Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
It started raining on Monday night, so I had to scramble to get the Sukkah decorations down before they got ruined. (Incredibly, even though we’re in a drought in Southern California, the rain is “bad” because it might cause mudslides. It’s hard to know what to pray for…) I knew I wouldn’t have time to get the walls and the bamboo down, but figured that they’d eventually dry out and be fine. When I had completed removing all of the various plastic fruits and the child-crafted ushpizin posters, I noticed something quite striking. An undecorated Sukkah is a pretty stark sight. I guess I had never sat and stared at it in that condition before. Slowly though, the recognition swept over me that far from being a post-holiday letdown, this was actually a profoundly religious moment. Over the last day or so, I’ve become convinced that removing the Sukkah decorations, and taking a good long look at the stark and naked Sukkah, is the perfect exit ritual for Sukkot.
We’re all familiar with the idea that the Sukkah is intended to be a temporary dwelling - a metaphor for our lives and for our world. Nonetheless, as Sukkot is “the season of our joy”, we want to insure that its messages of “temporariness” and “fragility” don’t inadvertently induce depression within those who sit beneath its shade. Such a development would, as they might have said in the old country, fashtair the simcha. Big time. This is the genesis, I imagine, of the mandate to decorate the Sukkah - to transform our potentially dreary metaphor into a spectacular display of holiday cheer. How else to explain the otherwise frivolous-seeming interest that Jewish Law takes in the decorations, and in their halachik status?
But the day after Sukkot, when we are no longer in legally-mandated happiness, is a good opportunity to see the metaphor that is the Sukkah, in all its unspectacular glory. Let’s face it. The world is a fragile place, one that despite its size and grandeur carries the hint of temporariness about it – especially in light of modern scientific knowledge, and modern human capacities to wreak enormous destruction. The end of Sukkot doesn’t merely mark the close of the holiday period. It marks the beginning of the post-holiday period - the period of many, many months during which we encounter the world not through the holy rosy lenses of one of our Festivals, but with a clear vision as to the fragile state of all things. This is period during which we are religiously enjoined to make a difference for the good in a sector of this fragile world about which we feel passionate. To try to shore it up a little. What then could be a better transition ritual than to strip the Sukkah down to its unadorned true fragile self, and to absorb this picture for a few minutes? To see things as they really are. And then after that, to take a deep breath, and to say to God, “Here I am. Reporting for duty in this crazy, fragile, glorious sukkah that You call Earth.”
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October 13, 2009 | 11:57 pm
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
If you have read this blog, you know that all of us, rabbis and Maharat, think out of the box and sometimes unpredictably. You may have seen my views of the One State solution, one democratic, Jewish and Palestinian State allowing all self declared Jews to return and Palestinians to return. You may have also seen my desire for separation of church and state in the Jewish state of the future – in Israel. Feel free to dismiss me as naïve, foolish, crazy, irresponsible, etc. However, the last laugh is on those who mock me: I can say will full confidence that I am in the tradition of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism. And… as a follower of Jabotinsky, I feel at home in the party of Menecham Begin, his heir, Herut and Likud. Yes, I see myself as part of Likud.
Huh? A One Stater in Likud? Well, let’s look briefly at the principles of Revisionist Zionism:
1) Jews returning in the millions to the homeland. Jabotinsky hoped European Jews in the 1930’s would fill up both sides of the Jordan with Jews; in the 21st century, we have to look to Africa and Asia – and still not give up hope in America – to bring in those huge numbers so that Jews remain a majority culture in our land.
2) The right of Jews to live in their homeland – even more important the getting the State. Herut opposed partition in 1947, giving up our rights to our land, as we should oppose partition in 2009. In the 21st century, our priority should not be demographics or a homogeneous state; no, our priority must remain a solution where Jews can live in Tel Aviv or Hebron, or Gaza or Shechem or Modiin. Everywhere! Palestinians can by homes or start communities in these places as well. Anyone who has any suggestion that gives up Jews returning to Gush Katif should be rejected as compromising the essential rights and dreams of the Jewish people.
3) Liberalism in terms of freedom of the individual: open and free markets, capitalism rather than socialism.
4) Being strong and demonstrating strength: Any solution in the 21st century needs to involve the army – the IDF – not tolerating any pocket of terrorism or fiefdom outside the control of the One State – no Gazas controlled by rogue, terrorist regimes.
5) When you look at the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, he has different attitudes towards the indigenous Arabs. Everywhere he wants them to know that the Jews are staying. However, in some places he writes that once the Jews are established in their land, they can allow the Arabs to be full participants – including voting – in a liberal democracy. Yes, Jabotinsky understood that if the Jews are strong and confident, they have nothing to fear from Arabs/Palestinians getting the vote.
6) It is clear that while Jabotinsky wanted a Jewish state – designated for the Jews and filled with Jewish culture – he did not want a state with rabbinic control. He had European democracies in mind, where the look and feel is Christian, but the power resides in the government of the people, not the church leaders.
I am planning to move to Israel because I believe that God wants us to live in the Holy Land and God wants us to build a moral and ethical state where Judaism can flourish and have an impact. With the vision of Jabotinsky I hope we can all gain the strength to build communities anywhere in the land and that that land should be a full democracy which will allow Judaism to flourish in all its diversity and creativity, taking the best from cultures dwelling alongside of us, including Palestinian, Arab culture. Likud – here I come!
October 13, 2009 | 11:18 am
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
Now that all the “bells and whistles” of the high Holidays and Sukkot are gone, what will be of our spiritual journey? There is a lot that attracts us to synagogue during the month of Tishrei. With the excitement of Rosh Hashana, the awe of Yom Kippur and the joy of Sukkot amnd simchat Torah behind us, what will serve as the attraction to shul and renewed Jewish commitment.
I have a radical answer to this question. Judaism.
Morethodoxy should be characterized by passion for Torah and Tefilla. When one is passionate about something, they do not need external factors in order to act. Passion is self starting.
Instilling passion for Torah and Teffila in our community is a difficult task. Perhapos we can start by looking at our brothers and sisters to the right of us. Our ideological differences are real and ultimately they come to the question of what sort of Avodat Hashem – service if God – is preferred, but there are things we can learn from that community.
Here are the words of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein: “Is our commitment to Talmud torah truly as deep as that of the Right, but only modified in practice by the need to pursue other values? Do our students devote as much time and effort to talmud torah, minus only that needed to acquire culture or build a state? Comparisons aside, let us deal with educational issues: What has all the time wasted on television, the inordinate vacations, a system of religious public schools in Israel which shuts down at one or two in the afternoon, to do with culture or Zionism.”
While part Rabbi Lichtenstein’s critique is leveled against the Israeli system, much of what he says rings true for the America community as well.
Morethodoxy needs this type of chshbon hanefesh – soul searching- if we wish to thrive.
The months between Simchat Torah and Chanukah and then from Chanukah to Purim and Pesach are bereft of external attractions to Judaism. Passion for Judaism itself and “its moral beauty and spiritual grace” should be enough to inspire us.
 By His Light. Addresses by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, pg 242
 A Letter In A Scroll. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, pg 24
October 8, 2009 | 9:59 pm
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Every child learns the question in Jewish day school. If the sukkah reminds us of God’s protection of the Jewish people in the desert why don’t we build it in the month of Nisan when the Jewish people left Egypt. There are many answers but one that Rav Yitzchok Hutner gives in his book Pachad Yitzchak I find particularly meaningful. One opinion in the Talmud is that the sukkah represents the Divine cloud with which God protected the Jews in the desert. In the bible this cloud left the Jews after their sin worshiping the golden calf and returned after the erection of the tabernacle.
Rav Hutner writes that the Tabernacle was begun five days after Moses returned with the second set of Tablets on Yom Kippur –namely the beginning of Sukkot. Thus the sukkah represents not the Divine presence that protected the Jewish people in the desert immediately but the cloud that returned after their sin and repentance. This divine presence which emerged a second time only after the sin of the Jewish people was much more powerful perhaps than that before their sin. Indeed Rav Hutner says, this is why Sukkot in particular is called the holiday of joy. Though all mitvot are a source of holy joy, it is tishuvah, repentance that brings the most organic, the most internal, the deepest most personal joy.
Much blessing for a joyous end of sukkot and a wild simchat Torah!
October 8, 2009 | 10:33 am
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
I learned an important lesson from a member of our community this past Sukkot. Dr. Levy (pseudonym) who is blind, came to the lobby of our shul to buy a lulav and etrog. There he was picking out his set, with a bunch of frightened Bnei Akiva teens trying to figure out how to help a blind man choose an etrog. He ran his hands over all the etrogim for a few minutes and then picked one up. Someone walked over to him and told him that it was the most beautiful etrog and asked him how he chose it. He said something I will never forget. “People spend hours with a magnifying glass searching for the perfect etrog - looking for spots and specks. But they are missing the entire point. The goal is to be turning that magnifying glass into yourself. We spend so much time looking at a fruit, when we should really be looking into ourselves.”
People do spend a lot of time and money on their lulavim and etrog. The gemara says that one should spend one-third more of their earnings on an etrog, and after that, God will reimburse you! However, perhaps the lulav and etrog should be seen as an extension of ourselves. There’s an often quoted midrash that says that each of the four species correlate to parts of our bodies—the lulav is likened to our spine, the hadass—the eyes, the aravah to the mouth, and the etrog is likened to our heart. Rather than spend so much time finding the perfect species, we should figure out how to be better people. We should stand up for others who cannot stand up for themselves. We should use our mouths to praise God and others, we should use our eyes to see the good in this world, and open hearts one third more than we usually do.
The ritual object—the lulav and etrog—is meant to help enhance our performance of the act. We strive to pick beautiful lulavim and etrogim not for the sake of retaining bragging rites for having the best etrog around town. But as a means to help each of us serve God and others in a more complete way.
On a separate note, there have been some questions with respect to Yeshivat Mahara”t. To read a little more about the Yeshiva, check out http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c36_a16923/News/New_York.html
October 6, 2009 | 12:28 pm
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
Yesterday was the Ushpizin of Yitzchak….so let’s talk about Yitzchak.
I just finished reading a disturbing article by an Israeli Rabbinic Scholar that suggesting that the main charter trait of Yitzchak was passivity animated by complete faith in God. After all, when Avimelech tell Yizchak to leave, instead of putting up a fight he moves on and when the shepherds of Gerar claimed the wells Yitzchak had dug as their own, again, instead of defending his rights, he moves on to dig wells elsewhere.
As opposed to Avraham who argued with Avimelech in defense of the wells that he had dug, Yitzchak is passive.
The author also suggests that the reason the binding of Yitzchak is considered a test for Avraham and not a test for Yitzchak is because Yitzchak was so committed to God that he exhibited complete selflessness.
After all, since God is ruler of the world and is constantly directing everything that happens here on earth, how dare a humkan being step in to try and change God’s reality.
The author paints a picture of Yizchak who seemingly is willing to accept every aspect of this world without any initiative. The author praises this approach as one that should be emulated.
Most Morethodox Jews do not live their lives in accordance with this approach. Most do not simply acceot the worlkd as it is and most do not live in accordance with the view that God comtral everything all the time.
What gives us the right to think and live this way?
While much has been written on this subject, I will share with you the view of the Maharal.
While he does not address Yitzchak directly, you will see his fundamental disagreement with the passive approach.
The Maharal is chapter 61 of Gevurot Hashem offers an explanation as to why the Gemara likens a person who says Hallel everyday to a blasphemer.
The Maharal explains that Hallel is a praise of God in recognition of his direct and obvious involvement in the world. The problem is that evil exists in the world. If God were consistently “pulling the strings” then the existence of evil would lead one to conclude that God cannot overcome evil. Such a conclusion is indeed blasphemous.
The Maharal is left to conclude that world runs in according to convention and that God only steps in to do the miraculous at certain times.
The fallout of the approach suggested by our anonymous author is disastrous. If we all lived in accordance with his vision of Yitzchak we would simply accept the world as we see it. After all, if each event that happened to Yitzchak was ordained by God then how dare Yitzchak fight it? On the other hand, if the world operates according without the direct and constant providence of God then when something is perceived as wrong, I am obligated to make it right.
We say Hallel on Sukkot because we are celebrating a time in our history that cording to our tradition, God did step in (Exodus from Egypt and Clouds of Glory) to directly control events. Next week we will not say Hallel in recognition of our responsibility to pick up where God left off.
Perhaps this is one of the messages of Sukkot – we are to leave our homes and go out into the world to see what is wrong so that we can spend the rest of the year fixing it.
October 1, 2009 | 10:56 am
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
There are few named women in the Talmud. One of the few is Yalta, the wife of Rav Nachman, a third generation Babylonian Amora, and the daughter of the Reish Galuta, a wealthy and well-respected figure. When I first learned about Yalta, it was like discovering a timeless friend—a soul mate. Learning the stories in the gemaras that she appeared in was like laughing knowingly, with someone who was trying to break through a cement ceiling in a patriarchal world.
A few stories about Yalta:
The Talmud Bavli Beizah 25b brings an anecdote about Yalta being carried on a “sedan chair” on Shabbat. As surprising as this may be, the Gemara lists other limited circumstances when it would be permissible to be carried. An older person can be carried on a “sedan chair.” And if a number of people need the person for religious guidance, they can be carried. Also, a well-respected member of the community can be carried. Therefore, it logically follows that the reason why Yalta was being carried on Shabbat must be because people needed her. And indeed, Tosefot suggest: “people required her guidance,” and therefore, she could be carried on Shabbat.
The Talmud in Bavli Brachot 51b describes how Ulla refuses to send the “cos shel bracha” the cup of wine over which birkat hamazon (grace after meals) is made. Yalta gets up “in a passion” and breaks four hundred jars of wine. What audacity. What waste. And yet, the Mahrasha says that she was not angry because of the wine per se. She broke the wine to show that drinking the wine was not important to her. אלא על כוס הברכה שלא שלח לה כעסה
“rather, she was angry because the cup of benediction was not sent to her.” Yalta wanted to participate in the ritual of blessing the wine. She wanted desperately to be involved—not for the sake of drinking wine—but to bless and honor God in the same way that her male companions were doing. Yalta refused to accept status quo. Her reaction, while extreme, is a tribute to the passion she felt towards religious ritual.
Finally, the Talmud Bavli, Nidah 20b, describes how Yalta influenced the psak—Rabbinic dispensation—with regards to a question related to the laws of niddah (family purity). Yalta knew that her bedikah (checking) cloth was clean and rendered her able to be intimate with her husband. Yet, despite the fact that she had the knowledge to determine her own status, she still went to the Rabbi’s (as one was supposed to do at that time) to get an authoritative decision. Yalta could have circumvented the Rabbinic system altogether, and made her own decision. However, she took her predicament to the Rabbi, dialogued about it, and in the end, successfully influenced the rabbinic decision. Yalta saw a problem with the rabbinic system, and rather than reject it, she worked within the system towards changing it.
Read together, all three stories weave together a picture of a woman who was well respected for her scholarship, passionate about religious ritual, with the fortitude to encounter and influence rabbinic authority for the better.
How could any women —or any person for that matter—trying to participate in Jewish religious leadership not look to Yalta for strength?
September 30, 2009 | 2:44 am
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
Over the last couple of years, I have been urging everyone in shul to remain inside the sanctuary for Yizkor – even those who, thank God, have both parents alive. I have made this request in the name of simple courtesy and love toward those who are reciting Yizkor, and whose ability to immerse themselves in memory and prayer is severely compromised by the racket that typically invades the sanctuary from the lobby outside. It has been a semi-successful campaign on my part, and I of course knew going in that there would be some non-Yizkor-sayers who just wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to stay inside.
But what happened in shul on Yom Kippur two days ago has made me realize that I’ve been missing the boat by appealing on the grounds of courtesy and decorum alone. Lots and lots of us begin to cry quiet tears as Yizkor begins. But when it’s someone’s very first Yizkor, or the first one that they are reciting for a family member who has just recently died, they quite understandably begin to cry aloud. We had several people in this situation this Yom Kippur. And each one had friends who put their arms around them and held them as they cried - friends who had remained inside shul even though they were not themselves reciting Yizkor. And if I had to guess, I would imagine that their parents were very proud of them.
Why do we run out of shul when our friends need us most? Try staying inside. You’ll be glad you did.