Sukkot’s Special Scroll

On the Shabbat of Sukkot, the harvest festival that the Pilgrims chose as a model for Thanksgiving, the scroll (or book) of Ecclesiastes or Kohelet (in Hebrew) is read in the synagogue.

The scroll has 12 chapters and is considered part of the “wisdom literature” of the Bible, reflecting on the nature of the world and the God who created it, and on the place of humans in this creation. Its author is thought to be King Solomon, the wisest king of the Israelites, and it is believed to be Solomon’s musings at the end of his life.

In the 3rd chapter of Kohelet, he writes verses that will be familiar to lots of people. In fact, these magnificent words provided a young American folk singer, Pete Seeger, with the lyrics he set to music in 1959, calling his new song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Seeger recorded it in 1962 and it became an international hit in late 1965 when it was hevel,” the same word that is the name of one of Adam and Eve’s sons: Abel/Hevel. In Kohelet, the word appears a whopping 38 times!!

If a key word for Kohelet is “hevel” (futility or vanity or air/breath) maybe he’s asking us to reflect on our own lives and what we harvest from all the days we have lived so far. Is time on this earth just a fleeting little breath…. or is there some substance to our days?

These days of early fall, as harvests are celebrated, seems a perfect time to reflect on the big questions of life and its meaning. Kohelet knows that all life eventually comes to an end — and that end is death. He also knows that we cannot know what comes after our death, what will remain of us in the memories of the living, and what will happen to our souls. Kohelet concludes that since we cannot know the future, it is important, perhaps even wise, to enjoy the fruits of our labors now, while we are alive.

To consider:

  1. Do you think of life as a mere fleeting breath, or utter futility? What mitigates against that feeling for you?
  2. Where and when do you take time to reflect on the big issues of life? What makes this reflection possible? Friends? A quiet space? A beautiful scene in nature?

(You might also enjoy listening to versions by Judy Collins (circa 1966) or Roger McGuinn at the Kennedy Center in 1994, honoring Pete Seeger.)

The Rock wants you to listen

We are at the penultimate chapters of the entire Five Books of Moses; in fact, the entire book of Deuteronomy has been one very long speech that Moses gives before he dies. In Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy chapter 32—50 verses), we get his poetic conclusion.

Ha’azinu literally means “give ear” and is addressed to the heavens and the earth. Moses wants the very heavens and earth to witness what the old prophet has to say as he winds down his life and his speech. This poem is his departing words to the people of Israel about God’s relationship with them, about God’s decisions to punish Israel, and about the ultimate deliverance of Israel from her foes (chapter 32 v 45-47). This poem isn’t an especially heart-warming one with beautiful, gentle metaphors. There is a lot of sturm und drang — warnings of the disastrous things that will happen if the “treacherous breed of children” disobeys the laws, as they are prone to do and have already done in the past.

God is referred to as The Rock in this poem, a powerful metaphor, one that avoids the anthropomorphic images stuck in some of our heads. The poem dichotomizes The Rock with the Children of Israel: The Rock is perfect, faithful, true and upright, whereas the Israelites are perverse, dull and witless, etc. Much of the poem sounds like an angry old man berating his ungrateful and wayward children for the terrible behaviors they have engaged in. After 43 verses of this dramatic exhortation, the chapter ends with a few lines of prose:

And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching (Torah). For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan.

In the last few verses of Chapter 32 we read the difficult conversation between God and Moses, as the old prophet is instructed on how and where he is to die, and that although he can take a look at the Promised Land, he will never enter it because he “broke faith…with God…by failing to uphold God’s sanctity among the Israelites.” Ha’azinu is a chapter of Bible filled with painful endings.

To consider:

  1. What metaphors for God work for you? The Rock is one presented here, but there are many other ways to think about God and the Divine.
  2. How do you imagine your “exit” from the world? What would you like to tell your real or imagined children or grandchildren in your last speech?

Yom Kippur

The most solemn and holy day of the entire Jewish calendar is the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which starts the evening of September 25 and goes through nightfall on September 26. We pause for 25 hours or so to re-enact our death and re-birth by wearing white, not drinking or eating, reflecting on where we have gone astray (as one ideally does on one’s death bed) and devoting many hours to serious contemplation of how we lead our lives.

There are 4 different readings from Scripture on Yom Kippur:

  1. During the morning service, the reading from the Torah is Leviticus 16. Focusing on the awesome, arcane and mysterious rituals for atonement performed by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies (most consecrated part of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem) on the Holiest Day of the Year, it’s a triplet of holiness. This ritual includes sacrificing a scapegoat flung into the wilderness and another identical goat offered up to God.
  2. Also during the morning service is the Haftarah, written by the prophet Isaiah during the 6th century BCE after Cyrus, the Persian monarch, allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. We are privileged to read an absolutely beautiful and inspiring sermon which serves as an antidote to the earlier Torah reading from Leviticus. Isaiah adjures us to repair the world; he warns us against empty fasts and rituals that ignore the suffering of others. When you read Isaiah’s strong words, you sit up and pay attention, and resolve to do better to fix the woes of the hungry and homeless in our midst.
  3. In the afternoon service, when the fast has really begun to have maximum effect, we hear either chapter 18 or 19 of Leviticus, known as the Holiness Code, found in the very middle of the 5 Books of Moses. Chapter 18 is filled with sexually unacceptable behaviors and Chapter 19 has some of the most salient commandments about what it means to be holy: “Love your fellow as yourself… You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind… You shall not profit by the blood of your fellow…” etc.
  4. Finally, also in the afternoon service, we read the four short chapters from the Book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, who tried to run away from doing God’s bidding, telling the people of Nineveh to repent.

It’s a lot of scriptural reading on a very long day.

If you have never read Jonah, I recommend starting there:

It’s a universal story of one flawed human, called upon to be a prophet but he resists his task. Even the sailors on the boat he travels on and the regular townsfolk of Nineveh appear to know more about repentance than Jonah. What is this story about? Why read it on the holiest day of the year?

If you are somewhat familiar with the readings, think about the brilliant decision 1500 years ago to juxtapose the two very different morning readings: one all about rituals that are very distant and foreign to us, about slaughtering animals to expiate our sins; and the Haftarah, by Isaiah, demanding social justice. This prophet’s words still seem aimed at each of us here in 2012 and, I’m guessing, will always be relevant.

If you fast, may it be meaningful.

Writing Our Legacy

Outside, even here in northern California, we feel the seasons changing — time to shut the windows at night. It’s the new month of Tishray, the month loaded with Jewish holidays. It’s officially fall, which signals the very end of the yearly cycle of weekly Torah portions. This week’s portion is VaYelech which means “And He Went” (Deuteronomy 31) — the “he” referred to is Moses. This little chapter and the 3 following it comprise the epilogue to the 5 Books of Moses (the Torah). We hear God’s voice telling Moses that it is time for him to die (Moses himself admits aloud that at the age of 120, he no longer has the strength to lead the nation in battle).

In VaYelech, we read Moses’s preamble to his final poem, or “song”, as it sometimes called; he is tidying up loose ends. And what does he say? He repeats one phrase several times:

Be Strong and Courageous…don’t be afraid of what is before you, the Lord, your God, will not forsake you; He will be with you.

Along with this message we read of the appointing of Joshua, to take over as leader.

But how will Moses enable the people to remember to “be strong and courageous”? Good question! He and God have figured out that they must write down all of the history and laws so that this “teaching” or “Torah” will exist forever and will be recited in front of the entire people — men, women, children and strangers in the community. God and Moses both know that there will be backsliding, that things will go downhill, but, the fact that “the Good Book” exists in writing means that the “Teaching” will be around as a guidebook, “in the mouths” of the people, remembered and followed for generations.

For your consideration:

  1. When someone tells you, “put that in writing” what does it mean? What is it about the act of “writing” down words on paper (or parchment) that makes it different from only hearing those same words spoken?
  2. What is the written legacy you would want to leave behind before you die? What do you want your family and closest friends to know about life?

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Rosh Hashanah: A Family Thing

OK, I admit it: I watched the recent Democratic convention in Charlotte, and Michelle Obamas’s speech stole my heart… and got me to thinking about how important it is to both presidential candidates to highlight their families. Some of the most intense feelings and experiences in our lives happen in the intimate spaces of family life. Fast forward to Rosh Hashanah and lo and behold, the Torah readings are narratives that takes place in the cauldron of familial relationships: Husband/Wife, Father/Son, First Wife/Concubine, Siblings.

On the first day of the new year, we read about Sarah, wife of Abraham, becoming pregnant at the age of 90; when she heard the news, she laughed, of course! She later names her son, Yitzhak, from the Hebrew root word for laughter. Unfortunately, Yitzhak’s life was anything but a barrel of laughs, as we find out on the second day when we read one of the most troubling narratives in the Torah, the “Akeidah,” the binding of Yitzhak (Genesis 22).

Back on Day 1, our narrative from Genesis 21 contains a story about Sarah’s maid servant, Hagar, whom Sarah earlier gave to Abraham to impregnate, in order that the elderly couple would have offspring. Hagar and her son, Ishma’el, are cast out of the household by Abraham at Sarah’s demand. Sarah sees Ishma’el, the big brother, playing with her toddler Yitzhak, and she is none to pleased. We don’t really know what Ishma’el was doing with Yitzhak, but the verb comes from that same Hebrew root that makes up Yitzhak’s name. And whatever is happening makes Sarah very angry. Abraham is distraught but God tells him to listen to Sarah, despite the fact that he loves Ishma’el as well as Yitzhak (and maybe he even loves Hagar too).

What a boiling pot of familial intrigue and passion!

The expulsion of Hagar and Ishma’el and the binding of Yitzhak have given philosophers (Kierkegaard for one), rabbinic commentators from 1800 years ago, poets, painters, playwrights, and others much to contemplate. Our questions way outnumber any satisfying answers.

I invite you to read the stories and talk about what happens in them. And why in the world do we read these particular stories on Rosh Hashanah as we renew ourselves and re-start our yearly Torah cycle?

Wishing you a sweet and bountiful year of blessings!

Nechama