Sunday, October 2, 2011

Un-Calculated. Relating to God & Men, a Synagogue Fire & “Who by Fire?”

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah a Synagogue near my house burned. No, it is not the Synagogue I pray at, it is the one where I don’t usually pray. While thankfully no people were harmed, there was very significant damage to the building and holy books of the Masada Synagogue. Yet, there was a silver lining. Our Chabad Synagogue, which was originally a breakaway from Masada over 20 years ago, provided the Masada community with a place to pray in our spacious hall. We also prayed together on Friday night just after 6:30 pm, the clock stopped at 6:32. It was destined to be.

Rosh Hashanah is a time for thinking about the relationship between us and God. This includes reflection on how we interact with other people, individually and in groups or communities. Others themes relate to accepting God’s sovereignty while He judges us. All of this requires an element of surrender.  Perhaps trying to figure it all out is the opposite of surrender.  

I alluded to the fact that Masada is the Synagogue where I don’t (usually) pray. This is partly due to minor variations in the prayers themselves. It is more about the fact that differences about religious issues have come between the communities alongside competition for patronage.

Masada Rabbi Gad Krebs correctly identified the challenge being that of accommodating diversity while still being united.  I always wondered about how the “Balkanisation” of Judaism into distinct communities could ever be justified. There is a prohibition against becoming separate groups based on the words  לא תתגדדוLo Tisgodedu[i] which in the simple meaning is about not cutting oneself in mourning but it is also interpreted as “do not become (many) groups, groups[ii]. The exact definition of this prohibition might be narrow[iii] but its moral message is that rather than form groups we should be in unity[iv].

There have been well thought out joint projects and celebrations over the years but there remained a strong sense of two separate communities, not merely two parallel facilities with some differences. It took a fire to force the communities into an ad hoc coming together. To their credit, Rabbi Schapiro of Chabad House and Rabbi Krebs agreed to go further and pray together and share a meal. It was an historic and very moving coming together. Hopefully the value of Togetherness will continue to be felt in the relationship between the communities.

For me, the clock stopping is symbolic of the need for less calculation and figuring it out and just going for it.

The idea of letting go is also useful in resetting the relationship with God. This is useful on the day of judgment which on the one hand is conducted with mercy and forgiveness[v], but also with frightful punishments.

Leonard Cohen captures the mood in his contemporary take on the Unesaneh Tokef prayer in his song “Who By Fire”.

And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry month of may,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate…

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?

The liturgy also refers to a harsh interpretation of an exchange between Abraham and God about the promise that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan.

In the text, Abraham asksבַּמָּה אֵדַע  “How will I know” that I will inherit it[vi]?
God responds that Abraham should carry out a covenant ceremony with animals and then states יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע “you will know” that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years[vii].

Abraham wanted certainty. He wanted to “know”, demonstrating an element of doubt[viii]. (There are other views that reject that Abraham’s faith was less than perfect[ix]) As a punishment God gives him certainty, telling him the painful news[x] about the slavery in Egypt[xi]. God tells him, “Abraham, the whole world stands by my word and you don’t believe in my words, (instead) you say “how will I know?”, by your life!  You will know that your seed will be strangers[xii]

It is impossible to understand divine judgment, of course. Our tradition provides some guidance about elements of this unfathomable, awesome and frightful process that matches a world in which both grace and catastrophe are realities. If we are to reconcile with God and men, we will need to let go of trying to figure everything out.    

[i] Deuteronomy 14:1
[ii] Talmud Yevamot 14a
[iii] There is discussion that essentially concludes that the problem would only apply in a legal sense if there were sustained disagreement on the same religious court but there could be two religious courts in the same city with different views (See Rosh and Ran)
[iv] Haemek Davar
[v] The Machzor liturgy
[vi] Genesis 15:8
[vii] Genesis 15:13
[viii] Midrash Hagadol 9,
הרהר בליבו ואמר: "כיצד ארשנה?!" ולא האמין לדבריו של הקב”ה אלא אמר: "במה אדע כי ארשנה", מלמד שקרא תיגר.
[ix] Breshit Rabba 44. Ramban and others. One creative interpretation is that Abraham was concerned about the practicality of living among the people he will one day need to conquer and that he may feel compelled to make a pact with them. Exile was a way to solve this problem (Tur). Another view has Abraham simply wanting to know when this would happen? Which generation? how much of it? (Bchor Shor)
[x] Klei Yakar
[xi] Talmud Nedarim 32
[xii] Pirkey Drabi Eliezer 48 cited in

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