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?


sukkah78

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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Prayers for the New Month of Nisan

Merciful God, the outside world is full of bustle and turmoil.
You are close to us everywhere, but the burdens and obstacles of daily life can rise as a barrier between our hearts and You.
In rituals of wrapping those barriers disappear.
Wrapping reminds us of Your precious constant love,
helps us feel the safety and security of your protecting hand.

These words, in spirit of Fanny Neuda‘s “On Entering the Synagogue,” introduce Washington friends of Women of the Wall‘s “Tallit Solidarity Ceremony.” This will be offered as part of the gathering in solidarity with Women of the Wall on March 11 at the Israeli Embassy. Please join us in person or in spirit.

"Save us from Women of the Wall!" [photo from WoW's Facebook page]

“Save us from Women of the Wall!” [photo: WoW’s Facebook page]

Meanwhile, WoW reports on their Facebook page that these posters [Pashkevillim] appear in Jerusalem in advance of their monthly service:

“Help! The Western Wall is being trampled and desecrated by a group of women called “Women of the Wall” who are requesting to desecrate the Western Wall on Tuesday Rosh Hodesh Nisan 5773 at 7 am. Male and female worshippers, please attend Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Western Wall on that day and protest against this desecration of holiness. All those who consider important the place from which the Shechina will never move should come to raise your voice and protest.” [translation by Pam Frydman]

Today, Women of the Wall
and so many of our brothers and sisters around the world,
struggle to find the peace in worship we so often take for granted.
Today, we unfurl the garments that, for many of us, contribute
to our individual and collective sense of sanctuary.
We are grateful for the rights we enjoy, even while aware
of the many who do not yet enjoy them.

For those who choose: Unfurl your prayer shawl at this point. Hold it aloft… but do not wrap yourself in its shelter.

For with You is the fountain of life.
In Your light we see light. (Psalms 36:10)

Hashem, our God, Fountain of Life and Light, help us see one another more clearly through Your light. Bring more light to our leaders in the U.S., in Israel, and around the world. Today, our shoulders go unprotected by our sheltering garments as we stand in solidarity with Women of the Wall and all who struggle for the freedom of religious practice. We remember the words of Proverbs: “Listen, my child, to your father’s instruction, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.” We pray: May Your Sheltering Presence fill the world, soon and in our time. And let us say: Amen.

For those who choose: Lower prayer shawls at this point.

May the month of Nisan,
with its particular promise of freedom of religious practice,
renew us all in our own religious practices, in our tolerance
for other practices, and in our efforts to promote understanding
and justice in our own communities and beyond them.
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Strength to the Weary

Hard winter earth. Gray February days. Thank God for hidden sap!

Celebrating trees when we are surrounded by cherry blossoms — or other local tree-life — might seem more sensible than doing so on a day like today. But Judaism’s “tree holiday,” is more about the tiny bit of sap, running unseen under winter earth, than it is about visible signs of new growth. Tu B’shvat, the 15th of the month of Shevat in the Jewish calendar (Feb. 8 this year) is the “New Year for Trees.” According to Talmudic discussion, it takes place after “the greater part of the year’s rain has fallen and the greater part of the cycle is still to come” (Rosh HaShanah 14a).

Two notes in Siddur Koren Mesorat HaRav, although both offered as commentary on the morning blessings, seem particularly pertinent for this holiday.
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The Tents and Dwellings are YOURS (and they’re plural): Balak Prayer Links

Perspective — who can see what? who is MEANT to see what? and what might it all mean, anyway? — is a key element in parashat Balak. No one (except God, who is not sharing everything) has the “whole view.” And we are reminded of this even in the words which have become part of our morning prayers.

[I realize that this note is arriving in the week of parashat Pinchas, BTW. Sorry. These remarks on the prayers will, I hope, be relevant at most any time.]

“How goodly [fair, wonderful] are your tents, O Jacob,” the seer Balaam pronounces (Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5), making clear that he can see the entirety of the camp…during this attempt to curse the Israelites; during the previous attempt he could see only a “sliver” (Bamidbar/Numbers 23:13-24) The Israelites, in their own tents in the valley below, have no such vantage point.

In a similar vein, Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen note that in many synagogues, “Mah Tovu” — Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5, followed by Psalms 5:8, 26:8, and 69:14 — is recited while participants are gathering and donning their own prayer shawls. Therefore:

…people rarely have an opportunity to survey the entire scene. To someone watching is (from above) however, all those Jews would appear to have literally made their own personal tents! “How wonderful are your tents, Jacob!”Continue Reading