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Festivals of Faith: Sukkot – The Starry Night

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays

The Starry Night*

“Religion should change with the times.” I am sure that everyone in this congregation has, at one time or another, been accosted by this ubiquitous slogan. I know that I have had to contend with it ever since my first youthful venture outside my native Williamsburg.

“Religion should change with the times.” This is the kind of profound platitude that everyone who utters it thinks he has invented. Like so many other clichés, which at first sight seem to possess so much wisdom and upon reflection prove utterly vacuous, this popular motto is thoroughly banal. It offers simple bromides for enormously complex problems. It issues a fog of vague and imprecise but terribly up-to-date sentiments, where clarity and analysis are called for. It has as much to offer to religious philosophy as “twinkle, twinkle little star” has to contribute to the science of astronomy.

Does this mean that we are “against change”? Of course not. To be against  change is to be against life, because we are always moving, always changing, always either growing up or growing down, progressing or retrogressing. Change is the law of the universe. Life is always in flux. A great Greek philosopher once said that life is like a river, always changing and moving, and, because of its constant motion, you cannot step into the same river twice. Whereupon another Greek philosopher offered his opinion that so constant a state of flux is it in, that you cannot step into the river even once.

So we do not deny that life does change, and we do not even piously wish that it would not change. But we do maintain that intelligent human beings try to balance change and continuity, motion and stability. Just as complete immutability spells petrifaction and stagnation, so does constant changeability imply  fickleness, unreliability, and irresponsibility. Thus, for instance, all of us want our children to change: to study, to grow physically, to better their characters, to improve their personalities. We want them to be weaned from us protective parents, to have their own careers, to marry and build their own homes, and to make their own reputations in life. But we also want them to be stable, always to remain honorable, responsible, loyal, to keep a word and a commitment once made, and to maintain throughout life their love for parents, brothers, and sisters. Is anyone ready to abandon these qualities with the facile argument that honor should change with the times? Or love should change with the times? Or friendship, or character, or integrity?

Certainly there is change. But a man cannot spiritually or psychologically survive change that is so radical, so abrupt, so unceasing that there is no continuity or stability in his life. He must have something in life that is fixed, some reference point by which to measure new ideas, new promises, new demands, and new phenomena.

That fixed point is Torah. The psalmist sang, “Thy word is a lamp unto my foot and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105). Of course, we use our feet to tread on different paths in life. We live neither in a forcibly imposed East European ghetto, nor in the voluntarily self-isolated communities of Western Europe, but in the open and pluralistic and technological United States—and it is an exciting and adventurous life. Our feet stake out new paths constantly. But the lamp and the light for our feet and our paths are the same—Torah and mitzvot. Without them we stumble, we lose our way, and our adventure turns into a horror, and the excitement into unbearable anxiety.

The more a society is in a state of change, the more it needs some anchor of permanence to give it a sense of stability. When I don my tallit or tefillin, when I hold my lulav and etrog, I suddenly am aware of myself as standing in the grand tradition of my parents and my grandparents and their grandparents before them. I perceive myself as part of a great and noble historical continuum which emerges unshaken from the vicissitudes of the various ages. These observances are both symbol and essence of my roots. And, indeed, in the performance of the Jewish mitzvot, I am aware of my roots such that no matter what winds may buffet my branches, no matter what storms may swirl about me, I remain firm and stable. I feel like a tree, not like a mushroom which appears out of nowhere and disappears into nothing. Thus, the tallit and the tefillin, the lulav and the etrog, kashrut and Shabbat, are more important here and today than they were in Volozhin or Pressburg or Hamburg of a hundred years ago. Our life in these times is obsessed by veneer, by the appeal of the new and the fashionable, by the attraction of tomorrow’s style. Marshall McLuhan, for all his sensationalism, has enunciated a truth in his famous statement that “the medium is the message.” Considering the proliferation of the various new media in our times, our minds are bombarded by all kinds of novel and evanescent messages, so that the timeless verities are displaced from our consciousness. We have become the generation of the spiritually dispossessed, and our own permanent values have turned unstable and illusory. We are thus perpetual adolescents, internal transition. With all our scorn for the hippies, we must acknowledge in gratitude that they point to a problem that is ours: they, on the margins of society, are the psychopathic symptoms of our inner pathology, our inner emptiness, our inner sickness. We are so caught up in change, so enamored of motion, so mercurial in our spiritual orientation, so volatile in our ethical lives, so fickle in our culture, that we are left without identity, without self, without reality. And it is against this emptiness that the hippies attempt, so pathetically, to reassert the eternal and stable truths of love and beauty and simplicity. It is a pity that their “flower power” has no roots.

In a society of this kind, we need Torah more than ever before. We need a religion which does not change with the times, but which offers the permanence and stability we crave. Religion should not be a mirror that reflects the crazy whirl of life’s mad currents. It should be a rudder that keeps us afloat, that tells us where we are going and guides us there, that helps us attain perspective and prevents us from being overwhelmed by the empty foam of life. Were religion to change with the times, it would not be worth the effort to stay religious!

I believe that this idea is implicit in a remarkable statement of the Rabbis of the Midrash (Yalkut Shim‘oni, Psalms, 682). They taught that ein Melekh ha- Mashiah ba ella litten le-umot ha-olam . . . sukkah—the King-Messiah will come to the world only to teach the nations of the world about the sukkah. How strange! For over two thousand years, Jews have pined away for the Messiah. For the last eight hundred years or so, we have sung daily of our hearts’ deepest yearnings and proclaim courageously our ani ma’amin, our belief and our faith that the Messiah can come at any time, any day. And what for? To teach the gentiles how to build a sukkah! Did not the prophets conceive of the Messiah so much more nobly? Isaiah taught that the function of the Messiah would be to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning forks. Micah taught that the Messiah will establish the House of the Lord on the mountain in Jerusalem so that all nations will proclaim, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord” (Mic. 4:2). And the Rabbis of the Midrash? That the Messiah will come, gather up the nations in the UN, and teach them the prosaic laws of how to build a little sukkah!

What did they mean? I suggest it is this. The sukkah is a symbol of change. The Rabbis refer to it as dirat arai, a temporary abode. Its very flimsiness is an index of its temporariness. It is a symbol of the makeshift booths which our  ancestors used on their journey through the Sinai wilderness. It implies, therefore, transition, transience, impermanence. The very insignificance of its defannot, or walls, and the requirement that the covering, or sekhakh be impermanent are further indications of sukkah as a symbol of change and transition. Now, transition is a dangerous period. Consider adolescence and the early years of marriage, or historical transition from one age to another, or economic change and displacements. At a time of this sort, disaster dogs us at every footstep, calamity is just around every corner, and man is threatened by being swept up in change and losing his moorings. A world of this kind needs a Messiah; it needs his lesson of how to survive the sukkah! The Messiah will teach the world what the Jews always should have known; that we can and must find stability in the midst of change and movement. The Halakhah teaches us that in order for a sukkah to be valid, the covering, or sekhakh, must not be too tightly packed. Specifically, we must be able to see the stars through the sekhakh. Like the ancient mariner who without instruments was able to guide himself by the stars, or like the contemporary interplanetary satellite which moves unerringly through the vast and open reaches of empty space by latching on to a star, so man, caught up in an ever-moving and ever-changing sukkah of life, must be able to see the stars through the sekhakh. That star is—Torah, faith, God.

When the artist Van Gogh was asked about his famous expressionistic painting The Starry Night, he said, “I felt a need of—shall I say the word?—religion, and so I went out and painted the stars.” It is the very permanence of the stars and the solace they offer to an unstable society that makes them the symbol of religion. It is this fixity amidst flux that Torah offers and that the Messiah will teach.

The religion of Torah, therefore, does not change with the times. It is not subject to the whims of the public opinion poll. Its strength derives from its perennial reliability.

Nevertheless, we must also stress a corollary: that while Torah is changeless, it must always be relevant to a changing society. It must not be so changeless that it has nothing to do with man, who is always in a state of change. Judaism must address man in his changing conditions; it must speak to man of values and faith, of loyalty and honor and meaning, as they apply to his times and his society. But Judaism cannot do this if the teachers of Torah turn their backs on the rest of mankind. This is what we mean when we appeal for the relevance of Orthodox Judaism, and this is our argument with those in our own camp who would cut themselves off from modern society completely. The stars can guide man only when they are visible. If clouds of distrust and diffidence cover the stars, they are of precious little use to man. So the advocates of Torah must speak to modern man in his own idiom; they must respect his intelligence and feel with him in his misery.

When the Rabbis of old complained that Torah munnahat be-keren zavit, Torah lies neglected in a hidden corner (Kiddushin 66a), they did not mean for us to crawl into that corner with it and turn our backs on the world. Rather, they meant for us to take Torah out of that keren zavit and bring it into the center of the world scene, into the maelstrom of daily events, into the midst of the raging torrents of the times, and with it to offer man abiding faith and enduring stability.

Of course, by the same token, overemphasizing relevance can destroy the stable character of religion of which we speak. When you are too relevant, you turn religion into a newspaper; and nothing is as meaningless as yesterday’s news…Torah, therefore, must not be a sealed book written in an ancient and undecipherable language, nor must it be a running commentary of religious journalese. It must be the Sefer Hayyim, the Book of Life. That is a difficult task—to be permanent and yet relevant, changeless and yet germane. It means that while affirming the unchanging nature of Halakhah, we must be able to explain it in terms of a changing society; that while teaching the timeless truths of Torah, we must relate them to issues that are timely. Above all, we must not be afraid to say that we do not have all the answers, and yet we must never cease searching for them.



The full excerpt can be found in Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays