One of the fascinating things about Judaism is the religion’s acceptance of contradictions, its willingness to embrace paradoxes and ambiguities.
We are commanded to start building our succahs within hours of the end of Yom Kippur, where we are expected to eat and drink and welcome guests for a full week. These flimsy structures are designed specifically to be impermanent, and the roofs are only partly covered, so that you can see the stars at night, feel the rain when it falls.
It is a dramatic transition from the most solemn day of the year to one of the most joyous. Sukkot is so unreservedly joyful that we call it Z’man Simchataynu, the Season of our Rejoicing.
But during Sukkot we read from the book of Ecclesiastes, which tells us that “all is vanity…and there is nothing new under the sun.”
Rabbi Louis Jacobs noted that it is an odd choice on this joyous holiday to read a book that bewails life’s fleeting nature. But, he said, “it gives us an appreciation of the higher values which promote true happiness. The book has served as a reminder that Judaism does not necessarily frown on a sincere quest for life’s meaning and significance… it is the earliest encounter between faith and reason.”
In just a few days, my congregation we will once again experience a juxtaposition of sorrow and joy, when we recite the Yizkor memorial prayers and then celebrate Simchat Torah by dancing with the Torah scrolls in our arms.
Yizkor is a chance to remember our loved ones who no longer walk the earth. And Simchat Torah is a chance to honor the tradition that they bequeathed to us, and celebrate the Book that has been the backbone of my people.
Judaism challenges us to simultaneously recognize the importance of endings and beginnings, life and death. Life is full of paradoxes and seeming contradictions. It is complex and beautiful, and sometimes utterly mystifying.
But the tradition gives us a tool to begin to unravel the mystery, hidden in the last and first words of the Torah. The last letter of the last word is lamed. The first letter of the first word is bet.
In Hebrew, lamed-bet spells lev, heart. We experience this heart, which links the two ends of Judaism’s sacred text, every year at Simchat Torah when we read the end of the Torah and immediately turn to the beginning, and start anew.
We cannot begin to comprehend the world with our intellect alone. It also takes heart. It takes love and understanding, compassion and kindness. And even so, we can never fully understand, we can only catch a glimpse. We are, after all, merely human, full of contradictions ourselves.