Slichot, Leonard Cohen, the joy of Succot

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-8-09

With Israel best known for generating headlines about its troubles, its joys are too frequently overlooked. To be in Israel for “the hagim,” the High Holidays, including Sukkot, is a blessed, underreported privilege. From the shanah tovah greetings everywhere to the antacid commercials responding to bouts of holiday overeating, the holiday spirit is pervasive. But this is not simply the Jewish version of the Christmas season three months early. It is striking to an outsider how seriously so many Israelis take the Yamim Noraim, truly making them Days of Awe.

Especially in Jerusalem, the engagement with repentance feels ubiquitous. In North America, the ten days of penitence frequently divide into three holy days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and seven scrambling-to-catch-up-at-work days. In Israel, many people carve out the time for spiritual reflection, following the journey from self-evaluation to redemption our ancestors mapped out for us.

Affirming the Zionist idea that returning to the land would make us whole as a people, the spirit is in the air; the spirituality has a geography to it too. School kids hum Adon HaSlichot, the Lord of Forgiveness, a multi-stanza piyyut, poem, as they scamper about. High school students have all-night tours in the neighborhoods around Jerusalem’s Machaneh Yehudah market, culminating in pre-dawn “slichot” penitential prayers, as the magic of the night and the romance of the place enhance the prayers’ power. And for people of all ages, there are classes galore, in schools and synagogues, in community centers and private homes.

My twelve-year-old son, starting this year at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s High School, had one such all night marathon. It began at 11 o’clock with a class for parents, too. Surprisingly, impressively, my son’s teacher immediately engaged the bleary-eyed parents who showed up. The class began with a contemporary Ehud Manor-Matti Caspi song, “Slichot,” about the challenges of seeking forgiveness and the mutuality needed for it to work.

“I don’t know what to say, I didn’t want to hurt you,” the song begins, sounding like a typically sappy pop-cult lament. But, as the teacher’s literary, historical, and spiritual tour de force demonstrated, the song echoes the Talmud, the 12th century rabbi Maimonides, and Israel’s Nobel Prize winning novelist, S.Y. Agnon. Even more impressive than the teacher’s mastery of the sources was the sincerity of his engagement with the process, with these spurs for each individual to use this highly ritualized collective time to make personal, challenging adjustments.

The next night, my wife and I joined fifty thousand others at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan to hear Canadian music legend Leonard Cohen. The 75-year-old graduate of Montreal’s Herzliah High School fit right in with Israel’s addictive, characteristic, old-new mix. Cohen’s entrancing three and a half hour performance culminated with his invoking Birkat HaKohanim, the priestly blessing.

Still, as moved as I was by Cohen’s wry, impish, sensitive provocative worldview, as fascinated as I was to see how he transformed his Jewish learning and his own spiritual wanderings into popular poetry for the masses, his message was jarring. “Who by Fire” updates the stirring Unetanah tokef prayer, a High Holiday highlight. Inspired by the terrifying “Who shall live, who shall die,” riff, Cohen asks, “who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate… who in mortal chains, who in power/ And who shall I say is calling?” A Jewish prayer affirming God’s power, and prescribing “repentance, prayer and righteousness” to “avert the severe decree” becomes a modern mirror of alienation and hedonism, tempered by a dash of social criticism. Unetaneh tokef, “We Shall Ascribe Holiness to this Day,” affirms order, virtue, and authority in the world; Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” ascribes randomness to this universe.

Nevertheless, Cohen’s karma proved contagious. After the concert, as thousands pulled out of their typically Israeli haphazard parking spots – it took us more than 45 minutes to leave the complex – a modern miracle occurred: I did not hear one shout, one sustained beep, one impatient “Nu kvar.” As we traveled back from Cohen’s world to the Jerusalem bubble – unsure which is real, which is right – we hit traffic jams at 1 a.m. – as hundreds thronged the streets, taking last-minute penitential tours of Machaneh Yehudah, Nachlaot, the Old City.

It all peaked with Yom Kippur, which concentrated the collective power of millions engaging with God, engaging with themselves, repenting, changing, fixing the world. The atmospherics outside again enhanced the piety, literacy, authenticity, intensity of the experiences inside the synagogue. Leaving the Kol Nidre prayers into the silence of a world without cars – in the center of the city – is amazing, as is the warm, communal feeling, as people promenade up and down normally hazardous streets like Emek Refaim. With the bicyclists and the pedestrians taking over the city, religious and secular mingle freely, easily, sharing the delight in the voluntary ban on driving in the Jewish people’s capital on the Jewish people’s holiest day.

The holiday season culminates now with Succot. The oft-neglected holiday in the Diaspora – with people desperate to return to work – is a national holiday here, with all schools closed. Succot blossom everywhere, lovely unexpected flowers jutting out of the urban concrete jungle. With camping trips and mass priestly blessings at the Wall, soap box car races, all day learning fests, and a 70,000-person Jerusalem parade featuring Christian Zionists from all over the world – Succot truly becomes zman simchateinu, “the holiday of our joy.”

Few moderns can relate to our ancestors’ joy during the harvest. But as meaning-seeking creatures, with all of us on some path trying to understand what life is all about, Succot’s joy derives from its proximity to Yom Kippur. Having grappled with eternal questions, struggled to improve our souls, what better way to assert our humanity and our Jewishness than through celebration? And for those of us in Israel, how lucky we are to experience this all at the point of origin, our ancient homeland, and in sync with so many others. Such joy, such spiritual satisfaction may not make headlines, but it makes life worth living.

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