Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sukkot: On Joy

The Kotzker rebbe is reported to have said that one of the three things we should learn from a child is how to be happy.

Sukkot would be a good time to learn. For Sukkot is called zeman simkhatenu, “the time of our joy.” The Torah does not just say to rejoice on Sukkot, as on other holidays, but Vehayita akh sameakh. “And you shall be only joyful.” (Deut 16:15).

What can children and Sukkot teach us about the nature of simchah, joy? Three things. First, children are happy partly because everything is new to them. They enjoy the world in a way we can’t anymore with our bored, jaded eyes; they are seeing and experiencing everything for the first time, and it is a great love affair. No wonder they don’t want to go to sleep!

We are too old to enjoy the world in this fresh, excited way. But the fall holiday season gives us an opportunity to experience our own version of that kind of joy. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are intensely aware of our mortality. God is sealing all of our fates; we could die or we could live. Maimonides says that, in order to facilitate repentance, it is proper during this time to consider each day to be your very last. Going through the High Holidays is like surviving an intense hospital experience or a serious illness. It makes you aware of how lucky you are to be alive and well. And it is this knowledge that leads to a kind of joy, the joy of appreciating life’s preciousness, of living it to its fullest. For children the joy comes from the perspective of a first day of life, but for us, it is the specter of the last day which can make us enjoy life to its fullest.

Sukkot, coming on the heels of these other holidays, only further emphasizes this sense of our vulnerability and mortality. We leave our permanent homes and live outside, exposed to the elements, in a flimsy temporary shed which, by design, must have a faulty roof! The sukkah is meant to make us feel how very vulnerable and temporary we are in this world. And that feeling, oddly enough, leads to joy. It leads to joy because there is no other choice; if we are not joyful today, we may miss our opportunity. Life is too short, and we are too frail, not to enjoy every second of life granted to us. Like children, we jump fully and joyfully into the moment.

Children teach us other things about happiness too. Children know that true happiness is only experienced in relationship. From a young age, a baby will coo and laugh at an interactive grown-up but not at an object. Children want toys, but even more than toys what makes them happy are friends. A boring day off from school turns into a party when a playmate appears.

Relationships are the true source of joy, according to the Torah, too. What is considered the ultimate sound of joy, kol sason vekol simchah? The sound of a bride and groom rejoicing, kol hatan vekol kalah. Sukkot is a time for rejoicing among people, a time for inviting guests, the traditional ushpizin, and for enjoying each other in the intimate space of the sukkah after the repairing of relationships during the High Holidays.

Sukkot also celebrates another relationship. Our relationship with God. Through the High Holidays, we have focused on that relationship and worked to repair it. Now we are ready to enter the huppah, the wedding canopy, our sukkah, and rejoice like the hatan and kalah, the bride and groom, celebrating our good fortune in having achieved such intimacy with God.

Our rejoicing on Sukkot is like the joy of children in a third way as well. Children are happy because they are dependent. They know where their next meal is coming from, the grown up in charge. They are not responsible for themselves, so they don’t worry, either about the past or the future, and, free of worry, they relax and laugh and enjoy life.

On Sukkot, we are invited to do the same thing. We don’t permanently give up responsibility. We spent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur worrying over our past actions and their consequences and planning our future better actions. But that worry time is over now. What is left is only our sense of dependence on God. We no longer say selakh na, “Please forgive,” but hosha na, “Please save us.” Save us; we are dependent on You. The sukkah, with its negligable roof, is not just a symbol of our vulnerability, but also a symbol of God’s protection, and of our joyful reliance on that protection. God is said to spread out His sukkat shalom, His sukkah of peace over us, giving us a sense of security and calm. As Psalm 27, recited daily this time of year, says: “He will shelter me in His sukkah on an evil day.” One tradition suggests that the sukkot God provided for the Israelites in the desert were actually made of God’s clouds of glory. Sitting in the sukkah under God’s sky instead of our permanent slate roofs, we let go for a moment of our sense of responsibility and control. We let God be in charge, God protect us. And it is then that we are able to experience the joy of children, the carefree joy of a child who knows that all will be taken care of.

Such is the joy of Sukkot, a joy borne not out of our brick homes and all their possessions but out of our experience of vulnerability, relationship and dependence. Ashrei yoshvei veitekha. Happy are those who dwell in Your house.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Parashat Ha'azinu/Yom Kippur: On Empathy

When a child is upset about something, say, a broken toy, how should we respond? According to many child psychology experts, we should not rush to fix the situation, or argue with our children about why they shouldn’t be upset. Instead, we should be with them emotionally, show that we understand their feelings: “That was your favorite toy, and you wanted to bring it to school tomorrow and now you can’t. You must be disappointed.” Once they feel heard and understood, they can solve the problem themselves. Most of the time, what children (and other humans) really want is a sympathetic ear.

God is our model for such a sympathetic ear. We call Him shome’a tefillah, “The One who Hears or Listens to Prayer.” Over Rosh Hashanah, when we called out to Him with our shofars, the emphasis was not on how God fixes our problems, but on how He listens to our broken cries. Mevin uma’azin, mabit umakshiv. “He understands and listens, sees and pays attention.” Throughout this season, we say again and again, shema koleinu, “Listen to our voices.” What we want is for God to hear us.

This week’s parsha begins with its own call to hearing -- Ha’azinu. The root of the word is ozen, “ear.” It is a call for heaven and earth to hear and bear witness to Moshe’s covenantal song, but it rings out during this season also as a call for us all to be, like God, attentive listeners, to open up our ears and hear each other.

God’s capacity as a listener extends so far that it turns into a kind of super-empathy. The tradition says that when the people of Israel went into exile, God went with them. Bekhol tzaratam lo tzar. “In all their troubles He [God] is troubled” (Isaiah 63:9). In Egypt, God “heard their moaning” (Exodus 2:24) and was with them in their distress; the midrash suggests that God chose to appear to Moshe as a burning bush full of thorns to show that, like the enslaved Israelites, He, too, was in pain. In the Yosef story, the Torah tells us in one verse that Yosef was taken into prison, and in the next, “The Lord was with Yosef” (Gen 39:21). As Psalm 91 puts it, Imo anokhi betzarah. “I [God] am with him in distress.”

We are made in God’s image, and are meant to imitate His ways, to strive toward this type of empathy. Perhaps that is what we are doing when we pray for the sick. People struggle with the question of God’s response to such prayers, but perhaps God’s response is beside the point. The point is how the prayer effects the one who is praying, the pray-er. After all, to daven, to pray, is lehitpallel, a reflexive form, an activity that has an impact on the actor. What is that impact? When we pray for the sick in our communities, we are doing two things. On the one hand, we are finding comfort in the sympathetic ear of God, the ultimate listener. On the other hand, we are turning ourselves into little ears of God, reminding ourselves of the pain and suffering being endured by others, teaching ourselves to be with others in their distress just as God is.

I remember as a child praying on Yom Kippur in a small shul and feeling the weight of everyone’s personal pain and woes filling the room. Each of us little humans with our own broken cries comes together on Yom Kippur to voice those cries to a listening, empathetic Ear. We don’t solve each others’ problems on that day, but we are, like God, with each other in distress. And perhaps that is the deepest kind of teshuva (repentance) of all. Gmar hatimah tovah.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rosh Hashanah: On Fear

My children are scared of the dark. The truth is, I am a little scared myself. It is at night in the dark that my worst fears emerge – another Holocaust, thieves attacking in the night, child abduction, wrongful imprisonment, torture, war, and generally, crazy evil people doing unspeakably horrible things with no one to stop them.

Fear is a major theme of Rosh Hashanah. But it is a different kind of fear, and I wonder whether it can help us manage these other fears. The fear of Rosh Hashanah is the fear, not of humans, but of God. On these days, we proclaim God eternal King in contrast to human authorities. We stand before Him like “broken shards,” awaiting judgment, with hil and re’adah, “fear and trembling.” On every day of the year we say the prayer Aleinu. But only on these days do we bow fully to the ground, showing our sense of awe before God. And we pray, in each and every one of the amidah prayers of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Uvekhen ten pahdekha, “And so, O God, please place Your fear on all Your creations.” We actually pray for fear!

What is it about this kind of fear, this fear of God, that is so desirable? First, it makes us feel small. Not small and insecure. Small and calm, comfortable in the knowledge of our tiny place in the universe. We are children to God, our eyes teluyot, dependent on Him for survival. Knowing that He is a good parent, we can relax into His awesomeness; my 5-year-old likes to occasionally pretend she is a baby in order to be reminded of the comfort of just such entire dependence on another. Those other fears of wild and dangerous people are nothing if we are wrapped in this kind of an all-encompassing secure relationship: “Though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I fear no harm for You are with me” (Ps 23).

Our smallness in contrast to God’s greatness has another implication. It makes us humble with respect to others and opens us up to each other and to God in new ways. Even the greatest among us is nothing with respect to the awesome King God, and so we need each other, we reach for each other, we open ourselves to each others’ gifts. One of the three ways of turning around bad decrees during this time of year is to do tzedakah, to help others in some charitable way. The shape of the shofar symbolizes this openness; it begins with a small opening toward the individual and ends with a larger one, opening out toward the world. When we fear God, we band together to help each other, but when we fear human beings, we close ourselves off. We try to protect ourselves by running away, escaping, hiding. One of my most consistent nightmares as a child was of hiding in a closet while being pursued by Nazis. Fear of humans shuts us in, but fear of God opens us up.

We are small when we fear God, but we are also very large. We are large because God has given us control over own destinies through the ability to do teshuva, repentance. Unlike an unpredictable cruel human despot who metes out evil decrees randomly, God has made it clear that His judgment depends on our actions; if we change those actions, any harm in His decree will be rescinded. And so, our fear of God’s judgment does not oppress us or cow us but empowers us, compelling us to act differently, more rightly in the world. Fear of humans, by contrast, paralyzes us, shuts us down. When we think of all the atrocities committed by human beings, our hearts are filled with such doom and heaviness that life feels pointless, and we wonder whether there is any purpose in taking an active part in it at all. Fear of humans leads to pessimism and immobilization, fear of God to optimism and action. The shofar’s call is a clarion call to action, not a siren warning us to hide from an approaching army. That the sound of that call to action is frightening and awesome is no accident. It is by reminding us of God’s awesomeness, as at the terrifying experience of Sinai, that the shofar blasts do their job of waking us up to the large role we must play in this world. The shofar should at once make us feel small and large, awed and empowered, humbled and called.

The shofar is also associated with light. We recite these words from Psalm 89 after the first set of shofar blasts: “Fortunate is the people who knows the shofar blast; O Lord, in the light of Your countenance will they walk.” With each new set of shofar blasts we pray that God should bring out our judgment ka’or, “as light.” Why light? What does light have to do with the shofar? Light is a symbol for the great clarity brought by God’s judgment, but it is also a symbol of God’s power to conquer evil and darkness, a symbol of the kind of light-filled optimistic view of the world brought about by a world-view in which fear of God replaces fear of humans. My children fear darkness. In a way, all fear of human evil is a fear of darkness in the world. What we are doing with the shofar, then, is blasting away that darkness and replacing it with light, reminding ourselves that the awe of God speaks louder than the fear of humans, reminding ourselves whom to fear and whom not to fear. As we say at the end or prayers throughout this season, “The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear?” (Ps 27).

May we only fear God.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh: On the Concept of "Today"

We often feel today is just preparation for tomorrow. I am writing this on the day before school starts. Today we buy supplies and go to orientations. Today is light and fleeting. We rush through it to get to the all-significant tomorrow.

Not so the Torah’s “today.” The Torah’s today is weighty and significant. In Hebrew, the word for today, hayom, means “the day.” It is THE ultimate day.

This week’s double parsha begins with the statement Atem nitzavim hayom. “Today you stand.” Today, the parsha tells us, the people all stand in God’s presence to take on His covenant and become His people.

A midrash on the word hayom elsewhere in Deuteronomy (the word is a constant mantra) tells us that “today” describes the proper attitude one should take toward God and His commandments. One should always feel as if they were newly given “today.” Borrowing from Buddhist terminology, we might say one should be present and mindful in the fulfillment of commandments, be fully alive to the power of that moment, of that hayom. This feeling of presence is also the meaning of the shehecheyanu prayer; we thank God for keeping us alive to see this day; we thank God for the present moment.

But it is not exactly right to say that in the Torah’s view hayom, the present, is all that matters. Rather, encapsulated in the present, if you live it fully, with an awareness of God, are the past and future as well.

The parsha starts by stating that the people are all standing today before God but soon makes it clear that the covenant’s audience is larger than those present only on that “today”: “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us today before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here today” (29:13-14). Rashi says, “those who are not with us” refers to future generations. I wonder whether it couldn’t also refer to past generations. The verse before it refers to the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. My husband’s family has a practice of beginning significant family meals by mentioning “those who are no longer with us.” The practice actually creates a moment in which “those who are no longer with us” are with us. The Torah’s hayom seems similar. It is a sacred “today” in which the past, present and future are somehow merged.

To understand this concept of time, we need to look not just at the word hayom, but also at the word before it, nitzavim, “standing.” The word implies a kind of fixed standing in one place, like a matzevah, a statue. In order to feel the thickness of the past, present and future in today’s moment, we need to do one important thing – stand still, very still, rooted to the ground. Not to lunge forward in our restless pursuit of the future, but to stand absolutely still. To live, for a moment, not horizontally, from Day 1 to Day 2, as we normally do, but vertically, at this moment as it was experienced in the past, a year ago, a century ago, a millennium ago, and at this moment as it will be experienced in the future, a year from now, a century from now, and into eternity.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are especially thick hayom days. They are days when we tend to live in this vertical time-space, when we think not so much of tomorrow but of last Rosh Hashanah, of the Rosh Hashanah before so-and-so was born (what a miracle!), of the Rosh Hashanahs my ancestors spent in the shtetl in Poland, and of the future Rosh Hashanahs we hope for ourselves and others.

There is one other element which is significant in this understanding of hayom -- God. The Torah doesn’t just say we are standing still today. It says we are standing still before God. It is God who grants us this escape from the human framework of horizontal time, this peek into the divine vertical vision of eternity, of a present merged with its past and future. The Lord’s name as it is written but not pronounced (it is too sacred and secret to be pronounced) actually contains within it the word for “being” in the past, the present and the future. That is God’s essence. Unlike each of us, He was, He is, and He will be. What we are doing when we stand still for that moment of vertical eternal time is existing in the divine realm.

The fall is a time of great changes. The weather turns. Students everywhere begin their new journeys. Such changes are exciting, but they can also be frightening and dislocating. Rashi says that Moshe told the people to be nitzavim, “standing,” because he wanted to assure them that during this time of transition from his leadership to that of Yehoshua, they would still feel secure and rooted. Our little moments of hayom, of standing still in the thickness of God’s eternal presence, can provide a similar sense of calm amidst the swirl of change and activity in the world around us.

At the end of each of the days’ prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we say a little poem entitled hayom. On this day, we ask God to bless us, to hear us, and to support us. Hayom te’amtzeinu. Today you make us strong -- today, back through the ages; today, stretching forward into eternity. Hayom te’amtzeinu.