Sukkot Thoughts for 2020

Image: An Israeli street, with sukkot. (Shutterstock image; all rights reserved.)

It’s Sukkot, and on the rare occasions that I leave my house, Oakland looks like Israel this week.

As people lose their housing, the tent camps that already existed are growing. In Israel, the fact that there are sukkot everywhere would not be a surprise – of course there are sukkot everywhere! — but in the secular Bay Area, it is no holiday.

In a normal year, we use the sukkah to remind ourselves of the fragility of our daily lives. In 2020, we need the sukkah to remind us that the fragility we are currently experiencing is temporary.

In 2020, we need the sukkah to remind us that these should be temporary structures, not a permanent solution to anything.

In 2020, we need the table in the sukkah to remind us that the people in those temporary dwellings are hungry. We need to be reminded that while we may find the sight of the stars through the shakh (palm covered roof) quaint and lovely, there are people who see any hole in the roof of their shelter as a doorway for rain, cold, and illness.

In 2020, a study by Feeding America, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food insecurity, predicts that local food insecurity may affect 1 in 3 adults this winter and 1 in 2 children. The food banks literally do not know how they will meet the demand, especially with federal sources of food assistance drying up.

What can we do?

  1. Ask for help if you need it. Many people who were secure last year are insecure this year. Covid-19 and federal policy have destroyed jobs and left many people in a terrible spot. If you are one of them, it may be very difficult to say to the people who’ve always thought of you as a helper, not a helpee. Just remember, this year is different in ways we have never seen before. If you are in trouble, it is OK to reach out and ask for help. Remember, when we ask for help, we are giving someone else an opportunity to do a mitzvah.
  2. We can support our local food banks. Government aid takes time to mobilize, but the charities are already up and running. They know their stuff. Find the food bank nearest you, or near some community you love, and give them whatever you can.
  3. We can support our local food banks with volunteer labor. Many of the volunteers that have staffed food banks in the past are elders who cannot continue that work because they are at high risk for Covid-19.
  4. We can support organizations that help people who don’t have homes. There are a number of good lists online, both local and national. For instance, the SF Chronicle publishes the SF Homeless Project, listing local programs. Your local Jewish Family & Community Services organization has such programs which serve both Jews and non-Jews. You can also check with Google to get an idea of local organizations.
  5. We can support organizations that serve victims of domestic violence, which has been on the rise. Locally, the organization Shalom Bayit (“Peace of the Home”) continues to do great work with very little money. Use Google to find local organizations you can support with donations or volunteerism.

No money to donate? Or, like me, are you unable to get out and volunteer?

  1. Educate yourself on local issues. What’s going on in your town? Who is helping, what is making matters worse? What bills are in the state pipeline that address these issues? What’s on your ballot that might make a difference?
  2. Write letters to local elected officials (think “mayor, city council, state representatives”) insisting that the care of the hungry and homeless is important to you. Write letters to the editor of your local paper (there’s one I need to do!)
  3. Make your contacts personal. That’s what the staffers of politicians tell us: signing a big petition may be satisfying, but often it makes little impression. Write to YOUR state rep, to YOUR mayor, to YOUR city council person, and explain that they need to do something or they won’t get YOUR vote next time.
  4. Reject NIMBYism. Building lower-cost housing is an absolute necessity, but often after a developer is persuaded to include it in their plans, the neighbors have a fit. Sure, insist on sufficient planning regarding parking and transit! Insist that things be done properly! But don’t be the person who starts talking about how “their kind” aren’t wanted in your neighborhood, and call it out when you hear it.
  5. Pray. If there are solutions or people that scare you, try praying about them before you utterly reject them. Ask God’s help in being part of the solution; ask God’s mercy on those who are suffering.
  6. And I repeat: Ask for help if you need it. Remember, this year is different in ways we have never seen before. If you are in trouble, it is OK to reach out and ask for help. When we ask for help, we are giving someone else an opportunity to do a mitzvah. They may need the mitzvah every bit as badly as we need the help. It is OK to ask.

I’ve run on long enough; these are my Sukkot thoughts today. I wish all my readers safe shelter from the scary world, and blessings in all that you do.

The Rabbi Who Juggled Fire

Image: Rabban Gamliel was famous for juggling lit torches during the Sukkot celebrations in the Temple. (Sukkah 53b) (Vagengeim / Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

When I was a little child, I would read history and think enviously, “That must have been exciting – I wish I had a time machine!” Now that I’m older, and I’ve lived through a few such times, I know better. It is frightening and draining to hang on as the world seems to spin out of control. We in the United States are living through a simultaneous replay of 1918, 1929, and 1968, with a few added extras.

For me, study has been a refuge. I’ve been teaching and preparing classes nonstop, working harder and longer hours than I have done in years. I’m learning new material in order to be able to teach it. I’m co-teaching two other classes, and find comfort in the partnership with colleagues. I think of the generations of rabbis who have served the Jewish people during terrible times, and I know in my kishkes (Yiddish for guts) that Torah sustained them too.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Pirkei Avot 1:18

Shimon ben Gamaliel (10 BCE – 70 CE) lived during the run-up to the First Jewish Revolt. He was the president of the Great Sanhedrin during his last years, and he died when the Romans beheaded him, along with the High Priest, Ishmael ben Elisha. Rabban Shimon saw his world disintegrate through terrible divisions in Jewish society and under the cruel rule of Rome.

It is interesting that this, likely his most famous quotation, is a drash on a verse from the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah lived in a very different time, a time of rebuilding. He wrote after the Exile in Babylon was over, after Cyrus of Persia authorized a return to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah did not live in an idyllic time (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for details) but it was a time of building, not of destruction.

What I learn from this is that one way to survive terrible times is to remember that history is full of cycles: some live in troubled times and some live in times of rebuilding. We can use the memory of better times to guide us forward towards better times in the future.

I’m not talking about “the good old days,” some idealized past. I’m talking about looking back for the values that brought out the best in us. Shimon ben Gamaliel looked back to a time when the guiding values were justice, truth, and peace:

  • Justice: that none should be treated as less than others.
  • Truth: that there is such a thing as truth.
  • Peace: not the absence of disagreement, but the presence of justice and truth, so that the world can be built instead of torn down.

We are living in a time like Shimon’s time, in a society polarized to its limit and beyond. The federal government of the United States is pursuing policies that bring out the worst in people, and that prey upon the weakest among us. The line between facts and opinion seems to have disappeared for many people. Peace is nowhere to be found.

I cannot guarantee that things will improve. I can’t promise that they won’t get worse. What I can say for sure is that the Jewish people have been through bad times in the past, and that the sages of the past can offer us guidance. Shimon suggests that justice and truth make peace possible, even in the darkest of times.

May we work for justice.

May we tell the truth.

May the world – our world – know a true peace, a peace based on justice and truth.

And let us say, Amen.

A Sukkot Treat: The Orionids!

Image: A night sky, with meteors. (Pixabay)

A proper sukkah has holes in the roof that allow us to see the stars. That’s particularly handy this year, since the rest of Sukkot lines up nicely with a waning moon and the peak of the Orionid meteor showers.

Every year between roughly Oct 2 and Nov 7, the Earth passes through debris left behind by Halley’s Comet. We experience that as a meteor shower, a show of “shooting stars.” The peak of the Orionids falls just after Sukkot ends (Oct 21 – 22) but if the skies are clear you may still get a nice show – keep your eyes open!

As for Halley’s Comet itself, we won’t see it again until 2061, or in the Jewish calendar, 5822.

Happy Sukkot! – Time to Play!

Image: Temple Sinai families hang out in the sukkah. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Tonight begins the festival of Sukkot. Believe it or not, it is actually as important a feast as Passover.

Before you panic, read this about the holiday: Sick of Synagogue?

Sukkot is our reward for all the hard work of the past few weeks. We’ve mended our relationships, and now we can enjoy them by hanging out with friends (preferably but not necessarily in a sukkah.)

To learn more about the Festival of Sukkot, which is so much fun that the ancients referred to it as Heh Khag – THE Holiday – check out these articles:

What is Sukkot?

Sukkot Hospitality

7 Questions about Sukkot

The Festival We Forgot?!

Sukkot Vocabulary 101

The Most Beautiful Sukkah of All

Image: A wooden door with a rusty padlock. (Pixabay)

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 nailed a roof on the sukkah to keep it 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!”

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 her head, and visited Yacov’s house. She saw the structure in the yard, with the big lock on the door and the wooden roof above. “Is that your sukkah?” she 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. She saw the golden furniture, and the art, and the carpet. She saw the pallet on the floor. She looked up at the roof.

She 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 a 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 friend, 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 things forever. We must appreciate beauty in the here and now, for we do not know what will come tomorrow. Let me ask you this: 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.

Note: I have published this story in a slightly different form in years past. 

Setting Up the Sukkah

Image: Linda Burnett and Jessica Haymes take a break in the Sukkah after set-up.

Our sukkah isn’t a classical sukkah, but I love it. It’s made from a pergola with grape vines trained over. The vines form a nice, holey roof through which to see stars. The open walls are not exactly kosher, but the location is so windy that walls are a problem. And why shut out that view?

I cover the floor and table with rugs from Jerusalem.  Chairs have cushions to be extra-comfy. And this photo was taken from a low sofa that I can drag into the sukkah for a nap or a night’s sleep!

Prayer flags are this year’s new addition. They flap in the breeze and add color.

What’s your sukkah like?

The Festival We Forgot?!

Image:  Photo of sukkot on a Jerusalem street and apartment balcony. Photo by Yoninah.

(13) On the second day, the heads of the clans of all the people and the priests and Levites gathered to Ezra the scribe to study the words of the Teaching. (14)They found written in the Teaching, that the Eternal had commanded Moses, that the Israelite should dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month, (15) and that they must announce and proclaim throughout all their towns and Jerusalem as follows: “Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms, and [other] leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.” (16) So the people went went out and brought them, and made themselves booths on their roofs, in their courtyard, in the courtyards of the House of God, in the square of the water gate, and in the square of the gate of Ephraim. (17) The whole community that returned from captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day, Israelites had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. (18) He read from the scroll of the Teaching of God each day, from first to the last day. The celebrated the festival seven days, and there was a solemn gathering on the eighth, as prescribed. – Nehemiah 8:13-18

 

What an amazing passage from the Book of Nehemiah! This action takes place in Jerusalem, after the Jews have returned from exile in Babylon. According to this, after the Israelites entered the land in the time of Joshua, they forgot to build the booths we call Sukkot.

Now, when they have RE-entered the Land, Ezra commands them to revive the practice, which we keep until this very day.

Have you ever built a sukkah, or had the opportunity to eat or sleep in one? Will you build a sukkah this year?

Are there ancient Jewish practices you’d like to revive? Which ones, and why?

What does “Chol HaMoed” mean?

Image: On Chol HaMoed Pesach, many Israeli families visit the beach in Tel Aviv. (Some rights reserved, via wikimedia.)

Two Jewish holidays run for a week, or eight days, depending on how you do them. One is Sukkot, the other is Passover.  Those days begin and end with special days, and the chol hamoed are the “ordinary” days in between.

The holidays begin and end with a yom tov (literally “a good day,” but in reality a very special day.) Those days are very similar to Shabbat: they are days of rest, days to spend in joyful observance and study. Ideally we do no work on those days, nor do we handle money, run errands, etc. They are days of enjoyment, with good food and friends. They are also days of celebration: we celebrate the holiday at hand.

Outside the Land of Israel, we celebrate yom tov in pairs, 2 at the beginning of Passover, and two at the end. Inside the Land, we celebrate only a single day of yom tov at the beginning and end of Passover. (If you are curious about why, see Why Some Holidays Last Longer Outside of Israel.) The exception to this rule is the practice of Reform Jews in the United States, many of whom follow the custom of the Land of Israel. (For what your congregation or community does, ask your rabbi.)

The days in between the yamim tovim (plural) are called chol hamoed, meaning “ordinary days of the festival.” We still celebrate the holiday (during Passover, we eat matzah and refrain from eating chametz) but even the most observant Jew can drive the car, handle money, and so on. In Israel, schools and many businesses are closed during chol hamoed, so it is a time for family vacations. In the Diaspora, we may go to work, but we still make time for the spirit of the holiday.

Now you may be reading this, thinking, “I can’t do all that!” and perhaps feeling a little guilty. The truth is that not all of us have yet reached this ideal of celebration. Especially outside of Israel, it’s hard to do, because the secular world around us doesn’t stop to celebrate Passover or Sukkot. Please don’t beat up on yourself or feel bad about it – and don’t give up on it as an ideal. Perhaps not this year, perhaps not next year, but sometime in your life you may have the opportunity to take some vacation time and truly inhabit the holiday.

Jewish observance is not a pass-fail test, even though some people may talk about it that way. Ideally, if we observe the Jewish year to its fullest, we will reap spiritual rewards – but as the saying goes, if it was easy, everyone would do it! Instead, focus on doing what you can do to experience the holiday to the fullest level available to you.

May you have a meaningful holiday, and grow daily as a  member of your community and Am Yisrael, the Jewish People!

 

Chag Sukkot Sameach!

Chag Sukkot sameach – Happy Holiday of Sukkot! – to all my readers.

I’ve been out with various difficulties for the past few days, but my head is full of thoughts and I promise to be back soon with more to say.

Sit in your sukkah – or somebody’s sukkah – or a coffee shop – and share Torah and love with friends old and new. Let the simple blessings of friendship fill your life and your days for this week-long holiday of joy.

Talmud and the Absurd: The Elephant in the Sukkah

Here is a lovely bit of Talmud to study. When we need a break from a painful present, Jewish study can provide both rest and refreshment.

This particular story offers some of the arcana of sukkah construction – or does it? What are the rabbis up to in this passage?

The Talmud Blog

Since the 1990’s (and Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel), there has been a fair amount of discussion about the Talmud, the carnivalesque, and the absurd.  Put simply, the Talmud contains a fair number of passages, even halakhic ones, that we might say operate on a plain other than the normal sphere of human existence.  Amazingly, these passages interact in strange and unexpected ways with the more regular talmudic fare.  Much of this research has been driven by criticism developed in the study of literature that probes the meaning of “bizarre” texts and their relationship to the normative work. This is, for example, one of Socrates and the Fat Rabbis primary concerns, and it also powers a fascinating discussion about courtroom etiquette in Barry Wimpfheimer‘s  Narrating the Law.

This morning, reader Yair Rosenberg sent me Pshita‘s most recent creation – a children’s story that reworks the following talmudic discussion.

If…

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