William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Gatherings

“I need the Rebbe’s help” a desperate person once wrote. “I don’t know where else to turn. I am lost and confused. My prayers aren’t helping. I urgently need the Rebbe’s advice.” The Rebbe replied without writing a single word. He simply sent the letter back, having circled the first word of each sentence.

It’s natural to become self-encased when we’re feeling panicked and distressed. What’s fascinating is that a biblical book, Ecclesiastes, which we read tomorrow for Sukkot, presents a self-contained author – traditionally understood to be King Solomon – who is not panicking. He is summing life up as he sees it. “I have seen all of the actions performed under the sun, and concluded that all is futility (Ecc. 2:14). Words like I, Me, and Mine, recur more in this book than any other biblical book. Solomon may be too wise for his own good. He doesn’t seem to realize how much his solitude may be contributing to his sobriety.

Sukkot’s remedy is to gather, to be together, and to share with others. So much so, that Sukkot is the only Festival whose core identity is described as an emotion, the Festival of our joy. Accordingly, Sukkot originates the circle-dance. The circling of Jerusalem’s Temple’s altar with willow branches provides its earliest choreography. Circle-dancing holds unique energy. If you’ve ever felt sad when someone grabs you by the sleeve and pulls you into a circle, it won’t take long before your spirit begins to lift. Soon enough, you begin tasting joy.

Several forms of the Hebrew root assaf, meaning gather, surface in this season’s texts. When its form is passive, it signals sadness, as when Moses is ‘gathered unto his people’ as he dies in the closing words of the Torah. When it’s active, it consoles and restores as it does in the seasonal Psalm (27:10) which we conclude praying this week.

Sometimes when we want to become happy, we do things for ourselves. We buy something and treat ourselves. Yet, this season, during this Festival of Ingathering (assif), we are reminded that doing something for others can produce deeper joy. May we discover and reveal as much in Autumn’s months ahead.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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