Shabbat of Sukkot 5778: the sukkah as reminder of the wilderness Mishkan

Sukkot begins five days after Yom Kippur. In the maftir Torah readings for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we have seen (in Numbers 29) a list of the holy days in chronological order, and what sacrifices our ancestors brought to mark each one. Numbers 29.1-6 refers to “the first day of the seventh month,” which is Rosh HaShanah, and the next verses, 7-11, describe the ritual for Yom Kippur.  Numbers 29.12 begins the description of the sacrifice to be brought on the 15th day of the seventh month – which is the beginning of the week-long harvest festival of Sukkot.
On this Shabbat, which occurs during the Intermediate Days of Sukkot*, the reading is quite different, and seems completely unrelated to Sukkot:
Moshe said to HaShem, “See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. 
Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.’
Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. 
Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.”
HaShem replied, “If I go in the lead will that lighten your burden?”
Moshe said, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place.” (Ex.33.12-15)
In order to understand why we study this Torah text on the Shabbat of hol haMo’ed Sukkot, you have to employ the interpretive principle of juxtaposition. What was happening during the days that are now before or on Yom Kippur?
It was on Yom Kippur, we are taught, that Moshe brought down the second set of Tablets of the Aseret haDibrot (the Ten Words) from Sinai; the first Yom Kippur, then, comes about as an expression of the atonement our ancestors achieved with G*d after the betrayal we remember as the incident of the Golden Calf. The Covenant between us and G*d was re-affirmed and finalized on Yom Kippur. In the Torah, we are reminded that G*d had told Moshe that intimate contact between G*d and the people Israel was no longer possible.
It’s often true; when someone hurts us, lets us down, doesn’t show up in the way we depended on, we may find ourselves emotionally withdrawing from that person. Close contact may seem as if it will never be possible again. Yet Moshe pleads, and G*d is reconciled.
In this light, the Sefat Emet shares an insight into the nature of the sukkah:
[It] was a dwelling given to the people of Israel after they had repented of their sin [the Golden Calf]. RaSHI interprets “Moshe assembled the people” [Ex.35.1] to have taken place on the day after Yom Kippur, when he came down from the mountain…it was then that they began to contribute to the Mishkan, on those days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Torah records that the people gave joyfully of all they had to the Mishkan, giving until they had to be told to stop. This was the joy of relief, and of a new optimistic determination to do better, to be better. The Sefat Emet suggests that this is the reason that Sukkot is called in our tradition “the time of our rejoicing.” It is perhaps easier to understand the command “you shall have nothing but happiness” in this way: you shall have no doubts that full and complete forgiveness is possible – for you and for those who have disappointed you. Your first attempts at reconciliation and wholeness may feel as tenuous as the sukkah is temporary, but atonement is possible, and so is joy.
And so every year we are invited to remind ourselves of this truth not only through sitting and studying and thinking and praying about it – but also by the practice of building our sukkot, little individual reminders of the great Mishkan we once built together. One day may we be privileged to all together find shelter in the great sukkat shalom, the Sukkah of Wholeness that we will someday learn, once again, to joyfully build together.
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*The intermediate days of Sukkot are called Hol haMo’ed, “the days of the Festival which do not carry Shabbat-like Festival status.” The first and last days of Sukkot are such sacred days – as you’ll find out if you attempt to call any Jewish organization on the first two or last two days of Sukkot, which are called hag, plural hagim, “Festivals.” All the other days are hol haMo’ed, literally “the non-sacred days [hol] of the appointed time [the mo’ed].” Then there is the Shabbat that will occur once during this 8 day period (never twice, since the Jewish calendar was carefully engineered to ensure that Yom Kippur will never fall on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday because it would create tirkha d’tzibura, too much of a burden of the community). The Shabbat of Sukkot this year falls during the Intermediate Days.
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Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Sukkot: We Must (find time to) Celebrate

It is easy to miss our fall Harvest Festival of Sukkot in the stress created by the confluence of the Jewish New Year, marked by Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, with the start of the school year and the ramping up of fall activities for all of us after what is at least supposed to be a less busy summer season. We lose track of this opportunity to notice and be mindfully grateful for all the abundance of our lives. We are busy and distracted and who can hear, anyway, the still small voice ringing quietly throughout.

The Talmud calls it a bat kol, a “daughter of a voice”, meaning that it is quiet, likely overlooked, and always a voice of clear, shining truth. We can only hear it if we quiet ourselves down to notice that which we are rushing to do, or that which we have already given up on because we can’t possibly do it.

The bat kol, we are told, is always calling. 

Right now it is sounding through the cacophony of media reports, and the attendant anxiety, over our upcoming election. It is trying to get your attention while you worry about what you’ve forgotten you promised to do this week. If you can hear it, it will guide you toward a deeper place of peaceful focus that might very well lead to higher productivity, while giving you a deeper sense of serenity in the midst of even your sense of chaos.

The bat kol is telling you to notice the abundance of Sukkot in all the resources at your hands, and all the possibilities within your reach. Yes, there is much that calls us to action, but there are so many hands and hearts already showing the way. Here are a few; all the information you need is at the bottom of this email.

* Native Peoples in North Dakota are blazing a path; all you have to do is send support. If it is not in your hands to help financially, it is also a mitzvah to help spread the word on social media. 

It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you exempt from doing your part. – Pirke Avot 2.16

* Our local Community of Welcoming Congregations, of which we are a proud part, is marking 25 years with a gathering to support our work in furthering the cause of inclusion for LGBQ people in religious congregations. It is also a mitzvah to show up to help celebrate.

These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure….to celebrate with bride and groom. – Mishnah Peah 1.1

* The vision of Jewish mystics offers us the insight that the world is as full of love as it is of hate; as full of acceptance as it is of condemnation. All that is required of us is to quiet down and listen to that bat kol, that still small voice, ringing underneath the worry and the anxiety to tell you that fear does not empower. Anger does not protect. Cynicism does not build. The bat kol insists: we must celebrate all the good that does exist, if we would strengthen its impact in our world, and in our hearts.

Every day a bat kol goes forth from Sinai to lament the fate of the world caused by those who cause disrespect for that which the community holds sacred. – Pirke Avot 6.2

During Sukkot, our Harvest Festival, may you see all that you harvest. May you look at the chaotic demands of your life in this world and see the underlying hints of mitzvot waiting for you to do them; may you hear the cries for help all around you and hear the voice of your community reassuring you: maybe you can’t do this alone, but look at all that we have done – and will do – together.

Shabbat shalom and mo’adim l’simkha, may the Intermediate Days [of the Festival] be for joy,

The Shabbat of Hol HaMo’ed Pesakh: The Door is Still Open

The parashat hashavua for this Shabbat depends on which day of Pesakh we are in. This year, since Pesakh began on Monday night, we are deep into the hol hamo’ed part ofPesakh, the “normal” part of the Festival of our Freedom (and our Matzah). “Normal”, in this context, means neither the first two days nor the last day of the Festival, which are not normal – they are shabbat, days on which Jews traditionally did nothing but rest and pray and study, just as on our seventh-day Shabbat. (Too bad that custom has faded in our Western capitalist world, where we all have to go to work. Funny that Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, with much less of a Torah-presence, have taken the place of Pesakh, Shavuot and Sukkot in our prominence of practice).
 
There is a special holiday reading which takes the place of the regular weekly parashah, and that reading changes depending on whether it’s the beginning/end of Pesakh or the middle, the “normal” days when there are no Shabbat restrictions, while still observing the Pesakh rules (there’s that matzah again). For this particular year, the reading is Exodus 33.12-34.26, and includes a special second reading, Numbers 28.19-25. 
 
The first reading reprises parashat Ki Tisa, focusing upon the process of forgiveness after our betrayal of the Covenant (so quickly our commitment was broken!) with the building of the Golden Bull. Moshe begs God not to destroy us, nor to abandon us in the midst of the wilderness.
 
The second reading reviews the sacrifice that was once brought in honor of the Pesakh Festival – continuing a millennia-old tradition that maintains our memory of who we used to be, even though we do not seek to return to that aspect of our past.
 
Taken together, the two readings might be said to express the difficulties of wandering, and the dead ends we encounter on the way. Religion is not a perfect practice with assured truth always available; religion is a messy process of struggling with our human confusion, within the constantly humbling realization that we don’t know what we’re talking about half the time (or more).
 
We are out of Egypt, but Egypt is not out of us. In every generation we are commanded to believe – not to cynically dismiss, but to believe – that we are going out of Egypt, that it is possible, that we have done it and now must live differently. We are to believe that a door of hope is still open.
 
The political philosopher Michael Walzer writes* “so pharaonic oppression, Sinai, and Canaan are still with us, powerful memories shaping our perceptions of the political world. The ‘door of hope’ is still open; things are not what they might be…We still believe…what the Exodus first taught…-first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; – second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; -and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” 
 
According to the traditional count of days, we aren’t even at the splitting of the Sea yet. Patience and determination – and belief – will help us through all this wilderness, away from where we are, toward where we might be. We, as a holy community, helping each other, moving forward together toward that vision of a door – a threshhold, beyond which we might hope not to come back this way again, because we’ve finally seen a distant hint of that “better place”.
 
shabbat shalom, and mo’adim l’simkha, may this appointed time be joyful for you.
 
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*Exodus and Revolution, New York 1985, p. 149; with thanks to Rabbi Zvi Leshem who brought this citation to my attention.