946, within fifteen minutes of a total lunar eclipse and 700 days before the state of Israel was established. Trump’s lucky sevens did not end there. When he was sworn in as President on January 20, 2017, he was 70-years-old, seven months and seven days.

The next post will explain the beautiful celebration of the New Year of the Trees.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Legend of Hiawassee

Over a century ago, a bitter warfare raged between the Catawba and Cherokee tribes of Indians. In one of those frequent and bold excursions common among the wild inhabitants of the forest, the son of the principal Cherokee chief surprised and captured a large town belonging to the Catawba tribe.

Among the captives was the daughter of the first chief of the Catawbas, named Hiawassee, or "the beautiful fawn." 



A young hero of the Cherokees, whose name was Notley, which means "the daring horseman," instantly became captivated with the majestic beauty and graceful manners of the royal captive; and was overwhelmed with delight upon finding his love reciprocated by the object of his heart's adoration. With two attendants, he presented himself before the Catawba warrior, who happened to be absent when his town was taken by the Cherokees. To this stern old chief he gave a brief statement of recent occurrences, and then besought his daughter in marriage. The proud Catawba, lifting high his war-club, knitting his brow, and curling his lips, with scorn, declared that as the Catawbas drank the waters of the east, and the Cherokees the waters of the west, when this insolent and daring lad could find where these waters united, then and not till then might the hateful Cherokee mate with the daughter of the great Catawba. 

Discouraged but not despairing, Notley turned away from the presence of the proud and unfeeling father of the beautiful Hiawassee, and resolved to search for a union of the eastern with the western waters, which was then considered an impossibility. Ascending the pinnacle of the great chain of the Alleghanies, more commonly called the Blue Ridge, which is known to divide the waters of the Atlantic from those of the great west, and traversing its devious and winding courses, he could frequently find springs running each way, and having their source within a few paces of each other; but this was not what he desired.

Day after day was spent in the arduous search, and there appeared no hope that his energy and perseverance would be rewarded. But on a certain day, when he was well nigh exhausted with hunger and other privations, he came to a lovely spot on the summit of the ridge, affording a delightful plain. Here he resolved to repose and refresh himself during the sultry portion of the day. Seating himself upon the ground, and thinking of Hiawassee, he saw three young fawns moving toward a small lake, the stream of which was rippling at his feet; and whilst they were sipping the pure drops from the transparent pool, our hero found himself unconsciously creeping toward them. 

Untaught in the wiles of danger, the little fawns gave no indication whatever of retiring. Notley had now approached so near, that he expected in a moment, by one leap, to seize and capture one, at least, of the spotted prey; when, to his surprise, he saw another stream running out of the beautiful lake down the western side of the mountain.

Springing forward with the bound of a forest deer, and screaming with frantic joy, he exclaimed, "Hiawassee! 0 Hiawassee! I have found it!"



The romantic spot is within a few miles of Clayton. Having accomplished his object, he set out for the residence of Hiawassee's father, accompanied by only one warrior, and fortunately for the success of the enterprise, he met the beautiful maiden with some confidential attendants half a mile from her father's house. She informed him that her father was indignant at his proposals, that he would not regard his promises.

"I will fly away with you to the mountains," said Hiawassee, "but my father will never consent to our marriage." Notley then pointed her to a mountain in the distance, and said if he found her there, he should drink of the waters that flowed from the beautiful lake. A few moments afterward, Notley met the Catawba chief near the town, and at once informed him of his wonderful discovery, and offered to conduct him to the place. 

The Catawba chief, half choked with rage, accused Notley of the intention to deceive him, in order to get him near the line of territory, where the army of the Cherokees was waiting to kill him. "But," said he, "since you have spared my daughter, so will I spare you, and permit you at once to depart; but I have sworn that you shall never marry my daughter, and I cannot be false to my oath." Notley's face brightened, for he remembered the old warrior's promise. "Then," exclaimed he, "by the Great Spirit, she is mine!" and the next moment he disappeared in the thick forest. That night brought no sleep to the Catawba chief, for Hiawassee did not return. Pursuit was made in vain. He saw his daughter no more.

Notley, bounding through the mountains, soon met his beloved Hiawassee. Solemnizing the marriage according to the customs of the wilderness, they led a retired life in those regions for three years, and upon hearing of the death of his father, Notley settled in the charming valley of the river on the western side of the mountain, and called it Hiawassee, after his beautiful spouse. In process of time, he was unanimously chosen first chief of the Cherokees, and was the instrument of making perpetual peace between his tribe and the Catawbas.

- from Historical Collections of Georgia, by Rev. George White (1855)  

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Willing Slaves of the Welfare State


“Let us not be deceived by phrases about 'Man taking charge of his own destiny'. All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others.” – C. S. Lewis



Observe how the 'humane' attitude to crime could operate. If crimes are diseases, why should diseases be treated differently from crimes? And who but the experts can define disease? One school of psychology regards my religion as a neurosis. 

If this neurosis ever becomes inconvenient to Government, what is to prevent my being subjected to a compulsory 'cure'? It may be painful; treatments sometimes are. But it will be no use asking, 'What have I done to deserve this?' The Straightener will reply: 'But, my dear fellow, no one's blaming you. We no longer believe in retributive justice. We're healing you.'

This would be no more than an extreme application of the political philosophy implicit in most modern communities. It has stolen on us unawares. Two wars necessitated vast curtailments of liberty, and we have grown, though grumblingly, accustomed to our chains. The increasing complexity and precariousness of our economic life have forced Government to take over many spheres of activity once left to choice or chance. Our intellectuals have surrendered first to the slave-philosophy of Hegel, then to Marx, finally to the linguistic analysts.

As a result, classical political theory, with its Stoical, Christian, and juristic key-conceptions (natural law, the value of the individual, the rights of man), has died. The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good -- anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name 'leaders' for those who were once 'rulers'. We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, 'Mind your own business.' Our whole lives are their business.

I write 'they' because it seems childish not to recognize that actual government is and always must be oligarchical. Our effective masters must be more than one and fewer than all. But the oligarchs begin to regard us in a new way.

Here, I think, lies our real dilemma. Probably we cannot, certainly we shall not, retrace our steps. We are tamed animals (some with kind, some with cruel, masters) and should probably starve if we got out of our cage. That is one horn of the dilemma. But in an increasingly planned society, how much of what I value can survive? That is the other horn.

I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has 'the freeborn mind'. But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of Government who can criticise its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that's the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone's schoolmaster and employer? Admittedly, when man was untamed, such liberty belonged only to the few. I know. Hence the horrible suspicion that our only choice is between societies with few freemen and societies with none.

Again, the new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge. If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists' puppets. Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend. Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man's opinion no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man.

Thirdly, I do not like the pretensions of Government --the grounds on which it demands my obedience-- to be pitched too high. I don't like the medicine-man's magical pretensions nor the Bourbon's Divine Right…. I believe in God, but I detest theocracy. For every Government consists of mere men and is, strictly viewed, a makeshift; if it adds to its commands 'Thus saith the Lord', it lies, and lies dangerously.

On just the same ground I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in. In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They 'cash in'. It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science. Perhaps the real scientists may not think much of the tyrants' 'science'-- they didn't think much of Hitler's racial theories or Stalin's biology. But they can be muzzled.

We must give full weight to Sir Charles's reminder that millions in the East are still half starved. To these my fears would seem very unimportant. A hungry man thinks about food, not freedom. We must give full weight to the claim that nothing but science, and science globally applied, and therefore unprecedented Government controls, can produce full bellies and medical care for the whole human race: nothing, in short, but a world Welfare State. It is a full admission of these truths which impresses upon me the extreme peril of humanity at present.

We have on the one hand a desperate need; hunger, sickness, and the dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnicompetent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement? This is how it has entered before; a desperate need (real or apparent) in the one party, a power (real or apparent) to relieve it, in the other. In the ancient world individuals have sold themselves as slaves, in order to eat. So in society. Here is a witch-doctor who can save us from the sorcerers -- a war-lord who can save us from the barbarians -- a Church that can save us from Hell. Give them what they ask, give ourselves to them bound and blindfold, if only they will! Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again. We cannot blame men for making it. We can hardly wish them not to. Yet we can hardly bear that they should.

The question about progress has become the question whether we can discover any way of submitting to the worldwide paternalism of a technocracy without losing all personal privacy and independence. Is there any possibility of getting the super Welfare State's honey and avoiding the sting?

Let us make no mistake about the sting. The Swedish sadness is only a foretaste. To live his life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death --- these are wishes deeply ingrained in civilised man. Their realization is almost as necessary to our virtues as to our happiness. From their total frustration disastrous results both moral and psychological might follow.

All this threatens us even if the form of society which our needs point to should prove an unparalleled success. But is that certain? What assurance have we that our masters will or can keep the promise which induced us to sell ourselves? Let us not be deceived by phrases about 'Man taking charge of his own destiny'. All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others. They will be simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel and dishonest. The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?

- from Willing Slaves of the Welfare State: Is Progress Possible?,  C. S. Lewis
First published in The Observer on July 20, 1958

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Basis of Culture

At the zenith of the Middle Ages…sloth was held to be the source of restlessness, and the ultimate cause of ‘work for work’s sake’.
-Josef Pieper



Pieter Bruegel's "Harvest Time," from 1624.

When a culture is in the process of denying its own roots, it becomes most important to know what these roots are. We had best know what we reject before we reject it. If we are going to build a chair, the first thing we need to know, above all else, is what a chair is. Otherwise, we can do nothing. We are not a culture that never understood what a human being was in his nature and in his destiny.

Rather we are a culture that, having once known these things, has decided against living them or understanding them. Indeed, we have decided to reject most of them, almost as an act of defiance—as an act of pure humanism—as if what we are is not first given to us. We have let an empty future that we propose to make by our own standards become the ideal over and against a real past that revealed to us what man really was and is: namely, a being open to wonder who did not create himself or the world in which he dwells.

This little book by the German philosopher Josef Pieper is simply a gem. No book its size will teach us so many true things about everything we need to know to understand what and why we are or about how to live a life worth living. This book is one of the first I recommend for waking us up to what life is all about, to what is essential to and glorious about our lives....


- James V. Schall, from the foreword to Leisure, The Basis of Culture (1952), by Josef Pieper.

Selections from Pieper's text follow:


Work is necessary, and it’s good in its place: as a means to an end, the end being to provide the necessities of life. From the time of the Greeks to the rise of industrialism that was the idea — work was a means to an end. But when work was over was the time of true human life: time for family, friends, community, for the life of the mind and the life of the spirit….

At the zenith of the Middle Ages… it was held that sloth and restlessness, ‘leisurelessness’, the incapacity to enjoy leisure, were all closely connected; sloth was held to be the source of restlessness, and the ultimate cause of ‘work for work’s sake’. It may well seem paradoxical to maintain that the restlessness at the bottom of a fanatical and suicidal activity should come from the lack of will to action…

Our culture feels in its bones that ‘hard work is good.’ Aquinas, the great medieval philosopher, propounded a contrary opinion: `The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult. Not everything that is more difficult is necessarily more virtuous; it must be more difficult in such a way that it achieves a higher good as well as being more difficult.’…

The tendency to overvalue hard work and the effort of doing something difficult is so deep-rooted that it even infects our notion of love. Why should it be that the average Christian regards loving one’s enemy as the most exalted form of love? Principally because it offers an example of a natural bent heroically curbed; the exceptional difficulty, the impossibility… of loving one’s enemy constitutes the greatness of the love. And what does Aquinas say? ‘It is not the difficulty of loving one’s enemy that matters when the essence of the merit of doing so is concerned, excepting in so far as the perfection of love wipes out the difficulty…’

The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless… he refuses to have anything as a gift. We have only to think for a moment how much the Christian understanding of life depends upon the existence of ‘Grace’; let us recall that the Holy Spirit of God is Himself called a ‘gift’ in a special sense; that the great teachers of Christianity say that the premise of God’s justice is his love; that everything gained and everything claimed follows upon something given, and comes after something gratuitous and unearned; that in the beginning there is always a gift—we have only to think of all this for a moment in order to see what a chasm separates the tradition of the Christian West and that other view [of classical Greece]….


Josef Pieper

More from Pieper on the subject of "contemplation:"

Who among us has not suddenly looked into his child's face, in the midst of the toils and troubles of everyday life, and at that moment "seen" that everything which is good, is loved and lovable, loved by God!

Such certainties all mean, at bottom, one and the same thing: that the world is plumb and sound; that everything comes to its appointed goal; that in spite of all appearances, underlying all things is—peace, salvation, gloria; that nothing and no one is lost; that "God holds in his hand the beginning, middle, and end of all that is."

Such nonrational, intuitive certainties of the divine base of all that is can be vouchsafed to our gaze even when it is turned toward the most insignificant-looking things, if only it is a gaze inspired by love. That, in the precise sense, is contemplation...

Josef Pieper, from Happiness and Contemplation