Sukkot and Babylon

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 1.1

“As You rescued the communities You exiled to Babylonia and Your merciful Presence accompanied them — so save us.” — from “Ani Va-ho,” a Sukkot prayer

Prayers begging for rescue and mercy often take the format, “You helped them; help us.” The unusual aspect of this prayer, recited each day of Sukkot in Conservative and Orthodox Jewish liturgies, is its implication that God needs saving, too. Long before Eleazar Kallir (c.570–c.640 CE) developed this poem, however, Jews were teaching that God follows the People into exile.

“These bold interpretations are a way of saying that when there is suffering in the world, God is not to be found on the side of the oppressors” (Or Hadash festival supplement; link below. Click here for basics on ancient Sukkot practices).

Fragility and Sukkot

Many centuries of prayers linked the fragility of Sukkot with exile. For example:

…In the merit of the Mitzvah of Sukkah, redeem us from exile,
protect us, that our enemies not reign over us.
And gather us from the four corners of the earth
and rescue us from captivity and from false imprisonment.
Let no evil eye rule over us ever.
Rebuild Your Holy Temple and restore your presence to Jerusalem….
– from Machzor Rav Peninim (R. Moses ben Hayyim Alshekh c1508-1600)

A different perspective appeared with Haskalah [“Enlightenment”]:


For thousands of years
Israel has been a wandering people.
Our houses are but fragile huts –
And these huts have been torn asunder too many times
By unrest and the hatred of others.
We have only your mercy to thank
That we have not perished from the earth.
Your compassion has held us and carried us
Through storm and flood, over every abyss
That has threatened to devour us,
And now, after generations of wandering,
You have allowed us to taste the sweetness of home.
Thanks to you, we have found a homeland –
A beautiful, wonderful country
That recognizes us as its children.
Safe and free, like ancient Israel
In the shade of its palm and fig trees,
We rest beneath the tent of peace
Provided to us by the law,
Along with all our brothers and sisters in this land….
– “On the first days of Sukkot”
in Fanny Neuda’s Hours of Devotion (1855)

The “homeland” Neuda had in mind was her native Moravia. The first edition of Hours of Devotion was published in German and included a blessing specifically naming Emperor Franz Joseph. Neuda’s family supported Haskalah, promoting the limited citizenship then allowed to Jews as well as sermons in the vernacular, modernizations of of prayers, and other religious adaptations that led to the Reform Movement. The prayerbook was later translated into Yiddish and was being reprinted in both languages up through the early part of the 20th Century.

Some Questions for Consideration

  • Where does the fragility of your personal Sukkot experience take you?
  • In what ways do you feel protected by a “tent of peace, provided to us by law”?
  • In what ways does your experience reflect exile, as expressed by Machzor Rav Peninim?
  • What about the fragility of the Jewish community, locally and worldwide?
  • And what about the wider world?
  • Are there lessons to be drawn from identifying ourselves and God as together in need of rescue?


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Spatz-O’Brien sukkah, Oct. 2017

NOTES

In Temple days, hoshanot were recited while circling the altar on Sukkot; some denominations still recite them, while circling the bima — once on the first six days of the Sukkot and seven times on the seventh day, Hoshana Rabba. Hoshana is a contraction of hosha [save] and na [please]. Eleazar Kallir’s hoshana poem is known by its first line: “ani va-ho.”

ani va-ho hoshi’a na” from Mishnah Sukkah 4:5 is variously translated as “Save Yourself and us,” “I and You, may You deliver us both,” or “Please rescue me and the divine name.” Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 104a) explains that “ho” is one of God’s names.

See commentaries on this prayer in Conservative Siddur Lev Shalem and Orthodox The Koren Mesorat Harav Siddur. Or Hadash: A commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom‘s festival supplement is (available for download here).
See also pages 110-111 in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Heavenly Torah (more here).

Many Jews, including the Reform movement, do not observe Hoshana Rabba — or perform the hoshanot prayers during the rest of Sukkot.

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Exploring Babylon: Intro

Exile: Babylon and Beyond

Exile saturates Jewish sacred text, practice, and thought. From the first couple’s banishment from Eden, early in Genesis, to the Babylonian captivity, which closes Second Chronicles, the Hebrew bible is filled with themes of loss, wandering, and desire for return. Even the Exodus, Judaism’s foundational tale of escape from human oppression and entrance into service of God, carries a strong exilic theme: “Remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

An arc similar to the path of the Tanakh [Hebrew bible] – from Creation, with its seeds of exile, through Revelation, toward Redemption; and then back to exile again – is repeated in practice, over the course of each Shabbat, across the annual festival cycle, and in the schedule of Torah readings.

Deuteronomy closes with the People on the banks of the Jordan, hopeful but not yet home; we never pass this point, in the annual reading cycle (an invention of Jews in exile), instead linking “Never again was there a prophet in Israel like Moses….” immediately to “In the beginning.” Before the very first portion ends, Eve and Adam have already been expelled from Eden.

Moreover, Babylonian captivity infuses centuries of Torah interpretation and Jewish philosophy: After Babylon, Jews can never un-know that, however close to the promised Land we get, exile is always just beyond the horizon….And that holding onto the “Promised Land” will be harder and require a more sustained ethical commitment than we’ve managed so far.

But Babylon has many meanings and values in- and outside Judaism.

In the Torah, Babylon [Bavel] is the site of the Tower and neighbor to town of Ur, from which Abraham’s family set off and later returned in search of spouses. Prophetically, Bavel is both a threat, a consequence for misbehavior, and the city whose welfare we are told to seek (Jer 29:7). Historically, Babylon is a foreign cultural center, the site of one of the ancient world’s longest lasting, most developed, and most diverse settlements. It is also the base of much creativity, including centuries of aggadah [lore] and halakhah [law] still central to Judaism.

For Jews, Babylon eventually becomes a crazy patchwork of motifs: distant origin, traumatic captivity, and creative center. Christians, Rastas, and others bring additional perspectives. In U.S. politics, Babylon has become a cracked mirror reflecting tyrants, colonizers, and oppressors – who, all too often, look disturbingly like us.

More on “Exploring Babylon” project at “A Song Every Day”

Teapots in Babylon

“This is what travelers discover: that when you sever the links of normality and its claims, when you break off from the quotidian, it is the teapots that truly shock. Nothing is so awesomely unfamiliar as the familiar that discloses itself at the end of a journey.” This week, I’ve been hearing Psalm 137 among these lines from Cynthia Osick’s “The Shock of Teapots” (Metaphor & Memory. NY: Knopf, 1989). The result sounds like this:

How is that we have a teapot,
symbol of normalcy, and even comfort,
amidst all this confusion and fear?
Are we to enjoy and share
cups of tea here
in this strange, oppressive land?

The opening lines of Psalm 137 are primarily about the challenge of expressing joy, and making music in particular, distant from Zion, mocked and alienated from oppressors. But I think we also hear something like the “shock of teapots” — normalcy, even comfort, or celebration here!?

By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
There, upon the willows, we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked of us words of song,
and our tormentors asked of us mirth:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?
–Ps. 137:1-4, translation sort of a mishmash based on Old JPS
Complete Old JPS and Hebrew here

MicahNext12Of course, many people, in the US and elsewhere, have long been conscious of living in Babylon. So the puzzlement and shock expressed by so many in this past week is a little surreal to some.**

My personal connection to the language of “Babylon” has been growing for some time as the central liberation story of Judaism — being freed from Egypt — seems unsuited to circumstances where Jews, as individuals often profiting from White privilege, and as a people are too often Pharaoh. See, e.g., “April 22: 1968 and 2016” (Who can say we’ve actually left Egypt?). The “Trouble to See” series from which graphic at right is taken, was published over the summer. And a few years back, “A Mountain Called Zion,” offered thoughts on “Zion” and how close/distant it is, as well as a nice link to Jimmy Cliff’s “Waters of Babylon.”

Most importantly for further exploration, this blog welcomes comments and guest blogs from Jews and non-Jews.

Normalcy on Good Hope Road

Yesterday I posted the following on Facebook:

OK, so I’m walking down Good Hope Road in Southeast DC and there’s this guy standing on the sidewalk with his car doors open blaring that song “FDT” — the one which goes, “…I like white folks, but I don’t like you…” with a chorus of “[expletive deleted] [president elect].” Cheered me right up.
#AnacostiaUnmapped #LoveDC #NotmyPresident

One friend, not a DC resident, asked “why?” and it took me some time to come up with a response other than “maybe you had to be there.” What warmed my heart, I now think, was the normalcy of the scene for Good Hope Road, although the place is undergoing gentrification. Moreover, the song was not something written in a flurry on election night. Folks had been playing the piece, from the rapper/writer YG, for some time:

“You gave us your reason to be President, but we hate yours.”

They were playing it on November 7 and they were playing it on November 10.  The sentiments — which are to the point, if crude (“FDT“) — hadn’t changed with election results. It was a little like discovering a teapot at the end of a journey.

Time to Go!

In one common cycle of Torah readings, this is the week of Lekh Lekha [“Go!” or “Go (to/for yourself),” often transliterated Lech Lecha]. And so, whether this week was a shock to, or a confirmation of, your reality, events are calling us to embark on a new journey, toward better individual and collective selves…maybe even out of Babylon.

**NOTE

Many posts on this blog are “political” in plenty of ways, but direct attention to electoral politics is a rarity. There is no getting around it this week, though. And, here is a powerful and cogent exploration of what was meant by “surreal” above:

 For a lot of people of color, this election was really about trying to find the lesser of two evils. America asked us: “How do you prefer your racism — blatant or systemic?”

— “On ‘Woke’ White People advertising their shock that racism just won a presidency

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