Spirituality

"Disability" Redux

[I wrote this piece about disabilities about seven years ago, when I was learning how to confront my hearing loss. Since then my hearing as deteriorated, and it impacts every class I teach and every interaction I have. As you may imagine, it’s terribly frustrating. I felt like returning to this essay, to see how I still feel about the sentiments I wrote in 2012. And I’ll have more to say about this subject in the weeks ahead, so it seems like a timely revisit.

Instead of just reposting the piece, I’ve added some contemporary glosses by a noted scholar. (Not the same ‘noted scholar’ who commented on Woody Allen’s legendary Hasidic tales, but perhaps descended from him.)]

 

Disability

The angel wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket…
The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip…
Jacob arrived  
שָׁלֵם [whole] at the city of Shechem.
(Genesis 32:26, 32; 33:18)

All of us are damaged in some way; it’s a fundamental part of being human. Also human is the way in which we confront our brokenness; the gracefulness with which accept our imperfections.

[GLOSS: When I originally wrote this, some of my readers objected to the word ‘brokenness’ as being harsh and implying a value-judgment. There’s a stream of thought among disabled communities that one should “embrace” her or his disability. But “brokenness” is precisely what I mean. When I consider what has become of my hearing, “broken” and in need of “fixing” is exactly how I feel about it.]

My personal disability is rather awkward because it plays itself out so publicly in my life – in the classroom, in meetings (in Buber’s sense of the word), in our sanctuary, and even across a hospital bed. I started losing my hearing a few years ago, at exactly the same age when my father began to lose his. It began to impact my effectiveness in my work. I would get frustrated, angry at myself. I even had a moment of “bottoming out”, to use the language of addiction and recovery, when I sat in the front row for a lecture of which I heard practically nothing. It rocked me deeply.

[GLOSS: What I thought was “bottoming out” was just the beginning. It’s become commonplace for me to attend a crowded party and not be able to hear a thing, or stubbornly go to concerts and strain to recognize songs that I know really well.]

For a short while I felt sorry for myself. Then I started visiting audiologists and figuring out how I was going to move forward. Hearing aids help, although to my chagrin and frustration they have remained “aids” and have never given me 100% of the hearing I’ve desired. This was particularly frustrating, because of all our cherished senses, hearing is especially precious to me. You who know me know that for me listening to music is one of life’s deepest pleasures. The diminishment of that pleasure is a serious heartbreak. 

[GLOSS: That observation was important. I still can’t really explain why contact lenses give me 20/20 vision, but hearing aids don’t deliver “20/20 hearing”, so to speak. Family and friends of hearing-impaired people need to understand that.

All of us have fears that awaken us in the middle of the night, when the day’s distractions have dissolved away. Lately mine is the prospect of what my hearing loss will be like when I’m 50, or 60, or beyond. Will I move from “hearing-impaired” to full-fledged deafness? Will I be able to function at my job? Those are real fears I carry in my soul, with some degree of anguish.

But these days those fears don’t slow me down. Quite to the contrary. I’ve become more and more comfortable with saying to students in my classroom, “This is what I’m working to overcome. This is my disability. What’s yours?”

[GLOSS: Some days I feel the early optimism of this piece fading. But I have never been shy about announcing that I’m hearing impaired. It’s become quite standard for me to open a class or launch a speech with a disclaimer about my disability. Not in a self-pitying way… just to clue people in.]

In fact, I find an enormous amount of strength coming forth from our tradition. Personal prayer has become far more intense since I’ve come to grips with my disability. The morning prayers, for instance, contain a remarkable passage that reflects on the body’s delicateness: “You have made the human body filled with tiny holes and orifices… If one of them were opened when it should be closed, or closed when it should be opened, we wouldn’t be able to stand before You for even a moment.” When I reflect that my hearing loss stems from the ossification of the miniscule bones in the inner ear, I share the wonder of the siddur’s poet. It’s a daily miracle how much works so well!

[GLOSS: Still true. And yet… I look at the birchot ha-shachar, the daily blessings of awe that are found early on in the Jewish siddur. We bless G-d for being pokeach ivrim, “the One who gives sight to people who are blind,” which of course is meant as a spiritual metaphor. Why doesn’t it say mashmiya chershim, “the One who causes deaf people to hear”? Especially since “to hear” – as in the Shema Yisrael – is such a crucial metaphor in the Jewish prayerbook? I’ll write more about this soon, but I’m curious if you have an insight about this.]

In the Torah, many of our ancestors carried some sort of brokenness. Isaac was blind; so too, perhaps, was Leah. Jacob’s leg was wrenched in his wrestling with the angel; perhaps he limped for the rest of his life. Most famously, Moses stood before G-d at the burning bush and said, in essence, “Why would you choose me to speak before Pharaoh?  After all, my lips…” The Torah is enigmatic about Moses’s shortcoming: Did he stutter?  Did he have a disabled palate? Or was he merely terrified of public speaking? It matters—but not as much as G-d’s response to him, which is, in essence, “I don’t make mistakes. I’ve called you to do a job, to speak truth to the power that is Pharaoh. And if you trust Me, then when the time comes we’ll find the words, together.”

[GLOSS: A partial list of disabled people from Jewish tradition (note the surprising absence of deaf characters):
Isaac – blind
Leah – “weak eyes”
Jacob – walked with a limp
Moses – speech impeded
Samson – blind
Ahiya the prophet – blind
Rabbi Yosef (Nedarim 41a) – blind
Rabbi Sheshet (Berachot 58a) – blind
Levi (Ta’anit 21a) – could not walk
The Maggid of Mezeritch – walked with a limp
R. Simcha Bunem of Peshischa – blind
… I know there’s so many more. How many can you add to this list?]

I have no delusions (trust me) of being a Jacob or Moses or Isaac or Leah. But I study their life-stories and try to learn their lessons. Isaac found the words to bless his children. Leah went on to find love and, if you believe the midrash, she also found her sister. Jacob, even with his limp, is still called shalem, “whole” – a poignant reminder that these finite bodies are mere containers for the infinity in our souls. And Moses, G-d’s servant and partner, spoke through damaged lips the words, “Let my people go.” He even found the strength and confidence to lead a people through the wilderness.

I imagine that each of them felt sorry for themselves when they first confronted their disabilities. Maybe their communities supported them in their struggles (maybe they didn’t). But eventually, each of them found a way back to Life; to saying: This is Who I Am. No longer will it hold me back, but I’ll offer myself, anew, in all my brokenness, to do what I was designed to do all along. In faith and tradition and the love of others, I will find my strength.

This is my brokenness. What’s yours?

[GLOSS: Corny ending, perhaps. But something cool has happened over the years: when I talk about my disability, I’ve found that students of all ages have opened up. Some have come to me and said, “I’ve been faking it for years; I’m going to make an appointment with an audiologist.” Even more gratifying are those whose hearing is fine, but who make the connections to their learning disability, or whatever. Here’s to each of us sharing our own vulnerabilities, so that “maybe more can come out of their hiding places” (to borrow a line from a Danny Siegel poem).

Good Enough

Had G-d brought us out of Egypt
But not parted the Sea for us – Dayenu!
Had G-d parted the Sea for us
But not brought us through on dry land – Dayenu!
Had G-d brought us near to Mount Sinai
But not given us the Torah – Dayenu!

 Here’s a conversation starter for a dry seder:  Does anyone really believe the words to this song?

            I mean, we’ve been singing Dayenu a long time – probably since the era of the Geonim (650-1075 CE). Even families that have abridged the seder to a significant degree still consider this song essential. But consider the words as they appear on the page, and the message is less than obvious. Do we really believe that “It Would Be Good Enough for Us” (for that is the meaning of Dayenu) if G-d had redeemed us from slavery and then left us to starve in the desert? If the Sea had parted and the story ended there? If we had not been allowed to coalesce into a people, and had ultimately gone the way of the Amorites, Hittites, Canaanites, Babylonians, and others who long ago folded into history’s abyss?

            Of course it wouldn’t have been “good enough.”  Any break in any link of the chain of those miraculous events would have signified the end of the Jewish people, and there wouldn’t be anyone around to sing Dayenu to G-d. How could that possibly be “good enough”? So maybe this passage has more to it than meets the eye?

            Dayenu is placed nearly halfway through the seder, after most of the storytelling has taken place and just after the recitation of the Ten Plagues. We have already recounted the brutality of slavery. We have begun to comprehend all the many miracles – and the miracles upon miracles, according to Rabbis Yossi Ha-G’lili, Eliezer, and Akiva in the Haggadah – that have brought us here today, to this moment. Soon we’ll be feasting. But first we sing this song.

            The themes of what it means to be a slave and what it means to be free are placed before us.  And there’s a trap. We might reach this point in the seder, say to ourselves that slavery is a thing of the past, and we’re done with it. Let’s eat.

            But slavery is not a thing of the past.  Those who delude themselves into thinking they’re the most free just might find themselves in chains more restrictive than ever.  Just consider:

·      One in three Americans are chronically overworked;

·      54% of Americans have felt “overwhelmed” at work in the past month;

·      21% of overworked Americans exhibit symptoms of clinical depression.[1]

Do you see? A girl who starves herself “just to lose a few more pounds” is still enslaved. A family that feels compelled to make a Bar Mitzvah party that much bigger or more lavish because that’s the style is enslaved. A teenager who accommodates sleep deprivation just to get fifty more points on the cursed SATs is still enslaved. Uniquely, Americanly enslaved.

            What’s the way out of this trap?  Only this: the person who knows how to say Dayenu—what I have is, indeed, truly enough for me—is the person who is really free. I can stop the endless pursuit of acquiring, competing, accumulating more. In fact, I can do a better job at giving some of it away.

            Of course, there are plenty around us who are truly, desperately in need. This lesson can’t be applied outwards toward our neighbors, telling them they should be satisfied with whatever they have (as in the words of the miser in a classic Chasidic story, “If I can subsist on bread, they can surely subsist on stones!”) It only works when directed within.

            That’s why we sing Dayenu in our seder. Only the person who can look at his life and say, “What I have is truly what I need,” knows the taste of liberation; everything else is delusion.

 


[1] Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much, Families and Work Institute, 2005, http://familiesandwork.org/press/overworkinamericarelease.html#overwork

Miles Davis and the Art of Living

Miles Davis (1926-1991) was one of the most important American musicians of all time—completely reinventing musical categories three or four times over during his turbulent career. Here’s the opening track of his 1971 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, called “Right Off”:

Miles was a great trumpeter, but he was even more important as a bandleader, putting together some of the greatest groups in history. And he was known for giving cryptic instructions to his players, like a Zen master. He’d say, “Don’t just play what’s there, play what’s not there.” And: “Sometimes you have to play for a long time in order to play like yourself.” And: “There are no mistakes.”

There’s a moment in “Right Off” that illustrates Miles’s attitude of “no mistakes.” And in this instrumental drama, there’s a spiritual lesson.  You can hear the moment—Miles’s entrance after a dramatic introduction of drums, bass, and electric guitar—between 2:00 and 2:20 in the audio clip.

Here’s how jazz critic Paul Tingen describes what we’re hearing:

At 1:38 the guitarist takes down the volume, and at 2:11 he modulates to B-flat to heighten the dramatic effect of Miles’s entry. However, the bass player misses the modulation, and carries on playing in E.

In other words, the two principle players are now accidentally playing in different keys. It’s a train wreck. Surely they should stop and start the take over?

But that’s where Miles’s genius – his flexibility and his careful listening to his fellow musicians – comes in. Tingen continues:

In the middle of this clash of tonalities, Miles decides to make his entrance.

He starts by playing a D-flat, the minor third in the key of B-flat and the major sixth in the key of E. It is an ingenious choice – because the note is effective in either key. Miles than plays twelve staccato B-flat notes, phrasing them on the beat to drive the band on, and also as if to nudge [Michael] Henderson [the bass player] towards B-flat tonality. Henderson gets the message, comes into line by modulating to B-flat, and Miles carries on, giving one of the most commanding solo performances of his career.

 Tingen explains what’s so stunning about this:

Most musicians would have regarded the point when the 2 musicians were clashing in such incompatible keys as E and B-flat as an embarrassing mistake and would have stopped the band… Very few would have considered, or have had the courage, to come in at such a moment. And even fewer would have been able to make it into a resounding success.

Miles could have stopped the music, corrected the musicians, and started over. Instead, he picks the perfect note that takes the so-called mistake and makes it art.

Abraham Joshua Heschel told us that our task is to construct our lives as works of art, and what Miles does is illustrative of this.  On these days before Yom Kippur, we are tasked with having the courage to look honestly inward, reflecting on our choices and our deeds and their consequences. 

One important lesson of the Season of Teshuvah is that we don’t get to go back and erase our actions. They are done, with a ripple effect that has gone out into the world.  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are not spiritual erasers, blotting our sins from the Book of Life.

But the Days of Awe are something else:  They are opportunities to transform those deeds and shape them. Every living soul is a work-in-progress. It’s been said: No one can make a brand-new start, but anyone can make a brand-new ending.

That’s what’s so empowering about Yom Kippur. It’s only for people who make mistakes. Perfect people are not invited:

 Rabbi Abbahu says: In the place where a baal teshuvah [one who has turned back to a good and decent path] stands, even a completely righteous person cannot stand. [Talmud, Berachot 34b]

Think about it this way: Teshuvah is one of 613 Mitzvot. That means if a person is perfect and has not sinned – then she can only do 612 of them! The rest of us get the upper hand!

To take what we’ve damaged and mangled and turn it into art: that’s the trick. Miles knew it; so did the Talmud. Maybe this year Yom Kippur can spur more of us in that direction. 

 

Quotes are from Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (New York: Billboard Books, 1991), p.106.

 

Why Teshuvah Preceded the Creation of the World

A brief thought about Teshuvah before the final Shabbat of 5778.

A medieval midrash teaches that there were a variety of things that were created even before the creation of the world, and among them: Teshuvah [turning-to-God-in-repentance]. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 3)

It seems anomalous; after all, I might have thought that it was a person’s responsibility to turn or not to turn. Free will and all that. What in heaven does it mean to say that “Teshuvah” was created before the beginning of the world?

I suspect that the answer lies in relationships, and that’s the reason I always share this particular midrash with couples who are getting married. To say that “Teshuvah” is a preexisting condition means that forgiveness is built-in to the fabric of a relationship.

It means: before you even hurt me, I’m already prepared to forgive you. For any relationship to stand the test of time, there are some prerequisites: We know that I’m going to hurt you with occasional careless words; periodic absorption in my own problems when you need my attention; a subconsciously derived aggression or inappropriate silence when a word is needed. These things will happen, and you’re going to do the same to me. Hopefully not often; hopefully our relationship will always grow and deepen.

And to say that Teshuvah preexists our relationship means that because we love each other, forgiveness and wanting to repair damages even before they happen are built-in to the relationship.

This is the nature of a loving partnership. This is what it means to be a real friend, a lover, a parent, a brother or sister, or a son or daughter: I already forgive you.

The midrash goes a giant step further. At this season, it is as if God says these things to each of us, too: I know you're not perfect; the potential to repair and forgive is part of the fabric of our relationship.

Of course, in an era of scandalous abuses and #MeToo, we have to qualify: we’re not talking about abuse or exploitation or vicious lies here; the Teshuvah called for in those situations is much more complicated. But this is about the petty slights and daily slips that cause hurt to the most important people in our lives, the mistakes that each of us makes because we are human and thus, by definition, imperfect.

Every relationship is an interaction between two different worlds (as we learn from Sanhedrin 4:5). But even before each world was created, Teshuvah was there. Otherwise, real relationship would be impossible, and each of us would be an isolated vessel, utterly alone to navigate the void. Teshuvah makes us human.

The Exile of Tisha B'Av: What Are We Mourning?

Since the Fast of Tisha B'Av cannot fall on Shabbat, it begins this year
on Saturday evening, July 21. 

Exile is one of the preeminent themes of the Torah. From the outset of Genesis, Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden. Abraham is called by God to “the land I will show you” but famine forces him to seek refuge in Egypt. Joseph is sold off to Egypt, where, at the end of his life, he makes his family promise, “When God has taken notice of you, carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). The remainder of the Torah – all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – charts Israel’s pursuit of a path back home.

Jewish history works in similar cycles of dispersion and return. David and Solomon established a kingdom and a Temple in Jerusalem, but these were demolished in 586 B.C.E. and the survivors of Judah were deported eastward. They longed for Zion by the rivers of Babylon. A generation later, a remnant returned and rebuilt the kingdom and its Temple in Jerusalem. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and again the Jews became a people in exile. For centuries, Jews built Diaspora communities even as stragglers returned to the Land, to pray or to die there. The advent of Zionism in the 19th century marked our most dramatic effort since the days of the Bible to return home. 

We have known different kinds of exile. There is political exile – distance from our physical home – and there is spiritual exile – distance from our spiritual Source. Zionism sought to put an end to the political state of exile, but spiritual exile continues to be our existential reality everywhere, including in the Land of Israel.

The fast of the 9th of Av – Tisha B'Av – is devoted to reflection on what it means to live in exile. The shorthand is that it is the date when both the First and Second Temples were destroyed.

But Tisha B’Av isn’t only about history, just as Pesach and Chanukah are not “only” about history. The genius of the rabbis who shaped Judaism is in the way they spiritualized history and filled it with religious meaning for subsequent generations.

Thus, the events of Tisha B’Av aren’t simply understood as historical calamities. After all, catastrophes have befallen the Jewish people on every day of the calendar year. But they are signposts for a religious condition:

Exile from the homeland
Exile from God
Exile from one another

This is the great secret of Tisha B’Av: The last two are really one. Because in Judaism’s religious humanism (or humanistic religion?), distance from other people necessarily results in distance from God:

Why was the First Temple destroyed?
Because of three things:
Idolatry, Sexual immorality, and Bloodshed….

But the Second Temple –
when people were occupied with Torah, Mitzvot, and gemilut chasadim
Why was it destroyed?
Because of senseless hatred (sinat chinam).
(Talmud, Yoma 9b)

Consider the theological outlook the Talmud is teaching. The First Temple stood at a time of rampant perversion and hypocrisy, so naturally (in the rabbinic mindset) it was lost. But the Second Temple stood during centuries that were recalled for Torah and adherence to mitzvot (commandments). Why would God allow it to be destroyed?

The answer, says the Talmud, is because of rampant hatred that existed among the Jews – even as they were living according to the letter of the Law. Service to God in the Temple was not meant to be performed with hate in their hearts.

The Temple was designed to be a place of intimacy – between God and the People, and between and among the people who gathered there. As people became estranged from one another – when they could no longer see the image of God in the face of the person opposite them – then their worship and the Temple itself became hollow. An institution based on lies and hypocrisies cannot stand. Made as trivial as a piece of tissue paper, it is as if God crumpled it up and tossed it aside – because, spiritually speaking, it was already destroyed. The assault of the Romans was just a final punctuation mark.

The astonishing lesson of the Torah is that only one creation is made “in the image of God” – human beings. To treat other people with contempt or disgust or hate is to treat God’s only image that way. As a result, estrangement from one another and estrangement from God are intertwined.

The Tisha B’Av fast marks a sad reality: this is the world in which we live, each in our own isolated cones with our own preoccupations and nursing our own hurts. This scenario illustrates what it means to live in exile; exile is the metaphysical sense of being alone, and it is our own doing.

If we find it hard to mourn the loss of “The Temple” on Tisha B’Av, no matter; mourn for something else.

Mourn for our distance from God.

Mourn for our distance from each other. 

This piece originally appeared on reformjudaism.org on July 19, 2018.

...an entire world...

Great visual midrash from @thelucidreams:

Lucid Dreams - Sanhedrin.jpg

On Sanhedrin 4:5:

לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא

...to teach you that whoever destroys a single life is considered by the Torah to have destroyed an entire world; and whoever saves a single life is considered by the Torah to have saved an entire world... 
 

Reflections on a Winter Nor'easter

As I write, my family is stuck in our home, as the most recent nor’easter has brought down trees and power lines on our street. We spent last night by candlelight, cooking dinner in our fireplace.  Shabbat is arriving imminently, so a cousin will come and pick us up around the corner and bring us to her house, and we’ll get a reprieve from the cold and dark.

Much more important is the elderly couple on our block, who are being evacuated by the fire department and will be taken to stay in a local hotel until the street is cleared and the power returns, which seems to still be a few days away.

And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s a hassle, for sure.  But if nothing else, it should be a reminder—a reminder of just how darn easy and comfortable we have it here in these affluent suburbs. Not everyone, of course. We have neighbors in our town who struggle to make ends meet, people who have grave financial worries about their future. My wife and I know people well who have lived without a roof over their heads, who are not able to provide three meals a day for themselves and their families.

But most of us live fairly comfortable lives here—not just the wealthiest nation in the world, but the wealthiest nation that the world has ever known. 

And a little inconvenience from Mother Nature should be a reminder of just how good we have it, and how there are people near and far who know real desperation. If times like this don’t help us grow into people with deeper stores of empathy and compassion, then we are truly hopeless.

If you happen to live in an affluent place, and if you know that your electrical power, automobile, food supply, and security in your housing will regain their equilibrium pretty quickly, you should be profoundly grateful. Because that means you don’t have to count yourself among:

·      The ¼ of all human beings in the world who live without electricity, approximately           1.6 billion people[1]

·      805 million people in the world who do not have enough food to eat.[2]

·      769 million people who live (or not) on less than $1.90 per day.[3]

It means that your children, whom you would do anything to protect, need not be counted among the 1 billion children of other people who are living in poverty. According to UNICEF, 22,000 die due to their poverty every day.[4]

And if we needed reminders, America is not immune to extreme poverty either. There are 40.6 million Americans living poverty; 12.7% of the population.[5] According to the point-in-time count of America’s homeless community in 2017, there are 553,742 people without housing on a given night.[6] (Noting that there are different kinds of homelessness—chronic, transitional, episodic; plus the many thousands in America who live on the brink of homelessness, just a paycheck or two away.)

If I sound crabby, it’s not because I haven’t showered in two days. It’s simply a profound frustration of our human nature—my own absolutely included—that forgets that what we consider to be inconveniences are so ludicrous in the grand scheme of need that really exists in the world.

It’s a frustration born of living in general proximity to some of the wealthiest Zip Codes in America—and knowing that materialism, greed, and complacency co-exist (and often prevail) over empathy, generosity, and living gratefully.

A destructive winter storm like this one really stinks. Some neighbors will experience lots of property damage (and insurance claims), work hours will be lost, appointments will be missed, food in the freezer will probably go bad.

But in a few short weeks, equilibrium for most of us will return. Spring will arrive. At that time, Jewish people will sit down at their seder tables. We’ll raise a piece of matzah and say, “This is the bread of affliction… Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

In order for those words not to reek of irony and hypocrisy, we have to recognize that in our inconvenience is the tiniest taste of what real suffering is like; a flavor that a staggering number of human beings around the world know intimately.

If we can emerge from our inconveniences with a deeper sense of empathy, generosity, and an awareness of how unbelievably, undeservedly blessed we really are—then maybe this Passover will bring a bit of real liberation after all.

 

[1] United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007.”

[2] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014, “The State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2014.”

[3] “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide from Its Deep Poverty Problem,” Angus Deaton, New York Times, January 24, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/opinion/poverty-united-states.html

[4] “UNICEF: Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed,” United Nations Interagency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN IGME), 2014.

[5] https://www.census.gov/topics/income-poverty/poverty.html

[6] National Coalition for the Homeless, http://nationalhomeless.org/about-homelessness/

The Secret of the Seventh Light

Tonight is the seventh light of Chanukah, which is also Rosh Chodesh: the new moon in tonight’s sky heralds the start of the new month of Tevet.

(To be technical about it, this month has a two-day Rosh Chodesh, which happens occasionally; the new moon is on the second night, Monday night. Here’s more.) 

I think this night holds one of the secrets of the Chanukah.

Chanukah, ritually speaking, is very simple. For eight nights, starting on the 25th of Kislev, we light menorahs and place them so they can be seen by passers-by. We begin with one light and we increase incrementally until the final night, when the menorah is fully lit with eight flames.

This is the key symbol of Chanukah. Chanukah always falls during these eight days around the new moon that is most closely situated to the winter solstice—that is, days with the least amount of daylight (in the northern hemisphere) and most darkness: the sun is at its most distant point from earth’s axis and the moon is at its most obscured.

During that darkest time of the year—that’s precisely when we have our festival of lighting lights. And light, of course, is a pregnant symbol. It can mean justice, love, faith, peace, hope, wisdom (“enlightenment”), hidden mystical Truth. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1812) taught that while other festivals are celebrated with symbols that are inherently physical (matzah, sukkah, shofar, etc.), only Chanukah is celebrated with a symbol that is inherently spiritual: light.  

And Beit Hillel in the Talmud famously taught that in matters of holiness, our task is to always increase light, and never to decrease it (Shabbat 21b). 

Yet here’s the thing: during the first six nights of Chanukah, we stubbornly light the menorah—even while the world gets darker and darker. We add flames while the light of the moon keeps diminishing.

But tonight there’s a change. Tonight the moon starts to emerge and wax larger. It’s as if to say that our efforts have started to pay off:  The world is starting to follow our persistent lead, inclining towards light rather than darkness. 

Look, the world these days can seem pretty dark—no matter what darkness connotes for you. Things seem hopeless? Nations seem to be careening towards corruption and war instead of integrity and peace? People who said they care about you seem heartless? Feels like greed and materialism are winning out? I know the feeling—I’ve been there.

But the aspiration of Chanukah is that hope wins out in the long term. Keep using a spark to light more lights—and the world slowly, inevitably, will start to incline towards the light.

Bob Dylan's "Trouble No More: 1979-1981": Understanding an American Apikoros

I.  Carrying a Light Bulb

Dylan preaching.jpeg

The official release of Bob Dylan’s “Gospel Shows” is bringing a lot of people back to a time when, for them, the ‘60s counterculture really died. Here was Dylan—Hebrew name, Shabtai Zissel ben Avraham—singing songs of born again Christian faith, the glories of being saved by Christ, and condemning the unbelievers of Sodom. From 1979-1981 he released a triptych of albums of these songs—Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love—and, starting in November 1979, would only perform songs in concert that reflected his newfound covenant with God.  In so doing, a lot of old fans ran for the hills.

Dylan—that is, Robert Alan Zimmerman—had a Jewish upbringing in Hibbing, Minnesota. His parents were American-born children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He trained for his bar mitzvah with Rabbi Reuben Maier in the rabbi’s apartment above a local café (his father later related that Bob showed great proficiency with Hebrew). He attended Camp Herzl, a Jewish and Zionist summer camp in Wisconsin, during his teen years.

The release of these Gospel Shows (and it’s momentous; I’ve been waiting for the so-called “Bootleg Series” to get around to this era) raises again questions that dogged music fans back then: What happened to America’s greatest songwriter in the late ‘70s? How could Jewish fans listen? And as for these songs of heavenly salvation—what the hell?

I’ll offer one fan’s interpretation. I’ve never met Bob Dylan, so I may be way off base. But I’ve read many biographies and interviews of the man, and more importantly, I’ve tried to pay close attention to every note of his recorded oeuvre (and many bootlegs, which are essential for understanding Dylan’s art).

Dylan himself can be hard to trust when it comes talking about himself or his music. While there are many pearls in his autobiography Chronicles, some reviewers noted that he totally avoided writing about the moments that most people would actually be interested in. In the ‘60s, his press conferences were a hoot—because most journalists were totally clueless about his efforts to bring poetry and art to popular music, he messed with them:

Interviewer:  What is your real message?
Bob Dylan:  My real message? Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb.

He tends to speak in parables, especially when he’s feeling like a trapped animal. I imagine he felt that way through much of the ‘60s, but it persisted in the subsequent decades. For instance, in 1991 he was presented with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. I suspect that Dylan recognized the Grammys for what they were:  hollow trophies given out by self-congratulatory ghouls from the music business, and “lifetime achievement” is even worse—what they give you when they acknowledge that your relevance is long past, and that if you’d just hurry up and die they can start reshaping your legacy to fit their own preconceptions. So Dylan—50 years old—slithered to the podium and virtually spoke in tongues, as far as the corporate throng was concerned.

Well, um… uh, yeah. Well my daddy, he didn’t leave me too much. My daddy once said to me… [looooooong uncomfortable pause. Nervous laughter from everyone. Security puts their hands on their holsters.] Well he said so many things, y’know?  [laughter

He said, son, it is possible for you to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if that happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways. Thank you.

Add to his list of accomplishments: the best awards speech ever.

But in that speech (and its allusion to Psalm 27:10), which is a total fiction (Abe Zimmerman said no such thing) and a dodge (please get me off this godforsaken stage), there is also a great reveal: a desperate statement from a man “so defiled” who has been to hell and back, including the depths of alcoholism. And who believes in salvation—but only from an external force, a rock of ages.

II.  Apikoros

To understand Dylan’s gospel years, one has to understand that he has never been halfhearted with his art. When he commits to a guise, he dives in completely. I believe that Dylan was a true believer during these years. It proved short-lived and eventually he resumed performing non-Christian-themed songs (“Thank God,” said many old fans), but from 1979-1981 he was sincere in his devotion.

I sense that Dylan has a streak in him that makes him say, “You think you can put me in a box? Why should I be what you want me to be?” I find this orneriness to be very appealing—perhaps because I have some of  it myself. He devotes a lot of space in Chronicles to spitting with disgust when people tried to call him the “Voice of the Generation” of the ‘60’s. Who in hell, he asks, would want to be anyone’s “voice of the generation”? For a long time he was publicly putting down people who would pin a label on him—surely that’s what “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Positively Fourth Street” (“You’ve got a lot of nerve / to say you are my friend…”) are about?  And in case there was any doubt, there was “Idiot Wind,” the most vicious put-down song ever:

Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe, after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that, sweet lady

A recap of Dylan’s career shows this bait-and-switch. He’d adopt a certain style, and throw himself into it completely. He’d write such compelling music in that mode that fans would hop on board. Then, abruptly, he would discard that mode for another one… enraging those who thought they had embraced the “real Dylan.”

In Judaism, this is called being an apikoros—as close a word to “heretic” that we have. But we have a funny relationship with our apikorsim. Some of them are some of the most important Jews in history.

So in 1961 he shows up in New York completely enamored with Woody Guthrie’s Americana: work shirt, acoustic guitar, and hokey humor (to make sophisticated points about the human condition) intact. From there was an evolution to the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, hanging with Joan Baez and Dave van Ronk, and singing at the 1963 March on Washington for Martin Luther King.

The insular folk scene was so self-righteous and cocksure that to leave it was an act of blasphemy. So when Dylan showed up at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a raucous electric band, whomping out songs of surreal poetry, the self-appointed gatekeepers revolted. Pete Seeger tried to cut the electric cords with an ax. Peter Yarrow, the distressed master of ceremonies, tried to nudge “Bobby” back out for an encore… “This time with an acoustic guitar.”

That’s what Dylan left behind when he started his barnburning world tour of 1966 with his electric band The Hawks. But the folkies wouldn’t let it go. Some fans embraced this loud electric rock, but the old timers booed, and slow-clapped between songs. The zenith was in Manchester, England, when, just before the band tore into “Like a Rolling Stone,” a distressed old folkie had enough. “Judas!” he howled at the Jew standing on stage.

But the heckler was already a fossil. Dylan had recorded three electric albums that made him a hero to new rock counterculture. And we know what Dylan thinks about heroes, right?

So he retreated. After touring the world as one of the biggest and loudest rock acts… he shut up, and disappeared for 1967 and its hallucinatory Summer of Love. When he emerged, it was in a new guise: Country Bob, singing on the Johnny Cash show, and recording with Nashville session pros. Gone were the amphetamine screeds of 1965. And the counterculture was pissed. In 1971 Dylan released Self Portrait, two records of country songs and covers, and Greil Marcus opened his famous review of the album in Rolling Stone with the words, “What is this shit?”

Country music at the turn of the ‘70s was not the sterile commodity that it would become. It represented the antithesis of the ‘60s counterculture; the enemy of the hippies and all they stood for. Again, Dylan had adopted the pose of the heretic. He was saying, again, to his fans:  You really want to follow me? Well, let’s see if you’ll follow me here…

For all its integrity, this does show a rather perverse relationship with his audience, to say the least.

In the mid-70s, his star was ascendant again.  He reunited with The Band, and through 1974 performed the highest-grossing rock tour of all time. He made hugely well-received albums that reflected his mastery of the ‘70s singer-songwriter convention. By 1978 was performing a 115-date world tour with a big band, full of horns and back-up singers.  

But his was a tormented soul, and it was time for another sharp turn.


III.  Dylan & Religion

One other thing before we approach the Gospel Years. Religion—the Bible, specifically—has always been part of Dylan’s neshama.  Christopher Ricks has written an excruciating treatise on this, but I can add one or two points minus all his exegesis.

Dylan knows the Bible backwards and forwards; it pops up when you least expect it. There are moments like the “slain by a cane/Cain” line in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” for instance. But—hands up—how many people know the title of “Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35” (“everybody must get stoned!”) comes from Proverbs 27:15?

An endless dripping on a rainy day
And a contentious wife are alike

But I like to think that even in his early days, Dylan was attracted to the Old-Time Religion of America, the kind that includes periodic Great Awakenings and embraces Jonathan “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” Edwards, Jefferson’s Bible, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dorothy Day, and the apocalpyticism of bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. These were all forms of a distinctly American faith.

Even a Jew like Dylan—even a Jew like me—can love Woody Guthrie’s version of Jesus Christ. For Woody, this was the true Jesus:

Jesus Christ was a man that traveled through the land
A hard working man and brave
He said to the rich, "Give your money to the poor,"
So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

And:

This song was made in New York City
Of rich men and preachers and slaves
If Jesus was to preach like he preached in Galilee
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave. 

Amen, selah, and tell me that those lines aren’t even more prophetic in Trump’s America than they were back in Woody’s dust bowl days?

It’s not hard to imagine a young Dylan absorbing the lessons, and assimilating them into the work.

IV.  Saved

With that background, I think there are three parts to understanding Dylan’s embrace of a born-again Christianity in 1979.

First:  As we’ve seen, it follows his pattern. When his fan base becomes enormous, he suddenly takes a sharp turn, shaking off fans who feel “betrayed” by his “heretical” embrace of something new, often the polar opposite of where he’s been.

Second:  Dylan is a polyglot of American music. He’s been an authentic purveyor of Woody Guthriesque Americana, protest folk, delta blues, electric rock, straight-up country, bluegrass, and, since 2011, jazz standards and the Great American Songbook. Since he’s embraced virtually every indigenous form of American music, it would be strange if he didn’t explore gospel music.

And when he explores something, he gets completely immersed in it. (In 2003 he wrote the song “’Cross the Green Mountain” for the Civil War movie Gods and Generals. They say he spent days in the New York Public Library researching the Civil War to get the lyrics just right.)

Third:  None of this is to say that his religious conversion, even though it was short-lived, wasn’t authentic. I believe that he believed.

With an increasingly jaundiced eye he surveyed the music business of the ‘70s. Drugs and decadence were everywhere. He’d been living this life for a while. And he was living in Malibu, where friends and acquaintances were receding into their own chemical hells (see under: The Band).

Furthermore, his marriage to Sara Lowndes had collapsed. They had been together since the ‘60s, and with Sara he had five kids and fled the turbulent “Judas!” years to a farmhouse in Woodstock. He wrote love songs to their family on New Morning, grieved their break-up on Blood on the Tracks, celebrated their reconciliation on Desire and its song “Sara,” and ultimately the whole thing went south. 

So picture the man’s state of mind: exhausted, divorced, cynical, burnt-out.

The story goes that several of his backing musicians were already born again, and his interest was piqued by their religious discipline during the ’78 tour. And then there’s this incident from the end of the tour, San Diego, November 17, 1979:

Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd… knew I wasn’t feeling too well. I think they could see that. And they threw a silver cross on the stage. Now usually I don’t pick things up in front of the stage. Once in a while I do. Sometimes I don’t. But I looked down at that cross. I said, “I gotta pick that up.” So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket… And I brought it backstage and I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona… I was feeling even worse than I’d felt when I was in San Diego. I said, “Well, I need something tonight.” I didn’t know what it was. I was used to all kinds of things. I said, “I need something tonight that I didn’t have before.”  And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross.[1] 

At 38 years old, Shabtai Zissel met Jesus.  

V.  The Music

So what about the music? 

It’s electrifying. Listening to the Gospel Shows reminds you that, at many points through his six decades of performing, Dylan is one of the greatest performers—and yes, one of our greatest singers. The opening cut was “Slow Train,” and it is amazing to hear the singer so engaged and so committed to every syllable that comes out of his mouth.

He’s also got a whip-tight band to ride this particular train. So it’s clear that finding religion was the jolt this particular artist needed at this moment in his life—the intensity of “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Solid Rock” and “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” rival the power of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone” from ’66, only this time no one had the chutzpah to yell “Judas!”

The quieter moments when he’s not preaching, but rather sharing his relationship with God—“Precious Angel,” “Pressing On,” “I Believe in You”—are as intimate a portrait of faith that any artist has ever shared. Even if, like me, you don’t share this specific vocabulary—Jesus is not my savior—there’s inspiration to be found in his inspiration.

My favorite song from this period is a late arrival, 1981’s “Every Grain of Sand.” Here’s a song of faith that Jew can approach without reservation: there’s no intermediary, just a very transcendent God who has ordained everything in Creation. It starts from the deepest depths of loneliness and despair:

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

 And then revelation that everything is the way it is meant to be:

Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

Those words still give me chills, on the 1000th time I’ve heard them:  “…every hair is numbered…” They remind me of a story about Rav Kook that’s told in A Tzaddik in Our Time, the classic biography of Rabbi Aryeh Levin:

We chatted together on themes of Torah study… He went out, as his hallowed custom was, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts; and I went along. On the way I plucked some branch or flower. [Rav Kook] was taken aback; and then he told me gently, “Believe me: In all my days I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of the Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force (or angel) above telling it, ‘Grow!’ Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its song.”

Dylan Kotel.jpg

VI. Still on the Road

When Dylan released an album in 1983 entitled Infidels, fans and ex-fans prepared for more of the same. As it turned out, there was still plenty of apocalypse to go around: “Jokerman” has dense imagery invoking the Book of Revelations, and the refrain of “Man of Peace,” is a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians (“Sometimes Satan / comes as a man of peace.”) And there was a cover photo (taken by Sara Lowndes of all people!) of Dylan crouched on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. But there were respites from the fire and brimstone as well. 

In concert, he started backing off from the preaching. He started mixing in his older numbers. His faith seemed to have ebbed.

Then something funny happened: Dylan started sounding Jewish again. He was reported to be hanging out with Lubavitcher chasidim, and performed on a televised Chabad telethon (grinning, with a kippah on his head). In September 1983, he was photographed celebrating his son Jesse’s bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. In September 1987, he brought along Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Roger McGuinn for concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Was Shabtai Zissel back?

In a 1983 interview he said:

Roots, man—we’re talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check on Elijah the prophet. He could make rain. Isaiah the prophet, even Jeremiah, see if their brethren didn’t want to bust their brains for telling it right like it is, yeah—these are my roots, I suppose.

Then he immediately qualified that search for his roots:

Am I looking for them?... I ain’t looking for them in synagogues, with six-pointed Egyptian stars shining down from every window, I can tell you that much.

So he’s never going to be what you want him to be. You might want him to be the old folkie that he was in his 20s; someone else might want him to sing “Forever Young” every night; I might wish he were more unequivocal about his Judaism. But the artist forges his own path, never tiring of wishing restless farewells to those who want to define him.

And you gotta admit, there’s a lot of integrity in that stance. He may be an apikoros, but he’s a damn righteous one.

 

[1] Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades—Take Two, 2000, p.491

Rain (I Don't Mind) - For Shemini Atzeret

 

שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים תַּקְרִ֥יבוּ אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַה' בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֡י מִקְרָא־קֹדֶשׁ֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם
וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֨ם אִשֶּׁ֤ה לַֽה' עֲצֶ֣רֶת הִ֔וא כָּל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ׃

Seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to Adonai. On the eighth (ha-shemini) day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to Adonai; it is a solemn gathering (atzeret) you shall not work at your occupations. (Leviticus 23:36)


The holiday called Shemini Atzeret (literally, “the gathering on the eighth day”) is for many people the phantom, forgotten festival in Jewish life. Even Jews who determinedly spend their week in the Sukkah might be hard-pressed to say what, exactly, that eighth day is all about.

The 23rd day of the seventh month is the culmination of a three-and-half week period full of holidays: Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot have all preceded it. It arrives eight days after Sukkot begins, the final punctuation mark on this festival-rich season.

This prompts the Rabbis to ruminate about how Sukkot in the autumn complements Pesach in the spring: just as Pesach is the 7-day pilgrimage festival celebrating the spring planting, Sukkot is the 7-day pilgrimage which rejoices in the fall harvest. Passover is “capped” after 50 days by a holiday that is called Atzeret (we call that early-summer holiday Shavuot). So, for the sake of symmetry, Sukkot should also be “capped” by an Atzeret.  (But why isn’t it 50 days later? The midrash answers: because winter is coming, and a pilgrimage in the middle of winter’s rain and snow would be too arduous for the Jews.) (Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 15)

But the special identity of this day is far from clear, and the Torah doesn’t make it much clearer when it discusses ancient Israel’s festivals. In Leviticus, the Atzeret sounds like the capstone to the seven days of Sukkot, and is a holiday in its own right (“you shall not work at your occupations”). In Numbers, a large numbers of sacrifices are made on each day of Sukkot; on the eighth day, a more modest offering is prescribed, indicating that the eighth day was connected to Sukkot, and yet separate and distinct from it (Numbers 29: 35-38). And in Deuteronomy, there is no mention of an eighth-day assembly after the seven days of Sukkot (Deut. 16:13-15)!

Later in the Bible, we read of the enormous Sukkot celebrations that took place in Jerusalem. When King Solomon dedicated the Temple on the Sukkot holiday, Shemini Atzeret is the “one more day,” for the king (and the King of Kings) to spend together with the people of Israel; a little more time to linger together before everyone trudges home to face the approaching winter (I Kings 8:66).

Consider at what a sweet image that is. Long before rabbis griped and groaned about Jews who couldn’t be bothered to show up to synagogue more than twice a year, the Bible was imagining God, surveying the Sukkot masses in Jerusalem, saying, “This time we’ve had together during the holidays has been so special—for Me! Stay just a little longer, just one day, so we can savor it just a little more.” That was Shemini Atzeret.

By the generations of the Talmud, Shemini Atzeret (like many of the Torah’s holidays) had acquired some new features. It developed one overarching theme: water.

Shemini Atzeret became the time when the Rabbis would pray that life-giving rains would soak the land of Israel. They (as do we) begin to insert the words “you cause the wind to blow and the rains to fall” in the second blessing of the Amidah on Shemini Atzeret. And one of the key features of the liturgy on this day is an elaborate piyyut called Geshem (“Rain”).

Water is a historical worry for the dwellers of the Land of Israel. Diaspora-dwellers might find this hard to understand. In North America, rain can fall pretty much any time in the calendar year. Not so for Israel; almost all the annual rainfall comes down during a five-month rainy season from November to March. An ancient farmer, dependent on winter rains for a successful sowing season in the spring, would be very much aware if the rain was even just a few weeks late. Thus we can understand their fear and trepidation when rain had yet to arrive. An entire tractate of the Mishnah, Ta’anit, is devoted to the prayers and fasts that are prescribed for the community when the rain has failed to come.

The Torah testified that the Land of Israel was dependent on the rain. By contrast, the land of Egypt did not rely on rain; rather, the irrigation of Egyptian fields came from the overflowing waters of the Nile River. The 3rd-century apocalyptic prophet Zechariah knew this; as he called upon God to punish the oppressive nations of the world with drought, he acknowledged that drought will not be much of a punishment against Egypt. Don’t worry, the prophet says; Egypt will get its own special, appropriate form of discipline! (Zechariah 14:18).

But the Land of Israel is different. Israel depends on God’s mercies, expressed through rainfall:

כִּ֣י הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה בָא־שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ לֹ֣א כְאֶ֤רֶץ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הִ֔וא אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְצָאתֶ֖ם מִשָּׁ֑ם
אֲשֶׁ֤ר תִּזְרַע֙ אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֔ וְהִשְׁקִ֥יתָ בְרַגְלְךָ֖ כְּגַ֥ן הַיָּרָֽק׃
הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ אֶ֥רֶץ הָרִ֖ים וּבְקָעֹ֑ת לִמְטַ֥ר הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם תִּשְׁתֶּה־מָּֽיִם׃

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heavens. (Deut. 11:10-11)

Worrying about water is still the case today. A visitor to the Dead Sea cannot help but notice that this marvel is rapidly dissipating; it recedes a few dozen meters each year. The water level of the Kinneret precipitously rises and falls. And the battle over control of aquifers and water-sources is part of the realpolitik between Israel and her neighbors.

Today, Israel is the world’s greatest water innovator. It has successfully deployed technology, conservation, and good management to meet the water needs of its citizens and its crops—with enough left over that it even exports water to its neighbors! (In the Boston suburbs, by contrast, it seems like every summer there is a drought and the towns rush into panic-mode, limiting the amount of water that people can use.)  The themes of water scarcity and how Israel has addressed it are discussed in the recent book Let There Be Water by Seth M. Siegel.

The Sages of the Talmud, as was their wont, took these themes and spiritualized them. In Babylonia, drought was less of a worry than it was in the Land of Israel. So for the Rabbis, rain became a symbol of God’s benevolence and spiritual openness. (The Beatles knew this too.)  אין מים אלא תורה says the Talmud (Bava Kamma 17a); “Wherever the Torah mentions ‘water,’ read ‘Torah’ instead.”  They make a comparison: Just as rain delivers physical sustenance, Torah brings spiritual sustenance.

Shemini Atzeret, then, has a symbolic and deeply powerful meaning to those who are open to it. On Sukkot, we expressed our gratitude for the harvest of blessings with which we are surrounded. As the holiday concludes, we pray for life-giving waters that will sustain us and create a fertile environment for blessings yet to come. If this can happen, then we know that we can find the resources and strength to face the long cold winter ahead.