Amona – Something Positive

I have not written much about Amona, the West Bank outpost that was evacuated this week after being proclaimed illegal by the High Court of Justice. The reason is that there isn’t much to add to what has already been written and discussed ad nauseam about this topic.

At the end of the day it’s a simple open-and-shut case that should have been behind us years ago, were it not for a small but loud minority of settlers delaying the process through the right-wing government they hold hostage. Any other person in Israel building illegally on land owned by another person would have swiftly felt the full force of the law falling on his head, but as we know too well, settlers in the West Bank enjoy extra legem privileges not available to ordinary Israelis.

There is however one positive aspect to the sordid affair of Amona. The vast majority of the Israeli public expressed utter indifference to the plight of these law-breaking settlers. A long and very visible struggle against the evacuation, tireless efforts by senior government ministers (including the Prime Minister) to overturn the evacuation order, desperate calls by rabbis and leaders of the settlement movement for the masses to come to Amona and oppose the evacuation – were all met by a collective apathetic shrug. A bunch of bored young hooligans did turn up to occupy the local synagogue and delay the evacuation process, but that was it.

And this is a huge positive. The settlers have proven, once again, what is a well-known but little-spoken-of fact: the Israeli public does not have their back. In the famous words of one of their rabbis many years ago, they may have settled the land but they have failed to settle in the hearts of Israelis. And this is positive because when the day comes that many of the settlements will need to be evacuated, the settlers will not find sympathy in their fellow nationals. They will realize that their decades-long hijacking of Israel’s future in the name of a messianic ideology will end up in the ash heap of history.

VaEra – Weekly Remembrance

לכן אמר לבני ישראל אני ה’, והוצאתי אתכם מתחת סבלת מצרים, והצלתי אתכם מעבדתם וגאלתי אתכם בזרוע נטויה ובשפטים גדלים. ולקחתי אתכם לי לעם, והייתי לכם לאלהים, וידעתם כי אני ה’ אלהיכם המוציא אתכם מתחת סבלות מצרים. (שמות ו, ו-ז)

Jews have a mitsva to remember the time our forefathers were enslaved in Egypt and how God liberated them and brought them to Israel. Every year in Passover, we recite the words from the Mishna: “In each generation, every person is obligated to see oneself as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt” (Pesachim 10, 5). We do this in various ways – in our daily prayers, during the festival of Passover – but we also do this every week, perhaps unconsciously.

In this week’s parasha God makes his promise to deliver the Jews out of Egypt using the famous four words of redemption, highlighted in the following passage:

So I say to the children of Israel: I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Shemot 6, 6-7)

There are many interpretations of these words of redemption, but one of them provides an interesting comparison with other four words mentioned in the beginning of Shemot. The Slonimer Rebbe (the “Netivot Shalom”) says that when the people of Israel passed from slavery to freedom they uttered four deep sighs that came from their sufferings in Egypt. He identifies these”four words of sighing” in the Torah, again highlighted below:

And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Shemot 2, 23-24)

These four utterances of sighing, says the Slonimer Rabbe, came from the depth of their heart, not as a prayer but as a sigh. They symbolize the four types of sufferings that they endured in Egypt, those of the body, the soul, the spirit and the neshama. By uttering these sighs, the people of Israel released themselves from these sufferings and thus became prepared for redemption.

The interesting point is that the Slonimer Rebbe says these things in his essay about the Shabbat, explaining how a Jew prepares himself for the start of the Shabbat on Friday afternoon. During the week we undergo various sufferings – of the body, the soul, the spirit and the neshama; but as we approach Shabbat we utter sighs and thus purge them from us, preparing ourselves to enter the holy day devoid of sufferings.

By drawing this comparison we are able not only enter Shabbat peacefully, but at the same time remember the four original sighs and the four words of redemption, thus fulfilling the mitsva of remembering our redemption from Egypt.

Silence, by Shusako Endo

Earlier this week I read the novel “Silence”, by Shusako Endo, and yesterday I watched the eponymous newly-released movie based on this novel.

Endo’s 1966 novel tells the story of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues, who travels to Japan together with a fellow priest, to find out what happened to their mentor, Father Ferreira, with whom the church had lost contact. This is 17th century Japan, when Christianity is outlawed and Christians are being persecuted by the ruling Shogunate.

Guided by a drunkard and unreliable Japanese Christian, Rodrigues and his partner land on an island off the coast of Kyushu and find refuge in a remote village of hidden Japanese Christians. They witness the hardships these peasants need to endure, suffering torture and death and yet refusing to renounce their faith and apostatize. The Jesuit priests flee from the authorities but are eventually captured and tortured by the local inquisitor. Rodrigues meets Ferreira and finds out what happened to him.

“Silence” here refers to the silence of God. Rodrigues’ faith is tested when he witnesses, again and again, the unbelievable sufferings of these humble Japanese peasants. He cries out for God to intervene but is answered with silence. This silence shakes him to the core and leads to internal struggles and to interesting theological exchanges with his Japanese inquisitors.

The novel is very engaging and the movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a faithful representation of the novel. At almost 3 hours long, and given its content, it is not an easy movie to watch. But reading the novel first helped, because knowing the story ahead of time allowed me to focus on the acting and the filmography. At times I felt as if I was watching a painting rather than a movie.

Earlier this month I visited Kyushu for the first time, and witnessed firsthand the Christian legacy in Japan. I was introduced to this painful time in history through the memorial for the 26 martyrs on Nishizaka hill in Nagasaki, and the artifacts from the Shimabara Rebellion at the local castle (an event which triggered the brutal repression of Japanese Christians depicted in the novel). Endo’s book and Scorsese’s movie both resonated strongly with me after this visit.

Restored Sumo Glory

The big news in Japan today is the promotion of sumo wrestler Kisenosato to Yokozuna, the highest rank in the sport.

kisenosato

Why is this big news? Because Kisenosato is the first Japanese to be awarded this rank in 19 years (the last one was Wakanohana, in 1998). This many sound strange to some, as sumo is a uniquely Japanese sport, but in the past couple of decades foreign wrestlers have dominated the sport. The first foreigner to attain the coveted Yokozuna rank was Akebono, back in 1993. But he was an American-born Japanese from Hawaii, so that was not considered a big disruption.

The real shock came in 1999, when another Hawaiian claimed the title: Musashimaru. He was born in American Samoa and had no Japanese background. Following him, it looked like sumo had become a Mongolian sport, as no less than four Mongolians took the top spot one after the other: Asashoryu, Hakuo, Harumafuji and Kakuryu. The last three are still active.

This is why many Japanese, especially the older generation, are elated by today’s news. For some it seemed like sumo was going down the route of many other Japanese traditions, losing its uniqueness. For many, Kisenosato is a symbol or restored Japanese sumo glory.

By the way, the sumo wrestlers’ names are not their real names. They adopt a “wresting name”, often given to them by their trainers. Kisenosato’s birth name is Yutaka Hagiwara.

Oversized Garbage

I took these photos on one of my morning walks in Kobe last week:

 

In Japan, garbage that doesn’t fit into the standard 45-liter garbage bags is defined as oversized garbage (sodai gomi).

In most places, to dispose of this garbage you need to call a special number and get a specific pick-up date. In busy times, such as after the new-year cleaning, there can be a 2-3 weeks wait… After the date is fixed, you need to go to a government office or an authorized shop (usually a convenience store) and buy a sticker in the amount appropriate for the garbage you are throwing away. In the photos above, the disposal cost for the piece of furniture is 900 Yen (about $7.5) and for the suitcase 300 Yen (about $2.5). The sticker goes on the garbage, which is taken out on the morning of the appointed date (and not earlier).

Now, while this may seem a little burdensome (and it is), the end result has two main benefits: the streets are free of garbage people just throw away, and most of this garbage gets recycled.

An interesting twist to this policy is that nowadays most prefectures do not allow people to simply take this garbage from the street if they like it, unless they get permission from the person who threw it away. Rest assured that the one of the ever-watchful old ladies of the neighborhood will catch you trying and reprimand you. In the bubble days of the 1980s this policy did not exist, and many people furnished their houses by picking up sodai gomi furniture and appliances from the street…

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)