26th Ellul- learning to forgive ourselves as God forgives

In the Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) we have the origin of the great confessional prayer of the Yamim Noraim, the Avinu Malkeinu.  “Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos, the great teacher and pious scholar descended before the Ark in order to serve as prayer leader on a fast day because of a terrible and prolonged drought.  He recited 24 blessings but was not answered. Then his student, Rabbi Akiva descended before the Ark and simply said “Avinu Malkeinu, Ein lanu melech ele atah, Avinu Malkeinu lema’an’cha rachem Aleinu: (Our Father, our Ruler, we have no sovereign other than You. Our Father, our Ruler, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”

Immediately the rains fell. The Sages began whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not. A Divine Voice emerged and said: It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”

Rabbi Eliezer was known for his fierce temper, and indeed was excommunicated when his colleagues could no longer deal with his domineering and strict viewpoints – though interestingly both he and his learning were always held in great respect and he is one of the most quoted rabbis in Talmud. But he was not a person who found forgiveness easy to do, nor did he find it easy to let go of his anger – indeed the story of his wife Ima Shalom who supervised his prayers after the excommunication in order to prevent his anger overtaking the world is a powerful end to the story of the oven of Achnai, and a reminder that when someone is so certain of the rightness of their view that there is danger for us all.

But Akiva, the one who could forgive others, had a simple prayer answered;  a prayer that did not even mention the desperate need for rain, but asked God for mercy for God’s own sake.

This is the origin of Avinu Malkeinu – and also of the extraordinary – and powerfully resonant – last lines of the prayer.

Over the year many additions have been made to this prayer. Sephardi machzorim generally have 32 petitions, the Ashkenazi ones can go up to 44. Some requests are particular and some are universal, some ask directly for favours, others remind God of the vulnerability of the people. But the last lines are different, they special and are specially loved – so much so that we have changed the longstanding tradition of saying them quietly but instead lustily and happily remind God to be merciful as is God’s nature, because we have no good deeds to bring. All this to a joyful tune, quite different from the solemn and rather serious tune of the rest of the prayer.

The Dubner Maggid tells the story of the person who goes shopping, excitedly adding more and more items to their “buy” list. All the petitions are in effect  us saying “I’ll take that, and that, and give me that too please”  And then when we get to the till, we find we cannot pay for everything we have taken, and in embarrassment have to say to the cashier – can you help me? Can you give me some credit and I will try to pay you in the coming year.  As long as I have a good year – please add a good year to my basket…

The embarrassment referred to in the story of the Dubner Maggid is all but disappeared today. Instead we proudly and clearly stand before an open Ark and list our requests to God. The Avinu Malkeinu is in each of the services; it is one of the last prayers in Neilah, the evening of Yom Kippur. We have spent the day reflecting, we have spent the month before on Heshbon Nefesh, considering our previous behaviour. And on Yom Kippur we may fast and afflict our souls, but we also know that if we are more like Rabbi Akiva, able to forgive others, God will forgive us. Yom Kippur is the white fast for a reason – the colour is both the colour of mourning and the colour of joy. We can have both serious reflection and happy anticipation in our lives – and both are deserved.

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.