Monday, October 19, 2015

On Shiloh Then and Now

Shiloh: Then and now

Emily Amrousi

This is a sweet story that ties together a 3,000-year history, a three-year-old boy and, of course, the current situation. A few days ago, my youngest son made the transition from toddler to boy. In the days that passed since his first haircut (in Jewish tradition, baby boys grow out their hair until a ceremonial haircut -- known as the "upsherin" or "halaka" ceremony -- that takes place when the child turns three), he has been waking up in shock every morning, crying that he wants his ponytail back. He doesn't want to wear a yarmulke and tzitzit (ritual tassels attached to one's prayer shawl); he wants to be his mommy's baby again. But what's done is done -- he's all grown up.

We held the upsherin ceremony in Shiloh, the same place where the biblical tabernacle resided, and where Hannah brought her son, the prophet Samuel, when he turned three. You can hear the scissors even 3,000 years later, making the ceremony so meaningful. 

The first time the upsherin tradition is mentioned, it is in relation to the grave of the prophet Samuel. It is only later that the ritual was tied to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron, where it is now commonly celebrated.

The reasons for giving a child his first haircut at three years of age are vague: as a fruit-bearing tree, where three years must pass before its fruit can be eaten; as a monk, who grows his hair; to educate your child about the commandment of growing sidelocks. It is a mysterious and magical tradition.

If you read the Bible, there is no need to search for hidden reasons: The prophet Samuel's mother, the childless Hannah, made a vow that if she were to have a baby, she would dedicate him to serving God. She had a son, and when he was weaned, she brought him to the tabernacle in Shiloh in a joyful ceremony. 

And so we stood in ancient Shiloh, parents with their son, in the place that was Israel's first capital, and we felt the weight of history shifting beneath our feet. This is where Joshua set up the tabernacle that wandered with the people of Israel since the Exodus, and this is where the first spiritual and governmental center of the Jewish people was founded. This is where the plots were divided between the 12 tribes after crossing the Jordan River and conquering the land. This is where the daughters of Israel danced in the vineyards at the beginning of the grape harvest on the Tu B'Av holiday. And for many generations, this is where the pilgrims traveled three times a year: The tabernacle dwelled in Shiloh for 369 years (for comparison's sake, the First Temple stood for 410 years and the Second Temple for 420). 

This is where Hannah prayed for a son, and she returned to the same spot three years after his birth with the child who was a precious gift. And this is where Samuel grew up to become a prophet, a judge and a leader who anointed Saul and David as king. 

The upsherin ceremonies for my older sons, which took place by the graves of righteous rabbis as is the custom, suddenly seem to have lacked focus. We prayed for this child, and we continued to pray for him in the place where the first prayer in history was heard and accepted (until Hannah's prayer, the only way to worship was through intermediaries, like sacrifices or priests -- Hannah invented direct prayer before the astonished eyes of the priest Eli).

The connection to the past among the biblical Benjamin hills draws our attention during this turbulent time, a time of struggle for the land from where we came, from where we began. The same landscape that surrounded Shiloh 3,500 years ago is still there today. The same paths through the mountains, the same rounded slopes. What was once the highway of the Kingdom of Israel, the "path of our forefathers," is now Route 60, taken by very few Israelis. 

We jump quickly from past to future. Archaeological digs in Shiloh led to the discovery of the remains of charred raisins, which radiocarbon dating revealed to be exactly from the period of the destruction and burning of the tabernacle. In that same area today, there are lush vineyards grown by modern Jewish agriculture. 

On nearby Mount Hazor, where Judah the Maccabee is believed to have met his end, there is now an Israeli Air Force base. Thousands of women dance in the vineyards during the festival that takes place here every Tu B'Av. The Bible Marathon is now held on the path where "a man of Benjamin ran" (1 Samuel 4:12) from the battle to Shiloh. Thousands of women come here to pray at the Hannah's Prayer ceremony each Rosh Hashanah.

And one very sweet toddler left behind his hair in that same spot, no longer a baby, but a boy.