Posts Tagged 'Sukkot'

The Garden of Gratitude

Last Shabbat, being Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot,  we read Kohelet and this coming 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:

I said in my heart: ‘Come now, I will try you with mirth, and enjoy pleasure’; and, behold, this also was vanity.  I said of laughter: ‘It is mad’; and of mirth: ‘What does it accomplish?’ 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.  I made me great works; I built me houses; I planted me vineyards; 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.  As we read in Genesis

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may eat freely, but of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ ( Genesis 2: 16-17)

Why was the fruit of every tree except for this one not enough? This speaks to a profound truth to the human condition. If only we could conquer our inner need to have more, we might be happy with what we have.  In this time of year as we returned to nature in the Sukkah we tried in different ways to return to Eden. In the past 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 being grateful for all of the great things I  have in my life without wanting more.  I am truly blessed and I strive to be content. How will I tend my garden of gratitude?

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Gog, Magog, & Ragnarök 

Tonight we start the holiday of Sukkot. This year the way the calendar falls out we go right from two days of Yom Tov into Shabbat. The Haftarah we read on Shabbat ( which is the same one we read on Chol Ha-Moed Pesach) is the story of Gog u-Magog from the book of Yechezkel. Here we read about a prophesied enemy nation of God’s people. This prophecy is meant to be fulfilled at the approach of what is called the “end of days“, but not necessarily the end of the world. Jewish eschatology viewed Gog u-Magog as enemies to be defeated by the Messiah, which will usher in the age of the Messiah. Magog was one of the nations according to Genesis descended from Yafet son of Noah (Genesis 10:2). What is the connection between this fanciful prophetic vision of the end of days and the Sukkot?

I was thinking about this question recently while reading up on my Norse mythology.  As I previously mentioned  I have been preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok which is coming out in theaters soon. In Norse mythologyRagnarök is a series of future events, including a great battle, foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major figures (including the gods OdinThorTýrFreyrHeimdallr, and Loki), the occurrence of various natural disasters, and the subsequent submersion of the world in water. Afterward, the world will resurface anew and fertile, the surviving and returning gods will meet, and the world will be repopulated by two human survivors. Ragnarök is an important event in Norse mythology, and has been the subject of scholarly discourse, theory throughout the history, and a movie that I hope lives up to the hype.

There are some very interesting connections between these two myths that talk about an end of days war that will reboot the system. It is noteworthy that at the end of Sukkot we move into Simchat Torah in which we we celebrate the end and the restarting of the liturgical reading of the Torah. Like  Ragnarök, after violence and complexity of the war of Gog u-Magog we will reboot our narrative and also start the story of the world with the simplicity of two human survivors. Maybe we read Gog u-Magog  to prepare for our return to Eden. What is it about the human condition that needs to experience such violence before we are ready for the messianic vision of rebirth.

-For more Norse Mythology and Torah see Binding: Fenrir and Isaac

 

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.

Awake Standing Guard: A Tune for the End of Sukkot

This past year I got hocked on this earworm by the Shira Choir. I dare you to listen to Im HaShem LoYivneh Bayit without singing it all week.

The lyrics come from two verse in Psalms. There we read:

אם-השם, לא-יבנה בית–    שוא עמלו בוניו בו
אם-השם לא-ישמור-עיר,    שוא שקד שומר

 הנה לא-ינום, ולא יישן–    שומר, ישראל
If the Lord did not build the house, they labor in vain that they build it
If the Lord did not keep the city, the watchman are awake in vain (Psalm 127:1)
Behold, God the protector of Israel does not rest or sleep  (Pslam 121:4)

Some say both these Psalms in their liturgy from Sukkot to Passover. I have been thinking about this recently with the rise of a third Intifada in Israel, Jews are experiencing a resurgence of Antisemitism in Europe, and the persistence of gun violence in America. These situations and this song both ask us to think about the need for a Divine Protector. To what do all of our efforts to build a safe environment for our children amount?

Since we have been blessed with Libi in our lives, I cannot utter her name without thinking about the current situation in Israel. As often Adina and sometimes I  get up in the middle of the night to deal with our children I can relate to God’s fatigue in God’s role as a protector who does not rest or sleep. At this time of the year as we say goodbye to the Sukkah and retract to the safety our homes for the winter I hope that we do not forget the truly precarious nature of our existence. I would love to take comfort that God is a protector and that all of our efforts are not in vain, but until that time we need to work for peace and safety and stay ever vigilant. At the least I have shared with you a nice tune to keep in your head as you are awake standing guard.

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

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.


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