Posts Tagged 'Rosh HaShanah'

A Majestic Light: Shanah Tova

In trying to prepare for Rosh HaShanah I find myself swept into the surge of amazing popular Israel rock. Most recently I have been listening to Shemesh- Sun by Hanan Ben Ari. Completely worth Listening to before Rosh HaShanah.

Beside the amazing and mysterious sound of Shemesh the lyrics are the perfect thing to get into Malchuyot- God’s Coronation Day. He sings:

I find myself longing. Seeking an answer. See me, give me Your hand. I am one who’s willing to change. Come and light up my days. With a Or Yafe Ganuz-beautiful, hidden light for almost a million generations. And then I shall be like a sun to the world. I shall be like a bird, wandering across space. You, You shall be my King forevermore. I thank Thee for the path You’ve sworn unto me

Shemesh- Hanan Ben Ari

I too find myself longing. It is hard to finding meaning in the world these days. Ben Ari is asking us to reach out and be open to the Or Ganuz hidden light. Rav Nachman teaches ” Anyone who wants to experience a taste of the Or HaGanuz (Hidden Light)—i.e., the mysteries of the Torah that will be revealed in the Future—must elevate the aspect of fear to its source.” ( Likutei Moharan 15:1:2 ) This reminds me of the oft quoted poem Our Deepest Fear
By Marianne Williamson. She writes:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us;
It's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

When we are open to the Or Ganuz we become the sun that lights the room. In allowing ourselves to self-actualize we make room for God, the King, to do the same. The majestic light of Rosh HaShanah inspires us to live up to our potential. We just need to be open to the experience. May you have a Shana Tova U’Metukah- a good and sweet New Year full of light.

Dear Child to Me: On Emunah and this Blog

I remind each of my children all of the time, ” I love them the most of all…just like their three siblings.” This year as I have been feebly trying to prepare for the High Holidays during Elul. One thing that had helped is that I have found myself singing again and again to different covers of Deveykus‘s Haben Yakir Li. The lyrics are taken from a section of Jeremiah that we read on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. There we read:

Truly, Efraim is a dear child to Me,
A child  in whom I delight!
Whenever I speak of him,
My thoughts would dwell on him still.
That is why My heart yearns for him;
I will receive him back in love
—declares the LORD.

Jeremiah 31:20

For me it expresses an extraordinary expression of God’s anthropopathic love of Israel. Here is one version with some nice violin:

There is some ambiguity about the text when it says ” Whenever I speak of him“. Is it when I speak to him, about him, or even against him? Rashi explores the meaning of “whenever I speak of him” and comments:

Every time that I speak of him. And the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah (2:3) explains: It is enough My speech (דַּי דִבּוּרִי) with which I endowed him, that I taught him My Torah, for Me to have mercy on him.

Rashi on Jeremiah 31:20

This is an interesting thought. It is as if God recalls learning with Efraim and that reminds God how much God loves him.

This parental love through learning reminded me of a Rashi from Parshat Vayigash. Yosef, Efraim’s father, reveals his identity to his brothers. Finding out that their father is still alive he sends agalot– wagons to bring Yaakov to Egypt. There Rashi comments:

By sending the wagons (agalot), Yosef sent him a sign. What was the (topic) they had studied before he (Yosef) left? The topic of the egla arufa -beheaded heifer (see Shoftim). Thus the text states, “when he saw the agalot which Yosef sent,” and not which Pharoh sent.

Rashi on Bereishit 45:27

There is something deep about parent’s love of a child. Even though he was told that Yosef died years earlier, once he saw these agalot Yaakov just knew that Yosef was alive due to the learning that they shared before Yosef’s abduction. This love gets even deeper when it comes in the context of their learning Torah together. This is a love that never could believe that Yosef is truly dead. This is also a love that wants to allow Efraim’s return regardless of his misdeeds.

I was thinking about this parental love in the context of learning while studying with Emunah in preparation for Bat Mitzah this coming spring. It feels special, just like the learning I do with her three siblings. They are all dear to me.

On another level I was thinking about Emunah when sharing this Torah thought with you through this blog. I started this practice of writing a weekly blog when she was born. Emunah and this blog* recently turned 12.

*For those following along at home this is my 756th blog post.

The Sword of Damocles: Rosh HaShana and Parenting Today

In my preparation for Rosh HaShana I have been reflecting on the two primary narratives we read in the Torah reading for the first and second say of this holiday. The first day we read the story of Hagar and Yishmael going into exile in the desert. The second day we read the binding of Yitzhak. There is deep connection between these two stories of parents dealing with the near death experience of their children. While acting under divine command, interestingly both where caused by Avraham. He sent Hagar and Yishmael out of his house and he brought Yitzhak to Har Moriah to be sacrificed. The differences between these stories is also very interesting. While there is nothing natural about sacrificing you child, Hagar’s experience is natural and common to all parents. Her story reveals the risk that is always there. While we might not think about it all of the time, as parents we spend a lot of energy worrying about the threats our children face on a daily bases. What does it mean to be conscious of the peril our child are in all the time? And what does this awareness have to do with Rosh HaShana?

This reminds me of the story of  the sword of Damocles. According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat on the king’s throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Though having much fortune, Dionysius wanted to make sure that he would be steadfast and vigilant against dangers that might try to overtake him. With risk looming overhead the food lost its taste. Damocles begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

Damocles - Wikipedia

The threat might always be there dangling above our heads, but we just do not see it. It is always ever present, but we need a King Dionysius to point it out to us.

In many ways the sounds of the Shofar serves the same function as Dionysius. In one opinion this sound evokes the wailing of  Sisera’s mother (Rosh HaShanah 33b). As we learn in the book of Judges, Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. After the prophetess Deborah persuaded Barak to face Sisera in battle, they, with an Israelite force of ten thousand, defeated him at the Battle of Mount Tabor. After losing the battle, Sisera fled to a settlement where he was received by Yael. She brought him into her tent with apparent hospitality and gave him milk. Yael promised to hide Sisera and covered him with a rug; but after he fell asleep, she drove a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet, her blow being so forceful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. After this we read:

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, Behind the lattice she whined: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”  (Judge 5:28)

This depiction of Sisera’s mother at the window watching her son die gives us a deeper appreciation for the dread of Hagar. This is what it means to parent. While we do not always think about it, the threat to our children is real, severe, and always ever present.

Reflecting on the myriad issues facing us in 5780, it might seem desirable to return to the world before the concerns and anxieties of this past year entered our consciousness. This might not seem possible, or even desirable. Rosh HaShana is trying to make us aware that we (or worse our children) live under the sword of Damocles. So where do we go from here? How do we move forward?

On Rosh HaShana we say- HaYom HaRa’at Olam– today is the day the world was conceived. In this way God models for us what it means to parent. God is conscious of the threats that we God’s children live all around us. And despite the horrible dangers, Rosh HaShana is a celebration. The sound of the shofar, the cry of Sisera’s mother, the fear of Hagar are all reminders of how vulnerable we all are. It is holiday of profound multi-directional empathy. It should inspire us all to be extra vigilant. Not just for ourselves or our children, we also need to look out for those marginalized by society who are in more obvious peril.

After becoming aware of the sword overhead Damocles loses his taste for the king’s food. To recover from this last year and move forward in 5781 we really need the apples in honey. We cannot pretend that the threads are not real and scary. We just need to remind ourselves that despite the treat of harm, life is worth living because the world is sweet.

A Mother’s Cry: The Sound of the Shofar

We have been blowing Shofar since the advent of Elul, and on Monday we will have a ton of Shofar blasts. Why do we blow Shofar on Rosh HaShanah? There are a number of reasons. One of the more interesting one comes from a discussion in Gemara of Rosh HaShanah where the Rabbis were trying to determine the length of time a shofar blast should last. The Mishnah suggest  that a terua should be equal to the length of three whimpers. There we learn:

Isn’t it taught in a baraita that the length of a terua is equal to the length of three shevarim, i.e., broken blasts, which presumably are longer than whimpers? Abaye said: In this matter, the tanna’im certainly disagree. Although the first baraita can be reconciled with the mishna, this second baraita clearly reflects a dispute. As it is written: “It is a day of sounding [terua] the shofar to you”(Numbers 29:1), and we translate this verse in Aramaic as: It is a day of yevava to you. And to define a yevava, the Gemara quotes a verse that is written about the mother of Sisera: “Through the window she looked forth and wailed [vateyabev], the mother of Sisera” (Judges 5:28). One Sage, the tanna of the baraita, holds that this means moanings, broken sighs, as in the blasts called shevarim. And one Sage, the tanna of the mishna, holds that it means whimpers, as in the short blasts called teruot. (Rosh HaShanah 33b)

To quote Numbers and say we blow shofar on Rosh HaShanah because it is the day of blowing shofar is simply a tautology. In comparison it is interesting to make the connection to the wailing of  Sisera’s mother. As we learn in the book of Judges, Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. After the prophetess Deborah persuaded Barak to face Sisera in battle, they, with an Israelite force of ten thousand, defeated him at the Battle of Mount Tabor. After losing the battle, Sisera fled to a settlement where he was received by Yael. She brought him into her tent with apparent hospitality and gave him milk. Yael promised to hide Sisera and covered him with a rug; but after he fell asleep, she drove a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet, her blow being so forceful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. After this we read:

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, Behind the lattice she whined: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”  (Judge 5:28)

It is strange enough that the Bible depicts this general’s mother there at the window watching her son die, but it seems even more peculiar that we evoke the sound of the mother of our enemy on Rosh HaShanah. Why?

In my mind if Rosh HaShanah is the Day of Judgement, the sound of the mother of an enemy’s general is the foundation of our empathy and possibly God’s lenient judgement.  Every child regardless of what they do has a parent who loves them. If we can hear that voice we can build on that love. If it works for the enemy, how much more so for the friend or family member?

I pause this year to consider the mental health and substance abuse crises affecting our communities. These are issues that we either do not talk about or talk about as if we are at war with an enemy. There are people struggling with mental health issues or drugs in our communities and they are surely not our enemy. They are people we need to empathize with and help. It has been an honor to help the Blue Dove Foundation this year with their effort to encourage Synagogues and their Rabbi’s to strongly consider Quieting the Silence (aka. #QUIETINGTHESILENCE) and discussing the struggles of mental health and substance abuse taking place in our communities. Education and dialogue will further the conversation and help eradicate the shame and stigma.

The Jewish High Holidays, is a perfect place to start. With your assistance during the high holidays, using the information provided here, we hope that Jewish Communities will:

  • Start a community wide conversation during the Jewish High Holidays.
  • Have an open and honest conversations about the challenges we are facing as a community related to mental health and/or substance abuse.
  • Learn about trainings and educational opportunities in the upcoming year.
  • Learn about available resources as well as organizations available to assist with mental health and substance abuse struggles.
  • Be introduced to ways individuals can get involved.

These tools and resources are meant to help you include this very important topic in your words and thoughts during the upcoming Jewish High Holidays. If you have any questions or if you have something you’d like to contribute to the resources, please send to info@thebluedovefoundation.org

If we can connect to the wailing of Sisera’s Mother in the blast of the Shofar, we might be able to connect to other voices of pain and suffering in our community that we might not be hearing. And if we can do that we might even be able to connect to quieting the silence around talking about mental health and/or substance abuse in our community (#QUIETINGTHESILENCE). Let’s make some noise. Shanah Tova U’Metuka.

 

The Binding: Fenrir and Isaac

On the Second day of Rosh HaShana we read arguably the most central texts to Jewish life, the story of the test of Avraham. As we read God commands Avraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. Isaac is bound and placed on the altar, and Avraham raises the knife to slaughter his son. A voice from heaven calls to stop him, saying that it was a test; a ram, caught in the undergrowth by its horns, is offered in Isaac’s place.

The Bible doesn’t specify how old Isaac was at the time of event. One clue to his age is when Isaac notices wood and fire but, seeing no animal, asks Avraham about it (Genesis 22:7). This implies that Isaac is at least old enough to know what the proper sacrificial process is and perceptive enough to ask his father about it. From the chronology of Sarah’s life we learn that the oldest he could have been was  36 or 37 when he was offered as a sacrifice (Sanhedrin 89b and Genesis Rabbah 56:8). So, Isaac was certainly not an older man when he was to be offered as a sacrifice, but neither was he a toddler. Probably the most useful clue to how old Isaac was their climb up the mountain.  Isaac is the one carrying the large pile of wood (Genesis 22:6). This fact tells us Isaac wasn’t a small child when he was to be sacrificed; he was at least a healthy teenager.

What is invested in the age of Isaac? If he was strong enough to carry the wood up the mountain, then he was probably physically and mentally strong enough to resist being sacrificed. The fact that Isaac allowed himself to be bound and placed on the altar shows that Isaac continued to trust his father.

I was thinking about this question recently while reading up on my Norse mythology.  And yes I was preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok which is coming out in theaters soon. I read the story of Fenrir  the monstrous wolf  who is foretold to kill the god Odin during the events of Ragnarök. As the story goes Odin foresees that Fenrir will kill him so he gets the gods to capture him in hopes of saving himself. The gods plan is to control Fenrir to preempt his destroying the world by binding him in chains. Like a virile teenager Fenrir enjoys the challenge and is happy to prove his growing strength in breaking their chains. Eventually they produce Gleipnir, a magical slender unbreakable silken strip. Even though he wants to prove his strength Fenrir is no fool and does not trust them. He concedes to be bound as long as one of them will place their hand in his mouth. Everyone refused to place their hand in Fenrir’s mouth until Týr put out his right hand and placed it into the wolf’s jaws. They bind him and like the wolf from Peter and the Wolf the more Fenrir kicked, Gleipnir caught tightly, and the more Fenrir struggled, the stronger the band grew. At this, everyone laughed, except Týr, who there lost his right hand.

Why does Fenrir want to be bound to prove his strength? Fenrir is driven by pride and glory. Like a teen Fenrir needs to test his limits to understand himself. This growing power is exactly what the other gods fear in him and leads to his tragic capture. Ultimately he is limited by his drive for success. And while the gods do this for self-protection, it is not without a price.

Coming back to this test of Avraham the story of Fenrir is a fascinating foil. First of all it is not ever called the test of Avraham, but rather the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. If in fact he is not a young lad at the time of his binding, it is easy to see him as a teen. What is Isaac proving by carrying the wood, let alone being complicit his binding, getting on the alter, and almost sacrifice? Isaac is seeking to push his limits and understand the limits of his own body and his relationship with his father.  And what does the binding of a 37-year-old man mean?  Like Fenrir does Isaac have something to prove? We never see Avraham and Isaac interact again after the Akedah. Might their relationship be severed like  Týr’s right hand?

Coming back to Rosh HaShana the story of Fenrir is also a fascinating foil. What drives us to success? Might these traits that help us grow and strive for more also limit our success? In what ways are we heroic or tragic in proving we can deal with being bound?  May we all find a way to be unbound this coming year. Shana Tova.

 

 

Möbius Torah: The Media and Message of Torah and Teshuva

Recently my dear friend Shalom Orzach was in touch because he wanted explore making another contemporary daf of Talmud. Together we had made one exploring Leah Goldberg’s Pine and the Landscape of Israel  and it was a lot of fun. Despite being very busy I was up for the challenge. It seemed like a great way of preparing for the High Holidays. Pretty quickly we started batting back and forth different texts that we might want to play with in the project. You really have to love Google Docs. Out of this process emerged two interested strands dealing with Teshuva and the question as to where or when is the beginning of our story.

In general this project was in pursuit of putting modern and relevant content in the standard form of the Vilna Daf.

Image result for daf talmud

In general it is an amazing way to portray a conversation over time, but seeing the themes involved I thought we might push ourselves.

Marshall McLuhan once coined  the phrase “The medium is the message“. What would it take for us to find a way to ensure that the form of a medium would embed itself in any message it would transmit? This inspired our creation of Where To Begin: Unending Learning for the 10 Days of Repentance  (Möbius Torah 1.0). To make a Möbius Torah please:

  1. Print this page our on Ledger (11×17) sized paper. This will ensure it is big enough to read.
  2. Cut out the table on the sheet.
  3. Fold along the dotted line with the writing facing outwards.
  4. Bend Paper  into a circular shaped cuff.
  5. Tape the ends to create a möbius strip as in this picture.Image result for mobius strip
  6. As you learn it turn it and turn it again because there is no beginning and no end to learning Torah.
  7. Alternatively you can just learn the text without the arts and crafts project, but that would not be as much fun.

With Möbius Torah 1.0 we hope to create a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message the Torah is perceived. Please print this out and enjoy. It has been a pleasure playing with Shalom in the bringing you this Torah. As always I would love your input and ideas for other ways to make revelation relevant, engaging,  and more accessible. So please do be in touch.

Gmar Chatima Tova

The Loudest Noise: The Sound of Rosh HaShanah

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As we get ready for Rosh HaShanah, we get ready to hear the blasts of the Shofarassociated with the Jewish New Year. In comparison, I think about the ruckus I hear every time I go visit a Jewish summer camp. Both are loud and disruptive. But while the sound of camp always fills my heart with joy, the shofar often evokes a negative feeling. It is something my 9 year old son would call “judgative.” Yes these are the days of Judgement, but why do I need to feel so judged? What is the meaning of all of this noise on the Jewish New Year?

For some of us, the sound of the Shofar might be a new thing and a strange sound. For others it may remind them of growing up and hearing it at synagogue. And for yet others it might remind them of the way they aspire to live their lives. Some people might hear the walls of Jericho tumbling or the coronation of the King while for the people sitting next to them, it might be a blast to the past hearkening back to the ram at the binding of Isaac when Isaac was almost killed by his father Abraham. For some it might be the sound of Sisra’s mother at seeing the death of her child. And yet for others, it might just be disruption and an annoyance. I imagine the Shofar blast is supposed to evoke a combination of all of these feelings and more.

The sound of the Shofar makes me stop and ask myself am I fully realizing my potential? Am I in a groove or in a rut? It is less about being judged and more about comforting the uncomfortable and discomforting the comfortable. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement, commented that the loudest sound in the universe was the breaking of a bad habit. Are creatures of habit or are we living with intention? If we listen closely to the sound of the Shofar this year we might figure out if we are indeed (and in deed) the best people we can be. Similarly, Jewish camp is a place in which we get to try on new persona and practice new habits. Maybe the ruckus of camp and the sound of the Shofar are not so different. In both we might hear the call to realize our inner Mensch.

Becoming a better person is not just about breaking bad habits, it is also about doing the hard work of making good habits. For more on answering the call of that inner Mensch check out Let it Ripple’s The Making of a Mensch on September 18 – Character Day 2015. The film, directed by Tiffany Shlain, and accompanying resources takes a look at character through the lens of these ancient Jewish teachings. Over 5,000 screenings are scheduled globally in schools, synagogues, JCCs, nonprofits, Jewish camps, and other community organizations. After the 10 minute film, engage with a range of learning materials designed to spur conversation and reflection. What better time to dive into questions around morals, personal growth, and character development? Gmar Chatima Tova – May we all have a sweet New Year. Who does not like the sound of that?

-Reposted from eJewishPhilanthropy and the Canteen.

Wait for Me Until I Welcome: Further Reflections from an Orthodox Rabbi to his Gay Children

As a religious person I am moved by a sense of divine purpose. While we as Jews do not use the word “calling”, I do feel that I work in the service of realizing God’s will on earth. As a Rabbi and Jewish communal servant I have a sense of what it means to sacrifice happiness for a cause. How many nights do I spend away from my own children working to enrich the lives of other people’s children? Avraham is a model of someone who lived with divine purpose. Even if God directed Avraham, as a father it is hard for me to imagine that Avraham kicked Yishmael out and almost sacrificed Yitzhak. Did he not love his sons? If he did, why didn’t Avraham protest on behalf of his sons as he did for the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:23- 33)? In that case, God actually listens to Avraham and engages him in debate. Or even better, why didn’t Avraham just politely “take leave” of God for the sake of his sons?  At the beginning of the Torah portion, three strangers approach Avraham in the desert.  Commenting on this, the Midrash says that “he turned to God and said, ‘with purity of heart, Master of the world, let the Shekhinah (the divine presence) wait for me until I welcome these guests.’”(Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 18:2).

What was Avraham thinking when he drove his son Yishmael away and made him wander in the desert? What was Avraham thinking when he brought Yitzhak up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him? In the case of Sodom, God is willing to engage in debate. In the case of the strangers, God understands that Avraham’s turning away is not disrespectful, but it is in service of another value. Is anything so sacred that we would be unable to welcome those who feel marginalized, are in danger, and need our help? What if they are our own children?

Since the publication of Promises for My Gay Children, Pastor John Pavlovitz and I have carved out some time to Skype. We have only begun to talk, learn, and reflect together, but we have much to share regarding how we decided to come out in support of people who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or  Transgender (LGBT). We realized that despite our differences of our faith, religion, and culture, we both share some fundamental things. The most obvious one is that we both have a profound love of our children as well as a deep love of all of God’s children. For both of us it is our faith itself that has lead us to where we are. We were also both moved to speak about the staggering statistics. Here are a few:

  • A LGBT youth is more than twice as likely to be homeless ( National Coalition for the Homeless)
  • Family rejection of gay and transgender youth often leads to attempted suicide. According to a 2009 study, gay youth who reported higher levels of family rejection in adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their gay peers who did not experience family rejection. They were also 5.9 times as likely to have experienced depression, 3.4 times as likely to have used illicit drugs, and 3.4 times as likely to have had unprotected sex. ( Center for American Progress)
  • A Columbia University study showed that roughly 20% of LGBT teens have attempted suicide, compared to 4% of straight teenagers. That is five times more likely.

Rejecting who our children are is tantamount to asking them to sacrifice themselves on the alter of our expectations. With these stark numbers, we cannot be silent. Shetikah KeHodaah Damia – Silence is Acquiescence ( Ketubot 14b).  We need to argue and debate as if our children’s lives depended on it.  Not being intentional and explicit about our unconditional love might drive them out of our lives.

In Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, we read all of these stories of Avraham’s trying to manifest his divine purpose on earth. We should humbly choose which narratives of Avraham to tell in order to ensure that our children are not made to feel like strangers. In the Midrash, Rabbi Aha depicts a speculative dialogue between Avraham and God at the binding of Yitzhak. There we read:

When I [God] commanded you [Avraham], ‘Take now your son,’ [to sacrifice him] (Genesis 22:2), I will not alter that which has gone out of my lips. Did I tell you, ‘Slaughter him?’ No! But, ‘take him up’ (Genesis 22:2). You have taken him up. Now take him down.  (Genesis Rabbah 56:8)

If we think our tradition demands we risk our children’s lives by not accepting them, like Avraham maybe we are misreading our tradition. God does not need our defense and God will most certainly be there when we get back. All of our children are angels who are just waiting to be welcomed into the tent.

Starting the Year Right: Lessons from Simchat Torah

Just when you thought that we were finished with the holiday season, there is more. Tonight we celebrate Shmini Atzeret and then on Thursday night we start Simchat Torah. In Israel these two holidays are celebrated on the same day. In many ways Shmini Atzeret is a completion of the Sukkot holiday. But what is Simchat Torah? I have always understood it to be the day that we celebrate the completion of the liturgical reading of the Torah. Why do we start reading the Torah right after Sukkot on Simchat Torah instead of another time like  Rosh HaShanah , the Jewish New Year, or even Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah?

Sukkot is a time in which we surround ourselves with nature and bask in our being dependent on God. Even before we get to all of the rich symbols of Sukkot we see that the experience is challenging us to live in an Eden-like environment. I think that Simchat Torah is less about finishing reading the Torah then a perfectly timed re-reading of the Torah. Coming on the heels of Sukkot, a holiday in which we were able to easily achieve the will of God, we read the story of Adam and Eve again. This time, maybe we will have learned the lesson.  Instead of starting off the year with the negative reinforcement of getting kicked out of Eden, we start the year off right dwelling in the Sukkah of God. As we have been saying since the advent of Elul,

One thing I ask of the Lord, that I seek- that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit God’s Temple every morning. ( Psalms 27:4)

In this light we see that Shmini Atzeret is a very holy time in which we leave Eden on our own terms. We are not kicked out, instead we leave the Sukkah determined to make the world a better place. We should all be blessed with a year of learning lessons the first time around, giving people we love positive encouragement to succeed, and finding our own ways to make the world a better place.

In the Field – Thank You Camp Directors

According to Hasidic thinking the days of Elul are the time when “the King is in the field.” The metaphor follows that gaining an audience with the King during Tishrei is a whole to-do. We must travel to the capital city, arrange an appointment, and then get permission to enter the palace. It may be days or weeks before we are finally allowed to enter. And even then, when we do finally get to see the King, the audience is likely to be short and very formal. Lost among the throngs of people, it is hard to imagine it being a deeply personal interaction. Since very few of us actually live in the capital city, these royal surroundings we experience during the High Holidays makes us feel out-of-place. By the time we get there we might have even forgotten why we came to seek the audience of the King in the first place. It hardly seems like a good plan for a meaningful experience.

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Once a year, the King leaves the capital to visit the various constituents of the Kingdom. According to the Rabbi Schneur Zalman (the first Lubavicher Rebbe) during Elul “anyone who desires is granted permission and can approach the King and greet the King. The King received them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all” (Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b) Now a King can’t just enter a city unannounced. This explains the shofar. Here in the field the formality is transformed into familiarity. We the common folk are allowed to come out to greet the King and receive personalized blessings. During Elul, with limited effort, the King is accessible. We just need to go out and greet the King.

When I try to imagine that space of meeting the King in the field I am transported to rich memories from my youth in nature at camp. Jewish summer camp is an amazing place where many of us had our first experiences of spirituality, community, and personal connections to Jewish life.

In my six years working at the Foundation for Jewish Camp I am consistently amazed by the senior leadership at camp. Each of them in their own way play an incredible role in setting the stage for joyous Judaism in their camp utopia. While most of the year they are running a business called camp, when the time comes to move up to camp they are transformed. You will see many of them walking around their camps picking up trash as if you were in their living rooms. They treat camp as their home and they invite hundreds of people to sleep over. Walking around camp they know everyone’s names, their stories, and how to make personal connections. They decide who stays and who goes. They are responsible for so many lives, but they are not cowering behind their desks. Rather, they are out there on the playing on the baseball field. In the environment of camp the senior leadership is king, but camp is special because they know that their power is making room for others and being accessible. Each camp is creating an environment in which their campers and staff feel that they belong, make a difference, and are part of something bigger then themselves. We all owe the camp leadership a great deal. Thank you. In these moments we can experience the majesty of Elul.

Have a wonderful New Year.

– Reposted from Canteen Blog


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