On this Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of “comfort”, I want to share with you some words which I hope will be comforting. My d’var Torah is going to be a bit of a journey with many stops along the way. It begins with a reference to a man who was and remains, a great inspiration to me, proceeds to refer toa Jewish holiday many are not familiar with, references a text from this week’s Torah portion and a prayer from the siddur and, finally, goes back to the beginning, closing the circle with an important point about our lives.
I’ll begin by talking about the man who inspired me and those who know me or who have read some of my writings or listened to my podcast, may not be surprised to learn whom I am referring to. Last Friday, July 16, was the 40th anniversary of an automobile accident which claimed the life of Harry Chapin, alav hashalom. I’m sure many of you recognize his name but some won’t. Harry Chapin was a singer, songwriter, storyteller and philanthropist whose ballads touched the hearts of so many and who worked tirelessly for many causes, notably fighting world hunger.
He was and remains a creative and spiritual inspiration to so many. His voice was stilled far too soon.
Let me share some simple words from one of Harry Chapin’s most popular songs: Circle. I’d be glad to talk to any Chapin fans later about my favorite songs of his, most of them less well known. But, in that song called Circle, he sang: “All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown, the moon rolls through the nighttime till the daybreak comes around.”
These may not be among his most poetic words, but they are so beautiful and profound in their simplicity and they are, in fact, reflective of Jewish tradition.
Each evening in the Ma’ariv service, we express the same thought; that God “rolls away the light before the darkness and the darkness before the light”. We feel God’s presence in the cycle of day and night and celebrate the cycles of time.
And we recognize the circle in other areas of Jewish life. We talk about the “life cycle” referring to the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth and in the real, genuine presence in our lives of those who have died whose souls are still part of our circle.
We talk about the calendar being a cycle, from Rosh Hashana through the ebbs and flows of the year, the joy of Purim to the sadness of Tisha B’av and back again. But we don’t have to wait until Purim to have a joyous holiday. There are actually joyous holidays all around the Jewish calendar. In fact, you might be surprised to know that one of those happy days is in fact observed today.
Today is the 15th of Av, Tu B’av, The Hebrew letters Tet and Vav pronounced Tu have the numerical value of 15 as in Tu B’shvat, the 15th of Shvat. So, this is Tu B’av, the 15th of the month of Av.
Tu’ B’av is known in many Jewish circles as the “Jewish Valentine’s Day” a holiday celebrating love. That idea stems from a statement in the Mishna about Tu B’av. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught that there were no days in Israel more festive than Tu B’av and Yom Kippur because on those days the daughters of Jerusalem dressed in borrowed garments of white, borrowed so that no one would know who among them actually could afford such garments and who couldn’t so that the dancers would be appreciated for their grace, not their wealth. And they would dance in the vineyards seeking the attention of the sons of Jerusalem, presumably to take the first small steps in insuring that the life cycle would continue.
It is reasonable to ask why there would be dancing on Yom Kippur. That is the subject for another sermon.
I’m going to ask and answer a different question:
What was the dance like? How did they dance? Maybe they danced a distant ancestor of the hora.
It is of course impossible to know but, according to one Hassidic commentary offered by the 18th century Hassidic teacher Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, they in fact did dance a hora: they danced in a circle. He emphasized that this is fitting because true dancing involves looking at one’s dancing companions face to face and that shows the equality of each dancer and emphasizes the significance of the circle in Jewish life.
That’s a nice idea. But how did this Hassidic teacher conclude that they danced in a circle?
He concluded this by using some great creativity.
He read Tu B’av in a different way. Av is the name of the month, spelled alef bet, so, he said Tu B’av is a reference to the 15th letter of the Alef Bet, the Hebrew alphabet. What is the 15th letter? It’s samech. What shape is samech? A circle. So, the Tu B’av dances were in the shape of a circle, just like our hora today.
I like that.
But I want to go a step further and talk about the Samech, an under appreciated and infrequently used letter in the Alef Bet.
The Samech is actually the subject of a great miracle story in Jewish tradition relating to a text in this week’s parasha, none other than the 10 commandments.
The commandments, according to the tradition, were inscribed on the tablets with the words actually engraved all the way through the tablets so that one could read them from either side.
This works for all of the letters except the samech. All of the other letters could be punched out of the tablets and the remaining stone would still be connected. But, it you punch out a circle for the samech, the piece of stone in the middle of the letter presented a problem. It would have to remain suspended, defying the law of gravity. And, according to tradition, it did just that. This was considered to be nes bitoch nes, a miracle in the midst of a miracle. The overriding miracle was the giving of the Torah itself while the smaller miracle, the floating middle of the Samech, was further proof of God’s power and the wonder of the world.
Why would we need the miracle of the samech when there is the greater miracle of the giving of the Torah?
I think that it is because the greatest miracles around us are often just too much to consider and so we tend to be blind to them, We can’t go around “oohing and aahing” at our very existence and the existence of the world, the greatest miracles of all. But, when something happens in our world, one little piece of wonder, our eyes should be filled with awe and our hearts overflow with joy and gratitude.
Perhaps in the spirit of Tu B’av, it is looking into the eyes of a beloved. Perhaps it’s the smile of a child, a rainbow or a beautiful sunset, a text of Torah or a piece of music or poetry which elevates us and inspires us. All of these are reminders of the miraculous world in which we live.
Our Siddur tells us that we should thank God for the daily miracles around us always. That’s not easy to do. There are just so many miracles around us. But the siddur reminds us that each and every day, we can experience something which elevates, inspires, and, while we probably don’t do it, would be a good reason to go out into the vineyards and dance with joy.
Let me return to the idea of circles and share with you another brief excerpt from Harry Chapin’s song. I will, however, not sing the words Harry wrote but with two words a friend of his, folksinger, Oscar Brand inserted into the song when he sang it at the Carnegie Hall Tribute to Chapin in 1987: “There’s no straight lines make up my life and all my roads have bends, there’s no clear cut beginnings and thank God, no dead ends”.
It’s a beautiful thought. But saying our lives are circles is not enough. We need to find the points on those circles which stand out, which attract our attention and our wonder, experiences which teach that each moment is not like the one before and that at some moments, we experience miracles within miracles, floating like the samech in the air around us, moments which inspire us to find meaning in the entire circle of life.
May we all celebrate such moments of vision and joy and on this Shabbat Nachamu, be a source for comfort always.