Monday, October 13, 2008

Last chance (as the time of joy approaches)

In a week and a half, I will be returning to the States and Minna and I wanted to get one last trip out of Jerusalem together. I really had two places I wanted to go -- to return to the hills of Mt. Gilboa and I also wanted to see the famous mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue in Tiberias,

Even though it was not the season for Gilboa's famous Irises, it was still a treat to walk along its high ridge and see the views for miles around -- down into the Jezreel Valley and off across the Jordan river into the country of Jordan. The weather was almost perfect.

The drive down to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) was spectacular, although I think the best views of the day were when we were a bit lost trying to find the synagogue and ended up on this narrow road along the ridge above the Kinneret. I suprised Minna at one point by suddenly stopping. There was a turtle crossing the road who I did not want to run over.

The synagogue mosaic was really worth the visit. I had read much about the archeological and historical debates about how to understand an ancient work of art that both contains clearly Jewish symbols and pagan ones -- the zodiac! -- that you would think were theologically inconsistent with Judaism. It was so exciting to actually see this thing that I had read so much about.

It was especially interesting to see what Jewish symbols the artist had chosen to highlight. The most prominent one was the seven-branched menorah of the ancient Temple, but second only to that was a representation of a most central part of the holiday that is to start tonight -- the lulav and etrog of the holiday of Sukkot.

Sukkot is a particularly special holiday here in Israel. During the week of intermediary days -- called חול מועד/hol moed -- children are normally off from school and many parents are either also on holiday or working reduced schedules, resulting in a nation-wide festival atmosphere for both the secular and the religious Jew. It's one of those ways that modern-day Israel had developed to be something like what ancient practice was like: Sukkot was the greatest of the ancient festivals -- as reflected in the fact that the ancient mosaic artist chose to feature Sukkot's lulav and etrog instead of such other alternatives as Passover's matzah or Hannukah's eight-branched menorah -- and today modern Israeli practice has made Sukkot again perhaps the greatest festival.

The ancient rabbis dubbed sukkot זמן שחתנו/zman simchateinu -- the time of our joy. May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that your days of Sukkot will also be filled with joy.


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