Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Simchat Torah and the Circle of Continuity

On Simchat Torah we read the last parsha of the Torah, Vezot Habrachah. The very last verse of that last parsha speaks of the great and mighty deeds Moshe did before the eyes of all of Israel. Rashi’s comment, his last on the Torah: This refers to Moshe’s breaking of the tablets in front of Israel at Sinai.

What a strange way for Rashi to end the Torah, with a reminder of the broken tablets of the Torah, with a reminder of the brokenness of Torah.

Rashi points us to the broken way in which the Torah itself ends. Moshe is left outside of the land of Israel, peering in to the Promised Land but not allowed to step foot in it. He dies and the people mourn him. Yehoshua takes over, the Torah tells us, and we know that Yehoshua does eventually take the people into the land of Israel, but we, the readers, like Moshe, are left outside, with a sense of incompleteness and fragmentation, a vague worry that, now that Moshe has died, the Torah’s brokenness will never be repaired.

Here is where our work begins. Moshe did not do the whole job. Vezot Habracha also includes the famous line, Torah Tzivah Lanu Moshe, Morashah Kehillat Ya’akov. “ Moshe commanded us the Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Ya’akov.” There is a progression here; Moshe is the one who first brought the Torah down for us, but even after he dies, it continues to be an inheritance for the whole congregation, now belonging to all of us.

We continue his work. Moshe left the Torah incomplete, and it is our job to make it whole again, to keep it alive and regenerating in every generation.

And so, on Simchat Torah, we do not leave the Torah hanging, broken and discontinuous at Vezot Habrachah, but begin again with Breishit, making it clear that the Torah is not a linear book, but a circular one, whose ending and beginning roll smoothly into one another. And, in celebration of the circle which is our Torah, we dance hakafot -- circles around the Torah. These are circles of continuity and regeneration, a promise to ourselves that the Torah will never end.

We do not make those circles alone. One person cannot a circle make. After Moshe, the Torah is the possession of kehillat Ya’akov, the whole congregation, and can only be carried on and repaired through the joining of hands and minds.

Rashi says that God congratulated Moshe on the breaking of the tablets. Why? Normally we think of God’s approval for this action as confirming its appropriateness as a reaction to the people’s sin. Perhaps, though, God was congratulating Moshe for something else, for giving the people a fragmented, incomplete Torah because it required the people’s continued participation and interpretation. Here was a Torah that would require many minds and hearts, for generations to come, to make sense of, in the process creating circles of community and continuity. Perhaps, this, according to Rashi, was Moshe’s greatest act of all.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On Sukkot and Simplicity

This year the sukkah speaks to me of simplicity. We think we need a lot of material things in order to live and survive. But on Sukkot we leave all those things behind and live in a simple hut, a building with a minimum of three walls and a leaky roof. Maybe we need less than we thought.

On Yom Kippur we learned a similar lesson, living for 25 hours without food and drink. It turns out we can survive with very little.

We spend our lives amassing material things. We are surrounded by them, our houses cluttered by them. Sometimes it feels as if our minds are cluttered by them as well. They become a burden -- too many toys to clean up; too many clothes to keep track of. Perhaps that is what makes Sukkot a holiday of joy, zman simhateinu, as the rabbis call it. We are joyful because we are freed from our permanent abode with all its many possessions, freed to live out in a simple shed with only simple walls, perhaps a table and some chairs. Simplicity clears the heart for joy.

We go outside, to the world that God created for us, and discover, to our surprise, that all we really need is out there. The roof of our sukkah, the skhakh, must be made exclusively of materials that grow in the ground. And we fill our hands with the lulav and etrog, products of the earth. When we shake the lulav in all directions, we are surrounding ourselves with the simple, God-given pleasures of nature, an escape from our Fisher Price-filled lives.

Perhaps this concern with simplicity explains the emphasis in rabbinic discussions of Sukkot on the law prohibiting the use of a lulav hagazul, a stolen lulav. Stealing shows that one is still in the mind-frame of amassing possessions at all costs, still in the mind-frame of grabbiness and greediness, not yet freed by Sukkot’s message of simplicity.

Sometimes I think that we amass material possessions in order to escape the basic truth of our mortality, that we try to protect ourselves with stuff, putting layers and layers of it between us and death. In the wake of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with the awe of these days of judgment still upon us, attempting to escape seems futile; we have come face to face with our vulnerability. We know that, as Ecclesiastes – read on the Shabbat of Sukkot – says of man, “He must depart just as he came. As he came out of his mother’s womb, so he must depart at last, naked as he came. He can take nothing of his wealth to carry with him” (5:14). Stuff is not going to help us.

And so we leave our homes, leave our possessions for a week, to live out in a flimsy shed, to admit to ourselves that nothing we own can really protect us. We sit in our sukkot and look up through those tiny mandatory holes in our roofs and rejoice, rejoice at the sight of heaven, at the knowledge that though our stuff may not protect us, there is One above who will. On these days, we are just like the Israelites in the desert who also lived in sukkot – free from the burdens of a permanent home with all its encumbrances, free enough to see heaven and rejoice.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Yom Kippur: Together, Not Alone

Teshuvah, “repentance,” literally means “return.” On Yom Kippur we return not just to God, the Hasidic master Sefat Emet reminds us, but also to our fellow human beings; Yom Kippur is a time when we repair the rifts between us, when we try to move beyond difference and separation and achieve a special unity.

The mishnah says we are not forgiven on Yom Kippur until we appease our fellow, ad sheyeratzeh et haveiro. The Sefat Emet says what we must do on Yom Kippur is not just to appease, ad sheyeratzeh, but also to be rotzeh our fellows, to actually want them and love them.

This attempt at unity and closeness is directly tied to our experience of God’s greatness both on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are repeatedly reminded of the contrast between the eternal almighty God and the fragile, mortal human. The distinctions that matter, in other words, the lines that are drawn again and again are only those between heaven and earth. There are no lines drawn among humans. Compared to God, all of us down here are similar. We will all die one day and we are all being judged by God above.

Yom Kippur is the Day of Judgment, but it is not the day of our judgment of our fellows. We are commanded (on other days) to establish a judicial system and sit in judgment of those who do wrong in this world. But on this day, it is God alone who does the judging, and we humans are, all of us, the judged. And this experience of being judged, together, as a group, binds us. We are all in the same boat.

Yom Kippur is the day we become aware of the boat we ride together, like the ship that tossed and turned in the stormy waters of the Jonah story, affecting Jonah as well as all the other sailors aboard. Fasting together, going through the ordeal of not eating or drinking for a day together, provides a concrete experience of exactly this feeling, this sense that we are passing through life, with all its challenges, not alone, but as a community.

And so, when we do viduy, confession, too, we do not speak in the singular, but always in the plural. Ashamnu, bagadnu. Al het shehatanu lefanekha. We, as a community, are guilty; we, not, I, have committed the following sins. In the midst of the soul-searching that these confessions are meant to be, we remind ourselves that we are not alone, that we are all sinners in some way or another, all similarly struggling through life, all in the same boat.

It is precisely through our experience of this day, through our shared confessions, prayers and fasting, through our new awareness of our shared struggles and challenges, that somehow the broken ties between us begin to repair, somehow we do return to each other, return to the kind of unity and community that, the Sefat Emet points out, is the prerequisite for receiving the Torah. Traditionally, Yom Kippur is understood as the day when the people of Israel received the second tablets of the Torah after their initial sin and repentance. The Sefat Emet suggests that part of what made this second giving of the Torah possible was the new height of unity the people achieved through their repentance, their teshuvah – return -- not just to God, but to each other.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Rosh Hashanah First

Why does Rosh Hashanah come before Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is about human beings. It is about our fallibility, our impossible and eternal brokenness, and our attempt to fix that brokenness.

Rosh Hashanah is different. Rosh Hashanah is not about us, good or bad, but about God. On Rosh Hashanah we coronate God; we stand in awe, trembling at His supremacy.

Before we deal with us and our deeds (Yom Kippur), we deal with God (Rosh Hashanah). Our experience of God, our faith in His existence, is the prerequisite for our self-examination, the perspective that frames and fuels our turn into ourselves, the reason that we care who we are and how we act in this world in the first place.

Starting with Rosh Hashanah, starting with a focus on God and not man, also means starting with something very pure and simple, says the Sefat Emet. Rosh Hashanah is traditionally understood as the day God created the world, and the Sefat Emet, following mystical tradition, says that this process involved great fragmentation and differentiation as God’s pure spiritual essence created physical things. The name Rosh Hashanah, says the Sefat Emet, means the time “before,” rosh, “the change,” hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah each year we go back to a time prior to all that change and fragmentation; we have an experience of the original primordial unity.

The shofar blow is our call back to that state. It is, in many ways, a divine voice, the voice God used at Sinai and will use again in the messianic redemption. It is also a primordial sound, a sound without the differentiation of syllables and words and the fragmentation of different languages. It is the most basic and simple of sounds.

When we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we are trying to remind ourselves of our simple primordial connection to God. The shofar blasts always begin and end with the simple tekiah, that long solid uninterrupted blow. In between are fragments and brokenness, some more broken, like the teruah, and some less broken, like the shevarim. But always these broken sounds must be surrounded, contained, framed by the pure, solid, simple tekia’h¸as if to remind us that such is our task on these days, to try to bring all that human disruption and fragmentation into some kind of simple divine focus. Our daily human lives feel complicated and bifurcated; we are dizzy with stress and pressure from all sides. But Rosh Hashanah calls us to feel the simplicity of a life lived in recognition and service of God.

Throughout this season we recite Psalm 27. One of its most famous lines is Ahat sha’alti me’et hashem, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, only that do I seek; to dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent His temple.” This is the time of year when we try to make it simple, to concentrate on that ahat, that one thing that matters and shapes everything else.

The Psalm speaks of dwelling in God’s house all our days; this is impossible and also not laudable. We are meant to live out in the world, in all of our and its brokenness. Ps 62 says ahat diber elokim, shtayim zu shamati. “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard.” God may speak in a single voice, but we humans are incapable of hearing it that way; for us God’s unified word and unified world immediately fragments and multiplies. That is the normal way of human existence. But on Rosh Hashanah we experience what it’s like to dwell in God’s house, to feel surrounded by God’s presence as we are surrounded by the sound of the shofar. And it is that feeling, that sense of clarity and focus that we do carry out into our daily lives, so that we may see and seek the divine at all times, and in such a frame of mind, move on, through ten days of repentance and Yom Kippur, to repair the fragments.