Posts Tagged 'Sukkot'



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.

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

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.

Give and Take

Now that the summer is over we find ourselves basking in the holiday spirit. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur surely gave us time for self reflection. And just when you thought you could not deal with any more self reflection we are gearing up for Sukkot in which we eat and spend time in a booth called a Sukkah, meant to be reminiscent of the type of fragile dwellings in which the ancient Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. As you build and spend time in your Sukkah this holiday, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on the environment we craft at camp…

Beyond the Sukkah itself, we also turn our attention to the Four Species. About which we read:

On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you are gathering in your produce of the earth, you shall celebrate a celebration of God for seven days… And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree (etrog), palm branches, the branch of a thick tree (myrtle, hadas), and brook-willows, and you shall rejoice before God for seven days. (Leviticus 23:39-40)

The Four Species are a symbol through which we rejoice and celebrate. It is noteworthy that the verb used by the Torah to describe what we do is to “take” them. This is not happenstance. For many of us the experience of joy is connected to the experience of mastery and ownership. Surely this is something that is taken and not given.

Like the Sukkah itself, camp is a unique environment we create to bring us to joy and celebration. Camp is unique in that it puts youth at the center. Where else in society is an 18 year-old the model citizen because s/he will do anything for his/her 9 year old student or camp? Camp is special in that we give over the space so that youth can take it and make of it what they want. Just as we are instructed to enter the Sukkah to connect to the past, so too we “take” the four species so we experience the joy of owning our tradition today.

-as seen at Foundation for Jewish Camp Blog


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