If you wondered why there has been a gap in Shlomo’s Drashes, the reason is where I am sitting now. I’m sitting on a patio on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zambia. To my left, there is cloud of mist, the mist from Victoria Falls. The hills in the distance are another country, Zimbabwe. I’m traveling thorough southern Africa with my mom, to see things we’ve never seen before.
Before I left for Africa, I studied had one bit of Mishnah which has been on my mind.
Mishnah. All the seven days [of Sukkot] a man must make the sukkah his permanent abode and his house his temporary abode. If rain fell, when may one be permitted to leave it? When the porridge would become spoiled. They propounded a parable. To what can this be compared? To a slave who comes to fill the cup for his master, and he poured a pitcher over his face. [Sukkah 28b]
The parable gives a rather startling image. We as servants of God give an offering of staying in the sukkah, yet God come along and gets us soaked with rain. Not seemingly the most gracious master. Anyone who had ever lived in a sukkah is familiar with the concept, even if one only eats in their sukkah. Rain, cold, wind and even snow can make being in a sukkah not a fun experience. Then there are bugs and critters as well. I think a lot about bugs as I take my anti malarial pills, knowing something very tiny could end up rather lethal. The only thing more deadly than Malaria in Zambia is HIV. It’s spring here and there may not have been enough rain for breeding yet, but I am cautious nevertheless. One can look at the sukkah as all the things we are exposed to.
Yet this week I did get an experience which changed my thoughts about that sukkah and it had a lot to do with an elephant.
We are staying at a luxury hotel, and as a gift, our travel agent arranged for us to have the private dining area for dinner the first night we were here. It was an outdoor table right on the banks of the Zambezi. The structure around us was made of cast iron framework, with iron slats radiating out of a center point for a roof, yet leaving much of the sky visible. As the stars came out the only light were several citronella torches and the candle on our table. Besides that there was nothing but darkness. Looking up I could see the stars through the roof, and thought of a sukkah. I haven’t seen that many stars in a while. A tiny but rapidly moving dot was most likely the International Space Station. But besides that one manmade object there was nothing else in the sky but stars. A few bats flew by, one of them kicking over the candle accidently. But there was also a sound from the brush behind us. We heard tree branches breaking. It got closer and closer. Our waiter told us that it was an elephant. Around dessert time the elephant walked by the pseudo-sukkah on his way to a patch of grass by the river bank. I could only see his shape reflected in the shimmering waters of the river – it was otherwise completely dark. But my camera caught him on long exposure. He hung around for our dessert, and then headed back in to the brush.
The wonder of an elephant wandering by forced me to think differently about sukkahs. We can think of a sukkah as a way to look at creation in a different way than we usually do with walls around us. We experience it and things we never otherwise do – which is the whole point of my trip – to see animals in the wild I would not otherwise see. Of course I can see animals in zoos or televisions, but it obviously is not the same. It would seem in the aftermath of the birthday of the world, we are to experience it. Even if the Master throws a pitcher in our face, we were in front of the master. It reminds me of another parable about Hanina ben Dosa, a poor shulb of a rabbi, who also happens to be able to pray for people to get well, once he was studying with the great Rabbi Johanan b. Zakkai, the leader of the Rabbinic courts.
The son of R. Johanan ben Zakkai fell ill. He said to him: Hanina my son, pray for him that he may live. He put his head between his knees and prayed for him and he lived. Said R. Johanan ben Zakkai: If Ben Zakkai had stuck his head between his knees for the whole day, no notice would have been taken of him. Said his wife to him: Is Hanina greater than you are? He replied to her: No; but he is like a servant before the king, and I am like a nobleman before a king. [Berachoth 34b]
The thing about servants is they get access that even nobles do not, and thus can ask favors even nobles do not. Servants see things that noblemen never will. The time of Sukkot is our chance to observe with that kind of access the natural world before us. It may be an Elephant, or a coyote, a monkey or a squirrel. It may be the clouds above us or a beautiful sunset. It may be rain or falling leaves, or in the hemisphere I’m currently in, blooming flowers. We watch the cycles around us.
When thinking of cycles, I remembered another river. Over a decade ago, sitting in Rome on the banks of the Tiber, a teacher of mine described two rivers as representative of two societies. The Nile with its floods and droughts represents a cyclical world view of the Egyptians. The Tiber, on the other hand stays regular but flows forward linearly, describing the thought of the Romans. The clash of worlds between Cleopatra’s and Octavius Caesar’s was bound to set the course of western civilization towards linear progressive thinking was my teacher’s theory – and it was all bound up in the rivers that flowed by their windows.
The Zambezi is both, particularly here close to the falls. It is a powerfully flowing river, but it has its wet seasons and dry seasons. All the rocks I see now in the dry season would be under water in the peak of the wet season. The mist from the falls would obscure everything, even from a kilometer away. Yet the falls adds another element not true of the Nile or Tiber. A magnificent set of falls, an event that might seem like the end of the river, but is really a radical change. Time is best described as a paradox, both linear and cyclical. Every cycle we are somewhere new. Yet at the same time, we are back where we started. There might even be some radical changes. Some might think of these as the end of something, some might believe them the beginning of something.
Heshel in his work the Sabbath describes Jewish time as cyclical time. There are cycles of the year, and as Heschel spends much of the book describing, cycles of the week. The festivals are more marks in the cycles than anything else. Yet no mark is quite as significant to me as a beginning and an end as Simchat Torah, which not only ends Sukkot, but is the reading of both the end and then the beginning of Torah.
The tradition of dancing in circles with the Torah on Simchat Torah reminds me of those cycles. Yet in that tradition we also see one of the most radical changes. We move from the beginning of a scroll to the end. In congregations with multiple Torahs this can be seamless. One can read from one Torah from the end of Deuteronomy, and in another the beginning of Genesis. Yet, like one on my first congregations as an adult, the congregation had only one Torah, and that would require a radical change of rolling the whole Torah mid-service. One tradition I have seen as an alternative, especially in the liberal Jewish movements is the unrolling of the entire Torah in a circle held aloft by the careful hands of congregants, sometimes gloved sometimes not. Once unrolled it is rolled back up so that genesis is ready to read. To see and hold all of Torah around you is quite a powerful experience.
It has been my personal tradition not to hold the Torah scroll aloft, but to tell people what they are holding. I’m usually one of the few people in my congregation who can read and translate torah text cold. It was other reason I started taking Hebrew in the first place. Every year I can pick out a read more parts of Torah. And tell more about the story or Mitzvot they hold. It has been a joy to do so for many years now.
On the banks of the Zambezi, I will not be doing that. This year by the time Simchat Torah comes to this far side of the world, both in latitude and longitude, I will be arriving at my hotel for Johannesburg. This year is different, in that way. But it is different in many ways, the blessing of Sweetie in my life the greatest of them, who will be holding that Torah up for me this year. That blessing alone would make Victoria Falls a little stream in comparison.
There is always the continuity of the heart – literally. The sages pointed out that the last letter of the Torah and the first letter spell the word leiv, or heart. With our heart – both our emotions and our minds, we complete and begin a cycle anew, with new adventures.
Some want to talk of Jewish time like a spiral, both linear and cyclical. Yet that requires a longer length of time every cycle, but the holidays always appear at the same time. For me it is like this river I am leaving today, always moving forward over the falls, with rapids at places and still deep waters at others. IT can be rocky and small or deep and wide depending on the season. So too with our lives and with the holidays of the seasons, the lesson I think of Simhat Torah.
With the joint joy of Shabbat and the Cycling of the Torah, may you all have a wonderful holiday.