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 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.

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,

Shabbat hol hamo’ed Sukkot 5774: What is the Fruit of Your Life?

A very long time ago, our Israelite ancestors were practicing a particular ritual of thanksgiving at this Sukkot Harvest Festival time of year:

 

And it shall be, when you come into the land that  יה G-d is about to give you in estate, and you take hold of it and dwell in it, you shall take from the first yield of all the fruit of the soil that you will bring from your land which  יה G-d is about to give you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that  יה G-d chooses to make the Name dwell there. You shall come to the priest who will be in those days,and you shall say to him, “I have told today to יה your G-d that I have come into the land which  יה swore to our ancestors to give us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hand and lay it down before the altar of  יה your G-d. And you shall recite before  יה your G-d: “My father was an Aramean about to perish, and he went down to Egypt, and he sojourned there….and  יה brought us out of Egypt….to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, look, I have brough the first yield of the fruit of the soil that you gave me,  יה.(Deut. 26.1-10, excerpted; trans. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

 

This is the earliest record we have of a formal recitation; usually it is our acts only that are prescribed. Consider the acts, and the words, which our tradition puts in our mouths in these moments:

 

1. when you become aware that the promise of your life is being fulfilled (through lots of hard work of tilling and tending, of course), you are to take from the first fruits of that fulfillment.

2. you are to bring those first fruits, in whatever form they take, and donate them.

3. there is a witness (the priest) to your act.

4. you articulate a formal version of your community’s identity story

 

It’s hard to concentrate on Sukkot when we’ve just put so much energy into Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, but if the two major Days of Awe are thesis and antithesis, then Sukkot is really a powerful form of synthesis, of demonstrating that one has actually reached a new place because of the Days of Awe we’ve just observed. On Rosh HaShanah we reflect and consider, and on Yom Kippur we face the truth of our lives – and on Sukkot, then, one might have something new to say about the real “fruit” of one’s life. 

 

Note, also, that this is one more ritual act you cannot carry out alone. You need a priestly witness who represents G-d and the community in which you have been working on the seeding, weeding, and harvesting of your life. 

 

Your life is a field full of glorious fruits and flowers. Look over the field in its richness. What fruits of your life are ready for harvest on this Sukkot? And how will you give thanks by sharing them?

 

חג שמח – hag sameakh, may you celebrate the abundance in your life during these days of our Sukkot Festival