“It’s not that I have an issue with her having sex, per se, it’s just that it should mean something. You know?”
That’s what a parent I met years ago said about his suspicion that his teenage daughter was having casual sex in his home while he and his wife were away on a brief trip. That sentiment, that ‘it should mean something’, is what I’m thinking about as Pesach is coming to a close. It’s not that I’ll miss Passover exactly, it’s that its message is so important that I don’t want to forget about it for an entire year. “It should mean something. You know?”
We are suppose to feel as if we ourselves have been taken out of a dangerous and narrow place, Egypt, and have been liberated. To make this come alive, at our seder tables we recounted the 10 plagues. For each plague we took out a drop of wine, reminding ourselves that while each plague was indeed a miracle for the Hebrews, the opposite was simultaneously true for the Egyptians. We cannot enjoy a full cup of joy while others suffer, even when it was due and coming to them. So what are plagues that exist today that inspire in me an sense of freedom should I be able to imagine a life without them?
What are the Plagues of the 21st Century that upon the close of this festival of freedom we will still need to contend with?
- Blood. It is preposterous to me that in a time and age when we know what is happening in almost every inch of our globe that we have grow so numb as to allow so much war and bloodshed throughout world, but especially the African continent. “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
- Frogs. The incessant croaking of the frogs made it nearly impossible for the Egyptians to even think a clear thought. Such are many of the TV pundits, who, in the guise of informative journalist, are mere partisan bloviators who confuse partial truths with good policy positions.
- Lice. Lice, like the spots in Cat in the Hat, lice are little things that once you turn your attention to them, they seem to multiply. It’s as if they were specially designed to piss you off. What are the little things in your life that are multiplying and seem to be taking over?
- Wild Beasts. “Who do those animals think they are?” In the realm of animals, we often think of humans as the pinnacle power and control. During the plague of the wild beast, that was turned upside down. Hate crimes, such as the one perpetrated in Overland Park, Kansas remind us that it’s not all peace and manna here in the monkey house. When there is a lack of order, when our protections fail, we are fearful, and we know the topsy turvy plague of the wild beasts.
- Cattle Disease. Cattle stock was a measure of value and of security in the ancient world. Some people put their stock in the stock market, but so many others, the overwhelming majority of humanity on this planet, have no savings, or are half a paycheck away, or one hospitalization away from being wiped out.
- Boils. Private indiscretions, no matter how well concealed, find a way to come to the surface. If they’ve been hidden from view, if we’ve tried to hide Truth, perhaps especially from ourselves, the Truth tends to boil over. This is true for the NSA, for the CIA wiretapping Guantanamo Bay hearings. When a Truth once hidden comes to the surface, it’s ugly and it disfigures precisely those who tried to hide the truth for personal gain. It’s true for those who post maliciousness on the internet and its true for cheating Congressmen who run on a platform of “religious values”.
- Hail. In each ball of ice was a tar ball, all aflame. We can no longer ignore our environment. When it’s cold, it’s colder. When it’s hot, it’s hotter. And, it’s not even hot or cold in the right season any more. Nature in no longer playing by her usual rules. It’s disorienting. The environmental impact of global warming are multi-factorial and so monumental as to seems beyond human ability to correct.
- Locust. Like lice, locust swarm. There are too many things that need our attention. The digital age isn’t helping much with this. There is so much that we can pay partial focus to. Have you ever missed your stop on the subway? Or your exit on the freeway? Have you ever read a page of a book, blinked, and than wondered if you had really read that page? Now, add in Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and some Candy Crush (of Flappy Bird if you still have that app.). It’s not all bad, in fact, much of it is good, but our digital life can turn into such a time-suck. Our bifurcated lives have the potential, much more than any age before ours, to make us less attentive when we should be more mindful. I see people quickly feeling swamped, overwhelmed, so much so they see only two choices, caring less (F’ it) or pushing on and living with greater and greater anxiety (this really leads back to some level of F’ it, so just one choice).
- Darkness: The darkness of the 9th plague was palpable. Egyptians were physically stuck in the think slosh of the darkness. This is not the “good darkness” of Barbara Brown Taylor, this is depression. Depression is a thick tar that coats everything with darkness. There in no joy, there is no motivation, there is just stuck-ness, meaninglessness, and for some, deep pain.
- Death. The final plague is a culmination of the previous nine as well as a return to the first, bloodshed. When we ignore bloodshed, when we’ve let our trouble rise and rise such that the world feels upside-down, and all that we can see is darkness, we will have suffocated hope. Without hope, there is only death. There is no opportunity to change, no ideal with which to steer a new generation toward. In the face of any and every obstacle, the greatest plague is the death of hope. Without hope we sink into absurdity. Without hope, there is no love, no beauty, and no meaning. Without hope there is only death.
As a child, the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas noticed that dogs appear in Torah at a crucial moment. On the night of the tenth plague, Torah says, “not a dog was barking” (Ex. 11:7). Young Manny wondered at this. Why do dogs deserve to be mentioned? How could they have known what a momentous night it was for both Israelites and Egyptians? Are dogs really “man’s best friend”? What does the Torah know about this?
Levinas found his answers during World War II. He, a French citizen, was drafted into the French army in 1939. Early in the war, German soldiers captured Levinas along with his regiment, and placed him in a POW camp in a special block for Jewish prisoners. Guards treated the Jews as non-persons, interacting as little as possible, never calling them by name.
One day, as the prisoners were returning from work, a dog came by. They called him “Bobby.” Bobby made friends with the Jewish prisoners. Each time they returned from work, Bobby greeted them with joyous canine passion. Eventually, Bobby moved on in his travels, but he remained a treasure in the hearts of the prisoners. Bobby the dog was the only one who recognized them as human beings.
Sometimes, Levinas concludes, dogs can be more humane than human beings. In the Exodus story, their humanity contrasts with Pharaoh’s hardened, de-humanized heart. Unlike Pharaoh, the dogs responded to human feeling, and sensed the presence of the Infinite God. Unlike the German soldiers who murdered Levinas’ parents and brothers, or the French officials who sought his wife and daughter hiding in a monastery, Bobby saw past ethnicity into a living heart.
Bobby’s visit echoes through Levinas’ mature philosophy. To be alone, writes Levinas, can be terrible. Sometimes it seems that even God has abandoned the world. The way out of this loneliness is to respond to others. Traces of God are found in this response-ability. Some people feel God’s infinity through their infinite sense of social or interpersonal responsibility. They know that responsibility must be taught and modeled at every level of relationship—first at home and then on the world stage—in order to make a lasting difference.
As Bobby’s friendship with the prisoners shows, we do not have to know other people well in order to respond to them. Sometimes, says Levinas, we don’t even know the inner lives of our own family members, yet we reach out to them in love. Good spouses understand they cannot fully know one another, and embrace this interpersonal mystery. Good parents recognize they cannot control or predict their children’s future, and cherish the surprises children bring.
Yes, Passover with all its surprises is upon us this very Monday night. But it is still possible to bring Bobby’s spirit to your Seder, in some small, but emotionally huge, last-minute ways.“Let all who are hungry come in and eat,” says the haggadah. Can you set aside some very real everyday differences to reach out to a last-minute guest? “Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers,” adds the Haggadah, reminding us that nobody has a perfect history. Can you get beyond habitual negative judgments of the spiritual levels of your least favorite relatives, to greet them with joy?
Happy Hanukkah, Jewish learners and lovers of Jewish learners! If gift-giving is a part of your Hanukkah tradition, let our Rabbis Without Borders gift guide help you find the perfect gift. From books and albums made by our fellows to silly odds and ends, we’ve got something for everyone.
Our yearning for answers is no different now than it was in Biblical times, writes RWB Rabbi Irwin Kula in his eye-opening, stirring book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life:
A former West Bank settler, RWB Rabbi Brad Hirschfield now teaches inclusiveness and celebrating diversity. You Don’t Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right is a personal, moving read:
The Amidah is one of the most powerful prayers in Judaism. These Amidah Meditation Cards by RWB Rabbi Marcia Prager ($25) offers a guided practice for each of the ancient blessings:
RWB Rabbi Shefa Gold is a musician and author who introduces Jewish chant, mysticism and spirituality as a transformative spiritual practice. Shir Delight is a gorgeous, spiritual album:
Want to learn about Jewish mysticism but don’t know where to begin? Written by a leading Kabbalahist (and RWB rabbi!), The Everything Kabbalah Book is a wonderful first step:
Counting the Omer, by RWB Rabbi Min Kantrowitz is a Kabbalistic meditation guide to the days between Passover and Shavuot, offering insights into daily life and spirituality:
How to Spot One of Us by RWB Rabbi Janet R. Kirchheimer is a poetry collection inspired by her family’s tragedy in the Holocaust. She provides a moving tribute to the powers of faith and hope:
RWB Rabbi and poet Rachel Barenblat wrote a poem each week of her son’s first year. Her collection, Waiting to Unfold, reflects on the challenges and blessings of early parenthood:
Found in Translation is more than just a book about words. RWB Rabbi Pamela Gottfried’s essays about everyday experiences are lighthearted and inspirational. A memorable read:
…and now for some rabbi fun:
Rabbear (yep, we said it) is a stuffed traditionalist. Decked out in a tallit and hat, he cuts a dashing figure and would look great on a bookshelf. That said, we’d like to see a woman on the plush pulpit:
Take the Rabbi’s Challenge on this hand-finished wooden Star of David puzzle:
Melissa & Doug’s Hanukkah Box of Questions helps start great conversations:
Light These Lights is a collection of beautiful Hanukkah songs by Debbie Friedman for the whole family to enjoy:
Are you a fan of interfaith dialogue? This “Prays Well With Others” bumper sticker is a cheeky way to express your appreciation for all religions.
Happy Hanukkah to you and yours. We hope this gift guide helps!
Lately it seems like Halloween has becomes a Rorschach test for how Jews feel about assimilation. As expressed in this eloquent blog post, some Jews applaud participating in Halloween because, since Halloween has become a secular holiday in America, doing so conveys an “ important feeling of being included, of not missing out and being part of the larger community.” Jewish participation in Halloween is a confirmation of our acceptance within society and is therefore something to be celebrated.
Others, such as my colleague Rabbi Alana Suskin, passionately argue that Jews should refrain from celebrating Halloween because Halloween’s values are not consistent with Jewish values and because Jews should model our counter-cultural values through how we live our lives. Jewish abstention from Halloween is a confirmation of our uniqueness as Jews and should be encouraged as part of our general bulwark against the pernicious forces of assimilation.
I used to fall into the second camp. I used to think that we could teach an important lesson to our kids about the sanctity and importance of Jewish particularism by having them refrain from celebrating Halloween. But after raising three young children and experiencing a decade of life in the suburbs, I have become a Halloween agnostic. On the one hand, stuffing our children with sugar (and then fighting with them about limiting how much they can eat) based on a holiday of pagan origins is not exactly a great idea. But are we really endorsing an erosion of Jewish identity in doing so? Little boys and girls love to dress up, regardless of the reason. And I have yet to meet a child who dislikes candy or chocolate. Plus, despite its pagan background, Halloween today is pretty clearly not observed as a religious holiday for Americans. (And if you want to avoid practices with pagan origins, you might be hard-pressed to comply with traditional Jewish mourning practices like covering mirrors.)
For the vast majority of Jews, the question of whether or not we should celebrate Halloween is obsolete. Of course, just because most Jews have given in to a practice does not mean we should simply condone it (though there are halakhic principles that do say just that). But most Jewish parents today are not looking to their rabbis for permission to let their kids trick or treat. We are missing an opportunity to connect with our people if we remain hung up on this question of the permissibility of Halloween.
If the question of whether Jews should participate in Halloween is the wrong question, then what is the right one? I suggest the real question ought to be: “what is a way for Jews to celebrate Halloween with moral integrity?” Rather than acquiescing to or stridently resisting Halloween’s existence, why not re-purpose it as a means of expressing Jewish values no matter the context? Why not take an occasion of great popularity and infuse it with Jewish wisdom and meaning? Here is one simple yet profound way to do so: boycott Hersheys, Mars, and Nestle chocolate. It turns out that 75% of the world’s chocolate is made in Ghana or the Ivory Coast, where they use child or slave labor to cultivate the cocoa they then sell to Hershey, Mars, and Nestle. So, yes, by handing out M&Ms or Nestle Crunch bars on Halloween, you are supporting the slave trade. And if that isn’t enough, you are also supporting the killing of orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Instead, you can buy Fair Trade or Rainbow Alliance chocolate, which is produced using certified labor standards that accord with Jewish law and that we can feel proud of. And you can educate your children about why you are doing so, teaching them an invaluable lesson about how what we do as consumers impacts the lives of others halfway around the world; about how the Talmud teaches that saving a single life is like saving the entire world. Plus, when the kids who receive your chocolate get home and empty out their plastic pumpkin buckets, seeing your strange chocolate amongst the more established brands might prompt a “Mah Nishtanah” conversation or a question. It might get them to google Fair Trade chocolate and learn about the horrible implications of buying brand-name chocolate. And who knows, it might even get them to tell their parents to only buy ethically-produced chocolate.
So why not use Halloween as a vehicle to raise consciousness? Perhaps Halloween—yes, Halloween—can become a vehicle for Kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name.
Below, Rabbi Alana Suskin explains why her family doesn’t trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out: “Why I Let My Jewish Kids Trick or Treat”
I feel fairly ambivalent about Halloween. On the positive side: although winter in the DC metro area is an exercise in perfect misery of cold and drippy wet, the end of October is still decidedly fall and can still often be quite nice: not yet rainy, not terribly cold, sometimes there are still bright leaves on the trees. So there’s the mid-autumn thing.
There’s also the neighborhoodliness of all the folks putting on a show for the kids, an opportunity for people to meet and interact with their neighbors, which these days can be a rare exercise.
There’s also a few pagan friends I have who look forward to their religious observance of Samhain (the pre-Christian, Celtic name for the holiday upon which the roman church based All Hallows’ Eve when it couldn’t rid the local populations of their age old observances). I’m pleased for them.
But most of all, with the more recent innovation of making a big deal out of what was a relatively small deal when I was little, I am Thrilled. To. Happiness. about the post Halloween sales of orange fairy lights and other useful sukkah items for the year to follow. (Yay!)
All that said, I don’t trick or treat, and neither does my child. And because we’ve talked about it, and he understands “we don’t observe that holiday,” at least at this point (he’s nine) he doesn’t seem to mind, even though he does have friends—even Jewish friends—who do.
Right now, what we do is help other kids celebrate their holiday by giving out candy (and if he eats a few Snickers bars, that’s fine, although he was sad when I explained to him that even though there are actually no authenticated cases of non-family members harming children with Halloween snacks, we can’t make candy apples or other treats to give out because people are afraid that someone might hurt their kids by giving them something harmful) and if he wants to dress up for them in a costume, he can do that even though our dress up holiday is Purim.
We have also talked about whether the values of Halloween are Jewish values: whether demanding gifts from others is a Jewish value (we didn’t get into the under threat of “trick” part), and we talked about how Judaism views death and dead bodies, and whether displaying “funny” skeletons and ghosts is in line with Jewish tradition, which views the human body, even after death, as holy, which is why Judaism forbids displaying corpses, even those of criminals after execution, and why it is considered a very holy mitzvah (obligation, and good deed) to be part of a chevreh kadishah l’metim (holy society for the care of the dead) in which one takes care, gently and with reverence for the soul which inhabited it, of the recently deceased corpse.
Which is why, when one is sitting with the body after death, making sure it is never left alone, one does not say certain prayers in the same room as the deceased’s body, lest the soul feel mocked because it cannot engage in that mitzvah anymore.
And it is also why, when it was in town, we did not go see the museum exhibit in which the corpses of people who had been preserved were posed in all sorts of positions for display of their inner workings. We talked about how, although Jewish tradition believes that the soul separates from the body after death, the body is a gift to us from God, and is an important part of us, to be treated with respect during life as well as after death, which is why we do not tattoo it, or mutilate it for any reason other than medical necessity, or throw it away until we have fulfilled the missions that God assigned us and then we are taken from it.
For us, the whistling In the dark of Halloween in making light of skeletons and ghosts and displaying them is not in line with the love we should have for those who passed from this earth before us, and whose love sustains us—and are not a threat to us—even after they are gone.
Finally, I find myself enormously disturbed by the sexualization both of little girls in their purchased costumes, but also in the adult celebrations in urban gathering areas (etc). While I firmly hold that the value of tzniut (modesty) is far more about respectful speech, humility, non-conspicuous consumption both in dress and in possessions, and deportment in general, the overemphasis on sexuality for women, let alone little girls, is not a value I share or wish to.
Which is why, since so few people know or observe the pagan, or even Christian origins of the day, it could be reasonably considered an “American” holiday, (Thanksgiving’s origins, on the other hand, are decidedly American, but its themes are religious in a way that is perfectly in line with Jewish values), we nevertheless do not celebrate Halloween.
One of my beliefs about Judaism is that as Jews we live and can model countercultural values, and it seems to me that, at least in my own home, Halloween is a time when we can model our difference—in a very quiet way.
I don’t, of course, go around harshing everyone’s mellow—I don’t criticize those who find a bit of harmless fun in it, I don’t even suggest that those Jews who enjoy it ought to refrain and I certainly don’t have anything against cupcakes, chocolate, or little kids spending an evening outside int he dark. But it is an terrific opportunity to have a discussion with your family about Jewish values, about how we view death and life, sexuality (for older kids), and the difference between Purim’s dress up where we are obligated to give food to others, and Halloween’s where we demand it from others.
As a synagogue rabbi, I feel as if we have been running a religious marathon for the past month. since. After the majesty, power, and spiritual rigor of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, building a sukkah, celebrating eight days of Sukkot (along with the under the radar holiday of Shmini Atzeret that no one understands), and partying through Simhat Torah, I admit to a little religious exhaustion. I am sure that, for some of us, there is no end to the amount of time we want to spend praying in communal settings. But I get the sense that, for many of us, we are all shul-ed out. Our spiritual and ritual reservoirs are depleted, and the thought of setting foot in synagogue anytime soon is anathema.
So now what? We have nearly two months before we can start talking again about how weird it is that Hanukkah will occur before Thanksgiving this year. We have almost a month before we can start debating the propriety of Jews celebrating Halloween. So where should we put our religious-cultural energies?
Well, it just so happens that our political system has gone completely batty since we left 5773. Our political leaders are so dysfunctional that, today, the federal government has been shut down. Why? Though cable news outlets and partisan websites will try to spin the shutdown in different ways, the facts are pretty simple: the leadership of the House of Representatives, including the Jewish Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, refuses to introduce a bill to fund the federal government without simultaneously trying to stop or at least delay the implementation of Obamacare. The actions of the House—re-litigating a law that was already passed by Congress, signed by the President, affirmed by the Supreme Court, and re-affirmed by the American people when they re-elected President Obama—are reprehensible and demand condemnation. Were there no side effects to shutting down the government, the actions of the House leadership could be dismissed as childish. But at a cost of millions of dollars daily, with hundreds of thousands of now-furloughed government workers, shutting down the government because you are mad that a law is going into effect is fiscally and morally irresponsible. As Republican Representative Devin Nunes recently put it, “It’s moronic to shut down the government over this.”
Obamacare, which gives millions more Americans access to health insurance, also is a Jewish issue. Many Jewish legal texts speak the necessity of the community providing access to health care for all. For example, the Talmud teaches that “a Torah scholar should not live in a community unless that community has available medical care.” (PT Kiddushin 4:12 [66b] and BT Sanhedrin 17b). Moreover, “doctors are required to reduce their fees for the poor. Where that is still not sufficient the community should subsidize the patient.” (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 249).
I think it is time for the Jewish community—clergy and laity alike—to start agitating for common-sense political actions that are deeply steeped in our tradition and that should resonate morally for all of us. We—especially those of us who live in Republican districts—should demand that our representatives pass a simple budget without partisan gamesmanship so that the government reopens. We also should demand that the House pass the Senate’s immigration reform bill, another piece of legislation that is so central to the Jewish narrative of being strangers in foreign lands. And we should demand that Congress pass gun control legislation that imposes more stringent background checks and gun lock requirements.
There are many issues which we, as diverse individuals with diverse viewpoints, can and should disagree. On intervention in Syria, for example, I would strongly caution any Jewish leader from claiming a mantle of Jewish consensus. But where there are issues that are integral to our moral sensibilities—health care, immigration reform, and gun control among them—we should be bold advocates. We should amplify the chorus of the reasonable over the din of the extremists who seek to hold American politics hostage to their radical agendas. Let’s take those spiritual investments of the past few weeks, the existential grappling and the communal celebrating, and channel them into transforming the world in which we currently live into the kind of world we want it to be.
Hoshana Rabbah is kind of a weird day – even for the Jewish calendar. It’s not really a holiday – it’s the last day of Sukkot- but it has some peculiar rituals associated with it that we don’t do for the rest of Sukkot. We have an all-night tikkun (study-session), like Shavuot. It’s named for the fact that we say more hoshanot than on all the other days of Sukkot. Its main, distinctive feature is the beating of the aravot – the willows that are stuck into the arba minim — that leafy thing-lemon wanna-be combo- that we hold and shake throughout the week -but we don’t say a brachah (blessing) on doing so.
There have been lots of proposed explanations of why we beat the aravot – some of which are quite lovely, and I hope that people will look them up and get a great deal of meaning from them. One of the most likely explanations, though, is rather prosaic: My teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, writes elsewhere on MJL, that the mishnah explains that the destruction of the aravot is actually because, since the festival is ending, we render the aravot unfit to use, as a signal of the end of the holiday. He notes that the beating takes place after the willows are no longer needed, and in fact are destroyed immediately following their last use; that we do so without any blessing; and that the mishnah, following the discussion of the ritual destruction of the willows, then tells about children loosening the lulavs and eating the etrogs – in other words, rending them unfit as well. He then notes, “The Shulhan Arukh [a code of Jewish law] supports this supposition when it notes that we are not to beat off all the leaves on the branch, only a few. Hence the havatah only includes beating the aravah once or twice. The purpose pf the ritual is not complete destruction, only preventing its further use. In this regard, the Shulhan Arukh’s understanding of havatat aravot parallels the removal of one tzitzit [fringes] from a tallit [prayer shawl] that then becomes pasul [ritually unfit].”
What I found interesting here is the analogy to the clipping of the corner of the tallit, which is also done when someone dies, in order that they can be buried in a tallit, because one doesn’t bury the tzitzit (fringes) if they are still ritually fit to use. What many people don’t know is that hoshana rabbah is the actual ending of the cycle of repentance, of the Yamim Noraim.
The mystical text, the Zohar, says that while the judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not delivered until the end of Sukkot (i.e., Hoshana Rabbah, which we noted above, is the end of Sukkot). So until Hoshana Rabbah, it is still possible to change your behavior, seek forgiveness through teshuvah, and have the decree set for each of us changed (That’s why the special greeting for Hoshana Rabbah is different than the rest of the holidays: pitka tova ”A good note,” which is a wish that your final decree for the year will be a good one).
Since Sukkot is when the world is judged for water and the blessings of agriculture, together with this notion of a final moment of verdict makes Hoshana Rabbah a bit like Yom Kippur, a day on which we wear white, cease to eat and drink and engage in physical, human activities, mimicking death. So, perhaps, when we beat the aravah – but only to the extent of rendering them unfit for ritual use (after all, we have ritual items for many holidays that we don’t destroy at the end of the holiday), perhaps this, in a small way, mimics our burial, and offers to God the final means by which we are able to be forgiven for our sins: through our deaths. And of course, willow leaves look like teardrops.
And now, when we celebrate Shemini Atzeret – our joyful, intimate, gathering with God, and we return the Torah back to its beginning, before anything has happened or gone awry, we too, are able to be completely new, in love and wholeness with God.
“How do I go on?” I was asked recently at a service following the death of a beautiful woman in our community. The neighbor asking had lost a good friend, someone with whom she shared culture and tradition, language and passions. My neighbor was bereft but she was also scared. This was not the death of an old person who had lived out a full life. This death at early age was a reminder to us all that we are not in control of our own mortality. Knowing this, understanding the power and potential of loss, how indeed are we to go on?
Most of us manage day to day by simply avoiding thinking about just how fragile life is. To live moment to moment with that level of uncertainty can indeed be incapacitating.
In trying to answer my neighbor’s question, I drew on the one of the central teachings of the holiday of Sukkot, which we are now celebrating. On a purely programmatic level the holiday is a drag, coming on the heals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it can feel like too much. But the message of the holiday is profound.
On Rosh Hashana, we embrace the reality of life, in all its messiness, filled with missteps and unfulfilled dreams. On Yom Kippur, we simulate our own death, not eating, abstaining from sex, and wearing white to simulate shrouds. We confront our own mortality. If take it seriously, we too are left asking “How do I go on?”
Only days afterwards, our tradition has us sitting out in temporary booths looking up at the stars in the sky. In prayers, Sukkot is referred to as z’man simchateynu –the time of our joy. Having faced death, we feel life’s fragility. Our tradition knows this and prescribes a way forward. The structure of a Sukkah is a metaphor for life. It is temporary and while affording us some level of comfort it cannot protect us from all harm. Sitting in the Sukkah we are able see the grandeur of the universe in the rising and setting of the sun, the moon and the stars. And we are meant to be happy. It is precisely the recognition of just how fragile, just how temporary, just how grand life is that allows us to embrace the joy of the everyday.
I could not take away the deep loss or the fear from my neighbor. They are the painful reality of living. Try as we may, we cannot avoid the realities of mortality. Instead, I offered her the wisdom of Sukkot. Go home, kiss your boys, tell your husband you love him. Notice the splendour that is your life. Cherish the moments that are, because while they are temporary, they are also extraordinary. Truly value the time that we do have. Live life with joy.
Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?
Recently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.
Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!
I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).
I believe that pulpit rabbis have an obligation to frame issues of the day in a moral lens even when truth can be found on either side of an issue. Between a healthy respect for a separation between Church and State, a fear of alienating either the Left or the Right in congregations, and genuine humility (after all, he or she does not have all the answers), a rabbi could be left with little to say about the most important events. Some people like it this way; “rabbi you should stick to issues of spirituality.”
Rabbi Heschel responded to the silence of religion in the face of moral need. He said, “If the prophets were alive, they would already be sent to jail by [people who hold this position]. Because the prophets mixed into social-political issues. And, frankly, I would say that God seems to be a non-religious person, because, if you read the worlds of God in the Bible, He always mixes in politics and in social issues.”
Says the Jew to herself, “On the one hand.” And she replies to herself, “Yes, but on the other hand.” Such equivocation is cultivated by the Jewish debate-style of learning, but it is not always laudable. Sometimes its dangerous.
It once happened that that an aggrieved Jew told Caesar to send the Jews a goat to sacrifice at the Temple, a goat that would seem perfectly fine by Roman standards, but that the Jews would find blemished, unfit as a holy offering at the ancient Temple. The Rabbis wanted to offer it, despite its disqualifying blemish, to preserve good relations with the Romans.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said to them, “People will then think that blemished animals may be offered upon the altar.”
The rabbis then considered killing the person who brought the animal, so that he could not go and tell the Romans that the Jews did not offer the sacrifice.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said, “We can’t kill that one person, even to save the rest of the people. People will say that anyone who places a blemish in a sacrifice should be killed.”
Rabbi Yochanan said, “The humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land.” [In this case his piety made it impossible to act at all.](Talmud, Gittin 55b-56a).
In this famous passage, Rabbi Yochanan laments “the humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus.” Why? What’s wrong with Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus? He’s pulled a classic, dare I say rabbinic, “on the one hand … on the other hand.” But, as Zekharya sees it, the sages are left with no ability to decide on how to proceed. At some point, as Tevye eventually discovered within himself in Fiddler on the Roof, “There is no other hand.” At some point, a position needs to be taken because real choices need to be made.
Consider today’s topic: What should the US do about Syria?
Rabbi Heschel’s words regarding Vietnam forty years ago are just as relevant when we apply it to Syria today. Of course it’s a religious issue. What does God demand of us primarily? Justice and compassion. What does He condemn above all? Murder, killing of innocent people. How can I pray when I have on my conscience the awareness that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people… In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
I believe that there is a moral imperative for rabbis to speak about Syria, despite, no, because there is no clear right action. Who better to respond in a muddled issue than those who are specifically trained in the Talmud, a veritable encyclopedia of arguments from opposing moral positions. Even if the Yom Kippur sanctuary is not the forum for debate, it can be a starting place for thoughtful conversation.
As a rabbi without a pulpit, it is easy to say what my colleague should do. So, let me take it a step further and wade in myself: It is my opinion that America should make a calculated but limited strike against known chemical weapons caches within Syria. I acknowledge that such an American response to Asad’s use of chemical weapons could incite greater instability in the region, and perhaps freeze our already chilly relationship with Russia. Still, in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation we find ourselves, I prefer the stance that says, at some point – and chemical weapons are that point – we can no longer ‘stand idly by.’
Sure some will call this naive- “Intervention in Iraq, in Lybia, in Egypt did not work. We should not insert ourselves into another country’s civil war, especially considering that those in Syria prepared to fill the power vacuum may be even worse that Asad.” Some will consider it hypocrisy – “So the US got to use Agent Orange in Vietnam, but now nobody gets to?” Feel free to agree with me or to point out where I’ve got it wrong in your comments below, but with that, a position is staked and our conversation has begun.
When the Temple stood, the rabbinic inability to take a difficult if principled stand caused “the Temple to be destroyed, our sanctuary to be burned, and us to be exiled from our land.” If contemporary rabbis fail to take difficult if principled stands, we risk not the Temple or the land of Israel, but something more: Relevance!