Short Thoughts As The Chaggim End For This Year

1) Avot 2:4 tells us to make God’s Will into our will, in other words,to subjugate our person agenda to God’s so that he will come to make our will His Will.

Politics, entertainment, sports and celebrities are now on a 24/7 news cycle throughout most of the world. You won’t miss anything or fall behind if you unplug for just these few days. But the experience of each Chag, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, as they occur once each year, are once-in-a-lifetime events and opportunities.

It wasn’t that many years ago that Sandy Koufax made every American Jew(ish boy, at least) proud by refusing to pitch the first game of the World Series.

2) Of course, the Torah, in it’s perfect completeness, is never-changing. Except that it does change, especially in terms of the Oral Tradition, which is added to everything that went before each time it is learnt.

Perhaps we can, without causing too much damage, imagine a different ending to tonight’s (Simchat Torah) reading. Perhaps, instead of a tear-filled goodbye to Am Yisrael, as they prepare to enter The Land, led by Yehoshua Bin Nun, this time it’s Moshe Rabbenu himself, having never lost patience with the Jewish People and disobeyed the Creator, but who had year after year after year finally perfected himself. And we, Am Yisrael, would have followed him in, settling our land completely as it was originally intended at Creation, without the following thousands of years of war. Rather we would have brought this land, and through it, all the earth, to the Perfection The Creator originally intended.

Moadim l’Simcha

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How Does a Sukkah Bring Happiness?

The primary Mitzvah  of Sukkot is, simply, to live inside a Sukkah for a week to eat all our meals there, to even sleep there, weather permitting, to entertain guest there and, of course, to study Torah and also, perhaps, to sign and make music, within it’s holy space.

We also commanded, separately, simply to be happy. V’samachta b’Chagecha, and you will rejoice in your festival.

This year (along with last year) marks the only two in more than forty years that I’ve not had my own Sukkah and I admit it feels strange. Of course, I can fulfill the technical requirements of eating certain food categories in the many sukkot erected by neighborhood restaurants, by welcoming neighbors, schools and synagogues and others. I’m well aware, certainly, that this is one of many “side benefits” of living in Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, both this year and last, of the connection between Sukkah and Simcha (happiness). Does  the/a path to happiness necessarily travel through a Sukkah? What, of course, of the rest of the year? Does reducing the time spent in the Sukkah reduce one’s joy? Is happiness open to me at all during this week?

The fact is, however, that I’ve often found myself bursting with joy this past week, and for no real reason I can put my finger on. I’ve made no new special friends, gathered no new possessions, no new toys at all. I haven’t completed any great achievements strictly within these few specified days. I’ve probably had about my usual share of grumbles this week, certainly enough transportation and busing aggravations, but I still think if one could add up the minutes, you’d find my “smile time” significantly elevated. What could possibly be happening?

One thing, of course, is that living in Israel, living in Jerusalem, I’m surrounded by fellow Jews. But that’s no different the week of Sukkot than any other week. Of course, I’m literally surrounded by Sukkot this week, although that doesn’t mean that I’m continuously within a Sukkah, but, rather, that everywhere I look, literally, I see s Sukkah.

The Gemara, and I’m never sure of my exact references, just that I’ve “seen” it somewhere in my studies, in this case probably in Gemara Sukkot”, discusses the minimum size for a Sukkah to be kosher and says that it needs to be big enough for an average person to put his head and shoulders and part of his upper body into. It then brings us one of the most beautiful images I know within our tradition. We’re invited to imagine the entire Jewish people standing single-file in line, each one taking a turn to put his head and shoulders into this tiniest of kosher Sukkot, eating something (probably especially tasty) and saying a bracha of thanks. One-by-one, this theoretical Sukkah will contain all of Am Yisrael, the entirely of the Jewish People, each of us in a heightened awareness of The Creator.

And, perhaps, that is just the magic of a Sukkah, that each Sukkah becomes this ideal Sukkah, that every time we enter a Sukkah we surround ourselves with the entirely of the Jewish People, that every time we see a Sukkah, we see every Jew throughout our history, in all our beautiful individuality and diversity, each contributing what only we can contribute to the ultimate wholeness and integrity of God’s Created and our perfected, universe.

I can’t think of anything more joyous.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim l’Simcha!

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Be Happy….Or Else!

Z’man Simchateynu is upon us. Yes, it’s almost Sukkot, The Time of our Joy, and we are commanded, V’Semachta b’Chagecha V’Hayita Af Sameach! Rejoice in your festival and be especially happy.

I don’t know about you, but when “commanded” to be just about anything, my first impulse is to resist and do the opposite. How can we be expected to turn happiness on and off at command? The Torah itself has something to say about this through the rabbinic tradition to read Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, on the intermediate Shabbat of this festival, perhaps warning us, “Just not too happy”!

Traditionally, we’re supposed to be so relieved that we lived through Yom Kippur, where every living being is judged either to have yet another year to live or, chas v’shalom, to die. I’ll grant that there are some within our community of Jews who really are so holy as to deeply and intimately feel their life is on the line this time ever year, but it’s always been a stretch for me. And how does this focus on failure and destruction, just a few days ago, bring us to happiness? One would have to enter Yom Kippur, with an overwhelming sense of guilt and self-hate in order to truly feel that, sitting in the Sukkah (and this is speaking ideally in term of weather–I recently spent almost thirty years in Seattle where, ever year putting up the Sukkah was an exercise in futility because you just knew that it would start pouring rain, a storm pre-programmed to last most of the following eight days. So, in more observant circles, the men (women, while not prohibited or excluded from the Mitzvah, nevertheless aren’t commanded to eat all their meals (and possibly to sleep) in the Sukkah) would bundle up in rain gear, run through the mud in the back yard, to say a very very quick Kiddush (the inaugural blessing of the  chag), down a mouthful of wine, and run back into the warm dry house for the real festival meal. Unless you have a serious appreciation for the absurd, this ritual is unlikely to inspire you to collapse in laughter or any other expression of happiness.

I remember from many years ago Rabbi B.C.Shloime Twerski, zt”l, teaching that Simchat Yom Tov, the commandment to be happy on these festival days, to be “the hardest one in the book”. When he explained it that time, he was focusing on the requirement to not allow oneself to become even the slightest bit angry, annoyed or have any other negative emotion, for a full 24 (or 48 in the diaspora) hours. When you even briefly contemplate this, you realize what a daunting task it is!

Another theme that the Rabbi emphasized is one we recite every Shabbat  and Chag morning, “Sur meRah v’Oseh Tov” (from Psalm 34, part of the extended Psalms reading we add on those special days). It means “Turn Away From Evil And Do Good”, in other words, avoid the negative is important, but the real lesson Torah is teaching us through its many mitzvot is that the real goal is to create a positive and tangible Good in this world. So, merely avoiding anger and frustration (maybe a deep reason behind the prohibition from driving a car and Shabbat and Chag), while an essential first step, is far from the real goal.

Honestly, I wish I could wrap up this lesson with a brilliant insight on how to achieve happiness. I’d become famous and maybe even rich (would either of those suffice to make me, or anyone else, happy?). Perhaps good first step, one I’m working with on myself, is to contemplate one of the deepest concepts in Judaism, “Everything that God Creates, he Creates for His Glory/Honor”. And what could God’s “Honor” or “Glory” possibly be other than the fulfillment of His purpose in Creation, that there be a perfect world, perfected not by His arbitrary decree, but by our willing, loving participation in fixing the world through the Torah  and Mitzvot, even, or especially, the incomprehensible ones such as seeming impossible task of being truly happy.

The best I can recommend is to spend the time among people you love.

Moadim l’Simcha!

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A Short Note To Subcribers

First, thank you for reading my thoughts for yet another year. I hope you’ll continue and that your responses will continue to inspire me.

I often find myself at the very edge of Shabbat and Holiday deadlines, and my proof-reading suffers. I don’t at all mind having my attention being brought to these mistakes and I will try to correct them as soon as I can.

Please share these essays and thoughts with your friends and colleagues. If you’re getting this, you’re already a subscriber. Please encourage others to subscribe as well. And remember, you’re honestly invited to join the conversation through the Comment section.

G’mar Chatima Tova.


Special thanks to Rabbi DA

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Getting Ready For Yom Kippur

In many ways, Yom Kippur is the easiest of all the Jewish. No special meal to prepare, nothing to build, no difficult Megilah  to chant. Of course, in past years I would spend more than a month relearning and, hopefully, improving my chant of the entire four services, the Torah readings, the Haftorah, Yonah…. Well, that was a lot of work, especially for a non-singer like me, but if it were a “test”, it was, at least, an open-book one. The point being that even when I had to mount a “one-man show”, often leading a congregation with almost no background, when I had to provide intuitive evocations along with current content, my “job” had been done many times before and I was merely a participant in a long traditional role and I just had to plug into a pre-existing role.

The themes are ancient and have been described and discussed through the centuries. The solo performance of the Cohain Gadol, the High Priest, with his special sacrifices and once-a-year approach to and entrance into the Kodesh K’doshim, the Holy of Holies, a space/time- warp eternal center of the Universe housing the Aron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark, which contained, among other things, both the broken original and the intact copy of the Shnei Lukhot HaBrit, the two Tablets of Covenant, A physical remnant of the  Infinite Energy of God transformed into the physical/rational of simple human words carved into the very physical matter of stone, the two-way dialogue between us, as human beings and the Infinite Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, detailing our responsibilities which we pledge in exchange for the opportunity to experience life on earth.

As abstract, cosmic and all engaging as those thoughts are, in  past years l had a script to follow, one which at least included allusions to these themes. And the themes themselves, described and discussed both within the chag and in preparing my roles as leader, had become familiar, unfortunately, too often overly-familiar. Therefore as I worked to refine my understanding which was limited by this very repetition and exploration, I began to see a horizon where I would need to make several profound decisions.

Thus I find myself this year, as in the last several years, closely approaching that moment when weekday becomes, itself, Yom Kippur, a day when “all bets are off”, when we really have no idea how we will be evaluated in last years’ efforts and can only hope we’ll come out all right for the next year.

Approached this way, much of the past liturgy no longer directly addresses these issues. Albeit the comfort in these age-old melodies, the words and poetry too often no longer discuss nor lead me to where I hope to arrive, to a close and direct, intimate yet mysterious dialogue with The Creator about how I might best grow, conduct myself in this just-opening year, to add to the life energy and love of those around me, hopefully to be enhanced by theirs.

Before this day arrives, often well into it, I no longer even have the questions I need to ask. I can’t “create” the openness I’ll need to develop, can’t even imagine how any of it will feel. And as the time arrives, all I can do is enter with the  kavana, aim or intention, that somehow I’ll ask the right questions, start down the right paths to give myself, and through myself others, the first steps this next year requires.

G’Mar Chatima Tova, may our provisional beginnings lead us to that divine intimacy where all that we are called up begins to be revealed.

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What Tshuva Can Look Like In 5779

As the calendar begins to approach a new decade–in just one year it will be 5780, as the reality of a soon-to-be majority of the world’s Jews living in Eretz Yisrael under Jewish sovereignty for the first time in almost two full millennia, as the spiritual awareness of people around the world grows more universal and compassionate (no, of course we’re not there yet, but before one arrives, one must necessarily approach), perhaps we can take a new look at Tshuva, usually (inadequately) translated as “repentance”, but perhaps better thought of as a return and a reset to our full potential as humans and as Jews.

For almost my entire life, Tshuva was presented as doing more (or, in the case of Aveyrot, misdeeds and sins, doing less).  If I learn Torah and hour a day, let’s increase it to two. If we give five dollars daily to Tzedaka (Charity), up it to six! If we’ve inspired five Talmidim, students to learn an extra hour a week, convince them to learn two extra!

And perhaps, if we haven’t this past week eaten two pounds of cheeseburger, let’s not eat three! (Of course, there is no quantification of prohibitions, and not eating treif means not eating ANY treif, but the point in this exaggeration was made many years ago by Rabbi Chaim Zimmerman, zt”l, one of my teachers in Jerusalem and considered by many to have been the Talmid Chacham most brilliant Torah scholar of his recently past generation).

I see a different direction for myself this year and in the future. As a teacher, as a rabbi, I want to encourage and enable Jews, especially those with little or no previous background, those who have been turned off by past expressions of coercion, fanaticism and intolerance, to explore and engage even just a little more this year in any side or expression of Judaism they feel comfortable and potentially at home with.

There is no One Way of engaging with and observing Torah, just as there is no One Size Fits All approach to reach out lovingly to fellow Jews (not to mention reaching out lovingly to fellow humans, but that, perhaps, is the second step). Each of us, Judaism compels us to realize, and everything God Created to make this universe, is intentional, and, as such, deeply and decisively needed to complete the final steps of our co-project with The Creator of completing and perfecting all Creation. Nothing and no one can be rejected, even if we, personally, might not see the value in them.

So, if our Tshuva can be expediting their Tshuva, even just a tiny bit, that might be the final piece that clicks into place.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova, 5779

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The Irony Of Great Wealth

What to do? What to do? This year in Jerusalem, as Tisha B’Av, our millennia-old national day of mourning and fasting, we are drowning in a plethora of choices of how to participate.

Counter-intuitive, perhaps, certainly counter-tradition, there are any number of musical circles and workshops where we can sing together, play together, drum together, hoping to generate the sense of love and fellowship to counter the sinat chinam, unjustified hate and strife, which let to the destruction of our best interface with the Infinite Almighty and our millennia of isolation and alienation, even though we seem to contemn and ignore what had been our universal practice for these days. Maybe a new approach is necessary and, if so, there are plenty available.

We can choose, traditional chassidic, yeshivishe, zionist, peace-oriented, sufi-influenced services. We can listen to Eicha, Lamentations, chanted, or at least discussed and interpreted, in modern Ivrit, in English, French, Russian, Amharic, Arabic or Yiddish.

Mourning the “City which sits alone, after once hosting literally thousands of people”. Once the greenest, most prosperous center of culture and spirit and technology and wealth, Jerusalem is now reduced to ruins and rubble and all that remains is unending, universal sadness and  mourning….

Or is that really so? Today, in the year 5578, Jerusalem is filled with more people, including, specifically, more Jews than any time in history. We are more prosperous, living in greater comfort and luxury than ever. More Jews (as well as non-Jews), men and women, seniors and children, beginners and life-long learners, engaging and studying Torah in Yeshivot and Kollels, Synagogues and living rooms than ever before. And the unimaginable volume wisdom and insights, wise sayings and words of comfort have been digitally entered in various forms where we are able to see infinitely more connections and inter-connections that were ever available to any individual Jew. We have institutions studying the adaptation of older versions of halacha to address modern physical and social realities. We can specialize in the brilliance of the Rambam, the Holy Ari, the structure of the Shulchan Aruch and its many later researchers. There are Yeshivot devoted to Talmud, Halacha, Chassidut, Mussar, Modern Ethics, Business, Labor Relations, Relationships, Sexuality…… Everything imaginable can and is now being examined in light of our vast Torah tradition.

Or, if we want, we can sit alone, chant the ageless words of Yirmiyahu’s Eicha (Jeremiah’s Lamentations) and try to re-experience the horror and tragedy, the utter isolation, bereft of man and God, of that night when the walls were breached, the Holy Temple set ablaze, our brothers and sisters, parents and children, indiscriminately slaughtered.

Yes, we have an almost limitless menu set for us, inviting each of us in our own way to participate not merely in commemorating the tragedy, but participating in the (hopefully) swiftly-approaching  complete redemption.

It seems to me that the important thing is that no matter which style of observance we adopt this year, and hopefully this is our final year of effort, we do it in a spirit of Ahavat Chinam, unprovoked love for each other, for our Creator, for fellow Jews and for all mankind, in such a way that next year it will, indeed, appear that this year, with all it’s progress and achievements, was still desolate compared to our ultimate potential.

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