Posts Tagged 'Succot'

Herd,Happiness, and Hakafot

Hakafot on Sukkot bring happiness. In this ritual we encircle the bimah while holding the Four species on each of the seven days of the holiday. On Simchat Torah, the custom is to take the Torah scrolls out of the Ark and to encircle the bima and throughout the synagogue with great joy, singing, and dancing.

This circular movement is a symbol of perfection and unity, and communal cooperation. According to the story told in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites walked around the city of Jericho once a day for a week and seven times on the seventh day, with the priests leading the way, carrying the Ark of the Covenant each time. On the seventh day, the people blew the  shofar and shouted, causing the walls to fall and allowing them to enter the city. In the Temple period, when they wanted to add area to the Temple Mount, they first encircled the desired area and only after added land to the Temple Mount. Clearly this ritual finds analogous behavior in our Muslim’s circumambulation around the Kaaba Stone.

This might give us the historical context of the hakafot, is there any inner meaning to the custom? I had not given this much thought until I saw this extraordinary footage from a drone of a reindeer cyclone from above:

If you are a young, old, or weak reindeer, you will find yourself at the heart of the herd and it offers you protection. If you are strong you are on the outside protecting the weak. The herd provides you purpose. As Dr Daniel Dennet said in one of my favorite TED Talks” The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” In their circular movement all of reindeer find their happiness in that they can dedicate their life to the safety of the herd.

We see the same thing when it comes to hakafot. Our circling as a community centers the needs of the community at the heart of our herd.

I would think we feel the same way about getting vaccinated. This is the very idea of the strong supporting the weak and creating a cyclone effect of herd immunity. It seems on this level getting vaccinated would give our lives religious purpose.


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

Happiness Beyond Words

The news these days is really tough. There are so man bad things going on. It is hard to read the news without getting really down. For that reason is particular hard to read the end of Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

13You shall keep the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and from your winepress. 14 And you shall rejoice in your feast, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your man-servant, and your maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within your gates. 15 Seven days shall you keep a feast unto the Lord your God in the place which the Lord shall choose; because the Lord your God shall bless you in all your increase, and in all the work of your hands, and you shall be altogether joyful.( Deuteronomy 16: 13-15)

While everything around us is telling us to worry, the Torah is telling us to be happy. While it seems that law can command you to do actions, it seems hard to charge someone to have a certain disposition. What might it mean to mandate happiness or joy?

What is happiness and how do we obtain it? There seems to be proximate factors and ultimate factors. A quick list might include money ( see Goldman Sacks), power ( see Nietzsche), sex ( see Freud),  a combination of these (see Scarface),  meaning  (see Frankel), or flow ( see Csikszentmihalyi). Seeing that many of us are sharing in the bad news of the day I want to think about the idea of joy being the experience of joining something bigger than ourselves.

Often our lives seem trivial. But joining in with others helps us think that we just might be part of something bigger. On Succot it has to do with joining in the national experience of the Temple. Today we join in by helping out, communicating that we care ( usually in its food form),  or just showing up. In many ways we can see the joy of belonging in the simple act of singing which transcends words in bringing joy to people’s lives. It seems only appropriate to learn this Torah from the Rebbe of not worrying and being happy, Bobby McFerrin . Even if you cannot get into the news I hope that you will enjoy this video.

Certain happiness is beyond words.

All Kinds of Trees

Last Shabbat, being Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot,  we read Kohelet and this Shabbat, being the Shabbat after Simchat Torah, we will be starting to reread the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. How do we go from Kohelet to Genesis?

Kohelet is written from the perspective of Solomon. Like Siddhartha, Solomon was the king and had everything, but he gave it up to find a life a meaning.There we read:

1 I said in my heart: ‘Come now, I will try you with mirth, and enjoy pleasure’; and, behold, this also was vanity.2 I said of laughter: ‘It is mad’; and of mirth: ‘What does it accomplish?’3 I searched in my heart how to pamper my flesh with wine, and, my heart conducting itself with wisdom, how yet to lay hold on folly, till I might see which it was best for the sons of men that they should do under the heaven the few days of their life.4 I made me great works; I built me houses; I planted me vineyards; 5 I made me gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit. ( Kohelet 2:1-5)

Solomon has everything, but he realizes that is it not enough. You can even see here in his trying to plant every kind of fruit that he is trying to recreate Eden itself with the trees of Life and Knowledge of Good and Evil.  There is a profound parallel here between Solomon ( Kohelet) and Adam. If only we could conquer on inner need to have more, we might be happy with what we have. In this time of year as we return to nature in the Sukkah we try in different ways to return to Eden. Last year I wrote about how the act of bringing together the four species on Sukkot itself is an act of putting the fruit of the tree of knowledge back on the  tree. But maybe that itself is missing the point. Would returning to Eden and access to all of the trees itself be vanity of vanities? This year I want to focus on all of the great things I  have in my life without wanting more.  I am truly blessed.

Bitter Sweet Goodbye

At synagogue this past Shabbat I saw a father of a child that goes to my Yadid’s school.  He said, ” I see that Yadid is having a good time at school”.  I asked him what he meant. It turns out that his children get on the bus after Yadid.  This father has been having trouble getting his kids on the bus, but every morning he sees that Yadid is sitting there happy as can be on his way to school. I had not thought about it that much but Yadid, who just started kindergarten this year, never hesitated to get on the bus. While I was initially proud of Yadid being so independent, I then became a little sad that Yadid was so quick to get on that bus and leave me behind.

I have been reflecting on this as we come up to the end of this interminable litany of holidays. With the advent of Elul we have been saying L’David. There in Psalm 27 we read:

 4 One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the Lord, and to visit early in God’s temple.
5 For God conceals me in God’s pavilion in the day of evil; God hides me in the covert of God’s tent; God lifts me up upon a rock.

It seems that now, during Succot, we have finally arrived. We are spending our time in “the house of the Lord”. In this festival we used to visit “in God’s temple”; but even without the Temple, we get to spend Succot concealed in ” God’s pavilion”. And then just like that,  along will come Simchat Torah and we will be gone. Just like my son getting on the bus without looking back, we will abandon the Succah and stop saying L’David.

Coming to the end of a period of our trying to get close to God it would be fitting to declare our sadness in having to leave that space. It makes sense that we turn from Pslam 27 to Lev Tahor, (Psalm 51). There we read:

12 Create for me a pure heart, O God; and renew a righteous spirit within me.
13 Please do not cast me away from You; and do not take from me Your holy spirit.

We do not want to spend the rest of the year in exile from God. We want to spend all of our time in God’s presence. It is hard to maintain that intense connection all year long. We want to move on to being productive, just as Yadid is excited to go to school. Our only hope is that after the holiday season we have been changed. That we have returned to the purity of spirit of a 5- year-old heading off to school. Adina and I hope that Yadid will learn about the world with an open mind, will learn from people with an open heart, and will always act as a Mentsch.

As Adina has taught me, sometimes words can only get so far and then music needs to take over. So before the moment passes I wanted to share with you a version of Lev Tahor by Pharoah’s Daughter that I have been singing all of Succot.

I feel as if they really capture the sentiment of the song. I hope that this song will give you pause to appreciate the present of presence we have on Succot.  We are not being  sent away (תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי), we are leaving as messengers (שְׁלִיכים) carrying out our duty. It is bitter sweet to say goodbye, but with a pure spirit we turn our attention to the work ahead.

Shaking Cynicism

blog 4 species succotWhen I got home the other night with my  four species in hand for Succot, I found our sons Yadid , 5 years old, and Yishama, 3 years old, dressed in their newly purchased Power Rangers costumes (blue and red respectively). They were hard at play, but were all too happy to take a break to look at the “cool plants” that Abba brought home. It is clear that I will have to spend a lot of time trying to explain the extraordinary rituals of Succot to them. They both have  rich imaginations, so in many ways it will be  easier giving an explanation that works for them than coming up with something that works for me. What is the inner meaning of the ritual of shaking four species in celebration of Succot?

Thinking of this question made me thing of something I read by Rene Descartes. He wrote:

… whether awake or asleep, we ought never to allow ourselves to be persuaded of the truth of anything unless on the evidence of our reason. And it must be noted that I say of our reason, and not of our imagination or of our senses: thus, for example, although we very clearly see the sun, we ought not therefore to determine that it is only of the size which our sense of sight presents; and we may very distinctly imagine the head of a lion joined to the body of a goat, without being therefore shut up to the conclusion that a chimera exists; for it is not a dictate of reason that what we thus see or imagine is in reality existent; but it plainly tells us that all our ideas or notions contain in them some truth; for otherwise it could not be that God, who is wholly perfect and veracious, should have placed them in us.” (Descartes’ Reason Discourse Part IV)

We are all asked to question our lived experience and only trust reason. In many ways, Yadid and Yishama ,in their ability to play make-believe, are more advanced in this religious experience than I am. Descartes asks us to take everything and nothing at face value, because despite its actuality the perception might have divine origin. But once I put shaking the four species into that context, what do the palm frond, two branches of willow, three branches of myrtle, and one citron coming together represent?

Simply put, the shaking of the four species together is an attempt to reattach that first fruit on the chimerical tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. While it took a moment to pluck that fruit, like Sisyphuswe have to try for the rest of time to put the fruit back on my imaginary tree. Today the knowledge itself of Good and Bad is a fabrication. My inability to connect fully to this ritual of shaking the four species speaks to my inability to shake cynicism from my life.

As we read in Lamentations,  ” Restore us to You, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old” (Eichah 5:21) May we all be blessed with an open heart to experience our rituals anew. Have you ever seen a Power Ranger wield a Lulav with such fervor and save the world?

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