Friday, October 17, 2008

Hol Hamoed Sukkot (Mitzvot)

Sukkot Miscellanea

• Continuing the theme of Sukkot as a return to nature: it would seem that this festival, which ends the annual cycle, both of festivals and of Torah reading, may be viewed as a prelude or transition to Bereshit—the Book of Beginnings. The return to basics, to the elemental reality of our life, on Sukkot, is a prelude to the opening chapters of the Torah, that describe how it all began, and sketches the essential situation of the human being.

• The sukkah may also be seen as a locus in which one feels the Divine Presence: according to Kabbalah, the skhakh represents makifin, the transcendent aspect of the Divine, hovering over and protecting us. It may also be seen as analogous to the Holy of Holies, entered by the high priest on Yom Kippur or, on another level, to the huppah (also a symbolic home, and linguistically homologous to sukkah), under which bride and groom are united and rejoice.

• The mitzvot of sukkah and lulav both symbolize totality, comprehensiveness, inclusiveness. The sukkah is unique in that it is performed by the entire body and, at least in its ideal halakhic definition, encompasses all life activities—eating, sleeping, learning, meeting with friends, even praying. In theory, one may conduct oneself in such a way as not to leave the sukkah for the entire seven (or eight) days. Indeed, it is related that the Gaon of Vilna remained in the sukkah for eight days straight, and only needed to recite the blessing over the sukkah once. Similarly, the four species symbolize the unification of multiplicity: the four winds or directions of space, the four letters of the Divine name, four human types, four basic organs of the body, etc.

• The Five Megillot and the Feminine. An odd thought crossed my mind: that all five of the scrolls read on festivals and other commemorative days involve a feminine element. Two—Ruth and Esther—are named for woman, who are central characters therein; Shir ha-Shirim (Song of Songs) celebrates the love of man and woman; while the other two, Eikhah and Kohelet (Lamentations and Ecclesiastes) are rooted in a passive attitude towards life, and their titles may be read as feminine nouns. In traditional gender symbolism (admittedly schematic and stereotyped), the masculine is seen as constantly striving, pushing forward, attempting to leave a mark on the world, whereas the feminine is seen as more passive, even-keeled, accepting of life as it is, and thus, if you will, more resigned to and accepting of the limits of the human condition. The quintessential female act, childbirth, is deeply rooted in nature and its limitations. (Of course, woman can be and are active, dynamic and energetic—but we are speaking here of archetypes.) In any event, Eikhah expresses the grief and resignation felt upon the destruction of Jerusalem and the sufferings of the people; while Kohelet is a philosophical monologue of an older man, who has tried everything and has reached a certain point of resignation about life.

YOM KIPPUR: Jonah as Everyman

Two and a half millennia before Herman Melville, Jewish literature had a morality tale set (at least in part) on the high seas. Although its text is less than one percent the length of Moby Dick, and can be read aloud in ten minutes, one may ponder it for a lifetime.

It is difficult to identify the prophet Jonah ben Ammitai historically (notwithstanding that, in addition to the book called after him, he is mentioned in passing in 2 Kings 14:25) beyond saying that he lived “sometime during the First Temple period”; indeed, there is little evidence for the historicity of the story. But that is really besides the point; it seems to me that the story of Jonah may be read as that of Everyman. In this respect, the book is comparable to that of Job: the story of a paradigmatic figure, who may never have lived in actuality, whose life expresses certain problems and ideas. (Indeed, every year before Yom Kippur Aviva Zornberg delivers a shiur on the Book of Jonah, largely from an existential and psychological perspective; she recently remarked that each year she finds it more enigmatic and difficult to understand.)

In the first section of the book, Yonah is called upon to prophesy to the city of Nineveh, but instead flees from God. When a violent storm breaks out at sea, and all the sailors pray to their respective gods, he descends to the depths of the ship and falls asleep. Awakened by the captain, he gives an answer that pretends to piety, but is belied by his actions. “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, who made the sea and the dry land,” but the sailors know that “he was fleeing from God, for he had told them.” (Is there not something innately paradoxical in fleeing from God, who is everywhere, and who by Jonah’s own words made both the dry land and the sea?) This attitude is in striking contrast to that of the sailors who, notwithstanding their pagan belief, are essentially God-fearing, in the sense that they possess a sense of natural piety, decency, ethics, and responsibility for others. At a certain point Jonah, knowing that the storm is on account of God’s anger with him, specifically, asks them to throw him into the sea—possibly expressing a certain suicidal tendency, later articulated in the repeated words “I prefer death to life”—but they refrain from doing so until it becomes unavoidable. They know that throwing another person to his presumptive death, even to appease the gods, is wrong; only when all else fails do they do so, reluctantly. At this point, Jonah is in fact swallowed by an enormous fish, in whose innards he lives for three days, and even engages in eloquent prayer; this fish serves as the vehicle transporting him to the shore close to Nineveh. (Someone asked me an overly literal-minded klutz-kashe [nuisance question]: where exactly was he spit out? Even the closest point on the Mediterranean shore, or even the Black Sea, would be many hundreds of miles from Nineveh, near Mosul in northern Iraq. The fish could hardly have crossed over to the Persian Gulf and swam up the Tigris—and all this in three days!)

The second half of the book, Chapters 3 & 4, occurs in and near Nineveh. Here, Jonah is revealed as adhering to a punitive, even vindictive ethos. When the people of Nineveh, responding to his call that “in another forty days Nineveh will be overthrown,” in fact abandon their evil ways, he is disappointed because God forgives them. He fails to understand that this, and not their destruction, was the whole point of his mission. He wanted punishment, blood; it would seem that he believed the laws of Divine retribution to be automatic and unchanging. (Here, I would disagree with Zornberg’s suggestion that Jonah’s objection was that the Ninevites’ teshuvah was superficial, based upon external display only, i.e., sackcloth and fasting. The text explicitly states that they abandoned their evil ways; indeed, the Talmud quotes this verse as proof that change of deeds is the essence of teshuvah.)

The book concludes with a strange conversation between God and Jonah relating to the gourd, or castor-oil plant, that shades the latter from the harsh east wind, and then withers. One way of reading this is that this little episode revealed Jonah’s essential selfishness or self-preoccupation: that is, he is not an idealistic moral personality at all, demanding Divine justice, but an ordinary person concerned with his own comfort. His anger at Divine compassion stems from an indifference to the fate of others, coupled with an unreflective, conventional code of morality.

Why is this book read on Yom Kippur? There are two basic messages of Yom Kippur, seemingly contradictory. On the one hand: teshuvah, meaning: acknowledging and encountering God, accepting responsibility for one’s actions, and not attempting to escape from the seriousness of life. Jonah, as the man who “flees from God” (an idea that is really a theological absurdity), expresses an impulse present within every person: to flee from responsibility for one’s life, from confrontation with meaning, with the gravity and seriousness of the moral life. His descent—to the sea, to the hold of the ship, and thence into sleep—are all forms of escape. The captain’s call to awake and cry out to his God is comparable to that of the shofar, which calls upon every person to wake up and stop wasting his/her life in trivial concerns (Rambam, Teshuvah 3.4). Jonah’s sleeping may be contrasted with the motif of wakefulness, that characterize the days of teshuvah as a whole: rising before dawn for Selihot, as well as the widespread practice to daven earlier on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur than on an ordinary Shabbat.

The second message of Yom Kippur is God’s forgiveness, as a kind of compassionate response to our own teshiuvah: the atonement granted on the Holy Day is a gift of love, notwithstanding the sins of Israel. Jonah’s unforgiving posture vis-à-vis the people of Nineveh is diametrically opposed to this.


On the First Day of Rosh Hashanah, our dear friend Zelig Leader passed away. When I first thought about writing a eulogy about Zelig, I thought of the phrase tzaddik nistar, a “hidden righteous”—but decided against it because, notwithstanding Zelig’s kindness and modesty and the love he inspired in so many people as witnessed by the vast turnout at his funeral, it’s too bombastic. Zelig, like the rest of us, had his share of faults; he was an ordinary person, who struggled to muddle through: to make a living, to deal with the vagaries of children and women.

One of those who eulogized him at the funeral—I think it was David Litke of the Jerusalem Scrabble Club—spoke of his slightly bemused, at times cynical, way of looking at the world. Though he was an observant Jew, the son of a rabbi, and reasonably learned, there was also something in him of the outsider, looking on at life, including religious communal life, somewhat from the side (in a certain way, similar to what I wrote about Agnon last week). There was also a certain aura of sadness and loneliness about him.

Zelig was born in America in 1943, the oldest son of Tzfat-born rabbi of Hasidic descent, who served in Conservative pulpits in various far-flung places such as Idaho and New Mexico. The children returned to Israel as young adults. I know that Zelig worked professionally in the field of computers; at another time he worked, like myself, as a translator; some years ago we even collaborated in translating a book about “happiness.” He was the father of four children: Ebn David, Amir, Oren and Talya. Following his divorce, he never remarried; although he was together with his life partner, Heather, for twenty years, they lived apart, adding to the sense of his being something of a loner.

He was highly gifted with words. A champion Scrabble player, he was one of the central figures and organizers of the Jerusalem Scrabble Club, particularly after Sam Orbaum’s death. His monthly emails announcing the meetings of our minyan, always addressed to ”Holy Prayer-Sayers,” were a minor art form in their own right. On occasion, he would also speak at the minyan, in a kind of ironically visionary, metaphorical language: about conversations with old-time Jews he met on the street on his way to shul, or recalling a dream about a boat…

I first came to know Zelig through the minyan. I would call him to arrange to read the Torah at the next meeting of the minyan; we would go on to talk at some length. I remember these conversations with warmth; somehow, they always filled me with new ways of looking at things, with a sense of Zelig’s warm humanity and caring, a certain life wisdom he had.

A word about Amika de-Bira, or “the Leader Minyan”—a unique Jerusalem institution that meets once a month, on Shabbat Mevarkhim. This minyan was started by Zelig and his brother Avraham to fill a certain lack they felt, stemming from dissatisfaction with the existing synagogues. They wanted a place where they could really daven—seriously, slowly, with a real attempt at kavvanah, without the sense of hast and time pressure that one finds in most synagogues even on Shabbat. In the broad sense, it took its inspiration from Shlomo Carlebach and his attempt to translate the ecstasy and soul-elevation of old-time Hasidic prayer into a modern idiom; its regular participants could all be described as in some sense off-beat, outside the main stream of conventional middle-class Isreali “dati’ut.” The minyan started in Avraham’s basement over twenty years ago, and gradually grew and attracted more and more people. It has wandered through a variety of locations in southern Jerusalem. The service lasts four to five hours—which sounds daunting, but really creates a warm atmosphere, so that one hardly feels the passage of time.

The prayer tradition of the minyan was largely shaped by Zelig’s brother Avraham, and by his son, Ebn David (who now teaches in the United States). Zelig’s role involved much of the unsung organizational details—arranging the place, seeing to the physical supplies for Kiddush, recruiting people to read the Torah, etc. Zelig himself loved reading the Torah, and blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (so long as he was physically able). In recent years, that task was passed on to Michael Kagan who, symbolically, blew one long blast on the shofar at the conclusion of Zelig’s funeral.

But most of all, there was something about him that elicited love. When I went to the shivah, I left with a strong sense that the person I must wanted to talk to wasn’t there. Haval al de-avdin


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