What is Yizkor?

April 19, 2014

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If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

Image by Bill Barber, some rights reserved.

 


What is Chol HaMoed?

April 18, 2014

Matzah brei serving

Matzo brei – a Chol HaMoed treat.

 

In the middle of Passover and Sukkot, you may hear the term “Chol HaMoed” or “Hol HaMoed,” and you might wonder, “A Whole What???”

That’s what Jews call the middle days of Passover and Sukkot. Both festivals run for a week. The first day (or two) of the holiday is called a “Chag” and is extra special, almost like Shabbat. Same for the last day: ideally, one is home from work and attends synagogue.  The middle days of the week  are still special but do not have so many restrictions: some businesses in Israel might be open, and Jews in Diaspora go to work. “Chol” means “Ordinary” and “HaMoed” in this context means “of the festival” – these are more ordinary days of the holiday.

Now, just to confuse things, you may also encounter this term: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. That’s the Shabbat in the middle of Passover, when it doesn’t fall on one of the “Chag” days. It has its own special Torah and Haftorah readings. There’s also one of those for Sukkot in some years. For information on this particular year, consult a Jewish calendar.

There’s a special greeting for these not-so-ordinary days in mid-festival: if someone says to you, “Moadim l’simchah!” it means “Festival of Joy.” You can reply with the same words, or you can just say, “Same to you!”

Note: There’s a trick for saying that “ch” sound in Hebrew. What noise does an angry cat make? The “ch” sound is a little bitty short version of that. If you truly can’t do it, use an “h” sound instead. 

Image: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


“Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy

April 13, 2014

Maybe you’ve heard something in the press about “blood moons” this year and next.  They sound scary, don’t they?

A “blood moon” is a vivid description of the full moon during a total lunar eclipse. I saw the one on December 11, 2011, and it was a sight to behold. The moon turned a dark coppery color for a while and gave us all a shot of amazement (or the creeps) and then gradually became its own silvery self again.  I said the blessing for seeing a wonder of nature and then went back to work at my desk.

The moon turns red because while the earth has blocked the light from the sun, the light from all the earth’s sunsets and sunrises still reaches the moon. That light seems blood-colored as it is reflected back to us. (Read this article for more about the science of this astronomical wonder.)

Lunar eclipses come in many varieties, but for our purposes, let’s just say they are “full” (like this one) and “partial.” (For the difference, read the science article.) Total ones are very dramatic; partial eclipses are less so. The next four lunar eclipses visible from North America represent the lunar equivalent of a high poker hand: we are about to see “four of a kind” total eclipses in a row. The fancy name for that is “tetrad.” For astronomers in North America, this is a great stroke of luck, because they can use this time to observe the moon and the sky in ways unavailable at other times.

This tetrad is remarkable in that it also lines up with the Jewish holidays of Passover and Sukkot, for two years running. We’ll have total eclipses on this Passover and the next, and for the next two Sukkots as well. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and rabbinic student David Markus have written a beautiful drash on the phenomenon which they published through Rabbi Barenblat’s blog, The Velveteen Rabbi. It’s a very Jewish take on the phenomenon of the tetrad.

This tetrad is getting attention from Christian writers as well: Pastor John Hagee of Texas has written a book about it. He sees these “signs in the heavens” as “foretold in Scripture” and specifically links them to disasters in Jewish history and, for this particular tetrad, to some sort of major event for the State of Israel.  This brings us to another interesting topic: the difference between Jewish understandings of the Prophets and Christian understandings of them.

For Jews, there was a specific time of the prophets, a historical period from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) to the time of the restoration of the Second Temple in 516 BCE.   Prophets guided the People of Israel and our leaders, and they were understood to be spokespersons for God. (Yes, there were women prophets.) Sometimes they heard God’s voice giving them personal instruction (Genesis 12:1), and sometimes they were messengers to a specific person (2 Samuel 12: 1-25).  The “major prophets” spoke to the entire nation about matters of national concern, including idolatry, foreign entanglements, and the need to keep the spirit as well as the law of the Torah (e.g. Isaiah 1). When they talked about the future, they were talking about the immediate future, or speaking in general terms. They were not looking centuries ahead, they were talking about the specific geopolitical and theological realities of the time. To get a really good understanding of the Jewish prophets, there’s no better book that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets.

Today Jews revere the words of the prophets and read them every Shabbat because their comments and rebukes are timeless: they call us to observe the spirit of the Torah, and to remember that ritual observance alone is not enough to fulfill our lives as Jews.

For Christians, the Jewish prophets have a different meaning. While many Christians read the Jewish prophets for their ethical commentary, they also read them as fore-tellers of the arrival of Jesus as messiah. In the 19th and 20th centuries in some Protestant circles, there’s been an upsurge of interest in using Jewish prophetic and eschatological writings to “foretell” political events in the future, something called Dispensationalism. Dr. Hagee’s book about the “Blood Moons” falls into this category: he is using verses of Scripture and this astronomical event to make predictions about the future. I should also mention that not all Christians are Dispensationalists; they have gotten a lot of press in recent years because (1) they have sought to publicize their message and (2) it makes great copy for people who want to sell “clicks” in the media.

These two different ways of understanding prophecy are mostly incompatible. While Jews and Christians can agree on the ethical teachings of the prophets (don’t abuse the poor etc.), we disagree fundamentally about the role of the prophet, both religiously and historically. That means that we look a bit crazy to each other. Christian attempts to use the writings of 7th century BCE prophets plus astronomical events to “foretell the future” seem pointless and disrespectful to Jews. The Jewish insistence that nothing in Isaiah has anything to do with the 1st century carpenter from Nazareth seems stubborn and blind to Christians.

The truth is, we share some books of scripture, but we read them and use them quite differently. It would be great if we could all agree to treat one another respectfully and sit side by side to watch what is indisputably a show of marvels in the night sky. Whether you call them “blood moons” or “red moons” or “total lunar eclipses,”  they are moments of beauty and majesty.

I wish you a zissen Pesach (Yiddish for “a joyful Passover”)!


What’s Shemini Atzeret?

September 24, 2013
English: Jerusalem, Western Wall - Jewish holi...

Jerusalem, Western Wall during Sukkot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shemini Atzeret means “Eighth Day of Assembly.”

It is mentioned in the Torah in Leviticus 23:39, “and on the eighth day [of Sukkot] there shall be a solemn rest.” This is a little complicated, because Sukkot has seven days. So what is the eighth day?

Think of Sukkot as a great party (because it is a great party, after all.) Ancient Jews called it “HaChag,” THE Holiday, because it was the most joyful holiday of the entire year. Now, think about the last great party you attended. Did you leave early, or find yourself staying long after the official ending?

Shemini Atzeret is one more day of rejoicing before the rains start and fall comes and things get cold and dark. In the Diaspora, for reasons I’ve discussed before, it goes on for two days, the second of which is Simchat Torah.

This year (5774, or 2013, if you insist) Shemini Atzeret starts on the evening of Wednesday, Sept 25, continuing until sundown on Sept 26.

I hope you’ve had a great Sukkot!


It’s Half-Past Sukkot – Do You Smell Rain?

September 21, 2013
Areas with Mediterranean climate

Areas with Mediterranean climate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israel and the California coast both have a “Mediterranean climate.” We have rain in the winter, and it is dry in the summer.

For California Jews, this means that we experience the seasons as if we lived in Israel.  At the end of Sukkot, we will change a phrase in our daily Amidah prayer from a prayer for dew (the summertime prayer) to a prayer for wind and rain.  And sure enough, a trifle ahead of schedule, there is rain in the forecast for Northern California. Ideally, it would wait a few days, but still — pretty close!

I love the way the calendar reconnects me to the natural world.  The new day comes when the sun sets, not when the clock clicks over a line. I can look at the night sky, and know where I am in the Jewish month. Certainly, I can look everything up on hebcal.com, but the daily observance of Judaism pushes me to open my eyes, take a walk outside, and notice the world.

Some may say, “Ah, this is because the Jewish Calendar has its roots in the agricultural calendar of the Ancient Near East.” That’s true. But as with many things in Judaism, while it may have its roots in something impossibly long ago and far away, the effect of the observance in the here-and-now is fresh and urgent. Torah calls out to us to pay attention: pay attention to the world of which we are a part, pay attention to the people around us, pay attention to our own words and behavior.

Pay attention!


The Secret of the Sukkah

September 20, 2013

Sukkah

In the spring of 2002, I broke up housekeeping and got ready to move to Jerusalem. I kept only a few boxes of things that were precious to me: photos, books, some family memorabilia, and a few valuable objects including some papers. I knew that I’d be moving around for the next few years, so I got a storage bin in my home town and paid rent on it.  I could quit worrying, I thought: my things were safe and would be there when I was finally ordained.

However, a couple of years later there was a fire in the storage building. Everything in my unit was ruined by smoke and water. All the photos and albums were stuck together with black goo.  The books were mush. Most of it was not replaceable and did not have any “value” in the sense that insurance companies calculate such things. The only thing to do was pick through for a few salvageable bits and toss the rest of the stinking mess.  

We want life to be predictable, but it is not. We want to be “careful” and keep bad things from happening, but that’s not how life works. Between natural disasters and human error and the other zillion ways things can go wrong, a person could go crazy worrying. We can ask, “why do bad things happen to good people?” but really, the answer is that sooner or later, bad things happen to everybody.

The secret of the sukkah is that it is a temporary structure. It takes the terrible uncertainty of life and puts it front and center. In the sukkah, all you have is “now” because tomorrow it will be taken down (or blow over.) And it teaches us that “now” can be beautiful and joyful in its own right. 

The megillah [scroll] for Sukkot is Ecclesiastes. You might ask, “Who wants to sit in the sukkah and read grumpy old Kohelet?” But you see, he knows what the sukkah knows: most of what we think is important is temporary, volatile, fragile. No one in their right mind would try to hoard goodies in sukkah; better to share them than have it all blow away.

Sukkot is a festival of rejoicing. Enjoy the sukkah, enjoy the food, enjoy the friends. Enjoy them right now. We cannot predict tomorrow, but if we live life as fully as we can, at least we will know that we did not waste the golden moment.


Sukkot Vocabulary 101

September 19, 2013
Welcome to the Sukkah!

Welcome to the Sukkah!

Sukkot may be the kick-back holiday of the Jewish year, but it is also a holiday with its share of special words. Here are some of the main ones you may hear. When I give two pronunciations, the first will be Sephardic Hebrew, the second the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation.

Remember, all “ch” sounds are like the German in Bach or a bit like a cat spitting. If you can’t make that sound, just go for an “h.” Pronouncing it as a K is not cool.

GREETINGS

Sukkot sameach! – (soo-COAT sah-MAY-ach) or (SOOK-us sah-MAY-ach) means “Happy Sukkot!”

Chag sameach! – (CHAG sah-MAY-ach) Happy holiday!

Gut Yuntiff!- (Goot YUN-tif) – Happy holiday!

and you might still hear Shana tovah! (sha-NAH toe-VAH) – Happy New Year!

PEOPLE & THINGS

Sukkah – (soo-KAH) or (SOO-kah) is the little shack or booth with furniture in which we hang out for the holiday. Think “play house.”

Etrog – (EH-trog) is a citron. It looks like a big lemon. We shake it with the lulav. If it has a little twig sticking out of it, do NOT break it off. Your host might cry, because a broken pitom (PEE-tohm) renders most etrogim un-kosher.

Lulav – (LOO-lahv) is technically the closed frond of a date palm. It also is used to denote a bouquet of that palm frond with a branch of aravah (willow) and hadass (myrtle). During Sukkot, some Jews hold the lulav and etrog together, say blessings, and wave them around in 6 directions.

Ushpizin – (oosh-pee-ZEEN) or (oosh-PEE-zeen) means “visitors.” It refers not to the regular visitors, but traditionally to seven exalted guests one hopes will visit the sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Modern Jews may also welcome Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Tamar, Ruth, and others. Pictures of them may decorate the sukkah.

If you could invite anyone in history to your sukkah, whom would you invite?

 

 

 


7 Questions About Sukkot

September 17, 2013
English: Etrog, silver etrog box and lulav, us...

Etrog, silver etrog box and lulav (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK, yesterday I talked about the heart of Sukkot: it’s about hospitality, welcoming guests, being a guest, sharing food, being outdoors with other Jews and with friends and neighbors.

And I am pretty sure that someone was thinking, yes, but that’s not really Sukkot. You want the terminology and stuff, right? So now we’ll talk about that.

WHAT IS SUKKOT? Sukkot [soo-COAT] is the plural of Sukkah [soo-KAH], which is the Hebrew name of the little booth we build for the holiday. You may also encounter the Yiddish pronunciations, [SOOK-us] and [SOOK-uh]. It’s also the Jewish harvest holiday that follows the High Holy Days.

WHEN IS SUKKOT? Sukkot is a fall harvest holiday. It begins on 15 Tishrei, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It lasts for eight days (seven days in Israel). It will begin on the evening of Sept 18, 2013. On the first two days and the last day of Sukkot observant Jews do no work.

WHY DO WE DO THIS? Sukkot started as a harvest holiday. Nowadays it is a chance to foster our relationships with friends and family. Remember, we just spent the last six weeks mending our relationships — now it’s time to enjoy those improved relationships! The little sukkahs also remind us of our temporary dwellings in the wilderness, and of the impermanence of most possessions. The observance of Sukkot is commanded in Leviticus 23:40-43.

HOW DO WE OBSERVE SUKKOT?  Sukkot is unique in that we actually build the place where we celebrate it fresh every year. A sukkah (soo-KAH) is a little shed built to very precise directions, open on one side with a very flimsy roof of branches or reeds. We build it outside and eat meals in it. Some people actually sleep in their sukkah. Many Jews entertain guests in the sukkah, and in Israel, many restaurants also have them for customers to enjoy. It’s customary to decorate the sukkah with hangings, artwork, and home-made decorations.

WHAT IS A LULAV? Observant Jews also “wave the lulav.” It’s a bouquet of palm, willow, and myrtle, held alongside an etrog (citron) and waved to all the compass points, with a blessing. If you want to learn about waving a lulav and etrog, you can find more information here.

ARE THERE ANY MOVIES ABOUT SUKKOT?  Yes!  There’s a very funny Israeli film Ushpizin which is set in a very traditional community in Jerusalem during Sukkot. Ushpizin [oosh-pee-ZEEN] or [ush-PEE-zin] are visitors to the sukkah.

WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE A SUKKAH? Most synagogues build a sukkah. Calling them to ask about activities in the sukkah is a great way to learn about your local synagogues. Even if it is not practical to have a sukkah at home, however, you can do some similar activities:

  • Go on a picnic with family or friends.
  • Get out in nature! Go for a hike!
  • Invite friends over that you haven’t seen for a while.
  • Reach out to someone you think might become a friend.
  • Reach out to someone who seems lonely.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Reconnect with someone you’ve been meaning to call.
  • Rejoice in the natural world, however you best do that!

Sukkot is a great time to practice the mitzvah (commandment) of Hachnasat Orchim, Hospitality.  Whether you spend this Sukkot as a guest or as a host or (best of all!) a little of both, I hope that you are able to spend some time with friendly people, enjoying the fall weather!


Disability & Mitzvot

September 16, 2013

I woke up this morning aching again. This has been going on for years, gradually getting worse. Some days it takes a couple of hours of warmup to walk. Since I have had minimal health insurance and have been terrified of losing it, I have not investigated the aches too closely. I hope that will change soon, now that my marriage is recognized by the Feds (no more DOMA, Thank you Supreme Court.)

Why am I bothering readers with this? Because the mystery aches, along with some old orthopedic problems, are the reason I am not building a sukkah this week. Putting it up and taking it down is just too much, especially with my classes coming so soon. I am quite certain I am not alone in this.

What do you do when a mitzvah is simply beyond you? I lean on my community. I will help a friend decorate her sukkah, and enjoy sitting in it with the people who come. And I can feel OK about that, because I will help make folks feel welcome there. Also I learn where the sukkah and sort-of-sukkahs are, and I help others find them.

I have been enthusiastic talking about Sukkot on this blog. I love Sukkot. But I didn’t want a reader to be sitting out there thinking that because you can’t afford a sukkah, or you have arthritis, that you are somehow falling short this Sukkot. Hospitality comes in many forms, and so does participation in this holiday.

Sukkot sameach! If you live in the East Bay, I’d be delighted to meet you in one of the several Sukkot available to us. Enjoy the holiday in all the ways available to you!


Sick of Synagogue?

September 16, 2013
The main idea is, get outdoors!

The main idea is, get outdoors!

The High Holy Days are behind us.

One common feeling at this point in the fall cycle of holidays is to be really sick of sitting in synagogue.  Yep, me too.

The good news is that the next holiday isn’t primarily a synagogue holiday. Sukkot is celebrated in the YARD.

Or on the balcony.

Or on the roof.

You can celebrate Sukkot anywhere you can build a temporary shelter.

Or — to keep your first round of Sukkot very simple – anywhere you can put a few lawn chairs and a card table.  Or a blanket on the grass.

Yes, it’s nice to have a sukkah. And if you have any connection at all to a Jewish organization, you can go sit in their sukkah, but if you want to get at the heart of the holiday, call up some friends and take them with you. Or go to the park.

This holiday is all about appreciating nature and the harvest. Yes, food. Eaten outdoors. With friends. Or strangers soon to be friends.

Maybe someone  you met at synagogue, who could also use a little outdoors time now.

The beauty of Sukkot is that whether you live in an apartment or a mansion, you celebrate it in a temporary shelter outdoors. If you don’t have a yard, take a picnic to the park. If you don’t have a sukkah (yet) the lawn chairs I mentioned above are fine. Or a beach umbrella. Just grab your stuff, pack some food, call a friend, and GO. You’ll figure it out.

The heart of Sukkot is hospitality and enjoyment, and a recognition that most of the stuff we build in this world is temporary, anyhow.

Sukkot starts on the evening of Wednesday, Sept 18. But don’t stress – it goes on for a week. There will be time.

Sukkot is the kick-back Jewish holiday. We’ve mended our relationships, now we get to enjoy them. No hurry, no worry, just share some food and enjoy the season.

I’ll keep posting about the Jewishy stuff, the sukkah, the lulav, the history — that’s all interesting. But remember, the heart of this holiday is hospitality.

Prepare to enjoy yourself!


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