Category Archives: Jewish festivals

Our Stories

Following is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat and the first day of Passover, 4/20/19 –

     I am sure you’ve all known someone who is famous for telling stories.  Almost every family has that person.  Maybe an uncle or grandfather or grandmother, maybe a friend.  You can see them getting amped up, getting into story telling mode, their hands start to wave around, their voices rise in excitement.  Often their stories are repeated – you’ve heard them more than a few times over the years.  In fact, we can often repeat the stories ourselves, even finish the sentences, because we’ve heard them so often, and we know all of the punch lines.

     But we love those stories.  As much as we laugh about them, as much as we might roll our eyes, or glance across the table at one another when they are being told, those stories are part of our lives, they are about our families, they reflect our history, our origins, our understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from.  We Jews are story tellers, it is part of our DNA.  Every holiday has its story.  On Purim we tell the tale of Esther and Mordecai and Haman.  On Rosh Hashanah the story of Abraham taking Isaac to the top of the mountain.  On Hanukkah we tell our children and grandchildren about the brave Maccabees and the miracle of a small vial of oil that burned for 8 days.    

     But the story telling holiday par excellence in Judaism in Passover.  Passover is the only holiday where the telling of a story is actually considered to be a mitzvah, a commandment.  The text of the Haggadah itself makes that clear – “even if we are all wise and understanding, all elders, all expert in Torah, מצוה עלינו לספר ביציאת מצראים – we are still commanded to tell the story of the Exodus.  That is the Magid section of the Haggadah, Magid a word that actually means ‘telling.’  It is the core of the Haggadah, beginning with the הא לחמא עניא, including the four questions, the story of the five rabbis in B’nei Barak, and the extended midrash on the passage ‘My father was a wandering Aramean.’  And even if we’ve heard it a hundred times, even if we know the passages by heart, we are still commanded to tell that story at the seder.

      And we have a particular way of telling the story.  A Jewish way.  If you think for a moment about the old fairy tales, the old stories we heard growing up, they all began and ended in the same way.  The beginning was always what?  ‘Once upon a time, in a land far, far away.’  And what is always the last line of those classic stories?  ‘And they lived happily ever after.’  In between that beginning and ending you will always find, in one form or an other, a prince and a princess, an evil witch or a dangerous dragon, and in the course of the story the dragon is slain, or the witch is defeated, the prince and the princess find one another, fall in love, get married, move to a beautiful castle, and then that last sentence  – ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ 

    But the Jewish story is told differently.  We don’t begin our stories by saying ‘once upon a time in a land far away.’  Instead we begin our stories by talking about a specific time, a specific place, and specific people.  Last night we said ‘we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.’  An actual time, a real place – Egypt; the villain is a real person, Pharaoh; and the story is about real people – in fact, our ancestors.  That is how a Jewish story begins!

     But we also end our stories differently.  If the fairy tale ends with ‘they lived happily ever after,’ how did we end the seder last night?  Next year in Jerusalem!  What do we mean when we say that?  We talked about this at our seder last night.  What happens if you are celebrating Passover in Jerusalem?  You’ve completed the seder, and you are ready to go to bed, everyone is full and tired, let alone that they’ve had four cups of wine, but you need that last sentence, you need to conclude your story.  It wouldn’t make sense to say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ when you are actually sitting in Jerusalem having your seder.  So what do you say?  Next year in a rebuilt  Jerusalem!  The last line of the seder ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ isn’t about an actual place, it is about a spiritual place and a future time, when one day the Messiah will come, and the world will be healed, and Jerusalem will a symbol of hope and healing and faith.  We don’t end our stories by tying everything up into that neat box.  Instead, we end our stories by looking to the future, with caution, but also with hope.  Next year in Jerusalem isn’t really an ending.  It is a pause, but more than anything else it is an acknowledgement that the story continues.  Today, tomorrow, next month, next year, and beyond.  

     And I think there are two reasons we end the seder that way.  The first is that it reminds us of our responsibility in terms of making the world the way it should be.  When you say ‘they lived happily ever after’ it means they went to their castle, and the story was over.  They were done with their work.  They were no longer interested in changing the world.  But when you say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ it means there is much work to be done, it means that the world needs to be changed, and it reminds you that you have a role in making that happen.  

     But the other thing next year in Jerusalem does is remind you of your role in the telling of the story.  In a story that doesn’t end, someone needs to pick it up, someone needs to carry the thread of the narrative, and bring it to the next generation and the next and the next.  That is what happens at the seder table.  

     There is a scene in the Return of the King, the last volume of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of my favorites.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo have completed their quest, and against all odds managed to destroy the magic ring of the enemy.  They have played their role in the great drama of their time, as we all do in our own way.  And Sam pauses, thinking about all that they’ve seen, all that they’ve been through, and he says this:  “What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?  I wish I could hear it told!  And I wonder how it will go on after our part.”

     At the seder table we both tell the tale, and acknowledge our role in it.  We look to the past, our past, and recount great deeds and momentous events that miraculously still to this very day continue to shape our lives.  But we also understand on Passover that we have each played a part in this great story, and God willing we should continue to do so for many years, and many seders, to come.

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Elijah the Reconciler

Here is a text version of my sermon from 4/13/19 –

     It may be hard to believe, but one week from today seder #1 will already be over.  This coming Friday night Jews around the world will gather with family and friends, recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt, eat their matzah and maror, drink their wine, and celebrate their freedom.  The seder is a series wonderful rituals, from the symbolic foods that we eat, to the four questions that we ask, to the story of the five rabbis in B’nei Barak that we tell.  

     Were you to ask me what my favorite moment in the seder is it would be hard for me to choose, but if you pressed me I would probably say the moment when we welcome Elijah the Prophet to our seder table.  I have vivid memories from my childhood of intently staring at Elijah’s cup after the opening of the door, always astonished when somehow, seemingly by magic, the wine filled kiddish cup set aside for the Prophet began to shake.  It wasn’t until I was around the age of bar mitzvah that I learned the cup shook because my Uncle Marvin would bump the edge of the table with his thigh.

     At our seders I try to recreate that sense of mystery for the young children who are with us, although our niece Lily, now 9, long ago learned about the thigh bumping trick.   And the truth is my interest in Elijah and my fascination with the idea of the Prophet coming to the seder has stayed with me all these years.  Elijah’s arrival at the seder is a turning point in the ritual, redirecting us from the past we’ve been remembering – the Exodus events, the plagues, the experience of slavery – and pointing us to the future, the potential of a messianic era when pain and suffering will no longer be a part of the human experience.  

     The old joke is how does Elijah manage to get to all of those seders?  He must use the same Uber driver as Santa Clause.  But the truth is Elijah appears in the course of the Jewish year at three liturgical moments – the seder is one – what are the other two?  One is havdallah, and those of you who have come for Saturday evening services know that at the end of havdallah it is traditional to sing the song we’ll sing about Elijah at our seders – Eliyahu HaNavi!  So Elijah’s presence is invoked at every havdallah ceremony.  And when else?  The bris!  According to tradition Elijah is present at every bris, and if you’ve been to a bris recently you may remember that just before the circumcision the baby is placed in a special chair, referred to as Kisai Shel Eliyahu – the Chair of Elijah.  

     The question is why does Elijah appear at these three moments, what is it that they have in common, and the answer is each is a moment of transition.  On Pesah we transition from slavery to freedom.  At havdallah we transition from the end of Shabbat to the work day week.  And at the bris the baby transitions from being outside of the covenant to being on the inside.  And Elijah is the symbolic figure of transition in Judaism, because Elijah, according to the tradition, is the one who will announce the coming of the messiah, and that will be the ultimate transition.

     But if Elijah is the figure of transition in the tradition, he is also a symbol of resolution.  I imagine you know that the Talmud is filled with debate after debate, about just about anything you could imagine under the sun, from dates to rituals to the meaning of biblical text.  And sometimes, in the course of talmudic discourse, the debate is left without any kind of resolution, without any kind of decision being made as to which opinion is right and which is wrong.  When that happens in the Talmud – when there is an unresolved dispute –  you will often find the following word written at the end of the debate: Teiku.  That is actually an acronym in Hebrew – ת – י – ק – ו and those letters stand for Tishbi – Yitareitz – Kushiyot – u’Ba’ayot – which means:  the Tishabite will resolve the talmudic debates and other problems.  Who is the Tishabaite?  Who is the Tishbi?  Elijah!  And the tradition believes that when that day comes, and Elijah arrives to announce the Messiah’s imminence, he will also resolve all of those talmudic debates, telling us which opinion was right, and which one was wrong. 

  That idea of Elijah as the one who resolves debates and fixes problems also has something to do with Passover.  If you were following along with Ben’s chanting of this morning’s haftara, special for this Shabbat, Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover, you may have noticed that in the last lines of the text Elijah is mentioned.  Here are the verses:  “Behold I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great, awe filled day.  והישיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם – and he will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.”

     In other words, Elijah, at least according to this text, will be the reconciler, the one who restores broken relationships in families, who heals the rifts that all too often develop over time between us and those we love.  And so we need Elijah to appear, not only on the night of the seder, but also on this Shabbat, almost a week before Passover, because we know when the holiday comes our family will be gathering.  And we know how painful it is to sit at the seder table with someone with whom we feel distant.  Or how even more painful it is to sit at the seder table without someone who should be there, because of some old, unresolved dispute.

     But it is here where I would differ with the tradition.  Don’t wait for Elijah to come to resolve those disagreements and divisions.  In the seders of my childhood Elijah’s cup moved not because the great Prophet had arrived and somehow sipped the wine.  Instead, as I learned when I got older – that cup was shaking because of human action.  So it is in our own lives and our own families.  When we want to heal a division – in our world, in our families, even in our own hearts – we are the ones who must, to use the words of this morning’s haftara, heishiv lev – we are the ones who must turn our hearts.  That internal turning is the only thing I know of that can lead to the external actions – the call, the conversation, the apology, the decision – that can make the difference between the world we live in now, and the world we want to live in one day.

     May Passover this year bring that spirit into our hearts and into our world – 

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What You Can’t Buy

     Each year, year in and year out, just as we finish celebrating Purim and start getting ready for Passover, we are confronted in our annual Torah reading cycle with the Book of Leviticus.  Most people will tell you that Leviticus is the least accessible of the five books of Torah.  It is filled with ancient and arcane laws, most of them connected to the sacrificial cult operated by the Priests – the Kohanim – some 2500 years ago.  So much of Leviticus deals with priestly material that the talmudic sages actually referred to the book as Torat-Kohanim – which you could translate literally as the Torah for the Priests.  In other words, these are exclusive rules, made for an exclusive club, and the regular Jew doesn’t even need to read it.  So what is a poor rabbi to do with these Torah portions?

     And I thought I might think with you for a few minutes this morning about that very fact – that the Priestly group is exclusive, a closed club which one only becomes a member of through inheritance.  There is an old joke which probably doesn’t pack quite the punch that it used to, about a young man who makes an appointment with his rabbi.  On such and such a day at such and such a time the he shows up at the rabbi’s office.  When he has settled into a chair, the rabbi asks ‘how can I help you?’  

     ‘Well Rabbi,’ the young man replied.  ‘I’ve done well in my business, and I’ve come today to make you an offer.  I will donate 25K to the shul if you will make me a Kohen.’  The rabbi, a bit nonplussed, says ‘That is very generous, but I am sorry, I can’t make you into a Kohen.’  ‘OK, Rabbi,’ the young man says, ‘it is so important to me to be a Kohen that I am prepared to pay you 50K!’  Again the rabbi responds ‘I am truly sorry, but it is something that is out of my hands.  I cannot make you into a Kohen.’  The young man gets up in anger, and as he is walking out the door, the rabbi asks him:  ‘By the way, why is it so important to you to be a kohen?’  ‘Because,’ the young man replied, ‘my father was a Kohen, my grandfather was a Kohen, and I also want to be a Kohen.’  ‘Ah, I understand,’ said the rabbi.  ‘Lets talk about that 50K.’

     The punch line of course is that the young man was already a Kohen, because if his father was a Kohen, he is a Kohen.  It is automatic.  But the undercurrent of the joke is the idea that there are some things in life that you simply can’t buy.  You could have all the money in the world, and it won’t make you into a Kohen.  

     I’ve been thinking about that joke over the last couple of weeks since the news broke about the college admissions scandal.  I am sure you have followed the story, it has been hard to miss.  A man named William Rick Singer was running a college ‘consulting’ business, a business that has become fairly common these days, where a family hires a consultant to manage their child’s college admissions process.  What Singer did that – I hope – most college admissions consultants don’t do – is bribe college admissions officials and college coaches, basically just paying them to admit students that would otherwise not have qualified.  He also ran more elaborate schemes, to include changing SAT test scores, sometimes sending someone else to take the SAT test, and even photoshopping the faces of some of his clients onto the bodies of athletes.  

     Mr. Singer didn’t have trouble finding clients, and he was by all reports doing quite a business.  At this point more than 50 people have been arrested in connection with his schemes, a number of them prominent and wealthy actors who, like the young man who walked into the rabbi’s office, were willing to pay pretty much whatever it took to get what they wanted, in this case, their child into a particular college.  

     It is perhaps a sign of the times that we think we can acquire status by paying for it.  After all there is some truth to that in our culture today.  A fancier and more expensive car has a certain amount of status attached to it.  So does a big fancy house in the neighborhood.  So does a country club membership.  And these are all things that are for sale, it is just a matter of having enough money to pay for them.  But what Mr. Singer and his clients clearly lost track of – what they forgot – is something that it might be good for all of us to reflect on and to remember – which is that somethings just are not for sale.

     We’ve known this for a while now.  There have been a number of research studies completed in the last few years that demonstrate that happiness is not directly correlated to the amount of money that you have.  The four wealthiest nations in the world are the US, China, Japan, and Germany.  None of them rank in the top 10 in happiness ratings.  When you look at the annual rankings of happiest countries, you find the Nordic states at the top of the list – the most recent ranking is Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland.  None of them are wealthy countries.  Individuals in those countries live in small homes, drive small cars, and compared to Americans own very little in terms of material goods.  What those countries have in common is – One – they are progressive, particularly socially progressive.  Second thing – the social service infrastructure in those countries is strong.  Also, and probably most importantly, they all foster a much stronger sense of community for their citizens.  People in those countries feel cared for and supported.

     It works the same way for individuals.  Research shows that happiness – or maybe a better way to say it is satisfaction with your life – comes from a variety of sources.  One is the quality of your relationships.  Another is your sense of having a place, of belonging to something that is greater than you – as an example, people who are connected to their synagogue, church, or mosque report a higher level of satisfaction with their lives.  Another ingredient is giving back – people who feel they are giving something back to their community, giving to others who need help, feel happier, more fulfilled, and more grateful.  Isn’t that interesting – when you give something back, you feel grateful.

     And none of those things are for sale.  It is true that you can pay to belong to a synagogue, but you can’t buy a feeling of connection to it – that only comes from being involved.  You certainly can’t buy relationships – I’ve known – and I am sure you have too – many families who have plenty of money, but can’t figure out how to get along with each other.  There are some things in life – and I would argue they are the most important things – that you cannot buy.  Instead, they require hard work, honest effort, integrity, generosity, self awareness, and self sacrifice, among other things.

     Judaism has known this for a long time.  To get back to the priestly class for a moment, you can’t pay to be a member – you’ve either inherited it from your father, or you haven’t.  There is that famous mishnaic statement, symbolized by the four crowns you see on the outside of the wall behind me.  There is the crown of Torah, earned through many years of study.  The crown of the Priesthood, that can only be inherited.  There is a crown of royalty that only comes to a few.  But the larger crown at the top is the כתר שם טוב – the crown of a good name.  That crown you cannot inherit, you certainly cannot buy it – it can only be earned.  Imagine what the world would be like if more people in it were working to earn that crown?

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Purim vs. Passover

A text version of my sermon from this past Shabbat –

     If you don’t mind I’d like to begin by doing a little bit of calendaring with you, reminding you of a couple of important upcoming dates on the Jewish calendar.  First of all, one week from Wednesday night is the beginning of Purim, and we have a wonderful evening planned: a Purim carnival for the young, we’ll have the Bible players, a kind of biblically oriented minstrel group, giving us their take on the story of Esther; also a class that evening about the holiday, and then the culmination of the evening, a robust reading of the megilah combined with our very own version of the Masked Singers of Shushan, where you’ll be asked to guess at the identities of Beth El staff and members as they sing popular songs while wearing ridiculous costumes.  Again, that is all happening one week from Wednesday evening, activities beginning at 5:15, right here at Beth El.

     But if Purim is a little over a week away, that means that Passover can’t be far behind, and indeed the first seder is exactly six weeks from last night.  Believe it or not I actually know two people who have already started cooking for Passover!  Just in the last few days my wife Becky has started encouraging me to try to finish any hametz that we have around the house, from cookies to candy to beer, and I am sure that Seven Mile Market is laying in a large store of brisket for the coming weeks.  The truth is on the Hebrew calendar Purim and Passover are just about a month apart, both holidays falling on the 14th day of their respective months.  

     And what I would like to do with you for a few minutes this morning is to think about the two holidays together, sort of holding one up against the other.  To start that process I’ll ask a simple question that we’ll vote on – the question is which holiday is more important.  If you think that Purim is more important than Passover, raise your hand.  Now, if you think Passover is more important than Purim, raise your hand.

     No question what we’ve just seen reflects the general perception of the two holidays, and for good reason.  After all, Purim is, at least these days, largely understood as a holiday for children.  Even the adults who celebrate dress up in costume, there are comical activities going on in shul, there is a carnival, the reading of the Megillah is often filled with shtick, even the story of the Megillah can be read as a kind of dark comedy where everything gets flipped upside down, sort of like something from the imaginings of the Coen brothers, the creators of Fargo.  Purim is a lot of fun, but not much more than that.

     Passover, on the other hand, is on a totally different level.  It is, first of all, the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays.  By far!  Statistics show that upwards of 90% of Jews make sure to get to a Passover seder.  Just to give you something to compare it to, only about 60% of Jews fast on Yom Kippur.  Passover is also complicated, with all of the rituals and the special foods for the seder plate and the haggadah text that leads us through the evening.  Passover is about serious themes – it is about freedom and human dignity, it is about the coming of spring and the rebirth of the world, and what is more, Passover tells the origin story of the Jewish people – we were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us, bringing us to the Promised Land and freedom.  Passover is serious business!

     And Passover has other advantages over Purim.  It is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals commanded by the Torah.  Purim isn’t even mentioned in the Torah!  Purim lasts one day – you are in, you are out!  Passover is a festival that is celebrated for?  8 full days!  Passover has its own special version of kashrut.  The list could go on and on.  So it is no wonder that in the poll we just conducted, the vast majority of us voted for Passover as the more important of the two holidays.   

     Which is why I have always been puzzled by a very strange teaching in our tradition about what the messianic era will be like.  And our Sages said that when the Messiah finally arrives, the Pilgrimage Festivals – Sukkot, Shavuot – and Pesah – Passover! – will no longer be celebrated.  But Purim will still be observed.  Let me say that once more – our Sages believed that in the messianic era we won’t have to build sukkoth any more, or shake the lulav and etrog, or study Torah on the night of Shavuot – or sit down at a seder table, and celebrate Passover.  But we will still have to gather together to read the Megillah and to celebrate Purim.  

     So despite our vote, in some way and for some reason our Sages believed that there is a message in Purim that is more important that the messages of Passover.  That there is an idea that Purim represents, that is more significant in some way than all of those values we associate with Pesah.  What could it possibly be?

     And I think the answer to that question has to do with the often noted fact that God’s name does not appear in the Megillah.  So on March 20th, when you all come back for Purim, and I hope you will, follow along closely with the reading of the Megillah, and you’ll see that there is no mention of God, anywhere, in the Book of Esther.  But 6 weeks from now, when you are sitting at the seder table, take a moment and start counting how many times God’s name appears in the Haggadah.  Just in the kiddish alone, including the shehechiyanu, you have 9.  And as you flip through the pages you will find God referred to over and over again, often by name.  Think of it like this – God is not on a single page of the Megillah.  But God is on virtually every page of the Haggadah.  

     And that is because the core question of the Haggadah is ‘what did God do for us?’  The Haggadah, at least the first half, is in many ways an answer to that question.  God took note of us, God performed miracles for us, God took us from slavery to freedom.  And we thank God for God’s kindnesses.  That is Hallel!  What did God do for us?  That is the question of the Haggadah.

     But the question of the Megillah is an entirely different question.  The story of Purim asks ‘what did we do for ourselves?’  And it answers that question by showing how, with incredible courage, in the face of enormous odds, Mordecai and Esther saved the Jews of their time.

     And I think the message the Sages saw in Purim that they didn’t see in Passover is that salvation ultimately must come about through human action, not through God’s miracles.  If you want to make the world a better place, if you want to heal the world, if you want to make the world into the kind of place where one day the Messiah might actually come – then you can’t ask the question ‘what will God do.’  But you have to ask the question ‘what will we do?’ And when you ask it over and over and over again,  then that world can become a reality.

     Now I love Passover.  It is my favorite holiday, and it is only 6 weeks away.  But Purim is first, and it has a powerful – and often over looked – lesson about the responsibility we all have, through the way we lead our lives, to create together a better world.  Let’s celebrate that message on Purim in 10 days, and carry that message with us through Passover and beyond.  Kein Yehi Ratzon

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A Dog’s Festival of Lights

He came every evening during the eight days of Hanukkah to the foyer for the lighting of our menorah.  It didn’t matter what he was doing, how snug and comfortable he might have been, or even if he was sleeping soundly.  He clearly understood it as his responsibility, his job as it were, just like we go off to our offices in the morning sipping our coffee cups, driving in the chilly early mornings and sleepily adjusting the radio, waiting for the heat to come on.  And, as he always has, he took that responsibility seriously.  We didn’t call him or rouse him from his bed.  As dogs do, he somehow just knew  that the time had arrived – and just as we finished placing the last candle and prepared to light the shamash he would appear, stretching his front paws, yawning, sniffing, finding a comfortable spot from which to watch the proceedings.

And he participated!  He often joined in as we chanted the blessings, his barking or yowling blending in with our own voices.  He didn’t pay all that much attention to the candles themselves, maybe a sniff or two in their direction, the acrid smell of the just extinguished match warning him to keep his distance.  But he was fully engaged, and after each lighting expected some belly or ear scratching, positioning himself in that way that dogs do to let you know it is time for a good scratch or two.

Maybe there was some classical conditioning involved, maybe some association had formed in his canine brain between that Hanukkah ritual and his dinner being served, or a treat that once or twice was offered post lighting.  Maybe it was that latke he oh-so-stealthily managed to steal.  That must have been right around the time we were lighting the candles?  But I think it was more than that.  There is a certain sense of loyalty to it, a clear commitment to the family, to his humans, to be there and to watch the goings on, to show up, and to do it every single time.  When the door opens and you come in from the garage, there he is, steadfastly wagging his nub.  When we sit down to dinner he settles in the same place to join us, even if he’s eaten, even when he was soundly and comfortably sleeping in another room entirely.  He lies at my feet when I work at the computer at the dining room table, often arranging his head between the legs of my chair.  He sagely scans the front yard and the street, and the  yards beyond, for threats real or imagined that he will warn us about with a stout and sometimes urgent barking.  When the basement TV goes on he is there within seconds, anxious to settle into his customary place on the couch, snuggled in between us.

I think it was Woody Allen who said 80% of life is showing up.  We humans often struggle with that 80%.  We come late, we forget, we are lazy and don’t want to go out, there are a million and one reasons why we don’t show up for this obligation or that event, why we constantly cancel and reschedule and reschedule again.  Perhaps there is something to be learned from a dog’s unfailing loyalty and devotion, the sheer determination to do what he must, to be there and to offer his support or presence, to let us know with his softly questioning eyes that he wouldn’t have it any other way.IMG_0145

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Not by Might

There will be close to one thousand Jews gathering tonight at my congregation to light a menorah, nosh on some typical Hanukkah fair, and watch fireworks (what could be more appropriate for the Festival of Lights?!).  We share this evening with another congregation just a stone’s throw away, and over the last few years it has developed into a much anticipated communal celebration of the holiday.

It is true, it can be a bit of a ‘ballagan,’ a crazy scene.  Imagine 1,000 Jews trying to make their way to a few tables piled high with latkes and you’ll have the picture.  To paraphrase Woody Allen, it is sort of like kiddish after Shabbat  services, only more so.  Bu despite the logistical challenges, despite the crowds, despite the difficulties in terms of parking, people come, and they truly seem to enjoy the evening.

I wonder why?

Certainly it is a striking Jewish identity moment for everyone.  Simply stated, there is a power to numbers.  Lighting a menorah at home with your family can feel like a sacred moment.  But lighting a menorah with a thousand people, everyone chanting the blessings, all those voices raised together enacting a ritual that is two thousand years old, that experience has its own particular power.  You know you are part of something significant, something serious, something that others – many others – feel is worthwhile.  The experience also connects in well with the theme of the holiday, namely that Jews can be powerful and can control their own destiny.  That is something Jews in America rarely celebrate in such a public way.  The experience is connective in an ethnic kind of way, even a bit tribal in feel.

There is also the light of the menorah.  Maybe it doesn’t mean what it once did.  After all, in our day and age we can turn lights off and on with ease, flicking a switch, or even just speaking a word to our ‘smart’ bulbs.  But there is something about real flame, something ancient and almost arcane, magical and mystical.  We gather around as the candles are lit and the flames flicker, insistently pushing back against the darkness during some of the darkest and longest nights of the entire year.  The light of Hanukkah is a light of the spirit, the flame  bringing us back to an earlier time when our ancestors gathered around their camp fires to listen to stories of hope and fate and God.

On the Shabbat of Hanukkah we read the words of the prophet Zechariah in the text of the haftara:  “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said he Lord of Hosts.”  It is the light of that spirit that Hanukkah still brings into our lives – and our world – today.

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Sukkah of Peace

     In our minds the sukkah is a seasonal structure, one that we rush to build in the few brief days between Yom Kippur and the beginning of the festival of Sukkot.  And the season we associate with both the holiday and the actual booth that we build is fall.  Agriculturally the theme of this Yom Tov is harvest, always a fall activity.  The way we decorate our sukkot is often fall themed as well – the pumpkins and gourds, the bales of hay, the chrysanthemums with their burnt autumn colors.  The weather is fall weather as well!  Cooler evenings, and sadly for us here in Baltimore, often rainy days and nights.  And it is during this fall season that our tradition demands of us – בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים – in booths you will dwell for seven days.

     But there is another sukkah that tradition asks us to dwell in, a sukkah that is with us throughout the year, on a weekly basis.  It is not a physical structure – thank goodness!  I would not want to have to build and take down a sukkah every single week.  I have enough trouble doing it once a year!  Instead, this other sukkah is kind of spiritual structure, and part of our observance of Shabbat. Those of you who are familiar with the Friday night liturgy may remember the following lines that come from the Hashkiveinu prayer, which is said just before the amidah.  In that prayer we ask God ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך – may You, God, spread over us the Sukkah of Peace.  And the prayer concludes Blessed are You, Lord our God, הפורש סוכת שלום עלינו, the One Who spreads over us a Sukkah of Peace, and over all God’s people Israel, and over Jerusalem.

     This is a lovely image, and I’ve always associated it with the peace of Shabbat.  That on at least one day of the week we can withdraw from the day to day struggles of living in the world, and we can surround ourselves with a sense of peace.  So in that sense Shabbat itself becomes a Sukkah of Peace into which we enter, and that Sukkah shields us from the outside world.

     But in building my sukkah this year, and thinking about this image of a Sukkah of Peace,  I realized there is something odd about this metaphor.  Some of you may know that the sukkah that Becky and I put up is extremely flimsy, to say the least.  A few years ago, on another rainy Sukkot holiday, during a storm, a strong wind took the entire sukkah, flipped it up into the air, right over the four foot high chain link fence at the back of our yard, and into the neighborhood catchment area.  On another occasion the wind, blowing in a different direction, slammed the sukkah into our house, denting our siding and bending a number of the sukkah poles – which are made out of metal.  Even this morning, without any serious wind, our poor sukkah looked as if it were about to topple over, the metal structure leaning, the canvas walls flapping and of course dripping wet.

     Of course that is actually the way a sukkah is supposed to be.  According to the halacha, the law, of constructing a sukkah, it must be a ‘dira arai’ – a temporary structure.  If the walls are too high, if they are too strong, if the roof is not porous, if the structure is too permanent – then the sukkah is not considered to be kosher.  To say it in another way, for a sukkah to be a sukkah, it has to be flimsy and fragile – it has to be the kind of structure that a strong wind can blow over.  If it isn’t, it isn’t a sukkah.

     Which leads me back to the image of a sukkah of peace.  If you were writing that prayer, and you wanted to use a metaphor for a structure of peace, peace, which is considered to be one of the, if not the primary value in Judaism, would you choose a sukkah?  Would you choose a structure that can be blown over by a strong wind?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to say ‘castle of peace,’ or ‘fortress of peace’?  Something made of stone, something that will last, a structure that is strong, that is permanent and not impermanent.  Why choose a sukkah?  And why make our weekly structure of peace so fragile and so easily damaged?

     But the truth is, in reality, peace is a lot more like a sukkah than it is like a castle.  The structures of peace in our lives and in our world are all too often fragile and brittle.  Think of our relationships for a moment.  We talk all the time about ‘shalom bayit,’ peace in the home.  We’ll often say about someone in the family, ‘they are the peace-maker.’  They are always trying to make sure everyone gets along.  The implication of that is people don’t always get along, and you need to have a peace maker in the family.  We know how fragile family peace actually is.  One wrong word said at the wrong time to the wrong person and it can easily be damaged, sometimes even permanently destroyed. 

     Emotional peace is just as fragile.  Think of how easily the peace of a day can be shattered.  One phone call, one unpleasant interaction, one person cutting you off in traffic, whatever it might be, and your pulse starts to race, your heart starts to beat, and you feel the anger and frustration welling up, and whatever peace you had toppling over.  

     Peace is an extremely delicate balance, a structure that has to be constantly tended, regularly repaired, and often reconstructed entirely.  I think that is why the liturgist choose the image of a sukkah for the structure of peace in the Hashkiveinu prayer.  If the prayer talked about a castle of peace we would think our work was all done, the building was completed and that we didn’t need to worry about it.  But the image of a sukkah of peace reminds us of how much work it takes to create peace in our world and our lives, and how difficult it is to maintain that peace, precisely because it is so delicate and so easily damaged.

     Building an actual sukkah each year reminds us of the same thing.  The metaphor of the prayer on Friday nights is powerful, but it can’t quite compare to seeing your sukkah flip up into the air, or hearing the sound as it is slammed into your home.  The year our sukkah went into the drainage ditch Becky and my father and I climbed over the fence into that catchment area in the midst of a driving rain storm.  We dragged the canvas walls and the metal poles out of the water and back into our yard.  The next afternoon we built the sukkah again.  It was wet and stained, but it managed to stay intact through the reminder of the holiday.  As fragile as our poor sukkah is, I am sure it is not the last time it will need to be rebuilt.  

     May this holiday of Sukkot help us all to find the strength, determination, patience, and grace we need to continually rebuild the structures of peace in our lives and our world, with one another, with family and with friends, with our communities, knowing that the work will never be done, but that when we do it together we can find meaning, strength, courage, and hope – and God willing, peace.

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