Sukkot

Goodbye

We will not forget you
— Text of Hadran

Peter Pan hated goodbyes: “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” He assumed that with our farewell, a piece of memory dies. The images, the special moments, the feelings wane and then disappear as we move forward into a new reality. In Jewish life, we try to extend that reality by walking a guest out of our homes minimally the span of four cubits, about six feet. It’s a small gesture of tenderness that we are not anxious to let our guests leave us. We linger a little with them. 

Four cubits is a Jewish legal measurement of personal space. By walking four cubits out of our homes, we are, in effect, leaving our personal space to be in the space of those we have just entertained for a little bit longer. One of my earliest childhood memories is seeing my grandparents out of our car window. They hated saying goodbye and would always stand on the road waving and waving until they were no longer in view. It was a powerful way they communicated how important we were to them.

We also engage in a similar intellectual exercise when we say goodbye to a book we’ve been studying. The prayer is called the “Hadran” from the Aramaic word for “return.” In Hebrew H-D-R means “glory” and in thinking about some metaphysical merging of the terms, we try to glorify the completion of a lengthy period of study by committing ourselves to return to it. The Talmud [BT Shabbat 118a-119b] mentions that completing a sefer or Jewish book occasions a feast and Talmudic discourses were often created for this siyyum or completion. Often these discourses connected ideas from a tractate one was just completing with those one was just beginning. This spurned a genre of Hadran writings in the eighteenth century.

The text of the Hadran treats the book as if it were an animate object in relationship with its reader. We name it and recite the following line three times, as if trying to avoid Peter Pan’s farewell pitfall of forgetting: “We will return to you tractate ________ and you will return to us. Our thoughts are about you tractate ________ and your thoughts are about us. We will not forget you tractate ________ and you will not forget us, not in this world, and not in the world to come.” We romance the book and tell it that its contents will never leave us.

While this is wishful thinking for those of us whose memories aren’t what they used to be, we find it’s also deeply spiritual thinking, as the prayer continues: “May the words of Torah, Lord our God, be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all your people so that we, our children, and all the children of the House of Israel, may come to love You and want to study Your Torah on its own merit.” We understand that study is not only about the attainment of ideas but about the strengthening of a bond with God and with others that takes place through study. For us, study is not only about outcomes but about the process of who we become when we learn. 


Finally, we ask that God give us the endurance and stamina to do it all again: “May it be your will, God, my God, that as you have helped me finish tractate ________, thus will you help me begin other tractates and books and finish them. To learn and to teach, to protect and fulfill all the words of your Torah with love. May the merit of all the Tanaim and Amoraim [early scholars] and scholars stand with me and for my progeny so that the Torah does not leave my mouth and the mouths of my descendants forever. And may it be filled through me: when you walk it will guide you, when you lie down it will protect you, and when you wake, it will converse with you. For in me (Torah) your days will increase and years of life will be added for you. Length of days is in her right hand and in her left, wealth and honor. God will give strength. God will bless God’s nation with peace.”

When we study, we stand not only with our contemporaries but with all those before us who
also revered and treasured their learning. We study so that we can pass on our wisdom and protect our values and link ourselves to generations we have never seen.

This week, we said farewell to this month long celebration of holidays. Let’s hope it was a meaningful farewell, a long nostalgic wave to our calendar that says we will return next fall and do it all again. But as we clear the table and head back to “normal” life, it might be a good time to think about saying hello to a Jewish book that we work our way through, alone or with a study partner. And when we finish, we can join the long procession of scholars who said goodbye to their books only to say hello to others.

Shabbat Shalom

What Are We?

Utter meaningless. Everything is meaningless.
— Ecclesiastes 1:2

We all have moments when we resonate with Ecclesiastes’ maudlin opening: “Everything is meaningless.” Bible scholar Robert Alter translates “hevel” not as meaningless or vanity but as breath. All is vaporous and disappears as quickly as a human breath.  Yet, over Sukkot, when we read Ecclesiastes in the synagogue, this is usually not the sentiment we feel. It’s a harvest holiday. It’s referred to in Hebrew as our time of joy, not our time of existential angst. And, as Ecclesiastes continues, it does not get better. There is no happy ending: “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11)

These verses are reminiscent of others found in our wisdom literature. One in particular stands out. If you walk past Emerson Hall’s philosophy department at Harvard, you’ll find these bold words in capital letters chiseled in stone framing the top of the building. “WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM?” How’s that for an ego boost, as some of the world’s smartest young men and women walk through those doors? Remember: you’re nothing. But, in truth, this is faulty biblical advertising because the psalm continues: “What is man, that You are mindful of him and the son of man that You pay attention to him?” You have made him a little lower than the angels and have crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:5-6). Human buildings are a strange amalgam. We are nothing and something at the same time. 

The Bible scholar, Nahum Sarna, writing on this psalm, captures its dialectic nature:

In a pensive mood, the psalmist muses upon a double paradox. There is the seeming contradiction between God’s transcendence and His immanence: God is beyond the limits of human cognition; yet He has chosen to make His presence indwell in the life of humanity.

Emerson Hall, as I once wrote before, was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a great American writer and thinker who was also a Unitarian minister and headed the Transcendentalist Movement. He was a Harvard student twice. He was first accepted to Harvard at 14 and was graduated at 18 and then returned to study in Harvard’s divinity school and continued his relationship with the university. In the same vein as our quote, Emerson once said, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”

Thinking about the world and our Creator makes us feel small indeed. The human ego must humble itself before a complicated and vast universe of mystery. But to be human is also to assert oneself in that universe in God’s image. This dialectic tension surfaces strongly on Sukkot, where we hold symbols of the harvest, bless them and shake them, often in a sukka, a fragile and temporary building. The sukka reminds us that even buildings of brick and mortar, structures that seem durable and long-lasting, will not last forever. Nothing we humans make will last forever. For now, we are but breath. Breath disappears, true, but it is also that involuntary movement that reminds us that we are still alive, pulsing with gratitude, anxious to create something of importance in this small life we’ve been given. 

If the sign of adult maturity is the capacity to hold contradiction, then Sukkot reminds us to lean into our complex mix of majesty and humility.

Shabbat Shalom

A Universal Altar

Water symbolizes Your might...It reassures, with its drops, those in whom was blown the breath of life.
— Mussaf Prayer Service

A sukka is such a strange little makeshift building. It's usually such a temporary structure that it cannot be made large enough to accommodate many guests, even though we have a tradition of inviting guests and strangers into our sukkot. This itself is a lesson in hospitality. It doesn't matter what our homes look like, it matters how hospitable we are. But some sukkot, as discussed in the mishna, are so small that they could only fit the majority of one person in them. Sometimes we simply cannot build a big sukka so we kvetch out a little space to call our own. 
 
In contrast to the small size of a sukka, consider another less well-known law of sukkot in the ancient days of the Temple. Seventy sacrifices were offered on Sukkot, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world - a number widely assumed to embrace the totality of the ancient world. Each day, the animals offered lessened in number, exactly the opposite of the way one lights Hanukah candles. The Sefer Ha-Hinukh, a medieval compendium of the commandments, suggests that in the merit of this commandment, the enmity of the nations will lessen against Israel. If the sacrifices are offered in the name of foreign nations and they lessen in number over time, then, so too will any bad feelings towards Israel gradually be reduced. Sukkot demands that we create small, alternative homes for ourselves and large overt gestures to the outside world.
 
The Talmud in tractate Sukkot is a little more radical in its assessment of these sacrifices. Rabbi Yohanan, a famous talmudic sage, bemoans the Temple's destruction in an astonishing way: "Woe to the Gentiles who lost so much without realizing that they lost anything at all! When the Temple was standing, the altar gained penitence for them, and now, who will atone on their behalf?" Rabbi Yohanan not only saw the universality of Sukkot and the altar, but felt the pain of the other at losing this opportunity. Everyone must receive the privilege of atonement.
 
Rabbi Yohanan's statement, as merciful as it sounds, also questions the possibility of non-Jews receiving atonement through other agencies. He assumes that without the Temple, they have no other means. This may be an implicit criticism of other religions. Perhaps for this reason does Rashi take another interpretive stance.  In his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi wrote that the 70 sacrifices offered on Sukkot correspond to the 70 nations of the world who are judged, as is Israel, at this season for the year's rainfall.  Rashi is trying to explain what aspect of mercy we are seeking from God with all these sacrifices and identifying a universal concern that we all share.
 
Rain, rather than atonement, is our primary concern. Rashi most likely extracted his explanation from Zechariah 14. There, a strong and definitive case was made against nations who did not take advantage of the Temple's services to the broader community on Sukkot:


"All who survive of all of those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths. Any of the earth's communities that does not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bow low to the King of Hosts shall receive no rain."
 

These verses, harsh as they may sound, advise the whole world to concern itself as an organic, interdependent entity united by that which is pressing for all of humanity. Everyone needs rain, and no one is exempt from praying for it. Although this pre-dates our worry over the ecology by millennia, it reflects many of the same concerns.
 
The prayer for rain, uttered during the Musaf or additional service of Shmini Atzeret, touches us with its urgency and its poetry. There, too, despite the many expressions of a particularistic faith - from patriarchs associated with water to the high priest's water ablutions on Yom Kippur - there is an appeal to the basic needs of us all: "Water symbolizes Your might...It reassures, with its drops, those in whom was blown the breath of life."
 
Images of water and breath, Jew and non-Jew, home and universe, work together in concert as nature meets the divine. Sukkot allows us the dual benefit of living introvertedly and praying extrovertedly.
 
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot!

A Fly in the Ointment

Dead flies turn the perfumer’s ointment fetid and putrid; a little folly outweighs great wisdom.
— Ecclesiastes 10:1

If it's Sukkot, it must be time for a little dip into Ecclesiastes, that great biblical book of wisdom and contradiction. On the Shabbat of Sukkot, we read this book in synagogue, not sure if we should absorb its cynicism, feel undone by its doom or rejoice at its profundity. Maybe all three form our reaction.

Every year, I like to take a verse from the book and study it in depth. Today's verse opens chapter ten on the odd note of a perfumer's ointment. The verse has an important context. In the closing chapters of Ecclesiastes, we find a repeated contrast between intelligence and foolishness. The fool makes poor decisions. Even good decisions go south in the hands of a fool. And the fool is great at advertising his idiocy: "A fool's mind is also wanting when he travels, and he lets everybody know he is a fool" (10:3).

We understand why a fool is in particular danger when he or she travels. In a place where one may not know the language, the culture or the behaviors of the residents, the opportunities for mistake making - even for the wise - are heightened. The fool, because of an impetuous nature, never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity; the traveling fool is a walking billboard for errors of judgment. Later in the chapter, the fool's lack of preparation for the trip becomes his undoing: "A fool's exertions tire him out, for he doesn't know how to get to a town" (10:15). With no map, no GPS, no help from an information center or a person on the street, the fool spends hours trying to find where to go, but it's hopeless.

A fool isn't merely someone with a low IQ. We use the term fool to describe a person who is rash and thoughtless, a cretin, a dullard who says things he or she shouldn't or steps into situations to be avoided by anyone with wit and wisdom. This may explain why chapter ten elaborates on situations that prove perilous for the fool: "He who digs a pit will fall into it; he who breaches a stone fence will be bitten by a snake. He who quarries stones will be hurt by them; he who splits wood will be harmed by it" (10:8-9). In the course of manual labor, people need to dig holes and cut down trees but since this is dangerous work, the wise person will do as much as possible to create safe conditions. The fool won't.

"The fool's lips are his undoing" (10:12), we read. The fool is not careful with what he says and thus, brings trouble upon himself and others. "His talk begins as silliness and ends as disastrous madness. Yet the fool talks and talks!" (10:13-14). You watch the fool put his foot into his mouth and instead of taking it out, he pushes that foot further in until it seems permanently stuck.

What does this have to do with a perfumer's ointment? Perfume, particularly in the ancient world, was laborious to make and very costly to purchase. It was the time-consuming work of experts who concocted compounds, fixatives and solvents so that a wonderful smell available in nature could be bottled and then linger. We have perfumes from very ancient civilizations, dating back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The word perfume is from the Latin "to smoke through," indicating part of the process of transforming a smell into a salve.

Perfume, until relatively recently, was most commonly used to mask bad body odors since people bathed infrequently. If you have a dead fly in your perfume, your expensive oil will begin to smell bad - even if it's a very tiny dead fly, thus undermining the purpose for your perfume in the first place. You can't take away a bad smell with another bad smell and hope that a good smell will result. If you have something that could potentially help you, but you don't take very good care of it, it won't serve its purpose and may even act counter to its stated purpose. The writer Douglas Adams once said, "A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools."

"A little folly outweighs great wisdom." In the shadow of Yom Kippur and this season of change, it's important to consider the silly, stupid and often small ways we get in the way of our own success. The good news is that if the problem is as small as a fly, we should be able to muster the wisdom to overcome our own foolishness.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot

Don't be Cheap

This is my God, and I will glorify him.
— Exodus 14:2

In a recent article, “Why We Don’t Like Cheap Things,” philosopher Alain de Botton argues that we overspend to satisfy deep urges for status and recognition. De Botton is one of the founders of the School of Life, and in this article he examines what he calls the “curious overlap between love and economics.” He begins with the rise and decline of pineapples. They were once considered a rare treasure, a fruit difficult to obtain even among the aristocracy. We find images of pineapples ornamenting homes and buildings, being gifted in oil paintings and served at elegant affairs. But then something happened. With more efficiency in production and transportation, the pineapple went way down in value and, therefore, in popularity. It’s strange because the taste of pineapple (ostensibly the reason that people like this fruit) stays the same no matter the price.

De Botton writes: “...when we have to pay a lot for something nice, we appreciate it to the full. Yet as its price in the market falls, passion has a habit of fading away. Naturally, if the object has no merit to begin with, a high price won’t be able to do anything for it; but if it has real virtue and yet a low price, then it is in severe danger of falling into grievous neglect.” The poor neglected pineapple.

One of my first thoughts on reading this article is wondering about his religious/ethnic identity. I figured he was not Jewish because, let’s face it, we love a bargain. Not only do we love cheap things, we love to tell you what we paid for them. Although de Botton is a self-proclaimed atheist, his mother is Jewish. Go figure.

Bargain seeking, however, is not only or always a behavior of the cheap. It is arguably a behavior of the smart. Why pay more for the same item or something similar. Retail versus wholesale? For us, wholesale trumps every time. Exception: spending money on rituals. The Talmud understands the verse above to be a statement about the importance of aesthetics in mitzva observance. What does it mean to glorify God? “I will be beautiful before Him in mitzvot” [BT Nazir 2b].

What is the decorative flourish that accessorizes a meaningful life? Good deeds. Intimacy with God. Treating other human beings with respect and dignity. It lies in taking the time and money to beautify the mitzvot we do. The Talmud continues: “I will make before Him a beautiful sukka, a beautiful lulav, beautiful ritual fringes. I will write before Him a beautiful Torah scroll, and I will wrap it in beautiful silk cloths.”

Maimonides takes this passage a step further and helps us understand what this means. A Torah scroll should be written correctly and elegantly, as should the text in tefillin. If you have a choice between etrogim - the citron taken on Sukkot - take the more beautiful one, as long as it does not exceed the other in cost by more than one-third [Shulkhan Arukh, OH 32:4, 656:1]. This ruling helps us understand how to prioritize when it comes to the value of the aesthetic in mitzvot. You don’t have to buy the cheapest ritual object or the most expensive but you should aim for your personal best and that best has a metric - add on one third of the cost of something you would normally spend on an item.

The Talmud understood that making what is called in the world of fund-raising “a quality gift” helps us value what we do. We value our spiritual lives when we make investments and braid beauty together with sanctity. We feel better about the world when we stand before God clothed in wisdom, justice and beauty.

This season, how beautiful are your mitzvot?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot