On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon my kids and I went to the Field Museum. While we have been there before and seen the dinosaur bones and the dioramas of mammoths and mastadons, on this occasion we went into the exhibit called “Evolving Planet.” In vivid form, the exhibit took us through the major geological periods of earth’s development, from the formation of the planet through its cooling, to the emergence of the first life forms, and through the hundreds of millions of years of development of oragnisms, up to the present day.

I don’t know what was different about this visit to a natural history museum. I’ve been to many before. But somehow during this visit I felt in a profound way just how tiny and insignificant our lives are. When you think about the history of the earth in terms of six billion years, or even just (!) the 250 million years since the dinosaurs roamed the planet, and you consider that what we know of human civilization is only a few thousand years old, it puts whatever accomplishments or failures you’ve had into perspective.

Time has enormous power to contextualize. “To everything there is a season,” says Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), “and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Viewed against the vast expanse of the existence of the universe, our lives can indeed seem insignificant. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” as Kohelet also says. What is the point of each of these discreet moments, if ultimately no one will remember us?

And yet Parshat Emor which we read this week reminds us that time can and does maintain significance, if we are willing to acknowledge it. “These are the festivals of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times.” (Lev. 23:4) The Rabbis learn from this verse a key element that distinguishes Shabbat from the other holidays: While Shabbat is God’s, and happens every seven days of its own accord, the festivals are dependent on the proclamation of the new moon by the Rabbinic court. That is, the power to set the time of the festivals resides in human hands, within limits set by God.

Marking time is the first act of Jewish life. “This shall be the first of the months,” God tells Moses and Aaron in Egypt (Ex. 12:2). Before the Exodus can happen, God requires a human action–marking time. The festivals depend on our proclamation and recognition, to such an extent that the Talmud records that one year, when the Rabbinic court proclaimed Rosh Hashanah a day later than the angels expected it, God told the angels to come back tomorrow in order to hear the prayers of the Jewish people.

However small our lives may seem, however insignificant our actions appear in the grand course of universal history, the Torah reminds us of the uniqueness, the immense power of our creation in God’s image. We have the power to order our world, to mark time and to make moments of significance, moments of meaning. And that reality is just as powerful and real as the billions of years of history that have come before us.

Shabbat shalom.

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One of the major sections of the Torah portion of Pinchas comes in Num. chapters 28-29, which details the laws of the daily sacrifice offered in the ancient Temple, as well as the special additional sacrifices offered on each of the holidays. Like other sections of the Torah that detail sacrificial laws, this one can appear to be boring at first blush. We don’t offer sacrifices anymore (and we might be uncomfortable with the idea of doing so), and we may feel we already know the calendar. So what’s to gain by paying attention?

In the words of the literary critic Denis Donoghue, “Interpretation begins when someone decides to pay attention to a text.” (The Practice of Reading, p. 80) There is meaning here, provided we do in fact pay attention.

With the help of the good people at the Tanach Study Center (www.tanach.org) we can summarize the holiday sacrifices with the following table:

Pinchas sacrifice summary

As Rabbi Menachem Leibtag points out, three general groupings emerge from this chart. In the first group we have Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon festival, along with the Festival of Matzot (Passover), and Shavuot. All of these have the 2-1-7-1 pattern, and they are all thematically linked to the Exodus from Egypt: Passover for obvious reasons, Shavuot by its link to Passover through the counting of the Omer, and Rosh Chodesh from Exodus 12:1–the commandment to establish Rosh Chodesh was the first command of the Exodus story.

In the second group are the Tishrei holidays, with the 1-1-7-1 pattern: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, along with Shemini Atzeret. All three of these can be classified as judgment holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for obvious reasons, and Shemini Atzeret as the time when the land of Israel is judged for the amount of water it will have in the coming year.

Sukkot is the last group, and has the most variety in its numbers. Rabbi Leibtag suggests that Sukkot is a combination of the other two groups, since it both occurs in Tishrei and commemorates the Exodus. This is symbolized in the way that the rams and sheep are added together to yield double the number on Sukkot (2 and 14, respectively, instead of 1 and 7).

When we turn to the cows offered on Sukkot, the same addition process would yield 3 daily cows to be sacrificed. Yet the number of cows starts at 13 and goes down to 7. If we add up the number of extra cows offered (13-3, 12-3, 11-3, etc.) we get 49 extra cows–a significant number corresponding to the number of days in the Omer and the number of years in the Jubilee cycle, and generally understood to connote ultimate completion. Likewise, the total number of cows sacrificed is 70, which the Rabbis understood as a symbol for the “70 nations of the earth.”

Sukkot marks the coming-together of two themes of the Jewish holiday cycle: the embracing nature of the Exodus story, which emphasizes God’s taking us out of one place and setting us on the journey toward a new home; and the challenging nature of the days of judgment, which emphasize teshuva, returning home from our journeys with a renewed sense of completion. Sukkot is the ultimate holiday of homecoming, when we reconnect with our original journey towards home and assimilate the journeys we have experienced into our consciousness.

Shabbat shalom.

The holiday of Shavuot, which begins Thursday night, commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Among the traditions of the holiday is to read the Book of Ruth, one of the five “scrolls” of the Bible which are read on Jewish holidays (the others being: Lamentations on the 9th of Av; Ecclesiastes on Sukkot; Esther on Purim; and Song of Songs on Passover).

Why do we read Ruth on Shavuot? The first-millennium CE collection of Rabbinic literature called Ruth Rabbah states: “This scroll [of Ruth] tells nothing either of cleanliness or of uncleanliness, neither of prohibition or permission. For what purpose then was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness.” (2.13) Yet this further begs the question: What does the theme of kindness have to do with Shavuot?

On Passover we read the Song of Songs. The verdant imagery of the book corresponds with the springtime when Passover takes place. The love between God and Israel is on full display, and Song of Songs evokes that loving sensibility. Convesely, Ecclesiastes is the book of an old man, someone in the autumn of his life, and comes at the end of a more adult series of holidays–Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

Ruth and Shavuot come in the middle of this cycle, and the story is one of a mature love between an older man, Boaz, and a younger woman, Ruth. More than that, though, it conveys neither the deeply emotional tone of Song of Songs nor the reserved and cautious tone of Eccliastes. Rather, its message, as the Midrash states, is that lovingkindness and altruistic behavior–hesed in Hebrew–are at the core of an enduring relationship. Set as it is in famine-stricken Israel, it is fundamentally the story of people who treat each other with kindness and dignity, and who in doing so redeem the possibility of a future. That future is a Messianic future, as Ruth and Boaz are the ancestors of King David. Their altruism, their ability to do good even when all around them would tell them to be selfish, is what enables a future of prosperity and plenty to come about.

Shavuot thus forms the fulfillment of the possibilities granted to the Jewish People by the freedom of Passover. Freedom from bondage is not enough. The true manifestation of freedom comes only with responsibility, with recognizing our fellow-travelers and asking, as Ruth so poetically does, “What can I do for you?”

Chag sameach – Happy Shavuot

The Talmud relates a disagreement about the nature of the sukkot in which the children of Israel dwelt during their time in the desert. One position holds that the sukkot in the desert were “sukkot mamash,” real booths like the ones we put up today. The other holds that they were metaphorical sukkot, and really the sukkot we erect today are symbols for the “ananei hakavod,” the clouds of the divine presence that accompanied the Israelites on their journey.

Sukkot is a holiday of symbols: The sukkah and lulav & etrog invite interpretation. And indeed, each of these symbols has a long and rich history of interpretation, from representing various kinds of people (in the four species of palm, willow, myrtle and citron) to symbolizing the openness and welcoming tent that our community is meant to be (in the sukkah). In this sense, the sukkot of the ancient Israelites seems more like the clouds of God’s presence–they weren’t real sukkot, but rather signal a different dimension of existence.

Yet the sukkah, lulav and etrog are tangible, they are real. As these pictures attest, when we build a sukkah we’re not building a metaphor. We rely on math and geometry, planning and measuring, and ultimately execution, to erect a structure. The lulav really is green and pointy, and the etrog really is yellow and fragrant. These things do not exist as ideas in our mind; they exist in the real world. So in this sense, it makes more sense to say that the sukkot of the ancient Israelites were sukkot mamash, real sukkot.

Which is it? Like many good Jewish questions, the answer is “both.” The sukkah and the lulav and etrog are definitely real, but they are also symbols. Or, to reverse it, they are symbols, but they are also real.

Yet we should embrace the beauty of this paradox. That is the message of Sukkot. After the sense-denying day of Yom Kippur, Sukkot thrusts us back out into the world of physical existence and reminds us that our lives in this world are works of beauty. We are here for a purpose, and that purpose is to embrace and elevate the things of the world, and to do so in a way that validates and includes the many different types of creations and people in the world.

And at the end of Sukkot, we leave the sukkah behind and celebrate Simchat Torah–the real letters and words of the texts of our people. Those words have a physical reality, but they become symbols as well. And through their symbolism, they guide our real lives. We thus live in a constant dialogue between the world as it is and the world as we imagine it to be. That is the space in which Jewish life happens. We build the sukkah, we live in it, we learn in it, and then we take its message with us into a year of learning and study, a year of doing and action.

Chag sameach.