Wednesday, 07 Oct 2015

Written by Robyn Ashworth-Steen

And so we return – right back to the beginning.  We start repetition 5776. 

There’s a song that many of you will know which Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris brought to a recent class on the book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes. It was written in the 1950s by Pete Seeger, the American songwriter and activist and was performed by The Byrds in 1965.  It is, of course, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’:


To everything – turn, turn, turn

There is a season – turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven


A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep


[The song ends with the verse…]


A time to gain, a time to lose

A time to rend, a time to sew

A time for love, a time for hate

A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!


The lyrics are taken from chapter 3 of the book of Kohelet which we have just read for the festival of Sukkot.  The song, and the book of Kohelet, emphasizes the circularity in nature.  In chapter 1:4-7 the Biblical book says:

One generation goes, another comes…

The sun rises, and the sun sets

– and glides back to where it rises….

All streams flow into the sea,

Yet the sea is never full;

To the place from which they flow

the streams flow back again. 

The writer of the book of Kohelet appears to conclude that this circularity is frustrating and declares, ‘there is nothing new beneath the sun’ (1:9) and most well-known – ‘Utter futility! All is futile!’ (1:2).  The writer questions the meaning and purpose of life and ends the passage ‘a season is set for everything’ by asking the rhetorical question, ‘What value, then, can the man of affairs get from what he earns?’.   Pete Seeger, instead of understanding this poem to evidence the worthlessness of our work and action ends his song with the phrase ‘a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.’  He believes there is hope and writing at the time of the Vietnam War a message of hope was vital – and indeed, still is for us today.

We have just completed our Torah cycle and begun a New Year.  We move from Rosh Hashanah, to Yom Kippur, to Sukkot, to Simchat Torah and so on and so on until we return to Rosh Hashanah – a complete circle.  I understand the writer of Kohelet’s frustration – repetition can be frustrating, boring and seemingly meaningless – how can we move on if we always seem to return to the beginning? 

Let me share with you a quotation from the book ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides which I’m reading at the moment – which I highly recommend.  The protagonist narrator states:

We Greeks get married in circles, to impress upon ourselves the essential matrimonial facts; that to be happy you have to find variety in repetition; that to go forward you have to come back where you began.

This is such a powerful statement and relevant to us as Jews as we also get married in circles.  Here is the potential within our world of circles – to find ‘variety in repetition’ and to realise that we always have something to learn from the past and from our beginnings. 

There is another text that I want to share with you which I was introduced to by Rabbi Sheila Shulman (zichronah livracha) (whose yahrzeit occurs on 14 October/1 Cheshvan).  Sheila always used to quote one line from Le Guin’s book ‘The Dispossessed’:

You can go home again…so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been. 

It has taken me a while to start to understand this saying and this concept of home being a place where you haven’t been before.  But our great narrative in the Torah understands this concept.  The Torah is mainly constructed of a story of us being expelled from our home, the Garden of Eden.  We move from place to place, again and again – most notably from Egypt.  Forty years in the wilderness then follow.  We wander and wander and attempt to reach the Promised Land.  What is so curious is that, in the Torah, we never reach the Promised Land, we just see it from afar.  And we do not celebrate reaching the Promised Land – the land of milk and honey – in our festival cycle.

We are a people of wanderers – spiritual nomads – searching for the Promised Land and a return to a home we have never been to.  We dance in circles but never reach ‘home’.

I have one last text to share with you by another one of my favourite teachers – Justin Wise.  In his daily blog he wrote, a few months ago, the following:

Being home does not require the completion or achievement of anything.  Home is always here.  And perhaps, unsurprisingly when I remember that I am home in every place and in every moment, when the world and life becomes my home, so much more becomes possible. 

And there it is.  The fact that we move in circles, that we may never seem to reach our home (which we’ve never experienced anyway) is ok.  The rabbis were radical when they taught that God does not only dwell in a Temple but with each of us, at every moment.  We’re commanded through the Shema to remember this when we walk in the street, lie in our beds and talk to our children.  From appreciating that nature and life is circular and incomplete we are able to appreciate the beauty in life and bring our spiritual home with us wherever we go. 

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s will – Amen.

[Adaptation of Sermon delivered at Kent Liberal Jewish Community, October 2015 and inspired by a Megillot class with Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris and, as always, by Rabbi Sheila Shulman.]

Robyn Ashworth-Steen LBC Rabbinic Student 

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.