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 VaYigash: Who Are You Before You Were Hurt?

On this Shabbat the terrible game ends: brothers stop terrifying brothers, a parent is relieved of a horrifying lie, and we see the cessation of a generational dysfunction, all because of one – or, actually, two – heroic individuals.

The parashat hashavua (the Torah reading of the week) is named for the key act that brings the entire unhealthy structure down: vayigash, “he drew near”. It describes the heroism of Judah, fourth son of Leah and Jacob. When all seems lost and the brothers are convinced that they are to die, or at least to become slaves for the rest of their lives in Egypt, Judah finds the courage and the wisdom that it takes to “draw near” the threatening man who is second only to Pharaoh over all the land. Judah is able to ascertain what to say, and, more importantly, he understands good timing. 

Judah is not the oldest brother – he’s fourth in a long line of twelve. Nothing special about that – but that Judah makes his place special through his willingness to learn from experience and do the right thing even when it might cost him.

Judah risks it all, and he turns the tide. No one dies. And as the terror subsides, the man they most feared turns out to be their long-lost brother, Joseph.

Judah’s heroism is in his willingness to be the one to go first, to step away from the safety of the crowd and to stand for what he saw as just, regardless of the personal cost. The Torah seems here to be inviting us to learn that it is only within the fear that one finds the friend – and that finding the kindred spirit inside the terrifying enemy requires all the strength and wisdom that we can bring to bear.

The second act of heroism is Joseph’s, for he is able to still reach the wounded child inside the angry man he has become. There is no act which requires greater courage than that of being willing to let go of the anger and disappointment, and the days that stretched into years of building his sense of self upon the justification of that anger. Joseph had created in his heart a whole narrative of what had happened to him so that he would be able to go on. The defiant names he gave his children are essentially “I reject where I came from” and “I’m happy here”. 

And then in one moment, he finds the grace to drop it all and let Judah reach across the abyss to touch him, brother to brother. 

The Torah records the final closing of the wounds in the first three verses of the third year’s reading of this parashah, according to the Triennial Cycle:

כח  וְאֶת-יְהוּדָה שָׁלַח לְפָנָיו, אֶל-יוֹסֵף, לְהוֹרֹת לְפָנָיו, גֹּשְׁנָה; וַיָּבֹאוּ, אַרְצָה גֹּשֶׁן.

[Jacob} sent Judah before him unto Joseph, to show the way before him unto Goshen; and they came into the land of Goshen.

כט  וַיֶּאְסֹר יוֹסֵף מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ, וַיַּעַל לִקְרַאת-יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו גֹּשְׁנָה; וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָיו, וַיֵּבְךְּ עַל-צַוָּארָיו, עוֹד.

Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen; he presented himself unto him, and fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while.

ל  וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם, אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ, כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי.

And Israel said unto Joseph: ‘Now let me die, since I have seen your face, that you are yet alive.’ (Genesis 46.28-30)

What Jacob sees here is that Joseph has not essentially changed; his “Joseph-ness” is still alive. Judah is the bridge that brings Joseph back to Jacob and all that the Patriarch represents, and also back to a sense of himself within the family, as son and brother. Judah allows Joseph to become whole in himself by restoring his family relationships to him.

In this moment we can see why Judah is the line of future kings of the People of Israel. And we’ve already seen Joseph’s intelligence and greatness. But only in this moment do we see that what we most long for requires being able to find, within the greatness and the kingship, the vulnerable human being who never stops needing the essential human connection of love, and belonging.

It’s still quite dark as we turn the corner after the solstice. There are still many dark hours of human history to make our way through – and we won’t all make it. And there is no guarantee of future results in these past acts of courage. 

But these acts nevertheless stand as testimony to what is, sometimes, possible, everywhere and within everyone: to find the brother within the enemy. To find the hope within the despair. To find the light in the midst of the darkness. After all, where else does one see light, but within the darkness?

Shabbat Hayei Sarah: Live This Day As If It Is Someone Else’s Last

I believe passionately that the key to meaningful life is learning. And I am not simply offering you my personal opinion. Our Jewish tradition asserts that if we are open to learning new insights, new perspectives, new ideas all the time – even in situations that don’t seem suited to learning – we can redeem a moment, even one that seems bleak and unforgiving.

This Shabbat we read Hayyei Sarah, “Sarah’s life”. The parashah begins with the death of Sarah, our first Matriarch. Abraham mourns. He must buy a plot of land in which to bury her (until this point he has been a landless nomad). Then we read that Abraham gives some thought to his children’s future at this point, and the parashah ends with the marriage of his soon Isaac to Rebekah, at which point we are told that “Isaac was consoled after the death of his mother Sarah”. 

There is so much to learn from this parashah, from Abraham’s experience of Sarah’s death, to the family dynamics and the behavior that ensues, and, finally, the entrance of Rebekah on the scene. It is easy to note that we move in one parashah from death to new life. It has also been noted that Isaac may have some issues with the women in his life, since he was consoled by taking his new wife into his mother’s tent. Maybe a little over-involved with Mom? To be fair, a loving partner is often the key to our ability to overcome grief and go on with our lives.

I ask you to focus with me on something a bit more subtle.  If we look carefully at the end of last week’s parashah, we can see that Abraham was living in Be’er Sheva – and Sarah is living in Kiryat Arba, also called Hevron. They are, at best, distanced from each other, perhaps even estranged. (Understandable! after Dad took the only son of the couple out to sacrifice him, without even telling Mom where they were going.) There may have been quite some distance between this couple for quite some time.

But then Sarah died, and Abraham “came to mourn her”. The wording suggests that he had to travel in order to be with her – that he was not near at hand. 

Imagine the journey that he took – the distance, not in physical steps, but in emotional stages. Guilt. Sadness. Self-recrimination. The sting of memory. Regret. Resignation. And, finally, steeling himself to see it through.

Abraham arrived at Sarah’s deathbed too late to bid her goodbye, but in time to mourn her. And that, perhaps, was enough of a reconciliation.

On Yom Kippur, if you have wronged someone and s/he has died before you had the chance to beg forgiveness, you are required to go to the grave of that person and ask for it anyway. Not because we believe that you will contact that person in some possible afterlife, but because you need to take the steps Abraham took. 

We are all told, “live each day as if it is your last”. On this Shabbat, our parashah seems to be suggesting that we might also want to try our best to live each day as if it was someone else’s last.