still crazy after all these years

Ki Tavo

Call me crazy, but I love it when I spot the first time a word is used in print, especially when it’s a Hebrew word in the Bible.  And I go Crazy-Eddie crazy when it’s a seminal word whose meaning and associations are closely associated with our people.

So what’s the word of the day? It’s Meshugah and it first appears in Deuteronomy 28.

In the original version of the Sermon on the Mount, Moses has half the tribes stand on one mountain; Gerizim, and the other half stand on an opposite mountain; Ebal, and details all the blessings the chosen people will receive if they obey the commandments. So far so good and so ends the similitude to the other Sermon on the Mount.  It’s in detailing all the curses that will befall the Jewish people for disobedience that Meshuga, the quintessential word for Jewish idiosynchronicity, even exceptionalism, gets it’s first mention.

But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee…. (28: 15)

The LORD will smite thee with madness, and with blindness, and with astonishment of heart. (28: 28) [see Strongs H7697]

 יַכְּכָה ה’, בְּשִׁגָּעוֹן וּבְעִוָּרוֹן; וּבְתִמְהוֹן, לֵבָב

The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed away:
so that thou shalt be mad for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see. (28: 33-4) [see Strongs H7696]

 וְהָיִיתָ, מְשֻׁגָּע, מִמַּרְאֵה עֵינֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה

In it’s first instance, being meshugah is not a good thing.  It’s a curse and relates to the primal response one has when viewing something so abhorrent and hurtful that one loses one’s mind.

The word always retained this meaning as in Zachariah

And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will make Jerusalem a stone of burden for all the peoples; all that burden themselves with it shall be sore wounded; and all the nations of the earth shall be gathered together against it.
In that day, saith the LORD, I will smite every horse with bewilderment, and his rider with madness; and I will open Mine eyes upon the house of Judah, and will smite every horse of the peoples with blindness.  (Zechariah 12 3-4)

 בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא נְאֻם-יְהוָה, אַכֶּה כָל-סוּס בַּתִּמָּהוֹן, וְרֹכְבוֹ, בַּשִּׁגָּעוֹן

But madness also was used in conjunction with creative genius and vision.

First as a false prophet as in:

for every man that is mad, and maketh himself a prophet, that thou shouldest put him in the stocks and in the collar. (Jeremiah 29: 26)

 לְכָל-אִישׁ מְשֻׁגָּע וּמִתְנַבֵּא; וְנָתַתָּה אֹתוֹ אֶל-הַמַּהְפֶּכֶת, וְאֶל-הַצִּינֹק

And next as a prophet of truth to a false people – the man of spirit to a people without spirit:

The prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad! For the multitude of thine iniquity, the enmity is great. (Hosea 9: 7)

 אֱוִיל הַנָּבִיא, מְשֻׁגָּע אִישׁ הָרוּחַ–עַל רֹב עֲו‍ֹנְךָ, וְרַבָּה מַשְׂטֵמָה

Ultimately, when the world becomes crazy, it is the crazy who speak the truth.

As it says in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 12b): Rabbi Johanan said: Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.

But it is madness as a strategy that seems to have really resonated with our leaders and our people.. starting with David.

David is running away from King Saul and went to Achish the king of Gath. David’s reputation precedes him and the servants of Achish  question: “Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying: Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?”  David takes these words to heart and is fearful and plays the madman.

And he changed his demeanour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard.
Then said Achish unto his servants: ‘Lo, when ye see a man that is mad, wherefore do ye bring him to me?
Do I lack madmen, that ye have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?’ (1 Samuel 21: 11-16)

 חֲסַר מְשֻׁגָּעִים, אָנִי, כִּי-הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-זֶה, לְהִשְׁתַּגֵּעַ עָלָי; הֲזֶה, יָבוֹא אֶל-בֵּיתִי

And thus was born the Meshugenah Defense.

The word Meshugah is more well known as a Yiddish word than as a Hebrew word, because it was in exile and using the language of exile that we Jews really perfected craziness as a defense mechanism. Was it not meshugah to think that we could survive without a land or borders.  Was it not crazy to believe that one day we would be back in Jerusalem.  Jewish humor, at it’s core is a survival mechanism, and at its best, it reveals and helps us cope with the absurd.  Only a madman can believe in mankind after the atrocities of the Holocaust…

Thomas Friedman, cannot be accused of being an apologist for the State of Israel or the current Netanyahu government, but even he understands that in a world gone crazy, you are forced to act crazy.  In a recent column he characterized the recent Israel strategy in in Gaza:

No one here will explicitly say so, but one need only study this war to understand that Israel considers it central to its deterrence strategy that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah will “outcrazy us.” I don’t believe Israel was targeting Gaza civilians — I believe it tried to avoid them  — but, at the end of the day, it was not deterred by the prospect of substantial collateral civilian casualties. Hamas used Gaza’s civilians as war-crimes bait. And Israel did whatever was necessary to prove to Hamas, “You will not outcrazy us out of this region.” It was all ugly. This is not Scandinavia. (Thomas Freidman, Dear Guests; Revelations in the Gaza War).

What’s the lesson to all of this mushugas?  I suppose we need to always remember that one day’s curse is another day’s blessing.  We need to nurture and cultivate the life of our language and explore our cultural tics. And for the survival of the Jewish People and the good of the world, we Jews need to stay still crazy after all of these years.

2 Comments

Filed under Bible, Chosen People, Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, social commentary, Zionism

2 responses to “still crazy after all these years

  1. Shelly

    Maybe I’m meshugah to say this—but this is one of your best!

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