Sukkot: The heart of the Sukkah

let the walls of my heart
be easily moved
as the walls of the Sukkah
that sway in the wind

let the roof of my heart
be porous to tears
as the roof of the Sukkah
that lets in the rain

let the space in my heart
be open to guests
as to Ushpizin
who pass through each night

let the beat of my heart
be a vital reminder
that life here is transient –
a temporary dwelling

let the walls, left unsealed,
and the roof, with its lattice,
frame the cracks
that will let in the light


In her article on the Ushpizin, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ushpizin-welcoming-guests/ Lesli Koppelman Ross notes that one aspect of this ritual of inviting the celestial guests, the Ushpizin, is that it serves as a reminder of the duty to take care of the needy. In some congregations, she describes how provisions were delivered to the poor with a note saying, “This is the share of the Ushpizin.” Koppelman Ross adds that the Ushpizin were reputed to refuse to enter a sukkah where the poor were not welcomed.

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Sukkot: Temporary dwellings

We leave our home to enter the Sukkah,
temporary dwelling for seven days.

Trickles of rain might swell to a shower
dampen the carpet, extinguish the lights

but we exit the Sukkah, damp, unperturbed,
and give thanks for the rain from within our dry walls.

You leave your home for jerry-built housing,
a ramshackle shanty, for who-knows-how-long.

When the rain comes and bursts to a deluge
submerges the ground and the power goes down

you huddle together, shivering, desolate,
bemoaning the storm that is raging outside.


In an article on Sukkot http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ushpizin-welcoming-guests/ Lesli Koppelman Ross focuses on the Ushpizin, the celestial guests whom we invite nightly to join us in the sukkah. Each night a Kabbalistic formula is recited and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David are successively welcomed. Koppelman Ross notes that each of the Ushpizin was uprooted or wandered: Abraham was told by God to leave his father’s house and go to an as-yet undisclosed destination (Bereishit 12:10); Isaac went to Gerar during a famine (Bereishit 26:1); Jacob had to flee from Esau and settle with his uncle Laban (Bereishit 28:2); Joseph was abducted, sold as a slave and ended up in Egypt (Bereishit 37:23-36); Moses was forced to flee to Midian after killing the Egyptian task-master (Shemot 2:11-15); Aaron wandered in the Sinai desert with the people (Shemot 13 and thereafter); and David was a fugitive from Saul (I Samuel 20, 21).

The current European refugee crisis arose through the rising number of refugees and migrants coming to the European Union, across the Mediterranean Sea or Southeast Europe, and applying for asylum. They come from areas such as the Middle East (Syria, Iraq), Africa (Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia), South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh), and the Western Balkans (Kosovo, Albania). According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of mid-September 2015, 74% of the almost half a million Mediterranean Sea arrivals since the beginning of the year are refugees coming from Syria (54%), Afghanistan (13%) and Eritrea (7%). Most of the migrants are adult men (69%). In April 2015 five boats carrying almost two thousand migrants to Europe sank in the Mediterranean Sea, with a combined death toll estimated at more than 1,200 people.

Four million refugees have fled the conflict in Syria since 2011 and some 660,000 have taken refuge in Lebanon in the Bekaa valley. A blizzard hit the area in January 2015 and although the refugees were experiencing their fourth winter in Lebanon, they were still living in makeshift camps, huddled together under plastic sheeting. The Lebanese government is wary of the political consequences of allowing permanent refugee settlements.

On September 21 2015 the European Union approved a plan in which each member nation would take in 120,000 refugees.

Parashat Vayelech: Return

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel, and he said to them…(Devarim 31:1-2)

If only I could go back in time,
I would undo my sins;
retrieve the words that I regret;
instead I can but cover them
with fierce intent to do things differently,
as with a layer of earth
freshly turned
in which I will plant
anew.

This time, the roots
more firmly anchored,
might abide securely;
the branches spread –
a verdant canopy
to catch the sky-sent dew.


In his book Torah of Reconciliation, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis addresses the first verse of Parashat Vayelech. The parasha opens with the words, “Vayelech Moshe va’yedaber et hadevarim ha’eleh – Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel, and he said to them…” All the commentators struggle with where Moses went. Surely it would have sufficed to say (as it does frequently in the Torah) “Moses said…” Rabbi Lewis quotes the Kli Yakar*, who suggests that Moses wished to encourage the people to do teshuva, to repent, so he went personally from tent to tent, to everyone in Israel, and spoke these words to his [each person’s] heart. The Kli Yakar sees the mission of peacemaking as a supreme one, and he includes in this the idea, not only of making peace between man and his fellow, but also between man and God. He cites the phrase from the haftarah which exhorts us, “Take with you words and return to God.” (Hosea 14:3) These words, according to the Kli Yakar, could be of confession – between man and God, or conciliation – between man and man. The Kli Yakar envisages the urgency with which Moses views his task – he is at the end of his life, yet he sees the need and finds the energy to visit each person’s tent, to encourage all the people to make peace with each other and with God.

The Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah – the Shabbat of Return or Repentance. (This year it falls on Parashat Vayelech). Repentance is the core concept of the Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe and is the theme of the haftarah – the reading from the prophets,  for Shabbat Shuvah. The text is drawn mainly from Hosea (14:2-10) and opens with the word, “Shuvah“, here used as an exhortation to Israel, “Return!” The word in some form reappears several times: “Shuvu – Return!” also an imperative; subsequently God undertakes to heal the people’s backsliding, once they move towards repentance – “Erpah meshuvatam“; and again He declares “Veshav api mimenu – My anger has turned away from them.” Hosea issues a resounding call for human repentance, and in beautiful imagery of trees flourishing, nurtured by the dew, promises that God will return and bestow divine blessing and sustenance on those who return to Him.

* Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550 – 1619) was a rabbi, poet and Torah commentator, best known for his Torah commentary Kli Yakar. He served as the Rabbi of Prague from 1604 – 1619.
Born in Lenczyk (also known as Luntschitz), he studied under Rabbi Solomon Luria in Lublin, and subsequently served as Rosh Yeshiva in Lvov (Lemberg). In 1604 he was appointed rabbi of Prague, a position he filled until his death.

Rosh HaShanah: Sleep cycles

Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. (Rambam: Hilchot Teshuvah Ch.3 Law 4)

Sleeping in the darkness
we wander far away.
The shofar calls us back,
revives our dormant senses.
We waken, turning back to God.

Conscious of His voice
we listen to His call
and God returns rejoicing,
but we stray imperceptibly,
lured back to slumber.

Sleeping in the darkness
we wander far away.
The shofar calls us back,
revives our dormant senses.
We waken, turning back to God.

Conscious of His voice
we listen to His call
and God returns rejoicing,
but we stray imperceptibly,
lured back to slumber.

Maybe this time
we might sleep
a little lighter.


Sleep has been defined as “a naturally recurring state characterized by reduced or absent consciousness.”

In Hilchot Teshuvah, Perek 3, Halacha 4, the Rambam says, “Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if [the shofar’s call] is saying: “Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year, devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts.” ”
In his book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew says, “For ten days, the gates are open and the world is fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up with particular intensity…
Transformation does not have a beginning, a middle, or an end. We never reach the end of Teshuvah. It is always going on. We are awake for a moment, and then we are asleep again. Teshuvah seems to proceed in a circular motion. Every step away is also a step toward home.”

Nitsavim: Present and absent

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp from woodchopper to water
drawer – to enter into the covenant with the Lord your God…I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord your God and with those who are not with us here today. (Devarim 29:9-11, 13-14).

I make this covenant with you
standing here this day:

leaders steeped in power
and knowledge of My ways;

strangers dwelling in your camp
who still seek out their place;

the old who saw the wonders, and
the young who dream, bright-eyed;

masters of the household; and
their wives confined inside.

I make this covenant with you
not standing here this day:

whose God-entrusted spirit
is trapped in a feeble frame;

whose faculties are frail
and who cannot heed My words;

and the coming generations
– the children not yet born,

who will hear the words resounding
through the mistiness of time.


The text clearly stipulates that this covenant of mutual commitments between God and the people of Israel was binding on all Israelites with no exceptions, both at that time and forever. (The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that ancient Near Eastern treaties likewise stipulate that they are binding on the parties’ descendants.) Moreover, it is also clear that it is not only binding on the leaders and adult males, but on each individual who affirms the covenant in his/her own right, and not through the action of a parent, husband or superior. With regard to the phrase, “those who are not with us here today” the Midrash Tanhuma teaches that this refers to the souls of all future Jews who were present at this moment as they had been at Sinai.
The Etz Hayim adds that Moses’ words could be referring to the physically or mentally handicapped, who might have been unable to be present but were still part of the community, or to those Jews who reject the covenant, but are nevertheless not excluded from it. The Etz Hayim continues, “What right did our ancestors have to impose the obligations of the covenant on us? Why do we have to feel bound by their actions? Many aspects of our lives were determined by decisions of our parents and ancestors…Maturity consists in accepting those conditions as the facts of our lives, rather than fantasizing about how our lives would have been easier had we been born otherwise.”

In a commentary on the parasha, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5684, Rabbi Gail Labovitz also addresses this question of how the covenant entered into by our ancestors can be imposed on us if we never agreed to it personally? She says, “It is as the verse suggests – the covenant is made even with those who were not physically present, that is, “future generations and converts.” She notes that the Talmud in Shevuot 39a, and a few similar examples, are the beginning of the midrashic theme mentioned above in the Tanhuma, namely the concept that all Jewish souls ever destined to exist were present at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Rabbi Labovitz quotes:
“God spoke all these words, saying: I am the Lord… (Shemot 20:1-2) – Rabbi Yitzhak said “Even what the prophets would prophesy in the future, all of it was received at Sinai.” From where do we know this? As it is written, “but both those that are standing here with us this day” (Devarim 29:14): this is the one who has already come into existence. “Those who are”: this is the one who is (now) in the world. “Those who are not (with us here this day)”: this is the one who will come into existence in the future. “(Those who are not) with us here this day” – it does not say “standing with us,” but only “with us this day”: these are the souls which will come into existence in the future, about whom it cannot be said “standing,” (and) even they are included in the general grouping (of those being addressed at Sinai).”
So Rabbi Labovitz deduces, “All of us were present in soul; all of us accepted and are bound to the covenant.”
She says, “…On the one hand I can trace for you the history of this midrashic theme, show you through historical and literary methods how it developed from text to text and came to fruition in its current location, early in what we categorize as the medieval period of history. And yet, I can also assert in the fullness of my faith that this midrash is true. I believe without doubt that my soul was present at Sinai. I believe without doubt that the soul of each and every person who has been, is now, or ever will be part of the Jewish people, was present at Sinai.
“How do I know this? I know this in part because so many Jews experience it as true. Anyone who knows Jews by choice has probably heard such a person describe the moment of finding Judaism and Jewish community, the sudden certainty that this was good and right and where that person was meant to be – that that person’s soul knew all along that it had been at Sinai and accepted the Jewish covenant with God. One sometimes hears something similar from people who grew up in “crypto-Jewish” communities (as, for example, in the American Southwest), as the probable descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity in medieval Spain and other places, and who passed down among their families traditions whose origins were hardly remembered, such as lighting candles on Friday evenings. When members of these communities make contact with modern day Jews and Judaism, some of them too express a feeling of “home-coming.” They too sometimes experience the buried knowledge of the Sinai experience their souls underwent. When people such as these learn the midrash of the Tanhuma, they immediately recognize it as describing their own, true experience.”

Elul: The king in the field

Stark against the skyline
stands the palace of the king
set in solitary splendor,
while in surrounding fields
his subjects toil at sundry tasks.

Rays of sun against the azure vault
are mirrored
in an undulating sea of golden wheat.
A gentle zephyr parts a pathway, as
upright wheat stalks bend aside in homage.

The farmer turns, his eyes alight,
a smile of welcome kindled
on his weather-beaten face,
his mud-encrusted hands
holding tightly to the scythe.

His heart leaps, for the year
has come full spin once more
– the king is in the field.


In an article based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/56889/jewish/The-King-in-the-Field.htm, Rabbi Yanki Tauber ponders the significance of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, which he describes as “a time of paradox – a time of what might be termed, “spiritual workdays” .”
He notes that Jewish time is generally divided between mundane (chol) and holy (kodesh). (The Havdalah service marks the transition between holy and mundane time). Ordinary workdays are mundane, while Shabbat and the festivals are holy. On the latter, there is an attempt to turn inwards, away from material pursuits and towards the spiritual aspects of life. He adds that each of these holy days has a specific quality, like rest on Shabbat, freedom on Pesach etc. Elul, he notes, has qualities both mundane and holy. The days of Elul are workdays, but they incorporate holy aspects of introspection and preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe.
Rabbi Tauber cites the teaching of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi* who, he says, “explains the paradox of Elul with the following metaphor: The king’s usual place is in the capital city, in the royal palace. Anyone wishing to approach the king must go through the appropriate channels in the palace bureaucracy and gain the approval of a succession of secretaries and ministers. He must journey to the capital and pass through the many gates, corridors and antechambers that lead to the throne room. His presentation must be meticulously prepared, and he must adhere to an exacting code of dress, speech and mannerism upon entering into the royal presence.
“However, there are times when the king comes out to the fields outside the city. At such times, anyone can approach him; the king receives them all with a smiling face and a radiant countenance. The peasant behind his plow has access to the king in a manner unavailable to the highest ranking minister in the royal court when the king is in the palace.
“The month of Elul, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is when the king is in the field.”
Rabbi Tauber expounds on the meaning of the field which he says is “the prototype employed by Torah law to define the “work” that distinguishes between the holy and mundane days of the calendar.” He points out that although a minority of people nowadays actually farm the land which ultimately brings forth the bread, everyone labors for bread. He adds, “For eleven months of the year, our lives alternate between the field and the palace, between the “process of bread-making” of material life and the sublime moments in which we leave the field to enter into the royal presence. In the month of Elul, however, the king comes to the field.”
Rabbi Tauber goes on to explore the difference between the palace which symbolizes the holy, and the field which symbolizes the mundane. He concludes that they are not really as different as they seem on the surface. He notes that the “work” that is forbidden on Shabbat and Chagim is derived from the 39 types of work employed in the building of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary, which was intended to draw down God’s presence into the physical world. So the work of the Sanctuary, says Rabbi Tauber, is the blueprint for the work of life. He cites the Tanya, “This is what man is all about, this is the purpose of his creation and the creation of all worlds, supernal and ephemeral — to make G-d a dwelling in the physical world.” Therefore, he wonders, why is weekday, mundane work less holy if it is intended to bring God into the world? And why are we enjoined to desist from it on the holy days? Rabbi Tauber posits that the difference between mundane and holy times, is not one of essence, rather of perspective. He says, “Beyond its mundane surface, the material world possesses a deeper truth — its potential to house the goodness and perfection of its Creator. The purpose of our workday lives is to reveal this potential — to develop the material world as a home for G-d. But on the workdays of our life, this potential is all but invisible to us, obscured by the very process that serves to bring it to light. Our very involvement with the material prevents us from experiencing its spiritual essence. To do so, we must rise above it.
“A “holy” day is an elevation in the terrain of time, a lookout tower that rises above the surface of our workday lives to behold the true essence of our world — the essence we are laboring to actualize…
“So one day a week, and on special occasions throughout the year, we cease our work in “the field” to gain a more transcendent view of our workday labors. Then, when we reenter the so-called “mundane” days of our lives, the Shabbat or festival experience lingers on. Enriched with insight into the true nature of our labors, fortified by the vision of what our involvement with the material will ultimately achieve, our workday lives become more focused on their goal, and less susceptible to the diversions and entanglements of the mundane.”
But, Rabbi Tauber notes, there is an exception, and that is the month of Elul. For during the month of Elul, the king comes to the field. He says, “The king, though sequestered behind the palace walls and bureaucracy, though glimpsed, if at all, through a veil of opulence and majesty, is a very real part of the farmer’s field. He is the why of his plowing, the reason for his sowing, the objective of his harvest. No farmer labors for the sake of labor. He labors to transcend the dust of which he and his field are formed, to make more of what is. He labors for his dreams. He labors for his king…”
Rabbi Tauber notes that on Shabbat, the farmer is invited to the palace. He changes out of his work-stained clothes bathes and dons his best clothes. His demeanor is refined. In Elul, when the king appears in the field, the farmer continues with his labor, but not as though he is unaware of the king’s presence. The atmosphere is charged with holiness. The farmer is more circumspect in his behavior – which might manifest itself in practical terms by more fervent prayer, greater charitableness, increased Torah study.
Rabbi Tauber concludes, “In the month of Elul, the essence and objective of life become that much more accessible. No longer do the material trappings of life conceal and distort its purpose, for the king has emerged from the concealment of his palace and is here, in the field. But unlike the holy days of the year, when we are lifted out of our workday lives, the encounter of Elul is hosted by our physical selves, within our material environment, on our working-man’s terms.”

*Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745 – 1812) was an Orthodox Rabbi, and the founder and first Rebbe of Chabad, a branch of Hasidic Judaism, then based in Liadi, Imperial Russia. He was the author of many works, including the Tanya for which he is known also as the “Baal HaTanya”. The Tanya is the main work of the Chabad philosophy and the Chabad approach to Hasidic mysticism, as it defines its general interpretation and method.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman was born in the small town of Liozna, Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (present-day Belarus). He was the great-grandson of the mystic and philosopher Rabbi Judah Loew, the “Maharal of Prague” and was a prominent (and the youngest) disciple of Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch, the “Great Maggid”, who was in turn the successor of the founder of Chasidism, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer known as the Baal Shem Tov.
He displayed extraordinary talent while still a child. By the time he was 8 years old he wrote an all-inclusive commentary on the Chumash based on the works of Rashi, the Ramban and Eben Ezra.
Until the age of twelve, he studied under Rabbi Issachar Ber, in Lyubavichi (Lubavitch); he distinguished himself as a Talmudist, such that his teacher sent him back home, informing his father that the boy could continue his studies without the aid of a teacher.
At his Bar Mitzvah celebration he delivered a discourse concerning the complicated laws of Kiddush Hachodesh, to which the people of the town granted him the title “Rav”.
At age fifteen he married Sterna Segal, the daughter of Yehuda Leib Segal, a wealthy resident of Vitebsk, and he was then able to devote himself entirely to study. During these years, R’ Shneur Zalman was introduced to mathematics, geometry and astronomy by two learned brothers, refugees from Bohemia, who had settled in Liozna. One of them was also a scholar of the Kabbalah. Thus, besides mastering rabbinic literature, he also acquired a fair knowledge of the sciences, philosophy, and Kabbalah. He became an adept in Rabbi Isaac Luria’s system of Kabbalah, and in 1764 he became a disciple of Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch. In 1767, at the age of 22, he was appointed maggid of Liozna, a position he held until 1801. When he died, his son Rabbi Dovber Schneuri succeeded him as Rebbe of the Chabad movement.