What is Sukkot?

Image: A sukkah in New England, in the USA. Public Domain via wikimedia.

After the intensity of the High Holy Days, Jews celebrate a completely different kind of holiday. (What, more holidays? Yes!)

Beginning on the fifth day after Yom Kippur, we celebrate Sukkot, the “Feast of Booths.” It’s a holiday of celebration, rest, and hospitality, when we build little shacks in the back  yard or on the roof of the apartment building and have friends over to eat for seven days. The first and last days are solemn days of rest.

It began as a harvest celebration, held at that nervous moment in the Middle East when the summer crops were in and the rain had not yet begun to fall. Winter rains are crucial not only for crops, but also for the survival of animals and people when the cisterns have run dry. In the climate of Israel, summer rains are rare; the year’s moisture falls in autumn and winter. Without water, everyone and everything dies.

So there they were, desperate for rain, with the last of the harvest in their hands. No surprise that the people prayed. The interesting thing is that our own story, the Exodus, is woven into the holiday as well. This is a holiday with a double meaning, and a doubled set of commandments:

You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. – Exodus 34:22

You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God. – Leviticus 23:42-43

So Jews all over the world take the days right after Yom Kippur to build a sukkah, a little booth, in their yard. on their balcony or on a roof, to “dwell” (eat and sleep) in to remember our tenuous existence in the wilderness.  For those in a cold climate, that means building a sturdy little sukkah and bundling up to sit there. For those in warmer climes, it’s a laid-back time of outdoor living. For all of us, it is a reminder of the fragility of life, of our vulnerability, a time of closeness and friendship, appreciation and joy.

For the tachlis [practical information] about the holiday and how to celebrate, see 7 Questions about Sukkot and Sukkot Hospitality.




To Welcome the Stranger

Image: Modern day Bedouin offer us a window into the past. Photo by hbieser on pixabay.com

This article by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is beautiful, and it is made even more so because it is offered in honor of my friend and teacher, Rabbi Ferenc Raj. Rabbi Raj made me welcome years ago when I was a stranger with a “funny accent” in the Bay Area of California. In the process he taught me by example much about what it means to follow in the tradition of Abraham our father.

Rabbi Fuchs, thank you so much for this wonderful and timely teaching!

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

Thoughts shared at Kirchengemeinde, Schulensee, Germany, October 9, 2016

(In Honor of Rabbi (Dr.) Ferenć Raj, who has exemplified these ideals throughout his distinguished career)

We Jews are incredibly proud of our Torah! But we never claim that Torah was history’s first Code of Law. There are several that came before. The Code of Hammurabi was the most famous.

But we do claim that Torah was the first code to grant equal protection under the law to the non-citizen. “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It may surprise you to know that this idea, so beautifully read for us this morning, does not appear just once in our Torah nor even twice.

The Torah emphasizes this crucial revolution in human thinking no fewer than 36 times. No other commandment appears so frequently.

We find the roots of this commandment in the…

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Image: A person diving in deep water. Photo by unsplash via pixabay.com.

Two Days of Atonement I shall never forget.

One was my first Yom Kippur after ordination. I officiated at my first funeral about 1pm in the afternoon before Kol Nidre*. The deceased woman’s name was Ruth. Although I did my best to focus on her and her family, I could not shake the feeling that I was officiating at my own funeral, reciting the prayers in my own name. That feeling clung to me that evening and all the next day.

The second memorable Yom Kippur was last year. The morning before Kol Nidre I suddenly felt desperate for air. The feeling worsened, and I lay across my kitchen table gasping for breath. It crossed my mind that I might be dying, and as we sped towards the hospital all I could think was that I was not ready, definitely not ready to die. The ER staff ascertained that my lungs were riddled with blood clots; they administered medicine and treated my family gently. Later I learned that the survival rate for pulmonary embolisms is low; I am fortunate to be alive.

Every Yom Kippur we rehearse for our own deaths, eschewing physical pleasures to focus on the meaning of our mortality. The prayer Unetaneh Tokef reminds us that life is terrifyingly unpredictable. Those two Days of Atonement drove these messages home in a way even prayer and fasting cannot. I felt heaven saying, “Pay attention!” Perhaps it takes a brush with mortality to help us fully appreciate the time we have and value life’s potential. May we each rise from prayer after the holy day with a renewed sense of the urgency of life, the preciousness of every moment.

*Kol Nidre is the name of a recitation in the evening service that begins Yom Kippur. It has also come to refer to the whole service, and the evening it is recited.

Mental Illness and Yom Kippur

Image: A well-dressed woman sitting bent-over on a bench. Photo by RyanMcGuire via pixabay.com.

Before I learned to read Hebrew, Yom Kippur could wreck me. The language of “sin” and “repentance” that I learned as a child sent me into a tailspin of despair.  Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King] was a fearsome image before which I cowered, a failure. A whole day of that, plus fasting, sent me into a black pool of depression.

The years that I was in otherwise good emotional shape, I’d be OK. But I remember a couple of years when Yom Kippur coincided with a round of depression, and I shudder. What should have been a holy day became a spiritual battle.

For me, and for others who suffer from a mental illness or affective disorder, holy days and holidays can carry an extra punch. There’s no shame in that; it’s also true for anyone who has had a recent trauma or whose close friend or relative has died.

Here are some things I have learned. I share them for the benefit of anyone who needs them this week:

PIKUACH NEFESH (pee-KOO-ach NEH-fesh) means “preservation of life.” It overrides nearly every other commandment. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your body/soul this week. If that means go to the beach for your Yom Kippur “service,” do it. If that means eat, take your meds, go to a meeting,  or call your therapist, DO IT.

FASTING – Fasting isn’t good for everyone. It’s bad for diabetics, pregnant women and people with a history of eating disorders. If there is some reason fasting isn’t good for you, DON’T FAST on Yom Kippur. (Again, pikuach nefesh!) All you have to say to anyone is “health reasons.” (Really, they should not be quizzing you anyway.) One strategy for dealing with feeling left out of the fast is to take one or more meals with someone else who doesn’t fast. Trust me, there are many Jews in that category. You are still welcome at the Break-the-Fast, don’t worry!

MEDICATION – If you are on medication, take your meds and take them properly. If you are supposed to have food or water with meds, eat or drink. Medications do not solve everything, but they can be a huge help. There is no shame to taking them, and they have saved lives. I take mine every day, and I say a blessing when I do it.

LANGUAGE – If you grew up in a Christian household, the language of prayer of the High Holy Days can be intense. “Sin” is an English translation for a range of Hebrew words, which mean everything from “mistake” to “malicious wrongdoing.” “Repentance” is the English translation for teshuvah, which covers a much larger concept than merely being sorry. It means turning, changing course, and sometimes, coming home.

If you find the language of the High Holy Days upsetting, I can suggest two things to do, one immediate and the other long-term. The first is to schedule some time with your rabbi (after the holy days!) to talk about “sin” and “repentance.” The long-term solution that worked for me was that I studied Hebrew and set myself free from clumsy translations.

DON’T BE SHY – Don’t be shy about taking whatever action you need to take about your self-care. Remember it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to take care of yourself and to stay alive! If services are too upsetting, don’t go. Go for a walk, go to the beach. Maybe this year your teshuvah, your turning, will be to give your rabbi a call after the holy days are over and get the name of a good therapist.

Whatever your situation, know that you are not alone! Many of us deal with some mental health issue over Yom Kippur. Help is available if you reach out for it.

This is an updated version of a post I wrote three years ago.

Shabbat Shalom! Vayeilech

It’s Shabbat Shuvah – the Shabbat that falls in the midst of the High Holy Days – and this week we read Parashat Vayeilech. It’s a short portion, chapter 31 of Deuteronomy, and Moses gives his final charge to Joshua his successor and to the other leaders of Israel. He introduces the poetry we will read next week in Ha’azinu.

He said to them: I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the LORD has said to me, “You shall not go across yonder Jordan.” – Deut. 31:2

The traditional Jewish blessing for birthdays comes from this verse of Torah. When we say to someone “May you live to be 120” we are not only wishing them a long life, but the other attributes of Moses as well. Moses was simultaneously a humble man and a great leader, a rare combination.

Now, the divrei Torah [words of Torah] from around the Internet!

This Poem – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Parashat Vayelech, Shabbat Shuvah – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Someone Sees and Now We All See – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Parenting by the Parasha – Rabbi Eve Posen (VIDEO)

The Hidden Face – Rabbi David Kasher

Get Us To Safety – Rabbi Nina Mizrahi

Famous (Almost) Last Words – Rabbi Jason Parr

Southern Comfort

Image: “The Seven Days of Creation” by Laurie Gross Studios of Santa Barbara, CA. These tapestries hang in the sanctuary at Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville, TN. Read more about them on The Temple website.

I had the pleasure of observing Rosh Hashanah in Nashville with Congregation Ohabai Sholom, also known as The Temple. One aspect of the service moved me beyond all others, and it caught me completely by surprise.

I arrived early and found a seat. The rabbis tell us that before prayer, we should pray that we pray well, so that’s what I was doing – at least, that’s what I was doing until jet lag caught up with me and I began to doze. I rested in a place between awake and asleep, relaxed and floating.

People began to enter, and as always happens with a big holiday service, they greeted one another and chatted: “Shanah tovah!” “How’s your mama doing?” “Oh my goodness, he’s grown so much!” “Can you believe this weather we’re having?” It was just small talk, but as I sat with my eyes closed, I began to cry.

They were southern voices, speaking with southern accents. They were in fact Nashville accents, the men’s slightly different from the women’s, all with a musical quality that sang to me. I cried because they were Jewish southern voices.

I have lived in California for 30 years, but I still have a strong Southern accent. At one point I tried to lose it, and someone tried to congratulate me on dropping “that ignorant sounding accent.” I immediately resolved that I would go to my grave sounding this way! After all, I spent the first 30 years of my life in the South; for better and worse, it is a part of my identity.

Jews seem particularly bothered by the accent. Some respond by complimenting me on my “cute twang” (I HATE that phrase) or tease me with exaggerated imitations of my accent. All of it serves to remind me that I’m Other, not one of the gang – even when it is intended as a joke or a compliment, it is distancing. I realize this is only a minor taste of what Jews of Color and other “others” encounter, but it wears on me. So far I’ve managed to be polite.

Sometimes it is funny. When I lived in Israel, Israelis would be puzzled by my insistence that I was m’Artzot-haBrit [from the United States.] They associated Americans with coastal accents from New York and Los Angeles. I learned to say that I was mi-TehnehSEE and then they’d ask if I knew Johnny Cash. That always made me laugh.

I internalized the idea that there are no Jews with southern accents. Certainly I didn’t know any rabbis with much of one (maybe the teasing got to them, I don’t know.) But on Rosh HaShanah morning, with my heart breaking over my brother, suddenly I was surrounded by a sea of beautiful soft southern speech, my mamaloshen [mother-tongue,] and all of it indubitably Jewish Southern speech. I wept, and was comforted.

Shanah Tovah,  y’all.

An Unusual New Year

Image: Waveform of a heartbeat, artwork by geralt via pixabay.com.

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not…

– The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, read on Rosh Hashanah

I’ve been distracted for the past several days. My brother Albert lies in the hospital after a very bad accident. He has not regained consciousness yet, but I am happy to say that we have gotten good reports from the doctors.

Obviously, the circumstances are extremely stressful. The family has gathered at the hospital, waiting for news and wishing we could do more. It’s a time of spiritual yearning. As most of you know, I converted to Judaism as an adult, so I don’t have any Jewish connections in this town. While I know rabbis in many cities, Nashville isn’t one of them. I arrived on Shabbat and Sunday evening would be Rosh Hashanah.

I staggered back into my hotel room after the first day and left a message for my rabbinic colleagues about the situation, including the fact that I needed somewhere to pray on Rosh Hashanah. One of my rabbis back home, Rabbi Yoni Regev, was ahead of me – in a few minutes I had phone calls from two rabbis at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, known as The Temple in Nashville. Rabbi Mark Shiftan invited me to services and Rabbi Shana Mackler made sure I had everything I needed. Both were very comforting; I was barely coherent when we first spoke.

(For my non-Jewish readers: We Jews are a communal bunch. There is comfort and strength and better prayers when a group of us are gathered together. While I have wonderful family here, for prayer I really needed a minyan. It is hard to put into words, but for an observant Jew, there is nothing quite like praying in the midst of ten or more other Jews.)

Because I am a teacher, of course, this is also a lesson:

  1. Every Jew needs a rabbi, and the usual way to have a rabbi is to join a congregation. My rabbi at home used his network to make sure that I had somewhere to go for Rosh Hashanah and pastoral care nearby. When I was too upset and scrambled to take care of myself, he made sure I had support. Without my congregation, I’d have been lost.
  2. It is OK to ask for help – it is imperative that we ask for help when we need it. Had I not put the word out that I was in distress, no one would have known I was hurting. It’s my responsibility to reach out when I have tsuris [trouble.] Privacy is fine, but secrecy festers.

My brother isn’t out of the woods, but the signs are good. I feel better about him, knowing that he has excellent care. Praying for him at services was a great comfort, too. If you would like to pray for him, your prayers are welcome; his name is Albert. He’s a big, sweet, strong man and God willing, he is on a path toward healing.

Wow, what a beginning to the new year! I wish each of you a Shanah Tovah, a good year, a year of blessing and peace, kindness and wisdom!

Albert Menefee