Chol Ha-Mo’ed Sukkot: (Exodus 33:12 – 34:26)

Chol Ha-Mo’ed Sukkot: (Exodus 33:12 – 34:26)

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

My daughter, Laura, just sent me an academic article detailing scientific research that shows via percentages that “religiousness” (attending services, prayer, and behavior in adherence to a moral code) and “spirituality” (meditation and mindfulness practices) have positive effects on health outcomes. [1] The reverse is also true. Maybe larger numbers of Jews should attend services more often than on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Especially this week when we can pray with family and friends and imaginary guests in a leafy Sukkah!

What especially interested me in this article was the distinction made between “religiousness” and “spirituality.” You can be “spiritual,” I suppose, without being “religious,” but can you be truly religious – exalting God and adhering to religious moral codes — without also being spiritual, without feeling close to God? Perhaps the answer is right there in Exodus 33. As one of my favorite sources, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, wrote last year (5777) about the Jewish religion:

“Between the lines of Exodus 33…we sense the emergence of one of the most distinctive and paradoxical features of Jewish spirituality. No religion has ever held God higher, but none has ever felt Him closer. That is what Moses sought and achieved in Exodus 33 in his most daring conversation with God.”[2]

Exodus 34 takes us a step further – higher and closer at the same time – by enumerating the attributes of God in language human beings can understand in two famous verses:

“The Lord! The Lord! – a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (JPS trans., v. 6-7).

When we Jews are told that we are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, these are the attributes we are supposed to emulate.

Spoiler alert! In this case, surprisingly, it is Moses Maimonides – the same Moses that tradition tells us there was no one like since the first Moses who led the Jews out of Egypt. Maimonides, of course, was known for his rationalist approach to religion. In his Guide for the Perplexed, [3] he is also known for his doubts. These positive attributes in verses 6 and 7 describe only the essence of the Divine, he explains, but not its entirety. Taken literally, they reduce God to the level of mankind.

Generally speaking, it’s best to take the spoiler’s words in the spirit in which they are given. Take Ecclesiastes, for example, who warns that while we are are celebrating Sukkot with joy, it shouldn’t be with an excess of joy because everything comes to an end. Of course, Ecclesiastes’ words were much more eloquent. He wasn’t being a sour puss, raining on the parade, though. Rather, the Hebrew word he uses, “hevel,” is translated poorly as “vanity” – all, all is vanity — in most English translations. A better translation is “breath,” which is ephemeral. All the substance, all the beauty and joy of God’s creation, is ephemeral – it vanishes, takes different forms, like the breath of our lifetimes. Enjoy every moment of life while you can!

And if we heed Rabbi Mark Saperstein’s recent warning in his erudite D’var Torah for the Reform Movement [4], that unless Jews have children at an earlier age than they tend to do now; unless the Jewish birthrate goes up; and unless many more self-identifying Jews do not simply categorize themselves as “spiritual but not religious” — or as “secular” or “cultural Jews” — but instead actually join, support, and attend their synagogues or minyans in North America, in a hundred years the strong Jewish community we take for granted in this beautiful land may cease to exist. It will be “hevel.”

In the meantime, take ten deep breaths and have a joyous Sukkot!

B’tzelem Elohim [1]

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Inlay Your two hands

directly on my single soul,

impress Your mystic caress

right through the translucent

veil that keeps me from You.

Hand-clasp my pen-in-hand

prayer that this poem, Yours

for the asking, mirrors mutely

the cadence of a nameless Receiver.

©️Corinne Copnick, Jerusalem, Israel, 1989; Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

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[1] Aldwin, C.M., Park, C.L., Jeong, Y.J. & Nath. Differing pathways between religiousness, spirituality, and health: A self-regulation perspective. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality © 2013 American Psychological Association 2014, Vol. 6, No. 1, 9–21.

[2] Sacks, Rabbi Lord Jonathan. Ki Tisa: The Closeness of God. Covenant and Conversation.

[3] Maimonides, Moses. Guide for the Perplexed, Kindle edition (see chapters 53-60).

[4] Saperstein, Rabbi Professor Mark. The Sukkah and the Jewish Experience: Chol Ha-Mo’eid Sukkot. (Exodus 33:12-34:26.) Union for Reform Judaism, October, 2017.