How Can Faith Assuage the Fear of Death (In Newsday’s Ask the Clergy)

The last words we say at the end of Shabbat morning services, as well as before we go to bed, are “God is with me and I will not fear.” In saying these words, we acknowledge that the world can be a scary place and at times we might feel alone and vulnerable. We turn to God as a source of comfort for when we are afraid. This is most certainly true in regard to death. The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th (a taste) of death so before going to sleep, when we have no control over our bodies, we acknowledge God’s role as our protector.

Much of our fear of death stems from a fear of not being in control. We love life and living and fear for a time when we will no longer be on earth. We love our families and cannot imagine a time when we are no longer here for them. What religion and faith entail is a belief that everything will be ok. We are commanded to teach Torah to our children who in turn will teach it to their children, ensuring that the moral and religious blueprint that we follow will remain eternal. Furthermore, we will live on in the next generation, as they are shaped by how we raised them: the values we taught them and our modeling for them how to live our lives. While we cannot control how many days we will live on this planet, we have ultimate control over the example we set for our children and our grandchildren, our nephews and nieces, our cousins and dear friends.

The Jewish faith also teaches that while we bury the body, our soul (or “spirit”) lives on and will never be extinguished. We will never truly be gone: we will always be present in spirit. This belief system ensures that there is nothing to fear about death that it is a part of life that each of us will experience. It’s not a vanishing into nothingness but rather a step in a process. By letting go of our need to have all the answers and by seeing death not as oblivion but as a part of what it means to be a human being, we recognize that we have nothing to fear.

As in the words of the anonymous poet: “If you continue to love the one you lose, you will never lose the one you love.”

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The Cursed Land

As I was preparing for a class on the Hoshanot during Sukkot, I noticed the peculiar language of the 6th Hoshana that we said of Hoshana Rabba. The prayer begins הושע נא אדמה מארר, save us from the cursed land. What cursed land? The note in our Artscroll Mahzor for Sukkot points to this week’s Torah reading. When Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden, G-d said to him ארורה האדמה בעבורך, “The land is cursed because of you.”[1] The verse continues, בעצבון תאכלנה כל ימי חייך, “You shall eat by the sweat of your brow all the days of your life.”[2] The following verse begins וקוץ ודרדר תצמיח לך “Thorns and thistles shall the land sprout for you.”[3] Not exactly the most pleasant or comforting images.

Before Adam’s transgression he had it easy: all he had to do was to pluck the fruit from the trees. As Radak, Rabbi David Kimhi, commented, “You (Adam) will not have to work before you can eat… ‘to till it and to tend it’[4] meant nothing more than light work-not work that would raise a sweat.”[5] Adam now had to work hard in order to yield any fruit. As a matter of fact, Rashi says that the sproutings will be “Artichokes and cardoons, which can only be made edible with great effort.”[6] A lot of effort will be needed in order to produce a little food.

This fate of Adam is transposed onto each of us through the Hoshana we said less than a week ago. While at times in life we feel like we are in Eden, that things flow naturally without effort, at other times each of us strives to produce something yet our hard work and best efforts fail. We might even feel (G-d forbid) cursed just like Adam’s land is cursed. We might feel unproductive, that our efforts do not bear fruit. The Hoshana is a prayer for G-d to save us from this: to make our efforts bear fruit and to make sure  that we do not give up.

We might take a more ecological approach, arguing that with global warming our efforts things which used to be easier are taking even more work to yield fruit. With drought preventing crop growth and fires destroying thousands of acres in California, flooding wiping out entire crops of fruit in Florida as well as the Carolinas and numerous other natural disasters, the Hoshana could be calling on G-d to save us from our worst inclinations and tendencies, reducing our carbon footprints, however inconvenient that might be. Alternatively it could be beckoning us to think twice before doing something destructive, reminding us that hard-earned respect and careers can be ruined in an instant over something foolish. It can be equally important to pray that G-d save us from ourselves as it is to pray that G-d will save us from natural disasters and scorched earth where the earth appears to be cursed.

As we began the Torah anew this morning, let us think about what we can do to make our lives a little more Eden-like and feel a little less cursed. At the same time, may we recognize that sometimes we need to work by the sweat of our brows in order to achieve results about which we feel proud and accomplished. Perhaps Adam’s Eden was not an ideal but rather something meant to be short-lived. The next time we feel that our land or our lives are cursed, let us pray to G-d that we have the inner strength and fortitude needed for transformation, and may we be the change we want to see in the world.[7]

[1] Genesis 3:17

[2] Ibid

[3] Genesis 3:18

[4] Genesis 2:15

[5] Radak on Genesis 3:17 ד”ה ארורה האדמה בעבורך

[6] Rashi on Genesis 3:18 ד”ה וקוץ ודרדר תצמחך לך

[7] Attributed to Mahatma Ghandi

Heading Back to Reality

Whether we like it or not, change and transition are part of our lives. We can attempt to follow one schedule or routine only to have it thrown out of whack by something unexpected. The same goes with the Jewish calendar. We can bask in the heat of summer, but fall will come in due time. Similarly, we can love the High Holy Day season but eventually it will come to an end and we will head back to reality.

While there is a dispute as to whether Shemini Atzeret is a רגל בפני עצמו, a holiday in and of itself, or the 8th Day of Sukkot, all agree that after Shemini Atzeret the High Holy Days are over. Some synagogues change the ark and curtains right after Shemini Atzeret services. All agree that one no longer eats in the Sukkah after today.

A special prayer is recited upon leaving the Sukkah for the final time each year. The prayer goes as follows: יהי רצון מלפניך ה אלקנו ואלקי אבותנו, כשם שקימתי וישבתי בסכה זו, כך אזכה בשנה הבאה לישב בסכת עורו של לויתן. לשנה הבאה בירושלים! “May it be your will G-d and G-d of our ancestors that just as I established and dwelt in this Sukkah, so too may I merit in the year to come to dwell in the Sukkah made out of the skin of the Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem!” This is a prayer for the Messiah to usher in the World to Come, the same reason we read the Haftarah of Gog of Magog, the apocalyptic, cataclysmic battle ushering in the Messiah. We are praying for change; to leave this physical world and bask in the glory of a Messianic Age.

According to Jewish tradition, the mythic sea monster known as the Leviathan will be slain as one of the steps to usher in the Messiah.[1] Many scholars, including Maimonides, highlight that we will feast on the Leviathan in the Messianic Age. The question, however, remains as to why we say this prayer. In a class on this topic, Rabbi Ethan Tucker asks, “What will happen to Leviathan’s inedible hide? This prayer prompts us to imagine it as the material out of which we construct our sukkah. Animal hides are completely invalid for sekhakh, the sukkah’s water-permeable roof—we will see why below—so, the image of Leviathan’s skin here is meant to conjure up the walls of our future sukkah in our mind’s eye. Why are we talking about the sukkah’s walls at all? Isn’t sekhakh the essence of what a sukkah is about, the part that must be carefully constructed to conform to the expectations of our halakhic canon? Why would the walls be the focus of our point of departure?[2]

As Rabbi Tucker points out, rabbinic tradition teaches that the material to make the walls of the Sukkah is immaterial. The Mishnah only focuses on the roof, the sekhakh. It teaches: “…This is the rule: Anything that can receive impurity and which does not grow from the ground may not be used as sekhakh; anything that cannot receive impurity and which does grow from the ground may be used as sekhakh. Bundles of straw, wood and reeds may not be used for sekhakh. But if any of these bundles were untied, they are valid, and they all are valid as walls.”[3] The medieval commentator Rashi continued on this theme, asserting, “And they are all”—of the items that are invalid for sekhakh. “Valid as walls”—Because whenever the verse speaks of a sukkah, it is referring to sekhakh , because a wall is not called a sukkah …”[4] This is further pointed out by Rambam, who asserts “דפני סוכה כשרין מן הכל”/The walls of a sukkah may be made of anything.”[5]

If we do not care what comprises the walls of our contemporary Sukkot, why should it matter what the Messianic Sukkah’s walls are made out of, and why should we make such a big deal out of this by saying a prayer upon leaving the Sukkah for the last time?  The answer I suggest is that we are marking a transition. We had seven days of feasting in our temporary booths which despite the rain served as a nice respite from the ordinary routine of our lives. For some of us it might have been a vacation or a break from reality. In two days more, we will be transitioning back to the “real world” with all of its routine and with all of its challenges. We will be returning perhaps disappointed that the Messiah has not come and that we are unable to dwell in the Sukkah with Leviathan skin. Yet we are to return with undaunted hope and belief in a better future. That is precisely what the prayer we say today is about: just as we merit the physical joy of this Sukkot holiday, so too may we merit seeing a better future, a day where there is peace in the world and each of us can dwell in G-d’s home, the great “Sukkah in the Sky,” made out of the Leviathan’s skin.

Today we gather to say Yizkor, on this one extra day of Shemini Atzeret, the day on which G-d told us “Stay with me one more day.” Some of us might be eager to return to our routines; at JTS we said המבדיל בין קדש לחול and yelled the word חול-yet Yizkor cautions us to slow down to take a moment to remember our loved ones; from parents who gave us life to siblings who we reveled playing with, to children we nurtured, to spouses with whom we shared our deepest hopes and dreams. Yizkor hearkens us to close our eyes and remember the dear moments of love and friendship, joy and companionship.

Before we go, leaving the presence of G-d, let us take the time we need and deserve to remember our loved ones who are no longer physically present. We will also dedicate the memorial plaques purchased during the past year, honoring those who have chosen to give their loved ones a permanent remembrance in our Beit Midrash.

We continue with Yizkor in the booklets.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 75a.

[2] Rabbi Ethan Tucker, “The Sukkah of the Leviathan”-Sukkot 5778.

[3] Mishnah Sukkah Chapter 1 Mishnayot 4-5.

[4] Rashi on Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 12a

[5] Rambam Mishneh Torah Laws of Shofar 4:16

Being Pelted with Etrogim[1]

In my second year of rabbinical school I learned the fifth chapter of Tractate Sukkah, החליל, “the flute,” about the water-drawing festival that occurred during Temple times. Before we got there, however, we learned a few small sections of chapter four, לולב וערבה, one of which tells a bizarre story. It begins with שמחת בית השואבה, the water-drawing festival during which the priests filled a golden flask with water from the Siloam spring to offer on the altar of the Temple. The water was brought as a libation to G-d to receive a favorable judgment in the amount of rainfall that would occur in Israel during the coming year. One time, rather than pouring the libation on the altar, the priest poured it on his feet, and as a result the entire community pelted him with etrogim.[2]

I’m telling this story on Shabbat so that I do not get pelted with etrogim. Seriously, though, when I first learned this story I thought of being pelted with tomatoes or eggs after a poor performance. Many people are still pelted, ranging from Chancellor Angela Merkel at a campaign rally[3] to the South Korean soccer team after returning home emptyhanded from the World Cup.[4] Generally when one person pelts another it’s to indicate that they don’t like something that the other person is doing, whether politically or in a public performance. In our Mishnah, the Kohen is supposed to pour water on the altar for G-d to provide the people of Israel with water in return. No mention is made as to why the Kohen poured the libation water on his feet. Perhaps he made a mistake and slipped up. Perhaps he meant it as an act of rebellion. Whatever the case, the Jews at the Temple don’t take kindly to him doing so.

In Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, we learn that on Sukkot Israel is judged for rain-that the amount of rainfall for the entire year is determined on Sukkot.[5] Rain was a life or death matter: if there was drought, one would not eat. In Tractate Taanit we read of a number of fasts that would occur if rain did not fall within a certain period of time on the Hebrew calendar. We read of miracle workers like Honi HaMaagel and Hanina ben Dosa who beseech G-d to make rain fall. Therefore, it stands to reason that a priest who does not follow the proper procedure for obtaining rainfall would be severely condemned, as his error could be held responsible for a drought.

In an age without a centralized Temple in Jerusalem, we believe that sacrifices are replaced by prayer, ונשלמה פרים שפתינו[6]. As such our prayer for rain, which we will begin to say the evening on December 4th,[7] has a great power to it. One must ask, however, if our prayer for rain as a blessing (תן מטר לברכה) really has an impact. In two days we will pray that the rainfall be לברכה ולא לקללה, for blessing and not for curse; לחיים ולא למוות, for life and not for death; לשבע ולא לרזון, for satiation and not for famine. If we continue to have torrential hurricanes, like Florence, or wildfires, like in California, does that mean that G-d is not heeding our prayers? Is there someone to hold responsible, to “pelt with etrogim,” because of negligence?

Some will say I am going about this wrong, that the story in the Mishnah is really a political dispute. The rabbinic reason given for why the Kohen poured the water on his feet is because he was a Sadducee who believed that the rabbinic customs were nonsense, as there is no biblical basis for the water libation. The pelting was a protest by the Pharisees, or “proto-rabbis,” against those who ignore the Oral Law. With that being said, I think there is room to see this as a Kohen who made a mistake and paid a severe price for it. The Talmud teaches that the people pelted the Kohen so hard that it damaged the horns of the altar.[8] The same could be said for the way the teens throw candy at an aufruf or Bar Mitzvah.

I hope that in addition to enjoying Sukkot, each of us will take a moment to look at the situations where we feel like pelting another with something-hopefully not our etrog after Sukkot-and examine why that is the case. Is it because we disagree politically or religiously? Is it because we feel their behavior is antithetical to what it should be? Is it because we feel they are engaging in negligence and something is at stake which we highly value? Before we “pelt the etrog” let us take a step back and reexamine the situation, seeing whether or not that is the warranted approach or whether another response would be more effective. In so doing, may we avoid an approach like in the Mishnah, and not damage our altar.

[1] Thank you to my teacher Rabbi Jason Rogoff whose teaching “Our Very Life” for JTS reminded me of this text. http://www.jtsa.edu/our-very-life

[2] Mishnah Sukkah 4:9

[3] https://globalnews.ca/news/3721375/angela-merkel-pelted-with-tomatoes-rally/

[4] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-5902051/South-Korea-squad-pelted-eggs-Union-Jack-cushions-return-home-World-Cup.html

[5] Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2

[6] Isaiah 14:7

[7] In Israel it will be said beginning October 16, the 7th of Marcheshvan.

[8] Talmud Sukkah 48b