It’s the middle of Sukkot and I still find myself hearing and singing the melodies of Yom Kippur. A full week in the past, and Yom Kippur hasn’t quite left; or put differently, a week later, and Yom Kippur has left its mark.
The opening poem of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes in English; traditionally read, studied and chanted during the days of Sukkot, where we now find ourselves) feels resonant just now.
A generation goes and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever the same;
and the sun rises, and sun sets
and hastens to the place whereat it rises.
Going south, turning north, turning,
turning goes the wind; and upon its turnings, the wind comes back.
All rivers go to the sea,
but the sea is never full;
to the place from which the rivers go,
there they continue to go.
Kohelet’s point seems to be that while “every detail is constantly on the move” “nothing changes.” (Benjamin Segal) “Nature’s incessant cyclicity” demonstrates “that feeble human exertions cannot be expected to affect the course of events.” (Michael V Fox)
The Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 1:7), however, takes Ecclesiastes’ words in a different, and for me more uplifting and resonant, direction. “All rivers go to the sea” describes wisdom and learning of the heart. “But the sea is never full”, that is, the heart and the soul are never full, meaning, we are always capable of learning, receiving, intuiting, absorbing more. You might think that once you let go of learning, leaving it behind, it never returns. To the contrary! For “to the place from which the rivers go, there they continue to go.” The wisdom and learning recur even after one has released one’s mind from it. (So suggests my teacher Professor Marc Hirshman in his outstanding commentary on Kohelet Rabbah.)
We let Yom Kippur go a full week ago, moving on to building our sukkot and celebrating the opening and now middle days of this week long festival of Sukkot. And yet, although released from our minds and hearts, Yom Kippur’s learning recurs and resonates still, much like the rivers that keep returning to their source.
One particular piece of our Yom Kippur together – our afternoon conversation with Alan Tauber and Chester Hollman III – continues to tug at my heart and to echo in my mind. It was not easy for Chester to talk about what happened to him. He shared afterwards with Alan that he found it a little overwhelming to hear his case recounted in detail. He also shared that he feels a sense of responsibility to educate people about what happened, and how easily this can happen. All in all, he was glad he came to Beth Am Israel. Reflecting on the experience, he wrote: “It was very humbling to have been received in the manner in which I was. So many well wishes given, naturally I’m grateful.”
I was deeply moved by Chester’s manifest humility and decency. I remain so. I only hope that we can match his gratefulness with our own gratitude for his example, for his willingness to share his poignant and painful story with us, and for his presence in our midst on Yom Kippur afternoon. The sight and sound of Chester Hollman III at the front of our sanctuary last week powerfully lingers in my heart. Perhaps it lingers in your heart as well.
Moadim l’Simcha – a joyful and celebratory Sukkot festival.