This week we are in the midst of the festival of Sukkot and no matter what time of the year Sukkot falls, whether it is early or late, it always seems to rain. It coincides with the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, and reminds us that water played an important part in the ancient Temple ceremonies. Simchat Beit Ha-Shoeivah,Rejoicing at the House of the Water Drawing’, was one of the most lively Sukkot celebrations in the Second Temple. On festival mornings, a procession would make its way to the spring of Shiloach outside Jerusalem. There, a golden flagon was filled with water. As the people returned to the city, the shofar was blown at the Water Gate. At the Temple, a priest would transfer the water into a silver bowl, from which it could be poured onto the altar as a libation.

From the second night of Sukkot, great celebrations took place in the Womens’ Court outside the Temple. Priests lit three golden menorot, ‘and there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that did not reflect the light of the Beit Ha-Shoeivah’ (Mishnah Sukkah 5:2-3). Throughout the night, the people would dance, sing, perform acrobatics and feats of torch-throwing, and scholars would juggle. The celebration ended when loud blasts of the shofar announced a new day.

The name of the ceremony, Simchat Beit Ha’Shoeivah, probably came from a verse in the book of Isaiah (12:3): ‘Joyfully shall you draw water from the wells of salvation’.

According to Jewish tradition, at Sukkot, God determines how much rain will fall in the year ahead, and the festival is, therefore, an auspicious occasion on which to ask for the blessing of water. In our Liberal tradition, we now include the blessing for rain in our daily prayers all year round, but, traditionally, it is first recited on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot, and continues till Pesach.

The four species that we wave on Sukkot, have also been associated with water. The palm trees from which the lulav comes, it is said, grow in valleys where there is plenty of water. Willows and myrtles both thrive near the water, and the etrog needs more water than any other plant to grow. When you hear the lulav being waved, it may help to close your eyes and listen to the sound. See if you can hear the drops of rain falling on the trees.

One of the names by which Sukkot was known in biblical times, indicating its importance in the calendar, was he-chag, literally ‘the festival’. Sukkot is also known asz’man simchateinu, ‘the time of our happiness’. The celebrations and water ceremonies that took place in ancient times were centered around the Temple. After the Temple was destroyed, the sages of the Babylonian Talmud wistfully remarked, ‘Anyone who has not seen the Rejoicing at the Place of the Water Drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life’ (Sukkah 51a).

Joy is a gift from God, as we are reminded several times in the book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, which is read at Sukkot.

          ‘There is no greater good for humankind than eating and drinking and giving oneself                joy in one’s labour. Indeed, I have seen that this is from the hand of God…’ (2:24).

Kohelet also writes,

          ‘I know that there is no other good in life but to be happy while one lives. Indeed, every            person who eats, drinks and enjoys happiness… that is the gift of God’ (3:12).

Sukkot is another way of imprinting on our hearts the things we resolved so seriously at Yom Kippur, a way of reinforcing them with joy. May we be blessed with joy and happiness on this festival and in the coming year, and may God spread over all of us סוכת שלום a shelter of peace.

Moshe begins his dramatic final song to the Children of Israel by invoking the heavens to listen and the earth to hear.

The Sages teach that each person has two poles, an earthly body, made of dust (nefesh chaya); and a divine soul made of spirit (nefesh elohi). Both are needed to make up a complete human being, alive on earth. Both are holy in their own way – being part of the divine creation.

When Moshe speaks to the people, he calls on them to listen deeply, with their body and their soul – with the earth aspect of themselves and the heavenly aspect. To really be heard, Moshe needs the people to hear from the different levels of their being. We often think of God as being connected to non-physicality, to the heavens.

Yet in this parasha, not only does Moshe call on the heavens and the earth to hear his words, Moshe repeatedly refers to God as Tsur, “The Rock”. God is:

The Rock whose deeds are perfect;

The Rock of Salvation;

The Rock that gave birth to us.

This could be seen as being connected to the concept of Gaia, the earth as a living organism with its own consciousness and the idea in other spiritual traditions of a mother earth. Of course, God is One, and yet, God has many divine aspects of which mother earth is one. At the end of our parasha, God instructs Moshe to ascend the mountain, look from a distance at the Land of Israel, for which he longs, and prepare to die and be “gathered to his people”.

Why does this happen on a mountain? Because a mountain is a piece of earth that is closest to the heavens. It symbolizes the possibility of heaven and earth being connected, both valued and in harmony with each other.

When we recognize the holiness in The Rock, in the earth, and in our physical body as well as recognizing the holiness in the heavens and the spiritual part of ourselves we can harmonize between the two and gain a higher level of shalom.

May this New Year be a healthy one, for the earth and the sky for your body and your soul.

As we transition into the Festival of Sukkot (time of happiness – zman simchateinu), may we really feel the joy of welcoming others and being welcomed by others.

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as Shabbat Shuvah, based on the first word from the prophecy of Hosea, “Shuva, return”. Hoshea calls out, “Return, O Israel to the Lord your God.” This year, the Torah reading is from the Parashat Vayeilech, which tells us that Moses walked before the people, guiding them until his final breath in words of Torah. In this New Year, can follow in Moses’ footsteps, we can try to walk before and with others, to make a positive difference in this world and inspire others to do the same.

The return that is asked of us by Hosea is to the charge that was given to us by Moses as we wandered in the wilderness on our way to the Promised Land. There, when we first received Torah at Sinai, binding us in a covenant of service to God, Moses called upon us to be “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” We were meant to be leaders among humanity in giving service to the life force, for that is ultimately what God, “the one”, is. We are called to be a faith people, a people whose awareness was formed in the cauldron of oppression, and whose consciousness calls us to a life of service. The revelation at Sinai followed the redemption from Egypt precisely to teach that as we were saved from destruction, so we must work for creation. These ten days of repentance, of return, as highlighted in the charge from Hosea, challenge us to return to that life of service, a life modeled by Moses, who “walked the walk” to his final breath.

In this holy community there are many people who walk the walk – feeding the hungry and homeless through a variety of communal organizations, advocating migrant rights, opening their homes to the stranger, providing transport for those with limited mobility, visiting the sick, and supporting many just causes through generous philanthropy. But each of us, as part of this holy community and holy people can still do more, can still do better. To enter a life of service by performing deeds of love gives us infinite possibilities of connection and meaning within our finite life.

Thus, in this New Year, we are hoping to further our work together with you to truly make a difference. We invite each of you to think of a way you may want to do service, give love, in this year ahead – from some of the ways mentioned above, to coming to a Shabbat morning minyan once or twice a year to support those in mourning, to welcoming others in the Synagogue on Friday night and Shabbat Morning, to whatever you imagine you can do for our community.

I want to invite you to write an email to the office with the way you wish to engage in holy work in this year ahead. If you know you want to give service, but are still unsure which is the best way, just ask and we will speak with you about opportunities. In the weeks ahead, we will then be in touch to work with you as we return to our heritage, our call, to be a holy nation, through our deeds bequeathing our heritage to the generations to follow. May we follow in Moses’ footsteps, and walk the walk of love and good deeds.

Parashat Nitzavim

Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens…no, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” These words from Parasha Nitzavim are always read on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that being part of the Jewish people, those committed to living life by the Torah (i.e. the Instruction) is not reserved for some spiritual elite (in the heavens). Rather, Judaism is a concrete way of life on this earth we are meant to practice. The parasha goes on to remind us that the practice of Judaism is based on walking a path of good, life and blessing.

This Sunday evening, we begin a new month (Tishrei) and a new year – 5777. Tishrei corresponds to the astrological sign of Libra, or the scales. As we begin the New Year, we reflect on the old one and examine our deeds. The rabbis teach that few are perfectly good or wicked; rather, we weigh the balance of our deeds over the year past and think of ways to add to the scale of good, life and blessing. One of the central prayers of the days of awe from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, U’nataneh Tokef, teaches that through teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah add to the right scale.

Teshuvah requires us to attempt to heal broken relationships; tefillah requires us to examine ourselves in an honest and critical way while working for spiritual growth; tzedakah requires us to approach the other with an open and giving hand. These teachings about self mastery and improvement are “not too baffling nor beyond reach.” While they do require practice and effort, they are “in our mouth and our heart, to observe it.”

So many people in the world are seeking happiness. Yet, in Judaism, we do not wish each other a “happy new year”, but rather a “good new year”. We believe that happiness is actually a derivative of good. Judasim, as learned through study of Torah and judicious practice of its mitzvot, teaches us to live spiritually and ethically, embracing good, life and blessing.

Shabbat shalom and Shana Tova, a good year.

Being a part of a community is so much more than simply belonging. We are tasked to actively engage in that relationship, to build and maintain it. The means through which we engage is the covenant that we establish not only with God, but also with ourselves. We are tasked to remember our covenant, that awesome relationship with God. Yet what exactly does that mean, to remember it? Surely the command should be to live it, to practice it?

We have a powerful example in this week’s Parasha, Ki Tavo, about how our ancestors saw this process. In the Declaration of the First Fruits, each member at some point was commanded to bring their First Fruit to the priest and donate it to God. What is most interesting however, are the words the farmer is commanded to say:

I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us. (Deut 26:3)

The farmer will then continue:

My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meagre numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and populous nation…The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents…Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me. (Deut 26:5–10)

Through this process, that person would be recalling the covenant with God, remembering the times in Egypt, with our ancestors there during slavery and redemption, and God’s promise of redemption. The act of donating the fruit was secondary to retelling our story. It was not simply a passive activity, but one where practically each and every member of society had to participate. Furthermore, it was not simply a recitation of a few lines, but one that had to be done in company of other people, namely the Priests. The only mention of the fruit is the in the last line. The story, our story, is the focus. Each and every thing we do is predicated on remembering the primacy of community, our shared history, and commitment to strengthening the bonds with one another.

Recalling that special relationship with God was an important act, commanded to all and not to be done in isolation. We see this even today, in ways that recall our special relationship with God, such as at the Seder and now during the High Holy Days. We are commanded to interact with one another, while acting in the bond with God. In a culture where originally all was passed down orally, telling our story and performing specific actions were key ingredients in keeping the traditions alive. How much more so today where, even though things may be written, we are still called upon to recall our story and to act. The First Fruits was something all were expected to do, as most were involved in the agrarian portion of society. Today, we are all expected to interact with our covenant with one another, because there is no other way to sustain that relationship other than through cooperation.

We are community because we act together, not simply because we happen to belong to the same institution. The model of the First Fruits is key to understanding our faith. The actions we perform only have a transformative aspect when they are seen in the context of our history.

May this season of preparation continue to enhance the bonds between us and our community.

While driving I was listening to the radio hosts talking about how we’re being foiled (yet again) into thinking we’re getting good or decent value from the products we buy, while a number of companies have been reducing the size of the goods they sell, without advertising that fact.

Some of the examples given related to packets of chips, bars of chocolate, loaves of bread, eggs, and a new one for the latest round of investigation — coffee. It appears as though some of our local baristas are involved in an elaborate scheme to dupe us out of our morning fixer upper. Then came the phone calls from listeners, each adding their own spin on how their cup of coffee is no longer what it used to be. One man said the cup no longer felt as heavy as it did before, while another reported that it seemed he was getting more froth and less coffee.

So, you may ask, what has this got to do with this week’s parasha ? Well, we learn in Ki Teitzei, that “You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long life on the soil that Adonai, your God is giving you” (Devarim 26:13–15).

From this teaching, our rabbis derive the mitzvah that we are not to possess inaccurate measures and weights, and the mitzvah continues to explain that we should do this even if we will not use them in trading. The intention of the mitzvah is to ensure that when you sell goods, the weights you use to measure the product with must be just and equal. How many times do we open a packet of potato chips, or a bottle of cold drink, and wonder if we’re really getting inside that which is written on the outside?

Merchants have to ensure that the weights used to counterbalance the scale for your goods are equal to what is written on the measure. But if we go back to what the mitzvah says, it doesn’t read; “Don’t sell something that you say weighs “x”, but it actually weighs “y” ”. It says “Don’t keep deficient scales or weights”.

In many instances, the basic nature of Judaism is to keep us far from transgressing the laws. So, there exists the concept of building a “fence around the Torah”. This concept is derived from a verse in Parasha Acharei Mot, that reads; “And you shall guard My observances”. Our sages derive from this verse the need to make fences around the Torah.

These fences are primarily decrees that are declared by the sages, in order to protect us, and the law. A clear example that we can all relate to is; if you go to a museum, and the most prized jewel in the world is on display in the museum, there aren’t just signs that say; “Please do not touch”. The museum authorities are aware of this phenomenon called human nature.

Even if you weren’t even thinking of stealing the jewel, they aren’t taking any chances. They’ve put a glass cage, with state-of-the-art alarms, around the jewel, and they’ve probably got one or two guards permanently there. With no way of getting near the jewel, you cannot steal it. Building fences around the Torah works in the same way.

If you don’t own any deficient weights and measurements, you cannot sell anything that you say is “x’, but is actually “y”. But, do we really need a fence around the Torah when it comes to acting in an honest and open manner? Do we need to be told not to keep inaccurate measures, so that we won’t be tempted to use them? Does our local barista need to be reminded that a cup of coffee should be a full cup of coffee?

Perhaps it’s a reminder to step back from the hustle and bustle, and think about how we should treat others, and not get stuck in the detail and routine. Then perhaps we can treat others the way we would like to be treated.

A good lesson here is to be fair and just in everything that we do, two principles which can be equated to weights and measures. Moreover, if your outlook revolves around being fair and just, it is more likely that others will treat you fairly and justly.

This week our parasha, Shoftim, speaks about laws and justice. It is focused very much on the legal system and the means by which judges would be chosen, courts would operate and calls to the people “justice, justice shall you pursue”. The commentators ask why the word justice is repeated, why not just tell the community to pursue justice? One of the responses given is the first “justice” encourages us to seek justice through the legal system, the second calls upon up to pursue justice in our personal lives and in all that we do.

Last week we began the month of Elul and one of the symbols of this time of year is a scale of justice. We imagine God, the Divine judge seated on a great throne assessing our deeds and our actions during the past year and passing judgement upon us. Have we lived our best life? Have we concerned ourselves with justice? Are we using the precious moments we have been given wisely? Every day during Elul we sound the shofar, the alarm, calling upon us to take the time to do our accounting, to place our deeds on the scale and see how we have fared, consider what changes we would like to make. The shofar calls upon us to stop and listen.

There is a story told of the Rabbi of Berdichev who saw a man hurrying along the street, so focused on a point ahead, he did not look to either his right or left.

Why are you rushing?” asked the rabbi.

I am pursuing my livelihood!” said the man.

But how do you know,” said the rabbi, “that your livelihood is running before you so that you have to rush after it? Perhaps it is behind you and all you need to do to encounter it is stand still and you are running away from it”.

How many of us are like that man? Running, chasing an elusive dream, a destination which is unreachable and as we race, we move further from our truth. The call of the shofar reminds us that we need to stop and listen; listen to the sounds of our souls, listen to what we really need, listen and perhaps we will hear the music in our hearts and find that we have already reached our destination. All we needed was to stop to find it. This season of Elul, we have the opportunity to stop and listen, take stock of a year of running and chasing and remember for what we are really searching.