A new symbolism for the lulav and etrog: what if these four species of Israel represented the four largest streams of Judaism? If so, then on Sukkot all Jews - Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist - all are symbolically gathered together as one family. Why not? We all worship the same God and study the same Torah - we are all b'nei Yisrael. Sure we each understand and live Judaism in our own different ways, but wouldn't be great if on Sukkot we were reminded with every shake of the lulav that, in the end, we are all in the same booth?
(Based on my Erev Shabbat sermon about parashat Ha'azinu delivered on 9/25/15)
This Shabbat, poised as we are between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, we read Ha'azinu, Moses' final speech before he dies. Ha'azinu is Biblical poetry at its best, and in the fourth verse Moses triumphantly proclaims:
The Rock! - His deeds are perfect,
The poetry, especially in the original Hebrew, is sublime; yet the content of this verse is challenging. If God's deeds are perfect and God's ways are just, then why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? How can a just God tolerate such injustice! Rabbinic commentators provide a number of possible answers, most of which fall into one of two 'buckets.' The first group takes the approach of theological humility: how could mere humans understand what God understands? We cannot but have a narrower view, and what may seem unjust in the moment may be necessary for the ultimate establishment of some greater justice. It's very hard to argue against this position, because we don't know what we don't know, no matter how much we may think otherwise.
That said, a significant number of commentators take a very different approach. They ask, why blame God for our troubles? The world is broken because we, humanity, have broken it! So it is up to us, not to God, to set things right.
I don't usually do this, but for some reason I logged onto Facebook just before heading down to the synagogue this evening. And what did I find? A post from a colleague and classmate of mine, Rabbi Joseph Meszler, who serves a congregation not far from Boston. What caught my eye was a photograph he shared unlike any I had seen before. Apparently, Rabbi Meszler went into Boston and purchased some signs from homeless people. You know, the kind that ask for help. He purchased them so that he could bring them back and hang them in their congregational sukkah.
Wow! This really took my breath away.
During Sukkot we are commanded to live in our sukkah, a fragile, temporary structure that evokes our wandering through the Wilderness. It is simultaneously a time of joy (Yom Kippur is behind us and we are on our way to the Promised Land), and a reminder of the fragility of life. Until this year, I framed sukkot as a farming or nature holiday, our chance to reconnect with Creation. I also focused on how generous God is to give us a world with absolutely everything we need not only to live, but to thrive. I continue to understand sukkot in both of these ways, but this year we can add another beautiful layer of understanding - one with practical implications!
The intersection of Ha'azinu and Rabbi Meszler's sukkah post reminds us that there are many people in our midst for whom life in a sukkah would represent a step up. Each sukkah we enter should serve as a reminder that we are not secure until all of us are secure, and that the Promised Land is not just about geography.
Here in Buffalo, I can think of a half-dozen organizations that provide support to the homeless, all within walking distance of our synagogue. Jewish Family Services, right here in this building, operates a refugee resettlement program and needs help setting up apartments. Wherever we live, we are surrounded by opportunities to make a difference, and we are all capable of more than we realize. This sukkot as we shake the lulav in our sukkah we will symbolically orient our hearts, backbones, lips and eyes towards God. May we be shaken as well. Let's take on one additional commitment to help fight homelessness or hunger or poverty, or to help settle a refugee. Let's start this week. before the end of sukkot, but let's continue after the festival ends. Let's not just symbolically orient ourselves towards God, let's live our values.
Hag Sameach! May this sukkot be filled with meaningful acts of loving kindness, so that we can truly celebrate with joy.
What is the meaning of the Shofar's blast?
Over the years I have encountered dozens and dozens of answers. Saadia Gaon, the 10th century head of the great rabbinic academy in Sura, actually gives ten separate authoritative meanings! In my estimation, the more answers we have to a question, the less we really know.
That said there is wisdom in these many answers, and each year we can discover something new. Today, I'd like share an interpretation that comes from the 16th century kabbalistic rabbi Isaac Horowitz, and I really love his teaching. Rabbi Horowitz observes that the shofar calls begin and end with a tekiah - a single whole blast. In the middle are the shevarim and teruah calls, both blasts broken into several separate notes. Rabbi Horowitz writes:
The theme of Rosh HaShanah: We begin whole. Along the path of life we become broken (through pain, mistakes, loss, failure, illness, weakness, etc). The end is whole - we will be whole again. There is hope. (Shnei Luchot HaBrit - the Two Tablets of the Covenant)
This is the purpose of the High Holy Days - to renew ourselves, to make ourselves whole again, and to learn from our past so that in the year to come, with God's help, will be better than the year that has passed. The final blast, the tekiah gedolah, is a single long note often held for as long as the shofar blower is able to sustain it. For me, this is a reminder that every little break we repair leads us one step closer to the messianic age, - the entire world as God envisioned it should be, unbroken and whole again.
Rabbi Netaniel Cadle offered a very different but equally intriguing explanation during our Selichot panel discussion. He observed that the shofar is really nothing special. It is the horn of an animal, either a ram or any other kosher animal except for bovines. We hollow it out and that's really it. Yet when we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah we experience holiness. Rabbi Cadle sees this (and also the Torah itself which is really nothing more than animal skin and ink from vegetable products) as emblematic of our ability to take anything in the world and make it holy. The blast of the shofar is a reminder to us of what we can do, and inspires us to build more holiness into this world.
For at least five years, our Western New York Jewish community has gathered on the evening of Selichot to worship and study together. The study section consists of a panel of rabbis, led by a moderator, who asks a series of questions based on a theme selected for that year. This year, I was honored to sit on a panel with Rabbi Perry Netter (conservative) and Rabbi Netaniel Cadle (orthodox) moderated by Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein (reconstructionist). Our theme was the sound of the shofar, and we were asked to describe what the shofar means to us, and if the sound changes as we move through the different sections of the shofar service.
These are incredibly thoughtful questions, and they provoked us to dig deep. I was moved by what my colleagues shared, and want to share some of their insights with you (along with a few of my own). However, that will come later. First I would ask you the question: What does the sound of the shofar mean to you? What do you hear when the shofar blasts?
A week ago I was privileged to march with the NAACP in rural South Carolina with my daughter Stephanie, a journey that took three days in all with travel time factored in. After a one day break, we left for another three-day trip -- this one to Canyon Ranch, a luxurious health spa in the Berkshires where I occasionally teach Mussar.
The contrast could not have been more stark. On the march I became part of a no-frills community walking in formation over a combined 867-miles. We marched peacefully to bring attention to the profound racial injustices that still permeate our nation. Most participants slept in churches or army barracks, and we were supported with food, water, medical care and police escorts to help us get through the day, Raising awareness of the problem can lead to a national change in mindset, and then we hope, to the change in policies we need to effectively make race-based economic, educational and political injustices things of the past.
At the far more exclusive Canyon Ranch I experienced the polar opposite. The guests, who were overwhelmingly white, were pampered (us included) and presented with an amazing array services and classes carefully designed to promote physical health and spiritual wellness. The focus was on the self rather than the community, and no effort was spared to provide a comfortable and relaxing stay.
Truth be told, both of these experiences are well outside the norms of my daily suburban life. I am sheltered from racial tensions and the plight of many American minorities. It's not a lack of caring, but rather, a lack of experience and awareness - I have not directly encountered the kinds of injustices that can define growing up black in America. I have benefited, without even knowing it, from white privilege.
Luxurious spa living is equally outside the realm of my middle-class suburban life. This kind of treatment is generally reserved for those with far greater means than my own! Moving from one end of the spectrum to the other in just a few days generated a real dissonance of perspective.
Yet oddly enough, these two seeming opposites may actually have something in common: they both seek to correct imbalances. The march seeks to correct a horrible imbalance on a national level while the spa focuses on a personal level outside the realm of politics. In an ideal world, we would have no need to seek for either kind of balance, because we would already be nationally, culturally, communally, socially and personally balanced. In the real world, we would do well to recognize that these different kinds of balance are interconnected, and that we cannot succeed in creating balance in any one of them without cultivating all of them. In an ideal world, we would not need justice marches, nor would there be a market for spas. In the real world, we need to reach out to each other, hold each other close, support each other and care for each other. We also need to care for ourselves, and let others reach out to us, hold us close and support us. The more we give and receive, the more balance we restore to our world, to our homes and to ourselves.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras