Each of our three pilgrimage festivals is associated with one of the Megillot. On Passover we read the magnificent poetry of the Song of Songs; on Shavuot the moving story of Ruth, and then there is Sukkot. Ecclesiastes is an important book, but it isn’t such a joy to read. First, it is very long, and then there is the content, which is discouraging—all is vanity. Not exactly what one would expect on the festival when Israel is commanded to be “only joyous!” One line in particular stands out for me. JPS translates 1:16 descriptively as, “A twisted thing that cannot be made straight, a lack that cannot be made good.” RSV takes it as a declaration, “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered,” and this is closer to how the Sages of Israel read it.
Mishnah Sukkah (2:6) famously records two debates between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues. He is maximalist about the required number of meals in the Sukkah (14) but lenient about making up for missed meals over the final holiday of Shmini Atzeret. The other sages are more lenient about the meal count—there is no fixed number, just an obligation to eat when possible in the Sukkah. But once an opportunity is missed, there is no make-up. As Kohelet says, “What is crooked cannot be made straight…” Continue reading
Out damn spot! Out I say! Who said that line? [Reply] Correct, this is perhaps the most famous line in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, and it belongs to his wife, Lady Macbeth. Macbeth was the murderer, but it was she who goaded her husband on to the heinous act of killing their houseguest King Duncan. It was she who took the bloody daggers from her husband and placed them on the sleeping guards to frame them. She literally had blood on her hands, and now she can’t forget.
Initially the Macbeths seem to have succeeded in covering their crime, becoming king and queen, but did they really escape punishment? Macbeth is tormented by apparitions of Duncan and Banquo, his former friend whom he had killed. Lady Macbeth falls to pieces. By Act V she starts sleep-walking, talking in her sleep, rubbing her hands, seeking to cleanse them of their blood guilt. But her heart is tainted and so too, in her eyes, are her hands.
The idea of clean hands being associated with a pure heart goes back further than Macbeth. Psalm 24, which is associated with Rosh HaShanah, asks:
(ג) מִֽי־יַעֲלֶ֥ה בְהַר־יְקֹוָ֑ק וּמִי־יָ֝קוּם בִּמְק֥וֹם קָדְשֽׁוֹ: (ד) נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּֽבַר־לֵ֫בָ֥ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר׀ לֹא־נָשָׂ֣א לַשָּׁ֣וְא נַפְשִׁ֑י וְלֹ֖א נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לְמִרְמָֽה: (ה) יִשָּׂ֣א בְ֭רָכָה מֵאֵ֣ת יְקֹוָ֑ק וּ֝צְדָקָ֗ה מֵאֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעֽוֹ:
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in God’s holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life, or sworn deceitfully. That person shall carry away a blessing from the Lord, a just reward from God, the deliverer.
Is it only the perfect saint who can stand on the mountain of the Lord, the one who has never sinned? What about teshuvah? Is some guilt just stained too deeply to be removed?
The cries of children, and the sobbing of parents, ring in our ears each Rosh Hashanah. The Torah and haftarah readings emphasize the perils faced by sons Ishmael and Isaac, and the terrors experienced by mothers Hagar, Sarah, Hannah, and Rachel. To witness a child in danger evokes a nearly universal response to rush to the rescue. Implicit in this collection of texts is the plea that God look upon us—the Jewish people—as vulnerable children, that divine mercies might be stirred, and forgiveness extended to us all. Just as the mothers of Israel were stirred with mercy, we ask that God be moved to show us love.
This shift from human to divine mercy is made explicit in the special prayers written for Rosh Hashanah, especially in the Zikhronot section of the Musaf service. In each of the ten verses, there is an association between human vulnerability and divine mercy. It begins with reference to the frightened people (and animals) on Noah’s ark, continues to the terrorized slaves in Egypt, and extends to the Israelite refugees on their trek through Sinai. In each case, God remembers that the people—pictured as children—are in danger and responds with mercy and rescue.
The most touching of all of these passages is the final one, from Jeremiah 31:20. “Is not Ephraim My dear son, My precious child, whom I remember fondly even when I speak against him? So, My heart reaches out to him, and I always feel compassion for him, declares Adonai.” This text, which is also the finale of the haftarah for the second day, has inspired generations of cantors and popular singers. It speaks to the complex emotions of a parent faced with a wayward child. Jeremiah is channeling God, imagining that God feels fondness for Israel even when Israel has acted provocatively, like a parent does for a child. Midrash Vayikra Rabbah observes that whenever God claims someone as “Mine,” it is forever—in this world and in the world to come (Parashat Vayikra 2:2). Continue reading
Moses presents the people of Israel with a paradox toward the end of the parashah. In 29:1-3, he first states that they have “seen with their own eyes” all the miracles wrought by God on their behalf from the Exodus until this point. But then he states that God did not give them, “a heart to discern, eyes to see, or ears to hear until this day.” These words seem to contradict each other—either the people did witness the wonders, or they didn’t. Moreover, it appears to be entirely up to God what people understand, which undermines the concept of merit and responsibility.
A similar phrase used by Jeremiah (24:7) offers the beginning of an answer: I shall give them a heart to discern Me…when they return to me with all of their heart. This too is a paradox. God will give the people the “heart” to understand only when they return to God “with all their heart.” It seems that the Bible wants it both ways. The solution to the puzzle is found at the end of the verse in Jeremiah. Knowledge comes from God, but people must want to receive that knowledge for it to become accessible. Thus people may experience something wonderful and yet not acknowledge and integrate that experience into knowledge. It takes a willing heart to appreciate the wonders of life.
This reading is buttressed by a Rabbinic line of interpretation beginning with Devarim Rabba. There Rabbi Yitzhak claims that forty years back at Sinai when Israel expressed its enthusiasm for the Torah with, “We will heed and hear,” God announced—“May their hearts always be so,” but the Israelites were silent. It felt good in the moment, but were they ready to make a commitment? Their sense of closeness to God was fleeting, and so their knowledge quickly evaporated. Only now, at the end of the desert trek, has their heart become receptive to appreciate what their eyes have witnessed. But what has changed? Continue reading
In my more rational moments, I have trouble believing in a personal God and am put off by anthropomorphic imagery. I get it—infinity is impossible to imagine, and so we compare God to more familiar relationships—to a person, to a parent, to a partner. Maimonides broke the naïve experience of the mighty hand of God, forcing us to read such images metaphorically, to accept the core concept that God is not embodied, for bodies are limited in time and space. For God to be God, there must be no limits.
I believe all of that and yet it leaves me cold, for I live in a body. I experience physical pleasure and pain, and I find the deepest meaning in relationships with other people. And so when I read Deuteronomy 14:1, “You are children to the Lord your God,” it is refreshing to hear the Torah speak intimately and lovingly about our relationship to God. The first half of this verse is beautiful, but its continuation is truly powerful. God asks us—God’s children—not to gash our skin, not to rip out our hair—not even for our dead. The cultural context is missing but not hard to imagine—people sometimes express grief by self-mutilation. The Torah says that God is like a parent—witnessing the suffering of a child and intervening to prevent the child from harming themselves.
In Midrash Sifre Devarim Rabbi Yehudah suggests that God’s love is contingent. “If you behave like [good] children, then you are [God’s] children; if not, then not.” But Rabbi Meir disagrees—you are always God’s children. This is the power of Deut. 14:1—a promise of love, without limit. The rabbis understand the original meaning of “do not make gashes”—on your own skin, but they apply it to the collective body of Israel. Do not divide yourselves into warring factions. Find a way to love God, to love yourselves, and also to love each other. Continue reading