Full circle


My daughter, the animal lover, has a father who isn’t. A hamster is the biggest pet I’ve gotten talked into so far. It lives in her room, and basically I wouldn’t even know
it was there except for one thing — it’s nocturnal.

All night long I could hear Ruby the hamster running in its wheel. The endless spinning and squeaking was driving me crazy. I couldn’t take it anymore.

I marched into my daughter’s room, bypassing her and heading straight for the tiny workout nut. I was ready to snatch it and its blasted wheel out of the cage, when something made me stop. I stood transfixed at the sight of Ruby exercising, and it hit me how much the two of us have in common. That hamster is living my life, I thought, running, running, running in endless circles, and not really getting anywhere.

I granted a stay of execution.

For all of the benefits running in circles affords a hamster, there are no positive implications when we use the expression “running in circles” to describe our own lives. With all we have to do, it often feels that all we are doing is keeping up. The opportunity to move ahead somehow eludes us.

Ironically, this time of year is all about going in circles. But unlike the stressful, unconstructive feeling of running in circles that we experience in our weekday routine, the circles of these holidays have a definite purpose and a positive message. Both Sukkot and Simchat Torah are characterized by communal hakafot, or going around in circles.

On Sukkot, we hold the arba minim (the four species) and proceed in a circle around the Torah, thereby proclaiming its centrality and holiness in Jewish life. On Simchat Torah, we remove all of the Torahs to the periphery of the circle, and march around an empty center.

What is the purpose of an empty center? To quote Rabbi Solovetchik (zt”l), “The answer is that the center is not empty. God is symbolically there. When nobody is there, Someone is there. There is no place bereft of His presence. The encircling Sifrei Torah pay homage to their Divine Author, acknowledging that the purpose of Torah is to direct us to God.”
Whether we are circling the Torah or circling God, there are two mathematical facts about circles that have great theological implications.

The first is that all points on the circle are equidistant from the center.

When we march in the hakafot, we are demonstrating that the Torah belongs to all of us, equally, and that we all have equal access to God.

There is a beautiful Midrash about the arba minim that illustrates this idea. Consider the etrog, or citron. It has a good taste and a good fragrance, symbolizing the Jews who possess scholarship and good deeds.

The lulav, or date palm branch, has a good taste, but no fragrance. It symbolizes Jews who possess scholarship, but few good deeds.

The hadassim, or myrtle, have a pleasant aroma but a bland taste. It represents the Jews who perform good deeds but are ignoramuses.

And finally, the aravot, or willow, have no pleasant smell or taste, standing for those among us who, sadly, have no redeeming features whatsoever.

Only the etrog is “perfect,” but one cannot recite the blessing on the etrog alone. It must be held tightly together with the other three species in order to fulfill the mitzvah. God wants us to stand together. No one has to be excluded from His Presence. You can be a Moses, an Abraham, a Rabbi Akiva or an ignoramus who isn’t even a very nice person. As long as you stand in that circle, you have the same access to God and His Torah as anyone else.

The second mathematical fact about circles is that the starting point and the ending point are one in the same. When we march in a circle we keep returning to where we started, as opposed to marching in a line where we would move away from the beginning point. The whole of Judaism is predicated on this concept — that our history is not far behind us in some distant past, but that our heroes and heroines, and all of our collective experiences, are very real to us today.

We look to Jacob to learn how to survive an oppressive exile, and Joseph shows us how to deal with success in exile. Queen Esther ably demonstrates how to outsmart a manipulative, deadly enemy. Rashi is not some scribbles on a page, but he is our best friend when we study the Chumash or Talmud, patiently helping us make sense of it all.

We don’t “commemorate” the destruction of our Temple; we sit low to the ground and mourn the loss as if it happened in our own generation. We sit at a seder every Passover with the goal of feeling as if we ourselves left Egypt, not some group of slaves thousands of years ago. We have a State of Israel today because even after 1,900 years of exile, we felt inextricably connected to that land. Like a circle, we never move too far away from where we started.

Physically, moving in circles like Ruby the hamster is a frustrating experience. In short, it gets us nowhere. But philosophically, participating in hakafot, can bring us to a new place. A place where we reconfirm that God and His Torah are at the center of our lives; where we rekindle that sense of unity and equality among all Jews; and where we reawaken the past, and immerse in the lives and events that have sustained us as a people for thousands of years.

In short, it brings us full circle.

Chag sameach.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

Age of Amusement


A gentleman died and his family asked me to officiate his funeral. So we agreed to meet, his children and I, to prepare. Sitting around the spacious dining room table I asked them, "Tell me about your father."

After a long silence one of the sons volunteered: "Dad loved golf."

"Golf is good," I responded, "what else did he love? What were his passions?"

"Golf," they all agreed, "just golf."

"Just golf? What did he dream of? What were his values, his causes?"

"Well, he always wanted to live on a golf course…."

So I prepared a eulogy all about golf. (It’s not so hard to do: Eighteen is chai. He’s played his 18 and finally got his hole-in-one.) All the while, I felt the tragic weight of this moment: How can a human life be made so small? Reduced to this, to golf?

That was long ago. I have since learned that many people live lives, not as Thoreau imagined — lives of quiet desperation — but lives of amused distraction. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard proposed that no one could live the aesthetic, pleasure-seeking life forever because it must eventually grow dull. The pleasure-seeker falls into a cycle of addiction. To hold our interest, each pleasure needs a bigger one to follow. This is the lament of Kohelet in Ecclesiastes: "I said to myself, ‘Come I will treat you to merriment. Taste mirth!’ That, too, I found was futile."

American culture has accomplished what neither Kierkegaard nor Kohelet could conceive. We have cultivated a culture of such powerful distraction, entertainments, diversions, that today one actually can fill a lifetime with amusement, with golf.

When I was a kid, there were seven channels on the TV. Once you surveyed those seven and found nothing interesting, you turned the set off. Today, there are enough TV channels that you can spend the entire evening not actually watching anything, but just flipping through the channels — surfing the dial. And if not TV, there’s the Internet, DVDs and pay-per-view. That’s at home. Outside, there’s a whole universe of possibilities. In 1955, Disney invented the theme park. Now there are at least six within a day’s drive.

One-thousand years ago, Western culture knew an age of faith so the church was the central architectural feature of a town. Five hundred years ago, we began an age of industry and the factory was the town’s notable structure. In today’s age of amusement, the mall and its cineplex is the town’s most important place.

Paul Tillich, the Protestant theologian, argued that every person has a God.

"God" he defined as each person’s "object of ultimate concern." But what if the object of ultimate concern is precisely not to have an object of ultimate concern? What kind of human being does that leave?

In the age of amusement, religion is dangerous. Religion asks annoying questions about life. Religion points out our shallowness, our life’s weightlessness. Religion demands our attachment to matters of eternal significance. This obsession with meaning and purpose undermines amusement — it embarrasses us — it gets in the way of golf.

But the culture’s will to amusement is stronger than its will to believe. In the end, religion is co-opted. Once, religion was accused of being so much empty ritual — form without content, rite without passion, authority without love. Now, we have a different problem: Religion is becoming another form of amusement. When its only goal is to pass a little time and make us feel good inside, when it ceases to challenge and to expect more of us, when it is afraid to point out the evil within us and to deal with the jagged edges of broken lives and a broken world, when it ceases to wrestle with God and with life, religion becomes a form of amusement.

Then comes a moment when this diet of amusement ceases to satisfy and to nourish. I worry about those who search for depth, but all they find is entertainment. They recognize that life is difficult, that the inner life is a place of struggle. They seek courage. They seek insight. They seek vision. But sadly much of what they find in contemporary religion is weightless amusement.

This week’s Torah reading was consciously timed by the ancient rabbis to fall in the week before the New Year. The reading calls us home: "You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God." (29:9)

The word, hayom (this day) noted the rabbis, jumps out of the text and into contemporaneity. "This day" is any day we turn from our distractions and amusements. "This day" is when we come forward to meet God and accept our role as God’s partners to heal the world. "This day" is when we bind ourselves to lives of higher purpose, and accept God’s blessings — blessings even greater than golf.

Shanah tovah.


Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

The Consumer


Ancient Greek democracy created the “citizen.” Renaissance
Europe invented the “gentleman.” Colonial America produced the
“frontiersman.” Each human civilization, it seems, fashions
its own unique character type. And ours is no exception. Contemporary America
has spawned the “consumer.”

The consumer is a character type unique in human history.
The Greek citizen saw himself as an inseparable part of an organic community.
The European gentleman conceived of himself in terms of a code of obligations —
chivalry and noblesse oblige — that bound him to others. The frontiersman, a
loner in human community, felt himself an integral part of a natural
environment. By contrast, the consumer seeks absolute independence. He is
sovereign, complete unto himself, and in need of no one. No unfulfilled
existential need motivates him. The consumer engages the world only as a source
of stimulation and satisfaction. To protect his sovereignty, he presses every
encounter into the form and shape of a commercial transaction so it can be
easily controlled. Ever notice how the newspaper’s personal ads and the
classified ads are almost interchangeable? “Clean, quiet, reliable. Sleek
exterior. Warm interior. Runs great. Low maintenance. A steal at this price!”
Even the most personal becomes a matter of barter and trade. 

Henry James called America a “hotel culture.” A hotel —
where you eat and sleep, but never fully unpack and move in. You never set down
roots. You never really own the place. You can mess up your room knowing that
while you’re out, someone else will come and straighten up. You care nothing
for the people who live next door for soon you’ll be checking out and moving
on.  So, too, the consumer joins, but never belongs. Never will he allow the
obligations that come with relationships, values or community to compromise his
sovereignty. He has no attachments, only a series of limited-liability
partnerships.

In politics, for example, he has no deeply held convictions,
visions or loyalties. He asks only what his country can do for him. Candidates
are sold to him on television alongside soap and aspirin, and with the same
claims: New and Improved! Brighter and Cleaner! Quicker Relief! He doesn’t want
to be too deeply involved. The causes of the day, the problems of society, the
issues of civic life are not his personal concerns. He allows nothing to claim
him. 

Even in religious life, he is a consumer of services. He may
contribute but resists commitment.

He’s a member of the synagogue. He’s also a member of AAA,
Blockbuster Video, Blue Cross and Bally Total Fitness. And he has same
arrangement with them all: He pays his dues, drops off his kids, visits
occasionally, but wants and expects little else.  In a moment of crisis, he’ll
call for Emergency Roadside Judaism. Otherwise, he keeps his distance.

It works. In a culture so saturated with entertainment,
diversion and distraction, the consumer can always find something else to
occupy his time and make life pleasant. It works — until one of those life
moments arrives when all is called into question. And then the consumer finds
he’s truly bereft. He hasn’t the resources to construct a sense of personal
meaning. He hasn’t a community to offer support, nor the intimacy of a good
friend willing to listen. He hasn’t access to eternity, to deeper values, to a
larger narrative that would provide context and purpose for his struggle.
Having allowed nothing to claim him, he has nothing to stake his life upon.

“Let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among
them,” we are commanded in this week’s Torah portion (Exodus 25:8). An awesome
responsibility: Build a place for God in this world. A remarkable opportunity:
Create the conditions for Eternity to be present among us. But this is no
casual weekend project. We are commanded to bring our best — the best of our
hands, hearts and minds; the best of our resources. A sense of life’s meaning
isn’t a consumer product. The assurance of life’s purpose cannot be purchased
or rented. No infomercial can sell them. They are fashioned out of the gifts we
bring in response to the claim we feel upon us, the claim of a covenantal
community that asks us to share in the work of making a place for God in the
world. They are available only when one is prepared to donate the entirety of
the self. Greece had its citizen, Europe its gentleman, America, its consumer.
The Torah projects the character of the tzadik (righteous person).  

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