Hearing Voices in the Bible

May 30, 2014

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Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… Ecclesiastes 1:2

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending a class led by Rabbi Steve Chester at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley. He explored the resonances between the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and Tony Kushner‘s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

There is no direct connection between the two: Kushner’s play is not “about” Ecclesiastes. But the lecture set me to thinking about the many and varied voices in the Tanach (Jewish Bible).

There are very few pretty stories in the Bible, if you think about it.  Ruth is a sweet story, I admit. But most of the rest of our Bible stories involve carnage or trickery or dysfunctional families. Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister several times, with the result that she wound up in other men’s harems. Isaac, the gentlest of the patriarchs, was deceived by his son Jacob. Jacob cheerfully manipulates and steals from his brother. It goes on and on; the Book of Judges is one long nightmare.

Some people ask, quite reasonably, why all this stuff is there in a supposedly holy book. Ecclesiastes, in particular, is written in a bitter and cynical voice. What possible edification can anyone get from that?

The answer to that will depend on your orientation to scripture. I am a modern Reform rabbi, and I approach these books both as the product of divine inspiration as well as as the product of human hands. The books are holy because they have been recognized as holy for thousands of years, and because the faithful have continued to find something they need in them.

The genius of these books is that they are not a collection of nice easy stories in which everyone gets what they deserve. They are, instead, a collection of voices and experiences from the full range of the human experience. Some voices in Scripture insist that God is fair and wise and indeed, everyone gets their just desserts (that voice is named Deuteronomy.) Some voices in Scripture remind us that life is not fair, and even go so far as to question whether God is fair (Job.) Some voices are angry at God (parts of Lamentations) and some are young and not much concerned with God, reveling instead in physicality (Song of Songs). Kohelet, the voice in Ecclesiastes, is old and cynical. He’s seen it all, and it all disappoints.

When I am sitting with someone who is having a hard time, I do not usually have words to offer that are going to make everything “all better.” Face it, sometimes there is nothing on earth that will truly console those in deep suffering: the man who has lost his child to a senseless crime, the woman who has lost the love of her life, the person who has seen their life’s work go for nothing. What I can offer that person is evidence that they are not alone in their suffering. I don’t know “exactly how they feel” but there are voices in the Tanach that come pretty close. Those voices can help put words to feelings, and rebuild the connections between a suffering person and the rest of the world.

I think one can make a good case that Hannah was suffering from depression in the book of 1 Samuel , and that King Saul suffered from bipolar disorder. Ruth was a poor foreign woman in an unfriendly land. Jeremiah was persecuted by the authorities despite the fact that he was a messenger from God. David’s children were a terrible disappointment, except for Solomon, whose children were also a terrible disappointment. Families are mostly dysfunctional.

The people and the voices in the Bible are not goody-two-shoes. They make awful mistakes, they do dreadful things, and terrible things happen to them. And that is the point: they are us.

At the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob dies, and Joseph’s brothers fear that he is finally going to take revenge on them for selling him into slavery many years before:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:15-21

That’s the message: we human beings are fallible and frail. We make tragic mistakes, we are selfish, we are vengeful, we are vulnerable to bad luck. However, we can also be agents of good in the world. We can make small differences. We can forgive and cherish and do good deeds. And sometimes things do work out well. Most of all, we are not alone in our experience. As Kohelet says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

That is not always a bad thing.

Image by Sonny Abesamis, some rights reserved.


Wisdom from the Grumpy Old Guy

November 20, 2013
English: King Solomon in Old Age (1Kings 4:29-...

English: King Solomon in Old Age (1Kings 4:29-34) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday I moved into my new home. Last night, the skies over the Bay Area opened and it has been raining ever since. Last night I got the kitchen set to rights and was contented, today I am watching the gutters overflow and am looking for someone to help.

Life is like that. You get things all tidy and — oops! — something else happens. When I was young, I found that very frustrating. Now that I am older, I know that it’s just how it goes. Now that I am older, I know to be grateful it’s something as simple as the gutters.

There is a Jewish voice who speaks to this phenomenon. His name is Kohelet, the voice of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and he’s the original Grumpy Old Guy.  According to tradition, he was King Solomon in his old age. According to those sources, in youth, King Solomon wrote Song of Songs, the great erotic love poem of the Bible. In his prime, he wrote the book of Proverbs, a repository of wisdom. But in old age, he wrote Ecclesiastes, saying, “All is vanity.”

At the end of the book, after looking at all the kinds of pleasure life has to offer, and all the problems life has to offer, he concludes:

Not only was Kohelet wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.

The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd.  Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

– Ecclesiastes 12: 8-14

There are some things in life that are clearly good, or clearly bad, but for many things, we won’t really know until it all plays out. There’s an old Jewish story in which a man gets a horse for free, and he crowed, “Good luck!” Then his son broke his leg riding it, and he cried, “Bad luck!” Then the Russian Army came through drafting all the young men, but they didn’t take the man’s son because he had a bad leg — but the man would no longer declare something “good luck” or “bad luck” because the truth is, it’s often hard to tell.

May your gutters run freely, may your feet stay dry, and may all of us learn to reserve judgment until we have all the facts!


The Secret of the Sukkah

September 20, 2013

Sukkah

In the spring of 2002, I broke up housekeeping and got ready to move to Jerusalem. I kept only a few boxes of things that were precious to me: photos, books, some family memorabilia, and a few valuable objects including some papers. I knew that I’d be moving around for the next few years, so I got a storage bin in my home town and paid rent on it.  I could quit worrying, I thought: my things were safe and would be there when I was finally ordained.

However, a couple of years later there was a fire in the storage building. Everything in my unit was ruined by smoke and water. All the photos and albums were stuck together with black goo.  The books were mush. Most of it was not replaceable and did not have any “value” in the sense that insurance companies calculate such things. The only thing to do was pick through for a few salvageable bits and toss the rest of the stinking mess.  

We want life to be predictable, but it is not. We want to be “careful” and keep bad things from happening, but that’s not how life works. Between natural disasters and human error and the other zillion ways things can go wrong, a person could go crazy worrying. We can ask, “why do bad things happen to good people?” but really, the answer is that sooner or later, bad things happen to everybody.

The secret of the sukkah is that it is a temporary structure. It takes the terrible uncertainty of life and puts it front and center. In the sukkah, all you have is “now” because tomorrow it will be taken down (or blow over.) And it teaches us that “now” can be beautiful and joyful in its own right. 

The megillah [scroll] for Sukkot is Ecclesiastes. You might ask, “Who wants to sit in the sukkah and read grumpy old Kohelet?” But you see, he knows what the sukkah knows: most of what we think is important is temporary, volatile, fragile. No one in their right mind would try to hoard goodies in sukkah; better to share them than have it all blow away.

Sukkot is a festival of rejoicing. Enjoy the sukkah, enjoy the food, enjoy the friends. Enjoy them right now. We cannot predict tomorrow, but if we live life as fully as we can, at least we will know that we did not waste the golden moment.


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