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    Action and intellect – Sukkot

    September 17th, 2021

    Popular thinking regards Sukkot as a festival of action: you make the sukkah, you decorate the sukkah, you sit in the sukkah, you eat (some people sleep) in the sukkah, you transfer your activities to the sukkah – all true, but there is also an intellectual aspect.

    The Torah explains that the sukkah has a message, “that your descendants shall know that I caused the Israelites to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt” (Lev. 23:42-43). The sukkah requires you to think, to know, to understand.

    What in particular does it tell us?

    Rabbi Eliezer says it recalls the clouds of glory with which God protected the Israelites. Without God we would never have survived.

    Rabbi Akiva’s view is that it reminds us of our humble, fragile past. We build and use the sukkah because it shows that we did not suddenly arrive at the gateway to Eretz Yisra’el without knowing who we were and how we got there.

    Our present and future are explained by our past.


    Well in advance – Sukkot

    September 17th, 2021

    The Torah commands us (Deut. 16:13) to make a sukkah. The task is far from easy. So many questions arise.

    Is last year’s sukkah still kosher? How many people must a sukkah accommodate? What rules apply to the walls and the roof? What happens if rain beats down on the sukkah?

    There are so many rules. It requires so much time and effort. The question is when the time and effort should be done. The answer is, “not at the last minute.” One should get ready for Sukkot long before and plan the sukkah in advance with a mind stocked with information. It is hard because Sukkot comes so close to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

    Planning for Sukkot should commence weeks before, even though the actual building traditionally begins at the end of Yom Kippur.


    The spiritual bank account – Sukkot

    September 17th, 2021

    There are four plants associated with Sukkot – the lulav (palm), etrog, hadassim (myrtle) and aravot (willow).

    There is a Midrash (Lev. Rabbah 30:10) that says the Torah speaks of the importance of the etrog, which the Torah calls “the fruit of a goodly tree”. The Midrash says, “This refers to Abraham”.

    In the Zohar there is a statement that whatever good deed you do any day is a symbolic deposit in your spiritual bank account.

    Most people have quite a good balance in their account, but there are some days without good deeds and without new bank deposits, whilst Abraham was consistent in always adding to the deeds of the day.

    The etrog symbolises the goodly man, the goodly deed and the goodly spiritual credit.


    Jonah: A prophet on the way

    September 14th, 2021

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in The Jerusalem Report on 27 September, 2021.

    Jonah is a strange book. What attracts most people is its theatrics, especially the big fish.

    On Yom Kippur afternoon the story gets a somnolent congregation giggling. Hardly anyone thinks that it is more than a story. Few ask the deeper questions.

    Stephen Rosenberg calls it “a political allegory related to the trials and tribulations of the northern kingdom of Israel.”

    There are social history aspects too, ranging across side issues of like fishes, ports and cities. The important thing, though, is Jonah the human being.

    Ascribed by the Talmud (Bava Batra 15a) to the men of the Great Assembly, the book may be autobiographical, but we can’t prove it.

    Is Jonah a prophet? II Kings 14:23-25 says, “Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel restored the border of Israel, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He spoke by the hand of His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet.” If Jonah’s father, Amittai, is the prophet, we would like more information about him. If it is Jonah who is the prophet, he certainly bears a prophetic message – but he constantly fights against it.

    Yonah probably means a dove, a ditherer. Possibly his name is from y-n-h, to oppress, or a-n-h, to mourn, a verb found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Perhaps the root is a-n-a, indicating anguish and fear. It might be a theophoric name incorporating the name of God: it commences with Yo, like Yo’el (Joel) or Yo’av (Joab) or with Yeho like Yehoram or Yehoshafat.

    Seder Olam calls Jonah a disciple of the prophets – i.e. not a full prophet but a prophet on the way. There are stages in the prophetic life which he hasn’t yet worked out. Rashi sums up his concern: “If these heathens repent, it will be due to me that Israel will look guilty, because they spurned the words of the prophets.”

    It seems that author has plucked a minor figure called Jonah from II Kings and built a midrash around him, which became an independent book. The real Jonah might be a prophetic apprentice, a nobody turned into a somebody.

    There is an odd poem in chapter two of Jonah. James Watts says, “The relation between the narrative and the psalm has been studied and discussed more than any other psalm in a narrative context.”

    This is my translation:
    Jonah prayed to the Lord from the belly of the fish. He said:
    In my distress I cried to the Lord and He answered me.
    From deep in the grave I cried; You heard my voice.
    You cast me into the deep, into the midst of the seas.
    Flowing waters surrounded me,
    All Your waves and billows passed over me.
    I said:
    I am cast out from Your presence, I will never again see Your holy temple.
    The waters surrounded me to my very soul,
    The deep encompassed me, the weeds were wrapped around my head.
    I went down to the base of the mountains; earth was barred to me forever.
    But You brought me up alive from the grave, O Lord my God.
    When my soul fainted within me, I acknowledged the Lord,
    My prayer came before You, to Your holy temple.
    They that serve empty gods forsake their own good –
    But I, I shall sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving,
    What I have vowed I shall fulfil: Salvation is from the Lord!

    The psalm is a mosaic of phrases that a person in trouble would know. The poem is in the past tense, but Biblical tenses are fluid, and past-tense passages can be prophetic projections.

    We presume Jonah keeps the commandments, but he does not say so explicitly. He does not mention the Exodus, Biblical heroes, Israel or Jerusalem. He admits to being a Hebrew but we do not know much about his Hebrew identity. He says he worships the God of Heaven but says nothing about the God of Israel. His wish to go to the Temple may be merely idiomatic convention. He does not say “Temple of Jerusalem” or “holy city,” maybe because they are not central to his story.

    But the issue is not Jonah’s orthodoxy but his ethnicity. He is a nationalist who loves his people but is not certain about whether gentiles have a right to repent.

    The psalm lacks humility and repentance. The Midrash Yalkut Shim’oni fills in the gap. It adds a poem of penitence, since people are expected to blame themselves for their misfortune. In the Yalkut poem Jonah says, “I have reached death: give me life”. Everyone can live if they repent. Since Christianity says man cannot repent on his own, was Jonah chosen for Yom Kippur as a Jewish response?

    In the Bible version, even when Jonah prays it takes him three days to start. His apparent repentance is a passing episode.

    The timing of the psalm is a worry. It says it was uttered inside the fish but we don’t get the feeling of a man who is constricted and scared in a fish’s belly. There are many tales of people who were swallowed by marine creatures. Some views say that the fish swallows Jonah straight after he is cast overboard and his time in the water is brief. He cries for help from the raging sea; he is hallucinating about being saved by a big fish. Jonah is in a bad state. His skin is affected; his mind is in turmoil; he feels his life ebbing.

    In the end he abdicates; according to Yalkut Shim’oni, he says, “Alright, God, run the world your way,” but he still feels that God should take Israel’s side.

    Abraham Joshua Heschel says that Jonah praises God but doubts Him. He says, I would rather die than live. He doesn’t see that God gets no pleasure when the wicked die, that He wants sinners to come to their senses.

    The book is an assurance that no-one, even Ninevites, are beyond God’s concern. That must be why we read Jonah on Yom Kippur, because sinners earn a new lease of life if they repent and return to God.


    Who is man?

    September 8th, 2021

    Psalm 8:5 asks a blunt question that is echoed in the Yom Kippur prayers: “Lord, what is man that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You think of him?”

    If we were directing the question to Jean Paul Sartre, he might say, “Man is the incommensurable idiot of the universe!” Bertrand Russell would tell us, “Man with his knowledge of good and evil is just a helpless atom!” HL Mencken would say, “Man is a sick fly, taking a dizzy ride on a gigantic fly-wheel!”

    If these answers are true, one thing is patently clear: Man is wasting his time.

    Albert Einstein was candid: “The man who regards life as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.”

    Why does the world need man, why should he survive, why indeed should he ever have existed at all?

    There is a Talmudic discussion (Eruvin 13b) about the question, “Was there any point in God creating man?” The answer is rather sad: “It would have been better if man had not been created… but since he has been created, let him exercise control over his deeds.”

    A far more positive view comes from Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat: “Let men ever bear in mind that the Holy One dwells in him” (Ta’anit 11b). Man has God’s image imprinted on his face, deep down in his being. That is what Psalm 8 tells us. What is man? “Man is a Divine Creation just below the angels!”

    To be an angel is a burden. To be a human being whose rank is just below the angels is to be more rational than an idiot, more powerful than a lost atom, more purposeful than a dizzy fly. It is to say with Pir’kei Avot 2:1, “The day is short, the work is great, the Master is demanding: it is not your task to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”.

    What is the task? To be a Mensch. The spirit of God within us calls us to emulate the Almighty. As He is wise and compassionate, so should we be. As He loves and forgives, so should we.