Message from Rabbi Berman
As I write this, Simchat Torah, the last of the official pilgrimage yamim tovim, our fall holidays, has just ended, and we are returning to as normal a time as we can. Quite remarkable, when you think of it, really. We have just completed an entire cycle of the biblical holidays, from Pesach, when our ancient calendar began, through Shavuot, and the High Holy Days and ending with Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. And we did the entire cycle virtually, on livestream and Zoom Whatever else can be said of 2020, this was a major shift in the way we do things/in what we were used to.
And now we’re coming up on Chanukah. How can I not mention that in the November-December issue? As a post-biblical holiday (like Purim), it’s a little outside the scope of what I’m discussing here. We could use a miracle, though!
Barring that, we’ll be doing things virtually for a while yet. With our demographics, caution remains a watchword. We do have a committee, headed by Lou Abramovitz, set up to evaluate the situation and develop a timeline for a return to live services. I look forward to their findings. But even when we decide it’s time to return, perhaps after a hybrid approach of virtual and actual activities, things will never be the same. The world will have changed. And I’m sure a topic of discussion will be how things used to be. But we will have to move forward.
And because, as you’ve heard me say, moving forward, kadima, involves looking backward, it’s worthwhile to look at our traditional practices, to remind us of what we’re trying to do as a community, socially and religiously. That cycle of holidays endures, and through its rituals we recreate the amazing experience of a ragtag, motley, hodge-podge of slaves who somehow caught the attention of the Creator of the Universe, Who stepped into history on their behalf.
At the Passover Seder we relive our exodus from the narrowest of places—that’s the literal meaning of Mitzrayim, Egypt. At Shavuot we re-enact the receiving of the Instructions (i.e. the Torah) at Sinai. In fact, in a sense we do this every time we take the Torah out of the ark. It’s as if the ark is at the top of the mount and one of us gets it and brings it to the people. The script of the Torah service is composed entirely of verses from the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. At Sukkot we remember what that first night out of Egypt must have felt like as we left our homes, such as they were, to jump on the freedom train and live even more humbly in the wilderness for forty years. The sukkah stands for the hovels we lived in, so we remember that even with our humble past we chose God and freedom over complacency.
Our High Holidays, before we get to Sukkot, are based on references in that guidebook, Torah, given to us in the wilderness. I’ve talked before about the pageantry of those services. In the case of Yom Kippur, the instructions are quite explicit— we fast and atone as our ancestors did. With less explicit direction about Rosh Hashanah, the Sages could direct the show according to their understanding, which was that it commemorated Creation. That gives us an opportunity to consider the universal human condition.
On Simchat Torah, after Sukkot, after Shmini Atzeret, we finished the reading of the Torah and began again. The very end of Torah tells of Moses dying in the wilderness, after seeing to succession.
The sociologist Max Weber coined the phrase “routinization of charisma” to describe how a culture continues to observe a practice after its charismatic leader is no longer at the helm. I think that we do something similar with our liturgy. I would call it the “routinization of wonder.” We try to recapture the majesty of the world-shaking events at the core of our identity. The Midrash is an extended exercise in keeping the wonder fresh.
Rediscovery of where we came from, our seminal events, our core stories, our defining moments can give us some direction as we chart an unknown future. Perhaps the lights of Chanukah, coming up, will light up our path.
See you in cybershul,