Having a Jewish consciousness means that when the summer days get noticeably shorter, you begin thinking about Rosh Hashanah. And when you begin thinking about Rosh Hashanah, you start thinking about buying a lulav and etrog or building a Sukkah or at least eating a meal in a Sukkah. Being mindfully Jewish means that the rhythm of your year is connected with the natural world. Changes in temperature associated with transitions from summer to fall, fall to winter, to spring, and back to summer will remind you of Hanukkah as the winter begins, Tu Bishvat as you pass the midpoint of winter, Purim at the very end of winter, Pesah as spring begins to push its way onto the scene, Shavuot as summer breaks through, Tisha b’Av at the peak of summer, and then we begin anew.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik described this kind of conscious exhibited by “The Halakhic Man” in the book of that name. The person who embodies Jewish consciousness views the world through the lens of Torah, Jewish commentaries and teachings, and Jewish practice. If there is a tree hanging over a deck, you might consider that the branches of the tree would make fine cover (“Skhakh”) for a Sukkah, but you can’t put the Sukkah on the deck because you can’t build a Sukkah under a tree. You might look at a banana and see a fruit from a plant (… “borei p’ri ha’adama”), and look at an apple and see a fruit from a tree (“borei p’ri ha’etz”).
I had a moment of this kind of Jewish consciousness when I heard the late comedian Buddy Hackett’s duck story. Have you heard his duck story? If not, you can watch it here (beginning at 2:55): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aww4HT5g7ig (if you’re reading the print version of this column, you can either google “Buddy Hackett Duck story” or go AhavasIsraelGR.org, find my column online, and click the link). When I heard the story, I immediately put it into the context of a teaching from the Mishnah of Baba Metzia (1:4) regarding claiming found property. A person who sees a bird that cannot fly or a lame deer on his property can claim, “My field has acquired it for me” and take possession over someone who had been tracking the deer or chasing the bird. A much better solution than the farmer’s in Buddy’s story, right? The principles in the first couple of chapters of this tractate help to adjudicated disputes over who has taken possession of various kinds of property in different situations. Essentially, the goal of this order of Mishnah (“damages,” covering many topics of civil and criminal law) is to serve as a guide to creating a harmonious society.
Our holidays and our sacred texts can give us that same kind of elevated consciousness, nudging us towards living in harmony with the world and the people around us. Rosh Hashanah begins with the fundamental premise that our first step is to do the internal work to align our behavior in order to resolve conflict with others. May you use the sacred time of Elul, the month in advance of Rosh Hashanah, to reach out and restore relationships, and may you enter the new year of 5783 with peace and harmony.
Hebrew Words of the Month:
- Mishnah – A second century collection of material describing Jewish life in a post-Temple world.
- Talmud – The Mishnah plus a commentary on mishnah called Gemara, the major source of halakha, the system of Jewish law that created post-Biblical Judaism.
- Seder – “order” or section. The Mishnah has six primary sections.
- Masekhet – Each Seder is divided into many Tractates on a broad topic.
- Perek – Each Tractate is divided into chapters, and each chapter, into mishnayot.