A Beginner’s Guide to Sukkot

A Pretty Sukkah

Sukkot is perhaps the most joyful Jewish holiday. Here are a few basic things to know about it:

WHAT DOES SUKKOT MEAN? 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].

WHO CELEBRATES SUKKOT? Jews worldwide celebrate Sukkot, although the holiday is most festive in the land of Israel.

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 Oct. 1, 2012. On the first two days and the last day of Sukkot observant Jews do no work.

WHAT’S THE POINT? 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.

WHERE DO WE KEEP 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 ELSE HAPPENS DURING SUKKOT? Observant Jews also “wave the lulav.” It’s a bouquet of palm, willow, and myrtle, held together with 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.  There are also special festival readings and prayers of praise in the synagogue.

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.

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!

Seven Tips for Finding Your Rabbi

Rabbis are individuals, no two quite alike.

יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות

Joshua ben Perachiya used to say: Get yourself a rabbi, and acquire for yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. – Avot 1.6.

The Sayings of the Fathers, from which this saying is taken, are a collection of friendly advice from the rabbis of old.  This one, “get yourself a rabbi, a friend, and give folks the benefit of the doubt” is great advice, especially for a person who is or wants to be connected to Jewish community.

If you want to become a Jew, if you want to get married by a rabbi, if you want a rabbi for a funeral, if you want reliable advice on Jewish custom, law, or tradition, you really need a rabbi. Advice from Jewish friends, relatives, and people in the grocery store line is not reliable! (I say this from hard experience of my own: I made my first inquiries about becoming a Jew when I was in my teens.  My Jewish friends were absolutely certain that one had to be born Jewish. I didn’t inquire further, and wasted years when I might have been happily Jewish, as I was destined to be.  Oy!)

So you want to find your rabbi.  Here are seven bits of advice:

1.  ASK YOUR FRIENDS. If you have Jewish friends, ask them for referrals. If they don’t have a specific rabbi to recommend, ask them for referrals to synagogues (where you will often find rabbis.) If they can’t help you, ask them if they know someone who can make a referral.

2. CHECK THE LOCAL SYNAGOGUES & JEWISH INSTITUTIONS.  You want a rabbi nearby, not one you can only contact through email. Check out your local rabbis via synagogue websites and by sitting through services they are leading. Other local Jewish institutions may have rabbis on staff – check their websites, too. Also — this is important! — if you find a synagogue that feels like home to you, their rabbi is a good bet to be your rabbi, too.

3. CALL A RABBI AND MAKE AN APPOINTMENT.  You are not “wasting the time” of the rabbi when you make an appointment to meet with them.  Most rabbis like meeting new people (they would not stay in this line of work if they didn’t.)  You don’t have to be “sure” about this rabbi.  This is a “getting to know you meeting.” There should be no charge for a meeting of this sort.

When you meet the rabbi, be sure to both talk and listen.  Talk to her about your project (learning more, converting, marriage, whatever). Answer his questions as honestly as you can.  Ask her the questions on your mind.

4. LISTEN TO YOUR KISHKES.  Kishkes is Yiddish for “gut.” Are you comfortable talking to this person? Some people want a scholarly rabbi, some want a warm rabbi, some want a fun rabbi, some prefer a rabbi who doesn’t feel too chummy to them.  Often we don’t even know what our idea of a rabbi is on the front end; it’s only when we’re sitting in the room with that person that we say, “Oh, that’s a RABBI!”  So meet the rabbi and see what your kishkes say to you.

5. RABBIS VARY. Rabbis are individuals. Each has a personality, opinions, and ways of doing things. No two rabbis are alike, not two Reform rabbis, not two women rabbis, not two Orthodox rabbis. So if the first rabbi you meet doesn’t feel like “your rabbi” that is OK.  If he or she has opinions or rules or a manner that you find upsetting, just keep looking.

6. WHAT’S A GOOD TIME? August through mid-October is a frantically busy time for rabbis with congregations, and many other rabbis as well. Call after the middle of October, or before August begins. Call the office phone during office hours, or email if you have an email address for them. It’s nice to give them a “head’s up” about the topic: “Hi, Rabbi Levy, my name is Ruth Adar. I’m considering conversion and looking for a rabbi.”

7. IF YOU HIT A SNAG: If a rabbi says he doesn’t have time, or she feels “wrong” to you, or if your Jewish friend thinks you are crazy for even wanting a rabbi, take the advice that opened this essay and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. There are lots of rabbis around. The one who isn’t a good fit for you, or who didn’t have time when you called, might be a good fit for someone else. Your Jewish friend may be reacting out of some bad experience of his own.

If you are in the United States or Israel, you’re in luck – there are lots of rabbis. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can check out the local rabbis via BecomingJewish.net.  If you keep looking and asking and listening, you’ll find your rabbi.

Happy hunting!

Sinning Against Myself

Look in the mirror.  Look at the face that looks back at you.  What do you see?

Do you see a person

— who needs sleep?

— who needs to see a doctor?

— who drinks too much?

— who eats unhealthfully?

— who is too tired to know what she needs?

— who is depressed?

— who needs regular exercise and doesn’t get it?

— who hasn’t laughed in HOW long?

— who is secretly struggling with something he hopes no one else will notice?

— who needs help and won’t ask for it?

— who has been offered help but refuses to accept it?

— who is lonely?

— who is frightened about something?

— who hasn’t had a day off  in HOW long?

Modern secular culture encourages us not to take care of ourselves. We see advertisements for unhealthy foods, for “fun” gambling, for TV shows that are on late at night. We get caught up in the push for certain kinds of success. With our families scattered all over the country or the world, care for children or elders often falls on one or two family members, who get no help or relief. We avoid admitting to depression, mental illness, disabilities, because of the stigma they carry. We avoid asking for help because that would involve admitting that we need it.

These are sins against ourselves. When we fail to get enough sleep, good food, and enough exercise, we forget that our bodies are limited, that we are setting ourselves up for illness. When we fail to ask for or accept help, not only do we hurt ourselves, but we keep others from having the opportunity to do a mitzvah.

Ask: What could I change in my life so that I could get enough sleep? Help taking care of my aged parents? Help doing whatever it is I need to do to take care of myself?

Then make a plan.  Do it.

If the answer to that question is, “Nothing,” or “I don’t know” then make an appointment to talk with someone who can help you find options: a rabbi, a therapist, a counselor, a friend.  Admit how hard it’s all gotten to someone who won’t tell on you. Ask them to help you find some ways to lighten the burden.  Those ways exist, whether you can see them or not.

Make the call.  Do it.

For sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone: those include the sins against ourselves.

Someone is waiting for you, and for me, in the mirror.

Second Commandment

English: Left to right: iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPh...
Idol?

Do not make a graven image for yourself, or any kind of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth. You shall not bow down to them and serve them, for I the Eternal your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those that love me and keep my commandments. – Exodus 20: 3-4

A closer look, a restatement, a meditation:

Do not make a graven image for yourself, or any kind of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.A manufactured thing is different from a living thing, like a human being, an animal, or even a landscape.

you shall not bow down to them   –  Do not put any manufactured thing at the center of your life.

and serve them – Manufactured things should serve human beings, not the other way around.

for I the Eternal your God am a jealous GodThis is a high-stakes situation! Mess up the priorities, and there will be trouble, to wit:

visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate meMessing up our priorities and favoring manufactured things, human-made things, over the living world can cause a whole bunch of trouble for our children and grandchildren.

showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those that love me and keep my commandments.Conversely, keeping our priorities in order can make it much more likely that our great-great-grandchildren can live in peace in the living world.

God or Godzilla?

English: 1954 Japanese movie poster for 1954 J...
English: 1954 Japanese movie poster for 1954 Japanese film Godzilla. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend recently reported on facebook that her phone autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.”

A lot of people come to my classes worried that:

  • I am going to find out they don’t believe in “God.”
  • I am going to be mad that they don’t believe in “God.”
  • I am going to insist that they believe in “God.”
  • I am going to make a big deal out of any of the above.

The only thing I know for sure about That-Which-We-Call-God is that I agree with Maimonides: whatever I think God is, that is what God is not.

I don’t like to use pronouns for God. God is either beyond all gender or encompassing all genders, and I believe there are a lot more than two genders, so English pronouns are useless.

I find the word “God” increasingly useless because folks come to it with a lot of opinions ready at hand. Some people immediately think about the version of God that blasts people in the Bible. I agree, that person is scary and often immature. That limited image, taken alone, is not what I am talking about when I say, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God.” Remember, we are warned to be very careful about images.

Then there are people who refer to God as “Sky Daddy” or “Giant Sky Monster” or something similar. They’re trying to make the point that taking ancient metaphors literally is silly. I agree with them that taking an ancient metaphor literally is silly, but I don’t like to throw my metaphors out with the bathwater: some things are still useful even when I refuse to swallow them whole.

There is Something about the Universe that calls out for amazement.  That is my God: the aspect of the world that is far beyond me, that leaves me with my jaw hanging open.* I witness it in the power of a terrible storm, and in the smell of a newborn baby. I witness it in acts of selflessness, and acts of courage.

Torah is the record of human beings trying to wrap their minds around it: a dance between The Amazed People and the Object of Amazement. The best way they could come up with to relate to it was to personify it, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore it. They cooked up the idea that they had a Covenant with it, that they were given commandments (mitzvot) to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the Amazingness of the Universe.

Torah is unfinished and in process.  There is always work – human work – to be done to align the commandments with the ideal that they are intended to pursue. In this week’s Torah portion, the daughters of Zelophehad point out to Moses that the way Torah law was set up, it created an unjust situation. Moses is not sure. He confers with God, who immediately rectifies the situation. That is a model I can follow: when traditional interpretations of the law are unjust and unkind, then it’s time to come up with something better.

And yes, lots of bad stuff has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. That’s God as an excuse, and after hearing about my friend’s phone, I am going to refer to that “God” as “Godzilla.” The “God” that people cite as their authority for bad behavior is no more than a monster. One might even argue that it is an Idol, but that’s another post entirely.

*If you want to read better writing about this idea of God, check out the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He says it all much better than do I.

Just Shabbat

Dawn

Have you ever had a perfect day?

I think I came as close as I ever have this past Shabbat.  Linda and I went to the children’s service at Temple Sinai on Friday night, sat with friends and met some people who may be new friends. Went home tired, and slept the sleep of the worn out.  Rose Saturday morning, had breakfast, went back to shul for services: a bar mitzvah of a young man I didn’t know, with an aliyah honoring the 30th wedding anniversary of our close friends, Dawn and Mark.  Afterwards, lunch with more friends, and a long slow June afternoon at home. Heaven!

A bar mitzvah, you say? Of a young man you didn’t know?  Yes: for those of you who avoid bnei mitzvah services, a point to ponder: sometimes the 13 year olds approach a Torah portion in new and exciting ways, precisely because they haven’t been reading the same words over and over for 50 years.   And yes, sometimes they don’t.  But Torah is always good, and my mind is free to pursue the portion wherever it is led.

But more than anything, it was the slow time of the whole 24 hour period, the songs at night, the long service in the morning when my brain was set loose to freewheel through prayer and inspiration, the affection of friends, the sense of there being “enough” in this moment, that made the day for me.

This is Shabbat.  This is my treasure as a Jew.

5 Ways to Be a Great Shabbat Dinner Guest

Someone has invited you to your first Shabbat [Sabbath] dinner.  Maybe you are “meeting the family” for the first time.  Or maybe it’s just a friendly dinner.  But you are not sure about the religious aspect: what’s expected?  Here are five suggestions to help you be a great Shabbat dinner guest:

1.  ASK QUESTIONS:  Every family has their own customs about Shabbat dinner.  Some are very formal, some equally informal.  Asking a few questions ahead of time is essential:

What should I wear?  Dress will differ from household to household, so ask.  You don’t want to be the only one at the table in blue jeans, or in pearls, for that matter!

May I bring anything?  The answer to that may be “Yes, bring —-” or it may be “just yourself!”  If you are asked to bring something, be sure and ask if they would like it to be kosher, or if there are any restrictions you should know about:  allergies, etc.  Better to ask than to show up with something lethal, right?  And even if the answer is “just yourself” it is nice to show up with flowers.  Not required, but nice.

Finally, it is fine to ask questions about the prayers, the food, or the objects you see.    Some things (a kiddush cup, for example, or a recipe) may come with family stories.

2.  BE ON TIME.  Your hosts may be juggling the hour of sundown, service times at their synagogue, hungry toddlers or other variables.  Shabbat dinner is not a time to be “fashionably late.”

3.  DON’T WORRY ABOUT HEBREW.  There may or may not be Hebrew prayers or songs in Hebrew.  If you feel awkward just listening, you have the option of saying “Amen,” at the end of prayers.  As for singing, if you don’t know the words, you can tap your feet, or clap your hands, or just listen appreciatively.  The dinner may begin with candlelighting and blessings over wine and bread.  If you are not Jewish, you do not have to participate, just listen quietly and observe.  Don’t worry that you do not speak Hebrew; many American Jews do not.  It is a wonderful thing to learn Hebrew, but no one expects you to know it at your first Shabbat dinner!

4.  COMMUNICATE!  Shabbat dinner is not just about food.  It is also about taking time to enjoy one another’s company.  Treat each person at the table as if you expect to learn something important from them.  Contribute to the conversation when you have something to say.  In many Jewish households, friendly dispute is welcome at the table, but do keep the tone friendly!  Off color jokes and off color language are out of place at the Shabbat dinner table.

5.  SAY THANK YOU.  Write your host afterward and thank them for including you.  When you host your own Shabbat dinner (or a similar event from your own tradition) return the invitation!