Just two days ago Professor of Islamic History, Yusri Ahmad Zidan, was interviewed by Dr. Muhammed Khaled on Egyptian TV and the subtitled tape released today by MEMRI TV. Khaled’s smirk, as he hears how cheaply Jewish slaves sold for during Crusader times, sent chills up my spine. Both men agreed that Jewish slaves were apparently not worth much. They go on to talk about Jewish history, with Khaled saying:
Nebuchadnezzar burned them, the Crusaders burned them, and even Hitler and Nazism burned them. Is burning the only solution for the Jews?
They can smile with arrogant self-satisfaction and think that they have the upper hand on us Jews. However, this interview only reminded me of how the Jewish people are like the phoenix rising from the ashes time after time.
This thought led me to consider whether or not the idea of the phoenix is consistent with Judaism and I came across a fascinating videotaped lesson on the discovery of the phoenix in Noah’s ark (the discussion specific to the phoenix begins at 0:32 minutes).
As Rabbi Mendel Kaplan explains, the phoenix was the only animal of creation who did not eat of the Tree of Knowledge. As a result the bird was destined not to experience death. On Noah’s ark, the phoenix (in Hebrew, Chol or Avarshina), unlike the rest of the animals, did not ask for food, telling Noah that he (the bird) saw how hard Noah was working and did not want to burden him further. For this consideration, Noah blessed the bird with everlasting life.
Rabbi Kaplan discusses at length the interesting fact that many (perhaps most or all) ancient cultures had a legend of the phoenix that were similar even to the smallest details, but given that my thoughts of the phoenix were triggered by the disparaging discussion on tape above my reflections took me in a different direction:
The phoenix could not be killed, and on a regular basis, every thousand years it appears, it would be burned to ashes only to come to life once more: perfectly formed, strong and invincible. According to some Jewish texts, there is only one “copy” of this bird. Interestingly, it was granted everlasting life on two occasions: first, when it obeyed God and did not partake of the forbidden fruit; and second, when it was sensitive to its environment and acted from a position of kindness and consideration.
Is this possibly a metaphor for the Jewish people? A singular people, we have been repeatedly burned, as the two learned Egyptians in the video above so happily point out, and our “ashes” spread across the globe. However, what these gentlemen ignore is the fact that each time we are burned, we also experience a subsequent revival, coming to life anew and returning to our nest to reassert ourselves, proud and with our heads held high. If we are like a phoenix, then we cannot be killed. Individual Jews can, of course, be murdered, but the Jewish People apparently cannot be.
There is another message in Rabbi Kaplan’s discussion of the phoenix – the blessings it received for everlasting life were related to two elements: the first, obeying God, and the second, showing kindness and consideration. These two aspects seem related to two concepts that Yael Shahar discusses when considering this week’s parasha, Veyera, that I read only a few hours ago; namely, justice and charity. If we, as a people, can maintain a balance between justice and charity then we surely are the phoenix. If justice is of the mind and charity is of the heart, then these two elements are both antagonistic to each other at the same time as they are complementary.
I think it is the tension between justice and charity that causes us, as a people, to be at odds among ourselves. But that might turn out okay if we are the phoenix. I didn’t hear Rabbi Kaplan say anything about whether or not the phoenix changes in any way each time it is burned and rises again from the ashes but I will allow myself the luxury of assuming that each new revival provides the opportunity for improvement. So laugh away Prof Zidan and Dr Khaled! Laugh away.
Sheri Oz is a retired psychotherapist living in Israel for 38 years. Always interested in politics and international affairs, she now has time to study and write about it to her heart’s satisfaction. She often writes on her own site, Israel Diaries.
This article first appeared on Israel Diaries.