This is my D'var Torah for the first day of Sukkot 5784 and Shabbat, September 30, 2023.
Sukkot is actually the third part of the High Holy Days. It’s not just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sukkot is the zany but nuanced third festival of our kickoff month of Tishrei.
And Sukkot is specifically a continuation of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we go hyperspiritual, in the sense that we put away most of our material existence – eating, physical pleasures and adornments, even our homes as we spend more time in the synagogue than any other day. Then on Sukkot it seems like the opposite – we get hypermaterial, very earthy. Outdoors, building the hut, waving the Four Species, and in contrast to Yom Kippur the essential mitzvah in the Sukkah is to eat.
What we are actually doing is bringing our spiritually-realigned selves from Yom Kippur into a stylized version of our material life. A simple house, a week of meals, getting hands-on with four types of plants that represent four basic ways we interact with the physical world of things that grow and the water cycle. It’s like moving into a prototype of the materialist world, getting the basics straight before we step out into a more complex actual world of commerce and tangible things. On Sukkot we try to align our material selves on the basis of our reoriented spiritual selves.
So in the Talmud the Sukkah is connected to the Holy of Holies, which the High Priest used to enter on Yom Kippur. That’s where the ark was with the tablets, which means the Sukkah itself is a covenantal place. It’s a design statement meant to guide our relationship to material things and to people with whom we share meals, and to people in our neighborhood. And all through Sukkot we’re reminded that our relationships with people and food are connected directly to nature. We’re always eating in the shade of the s’chach on top of the Sukkah, the shadows that remind us of the divine protection that covers us even when we’re not paying attention, a spiritual mist made up of very earthy material.
So I want to talk about one way we can prototype our material world in the coming year, so it becomes more aligned spiritually and covenantally. I am part of a group of about ten clergy in the area who call ourselves the Greater Nashua Interfaith Housing Justice Group. We have been together for about six years but we’ve been working very publicly on issues of housing for more than four years. I want to tell you some of the what and more of the why, and invite you to engage in that work with us as members of the Jewish community and the faith community more broadly. Many of us are speaking in our congregations this week on this topic. Some of you were here four years ago when we did the same.
A Sukkah is defined in the Talmud as dirat ara’i, temporary dwelling. On a Torah level this is about bringing us back to the desert, where the Jewish people lived in a series of temporary places while we got our Torah and our training. In Egypt, even as slaves we lived in houses, as we know from the night of the Exodus with the blood on our doorposts. In the promised land we would again have homes, to live in and buy and sell. Sukkot is about the experience in between. In the desert every one of us knew a vulnerability about food and shelter survival, and it was the same whether you were Moshe or Miryam or a tribal elder, or anyone else.
In our community, dirat ara’i for some people means not having any place to call home from day to day. All of our local shelters are full all the time. Thanks to the vision of many local leaders and the generosity of many including members of our shul, a new shelter on Spring Street in Nashua was opened recently by the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter. Having a stable place to come back to each day, to rest and eat a meal and do homework, is a basic prerequisite for physical health, and mental health, and doing your job well or staying consistent in school. Too many kids have to couch-surf, which means moving also from school to school, and you can imagine the impact on educational progress and social development.
Because so many of our local nonprofits work so well on homelessness, our clergy group has picked up the next level from that, which has never had enough public advocates. So we work on affordable housing, which in practice turns out be primarily for renters – another kind of dirat ara’i, temporary dwelling.
In the city of Nashua, an increasing number of people rent as opposed to owning the place where they live. As a result, rents in the city are skyrocketing, outpacing inflation by about double in the past decade. In our part of the state, even beyond the city, about half of renters pay more than they can afford on housing, meaning more than 30% of income. If you work in health care, education, or retail, it’s almost impossible to find a place to rent in Nashua that’s affordable on your salary, and certainly that’s the case for people in lower paying jobs.
As a result, just the City of Nashua needs to add around 4,500 more units of housing by 2030 to stabilize our overall housing market, and of that at least another 1,800 units that would have to be affordable to people making far less than the area median income. Even this wouldn’t quite meet the needs of all the families emerging from transitional housing programs or everyone working as a nurse, a police officer, or a public school teacher who wants to live in the community where they work. It would still be a dramatic bite in the shortage.
Our municipal leaders and our state leaders have been paying more attention to this over the past five years. In Nashua, there have been some welcome achievements and our interfaith housing justice group has been part of a couple of them, as has the Granite State Organizing Project in these and others. Nashua created an affordable housing trust fund with $10 million from the American Rescue Plan, one of the Covid-19 relief programs passed by Congress. This money will increase the incentives for private builders to create affordable housing. Rentals are financed on the expectation of an income stream down the road, and when the apartment is going to be rented for less than the market rate, there’s a shortfall there that makes the project unprofitable – or in the non-theological lingo we’ve learned, “it doesn’t pencil.” To make it sensible for a developer to rent at a rate that someone could afford who is a teacher or a nurse or getting back on their feet with a new job, each unit requires an extra $25-80,000 of upfront financing. That’s what this fund will provide. This $10 million can help us bite off some 10-20% of the need we have. We’ll need more in the fund to hit our goal by 2030. As an example, a real-estate transaction surcharge on the order of a penny on every $1,000 of a sale could fund our need in Nashua in perpetuity.
We have a new inclusionary zoning ordinance that passed our Board of Aldermen with not a single dissent, which requires new buildings of certain sizes to have a certain number of units of affordable housing within them, or else the developer has to pay per unit built into the housing trust fund.
Many of you have seen the redevelopment and expansion of public housing downtown on Central Street off the south end of the new parkway, formerly the Bronstein Apartments and now Monahan Manor.
All of these are an acceleration of the pace of creating new affordable housing, but we are still behind where we need to be for 2030. So we need to advocate for more funding from the state and other sources, as the Covid-related stimulus funding comes to an end.
If it were just about numbers, I don’t know that we would be involved specifically as people of faith. How we create housing matters.
The Sukkah is about covenantal design. It’s about how housing links us together or divides us. When the Talmud discusses the construction requirements for the Sukkah, it connects the Sukkah to a chuppah, the marriage canopy, and to a mavoy, a neighborhood allyway where people often decide to collaborate in carry things around or share food on Shabbat. I’ve been thinking about the most bizarre design teaching about Sukkah, which is the booth has to be big enough for your entire head, a table, and most of your body but not all of it. Obviously this wouldn’t be a comfortable Sukkah, nor is it ideal to have a Sukkah where you can’t eat with other people. I think what it means is that you have to experience a full Sukkah mind yourself, but your eating has to keep you connected to what’s outside.
How we create housing is as important as the raw number of apartments. American public housing programs created clusters of high-rise buildings that concentrated poverty and had the effect of segregating many cities by race. The newest thinking even about publicly financed construction is that it makes a difference when attention is paid to how a building helps people connect with their neighbors, with local business and public space. Open space and common space matter, incentives to connect with other people in the building as opposed to fearing them. It makes a difference when people of different socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures live in the same building – so much informal networking happens, so much social trust can be built across difference, the outcomes are proven better for children.
It makes a difference when the people who live in a building or a neighborhood that will be rebuilt to increase its capacity for housing have a voice, in the design and in what happens to them while they are displaced.
Our interfaith housing groups call this covenantal thinking. It’s what we hope for and are already lobbying to happen around the next big projects in Nashua: redeveloping the Elm Street Middle School when the new school opens, recreating the public housing on Major Drive, what will happen next now where the asphalt plant was proposed down the hill from here, and how to repurpose Daniel Webster College as proposed in the new city master plan.
Covenant thinking might lead any one project to have fewer units, which on its own seems like a missed opportunity. But as the lens widens, new people might see themselves as partners for affordable housing, and new projects can emerge that the existing stakeholders might never have thought of.
The Spring Street Shelter has some of this covenantal thinking in it. There are community rooms, rooms for education, and former director Michael Reinke’s vision was for community groups beyond NSKS to share a life in the building. Not just to see residents are people who need things from “the rest of us” like clothing, or even skills training. But a place where community groups could offer interesting cultural and educational programming for anyone, resident or not, in a location central in our city right downtown.
The last time a group of us preached on housing we were leading into a public event, which generated momentum and new relationships with city officials and led to some of the progress to date. We’ve been able to collaborate and to critique. So too this coming Monday the community is invited to a forum with candidates for mayor and the Board of Aldermen in Nashua. We will hear stories about the housing crisis from community members, and then ask the candidates for their policy priorities around equitable, affordable housing. The forum is at the Unitarian Universalist Church near here at 7:30, and you’ll have plenty of time to make it after our Sukkah dinner and event here that night.
Whether or not you live in Nashua, you can advance the goals of more affordable housing created in a covenantal fashion in many ways. Attend the event on Monday. Sign up for our e-mail list, so we can keep you posted on public meetings of local planning boards and other bodies debating policies and budgets. We need people who are not the usual faces to come and be YIMBYs, Yes in My Backyard advocates, because almost every project is opposed by an organized group. Ask any candidate for office if they will accept a pledge toward 2,000 new units of affordable housing this decade if you live in Nashua. But things are happening all the time in the other towns too, and next year, the gubernatorial and legislative elections will have a big impact, because Gov. Sununu and the legislature the past few years have added tens of millions of new dollars statewide into affordable housing finance. The new governor and legislators should continue in that path and add even more.
And if you or someone you know has expertise in any area related to real estate or finance or construction, or philanthropy, help us connect. One of the things about our congregations is that we have so many different talents and resources among us, and it’s not just the same players as are around other tables who discuss and decide these matters.
Sukkot is a good time to reflect on the physical structures we live in and how they are connected as neighborhoods and as towns. On Sukkot we move out of our settled homes into dirat ara’i, temporary structures, which help us get our bearings as we relaunch into a year of commerce and consumption, neighborliness, political debate about how we marshall and share our collective resources. On this Sukkot, let’s complete the High Holy Day season by restoring our material lives to their spiritual roots, their covenantal roots, for the new year.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!
From Yom Kippur, when we put aside our material existence by fasting and spending so many hours in prayer, we move within days to Sukkot. Sukkot is by contrast a very earthy, material holiday. There is the Sukkah booth itself and the plant material that makes up its roof. There are the Arba'ah Minim, the Four Species, as well -- the lulav (palm), the etrog (citron), the hadasim (myrtles), and the aravot (willows). Sukkot helps us take the spiritual awakening we experience with the new year and bring it toward our material lives.
According to the Mishnah, Sukkot is one of the four Jewish New Year occasions, when "we are judged concerning water." So many of the rituals of Sukkot involve water or praying for the winter rains. If you shake the Four Species together, it sounds like a rain shower!
Here is an explanation that builds on work done by Nogah Hareuveni, who founded Neot Kedumim, a nature preserve in Israel dedicated to biblical landscape and agriculture. (I think the interpretation is his, but since I can't find it written exactly this way I'll take responsibility if it differs.)
Dr. Hareuveni notes that the four species represent the only four different ways that plants can be watered. The palm is a tree of the desert oasis; it draws from deepest groundwater. The willows grow by a river, water constantly flowing on the ground. The myrtles require rain -- dew or the periodic floods that go through a dry stream-bed (known as nachal in Hebrew or wadi in Arabic). The citron is a cultivated fruit, requiring irrigation -- humans gathering and bringing water.
To the pagans living around our ancestors, each source of water came from a different source and could be traced to a different god. The Canaanites actually used the same word, baal, to refer to the "master" of their pantheon of gods, and to the condensation of rainwater on plants. In some texts, the waters of the deep are referred to as Mot, the god of death. These are the deep waters in our Genesis stories that originally covered everything and had to be held back to allow the ground to emerge, or that God released for Noach's flood.
But the Israelites came to understand that the four waters were one, and had only one Source. So they bound the four disparate species together into one bundle, to symbolize the oneness of our God. The Four Species are waved in all directions, indicating an understanding that the one Source of waters and life is present everywhere.
Water remains a basic need, even in our technological society. It makes up most of our body and the surface of our planet. Our life from day to day, and our future as a species, depend on water, and many conflicts in the world or within societies are about access to water. For all those reasons, water is a common metaphor in our tradition for God and for Torah. And when everything is in alignment, the prophets describe perfection as perfect waves or an ever-flowing stream.
I've put out post a Tov! podcast episode and an identical written piece, encompassing just about everything I can think of about how The Good Place on TV illustrates, elaborates, and even improves on a core teaching of Maimonides about teshuvah, the core Jewish metaphor and practice around personal change!
This was my D'var Torah for Parashat Re'eh last Shabbat, August 12, 2023.
Two friends encounter each other late at night near the town square. It’s a classic small New England town, gazebo in the center, and it’s a particularly clear night, the new moon. The one finds the other kneeling down next to a street light looking around at the sidewalk.
“Hi! What are you doing?”
“I was here earlier and I lost my ring, so I’m looking for it.”
“Where do you think you lost it?”
“I’m pretty sure over there by the gazebo,” says the first one, pointing across the street at the village green.
“So why are you looking over here?”
“Oh! Because the light is better.”
This is what it’s like for us often, when we’re looking for something we need or we’ve lost. It’s hard to get ourselves to look in certain places, hard or scary, and often it’s easier to stay where we already know how to see the things we’ve learned how to see.
Which is why the opening to our parasha is so surprising. Re’eh Look -- I am giving in front of you today a blessing and curse. Re’eh, anochi notayn lifnaychem hayom b’rachah uk’lalah.
When the Torah wants to get our attention, it almost never says Re’eh, “see” -- it says: Sh’ma! Listen. It’s not “Look O Israel Adonai is your God...”; it’s Sh’ma Yisrael.
Seeing and hearing are two very different metaphors, and I think the metaphors are meaningful even for those of us whose physical sight or hearing is not perfect.
Seeing is the most problematic of our senses. We can only look in one direction at a time, and even those of us with good peripheral vision miss things a bit to the side. When we’re looking for something particular, we miss other things even right in front of us -- like the study where the subjects were asked to watch a video of a basketball game and count passes between players, and completely missed the gorilla walking across the court.
We have eyelids that we can deliberately close. We “see with our own lens.” We talk about “looking the other way”, in order to avoid seeing a person who needs us or a wrong we know is being done. We can use our mind to override the inputs that our eyes might want to give us. And some of the al-chets on Yom Kippur, the list of wrongs, are about our eyes -- sikkur ayin, leering at someone; aynaim ramot, looking down on someone.
And seeing is different from hearing because what we perceive through our eyes alone is always on the surface. Seeing often stands for judging a book by its cover.
Or looking in a certain direction is just hard, or painful. This week, it’s hard to look at certain places in this Sanctuary where someone is so palpably missing.
So seeing is imperfect and it’s difficult -- and it’s easier just to look in the light.
Hearing is a different metaphor. Our ears hear a voice from deep within someone trying to say something real, or a cry from the heart. We can try to plug our ears, but we can’t close them at all the way we can with our eyes. There’s no real way to turn your head in a direction so you don’t hear.
Sounds force us to pay attention even when we try not to -- if the gorilla made a sound, you couldn’t help yourself from noticing that it’s different from the dribble of a basketball.
So it’s not surprising that in the Sh’ma itself -- the prayer that opens with “Hear O Israel”-- the Torah tells us to look at our tzitzit so our eyes have something mitzvah-centered to focus on, v’lo tatura acharei l’vavchem, v’acharei eineichem asher atem zonim achareihem -- and don’t go straying after your mind, and after your eyes which you go lusting after!
Moshe in our parasha talks about doing the right thing in the future as the opposite of the desert, where “everyone does anything that seems right in their own eyes” -- ish kol hayashar b’einav. Maybe it goes all the way back to Gan Eden, to Chava taking a look at that fruit.
Sh’ma is a spiritual paradigm for us -- for being responsive to others, letting ourselves be drawn out toward them even when we’re not prepared, getting to what’s beneath the surface in the people around us. And it’s a paradigm for responding even to our own inner voice, our own prayers and our cries. Sh’ma is all over this parasha, it’s one of the most important words in the whole book of D’varim.
So why does our parasha say: Re’eh. See this important thing I want you to have, a blessing as well as a curse to stay away from. And by the way just for good measure, Moshe messes with the people: See what I am putting in front of you today, which is that in a few weeks I’m going to show it to you on some mountains across the river which you literally can’t see from where you are now.
Rabbi Josh Feigelson teaches: Nonetheless, Moshe uses the language of Re’eh instead of Sh’ma here, because we don’t have the option to replace seeing with hearing. What we can do is to make our seeing more like our hearing.
In our parasha, human eyes are generally not a good metaphor -- but Divine eyes are. Kira Sirote points out a unique phrase in the Bible that appears once in the Torah and a couple places in the prophets, and the phrase is ayin b'ayin, literally an eye in an eye.
It’s used once in the Torah for the most famous law about the eye, an eye for an eye (and there’s a nugget about that you can ask me later how it connects). But in the prophets, Kira notes, the phrase talks about a moment when the regular human eye becomes a prophet’s eye. “How beautiful on the mountains are the legs of the one who announces redemption, making sounds of peace... Your lookouts will raise their voices because eye in eye they will see the Divine returning, ayin b’ayin yir’u b’shuv Adonai"! (Isaiah 52:7-8)
Imagine seeing something as simple as another person’s leg, just a person walking, and immediately perceiving from somewhere deeper that redemption is almost here, that peace is possible within yourself or in the world -- that reunions are possible with people, and our own souls and dreams, and even I pray with loved ones across the boundary between this world and the next.
Imagine if there was an eye inside your eye, whose default was to wonder what depth or what feeling is beneath the surface of any person you see.
A kind of spiritual infrared, an eye that perceives more wavelengths when it sees, that almost hears when it looks.
An eye looking at tzitzit not to avoid being distracted, but to follow them out past their ends in each of the four directions because there is too much here not to miss.
An eye that closes long enough to replenish itself to see more, or to leave time to see dreams.
An eye inside your eye that saw when another person was looking over here because it’s hard for them right now to look over there.
That I believe was Chava’s eye in Gan Eden, which saw that the fruit was good and nourishing, and beautiful, and worth thinking about more, before she took it and shared it.
Two friends encounter each other, and one of them has lost something. The other asks, “Why are you looking over here,” and the first one says, “Because here the light is better.”
And the friend says, “Maybe we can look there together.” Or: “Would it help if I stayed around here while you went over there.” Or: “I’ll be here again if you want to look tomorrow.”
As we look ahead to the moonless night later this week that marks the month of Elul, that leads us to the new year -- may our seeing be as good as our hearing. May we help each other make our way to the mountains we can’t yet see where announcers are calling us; help each other see the blessings in the places that are harder to search. And may we all see each other with the eye inside our eye.
Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
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These are to me the best of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons from years past. I'm collecting them here because you find them useful to read and think about in Elul. They aren't in chronological or any particular order.
Hope In An Uncertain World (5777/2016)
What the Chanukkah dreidel can teach us about four kinds of hope.
Who Knows? (5780/2019)
How the story of Esther even more than the Torah can guide us to live in a world of mortal dangers.
How Good Do I Have to Be? (5777/2016)
With assists from the Green Monster, Pesky's Pole, Naomi Shemer and Reb Simcha Bunem.
Still Small Voices (5778/2017)
We are a community where many people have prayers they don't reveal out loud about the difficult things happening in our lives and families. How to be there even when we don't reveal or don't know what those prayers are.
Finding Purpose and Direction (5773/2012)
Figuring out your purpose, especially in up in the air times, or transitions in life or work.
Lost and Found (5779/2018)
When the pieces of life's puzzle aren't gone, but someone else has yours to give you back, or vice versa.
V.O.R. -- Vision-Opinion Ratio (5779/2018)
Fewer superficial reactions to public things, more visions -- how to find and speak about the things you are truly committed to, and quieting down about the rest.
Holy Impatience (5775/2014)
Some impatience is selfish, unfair expectations. Holy impatience is rooted in love, a concern for someone else who doesn't have the life or peace they deserve.
Helping Someone Else Change (5771/2010)
No one can change someone else -- but sometimes we can support other people in their changes. Starring a mitzvah in Leviticus and some social psychology research.
Why "Busy" has become the answer to "How are you?" and what we can do about it.
Moral Adventure (5776/2015)
Adventure isn't just for heroes and myths. Our own lives are different when we recognize them as moral adventures, and the people we go through life with as our fellow students and sidekicks.
Long Tables, Shabbat Meals (5772/2011)
Why long tables are better than round, long meals are magical, and Shabbat creates relationships different from friendship but no less powerful.
Back to Better Than Normal (5782/2021)
As we transition from the Covid-19 pandemic, the old normal is certainly not what what we want to go back to.
Being Present in a Digital Age (5774/2013)
How to make people and not devices more central to our daily lives.
Look Up (5780/2019)
In a cynical age, we need to focus more on looking up to people -- the everyday people in our lives, the people who need us, the best leaders we know.
Body Talk (5779/2018)
How to show others we really believe they are the image of God.
Posted at 04:37 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Hope, Justice, Leadership, Middot, Patience, Ritual, Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
This is based on what I said on Shabbat morning, August 27, 2022 at the start of the month of Elul. It was the day of a Bar Mitzvah and an aufruf (blessing to a couple about to get married)!
Usually I think of Elul as a time of introspection before we get together in a big way on Rosh Hashanah. But the past few years I’ve been thinking that it would be great to start the month leading to the ten particularly intense days with a dance party, a disco party! First we should celebrate that we’ve gotten here -- we should look at each other and who’s in this together with us and going to help us look back and look ahead. And wow, this past year having been what it’s been and the year before that, we ABSOLUTELY should start it with a party. And my dream came true and I didn’t even realize it when we scheduled Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah celebration and when Rachel and Joel told me the date of their wedding. So this is how it should be. A new month, that little sliver of moonlight that says to the shade: You are going away, we’re going to make our own energy here and we’re going to gather our powers together so we can make a new year.
It's been quite a year, and we need more than the three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to do our reflecting and our redirecting and our rebooting – our teshuvah, our returning. The spiritual recalculating on the GPS of our hearts. I don’t even know if a month is enough.
The point isn’t to come to services on the holidays. The point is to figure out what we each need from the next 40 days (really it’s more like 52!) – and what of the many offerings of spirituality and learning can support each of us:
I’ll send you daily e-mails with thoughts and ways to gather for conversation or learning or spiritual practice. But the point isn’t to read the e-mails! It’s to use them. It’s really simple: Use this month and the next for you, for the better life you’ve been thinking about having or creating. Use it to figure out your piece of making the world better -- boy do we need that.
Say thank you as many times as possible, in a world that doesn’t do that enough and where there’s plenty you’re not happy about. You don’t have to decide if the world is more bad than good, or maybe you have decided there is more bad now -- but just find gratitude every day and express it, out loud, to someone or to your own ears. That will ripple out. No one can change only out of sadness and anger. Not unless you can connect it to someone you love whose suffering is what powers your anger, your sadness. Not unless you can find a lighthouse ahead for hope, powered by someone you deeply appreciate.
This time of year is serious, but it doesn’t have to be solemn. That’s why it needs a party today, and at the end of the season on Simchat Torah we have another one! I am so happy we’re together, and thank you for listening to my prayers this first hour and saying Amen, even if you don’t know what all my prayers were. Thank you, even if you didn’t know that’s what you were doing.
So I hope you’ll tap into the energy of today, not just the energy of joy but of words of Torah in many forms, to help you launch into Elul and a month of individual reflection that’s good for you and good for us all when you do it.