Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sukkot seems to present a paradox. In our prayers, Sukkot is referred to as Zman Simhatenu – the “Season of Our Joy.” One would think that joy includes all of the physical comforts in life. Yet one of the main commandments of Sukkot is to build and live in a modest, temporary structure called a “Sukkah.” We are commanded to celebrate this joyous festival specifically by leaving the comfort of our homes.
Rabbi Yitshak Arama (Spanish Talmudist/Philosopher, 1420-1494) offers a deep insight as to the symbolism of dwelling in a Sukkah during Zman Simhatenu:
On Sukkot, everyone leaves behind his money matters, merchandise and produce, and all of his material possessions, and goes into a tiny booth which contains nothing but the meal for one day and usually nothing more than a bed, table, chair and lamp. This serves as a remarkable reminder for us not to indulge in building imposing structures, impressing on us that the minimum is all that we need during our temporary stay in this physical structure called planet earth, which is also a temporary abode. The minimum area for a Sukkah, seven handbreadths square and ten high, indicates a life of modesty and frugality. It is as if the halakha here is teaching us: limit yourself to the minimum, and do not aspire to luxury. If you accustom yourself to frugality, you will never lack anything; whereas if you allow yourself too many luxuries, you will feel as if you never have enough.
Rabbi Arama’s teaching brings to mind the timeless principle taught by Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot:
Eizehu ashir? Ha-Sameach B’helko.
Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot in life.
(Pirkei Avot 4:1)
By dwelling in a Sukkah during a weeklong festival of joy, we are reminded that happiness is not measured by the size of a home or the luxurious furnishings within it; rather, life is ultimately about the inner joy that one feels in his or her heart. Sukkot teaches us that life is about family, friends, health, intellectual exchanges, spiritual enlightenment, and any other substantive features of life that go beyond material possessions. Life measured exclusively in material wealth, large buildings, bank accounts, zip codes, automobiles and financial status is a life void of meaning. As Rabbi Aramah teaches, life with too many luxuries builds a mentality that “this is not good enough, I need the better one.” Think about how we spend thousands of dollars on electronic products – phones, tablets and laptops – and just a few short months later, when the newer model comes out, we are convinced that the one we have is no longer good, and we must “upgrade.” Sukkot challenges us to think differently.
Dwelling in a Sukkah also reminds us that life is temporary, and that we must learn to value our time here on earth. Dwelling in a Sukkah reminds us of the frailty of life. Much like a sudden, unexpected gust of wind can knock our Sukkah down, so, too, can our situation in life change so quickly. Sukkot is a time when we are reminded to appreciate our lives, and to thank God and those who surround us for the blessings we may have. In this minimal structure of temporary walls and a roof of palm fronds, we are called upon to celebrate life, be thankful for what we have, and enjoy every moment.
A Kabbalistic tradition teaches that as part of the expression of celebrating life, it is a mitzvah on Sukkot to invite guests into our Sukkah. On each night, in addition to any family or friends, we also invite and welcome the Shiva Ushpizin, the “Seven Guests,” each of which joins us on a different night of Sukkot: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.
In the spirit of what Sukkot teaches us about life, perhaps we should invite one more symbolic guest -- Abraham Lincoln -- who had a very profound teaching about life, one that is most definitely applicable to our dwelling in joy in a Sukkah:
“It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
Hag Sukkot Sameach and Moadim L’Simha.
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July 11, 2013 | 4:11 pm
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Why do we continue to fast and mourn on Tisha B’Av?
There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, in order to arouse their hearts and initiate them in the paths of repentance (teshuva). This will serve as a reminder of our own wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which resembles our present conduct, and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve our conduct, as [Leviticus 26:40] states: "And they will confess their sin and the sin of their ancestors. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Ta’aniyot [Fast Days], 5:1)
Much like the individual engages in teshuva (repenting for sins and misdeeds) throughout Elul through to Yom Kippur, so, too, the Jewish people as a whole must engage in a “collective teshuva” on Tisha B’Av.
Maimonides teaches us that on Tisha B’Av, we are not only mourning the actual loss of the Temples, but are primarily mourning and reflecting upon our own poor behavior as a people – abandonment of Torah and mitzvot, coupled with moral decadence – that led to both Temples being destroyed.
But Maimonides takes it one step further. He teaches us that the true power of Tisha B’Av is when we conduct a national “moral check-up” of the current state of internal affairs in the Jewish world. This means that in addition to fasting, reading the Book of Lamentations and sitting on the floor with ashes on our heads reading Kinot (dirges about loss and destruction), we must also conduct symposiums on what’s happening in our own Jewish communities. But does this happen? Are Jewish communities willing to “look and search deep within” to see what’s wrong, what requires “tikkun” (repair), and how we are going to repair what’s wrong?
One Jewish community is willing to do this. It’s name: Israel.
For many years, Tisha B’Av was off the radar of most Israelis (other than religious or traditional Israelis). They viewed it as an antiquated, outdated fast day, with no contemporary relevance. Many even said “Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron are our Israeli Tisha B’Av,” and – especially after Jerusalem was re-united in 1967 – the continued mourning over Jerusalem seemed silly to most Israelis.
Many who held these views were unaware of Maimonides’s teachings, and were also unaware of what a great 19th century rabbi -- the Netziv – wrote about the destruction of the Second Temple:
The Jewish community of the Second Temple period was a crooked and perverse generation. True, they were Tsadikim (righteous) and Hasidim (pious), and amongst them lived many great Torah scholars. However, they were not Yesharim (upright and just) in their daily conduct towards one another. Therefore, as a result of the deeply rooted Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred) towards each other, each person looked upon his own religious behavior as being the only legitimate form of religiosity, and whoever did not believe or behave according to that form of religiosity was labeled a heretic. This perverse form of thinking led to zealotry, murder and the deepest divisiveness within the Jewish community. The results of this trend led to corruption, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is for all of these reasons that one may even justify God’s decree of destruction, because God is Yashar (upright and just), and God does not tolerate such self-righteous individuals whose behavior, supposedly “For the sake of heaven,” is actually crooked and corrupt. The result of corrupt behavior for so-called “religious reasons” is ultimately the destruction of human society and civilization here on earth (Netziv’s Introduction to the Book of Genesis).
On November 4, 1995, when an Israeli Jew pulled the trigger on his own prime minister, Israelis were shocked into understanding what the Netziv meant. Suddenly, the concept of Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred) was alive and present in Israeli society, and had reached its low point.
On the first Tisha B’Av after Rabin’s assassination, an ad hoc group of young Israelis – religious and secular – decided to get together and have a symposium on what was going wrong in Israeli society. They felt that in light of Rabin’s assassination and the deep polarization it created within Israeli society, it was time to bring Tisha B’Av and its lessons of Sinat Hinam back into the consciousness and discourse of Israeli society.
Every subsequent Tisha B’Av, the original small group grew in size, until one Tisha B’Av, 14 years ago, one of them had the brilliant idea of turning this ad hoc symposium into a nationwide Tisha B’Av program. This idea succeeded largely due to a brilliant marketing campaign. On Tisha B’Av, it is prohibited to study Torah (the exception being studying the Book of Lamentations, or any section of the Talmud dealing with the destruction of Jerusalem). This prohibition stems from the fact that we are not allowed to engage in anything enjoyable on Tisha B’Av, and Torah study is a great intellectual, spiritual and emotional delight. Therefore, the organizers who sought to spread their Tisha B’Av program throughout Israel named this new initiative Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah – Tonight We Do Not Study Torah. They picked relevant themes relating to burning issues within Israeli society, and chose various panelists who would attract crowds. This brilliant marketing campaign caught the eyes of thousands of Israelis, who began to attend the Tisha B’Av symposiums, primarily in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
14 years later – this coming Monday night – there will be 26 Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah symposiums throughout Israel! The panels will feature prominent members of Knesset, religious leaders, educators, religious and secular Israelis, men, women, young and old, Sephardi and Ashkenazi – all contemplating this year’s theme: Hashvil Ha-Zahav – The Golden Path. This refers to (appropriately) Maimonides’ teaching that in all matters in life, one should thrive to achieve the cherished “Golden Middle Path,” not veering to the extreme right or left. In light of the deep political and religious divisions in present-day Israel, this is a timely and needed discussion.
In this week's Haftarah, the prophet Isaiah refers to the Jewish people in the lowest of terms: “Rulers of Sodom…People of Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:10). Why would Isaiah use this awful metaphor? Sodom and Gomorrah represents the ultimate decadent society, totally void of morals and ethics. Pirkei Avot teaches “He who says ‘What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours’…this is the behavior of Sodom.” A selfish society where religious and political leaders are so corrupt that they don’t care about their own people, where neighbors don’t care about each other, and where the wealthy don’t care for the poor – such a society is doomed to destruction, like Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, this happened to the Jewish State twice. The organizers of Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah seek to assure that the third Jewish state remains standing, vibrant and successful forever.
I have been privileged to attend these symposiums the past few years, and I plan on doing so again this coming Monday night. Such gatherings give me hope that – despite all of the ills that exist within Israeli society – we are beginning to see here the shades of Isaiah’s closing words from this week’s Haftarah: Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those that return to her, with righteousness.
Israeli society is coming of age, and Maimonides would be very proud of what happens here on Tisha B’Av.
July 4, 2013 | 1:02 pm
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
It’s the one “Fourth of July” I will never forget. July 4, 1976. It was 37 years ago, and the United States was celebrating it’s bicentennial. Like all good Los Angelenos, we were in Palm Springs for the long weekend. But while the bicentennial festivities dominated the scene, events in Uganda that day would ultimately capture our attention…and our hearts. While America celebrated 200 years of freedom and independence, a tiny nation in the Middle East reminded the entire world – including Americans – what freedom and independence are all about.
I will never forget seeing my father run from our hotel room to the pool (where most of us were), announcing to us in excitement “Israel liberated the hostages!! They sent commandos to liberate the hostages!!” I will also never forget how someone we had just met that weekend – a non-Jew – jumped into the pool, opened a beer and shouted with joy “Let’s drink to Israel!” I will never forget the feeling of celebration that erupted around the pool, and how everyone – Jew and non-Jew alike – celebrated Israel’s remarkable achievement. We had only American flags to wave, but it felt like we were at a pro-Israel rally. The Jews in the crowd felt that this was one of the greatest moments of Jewish pride ever, and especially as American Jews, we were proud that Israeli/Jewish soldiers carried out this heroic act of freedom and independence on – of all days – the 4th of July.
37 years later, I find myself in Israel on this 4th of July, reflecting on that historic moment. There are many thoughts that come to mind, but one particular verse from this week’s Torah Portion pops out at me: “Why should your brothers go out and fight while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6). It is mind-boggling, disturbing, and completely against the ethic and spirit of being a Jew, that while we bless the memory of the Entebbe operation’s commander Jonathan Netanyahu (the lone commando to have lost his life during the mission), and while we celebrate the courage of the commandos – religious and secular together -- who risked their lives to redeem Jewish captives and save Jewish lives, a debate still rages on in Israel about whether certain segments of Israeli society should be exempt from serving in the IDF because they are “more religious” than others.
Who can stand at Jonathan Netanyahu’s grave, or stare in the eyes of the IDF commandos who carried out this mitzvah of bringing their brothers and sisters home in safety, and say that there are Israeli men who – in the name of God and the Torah – should not serve in the IDF, for they are “more religious than you.” Who and what is a “religious Jew”? How absurd it is that we even engage in this debate! How ridiculous that we even give credence to such a perversion of what it means to be a “Torah-abiding” Jew. How far we have strayed from the spirit of King David, the true role model who combined military prowess as an Israelite warrior and religious devotion to God as the author of the Book of Psalms. How far we have strayed from Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La-Zeh – “All Jews are responsible one for the other.” I am tired of hearing the argument that ultra-Orthodox yeshiva boys are displaying their “responsibility towards the Jewish people” by sitting and studying Torah all day. Enough with this silly argument, unprecedented and unheard of in Jewish history. Their Torah study has not only added nothing to the Jewish people or Israeli society, but, tragically, has given Torah a bad name, and has created a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. The very Torah that they profess to follow so closely screams out at us – and at them – this week: “Why should your brothers go out and fight while you stay here?”
In 1948, when men, women and children alike were fighting Israel’s War of Independence, a group of yeshiva students approached the elderly Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Uziel. They asked for a halakhic exemption from fighting in the war, claiming that Torah study was their contribution to the defense of Israel. He castigated them, telling them he wished he had the strength to “pick up a rifle and participate in the mitzvah of defending Jerusalem.” To prove his point, he joined the Civil Guard in Jerusalem, and when he stood guard at checkpoints, he proudly wore the Civil Guard’s armband on his rabbinical robe.
On this 4th of July, 2013 – 37 years after Jonathan Netanyahu z”l and his troops taught the world what freedom and independence are all about – I pray that Israeli society will soon see a day when all of its citizens – religious and secular alike – will partake in the mitzvah (not the “burden,” as some call it) of defending our one and only Jewish state. When I proudly graduated IDF basic training at a ceremony at the Kotel in 1984, emblazoned in fire above us were words that read: “Only those who know how to defend their freedom are worthy of it.”
Thank you to Jonathan Netanyahu, and to all of the heroes of the Entebbe mission. 37 years ago, on the Fourth of July, you taught us what it means to be worthy of our freedom.
June 27, 2013 | 8:17 am
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
On a recent trip to New York, I spent Shabbat morning at The Jewish Center in Manhattan, a vibrant Modern Orthodox community. As services came to a close, the 500 congregants did not make the typical mad rush for the door. Instead, everyone remained seated, anxiously waiting to hear scholar-in-residence Tova Manzel.
A recognized expert in halakhah (Jewish law), she does not hold the title rabbi, yet has as much — and in many cases, much more — knowledge of Talmud, halakhah and rabbinic literature than many who hold that title. She is a learned Orthodox woman from Israel who holds the title yoetzet halakhah (halakhic adviser). She spent many years in Batei Midrash (Torah study halls) studying halakhah at a high level, earning certification to address issues in halakhah.
Hundreds of Orthodox congregants gathering to hear a female expert in halakhah is not something that would have happened just 25 years ago, and the modern-day credit goes to Rabbanit Hanna Henkin of Nishmat. But the ancient predecessors to the contemporary yoatzot halakhah are rooted in the Torah. Their names are Mahla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirza, the daughters of Zelophehad.
Upon the death of their father, these five brave women “stood before Moses, Elazar the Kohen, the chieftains, and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Tent of the Meeting” (Numbers 27:2). They had a personal claim and a halakhic question: “Our father died in the wilderness … and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a portion [of inheritance] among our father’s kinsmen” (Numbers 27:3-4).
The Talmud (Baba Batra 119:b) teaches that this scene took place in a Beit Midrash, where Moses was teaching the halakhot of yibbum (levirate marriage). The laws of levirate marriage state: “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies, and he has no child, the wife of the dead shall not be married abroad unto one that is not of his kin; her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her” (Deuteronomy 25:5).
In light of this halakhah (the Talmud says), Zelophehad’s daughters raised a creative halakhic question to Moses: “We are instead of a son (for the purposes of inheritance), and if females are not considered offspring, let our mother be taken in levirate marriage by her brother-in-law.”
“The daughters of Zelophehad were learned, were halakhic interpreters and were righteous,” says the Talmud, prompting Moses to bring their claim before God.
What did God think of all this?
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly. You shall certainly give them a portion of inheritance along with their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer their father’s inheritance to them” (Numbers 27:6-7).
Rashi expounds on these verses: “They spoke rightly. Their claim is beautiful and proper. Their eyes perceived that which the eyes of Moses did not.”
Rashi further adds that this portion of the Torah belongs to them: “This section of the Torah should have been written through Moses, but [due to their brilliant exposition of halakhah] the daughters of Zelophehad merited to have it written through them.” I shudder to think how Rashi would be treated were he to write this today.
Zelophehad’s daughters prompted a halakhah l’dorot, a halakhic ruling for all generations, as God says: “Speak to the children of Israel saying: If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter” (Numbers 27:8).
The trailblazing spirit of Zelophehad’s daughters ultimately led to bold halakhic rulings among certain posekim (halakhic decisors), especially in the modern Sephardic rabbinic world. These rulings are instrumental sources that helped create the contemporary yoatzot halakhah.
Rabbi Ben-Zion Hai Uziel (1880-1953), Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi, ruled that it is halakhically permitted to elect women to municipal councils in Israel.
Rabbi Haim David Halevy (1924-1998), the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, concluded that women are permitted to serve as dayanot (halakhic judges).
Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (b. 1941), Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi during the 1990s, authored a bold halakhic responsa that concluded: “A woman can serve as a leader, even as a great Torah scholar of the generation. A woman can serve as a halakhic decisor and teach Torah and halakhic rulings” (Binyan Av Responsa, Vol. 1, No. 65).
The title of Tova Manzel’s lecture at The Jewish Center was: “Evolution or Revolution: Women in Halakhic Leadership.” Certainly in the modern Jewish world, the yoatzot halakhah, along with the bold aforementioned halakhic rulings, are a major revolution. But if you asked Mahla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirza, they would probably wonder what took us so long.
June 17, 2013 | 4:48 pm
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
After many years as a contributor to the Jewish Journal, I am pleased to join the Journal’s family of bloggers.
The Jewish world is multi-faceted, complex and diverse. Our tradition celebrates the inclusion of multiple voices. Some call us “The People of the Book.” I prefer to identify us as “The People of the Interpretation of the Book.” We are famous for producing multi-layered commentaries on one line of text, multi-generational debates over that same text and its commentaries, and continuous, often inconclusive arguments about how to interpret that same text today.
In the pantheon and array of Jewish voices, I am pleased to offer my readers a voice that often goes unheard: the contemporary Sephardic voice. A colleague recently expressed to me that the “Sephardic Voice” – irrespective of one’s ethnic Jewish origins – probably represents the “silent majority” in many diaspora communities, and in Israel. In the diaspora, it might be called the “Jew next door,” and in Israel, it’s often referred to as “Middle Israel.”
What is the “Sephardic Voice” in this blog? Allow me to first tell you what it isn’t. If you are looking for a discussion of Sephardic recipes and folk traditions, this is not the blog for you. Nor will this be a blog that focuses exclusively on particularly “Sephardic matters,” although I certainly plan to call my reader’s attention to issues in the global Sephardic community that the larger Jewish world often ignores.
The “Sephardic Voice,” as I understand it, emerges first and foremost from my upbringing as a Sephardic Jew.
I was raised in a home where terms like “Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Haredi, Secular Zionist” or the like were not a part of our vocabulary. Jews were Jews. In our home, we observed and respected our traditions, including Shabbatot, holidays and synagogue life. We may not have been considered “religious enough” by certain people’s standards, but we were unapologetic about who we were. We did not live our Jewish practices to conform to somebody else’s opinion, nor did we change our way of life because a rabbi issued an edict deciding to impose new strictures on the community. We celebrated Judaism with a deep sense of commitment to our heritage, and to the traditions of our family’s ancestors. We observed Judaism with warmth and beauty. Shabbat and holiday tables had a sense of artistic grandeur and culinary magic. We delighted in our foods, our tunes, and our stories. We didn’t spend much time talking about our “philosophy or ideology.” We ate, we sang, told and listened to stories, and we celebrated life. Conversations about “Haredim on the right” or “Secularists on the left” were not a part of our Shabbat tables. Classic “Divrei Torah” (words of Torah) were not always shared at the table, but if they were, they were void of so-called “Jewish politics”. Our Shabbat tables – and our Jewish lives in general – were not expressions of denominational ideologies or affiliations. Some may view this as naïve or simplistic. I view it as an “undeclared ideology,” one that was not born in conferences or conventions. Instead, it was naturally lived by thousands of families, and was the intellectual and spiritual mode of teaching by Sephardic rabbis and sages for generations, all the way into the modern world. This became known as the “ Classic Sephardic Way of Life” – tradition, culture, intellect, spirituality, tolerance, and non-extremism. Life lived in the cherished and golden “middle path,” as Maimonides called it.
It is through these lenses – my “Sephardic Lenses” – that I see the Jewish world, and it is through these “Sephardic Lenses” that I will be blogging on a host of intellectual, spiritual and communal issues. Whether I write on particularly “Sephardic” issues, or whether I write on Israel, Agnon, Sabato, Jewish philosophy or the various other intellectual passions in my life, my worldview is deeply informed and influenced by my classic Sephardic upbringing and way of thinking. I feel privileged to have been raised this way, and especially privileged to now be the voice that shares this unique Jewish way of life with the larger Jewish world.
I look forward to launching a vibrant new dialogue…