A Bat Kol from Abram Epstein
TORAH’S REMEZ LEVEL: Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot
This is a guide to the “remez” (deeper, hinted level) of Torah during the sacred “appointed times” of the year.
Generally speaking, one may discern a deeper meaning to Torah passages than the simple stories they seem to tell. Most of us are familiar with such a Jewish style of Torah interpretation. We have studied Passover’s miraculous escape from Egypt, for example, at our sederim, applying symbolic meanings to matzah, and bitter herbs. And, we are known for creating masterpieces of explanatory literature amplifying the messages of all-too-often cryptic Torah text, called “midrashim.” Additionally, our sages have bequeathed countless tracts, ranging from the Talmud to personal writings which illuminate the words canonized in our Torah. Most dramatic as a wellspring of spiritual endeavor, delving into Torah to reach its most ethereal plane, is Kabbalah, the practice of elevating one’s self to receive Adonai’s mediated Presence through special meditations. Commentary from the great Kabbalists have included the Zohar which perceives our Creator in the act of Union with His own spiritual “Bride”–His beloved aspect of Goodness and beauty.
But as a People, our more human journey did not begin in the month of Tishrei, with Rosh Hashanah; it began with Passover. And it is here I invite your accompaniment on the path which our People followed, according to a “Bat Kol,” the ancient, traditional illumination afforded from deep devotion to Torah with teaching and guidance from sages. I have been truly blessed by their presence in my lives, most especially, Aryeh Kaplan who enabled me to hear Torah’s Remez, such as I am bringing to you.
First, a piece of conceptual “baggage” is necessary.
You are about to travel to the Torah’s next level of deeper meaning. Your own life’s path will be a good model to grasp the “vistas of a new understanding” along the way, because just as occurs in the instance of our own experience, Torah reaches “places and times” which are markers.
Typically, we arrive at an age, past adolescence, when we are mature enough to set out as adults. If we work hard, and earn a livelihood, we may meet somebody with whom we wish to spend our lives. We may well spend an engagement/betrothal time getting to know each other and confirm our commitment. There will be a day of announcement that we are soon to be married and guests likely gather to congratulate us. Then there is the wedding! Afterwards, not too many days later, we move into our own dwelling and plan a family, thanking God for our bountiful blessings.
Turning to Torah: The Journey
Adonai (As a non-gender, “unknowable” Creator may be poetically “Father” or “Husband” of the Israelite/Hebrew People), sees we have come of age to leave adolescent enslavement.
For years we endured the bitterness of subjugation, enabling the Pharaoh to confine us as forced laborers–until, a day came when we “cry out.” We see ourselves for what we have become and Adonai takes us out to become an adult, independent, NATION.
We LEAVE our Egyptian home.
Liberated, we profess with words of the “shema,” our eternal LOVE and gratitude…no other People has ever felt this intimacy with their Creator. We are about to become His Bridal People.
(Note: As a “Bridal” nation, there is no gender implied.)
Seven weeks after the completion of the barley harvest, the moment has arrived.
We wash and cleanse ourselves to be pure.
Assembled to receive the TEN COMMANDMENTS which is the document of Divine Betrothal, Moses brings us The Ten Commandments, the marriage contract to Adonai, the “Ketubah,” which commands us to be His Bridal People, and His alone, and not to be “unfaithful” by showing reverence for other so-called gods. Our Betrothal “gift,” is the wheat harvest, and the ripened fruit suitable for picking.
Our acceptance of these vows is “signed” by our keeping the Shabbat. (One of the Ten Commandments):
The Shabbat earns its significance as our year’s constant holiest day, specified on Shavuot by the Commandment to honor it as a day of making no changes in our life (complete cessation from work) a sign of appreciation for Adonai’s Creation–as is– and our having received the awareness we are Adonai’s betrothed.
This is the “Announcement” that the wedding is at hand–just ten days away!
The shofar is sounded! Tikee-yah!
Everybody gathers to celebrate–but with just a touch of alarm (Sh’vareem/T’ruah) after all, it’s Adonai who is the prospective “groom.” The Bridal People has indeed been tested by a 40-year sojourn across the desert with Moses and was touch-and-go in keeping faith Adonai would lead them to their final destination, the Land of Canaan. People prepare to meet their Creator. The first of Tishrei is approaching. Special prayers acknowledge we love our Creator to whom we turn for guidance toward an evermore inspired path, one of virtue and concern for those suffering misfortune and affirm our intention to repair damage to the world.
During the next ten days we reflect on our shortcomings. If we have wronged others, causing their reputations harm, or acted viciously with unintended harsh talk, we may seek forgiveness. Our personal weakness leading to anger and arrogance requires “cleansing” through contemplation and change toward others. We must purify our hearts and souls during this interim period, becoming spiritual virgins in preparation for the coming great Wedding Day just approaching…indeed, these days of returning (teshuvah) to the state of our innocence before any corruption by the compromises of life, the Yamim Noraim–(“Days of Awe”) require us to be fully honest about who we are compared to who we must be– if we would be worthy of Adonai’s Covenantal Ketubah.
YOM KIPPUR–The Day of Atonement. Shabbat above all Shabbatot
This is the actual ceremony of full commitment to love Adonai with all our heart, soul and might.
It is the day the Bridal People are examined. Her “purity” is brought before Adonai, much as the purity of a new bride’s virginity was “tested” in days gone by. Back then, she and her groom would go into a private room (today, replicated only by the “chuppah”–or covering held over the couple during their vows), and they would engage in intercourse. A blood-stained cloth would be triumphantly waved shortly following their conjugal consummation, heralding proof of her pure virginal state, usually a condition upon which the sanctification of their ketubah depended.
On Adonai’s Yom Kippur “wedding” (a renewal of the Covenant), the “Bridal People” our individual names are metaphorically recorded in the “Book of Life” for the coming year. To achieve the purity of heart consonant with so profound an inner atonement, we pledge to rectify those many social failures which have caused hurt to others or damaged the Creation in any way for which we may be responsible, either knowingly or unknowingly–expressed in the prayer: Al Chait (Forgive us for the sin…) and purge all inclinations to repeat them again.
Indeed, the prayer asks Adonai to “Forgive us…” not just “me.” We are His Bridal People, and we come before Him as such.
The Yom Kippur “Wedding Day ” Experience
As the sun sets, bringing an end to the Yom Kippur wedding day, we who have done our best to return to a “virginal” heart of pure appreciation of Adonai’s Covenant, His inspiration guiding us to continue the work of the Creation, repairing and taking it forward, rises within us.
We feel something altogether remarkable: A sweeping emotion gathers us together as a congregation, and as a People. It is a small ending segment of the service. N’eilah. “The Gates of Heaven are closing.” The Book of Life, for the coming year, with each of our destiny is being sealed. BUT, what is that awesome sense of encounter? Adonai…He is our Creator. We repeat it seven times. The number of times a bride circles her groom pronouncing blessings at their wedding. The feeling is so powerful. SO unparalleled.
Adonai has consummated the wedding with His love. That is the feeling. Only once a year. Only now. Our love is returned. The Covenant is restored.
SUKKOT–The Festival of Booths
Moving into the HOME as Adonai’s Spousal People
Five days after the Yom Kippur “Wedding” Jewish families extend their living experience from their main houses to freshly-built, fairly small, three-wall huts, with loosely thatched roofs. For seven days tradition calls for these “booths” to accommodate sleeping arrangements so one may spend the night, and enough space to take meals as well as “shake the lulav,” a palm frond with two species of tree leaves, which is held in one hand, while in the other is a large, perfume-fragrant citron, called an etrog.
On the “PSHAT” (literal) level of Torah, the Festival celebrates the fall agricultural produce and invigorates the senses with joyous anticipation Adonai will cause the winter rains to ripen the bounteous clusters of grapes in the fall vineyards awaiting harvest, that they become rich wine. In days of the ancient Temple, a procession of Kohanim followed the High Priest to fill a flagon with Siloam spring water and then, ascending the large Temple altar, witness his pouring it, along with wine, as an offered prayer that the coming season see “water turned to wine.”
On the deeper, REMEZ, level, we may glean much more.
The huts, or booths, are, each one a “Home” for Adonai’s Presence to “cohabit” with His Spousal People.
Now “married” (re-Covenanted) we take a beautiful array of palm, willow and myrtle leaves, bind them together and holding high a rare fruit with an enticing aroma, the etrog, do a dance of welcome, bidding our beloved to join us in our thatched-roof “HOME”–the SUKKAH.
The People act out their unrestrained anticipation. The Temple Courtyards were filled with magic acts, dancing, singing, jugglers–and one special event which was fully REMEZ-related. To either side of the Priests’ elevated court (where they performed sacrificial rites), two huge candelabra were built for Sukkot. Seventy-five feet in height, each had four large bowls of oil lit at the onset of the Festival and gauged to burn exactly the full eight-day duration. (The eighth day was an additional sacred occasion formally sanctified as part of Sukkot in Temple times, and celebrated then and now as “Shemini Atzeret”)
(Note: These menorot (candelabra) burning for eight days became the actual reason we light an eight-candle Hanukkah menorah, inasmuch as the first Hanukkah was a delayed Sukkot and was celebrated as such, coming into its own as a separate holiday only a year after Judah Maccabee had re-conquered the Temple.)
So luminous was the light from the flaming bowls high upon their towering branches, it was said all of Jerusalem was as light during nighttime as it was during day.
And that was no small sign to the People that Adonai’s Presence was arriving.
The prophet Zechariah (who had witnessed the rebuilt Temple after the Babylonian Exile) had spoken words which resonated in every traditional Hebrew heart, words which promised Adonai would be among His Bridal People–now His Spousal People–on a Great Sukkot–saying “there shall be a continuous day…of neither day nor night. And there shall be light at eventide…(14:7-9) And Adonai shall be King over all the earth. In that day (of Sukkot) there shall be one Creator to all, with one Name.”
At the ceremonial conclusion of the seventh day of Sukkot, priests circumambulated the altar with lulavs chanting “Hoshannah Na,” please deliver us, imploring that Zechariah’s prophesy come true, and all our People’s enemies be vanquished.
Plaintively reality would set in then, as it has every year since, that Adonai shall choose the time for His Presence to eradicate evil, even as our People, annually a grateful, Covenanted Spouse, spend the last day, Shemini Atzeret, taking down the booths…and being thankful for the coming fecundity of our earth and lives, while working to reduce the suffering of others.
Shanah Tovah U’gmar Hatimah Tovah l’Culam
Happy 5,783 and may you be sealed in the Book of Life!