Posted in D'var Torah

Sukkot: The Transition from the Individual Back to the Community

From the time of Rosh Chodesh Elul through Yom Kippur, a forty day period, we are called to look into ourselves. It is a time of personal reflection, thinking about what have we done this past year. Where are places that we can improve. What happened to us in our lives, both the positive and negative. This feeling culminates in Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, three days of intense prayer. Calling out those sins that we might have committed. Praying for ourselves, our families and the world around us. Requesting at the end of Yom Kippur that we all should be sealed in the book of life, while the words of Uneta Tokef linger still  in the back our minds.

And immediately after the intensity of Yom Kippur, we start preparing for Sukkot. We go outdoors to build our sukkot. We have to remember to order a lulav and etrog. And at the edge of our  mind we’re thinking about  the singing and dancing that will happen in only a few short days, on Simchat Torah.

Even though this happens every year, I think it’s  a bit jarring. During the Days of Atonement we are at  our most vulnerable;  The intensity is palpable.  And then have have to switch gears to Succot, without really having the time  to readjust to the world, to get out of the mindset of the High Holy Days.

But if we take a closer look  at the laws related to Sukkot, it seems  that the holiday itself it there to help us readjust to being active in the community. There are two main mitzvot of Sukkot. Taking the Arba Minim (the Lulav, Etrog, Hadasim, and Aravot), and sitting in a Sukkah. We can  see these two commandments working together to bridge the gap between the individual and the community.

In the laws of Lulav and Etrog (658), the Shulchan Aruch says:

A person does  not fulfil his obligation on the first day of Yom Tov with the Lulav that he borrowed from a friend…Even if one’s fellow said, “The lulav will be yours until you have fulfilled your obligation with it and after that it will be mine, as it was originally,” the recipient does not fulfill his obligation by taking hold of that lulav, as it is nevertheless like a borrowed lulav. However, if one’s fellow gave one the lulav as a gift, he is permitted to take hold of it for the fulfillment of his obligation.

Not only do the 4 species have to belong to you, according to one opinion they represent the different limbs that make up a person . When the Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century Spanish book that lists and explores the 613 Torah commandments (mitzvot) ,  (#285) discusses the mitzvah of lulav it explains that  the :

“Etrog refers to the heart, the place of understanding and wisdom.  Lulav refers to the backbone, uprightness.  Myrtle corresponds to the eyes, enlightenment. Willow represents the lips, the service of the lips (prayer).”

Not only does that lulav have to be yours, in such a way that you can’t just lend it out. The Lulav is the representation of the individual. You are using yourself to connect with God on a deeper level.

The Sukkah on the other hand is an external mitzvah. It is  made outside. We are forced to sit in public places. Everyone around us can hear what is going on. The entrance might be easy to enter, more so than our house are.  The law even sees that sukkah as something that is more public.  A person can fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah no matter if they own it or not. In Tractate Sukkah (27b) it says:

Even though a person cannot exempt himself from his obligation of the four species on the first day of sukkot with a borrowed lulav and etrog, he may exempt himself from his obligation of sitting in a sukkah by using his friend’s sukkah. The basis of this is the verse that says “every citizen of Israel shall sit in Sukkot”. This teaches us that all of Israel is fit to sit in one sukkah.

The verse “every citizen of Israel shall sit in a sukkah is also the source of the law that informs although there is a minimum size a sukkah must be, there is no maximum size of a sukkah. Theoretically, the gemara explains, there should be a sukkah that can fit all the Jewish People as one.

In practice such a sukkah would be difficult to build, but the idea of including others in our sukkah is preserved in the curious  custom of Ushpizen.
The idea of Ushpizen comes from the Zohar, and  is that each night we invite one of our forefathers and great leaders of Bible into our sukkah (today some have taken a custom of inviting the foremothers and female Biblical leaders as well).

The Zohar, as well as other texts seem to learn from this that it should not only be a custom of welcoming in spiritual guests, but rather a person has an obligation to bring in physical people as well, “In order for a person to truly merit in the act of welcoming in the spiritual guests, it is a mitzvah to invite 7 physical people, one each night of the holiday” (Zohar, Emor 103-104). There are additional texts that say that it specifically the poor and needy of the community should be the ones invited to share our sukkah . this is a holiday that the entire community, no matter what someone’s status is, should be celebrating. It is the responsibility of those with a sukkah to look outside of themselves, outside of their individual unit and reach out to the people that are living around them.

The laws of Succot help us reintegrate into the world after the intensity of the High Holidays. The mitzvah of the 4 species highlights the individual, and encourages continued introspection, while the mitzvah of sukkah forces us to go outside of ourselves, outside of our walls, to go out of your way to notice who needs an invitation. Together these mitzvot help us in our transition so that we are able to fully celebrate and dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah. The seven days of Sukkot is the period that helps us transition from being in the world of the individual to the world of the community, Together our community will dance in greeting of the rest of the year, And I pray that we can maintain this communal unity throughout the coming year.

Posted in Life

Goodbye NYC (for Now)!

The month in NYC flew by. It seems like it was only yesterday that I was moving my stuff into a random apartment in Washington Heights on a super hot and humid day.

The weather cooled, and it now feels like fall. The blasting music either stopped or I became used to it and so I stopped hearing it. I got used to the street being full while walking home, the sound of Spanish filling the air. I learned how to get home, which subway was the fastest and where to switch. I even was able to read on the subway because I wasn’t afraid of missing my stop.

It was not as bad as an experience as I thought it might be. there were things that I liked-like places being open almost always or the ease and quickness of the subway.There were things that I missed like knowing the makolet owner, and knowing where to get what I needed or wanted, or being able to eat in every restaunt/cafe that I went into.

Jewish life was also different. The communities are so large that they don’t notice when there are new people. I went to Slichot every night and no one said a word to me. What I found even stranger, was that I would actually walk most of the way home with people from shul, and they would hardly glance my way, even though we just left the same building. Granted, I could have initiated the conversation- but that is hard to do when there isn’t even eye contact made.

I also realized from speaking to people that they don’t leave New York, they don’t have a desire to until they get married. There is an idea that the ONLY place to find a mate is in New York City. Maybe they are right, but there is just so much more of the world to see and experience.

Also with regards to dating, there are women that have minimums for their potential spouse to make. Minimum of $300,000. That is just so crazy. For one that is just a lot of money. But in addition, that is so crazy to think more about money than the person. What is marriage for if not for the person?

I do think that as a city New York has something to offer. I mean, there really isn’t another city like it in the world. I still feel like it is too big for me. But I guess the goal of next year is to find a way to make it feel small and homey. I guess that would be able to happen once I am actually there and not there just for 3 weeks. I will hopefully be able to find a place to call my community, and find friends and like minded people to hang out with.

Posted in D'var Torah

The Scapegoat and Yom Kippur

In the middle of the Torah reading, a seemingly important aspect of the Avodah service of the Kohen Gadol is this of the goats. In English we call them the scapegoats.

The Kohen is told (Vayikra 16:7-10):

And he shall take the two he goats, and place them before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And Aaron shall place lots upon the two he goats: one lot “for the Lord,” and the other lot, “For Azazel.” And Aaron shall bring the he goats upon which the lot, “For the Lord,” came up, and designate it as a sin offering. And the he goat upon which the lot “For Azazel” camp up, shall be placed while still alive, before the Lord, to initiate atonement upon it, and to send it away to Azazel, into the desert.

Following this decree, we hear a bit more about the process of the sacrifices surrounding the goat that was seen to go “to God”. And when this has taken place, the goat that was designated “for Azazel”, Aaron’s hands go upon it, he confesses all the sins and someone take that goat deep into the desert.

The majority of the sacrificial service on Yom Kippur is related to these two goats. The goats are supposed to look exactly the same, and their destiny is chosen by lots. Many of the commentaries try to make sense of this ritual, and to try and learn something deeper in relation to Yom Kippur.

The Abarvanel suggests that the scapegoat ritual is something that is done to invoke the memory of Jacob and Esav. That Esav, like the goat marked “for Azazel,” wandered into the wilderness away from his people, its law, and its traditions. Jacob, like the goat marked “for God,” lived a life devoted to God’s service. According to the Abarvanel, when Aaron, and the high priests after him cast lots to decide which of the two goats would be marked “for God” or “for Azazel”, Jews were to be reminded that they have the choice to live either like Jacob or Esav.

Rambam also believes that the scapegoat is done to “impress the mind of the sinner, that his sins must lead him to a wasteland.” When those who have broken the laws of Torah see that their sins are places upon the goat and sent out into the wilderness, it is hoped that “they will break with their sins…distance themselves from them, and turn back to God in sincere repentance.” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:46)

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch sees the choosing of the goats as a symbol of the choice each Jew makes on Yom Kippur. “We can decide for God, gathering together all the powers of resistance we have been given to resist everything that would tear us away from our vocation to be near God…Or we can decide for Azazel and uphold, unmastered, our selfish life of desires, and…give ourselves over to the uncontrolled might of sensuality…” (comment on Leviticus 16:10)

I think that the two goats are part of this intricate Yom Kippur service for a number of reasons. The two goats are the same, and they are chosen to go in their direction by lot- we have to see from this that there are things in our lives that will happen (both good and bad) that we will have no control over.

But I also think that by naming the two “for God” and “for Azazel” makes us think about our choices. That we have the option to go with God, which I would want to see as doing the right thing or the just thing, but we also have the option to do what is wrong. It is part of being human, as represented by both of the goats to sometimes make the right choice, and sometimes to make the wrong choice. And Yom Kippur can come along and in both cases we will be able to find atonement, and come out of the day cleansed from all sin, as it says in verse 30:

For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all of your sins.

Posted in Life

Lots of thoughts about lots of things

Here are lots of thoughts that I have had over the past week.

Rosh Hashana

It was much harder than I thought it would be this Rosh Hashana. I tried to mentally prepare myself for the things that would be different. There were things that I knew- I wouldn’t be with the same family as I usually am. I wouldn’t be going to the same shul as I usually go. I wouldn’t be in the same town as I usually go to.

But even with all that, there were so many times that I almost started to cry, knowing that what I had, there is a good chance that I might not ever have it again. That my days of davening in Alon Shvut at 5:30 in the morning are over. Not only this year am I in the US, but I know for sure that I will be here next year as well.

The people that I went to for all the holiday meals were very nice and welcoming. But the entire time I felt like I was a guest. I was an outsider that had to be taken care of. I didn’t know their rituals. I didn’t know their songs. I didn’t know the guests at their tables. I felt less at home than I almost ever have.

I was happy that I went to a nursing home for davening. I knew that it would have to be different because we are not based in a shul and things needed to be shortened so we are finished on time. I didn’t realize till then that I actually care about tunes- there were songs that I missed from davening, partially because we didn’t say them at all, or because the chazen didn’t sing them in that tune (or any tune for that matter). Which brings me to the next thing…

Women’s Roles in Jewish Communial Life

I know that I am supposed to feel this way, that perhaps at this point in time I should have an answer to my questions and issues. But…it really stinks to be a woman in Orthodoxy. I mean, getting to shul on Rosh Hashana, and not having a minyan for parts of davening- even if there were 9 men, or less and there were tons of women in the space- it would be as if we were not there.

The guy who davened shacharit- it sounded as if he never practiced the davenign before. But alas, I can’t be the one to correct him, because I can never lead.

As the intern, I spoke for about 3 minutes about the Torah reading and helped people find pages. They easily could have existed without my presence.

The question then needs to be asked, what is the purpose of doing what I am doing? Where am I going to be able to have the greatest effect? Where can I be and what can I be doing that will actually mean something?

New York

After being in New York now for about 3 weeks, my time is almost up. I’m sure that I will sit and reflect on this fully soon.

It is not as horrible as I thought it would be. I have met some very nice people. I have also met people that I just don’t understand. People that have NEVER left New York. People who have a base salary expectation for their prospective spouse. Women who constantly have perfect hair and nails.

I have gone to shuls and stood there with no one to talk to, and no one else even noticing that there is someone that is new. The one place that I knew people was at an egalitarian simchat bat. It is very interesting where my social circle might actually be.

Yom Kippur

Thinking about Yom Kippur just makes me want to cry out. It is hard to think about not having pre-fast dinner with certain people. It is hard to think about not walking down emek refaim in the middle of the street and seeing everyone I know. It is hard to know that I will not have the opportunity again to stand on the bridge by the Begin center overlooking the Old City with no cars passing under.

But…I guess it is a new Year, and a time with lots of change. So many that is a good thing?

Posted in D'var Torah

Akeidat Yitzchak and Mercy

Today we read about the binding of Issac, Akeidat Yitzchak. A story that is well known and at the same time a bit troubling on many accounts. It is also a story that is directly tied into the days of awe. The binding of Isaac, is seen daily in the slichot prayer. We say,

מי שענה לאברהם אבניו בהר המוריה הוא יעננו. מי שענה ליצחק בניו שנעקד על גבי המזבח הוא יעננו

The one who answered Abraham our Father on Mt. Moriah, He should answer us. The one who answered Yitzchak his son, while he was bound on the altar, he should answer us.

The Jerusalem Talmud, in Taanit 2:4 brings a direct tie from Abraham’s view of the binding of Issac to the repentance of the Jewish people.

Abraham said to God, “It is known to you that in the moment that you told me to bring up my son, I had what to say to you. Only yesterday did you tell me that my lineage would live on through my son Yitzchak, and now You are telling me to sacrifice him. And God forbid, would I not listen to you, and without questioning I did your bidding. May it be your will that when the children of Yitzchak are in trouble, and there is no one to testify for them, God, you should remember the Akeida, and show mercy on the children of Israel.”

The shofar too has a connection to the story of the binding of Issac. At the end of the Torah reading, we hear about Abraham finding a ram and being told to sacrifice that instead of his son The Gemara in Rosh Hashana (16a) asks the question of why do we specifically use a ram’s horn to blow.

“Rav Abahu asked: Why do we blow the Shofar of a ram? God said: Blow with the shofar of a ram before Me, so that I will be reminded of the binding of Yitzchak son of Avraham. And I will consider the shofar blowing the equivalent of your having bound yourselves before Me.”

It is very fitting that we read the story of the Akeida during Rosh Hashana. May we all merit to both be looked at in eyes of Mercy by God, and may God answer our needs and wishes in the same way that He answered both Avraham and Yitzchak at that pivotal moment.

Posted in D'var Torah

Models of Prayer on Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashana has changed meaning to me over the years, as I am sure it has for most people. Growing up, my father was the Ba’al Toekah, and so the excitement of davening was not so much for the prayer part, but rather for the shofar blowing. I have davened in a retreat center for older adults, in multiple shuls in London, and again with my parents in the shul that I grew up in. For the past five years, I have spent Rosh Hashana in Alon Shvut, a Yeshuv in Israel. I would wake up at 5:30 to get to davening, and there was something special about walking around with the wind blowing, and and watching the sunrise as I am davening shacharit.

Something that I remember from all of these places is the way that they prayed. What was sung out loud, what was said quietly, which tunes they used and when. A regular complaint from people when they move to a new shul or there is a new chazen is “they didn’t use my tune”. We all have ideas of what tefilla is and what it should be.

In this morning’s Torah reading we hear about different forms of prayer. In the first few verses, we see that God remembered Sarah, and she gave birth to a son, to Isaac. She goes on to praise God for the great gift that she was given, as it says in verses 6-7:

ותאמר שרה צחק עשה לי אלהים כל השמע יצחק לי. ותאמר מי מלל לאברהם היניקה בנים שרה כי ילדתי בן לזקניו.

And Sarah said, “God has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, for I have borne a son to his old age!”

She was able to see the miracle the happened before her eyes, and her initial reaction was to thank God and praise the amazement that was there.

Further on in the Torah reading, we hear about Hagar being sent out of the house of Abraham. She goes into the desert, and while there she runs out of water. She does not know what to do. She does not know how to help her child or herself, and so she calls out to God in despair. I can almost imagine the image of her leaving Yishmael under a tiny shrub so there is shade, walking a bit further away and just breaking down in tears in the vast desert.

In the Haftorah we hear about Chana. Chana also could not have children, and she goes to the mishkan to pray to God to plead that she should be able to conceive. She has a different type of prayer than both Sarah and Hagar. She is praying in pain, but not in despair. She goes to the “House of God”, but does not call out loud. She prays silently, just that her lips are moving. It is a private prayer between herself and God.

There are times that each of these models of prayer is fitting. Rosh Hashana we spend quite a bit of time in shul praying. At times we are given the opportunity to have a quiet conversation with God, pleading for the things that we need. At times we are given the opportunity to call out in pain, both our individual pain that we might be suffering, but also for the communal and global pain that we bare witness to. And we are given the chance to praise God and sing out.

May this year be filled with times to sing out and praise God, but also may we find the words in our times of need.

Posted in D'var Torah

Parshat Nitzavim

While reading this week’s Parsha, Parshat Nitzavim, I was struck by the repetition of the words using the root שוב. After doing a bit of research, I found that the root is used 7 times in the portion, and considering how short this week’s Torah reading it seems like quite a few time. The root שוב, is the root of the word תשובה, or repentance.

What does תשובה (repentance) actually mean? Most of the time that we talk about repentance, especially in the time leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we are looking at our own personal behaviors. We are looking at where we might not have done the right thing or maybe even that we are seen as sinners, and how we can change our ways to be better. But how does that actually happen?

Parshat Nitzavim is the Parsha that is always read the week before Rosh Hashana.  Why is it that in the portion read right before Rosh Hashana, ever few lines or so we are hit with the sound שוב, return? I think that the answer can be found in the beginning of Chapter 30.

If we look at the first four verses of Chapter 30, we can see a process of תשובה.

In verse 1, it says , וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ ,“taking it to heart”.

In verse 2,וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, “and you will return to the Lord, your God”.

In verses 3-4וְשָׁב יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ וְרִחֲמֶךָ וְשָׁב וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה:, “then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God has dispersed you.

First we need to look into ourselves and see what we have done. After we have seen what we have done, we have the opportunity to see how we can improve, and potentially make resolutions to make that change. And finally once we have looked inwards and outwards, we have a belief and trust in God that we will be able to accomplish this lofty goal of becoming a better person in the world.

These verses remind me of  the idea of תשובה of Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine. He writes, “A Person does not conjure up the memory of a past sin or sins, but in a general way he or she feels terribly depressed. He feels him/herself pervaded by sin; that the Divine light does not shine on him or her; that their heart is unfeeling…The primary role of penitence, what at once sheds light on the darkened zone is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul, and from there immediately return to God.

I wish for you all, in this upcoming new year, a happy and healthy one. One that is full of light and fulfilling one’s true potential.