Friday, October 9, 2020

A Time to Be Furiously Happy

I once - and only once - went on a five-day silent meditation retreat. As I'm sure you can imagine, I wasn't very good at it. But the strangest memory I have of that retreat was leaving - leaving was unexpectedly overwhelming. There was noise everywhere. People were chattering aimlessly, just pouring out words without any sense of filter or care. And people were just going about everyday life, as if everyday life was not completely absurd. 

That first day of being back in life is similar to how I often feel in the first days of Sukkot, and it is especially true of this year, in which things have been just so serious for so long. Sukkot begins just a scant few days after the closing of Yom Kippur, and they are in some ways polar opposites as holy days. Yom Kippur demands that we confront some of the most difficult aspects of life, such as mortality and the inevitability of failure - things that we have been confronting this year in a completely different way. And then Sukkot comes barrelling in. Sukkot, the Season of our Rejoicing. The central holiday of joy and celebration. And I’m never quite ready for it - I end up feeling once again like I’m sitting on that bus on my way back from a week of awful and awesome silence. 

But there is one aspect of Sukkot that I think speaks directly to this: Megillat Kohelet, or ‘Ecclesiastes’, which we usually read on the intermediate Shabbat. This year, we will be reading it on Sh’mini Atzeret. Please forgive me for bringing it to your consciousness early. Here’s the thing about Kohelet: if you asked someone who understood Sukkot but didn’t know about Kohelet to choose which biblical book we read today, I think that Kohelet would be at the bottom of the list. Kohelet, after all, is a profoundly cynical book. 

Its opening line is all you need to hear to know that Kohelet is an unlikely book to read on the Season of our Rejoicing:

א) דִּבְרֵי֙ קֹהֶ֣לֶת בֶּן־דָּוִ֔ד מֶ֖לֶךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃ (ב) הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃

‘The words of Kohelet, son of David, King in Jerusalem: Vanity of vanities! - said Kohelet. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.’

That word he keeps using, ‘hevel’, more precisely means vapour. Everything is vapour, according to Kohelet. It’s all just... nothing. 

So why would Kohelet be the scroll of Sukkot, of the happiest festival in our calendar? 

I’d like to offer an understanding of our encounter with Kohelet, especially for a year like ours: Kohelet’s conclusion, which he keeps cycling back to throughout the book. Here’s the version from chapter 3: ‘So I realised that the only worthwhile thing there is for them is to enjoy themselves and to do what is good in their lifetimes; also, that whenever a person does eat and drink and find goodness in his labour, that is a gift of God.’

Kohelet’s conclusion, in all of his deep pessimism, is that we should grasp joy when we can find it. That there is no good to be found in spiralling into cynicism, even if Kohelet does think that his bleak ideas are reflections of reality. I hear Kohelet saying to us ‘come and join me in this dark place - but for goodness’ sake, don’t stay here; this is no place to live’. 

The writer Jenny Lawson is, I think, a modern Kohelet. She wrote a book about her struggle with depression, which she entitled: Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things. She writes - and I’m censoring a few choice words: 

‘I am DONE with sadness. … I’VE HAD IT. I AM GOING TO BE FURIOUSLY HAPPY, OUT OF SHEER SPITE. … I’ve often thought that people with severe depression have developed such a well for experiencing extreme emotion that they might be able to experience extreme joy in a way that ‘normal’ people also might never understand, and that’s what FURIOUSLY HAPPY is all about.’ She goes on to say: ‘I can grab onto each moment of joy and live in those moments because I have seen the bright contrast from dark to light and back again. I am privileged to recognize that the sound of laughter is a blessing and a song, and to realize that the bright hours spent with my family and friends are extraordinary treasures to be saved…’

Jenny Lawson and Kohelet are talking about the importance of choosing joy. And that, I think, is the experience of Sukkot: choosing joy, using the depth of the experience of Yom Kippur, and turning it on its head - deciding that deep aching can give us an understanding of how rich rejoicing can be. Of seeing joy not as an accident of life going well, but instead as something that requires work and is worth working for. 

I wish you a furiously happy Sukkot. We all deserve it. Shabbat shalom, and chag sameach. 


Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Book of Malachi



Background of Malachi
Time: Persian Period (Post-Exile)
Place: Yehud
Kings: None. Ruled by High Priest (Joshua) + Governor (Zerubavel)


Political Backdrop:

·       Just a little later than Zechariah and Haggai: the Temple has been rebuilt!
·       We’re back from exile!
Step 1: Assyrians are the Big Bad: Northern Kingdom falls (722BCE)
Step 2: Babylonians take over as the Big Bad: Southern Kingdom goes into exile (586BCE)
            Exile period…
539BCE: Neo-Babylonian Empire falls to Cyrus the Great (Perisan Empire)
Step 3: The Persian Empire sends us home! (538BCE)



Primary Themes of Malachi:

·       The generation of the Second Temple are just as bad as their ancestors!
o   The exile didn’t change anything…

·       Set up a series of disputes between Israel and God

·       God feels the people have abandoned proper religious practice; the people feel that God is not just and that there is no benefit to serving God.

·       Messianic hope!




Structure of Malachi


Content
Verses
Intro Verse
1:1


Dispute 1: God’s Love
1:2-5
God claims to have shown us love
2
People ask: How?
2
God answers: I chose you over Esau!
3-5


Dispute 2: Israel Offers Blemished Sacrifices
1:6-2:9
God claims Israel have shown God scorn
6
People ask: How?
6
God answers: Blemished sacrifices
7-9


Dispute 3: Israelite Men Abandoned Wives
2:10-16
God will leave Israelites who went astray with idolatrous women no descendants
10-13
People ask: Why?
14
God responds: Because you abandoned your wives
14-16


Dispute 4: Israelites Claim God Is Not Just
2:17-3:5
God claims that Israel have wearied God with their words
17
People ask: How?
17
God responds: By claiming that God is not just
17
Messianic interlude – response to justice
3:1-5


Dispute 5: Israel Has Abandoned Tithes
3:6-12
God tells Israel to turn back. People: How?
6-7
God accuses Israel of defrauding God.
8
People ask: How?
8
God responds: By not bringing tithes.
9
BUT: If you do bring them, there will be blessing!
10-12


Dispute 6: Israelites Claim Following God Has No Benefit
3:13-16
God accuses Israel of speaking harsh words against God.
13
People ask: How?
13
God responds: Because you say that there is no point in worshipping Me.
14-15
But a remnant of Israel has been faithful
16
(Links to following…)



Transition: On That Day…
3:17-24
God will care for the remnant, and the wicked will fall
17-21
Be mindful of the Torah!
22
I will send Elijah before the Day of the Lord
23-24






Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Book of Zechariah



Background of Zechariah
Time: Persian Period (Post-Exile): 520BCE
Place: Yehud
Kings: None. Ruled by High Priest (Joshua) + Governor (Zerubavel)


Political Backdrop:

·       Same timing/backdrop as Haggai
·       We’re back from exile!
Step 1: Assyrians are the Big Bad: Northern Kingdom falls (722BCE)
Step 2: Babylonians take over as the Big Bad: Southern Kingdom goes into exile (586BCE)
            Exile period…
539BCE: Neo-Babylonian Empire falls to Cyrus the Great (Perisan Empire)
Step 3: The Persian Empire sends us home! (538BCE)



Primary Themes of Zechariah:

·       The necessity to rebuild the Temple – and to do better than the previous generations so that it won’t be destroyed again

·       Strong messianic themes

·       Israel’s sin = injustice, bad religious leadership (especially from false prophets)

·       Elements of apocalyptic literature
o   Angelic guide
o   Messianic imagery – eschatology?
o   Lots of very confusing, slightly frightening imagery/visions





Structure of Zechariah


Content
Verses
Section 1: Introduction and Call to Repent
Chapter 1:1-6
Don’t be like your ancestors!



Section 2: The Dreams
Chapter 1:7-Chapter 6
Dream 1: Four Horsemen
Angel/horseman/messenger – two people or one?
1:8-17
Dream 2: Israel’s Sin and Exile: Four Horns and Four Blacksmiths
2:1-4
Dream 3: Future Jerusalem: J’lem is Measured
2:5-17
Dream 4: Messianic Kingdom: Heavenly Court
High Priest Joshua
‘How we get there’: vv.6-7
3:1-10
Dream 5: Messianic Kingdom: The Menorah
Governor Zerubbavel
‘How we get there’: vv.6-7
4:1-14
Dream 6: Future Jerusalem: Flying Scroll
5:1-4
Dream 7: Israel’s Sin and Exile: Woman in a Tub
5:5-11
Dream 8: Four Horsemen
Seem to be at the beginning of their journey?
6:1-8


Section 3: Preparation for God’s Kingdom
6:9 – Chapter 8
The coronation of the High Priest
6:9-15
Fasting and obedience
     Don’t be like your ancestors!
7:1-14
Divine announcements of hope
     Fasting becomes joy
8:1-23


Section 4: Images of the Future
Chapters 9-14
Nations will be defeated; Zion will rejoice
9:1-8
Images of victory
     King on a donkey
     God manifests
Chapter 9
     vv.9-10
     v.14
People were led astray by false prophets, etc
10:1-3
Israel will beat its enemies in battle
10:4-12
Good and bad shepherds
Chapter 11
‘On that day’
     The clans of Judah will beat its enemies
     But they will take pity on their enemies
     Idols and prophets will end
     God will attack the ‘shepherd’ (leader)
     Earth-shaking events lead to J’lem’s power
     J’lem will be established as the religious centre
Chapters 12-14
     12:1-8
     12:9-14
     13:1-6
     13:7-9
     14:1-15
     14:16-21







A Time to Be Furiously Happy

I once - and only once - went on a five-day silent meditation retreat. As I'm sure you can imagine, I wasn't very good at it. But th...