Anyone familiar with the Game of Thrones series (whether in its printed or video forms) knows the phrase: “winter is coming.” Filled with ominous foreboding, these words are intended to inspire caution so that we will prepare for the very worst we can imagine, because in the story-line it is coming – and then some.
Here in Western New York, we are no strangers to cold and long winters. February (and sometimes January) have always felt like the coldest months to me. If you live anywhere above the Mason-Dixon line chances are that you are also feeling the cold; and if you are recovering from the big blizzard in the mid-atlantic region you might also be wishing for an early spring!
“Winter is coming” is a terrifying concept. As Jews we have lived in “cold” times of crisis, when anti-Semitism grew and we faced ever-increasing persecution, harm and even death. However, “winter is coming” is not really a Jewish approach to life.
What is a Jewish approach?
This evening we will celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the new year of the trees. Tu B’Shvat is one of my favorite Jewish holidays, because it recognizes that there is more to winter than meets the eye. Tu B’Shvat boldly proclaims that winter is not a time of death. Rather, it is the time when, hidden beneath the surface, the process of new life is already beginning. Tu B’Shvat reminds us to look beyond the surface, and to recognize that when it feels like all is winter, God is with us - and “spring is coming.”
For sixteen years, I've been using the same 2x4s to build our family sukkah. Over time they have weathered and warped, so much so that for the past few years our sukkah has started to bend and list. When the wind blows,. we know it, and this has been a particularly windy Sukkot! The rabbis call Sukkot 'zeman simchateinu' - the time of our rejoicing. We are supposed to enjoy our time in the sukkah, sharing the experience with friends and family. When the weather gets too wet we are required to go back inside our homes, because who likes being cold and wet?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches two things that we can learn from our time in the sukkah . First, the sukkah is a temporary and fragile structure. When we are in it, we are far more exposed to the elements than when we are inside our homes. The sukkah reminds us of the precious fragility of life. Second, we are to specifically make this a time of joy, because while this life may be fragile, it is all we have and it won't last forever. So why not make the best of it?
I love his insight. We spend most of our time living as if we are anything but fragile, and it's easy to understand why. Everything we have, everything we are, can disappear in a moment - even our very lives. If we dwell on our fragility, then we might be overcome with terrible anxiety. Yet, we have a choice. We can react to our many vulnerabilities with fear, or by trying to ignore them; or we can accept our fragility and celebrate the miracles that each new moment brings.
Here in Buffalo, we had an unusually cold and rainy week, and it severely limited our ability to spend time in our sukkah. There was a little window for a short visit on Friday and today, thank God, is beautiful! No matter how we might plan, we are not always in control, and with our wood warping a little more from each day in the rain, we have to make the most of what we have, both material and time.
Tonight we will celebrate Simchat Torah - the joy of Torah. On Simchat Torah we end and begin the annual cycle of reading Torah with dancing and with exuberant joy. Why is Simchat Torah attached to the conclusion of Sukkot? What possible connection could there be between living in a sukkah and celebrating the annual cycle of Torah? The sukkah is temporary, but the Torah is enduring. As we celebrate Simchat Torah let's remember that the sukkah may disappear, our lives may be fragile, but Torah (and God) are always with us, providing us with support and guiding us along the way. I like the sound of that, don't you?
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.
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?
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