This past Sunday I had the privilege of leading an interactive presentation on the Fall Holidays of Judaism, with a focus on universal themes. About 20 people gathered in a school cafeteria on a rainy Sukkot morning, under the auspices of the Sunday School for Jewish Studies in Newton and Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The group was diverse, including those with little Jewish experience and background, some with a great deal, Jewish and non-Jewish parents, and a few grandparents. 

For each of the major Fall Holidays, Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, we examined their connection to nature and the passing of the seasons, their historical elements, and the ways in which they address universal human concerns, emotions, and philosophical questions.

Since we were already celebrating the festival of Sukkot, having just passed by the Sukkah at the entrance of the school, we began with a story of the first Zen Garden in Japan. Although his garden was situated on a mountainside, overlooking the ocean, the monk who built it walled it in so that upon entering the garden, the sea was not visible. But as the master bent over to ladle water into the tea pot, he suddenly could see the ocean through a small window at waist height. At that moment the finite water of the ladle was linked to the infinite water of the sea. I explained to the participants that sometime after reading this account I realized that this sheds light on the deeper meaning of the Sukkah. We are required to see the sun and stars through the roof, the covering of thatch or branches. This allows us to feel a connection between the finite space of the Sukkah and the infinite heavens above. So too, the Sukkah is the most intimate of spaces, a small enclosed place for family and friends to experience hospitality and warmth, to eat and to sing. Yet the Sukkah is open to the natural world – to the cycles of nature, to the infinite and to the universal, the ephemeral and the eternal. We paused to sing a modern song by the late Debbie Friedman about the Sukkah – “This is what we need to build a Sukkah, wood and branches hammer and nails – but don’t forget that we must see the sun peeking through the leaves.”

We continued our discussion by thinking about the meaning of the New Year — Rosh HaShana. But in fact the “Newness” of it is a human construct. We know that the idea of divisions of time is arbitrary because the seasons are cyclical. There is really no beginning or end. Yet our tradition recognizes that we need time to mark the end of chapters in our lives and opportunities for new beginnings. We need times to wipe the slate clean — as much as humanly possible, and to refocus on the future. It is instructive that Rosh HaShana is actually only one of 4 New Years that Jews observe throughout the year! (Nisan 1 New Year for Kings –Regnal Years, and counting months, Elul 1 New Year for Tithing of Animals, Shevat 15 Trees, Tishri 1 Ritual Year.)

We discussed that the roots of the festival are in the ancient Babylonian New Year. And so this is an example of borrowing from other cultures –Judaism has, throughout history absorbed good ideas from all around – and made them our own. But in a significant respect, Judaism also turned theBabyloniaidea on its head –(Rosh mean’s head in Hebrew.) From Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur are ten days of introspection, of wiping the slate clean and beginning again. It is the opposite of the Babylonian idea – for the Babylonians believed in omens and in astrology. They believed that fate was fixed and unchangeable; it could be read in the stars and livers of animals, etc. But Jews rejected that – we believe that we can – to a certain measure—alter our fate, set our own course. This is an important belief. Not scientifically provable, but morally and psychologically beneficial. The meaning of Yom Kippur, as the “Day of Atonement” is an attempt to approach the universal human need to deal with the problem of guilt — human beings universally acquire a sense of regret for certain actions which have negative consequences, whether intended or not. How do we live with our mistakes? How do we ask forgiveness? Can a supernatural force assuage or soothe us? Judaism offers a human-centered approach to living with our mistakes, “sins” in traditional language, and moving beyond.

We talked about Cyclical vs. Linear Time. I introduced the idea that time should be thought of not just as linear nor as cyclical, but as an ascending helix, an idea popularized by the philosopher Vico. Here is a modern expression of that idea:

“I don’t concede the boundary line you draw between two types of sacred time – historical/progressive time and cyclic/recurrent time. With each year, every festival finds us at an advanced stage of our own growth and catalyzes our continued growth. I prefer to see the progressive and the cyclic as two components of the same movement. Our sacred time resembles a helix, coiling around and around in an upward crest. Each season we come back to the same place on the curve, but we are at the next-higher level. We never run in place, but we do run up a spiraling ramp, like the one in the Guggenheim museum, able to look down at last year and forward to next year at each curve on the journey.” Edward Greenstein in The Jewish Holidays by Strassfeld. P. 106.

The fall season of observances concludes with Simchat Torah — the celebration of the Torah. This represents yet another layer of tradition as we recommit ourselves to intellectual pursuits. It is not accidental that the celebration of the autumn harvest of learning coincides with the beginning of the academic year. It is a time to take joy in the life of the mind. Torah is not a book, but rather an ongoing conversation with those of all generations. Torah is a symbol of the possibility of finding meaning – in texts and in all sources of knowledge, in all experience. Commitment to Torah study is a way of asking questions that go to the core of what it means to be human, and challenge us to raise human existence to a new level of ethical development, while seeking a measure of personal meaning in texts that we can apply to our own lives.

 

Rabbi David Kudan rabbi@kudan.net

 

 

 

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