Posts Tagged 'Simchat Torah'

Torah 20/20: Looking with Fresh Eyes

As the story goes, was a  baal teshuvah, newly religiously observant person, who started crying in synagogue during the Torah reading.  When the rabbi asked him about this display of emotion, he replied that he just does not understand why Joseph’s brothers could sell him into slavery. This profound empathy moved the rabbi to tears. The next year when they got to Parshat Vayeshev the rabbi was ready and went over to console the crying parishioner during the Torah reading. The following year the rabbi preempted the situation and brought the congregant a tissue. The rabbi was surprised to see that he was not crying or sad, but instead visibly angry. When the rabbi asked the person why he was angry he replied, “I am really annoyed. I used to be sad that his brothers had it out for him, but this time why didn’t Joseph learn his lesson?” 

Every year, the Jewish community reads the entire Torah, our most holy text, on a weekly cycle. With the advent of Simchat Torah we will end this year’s reading of the Torah and start reading it again from the beginning.  It is quoted in the name of Louis Pasteur, “No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. Each year we look at the wisdom in this text like a stranger with fresh eyes, and each year we turn to it for sustenance as we navigate our ever-changing, yet also frequently cyclical, world. The nature of the Torah is that we can revisit it throughout our lives. When we learn Torah we demand relevance from revelation and its meaning evolves. 

As we start again from the beginning, we can look at how Adam and Eve saw things. There we read:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. (Genesis 3:6-7)

Something is peculiar in the language here. If the eating itself caused their eyes to be opened, the Torah would have said that she ate and her eyes were opened and then he ate and his eyes were opened. Instead it says “the eyes of them both were opened” only after they both ate. What do we make of this?

In his genre creating masterpiece, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the way we can influence each other. There he wrote:

…if I smile and you see me and smile in response–even a microsmile that takes no more than several milliseconds–it’s not just you imitating or empathizing with me. It may also be a way that I can pass on my happiness to you. Emotion is contagious.  (The Tipping Point 84-85)

I posit that this is exactly what happened in Eden. Eve ate of the fruit, enjoyed it, and shared it with Adam. When Adam ate, instead of reciprocating with a microsmile, he winced. In so doing he rejected her bid to share something pleasurable. With that wince his eyes made it clear that they did not experience Good and Bad the same way anymore. In that moment, both of their eyes were opened.

Since then the complexity of coming together has grown exponentially. The nature of politics in a democratic society is preserving the tension between our wanting to be the same and struggling with our differences and desire for individuality.  Each of us may have radically different notions of what is tasty or pleasurable, let alone what is Good and Bad for society. From the beginning, this country has been an imperfect but valiant effort “to form a more perfect Union.” 

As we return to Genesis and the Garden of Eden we are all invited to revisit this tension. This cycle of reading the Torah will accompany us through a high-stakes year in America life in 2020. In Torah 20/20, T’ruah is asking rabbis, writers, political leaders, and artists to explore democracy and questions of how to build a just society through the lens of the weekly Torah reading. How might we want to cry or get angry when reading about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers? How does exploring this wisdom impact how we might want to fight human trafficking, systemic racism, or economic disparity? As we look ahead at 2020 we see the value of seeing the world anew with fresh eyes.

 

Nothing Trumps Character : Some Timely Reflection on the Election

We will have a great reckoning on  November 9th. I am not talking about anything political, but rather the eventuality of our needing to deal with who we are as a nation. This election has called into question the nature of our character as people. With the election finally behind us we will need to make sense of who we are and who we want to become. We cannot just blame it all on the politicians. We have to recognize our role in the circus of this election. All of us, a part of it, sitting there in the big top tent cheering,  jeering, watching, and waiting for the next spectacle.  We have to own our part of not turning away from the sickening entertainment; and sadly, we have to admit it has been fun. Finally, without the distraction of  those seeking public office, we will need to make sense of our moral lives. How will we explain this to the next generation?

I was particularly struck by the Republican response to revelation of the 2005 Access Hollywood video tape. For those who have been following Trump’s train wreck of a campaign this was not out of character given his history of horrible comments about women. Why, after months of “othering” so many people and groups of people, was this was over a line causing many of his supporters to jump ship? And to make it worse, so many of his supporters opened their remarks saying, “As a father of daughters…” So in response to all of them I have to say that as of father of daughters and as father of sons, and as a human being, I am deeply troubled by the implications of this election. To my mind having to apologize to stand up to misogyny with the prop of a daughter is itself part of the problem of our society.

Earlier in the campaign when Trump was asked about his misogynistic language (as compared to the recent tape of his bragging about sexual assault) he deflected the question by saying:

I think the big problem this country has is being  politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.

So it is true that I am not Mexican, I am not a Muslim, I am not yet disabled, I am not a war veteran, I am not “from the inner cities”, I am not a person of color, I am not gay, and I am not a woman. I am an educated white heterosexual man from the suburbs who is the father of daughters and sons.  So while I am pretty safe and in a position of privilege, as a Jew I cannot forget the lessons of history and the importance, for humanity’s sake, of standing up for what’s right.  We cannot stand idly by in this practice of “othering” people. So, I have to be honest with you, this country needs to make time to talk about these issues.

So, last Sunday I got up and got sucked into the vortex of my Facebook feed yet again. I found myself  watching a video of Trump at one of his rallies. In response to violence breaking out against protesters at his rally, Trump joked,  “You have to admit that there is nothing as fun as a Trump rally”.  While it seems absolutely deplorable to joke about violence in any form, I got to thinking if, in a sick way, Trump might be right. Is it true? Is there nothing as fun as a Trump rally? I cannot imagine that I am the only one who cannot stop watching it. What is the nature of our character when having fun is necessarily at the expense of “othering” people?

I was thinking about this the night which marked the advent of the holiday of Sukkot- Chag Simchateynu– the holiday of our happiness. How do we as Jews define fun and what does it say about our character?

Every morning throughout Sukkot when the Temple in Jerusalem stood, a unique service was performed: the Nisuch ha-Mayim –  Water Libation Ceremony. The water for the libation ceremony was drawn from a pool in the City of David and carried up the Jerusalem pilgrim road to the Temple. Afterwards, every night in the outer Temple courtyard, tens of thousands of spectators would gather to watch the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah -Rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing. As the most pious members of the community danced and sang songs of praise to God the dancers would juggle lit torches, and were accompanied by the harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets of the Levites. We learn in the Mishna in Sukkah, ” They [the Sages] said: Anyone who has never seen the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah has never seen rejoicing in all his days” (Sukkah 5:1). So evidently the fun was palpable, but does it stand up to a Trump rally?

The  Mishna continues:

At the conclusion of the first day of the Festival of Sukkot  (That would be today) they went down to the court of women, where they had made a tikkun gadol- great enactment. (Sukkah 5:2)

What does this mean? Why did they need to make a great enactment amidst all of this fun? On this the Gemara asks the same question saying:

What was the great enactment? Rabbi Elazar said: Like that of which we have learned: Originally [the walls of the Court of the Women] were smooth, but [later the Court] was surrounded with a gallery, and it was enacted that the women should sit above and the men below. (Sukkah 52a)

Is this model of Simcha by marginalizing women our model of highest joy? Let’s continue by looking at the Gemara which says:

Our rabbis have taught: Originally the women used to sit within the Court of the Women while the men were outside, but this would cause levity, it was instituted that the women should sit outside and the men inside. But they would still come to levity. It was instituted that the women should sit above and the men below. (Sukkah 52a)

While Trump, a model of levity and licentiousness, is happy inspiring inappropriate behavior at a rally, here, at the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah, amidst this occasion of real joy, they enacted various changes that would prevent frivolity and maintain holiness. It is interesting to note that they tried various solutions until finding one that prevented frivolity. At first, they put the women in the middle and the men on the outside, but that did not work. Then, they put the men in the middle and the women on the outside and this also did not work. It was only when the women were in the balcony that it worked. Did they even consider putting the men in the balcony and the women where the action was?

In her essay  “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in which she coined the expression “Male GazeLaura Mulvey wrote:

Woman, then, stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.                                     

Reading these words helped me unpack why all of the “fathers-of-daughters” politicians drove me crazy. It seemed that it was too little too late given the litany of people that Trump and his supporters have marginalized. And while it seemed noble for them to stand up to Trump’s objectification of women, in their very rejection of Trump these politicians objectified women.  Being offended on one’s daughter’s behalf makes those very daughters “bearers of meaning and not makers of meaning.” How is this any different than what was going on with the great enactment of the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah? Neither of the first two solutions dealt with the issue that it is the active male who gazes and passive female who is being looked at that leads to frivolity.

This great enactment at this moment of the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah in the Temple is locus classicus for why any Orthodox Synagogue today has a mechitzah. For more on this see some great essays by Rabbi Henkin in his book Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues. So before I jump on the band wagon of tarring and feathering Trump for his having fun at the expense of others it seems worthy of reflecting about how I as an Orthodox Jew communicates values to my daughters and my sons from the context of an Orthodox synagogue.

The solution in the time of Temple was putting women in a  balcony, but might there have been another solution if we had not been limited to the structure of the Temple? Why is this moment at the Temple the model for our synagogues thousands of years later? Might there be a better model for appropriate fun for our synagogues today?

After the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis longed for ways to bring the sanctity of the Temple into our lives. Ezekiel cries out, “Lord God, you are wiping out the remnant of Israel.” God responds by declaring that God has “removed them far among the nations and have scattered them among the countries, and I have become to them a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary”. (Ezekiel 11:13) According to the Talmud , God will dwell in the holy spaces we create, for they are the Temple in miniature (Megilah 29a). A synagogue was transformed into mikdash me’at, for us to gain access to the temple. In addition we read in Psalms:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. ( Psalms 137: 5-6)

Through the synagogue we could gain access to real joy. So Jerusalem is the place of joy and as we learned in the Mishna in Sukkah, the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah was the paradigmatic time of joy. This seems to set the standard for the synagogue with its great enactment.   But what is significant about this particular moment?

In the cycle of the year, we have just made it through the ordeal of judgment throughout the High Holidays. During the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah, we are immersed in the ritually rich holiday of Sukkot heading towards the holiday of Simchat Torah.  All this on the heals of Yom Kippur, when we expiated ourselves from our sins, we now show up in the Temple to start the reading of Genesis and imagine starting over again as equals with everyone as we were in the Garden of Eden.  “And God created man in God’s own image, in the image of God created God man; male and female created God them” ( Genesis 1:27). We imagine ourselves side by side with no one being marginalized.

During the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah they showed up at the Temple to be seen by God, but they needed to deal with their inappropriate gazing that led to frivolity. As we create our mikdash me’at in our synagogues today, we are also trying to make a space where people can show up to be seen by the Divine and where there is no frivolity.  Might men and women standing side by side with a mechitzah right down the middle be our great enactment?  In this way we can experience appropriate joy without having to “other” anyone, neither our daughters nor our sons.  In my mind this is a model of true joy and the ideal for a synagogue.

How might this divine gaze be a model for us as a society?  How might seeing ourselves side by side help us deal with the levity and frivolity in our culture? Standing side by side we can do away with “Locker Room Banter”. Standing side by side we can be crystal clear and define sexual consent. Standing side by side we can stem the tide of our rape culture that is so pervasive on our college campuses. Standing side by side we can make life better for our daughters and our sons. Standing side by side we can re-imagine what it means to have fun without it being at anyone’s expense.

On November 9th, we will still need to deal with the fact that thousands of people in this country have been showing up at Trump rallies. Trump has given them a much wanted voice. I would like to think that under all of this hatred is a noble humanity that just yearns to be seen. As a nation we will need to help everyone find ways to be proud of who they are. We need to take time to let people be honest and let our true selves be seen. To maintain our republic we need to institute a great enactment to ensure that this is never happening at the expense of marginalizing others. “Othering” people is just not fun.

In order for us to become a more perfect union we will need to spend some time thinking about our ideas and the context of our ideals.  To play with one of my favorite quotes which was written by Frank Outlaw, I would say:

Watch your context , they become your thoughts;

watch your thoughts, they become words;

watch your words, they become actions;

watch your actions, they become habits;

watch your habits, they become character;

watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Chag Sameakh- May we all be blessed with a truly fun and joyful holiday.

 

-This is adapted from a drasha I gave the second day of Yom Tov Sukkot. And yes it caused a bit of stir.

Starting the Year Right: Lessons from Simchat Torah

Just when you thought that we were finished with the holiday season, there is more. Tonight we celebrate Shmini Atzeret and then on Thursday night we start Simchat Torah. In Israel these two holidays are celebrated on the same day. In many ways Shmini Atzeret is a completion of the Sukkot holiday. But what is Simchat Torah? I have always understood it to be the day that we celebrate the completion of the liturgical reading of the Torah. Why do we start reading the Torah right after Sukkot on Simchat Torah instead of another time like  Rosh HaShanah , the Jewish New Year, or even Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah?

Sukkot is a time in which we surround ourselves with nature and bask in our being dependent on God. Even before we get to all of the rich symbols of Sukkot we see that the experience is challenging us to live in an Eden-like environment. I think that Simchat Torah is less about finishing reading the Torah then a perfectly timed re-reading of the Torah. Coming on the heels of Sukkot, a holiday in which we were able to easily achieve the will of God, we read the story of Adam and Eve again. This time, maybe we will have learned the lesson.  Instead of starting off the year with the negative reinforcement of getting kicked out of Eden, we start the year off right dwelling in the Sukkah of God. As we have been saying since the advent of Elul,

One thing I ask of the Lord, that I seek- that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit God’s Temple every morning. ( Psalms 27:4)

In this light we see that Shmini Atzeret is a very holy time in which we leave Eden on our own terms. We are not kicked out, instead we leave the Sukkah determined to make the world a better place. We should all be blessed with a year of learning lessons the first time around, giving people we love positive encouragement to succeed, and finding our own ways to make the world a better place.


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