From Generation to Generation

October 13, 2014

Women_of_the_Wall_Holding_Torah

I’m going to attend a bat mitzvah next weekend. A young woman from my first student pulpit is being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, a “daughter of the commandment.” While I’ve been growing up as a rabbi, the little girl who used to call me “Wabbi Woot” has been growing up into a young woman of great intelligence and dignity. She will lead us in prayer and read to us from the Torah scroll.

I’m excited, because this is one of those moments in the rabbinate when I can see something that is often invisible: the chain of tradition. Rebekah has learned some of her Torah from me: not her portion, but the lived Torah that is the fabric of Jewish life. I’m going to watch her ritualize her movement into adulthood in the Jewish community, knowing that some of my Torah goes with her.  Not mine alone, by any means: she has internalized Torah from her parents, her grandparents, and her many teachers. But for me, as a relatively new rabbi (ordained in 2008) it will be a very solemn moment, watching a bit of my Torah pass to the next adult generation of Jews.

Where did I get my Torah? I got it from the rabbi with whom I converted, Rabbi Steven Chester.  I got it from my mentor and friend, Dawn Kepler. I got it from the cantor who taught me Torah trope, Cantor Ilene Keys. I got it from my first study partner, Fred Isaac. I got it from the rabbi I worked for at the URJ, Rabbi Michael Berk. I got it from all my teachers at Hebrew Union College. I got it from the elders at the Home for Jewish Parents in Reseda, CA. Today, I get it from colleagues and yes, from my students.

100 years from now, I don’t expect anyone to remember Rabbi Ruth Adar. But I know that just as the chain of tradition goes back behind me into the mists of history, to the teachers of my teachers all the way back to the Chazal, the great rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, so too the Torah I transmit will be alive and well in 5875 and however far into the future Jews continue to exist. Rebekah and my other students will teach their children, and their students, and a little of my Torah will travel with them far into the future.

Every moment, every encounter, each of us has an opportunity to teach Torah. We teach it most strongly with our behavior, with the tone we take in dealing with other human beings. We teach those with whom we interact and anyone who happens to be watching. The majority of the transmission of Torah does not happen in the yeshivah: it happens in the marketplace, in the parking lot, in the casual conversations of everyday. This is true for every Jew, not just the professionals.

Hold that Torah gently. Do not try to hold it alone.


The Most Beautiful Sukkah

October 12, 2014
"Red Door with Lock"

“Red Door with Lock” by Liz

There was once a man in Anaheim named Yacov who built a beautiful sukkah. It had an expensive carpet, and golden furniture, and Israeli art on the walls. It was so beautiful, that the man decided after the holiday that he wanted to keep his sukkah forever.

Still he worried. What about the golden furniture? What about the carpet?

So he put a door on his sukkah, and a great big lock, and he locked that sukkah up tight. He slept on a pallet in the sukkah every night.

The sukkah was a kosher sukkah.  It had a flimsy roof of palm fronds. He worried about that roof, and thought to himself, “Thieves may come in by that roof!” So he got some lumber, and he put a roof on the sukkah that was more secure. He closed that roof up tight. And he slept in the sukkah every night.

And when he was in the sukkah, he noticed that he could no longer see the stars, or the moonlight, and he felt a little sad, but he had to keep his sukkah safe! For he loved his sukkah very much, and he slept in the sukkah every night.

Then a neighbor complained to the city, and a building inspector came. The building inspector said to Yacov, “Yacov! You have no permit for this structure!” And Yacov said very importantly, “This is a sukkah! You can’t penalize me for a sukkah! It’s my religion! First Amendment!”

And the building inspector said, “I think I need a note from your rabbi.” And Yacov lay awake in the sukkah that night.

The next day, Yacov went to his rabbi, and said, “Rabbi, I built the most beautiful sukkah. Would you come and see my sukkah, and tell the City of Anaheim that they have to let me keep it?”

The rabbi said, “Yacov! It’s almost Chanukah! What are you doing with a sukkah?”

Yacov said, “Rabbi, come see it. It’s the most beautiful sukkah ever.”

So the rabbi shook his head, and visited Yacov’s house. He saw the structure in the yard, with the big lock on the door and the protective roof above. “Is that your sukkah?” he asked.

“Yes, and it’s beautiful!” Yacov said, beaming. “Come in and see!”  He unlocked the door, and opened it, and the rabbi peered into the dim interior. He saw the golden furniture, and the art, and the carpet. He saw the pallet on the floor. He looked up at the roof. He sighed.

“Yacov, my friend, this is not a kosher sukkah.”

“What? It’s the most beautiful sukkah in the world!”

“No, Yacov, I cannot see the stars. And whoever saw a sukkah with lock on it?”

“But I have to keep it safe, Rabbi! I love this sukkah, and I am going to keep it forever!” The rabbi sighed again, even deeper.

“Yacov, my dear, the day you decided to keep it forever, it stopped being a sukkah. The sukkah is here to teach us that nothing is permanent. We cannot keep anything forever. We must appreciate beauty in the here and now, for we do not know what wind will come tomorrow. What treasure have you been neglecting, while you tried to keep the sukkah?”

Yacov began to cry, and the rabbi cried with him. They sat on the golden furniture and cried.

So Yacov took the sukkah apart, and put away the furniture. He rolled up the rug and went inside, where his wife was waiting, and his children.


Love your Lulav!

October 9, 2014
Lulav by Leopold Pilichowski (1869–1933)

Lulav by Leopold Pilichowski (1869–1933)

Besides building the sukkah, the other distinctive mitzvah of Sukkot is a ritual known as Waving the Lulav. The Biblical source for this mitzvah is found in Leviticus:

On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook willows, and you will rejoice before the Eternal your God for seven days. -Leviticus 23:40

The lulav is a bundle of the Arba Minim, the Four Species: the etrog or citron (“fruit of a beautiful tree”), palm frond, two myrtle branches (“twigs of a braided tree”) and three willow branches. We make a bouquet of the tree branches and hold them next to the citron, recite the blessing, and then wave the lulav to the four corners of the compass as well as heaven and earth. The blessing:

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh haolam
Blessed are you, Eternal our God, ruler of the universe

asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav 
Who has sanctified us with His commandments

v’tzivanu al n’tilat lulav (Amen)
and commanded us to take up the lulav (Amen)

Rather than write out the instructions for waving properly, I’m going to share a video by Rabbi Wendi Geffen:

Now you may be thinking, “Rabbi, this is the weirdest mitzvah ever! What is this all about?” There’s no single answer to that question. Here are some possibilities:

  1. Shaking the lulav all four directions plus up and down acknowledges the whole creation which God has made and entrusted to us. The four species “stand in” for the vast variety of species by including one that smells and tastes good (etrog), one that smells good but doesn’t have a taste (myrtle), one that tastes good but has no smell (date palm) and one that has neither smell nor taste (willow.)
  2. If you consider that the holiday falls at the point when rain might be expected in Israel, and at the completion of the harvest, then it makes sense that this ancient rite may have begun as a fertility ritual. Look at the lulav: the branches are long and thin, the citron is (literally) an ovary. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the fertility theme in bringing the two together.
  3. Rabbi Michael Strassfeld offers several other interpretations in his article Lulav and Etrog: Symbolism.

My own take on this ritual, as with all the Sukkot rituals, is that it brings us into direct contact with nature. We have to acquire the branches and the lulav, we hold them in our hands, we smell them, we handle them day after day. We even watch them wilt a bit as the week goes on. Nature is fragile. You can order bits of it on the internet, yes, but when the real thing is in your hands, it is not tidy, not digital.

Sukkot is not a head trip. It is a festival of hearts and hands in contact with the living world. God commands us to get away from the study table, outdoors into nature, to reconnect with the world that according to Genesis is tov meod – very good.


Photo Essay: Pergola to Sukkah

October 8, 2014
The pergola, before it turned into a sukkah.

The pergola, before it turned into a sukkah.

One of the things I very much wanted for my home was a structure that could give me a “head start” on a sukkah each year. Ingrid Martin of Earthly Sites made a garden design for me that included a pergola. Here’s the pergola, after one growing season. There are grape vines at each of the four corners, and they are so far doing nicely, especially the ones in the “back.”

Two problems: one, it’s very windy here. Windy enough that plants have to be chosen carefully (a couple of big sunflowers were blown to bits over the summer.) Sukkah walls were a real issue, because if they too wind resistant they could become unholy missiles that might hurt people. So I made a radical decision: my sukkah “walls” were going to be made of fish net. I purchased 30′ of 7′ wide fishnet, and today we’re going to “hang” the walls with plastic zip ties.

This will also allow those in the sukkah to enjoy the view, which is pretty spectacular. At least, that’s the plan.

I’m still trying to figure out the shkhakh issue. Shkakh is the roof of the sukkah. It’s critical that it offer more shade than sun, but allow one to see the stars. Also, it must be made of something that used to grow out of the ground. Many people use palm fronds or bamboo mats – again, with the winds up here, I am worried about trying to tie anything to the roof, lest it go flying away into the neighbors’ yards.  It may not be a completely kosher sukkah this year, by next year the problem will be solved. At their current rate of growth, the grape vines will provide all the cover we need, maybe a little too much.

At my synagogue, they used palm fronds to make the roof.

At my synagogue, they used palm fronds to make the roof.

I figure that part of the point of the holiday is to get us out in nature, playing with greenery, figuring things out, anyway. Some may say, “But it isn’t kosher!” and all I can say to that is that this sukkah, like its owner, is a work in progress.

OK, so we got the fishnet out, and after drinking a lot of ice tea and talking about options, we decided to start in the middle of the back. I had no idea that you could double zip ties – cool. Thank goodness my friend and student Jake is helping me.

Beginning to hang the fishnet walls.

Beginning to hang the fishnet walls.

We got the walls up, and they need to “relax” a bit. One tricky item is trying not to hurt the grape vines that are creeping up the pergola supports – I can tell that when it’s time to take the net down, we’ll have to be even more careful. Now the walls are hung and the rug is in, and as you can see the sun is getting lower:

The rug is in, and the walls are "relaxing" a bit before we tie them down.

The rug is in, and the walls are “relaxing” a bit before we tie them down.

Time for some furniture, right? Since I’ll be making kiddush in there in a few hours?

IMAG0562

Sukkah at dusk, ready for food and guests. Just in time!

I wish all my readers a joyous Sukkot!


What’s a Sukkah?

October 7, 2014
A Sukkah built by Yonassan Gershom

A Sukkah built by Yonassan Gershom

A sukkah (soo-KAH or SUK-kah)  is a small temporary structure Jews build to celebrate the week-long holiday of Sukkot. It is often translated “booth” but might better be translated as “shelter.” In the ancient Near East (and in some places, even today) farmworkers built these little shelters for the hurried end of the harvest, when it would take too much valuable daylight to travel home from the field every day. For Jews, the sukkah also is a reminder of the time when we were wanderers on the road from Egypt to Israel.

A proper sukkah is a temporary structure. Its roof is partially covered with greenery (ideally tree branches) but open enough that one can still see the stars on a clear night. The sukkah should be large enough for at least one person to sit in it at a table, and it may not be more than 10m tall. The walls should be constructed in such a way that they will not blow over in a wind.  It is important that you acquire all the materials in a legal manner: “borrowing” greenery from a neighbor without asking (aka stealing) invalidates the mitzvah.

A sukkah can be as expensive or as inexpensive as you wish. The sukkah pictured above was built by a man named Yonassan Gershom, and on his blog he writes that it was built mostly of found materials; the bill came to $5. You can also purchase sukkah “kits” on the internet, which is one way to get a proper sukkah without too much worry. If you are skilled with tools, then you’ve got a head start!

Many people decorate their sukkah with carpets and wall hangings, and furnish it with a table, chairs, and even a bed! Since the mitzvah (commandment) is to “dwell” in the sukkah, it is good to eat meals and even sleep in the sukkah, weather permitting. It is especially nice to practice the mitzvah of hakhnasat orchim [hospitality] by inviting others to eat in your sukkah.

What if you don’t have a yard in which to put a sukkah? In cities, people sometimes build them on balconies,  fire escapes or rooftops. (Be careful not to run afoul of local ordinances, however!) Synagogues and Jewish organizations often have a sukkah. If you sit in the sukkah of a friend or neighbor often, it is nice to offer to help them take it down at the end of the holiday; this is usually not a small job.

Sukkot is an opportunity to appreciate and enjoy nature while we share meals and conversation with family and friends. Whatever is available to you this Sukkot, be sure to get outside and enjoy the season!

In Boro Park, Brooklyn, some apartment dwellers build their sukkot on the fire escapes.

In Boro Park, Brooklyn, some apartment dwellers build their sukkot on the fire escapes.


Sukkot’s Coming: Go Out and Play!

October 5, 2014
Decorating the Sukkah

Decorating the Sukkah

Succos: when G-d tells us to go outside and play, and reminds us everything we need is in the sukkah.” – @travelincatdoc

Sukkot was known in ancient times as THE Holiday, HeHahg. It was the biggest event of the Jewish year. That fact usually surprises American Jews, for whom the High Holidays and Passover are THE Holidays.

But in ancient times, all the observance we have just been through, the purification of body and soul, was just a warmup to the biggest holiday of all, a holiday when the Temple hosted special sacrifices and the Water Pouring Festival. During Sukkot, it was the custom to pour water over the altar in the Temple every day, and every night, the water was brought in a golden flask from the Pool of Siloah. It became a huge festival of light, too, with torches and jugglers and a joyful craziness. There is a record of a great rabbi, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, who juggled eight flaming torches as part of the celebration.

What happened, then? It all changed when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. Without the Temple, we couldn’t do sacrifices, and the Water Pouring didn’t really make sense. We didn’t have access to the Pool of Siloah.

So all that remained of Sukkot was the ancient sukkahs, which we still build. Today Sukkot is still joyous (especially in Israel) but it has become a holiday of hospitality and a quieter kind of joy.

Our modern Sukkot may not have fire-juggling rabbis (!) but it has a wonderful sweetness. Start looking around for a sukkah: it might be at your congregation, or in the yard of a friend. Or maybe you’ll have one in your yard this year. This is our reward for the hard work of the last six weeks, our time of rejoicing.

Sukkot begins this year (2014 or 5775) on Wednesday, Oct 8, at sundown.


A Reading for Yom Kippur Afternoon

October 3, 2014

1. Eleh ezkerah:  These I remember.

These I call to memory, late in the long day:

The voices of martyrs, stilled by tyrants,

The voices of my ancestors, murdered by mobs.

I remember the Ten Martyrs, the ten Torah scholars

who were murdered by the Emperor of Rome:

Shimon ben Gamliel was beheaded for daring to teach Torah.

Ishmael, the High Priest was flayed alive.

Akiva whose flesh was torn with iron combs.

Chaninah ben Tradyon was burned alive with his Torah scroll.

Hutzpit the Interpreter begged to say the Shema one more day.

Elazar ben Shamua was one of Akiva’s most famous  students.

Chaninah ben Chakmai was killed by poison.

Yeshevav the Scribe urged his students to love one another, before he was murdered.

Judah ben Dama is known only as one of the Ten Martyrs.

Judah ben Bava was stabbed to death for ordaining five new rabbis.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

2.  Eleh ezkerah.  These I remember:

I remember the martyrs of medieval Europe.

“Convert or die!” they were told, and many of them chose death

rather than to deny their heritage.

Rabbi Amnon of Mayence bled to death after after torture, a prayer on his lips.

The Jews of the Rhineland were murdered by Crusader hordes.

The Jews of Jerusalem were burned alive in their synagogue by the Crusaders.

The Jews of Blois were murdered  for the blood libel, a vicious lie.

The Jews of York died in Clifford’s Tower, rather than convert.

The Jews of Provence were blamed for the Black Death, and massacred.

I remember the Jews whose names are now forgotten,

martyrs who suffered and died rather than abandon the covenant.    

They were hunted like animals, and they died in public.

No voice rose to speak for them, none came to their aid.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

3.  Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:

I remember the Jews of Sepharad, the Jews of Spain and Portugal.

The monarchs of Spain and the King of Portugal offered them a choice:

convert, go to exile, or die.

Many fled, some were converted by force.

Many remained secretly faithful to Torah..

Too many of them suffered at the hands of the Inquisition,

burnt to death in the auto-da-fe:

Thus were the great congregations of Sepharad destroyed:

in Seville, in Cordoba, in Cadiz, in Barcelona,

in Granada, in Malaga, and in Toledo

Jewish prayers and Jewish voices were heard no more. 

The civilization that produced great poetry and science, philosophy and medicine

scattered to the four corners of the earth,

driven underground, and burnt to death in the city centers.

Their neighbors denounced them, and crowds cheered for their blood. 

No voice rose to speak for them, none came to their aid. 

Eleh ezkerah, These I remember.

4.  Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:

I remember the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia, the dwellers in the shtetl:

those who died in pogroms, in the Chmielnitsky massacre,

at the hands of Cossacks.

I remember the slaughter of children,

I remember the destruction of families and homes.

I remember their precarious lives, their pitiful deaths, and I say:

Eleh ezkerah, these I remember.

History took a more murderous turn.   

The cruel choice of the past – Convert or die! – became no choice at all.

The time of martyrs gave way to an even more terrible time,

when there were no choices,

only death, only murder, only annihilation.

Anti-Semitism, racism, and other bigotries were the scourge of humanity:

no choices.

Not only did we suffer, but other races and nations have felt their brutal virulence.

And still, the world stood too silent, did too little:

Africans were bought and sold like farm animals, while the world watched.

Native Americans were hounded, hunted, and murdered, while the world watched.

Armenians were the target of genocide, while the world watched

Jews were the prime target of the Nazis, slated for obliteration.

What can we say, in the face of the Shoah?

There are no words, no meanings, nothing to make sense of it.

The cold machinery piled us in nameless graves,

burnt us to cinders, ground us to dust.

What can we say about the loss of Jewish families, Jewish minds, Jewish learning?

What, what can one say in the presence of burning children?

And all of this, all of this, while the world watched.

Even today, there are those who deny that it happened.

But eleh ezkerah:  These I remember.

5.  Eleh ezkerah: These I remember:

I cannot forget the rare kind face, the furtive hand extended in help.

I cannot forget those who risked their lives to save one single Jew.

I cannot forget the righteous gentiles, who spoke up for us, and went to the camps with us.

Eleh ezkerah:  These, too, I will remember!

6.  Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.  These I cannot forget.

Never again!  Never again while a silent world watches.

I may not stand by while my neighbor bleeds.

I may not stand by while my sister is hunted and hurt.

I may not stand by while my brother is starving.

I may not stand by while anyone is made homeless.

I may not stand by while there is injustice – never again!

Eleh ezkerah v’nafshi alai eshpechah!

These I remember and I pour out my soul within me!


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