Sukkot: Our plans make God laugh but we hope and trust anyway – what else can we do but rejoice in the life we have?

Putting up the succah in our autumnal garden some of last year’s birch leaves fall out of the folds of the s’chach and I am transported back to memories of the year gone by, aware suddenly of the passing of time, of what has changed and what is changing.

Autumn brings a special kind of melancholy. Some flowers and fruits are at their peak, the pears plumply falling on the lawn; the apples – those that have not been enjoyed by the birds – full and round. Many plants are still flowering profusely and as I look at them I know with sadness that soon  I will have to disrupt this joyful performance in order to dig them up and save them for next year, or cut them back to prevent the frost damaging their tender stems.

In the garden it feels a bit like a last hurrah. The squirrels are busily collecting acorns and conkers to bury against a hard winter; the birds are gorging on berries, the bees checking each bloom for the last sweet drops they may give up. The air has a chill, leaves are already creating an unwanted blanket over the flower beds, my gardener’s instincts are warning me not to leave the tidying up – what my mother calls ‘putting the garden to bed’ –  too  late. If I do, the price will be the slimy stems of frost damaged annuals, happy slugs and other pests doing their damage in comfort, and the bone chilling experience of wrestling with dead or dying vegetation fixed into the unyielding soil.

Autumn brings with it a sense of dying even while life is climaxing.  We have more than a shiver of recognition of our own mortality. And the Jewish festivals have been resonating with the season – We begin a new year with reflection and awe as we undergo Judgment Day – Yom HaDin; we follow through the Ten Days of Repentance (the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah) as we acknowledge our shortcomings and mistakes, until Yom Kippur enables us to, so to speak, slough off the burden of guilt that has been weighing on us, having done all we can to remedy what we have done.  We tidy up the garden even as we are enjoying its beauty; we cover over and put to bed the nagging thoughts about things we can no longer do anything about. We prepare for the future by cleansing the landscape of our lives.

And because all work like this takes longer than the original plan, and indeed is an ongoing act throughout the year, Jewish tradition reminds us that the Gates of Repentance stay open until the end of the Succot festival.

With all the intimations of death within life, with all the resonance of mortality and melancholy the season brings, we are commanded in bible to treat the festival of Succot with joyfulness. It is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our joy. We must rejoice before God with the products of the land, the pri etz hadar (fruit of the beautiful tree), the palm, the myrtle, the willow of the brook.

As a gardener I notice that these plants all grow in Israel in different parts of the country – for such a tiny piece of land the different micro-climates are extraordinary.  The lulav, coming from the palm tree, fruits most happily where it is hot and dry – while it grows in the coastal areas, in truth it is a tree that disdains humidity and far prefers the semi –desert conditions. The myrtle (hadas) prefers the cooler mountainous areas. The aravah (willow) needs to be close to a consistent water supply (hence “willows of the brook”) and the etrog grows best in the lower coastal areas and the valleys.  These four symbols of Succot encompass all the growing conditions a gardener could work in, and it is a rarely lucky horticulturist who finds themselves able to work them all in one garden.  I would love more acid soils and less shade in my garden, but such is life, one works with what one has.

We bring together vegetation from all areas of Israel, symbolising not only geographical or horticultural diversity but also different times in our lives- the hot semi desert when growth and change seem impossible, the cool perspective when we can see, if not always reach, our next stage, the times when life flows fast around us and the times when the horizon is very distant and unimaginable.

On Succot we telescope the year with its possibilities into this composite symbol; indeed we telescope our lives with its many experiences both good and bad into the celebration of the festival, and we rejoice before God for our very selves. We know that no life is untouched by sorrow, that no-one escapes from living without experiencing problems and pain, but we know too that our lives are something to be thankful for, to celebrate and enjoy.  The autumnal adumbral presentiments of change – of life and death and rebirth – make us pause for a moment to notice the change, the growing and the dying back, the fruiting and the flowering.

Why are we commanded to rejoice at the very time we are facing the bleakness of the  winter? I think it is an assertion of hope, of trust that the world will once again flourish and flower, that life, even as it is in the process of completing one cycle, is readying and preparing the next. We are facing a dormancy but not an ending. We rejoice because we have confidence that we are not alone, that our lives are not isolated, but that a thread of something beyond us will connect us in time and space. The very succot we build and live in, fragile and uncomfortable and with little protection from the elements, remind us that when all the physical defences and supports we take for granted are gone, we are still together, still in community, still under the protection of God.  When we tie together the arba’a minim, we not only become aware of the larger world, shaking it East, South, West, North, Upwards and Downwards in petition for the water our land needs at this time, we also become aware of the composite peoplehood we are a part of. The midrashim that link the parts to the parts of the body, the “types “ that make up community, the geography of the Land of Israel – all of them have one thing in common. If we care for each other and live in community, sharing what we have, comforting those in pain or distress, recognising the humanity of the other, then we are stronger, we can face the Autumn and the Winter, we can depend on the thread of life that may seem impossible to see, that may lie dormant under unpromising conditions.

We rejoice on Succot because with all of the fears, all of the uncertainty, all of the sudden awareness of the transience of our materiality, we remember that we are part of a greater whole, and God, even if not obvious to us, underpins us and supports us and keeps us alive to say the she’he’cheyanu prayer at this season. We none of us know what our future holds for us and while we might make plans for it these are at the most provisional. As the Yiddish saying goes: Der mentsh tracht und Gott lacht – Human Beings make plans and (this is why) God laughs

דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט

All we can do is live in the moment, aware of the fragilities of life and aware too that life goes on – and hope that we will see the next season and the next.

 

Naamah, wife of Noah, sings as she goes about her work. Her voice calls to us as the world is remade

The first thing we learn about Noah is his genealogy  as the generations that separate him from Adam are listed – he is the tenth generation since the creation of humanity and ten is a powerful symbolic number in bible. (Gen5)

The second thing we learn about Noah is a connection between him and the ur-ancestors Adam and Eve, with the verbal root ayin-tzaddi-beit, (the noun itz’von – hard work/ creative work being used earlier for Eve and then for Adam and then not used again in Hebrew Bible)

The third thing we learn is that his name, Noah, meaning ‘rest’ or ‘repose’, but midrashically stretched to mean ‘comfort’ is somehow the counter to the idea of itz’von, that this one,  Noah, y’nachameinu – will comfort us – in our work (ma’asei) and the creative work of our hands (itz’von yadeinu), from the ground which the Eternal has cursed (Gen 5:29)  This is the first time that a name has been explained in bible since the first couple were named.

And the fourth thing we learn is that unlike his nine ancestors, Noah waited a long, long time before having children.  Five times longer than the usual delay – he was 500 years old before fathering a child.

The text has signalled that this man, the tenth generation of human beings, is notable. In some way he is born to mitigate the sheer hard work of creative exertion that has been the lot of human beings since leaving Eden.  And indeed he does alter the course of human history, becoming himself the ur-ancestor for the post-flood generations. And he is a late starter.

Why does Noah wait to have his children? One midrash tells us that God had made him impotent for the first 500 years in order not to have older children at the time of the flood which took place in his 600th year. (Gen Rabbah 26:2). Had his children been wicked they would have been killed alongside the rest of humanity, had they been righteous they would have had to make arks of their own, so the midrash places them at the cusp of adulthood – hence the delay in their births.

A much later commentary (Sefer haYashar) suggests another reason – that Noah knew that he would be bringing children into a corrupt world and chose not to do so. God had to remind him of his duty to find a wife and to have children, and to take that wife into the future in order that more children might  be born after the end of the flood.

I would like to add a third explanation – that just as the child of Sarah was to be the chosen heir to Abraham, so too does the saved remnant of humanity need to be the child of a particular woman.  For the text signals something very powerful about the mother of Shem, Ham and Japhet – she appears five separate times in the bible, and yet her name is omitted from the text.

In all but one of her appearances she is listed after Noah and his sons, and before the wives of the sons, but in the penultimate verse God tells Noah to “Go forth from the ark, you, and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you” but they actually leave in a different order –Noah, his sons, his wife and their wives.

It feels like a moment has been missed. That moment is in need of revisiting and the wife of Noah in need of being rescued from her erasure.

The midrash tells us that the wife of Noah had a name, she was called Naamah.  How do they know? Because we know of a Naamah, the daughter of Lamech and Zillah, and sister of Tubal Cain – she is the only single woman listed in these early genealogies (and the other two women are the two wives of Lamech) and so must be of some importance, though the text does not tell us what.  Her name may give us another clue to her special abilities- the root primarily means to be pleasant, but it also has the connotation of melody and of singing. Naamah, whose brothers are each named for an aspect of human activity (the children of Lamech’s other wife, Adah are Jubal, the founder of the music of harp and pipe, and Jabal the patron of tent dwellers and cattle raisers, while her full brother Tubal Cain is the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron)is not given a role in the text – but surely her pleasant and calm singing voice forms a backdrop to the story much as the singing of a niggun helps us to focus on our own prayer.

Maybe this is her downfall – the musicality of a woman’s voice has certainly become something to fear for some rabbis and commentators.  Maybe her name had to be erased from the text lest her singing lead us to really notice her, make us ask why Noah waited so long to marry her and have children with her, make us wonder what qualities she had that would lead her to being effectively the second Eve, the mother of all living after the flood.

And there is something else that makes the modern feminist want to winkle out more about this unnamed but significant woman – the later midrash and the mystical literature choose to take her name (pleasant/lovely/musical) and transform her into the feared seductress of men, the woman who married the fallen angel Shamadon and who mothered the most fearful demon of all, Ashmodeus, the king of the demonic world. Whenever a woman is trashed in rabbinic literature, called a seducer, a demon, a killer of babies, a prostitute or a witch– there we know we can find a woman whose strength of mind, whose scholarship, whose sense of self is powerful and outspoken. We find a strong woman who scares a certain kind of weak man. Lilith the first wife of Adam who chose not to be secondary to him; Eve whose actions led to the curse of ceaseless work;  Deborah likened to a wasp who moves from being a judge in biblical text to a teacher of established laws as commentaries take over; Huldah described as an irritant, a hornet; Beruriah the scholarly wife of Rabbi Meir whose end was to be seduced by one of his students and so committed suicide…..

A woman’s voice is her sexuality, and takes her from her assigned role of quiet service to others, to one of power and of public awareness. No wonder poor Naamah was hidden in the text, no wonder that even when God said she should leave the ark immediately after Noah and before her sons and their families, when it came to it she was described as having left after her sons, relegated to the status of secondary character  yet again.  Midrash goes on to trash her further, calling her an idolatrous woman who used her voice to sing to idols (Genesis Rabbah 23) The statement by Abba b. Kahana, that Naamah gained her name (pleasant) because her conduct was pleasing to God is rapidly overturned in majority opinion and recorded texts. She is other, she is frightening, and she is the mother of the demon king. Let’s keep her quiet, unassuming, disappeared….

The role of women beyond child bearing and rearing is sometimes frustratingly alarming to the rabbinic world view. Naamah has adult children who themselves are married – her role is apparently fulfilled, we learn of no further children of Noah after the flood, so what else should she be doing? No doubt she knew, but we can only guess.

There she is, the descendant of Cain, bringing his descendants back into play in the world, providing a sort of redemption to the first biblical murder and fratricide.

There she is, the new mother of all living, as everyone now will descend from her and Noah, bringing to fruition the promise made on the birth and naming of Noah, “’This shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which comes from the ground which the Eternal has cursed.”

There she is, released from the burden of Eve, having finished with the work of childbirth and instead supervising the recreation of the post-diluvian world while her drunken husband passed authority to their sons.

There she is, the singer, whose voice echoes the voice of God as the world is once again put back together after the chaos of the flood.

Abba bar Kahana, the 3rd century amora and one of the greatest exponents of aggadah tells us that she was called Naamah (pleasant) because her conduct was pleasing to God. This teaching has been overlaid and overturned in tradition, the idea being apparently too awful for some rabbinic teachers to contemplate. Her conduct was pleasing to God. God noticed her. She was the woman destined to be the mother of all who live since the flood. About time her voice is heard again, singing as she goes about her work.

Va’etchanan: Shabbat Nachamu – the mourning after cataclysm and the hope which remains

This week, the Shabbat after Tisha b’Av, we begin reading the series of seven haftarot of consolation – known by their Aramaic name : – sheva’ de’nechamta.  The progression of special haftarot will take us to the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, when we begin the New Year and hopefully able to leave behind us the pain and trial of the life we have lived, and can looking forward to starting again with a clean slate.

 All of the haftarot of consolation are taken from the preacher-poet known as “second Isaiah” or “Deutero Isaiah”, who is an unknown figure who lived among the exiles in Babylon in the 6th century BCE, and whose writings were later attached to those of the first Isaiah, who lived well over a century earlier. They appear as chapters 40 to 66.

 This second Isaiah is a mysterious figure. We know nothing about him. Not about his personal life, nor the circumstances of his prophesying. But we do know that the big powers of the time were Egypt and Babylon, one to the North and the other to the South, pressurising the land in which the Jews were living.

 The Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar, had plundered Jerusalem in 596 BCE and destroyed it 10 years later. They had carried the members of the political, religious and intellectual classes into exile, hoping that in time they would be assimilated and any threat they posed be disarmed.  This had worked well 130 years earlier when the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom and carried the ten tribes away, but the effect was not repeated with the exiled Jews from the southern kingdom who developed ways to keep their identity and religion alive – they created rituals to substituted for the lost Temple, read from sacred texts, created prayers and a liturgical framework, and laid the foundations for the institution of the synagogue.

 One of the people who were part of the process of recreating a form of Judaism possible for the exiles to cling to was this second Isaiah.  His message was simple – Jews have an ongoing relationship with God.  Because of our actions the Temple had been destroyed and the nation exiled from the land – but if the people would repent and return to God with sincerity they would be pardoned, because God is unfailingly merciful and forgiving.

 His message of consolation came at a crucial time. The people desperately needed something to comfort them as they faced an unknown future, hoping it seemed against hope that there could be an end to exile.

 And there was. In 539 BCE Cyrus, the king of the Medes and the Persians, overran Babylon and allowed the Jews to return home. We cannot know if this Isaiah was still alive at the time to see that his words had come to pass, but they were recorded for us to read and remember– albeit attached to the great prophet Isaiah – and we read more haftarot from his book than we do from any other.

 It is appropriate and it is necessary to begin reading from this prophet of hope immediately after the darkest time in our calendar, the Fast of Tisha b’Av. This year more than ever, the world feels bleak and frightening; it is unclear what is going to happen even in the near future. There is currently no way we can see of making things better and so there is no point in false cheer, nor in trying to explain and rationalise the situation we find ourselves in.

As with all mourning it must be endured and survived.  All there can be to help us is the warmly expressed comfort offered for the pain that is felt, the awareness that we are not ultimately alone or friendless.

The words “Nachamu Nachamu Ami –Comfort, Comfort My people” – is really all that can be said in the face of the reality of painful destruction and exile that is the world just after Tisha b’Av.  Be comforted that God is still with us, and never give up hope.Digital Camera Pictures 102