To lie or not to lie? Thoughts on Parashat Vayetze

To lie or not to lie? Thoughts on Parashat Vayetze.

Menachem Mirski

And Laban said to him, “You are truly my bone and flesh.” When he had stayed with him a month’s time. (Bereshit 29:14)

Jacob, at the urging of his mother and father, escapes from his brother, Esau, who, overwhelmed with anger at the lie and theft of the birthright decides to murder Jacob. In fact, the words of the verse quoted above have a deeper and a bit ironic meaning. It just so happens that both Laban and Jacob were liars. Of course, it is not only them who tell untruth, it is also done by Rachel, Sarah, Abraham… But in the context of the story from our Torah portion it can be concluded that Jacob’s karma returned to Jacob.

As you know, I have served your father with all my might; but your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again. God, however, would not let him do me harm. (Bereshit 31:6-7)

This is how Jacob summarizes his long-term relationship with his father-in-law after following the voice of the Eternal that makes him decide to leave Laban, with all his family and belongings, and return to the land of his ancestors. Karma, therefore, returned to him, despite the fact that the intrigue of the „taking over of the birthright” was not his own idea, but of his mother, Rebecca. It returned to him in spite of the internal transformation that had taken place on his way to the country of Laban. The fact that both stories follow each other is not a coincidence (nothing in the Hebrew Bible is a coincidence and everything creates a logical, thoughtful whole, no matter what theory of its creation we accept). In fact, the message of these two stories can be read as: karma returns. And also, when we take a closer look at our story, Jacob, especially compared to the other people appearing in it, seems to be someone righteous.

But what does our tradition teach about speaking untruths, in more specific way? The Torah says: „Distance yourself from words of falsehood.” (Shemot 23:7) This is the only sin regarding from which the Torah warns us to „distance” ourselves. In general, Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of telling the truth, but not always. Even the ninth commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Shemot 20:16) makes the prohibition of speaking untruths relative. What is the idea behind it? Telling untruth is strictly forbidden only when it is aimed at harming another human being. In other cases, this prohibition is not categorical and there are cases where it is allowed to say untruth.

Our rabbinical tradition (for example Talmud, Bava Metziah 13a) allows untruth to be spoken (understood basically as a „modification of the truth”) in the following cases:

  1. Changing the truth in order to practice humility. For example, one may claim ignorance of a certain Talmudic tractate even if one does actually know it.
  2. Changing the truth in order to maintain modesty. One does not have to tell the truth when being asked, for example, about personal or intimate matters.
  3. Changing the truth in order to protect someone else from harm or inconvenience. For example, if a host was very gracious, and one is asked about this, one should not tell all about his magnanimity as this may cause too many guests to flock to him. On a similar vein, if a person has an incurable illness, and informing him of this will be detrimental to his health, it may be proper to withhold this information from him.
  4. A ‘white lie’ said in order to protect someone from embarrassment. An example of this is that one may say that a bride is beautiful even if she isn’t particularly beautiful.
  5. There are some circumstances under which one is allowed to be deceptive in order to recoup losses that are owed to him. Our patriarch Jacob employed this method to protect his lawfully earned gains from being defrauded him by Laban. We are therefore allowed to say untruth to overt liars who act to our detriment. And we are definitely allowed to lie in order to save someone’s health or life.

Despite all these allowances, one should always attempt not to say an outright lie, but rather to tell half-truths if telling the whole truth was something dubious or harmful. We should also try to avoid lying to children, so as not to train them to lie. Also, even in these circumstances, one should try not to lie on a constant basis.

Jacob’s lie, committed in order to take over the birthright does not fall into any category of „allowed untruths”, since its direct result was the harm of another man – his brother Esau. However, are we, as Jews, descendants and spiritual heirs of Jacob-liar? We are not, because we are all bnei-Israel and not bnei-Yaakov. We are not children of Jacob, but of Jacob-Israel, the one who underwent spiritual transformation and ceased to be Jacob-liar.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

progresive judaism in Poland, reformed judaism in Poland, Beit Polska, Beit Warszawa, congregation Beit Warszawa,

 

 

External and Internal Beauty.

External and Internal Beauty.

Thoughts on Parashat Chayyei Sarah.

Menachem Mirski

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Within the first seven seconds of meeting someone new, a person will judge another solely on their appearance. That means that in seven seconds your brain will determine whether you decide to continue your interaction with a stranger or not based purely on what you visibly see about them. There is a story of a woman who has undergone a plethora of treatments at the hospital in order to desperately look like everyone else. She recalls her earliest childhood memories of people looking away, horrified by her appearance. The woman was hoping her current treatment would be her last as they began to remove the bandages.  If the treatment was unsuccessful, the doctor informed her that she would be sent away to be with others who also suffer from her ailment. This story may sound familiar to you. It is from the original “The Twilight Zone,” from the episode titled Eye of the Beholder. What does an episode of “The Twilight Zone” have to do with this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah?  The idea of beauty and its relevance to Rebekah, as Eliezer is on his mission to find a wife for his master Abraham’s son, Isaac.

In Bereshit 24:16, the narrator describes Rebekah coming out to the spring as, “The maiden was very beautiful, a virgin who no man had known”. Why is it important that Rebekah was beautiful? What role does her physical beauty play in the moral value of this text? Was it because of Rebekah’s beauty that Eliezer asked her for a sip from her water jar? If she was “physically ugly” would he still have asked her for some water? She was probably not the only woman at the well; in those days and in this region of the world, a well was a place around which social life was going on: people made acquaintances there. A well was something like a bar or a pub is today.

Why almost all the women in the Torah are described as beautiful? Except for Leah, she had weak eyes and we all know that her younger sister Rachel got all the looks in the family. But did it really matter what they looked like?

One medieval commentator, Sforno, states that, “she had a beautiful skin coloring”. Other commentators did not have much to say on Rebekah’s beauty, they were more focused on her being, “a virgin whom no man had known” (Gen. 24:16.)

So, is beauty a Jewish value? There is a view that the Bible mentions the physical characteristics of certain persons to highlight their internal traits. For instance, Rebecca’s beauty seems to be connected to her moral character. This is made even more clear in the following verses, Bereshit 24:18-20, when Rebekah shows her chesed, loving kindness, by giving water not only to the stranger, Eliezer, but also to his ten camels; along with opening her family home to him (Gen. 24:25.) Rebekah’s actions of chesed provide evidence to Eliezer with regards to the ethical test for which he asked God to find out which maiden is worthy of Abraham’s son (Bereshit 24:12-14.) Therefore, Rebekah being referred to as a beauty is not based solely on her physical looks, but rather on her being a moral compassionate person as we see from the narrative. Whereas, the opposite applies to our society today.

Beauty seems to be based on what the media and the fashion industry tell us is beautiful. They told us back in the 1950’s that Marilyn Monroe was the most beautiful woman; as she was a model, actress, singer, and starlet. Marilyn was a size 14; she had an hourglass shaped figure with everything else fake; from her dyed blonde hair, her walk, talk, and behavior in public was all an act. Originally named Norma Jean, a brunette and from a broken home, she could not get a job. Turning into the iconic Marilyn Monroe allowed her to become a star. This was all based on her exterior, of course. Her true self was of a good and kind person, but she was also broken, dealing with her own demons and self-medicating. Marilyn would not be able to fit into the moral fiber of beauty the same way Rebekah does.

To conclude, external, physical beauty is basically in the eye of the beholder. It is, to a large extent, a matter of subjective taste and cultural conventions that influence the taste of individuals. In this matter we cannot actually be right or wrong. It is the subjective categories that govern here: either you like something or you don’t. Is there room for any objectivity here? We cannot deny it a priori, it is a material for extensive studies in aesthetics, since there were some very vital criteria of beauty that have been created in the course of history and they are widely recognized today. Inner beauty is, however, something from a bit different realm. It is a matter of knowing a given person. At the beginning, when we barely know him or her, we cannot judge whether he or she is internally beautiful or not. We may be attracted by some sparks of his or her inner beauty and then, after some time, we may discover also some traces of ugliness. But in this case, after some time, sometimes a very long time, we can clearly see the proportions of the internal beauty to the internal ugliness. And at that point we can be definitely right or wrong. But then we are able to accept both, the inner beauty and the inner ugliness, which is not the case at the beginning, when we don’t know the person deeply and don’t know where the inner beauty or ugliness come from.

 

Is beauty a Jewish value? Inner beauty, understood as an expression of spiritual perfection, definitely is. It can be perfected over time. And outer beauty? It is a manifestation of physical, and so, temporary perfection. The possibilities of its improvement are quite limited.

 

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

progresive judaism in Poland, reformed judaism in Poland, Beit Polska, Beit Warszawa, congregation Beit Warszawa,

The meaning of life. Thoughts on parashat Lech Lecha.

The meaning of life. Thoughts on parashat Lech Lecha.

Menachem Mirski 

What is the meaning of a man’s life on an uninhabited island? Or let’s put it otherwise: what would have been the meaning of life of an astronaut who by chance had been lost on the moon, with a supply of food and air for, let’s say, 50 years, but without possibility of communication with people on the earth? The only meaning of his life would have been the hope that a rescue mission would come and take him back to the earth. There would have been no other meaning of his existence.

Indeed, the meaning of an individual life comes from our relationships with other people. Aristotle obviously knew it writing that a man is a social animal and only a God or a beast can live outside of society. This idea is also included in the common view that the meaning of life is life itself. This view can be true only if we clarify it and add that it is about life with its social dimension. We can see it clearly on the example of the astronaut. Thus, it is also not surprising that this common view, which speaks of „life alone”, can irritate people suffering from depression, as something completely meaningless and worthless.

Human life can only make sense if we live in a community. The smallest human community is the family. Family life also alleviates the negative effects of modern individualism, in which, despite its many advantages (like the greatest possibility of expressing individual freedom and independence), „the drama of human existence” becomes much more tangible to us, since we expose our hearts and minds to finitude of our being much more often. The cure for this is love, starting a family and having children. Then we have a chance to permanently forget about the finiteness of our individual being.

In our Torah portion Abraham and Sara are struggling with the same problem. Even though God shows Abraham a great vision:

The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. (Bereshit 12:1-2).

soon the fundamental complications come into being: Sarah cannot get pregnant.

And Sarai said to Abram, “Look, the LORD has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall be built up through her.” And Abram heeded Sarai’s request. (Bereshit 16:2)

According to midrash Bereshit Rabbah 45:2, quoted by Rashi, Sarah decided to have a son through Hagar because a person who has no children is not firmly established (literally, built up: her name and future are not perpetuated) and is unstable. If so, does it mean that the conception of Ishmael was only meant to build up Sarah? Not at all, as we learn from verses 17:20-21:

As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation. But My covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.

The same promise is repeated again in our next Torah portion, Vayera (in Bereshit 21:18). Ishmael also receives God’s blessing and his conception was also intended to populate the land with the seed of Abraham, with “a small difference” – the covenant between God and the chosen people was reserved only for Isaac and his offspring. It is also known from the verse 16:12 that Ishmael would be a wild ass of a man, His hand against everyone, And everyone’s hand against him; but He shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen. What was it aimed at? There may be many complex answers to it. The answer that comes to my mind at the moment is the following: the chosen nation must be constantly challenged by the existence of other nations, so that the Israelites/Jewish people may be aware of their separateness and intentionally remain God’s chosen nation.

God promises twice (Bereshit 17:21 and 18: 10-15) that Sarah will give birth to a son and in both cases even the name of the promised son appears. So Abraham and his first wife already „know” that God’s promise, which will fulfill their desire, will become real. However, they all still live in “a love triangle”. This relationship comes to an end shortly after Isaac is weaned (21:8-12), which causes Abraham’s distress.

Therefore, even though Abraham is considered “the father of all the nations”, since Ishmael and his descendants are considered to be of his seed too (21:13), in fact it is Isaac only, who is his “rightful seed”. That’s the reason the Torah, in another parasha (verse 22:2), speaks about Isaac as of Abraham’s only son. To put it in short, Isaac was a covenantal seed of Abraham, whereas Ishamel was his non-covenantal seed.

***

But what we can learn from all of that? How can we understand the universal, relevant to people of all times, message of the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar?

Here it is what I would suggest: people have their own plans and great visions, but in a situation when they encounter problems with their implementation, they tend to choose different, alternative solutions. They choose what is given to them, what is within their reach. It often happens that despite the fact that they chose a temporary solution they do not abandon their original, longed-for visions and still think about them, with the hope that they will eventually come true.

When it comes to relationships, people often know that they will not be with each other forever, they often know that they are not meant for themselves. Sometimes they even talk with each other about how it will be in the future when they are not together. Despite everything, they remain in their relationships as if they were to last forever.

However, later often comes the time when their original visions become possible, completely realistic or even within easy reach. Then people abandon their temporary solutions, although often, especially in situations related to love, these are very difficult decisions. That was also the reason for Abraham’s despondency after the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, whom he also loved. It is also possible that it was this state of depression that led him to embrace the idea (which was, of course, according to the text, suggested by God himself) to sacrifice the only son that remained with him.

When it comes time to make such difficult decisions, one would often like to simply annul the current state of affairs: relations with other people, obligations to them or promises made to them. In our biblical story, it is God himself who cancels Abraham’s obligations to Hagar and Ishmael.

However, what this story also teaches us about is that temporary solutions also have their own meaning and may sometimes have a deeper, divine one, since we are never completely aware of the far-reaching consequences of our decisions and actions taken here and now. In fact, it was God himself who closed Sarah’s womb to persuade her to act in a different way. Had Sarah not been temporarily infertile, Ishmael would have never been born. Therefore, we should never a priori give up these temporary solutions and passively wait for the possibility of achieving the desired vision or plan; we do not know the course of things and the future, and it often happens that the choice of a temporary solution, allegedly contradictory to our „great vision”, is a necessary condition for making our deepest dreams realizable.

Shabbat shalom!

 

Menachem Mirski 

 

 

 

 

 

 

progresive judaism in Poland, reformed judaism in Poland, Beit Polska, Beit Warszawa, congregation Beit Warszawa,

Trying Our Best – Just Like Noah Did

Trying Our Best – Just Like Noah Did

 

This week’s Torah portion Noah describes the great flood sent on Earth by the Eternal because of humanity’s sins. Only Noah and his family are saved by the Eternal from dying in the midst of the rising waters. What did Noah do to deserve such a privilege? The answer to this question can be found at the  beginning of our Parashat,

„This is the line of Noah: Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.” (Genesis 6:9.)

At first glance this verse seems to provide a compelling reason for saving Noah, who is described as a righteous and blameless man. However, the words that caught the attention of our sages were the following: “In his age”. The Rabbis wondered whether this phrase meant that Noah could be viewed as righteous only in the context of his own era, marked by a general decline in morality. In Bereshit Rabba, a book of Midrashim on the Book of Genesis, we find a discussion between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemia concerning Noah’s character. Rabbi Judah compared Noah to a person with one eye blind taking a stroll along a street full of blind people. In such circumstances even someone partially blind would be viewed as capable of seeing. Rabbi Judah was convinced that Noah would not have been viewed as righteous in the times of Moses or of prophet Samuel. Rabbi Nehemia opposed this view, comparing Noah to perfumes used in a place with an unpleasant smell. We could still sense their scent, although it would not be strong. Rabbi Nehemia claimed that in a different era the scent (righteousness) of Noah would have been sensed even from afar.  

Both Rabbi Jehuda and Rabbi Nehemia seem to believe that Noah was never punished for his pre-flood actions. Some of the sages disagreed with them. Rav Huna claimed that as a punishment Noah was bitten by a lion as the animals were being released from the ark after the flood waters had subsided. In such case the question arises what Noah’s transgression might have been.

Devarim Rabba, a Midrash on the Book of Deuteronomy, seems to provide us with an answer to this question, as it compares Noah and Moses to two captains of sinking ships. The first one, Noah, saves from death only himself and his family, whereas the second captain, Moses, saves all the passengers (by asking the Eternal not to wipe out the Israelites who were worshipping the golden calf.) According to this interpretation, Noah might have transgressed by showing no interest in the fate of the rest of humanity once the flood came.

The above mentioned Midrash shows us why Noah cannot be viewed as being equal to Moses. However, I am not sure whether Noah’s actions truly deserved punishment. The Midrash teaches us that Noah warned humanity about the flood, repeatedly admonishing them to change their behavior. After undertaking many such attempts Noah simply gave up. Once the flood came, he was convinced that it was already too late and he focused on saving his own family instead. His behavior right before the flood may not rank as the greatest act of altruism; however, it was profoundly human. In my opinion this moment portrays Noah’s character – of an imperfect human being trying to act the best he can.

Noah’s character reminds me of the words of Rabban Gamliel from tractate Pirkei Avot,

In a place where there is no man [where no one follows moral rules], strive to be a man (Pirkei Avot 2:5.)

This Shabbat I encourage you to ask yourselves if sometimes you find yourselves in situations when no one does the right thing. If you do, I encourage you to behave decently in such cases. Who knows, perhaps just like Noah you will manage not to drown in an ocean of excuses such as, “everyone does it”, “nothing can be done to change it” or “that’s just the way it is”. Shabbat Shalom!

 

Mati Kirschenbaum

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

 

 

 

 

 

progresive judaism in Poland, reformed judaism in Poland, Beit Polska, Beit Warszawa, congregation Beit Warszawa,

An Ephemeral Booth or a Lasting Legacy? How Should We View Our Lives?

An Ephemeral Booth or a Lasting Legacy? How Should We View Our Lives?

Mati Kirschenbaum

During Sukkot we read the Book of Ecclesiastes, which seems to claim that human life is equally ephemeral as the Sukkot booths which we build. Kohelet describes the transient character of human achievements in the following way:

So, too, I loathed all the wealth that I was gaining under the sun. For I shall leave it to the man who will succeed me— and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish?—and he will control all the wealth that I gained by toil and wisdom under the sun. That too is [fleeting]
(Ecclesiastes 2:18-19.)

I was reminded of Kohelet’s words as I was reading this week’s Torah Portion VeZot HaBracha (“This is the Blessing”), the last Parasha in the yearly Torah reading cycle. In this Parasha Moses blesses each of the tribes of the people of Israel. However, personally he has no reason to be joyous, since the Eternal commands him to go to the top of Mount Nebo, where he will face his own death. Moses has been deprived of the possibility to enter the Promised Land, he can only see it from the top of the mountain. Facing such a fate could have evoked a sense of injustice in Moses. Who knows, maybe deep down he wanted to repeat the words of Kohelet expressing the sadness stemming from not being able to enjoy the fruits of his own efforts?

That’s exactly how many sages within our tradition seem to interpret Moses’ feelings. In the Talmud we find a harrowing description of Moses weeping as the Eternal is dictating to him the words of the Torah describing his own death. I can imagine Moses’ sadness as he realizes that he is about to die. He might be afraid that his achievements won’t be remembered.

In the Talmud we find a parable which refers to Moses’ fear of being forgotten. It describes Moses’ journey, during which he visits Rabbi Akiba’s yeshiva. At the yeshiva he sits in the last row and he listens to the discussion between rabbi Akiba’s disciples. And he can’t understand anything of what’s being said! Feeling alienated, Moses wants to leave the yeshiva. However, suddenly he hears the words of Rabbi Akiva, who states that the discussion between the disciples refers to the law received by Moses at Sinai. This reassures Moses, who realizes that his achievements will become a starting point for the deliberations of future generations.

The above mentioned parable about Moses makes us realize that our achievements do not belong to ourselves. On the contrary, our achievements can help subsequent generations  gain a deeper understanding of the world. How so? In ways we can’t even imagine. That’s why we should not spend too much time wondering if we’ll leave something permanent behind us. Kohelet warns us against this as well, as he describes all of our endeavors with the Hebrew term hevel. In Christian translations of the Hebrew Bible this word is translated as “vanity”. According to this translation the most famous of Kohelet’s quotes sounds as follows: “Vanity of vanities  and all is vanity.” However, this is not an appropriate translation. The meaning of the term “hevel” is closer to words such as “transience” and “fleeting”. Hence our achievements are not in vain – they are fleeting – we are not able to assess their future significance, we can only trust the Eternal and keep on doing what we can as best as we can. That is exactly what Moses did and he is considered the most outstanding among all the Israelite’s leaders, even though he never reached the Promised Land. On this Shabbat which falls during Sukkot I encourage you to appreciate your own achievements, even if they might seem insignificant to you. Who knows, perhaps one day they will become the basis of something great? Shabbat Shalom veMoadim LeSimcha!

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Mati Kirschenbaum

progresive judaism in Poland, reformed judaism in Poland, Beit Polska, Beit Warszawa, congregation Beit Warszawa,

SUKKOT

SEPTEMBER 2018, Beit Polska

SUKKOT

 

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

The festival of Sukkot, following on the full moon so shortly after the end of Yom Kippur and the lengthy period of repentance and meditation and teshuvah, is always a difficult one in some respects because one has just done so much praying and then comes the command ”Be happy!” ”VeSsamachta beChagecha”, ”You should rejoice and be happy in your festival.”  (Deuteronomy 16:14). It is not just a case of WHAT you should do to perform a specific set of mitzvot – there is that too, of course, with the commands for building the Sukkah or using the Arba Minim, the Four Species, but of HOW one should feel while doing it. I always consider this to be one of the most difficult of Mitzvot, as it involves Feeling, not Doing.

For technical reasons, to do partly with the time required for translation into Polish and partly with my own work schedule, I am preparing this address a few days before the festival and as I write it is not yet clear just what effect the latest hurricane has had in certain Eastern states of the USA – by the time we come to this day, you may have had chance to see in the media more aerial photos of devastated cities, just as the images we saw a few years ago of New Orleans and frankly just as the images we see almost every year of buildings torn up and split apart by invisible forces – you do not SEE Wind, only its effects – and streets littered with débris and upturned cars, and boats standing stranded far inland. It seems to happen very frequently, almost as frequently as there are fires raging on the West Coast, in California, burning people’s homes and making them into homeless refugees. I am preparing this address before we have had chance to learn how congregations of our fellow Jews will have had to cope with these natural forces, how they coped with Yom Kippur and how they will cope with Sukkot. Thanks to modern technology we can learn such things very quickly, but it still takes time. So I am having to estimate or to make assumptions, in the knowledge that we will as before hear from colleagues, from our religious movements, we shall hear appeals for help and support. ”Kol Yisrael arevim zeh-lazeh”, all Jews are responsible for helping one another in times of need, and it may even be only with moral support, but nevertheless a sense of solidarity is important. I do know that citizens of some States have been warned by Federal, State and local government leaders to leave, to get into their cars and simply drive away, to lock up and abandon their homes for a while so as to save their lives…..   To seek better, more substantial shelters. And many people will be living for extended periods in temporary accommodation while repairs are made, while roofs are rebuild, while uprooted trees are cleared away, while electric power is restored. As I say, the details and the statistics are unknown at the time of writing but the general picture is already clear. In a wealthy and powerful country, the wind can blow, the rain can fall – and suddenly Nature stops being something charming to look at and enjoy, but a threat to one’s very existence and to all that one has built up.  (There are also storms currently  in the Pacific affecting the Philippines and China, though – to put it bluntly – there are simply fewer Jews in this part of the world!) 

At the same time in another part of the world, as I write these lines and perhaps even when I deliver them to you personally, further cities in the Near East, in Syria or in Yemen and elsewhere, are being reduced to concrete rubble and twisted bits of steel; buildings and the people within them are being turned into dust by all the power of modern warfare. Television cameras and even amateur mobile telephones are now used to show the same, repetitive images of ruined cities, of heaps of wreckage – the wreckage of civilisations, of individual lives, of cultures. Collections of books or of archaeological exhibits and archives and memories will be destroyed just like homes, schools, markets, hospitals, places of worship….. We will see familiar pictures of what were tall buildings with gaping holes in them, of walls without floors, or of floors exposed without walls to contain them, slabs of concrete dangling, streets piled high and impassable. We have seen these images for years now, for decades, we get used to them, inured to them….. but for those who live there, or lived there, or used to live there, or try to live there, or who have and had loved ones who lived there, or who want to go back and live there, these images mean much, much more.

And of course we as a community will celebrate Sukkot in a city which, as old photographs show, albeit it is still just within living memory, was once almost unrecognisable as a city at all, with barely two bricks left on top of each other.  The blast of an explosive shell is also invisible to the naked eye – you do not see the wind, only what it does. It takes years to build a city block, minutes to destroy it, maybe even just seconds.

From all this we learn how temporary human-built buildings can be, how fragile, how provisional. The greatest castles and palaces, the largest bunkers even, everything built of stone or timber, of brick or concrete or steel or glass, of aluminium and slate and terra-cotta and marble – EVERYTHING that can be built up, can be torn down or torn apart.

Sukkot was once for the Farmers in Israel a harvest festival and the Sukkah recalled temporary shacks set up to enable the workers to overnight close to their places of work. But for the Rabbis in exile from Israel Sukkot was always the opportunity to remind ourselves that cities with thick city walls and high city gates were just as vulnerable as anything else, that for wanderers in the desert, runaway slaves, refugees, ANY form of shelter was better than none, and that even city-dwellers could and should learn the art of hospitality to fellow nomads, to invite into their shacks symbolic visitors and to share a bite to eat and something to drink, a chance to remind ourselves that essentially we are all nomads in life and that the only fixed abode we shall eventually have is in the earth, not on it.

VeSsamachta beChagecha. ”Be happy and enjoy your festival.”  We actually, here, today, this year, have a lot to be happy about. The Sukkah is just temporary, for ritual or for decorative purposes. We will not have to live in it through the oncoming winter. We shall not have to meet as a community in it for the next several Shabbatot. We shall return from the festival service to homes or hotels with intact roofs and functioning water or electricity services, to intact furniture, floors we can walk on and the sort of draught where you can tell it is a draught because the rest of the wall or window is still there.

We have a lot to be happy about and we should not take that for granted. The lesson of Sukkot is: Not to forget that. That’s all. Do not forget that. And be happy.

 

  Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild.

 

 

 

 

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