festivals · high holy days · sermon

Is time a cycle or a line?

Do you ever feel like we’re going round in circles?

No, really.

We just spent our evening going round and round. We circled the synagogue seven times; we spun around on the spot. We rotated so much we got dizzy.

Then, having spun and circled and danced with the Torah, we read the very last bit of the story, only to begin it again. No sooner had our narrative ended than we immediately restarted it.

Our storytelling does not begin with creation and end with the death of Moses, because the death of Moses is immediately followed by the story of creation. You cannot hear one without hearing the other. We are locked in a cycle.

How fitting that this celebration of circling is the completion of our High Holy Day festivals. They began with Rosh Hashanah, when, our tradition teaches, the world was first created, and they end with Simchat Torah when, we read, the world was first created. Our festivities began with a new beginning and end by redoing the same beginning all over again.

This makes sense in the context of our festival cycle, where one simchah always follows from the last and leads to the next one. Which one is the beginning, and which one is the end? If you tried to place your finger anywhere in the cycle, you would soon find it slipping away from you, as it made way for the next turn on the same wheel.

Our Torah, our festivals, our planet, and our bodies, all turn with anticipated regularity. So we go on in circles.

This view of time is antithetical to the modern mind. Everything in contemporary thought speaks of progress. We came from a finite beginning, and we are heading to a finite end.

The world began at one point, when it was created, and will end at another, when it will be destroyed. Humanity came into existence around 300,000 years ago, and could last another 8 million, but it will at some point cease to be.

In the intervening period while humans exist, we progress from intelligent apes to hunter-gatherers, to shepherds, to subsistence farmers; through the metallic ages to feudalism, to capitalism.

Yet this view of time, as a progression from one clear point to a closing at another, is a distinctly modern one.

For most of Jewish history, time has not been a journey from beginning to end, but a constant cycle.

The great 20th Century literary critic, John Berger, explained this mentality. For those who work the land, life is precisely a cycle. The work of each day is in a routine with every other. Each year follows the same pattern as the one before.

Autumn, spring, summer, winter. We reap, we sow; we plant, we harvest. We mulch the ground and till it with seeds and water it and take in the yield and repeat the same process again.

Every individual is born into a world where that wheel is already in spin and, when they die, the world carries on turning in just the same way.

When peasants imagine time, therefore, they think only of three stages. The first is our present life of survival, confined as it is to that ongoing cycle. At either end is an identical period of perfection. We began in a paradise and we are heading to a paradise. The ideal world existed long ago in the distant past, and we will return there when the world is set right.

If the distant past and the messianic future are the same place, then time is a cycle. We are only ever heading to the place from which we began.

This is precisely the position of traditional Jewish theology. Our souls began in Eden, dwell temporarily in this life to struggle, and will one day return to that same Eden.

It is the traditional Jewish view of time. Humanity was given a perfect world; we live now in a time of violence and injustice; the world will be returned to its sublime state once more.

When we put the Torah back in the ark, we summon this Jewish view of time: חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם – renew our days as of old. Make our times new, like they were at the beginning.

Within these times, then, says Berger, our only way forward is to trudge the same path. We walk on the same roads as our ancestors did and beat them down again for the next generation.

In Judaism, we call that path “halachah”: the way, the route. These are the rites and customs of our ancestors. We will repeat them and we will pass them on. The cycle continues.

But there is a problem with this view of time. Berger acknowledges that, if life is seen from this standpoint, the only correct moral viewpoint is conservative. We must repeat what we have done before. We cannot deviate from it whatsoever.

That is, effectively, a parody of Orthodox Judaism’s view of history. The religion is the same as it always was and we must endeavour not to let it change. Our ancestors knew more than we did, and we will be in a constant descent of generations until a long-awaited messianic age.

In such a worldview, there is no room for development, innovation, or change.

There is a reason why “going round in circles” is an insult!

However much progress may conflict with the passing of the seasons, it conforms with what we know of what has happened over the centuries.

We are all here as Reform Jews because we have seen something in the past that we wanted to correct: whether it was inequality between the sexes; an inability to watch TV on a Saturday afternoon; or simply a desire to hear the organ in shul. If everything must remain static, our synagogue could not exist.

Reform Judaism is an effort to reconcile the two views of time. It straddles the traditional cycle and modern progress. It says that we can go round and go forwards at the same time.

How is this possible?

I like the analogy of time as a snail shell. Yes, it goes in cycles, but at the end of each turn, it moves forward, just slightly. We go round and we go out. We go back on ourselves in order to advance.

If it feels like we are going round in circles, that’s because we are, but we are not always coming back to exactly the same place.

When we arrive at this new Simchat Torah, we are reliving the old one, but we are here as transformed people. We are slightly different than when we saw it last, so the festival is too.

We go back on ourselves in order to move forwards.

Chag sameach.

festivals · high holy days · sermon

From an open roof to a closed scroll

We are nearing the end of Sukkot and entering Simchat Torah.

We move from fragility to strength, from an open roof to a closed scroll, from the impermanence of life to the eternal truth of God.

What makes a sukkah kosher is its frailty. With its open walls and starlit roof, it stands in for all our wanderings and confusion. It is makeshift and temporary.

In its fragile state, it teaches us about the human condition: that we are vulnerable, at the whim of forces beyond our control. Into this transient home, we bring guests, both living and ancestral, who teach us that we only live by community. 

The sukkah teaches us about the human heart: that it must be open and porous, welcoming to strangers, able to let others in and accept our own emotional helplessness.

But the sukkah also has another feature of what makes it kosher. It must be able to stand for eight days. It must be strong enough to withstand the weather. It cannot be drowned by rain or upended by windstorms. 

This, too, teaches us about the spirit. We must be resilient. We must be confident enough to know our boundaries. We must be strong enough not to let others wave or topple us.

This is the tension we hold in the transition between Sukkot and Simchat Torah: between fragility and strength.

There is a story that Abraham’s tent was open on all sides. 

Wherever Abraham looked, he could see whether strangers were coming to visit him.

If he looked out and saw them coming, he would run to meet them. Abraham was the model of generosity, so full of love for the wayfarer that he would do anything to let them in.

This explains why he greeted the angels who came to visit him at Mamre so enthusiastically, even though he thought they were just human beings. It explains how he was righteous enough to receive God’s blessing, and to become the progenitor of monotheism. 

This is the version of the story that we find in Bereishit Rabbah, and you will find it printed in all sorts of commentaries. It is a beautiful myth that captures our imaginations and features heavily in sermons preaching charity. It teaches us about the importance of welcoming. 

But it is not the only version of the story in rabbinic literature. A few centuries later, Avot deRabbi Natan, a commentary on the same text, explains it slightly differently. Instead of the example of Abraham, this midrash says we should be like Job. 

It teaches:

Your house should have a spacious entrance on the north, south, east, and west, like Job’s, who made four openings to his house. Job opened up every side so that the poor would not be troubled to go all around the house: no matter what direction a stranger came from, they could enter in their stride.

At a glance, it tells the same story, just with a different prophet named. Job was also described as righteous and upright, a man who feared God and turned away from evil. 

But there is a difference. Unlike Abraham’s, Job’s house is actually mentioned as having four sides. How do we know? Because, at the very start of Job’s story a messenger comes to tell Job that his house has blown down. “A mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on the young people and they are dead.”

Job’s house was so open that it was destroyed and killed everyone in it.

Job’s house was open on all sides. No wonder it fell down!

This later midrash is satirising the earlier one. Sure, openness is good, but too much openness leaves you exposed. 

We have to exist, instead, in the tension between fragility and strength; between vulnerability and boundaries.

It may seem strange to preach boundaries from the bimah. Admittedly, it feels strange to me. 

I used to believe that openness was the ultimate religious value. That being hospitable and welcoming were the most important spiritual attributes. And I do still hold them in high regard.

But I am increasingly learning that it is equally important to have structural integrity, and borders, and lines that cannot be crossed. Without them, the entire structure collapses, and the people the structure was established to protect can be destroyed with it.

Sukkot teaches us to live with utmost susceptibility, but only for a short time. We must eat and sleep and live in this shaky fruity shack, exposed to all elements and strangers. It teaches us to put ourselves in harm’s way. 

But not forever.

At some point, the sukkah must come down. At some point, we must return to our own beds and kitchen tables and modern comforts. At some point, we have to hold on to something firm.

As we enter Simchat Torah, we turn to that certainty. That is our Torah, our faith, our belief in God-given moral truths. We grasp it steadfastly, and refuse to waiver from it.

Torah is our foundation. It is our immovable structure. There is some truth that we must hold on to tightly, never allowing it to be permeated or eroded. For us, that is our moral conviction.

The Mishnah instructs us to build a fence around the Torah. This commandment has been abused by some in Orthodoxy to justify always taking the most conservative approach, defending every law against the slightest leniency or adaptation. As such, Reform Jews have often poured scorn on the assertion, seeing it always as a reactionary threat.

But a fence is not the same as a wall. In fact, the word used in the Mishnah is siyag, which is closer to hedge. It is a boundary. It is a line that keeps some things in and some things out. It is a way of protecting the essence. 

That does not mean it has no ways in and no ways out. It just means that some things must be shielded. 

We are nearing the end of Sukkot and entering Simchat Torah.

We move from fragility to strength, from an open roof to a closed scroll, from the impermanence of life to the eternal truth of God.

We have learnt to be vulnerable and precarious. Now, we must learn to protect what we love.

Shabbat shalom.

Shabbat Chol HaMoed 5783, October 15th 2022