Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Shemini Atzeret and the Grand Canyon

What is Shemini Atzeret? Everyone asks that question, even rabbis. Sukkot lasts seven days. What’s the “Eighth Day Gathering” tacked onto the end? One lovely midrashic response is that God wants all the pilgrims who gathered in Jerusalem for Sukkot to remain one more day. Don’t you always want to extend your vacation with loved ones one more day?

Liturgically and with great ceremony, we add the prayer for rain back into the second blessing of the Amidah: Mashiv ha-ruach u’morid ha’gashem / You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall. Several observations: (1) In Eretz Yisrael, the winter rains begin at this time of year. Certainly no one wanted them to begin while they were still traveling to and from Jerusalem, so the prayer was added after Sukkot. (2) We have just finished the autumn harvest festival. Although most of us are not farmers, those of us who need to eat can still appreciate the importance of the growing cycle. Having given thanks for what we harvested this year, we immediately turn our attention to the most essential element in next year’s harvest: the winter rains. (3) Mashiv ha-ruach is added to the Gevurot, the blessing about resurrection, because rain renews the life of the world.

We have gone through the High Holy Days: introspection, repentance, atonement, and intention to change and improve. Hopefully we have experience renewal and set a new course for our lives -- not wholesale change, but improvement. No one walks out of synagogue after Ne’ilah and the final shofar utterly transformed. We’ve done the head and heart work, but how do we translate that into behavior?

Change doesn’t come easily or immediately. I think the image of water -- so central to Shemini Atzeret -- can help us. I’d like to share with you a wonderful story about Rabbi Akiba found in chapter 6 of the midrashic compilation Avot de-Rabbi Natan (which itself is a commentary on Pirke Avot). I’ll interpolate some comments.
What was the beginning of Rabbi Akiba? At age 40 he had not learned anything. One time he was standing at the mouth of a well, and asked, "Who hollowed out this rock?" They answered him, "Was it not the water that constantly falls on it?" They further said, "Akiba, are you not familiar with the verse, Water wears away stone... (Job 14:19). Rabbi Akiba immediately made the following logical inference to himself: "Just as the soft [water] shaped the hard [stone], words of Torah -- which are as hard as iron -- all the more so they will shape my heart which is but flesh and blood."
Rabbi Akiba recognizes that the process of erosion is slow and painstaking, but exceptionally powerful and successful. The Colorado River cut the Grand Canyon. The most successful changes come gradually. (One example is weight loss: if you do it gradually, it’s because you’re changing your lifestyle, and that is change that is far more likely to stick.) He learns from this -- as can we -- that change can come slowly, in small increments, little by little. During the High Holy Days, we planted the seeds of change. We don’t expect Jack’s beanstalk the next day. The seeds will germinate and grow in time, slowly and gently.
[Akiba] immediately went to learn Torah. He went with his son, and they both sat in front of a teacher of young students. Rabbi Akiba said, "My master, teacher me Torah." Rabbi Akiba held one end of a tablet, and his son held the other end. The teacher wrote the letters aleph, bet, and Rabbi Akiba learned them. Aleph, taf and Rabbi Akiba learned them. The Book of Leviticus, and he learned it. He went on studying until he had learned the entire Torah. Then he went and sat before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. He said to them, "My Masters open for me [reveal to me] the taste of the Mishnah. Once they told him one halakhah (law), he went and sat by himself, pondering: "Why was this [letter] aleph written; why was this [letter] bet written; why was this thing said?" He went back and asked them, and reduced them to silence.
Rabbi Akiba is 40 years old and does not know even the alphabet. He needs to start at the very beginning, learning two letters at a time. He does not expect himself to learn everything overnight. Each tidbit he learns facilitates the next; each incremental change facilitates and reinforces the next. He is gradually transforming himself from an ignorant farmhand to a learned sage.

The midrash is about learning Torah, and perhaps that’s one of your goals for the coming year. But it applies equally well to other changes you want to make: Jewish practice, personality traits, work habits, exercise, a healthier diet, more time with your loved ones… The seeds planted so recently will grow with time. Keep at it, but give it time.
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said, “I will give a parable. To what is this matter similar? It is like a stonecutter who was chiseling away in the mountains. One time he took his pickaxe, sat upon a mountain, and began cutting away small pieces of stone. People came up to him and asked, "What are you doing?" He replied, "I am uprooting the mountain so I can throw it into the Jordan River." They said, "You will never be able to uproot the entire mountain." The stonecutter continued until he came upon a large rock. He got underneath it, uprooted it and placed it in the Jordan. He said to the rock, "Your place is not here [on the mountain], but here [in the river]." This is what Rabbi Akiba did to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabbi Tarfon said to him: "Akiba, about you the verse says, He dams up he sources of the stream so that hidden things may be brought to light (Job 28:11) -- Rabbi Akiba brought to light things that are hidden from [other] people."
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar’s parable is beautiful. If you keep chipping away, eventually you can move a mountain. That’s our task in the coming year: to let the water in, drop by drop, to shape us into the people we wish to be. We need to be patient with ourselves, but keep moving forward and noting our successes. Renewal doesn’t always happen in a flash; sometimes it comes drop by drop.

Here’s a picture of the Grand Canyon. Perhaps you might print it out and keep it as a reminder.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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