Repost: Sukkot

October 16, 2019 at 12:02 pm | Posted in Sukkot | Leave a comment

Our studio apartment in Prague

We came home today after a quick trip to Meissen, Germany.  Home is the apartment in Prague we moved into three weeks ago.  We know where everything is here, and we have our new routines down.  We know, finally, how to operate the washing machine.  We know the neighborhood, including our two favorite restaurants, and we know where to put our recycling.  We’ve been watching workers remove the cobblestones on sections of sidewalk, dig trenches, lay cable, fill in the trenches, and replace the cobblestones in decorative patterns.

We know our way around the nearest public square, where we get on the subway to go sightseeing, shop at our usual grocery store, print files at our copy shop, and get cash at our bank machine.  We can make change in Czech koruny.  (They don’t use the euro here in Czechia.)

We are comfortable in our home in Prague.  And next week, we leave to spend a month in Italy.

Traveling the slow way, with no house waiting for us back in the United States, is good practice in accepting impermanence.

So is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.  For a week, Jews are supposed to live at least part of each day in a sukkah, a temporary structure with a roof of branches or reeds that has enough gaps to feel raindrops and see stars.

For this re-post, I polished up my 2013 post on the Torah reading for the week of Sukkot:  Sukkot: Temporary and Permeable.

We too are temporary and permeable.  My husband and I are traveling abroad now because we know the improvement in our health is temporary; someday we will decline again, and someday we will die.

Since life is temporary, why not make the most of it?  Since every home and every habit is temporary, why not embrace change?  And since every soul is permeable, why not open ourselves to joy and edification as well as sorrow?

In Jewish liturgy, Sukkot is known as “The Season of Our Rejoicing”.

Kohelet: Is Life Meaningless?

October 5, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, Sukkot | 1 Comment

Modern sukkah in Israel

During the Jewish week of Sukkot, which began on Wednesday evening, the traditional reading is the book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet. Sukkot is called zeman simchateynu, the “time of our rejoicing”. In the Torah Sukkot celebrates the harvest of autumn fruits (grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives), and the people live in fragile temporary shelters called sukkot. Today Jews still erect and decorate sukkot and hold rituals and meals inside them.

Modern sukkah in America

Although these huts only last for a week, we rejoice inside them. The author of the book of Kohelet (“Assembler” or “Assemblyman”1), on the other hand, would be depressed.

The famous opening of the book in the King James Bible translation includes “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

The word “vanity” here means doing something in vain, i.e. with no resulting change. Futility is is indeed one possible translation of the Hebrew word haveil.

Haveil havalim, said the Assembler.

          Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 1:2)

haveil (הֲבֵל), havel (הָבֶל), hevel (הֶבֶל) = (noun) puff of air, vapor; (adjective) evanescent, futile, absurd. (Also the name of Adam and Eve’s second son, called “Abel” in English. See my post Bereishit: Fairness and Free Will.)

havalim (הֲבָלִים) = plural of haveil. In biblical Hebrew, a plural noun immediately following the same noun in the singular noun is an intensive.  Thus haveil havalim means utterly evanescent, utterly futile, or utterly absurd, though it can also be translated as “futility of futilities”.

The poetic introduction of the book of Kohelet describes how the cycles of nature never change; the sun keeps rising and setting, the wind keeps going around, water flows down to the sea and then returns to its sources.

What will happen has happened before

            and what is done has been done before.

And there is nothing new under the sun.  (Kohelet 1:9)

After the introductory poem, the writer uses an exclamation that becomes a refrain throughout the book:

Everything is hevel and herding ruach! (Kohelet 1:14)

ruach (רוּהַ) = wind; spirit; mood.

In a world of futility and absurdity, trying to achieve anything is like trying to herd the wind.

The rest of the book reports the writer’s fruitless attempts to find meaning in life despite the fact that everything in this world, “under the sun”, is hevel.  Chapter 2 points out that no matter how much you achieve, no matter how much luxury or wisdom you acquire, you still die, and whoever inherits from you also dies.

Chapter 3 starts with the famous poem beginning:

For everything there is a season

            and a time for every business under heaven:

A time to be born

            and a time to die… (Kohelet 3:1-2)

Humans also follow natural cycles, making no progress and doing nothing truly new. God has determined everything, according to Kohelet, and humans die just as beasts do.

Everything goes to one place; everything comes from the dust and returns to the dust. Who knows if the ruach of a human rises to [what is] above, and the ruach of the beast goes down [what is] below, to the earth? (Kohelet 3:20-21)

Judging by the rest of the book, the writer does not believe the spirit (ruach) of any human rises to another life after death. Death is simply an ending that usually comes before the person has had enough of life.

And life, according to Kohelet, is depressing. The author points out the inevitability of oppression, evil, envy, and folly.2 Wealth may disappear, and power is no good because every boss is at the mercy of a superior, and even the king is at the mercy of the crops of the land.3  God might grant someone every desire, along with wealth, possessions, honor, 100 children, and a long life, but that person will still die before being sated with good things; we can never live long enough.4 God makes good and bad things happen; humans have little effect.5

Here is hevel that is done on the earth: that there are righteous ones who God treats as if their deeds were like those of the wicked, and there are wicked ones who God treats as if their deeds were like those of the righteous. I say that this, too, is havel. (Kohelet 8:14)

Life is absurd, rather than meaningful, in the face of the “problem of evil” (also called the theodicy).

Sukkah roof

Kohelet also points out that wisdom is easily brought down by one foolish act6, and that we have decay to look forward to as well as death7. Yet our fragility is part of the celebration during Sukkot; every sukkah is designed to let the rain in, and every morning we stand inside and conduct a ritual to encourage the rainy season to begin.

The most the author of Kohelet can recommend is to enjoy life despite its meaninglessness:

Go eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a good heart since God has already approved your deeds. At all times let your clothes be clean, and oil not lacking on your head. Choose life with a woman whom you love, all the days of your life of hevel that God granted you under the sun, all the days of your hevel, because that is your share in life and your exertion that you exert under the sun. Everything that your hand finds to do, do with all your power, because there is no doing nor reckoning nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [underground], where you are going. (Kohelet 9:7-9)

*

I cannot argue with Kohelet’s advice about cultivating physical pleasure, loving companionship, and zest in your work. Nor would I deny that everything decays and dies. But unlike the author of Kohelet I believe that new things do happen, and humankind is making progress in some areas, however slow and faltering. And I believe that even though life is too short and reality is absurd, life has meaning. What gives life meaning to me is the conviction that even though so much is out of our hands, we humans can, with conscious attention, change our own minds.

So what if all my thoughts and experiences vanish when my body dies? So what if the whole earth and all human achievement is lost forever when the sun explodes? What happens right now, this moment, is still meaningful if we make it so.

The book of Kohelet ends (excluding the postscript) in the same place it begins:

And the dust returns to the earth, where it was,

            and the ruach returns to God, who gave it.

Haveil havalim, said the Assembler.

            Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 12:7-8)

Yes, everything is like a puff of air, evanescent and absurd—but some things still matter. And yes, as long as we live, we humans are herding ruach. But we are not always futilely trying to herd the wind. Ruach can also mean mood or spirit. Sometimes we learn how to herd our own moods, so we can rise above them. Sometimes we can even herd our own spirits, nudging our own souls to make our lives meaningful.

Then it is easy to rejoice inside the fragile, evanescent, absurd sukkot of our lives.

  1. The word kohelet ( קֹהֶלֶת) comes from the root verb kahal (קהל) = assemble. But the -et ending is a mystery; it might indicate either a female or a vocation, and it might mean a member of an assembly rather than the one who calls the assembly. See Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010, p. 337.
  2. Kohelet chapter 4.
  3. Kohelet chapter 5.
  4. Kohelet chapter 6.
  5. Kohelet chapter 7.
  6. Kohelet chapter 10.
  7. Kohelet chapter 12.

Haftarat Simchat Torah—Joshua: Strong and Resolute

October 19, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Posted in Joshua, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Vezot Habrakhah, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
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The standard cycle of Torah readings ends with Moses’ death in the last Torah portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, Vezot Habrakhah. On the holy day of Simchat Torah, most Jewish congregations read this last portion in a Torah scroll, then roll the scroll all the way back and read the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit. The accompanying haftarah (reading from the Prophets) is Joshua 1:1-18.

Have you ever tried to turn over a new leaf, and found that without a systematic process you soon slide back to your old ways?

One process for changing your life can be found in the Jewish holy days from Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah. I realized this year that these days are a recipe for a 23-day period of transformation.

Blowing the Shofar, from Minhagim, 1707

Blowing the Shofar,
from Minhagim, 1707

1) On the two days of Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”), we declare the beginning of a new year. And we wake up when we hear the blast of the shofar, a loud wind instrument made out of a ram’s horn.

2) On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), having apologized to the people we have wronged and forgiven those who wronged us, we go on to confess our errors to God and forgive ourselves.

3) During the seven days of Sukkot (“Huts”), we eat, sleep, and study (as much as the weather permits) in temporary shelters whose roofs of branches let in some rain and starlight.  The new lives we are creating for ourselves are like these sukkot: fragile, not secure—but open to nature, to other people, and to the presence of the divine.

Hoshana Rabbah, by Bernard Picart c. 1733

Hoshana Rabbah,
by Bernard Picart c. 1733

4) On the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah (“Great Supplication”), we circle the sanctuary seven times while beating willow branches on the floor to symbolically disperse the last traces of the previous year’s misdeeds.

5) On Shemini Atzeret (“Eighth Gathering”), we pray for rain so that the new seeds we have planted will grow during the winter.

6) On Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in Torah”), we read the end of the Torah scroll (the last portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, called Vezot Habrakhah, “And this is the blessing”). Then we roll it back to the beginning and read about the creation of the world in Genesis/Bereishit. In this way we acknowledge the blessings of the old year, close the book on our past mistakes, and launch into creating our new life.

The haftarah for Simchat Torah is the beginning of the book of Joshua, right after Moses has died. Everything must change now. Joshua, who has spent 40 years as Moses’ attendant, must quickly become the de facto king of the Israelites. The Israelites, who have spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, complaining about the food, learning the rules of their new religion from Moses, and listening to the old folks’ stories about being slaves in Egypt, must now become first a conquering army, then a people who farm, trade, and live in towns—in the unfamiliar land of Canaan.

Moses Appoints Joshua, by Henry Northrop, 1894

Moses Appoints Joshua,
by Henry Northrop, 1894

Both Joshua and the Israelites are unprepared for their new lives.

Moses anticipates this toward the end of Deuteronomy. He legitimizes Joshua as his successor by laying hands on him, and God confirms it with a pillar of cloud. Then Moses tells the Israelites:

Chizku and imetzu! Do not be afraid and do not feel dread in front of them [the Canaanites], because God, your God, is going with you Itself. It will not let go of you and It will not forsake you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:6)

chizku (חִזְקוּ) = (plural) Hold strong! Hold on! Be fortified! Be stalwart! Be strong!

imetzu (אִמְצוּ) = (plural) Be resolute! Be firm! Be strong!

Then Moses called Joshua and said to him, in the sight of all Israel: Chazak and ematz, because you yourself shall bring this people to the land that God swore to their fathers to give to them, and you yourself shall apportion it among them. (Deuteronomy 31:7)

chazak (חֲזָק) = (singular of chizku) Hold strong! (etc.)

ematz (אֱמָץ) = (singular of imetzu) Be resolute! (etc.)

After Moses dies, Joshua may have felt like running run away, but he accepts his new life. The book of Joshua begins with God speaking to Joshua.

It happened after the death of Moses, the servant of God; God spoke to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ attendant, saying: My servant Moses is dead. So now get up and cross this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the children of Israel. (Joshua 1:1-2)

Joshua says nothing, but I imagine him feeling fearful and doomed. He served as a general once, 40 years ago, when Amalek attacked the Israelites; but the untrained ex-slaves won the battle only when Moses raised his hands toward heaven. Joshua has never led a war of conquest or administered a country. When he was one of the scouts Moses sent to report on the land of Canaan, he could not even persuade anyone that the land was worth entering. How can he persuade the Israelites to cross the Jordan and enter it now? And how can he turn himself into a conqueror, judge, and administrator?

God tells him:

No one shall be able to stand against you, all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, I will be with you. I will not let go of you and I will not forsake you. (Joshua 1:5)

I expect it would help to know that God was on your side.  When I embark on a new phase of my life, it helps to know that I am doing the right thing. But that knowledge by itself is not enough to make me step forward.

God continues:

Chazak and ematz, because you shall apportion among this people the land that I swore to their fathers to give to them. Only chazak and ematz very much to guard and do according to all the teaching that My servant Moses commanded to you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, so that you shall act with insight everywhere you go. … Did I not command you: chazak and ematz? You shall not be afraid and you shall not be dismayed, because God, your God, will be with you wherever you go.  (Joshua 1:6-7, 9)

Joshua proceeds to become the leader he never was before. He makes decisions based on the teachings of Moses, he conquers large parts of Canaan (with the help of two divine miracles), and he divides up the land among the tribes of Israel.

Chazak and ematz, he probably reminds himself; hold strong and be resolute! The Bible uses this particular pairing of words only at four times of major change: when Joshua replaces Moses as the leader of the Israelites (in Deuteronomy and Joshua), when Joshua encourages his officers to continue the conquest of Canaan (in Joshua), when Solomon replaces David as the king of Israel (in the first book of Chronicles), and when King Hezekiah encourages his people to defend Jerusalem against the Assyrians (in the second book of Chronicles).

In all four transitions, the people who were told to be resolute felt nervous and insecure. And all four times they succeeded in their new roles.

*

It takes a lot to turn over a new leaf, to embark on a new direction in your life. From the Jewish holy days at this time of year we learn to wake up, face what we did wrong, make amends, and let go; to live for a while in the insecure space of transition as we stay open to guidance and pray for growth; to acknowledge the blessings in our old lives before we begin creating our new lives; and, in this week’s haftarah, to proceed with an attitude that will keep us going on our new path. We must trust that we are doing God’s will or the right thing, and we must be determined to keep going regardless of anything frightening or discouraging along the way.

Chazak and ematz; hold strong and be resolute. Keep going.

Re-eih: Recipe for Joy

August 18, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Re-eih, Shavuot, Sukkot | Leave a comment
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Sometimes joy comes unexpectedly. But sometimes we plan to rejoice on a particular occasion, acting with joy and thus inducing a feeling of joy. This week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”), says that three times a year, everyone should rejoice.

Universal joy is required during the three annual pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  Although the Torah gives instructions for these three festivals in the earlier books of the Torah, this portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is the first one that mandates a pilgrimage to the central sanctuary even for Pesach.

Three times in the year all your males shall appear in the presence of God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose: on the festival of the matzot and on the festival of the shavuot and on the festival of the sukkot (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16) 

Barley

Barley

matzot (מַצּוֹת) = unleavened bread. (This spring festival is part of Pesach or Passover.)

shavuot (שָׁבֻעוֹת) = weeks. (This summer festival occurs after counting seven weeks of the barley harvest, and includes bringing the first fruits and loaves of leavened bread to the priests at the sanctuary.)

sukkot (סֻכּוֹת) = huts, temporary shelters. (In Exodus this autumn festival is called the festival of the asif, “ingathering”, and pilgrims donate products from their threshing-floors and wine-presses. Leviticus adds the rituals of dwelling in temporary huts for seven days.)

…and they shall not appear in front of God empty-handed; each man [shall give] according to the giving-capacity of his hand, according to the blessing that God, your god, has given to you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16-17)

Only Israelite men are required to make the three pilgrimages to the central sanctuary (which was in Shiloh for about 370 years, and Jerusalem for about 1,000 years).  But this week’s portion also encourages women, children, and slaves to go, while recognizing that the journey may not be possible for pregnant or nursing women. Each head of a household must bring the second tithe (a donation for the priests and the temple administration), and a sacrificial animal for God. But the donations must be in proportion to the family’s wealth, so nobody’s joy is dampened by having to give more than they can afford.

Pilgrimage for Sukkot

Pilgrimage for Sukkot

In the Torah’s previous instructions regarding the three festivals, rejoicing is mentioned only once, when Leviticus 23:40 says to take branches from four species of trees and rejoice for the seven days of Sukkot.

But in this week’s Torah portion, rejoicing is called for three times, once in the instructions for Shavuot and twice in the instructions for Sukkot.

(Although this Torah portion does not specifically mention rejoicing during Pesach, later passages in Ezra and Chronicles 2 mention rejoicing in Jerusalem during this festival.)

The requirement for rejoicing in the portion Re-eih includes the Levite, stranger, orphan, and widow, who were not mentioned in any of the earlier instructions on the three festivals. During Shavuot, the Torah portion says:

Rejoice in the presence of God, your god—you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite who is within your gates, and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow … (Deuteronomy 16:11)

And during Sukkot:

Rejoice in your festival, you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow who are within your gates. Seven days you shall celebrate a festival for God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose, because God, your god, will have blessed you in all that comes to you and in all the doings of your hands, and there will be for you only joy. (16:14-15)

Feeling joy might be easy for the landowner who brings his offerings to the sanctuary, since he gives in proportion to his means, and he is celebrating that God blessed his agricultural endeavors with success.

But when the Torah addresses this landowner, it informs him that his family and his servants or slaves must also feel joy during the festivals. Furthermore, the Torah gives examples of four classes of people who are unlikely to own land or other independent means in a society built around inheritance through the male line: the Levites, whose pasture land is restricted and depend on donations; foreigners, who can lease but not inherit estates; orphans who have no fathers to provide for them; and widows, who are dependent on the mercy of relatives unless they have wealthy sons.  The Torah says that all of the disadvantaged people who live in the landowner’s town or village must also rejoice during the three festivals. Their joy becomes the landowner’s responsibility.

What can he do for them? According to the commentary of 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, he must arrange for those who cannot travel to rejoice at home.  Everyone who can travel must come with him to the central sanctuary, to experience the joy of celebrating in the national community, whose people are dedicated to one god, and to one another.

Hirsch added that these festivals are also times that God appointed to meet the people at God’s sanctuary. The awareness of God’s presence, he wrote, brings the purest joy.

In the 11th century, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the phrase I translate above as “there will be for you only joy” means that if you bring everyone to God’s chosen place for a festival, God promises you will be happy.

I have observed this effect in my own life. Occasionally happiness lifts me when I am alone; more often it comes when I am with my beloved. But when I am singing with my congregation at services, my heart almost always rises. The only times this communal singing does not bring me joy are when someone in the group looks angry or miserable.

The unhappy people are like the poor foreigners in the Torah, alienated from the community where they live. Sometimes these “foreigners” cannot come to the place where God is; they are unable to travel spiritually. Then those of us who have greater means, like the landowners in the Torah, must make arrangements to help them rejoice in the spiritual state where they are.

Other times, the unhappy “foreigners” are able to travel, if we carry them with us. The Torah tells us not to neglect them, but to bring them to God’s place to celebrate with us.

Then “there will be only joy”. Complete joy happens only when everybody contributes, and nobody gets left out.

 

Sukkot: Temporary and Permeable

September 19, 2013 at 1:05 am | Posted in Sukkot | 1 Comment

Everything in life is temporary, including life itself.

The annual festival of Sukkot was once a pilgrimage to the temple to celebrate the harvest.  Since the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E., Sukkot has centered around this instruction in the Torah:

“Sukkot Customs”, 1662

In the sukkot you shall live seven days; all the citizens of Israel shall live in the sukkot, so that your generations will know that I made the children of Israel live in the sukkot when I brought them out from the land of Egypt.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:42-43)

sukkot  (סֻּכֹּֽת) = huts, temporary shelters constructed in fields during harvest (often translated as “booths”).  Singular: sukkah (סֻּכַּה).

The Sukkah

This week many Jews are eating meals and spending time in their sukkot.  A ritual sukkah must be a temporary structure.  While it can be attached to a wall of one’s house, it must also have temporary walls and a temporary roof.  The roof must also be permeable, made of plant materials such as branches or reeds—materials that leave gaps big enough to let in both rain and starlight.  One cannot seal oneself off from the world in a sukkah; the outside world is always coming in.

The Mishkan

The sukkah reminds me of another temporary dwelling-place in the Torah:

And let them make for me a holy place, and I will dwell in their midst.  Like everything that I am showing you, the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of its furnishings, thus you shall make it.  (Exodus/Shemot 25:8-9)

mishkan (מִּשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place, home.  (From the root verb shakan = stay, dwell, inhabit.)

Every time the Israelites camp in the Torah, the priests and Levites assemble all the pieces of the mishkan and rebuild the sanctuary.  Then when the Israelites move on, the Levites disassemble all the pieces and carry them on the journey through the wilderness.  The mishkan, the holy place where the presence of God dwells, is both temporary and portable.

Divine cloud rising from mishkan (artist unknown)

It is also permeable.  While rain and light from above penetrate the roof of a sukkah, a divine cloud by day and fire by night come from inside the mishkan and penetrate the roof so they can be seen above the mishkan by the people outside it.

Inside and Out

When we assemble a sukkah, it’s not only a dwelling-place for us, but also a mishkan for God.  In kabbalah, the aspect of God that dwells here in this world is the Shechinah, a feminine form of the noun for “dweller, inhabitant” (from the same root as mishkan).  As we sit in the sukkah, we invite God in, along with the rain and starlight.  And God dwells “in our midst”, inside us.  It is a mitzvah, a good deed, to invite other people to join you in your sukkah.  I can imagine this fellowship in a fragile structure radiating goodwill out to the world.

Like the mishkan, a sukkah is temporary.  Sitting in a temporary shelter can remind us that we are temporary visitors in our world.  Humans get attached to things; we crave permanence.  Yet in the Torah, the Israelites escape the slavery of Egypt and live in the wilderness for 40 years in tents, moving on whenever God’s pillar of cloud and fire lifts from the mishkan.

A sukkah is a reminder that we have the power to become free from attachments to material things, even from attachments to our homes and our familiar lives.  We can find shelter wherever we go.  Sometimes it’s hard to step out from under our solid roofs, but we can do it.

Sukkot is also called “The Season of our Rejoicing”.  May we all rejoice, knowing that everything in our lives is temporary and permeable—and knowing that accepting this fact of life brings us inner freedom.

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