Shabbat hol hamo’ed Sukkot: Why Bother?

The Festival of Sukkot is seven days long, no, wait, eight; literally, the Jewish folk tradition is that G*d didn’t want to part from us after seven days of joy together, and so asked us to wait one more day before going home. That last day is called Shemini Atzeret, literally, “stop here for an eighth [day].”
It’s a sweet parable, and entirely ridiculous; G*d is everywhere, how could we “go home” from G*d? G*d is home. But the sense of sharing a special closeness at this time of year is something we can recognize. Rosh HaShanah brings together people who don’t see each other, perhaps, all year long except for this gathering, and we welcome the moment. Yom Kippur, for all its discomforts, is rather like a slumber party, with our congregational family and dear friends  hanging out all day long together. And Sukkot brings us the sukkah raisings we do together, the special gatherings for prayers of gratitude and remembering, and the visiting of each other’s sukkot. Finally, everyone starts to move to “go home,” and G*d says, as it were, “stay one more day.”
It rather reminds one of an old joke which I heard in Israel (the ethnic groups are playfully interchangeable): Brits are the people who leave without saying goodbye, and Jews are the people who say goodbye without leaving.
This year, though, I don’t want to leave the closeness. The world feels hostile out there beyond the albeit soft and permeable Sukkah roof and walls, and I am grateful for the sense, however fragile, of a barrier between me and the painful upheaval in our larger world.
One can feel the attraction of the cloistered life at a time like this. To turn away, to go and meditate for six months with no news and no social media, to drop out of society as we know it, rather than to participate in the next demonstration, send the next letter, make the next effort that needs making.
Why bother? Isn’t it all over too soon anyway? What does it matter?
On Sukkot we are bidden by our tradition to consider the harvest of our lives’ effort, and to offer the first fruits of it to G*d. I suggest that in our own day, a relevant way to understand this is that we are lucky enough to be part of a people that at least once a year considers not whether or not to be involved in the world, but rather feels ourselves called upon to choose what participation we might define as our gift of thanks, to the world and it Source, for the gift of life.
Why bother, then? One reason you may have heard, which is very Jewish at heart, is this: “I act, although I may not be able to change the world, so that the world does not change me.” The mitzvah of pursuing social justice is expressed not only in whether we “win” some big “battle,” but at least as significantly in so many micro-kindnesses, if you will – noticing who needs a smile or a kind word is as significant as clothing the naked, supporting the sick, feeding the hungry, and keeping faith with those who have died, as our siddur (prayerbook) puts it.
And after all, there is no Jewish word for “cloistered.” Even the nazarite was not sequestered from society; during the designated time of self-defined difference from their usual way of being in the world, s/he was still expected to fulfill her/his/their role as a Jew in the world, participating in the struggle for justice in the world, and in the creation of a better world.
Why bother? because here in the little world we each call our life, we can never know all that we mean to each other. On this Shabbat of Sukkot, may you understand what acts of your life fill your hands, for it is this that defines the harvest of your life.
Shabbat shalom and mo’adim l’simkha!
Why Bother?
Because right now, there is                  someone
out there with
a wound                                     in the exact shape
                                                           of your words.
Sean Thomas Dougherty
from The Second O of Sorrow
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Shabbat Ha’azinu: Listen to the Ages

Our New Year of 5779 has begun, although the Torah year is not quite complete – we will read the end and the beginning of our Torah when we gather for our Simkhat Torah observance on Monday evening October 1.
Between that day and this Shabbat we have an entire Festival to celebrate: Sukkot, the season of ingathering of the harvest of the year now past. What has the work of your hands wrought? What will you show to account for your life? These are the eternal, existential questions and Judaism resonates with them at this time of year.
The name of Shabbat Ha’azinu is “listen,” and we are addressed here in the plural: we, the community, capable of more than each one of us individually. It is a wonderful irony that one cannot pronounce the word “I” unless one shares a language with others who know what the word means; inevitably, then, our individuality is in need of our community.
Ha’azinu, “listen,” urges us to one of the most difficult of acts: to listen to the wisdom of the ages. Each of us rejects that which has come before us in our struggle to become ourselves: every parent knows that you cannot help your child to avoid the mistakes you made – each of us has to learn through making many of the same errors. To come to know ourselves as individuals we must separate from others enough to see our own shadow, as it were; and then, even as a child learning to walk reaches out for the support of a caregiver’s hand, we spend the rest of our lives reaching out for the oneness we were born with and had to lose in order to begin to understand how to find.
“The older I got,” one Jewish comic said, “the smarter my parents became.”  One day we are finally able to listen, and what we hear is what we needed to hear all along. Others have struggled as we do; ancestors have faced challenges just like ours; there really is a chain of human tradition to which we belong. We are not alone.
At the right moment, such knowledge provides comfort, consolation, and the support of knowing you can and do belong.
On this coming Sunday evening, as we enter the Sukkot harvest Festival, may we be able to listen to the words of the generations of those like us who came before us and created the awareness of this holiday:
1. the lulav and etrog to wave together to demonstrate how a diversity of life all comes together to speak of Eternal truth;
2. the harvest abundance, to urge us to realize how much we have, and see the best ways of sharing it;
3. and the sukkah to remind us that our homes and the security they convey are fragile, and that everyone needs a roof to keep off the rain.
On Sunday afternoon Jewish communities all over the world will gather to celebrate and consider the harvest we have created as a community. We’ll raise and decorate our Sukkot, many of us at our own homes, others of us sharing a Sukkah, and some visiting the Sukkah of others if we have no place to build our own temporary dwelling . There we will meet each other to share the harvest of our gardens, and of our lives. May it be, as the ancient wish goes, a time akh same’akh, a time in which you are gifted with joy in your life and all you can hear when you listen.

Shabbat Shuvah: Remember Who You Are

Every year we observe Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is not the same parashah every year, though; this year, our Torah text is parashat VaYelekh, “he went.” It refers to Moshe, called in our tradition Moshe Rabbenu, “our Rabbi” – our teacher, our guide, our spiritual support.
וַיֵּלֶךְ, מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel;

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, בֶּן-מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם–לֹא-אוּכַל עוֹד, לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא; ה’ אָמַר אֵלַי, לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה.

he said unto them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I no longer can go out and come in; and HaShem has told me that I am not going with you across the Jordan river.

ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.

HaShem your G*d will go with you (Deuteronomy 31.1-2)

Moshe, our leader, spends most of the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) speaking final words to us. Our commentaries, ancient and modern, see something implied by the double verb: went and spoke. While in the southern dialect of American English in which I was raised this is merely a helper verb, our ancestors were looking at the Hebrew text. Reading carefully, they asked: what might vayelekh, “he went” mean?
After Moshe finished establishing the covenant with the Israelites [who were about to cross the Jordan] everyone went home. After that, Moshe wanted to take his leave of them for he knew he was to die. In his great love for them, in order to do them honor, he went from tent to tent, from tribe to tribe of the people of Israel, to let them know that he was to die, and to part from them.  This is why it is written “he went and spoke these things to all Israel.”
                                         – Isaac Abarbanel, Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy 31.1
One commentator asked, why didn’t he just call an assembly? Because as old and as honored as he was, Moshe was still humble, and instead of calling the Israelites to attend to him, he went to each of their homes to say a personal goodbye. This great leader didn’t forget his human needs, nor anyone else’s.
Shabbat Shuvah invites us to remember who we are, and what we need – and that everyone else is only human, and has needs too. The Days of Awe encourage us to get lost in ourselves as we try to see who we have become and consider whether that’s who we want to be, and we can forget that none of us exists separate from others. We are all connected with so many invisible lines – of love, of expectation, of anger, of dependence, of all the other ways we influence each other in a community. What may be obvious to you may not be to me, and of course, then there’s assumptions, grudges, and all the other baggage we carry, most of it unnecessary, all of it awkward and difficult.
Learning from Moshe Rabbenu, may we never be too proud or too awkward to seek each other out, rather than getting wrapped up in ourselves and our own worries, watching them grow all out of proportion while we wait for others to come to us. How will I know that you need me to come to you, how will you know when to come to me? and yet my well being depends upon yours, and yours upon mine.
גמר חתימה טובה
May you be sealed for a good year