In “the Mirror and the Light”, the finale to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, she has him say while contemplating his own diminished future “We are all dying, just at different speeds”
Yom Kippur is a day that reminds us not only to consider how we are living our lives in the light of our values and hopes, but it speaks to us of our own mortality – it is a day out of time, a day we travel through as if dead, with no food or water, no ordinary business to transact etc. Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal for death.
To be clear. We are not supposed to feel dead in the sense that we might feel nothing, or no longer care for the things of this world; rather we can take twenty five hours where we subsume the wants or desires of the body into the perspectives and expression of the soul.
As close as we can be, we become disembodied. We pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that are usually drowned out in the busy-ness of everyday living. The tradition is that we wear white – the colour of purity. Many of us wear a kittel – quite literally the shrouds that will wrap our bodies in the coffin. We are practising a death of the body in order to free the life of the mind or the soul.
Judaism is famously a religion of life. We toast each other “Le’chaim” – to Life! We focus on our actions in this world, and leave unexamined what may happen beyond this world. But we build into our practise this one extraordinary day when we rehearse our dying, in order to understand our world a little differently.
The point of Yom Kippur is not to remind us that we are mortal, that, as Mantel says we are all dying, just at different speeds. It is to remind us to think about how we are living our lives – specifically how are we living them in relation to the teachings and expectations of our traditions.
Rabbi Eliezer famously taught that one should: “Repent one day before your death.” So his disciples asked him: “Does a person know which day he will die?” Rabbi Eliezer responded: “Certainly, then, a person should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die—so that all his days he is repenting.” (Talmud, Shabbat 153a)
In my work as a hospice chaplain I recently had a long conversation with a patient, a strict Catholic woman, who was terrified that she might not die in a state of grace, and that if she was not entirely absolved of her sins she would not be allowed to enter heaven. I was so perturbed by her distress and her certainty that the gates of heaven might be still closed against her even though she had made her final confession, received full absolution from her priest, and had had no obvious opportunity for further sinning given the frailty of her health, that I rang her priest to see what else could be done. There was nothing more to do, he told me, it was all in the hands of God.
It got me thinking back to Rabbi Eliezer. He is not talking about dying in a state of grace, not suggesting that we need to get our timing right so that we die shortly after repenting our sins. He is talking of being in a continuing state of teshuvah, not so much its colloquial meaning of “repentance” as its real meaning – “returning” or “turning towards God”. Eliezer is not terribly interested in the purity of our souls at any given moment, but in the fact of our being engaged in some kind of understanding of our purpose in this world, some kind of intention and action towards making ourselves and our worlds a better place.
Taking a day away from our routine, blocking it off in our diaries and using it for introspection and for the evaluation of our lives in the light of the values and teachings and the expectations of our tradition is a valuable and important activity. Doing it from within our community with a liturgy that provides a map for our journey of return is a supportive and sustaining factor in the day. Knowing that across the world Jews are coming together in real meetings and these days in virtual communities too, gives us the strength to keep going during the times when the prayers seem endless or pointless or inappropriate or trivial. A day set aside in order to consciously attempt teshuvah, turning ourselves and our lives around in search of meaning, in search of God, is a gift to ourselves, the gift of time and of space to hear the needs of our souls which have so often been ignored or silenced in our quest for material success or even just to get through the daily routines we must complete.
When Rabbi Eliezer tells us to repent one day before the day of our death this is not a rhetorical flourish, but a reminder of the value of our lives. He is not suggesting that we live each day as if it were our last, cramming in all the things we might like to have done as we tick off as much as we can from our bucket list, or fearful of a coming darkness and doom. He is saying we should live each day as well as we can, maybe not procrastinate so much, maybe say the words that need to be communicated to others, maybe enjoy the moment of sunshine playing on our skin or watch the clouds scooting across a beautiful sky. He is reminding us that each day we live we should strive for the understanding that this day is unique, it is providing us with an opportunity that may not return on another day to do the things that this day makes possible. How do we turn towards God today? How will we demonstrate our love for the Divine in our behaviour towards other human beings? And how will the choices I make today shape me and my relationships in the world? Am I making sure to appreciate what each day offers, to acknowledge the blessings in my life, to show that appreciation in my actions?
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said that “if you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need do you have for a tomorrow?”
Each day we try to work on ourselves, try – in the words of the prayer – to bend our will to do God’s will.
The work of the day of Yom Kippur can be done on any day, it is simply helpful for us to block out the time to do it together with our community. And the day of Yom Kippur is not just one of prayer and of teshuvah, not only about atonement and about considering our lives from the outside as if we are dead. It is a day that signifies the endless possibility of rebirth. The sound of the shofar at the end of the service is the cry of the reborn, it is our signal to go back into the world refreshed and renewed to do the work we are here to do.
There is a famous inspirational quote found on many a social media site “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” – and essentially that is what Yom Kippur is also helping us to understand and enact. But never forget, that if today doesn’t work out, there is also tomorrow, and the day after that.
But don’t wait too long. Live every day searching for teshuva, for closeness with God, for aligning our will with God’s will, and then when the day of our death finally comes we will be able to say that we tried to live as fully as we could, we have no more need of a tomorrow.
This will be the second year that many of us will not be sitting together with our community as we work our way through this penitential season. We may be alone or in a small group, but the loss of being together with the whole synagogue community, of hearing and singing along with the heartfelt penitential prayers, of viscerally experiencing teshuvah with others, helping each other on the journey – this loss is real.
As Rabbi Sacks wrote – and I am never quite sure if he is paraphrasing a famous theme tune – “Community is the human expression of Divine love. It is where I am valued simply for who I am, and for what I give to others. It is the place where they know my name”
So how do we build community when we are socially distanced from each other? How do we reach out to others, pray with them, call them, feed them, cry with them? How do we enable the sense of belonging that we crave?
One of the mi sheberach prayers after the reading of the Torah and Haftarah, the prayers that invoke God’s blessing on those being prayed for, is the prayer for the community and it is extraordinarily detailed.
We ask for God’s blessing first on the whole of the local community and their loved ones, as well as on the whole Jewish people, but then focus more narrowly
Those who prepare synagogues for prayer and those who come to pray in them. Those who provide light, and those who provide wine for kiddush and Havdalah, and those who provide bread, and those who give charity to the poor and for everyone who is involved faithfully in supporting the needs of the community……
There is no job too humble, no gift too small, for the community to recognise that without that person/ work/ object they would be far less able to function.
While we are unable to meet in person, it is up to us to keep communities together and functioning. Reaching out to others to see how they are, checking that there are supplies so that everyone will be able to make shabbat and the festivals – and for the wider community that our neighbours and neighbourhood is cared for.
Making community is an active verb. It doesn’t just happen, and it works best when there are many different people involved. It is for all of us to get involved – as the midrash says: “If someone… says, “Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices? I’m fine [without this],” this person destroys the world. — Midrash Tanhuma, Parshat Mishpatim
Soon the new moon of Tishri will be with us and we will prepare for the services of Rosh Hashanah. We may be physically alone or isolated from loved ones. We may feel ourselves distanced from normal community events. We can respond by drifting away or we can respond by making an active choice to create community in whatever way we can.
The mi sheberach for the community uses an interesting adjective – it speaks of those who create community be’emunah With faith. It sometimes is a leap in the dark to put in the work to create community, and sometimes the process is discouraging or hard to do. But with all important work if we begin with a belief in its importance, we will find the strength to bring it forth into reality.
The moment that Yom Kippur services finish, (well maybe the moment after we have eaten and drunk to break our fast), the traditional Jew makes the first symbolic move to build their succah. Five days after the solemnity and awe of Kippur, we are commanded to rejoice – Succot is Zman Simchateinu – the season of our rejoicing.
The Gemara (Pesachim 109a) asks how the mitzvah of “vesamachta bechagecha” (rejoice on your holidays) can be fulfilled once the Temple is destroyed. It answers, “ein simcha ela b’yayin,” there can be no joy without wine, citing Psalm 104:15 which states, “yayin yisamach levav enosh,” wine brings joy to the people’s hearts. This is not a recipe for drunkenness though; it is a reminder that sometimes drinking wine can help us escape the horrors of the current world. If the shopping habits of many since Covid struck, it seems many have the same idea. Alcohol sales in the UK have risen by a third since Covid.
But unlike Pesach or Purim, there is no mitzvah to drink on Succot. We must get our joy elsewhere.
The root of the word s’m’ch (joy) appears only once in each of the first four books of the bible, but explodes (relatively) in Deuteronomy – where it is clearly part of the future activity in the Land. And generally the joy is to be experienced in the Tempe worship. In chapter 12 of Deuteronomy we have three examples: – “[In the place that God will choose] you and your families shall eat and rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Eternal your God has blessed you” (Deut. 12:7). : “And there you shall rejoice before the Eternal your God, you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns” (Deut. 12:12). “Eat them in the presence of the Eternal your God at the place the Eternal your God will choose – you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns – and you are to rejoice before the Eternal your God in everything you put your hand to”
A few chapters later, when tithing the produce, we are told “And you shall use the money (from the produce) for whatsoever your soul desires, for oxen or sheep, for wine, or strong drink …and eat there before the Eternal your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. And the Levite that is within your gates, you shall not forsake him; for he has no portion or inheritance with you”
– Shavuot is to be celebrated joyfully in the Temple: And rejoice before the Eternal your God at the place God will choose as a dwelling for The Name – you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, the Levites in your towns, and the strangers, the fatherless, and the widows living among you” Deut 16:11
And three times we are told about Succot – once in Leviticus we read the instruction to “take the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Eternal your God seven days.”(23:40) and twice in Deuteronomy ““Be joyful at your feast – you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the strangers, the fatherless, and the widows who live in your towns .For seven days, celebrate the feast to the Eternal your God at the place the Eternal your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete ” (Deut. 16:14,15).
When you put these verses together what jumps out – besides the idea that simcha/joy is essentially a phenomenon emerging from the worship experience, is that it is a shared and communal experience. Simcha/joy is not an individual emotion, but the effect of coming together as a group in order to affirm our contract with God. It is not surprising that the word for a celebration is “simcha” – one cannot have a party or celebrate alone, simcha needs the presence of others.
While not the only joyous festival in our calendar, three times the word s’m’ch appears in conjunction with Succot. And yet at the same time Succot is a festival whose main symbols represent the fragility of life. The succah itself, reminding us of the flimsy tents we lived in while traveling in the desert on our way to the Promised Land. Vulnerable structures, unable to fully protect us from the elements, providing “just enough” shelter. They are not well constructed; need to have only 2 and half walls (though at least 3 is preferable) and be open enough to the sky that while there is more shade than sun, there must be sufficient gaps in the s’chach (covering) to be able to see the sun or stars.
While the succah most likely descends from the temporary dwellings where the farmers or shepherds lived in order to protect the crops or flocks, it has become a metaphor for our dependence on God, a reminder that our faith in the security of bricks and mortar is misplaced.
The lulav and etrog symbolise our dependence on the land – and on the rains coming at the right time- for our food. Midrash glosses them in a myriad of ways – they represent the full Jewish community, the body of each of us, the way we experience the world. They represent our history from Egypt to settlement, a celebration of the water cycle, a representation of the different micro climates in the Land of Israel….But however they are glossed, the arba’a minim are a physical reminder of our need for the seasonal rains if we are to eat and to survive.
The two messages – of our vulnerability in the present that we cannot “future proof” however hard we try, and of our need for others if we are to create joy, make Succot one of the most powerful festivals in our calendar. We become powerfully aware both of our individual fragility and of the way that being in community can address our fears and our weaknesses; that being together in doing God’s demands of us can keep us secure in a deep and meaningful way.
The book of Kohelet is traditionally read on Succot. It is a strange book, part of the wisdom literature tradition, full of awareness of the transitory nature of our lives. It sees reality in all its bleakness – recognises that the oft-quoted consolations don’t hold up. The good do suffer. Bad people are not brought to justice. The innocent can face tragedy. While appearing to be deeply pessimistic and a strange choice for the festival of joy, in fact I think it is a brilliant addition. Because its unflinching facing up to reality, to the fact that our days are fleeting, that there is no recipe for success or happiness or longevity or whatever it is we want, it takes us to the heart of simcha. There is no way we can manipulate our world or our futures so we may as well focus on the present and learn to be present within it, learn to value what we currently have with who we currently have.
Joy comes when we stop looking for more, stop comparing what we think we deserve with what we actually have, stop competing and begin to understand and come to terms with the people and the times we live in. Joy comes when we accept our vulnerability and know that it can be mitigated by companionship, community and relationship with God. Joy comes when we celebrate our today rather than keep our eyes on some ideal prize in our tomorrows.
This year’s Succot is going to be harder than most – we may not be able to squash into the succah with family and friends because of the Covid distancing – but we can invite the ushpizin, the guests who represent our history and our values, to join us. We may have to temper our interactions with our communities, mitigate them through the conferencing platforms on our computers, miss out on the release of the tensions of Elul and Tishri that a simcha can bring. We can contemplate our vulnerability this year and know just how real it is – this year the symbols of Succot may be less needed as a reminder. But we can still experience joy. We belong to our communities, we recreate them in virtual space, we know that in these pandemic times friends and family members community members we know and those we do not, neighbours and delivery drivers – they alleviate our isolation, provide human companionship and life’s necessities. So let this Succot be a time of joy, and let it remind us not only that our lives hang on a thread, but that the thread is woven into the fabric of community, we hold it securely for each other.
When we heard that the names of the heroes and heroines of Israel were being erased on the streets of Bet Shemesh, we decided to give them a place of honor in our Sukkah. Please join us in honoring them in yours.
כשנודע לנו שעיריית בית שמש החליטה למחוק את שמות גיבורי וגיבורות ישראל משלטי רחוב- החלטנו לתת להם מקום של כבוד בסוכה שלנו. הצטרפו אלינו בבקשה והכניסו אותם גם לסוכה שלכם.
Succot e gioia in tempo di Covid
Pubblicato il 2 ottobre 2020
Da rav Sylvia Rothschild
Nel momento in cui finiscono i servizi dello Yom Kippur (beh, forse dal momento dopo che abbiamo mangiato e bevuto per rompere il nostro digiuno), l’ebreo, tradizionalmente, fa il primo simbolico atto di costruzione la sua succà. Cinque giorni dopo la solennità e il timore reverenziale di Kippur, ci viene ordinato di rallegrarci: Succot è Zman Simchateinu, la stagione della nostra gioia.
La Gemara (Pesachim 109a) chiede come si possa adempiere la mitzvà di “vesamachta bechagecha” (rallegrati per le tue feste) dopo che il Tempio è stato distrutto. Risponde “ein simcha ela b’yayin“, non ci può essere gioia senza vino, citando il Salmo 104: 15 che afferma, “yayin yisamach levav enosh“, il vino porta gioia ai cuori delle persone. Questa non è però una ricetta per l’ubriachezza, ci ricorda che a volte bere vino può aiutarci a sfuggire agli orrori del mondo attuale. Se le abitudini di acquisto di molti dopo che il Covid ha colpito mostrano qualcosa, sembra che in tanti abbiano la stessa idea. Le vendite di alcolici nel Regno Unito sono aumentate di un terzo da quando c’è il Covid.
Ma, a differenza di Pesach o Purim, a Succot non c’è la mitzvà di bere. Dobbiamo indirizzare la nostra gioia altrove.
La radice della parola s’m’ch (gioia) appare solo una volta in ciascuno dei primi quattro libri della Bibbia, ma esplode (relativamente) in Deuteronomio, dove è chiaramente parte dell’attività futura nella Terra. E generalmente la gioia deve essere sperimentata nel culto al Tempio. Nel capitolo 12 del Deuteronomio abbiamo tre esempi: “[Nel luogo che Dio sceglierà] voi e le vostre famiglie mangerete e gioirete di ogni vostra iniziativa per la quale l’Eterno tuo Dio vi ha benedetto” (Deut. 12:7). – “Gioirete dunque davanti all’Eterno vostro Dio, i vostri figli, le vostre figlie, i vostri schiavi e le vostre schiave, nonché il Levita che è nelle vostre città” (Deut. 12:12). “Mangiateli alla presenza dell’Eterno, vostro Dio, nel luogo che l’Eterno vostro Dio sceglierà: voi, i vostri figli e le vostre figlie, i vostri servi e le vostre schiave, e il Levita delle vostre città – e dovete rallegrarvi davanti all’Eterno vostro Dio in tutto ciò a cui mettete mano”.
Alcuni capitoli dopo, quando si paga la decima, ci viene detto: “E userete il denaro (dal prodotto) per qualunque cosa la vostra anima desideri, per i buoi o le pecore, per il vino o la bevanda forte … e mangerete lì davanti all’Eterno vostro Dio, e gioite, voi e la vostre famiglie. E il Levita che è entro le vostre porte, non lo abbandonerete; perché non ha parte o eredità con voi”.
“(A Shavuot) ti rallegrerai davanti al Signore tuo Dio, tu e tuo figlio, la tua figliola, il tuo schiavo e la tua schiava, il Levita che è nella tua città e il forestiero, l’orfano e la vedova che saranno in mezzo a te, nel luogo che sceglierà il Signore tuo Dio come residenza del suo santuario.” Deut 16:11
E tre volte ci viene detto di Succot: una volta, nel Levitico, leggiamo l’istruzione: “prendete il frutto di alberi buoni, rami di palme e rami di alberi folti e salici del ruscello, e gioirete davanti all’Eterno vostro Dio sette giorni.” (23:40) e due volte in Deuteronomio “Ti rallegrerai nella tua festa: tu e tuo figlio e le tue figlie, il tuo schiavo e la tua schiava, il Levita, il forestiero, l’orfano e la vedova che vivono nelle tue città. Per sette giorni, farai festa in onore dell’Eterno tuo Dio nel luogo che il Signore stesso sceglierà, perché ti benedirà il Signore e nei tuoi prodotti dei campi ed in tutte le sue azioni sarai dunque completamente lieto.” (Dt. 16 : 14,15).
Quando metti insieme questi versi, ciò che emerge, oltre all’idea che simcha/gioia è essenzialmente un fenomeno che emerge dall’esperienza del servizio religioso, è che è un’esperienza condivisa e comunitaria. Simcha/gioia non è un’emozione individuale, ma l’effetto di riunirsi in gruppo per affermare il nostro contratto con Dio. Non sorprende che la parola per una celebrazione sia “simcha“: non si può fare una festa o festeggiare da soli, simcha ha bisogno della presenza degli altri.
Sebbene non sia l’unica festa gioiosa nel nostro calendario, tre volte la parola s’m’ch appare insieme a Succot. Eppure allo stesso tempo Succot è una festa i cui simboli principali rappresentano la fragilità della vita. La succà stessa, che ci ricorda le fragili tende in cui vivevamo mentre viaggiavamo nel deserto verso la Terra Promessa. Strutture vulnerabili, incapaci di proteggerci completamente dalle intemperie, fornendo un riparo “appena sufficiente”. Non sono ben costruite; devono avere solo due muri e mezzo (anche se almeno tre è preferibile) ed essere aperte a sufficienza verso il cielo così che, anche se c’è più ombra che sole, ci debbano essere spazi sufficienti nello s’chach (copertura) per poter vedere il sole o le stelle.
Sebbene molto probabilmente la succà discenda dalle abitazioni temporanee dove vivevano i contadini o i pastori per proteggere i raccolti o le greggi, è diventata una metafora della nostra dipendenza da Dio, un promemoria che la nostra fede nella sicurezza di mattoni e malta è mal riposta.
Il lulav e l’etrog simboleggiano la nostra dipendenza dalla terra e dalle piogge, che arrivano al momento giusto, per il nostro cibo. Il Midrash li coniuga in una miriade di modi: rappresentano l’intera comunità ebraica, il corpo di ognuno di noi, il modo in cui viviamo il mondo. Rappresentano la nostra storia dall’Egitto agli insediamenti, una celebrazione del ciclo dell’acqua, una rappresentazione dei diversi microclimi nella Terra di Israele …. Ma comunque li interpretiamo, gli arba’a minim sono un promemoria fisico del nostro bisogno di piogge stagionali se vogliamo mangiare e sopravvivere.
I due messaggi, della nostra vulnerabilità nel presente che non possiamo “rendere a prova di futuro” per quanto ci sforziamo, e del nostro bisogno degli altri se vogliamo creare gioia, fanno di Succot una delle feste più potenti del nostro calendario. Diventiamo fortemente consapevoli sia della nostra fragilità individuale sia del modo in cui essere in comunità può fronteggiare le nostre paure e le nostre debolezze; che essere insieme nell’adempiere alle richieste che Dio ci fa può tenerci al sicuro in un modo profondo e significativo.
Il libro di Kohelet viene tradizionalmente letto a Succot. È un libro strano, parte della tradizione della letteratura sapienziale, pieno di consapevolezza della natura transitoria delle nostre vite. Vede la realtà in tutta la sua desolazione: riconosce che le consolazioni spesso citate non reggono. I buoni soffrono. Le persone cattive non vengono assicurate alla giustizia. L’innocente può affrontare la tragedia. Sebbene appaia profondamente pessimista e una strana scelta per la festa della gioia, in effetti penso che sia un’aggiunta geniale. Perché affrontare risolutamente la realtà, il fatto che i nostri giorni sono fugaci, che non esiste una ricetta per il successo o la felicità o la longevità o qualunque cosa desideriamo, ci porta al cuore della simchà. Non c’è modo di manipolare il nostro mondo o il nostro futuro, quindi possiamo anche concentrarci sul presente e imparare ad essere consapevoli al suo interno, imparare a valutare ciò che abbiamo attualmente, insieme a chi abbiamo attualmente.
La gioia arriva quando smettiamo di cercare oltre, smettiamo di confrontare ciò che pensiamo di meritare con ciò che abbiamo effettivamente, smettiamo di competere e iniziamo a capire e venire a patti con le persone e i tempi in cui viviamo. La gioia arriva quando accettiamo la nostra vulnerabilità e sappiamo che può essere mitigata dalla compagnia, dalla comunità e dal rapporto con Dio. La gioia arriva quando celebriamo il nostro oggi piuttosto che tenere gli occhi su un premio ideale nel nostro domani.
Il Succot di quest’anno sarà più difficile della maggior parte degli altri: potremmo non essere in grado di stringerci nella succà con la famiglia e gli amici a causa del distacco del Covid, ma possiamo invitare gli ushpizin, gli ospiti che rappresentano la nostra storia e i nostri valori, a unirsi a noi. Potremmo dover temperare le nostre interazioni con le nostre comunità, mitigarle attraverso le piattaforme di conferenza sui nostri computer, perdere l’occasione di sciogliere le tensioni di Elul e Tishri, che una simchà potrebbe portare. Possiamo contemplare la nostra vulnerabilità quest’anno e sapere quanto sia reale: quest’anno i simboli di Succot potrebbero essere meno necessari come promemoria. Ma possiamo ancora provare gioia. Apparteniamo alle nostre comunità, le ricreiamo nello spazio virtuale, sappiamo che in questi tempi di pandemia membri della comunità di amici e familiari che conosciamo e quelli che non conosciamo, i vicini e i fattorini, alleviano il nostro isolamento, forniscono compagnia umana e le necessità della vita. Quindi, possa questo Succot essere un momento di gioia, possa ricordarci non solo che le nostre vite sono appese a un filo, ma che il filo è intessuto nella trama della comunità, lo teniamo saldamente gli uni per gli altri.
Quando abbiamo saputo che i nomi degli eroi e delle eroine di Israele venivano cancellati per le strade di Bet Shemesh, abbiamo deciso di dare loro un posto d’onore nella nostra Sukkà. Unitevi a noi per onorarli nel vostro.
Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals mandated in Bible, forming a particular cycle of harvest celebrations with Pesach and Shavuot, yet unlike them in the passage in Leviticus which details the festivals, Sukkot is given an extra dimension – it is not only an agricultural celebration but also one that reminds us of the foundational story of our people. “The fifteenth day of this seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you will keep the feast of the Eternal seven days …And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree (hadar), branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook and rejoice before the Eternal .. You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…” Lev 23:34-43
This explicit link to the exodus, to the people’s vulnerability and dependence on God, brings a powerful richness to our celebration. Unlike the Spring/Summer celebrations of Pesach and Shavuot, with hope and new life bursting forth, the autumnal setting of Sukkot brings intimations of the dark, hard winter days ahead, the leafless trees, the sleeping earth, a quasi-death experience. Sukkot comes six months after Pesach, and it builds and develops the themes of that festival. Unlike the intense dramatic ‘high’ of the plagues and our leaving slavery in Egypt that Pesach provides, Sukkot marks the “ordinary and everyday” struggle to stay alive and safe. It reminds us that our freedoms are fragile, that even basic necessities are not automatically given to us, that life is made up of routine hard graft and of effortful striving. And in this quotidian mundane activity, God is also present, even if less obvious to us.
Sukkot is a festival of autumnal abundance in preparation for months of wintertime scarcity. But at the same time it draws our attention to our two most basic frailties, our need for water (for ourselves and our crops) and for shelter. The sukkah itself represents the fragility of our homes, with the “s’chach” open to the skies even as the abundant fruit is hanging from it, and the arba’a minim shaken as an almost magical ceremonial to bring rain in the right season.
The four components, held together as they are shaken, are a fascinating concatenation of concepts. Biblically mandated, the palm, myrtle, willow and etrog can represent such a complexity of characteristics. One midrash suggests that together they represent the whole community, all of whom have value and are included in the ritual – the hadar fruit, the etrog, has taste (Torah) and aroma (Mitzvot); the palm has tasty fruit but no smell, (ie represents those who have torah but no good deeds); the myrtle leaves smell wonderful but it has no fruit (mitzvot but no torah), and the willow has neither taste nor smell (no torah and no mitzvot). Every community has people with each of these categories. When we pray before God, each person is important.
Another view is that each one represents a different part of the land of Israel- so the palm tree which loves a hot dry climate grows well in desert areas, the myrtle thrives in the cooler mountains regions, the willows grow only near the streams and waterways that flow all year, and the etrog is most comfortable in the lower coastal areas and the valleys. Israel has a series of microclimates, each represented here.
Or one can understand the arba minim to represent our history from Egypt to settlement: so the lulav would represent wandering in the desert, the willow- crossing the Jordan, the myrtle our settling in the mountains and the etrog the establishment of orchards.
And there is also a midrash that the arba’a minim represents each human being – the palm being the spine, the myrtle the eyes, the willow the lips and the etrog the heart, and we come in supplication to God because we understand how fragile our existence truly is.
Whichever symbolism resonates, the core truth is the same. We are in this world together, our survival is not guaranteed, we need to work together and support each other even as we celebrate a plentiful harvest. We need to be aware of scarcity, that we can all be affected, that only by sharing and by working together can we create a more harmonious world.
Sukkot is given four names in bible: “Chag ha’Asif”[i] – the festival of ingathering; “Chag ha’Sukkot”[ii] – the Festival of Booths; He’Chag[iii] – THE festival; and “Chag l’Adonai”[iv] the Festival of the Eternal. Of these, the third name – the festival par excellence – gives us most pause for thought, for it reminds us that Sukkot is the most important festival.
Why is this? The symbols of the festival remind us that EVERY person in our society is important; each one needs the dignity of their own home and the security of knowing that basic needs will be met; (Talmud Berachot 57b tells us a home of one’s own increases self-esteem and dignity). They remind us that we are all journeying, that while we may have the illusion of a stable rooted existence, the world turns and our fortunes can turn with it. They remind us that we all have responsibility for the environment and for how we treat our world, that damage to our environment and changes to our climate affects us all. They remind us that we are dependent on factors that are beyond our control. Yet with all of this unsettling symbolism, the rabbis call this festival “z’man simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing, based upon the verses in Leviticus. Why does Sukkot make us so happy, this festival of wandering and of fragility? I think because it reminds us of our human commonality and the power of human community. We are connected to God and we are connected to our land, we are connected to our foundational stories and to our historic experiences, but for any of this to truly matter, we must be connected to each other.
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.
“Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before God, you shall be cleansed” (Lev 16:30)
On Yom Kippur, when the High Priest entered the inner Temple, dressed in special robes and breastplate, the priestly garments including the frontlets on his head, the vestments of fine white linen, he would repeat this biblical verse in each of the three confessions he made. And the people would crowd around outside in the temple courtyard, listening hard, and when they heard the the glorious and awesome four letter name of God we write as yod hey vav hey, the name which would be uttered only by the High Priest, only within the Holy of Holies, only on Yom Kippur, only as part of the confession ritual, then they would bow down with their faces to the ground and respond with the blessing of God’s name. This annual ritual of confession and sacrifice was a dangerous one, surrounded by mystery, perfumed by the incense, veiled from the community. Tension mounted as the confessions grew, as the animals were sacrificed and the hopes pinned upon them being favourably received reached some form of expression.
My sympathies have always been with the high priest, upon whose shoulders rested the burden of so much expectation. The fate of the whole people seems to have been given over to this one man on this one day – so he had better get it right. The ritual was complicated, the choreography of washing and changing clothes, of sacrifice and prayer awesomely elaborate, the consequences of making a mistake unthinkable. We don’t know much from either biblical sources or first temple texts, but by the time of the Second Temple the Day for Atonement was focussed on the actions and intentions of the High Priest, and the role of the people was to listen, to be awe-struck, and to hope that he got it right.
That was then, but since the Temple days Yom Kippur has developed a different set of rituals, and while we re-enact part of the Avodah, the temple service of Yom Kippur, during the mussaf service, experiencing just the echo of the thrilling gravity and overwhelming power of that ceremony, our own liturgy and imagery takes us to a different religious place. Yom Kippur is no longer the Day for Atonement for the people Israel, it is by far a more personal and individual experience for we children of modern times. The High Priest has long gone, the sacrificial system consigned to a stage post in history that no longer speaks to us of religious action, and the corporate nature of the people Israel has been changed as we have become a different category altogether – Jews, and while we consistently create community we see ourselves in the main as individuals, individual Jews.
The structure of the ritual and the philosophical underpinnings of the day have undergone a radical transformation, and so, I would posit, has the meaning of what Yom haKippurim means to us. While we still translate this obscure name using the invented composite word ‘at-one’, we have changed both meaning and purpose of the day for our own spiritual needs. I would even go so far as to say that the day is not really about sin and atonement any more – how would we even define those terms today? – but that Yom Kippur for us is about something quite other – Time. Yom Kippur is about our use of time, about our location in time – it is in particular a day for us to focus on our own mortality.
Interspersed in our machzor with the major themes of sin and repentance, of forgiveness and atonement, we hear the insistently repeated motif of life and death. We talk for example about the Book of Life, we read the Martyrology, we recite a service of Yizkor, our traditional clothing for this day is to wear shrouds and we are called to abstain from the physical pleasures of living, eating, drinking or washing. We take a day right out of time and act as if the world outside is irrelevant to us, as if we are, for the moment, temporarily dead.
What message do we take from the prayers and texts as we sit through Yom Kippur. It is probably true that we examine our lives and find our behaviour wanting. It is probably the case that we make our stumbling attempts towards recognising and harnessing our own spirituality, yearning as we do for a sense of meaning, for a firm belief in a greater being. It may well be that we feel momentarily inspired to change some part of our lives, or that we experience the satisfying of a need for connectedness which tends to be submerged during the busy weeks of the rest of our lives. As the day rolls on, the ancient formulae about sin and loss swirl around us, as do the equally ancient phrases about return and forgiveness. We know that we are less than perfect and we look for ways to deal with both the knowledge and the reality. But we cannot retreat into the Yom Kippur of the Temple period and leave the whole religious business to someone else. The Yom Kippur of our time looks us in the face and says – you are mortal, you only have a limited time on this earth – and you do not even know how limited it may be – so what are you going to do about your life?
Yom Kippur is no longer a day simply of general and ritual atonement. It is a day for us to restructure our lives, to reconcile our realities with our requirements. Loud and clear through the prayers comes the reminder – we are mortal, we, and those around us do not have all the time in the world, and so if there are things we want to do, we should be planning to do them now, if there are things we need to change, we should be arranging to change them now, if there are things we want to say, we should be saying them now.
Nothing is so precious as time, nothing is so consistently abused. We waste time, we kill time, we fill in time – rarely do we actually use time appropriately. Yet our tradition has been able to transform a day of communal awe and professional ritual activity, and give it to us in a new form – personal time for us to spend reconciling and reconstructing the lives we are living with the lives we already know we could be living.
As a community rabbi I have sat and listened so many times to the laments which begin ‘if only’, I have witnessed the rapprochements which have sometimes come too late, I have heard the stories of fractured relationships which have entailed years of lost possibilities; I have met broygas individuals (note for translater – people who have taken offence) who are determined that the other person should make the first move towards reconciliation – sometimes about an argument the reason for which is lost in history. We don’t tend to use the word ‘sin’ for such behaviours, but surely to fail to make or maintain relationships in this way is one of the biggest sins we currently commit. We all live within the constraints of time, we all know what is truly important to do in that time, yet most if not all of us regularly fail to acknowledge that we should be making our priorities so that when the time runs out – be it our own time in this world or the time of a loved one – we have done what was important and responded appropriately, addressing the most meaningful issues of our lives rather than reacting to what is presented as the most urgent.
On the tenth of Tishri the bible tells us to come together as a holy assembly for Yom haKippurim. It is clearly to be a day of repentance, of hard thinking, of reconciliation and reconstruction of relationship. We are used to the imagery that reminds us that we are to reconcile and reconstruct our relationship with God, and parts of us are able to do so. And we manage it without the intermediary of the stylised actions of the high priest. We sit and think and pray, hear the voices inside us as they speak of loss and pain, of comfort and of peace.
But today isn’t only about our working on our relationship with God, it is about using that work and the understanding brought about by such a relationship so that we make substantial changes to our relationships with others. As Morris Adler wrote:
‘Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be’ .
Yom Kippur has been many things for we Jews during our history. The most solemn day of our calendar it is described as ‘shabbat shabbaton’ – the Sabbath of Sabbaths. There is a tradition that when God had finished creating the world, God created the Sabbath, and scripture tells us “uvayom hash’vee’ee shavat va’yinafash” (Exod. 31:16-17) And on the seventh day God stopped all work and restored his soul. This word va’yinafash is a strange one – often translated as “God rested” it really means something to do with restoring the soul. From it comes the idea that on Shabbat we are given an extra soul or measure of soul, with which we can discern and taste the world that is more usually hidden from us, we can experience something outside of normal sensation. If we have an extra dimension of soul on Shabbat, how much more so on shabbat shabbaton – today, Yom haKippurim? On shabbat we use it to experience a taste of the world to come, but today we can use it for something else entirely – we can use it to understand more about this world and our place within it. The liturgy of today reminds us about time, about the fleeting nature of our life in this world, about the end which all of us will face. Yom Kippur gives us the time and the space to consider our part in our world, gives us the extra measure of soul we need to really consider and construct our lives as we mean to live them. We have about another seven hours today, and the real world will begin to crowd in once more and drown out the world of prayer and thought we have created. We do not know how much time we will have after that. So today let’s face the time and let’s spend it wisely, rather than profligately allowing it to run away. Who knows how many tomorrows there will be?
“Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before the lord, you shall be cleansed” says our machzor, quoting the book of Leviticus. There is no High Priest to do the cleansing, only ourselves and our dedication and our desire, and of course this very special and holy block of time – today.
For the last few weeks it has not been easy to find the women in the Torah readings, but now in Vayakhel the women are up front and unmissable. The mishkan/tabernacle is being made as a response to the failings of the people that led to the creation of the golden calf, an idol to comfort the people in the absence of Moses while he was away on Sinai sequestered with God.
It has become abundantly clear that the people are not yet ready for a God with no physical presence or aide-memoire. The mishkan will remind the people that God is dwelling among them. It is a powerful symbol they will carry around with them as they go on their journey. It will, so to speak, keep the people on the religious straight and narrow.
The details of the mishkan have been given in the last chapters – long dry lists of materials and artefacts. Now the text warms up with the human and emotional dimension:
“And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and brought the Eternal’s offering, for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments.” (35:21)
All the people for whom this project truly mattered, everyone who was invested in the creation of the reminder of the divine, brought their gifts. Gifts of valuable materials, gifts of their time, gifts of their dedication to make this work.
And they came, the men upon the women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; even every man that brought an offering of gold to the Eternal.
The construction of the verse is notable and odd. The phrasing “hanashim al hanashim – the men upon the women” suggests that the women carried the men, brought them along with them, that they came first with their jewellery, and only then did the men bring their gifts. All of the emphases on the voluntary nature of the donations, the repetitions that only those who wanted to give did so, culminates in the idea that it is the women who are keen to give their valuables in the service of God, that the men were carried along by the enthusiasm of the women.
The role of the women is reinforced a few verses later:
And all the women who were wise-hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet, and the fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun the goats’ hair. (35:25-26)
The vignette continues with yet another verse emphasising the role of the women in this work:
Every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which the Eternal had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made, the children of Israel brought a freewill-offering to the Eternal v29
The repetition of the activities of the women, of their enthusiasm, their public role in both providing materials and in working those materials for use in the mishkan is surely telling us something important.
The commentators of course have noticed this. While Rashi in the tenth century plays down the idea of ha’anashim al hanashim meaning anything more than the men came with the women, the tosafists of the 12th and 13th century build on the idea of the women carrying the men along. They note the list of jewellery described were essentially feminine possessions and say that the verse is alluding to the men taking the women to bring their jewellery under the impression that they would not want to give it away. Imagine their surprise then when the women are not only willing to give their jewellery for the mishkan, they are actually pleased to do so. This stands in direct opposition to the earlier incident when jewellery was given to the priesthood – the incident of the golden calf, when the midrash tells us – and the tosafists remind us – that the women did not want to give their jewellery to such an enterprise, seeing through the project for the idolatry it was, and the men had torn the jewellery from the ears, fingers and necks of their reluctant womenfolk.
This midrashic interpretation places the women in the role of truly understanding the religious response, and the men showing less emotional intelligence. It is supported some verses later in the creation of the mishkan when the women give their mirrors for the copper washstand.
And [Betzalel] made the washstand of copper, and the base thereof of copper, of the mirrors of the Tzevaot/ legions of serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting. (Ex 38:8)
Who were these women who did service at the door of the Tent of Meeting? What was the service that they did? And why did they have copper mirrors?
They appear also in the Book of Samuel (1Sam:2:22) Now Eli was very old; and he heard all that his sons did unto all Israel, and how that they lay with the women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting.
In both occasions the women are at the door of the tent of meeting, the place where people brought their vows, where the priesthood purified themselves before entering, a liminal space of enormous importance. The verb צֹּ֣בְא֔ tzaddi beit alef is best known to us as something God does – We often call God Adonai Tzeva’ot, the God of the Hosts/Legions – it has a military context rather than a religious one.
But in the Book of Numbers we find the verb used to describe something else – not a military action but the service of the Levites done in and around the Mishkan. This verb is the priestly activity, a ministry, something done by the members of the tribe of Levi, whose role is to ensure that the priesthood is able to fulfil its sacred function. (see Numbers 4:23, 35, 39, 43 and 8:24)
So while there is a tendency in tradition to see these women as low status, cultic prostitutes or camp followers, the text does not support this view and indeed it is possible to read it quite differently. The women who give their mirrors to have the polished copper washstand that is so important in the system of ritual purity are women of status and dignity, whose work in ministry is more important to them than what are often seen as the more usual girly activities of makeup and grooming.
The midrash (Tanhuma) again picks up the story of the mirrors, and while it does not give the women any status in the priestly activities (instead ignoring their position at the doorway), it does give them some real honour by telling the story that in Egypt, after the decree of Pharaoh that all baby boys would be killed, the men became despondent. Slavery had sapped their strength and their emotional resilience and they had decided not to create a stake in the future but to live separately from their wives and desist from intercourse or procreation. The women however were not prepared for this to happen, and so they used their mirrors to make themselves as beautiful and irresistible as possible, then going to their husbands in order to seduce them and become pregnant.
It was the role of the mirrors in this activity that is so important. The women had used them in order to show their faith in the future, they were a symbol not only of sexual attractiveness and sensual preparations, they were a symbol of faith, of resilience, of the emotional and religious intelligence sadly lacking in the men.
Rashi quotes this midrash at this verse, and goes even further. He says that Moses [and Betzalel] did not want to take the mirrors (they are listed separately from the earlier donations), presumably because they associated them with sensuality, with women’s actions to initiate sex, but Rashi tells us that God ordered him to take them.
It seems that God is less fearful of women’s bodies and sexuality than Moses was. Indeed God is reported to have said “These mirrors are more precious to Me than anything else”
Because the mishkan is said to have been dedicated on Rosh Chodesh Nisan (the beginning of the new month of Nisan), there is a tradition that the women should be rewarded for their faith, their resilience, their innovation and proactive donations, and given a special holiday on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Over time it appears that every Rosh Chodesh has become women’s special days, when no work is done and women celebrate and enjoy the time. Many women and women’s groups celebrate Rosh Chodesh together, but I wonder how many realise that the root of this tradition is the power and resilience of the women when the men failed to live up to what was necessary. I wonder how many women realise that the ease which the women had to initiate intimacy, the ministry which they offered at the liminal border between the sacred space and the secular space, the understanding the women showed to not offer their jewellery for idolatry but to run to offer it for the mishkan – all of this is in our tradition and deserves to be highlighted. For it isn’t only the women for whom this story is unfamiliar, it is particularly those men who have studied and who know these texts but who choose not to teach or to publicise them.
If we learn anything from these verses is that the women had a role every bit as important and active as the men, that they were not only routinely alongside but that they were also on occasions the leaders, the ones who carried the flow, the agenda setters.
Vayakhel means to bring together a community. Pekudei has a number of meanings, to visit, to account, to calculate, to encounter. When we read these texts we need to remember that a community is accounted, encountered and needs ALL its members.
We are in the time of the counting the omer – the days between Pesach and Shavuot – which give an awareness of, and a prominence to the link between Freedom (Pesach) and Responsibility (Shavuot).
Counting is something that has long roots in Jewish tradition- we count days and weeks of the omer, we count the days of penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we count the years for the shemittah year and we count the multiples of shemittah years for the Jubilee year. The scribe will count the letters written in a Torah scroll in order to check that there are none added and none removed accidentally. We even count the days till brit and the “white days” in the menstrual cycle. But counting people has always been a problem in Jewish tradition – it is forbidden to take a direct numbering of the people of Israel and plague was often the result for those who tried. The Talmud tells us “Rabbi Eleazar said: Whosoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition, as it is said: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured” [Hosea]. R. Nachman b. Isaac said: He would transgress two prohibitions, for it is written: ‘Which cannot be measured or numbered’.
Counting people can be said to take away the uniqueness of the individual, turning them simply into a number, dehumanizing the person. At the same time one could argue that as every number is different, the person is stripped not so much of individuality as of community. Yet community power resides within numbers. The development of the three patriarchs to the seventy souls who went down with Jacob to Egypt, to the over six hundred thousand at Sinai show how the community, the peoplehood, grew. We still understand a community to be the number we can count on the fingers of two hands – a minyan is ten people. Numbers bind us into community and they bind us to our roots. The traditional way of counting a minyan is to recite verse 9 of psalm 28 – the ten words of which being “hoshia et amecha uvarech et nachalatecha ur’eim venasseim ad ha’olam – Save Your people, and bless Your inheritance and tend them, and carry them for ever. Another traditional way is to say “not one, not two, not three etc”
The fear of counting people and thus separating them from the community and possibly from their own humanity has long roots in Judaism – only God is really allowed to count us, only God is seen as having the ability to count without discounting so to speak. Yet the need to understand the community and to be able to count people into the community continues. And the way that bible recommends is that we ask for a contribution from people and each contribution is counted.
It isn’t so odd as it sounds. Effectively the half shekel poll tax in order to support the Temple was both a fundraising activity and a way of measuring the numerical strength of the community. But I particularly resonate to the requirement that asks of people that in order for their presence to be recognised, they should offer some basic support to the community, and with this support they will be counted in.
The idea of being in a community by virtue of what you are offering to that community – not life changing amounts of money per se as the half shekel was a deliberately small amount designed to be possible for everyone to give, but a contribution nevertheless is the expression of an ancient idea that you are part of the community if you choose to offer something of yourself to it, if you partake of it, if you participate within it. You are part of the community if the community can count on you.
Listening to the emotive and emotional arguments about the wider community issue on the agenda today – the arguments about whether we should remain in the European Union or leave it and forge a new path– we hear a lot of words but can discern very little useful information to help frame our thoughts. One recent analysis of the words used most by the two campaigns show that Remain repeatedly use the three words “Jobs”, “Trade”, Businesses”, while the Leave campaign use “controlled” “NHS” and “Money”. It seems clear that the argument for economic stability sits with the Remain campaign, the argument for autonomy with the Leave. But as we move from Pesach to Shavuot, from Freedom to Responsibility, and into the book of Bemidbar, of the transitional neither-here-nor-there liminal space of the wilderness on whose other side will be the border with the promised land I find myself more and more cross that the language being used is of self-interest and self-regard, of “what can I not give to the community” and “what can I get from the community”.
Where is the rhetoric of commonality or of shared aims and aspirations? Where is the language of supporting each other, of helping each other to make a better world?
All I hear is calculation, and I am reminded of a quotation attributed to the architect Daniel Libeskind that “Life it is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics, it’s about experience, it’s about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting than what is obvious.”
Life is best lived in relationship, in community with others, sometimes taking and sometimes giving but always associating with the other. The more I think of how we count a minyan – with the formula “not one, not two, not three”, the more I like the reminder that we are bound together, that while we may be individuals with our own self-interest and self-regard, what is most important about us is that we together can rise over our individualism in order to form something much bigger and much more nourishing for us all – we can form community.
In classical Hebrew there are three different words for community: eidah, tzibbur and kehillah, and they each describe a different way of being a group together.
Eidah is the political body, the whole group of people with like minds and values, who have a shared sense of identity and purpose. It comes from the root to witness and in bible it is used to describe the whole Israelite people who travelling together having had, and continuing to have, a shared experience and a shared destiny.
Tzibbur, a later post biblical word for community, comes from a root that is to do with heaping up or piling up, and is generally used to describe the praying community. It is the descriptor of the organising principle of the Jewish religious community, the minyan, the group within which prayer is shared and heard. The word tzibbur implies that there are diverse individuals who are joined together for a particular purpose and time – normally understood to be communal worship activities. The laws of the tzibbur form the conceptual framework of community living; they are predicated on and sustain the spiritual life of the community.
The third word used to describe community – ‘Kehillah’ is something that contains both the meanings of Eidah and Tzibbur and more. It goes beyond being a community of shared prayer and shared mission, and looks towards caring for the health, educational, social and welfare needs of individual Jews. It is what we now think of if asked to define what a community should be, providing not just for our practical and functional needs, not just for our spiritual needs, but for our social activities, our diverse interests, our wellbeing.
The sidra vayakhel begins with Moses assembling the people, causing them to become a ‘kehillah’. From having led them out of Egypt and through the Sea of Reeds, from having caused them to be fed and given water, from having been the stern Lawgiver to the people, approaching God on their behalf, and bringing rules and judgments, Moses now does something quite different for them. He brings together the whole ‘edah’ as a ‘kehilla’ (Vayakel Moshe et col adat bnei Yisrael vayomer alei’hem: eleh hadevarim asher tziva Adonai la’sot otam” – Moses brought together as a kehillah all the eida of the bnei Yisrael and said to them, these are the things which the Eternal has commanded to do them)
He then instructs them about two things – firstly about Shabbat, a day of rest to follow six days of work, a day when no fire shall be seen in their homes. And secondly about the mishkan, telling them that col nediv libo – everyone whose heart was willing, (ie everyone who wanted to do so) should bring offerings to God, and then he lists an extraordinary number of objects and materials – gold, silver, acacia wood, rams skins, onyx stones…..
The people go and then come back laden with offerings. There is a strange phrase here – ve’ya’vo’u ha’anashim al ha’nashim – literally the men came upon the women. – and midrash tells us that this phrase tells us that the women came to make their donations first, and the men followed them, a lovely inversion of the story that the women had not wished to give their gold and jewellery for the building of the golden calf, demonstrating that they understood the importance of the mishkan and the abhorrence of the golden calf as a worship focus.
Whether this gloss on the verse is a good one is a moot point. I personally do not like it but I find hard to make any other sense of it. But what it does do is draw attention to the individuality of the givers – both men and women, each bringing what they have, what they can do, what they can make. They each use their skills and their materials to the best use of the mishkan. The focal point for the community is being made of the diverse skill sets and abilities of the entire community, freely giving above and beyond what was needed. The creation of the mishkan is a collective act, a symbol of the diverse community, a representation of its shared beliefs. Building it is an event that creates more than a powerful and beautiful edifice – it is an act that organises a people into a community.
How does one build a community? One recognises that a community is different things at different times, and it is different things to different people, and yet there is a golden thread that holds it together through time and space. Moses uses two different techniques to cause the community to come together – he creates sacred time and sacred space – or rather he brings the community to come together to create sacred time and sacred space. From being an eidah – a body of people with shared experience and destiny who may have nothing else in common, Moses used time and space to make a kehillah – an eidah that encompasses individuality and diversity and shapes it into shared and sustaining community.
Dedicating time and space to something one values is always the only way to develop it, to learn about it, to grow it. Making sacred space and making sacred time are the lynchpins of making sacred community. But doing in such a way that everyone who wants to can be involved, can give their skills, their time, their interests, their knowledge, their labour – this is the lesson we learn from the ultimate community building project of the book of Exodus, the building of the mishkan, the place where God did not dwell per se, but which reminded the people that God was among them.
“The ETERNAL spoke to Moses, saying: ‘When you take the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to God, when you number them; that there be no plague among them, when you numbers them. This they shall give, every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary–the shekel is twenty gerahs–half a shekel for an offering to the ETERNAL. Every one that passes among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the offering of the ETERNAL. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the ETERNAL, to make atonement for your souls. And you shall take the atonement money from the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the ETERNAL to make atonement for your souls.'(Ex 30 11-16)”
Shabbat Shekalim comes around the beginning of the new month of Adar, in order to give a good month’s notice of the beginning of the month of Nisan, the month in which Pesach falls at the full moon. It is also read at this time because, according to tradition, the census of which it speaks was taken on the first of Nisan, so the reading is also acting of a reminder of that census and its purpose. The passage reminds us of the census taken in the wilderness through the donation of a half shekel coin, given not apparently only for the purpose of counting people, but also as a kind of sacrifice to offer atonement for sin, and also to provide for the maintenance of the Tent of Meeting – the forerunner to Temple and Synagogue as the space which reminds the people that God is among them. On Shabbat Shekalim, we also read a haftarah portion from 2 Kings which also makes reference to the census money and the use of it for Temple maintenance.
It is a complex text raising a lot of questions. What is the atonement being offered? What plague is being avoided? What could possibly be the difficulty with a census, a direct count of the military age men? There seems to be an ancient taboo against counting people which operates still today. By tradition one never counts people – when checking that there are ten people for a minyan a verse from the psalms is read “Hoshia et amekha, u’varekh et nahalatekha, ur’em v’nas’em ad ha’olam” [Save Your nation and bless Your inheritance, tend to them and raise them up, forever – Psalm 28:9]. It has ten words, each used to check off the people until it is clear that there are ten or over.
So why don’t we count people? Rashi suggests that numbering people means we don’t see their full humanity, and in some way we diminish them. He brings to his argument the ancient text of the Hebrew bible translated by Onkelos into Aramaic – the word for census becomes ‘taking’ – in some way by numbering people we take from them something essential. So he tells us we should never do a head count, but instead take from each of them a token, and then count those tokens. If we do not, we risk a plague coming upon us, as happened when David conducted a census. The Talmud also asks and answers our question – but differently:
“Why are people not counted directly? … Rabbi Isaac says ‘It is forbidden to count Israel, even for the performance of a mitzvah.’ … “The Talmudic discussion focuses on the verse: “The number of B’nei Yisrael will be like the sands of the sea which cannot be measured or counted …” (Hosea 2:1). In other words it is a sort of denial of faith, that the promise given to Abraham that his descendants would be beyond counting would somehow be compromised by the act of counting.
I am not sure that either of these responses gives us the authoritative reason for why counting people is so viscerally wrong. But there is something very powerful in the refusal to see people in terms of numbers. And interesting too that in the act of finding out how many men of military age are available in the community – for that must be the primary purpose of this counting – other things are woven in. Each person who is eligible gives half a shekel, something we are reminded is based on a known weight of silver equal to twenty gerahs. So each person gives the equivalent of ten gerahs. This half shekel coin must have been one of the smallest – but possibly not THE smallest – coin, something that was within everyone’s reach to donate. But add to that is the instruction – both rich and poor will contribute the same amount, neither more nor less. This reminds us that both rich and poor are equally valued in the eyes of God. The contribution of each one is of equal importance. So in the act of assessing capacity for military strength, everyone is expected to give something, and relative wealth is made irrelevant – everyone contributes the same. The fact that it is coins and not people being counted for this is also a salutary lesson – on the one hand there is something that seems to be a little coldly dispassionate about counting the silver tokens rather than the human beings, but at the same time the humanity of the individuals is being preserved – only the contribution they give is being counted. And then the piece de resistance – the silver tokens that are given are to be used not for war, not in any way for aggrandizing the powerful or for claiming the territory of others – all the contributions are used to maintain the Tent of Meeting – in effect they are the synagogue subscriptions. It is no accident that many synagogues finish their financial years at this time – the Torah reading reminds everyone of the need to give, to contribute to the well-being of the community. Without such offerings no synagogue or Jewish institution would survive.
The passage we read as maftir for Shabbat Shekalim is a well known one with clear parallels in today’s practice. The need to be able to call together a force to defend the people and the land; the need for the humanity of that force to be defended too so that the soldiers do not lose their essential souls in the fighting they do is vital, and there is much to be said about how that particular lesson is not being applied well in the current situation in Israel – just look at the website of Breaking the Silence, the testimony of Israeli soldiers, to see how values and humanity can be eroded. The imperative to never diminish people by reducing them to numbers on a list is one to which our own recent history bears painful testimony. But something else struck me powerfully this year when reading the piece. The half-ness of the shekel and the fact that a half shekel is ten gerahs.
Why a half shekel? One response is that this is a coin within reach of everyone, something that is not too big a sacrifice to give but not so small as to be insignificant. That may well be true, there is no clear economic scale for us to check it against but it has a sort of inherent likelihood. But think a little more and other values emerge. A half shekel is not complete – it requires another half to complete it. What we are saying by giving this ‘half’ is that we are making a contribution, but on its own it is not powerful enough – we need to be part of a community in order to play out our values successfully.
To be part of a community, we have first to count ourselves, to give something that can itself be noted and counted. The half shekel that we give demonstrates that we need someone else in the community to fulfill us and make us whole, to partner us and complete us. Judaism teaches that life is not to be lived as an ascetic, removing ourselves from the pleasures of people – life is to be lived in community – so public prayer for example requires a minyan – hence the need to count the people to ensure ten are present. Community is an essential tool in tikkun olam, in repairing the world. It is certainly true that one person alone can make a difference, but working together with others creates a whole world of other possibilities. We all need other people to fulfill us and the offer of a half shekel not only allows ourselves into the community, it invites others to be our partner.