Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sukkot, Simḥat Torah and "After the Holidays"


Sukkot 5778
On Yom Kippur, we were like angels or the dead; neither eating or drinking, and wearing white that resembles shrouds. We contemplate: Who will live? Who will die? Who in good time? Who too soon? We faced our weaknesses and the fragility of our lives.
Then, a moment before the gate slammed shut, a long Shofar blast released us back into the world of action: a satisfying meal and a flurry of construction. But what have we built? Something fragile and temporary, with flimsy walls and a “roof” that with more shadow than sun, but also rain-permeable. I am not ashamed to say that when the roof in my kitchen leaks, it is not “the time of my joy.” How can we rejoice in the harvest festival, when despite the produce filling the barn, our walls sway in the wind? I don’t know, so I will quote my teacher Rabbi Shai Held:
“The spiritual life takes place in the space between the difficult and the impossible.[1]
With or without a leaky roof, most of life takes place within routine, and Sukkot is also a holiday that celebrates routine. There are halakhic discussions about where to eat, where to sleep – the most basic things in life – even about how many meals must be eaten in the sukkah and in what kind of weather. The details are not important at the moment, just the fact of their existence. Sukkot does not commemorate a climatic moment like the Exodus or the giving of the Torah, but rather daily life in wilderness. It’s easy to celebrate grand events; but routine is difficult even to sustain.[2] The temptation to break it is strong. Therefore, I pray with the poet Orah Ilan Gutman:
My God
Teach me to bear
The contentment of time
Which passes never to return.
Teach me to bear
The burden of routine
That concedes so easily.[3]
Following the impulse to work quickly, we build fragile shacks. Sturdy construction requires perseverance and discipline. We all know that. This is how we built and continue building our private homes, and how we built and continue building our communal home.
A stable building also requires a solid foundation.
The foundation of the community and the entire nation is Torah, which connects us to generations past and to the Land. The question is: Will the Torah connect us to future generations?
In Parashat Vayelech we read:
Every seventh year, in the Sabbatical year, during Sukkot… you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people–men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities–that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching (Deut. 31:10-12).
In a regular cycle all the people gather to hear and learn the Torah. The choice of Sukkot is not random: after the harvest and before the strong rains, this was a quiet period in ancient Israeli society based on subsistence agriculture, and the release of slaves in the Sabbatical year ensured that all people, regardless of status, [4]  gender or age, were free to participate.
Our world is not their world. Our attention-span is short and the number of stimuli flooding us, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is overwhelming. A concentrated seminar once every seven years would not be sufficient to teach Torah to future generations. Hakahel remains a state ceremony, and we have Simḥat Torah.
On Simḥat Torah, we sing and dance in synagogue. If Shavuot recalls the marriage ceremony between God and Israel, with the Torah as the marriage contract, Simḥat Torah is the party in which we celebrate the bond that has been forged.
After the party, comes... routine.
Routine is a burden, a routine that knows how to give up. But we have to accept the burden, to learn and to teach, taking Torah seriously in order to preserve the wisdom of the generations, to expand it, and bequeath it as a legacy for future generations.
On Simḥat Torah, we read: “Moses commanded us the Torah, the inheritance (מורשהmorasha) for the community of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). The Talmud (Pesachim 49b) states: “Do not speak of ‘an inheritance,’ but of an ‘betrothed’ (מאורסהma’orasa”).
In the middle of the twentieth century, Rabbi Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg explained:
Many people honor the Torah but regard it as an antique. They do not ask the Torah how to handle the questions of life. This is why the Sages wrote that we should not call the Torah an inheritance, but rather a partner who is loved and significant, who is consulted and whose opinion is consulted and considered.[5]
On Simḥat Torah, let us celebrate the Torah we have inherited.
After the celebration, the routine will come. If we also future generations to rejoice in the Torah after us, we must bring it into the routine of our lives, not only as a heritage but as our beloved, that we learn, teach and engage, For it is our life and the length of our days.
Kehillat Hod VeHadar


[1] Shai Held, recorded lecture: Between the Difficult and the Impossible
[3] In Hillel Weiss, Va-ani Tefilathi: Prayer Poems by Contemporary Israeli Poets (1991) p. 94 [Heb.]. The poem continues, “Teach me to bear the pain of  concession without license” [trans. SMZ]. This poem also appears in Avodah Shebalev, the Israeli Reform prayer book.
[5] I first learned this text from Rabbi Lionel Levy. The original source is from a letter of approbation for Ribner, Raza D’oraita.

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