Tonight begins the Jewish “Festival of Tabernacles.” Known in Hebrew as Sukkot, we spend time in temporary outdoor dwellings.
They remind us of the fragility of life our ancestors experienced during their journey across the Sinai Desert.
Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity!
The biblical book we read on Sukkot is Ecclesiastes. Tonight we will chant it in my synagogue.
I confess this book has always mystified me. Ecclesiastes seems to contradict other parts of the Bible.
Consider, for example, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” (1:2) Or “there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9)
The first suggests life is meaningless. We are all simply selfish people concerned with our needs. The second suggests the world is static. That leaves little room for God.
So how can we read Ecclesiastes? It’s part of the Bible, so we know it conveys God’s word. How do we make sense of it?
1. Remember what kind of book it is: The meaning of a book depends on the way you read it. We read a poem differently than we read a novel. We read history differently than we read science.
Ecclesiastes is not a theological book. It is more of an autobiographical reflection. It is the reflection of King Solomon, the wisest of Jewish kings.
He is sharing the wisdom from his life experience. He is not telling us what one must believe. He is recounting and reflecting on his life. He is conveying life lessons.
His feelings and observation may resonate with us, even if we do not believe in their literal truth.
And there are times when we know that life is not futile. When a new child comes into the world, when we see righteousness in action and justice prevail.
Ecclesiastes represents one side of life. And life is complex. As the book points out later, in another of its most memorable sections,
“There is a time for every season; A time for every purpose under heaven… A time to love and a time for hate; a time for war and a time for peace; a time to laugh and a time to grieve…” (3:1-8)
2. Remain Humble: Much of life is outside of our control. We did not choose to be born here. We did not choose our parents. Many of us simply got lucky. And no matter who we are, we face pain, and our lives are limited.
Time and chance, as Ecclesiastes puts it, befall us all. Reminding ourselves of this truth helps us remain grateful for what we have and accept with calmness the difficulties with which life challenges us.
3. Look for God in the tension: The Bible is not always say to decipher. Verses that seem inconsistent may contain a deeper level of congruence. The tension compels us to learn, pray and grow. Life emerges out of that tension.
Think of a battery. It is a positive charge and a negative charge. The tension between those charges creates the spark of energy that gives a device power.
So it is with us. The tension between life as it is and life as it ought to be–between the past and the future, between the world we we inhabit and the one to come–it is that tension that pushes us to live with grace and faith.
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Religious leaders are public figures. We live on display. People look at what we drive, what we eat, what we wear.
Unfortunately, sometimes we hide parts of ourselves in order to conform to people’s expectations. We might convey feelings of invulnerability or perfection in public as we struggle in private. Trying to be different people in public and private can be draining. Ultimately, it can be self-destructive. We cannot pretend someone we are not forever.
Yesterday a prominent rabbi ended that destructive tension by announcing he was gay. He did so in an loving and thoughtful way, noting his faithful marriage of twenty years and the active support of his wife in making this announcement.
While sad for the dissolution of a marriage and mindful of the range of feelings his announcement will generate, I found myself moved by the rabbi’s honesty, compassion and lack of selfishness. He noted his profound struggle as an adolescent. He described why he had chosen to marry and have children. And he explained how the wholeness and sense of identity for which we all yearn continued to elude him.
(If you want to explore this issue more, click here to discover different Jewish views of Homosexuality.)
Even as he struggled, he did not evade his responsibilities as a husband and father. He embraced them. He reached the point, however, where good parenting and personal happiness demanded honesty and resolution. As he put so beautifully, “Batya and I can no longer remain married, despite our fidelity throughout our marriage and our abiding friendship and love. As our divorce is not born of rancor, we pray that together with our children we will remain bound by a brit mishpachah, a covenant of family.”
There is no such thing as a happy divorce. Yes, the decision can be for the benefit of both parents and children, but it still involves pain, sadness and loss. Rabbi Steinlauf seems to acknowledge this truth. I pray that my colleague and his family be blessed with strength and love in the years ahead.
Dr. Ezekiel Emauel, the well-known bioethicist and brother of the mayor of my town, argued recently in an essay in the Atlantic Monthly that 75 is the perfect age to die. After that, he said, most people have little to contribute to society and are a burden rather than a benefit.
I can think of few less Jewish ideas than this. It is not only heartless. It is wrong. My grandfather took me to Israel when he was 81 and changed my life. Each of us probably has similar stories.
When it comes to defining our contribution to the world, what matters most is not how many years we will live but how we use the years we have. To put it in physical terms, what matters most is not how efficiently the heart is beating, but how wide it stretches.
The Heart is All That Matters
If we were to open a Hebrew Torah scroll, we would see that its very last Hebrew letter is Lamed. Then if we rolled it all the way back to the beginning, we would see that its very first letter is Bet. When you put those two letters together, you can the word Lev. Lev means heart.
The heart is literally the end and beginning of the entire Torah. To live by the Torah we live from heart.
Taken to its extreme, Dr. Emanuel’s view distorts our understanding of value. Science relies only on what we see—what we can hold and touch and measure–and that is severely limiting. We can see the size of the new iPhone. We can see the sparkle of a new watch. We can see the color of someone’s hair or the wrinkles on their skin.
But we can’t see the size of our heart. We can’t see the capacity of our dreams. The Jewish sages would agree with the wonderful French writer Antoine de St. Exupery who said, “It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The Heart Makes Us Human
What makes the heart so extraordinary is that the inevitably pains of age¬–the slowing down, the loss of skills and energy–does not drown us. The can ennoble us. They can deepen us. They can make us fully alive.
The heart can contain the pain, the brokenness, the frustrations of life alongside its joys, loves, and excitement. The heart can see more clearly than eye. It feels pain more deeply than the nerves. It can heal more fully than the skin. And there are no age limits when it comes to the gifts the heart can give.
It may not always produce new books or let us climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the criteria by which Dr. Emanuel seems to measure the value of life. It may not always let us run a marathon. But it can lift us out of ourselves. It can link us to generations past, present and future.
Poet Philip Larkin said what will survive of us is love. We might also say what lets us survive—physically, emotionally, spiritually, existentially—is the heart. And it can last well past 75.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is filled with solemn prayer, and most Jews fast. How, then, can it be the happiest day of the year? Allow me to explain…
Picture the scene: It is 1944, in Glasgow, Scotland, in the midst of the Second World War. Kol Nidre is about to begin in the city’s largest synagogue. The sanctuary is dark and full, and the rabbi prepares to take the Torah scroll out of the ark. Before he does so, he calls upon the only soldier in uniform in the congregation to come up to the bima.
That soldier goes and holds the Torah, as the choir chants the Kol Nidre. I think about that scene every year on Yom Kippur because the man holding the Torah was my grandfather. This Yom Kippur I cannot call him and wish him a happy New Year. Yet, like many of us who have lost loved ones, I think about and feel his presence. I can hear his voice telling me little bits of wisdom he called nuggets.
My Grandfather’s Wisdom
They were serious and funny, ranging from “don’t break the silence unless you can improve upon it” to “a house without scotch is like a house without a roof.” Along with his personal example, these nuggets taught me about what makes for a good life. They taught me to live by high principles and ideals, to be loving and forgiving, and to find ways to give and contribute to the community.
Now my grandfather never put these teachings in terms of Jewish tradition. But what he taught captures three key nuggets God gives us on these high holy days: Tefilah, prayer, Teshuvah, repentance, and Tzedakah, giving and justice. We find these words in one of the most significant parts of the service: at the end of Unetanah Tokef prayer.
That is the prayer where we say, “God decides who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water…. But the prayer concludes: by Tefilah, by Teshuvah and by Tzedakah, we can annul the decree and alter our destiny.
Finding True Happiness
That is soaring vision of the prayer, and that is the message of Yom Kippur. That is the reason that, even though this is a day of fasting and atonement, our sages called it “the happiest day of the year.”
That happiness does not derive from ease. That happiness does not derive from a lack of pain. Rather, the happiness derives from the ability to choose. The happiness derives from Yom Kippur’s affirmation that every day of our lives, we can choose life and blessing.