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The Subtext of Our Lives: Unetaneh Tokef and the High Holidays

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

“Who shall die by fire, and who by water?”

For many people, that question — part of the haunting Unetaneh Tokef prayer — is reason enough to boycott the Days of Awe. After all, the text of that famous medieval poem offers a simple, clear answer to why people suffer: it’s their own fault. They were given a perfectly fair trial (conveniently featuring God as prosecutor, defense attorney, witness, and judge), and every last chance to return to the right path, but they stubbornly refused God’s lifeline. So they died.

But the subtext of Unetaneh Tokef tells a different story, referencing the Book of Job more than any other. For example, the “still small voice” of the Unetaneh Tokef text mirrors Job 4:16. The text of the next line of Unetaneh Tokef deals with angels, as does Job 4:18. Literally reading between the lines, we find Job 4:17: “Can humans be acquitted by God?”

The text and subtext vehemently disagree, so what looks like an answer — people die because God makes them — is really a question: What’s going on here?

The High Holidays in general are like that, and so too are our lives. We have a text. But we need the subtext to understand it. And the simple, clear answers are usually wrong.


[Adapted from my essay “How was Your Flight” in Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef, pub. 2010 by Jewish Lights Publishing, ed. Rabbi Larry Hoffman.]

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Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

What does the “pur” in Purim really mean?

March 18, 2011 4 comments

Pur in PurimSoon we will bake hamentaschen, dress up in costume, and read the Book of Esther (“The Megillah”) to celebrate the joyous holiday of Purim. According to verse 9:26 of that very book, we get the name “Purim” from the pur that was cast: “Therefore, they called these days `Purim’ after `pur.'” But while purim is the Hebrew plural of pur, pur itself is not a Hebrew word. For this reason, twice before in Esther, when pur is mentioned, we are told, “…pur, that is, the goral.” So a pur is a goral, but what is a goral?

In all likelihood, goral originally referred to a bunch of small pebbles or similar objects used to make decisions by chance: they would be cast down on the ground or put in a vessel of some sort, from which one would be drawn at random. (A similar practice, in which stones were placed in a helmet, is clearly documented from Homeric Greece. The Greek verb for casting these objects was ballo, from which we get our English word “ballot.”)

For example, in Leviticus 16, Aaron takes “two goats,” “a goral for God” and a “goral for Azazel.” Then the goat that God’s goral lands on is God’s goat, and the goat that Azazel’s goral lands on is Azazel’s goat; this latter goat is sent “to Azazel” in atonement. (Based on an ancient misunderstanding of the Hebrew “to Azazel,” a 1530 translation reads “to scape” instead of “to Azazel,” giving us the English phrase “scapegoat.”)
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We’re All Charlie Brown During the Holidays

December 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Who can forget the repeated scenes of Charlie Brown falling flat on his back yet again after trying to kick a football that Lucy has impishly yanked away? No matter how many times he’s failed, good old Charlie always believes that this time will be different. Lucy has changed. And he’ll finally succeed.

It’s funny because we all know that Charlie Brown will miss the ball.

But really, I think, it’s funny because we see ourselves in the character of Charlie Brown.

Each year at the holidays, we are accosted by images of happy children reveling in their newly received gifts.

The most wished for toy on Amazon.com — I’ve managed to live a pretty happy life never having even heard of it until today — comes in a cartoonish package depicting three deliriously happy children smiling the way only cartoon characters can. And the top selling toy on that website similarly depicts a mother smiling with her two amazingly happy pre-teen and teenage children.

“Shop by age to find the perfect toy,” Amazon.com advertises, following up with five pictures of smiling children.

What a concept: “The prefect toy.” Good grief!

It’s as though the only thing standing between children and unlimited bliss is the right gift. Find the right toy, and even teenagers will be gleeful. Siblings will stop fighting and start getting along. You’ll get home from work in time to enjoy the evening with your children, who suddenly will have no homework. Even your house will magically become spotlessly clean. All if you find the right gift.

Children and adults alike buy into the myth, with real dollars.

But it doesn’t work. Like Charlie Brown, we find our goal of a Gift To End All Sadness snatched away at the last minute.

And, worse, we come to a reasonable but wrong conclusion when it doesn’t work: we think that we have simply bought the wrong gift. So we set out — again like Charlie Brown — with the firm but wrong expectation that next time will be different. The next gift will make our lives better, and fix what’s wrong in the lives of those we love.

I have nothing against gifts. I like giving them and I like getting them. I will keep buying things for the important people in my life, and nothing I write here should dissuade you, dear friends, from buying things for me.

So, yes, I like presents.

Even more, I like the messages of the holidays.

And lest I once again fall flat on my back, I try not to confuse one with the other.

Categories: holidays

Darfur and the Silent Voices of Suffering

September 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Rabbi Billy Dreskin will fast for the 24 hours leading up to Rosh Hashanah, as part of the Fast for Darfur program. For Rabbi Dreskin, whose son, Jonah, died tragically just a few months ago, the plight of the population in Darfur is both remote and personal:

I will always cry for Jonah, that is for certain. But what seems like a lifetime ago, I used to also cry for the people of Darfur. Now, six months after I bid farewell to my own child, I am once again able to think of children elsewhere, of other families that are suffering horrendous grief. For this reason, beginning at sundown this evening, I will participate in a 24-hour Fast for Darfur. This seems like the proper moment for me to do this. Rosh Hashanah represents new beginnings. In some small but meaningful way, speaking out for this beleaguered, helpless people — who still await the world’s stopping the crimes of humanity being perpetrated against them — is my way of beginning to live again. I doubt it will stop my tears for Jonah, but maybe it will help move forward a process that will keep other parents from shedding tears for their own child.

I’m reminded of the line in Unetaneh Tokef that references the Biblical kol d’mamah daka, variously “still, small voice” or “small voice of silence.” “Let the great shofar be sounded, and let the small voice of silence be heard,” the prayer reads.

This Rosh Hashanah, as I hear the sound of the shofar, I will listen for the voices of silent suffering around the world. And during the coming year — taking my cue from Unetaneh Tokef — I will do my best to make sure those voices are heard and never ignored.

Categories: holidays, Social Justice

Accidental Mutineers

September 14, 2009 Leave a comment

With Rosh Hashanah less than a week away, our thoughts turn to starting a new year, and, we hope, improving on the old one. The theme of asking for forgiveness is a common one. But we pay less attention to the other side of the same coin: have we created an environment that lets others apologize to us?

We usually find it easier to see the faults in those around us than to recognize our own. The shortcomings of family members, coworkers, and friends leap out at us in vivid detail, while our own imperfections remain obscured behind veils of psychological obfuscation.

So what do we do when we see that a parent is needy or a boss insecure, a spouse jealous or a friend unsupportive, a child ungrateful or an employee combative?

Like all instruments of power, our knowledge of other people’s faults — so clear to us and yet invisible to them — can be a force for betterment or for destruction.

In this regard, the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny is a brilliant study of how we deal with what’s wrong with other people.

Captain Queeg, in command of the U.S.S. Caine, is a well-meaning and capable commander, but years of combat have taken their toll and he is also nervous, obsessive, and prone to paranoia. As is frequently the case, those around him see his faults right away, while he himself remains practically unaware of them.

What, then, do his shipmates do?

Rather than try to work with their captain, rather than accepting his failings and trying to help him overcome them, rather than compensating for what he cannot do, the officers of the ship antagonize Queeg. They scoff him. The provoke him. They follow the letter of his orders even when they know it’s a bad idea.

In this combative and unsupportive environment, Queeg’s insecurities worsen and his paranoia becomes more pronounced. “Sometimes the captain of a ship needs help,” Queeg pleads. But his subordinates use his weakness against him. “Look at the man. He’s a Freudian delight,” one officer tells another, hoping to make a case that the captain is unbalanced.

Eventually the ship finds itself maneuvering around a typhoon. The crew no longer trusts their isolated captain, and they relieve him of command.

The key to the movie is the trial for mutiny. The crew are found not-guilty, because by the time the typhoon hit, Captain Queeg was unable to make sound decisions. But they are also found morally culpable, because they paved the way to the captain’s demise, in the process almost destroying the boat and ending their own lives.

What will we do next year when we see the shortcomings in those around us?

Like the officers on the Caine, we have a choice. We can try to create a tolerant, forgiving environment. Or we can use other human beings’ flaws to our own short-term advantage and amusement.

Will we choose well?

Or we will become accidental mutineers?

Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

Paving and Paradise

April 24, 2009 2 comments

By Joel M. Hoffman

Pave over a field and an amazing thing happens each spring: grass grows through the blacktop. Somehow, even the industrial strength of the pavement, powerful enough to support the tonnage of trucks, can’t stop a single, fragile, nascent blade of grass yearning for light.

At this time of year, we are like the grass.

Our springtime holiday of freedom ended a short while ago. Our next major celebration comes exactly fifty days after Passover, on May 29, this year. It’s Shavu’ot, the day that commemorates when we stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Torah. The 49-day period in between is called the Omer, and it’s a time of spiritual limbo. We have our freedom, but we don’t yet have guidance from Torah. So we can do what we want, but we don’t know what we should do. The Omer is our yearly moral navigation check-up, a time to ask: “Am I going in the right direction?”

The seven week period of the Omer (“seven weeks of seven days,” it’s called in the Torah) has become so important that we traditionally count each day. When we do, we note the total number of days, and also how many weeks they comprise. Mother’s Day, for example, falls this year on the 31st day of the Omer, which is four weeks and three days into the Omer. That’s how it’s done.

It’s a period of high emotion. For some people, most of the Omer is a season of mourning, during which weddings are forbidden and even pleasurable music is not allowed. But the 33rd day of the Omer — lag ba’omer, in Hebrew — is a day of rejoicing. So is Jerusalem Day, on the 43 day of the Omer. (If you want a traditional springtime wedding, it has to be on the 33rd day of the Omer, making that day one of the hardest times to find a wedding hall in Israel.)

We juxtapose confirmation with Shavu’ot, using our celebration of Torah to publicly acknowledge the students who have chosen to continue their Jewish education. Bar/bat mitzvah may have been when they became Jewish adults, allowed to make their own ritual decisions, but without Torah, how will they decide what to do? That’s one reason we hope they continue to study.

Shavu’ot usually comes around the last day of Religious School, as if to underscore the connection between going to Religious School and working to accept Torah. On Shavu’ot, we celebrate another successful year of school.

And Shavu’ot, like Memorial Day, marks the beginning of summer.

In Aramaic — the language of the Talmud and of prayers such as the Kadish — the word for Torah is oraita, literally, “the light.” In this context, we are all like the grass that breaks through the blacktop. The grass is searching for the sun. We are searching for our light, the light that is Torah. And our job during the Omer is to find it. Like for the grass, sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles block our path. Instead of blacktop, we have to overcome petty rivalry, jealousy, hatred, and ego, just to name a few. These are often harder than pavement.

There’s another way our journey is more difficult than that of the grass. Gravity causes chemicals called auxins to pool in the lower part of the grass shoot, which then has no choice but to grow upward. It will eventually find light. We have more freedom. We can go anywhere we want, do anything we please. We can grow toward Torah, or shift away from it. The Omer is our time to ask if we are going in the right direction: Are we becoming better people? Are we working toward the right goals? Are we proud of where we’re going and what we’re working to do?

We have one final thing in common with the grass. We can’t see the light until we overcome the obstacles blocking our path. The Omer can be dark and frustrating, but if we spend our time wisely, it will be worth it.

Categories: holidays, spirituality

Holy Hanukah Lights

December 2, 2008 1 comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

“These lights are holiness — haneirot hallalu kodesh hen.

This famous line about the Hanukah lights, now part of the standard Hanukah liturgy, comes from masechet sofrim, an 8th-Century Palestinian work that describes the practices of our ancestors in and around Jerusalem. Masechet sofrim goes on to warn that we are not allowed to use the Hanukah candles for anything except looking at them.

Unlike the Shabbat candles, then, which can be used to provide light for reading, or, presumably, warmth (though obviously not much), the Hanukah candles just sit there.

In fact, this is why we have a shamash. The shamash, the “ninth of the eight Hanukah candles,” is technically not actually a Hanukah candle itself. We use it to light the real Hanukah candles, while the shamash sits next to or above the Hanukah candles.

This way, in case you’re walking around the house reading a book, say, and if just as you walk by the Hanukah menorah the power goes out, and if by accident you keep on reading, you can maintain the fiction that you weren’t reading by the Hanukah lights. No! You were reading by the light of the shamash.

Or, if just as you walk by the menorah you suddenly find yourself in pressing need of a candle, you won’t be tempted to use the real Hanukah candles. You can grab the shamash instead.

This is why the shamash is supposed to be the first candle lit and the last candle to go out. (This is possible, even when the candles are identical. Can you figure out how to do it?) You wouldn’t want to find yourself with Hanukah lights and no shamash, not even for a moment.

At first glance, this all seems a bit silly, particularly in our modern day of electricity. I like to think of myself as fairly creative, and yet I have trouble conjuring up a situation in which I might be in dire sudden need of a burning candle.

But the real point has nothing to do with ambulatory reading or candle emergencies or any other practical concern. The real point goes back to the first line: these candles are holiness.

The light from the Hanukah candles, we are taught, is different than any other kind of light. Most light is just, well, light. (Photons, we might now call it.) But the light of Hanukah is the embodiment of holiness itself.

It’s hard enough to understand light, let alone holiness. We speak of light and darkness, even though there’s no such thing as darkness. (The old photography joke about opening the darkroom door and letting the dark leak out comes to mind.) Scientists have studied light and concluded that it is both a wave and a particle, though it’s also neither a wave nor a particle. It’s true, but it doesn’t help most people understand light. Still, we know what light is when we see it, and we know it’s part of our every day life.

Holiness is even harder. We may have a vague sense that God is holy, or that we are supposed to be holy. Holiness is involved in childbirth, perhaps, and according to some in the majesty of mountains and glory of nature. But, unlike light, most of us don’t think much about holiness. Would we even know it if we saw it?

Not surprisingly, the combination of light and holiness is even more difficult. How can light be holy? Even more vexing, how can a Hanukah candle emit holy light when the seemingly identical shamash gives us mere ordinary light? And what would that even mean?

I certainly don’t know. But I do know that we only get once chance a year to see the holy light.

So as we approach the darkest time of year and get ready to celebrate light, amid the stress of the holidays and the curious combination of exuberance and disappointment that accompanies gift-giving, let’s remember that life is mysterious. And let’s not miss our opportunity to gaze on the faces of the people we love as they are illuminated by flickering flames of the Divine.