Holy Days

OVERVIEW OF PASSOVER

Passover, or Pesach, begins on the 15th of the month of Nissan. It celebrates the Exodus and the inception of Hebraism, the creation of the Jewish People. (The so-called “Jewish” New Year, which takes place in the fall, is actually the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, and thus humanity.)

Chametz

For seven or eight days there will be no leavened products, or chametz, in the home (barley, rye, oats, wheat, spelt, beer, liquor, rice, legumes.) We clean our houses to remove them. Chametz represents ego – being puffed up. In order to be truly free from our Inner Pharoah, we need to sweep ego from our lives, and make room for God. Mitzraim means Egypt, or slavery – a narrow, constricted place, as in the emotional paralysis or apathy following external slavery – the inability to claim autonomy, or being stuck.

“Leaven represents the evil impulse of the heart.” (Talmud Bavli Tractate Beracoth 17a.) We should seek to be as humble as a flat piece of unleavened matzah. (Talmud Bavli Tractate Pesachim.) We remove chametz to prepare for the responsibilities, commitments, and obligations that bring out our humanity and which represent true freedom.

A candle is used to search for chametz, just as the human soul is God’s candle for searching the world. According to R’Ishmael, searching with a candle symbolizes God’s mercy, as God says, “I will not search Jerusalem with the light of a torch, but only with the light of a lamp, the light of which is much smaller, so that great wrongdoing will be found out, but petty wrongdoing will not be found out.” A feather, or the lulav left over from Sukkot, may be used to sweep away the chametz, so no one touches it directly. After it is collected, the chametz may be burned. This would include all pieces larger than an olive. Alternatively, the chametz (e.g. bread) can be temporarily sold and bought back after the holiday, or it could be donated.

The Four Sons

The four sons we speak of in the Passover Seder may represent one person with different aspects: wise, evil, simple, and one who doesn’t know how to ask a question – as Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal describes in his book The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal, “a non-integrated person.” He explains that the rabbis taught Passover reveals the way to liberate ourselves. The story of Passover is not truly about teaching someone else, but about our inability to teach anyone until we ourselves have changed. In Kabbalah, the gematria (numerological value) of the word echad (one) is 13. 13 x 4 sons = 52. The word ben means son. Ben = 52. So, they say, we are talking about one person.

These aspects may also serve to address four different topics for discussion – the wise son, for example, may stand for the reasons we keep Torah. Most of my sources (myriad books, which I wish I had footnoted when I did this research) indicate the four sons are different types of people with whom we would communicate differently when we explain the meaning of rituals in the Seder. The wise son asks about the law God commands. To him, we would explain that we were slaves to Pharoah and God led us out of Egypt. The wicked son asks what this event means to you, thereby excluding himself from the proceedings. The wicked son is a person who just doesn’t get it – supposedly one who would not have been worthy of redemption, although personally I think redemption is a choice open to anyone at any time. The simple son just wants to know what’s going on. To him we would say God took us out of slavery and killed the first born of the Egyptians, thus every first-born Jew is dedicated to God. (I believe that because Egypt stands for Mitzraim, a narrow place within ourselves, the first-born son of the Egyptians represents the first impulses of the yetzer ha ra, the evil inclination). The son who doesn’t know how to ask is a the one to whom we offer information without being asked.

The Four Questions

Between 200 CE and 500 CE, the Mishnah lays out questions to be asked by a child. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we eat only unleavened bread? Because our ancestors had to leave Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise. Why do we eat bitter herbs? To remind us of the bitterness of slavery. Why do we dip our food twice? The first time, it goes into the salt water to replace tears with gratitude. The second time, it goes into the charoset (a paste of chopped nuts, apples, raisins, and wine) to sweeten or lessen the pain of bitterness. Why do we recline? Because that’s what free people do. (Originally this question was about the roast lamb of the sacrifice. In the Temple era everyone brought a lamb.)

In Talmud Tractate Pesachim 116a, the Rabbis Shmuel and Rav debate the meanings of degradation and oppression, praiseworthiness and redemption. What is the redemptive process? Shmuel says it is physical freedom. Rav says it’s an inner, spiritual experience of God revealing Himself.

The Four Cups of Wine, and a Fifth

The four cups of wine correspond to the promises God makes in Exodus 6.6. God says, “I will” 1.) Free you from the labors of the Egyptians, 2.) Deliver you from their bondage, 3.) Redeem you with an outstretched arm and through ordinary chastisements, 4.) Take you to be My people. According to Kabbalah, four forces of spiritual impurity are removed. The fifth cup, for Elijah, is a remnant of a debate the Rabbis had over how many cups of wine should be part of the proceedings. They decided to have four, pour a fifth, and wait for Elijah to come and explain how many are correct. We might pour some of our wine into Elijah’s cup to symbolize everyone’s role in bringing about redemption.

The Afikomen

This is the matzah which is hidden until the end of the evening. According to custom, children look for it and exchange it for a gift or treat. Historically, afikomen could have meant a dessert, entertainment, other foods, or partying. Late in the Second Temple period, Pesach became a ritualized meal, modeled on the pattern of the Greek/Roman Symposium, or discussion banquet. The idea of reclining is based on a Roman custom of lying down to eat dinner. A haggadah is supposed to be a study tool. The Rabbis discussed the meaning of not being allowed to eat dessert after the Passover offering. To paraphrase Rashi, don’t take your utensils and eat somewhere else; stay with the group you’re with. In Hellenistic terms “epikomen” was orgiastic partying, and a symposium consisted of booze, music, and intellectual discussion. The Rabbis said not to follow the eating of the paschal lamb with party hopping and whoring. We should stay focused on the spiritual dimensions of the holiday. The three types of matzah (symbolizing the shared fate of the Jewish people – the Levites, the Israelites, and the Kohanim) may be a more recent add-on.

The Seder Plate

The shank bone, zeroah, on the seder plate is a remnant of the sacrificial offering, although according to halacha we’re to use a chicken bone instead of a lamb bone, or something else – some people use beets. The egg, baytsah, is for the regular offering. The bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery. The charoset represents the mortar that the Israelites used to lay bricks in Egypt. (There is a story that apples are used in memory of the Israelite women in Egypt who had to give birth under the apple trees to protect their sons.) The parsley or other green vegetable, like celery, karpas, is for Spring. The salt water represents the tears and sweat of slavery.

Ritual Steps During the Seder

  1. Kiddush, the blessing over wine
  1. Urchatz, hand washing
  1. Karpas, eating the green vegetable
  1. Yachatz, breaking the matzah
  1. Maggid, the telling of the story
  1. Rachtzah, hand washing with a blessing
  1. Motzi, blessing before eating the matzah
  1. Eating the matzah
  1. Maror, eating the bitter herbs
  1. Korech, the sandwich of matzah, bitter herbs, and charoset
  1. Shulchan orech, eating the meal
  1. Tzafun, eating the afikomen
  1. Barech, blessing after eating
  1. Hallel, songs of praise
  1. Nirtzah, conclusion

The Second Passover

On the 14th of the month of Iyar, there is a second Passover which allows those who were ritually impure during the first Passover to accept the Hebraic offering of the paschal lamb. The Rabbis say this proves God is always giving us second chances to change from our egotistical selves, doing our own will, to spiritual people doing God’s will. Talmud Sotah 5a quotes God, “He [the ego-driven person] and I cannot dwell in the same world.”

Rabbi Irving Greenburg wrote in his book The Jewish Way that God cares because He intervened on behalf of the Israelite slaves. Human beings are meant to be free, even if oppression makes us passive and apathetic. Messianic redemption is like a large-scale Exodus.

CHANUKKAH: ANTI COLONIALISM AND ASSIMILATION

Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, so that from ca. 400 BCE going forward, Greek culture and worship influenced Hebrews living in Israel. The affluent Hebrews were willig to accept Greek culture and assimilate. The lower classes/peasants were not. Maybe the poor resist change easily because they have less to lose and/or to gain – ? In any case, the Hebraic conflict with Hellenism was thus both anti-colonial and anti-assimilation.

Cast of Characters

The Pharisees’ approach to what would become Judaism began roughly 200-150 BCE. They were the forerunners of today’s rabbis. Their focus on ritual purity, prayer, biblical study, and legal scholarship tended to separate them from the illiterate masses. Like today’s academics, they didn’t have great economic status or power. Their influence was democratizing in the sense that the people didn’t need the priests to talk to God; they could do it themselves directly.

The Sadducees were the priests and aristocrats, the wealthy elites who dominated Temple worship. They were members of the Sanhedrin (the court of the Second Temple period) and outnumbered the Pharisees.

The Pietists, a hardcore group of Hebrews willing to die as religious martyrs, wanted to end pagan worship. They supported the actions of the Hasmoneans.

The Hasmoneans were a tribe of priests that included the Maccabees.

Prologue

Under the rule of Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes IV, Hebraic observance was banned ca. 167 BCE. The Hebrews were not allowed to keep the laws of kashrut, to observe the sabbath, or to circumcise their sons. The Temple was annexed and used to worship Greek and Roman gods. Zeus ended up on the altar. Hebrews who resisted these changes were tortured and murdered. Antiochus may have been assisted by a priest named Menelaus (the successor of Jason, who’d established two Greek educational institutions and named a Greek city in Jerusalem “Antioch at Jerusalem.”) Menelaus supported Hellenization. Some of the Hebrews were sympathetic to Greek culture, wanted assimilation, and helped it along. A priest called Mattathias of the Hasmoneans, and his five sons (the Maccabees, aka “hammers”) organized a rebellion against the Syrian army. They also targeted Hellenized Hebrews, of whom they did not approve.

The Guerilla War

As the legend goes, the Syrian/Green army demands that the Hebrews sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods. Mattathias kills a Hebrew who complies. He then calls for others to stand with him for God’s Law and the Covenant. This launches a guerilla war, which according to various sources may have lasted between three and twenty-five years along the coastal area which is now Tel Aviv. The Maccabees retake Jerusalem and reclaim the Temple. They purify it and rededicate it. They rebuild the altar with new stones.

Epilogue

The story of the Maccabees was preserved by Hellenized Jews and rejected by the Pharisees. The Hasmoneans were not really anti-Greek, as they didn’t uphold the goals of the Pietists once they gained power. Around 37 BCE, Pompeii annexed Judea under the authority of Rome, which put an end to Hasmonean rule and led to Herod’s installation as ruler of the Hebrews by the Romans. Some say the Hasmonean leader allowed the Romans to gain control of Judea, due to having asked for their political protection. Active prosyletizing by the Hasmoneans ended with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

After the Temple was destroyed, the Pharisees became the carriers of tradition in the form of the Mishnah and Talmud. They considered themselves to be the direct inheritors of the teachings of Moses. Before the destruction of the Second Temple, nobody was called “Rabbi” (which comes from the Aramaic word for “my master”) – including Hillel and Shammai. Early leaders included Rabbi Gamliel, who taught the apostle Paul (aka Saul); Rabbi Yochanan ben Kakkai, the founder of the academy at Yavneh; and Rabbi Akiva, a significant contributor to the Mishnah.

Interestingly, Channukah is not mentioned at all in the Mishnah, but only in the Gemara. There the rabbis discuss the rules for lighting sabbath candles. One asks if the same rules apply to Channukah candles. Another asks what Channukah is. They say the lamentation for the dead and the fasting that occur on the 25th of Kislev are prohibited because the Greeks defiled the Temple and the oils in it. When the Hasmoneans defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest. The vessel contained only enough oil for one day’s lighting, but a miracle occurred and the oil burned for eight days. The next year they commemorated that event as a festival of thanksgiving for their victory. That’s about all it says about Channukah in the Gemara.

The Rabbis didn’t like the Maccabees, as the Maccabees made themselves and their children kings (the Hasmonean Dynasty.) Priests and kings were supposed to come from separate tribes. As previously mentioned, the Hasmoneans allowed the Romans to provide them with protection, and thus handed them the power to take over the kingdom entirely. The Hasmoneans sided with the Sadducees instead of the Pharisees. Trying to run a nation under Judaic principles, such as love, fairness, and forgiveness, tends not to work out so well.

What’s the Festival of Lights About?

Because the Rabbis were not big fans of the meaning or outcome of the Maccabean revolt, they focused their attention on the light. They said it symbolized God’s help, and the infinite. God created the world in seven days. The eighth day represents infinity. The celebration coincides with the solstice. Just as the birth of Jesus supplanted pagan solstice practices, so did Channukah for the Jews. Channukah is actually a late Sukkot (fall harvest/pilgrimage.) The First and Second Temples had been dedicated at Sukkot. The sons of Mattathias, led by Judah ha Maccabee, go to light the Eternal Flame in the Temple, but discover that only one vessel of purified oil remains. Miraculously, the oil continues to burn for 8 days, giving them the time they need to prepare additional oil. They must ritually purify themselves after battle before they can make new oil. War requires soldiers to be in the presence of the dead. To be with a dead body makes one ritually impure.

This year we light our first candle on Wednesday at nightfall. A menorah is a candelabra of any type, while the term channukiah specifies the 9-candle holder used during Channukah. Candles are placed from right to left, as we read in Hebrew, but lit from left to right. Hillel and Shammai debated whether light should increase or decrease over the course of the festival. Shammai wanted the candles to represent the days still to come, possibly because the Temple sacrifices during Sukkot were reduced by one bull per day. Hillel wanted the candles to represent the days that had already passed, so that the light would symbolize an increase in holiness; the purpose of ritual is to make us better people. Hillel won the argument.

The channukiah goes in the window unless there is a risk of attack by non-Jews. Then it can be on a table, as preserving life and safety is more important than ritual. We light the candles as soon as possible after the stars come out, and they burn for half an hour. Blessings are said after the shamash (servant candle) is lit but before the nightly candles are lit. Only the shamash may be used for a utilitarian purpose such as lighting or re-lighting the others. We read Psalms 113 to 118 every morning of the eight days, in which we learn God sees everything, lifts us up, gives us hope and purpose. Psalm 115 reads, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths but cannot speak….” Daily readings from Numbers 7-8 describe offerings brought to the Tent of Meeting, and 8:1-4 talks about lighting the menorah. In Zechariah 2:14-4:7, an angel speaks for God, saying “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.” The “miracle” is not a military victory, but an increase in spirituality.

Lesser-Known Detail:

The Fast of Tevet 10th comes shortly after Channukah to commemorate the siege of Jerusalem by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar during which prophet/king Zedekiah was captured and his sons killed.

ROSH CHODESH AND THE ENERGY TO ACT

Also known as Yom Kippur Katan, Rosh Chodesh can be like a mini Yom Kippur, with fasting and prayer in preparation to receive the new month. A prayer is said outside at night:

“Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who created the skies with His word, and all heaven’s host with the breath of His mouth. He gave them appointed times and roles, and they never miss their cues, doing their Creator’s bidding with gladness and joy. He is the true creator who acts faithfully, and He has told the moon to renew itself. It is a beautiful crown for the people carried by God from birth, who will likewise be renewed in the future in order to proclaim the beauty of their creator for His glorious majesty. Blessed are you, Lord, who renews new moons.”

Or words to that effect.  The source of the commandment to bless the new moon may be found in Exodus 12:2, which says, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first of the months for you.” Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 42a says, “Whoever blesses the month in its prayer time receives the Divine Presence.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh (German, 19th century) wrote, “Each time the moon finds the sun again, each time it receives its rays of light afresh, God wants His people to find Him again, and to be illuminated with fresh rays of His light, wherever and however in their course they have had to pass through a period of darkness and obscurity….This renewal of the moon shall be a beginning of renewals for you. Noticing, realizing the fresh birth of the moon shall induce you to achieve a similar rejuvenation. You are to fix your moons, your periods of time, by taking note of this ever-fresh, recurring rejuvenation.”

In addition to the sabbath, which Heschel described as a sanctuary in time, we have a monthly occasion to renew our sense of awe at the beauty of the universe, and to get back on track if we have strayed off the path – if we have lost touch with our capacity for inner peace. To appreciate the natural world is to engage in what Heschel called “radical amazement.” To welcome the moon is to express gratitude for God’s creation, and thus to reaffirm the value of life.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how to maintain inner balance, wholeness, integrity, and peace (aka shalom) when faced with stressful, tumultuous times. The pressure of being the primary supporter of a family of four, knowing I might lose my job in a couple of months, and if that happens, I will also lose my health insurance….Well, I’m a little flipped out, even though in theory I know I should relax about things that are beyond my control. This is another way of saying “trust God.”

When I hear the news, regardless of the source, what comes through most often is the urge to panic, give up, give in, and shut down. The daily onslaught of grief and mayhem overwhelms me. Sometimes I wonder if one of the goals of the news media is to manipulate us into feeling helpless and hopeless, or even to actively stoke racial and class divisions, so we will be so caught up in hating and worn down by misery that we won’t have the time or energy to change things.

Recently, I learned about rainwater catchment procedures, and felt empowered, because knowing how to collect rainwater for domestic use means I can learn the grim details about water privatization without sinking into despair. Even though I can’t afford the materials or installation now, the information shows that solutions are possible. If I wait for a movement or a message from outside to tell me what to do, whether from a political party, an organization, a business, or the government, I am more likely to end up serving an agenda that doesn’t help me or the people I care about.

SPIRITUAL DIMENSIONS OF SUKKOT

If Yom Kippur is designed to heighten our awareness of mortality, Sukkot shows us the impermanence of possessions. Everything we have is a loan from God to be shared with others. The sukkah, built immediately following Yom Kippur, is a temporary structure with three walls and a roof of branches placed far enough apart that we can see the stars through them. This is to remind us we are wholly dependent on God, the only real source of security. Everyone, rich or poor, is the same in this regard. We eat meals and also sleep in the sukkah. Each night, we are visited by the ancestors, who correspond to the seven of the ten sephirot (aspects or emanations of God) having to do with corporeal reality. We put out a special chair for them, as we do for Elijah at Pesach. In order of appearance:

Abraham & Sarah = chesed, loving kindness

Isaac & Rebecca = gevurah, strength in judgment

Jacob & Rachel = tiferet, beauty

Joseph & Leah = netzach, victory

Moses & Miriam = hod, glory

Aaron & Abigail = yesod, intimacy

David & Esther = malchut, majesty

Every morning, except for on Shabbat, we wave the lulav and etrog, either inside or outside of the sukkah, to symbolize God’s universal presence. The etrog (citron) corresponds to the heart, the letter Yud in Y-H-V-H, the person who knows tradition and also does good deeds. It has both flavor and fragrance. The lulav (palm branches) correspond to the spine, the letter Vav, and the person who knows Torah but doesn’t do the mitzvot. It has flavor, but no fragrance. The myrtle corresponds to the eyes, the letter Hay, and the person who does good deeds but doesn’t know enough. It has fragrance but no flavor. The willow corresponds to the mouth, the letter Hay, and the person who neither knows enough nor does enough. It has neither flavor nor fragrance. This collection of plants is known as the four species. They may be pagan symbols originally used by Semitic tribes, before the Hebrews, as part of their harvest celebrations. The personalities they represent are said to make up a community – all are beloved by God and all are needed. When the lulav and etrog are shaken, with the etrog in one hand and the lulav in the other, they go to the East, North, West, South (over the shoulder), Up, Down, and toward ourselves.  We become centered. A human being who demonstrates civility and loving kindness becomes a Tree of Life.

On the seventh day of Sukkot, also known as Hoshanah Rabbah, the verdict from the High Holy Days is sealed. In Orthodox communities, people march around with the lulav and beat it into the floor, then save the remains as a broom to sweep out chametz in preparation for Pesach. The etrog may be pierced with cloves and saved for havdalah (the ritual closing of shabbat.)

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal explains, “In Tractate Sukkoth, two rabbis,  a teacher and his student, visit an older one. He has made his sukkah in a non-kosher way. The student is about to leave and state why, but his teacher stays, as does the student who gets the hint, and [they] make beracoth with the lulav, and eat, etc. After, the teacher tells the student that if the choice is to embarrass someone versus eating in a non-kosher sukkah, then eat in the non-kosher sukkah. The Rabbis tell us that while doing one mitzvah we are excused from doing another….Chesed always wins.”

Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day, or 8th Day of Assembly, includes a prayer for rain and the reading of Ecclesiastes. While we are on the topic of rain, I encourage readers to learn about rainwater harvesting. The Talmud encourages us to be careful with resources. While alternative sources of energy exist, the planet holds a limited amount of fresh water. Benefits of collecting rainwater from our rooftops include reducing the amount of storm water runoff that goes into the sewer system, and replenishing the local aquifer which supports the ecology of the region. Also, it saves money on irrigation. While it is more complicated to collect and purify rainwater for indoor use, we may need to begin to think in those terms due to increasingly poor ground water quality, corporate efforts toward privatization of the world’s fresh water supply, and a growing population. (Recommended resources: American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association and a 2009 documentary entitled “Blue Gold: World Water Wars” directed by Sam Bozzo, which is available in streaming video format on Netflix.)

PRELUDE TO THE HIGH HOLY DAYS

“I place before you life and good, death and evil. Choose life.” – Deuteronomy 30:19

The month of Elul marks the beginning of a period of introspection and self-evaluation. According to Rebbetzin Giti Fredman, with whom I have had occasion to study, Elul has a special energy or spirituality conducive to teshuvah (repentance, return, or reconnecting with God.) The month of Elul corresponds to the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai after the Golden Calf incident. We assess our behavior and spiritual condition, reconcile with enemies, and break out of negative patterns and deadening routines. We acknowledge that our lives are in God’s hands. The theme of Selichot is human guilt and God’s forgiving nature. Rebbetzin Giti says the selichot (prayers said in the days leading up to the High Holy Days) focus on the thirteen attributes of God. We want to embody God’s attributes. We seek to grow in humility, gratitude, patience, honor, generosity, kindness, strength, tranquility, trust, enthusiasm, order, awareness, truth. As God says to Abraham, “Go for yourself” – lech lecha. When we are living according to our highest ideals, we tend to feel better, have better relationships and experiences, and a higher quality of life. In the Ashkenazic tradition, Selichot begins the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal says the soul God gives us each day is pure; every day is a fresh start. Ritual is a methodology to bring us to chesed, kindness. Judaism is about how we treat other people. With the armor of God, we become more like Teflon than Velcro. We experience a greater sense of inner peace when we understand that everything we have is a loan from God to be shared with others. When we have low self-esteem, we won’t enter the contest no matter how much affirmation we get. Our relationship with God has to be supreme, he says, because we are truly alone in the world. Even our partners and children are just icing on the cake. If others don’t like us, that’s none of our business. Fear leads to sin. We should ask ourselves what fears are motivating undesirable behavior. Without the fears, we don’t do the behaviors. We ask God to remove our fears. We need to recognize that what we have is enough, and who we are is enough. We are entitled to absolutely nothing. We need to practice gratitude and awareness of the daily miracle of existence.

Rosh Hashanah, popularly known as “the Jewish New Year” is really the Human New Year, as it commemorates the creation of Adam and Eve. Everyone is our brother or sister. Rosh Hashanah re-annoints HaShem as Sovereign of the Universe (malchut = kingship.) God is in charge. We are not. We renew our commitment to doing God’s will. God remembers everything we do. What we do matters. We carry our actions with us throughout our lives. When we make sincere teshuvah, God forgives sins against God. Sins against other people can only be forgiven by them. By Rosh Hashanah we should be well into making amends to others. We ask God to write us into the Book of Life. This means we ask to be spiritually connected instead of cut off from our Holy Spark. We seek inner liberation, freedom, clarity, and integration. When we grow spiritually, we help others rise with us. The reverse is also true.

Traditionally, the readings include Genesis 21, which tells the story of Abraham kicking out Hagar and Ishmael, and Genesis 22, which describes Abraham’s journey to sacrifice Isaac at Moriah. According to R’ Segal, there is a Midrash (story) about the Akedah (binding of Isaac) which says Abraham actually goes through with the sacrifice. Isaac carries the wood for the fire, is burned on the altar, dies and is resurrected in three days, as in the Jesus story. Isaac returns after spending three years in Heaven studying with God, during which time he is cured of his “sweetness” (AKA developmental disability), then marries Rebecca. R’ Segal characterizes the story of the Akedah as one of “non-integration.” He says the Midrash on Isaac was removed, or no longer taught, after the emergence of Christianity. My own thoughts on the story of Isaac: 1) God is present in our love for our children, and 2) loving another human being is loving God.

We receive an angelic soul during the Days of Awe, the period from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, while we concentrate on the spiritual. R’ Segal says God would prefer for us to worship idols and get along with each other than to worship Him while treating each other badly. It is more important to be a good neighbor, and to treat our spouses, children, and others with kindness, to use “honest scales in business.” Judaism teaches that righteous people of all nations have a place in the World to Come. A righteous person is honest in business, treats others with ahavath chesed, and is not sexually violent. This is not complicated.

“To know how fragile the shell of life is, is to learn to handle it with true grace and delicacy.” – Rabbi Irving Greenburg, The Jewish Way

By Yom Kippur we have made teshuvah to others.

“Repent one day before you die.” – Avot 2:15

On Yom Kippur we atone for sins against God. Rebbetzin Giti describes Yom Kippur as a time to work out the details with God about what repentance is going to look like. She also says the binding of Isaac demonstrates Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed, and as a result, Isaac embodies the promises made by God to Abraham. I wonder if our individual willingness to sacrifice ego-driven desires opens the way to let God into our lives. We reflect on our mortality to remind ourselves to live each day with the awareness, gratitude, and sense of purpose we would if we knew it were our last. It could be. Fasting and abstinence symbolize death of the ego. We also demonstrate we are human beings, not animals – we have the ability to master our instincts, and are capable of change. God is forgiving. When Moses brings down the second set of tablets they contain a more realistic and accepting set of instructions. Each of us is responsible for our own actions. We approach God with our confession, repentance, and request for forgiveness.

R’ Segal questions why Kol Nidre is still in the liturgy. The nullification of vows, he explains, dates back to the Inquisition and was intended to preserve Jewish faith under forced conversion. It was not meant to let people off the hook for breaking promises to each other. The prayer came into use in response to the Crusades. Rabbi Ted Falcon, in Judaism for Dummies, explains that Kol Nidre acknowledges that despite our best intentions, we may make promises to God in the coming year which we will fail to keep. Rabbi Falcon describes Kol Nidre as an advance request for forgiveness.

The communal confession exists because of the belief that we are all one – Israel is a single, collective soul. We don’t live in isolation. We are responsible for one another. Rabbi Segal extends this responsibility to all of humanity. He observes that although the notion of communal responsibility is often used for fundraising, it is meant to teach that when we sin, we drag others down with us. We are all in the same boat. If one passenger begins to drill a hole under his chair, everyone drowns.

On Yom Kippur, we read the story of Jonah, which is a story of sincere teshuvah – not by Jonah, but by the pagan king and the people of Ninevah. The judgment of God begins at the 1st of Elul and continues through Shemini Atzeret. As Rebbetzin Giti puts it, on Rosh Hashanah, God writes the letter; on Yom Kippur, He seals the letter, and on Hoshanah Rabbah, He mails the letter. But there is always an opportunity for teshuvah.

HAPPY NEW YEAR, TREE OF LIFE

Tu B’Shevat, the Fifteenth of the Jewish month of Shevat, is the New Year for trees. As with anything else in Judaism, there are many different yet compatible interpretations of the holiday. Some today view it as an opportunity to renew a commitment to environmentalism. Others donate money to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel. Still others may find ways to contribute to their communities by volunteering for pea patch gardening projects. In the Hebraic Age, Tu B’Shevat marked the lifespan of trees for purposes of tithing to the Temple. During the Middle Ages, the Kabbalists created a special Seder for this holiday, with wine and fruit to symbolize the emanations of God.

The Tree of Life is a symbol for God and Torah. The seasonal cycles of trees remind us of our own cycles: death and birth, despair and renewed hope. In Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s book Seasons of Our Joy, he explains that just as Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for the Jewish people, Tu B’Shevat may be considered a kind of New Year for God, representing a resurgence of divine energy in the natural world.

If we want to be ecologically minded, what kind of Tu B’Shevat Seder best represents our values? Should we import the traditional dates, figs, carob, pomegranates, olives, oranges, and spices? Should we instead serve varieties of fruit grown organically in our own region? Should these fruits be cultivated within 100 miles of our Seder? 50 miles? What about the wine? What about the plates, tablecloths, napkins, and utensils? Are they washable or compostable? If Tu B’Shevat is our Jewish Earth Day, perhaps we should make the content of our celebrations match that commitment. The symbolism includes fruits which can be eaten whole (e.g. strawberries), those with a pit or seed (cherries, peaches), and those with a hard or woody exterior (coconuts, pineapples.)

On the Gregorian calendar, Tu B’Shevat 2010 falls on January 30th. Here is a link to what I feel is a beautiful and inspiring Tu B’Shevat Haggadah by Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal.

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