Koheleth, Ben Sira and the Direction for our Congregation Shmini Atzeret 2015
People often ask me, “ What holiday is this?”. After all, we know about Sukkoth- we have these ramshackle huts. We know about Simhat Torah- after all, everyone likes to dance around. But all we usually think about Shmini Atzeret is that it has become the occasion for Yizkor.
Even the Bible didn’t give us a clear explanation. This is simple, in straight translation, the Eight Day of Atzeret. What is Atzeret? A good question. It is usually translated as “Assembly”, since the Hebrew word “Atzeret” can mean a gathering or an assembly. We have been gathered together for 7 days of Sukkot, and now we have one more day to gather. Yet another reading of the word “ Atzeret” is “Conclusion.” This is a conclusion of the festival of Sukkoth and a conclusion of the entire sacred season of this month.
Why this day? It is said that God so much enjoyed watching his people celebrating that he said,” Don’t leave me. Stay an extra day with me.”
This day has since been imbued with additional significance. Sukkoth was always associated with prayers for rain, and yesterday, by tradition, was Hoshana Rabbah. Jews beat willow branches as a physical prayer for rain, and today, we add the verse Mashiv haruach ,”Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall”. That verse is highlighted by chanting the Musaf in the tones of the Yom Kippur Neilah. Our sages taught us “ Im ayn Kemach, ayn torah-- if there is no dough, no physical nourishment, there can be no Torah”. We cannot have religion without physical prosperity and wellbeing.
Now that your curiosity has been settled and you can answer someone’s question, ”What is Shmini Atzeret”, we must provoke two other questions. The first question, is “ Why is there no explanation for Shmini Atzeret. Why is it left open ended?” The second question is,”Since we need our physical nourishment in order to get spiritual nourishment, how do we keep this congregation going?”
The first question is the easier.
There is an old tradition of reading from Koheleth, the book of Ecclesiastes, at the season of Sukkoth. It is the fall, summer has ended, and winter is coming, and we are getting older. The Sages said that Koheleth was written by King Solomon when he was an old man and it feels like it. There is another ancient book, however, commonly called Ecclesiasticus. Note that name is almost the same. It is also called the Wisdom of Ben Sira.
Now, Koheleth would seem to be a very bitter old man. He is very cynical in tone and attitude. For him, wisdom is a fool’s quest. ” Hevel havalim,Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. . . I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind. . . . Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain. . . Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me.”
On the other hand, Ben Sira concludes on just the opposite note, as if he is intentionally responding to Koheleth:
“See for yourselves! I have labored only a little, but have found much.
Acquire but a little instruction, and you will win silver and gold through her.
May your soul rejoice in God’s mercy; do not be ashamed to give him praise.
Work at your tasks in due season, and in his own time God will give you your reward.”
Which one of these made the cut to be in the Bible?
After much debate, the Rabbis decided to keep the sceptic Koheleth. However, until the last century, if I wanted to read Ben Sira, I had to go borrow a copy ,based on a Greek text, from the Catholic Church. It was not till a little over 120 years ago, that an original Hebrew text of Ben Sira was found in the Cairo Geniza ( by the founding figure of my Rabbinical school, Cambridge Prof. Solomon Schechter) and another text found in the Dead Sea scrolls in the last century.
So, I go to the questioning. The Rabbis justify the book from these verses at the end,” The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd.” The goads (which they also interpret as a ‘volleyball’, a back and forth) are to prompt us and lead us to one source because a faith questioned is a faith that can withstand challenges.
It is that willingness to examine and analyze that has enabled us to pass through every crisis and every challenge in all history.
Koheleth is in, Ben Sira is out. That is the nature of Jewish thought.
Judaism is one unopened question that will be resolved ” Teyku” Ever? Never? The word is from the Aramaic, Teykum”, let it stand, a tie. The metaphoric explanation is that “ Tishbi Yavo veyetaretz kushiyot v sheelot”, Elijah, the prophet, at the end of days, will give us the final answer. In either way, there are, it seems 321 cases of Teyku, of undecided problems in the Talmud, which may well be half of all the cases. That makes us very unlike Catholicism, for example, which requires a very well-reasoned and logical conclusion, a catechism that then becomes binding on the community of the faithful. We are left debating, and we are told, that our sages, even when they are dead and in heaven, are still debating.
That is why we have a festival of Shmini Atzeret with an open-ended meaning for a name.
Which takes me now to our second question, of the future of our synagogue and the quandary of dealing with Jews and Judaism into the 21st century. ” Since we need our physical nourishment in order to get spiritual nourishment, how do we keep this congregation going?”
Many years back, when I was a student in Rabbinical school ( the Jewish Theological Seminary of the aforementioned scholar, Solomon Schechter), I prepared a paper on the challenges facing modern Judaism, especially Conservative Judaism. What was true 40 years ago, was true 200 years ago, when another Rabbi Nachman ( my Hebrew name) wrote his masterpiece, A Guide to the Perplexed for Modern Times . He adapted the title of Maimonides great work of a thousand years ago, which was an attempt to meet the challenges of rational philosophy on faith by adopting rational philosophy. Krochmal moved on to the next step for his time and day, the European Enlightenment. Why did Judaism continue, while all other civilizations went through ups, plateaus, downs and outs? It continued because the spirit of Judaism was one which responded actively and creatively to the needs of the times.
To cut short some 200 years of intervening Jewish history, this is what I proposed- my own version of Moreh Nebuchim. Conservative Judaism had generally been seen as a middle road:, neither Reform nor Orthodox, Halakhic but not much observed, a traditional service but with a lot of English and explanation to make the service longer,the Rabbi as gentleman and scholar. All in combination made this the success formula for American Jewry for the bulk of the last century. The ground had shifted greatly, however, while was a student.
I came out with a formula which is the kind that business schools like. An organizational diagram rather than a unified theory. We needed to explore, we needed to break out. I came up a three dimensional Judaism, with eight different variations on a spectrum of more observant to less in Jewish law in one direction, from traditional to radical in faith, from mystical to ethnic-secular in tone. What we had to keep us together was the agreement that we were, at the core one, one people, one story, one God, however we would explain that.
To succeed, the large synagogue of the 20th century would need to be broken up into small ones, competing, under one roof. My very first position, in fact, was in Houston, where one synagogue had two congregations, and my first mission was to create, at least for the High Holy days, another congregation, a family congregation with a woman as the Cantor and a children’s choir. Today, there are three services running simultaneously in that synagogue, all filled. Indeed, that is the trend.
Now, what can we do here? We have at best, two minyans worth on a Shabbat. It’s hard to cut that down into two groups. So our next best is to try and bring in alternative services. That is our experiment with Makom LA. That is the experiment I tried with last week’s Magic Sukkah. We share our facilities with the Iranian American Jewish Federation; they too recognize their need to “break the eggs” in order to make an omelet. That is why , this Shabbat, we saw an American Ashkenazi Cantor lead a service for a Bat Mitzvah girl who read from the Torah to a Persian congregation that has its own very distinct traditions. It is true that it took almost forever, but it is, nevertheless, a major move for a very traditional community.
In short, I need all of us here to ask the question, what we can do to keep this community up and going. We are in the midst of one of the great creative centers of world culture. We can do a great variety of programming here—family, musical, literary, educational, you name it. We can join forces with Makom LA beyond just the Friday and Shabbat services. We can work with our Iranian counterparts here. We just need elbow grease—we need it from you.
We need help to reach out to our neighbors. We need people to make phone calls. We need people to sit on the board. We need people to plan and invent. A donation wouldn’t hurt, either.
If we can get all of us on board, we do ourselves a long lasting favor. We keep the chain of Jewish tradition, the link L’dor vador-from generation to generation, going on and on. I want to put us in the frame of thought for Yizkor, and go back to Ecclesiasticus, who had a great opening for Yizkor:
Let us now praise famous men (and women), and our fathers( and mothers )that begat us.
2The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.
3Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:
4Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions:
5Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:
6Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations:
7All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.
10But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.
14Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.
15The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will shew forth their praise.
For the sake of those who went before us, we commit ourselves to carry on in their devotion and Massaim Tovim, good deeds. Amen.
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