09/28/2018 12:14 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Exodus 33:12–34:26

More than any other Jewish holiday or ritual, I love the audacity of Sukkot. After the many profound words and seemingly endless prayers of the High Holidays, Sukkot offers a very different holiday mode. The main theme and ultimate goal of the holiday is to achieve climactic joy. While there are a myriad of customs and rituals associated with the building of the sukkah, and we celebrate the fall harvest, there main mitzvah is to be exceedingly joyful: First the Deuteronomist declares a few times "you shall rejoice” (Deut. 16:14) and then: "you shall have nothing but joy” or said another way, "you shall be exceedingly joyous" (Deut. 16:15).

While there are many interesting rituals, the main theme of the holiday is pure joy. We even include in the liturgy in several places a request for a special blessing for Z’man Simchateinu, this "season of our joy.” Why is this season particularly joyful? How can God demand or command an emotion?

What is the source of the joy? The sources of this joy are simply the reality of freedom and the possibility of a radically different future. If we’ve really been forgiven on Yom Kippur, if the world is truly renewed and freedom is real, then Sukkot is the culmination of all we’ve ever dreamed of or prayed for—it is a climactic moment. How can we not be joyful?

Like many people, I often bristle at the idea of being told how to feel. But there is something about the motivation for the directive to be exceedingly joyous on Sukkot that makes the idea of transcending oneself and our own issues possible. The motivation is the possibility of a much bigger joy. Emerging out of many hours of prayers, hopefully some deep internal reflection—and definitely a lot of time inside—we suddenly burst out of the synagogue walls and the walls of our homes into the great sukkah outdoors. Dwelling outside in nature is beautiful, but doing so in the insecurity of booths is a powerful ritual reminding us both of the journey out of Egypt and, ultimately, of our place in the universe. We can now fully imagine the joy that is possible if we are willing to embrace it.

Sukkot is also different than all other holidays because it doesn’t commemorate a historic event of liberation like Passover but rather an extended journey forward out of slavery, and toward freedom and self-determination. As my teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches: "On Passover, Jews restage the great event of liberation. Sukkot celebrates the way of liberation—the march across a barren desert to freedom and the Promised Land” (Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays,1988, p. 96). Now that we’ve declared the new year, repented, and declared our intentions, we must set out to embody who we want to be as people, a community, and a force for good in the greater universe. But what is the way of liberation?

There is no better way to embrace our place in the larger universe than leaving our secure dwellings and going outside into whatever the weather is (as long as it’s safe!) and embracing it as a reality beyond our control. This letting go of our capacity to control everything and moving into the world with confidence is definitely a potential source of great joy. Redeemed from Egypt, purified by Yom Kippur, we are free to determine our journey and our future. What greater joy can there be?

The Sukkot ritual we still observe today is based on the biblical commandment that the Israelites of ancient times—and we today—dwell in temporary huts for one week a year "in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Eternal your God” (Lev. 23:43). But we don’t just go out and embrace the great outdoors, we are required to do so with a particularly deep and profound joy, even if we have to force it a bit at first.  

As Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg writes, "Sukkot has become the model for this wordily [as opposed to the next world] enjoyment, which is why it is called the time of rejoicing” (ibid., Greenberg, p.112). The Talmud outlines some of what we can do to help make it happen for those around us. "Our Rabbis taught: A man is duty-bound to make his children and his household rejoice on a festival, for it is said, ‘And you shall rejoice on your feast, [you and your son, and your daughter, etc.]’ "(Babylonian Talmud, P’sachim 109a). The Talmudic passage continues by describing the fine food, wine, clothing, and so on that one must give each member of the family so that each one can truly rejoice. It follows that this is a good time to ask how we can help not only ourselves, but also those closest to us to rejoice as well.
Sukkot offers a myriad of ways to ritualize and live the way of liberation, and experience the profound joy in being free to do so. The pure joy of the journey, however, will be constantly challenged by the elements. Every day of the Israelites’ journey through the desert, their building sukkot repeatedly only to have to take them down and keep moving forward, tested their faith and commitment to the journey. As Greenberg writes: "It is relatively easy to rise to one peak moment of … courageous commitment. It is more taxing and more heroic to wrestle with everyday obstacles without highs or diversions. True maturity means learning to appreciate the finite rewards of every day along the way” (ibid., Greenberg, p. 97).

In this season of our joy the climax is ours to experience, if we realize its potential. But the greater gift is to enter into renewed relationships with those closest to us, with God, and with the universe. Then some deep joy will be ours not only on this holiday, but also for many days in the days and years to come. As the Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav is famously quoted as saying: "It is a mitzvah to be joyous at all times.”

Greenberg writes, "Only those who know the fragility of life can truly appreciate the full preciousness of every moment…. The release from Yom Kippur leads to the extraordinary outburst of life that is Sukkot” (ibid., Greenberg, p.112).

Additional Torah Study Resources: Torah Study / Leading a Family Torah Discussion

Categorized under:  Torah

09/21/2018 11:29 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
HAAZINU (Listen)

D'VAR TORAH BY:  Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beti-Halachmi, PH.D 

As we near the end of Deuteronomy, prepare to begin the yearly Torah cycle anew, and celebrate the end of the fall holidays, we are poised for a remarkable spiritual climax. This week’s Torah portion, Haazinu, includes Moses’ dramatic theological poem—a powerful cry of the heart because he wants to ensure that the community understands the core principles of what it means to be an Israelite. At this climactic moment, with multiple orations at the finale of Moses’ life and leadership, this section expresses his own theology, which has broad implications. While much of Deuteronomy is an interpretive rendering of aspects of the Israelite civilization we already know, this oration entails a paradigm shift on five levels: Moses, the people of Israel, God, the universe, and ultimately us—contemporary readers. A dramatic shift begins at each level.

After repetitions of history and law; the details of setting up a priestly cult, courts, and judges; the renewing of the covenant; and much discussion of reward and punishment; suddenly the tone and the layout of the text shift—even the portrayal of God shifts paradigms. Moses desires an audience greater than the community of Israel or even God: he calls upon the heavens and the earth to hear his elegy and affirm the truths he has learned.

While for most of the book, God has been portrayed as the mighty redeemer, the supreme warrior who leads Israel into battle, and the One who reveals Torah with thundering skies and threats of a conditional covenant, Moses now employs a variety of powerful but gentle images to describe God’s words:

"May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass …” (Deut. 32:2)

The well-known medieval commentator Rashi teaches that these expressions are a poetic description of Torah as the source of life. Just as the grass needs the rain and the dew so do we need the words of Torah. God’s words nurture us and sustain us. The holiday of Sukkot emphasizes a similar theme: we are ultimately dependent on forces beyond our control. The warm houses and incredible technology many of us are fortunate to have may give us a sense of security and power and make us feel that we have infinite access to knowledge, but in fact we all are ultimately vulnerable. We live in total exposure and are in need of a more transcendent kind of protection and guidance.

At this critical juncture in the narrative, the Deuteronomist ascribes to God many new names and characteristics that become important in the later books of the Bible, such as the Book of Psalms, and in the liturgy and in the prayer books that emerged in the following centuries. God as the rock, the source of justice. Any imperfections or problems in the world are because of human imperfection and human error—not because of God (Deut. 32 4-5). God is the father, the creator, the nurturer, like an eagle caring for its youngest eaglets in their nests and carrying them on its back.

By definition, these images of God ascribe complementary characteristics to the Israelites. If God is the saving eagle, the Israelites are the eaglets in a desert wasteland. If God is a wise and perfect and nurturing father, we are imperfect, naïve, and unenlightened children in need of the moral and communal direction of the Torah and a new generation of leadership. Without this theological widening it might not be possible for Joshua to be accepted and for the community to move forward.

These verses also emphasize a core feature of Judaism; it is not only a religion, culture, and civilization unto itself, but also the story of the Israelite people, which has metaphysical significance. Moses’ oration also confirms Judaism’s connection not only to religious and legal doctrines, but also to a God that is part of a metaphysical reality extending from Creation to all of eternity. By calling on the heaven and the earth to hear him, Moses returns with pathos to many of the themes of the Creation at the beginning of Genesis. Moses calls upon the heavens and the earth to witness his theophany concept. And through this powerful sermon he returns the people of Israel to the foundational elements of Creation—to the first days when heaven and earth are first distinguished by God, before humanity was even created. This is essential for the consciousness that must remain with the Israelites even after Moses is gone. God undergirds all of existence. Remember that is not just God the giver of the law, the judge, the warrior who will continue to accompany the Israelites, but also God the Creator and the devoted, protecting parent who will remain with us forever. This knowledge is a central goal of this season, to reach the spiritual climax in which we shift our existence toward all the goodness and hope that the universe holds in store for us.

Categorized under:  Torah

09/14/2018 12:04 PM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Deuteronomy 31:1–30
[Moses] Went

Responsibility and Freedom, That’s the Deal!

In this week’s Parashah, we are presented with the very memorable moment of Moses telling the Israelites, that he will not be going with them into the promised land.  In our teachings, we learn of some of the concrete reasons for what is generally seen as a "punishment” for Moses.  Was Moses too brazen with God?  Was he too angry and possibly not as faithful in God’s support when he struck the rock that was to trigger nourishment for the wandering tribes of Jacob?  This is all very possibly the "reason” Moses did not go forward with his people.

When I put this question to our 4th and 5th Grade students this week, their responses were enlightening.  I asked if something that seemed so catastrophic - losing the teacher of all teachers, the leader who had seen then through so much - could something that seemed so bad have been for any other reasons?  Are there any positives to such a new situation for our ancestors?

Some students mentioned age.  "Moses was very old.” They said.  "Maybe they could use some new leadership.”
Others said that well, maybe they needed to go it alone.  Maybe they wouldn’t be able to grow as much with the same leader they had had for so long.

Their insights were amazing, and I told them, actually in line with many commentators who believe this may have been part of a necessary plan for the children of Isaac and Jacob.  Independence would definitely have forced them to grow in new ways.  

I also related their responses to the previous Parashot.  Moses had just been retelling his people about all the laws handed down by God.  He was now telling them that they were the ones who had to continue on without him.  They had to really take these laws to heart, believe in them, and teach them to their children.  He was not going be around anymore to keep reminding them.  They had to do that for themselves now.

One student also reminded us that the last time Moses was separated from the Israelites, things did not go so well in that regard.  They did forget, the did lose faith and the did turn away from God.  So in many ways, if this was God’s plan, this was taking a big risk.  Or was it the ultimate test of faith - seeing what would happen if their faithful leader was really not coming back?

I also related this conversation to what we ask of all of our students at Shlenker.  We teach them so they can do.  Yes we are often there to remind them of what they need to do.  But not always.  And not when they go home – or when they "Walkest by the way” as it says in the V’ahavtah.  

Much like the Israelites now had an independence that would be their greatest test, our students have that same independence – and what they do with it is the test of their commitment to our values, our principles and all the mitzvoth we ask them to follow.
Categorized under:  Torah

09/07/2018 11:53 AM Posted by: David Cohen Poster Avatar
Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20
You Stand [This Day]

Standing up and saying YES!

This week in Good Morning Shlenker, we didn’t need a video or poster to create an image of this weeks’s Parashah.  In what may be one of the more compelling scenes in our historical narrative, Moses is speaking to all the tribes of Israel.  In some midrashim, we are told of two mountains that the children of Jacob are gathered on, and the conversation that may have taken place.  In the Midrash, we are presented with what could be described as a one of the largest reality show competitions ever imagined.  The tribes are in a sense shouting in response to Moses presentation of the choice they have in accepting or rejecting God’s covenant.  The debate was in a sense between the forces of good and the forces of evil – the inclinations that might lead us away from God’s laws.

In our gathering, we imagined that we were the Israelites gathering in front of Moses, presented with accepting or rejecting God’s principals on how to be good and kind human beings.  I asked what we thought about a set of ideas that asked us to make good choices and be kind to one another, support one another, love our mothers and fathers, and care for the earth around us.  I asked if we would agree that this was a good thing.  The entire group said yes!  Emphatically!  I then asked them if we could try to recreate this scene from our Midrash, with all the tribes of Israel agreeing to follow God’s commandments, reminding them that any tribe could have said no.  I asked – and they all shouted yes in agreement.

Later in the week, as we continued our celebration of Elul, I spoke of a passage from Pirkei Avot, also a song, that begins "Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li."  This was a perfect passage for the time of year.  With a new year coming, there is no one but us, who can begin to change the world.  And the passage continues – if not NOW then WHEN?  Again, a perfect idea for the beginning of the New Year.  Now is the time.  Now is the time to stand up and say YES!  I AGREE!  Now is the time to say, YES!  I CAN MAKE THE CHANGES I WANT TO SEE!  And the time to act is not tomorrow.  The time is TODAY!

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