The words Jewish wedding and Hava Nagila usually occur together. Hava Nagila literally means “Let us rejoice” and it is a traditional Jewish wedding song combining a raucous melody with a mind-boggling dance. The dancers form ever enlarging circles around the bride and groom, who are eventually raised and held high in chairs.
I love the dance, and not only because of the way it celebrates a bride and groom. It’s a good way to work off the calories of the wedding hors d’oeuvres, meal and dessert.
Yet, according to the Wall Street Journal, the Hava Nagila has lost its charm. Many couples see it as outmoded. They request tht their wedding bands not play it, and the bands are only too happy to comply.
And yet… If the song Hava Nagila was a person, it might well quote Mark Twain: “Reports of my death,” he once said, “have been greatly exaggerated.”
Olympic gymnast Allie Raisman performed her floor routine to its melody. A documentary devoted to the song has gained widespread attention, and its fundraising preview has been viewed over 300,000 times on Youtube. Despite their dislike of the song, bands say they receive so many requests that they often find it impossible to refuse.
Here we find a profound human truth. Our lives often resemble the fate of the Hava Nagila. Just when we think all hope is lost, good news finds a way in. Just when we feel we can’t cross the finishing line, we receive a jolt of energy. Just when we feel a relationship can’t withstand any more strain, a reconcilation and new level of depth comes into being.
Rebirth is possible wherever we are. The key is to look inside. For this reason, Hava Nagila, “Let us rejoice!”
The Bible is not just for clergy. It is for everyone. Studying it enriches our lives. It connects us with our past, present and future. “Knowledge,” Rabbi Arnold Wolf once said, “isn’t everything. It is, profoundly, the only thing.”
1. Use commentary: In Jewish tradition, we never study only the biblical text itself. We study with the interpretations of the great teachers of Jewish history. Some might say this prejudices our point of view. Shouldn’t we encounter the text with fresh eyes?
I would argue that we benefit from the wisdom and insights of generations past. We can and will arrive at our own interpretations and conclusions. Yet, rather than prejudice us, the insights of great teachers will spark our own ideas and lead us to a deeper encounter with the text.
2. Study with a partner: Good partners will not only hold us accountable for taking the time to study. They will engage us in conversation and debate. They will notice things we did not. As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “Two is better than one.”
3. Set a fixed time for study: What gets scheduled is more likely to get done. If we find a consistent time for study, we can fall into a regular pattern. In Jewish tradition, the Sabbath has always been a time for study of the weekly biblical reading, and I lead a regular Saturday morning study group.
4. Use a good translation: Every translation is an interpretation. When we study the Old Testament in Hebrew or the New Testament in Greek, we can better appreciate the poetry and literary beauty of the text. Yet, unless we went to Divinity school, we probably do not read or write in either language. Thus, a good translation is critical.
Aim for one that seeks to preserve the cadence and character of the original. One of the best Hebrew Bible translations was done by Everett Fox, who sought to preserve much of the wordplay and poetry of the original.
5. Say a prayer before you begin: Studying the Bible is not like studying Shakespeare. It begins and ends with faith. It is part of our search for truth and wisdom. Rather than just sit down and begin reading, I prefer to say a prayer to put myself in the proper state of mind.
In Jewish tradition, the prayer reads, “Blessed Are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who Commands Us To Immerse Ourselves in Learning. Amen.”
It is summertime, and over the last few weeks, the livin’ has not been easy. The murders in Colorado and Bulgaria; the beginning of the Olympics marred by a refusal to acknowledge the 1972 Munich Massacre; an increasingly ugly political campaign–I am usually a glass half full kind of guy, but with these events and the awfully hot weather, it has not been easy.
When times have been tough for the Jewish people, we have had one source of comfort and hope. That is the first part of the Hebrew Bible, the Five Books of Moses. The Hebrew Bible was described by the poet Heinrich Heine as “our portable homeland.” Studying the Bible lifts our minds to a higher plain. It takes out of the world world as it is into the world as it ought to be.
Entering a Different World
Following our ancestors lead, I’m going to turn away from the events of the outside world, and look inward. We’ll look at this week’s biblical reading on its own terms, and not as a source for insight on the events of the day.
We’ve just begun the book of Deuteronomy. In Hebrew the first weekly reading is entitled Devarim, which literally means “words.” The words we have consist primarily of a series of speeches by Moses. The setting is the land of Moav, just across the Jordan River from the land of Canaan.
The people are preparing to enter. Moses is preparing to die. Moses recounts for the people their trek through the wilderness. He is speaking to the second generation, the children born in the wilderness who will enter the land.
He repeatedly emphasizes their parents’ failures. He laments their lack of trust in God along the way–their frequent complaints, their rebellions, their doubts about God’s protection of them.
One particular verse cries out for explanation. Moses is recounting the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. He notes that God said to the people “I place at your disposal the land of Canaan. Go and take possession of the land.”
Two important literary notes: First, Moses is quoting what God had said. Second, the Hebrew is actually written in the past tense “I have placed at your disposal.” In other words, God had guaranteed the land to Israelites 40 years ago. They did not need to wander for 40 years. The gift was waiting for them. The tide was on their side. They simply did not ride it.
The Power of Fear
Why not? Fear. As we learned a few weeks ago in the story of the spies sent in to scout the land of Canaan, the Israelites bristled with fear. The spies claimed they saw giants in the land, and they imagined they looked like grasshoppers to those giants. The people listened to the spies’ reports and begged Moses and Aaron to take them back to Egypt. Their fear prevented that generation from entering the promised land. They missed their chance.
Moses is urging their children to avoid that same fate. He is reminding them that we do not get too many chances in life. Opportunity does not knock and then wait patiently at our door. If we do not answer it, it may not knock again.
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” poet Robert Herrick famously said. Moses is challenging the Israelites to do the same. They stand at the edge of the Promised Land. God has shown them the way in. “Do not”, Moses pleads, “walk away.”
Perhaps we can use this same message. Perhaps we have opportunities waiting for us. It might be a trip to take. A job to pursue. A class to consider.
Perhaps we have resisted them. Perhaps we are afraid of seeming too pushy or ambitious or different. But when our heart is in the right place, it’s better to err on the side of audacity than fear. As John Wayne put it, “Courage is being scared to death–and saddling up anyway.”
“Prayer,” Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will.”
These words reveal a profound truth. Faith is not about power. Faith is not about numbers. Faith is about the spirit.
This view runs counter to so much in our deeply fractured politicized world. We look for solutions in politics. We look for salvation in the shopping mall. We look for meaning outside of ourselves.
The great religious traditions offer a counter-voice. They remind us of the gifts often obscured by the surrounding fog.
Indeed, religion does not always offer something new. It helps us see what we have failed to notice.
A fabulous parable illustrates this truth. I first heard it from the late writer David Foster Wallace. Two young fish are swimming in the water. They happen to meet an older fish swimming the opposite way. The older fish nods at them and says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?”
They say nothing and swim off. A few minutes later, one of them turns to the other and says, “What in the world is water?”
Water is the blessing of life. It is the knowledge that to be alive is a gift. It is the wisdom to give thanks; to keep our promises and commitments; to leave the world a better place for having been here.
It is the knowledge that faith changes the world through the hearts and hands of human beings.