in honor of the temporary

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Riding a bicycle (though I haven’t done it for years) is an allegory for me on living life. We have to be constantly aware of balance, and at the same time are bolstered by the forward movement and the wheels going round, establishing centrifugal force. Though yin and yang is not part of the Jewish tradition, when I read about it in my study of eastern religions, I accepted it as an inherent part of life, familiar and inclusive. Each year we have the same holidays at the same time of the year. Are they repeat performances of something we’ve already done? Yes and no. Every week, we read a portion of the pentateuch. Is it the same each year? Again, yes and no.

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These cyclical events are in fact a repeated framework, and there is a general message that is enforced with each experience. But they are different for us each time we observe them. Each time we read a particular portion of the five books of Moses, we look at it differently, and examine it in the light of different commentaries and by comparing the historical chapter to things that have happened in or own lives, or bits of wisdom that may be understood in the context of our own experiences.

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The holiday of tabernacles comes at the start of our year, after celebrating the new year and having a day dedicated to soul searching and the acceptance of our own mortality. Tabernacles reminds us of our exodus from the slavery of Egypt, but we don’t usually dwell on the subject. I live in a stone house as do all of my neighbors, but once a year, we leave the comfort of our homes, and move into temporary booths which are considered home for a week. It is meant to remind us that all of life is temporary. That even the security of home is a temporary circumstance. We don’t suffer much from hurricanes or terrible earthquakes, so we have to take it upon ourselves to remember that the physical structures of our lives are not permanent. The roofs of our booths are built so that we will see the sky through the roof, and the walls of our temporary homes do not insulate us from the environment. On the outside, they all look pretty similar. But on the inside, they are usually decorated, and pictures may be added to make them as pleasant as possible.

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As the years go by, each year provides a very different experience, even though the framework remains the same. Many of us have used the same boards or tent cloth from year to year with very few changes. What’s important about the tabernacles is our own subjective experience, which changes from year to year. Of course, different people have varying enthusiasm towards custom and tradition. Some folks are satisfied to visit such a booth just once, or a few times maybe. They might choose to visit the booth of a friend, or sit in one set up by city administration, or by one of the many synagogues in our town. Those of us who are more religious will build their own booth, and spend more or less time in it. Most of those who have their own booth will eat their meals in the booth. And there are some people who are so adherent that they will not eat in any other place but a booth, which is called in Hebrew, a sukkah. A lot of the restaurants in town have set up booths for their customers to sit in while they eat. This custom is prevalent in our town.

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Among my family and friends it is common for us to eat all our meals in the sukkah, but only a minority insist on sleeping in the booth. Even so, this practice is respected. In my youth I often slept in the sukkah, but nowadays I’m no longer willing to give up the comfort of my own bed.

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The days of this holiday, this year, have been very intensive. I no longer have the strength I once had and was used to. And in this period of my life, it is wearing for me to spend a lot of time with people. Long conversations and continuous social activity wears me out, even though I have the very good luck of meeting with the finest of people, folks that I truly love. So I didn’t really expect that I’d have the strength to write a blog post today. I thought maybe I’d post a photo and leave it at that… maybe a photo and a link to some previous post. But then, I started searching out pictures of the holiday in past years, and I found so many that it was hard for me to choose. And while looking at old pictures, chose to check out some of the recent photos of family and friends in booths this last week, and that made it even harder. And now I’ve written all of this, so here’s another post on the festival of tabernacles.

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47 responses to “in honor of the temporary

  1. I remember realizing the church calendar year as an upward spiral. Each year the same order of events, of worship. I was different somehow, as I approached and experienced them. All we are and have is truly temporary, and dynamic. Thank you for this post.

    • It’s interesting to see it as a spiral. I hadn’t thought of it as up or down. I could imagine it as an outward spiral too. But there is the coming round over and over again. Glad you enjoyed the post, ekurie.

  2. Very interesting Shimon. As a nation with a multitude of different ethnicities and religions it is very hard to see people celebrating anything special – except football grand finals and the Melbourne Cup. But I find I am continually impressed by the Jewish community of Melbourne who continue with their traditions when the rest of us walk on regardlessly. There is a strength in the Jewish community that is obvious and continues in spite of everything. Even so there are the differences between the different Jewish communities from the ultra Orthodox Adass Israel to the Liberal and Humanist congregations.
    Personally I am delighted to see the ease with which most Australians live their lives.

    • Your conclusion is what impressed me the most, Paol. It is good to hear that Australians live their lives easily. I’m not familiar with your country, but have friends who visited there, and have always heard good things about it. It’s true, that there are many different sectors within the larger Jewish community, and differences between them. We are a very old people, and most of us have lived outside our land in difficult circumstances for 2000 years. So we’ve tried to live well among other people, with positive and negative results. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Shimon, I am so glad you did write a post; I love the fact that you can make it entertaining but also educational. Over the last few years I have learnt a great deal about your culture & beliefs. So glad you didn’t give up that time when things seemed very low for you: Tempus fugit 🙂 and here we are in the twilight of yet another year.
    I have been back in UK for just over a year now and have still not quite adjusted, 35 years away and so many changes here. Not sure I like it, but like you when you moved house, time will tell. Thanks for reminding me that family and friends are all you need in the end.

    • Yes, time definitely moves faster as we grow older. And the older we get the more obvious it is. I can well understand the difficulty and the time it takes to get used to your home country after being away that long. There have been great changes in the last 35 years, and I imagine that during that time you remembered England as you’d left it. Now you have to adjust to all the changes. I had a similar experience when I visited the US again in the 90s. I had such strong impressions from my days as a student there, and then had to realize that just as we had gone through some great changes, they had too. Wishing you peace and continued learning, David.

  4. I admire that you and your people continue to practice and participate in the ancient traditions that are such a part of your history. We seem to be lacking that in our country where we are such a mix of histories; and with the passing of generations, whatever traditions used to be there seem to have faded into either nonexistence or such marketed and commercialized events that they have become empty and meaningless. As always, dear Shimon…thank you for sharing as you do.

    • Your comment focuses on a very interesting aspect of our culture, Scott. Throughout our history, even when we were a strong nation in the olden days, we had great interest in other cultures, and learned from other people. There was the Egyptian influence, and afterwards the influences of Iraq and Persia, and then the Greeks and the Romans, and in more modern days Europe and the US. Some Jews become so enamored of foreign cultures that they reflect those foreign influences more than they do our own. But fortunately, we have somehow been able to incorporate other knowledge and ideas without the necessity to invalidate our own. In the most recent wave of cultural reform, we see many who have assimilated to such an extent that they have lost something of their attachment to the old customs and knowledge. I can only guess where it’s going. But if the world will truly become a global village, I can imagine a lot of enthusiasm for that among my people too. I, for one, am too old to join the party.

  5. Hi Shimon. I recall at least one previous post on this holiday that you discuss. Fascinating that it should be so strong and woven into the relgious structure for your faith. I am happy to call you a friend.

    • It seems to me, Bob, that Jewish culture and religion has been greatly misunderstood in the west, especially because Christianity sees itself as a ‘continuation’ of the Jewish religion. There are certain values that have been adopted, but there are also great differences. But of course, we are now watching a great wave of a new culture which is sweeping up the great masses of the world in its momentum. I often wonder what the future has in store for mankind. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Thank you for finding the strength in sharing your thoughts. I can relate to the ‘wearing out of body and endurance in prayers.” Blessings to you and yours.

    • And thank you for your comment, Perpetua. Actually, I didn’t mean to say that I was worn out from prayer. To tell the truth, it doesn’t seem to me as if I pray that much, and when I do, it gives me comfort. But it is human interactions that wear me out much more these days than when I was young. Sometimes, even observing others in their throes of emotions is enough to tire me. I have to continuously adapt myself to my own decline in old age, and not having the strength that I once took for granted. Best wishes to you, and thanks for your blessing.

  7. I enjoyed this post, Shimon. I’m happy you decided to go ahead write it, in spite of being a bit worn around the edges at the moment. Once again, you’ve taken a concept that most of us take for granted, and you’ve explained it in such a way that most of us can say, ‘By, golly, Shimon is right again.’ Thank you for expanding my vision of and understanding of the way our traditions remain the same, yet differ within the cycle of each year. Your observations cut across all cultures and apply to nearly all traditions, I think. I love the way you open my eyes and make me THINK. Blessings, my friend.

    • Thank you very much, Myra. I’ve always believed that our needs on a spiritual plane, and our need for explaining life and death and the constant changes in our selves are universal to all people. Unfortunately, some dominant cultures in world history (and before) have tried to force their own solutions on others, and this has produced great suffering as well as occasional joy. Just as certain medicines and physical exercises have been lost to the world through ‘modernization’, so the many worlds of spiritual sensitivity and values have disappeared through time. How much is known of the teachings, medicine, and philosophy that were integral to native American culture before the coming of the white man? Not that I’m inclined to cry over what was lost. But I do think there is much still to be found in our own background and antecedents. I was impressed in my youth by reading Jung. It seems to me that we often neglect the wisdom of the past that still flows in our veins. Blessings.

  8. Glad you expressed the thought that different customs and practices take on various meanings throughout our lives. Each time we experience them is a whole new venture.

    • Yes Bev, I’ve become more aware of that recently because I’ve gone back and reread some of the volumes that most impressed me when I was young. How amazing it was for me to read texts that I still remembered but consider differently now because of all the changes I myself have gone through. I remember someone once dismissing something with the words, “Been there, seen that…” But truly, as we continue to revisit our existence, we discover that there is always something new. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Thank you for this very important glimpse into your culture, friend Shimon. Much love, cat.

    • Always so good to see or hear from you, Cat. After this long period of holidays, it is such a pleasure getting back to regular day to day life, that it occurs to me that maybe that is the intention of this month long holiday period. How much celebration can we endure (saying this with a big smile). My love to you cat.

  10. At my age, Shimon, I’m constantly reexamining my life choices. I am lately finding the celebration of repeat performances most comforting. A blessing on you.

    • It could be age, conditions, or temperament…but it does seem that there’s more reflection as we grow older. Glad you enjoyed the post, Mary. Thanks, and my best to you.

  11. Your words are important reminders to us all to be thankful for our structure, both in dwelling and in mental and emotional development. Thank you Shimon!

    • I remember when I was young, and traveled a bit in the world, how fascinating it was, and helpful too, to learn the values, cultures, myths and aspirations of other peoples. There are so many things I love about life… so many pleasures, with music very high on the list. But my favorite hobby is learning. And s I enjoy sharing some of my discoveries with friends. Thanks Cheri.

  12. PS Here in NYC with grandson. At Central Park Zoo yesterday, security was intense. The Judge went into the penguin exhibit with Nathan; I exited only to see BiBi and Sara Netanyahu! For me, a privilege.

    • I really enjoyed your first photo. There’s something delightful about seeing the sukkah tucked into a corner of everyday life. I finally figured out that sukkah and sukkot are related: singular and plural, yes? I found a variety of spellings for sukkot; is one preferred over the others?

      As for your observations about the repetitive yet always novel aspects of traditional celebrations, I’m reminded of a saying of Anaïs Nin: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” It could just as easily be paraphrased as “We do not experience celebrations as they are, we experience them as we are.”

      When I was trying to source Nin’s quotation to be sure it was accurate, an interesting parallel turned up. Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani, as quoted in the Talmudic tractate Berakhot (55b), used the same words, albeit in a different context. If you’re interested, the Quote Investigator has posted a more extensive exploration of the phrase.

      One more small example. Some decades ago, I discovered that I was re-reading certain books on a regular basis. Since I’ve alway made notes in the margins of books, I took to using a differently colored ink each year. It can be fascinating now to re-read the books with marginalia from different stages of my life. It’s the same book, but I’m certainly not the same person — and I have the evidence in writing!

      Taken together, this post and your previous one — with their focus on sleeplessness, prayer, scholarship, and community — have had me listening to a favorite song again. Granted, it seems to be meant as a Hanukkah song, but I think it fits here, too. I hope you enjoy it.

      • Yes Linda, Sukah and Sukkoth are really the same word. Sukah is singular for ‘booth’ and sukkoth is the plural form of the same word. The holiday is called ‘the holiday of booths’. Since we write our language in a different alphabet, there’s really no proper way to write these words in translation, and I sometimes use different spellings myself. I remember your mention of that quote by Anaïs Nin, in a previous post, either mine or yours, and I loved the quote. I believe we always bring ourselves to every circumstance and all that we learn… as much as we try to be aware on an objective level, our subjective understanding is most basic. Thanks for the link, and I was tickled to see that you have added to the richness of the quote investigator, just as you add to my humble blog.

        When it comes to rereading books, I have recently had similar experiences to what you describe. Because I was blessed with such a good memory, I did not reread books for most of my life. But there was a shelf in (my old) library where I used to keep books that I wanted to reexamine in old age. And in the last few years I have picked some of them up and read them again. Though I remembered the texts, I was amazed by how different they were to read them after having lived a full life.

        Thank you too for the Chanukah song you linked to. It is hard for me to explain this, but I was left completely baffled by their song. I listened to other songs by the same group, but that didn’t help. It seems to me that (many) American Jews have so assimilated into the American culture that what they’re offering is completely foreign to me.

        • Your comment about the song tickled me. The truth is, there are portions of the American faith community whose offerings seem as foreign to me as Shir Soul does to you. When the move to gain relevance and contemporaneity by introducing guitars, drums, and bad poetry arrived, it seemed not necessarily sacrilegious, but boring in the extreme. And yet I enjoy Shir Soul and the stories they tell through their music. It’s another reminder of how deeply intertwined culture and faith can be.

    • I agree with you Cheri, it is a privilege to see Bibi and Sarah live. I would feel the same, and even throw them a kiss. Usually, I try to avoid crowds, so I probably won’t have that opportunity, but in recent weeks I’ve been reading Ben Gurion and about him, and I have the impression that Bibi is the closest we’ve gotten to a leader like Ben Gurion, who I see as very close to some of our best leaders in ancient times.

      • I love Bibi. He is the most principled leader, now, in the world. Israel is very lucky to have him. It made me a bit nervous to see him strolling through the zoo. Most of the creatures in the zoo are far more sane than the NYC populace. So GLAD to be home among the squirrels and turkeys. By the way, I am reading David McCullough’s biography of Truman. Very interesting read.

  13. A fascinating read Shimon. As I read through the mention of ‘cyclical events’ and ‘repeated framework’ and the differences between years, my mind instantly reflected on the cycle of the seasons having precisely that same repeated framework, yet each year the seasons are subtly different and with our eyes we see new things to capture. People often look surprised when I tell them I am going back to the same place for a summer holiday, but that too is part of the rhythm of life. It is part of the ‘familiar’, a constant within the year’s framework and each time I visit I find something new no matter how many times I have been there. And it too is true of Sunday Service in an Anglican church – I was brought up with Sunday being the day we went to church, my father was an organist and my mother sang in the choir. Matins, following the order of service in the Prayer Book, never changed. But each Sunday was different. Different Hymns, different Psalms a different Sermon. Framework and Ritual impose a discipline on the day, month and year. Without it we can be lost and purposeless.

    • I agree with what you say Andy, about the changing seasons. That’s really the way I see the passing of the year, and I have to add that I’ve been watching your photography on the subject and enjoyed your study as well. When I was a young man and traveling about the world, hoping to find out what this life was all about, I was often reminded of Kant, the great philosopher, who never got too far from his home which was situated in a relatively minor city. One can find everything close to home, I suspected then, and now I realize it’s true. But youth hungers for adventure. As for the similarities between different religions, I’ve always believed that god has revealed himself to most of the cultures of the world, each according to its own language… and that we are all part of the great family of man, as we are part of the universe around us. It depends on our perspective, whether we are aware of that or not. Thank you so much for your comment.

  14. Wrapping you in love, dear Shimon. ❤

  15. And there you go, you had more energy than you thought. In a way, the post wrote itself as you followed the path of least resistance. I love the Jewish holiday traditions, most of all, the New Year traditions. I don’t know very much about them but have experienced a piece of these traditions when the community I lived in invited a rabbi (very reform!) to live for a time. The memory of the shofar is a good one. I enjoyed learning more here – the idea of the temporary homes has so many layers of meaning, no wonder it’s a little different each year. Thank you, Shimon, and take care.

    • You’re so right, Lynn. When I was thinking about writing, it seemed too much for me, but when I sat down to tell a bit about the pictures, I found the post writing itself. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a few Reform rabbis, and I have to admit that it seemed like a completely different religion to me. But I’m glad that it afforded you a taste of the tradition. And it is a truly stirring experience to listen to the shofar (a ram’s horn). And yes, moving into a temporary home for a week is a very moving experience. Thanks very much for your comment.

  16. I always get the chance to learn so much interesting things about your culture! thank you so much for sharing, dear Shimon.
    Rituals are part of each one of us, you may realize it or not… beginning by the washing of your face or brushing of the teeth. And the many rituals go on, every single hour, day, month… I guess we humans do need such. I guess these give you the rhythm to catch up with life! And yes, everything is just temporary… even our very life.
    Take care, hugs 🙂 claudine

    • It was with great pleasure that I read the writings of Desmond Morris many years ago, and I learned from him what you’ve just said here, Claudine; that it is part of our character as human beings, to need ceremony and rituals, and he pointed to similar functions… like setting the alarm clock before going to sleep. And often the cultural ritual, built over generations, are stations we can relate to on multiple levels. And as for the temporary nature of life, on some level we all know that, but I think we often use routine and ‘keeping busy’ to avoid this threat to our existence. So it’s good to have a moment when we’re forced to remember. Best wishes to you, and a hug.

  17. A most interesting post Simon. Life is a repeat performance in many ways with customs, cyclical events and traditional events.

  18. I think this is my favourite of your holidays, good that you are comfortable in your bed though! I would enjoy the booths, I love being outdoors and being able to see the stars would certainly make me happy. Loved the photos, and like you being around a lot of people, even loved ones for long periods would exhaust me too. I find animals easier, large numbers of them don’t wear me out.xxx

    • I haven’t spent much time with a lot of animals together, but I imagine that that would tire me too. When we’re good at something and still have our strength, we do the things we love and don’t ever realize we’re working. But if we’re lucky enough to get old, even going up the stairs can force us to breathe differently, And then we discover, that even a pleasant interchange is also a type of work… and the more places to focus on at the same time, the more work it is. Dina my dear friend, I can only wish you Dylan’s blessing, may you be forever young. xxx

  19. Temporary and contemporaneous.

    You have broadened out my knowledge of the sukkah as celebrated in a different climate and in a different social environment. I cannot think of many people who would sleep out in a sukkah here, in what is already a very chilly time of year. Temperatures can be below zero celesius at night. In big cities in the slightly milder regions, it would be visibly unlikely too.

    I am pleased you were able to write and illustrate this post.

    M x

    • I have personal experience, having shared peoples sukkah in difficult climates (Switzerland, for instance). But we also have a very interesting set of documents that have accompanied our culture throughout our history from the time of the second temple. These are books called ‘questions & answers’ in which people who had a specific problem complying with Jewish law asked for solutions. Books were published through all this time, compiling the issues and the rabbinical answers, and they supply very interesting data on the customs of religious Jews during the diaspora. It turns out that people continued the practice even in hostile climates. These practices are also recorded by non religious Jewish writers from the time of the emancipation till today, and we learn that many braved very difficult climatic conditions in order to practice these religious directives. Thanks for your comment, menhir. xx.

  20. Thank you Shimon for the interesting information. What choices would there have been during times of perecution; not many. Yet, I can see how a like-minded groups of people would have supported one another, (when possible) to maintain their structural faith and culture. There is amazing strength to be found in communal belief and self-belief.

    X

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