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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Gil Troy: We should all turn toward Israel

Canadian Jewish News, 10-30-08

Five times a year, Israelis witness a strange sight. As they return to work after the first and last day of Sukkot, the first and last day of Passover, and the Shavuout holiday, some visiting North American and European Jews still observe the strictures of the “chag,” the holy day.

That these Diaspora Jews stick to their galut – exile – practices in the Jewish homeland when even the most pious Israelis have ended the holiday is absurd. The holiness of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, should prevail

The bizarre practice of visitors to Israel observing the second days of holidays there highlights two disturbing trends. The Orthodox world suffers from a kind of autism about ritual, an inability to read subtle cues, to distinguish minor from major. More broadly, many Jews exhibit a condescending attitude toward Israel, forgetting Israel’s primacy within Judaism.

For starters, accompanying Orthodoxy’s welcome resurgence over the last few decades has been a disturbing stringency about far too many minutiae. Some – but not all – rabbis have lost their bearings. Some hector their congregants about the most picayune rules of kashrut while ignoring major sex scandals or other ethical lapses among congregants. Some gossips condemn neighbors in harsh, hateful and even violent terms for wearing dresses they might deem immodest by centimetres.

In fairness, the genius of Halachah, the Jewish system of law, lies in its focus on details. The strict attention to seemingly minor rituals has sustained Judaism through the millennia, preserving continuity, maintaining legitimacy and fostering an intensity in Jewish tradition. But focusing on details should enhance, not obscure, the major principles looming behind the minor acts. When ethical guidelines are ignored – or sacrificed – and when bigger principles are violated, ritual is distracting rather than reinforcing.

Rabbis must educate congregants about proportionality and intentionality. Maintaining the purpose behind the ritual is essential, and Jewish law should facilitate the broader quest to achieve a good, meaningful and ethical life. I once asked a rabbi what he thought about Orthodox Jews who observed the Sabbath obsessively yet acted in business immorally. He answered: “They are not Orthodox.” This rabbi understood that if you can’t pick and choose when it comes to rituals, you can’t pick and choose when it comes to ethics, either.

Of course, visitors observing the second day of holidays in Israel are not obscuring any lapses, ethical or otherwise. Still, maintaining this particular ritual diminishes the Holy Land, thus undermining a major Jewish principle to adhere to a more minor ritual.

Alas, more and more Jews seem to forget Israel’s primacy. Forgetting the blessings that flow from living in Israel, all too frequently, free, comfortable western Jews feel they are better off than their poor Israeli cousins. Too many fundraising appeals that caricature Israel as needy seemingly confirm this perception.

In truth, Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora face a major contradiction that most of them simply ignore. Despite devoting their lives to following every jot and tittle of Jewish law, they overlook the many mitzvot associated with living in the land of Israel. Before Israel became independent in 1948, Jews felt forced to remain in exile. Today, how can someone dedicated to following all of God’s commandments as fully as possible justify choosing to live outside the land of Israel?

I’m well aware of how explosive a charge this is, and how sensitive the aliyah issue is, so allow me to make a more modest proposal that will help restore some proportionality to the relationship. All Jews today should put the study of modern written and conversational Hebrew at the top of both communal and individual agendas. Studying modern Hebrew necessarily reorients people toward Israel, helping all Jews engage with Israel better.

And perhaps even more important for Diaspora Jews, putting Hebrew front and centre can prove humbling. Rather than demanding that our Israeli brothers and sisters speak to us in the particular language of our exile, we should make the effort – however trying – to speak the language of our people.

The great Zionist philosopher Achad Ha’am said that just as the Jews preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath preserved the Jewish people. Similarly, let future historians note that just as the Jewish people preserved Hebrew, Hebrew preserved – and redeemed – the Jewish people today.