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Chol Ha-Mo’ed Sukot

Sukot completes two cycles in our festival calendar, making it rich in meaning and joy. On one hand, it completes the cycle of the three pilgrimage festivals (the three times a year our ancestors would make pilgrimage from wherever they were in the land to celebrate at the Temple in Jerusalem), begun, with Pesach and then followed by Shavuot and Sukot. On the other, it completes the series of Tishrei festivals, begun with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The three pilgrimage festivals each have an agricultural, historical and religious element. Pesach commemorates the beginning of the spring harvest, the exodus from Egypt and the concept of freedom and redemption. Shavuot commemorates the end of the spring harvest, the giving of Torah in Sinai, and the concept of revelation. Sukkot commemorates the end of the autumn harvest, the wandering in the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years and the concept of creation.

In its religious component, Sukot marks the perfect culmination to the celebrations of Tishrei. Tishrei corresponds to Libra in the Zodiac, whose symbol is that of the Scales. It is in this month that we think of our lives as being in the balance between life and death, good and bad, blessing and curse. The major traditions of Sukot — building and dwelling in the Sukah and taking the four species (lulav, etrog, willow and myrtle), amplify this sense of life in the balance. The main symbol of the Sukkah allows in a delicate balance of light and shade and is a fragile structure – providing us a sense of shelter, but not permanence. By eating and dwelling in our Sukkah these seven days, we sense the fragility and preciousness of our own lives, reminding ourselves of our humble place in creation. Similarly, the four species are beautiful at the beginning of the seven days, but over the week of Sukkot begin to wilt and die. We are reminded throughout the days of the Sukot of the beauty of creation, and also the impermanence of all things in the physical realm.

Further, the process of introspection and repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah culminates with Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot. We acknowledge this tradition by reciting Psalm 27 through the month of Elul as a prelude to Rosh Hashanah, concluding with the recitation of the psalm on Hoshanah Rabbah. Similarly, on this last day of Sukkot, we recite our final petitions to have a year of blessing and goodness through a series of salvation prayers (hoshanot in Hebrew). While Sukkot is a great celebration that balances the intense 10 days of introspection from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, it also continues to remind us of our lives “in the balance.”

There are many beautiful traditions associated with Sukot – from the taking of the four species, dwelling in the Sukkot, inviting in guests, both real and remembered, and making processions each day around the bimah in the synagogue. The celebration of Sukot, both in its placement in the calendar and in its traditions, is the highlight of the celebrations of Judaism. In humility we give thanks for what we have and who we are. No wonder that the tradition simply knows it as “He-Chag”, The Festival.

Hot on the heels after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the great festivals of judgment, repentance and atonement comes the uplifting Festival of the In-gathering, Sukkot with its emphasis on harvest, abundance and the blessings of the earth. It is an extraordinary contrast, moving from the solemnity and introspection of Yom Kipur to this festival, known as z’man simchateynu - the season of our rejoicing.

The very contrast of these two festivals is strange enough. More challenging is the imagery and symbolism that accompany these two festivals. I have been following a discussion among some of my colleagues about the symbolism of the Book of Life in our liturgy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur. “You write and seal, record and recount…You open the book of records, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being”. This prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef, more than suggests that the future course of our lives is determined by God. If we do good, if we perform mitzvot, if we live up to the terms of the covenant between God and Israel, then our destiny, as it were, is assured; but if we fail to live up to the terms of that covenant, then the harm we have done in our lives determines our fate – our deeds bear the record of our lives.

The poet’s fatalism, however, is deflated, not by his belief in the randomness of creation – in contrast to this determinism – but by the idea that only repentance, prayer and good deeds annul the severity of this judgment. This God-given freedom to choose good over evil, to engage in a life of devotion to God’s will and to the well-being of the created world lies at the heart of Jewish thought and belief. As Eliezer Berkovits, the twentieth century philosopher and theologian writes: “God cannot as a rule intervene whenever man’s use of freedom displeases him. It is true, if he did so the perpetration of evil would be rendered impossible, but so would the possibility for good also disappear.” (Reflection on the Holocaust. Ktav Publ. House, 1991. Page 171)

This freedom is the essence of our humanity. Yet even the choice of good cannot assure us of health, prosperity or well-being. The idea that repentance, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree is a difficult one in a world where no matter how many good deeds and acts of kindness are performed, the harshness of poverty, war, lack of shelter, disease, bereavement or loneliness can gate crash all too quickly to unseat the security of daily lives. One only needs to listen to those daily diaries from Syria – the young man holed up in a basement, isolated from his mother and siblings and not knowing whether the building in which he is sheltering will be bombed – to begin to understand that there is no certainty in life. We cannot know what will happen tomorrow.

So this Book of Life symbolism is hard enough for us to digest. But then comes the symbolism of Sukkot: the fragile shelter of the Sukah with its very precise and detailed laws – how high it can be (not more than 20 cubits); how low (minimum of 10 hand-breadths), how many sides it must have (3), how shaded it should be (more of its roof should be shaded than unshaded); whether it’s old or new, under a tree, one Sukah built on another Sukah (all non-valid) or spread over the frame of a two-post bed (valid) – seems odd enough. And then there are the symbols of the lulav and etrog – the palm, willow, myrtle and citrus (etrog), to be taken, bound together and waved towards all four corners of the universe and up and down.

It is in this duality between symbolism and physicality that lies the real meaning of Sukkot. Yom Kipur focus on the denial of the physical to focus on the spiritual. Right after it, Sukkot thrusts us right back into the world of our own physical existence, reminding us that the work of our hands, what we do in this world, are works of beauty. We are here for a purpose, and that purpose is to embrace and elevate the things of the world, and to do so in a way that validates and includes the many different types of creations and people in the world.

And at the end of Sukkot, we leave the sukah behind and celebrate Simchat Torah–the real letters and words of the texts of our people on Friday Oct 17, 10 am (See service schedule). Those words have a physical reality, but they become symbols as well. And through their symbolism, they guide our real lives. We thus live in a constant dialogue between the world as it is and the world as we imagine it to be. That is the space in which Jewish life happens. We build the sukah, we live in it, we learn in it, and then we take its message with us into a year of learning and study, a year of doing and action.

Rabbi Daniel Shwartz tells a story of an experiment he did in his community. He brought in an enormous piece of white paper and in the corner was a small black dot. He then asked a room full of people what they saw. And every single one of them said: “I see a black dot.” He responded to them: “this piece of white paper is big enough to hold the ten commandments, the bill of rights, the declaration of independence and more, yet none of you saw that, instead you focused on the tiny, black dot, the one small imperfection and that is where your attention is drawn, not to the potential and the possibilities of the white space”.

How often do we do that in our lives and our relationships? We see the black dot and we focus on that rather than the abundance of good and blessings, the possibilities of the white space. This Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat of returning, we are called upon to look at both the black dot and the white space. To consider the year which has passed and take the time to acknowledge the moments where we placed a black dot on our white space. None of us is perfect, we have all made mistakes and now is the time in our calendar when we are called upon to consider how we have moved from the path, the ways we have strayed, so that we can wipe the slate clean and move forward to a year filled with hope and blessings. It is not easy and that is why this Shabbat, the ten days of repentance and Yom Kippur follow Rosh Hashana. It would seem to make more sense the other way around: first we look at our flaws and do the difficult work of repentance and then we celebrate with Rosh Hashana. But our tradition is wise and realized that approach could lead to us looking only at the black dots and forgetting the white spaces. So instead, we first celebrate the goodness and blessings of the world, the joy and wonder; and then we are ready to look at the times we made mistakes, when we did not get it right. In order to do that, and to ensure we see both the blessings and the difficulties, we need time, contemplation and introspection, all of which are a part of these ten days of reflection.

But we are offered this opportunity every single week: the chance to pause, step back from the canvas of our lives and look at the whole painting; not to see only the problems and challenges, the black dots, but also the possibilities and potential, the blessings of the white space. This opportunity is called Shabbat. Each week we are offered an incredible gift: the chance to take stock, to reflect and to dream a future for ourselves and our world. But we need space and time to do that. We need to step out of the daily grind of work, pressures, decisions and routines, and to float for a few moments on a sea of calm, contemplating the big questions and re-imagining our lives and all its possibilities. Shabbat is a time for dreaming – for seeing – not the stains and flaws in ourselves and our world, but rather finding the beauty and the blessings; imagining what we could paint on the white spaces of the canvas of our lives, and gaining the strength and power to take those dreamings with us into the week to come, creating the future we wish to see, bringing those dreams into reality. That is the power of the Shabbat.

This Shabbat do something different, to take the time to reflect, to connect with your inner soul, to dream about the possibilities for ourselves and our world, and create a sacred island in time where we can look at the white space and imagine what the painting of our lives can be. Then return to the week refreshed, energized and ready to make dreams into reality. And we will do it together. So join with us, pledge to celebrate that Shabbat in a way which is meaningful and dream beautiful dreams with us.

May we all be inscribed for a year of goodness and blessing

Our sages have established our calendar so that on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, we always read the stirring words from Parashat Nitzavim, which call us into an eternal covenant with the source of life itself. Moshe’s inclusive invitation inspires us as well: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – your tribal heads, your elders and all your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God.” (Dt. 29:9–11). Moshe includes not just old and young, rich and poor, powerful and lowly, but all who “are not with us here this day”, understood in the tradition to refer to those yet to be born. So we, thousands of years and hundreds of generations later continue the covenant, hoping as well that our descendants will positively influence the world thousands of years from now with the best of our Torah, mitzvot and traditions.

This reading, coming toward the very end of the Torah, reminds Jews that we are in a covenantal relationship with the Creator — that is, we have a pact of service. The beginning of the Torah teaches that the principle sign of that covenant, the ultimate way of expressing it, is through the experience of Shabbat. In our evening and morning prayers on Shabbat we recite a passage “V’Shamru”, that speaks of the Shabbat as that signpost that binds the generations in time, over time. As the 20th century thinker Ahad Ha’Am stated: “More than the people of Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the people of Israel.” No matter whether we observe Shabbat in all its halachic minutiae, or in a more flexible manner, our experience of Shabbat binds us together as a people — a people with both a heritage and a destiny.

What is so special about Shabbat? It is an opportunity to take 25 hours, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday, to leave behind the pressures of the daily grind and celebrate life and being. Instead of thinking about all the things that tradition has defined as “prohibited work” on Shabbat, focus on all the things that are encouraged on Shabbat: eating, drinking, singing, talking, sleeping, walking, enjoying nature, being with family, engaging in community, learning and loving. It is a time to leave behind the mundane and embrace the sacred, to switch off in order to turn on. With the pressures and speed of 21st century society, we need Shabbat in our lives more than ever and to make it possible is what participating in community is about. 

Parashat Nitzavim opens with an invitation for us all to be included in the joys of Judaism and the celebration of life; it closes with a caution: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!” Read just before Rosh HaShanah, Nitzavim prepares us for the questions we will ask ourselves over the ten days from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur, and encourages us to make life enhancing choices. Celebrating Shabbat just a bit more this week than last is one of the best ways to choose life.

This week as we read Parashat Ki Tavo, we begin our countdown to the High Holydays. We have a huge number of exciting events happening for the next weeks.

Parashat Ki Tavo begins with the ceremony of the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple. It outlines the procedure for a farmer who harvests the first fruits of their field to bring that produce to the Temple as an offering. The farmer approaches the priest and presents his offering whereupon the priest takes it from him and places it before the altar. The farmer then recites a passage, familiar to us from the Pesach seder; “my father was a wandering Aramean…” and continues to recount the exodus from Egypt, God’s deliverance and the giving of the land from which the produce came. It is a really interesting passage which tells the history of our people and acknowledges the bringer’s place in that history. It is the only proscriptive prayer in the Torah and interestingly, the farmer had to bring the offering and recite the words himself, he was not permitted to deputize someone else. The farmer had to stand in the holy space, feel the power of the moment, link himself to his past and offer gratitude for the blessings of the harvest and sustenance.

What a powerful message for us. Today there is so much that we “outsource” to save time, for efficiency or simply because we no longer have the skills to perform the task. This passage reminds us that there are some things that we should not hand over to others, they are important moments and to feel their power, to truly connect to the ritual we need to be present, to do it ourselves It is difficult in our world to stop and take time to reflect, to think about our place in history, our link in the chain, our purpose, to be grateful. Shabbat is our opportunity each week to feel the power of that connection, to join hands across time and participate in something magical and sheltered from all the stresses and challenges of our daily lives. It is easy to get caught up in the race of life, to put off until next week a celebration of Shabbat, to leave it to others to take care of. But like the Israelites bringing their offerings to the Temple, to truly feel the power and blessing of Shabbat we need to participate and do it ourselves. Take time to make the day special, set it apart as a beautiful oasis, away from everything which causes us frustration in our daily lives and celebrate a moment of eternity where everything fades into the background except what brings you pleasure, joy and rest.

In our Torah portion this week, we read a plethora of laws stretching from the mundane to the most central principles of the Torah. And in amongst them, a law all about individuality and its importance. The parasha contains the rule forbidding us from ploughing our fields with an ox and a donkey together. Most interpreters understand this law as being about preventing animal cruelty. The ox and the donkey have different strengths and to require them to plough together would be cruel and inflict pain and suffering on them both. But this week I read an interpretation by Rabbi Artson who suggests a different perspective. He says that it is teaching us about the importance of being who we are, of embracing our individuality and celebrating what makes us unique. He writes: to harness them together would mean that “one animal would constantly feel pressured to adopt the standards of the other” (Bedside Torah pg. 323) rather than be true to who they are in their individuality.

In our world, we talk about a cult of individuality. There is an implication that we are all taking selfies, posting on Facebook and Twitter, letting people know who we are and in the process demonstrating the ways we are different. But perhaps this gives a false sense of celebrating difference. If we look closely at the Facebook pages, the selfies, so much of it is about being the same; conforming to the norms around us and being like everyone else. There was a wonderful video doing the rounds of YouTube where a father filmed his daughter, unbeknownst to her, taking a series of selfies, trying to get her selfie pout exactly right. I am sure she only sent out the best selfie and deleted the rest. These moments which appear to be spontaneous are often far from it and instead of reflecting who we are, it shows who we are when we are trying to be like everyone else. I heard someone comment the other day that as much as Instagram is supposed to be casual, un-posed photos, how often do we see an Instagram shot with someone’s mouth full or their eyes closed and all the other mistakes we would expect in photos which are spontaneous? We harbour a false sense that we embrace difference when in fact much of social media has instead provided us with more means of showing how we are all the same, leaving very little room for individuality.

Our parasha this week reminds us of how important it is to embrace who we are, our differences and our uniqueness, and to celebrate those parts of us as well. It can be difficult to be outside the norm, but God created each of us to be someone special in the world and if we take someone else’s path then we are not becoming who can be. May we all find our way and celebrate who we are.

We often assume that the Torah is static and unchanging, and in one sense it is. The scrolls that we open in any synagogue around the world have exactly the same words written in them, and the written word of the Torah will never change. However, for thousands of years, the concept “Torah”, which means teaching, has come to include all the wisdom and teaching that comes from the five books of Moses. What many do not think about is that sometimes we “expand” the message of Torah and sometimes we “contract” it. This week’s parashah presents a perfect example of this principle.

On one hand, we hear one of the essential teachings of Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — justice with righteousness you shall pursue. This one verse has been expanded, in conjunction with many other teachings of Torah, to establish the pursuit of justice as one of the core principles of Judaism. Having been strangers in Egypt, we are called upon to have one standard of justice for stranger and citizen alike. Justice requires a standard of equity for individuals no matter their age or background; it calls upon us to have concern in particular for the underprivileged and oppressed, righting the wrongs created by human relationship and society.

On the other hand, we have one of the harshest teachings of the Torah put forward this week: the genocide of the inhabitants of the land of which we are to take possession. Tradition has contracted this passage by saying that the commandment was never fulfilled — but in our days we must constrict it even further. More than any other passage, this one calls upon us (especially in a world where too many justify their killings in the name and word of God) to reject this as a principle of Torah, whether actual or potential.

How do we get the right to expand and contract the Torah? Even if this were God’s teaching, it is quite clear that as God’s creatures we have obligations to use our minds for discernment. The Torah opens with the first human eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge — the implication being that we are responsible for our choices of good and bad, especially when it comes to expanding and contracting the respective teachings of Torah.

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