Shemini Atzeret 5766
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
We Jews are conditioned to walking around in circles. Some would call it chasing our tail. We call it ritual. It is actually a matter of circuitry. Most things in Judaism are wired in this way. It started with Creation, when the days of the week were set in perpetual recurring cycle. We should thank God that he stopped creating after seven days, or we’d have a working week of who knows how many days!
First we have the on-going cycle of prayer: the Shachrit, Minchah and Maariv, wired into the mind, emotions and discipline of the religious Jew. Then we have the cycle of Shabbatot, with their Torah readings which end and recommence on this very festival. Then there is the cycle of the moon’s phases, with the inauguration of each new phase with a Rosh Chodesh, which in biblical times was a sacred public holiday.
Then we have our cycle of annual festivals, garlanded with rituals and traditions, and opportunities for family reunions, for a pause in our frenetic lives wherein even family members just have time to wave as they pass each other, not like proverbial ships in the night, but more like jet aircraft.
Then, in biblical times, there were the seven year, agricultural, Shemittah cycle, and the seven times seven, followed by the 50th, yovel, Jubilee, year.
In synagogue we make our circuits of the bimah each week with the Torah; on Sukkot additionally with the lulav and etrog. On Hoshana Rabba and Simchat Torah we make seven circuits, just as a bride will walk around her groom seven times. Today, in most yeshivot, there is a learning cycle, where a fixed number of Talmudic masechtot, or tractates, are studied over a period of years, and in the general world of Torah learning, as it is called, we have the daf yomi, the study of a page of Talmud each day, which enables one to complete the entire Talmud every seven years.
In addition to all this, the religious couple’s personal life is also regulated by the body’s menstrual cycle, and at the very end of life, we keep alive the memory and mark our love and reverence for our departed by an annual cycle of yahrzeit commemorations.
Kohelet certainly does not allude to this on-going, cyclic religious experience when he bemoans the fact that we seem to be driven by an inexorable centrifugal force that makes each generation chase the tail of the previous generation, following the identical circuit, repeating the same follies and perpetrating the identical injustices as those who had gone before. Mah shehayah hu sheyihyeh, ‘What has been is what will be’ - Umah shena’asah hu sheyei’aseh, ‘and what has been done is what shall again be done.’ The preponderance of the number seven is an evocation of the seven days of Creation, suggestive of the fact that, ultimately, we are on a continuum that keeps us returning to the starting line, to repeat the ground already covered by the previous circuit.
Kohelet is described by some as a sceptic, but by others as a realist. The difference is subtle. The sceptic just stands back and offers a despairing critique. The realist wishes to ascertain and expose the underlying problem, as the first stage to finding a solution.
I believe Kohelet was both. He praises the circuitry of faith and religious ritual, which enriches, excites, educates and refreshes the body and the soul, but he deprecates the monotony of the circuitry of an unfocused life.
Kohelet would have appreciated the story of the financier who was vacationing at the pier of a small coastal village when a small boat with a native fisherman docked. Inside were several large fish. The financier asked the fisherman how long it took to catch them. “Only a little while,” he replied. The financier then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish? The fisherman replied, “I have enough here to support my family for today.”
“What do you do the rest of the time?”
“I sleep late, play with my children and grandchildren, take a siesta, and stroll into the village each evening to sip wine and play the guitar.”
The financier scoffed. “I am a Cambridge MBA and could help you,” he said patronisingly. You should spend more time fishing. With the proceeds buy a larger boat on which you could catch even more fish. Then you could buy several boats, and eventually have a fleet. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening up your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. Of course you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to the big city to run your expanding enterprise.”
“How long will all this take?” asked the fisherman, to which the financier replied, “about 15 years.”
“Then what?” asked the fisherman
“Ha, “laughed the financier. “Then you would announce the flotation of your company, and sell stock in it to the public. You’d make millions!”
“Then what?” asked the fisherman.
“Then,” said the financier smugly, “you could retire, move to a small coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids and grandkids, take a siesta, stroll into the village in the evening to sip wine and play your guitar.”
Friends, this is the challenge and enigma of life. Whatever we achieve, we still cannot avoid going round in circles. Most of life’s experiences are available, in some form or other, to a greater or lesser degree, to most other people. A man’s mind, or his intellectual or creative gifts may be unique, but his experiences are mostly mundane and equally shared. Some may drive in a faster lane than most; but they inhabit the same track. The royal princes, whether at the schools they attended or at Sandhurst or University, will have brushed shoulders and shared the identical experiences with commoners. And who says that the son of Philip Green, the billionaire financier, had a more enjoyable Barmitzvah than our own youngsters, just because it cost his father £20m and was attended by a galaxy of self-promoting showbiz personalities, who were certainly not there to enhance the simchah of that child?
How true is the maxim that life is what we make of it. There are always plenty of hangers-on who are there to make our lives what they want to make of it. But most of the time we have to beware of such people. They will hardly add any mitzvah to a Barmitzvah!
It is entirely up to us. We can make those many circuits of life a truly satisfying spiritual experience for ourselves, as well as a vehicle for deepening our family bonds and friendship relationships. Or we can make them flat, unproductive, humdrum and repetitive, fully confirming Kohelet’s objective assessment. At the end of the day, it will be seen that it is the religious Jew who has really driven in the fast lane. It is he or she that is driving towards a destination, not just around and around and around.