One of the biggest differences between Judaism and Christianity derives from the story of Adam and Eve and their leaving Eden. According to Christianity, this is a story of a fall from grace, and is linked to the doctrine of original sin – that human beings are born in a state of impurity which derives from the pride and disobedience shown by Adam and Eve in the garden. Judaism is emphatically opposed to this idea – indeed our morning prayers include the words “My God, the soul which You gave me is pure, You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me. You preserve it within me and You will take it from me…” a prayer that can be found in the Talmud (Berachot 60b).

The story of the leaving of Eden is not a tragic event, something that should never have happened; and we should not spend our lives yearning to return there – after all, why would God create a garden in which there are two trees that we should not eat from, if not to challenge us and to provide a catalyst?

Adam and Eve in the garden are innocents, they are like new-born children, and if kept in that state they will never be able to grow and learn and develop their own ideas and identities. Making mistakes is part of growing up and becoming who we are. The story of leaving the Garden of Eden is a story of maturation, of acquiring independence, of leaving home in order to become one’s own full self. Making mistakes is how we learn.

Jewish teaching tells us that we are born with a pure soul, and that we are responsible for its state. We will make mistakes, we will – in common parlance – sin, and we have a mechanism in order to remedy those mistakes, Teshuvah. Often translated loosely as ’Repentance’, in fact Teshuvah means to turn back, to return to God and become our best selves.  Judaism further teaches that we have two competing drives, the Yetzer haTov and the Yetzer haRa – the inclination to do good by acting selflessly, and the inclination to act selfishly. We have free will and can make our own decisions about which inclination we might follow at any given time. And sometimes the more selfish choices are important ones too, as understood by the Midrash (rabbinic exegesis on the bible)

“Nachman said in R Samuel’s name “Behold it was very good” refers to the good desire (Yetzer haTov), “and behold it was very good” also refers to the evil desire (Yetzer haRa). Can then the evil desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But for the evil desire however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

So we need to have a selfish inclination, we just have to keep it in check, develop and practise a sense of morality. As we mature, it is this sense of responsibility to others, this moral code that influences the choices we make.  And this is the sense of responsibility that Adam and Eve lacked in the garden; it is arguably something they could only acquire with experience.

We are born with a pure soul. And we are born with two competing urges – to act for our own good and to act for the good of others. Sometimes these are compatible, sometimes they are not; sometimes that is obvious to us, sometimes it becomes obvious only in retrospect.

We become responsible for our own actions and our own choices, but we have the possibility always to return our souls to the pure state in which they were given to us, by acts of Teshuvah, of implementing the moral code. The story of the leaving of Eden is the story of both Eve and Adam choosing to follow the Yetzer ha Ra, to act according to a more selfish need. Had they not done so, one assumes that humanity would never have grown and developed, never exercised free will and made moral choices.

An important message of this story is NOT that people are evil by nature, that we are flawed from birth and spend our lives attempting to attain a state of goodness, but that we should use our more selfish as well as our more selfless impulses for creating a better world.  Both are necessary, it is how we balance these impulses, how we moderate our behaviours with our moral and ethical understandings that matters. We are never cast away from God  with no route back – the door is always open, our souls are given from God, preserved by God and will return to God. But the state they are in during the time we have them, that is a continuing and constant choice for us to make.

Chol HaMoed Succot leading into Simchat Torah

Chol HaMoed is literally the “mundane of the festival” – the intermediate days of the festivals which are bookended by more ritually observant days, and we see this twice a year with the festivals of Pesach and of Sukkot in the spring and the autumn.

It is a strange phrase, and halachically it is an odd time – some work is restricted but not all. The boundaries are blurred between special festival time and ordinary working day. Does one do a particular ritual or not? If so, does one say the blessing or not? Needless to say, hours of rabbinic time have been spent over the generations in deciding just how much of the time is Chol – ordinary, and how much of it is Moed – festive.

And Succot has an extra dimension. Biblically there are seven days of Succot ending with Hoshanah Rabbah, when there are 7 hakkafot (circuits of the synagogue) with the lulav and etrog, and when the final judgment written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur is delivered – yet we have an eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, literally the” eighth of ending” which in the diaspora has also claimed a second day.  No one quite knows what Shemini Atzeret is for – though it may have been the day of cleaning the Temple, which, given the tradition that seventy bulls were sacrificed on Succot to atone for the seventy nations of the world, might certainly need some cleaning.

The Rabbis of the Talmud are themselves somewhat puzzled about what Shemini Atzeret is, and declare Shemini Atzeret to be a holiday in its own right, not just the final day of Succot.  Reform Judaism has added Simchat Torah, an entirely different festival following a different cycle, to the date. Orthodox Jews celebrate Simchat Torah on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. This concatenation of different celebrations does mean one thing though – while the intermediate days of Succot may be an unclear time of both secular and holy mixed together, the final days are a blur of festivity and enjoyment. Not for nothing is this festival period called “zeman simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing. For a week there is the pleasure of sitting in one’s Succah, not obligated to work at the daily grind, and entertaining guests – ushpizin. And then follows the exuberance of Simchat Torah, the achievement of having read the whole scroll and the anticipation of starting again kicks in, and we dance and sing and drink and eat sweet things and let go of all the sombre introspective tropes that have been shadowing us since the beginning of Elul, or some would say since Tisha b’Av.

Simchat Torah is a time for partying. We have been so solemn, so thoughtful, so penitent. Now we turn back into Life – and we dance, sing, laugh, run, bound back into life, with all inhibitions left behind.

Famously Samuel Pepys witnessed Simchat Torah in Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1663 and this is what he wrote in his diary:

“Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew.

And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that everyone desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew.  But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall…”

Pepys was horrified at what he saw, and had no understanding of it. He had no context in which to view it and a certain set of beliefs about what constituted worship. I would love for every synagogue to have a Simchat Torah like the one he saw – the joy, the comfort with the sifrei Torah, the comfort in offering worship through the body as well as the mind, the pleasure in knowing that a new year is started, and one that offers us all the opportunities we might need once more.

Judaism is unusual in that we move on from our Atonement once we have come together as a community and taken seriously the command to return to God and let go of our habits and inclinations that stop us living the lives we should. We move on always into Life. And if we need more Atonement – well, we can always return to God, do Teshuvah at any time, but at a fixed point in our yearly cycle we make sure we do it. I think that is the beauty of this strange concept of Chol HaMoed – there is always time for the world in our festivals, and there is always time for our religious commitments in our daily lives. While much of Judaism is about keeping boundaries, we also allow the crossover places, the liminal space which allows us always to return, always to make holy that which is ordinary, and keep holiness as an ordinary imperative in our lives.

Sukkot – fulfilling our basic needs and reminding us to look further

The two mitzvot associated with the festival of Sukkot can be found in the book of Leviticus, chapter 23. In verse 40 we are told “On the first day [of the festival] you shall take the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook…..”. These are the four species that we today know as the etrog, lulav, myrtle and willow. The rabbis taught that we hold the four species together and wave them in all of the directions of the compass, as well as upwards and downwards. In this way, we mobilize the winds that blow from all directions to bring rain for the new season of sowing and harvest.

Then in Leviticus 23: 42-43 we read, “You shall live in booths [Sukkot] seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…..”.

So what is Sukkot about? Is it a harvest festival of thanks towards the end of the agricultural year, or is it a theological festival of reminder of our history and unrootedness? Is it a about richness and plenty in the land in which we live, or about fragility and vulnerability and a sense of mobility? How do we allow it to be about both – plenty and fragility, rootedness and journeying?

To begin to understand it, we can look to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who contrasts Sukkot with Pesach. He points out, “Pesach celebrates a single, intense moment of freedom in the life of the Jewish people. At the exodus from Egypt, the divine erupted into human experience. Pesach is therefore a season of miracles. At the exodus the people were required only to take the first step, and God did the rest.

Sukkot, on the other hand, does not celebrate a moment of miracle, a moment when ordinary time ceased. On the contrary, Sukkot calls to mind a protracted period of wandering, of marking time. At Sukkot God is, as it were, hidden in the everyday. Sukkot reminds us of 40 years during which the people Israel had to deal with the basic requirements of everyday existence: water, food, the clothes on their backs, the roof over their heads. “ (The Jewish Way)

Greenberg’s insight is that these two festivals, Pesach and Sukkot, are two sides of the same coin. As human beings, we seek moments of “divine rapture”, moments that take us out of time, beyond the everyday. Such moments deepen our spiritual appreciation of life; they give us a sense of God’s grandeur. But our reality is that we spend most of our lives journeying through uncharted territory, facing the everyday demands that life places upon us, and a long distance from any moments of certain and wonderful encounter with God. Our daily life is routine, it is a constant struggle to keep up with what needs to be done, and our prayers are also to some extent routine and regular rather than heightened by awareness of God.

Just as Pesach and Sukkot represent two sides of the same coin of connection with God, so they fall at opposite ends of the Jewish year: Pesach on the 15th day of the first Hebrew month (Nisan), and Sukkot on the 15th day of the seventh month (Tishrei). Our lives revolve around these two poles of the Jewish year, which represent our longing for the miraculous, on the one hand, and our everyday experience of reality, on the other.

The two mitzvot of Sukkot focus on the basic needs of everyday life: water (represented by the waving of the four species) and shelter (represented by the sukkah). At Pesach, when we recall how the natural world was overturned and slaves became free, it is easy to acknowledge the impact of the divine on the life of our people but Sukkot reminds us that even in the absence of such dramatic moments of miracle, God is still at work in our lives and can be encountered in the everyday, the natural world, the regularity of fulfilling basic needs and living each day successfully.

Pesach and Sukkot remind us of the presence of God in our lives in very different ways. In the dramatic and in the ordinary – we can find God both at times of crisis and in the mundane routine of our lives, should we choose to really look.

A connection with the Divine Being is both nourishing of, and challenging to, our spiritual lives. Each festival has its way of directing our attention to that connection, and to the way the trajectories of our lives are developed. But there is another way to look at the symbols of Sukkot – specifically at the four species.

In the Midrash we find that R. Moni taught about the lulav and etrog using the verse from Psalms “all my limbs shall say, ‘God, who is like You?’ (Ps 35:10).

He said “This verse was only said in reference to the lulav. The spine of the lulav resembles the spine of a person; the hadas (myrtle) resembles the eye; the aravah (willow) resembles the mouth; the etrog resembles the heart. [King] David said: these are the most significant organs of the body, for they encapsulate the entire person. (VaYikra Rabbah 30:14)

It is a Midrash we know well, that in using the bundle of lulav and etrog together in worshiping God and in calling for the rains, we are taking our whole selves into the activity. But extend this idea a little further and you see that when we take hold of the lulav and etrog, we are in effect holding ourselves in our own hands, enjoying a rare chance to look at ourself from the outside. Just five days after Yom Kippur, when we have spent over a month in introspection and thought about ourselves and our lives, we are privileged to take one last external and objective look at ourselves. But more than that, we can see ourselves clearly but we also have ourselves literally in our own hands. We can decide in which direction to point ourselves in the year ahead and actually ‘take our own life in our own hands’ and start the process with a clarity of our own making, with our own decision making and with ownership of our own choices.

Sukkot, that most universal of festivals, rich with symbolism of our own vulnerability and dependence on God – yet at the same time with the powerful symbolism of our trust in our continued existence, is a time when we begin our journey anew, when we take ourselves in hand and make something of the year to come. Trust in God is all very well, the symbolism reminds us, but we have to rely also on our selves and not wait for some divine intervention to bring about the purpose of our lives, or to save us.

Repentance is not a substitute for Responsibility

The official ideology of Yom Kippur is found in the words of Resh Lakish, a third century talmudic sage, and can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b–“Great is repentance, for the deliberate sins of one who repents become as inadvertent ones.”

In effect the argument is that Teshuvah, the action of repenting, causes the person to allow their real self to emerge, and as they move into a new direction they show that true self. The person therefore who sinned deliberately can be understood to have been not really themselves, and so, when they become their real self, those sins are clearly inadvertent – and inadvertent sin cannot be punished or judged in the same way as deliberately flouting the rules of behaviour.

It is a theology of new beginnings and a clean slate, teaching us that renewal is always possible; counteracting the guilt and despair we may be feeling about the bad choices we have made with the belief that good intentions for the future must redeem us and make up for the past.

It is certainly an attractive proposal, but the reality is that we can’t rely on Teshuvah to remake the world exactly as it was or should be. Teshuvah may be a potent force but it is not an all-powerful one. Even if it can change our deliberate sins into the more manageable and less terrifying category of inadvertent ones, it cannot erase the effectsof those sins. If we were to truly face reality we would have to say that repentance is not, and never can be a substitute for responsibility. And more than that, we would have to acknowledge that some things cannot be rectified, however mortified and ashamed we may be to have committed them. What is done cannot always be undone, and the mark it leaves on our lives (and those of other people) will not be erased.

The word Kippur is related to the verb “to cover over”. When we try to make Teshuvah and to uncover our real and ideal self as we turn towards a good way of being in the world, we also cover over the mistakes we made and the bad actions we did. They do not go away, but we take away their power to hold us back, through our shame or our fear. I do like the notion of Teshuvah providing us with a new start, of the freshness of starting again unencumbered by a past that has the power to haunt us, but I shudder a little at the notion of a rebirth. For we are not in any way born again through our actions over the Yamim Noraim, we continue to live and continue to remember and continue to be the person who has real responsibility for our lives, but at the same time we cover over and leave behind the place that is stopping us from going forward into our new and more true way of being. Repentance is not a substitute for responsibility – repentance gives us the means to become much more responsible for who we are, and the power to use that responsibility to change not only ourselves but also the world around us.

Repentance is not a substitute for Responsibility:

How can we take responsibility for our world?



Ha’azinu – the last words of Moses: will it all be worth it?


Parashat Ha’azinu is the last parasha in the annual cycle of Torah readings read as part of the weekly Shabbat portions. In it are the  final words Moses speaks to the Israelites, reminding them of their history and warning them yet again not to ignore the commandments of  God. The bulk of the speech is composed as a song, paralleling the song at the sea early on his leadership, when the people have escaped Egypt and the pursuing Egyptians and crossed the Reed Sea  in safety At the end of the parasha, God tells Moses to ascend to the top of Mount Nevo, where he will die. But first God will allow him to see the whole of the Land of Israel, the place he has been journeying towards with the  Children of Israel, but which he will not be allowed to enter. 

Moses is hugely angry in his final song, and greatly anguished.  He desperately wants the people Israel to do the right thing, to foreswear pagan ritual.  He knows that they won’t.  Just as he, in an unthinking moment, struck the rock instead of pointing his stick, demonstrated an inability to do exactly as God wanted, so too will Israel go astray after easier practises.  Their punishment will be just as desolating and terrible as his, after being decimated they will have to come to terms with the knowledge that they too will be alienated in exile, aware that the punishment has been brought upon them by their own previous actions – it will have been their own fault.

Such is one theme within this song of Moses.  He warns of the future, yet knows that his warning will not avert that future. People are people and whatever their good intentions may be, they will inevitably be thwarted by their own ordinary human inadequacy.   

            It seems such a strange message to stress in this period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Here we are trying to start afresh,  yet we are being warned  that not only will we not be able to live up to our newly planned lives, but that our inadequacy to do so will inevitably bring its own pain and desolation.  We are forced to ask then if it is worth all the painful soul-searching, is there any point in our trying to live our lives in a more godly fashion.

            Clearly Judaism teaches that there IS a point in such behaviour, that it is the process of trying which is far more important than the goal being reached.  Also, this rather sad message can be seen as being helpful – rather than go into deep depression about our ultimate inadequacy to do God’s will, and rather than despairing about our inability to grasp or even glimpse the meaning of God, we are comforted by the knowledge that this possibility is indeed beyond our mortal minds.  And once we stop trying to reach the impossible, then a great burden is lifted from us and we have the time and energy and focus to work upon the possible.  The possible for us is on a much smaller scale – we have one life here, and our task is to use it as best we can.  The material we have to work on is our selves, the way we can best be in the world, the way that we can do our bit to maintain this world and to make it better for our having been in it.  We cannot dictate the future, except to know that it will not be as wonderful as we would like, and we cannot expect perfection, not of ourselves and not of other people. Such knowledge is immensely freeing, limiting our choices to actions here and now, choices made in the knowledge that while we won’t achieve perfection, we are still expected to make our best attempt.