Friday, September 30, 2016

Derashah: Chaggai the Optimist (Rosh HaShanah 5777)

Feedback welcome!

The Great Depression
Once upon a time, Jews lived as a minority, subject to the whims of the regnant majority. Impoverished and unpopular, they began to fall away from Torah; they stopped speaking Hebrew, they stopped observing Shabbat and Yom Tov, and they married out. Then, suddenly, unbelievably, that regnant majority granted the Jews permission to return to Israel and build up their land, we even held Jerusalem again – but most of the Jews did not take advantage of the opportunity, unable to believe that their redemption had arrived. Those who did go encountered nasty neighbours as well as difficult living conditions; the feebleness of their settlement was taken as evidence that this was no Messianic time, and their leaders failed to inspire the majority of Diaspora Jewry to join them.

This sounds a lot like the early years of the State of Israel, but as I suspect many of you recognize, it is actually a story that is 2500 years old. It is the history of the Jews who were allowed by the Persians to return to Israel and build the second Beit haMikdash.

We were small in number, and without resources, relying on the generosity of the Persian government. We lacked the sacred relics of the first Beit haMikdash – the Aron, the Tablets, and so on. The walls of Jerusalem were in ruins; we were without defenses, so that we needed to allocate precious manpower just to stand guard protecting those who were trying to build. The local Samaritans objected to our plans, and successfully lobbied the Persians to halt our construction of the Temple. The Jews still in Babylon sent a disheartened and disheartening inquiry: “Should we still fast on Tishah b'Av? It doesn’t look like your Redemption is happening so fast.”

And on to this depressing stage stepped one man, who would electrify the Jewish people and change history. His name was Chaggai, and here is the story of his four inspiring prophecies.

Message 1: The First of Elul
·         Recall that on the first day of Elul in the Jews’ first year in the midbar, Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to acquire the second set of tablets, replacing the first, broken Luchot.[1]
·         And on another first day of Elul, Chaggai proclaimed a message of equal renewal: Just as the original tablets were destroyed but replaced, so our Beit haMikdash, brutally shattered, will yet be replaced.[2]

But Chaggai did not merely put forth a message of potential rebirth; the prophet declared rebirth our obligation! He proclaimed,So declares G-d, Master of Multitudes: This nation says, ‘The time has not yet come, the time for the House of Gd to be built.’… Tell me something: Is it the time for you to dwell in your homes, while this house is in ruins?[3]

In other words: Don’t think that the default is to sit at home, and there is a particular time for building. Just the opposite: Sitting at home is only for a particular time! You are natural born builders, the default is to build, not to sit at home, so go do it!

Message 2: The 24th of Elul
Chaggai then followed up with a stirring second message which to me is the most important of his four prophecies: Don’t overthink it, don’t overanalyze your options and methods and particulars. Just build! “So declares Gd, the Master of Multitudes: Pay attention! Go up the mountain, bring wood, and build the house![4]” It’s that simple: just bring the materials, and ignore the static.

And unlike the experience of so many biblical prophets, the Jews listened to Chaggai. ביום עשרים וארבעה לחדש בששי, On the 24th day of the sixth month, the 24th day of Elul, the day before the anniversary of Creation of the World, the Jews began a new act of preparation for Creation, preparing wood as well as stone for the construction.[5]

Message 3: Hoshana Rabbah
But Chaggai was not done. On the 21st day of the seventh month, the 21st of Tishrei, Hoshana Rabbah, Chaggai proclaimed a third message.

Hoshana Rabbah is the last day of Succot, the last day of prayers for rain, a time when the first Beit haMikdash saw שמחת בית השואבה, the great water-drawing. The Talmud states that one who never saw שמחת בית השואבה has never seen true joy; there were jugglers of torches, there was ecstatic dancing and singing! But there were neither jugglers nor dancers for these Jews, who had only sticks and stones and an altar, and they must have been a most forlorn band on that Hoshana Rabbah.

Chaggai played the cheerleader for this dejected group, declaring: “Who among you saw this house in its former glory, and what do you see now? It seems like nothing on your eyes, I know. But Gd declares: חזק, be strong Zerubavel [the governor of Judea], and חזק, be strong Yehoshua, Kohen gadol, and חזק, be strong, O nation! עשו, just do! For I, Gd, Master of Multitudes, am with you.[6]

This was the third message: Despite your descent, Gd will be with you. If you build it, He will come.

Message Four: 24 Kislev
And then there was one more message, בעשרים וארבעה לתשיעי, on the 24th day of the ninth month. The 24th of Kislev, Erev Chanukah, to us. For the Jews of that time, who would not know the Greeks for centuries, it was significant for another reason: it was the end of the season for bringing ביכורים, the offering of their first produce.[7]

The process of bringing Bikkurim, dedicating the first of our crops to G-d, could not happen for those Jews in the first years of the second Beit haMikdash. And to them Chaggai offered one last message, a charge of responsibility. This message may be understood on many levels, but here I am following the approach of Rabbi Meir Leibush, Malbim.

Chaggai asked: “If you were to take meat from a korban inside your garment, and the garment were then to touch bread, stew, wine, oil or some other food – would that communicate holiness to the bread, etc?” And the answer was No; holiness cannot be communicated that way.

Then Chaggai asked:“If someone who was impure would touch any of these things, would that communicate impurity?” And the answer was Yes; impurity can be communicated with that kind of contact.[8]

What in the world was Chaggai talking about?! All of the other messages were clear, but what is this riddle about sacred items and impurity? Malbim explains Chaggai’s message to those Jews who were distressed at the lack of Bikkurim: Impurity is highly contagious, communicated easily. But holiness, like that of a korban? That isn’t transmitted easily. It takes prolonged, direct exposure.

These are Chaggai’s messages:
1.       On the first of Elul I told you that you must build, this is your basic nature.
2.       I also told you that you shouldn’t overthink it – just take the materials, go up the mountain, and do the job.
3.       On Hoshana Rabbah I told you not to be depressed at your insufficiency, for Gd is with you.
4.       And at the end of the season of the first fruits I tell you that you will need to persevere, to overcome obstacles and fight your way through challenges, in order to produce those fruits and parade with them to Jerusalem once more.

The Message
In context, of course, Chaggai’s message is about returning to Zion and building the Beit haMikdash – but it is equally applicable to each of us on the first of Tishrei.

I asked one of my classes last week, “What do you want to hear about on Rosh HaShanah?” To which one thoughtful participant replied by email, “I would want to hear a wise person discuss the topic: What does it mean to start a new year? What are man's obligations? What should we hope for from ourselves?”

I have been Mordechai Torczyner for too long to think myself wise - but Chaggai was most wise:
·         To start a new year means to recognize that we are builders by nature, that it is time not to sit in our homes but to act.
·         Man’s obligations at the new year are to take wood, go up the mountain, and build the house. Don’t overthink teshuvah and self-improvement, the way you can change yourselves and the world; we know our weaknesses and the needs of our community and our world, and we know the way to correct the weaknesses and fill the needs. We don’t need intricate plans and we certainly don’t need fear of failure. Our King is with us.
·         And what should we hope for, from ourselves? The perseverance to see the process through, catalyzing the communication of holiness by prolonged exposure and endeavour, so that when we come back here next year, we will be witnesses to a fine building perched atop that mountain.

Just about fifty years ago, on December 10, 1966, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to S. Y. Agnon and Nelly Sachs. In an outstandingly Jewish Nobel acceptance speech, Agnon introduced himself to the King of Sweden with these words: “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”[9]

Agnon saw in himself a child of a nineteen-hundred-year exile, employing that age-old perseverance to return to our land. As he explained, “At the age of nineteen and a half, I went to the Land of Israel to till its soil and live by the labour of my hands.” He took wood, he ascended the mountain and he built a house – simple, but powerful. And oh, was Gd ever with him, and oh, did he ever succeed!

All of us are exiles of Jerusalem. And on Rosh HaShanah, we remember that we are also exiles of our own souls, driven out by the foolishness of the year past. But we also remember Chaggai’s eternal words – We are builders by nature. We only need to take simple steps. And when we persevere, HaShem will be with us, and grant us a כתיבה וחתימה טובה.

[1] Rashi to Shemot 33:11
[2] See Abarbanel to Zecharyah 1:1
[3] Chaggai 1:2-4
[4] Chaggai 1:7-8
[5] See Rashi to Chaggai 1:14
[6] Chaggai 2:3-4
[7] Mishnah Bikkurim 1:6; and Chaggai 2:19, which says they don’t yet have various forms of produce – 6 of the 7 bikkurim species – supports this association.
[8] Chaggai 2:11-14

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