Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Man in His Life (Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot)

Since our fall harvest celebration of Sukkot begins on Wednesday night, this coming Shabbat is the Sabbath that falls during the intermediate days of that week-long festival—Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot.  On that day, it is customary to read the book of Ecclesiastes.

The best known passage of Ecclesiastes comes from the third chapter; many of us recognize it immediately from Pete Seeger’s song, popularized by the Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn”:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
 a time to be born and a time to die,
 a time to plant and a time to uproot,
 a time to kill and a time to heal, 
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,    
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up, 
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate, 
a time for war and a time for peace.

The great Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai wrote a poem that I read as a kind of commentary on this passage.  While the author of Ecclesiastes speaks of everything having its own time and season, Amichai presents a more complicated picture:

A Man in His Life

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose.  Ecclesiastes
was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love. 
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur.  It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.

As we prepare to celebrate Sukkot, consider these two reflections on life’s passages.  Do you believe that there are separate times for all things under the heavens—or do you agree with Amichai’s assessment, that we don’t “have seasons enough to have a season for every purpose”? 

What difference does it make—does our view on this question shape the way we live?

Chag Sameach—a joyous and blessed Sukkot to all—

Rabbi Dan

And here's a nice live version of the Byrds:

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