Archive for the '1.4 Succot' Category

Nothing Trumps Character : Some Timely Reflection on the Election

We will have a great reckoning on  November 9th. I am not talking about anything political, but rather the eventuality of our needing to deal with who we are as a nation. This election has called into question the nature of our character as people. With the election finally behind us we will need to make sense of who we are and who we want to become. We cannot just blame it all on the politicians. We have to recognize our role in the circus of this election. All of us, a part of it, sitting there in the big top tent cheering,  jeering, watching, and waiting for the next spectacle.  We have to own our part of not turning away from the sickening entertainment; and sadly, we have to admit it has been fun. Finally, without the distraction of  those seeking public office, we will need to make sense of our moral lives. How will we explain this to the next generation?

I was particularly struck by the Republican response to revelation of the 2005 Access Hollywood video tape. For those who have been following Trump’s train wreck of a campaign this was not out of character given his history of horrible comments about women. Why, after months of “othering” so many people and groups of people, was this was over a line causing many of his supporters to jump ship? And to make it worse, so many of his supporters opened their remarks saying, “As a father of daughters…” So in response to all of them I have to say that as of father of daughters and as father of sons, and as a human being, I am deeply troubled by the implications of this election. To my mind having to apologize to stand up to misogyny with the prop of a daughter is itself part of the problem of our society.

Earlier in the campaign when Trump was asked about his misogynistic language (as compared to the recent tape of his bragging about sexual assault) he deflected the question by saying:

I think the big problem this country has is being  politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.

So it is true that I am not Mexican, I am not a Muslim, I am not yet disabled, I am not a war veteran, I am not “from the inner cities”, I am not a person of color, I am not gay, and I am not a woman. I am an educated white heterosexual man from the suburbs who is the father of daughters and sons.  So while I am pretty safe and in a position of privilege, as a Jew I cannot forget the lessons of history and the importance, for humanity’s sake, of standing up for what’s right.  We cannot stand idly by in this practice of “othering” people. So, I have to be honest with you, this country needs to make time to talk about these issues.

So, last Sunday I got up and got sucked into the vortex of my Facebook feed yet again. I found myself  watching a video of Trump at one of his rallies. In response to violence breaking out against protesters at his rally, Trump joked,  “You have to admit that there is nothing as fun as a Trump rally”.  While it seems absolutely deplorable to joke about violence in any form, I got to thinking if, in a sick way, Trump might be right. Is it true? Is there nothing as fun as a Trump rally? I cannot imagine that I am the only one who cannot stop watching it. What is the nature of our character when having fun is necessarily at the expense of “othering” people?

I was thinking about this the night which marked the advent of the holiday of Sukkot- Chag Simchateynu– the holiday of our happiness. How do we as Jews define fun and what does it say about our character?

Every morning throughout Sukkot when the Temple in Jerusalem stood, a unique service was performed: the Nisuch ha-Mayim –  Water Libation Ceremony. The water for the libation ceremony was drawn from a pool in the City of David and carried up the Jerusalem pilgrim road to the Temple. Afterwards, every night in the outer Temple courtyard, tens of thousands of spectators would gather to watch the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah -Rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing. As the most pious members of the community danced and sang songs of praise to God the dancers would juggle lit torches, and were accompanied by the harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets of the Levites. We learn in the Mishna in Sukkah, ” They [the Sages] said: Anyone who has never seen the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah has never seen rejoicing in all his days” (Sukkah 5:1). So evidently the fun was palpable, but does it stand up to a Trump rally?

The  Mishna continues:

At the conclusion of the first day of the Festival of Sukkot  (That would be today) they went down to the court of women, where they had made a tikkun gadol- great enactment. (Sukkah 5:2)

What does this mean? Why did they need to make a great enactment amidst all of this fun? On this the Gemara asks the same question saying:

What was the great enactment? Rabbi Elazar said: Like that of which we have learned: Originally [the walls of the Court of the Women] were smooth, but [later the Court] was surrounded with a gallery, and it was enacted that the women should sit above and the men below. (Sukkah 52a)

Is this model of Simcha by marginalizing women our model of highest joy? Let’s continue by looking at the Gemara which says:

Our rabbis have taught: Originally the women used to sit within the Court of the Women while the men were outside, but this would cause levity, it was instituted that the women should sit outside and the men inside. But they would still come to levity. It was instituted that the women should sit above and the men below. (Sukkah 52a)

While Trump, a model of levity and licentiousness, is happy inspiring inappropriate behavior at a rally, here, at the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah, amidst this occasion of real joy, they enacted various changes that would prevent frivolity and maintain holiness. It is interesting to note that they tried various solutions until finding one that prevented frivolity. At first, they put the women in the middle and the men on the outside, but that did not work. Then, they put the men in the middle and the women on the outside and this also did not work. It was only when the women were in the balcony that it worked. Did they even consider putting the men in the balcony and the women where the action was?

In her essay  “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in which she coined the expression “Male GazeLaura Mulvey wrote:

Woman, then, stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.                                     

Reading these words helped me unpack why all of the “fathers-of-daughters” politicians drove me crazy. It seemed that it was too little too late given the litany of people that Trump and his supporters have marginalized. And while it seemed noble for them to stand up to Trump’s objectification of women, in their very rejection of Trump these politicians objectified women.  Being offended on one’s daughter’s behalf makes those very daughters “bearers of meaning and not makers of meaning.” How is this any different than what was going on with the great enactment of the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah? Neither of the first two solutions dealt with the issue that it is the active male who gazes and passive female who is being looked at that leads to frivolity.

This great enactment at this moment of the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah in the Temple is locus classicus for why any Orthodox Synagogue today has a mechitzah. For more on this see some great essays by Rabbi Henkin in his book Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues. So before I jump on the band wagon of tarring and feathering Trump for his having fun at the expense of others it seems worthy of reflecting about how I as an Orthodox Jew communicates values to my daughters and my sons from the context of an Orthodox synagogue.

The solution in the time of Temple was putting women in a  balcony, but might there have been another solution if we had not been limited to the structure of the Temple? Why is this moment at the Temple the model for our synagogues thousands of years later? Might there be a better model for appropriate fun for our synagogues today?

After the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis longed for ways to bring the sanctity of the Temple into our lives. Ezekiel cries out, “Lord God, you are wiping out the remnant of Israel.” God responds by declaring that God has “removed them far among the nations and have scattered them among the countries, and I have become to them a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary”. (Ezekiel 11:13) According to the Talmud , God will dwell in the holy spaces we create, for they are the Temple in miniature (Megilah 29a). A synagogue was transformed into mikdash me’at, for us to gain access to the temple. In addition we read in Psalms:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. ( Psalms 137: 5-6)

Through the synagogue we could gain access to real joy. So Jerusalem is the place of joy and as we learned in the Mishna in Sukkah, the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah was the paradigmatic time of joy. This seems to set the standard for the synagogue with its great enactment.   But what is significant about this particular moment?

In the cycle of the year, we have just made it through the ordeal of judgment throughout the High Holidays. During the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah, we are immersed in the ritually rich holiday of Sukkot heading towards the holiday of Simchat Torah.  All this on the heals of Yom Kippur, when we expiated ourselves from our sins, we now show up in the Temple to start the reading of Genesis and imagine starting over again as equals with everyone as we were in the Garden of Eden.  “And God created man in God’s own image, in the image of God created God man; male and female created God them” ( Genesis 1:27). We imagine ourselves side by side with no one being marginalized.

During the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah they showed up at the Temple to be seen by God, but they needed to deal with their inappropriate gazing that led to frivolity. As we create our mikdash me’at in our synagogues today, we are also trying to make a space where people can show up to be seen by the Divine and where there is no frivolity.  Might men and women standing side by side with a mechitzah right down the middle be our great enactment?  In this way we can experience appropriate joy without having to “other” anyone, neither our daughters nor our sons.  In my mind this is a model of true joy and the ideal for a synagogue.

How might this divine gaze be a model for us as a society?  How might seeing ourselves side by side help us deal with the levity and frivolity in our culture? Standing side by side we can do away with “Locker Room Banter”. Standing side by side we can be crystal clear and define sexual consent. Standing side by side we can stem the tide of our rape culture that is so pervasive on our college campuses. Standing side by side we can make life better for our daughters and our sons. Standing side by side we can re-imagine what it means to have fun without it being at anyone’s expense.

On November 9th, we will still need to deal with the fact that thousands of people in this country have been showing up at Trump rallies. Trump has given them a much wanted voice. I would like to think that under all of this hatred is a noble humanity that just yearns to be seen. As a nation we will need to help everyone find ways to be proud of who they are. We need to take time to let people be honest and let our true selves be seen. To maintain our republic we need to institute a great enactment to ensure that this is never happening at the expense of marginalizing others. “Othering” people is just not fun.

In order for us to become a more perfect union we will need to spend some time thinking about our ideas and the context of our ideals.  To play with one of my favorite quotes which was written by Frank Outlaw, I would say:

Watch your context , they become your thoughts;

watch your thoughts, they become words;

watch your words, they become actions;

watch your actions, they become habits;

watch your habits, they become character;

watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Chag Sameakh- May we all be blessed with a truly fun and joyful holiday.

 

-This is adapted from a drasha I gave the second day of Yom Tov Sukkot. And yes it caused a bit of stir.

The Symbol of the Sukkah: Physical and Metaphysical

As I was sitting in our sukkah this week, I got to thinking about what this behavior represents. The Talmud records a difference of opinion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b) It seems strange in that either way you cut it the Sukkah is a symbol. The question is does this symbol represent something akin to what we are using or does it represent a metaphor. Did either Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva think that we are actually sitting in the imagined reference point? I am not saying that they are lying, but neither is real. So what are they disagreeing about?

At one level we could understand the disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva to be one of understanding what it means to be Jewish. Is being Jewish a religion ( “clouds of glory”) or a nationality ( real booths they used post Exodus in the desert)?   Joseph Campbell said:

Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.
But maybe that is the point of the sukkah any way. It is immersive metaphor we get to really enter. The sukkah can be a symbol of our experience as a people in physical and history way at the same time as it can be a religious manifestation of our metaphysical relationship with God.  In this horrid political season it is wonderful to find a place in the sukkah where we can all come together, both expressions are authentic, and neither is a liar.

Ushpizin and Ushpizot: Leah Goldberg in the Sukkah

We have arrived at the Shabbat of Sukkot and weather permitting we will eat Shabbat dinner tonight in the Sukkah. Like every other night of Sukkot we will do the Ushpizin. This is a custom originating with Lurianic Kabbalah is to “invite” one of seven “exalted guests” into the sukkah. Traditionally these ushpizin represent the seven shepherds of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. Each of the ushpizin has a unique lesson which teaches the parallels of the spiritual focus of the day on which they visit. A special thank you goes to Meir Balofsky for sharing this timely and timeless  picture.

A more modern tradition is to invite the Ushpizot:Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Avigail, Hannah, Huldah, and Esther who are the seven female biblical prophetesses. There are scores of other lists of people who people have opted to “invite” into their lives over Sukkot.

Dov Abramson a graphic designer in Jerusalem put out another take on Ushpizot. From Ancient to contemporary he made 22 posters for people to “invite” voices from our past into today’s Sukkah. It is awesome check it out.

As you can see here, one of the Ushpizot that Dov Abramson made was of the poetess Leah Goldberg. In honor of Sukkot, I wanted to offer another way to invite her into your Sukkah. With the help of my friend and colleague Sholom Orzach we created a contemporary page of Talmud exploring the poem “Pine” by Leah Goldberg.  The question for all of us to consider as we enjoy Sukkot is what of or who from our past do we hope to be in conversation. Please enjoy Landscapes of Israel and have a Chag Sameakh and a Shabbat Shalom.

Other pages of Contemporary Talmud

The Opposite of Fear

In the waning moments of Sukkot I am left pondering the meaning of the Festival of Booths. It is commonly referred to in our liturgy and literature as Zman Simchateinu, the time of our happiness. If I accept that this is true, what does it mean to legislate rejoicing? What is happiness? Not that might take a lifetime to define. So I started thinking about the opposite. What is the opposite of happiness? Sadness? No, I actually think it is fear.

When we think about it, living in the world is a scary thing. Maybe by coming out of our homes and going into Sukkot we reconnect with the fragility of our lives. If we live in fear we will get nothing accomplished. This made me think about the oft quoted Kol HaOlam Kulo by Rav Nachman of Breslov. His saying goes:

The whole world is a very narrow bridge.

And the main thing to recall – is not to be afraid at all.

Fear has a way of taking up all of the space in the room. It is hard to live in fear. We only will have room for the other emotions in life when we figure out how to  live with fear.

I was thinking about this when listening to Tight Rope by Alex Clare. Please enjoy the song:

It is a great song and I did not give it much thought, but when I realized that he was a Ba’al Teshuva I started paying attention to the lyrics. And the song goes:

Life’s a tightrope, and you’re standing on one toe.
Don’t let the fear take hold of you, you’re bound to fall to the ground below.
Pick yourself up again, over the edge again, hold on to your hopes and dreams.                                                      When all seems to be lost, don’t start to count the costs,just go and begin again.
Tight rope walker.
The only thing I’m sure of is, to have no fear at all, just go, keep on going on.
And the only thing that’s certain is sometimes you’re bound to fall, just go, keep on going on.
When all you work for, comes tumbling to the ground.
Don’t let the sadness fill your heart, tomorrow may be a better day.
Lift your head up again, you know you’ll start again, no matter what may come of it.
You know there’s more to life, I’m sure that you’ll survive, you know what you have to do.
Who knows, what may come tomorrow, who knows, what tomorrow may bring.

It seems clear to me that Alex Clare is in conversation with Rav Nachman, but only the artist can tell us what inspired him. To the person walking across, if the bridge is narrow enough, it looks like a tight rope. To the point of defining happiness we can say that it starts with the confidence to traverse life’s challenges. Coming at the end of this long concourse of holidays, during Sukkot we aspire to feel that “tomorrow may be a better day”. We are not alone. We need to help pick each other up, not fear the bridge/tightrope in front of us, and bring happiness to everyday in the upcoming year.

Seeking Shelter

This past Sunday I convinced my sons to join me out back to put up our Sukkah, ritual dwelling for Sukkot, arguing that it was just a really big Lego set. They were happy to build and play until we got to the s’chach, the cut organic material used as the roof of the sukkah. The boys just did not understand it. The s’chach, as compared to all of the other Lego pieces, did not click or tie into place. So I went on to explain that while it needs to be porous enough so that we can see the stars, minimally the s’chach  must be thick enough so that it provides more shade then sun light in the Sukkah. Of course they asked why?

Just five days after the solemn day of Yom Kippur, we are off to one of the most joyous holidays of the year. Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, is commonly referred to in our liturgy and literature as Zman Simchateinu, the time of our happiness. I began thinking and questioning the so-called happiness of Sukkot. Traditionally on this holiday we read the book of Kohelet. The author of this book retells his investigation of the meaning of life and the best way to live your life. Kohelet proclaims all the actions of humanity to be inherently fleeting, futile, empty, meaningless, temporary, and done in vain. This sentiment is well-said in the most quoted line from Kohelet which reads:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. (Kohelet 1:9)

Learning that life is senseless seems like a real downer for a holiday of happiness. This juxtaposition is only highlighted in that we read this just after Yom Kippur, a day during which we appealed that mercy would win out over justice. If Kohelet is correct, we will never be able to change. Despite our best efforts to repent and atone, we are stuck and should be judged in light of the fact that will never be able to renew ourselves.

Then it all came together for me.

Kohelet is right; nothing is new under the sun. The difference is that just after Yom Kippur we escape the sun under the shade of the Sukkah. There we find shelter from the harsh judgment of the world. If we spend a serious amount of time practicing being the people we aspire to be, we might be able to achieve it throughout the rest of the year. We see a similar dynamic in the shelter of summer camp. There we are able to immerse ourselves in an Eden of our own design. Is there any greater joy then the promise of a better future?

Chag Sameakh-

* Cross-posted on The Canteen

Happy Times

Succot the Festival of Booths is also called Hag HaAsif, the holiday of in-gathering (of crops). And in our liturgy, Succot is  called  Zman Simchataynu, the time of our happiness. I love this holiday and it surely is a time of happiness, until I get to ready Kohelet, Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes seems to be one writer’s existential crises twelves chapters. He says it many different ways, but it all comes back to his realization that life is meaningless. You would not necessarily pick at the perfect reading for this holiday of joy.

On reflecting on Kohelet I got to thinking about how much of this book is really about the crisis of an individual who is trying to create meaning in the world. The title in this sense seems to be ironic.  Kohelet is the story of a man who seems to have never found a kehilah, community ( same root). Surely happiness needs a context to be lasting. Just as Kohelet leaves aspects of his life in pursuit of meaning, on Succot we leave the permanent structures of our homes for the temporary structure of the Succah. It is there that we re-establish our community with intention. While the buildings come and go, the community is something that lasts. Succot is a time during which we work on kehilah creating the context for lasting happiness. Chag Sameakh

Signs on the Wall: Lessons of an Inclusive Sukkah

We are in the middle of our celebration of Sukkot, the Holiday of Booths. You might notice a number of booths in your neighborhood. Here in the northern hemisphere it seems very counter intuitive. As everyone else is packing up their lawn chairs for the winter, the Jewish community has headed outdoors. Just at the end of a seemingly endless litany of reasons to miss work or school, the Jews will spend a week in booths.

So, what is a Sukkah? In short, a Sukkah is a booth, which symbolizes what the Israelite people lived in during their journeys in the desert after leaving Egypt. Legally it should have at the least three walls and roof made of unrefined natural material. While the roof needs to be dense enough so that it yields more shade than sun light, the custom is that it should be open enough so that you are able to see the stars.

So now you know what one is, but what is the meaning of a Sukkah? While it is open to the whole galaxy of ideas, it still gives a baseline of shelter to its inhabitants. While it has discrete walls that define it, they tend to be much more pores than the walls of our homes. During Sukkot we leave the safety and security of our homes to live as refuges who just escaped slavery in Egypt. We are challenged to reflect on our privileges and assumptions as free people. Do we make room for people to feel liberated in that Sukkah? Can we bring these lessons home with us to affect how we live the rest of the year?

Recently a colleague I used to work with at Hillel was in touch. She wanted to remind me of some work we did together on Sukkot on campus.  Amidst other Sukkah decorations we placed small posters with coming-out stories. We wanted to use the Sukkah as place for LGBT students on campus to find refuge.

I remember one student who came to me as the Orthodox Rabbi to share with me how inappropriate he found this expression. In his mind the Sukkah was a religious space and there was no space there for “alternative life styles”. While there are plenty of people who adopt the NIMBYworld view, this ” it is fine but not in my Sukkah” world view had a special flavor of religious arrogance mixed into it.

Like many other campuses during Chol HaMoed we had a Pizza in the Hut social. At this event there was hekshered and non-certified Kosher Pizza served. The plan was to have signs up indicating which was which. As the case would have it, when the aforementioned Orthodox student showed up there was not more kosher pizza and the signs had been removed. Mid- slice he was informed that he had been eating pizza which was not certified as Kosher. Being very distraught having broken Jewish Law he wanted to give me a piece of his mind.

I felt horrible that he ate non-Kosher pizza. But then I realize my opportunity to be the community Rabbi he needed and not just the Orthodox Rabbi he wanted. I got him together with one of the leaders of the LBGT Jewish group to have a common conversation about the value and importance of having signs that include everyone’s needs in the communal Sukkah. Being inclusive does not mean bowing to the “frummist common denominator”. It means enjoining everyone to share the challenges of making room for all the identities in common space. They could both realize the significance and mandate to make room for each other signs.

These booths might be more than just another wacky Jewish custom. We should all consider the Sukkah as a particular contribution to the universal effort to creating a community open to the diversity of the human experience (religion, sexuality, gender, race, culture, etc.). In making room for everyone’s identities this hut becomes a Sukkat Shalom– a booth of peace.

Chag Sameach– Have a Gay and Joyous Holiday


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