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Turning Ourselves Inside Out

 Another Yom Kippur has passed. Our family shares the hope it symbolizes for Jews everywhere, that our efforts to forgive ourselves and others bear redemptive fruit. For Arik it is a more “awe-ful” day, as it marks the beginning of the war in which he was catastrophically injured in 1973, and the beginning of his successful, unceasing efforts to build a new life outside the parameters of what would ever be possible again.

As I write, I can hear my neighbors beginning to build their sukkah, the temporary dwelling in which they will have their meals. For friends less familiar with our Jewish traditions, I would like to introduce you to this wonderful concept. Yom Kippur is devoted to our inner selves. It is a time to focus on rebuilding our spiritual bridges as we consider how more to strive for our better selves in the year to come. Later this week we will begin the week-long celebration of Sukkot, the “feast of booths.” Like so many of our holidays, it has at least two levels: Leviticus 23:33–44 tells us that we are to dwell in booths to remember that the Israelites lived in such flimsy temporary dwellings during the 40 years of wandering in the desert, and it’s the time of the fall harvest.

 

 

Maya and Nili, now a mother of two and a mother-to-be respectively,  having breakfast in our sukkah.

Maya and Nili, now a mother of two and a mother-to-be respectively, having breakfast in our sukkah way back when.

Jewish tradition tells us that we should begin to build our sukkah immediately after Yom Kippur ends – that same evening – four days before Sukkot actually begins. We are told that this is a way to bring together the personal (the soul-searching of Yom Kippur) with the universal (the outside world). For one week, leaving our perfectly good four walls, we turn ourselves “inside-out”. Arik and I taught our girls, Maya and Nili, that as we sat in the sukkah we built on our porch, we should think about families the world over who live their whole lives in structures no stronger than this, or people who have far less than this due to natural disaster or war.

These are the perfect moments to focus on the universal aspects of Judaism – the oft-repeated commandment to do justice (Prov. 21:3; Micah 6:8). At this special time, when the Muslim festival of Id al-Adha, the holiday of the sacrifice and our Yom Kippur coincide for the first time in 34 years, I like to think of the verse where God ponders the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah and God’s hopes for Abraham, the father of both our faiths and ponder the possibilities in interfaith relations: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.” (Gen. 18:19).

What the bee-eater told me

Last fall, while guiding a group at Qumran National Park, I had the most wonderful opportunity to snap a picture of a bee-eater. Every fall and spring these iridescent migrants visit us.  In a 2011 article in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, researchers Nir Sapir, Martin Wikelski, Roni Avissar, Ran Nathan inform us that the bee-eaters apparently know the best time do depart on their migration (see Jeremiah 8:7 re the storks’ talent at this). Their research suggests “that a trend of increasing temperature and decreasing barometric pressure lasting a few days can potentially provide a reliable cue for the birds to adjust their digestive, muscular, and circulatory systems in preparation for the enduring cross-country flight.” High temperatures, these scholars say, facilitate soaring – an energy saver as opposed to flapping their wings. Individual birds have to gauge their go-no-go for that day on a mechanism they evolved for gauging temperature and pressure. These abilities can be essential to the survival of the species.

Bee-eater at Qumran

Bee-eater at Qumran

Now, I’m no bee-eater, but this is what I glean:  Abraham sensed the changing conditions when he smashed the idols in his father’s “idol store,” according to legend, and he soared upward. We, his descendants seem to have lost the ability to soar, constantly doing the wrong thing at the wrong time and flapping our wings to exhaustion or with great harm to our species. It is the responsibility of each of us to get it a little more right in the year to come.

 

 

 

Read my version for children of the ancient legend “Abraham in the idol store” in the chapter on worship in my book Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days.

Pomegranates and the Personal

I love pomegranates. I love looking at them – on the tree and the table, the way the tangy juice, bursts out of the seeds when I spoon them into my mouth. I even love extracting the seeds from the fruit, which I now do with the help of a cool little kitchen utensil invented by an Israeli lady who live on a farm in the Golan Heights.  You can see that utensil in the photo here, next to a little basket of the fruit a neighbor brought over. That particular neighborly offering had special significance for my family; read on and you’ll see why.

 

Pomegranate and seed extractor Miriam

Pomegranates are one of the quintessential fall fruits in the Holy Land, and so its beauty has become a symbol of our High Holy Days that occur in this season. Solomon compared the temples of a beautiful woman “behind the veil” to two halves of a pomegranate (Song of Songs 6:7). The crown-shaped top of the pomegranate reminded our ancient sages of a crown, and so it became symbolic of the Five Books of Moses, the Torah, which is considered our “crown of wisdom.” To describe someone who does good deeds all the time, the sages said that such a person was “as full of good deeds as a pomegranate has seeds,” an expression we still use today in modern Hebrew.

Now for the personal angle – the basket of pomegranates. The pomegranate tree you see in the background is a photo I took as I noticed it hanging heavy with fruit from a neighbor’s garden into the street when I was talking a walk.

I actually never met these neighbors, and when we finally did cross paths, it was not over something good. This son of these neighbors smashed into my husband Arik’s car in May, leaving Arik still bedridden and struggling to recover. His 84-year-old mother was also in the car and was seriously injured.

Pomegranates 4 long

Our whole family had been expending a great deal of energy being angry not only at the young man whom we understand caused the accident, but also at his family. The parents had made a few attempts to meet with us, the mom delivered a cake more than once, but we rejected their overtures. The other day the mom came by, Arik was in bed as usual, and when Lea, our caregiver opened the door, the mom handed her the basket of fruit and said just two words: “only health.”

 

When I came home, spotted the basket of fruit and Lea told me who had brought it, something moved. In the spirit of the High Holy Day season, which begins on the New Year and culminates after the “Ten Days of Repentance” with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I recall a bit of our sages’ wisdom that I had been preaching but not practicing: “For transgressions that are between man and God the Day of Atonement effects atonement, but for transgressions that are between a man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement  effects atonement only if he has appeased his fellow” (Mishna, Yoma 8, 9). The idea here is that this is a special time to ask others for forgiveness. That basket of pomegranates led me to realize that this mom had been trying to do that very thing since the beginning, and I could not accept it.  As far as the parents go, I’m going to try and put myself in their shoes and think about them differently. Matthew 6:14–18 talks about those who are being asked to forgive – that would be my family in this case – doing their part as well. Perhaps when the sages did not broach this part of the equation in their wisdom, they assumed that everyone who asks for forgiveness will indeed  “appease his fellow” and that person, now appeased, will automatically be in a forgiving mood. My work over this “holiday of the clean slate” is to move ahead on a journey to forgiveness. It feels good to have started.

 

For more about Rosh Hashannah, enjoy my article:  “Happy Jewish New Year!”

 

Pomegranate Wikimedia Commons 2

Read more about pomegranates in my book, Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper.