Dwelling Within a Fallible Construction

Sukkot is the holiday “most closely associated with the Oral Law,” according to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, as so much of the holiday — from identifying “p’ri eitz hadar” [“fruit of goodly trees”] (Lev 23:40) to determining what constitutes a sukkah — is determined via Oral Law (see below). Taking this thought one step further: Throughout this holiday, we dwell, more literally than usual, within a divine-human collaborative construction.

hoshana1Each year, we erect a new structure resembling the ones our ancestors built but using the materials and hands available to us at the time. Each year, our conception of Torah carries the teachings of our ancestors but makes use of new insights and adaptations to changing circumstances.

Sukkot asks us to dwell, for a time, deeply in shakiness: for some this translates into awareness that all depends, ultimately, on God; for others, the focus is on interdependence with others in living through forces far beyond our control.

In the sukkah we also dwell, for a time, deeply in an awareness of the human, fallible construction of our Torah understanding and of our abilities, individually and collectively, to put Torah into practice.

As we prepare to leave the sukkah, we may hope that next year’s construction will be of even stronger, more beautiful materials erected by even surer hands. But that hope for the future need not throw doubt on the value of this year’s construction or diminish our enjoyment in this year’s dwelling place.

Only through the Oral Law, can we identify the words
פרי עץ הדר with an etrog, the fruit of the citron tree. The Beit HaLevi (Derush 18) suggests that it was on Yom Kippur, when Moses came down with the second Tablets, that the Oral Law was conferred on the people of Israel. But while Yom Kippur commemorates the giving of the Oral Law, Sukkot is the holiday which actually celebrates it. The Sadducees and Pharisees argued about some very basic rules involving the Sukkot festival. Indeed, what is a sukka? What should its height be? From what materials may it be made? The vast majority of the rules of Sukkot are oral traditions from Sinai. Sukkot is therefore the festival of the Oral Law.
Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur p.891-893

BACK

Maybe: Janis Joplin, the Chantels, and Jonah

“Maybe” is not always comfortable in a world that values black and white, in or out, yes or no. But the Book of Jonah, recited on Yom Kippur afternoon, suggests that coming to terms with “maybe” is a key lesson of these days between “it is written” and “it is sealed.” And two musical approaches to “Maybe” help illuminate Jonah’s struggles with concept.
Continue Reading

Traveling With Jonah: Pre-Yom Kippur Thoughts

By the time we approach minchah on Yom Kippur afternoon, we have been through the month of Elul, Selichot prayers, Rosh Hashanah, and a substantial portion of the Day of Atonement. The role that the Book of Jonah plays at that point is one thing. But I’ve been wondering if it might not be of some use to reflect on Jonah’s travels earlier in the season as well.

Having recently read Yehuda Amichai’s brilliant and funny “Conferences, Conferences: Malignant Words, Benign Speech”* – in which one conference session explores, e.g., “ceramacists on the type of potsherd Job used to scratch himself” – I found myself imagining a similar conference on Jonah.

What began as silly free-association turned to slightly more serious exploration of some themes raised by the Book of Jonah. I thought sharing this BEFORE Yom Kippur afternoon, might be of some help.

Here, in the form of a “Conference Program” PDF, is the result of my musings. (Please note: the Creative Common license for this work has been updated.)

Offered with wishes for a good and sweet year!
Traveling_with_Jonah
Continue Reading

Teshuva in a Half an Inch of Water

Teshuva is a never-ending process because we are always changing and the context of our universe is always shifting….We need multiple opportunities for teshuva because our mistakes and errors change over time, and our circumstances are fluid.
— Erica Brown, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, 2012

I was sitting in the bathtub, counting my toes
When the radiator broke, water all froze
I got stuck in the ice without my clothes
Naked as the eyes of a clown

I was crying ice cubes, hoping I’d croak
When the sun come through the window,
the ice all broke
I stood up and laughed, thought it was a joke
That’s the way that the world goes ’round
— John Prine, “That’s the Way that the World Goes ‘Round” (details)

The “fluid” circumstances Erica Brown mentions undoubtedly bear no intentional relationship to John Prine’s bathwater. But Prine’s song and Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe have something related to say about teshuva, and together they offer a fruitful approach to “recovering” ourselves in this penitential season.
Continue Reading