Simchat torah dancing 311 R.
(photo credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)
Human beings have an amazing capacity to block out life’s travails during the course of a celebration. Couples get married and nations declare independence in the midst of wars. We celebrate a year’s harvest not knowing whether next year’s crop will be thin or blighted. We enjoy life, despite the inevitability of death.
Jewish celebrations are no exception.
We celebrate Purim even though we remained Persian subjects in the aftermath of the miraculous salvation it commemorates. The miracle of Hanukka is celebrated even though it took place during a lull in the middle of a war, and even though the independence wrought was short-lived. On Independence Day, we celebrate Israel’s independence even though it transformed a local conflict into a multinational one.
But it is perhaps on Succot more than on any other Jewish holiday that
we rejoice even as we acknowledge the frailty of life. We move into
makeshift huts as the weather turns cold, and we face uncertainty about
whether the coming winter will be rainy enough to sustain us. Again and
again, we call out to God: “Hosanna! Save us!” We read the Book of
Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), all about the futility of human life and
activity. Yet, remarkably, in our liturgy it is called z’man simchateinu
– “the season of our joy,” and is considered the most joyous of Jewish
Tomorrow, on Simchat Torah, this paradox will be heightened. We will
celebrate having completed the Torah during the course of the year, yet
we immediately undermine any sense of accomplishment by starting all
over again. The party will be kicked into a higher gear as we dance with
the Torah and celebrate the special relationship between God and the
Jewish people, yet amid the revelry we will say Yizkor in memory of our
departed loved ones. Later, the singing and dancing will be replaced by
the solemn tones of Tefilat Geshem, the prayer for rain, as we begin
petitioning God for a bountiful rainy season.
A possible solution to this paradox can be found in a pastime that many
Israelis engage in around this time of year. If the various kite
festivals taking place around Israel this week are any evidence, Succot
is also kite-flying season, and the kite offers an apt metaphor for the
aspect of Succot that we are trying to understand.
A kite is but a few pennies’ worth of paper and string. It spends its
short life being beaten and blown by the wind, trying to remain
suspended between earth and sky. But during those few moments that the
kite is airborne, it provides an awesome sense of exhilaration, as
though the one holding the string has broken free of constraints and
sprouted wings. During those few moments, it does not matter that the
feeling will not last, and that we will come crashing back down to earth
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The joy of the kite-flyer is enhanced, not diminished, by the knowledge that it cannot last.
Some have called this “lightness of being,” this knowledge that the
world will continue to turn after we are gone, “unbearable.” Yet the
Book of Kohelet and Succot teach us that it is precisely our awareness
of life’s tenuousness that allows us to celebrate its joyous moments.
When one’s minutes are numbered, each one is a gift. We spend the weeks
prior to Succot constantly reminding ourselves of our failings and
shortcomings, culminating in the Yom Kippur confessions, and we emerge
from this experience feeling empty, drained – and ready to celebrate.
This Succot, 5772, has been dominated by the news of the deal between
Israel and Hamas for the release of Gilad Schalit. Perhaps it is fitting
that these events coincide with Succot and Simchat Torah. For more than
five years, Israelis have debated the pros and cons of brokering such a
deal. The arguments have not abated now that a deal has been made; on
the contrary, they have reached a fever pitch. After all, the discussion
that once revolved around a hypothetical scenario now has ramifications
that are all too concrete. Those who undertook the enormous
responsibility of making such a decision are certainly not in an
Yet whatever other emotions we may be experiencing – trepidation about
the future, empathy for those whose wounds are being re-opened with the
release of their loved ones’ murderers – we must also share in the joy
of the Schalit family. In the spirit of Succot, which teaches us that we
may rejoice in the face of our own frailties and uncertainties, can we
please, at least until the end of the holiday, try to rejoice with Noam
and Aviva Schalit as though Gilad’s release were the only consequence of
the deal? There will be time enough to conduct a full reckoning. For
now, though, the kite remains airborne.
Let us celebrate the harvest, though the anxieties of another winter
loom. Let us revel in our completion of the Torah even as we roll it
back to the beginning. For the moment, let us share in the unbridled joy
of a mother’s reunion with her son, without considering the price paid
for this reunion.
The most famous passage in Kohelet tells us that there is a time and
season for everything. These times and seasons turn with an astonishing
rapidity, and part of our challenge is to keep them from encroaching
upon one another. In that spirit, the spirit of Succot and Simchat
Torah, let us acknowledge Gilad’s release as a time to laugh, a time to
dance, a time to embrace, and a time to love.The writer is a rabbi, writer and
translator from Modi’in. Follow him on Twitter @adderabbi or on his
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