We are in the middle of the wonderful holiday of Sukkot. Every time I wave my lulav and etrog and eat in the sukkah, my mind conjures up memories of being in Israel, being at the Kotel for the powerful experience of the Kohanim waving their lulavim and etrogim, sleeping in the sukkah, feeling the gentle, warm breezes passing through the walls of the sukkah during the night. It always amazed me seeing the sukkot all over Jerusalem, on balconies and on roof tops. Just the fact that the municipality would cut palm branches and leave them in large piles throughout the city for people to come and take for schach, the roofs of their sukkot was testimony for me of the realization that Judaism is life itself.
Of all the holidays, there is a duality to the holiday of sukkot, which is almost contradictory. On the one hand we wave the Arba’ah Minim, the four species, which, according to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, are representative of the Land of Israel, and yet we sit in a sukkah which symbolizes exile, for the Jewish people sat in huts while traveling in the desert. The Talmud teaches that the Arba’ah Minim serve as an entreaty to HaShem to provide rain, for Jewish tradition teaches that the on Sukkot the world is judged for water. However, the opportunity to eat, sleep and spend time in the sukkah is dependent on there not being rain.
The Talmud relates that the schach, the roof which comes from leaves or branches, is a symbol of the Annanei HaKavod, the Clouds of Glory that hovered over the Israelites during their sojourn through the desert. These clouds provided protection for the people as they traveled. The sukkah’s roof is to provide (some) protection from the elements as well. This is the particular nature of Sukkot; that HaShem made sure that our Biblical ancestors were protected as they traveled through the desert.
At the same time there is a universal aspect to Sukkot as well, which makes it different from the two other pilgrimage festival, Pesach and Shavuot, both of which are solely particularistic. The Arba’ah Minim are dependent on water. The entire world is dependent on water. All peoples need rain. The prophet Zechariah recognized this for he prophesized that after the nations would wage war against Jerusalem, HaShem would help the Jewish people defeat their enemies and that Jerusalem would become the spiritual center of the world and all the nations, not just the Jewish people, but all the nations would gather there on the festival of Sukkot.
As with all the Jewish holidays from which we learn many important lessons, one such lesson for us on Sukkot is this universal aspect of the holiday. We live as Jews; we maintain our traditions, our customs; those elements that make us distinct. Coupled with this is the reality that we live in the world, we come into all kinds of people every day. Our actions, our behavior makes a difference, not just to our fellow Jew, but all people, wherever we are, the grocery store or the post office.
May we continue to enjoy the last few days of Sukkot. On Monday night and Tuesday we will be dancing with the Torah in celebration of Simchat Torah, that Torah which binds us together as Jews and obligates us to treating others with decency, with respect.
Sukkot teaches us, as the prophet Yeshiya taught many centuries ago, to be a light unto the nations.
May the light shine bright.
Shabbat shalom and Chag Samayach.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
Jewish tradition says all beginnings are difficult. I am finding the truth to that idea as I sit here this morning trying to find some thought, some inspiring idea. The reality is that I am drawing a blank; I am finding it difficult to begin today.
The parsha this week is Ha’Azinu. It is the last parsha of the Torah that is read on a regular Shabbat morning. The final parsha, Vzot HaBeracha is read on Simchat Torah, when the cycle of the Torah is completed.
In the beginning of the parsha, Moshe, who is relating a song to the people, says, “Corruption is not His, the blemish is His children’s”. Rashi explains that this verse is to be understood as it is, that people are the source of corruption, people are the reason for things going wrong. Does this mean that every bad event that takes place in the world is the result of some evil that humans cause? No, obviously humans did not cause Hurricane Matthew last week. As I have done before, I am going to be bold and give my own interpretation.
Sometimes I am my own worst enemy. There have been, and still are, countless times when I do things, or not do things; say things, or refrain from saying things that just get in my own way and cause my own downfall. I make bad choices that I know I should not make. I don’t when I know I should. The result is that I am the cause of whatever misfortune coming my way. I am to blame for my failures, no one else.
Is it the same for others?
Yom Kippur was two days ago. The slate has been wiped clean. We now move forward. It is difficult to begin anew. The thoughts, memories and results of the mistakes and bad choices do not suddenly vanish though I wish it were so. Over Rosh HaShanah my wife wished several friends with the blessing of clarity. I pray for clarity, clarity at home, clarity in my job, clarity with what I am doing in life. Those choices that I have yet to make are mine, and mine alone. In the parsha Moshe exhorts the people to take responsibility for themselves. The responsibility is mine to make better choices, to do better, to be better. I cannot control what challenges I am given, I can only control how I respond to the challenges.
5777 is still at the beginning. Am I up to the challenge??
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
Each day when I arrive at school I type up the morning announcements which consist of the date, in Hebrew and English, Pledge of Allegiance, The Star Spangled Banner and Hatikva and then any pertinent news for that particular day. Then, at 8:25, two or three students come to my office and I press 88 on my phone which opens the intercom in the school and the students say the announcements. One day last week, two 5th grade boys came to my office did the announcements flawlessly. In fact, one of the boys added an extra emphasis to the anthems, singing with much heart.
There was one problem. Even though I held the phone receiver up to the boys so that all could hear the announcements, no one heard them. When we came out from my office everyone asked me, “What happened to morning announcements? We kept wait, but nothing.” I quickly realized what happened. I forgot to press 88. My forgetfulness was the source of much laughter during a staff meeting immediately after the non-heard announcements.
This week we read Parshat VaYeilech. In the parsha there is the commandment of Hakhel. Once every seven years, on the first day of Hol HaMoed Sukkot of the year following a sabbatical year, the entire people would be gathered together to hear the king read the Book of Devarim. The king would read from the beginning of the book, through the portion of Devarim that contains the first two paragraphs of the Shema, and then a little more, all containing the themes of allegiance to HaShem, the Covenant and reward and punishment.
The purpose of this event was to emphasize certain important principles of Jewish life. Everyone was gathered together because everyone, men, women and children were (and are) part of the Jewish people and the Torah belonged (and still belongs) to every Jew. The Book of Devarim was representative of the entire Torah which is only read in a community, symbolized by a minyan. In the Torah narrative Moshe is speaking to the people as they are about to enter the Land of Israel. What life would be like in the land was still an unknown, he was giving the people strength and encouragement that through a connection to the Torah they would be able to overcome the challenges they would face.
It is significant that we read this commandment now. The new year has arrived and as we continue our spiritual trek through the holidays the time comes for us to think about our commitments, or connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. Like the Israelites at the edge of the Jordan, we don’t know what 5777 will bring, what challenges each of us will face. As Moshe encouraged the Jewish people to remain part of the community, connected to the Torah, may we stay united, may we keep our connections to Judaism, to the Jewish people. In doing so, our challenges become easier, and our good times are that much sweeter.
May we remember to press 88 to hear Moshe’s announcements.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
The Talmud relates the episode of a dispute between Rabban Gamliel the head of the academy, and Rabbi Yehoshua. The argument was about a certain practice and when Rabban Gamliel publically embarrassed Rabbi Yehoshua, the students decided to replace Rabban Gamliel. The question was who would be appropriate. Several suggestions were put forth, but for various reasons were not accepted. Finally, it was decided that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was the best choice. However, Rabbi Elazar’s wife disagreed because her husband was only 18 years old and was afraid that due to his youth he would carry the respect an older person would. That night a miracle occurred and strands of grey appeared in Rabbi Elazar’s beard. And so, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah took his place in the leadership of the academy.
There is one piece of this story that rubs me the wrong way. No, it isn’t Rabbi Elazar’s youth. No it isn’t Rabban Gamliel embarrassing Rabbi Yehoshua, though that is a problem. The issue I have is that Rabbi Elazar didn’t earn those grey hairs. Each morning when I look at the grey running through my beard, and sitting by my temples I know I have earned that grey with the work I do, with the choices I make. Being a parent, being a teacher, a husband, earning a living, experiencing the ups and downs of life, I am entitled to my grey. The grey is testimony to the reality that I am alive.
We are on the threshold of a new year. In another three days 5777 will have arrived and a new year will begin. As I review the past year and think about the choices I made, the things I did I wonder what this next year will be like. What new experiences will I have and will I capitalize on opportunities? Do I have the ability to make a difference?
The story is told of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883), the father of the Mussar Movement in Europe (Mussar is a genre of study that emphasizes proper behavior) who one night walked past a shoemaker working by candle light. Rabbi Salanter asked the shoemaker how much more work he could do since the candle would soon go out. The shoemaker replied, “As long as the candle is burning, there is still more to do.”
How poignant the shoemaker’s response! Rosh HaShanah speaks about the Book of Life. For each of us that book is still being written. The new year will present us with new opportunities, new experiences which will become the next chapters of our book. And the good part is that we do indeed have the ability to make our book a best seller.
How many new grey hairs will form in my beard during the next year?
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova u’metuka, a sweet, healthy and productive new year.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I grew up in Sharon, a small town in Massachusetts. Sharon is the typical New England community that stems from the Revolutionary War days; the white Unitarian church is in the center of town with its tall steeple and bell inside. Not far, behind the church is Depot Street that had a hill that many used for sledding in the winter. Sharon boasts Lake Massapoag and every summer we spent the weekends swimming there. My father, my sister and I spent many Sunday afternoons sailing on its waters. During the American Revolution iron ore was dug from the bottom of the lake to make cannon balls for the Continental Army (I know this because in high school I was a member of the Sharon Historical Society – yes, it is true).
I mention this because last night I was on What’s App with several colleagues from my Harvard cohort, one of whom also graduated from Sharon High School (though I finished many, many years earlier). She is heading back to Sharon for her 20th high school reunion. I felt a bit of envy, for I always enjoy returning to Sharon, for doing so allows me to return to my roots and get a sense of balance.
In this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, the Torah begins with the mandate of the Bikkurim ritual, of bringing the first fruits to the kohain. As part of the ritual, the farmer was required to say a specified text which is part of the Torah narrative, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father, He descended to Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation – great strong and numerous. The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us and placed hard work on us. Then we cried out to HaShem . . . and HaShem heard our voice and saw our affliction . . . took us out of Egypt and a strong hand and outstretched arm and with great awesomeness . . . “
This passage is the essential piece of the Maggid section of the haggadah at the Pesach seder. It encapsulates the story of the Exodus, and much of the haggadah is an expansion of these verses. The power of this passage is that it brings us back to our roots as a nation and how we became the Jewish people we are today.
We are now 10 days from Rosh HaShanah. As Elul wanes we continue to focus on the idea of Teshuva, of who we are as individuals and how we can improve. It is a time to return to our personal roots, so to speak. It is time to ask the important questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? How can I improve? The Rambam, in his Laws of Teshuva, says we must acknowledge our mistakes, know they were wrong and honestly strive to improve and fix them. This is the opportunity to become even better, to reach farther than we thought we could.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger