A Green Shoot Grows


by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


“But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse,

A twig shall sprout from his stock” (Isaiah 11:1-2).

A few months before I was ordained as a rabbi, I initiated a pluralistic Jewish study group called Beit Kulam (House of Togetherness), now entering its third year. Held in our living room and organized by my daughter, Janet, it takes the form of a cozy, Sunday morning breakfast club (bagels with cream cheese, delicious home-baked goods, really good coffee, and ample schmoozing time before the sessions start  — and even after, as people get to know one another). Some people attend via Skype or Facetime from places like Vancouver, B.C., or even Venezuela. Usually some 15-20 people attend each study session in person, plus the virtual attendees, which is a really good size for vigorous and informed discussion on continuing themes.

Some Beit Kulam members are very knowledgeable, well versed in Judaism; others are just beginning to learn what it means to be a Jew. Some of the people who attend are not Jewish but are attracted by the topics, which my daughter publishes on the web, and by the inclusive, homey atmosphere. Sometimes they just come or drop in from time to time as their schedules allow because they are curious or want to make new friends. Some people attend via Skype or Facetime from places like Vancouver, B.C., or even Venezuela. Everyone is welcome.

Why Sunday and not Saturday? Some of the people who enjoy coming to Beit Kulam are synagogue members elsewhere, so our study group sessions on Sundays don’t affect their attendance there. Why do they come to Beit Kulam? Because we discuss things they want to know or that they feel too shy to ask in a more formal setting – complex ethical or sensitive issues many synagogues just don’t have the time or inclination to examine in depth. After my presentation on a particular topic, usually part of a theme extending over several sessions, our Beit Kulam attendees engage in vigorous discussion.

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One of the themes my study group tackled this year involved exploring what really may have happened to the Ten “Lost” Jewish Tribes. We examined, and looked beyond, some of the theories that have been proposed at different times but since discarded. It was, and is, a fascinating study, which took us through many cultures.

Among the people and places we read and talked about were the ancient Maya, who made their home for centuries in Central America. How could such astonishing mathematical and astrological erudition, as well as architectural abilities, exist in their polytheistic, savage culture?  One of the once popular but currently discarded theories is that they were actually the descendants of the ancient Israelites, remnants of a Lost Tribe.

The Tower of Babel? You’re kidding!

However, according to mystical Jewish literature (See Seder Hadorot, Sefer Hayashar, Book of Jubilees, the Zohar, and the Book of Enoch), it is entirely possible that there are connections between the biblical Israelites and the Mayans, but they occurred much earlier than the period when the Assyrians conquered and dispersed the Ten Tribes of ancient Northern Israel. In fact, the possible dispersion to Mesoamerica may go back to the time of the disgraced builders of the Tower of Babel, as is recounted in the Torah (Genesis 11:1-9). God was furious, not because the builders were trying to reach the heavens, but because they were trying to usurp God’s power. And so the Torah portrays God as dispersing the people all over the world and confounding their language, so that they now spoke many languages and could no longer understand one another. This scattering of the people likely happened around 1765 BCE. The Mayan civilization is believed to have its origins around 2,000 BCE or earlier, so its is quite possible that at least some of the Tower of Babel people may have been the biblical forbears of the Mayans.

Our Genius Ancestor, Enoch…

Here is where the biblical Enoch and his many descendants come into the picture. Who was Enoch? In terms of his ancestry, he was the great great grandson of the biblical Seth, a son of Adam. The timeline and intricate genealogy of the Enoch story coincide with the beginnings of Mayan civilization – and of the birth of the Mayan calendar.

In terms of his abilities, Enoch was celebrated for his astounding astronomical and mathematical knowledge and teachings. He understood the course of the planetary bodies. He was skilled in the building of cities. The mystical Zohar claimed that Enoch possessed a book containing the inner secrets of wisdom that originated from the Garden of Eden! The Greeks credited him with the invention of writing!

It is entirely possible that one of Enoch’s descendants, who lived during the time of the Tower of Babel, many have settled in the area now called the Yucatan (perhaps in honor of his ancestor, Yoktan). Presumably, Enoch’s knowledge was passed to his descendants and through them to the Mayans, who integrated this knowledge into their own cyclical calendar.

Little did I know as our Beit Kulam group talked about the Maya that I would soon find myself in Guatemala, the birthplace of the Mayan calendar. Yes, I had agreed to be Guest Staff Cruise Rabbi on yet another trip to far away lands, this time to Central America.

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These are the things I pondered as our cruise ship approached the boundaries of the next port of call, Guatemala.  As misty clouds floated just below the summits of the 23 volcanos ringing the country, they created an other-worldly quality. Mystical, like the ancient literature that connected the biblical Enoch with this part of Central America.

Most of these volcanos are still active or dormant. When fiery lava at times flows down their sides, when the volcanos erupt, killing everything in their wake, is the spiritual legend of the ancient Maya who once fed them human bodies still predatory in nature? Has it been redeemed by time – and dispersion?

The atmosphere is surreal. This still troubled country was – and is — the home of the Mayan culture, the birthplace of its creation story and its two calendars (one lunar, one solar, which they intercalated), of remarkable astronomical calculations, of the complex cycle of its culture, of a written language whose mysterious code has been cracked, if not fully understood, in modern times. It is also the inspiration of powerful artistic representations based on the natural world, on the animals around them, like the jaguar, whose speed and cunning strength they venerated. Or the Maize God, the supergod that gave them food.

Here in this place thinly covered with limestone and volcanic ash where food was – and is — so hard to grow, the Maya knew they were, above all and without warning, the prey of the predatory mountains, and so, for centuries, they tried to propitiate the gods of the volcanos by feeding them human sacrifices. Many of these sacrificed humans were captives taken from other tribes with whom the Mayans were warring. Today recovered Mayan artwork in museums reveals the armed predator with his foot on the neck of his human prey. Depending on circumstances, it seems, prey and predator were interchangeable. Can people capable of impressive abstract thought literally remove the heart from a live person – in order to ingest that person’s power – on a sacrificial altar and still remain spiritual human beings? Or do they then become indistinguishable from the wild animal life that inhabits their landscape? Do they become a human landscape informed by the fury of the volcanos.

Eventually, though, it was not the volcanic eruptions that drove the Maya from the land they held to be spiritual. Like similar periods that have been captured in the Hebrew Bible, long years of drought with resulting famine caused them to leave. There was nothing to eat. Slowly, the wild animals, both prey and predator, disappeared, and eventually the Maya left for other places. Most assimilated into Mexico.

There were dire predictions that the world would come to an end when the revered Mayan calendar ended its 5,000 year cycle.[1] In fact, the Maya had two calendars, the first a sacred calendar called “the Calendar Round,” which was lunar, and the second referred to as “the Long Count Calendar” (these dates were usually found on inscriptions), which was solar based. The Maya reconciled the two calendars. They also created the concept of the zero.

The Calendar Round (52 years):

 In Breaking the Maya Code, 3rd ed. (Kindle), author Michael Coe, a long recognized authority on Maya culture, explains the 260 days of the sacred Calendar Round as evoking the nine-month period of gestation. This, he says, results from “the never-ending permutation of 13 numbers with a rigid sequence of 20 named days [13 x 20 = 260].” In addition, a system of bars and dots are accurately used to represent the numbers (e.g., a dot stands for one, and a bar for five, so that the number six would be a bar and a dot). Apparently, this count “has not slipped one day in over twenty-five centuries. Now, run this count against the 365 days of the solar year, and one will get the 52-year Calendar Round, the Mesoamerican equivalent of our century.”

            That’s the first Mayan calendar. What about the second one, the Long Count Calendar?

The Long Count Calendar:

This second Mayan calendar appeared near the end of the Mayan Pre-Classic period (the last century B.C.). To quote Michael Coe once again in Breaking the Maya Code, 3rd ed. (Kindle): “Unlike dates in the Calendar Round, which are fixed only within a never ending cycle of 52 years and thus recur once every 52 years, Long Count dates are given in a day-to-day count, which began in the year 3114 BC.” Many people believed that the world would end in 2012 AD, when the calendar concluded.

Nevertheless, the physical world of those long ago Maya – and the rest of the planet with it — did not end in December 2012, as so many misguided people thought it would. No, the globe did not erupt in chaos because, in Mayan culture, when you come to the end of a cycle, it simply starts all over again. The new cycle simply represents an era of regeneration and hope for the future. That, too, is the story recounted throughout the Hebrew Bible. Even if the tree is felled, a green shoot will eventually grow from the stump. Even if it takes 5,000 years.

[1]Interestingly, in 2017, the ancient Hebrew calendar is in the year 5,777 CE.