The fruit of the goodly tree – the curious case of the etrog: or “what does the Etrog have to do with the Jewish people and land.

L’italiano segue il testo inglese

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals – the shalosh regalim – where the bible (Leviticus 23) tells us that the people must come to Jerusalem with their harvested produce, to give thanks to God.

We read “The fifteenth of this seventh month shall be the feast of booths for seven days to the Lord… Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast to the eternal seven days: on the first day shall be a Sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a Sabbath. 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… 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 23:33ff

Fascinatingly, this text about Sukkot gives us two reasons for its celebration – both an agricultural one with the celebration of the harvest, and a theological one, reminding us of our dependence on God during (and after) the exodus from Egypt.

In fact Sukkot is referenced in bible in a number of different ways. The book of Exodus repeatedly calls it “Chag haAsif – the Festival of Ingathering”; In Leviticus and Deuteronomy it is referred to as Chag HaSukkot – the Festival of Booths/Sukkot; In the Books of Kings, Chronicles and Ezekiel it is called simply “HeChag” –THE Festival; and in Leviticus in the text quoted above it is called “Chag Adonai” – the Festival of God. The first two names are clearly agricultural in origin – they reference the acts of harvesting and of living in small booths in the fields during the harvesting/birthing of animals. The second two are clearly more theological/national in origin. It remains for the rabbinic tradition simply “HeChag” The festival par excellence. And the rabbis have one more name for it, again deriving from the Leviticus piece quoted – it is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing.

What is this joy about? Is it because we have an abundance in the Autumn, before the harshness of the winter sets in? Is it because we not only are faced with out vulnerability as we live on and work the land, but because we also are secure in God’s protection?

In the Talmud (Sukkah 11b) there is a debate – Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva are trying to understand the verse “That your generations will know that I made the Children of Israel live in booths [sukkot] when I brought them from the land of Egypt..” Rabbi Akiva understands these to be literal physical booths, while Rabbi Eliezer understands them as metaphor – these booths are the clouds of glory that descended from God to protect the wandering Israelites in the desert.  If we were to follow Rabbi Eliezer we would understand that the mercy of God protects us, and in particular if we would see the context of Sukkot as part of the set of Autumn Festivals, then these clouds continue to hide our sinfulness and give us even longer to repent and return to a merciful God. Given that there is a tradition that one can continue to do the work of Elul/Rosh Hashanah/ Yom Kippur right up to the last day of Sukkot – Hoshanah Rabbah, this metaphorical understanding of the Sukkah is a way to give us extra time with a patient and merciful God waiting to offer us protection – something surely to be joyful about.

The text in Leviticus, besides telling us both the agricultural and the theological/peoplehood reasons for this festival, and giving us the command to rejoice before God (no other festival has this commandment), tells us to take four different plants – only two of which, the palm and the willows of the brook, are named. The others- the fruit of goodly trees, and the branches of leafy trees, require some interpretation.

The Book of Nehemiah describes an event that occurred on the date of Rosh Hashanah during the early Second Temple period. We are told that all the people gathered themselves together as one into the broad place that was before the water gate in Jerusalem; that they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which God had commanded to Israel.  Later in the same chapter we find: “Now they found written in the Law, how that the Eternal had commanded that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month; and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: “Go forth to the mountain, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim. And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness (Neh. 8:14-17).

This is clearly a description of Sukkot, yet there is no etrog, rather the branches of olives and wild olives, and the leafy tree is named here as the myrtle. There is also no mention – unlike the passage in Leviticus – of putting the four species together and enacting a ritual with them. Indeed, it is clear to the people of Nehemiah’s time that these branches are for the creating of the booths/sukkot, and this is also reflected in a Talmudic discussion (BT Sukkah 36b – 37a), that Rabbi Meir says a sukkah can be built of any material, whereas Rabbi Judah, basing himself on the description in the Book of Nehemiah, says it can only be built with the woods of the four species.

It seems also, that the fruit of the goodly tree should, by rights, be the olive. It was and it remains a staple in the agriculture of the region, the oil used as both food and fuel for lighting, for medicine and for religious ritual. The olive also is harvested around this time. When you factor in the statement by Jeremiah (11:16) “16 The Eternal called your name a leafy olive-tree, fair with goodly fruit”, it seems a bit of a no-brainer that the fruit of the goodly tree would be the olive

Yet we have instead, the rather ambiguous fruit – the etrog. Why?

The earliest text probably is that of 1st -2nd century Targum Onkelos, the first translation of the bible (into Aramaic), which has a habit of also interpreting the text, and which clearly writes “the fruit of the etrog tree”. Josephus (1st century Romano-Jewish writer) also describes the use of the Etrog when he writes about the festival. The Talmud (TB Sukkot 34a) tells the story of the Hasmonean king and High Priest Alexander Yanneus (103-76 BCE) who was not respectful of the ritual of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (the ceremony of the water libation) and was pelted with etrogim by the angry worshippers.  The Hasmonean coins of the period show etrogim, and it was clearly an important symbol of the nation at that time.

I wonder if the etrog came to be one of the four species (arba’a minim) because it had a particular quality that the rabbis wanted to add to the ritual – and what that quality might be.

By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) the etrog is part of the group of the four species. While it is practically inedible in its raw state, it does have a particularly lovely smell should you scratch the skin a little with your nail. The old joke usually told about Israelis being like the sabra fruit, that they might be prickly and unedifying on the bush, but deliciously sweet when opened, is maybe better designed for the etrog – they appear to be firm dense and unyielding, but the smell of them when touched is exquisite. They also have another quality – leave most fruits and they will soften and rot. The etrog will generally wither and harden, but not rot, and the smell continues for a long time – not for nothing are they a favourite to make as the spice box for havdalah.

There are midrashim that talk about the four species describing the different people in a community – the date palm has taste but no smell, and describes the one who knows much torah but does not do good deeds. The myrtle has smell but no taste, the one who does good deeds but knows little Torah. The willow has no taste or smell – denoting the person who neither learns Torah nor does good deeds; and the Etrog has both taste  and smell – the ideal. We put them together in our sukkot ritual waving of the arba’a minim – because every community has people of each kind, and every community needs people of each kind.

There is a midrash that the four species resemble a whole person – the willow leaves look like lips, the myrtle leaves look like eyes, the palm is the spine and the etrog – the etrog is the heart. Again, we need to use our  whole bodies when we worship.

But the midrash I like best, and the one I have the feeling was the reason for the Etrog joining the branches of the other trees, is that each of the four species is a distinct botanical type, each quite different from the other.

The palm trees love hot and dry climatic conditions – they don’t fruit well in the humid coastal areas, but like to be in dryer, desert conditions. And so the palm branch represents the desert areas of the Land of Israel.

The myrtle thrives best in the colder and mountainous regions of the northern parts of the Land, and the willow needs to be in the areas close to the yearlong streams of water ; The etrog does best in the irrigated land of the lower coastal areas and the valleys.

The Land of Israel, small as it is, is a land of micro climates, and each one of the arba’a minim represents a different climate and so a different part of the Land. Sukkot is par excellence the festival of agriculture, of the awareness of the need for rain to fall appropriately and in timely fashion. The three trees named are, to a gardener’s eye, representative of three quite different climates. The olive is no such sensitive plant, so a different plant should be chosen to represent the carefully farmed areas of the land.

The shaking of the Lulav, the connection with harvest and agriculture, the pouring of water at Simchat Beit HaSho’eva – this is a festival both of thanksgiving and of request for the coming year. The shivering of the palm leaves as one shakes the lulav sound like the rain pattering onto the ground. What good would it be if one part of the land is well irrigated if another part suffers drought or floods?

As we become ever more aware about the problems of the changing climate – the hurricanes, the floods, the delayed monsoons, the scorching drying sun which allows fires to spread so quickly – we begin to realise what an interconnected world we live in, that what happens in one part of the world impacts upon us all.

So when we pick up the four species, let’s focus on the lesson it give us, in particular the substation of the etrog for the olive, to remind us that we are all inhabitants of the same earth, all individual parts of a greater whole, and lets do what we can to protect the earth, the crops, the rivers and the deserts, the frozen areas of the poles and on the mountains, the glaciers and the seas… Sukkot is all about how we respect water, Mayim Hayim, the giver and supporter of life.. and how we respect the world and its Creator.

 

Il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto – il curioso caso dell’Etrog: o “cosa ha a che fare l’Etrog con il popolo ebraico e la terra d’Israele”.

Di rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato il 13 ottobre 2019

Sukkot fa parte delle shalosh regalim, una delle tre feste di pellegrinaggio, per cui la Bibbia ci dice che il popolo debba giungere a Gerusalemme con i prodotti dei propri raccolti, per ringraziare Dio.

In Levitico 23, si legge “…Il quindicesimo giorno dello stesso settimo mese è la festa di Sukkot, (delle capanne), in onore del  Signore, che dura sette giorni…. Ma il quindicesimo giorno del settimo mese, quando raccoglierete i prodotti della terra, festeggerete la festa del Signore per sette giorni; nel primo giorno vi sarà astensione dal lavoro e nell’ottavo giorno vi sarà astensione dal lavoro. E vi prenderete il primo giorno un frutto di bell’aspetto, rami di palme e rami dell’albero della mortella e rami di salice …. Nelle capanne risiederete per sette giorni …. affinché sappiano le vostre generazioni che in capanne ho fatto stare i figli di Israele quando li ho tratti dalla terra d’Egitto … ”

Questo testo su Sukkot, in maniera affascinante, ci offre due ragioni per la sua celebrazione: una agricola, con i festeggiamenti per il raccolto, e una teologica, a ricordarci la nostra dipendenza da Dio durante (e dopo) l’esodo dall’Egitto.

Effettivamente, Sukkot viene menzionata nella Bibbia in diversi modi. Il libro dell’Esodo la chiama ripetutamente Chag HaAsif , “la festa del raccolto”; in Levitico e Deuteronomio viene indicata come Chag HaSukkot, “la festa delle capanne”; nel Libro dei Re, nelle Cronache e in Ezechiele è chiamata semplicemente HeChag, “LA festa”; infine in Levitico, nel testo sopracitato, la si chiama “Chag Adonai, la festa di Dio”. Le prime due denominazioni sono chiaramente di origine agricola: fanno riferimento all’atto del raccogliere e del vivere in capanne nei campi durante la stagione del raccolto e le nascite del bestiame. La terza e la quarta sono in origine più chiaramente più teologico-nazionali. Per la tradizione rabbinica resta semplicemente HeChag, la festa per eccellenza. E per essa i rabbini hanno ancora un altro nome, sempre derivante dal pezzo del Levitico citato: Z’man Simchateinu, il momento della nostra gioia.

In cosa consiste questa gioia? Perché abbiamo l’abbondanza dell’autunno, prima che inizi la durezza dell’inverno? Perché non solo affrontiamo la nostra vulnerabilità mentre viviamo e lavoriamo la terra, ma perché siamo anche sicuri nella protezione di Dio?

Nel Talmud (Sukkà, 11b) c’è una discussione: rabbi Eliezer e rabbi Akiva stanno cercando di capire il versetto “Che le tue generazioni sapranno che ho fatto vivere i Figli di Israele in capanne [sukkot] quando li ho portati dalla terra di Egitto…” rabbi Akiva interpreta, alla lettera, che si tratti di capanne, in senso fisico, mentre rabbi Eliezer le intende come metafora: queste capanne sono le nuvole di gloria discese da Dio per proteggere gli Ebrei erranti nel deserto. Seguendo rabbi Eliezer, potremmo dire che la misericordia di Dio ci protegge, in particolare se vedessimo il contesto di Sukkot come parte del complesso delle feste autunnali, allora queste nuvole continuano a nascondere il nostro peccato e ci danno persino più tempo per pentirci e fare ritorno a un Dio misericordioso. Esiste una tradizione secondo cui si può continuare a fare il lavoro introspettivo di Elul, Rosh Hashanà e Yom Kippur fino all’ultimo giorno di Sukkot,  Hoshanà Rabbà, questa interpretazione metaforica della Sukkà è un modo di darci del tempo con un Dio paziente e misericordioso che attende di offrirci la sua protezione, ed è sicuramente qualcosa per cui essere felici.

Il testo in Levitico, oltre a raccontarci le ragioni sia agricole che teologiche e nazionaliste di questa festa, e a darci il comando di rallegrarci davanti a Dio (nessun’altra festa ha questo comandamento), ci dice di prendere quattro piante diverse, solo due delle quali, la palma e il salice, vengono nominate. Le altre, il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto e i rami di alberi frondosi, richiedono una certa interpretazione.

Il Libro di Nehemia descrive un evento accaduto alla data di Rosh Hashanà durante il primo periodo del Secondo Tempio. Ci viene detto che il popolo si radunò come un tutt’uno nell’ampio spazio che si trovava davanti alla porta dell’acqua a Gerusalemme; che parlarono a Esdra, lo scriba, per portare il libro della Legge di Mosè, che Dio aveva comandato a Israele. Più avanti nello stesso capitolo troviamo: “Allora trovarono scritto nella legge che il Signore aveva dato per mezzo di Mosè che i figli di Israele dovevano abitare in capanne durante la festa del settimo mese. Così pubblicarono in tutte le loro città e a Gerusalemme questo bando: “andate in montagna e protatene rami d’ulivo, d’olivastro, di mirto, di palma, e dell’albero folto, per farne capanne, come è scritto”. Il popolo ci andò: portarono a casa rami e si fecero capanne, ognuno sul suo tetto, nei loro cortili, , nei cortili del Tempio, sulla piazza della porta delle Acque e su quella della porta d’Efraim. Tuta l’adunanza, quelli che erano tornati dalla cattività, fecero così capanne e vi abitarono. Dal tempo di Giosuè figlio di Nun, fino a quel giorno, i figli d’Israele non avevano celebrato così: la gioia fu grandissima. Ezra diede lettura alla Legge di Dio ogni giorno, dal primo all’ultimo,. La festa si celebrò per sette giorni; l’ottavo giorno, ci fu solenne adunanza, come prescritto. (Neh. 8.14-17)

Questa è chiaramente una descrizione di Sukkot, eppure non c’è l’etrog, piuttosto i rami d’ulivo e olivastro, e l’albero frondoso qui è chiamato mirto. Non c’è nemmeno menzione, a differenza del passaggio nel Levitico, del mettere insieme le quattro specie e con esse porre in atto un rituale. In effetti è chiaro al popolo dei tempi di Nehemia che questi rami sono per la creazione di capanne/sukkot, e questo si riflette anche in una discussione talmudica (BT Sukkà 36b – 37a), in cui rabbi Meir afferma che una sukkà può essere costruita con qualsiasi materiale, mentre il rabbi Judah, basandosi sulla descrizione del Libro di Nehemia, afferma che può essere costruita solo con il legno delle quattro specie.

Sembra anche che il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto dovrebbe, per diritto, essere l’ulivo. Era e rimane un punto fermo nell’agricoltura della regione, l’olio era usato sia come cibo che come combustibile per l’illuminazione, la medicina e il rituale religioso. E l’oliva stessa viene raccolta in questo periodo. Quando si considera l’affermazione di Geremia (11:16) “Il Signore ti aveva chiamato ulivo fiorente, adorno di magnifici frutti.” Leggendo ciò sembrerebbe ovvio che il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto debba essere l’oliva.

Eppure abbiamo questo frutto piuttosto ambiguo: l’etrog, il cedro. Perché?

Il primo testo probabilmente è quello del Targum Onkelos del I-II secolo, la prima traduzione della Bibbia in aramaico, che ha l’uso di interpretare il testo e che scrive chiaramente “il frutto dell’albero del cedro”. Anche Giuseppe Flavio (storico ebreo romano del I secolo) descrive l’uso del cedro quando descrive la festa. Il Talmud (TB Sukkot 34a) racconta la storia del re e sommo sacerdote asmoneo Alessandro Ianneo (103-76 a.C.), che non rispettava il rituale di Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (la cerimonia della libagione dell’acqua) e fu colpito con dei cedri da dei devoti arrabbiati. Le monete asmonee del periodo recano dei cedri, che evidentemente erano un simbolo importante della nazione in quel momento.

Mi chiedo se l’etrog sia diventato una delle quattro specie (arba’a minim) a causa di una qualità particolare che i rabbini volevano aggiungere al rituale, e quale potrebbe essere stata questa caratteristica.

Al tempo della Mishnà (II secolo d.C.) il cedro fa parte del gruppo delle quattro specie. Mentre è praticamente immangiabile allo stato grezzo, ha un odore particolarmente gradevole se gli si graffia la buccia con l’unghia. Un vecchio detto comune riportava che gli israeliani sono come il frutto del sabra, il fico d’india, che potrebbero essere spinosi e poco attraenti sul cespuglio, ma deliziosamente dolci quando aperti, forse la similitudine si adatterebbe meglio al frutto del cedro: sembra essere rigido e irremovibile, ma il suo profumo, quando viene toccato, è squisito. Hanno anche un’altra qualità: la maggior parte dei frutti lasciati sull’albero si ammorbidisce e marcisce, il cedro invece appassisce e si indurisce, ma non marcisce, e l’odore continuerà a lungo: non per niente è uno dei frutti più utilizzati  per  preferiti da utilizzare nella scatola delle spezie per l’Havdalà.

Secondo alcuni midrashim, le quattro specie descrivono le diverse persone di una comunità: la palma da dattero ha sapore ma non profumo, quindi descrive la persona che conosce la Torà, ma non compie buone azioni. Il mirto ha profumo ma non ha sapore, corrisponde a colui che compie buone azioni ma conosce poco la Torà. Il salice non ha sapore o profumo e denota la persona che non impara la Tora né fa buone azioni; infine l’Etrog ha sia sapore che profumo: l’ideale. Uniamo gli arba’a minim, le quattro specie, nel nostro rituale di Sukkot perché in ogni comunità ci sono persone di ciascun tipo e perché ogni comunità ha bisogno di persone di ciascun tipo.

In un altro midrash le quattro specie vengono paragonate a una figura umana: le foglie del salice sembrano labbra, le foglie di mirto sembrano occhi, la palma è la spina dorsale e l’etrog… il cedro è il cuore. Nuovamente, abbiamo bisogno di usare tutto il nostro corpo quando preghiamo.

Ma il midrash che preferisco, e che ho la sensazione stia stato il motivo dell’aggiunta del cedro ai rami degli altri alberi, è che ciascuna delle quattro specie è un tipo botanico distinto, ognuna abbastanza diversa dall’altra.

Le palme amano un clima caldo e secco: non producono buoni frutti nelle zone costiere umide, ma necessitano di condizioni più asciutte e desertiche. E così il ramo di palma rappresenta le aree desertiche della Terra di Israele.

Il mirto prospera meglio nelle regioni più fredde e montuose delle parti settentrionali della Terra e il salice ha bisogno di stare vicino a un corso d’acqua per tutto l’anno; L’etrog rende meglio nelle terre irrigate delle zone costiere inferiori e delle valli.

La Terra di Israele, per quanto piccola, è connotata da microclimi, e ognuno degli arba’a minim rappresenta un clima diverso e quindi una parte diversa della Terra. Sukkot è per eccellenza la festa dell’agricoltura, della consapevolezza della necessità che la pioggia cada in modo appropriato e tempestivo. I tre alberi nominati sono, per un giardiniere, rappresentativi di tre climi piuttosto diversi. L’ulivo non è una pianta così sensibile, così andrebbe scelta una pianta differente per rappresentare le aree della Terra coltivate con cura.

Lo scuotimento del Lulav, il legame con il raccolto e l’agricoltura, l’acqua di Simchat Beit HaSho’eva: questa è una festa di ringraziamento e di richiesta per il prossimo anno. Il tremolio delle foglie di palma mentre si agita il Lulav suona come la pioggia che batte sul terreno. Dove sarebbe il vantaggio se una parte del terreno fosse ben irrigata e un’altra parte soffrisse di siccità o inondazioni?

Man mano che diventiamo sempre più consapevoli dei problemi del cambiamento climatico, degli uragani, delle inondazioni, dei monsoni in ritardo, del sole cocente che inaridisce e consente agli incendi di diffondersi così rapidamente, iniziamo a renderci conto in che mondo interconnesso viviamo, tanto che se qualcosa accade in una parte del mondo avrà un impatto su tutti noi.

Quindi quando raccogliamo le quattro specie, concentriamoci sulla lezione che ci dà, in particolare la sostituzione dell’ulivo con il cedro, per ricordarci che siamo tutti abitanti della stessa terra, siamo le singole parti di un tutto più grande, e facciamo ciò che possiamo per proteggere la terra, i raccolti, i fiumi e i deserti, le aree ghiacciate dei poli e sulle montagne, i ghiacciai e i mari …

Il significato di Sukkot riguarda completamente il modo in cui rispettiamo l’acqua, mayim hayim, elemento che dona e sostiene la vita, e in come rispettiamo il mondo e il suo Creatore.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

27 Ellul: From certainty to doubt – the journey of faith that prepares us for the Yamim Noraim via psalm 27

It has become traditional among Ashkenazi Jews to read psalm 27 in the morning and evening prayers from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, a custom first mentioned by Jacob Emden in his siddur published 1745. One suggestion for why this psalm became so important to this long period of reflection is the first line – “God is my light and my salvation” which was glossed by the rabbis as referring to Rosh Hashanah (Light) and Yom Kippur (Salvation), and the further reference to the sukkah in verse 5 leads to the extension of the period of reading.

It is an extraordinary psalm, turning on its head the traditional journey of penitential prayer from darkness to light, and instead begins with great confidence before descending into fear and anxiety, and then the psalmist seems to force himself into a more hopeful frame of mind.

The psalm divides into three sections, each with its particular mood and style.  The first six verses show an almost superhuman faith and confidence that God will support the psalmist against whatever comes to try to harm him. But then from verse 7 doubt begins to creep into psalmist’s mind. Beginning by asking God to hear when he calls, he descends into his terror of abandonment – not only by his own parents but by God’s face also being hidden from him. By verse 12 he is fearful, begging  God not to deliver him to his enemies. False witnesses are rising against him, there is the prospect of terrible violence. In this middle section the psalmist speaks directly to God in the second person, unlike the bookended sections where God is spoken of in the third person. And yet, even as he addresses God directly, it is clear that he cannot be certain God is listening.

The third and final section does not take us to any uplifting certainty – indeed the rather complacent faith of the beginning of the poem has been stripped away, and the psalmist is left with the need to remind himself of the need for courage, to hope for a salvation that may or may not come.

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַֽאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹוָֽה:

The final line, with the psalmist telling himself to be strong and to strengthen his heart/ mind, bookended with “wait in expectation for God” is about as high an aspiration for Elul as can exist.

 

The earliest confidence of the psalm is that of the unthinking believer, who simply never questions and who holds the kind of faith that is unsustainable when it meets reality. The doubt and fear that enter the heart of the psalmist in the middle section are reasonable responses to the crises and everyday pains of life – We can feel alone and abandoned, God does not answer our prayers as we would like, and it is the qualified confidence, the need for hope, the expectation of a better outcome that feels real and normative.

 

The very middle of the psalm has a line that is so ambiguous it almost defies translation, yet clearly is the pivot of the piece. In verse 8 we read

לְךָ֤ ׀ אָמַ֣ר לִ֭בִּי בַּקְּשׁ֣וּ פָנָ֑י אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ:

 

It is variously understood to mean

“On Your behalf, my heart says, “Seek My presence.” Your presence, O Lord, I will seek” or

“My heart says to you “Seek me out”—[because] I am seeking you out God.”

Or (Rashi’s understanding) “on Your behalf my heart says ‘Seek out My face”, and the second half of the verse is the psalmists response “I will seek Your face”

Or “To You my heart spoke, my face sought out your face God”

Or ““Of You my heart said “seek My face”, Your face God I do seek” (Robert Alter)

Who exactly is speaking in this verse? Is God sending a message to humanity via their hearts, calling on them to reach out for God? Is this a reciprocal statement where we ask God to seek us because we are seeking God?

The ambiguity speaks to the moment. There is no real clarity in faith, no real certainty that all will be well. Communication with God is often realised after the event, when we recognise we were praying, or when we feel comforted without fully being aware of when or how that comfort came about.

There are so many reasons given why the Ashkenazim read  this psalm 100 times in 50 days, from the idea of salvation in verse one, to the  “coded message” of the word  לׄוּלֵ֣ׄאׄ

in verse 13, (It spells Elul backwards). Whenever there are many answers to a question, we can know only that the answer is not known. But I think this psalm has a powerful capacity to challenge us at this time, to remind us that blind faith is complacent and childish, that doubt and fear are reasonable and normal human responses to life, and that the only real way through is to strengthen one’s self, to hope, to believe and know that hope is a reasonable tool to deal with doubt and fear. And with that message ringing in our ears we travel through Ellul onto Rosh Hashanah and the Yamim Noraim….

14th Elul: manageable teshuvah in bitesized portions

14th Elul

Reb Shmelke said “basing myself on the Talmudic tradition that if everyone repented together the messiah would come, I decided to do something about it. I was convinced that I would be successful, but, where to start? The world is so vast I shall start with the country I know best -My own.  But my country is so very large; I had better start with my town.   But my town itself is large, so I had best start with my street.  No, with my home.  No with my family. Reb Shmelke pondered a little and said “never mind, I’ll start with myself”  (Chasidic)

We stop ourselves very often from progressing, or from doing what we intend to do, by defining the terms of reference too widely. The month of Elul, the whole progression of the liturgical year from the haftarot of rebuke to Tisha b’Av to the haftarot of comfort to Rosh Hashanah, takes us on a journey – We ignore God’s warning and find ourselves in catastrophe. We are aware of God’s proffered comfort but find The Great Day of Judgment that is Rosh Hashanah awaiting us. We will spend the ten days of return trying to focus before Yom Kippur is upon us demanding the fruits of our work, and then Sukkot offers a breathing space……

Maybe we should just do our teshuvah in more manageable and less impressively indigestible chunks, so that we actually get some done.

Sukkot: the people, the land, the relationships that connect us

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.

[i] Exodus 23:16; exodus 34:22

[ii] Leviticus 23.34; Deuteronomy 16:13,16

[iii] Ezekiel 45, 25, 1 Kings 8, 2, Ezekiel 45, 25 and 2 Chronicles 7, 8

[iv] Leviticus 23:39

(written for the “Judaism in 1000 words” section of Movement for Reform Judaism website)

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.

 

After the Days of Awe, the echoes of teshuvah continue to be heard

We have spent the last month in a frenzy of Jewish Festivals, from Rosh HaShanah on through the Ten Days of Teshuvah through to Yom Kippur, the full week of Sukkot and finally ended with the revelry of relief that is Simchat Torah.

In a sense we barely draw breath as we navigate our way through what one colleague terms “the autumn manoeuvres”, and while we reel from one festival to the next the tropes of repentance and return, the familiar tunes in minor keys, the moments of introspection, the food and the fasting, the sensation overload that is Sukkot, and finally the celebratory extravaganza as we complete the cycle of Torah readings and begin again.

So here we are at the new beginning, the post yamim noraim moments when we face living in the new year and the challenge of putting our resolutions into practise. And suddenly there is no obvious structure leading us through the process of Teshuvah – we are on our own, left to find a way to live our lives aspiring to be better people, hoping to become the best people we can

The first time a driving instructor suggested I signal, look in my mirror, remove the handbrake and move into the flow of traffic, I remember the surge of adrenalin fuelled panic as I realised I was in charge of more than a ton of moving metal. There seemed to be a huge stretch between learning about it in theory and actually driving a real car among real people. I am sure that each of us can remember a moment of realisation that life was expecting something from us, and there could be no going back. Be it the first moment in a new job when someone mistook us for a seasoned professional, or the first time we understood that a new baby was totally reliant on us, or even the first time we read Torah or agreed to sit on a synagogue committee – suddenly the world is different, and we rise to the expectation rather than admit that we don’t really know.

Well Teshuvah is rather like that – God expects something from us, we expect something from ourselves, we have thought and reflected and vowed to change our behaviour in the quiet of a synagogue service or in a moment of honest self awareness and now we have to step up and live our lives according to that aspiration.

The period of festivals just past take the title of Yamim Noraim – Days of Awe; and Awe is an emotion we tend not to be so comfortable with these days. A mixture of reverence and fear, of overwhelming amazement and intense connection, the whole idea of awe is one we tend to edge away from. Yet according to the neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall, Awe should be recognised as the eleventh emotion, added to the list of ten that researchers already use to describe states of being.

In his book “Awe” he describes the emotion as “The valuable, irresistible fascination, the highest elation and sometimes most profound sadness that leaves us in a state of puzzled apprehension, perplexing dread, yet appreciative wonder and hope regarding the vast mysteries of life”.   Later on he talks about Awe being the emotion that “causes us to feel more completely alive than we ever thought possible”.

This is the feeling we need to take with us into the new year ahead. Not as intensely as maybe we experienced it throughout the Days of Awe, but as an awareness, the resonance of an echo, as we continue in our lives. When God speaks to Job after the thunder and whirlwind, what he hears is “a voice of slender silence” (often translated poetically but less truly as “a still, small voice”. When the voice of God comes to prophets and even to some rabbis in the Talmud they hear a “bat kol” – the daughter of a voice, again a poetic reference to the echo of a sound when it has already passed. This is the closest we can get to God in our ordinary and everyday worlds, the closest we can experience beyond our own world, and as the prophets and others found, it was enough to enable them to keep going.

So as we leave the intense, profound, formal and ceremonial Days of Awe, let’s try to hold on to the echo of the awe, the appreciative wonder, the mystery, the understanding that there is more in the world than we will ever comprehend, and that this does not need to make us feel fear or that we are hostages to some random universe. The lessons of the past month tell us that while we may reel from one event to another, journey in an instant from profound sadness to great joy (and back), sometimes feel out of control or else out of energy, we move onwards in our live, we have opportunities to change in so many ways, possibilities to grow and learn, and this is good.

Shanah Tovah – may your year be new and filled with possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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