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 am posting this just after seeing that the U.S. House has voted to impeach President Trump for his actions leading to the violence at the Capitol one week ago. This is from the D'var Torah I gave on the Shabbat of Shmini Atzeret, the end of the festival of Sukkot, Saturday, October 10, 2020. This was a few weeks before Election Day. It is a charge about peace during the difficult time that was coming and that continues in this country. I drew out how the symbols and rituals connected to "Sukkat Shalom" (a temporary shelter of peace) might guide us. We are still in a time that requires the kind of Shalom-making I describe here. That Shalom is more than avoidance, and it has a moral and spiritual cost even though it is an imperative. This is not all I have to say today and in the coming days.
What’s next for us after our holy season in 5781 is the election season of 2020…. My own week of Sukkot has been about contemplating Sukkat Shalom, Sukkot as a training about peace.
The Geonim taught that the blessing over Lulav and Etrog is said each morning of Sukkot right after the blessings of peace that conclude the Amidah – the Birkat Kohanim(the priestly blessing of peace), Sim Shalom, Oseh Shalom.
They taught that we need to accumulate blessings of peace on the way to Lulav and Etrog, because the ritual involves four species that are so different and distant and hard to put together into one. Our tradition takes the four species to represent vastly different kinds of people. Palm, citron, myrtle and willow have smell and taste, or one or the other, or neither one at all. The midrash compares this to how Jews come in different combinations – those with great Torah and great mitzvot (deeds), those with great Torah and few mitzvot, those with great mitzvot but little Torah, those with very little or none of either. Holding the four species together in one bundle is about the difficulty of holding together such a group. Four species that don’t by their nature automatically come together.
In that bundle, the Etrog looks like the heart. It has both a beautiful fragrance and a sharp taste – just as those with both Torah wisdom and goodness are the heart of a community. But the community is the whole bundle. The four species are so different and have different logics to how they live, and we are commanded to bring them together in one bundle of peace. Not a surface peace, but a challenging and dynamic one, a peace that has to be demonstrated each day of Sukkot. A peace that requires effort, working your way by concentrating on constant reminders of what Shalom could be. You cannot fulfill the mitzvah of Lulav unless the bundle is one you yourself have acquired. There’s no shortcut – you cannot use a stolen Lulav in Jewish law. You cannot have peace without acquiring it legitimately. There is no shortcut. You cannot have peace without actually wrestling with difference and division in the logics of how people live.
In the coming month until Election Day, and a period of time to follow, a fundamental imperative will be Shalom – peace that is dynamic, acquired, recognizing difference and tension, built around Torah and righteous action. Difficult peace.
At the heart of this will be anyone willing to be like an Etrog. A heart connected to what seem like different species, to people who are strong in wisdom and knowledge, and who are weak in them; to people who are strong in actions of goodness, and who are weak in them.
How fascinating that the Torah did not ask us to take a sweeter fruit instead. The Etrog, the heart, has to announce the fragrance it has, and it has to challenge with the sharp taste it has. The Etrog is held next to the Lulav, the palm that draws its strength from deep sources, from deep water that is true no matter what storms are in the sky or not in the coming season, no matter what water is flowing on the surface or not.
I am wearing this kippah today, the one with the Jewish star and the American flag, and will continue to wear it daily through the election and beyond. My nation, my values, my community. The Shalom imperative of this next period is something I am taking on along with other clergy leaders in our area. Hareini m’kabel alai – we take it on for our congregations and for this Nashua area.
This month and the next few are not going to be the months when we reach the long-term and deep solutions we need in America. We are not going to solve the issues of justice and suffering while we are voting, and counting votes, and in the waiting period that might follow. We are not going to be able to get to work on long-term solutions in the period right after the election is settled while many people are hurt and confused and disoriented and angry, which will be the case for more people than ever, even more than today, no matter who wins.
So as we take down our ritual Sukkot, we need to build another kind of Sukkat Shalom, a temporary and fragile Sukkah held up by those who are committed to peace on many levels – to nonviolent responses, to reaching out even to those who are deficient in Torah or deficient in good deeds or deficient in both. To speak to and draw out more of any Torah they have, any good deeds they have. This is a Sukkat Shalom we will need to hold up for a period of time but not for longer than necessary, to enable us to walk truly into a new American year, a new phase in this country.
We will hold it up, myself and my clergy colleagues and any of you who choose to join in this work. We will hold it up as a shelter, as a house of Sarah and Avraham where any can talk who is willing to talk, even if you are not ready yet to talk toward agreement. We will hold it up as a Sanctuary, for anyone who needs a quiet and safe place to pray or reflect or for any who are disoriented. This place here where I am standing, and other churches in our community, will be those shelters of Shalom.
Our clergy will hold up a Sukkah of peace in the public square, on Main Street and in the papers, by calling publicly for nonviolence before and after the election. We will do what we did four years ago in our Men’s Club political breakfast, when I got a commitment from then-Senator Ayotte and now-Senator Hassan to meet a group of us two days after the election to make a public show of Shalom. We have begun to approach the authorities in Nashua to offer ourselves, because we need to prepare and we need our authorities to be prepared. One spark in the wrong place can cause things to get out of hand. We need people of Shalom to be driving the response to any conflict we have, not people of violence.
A time that elevates peace above other things for a time means assuming responsibility for those whose suffering will not be addressed in the period of Sukkat Shalom. The suffering because of COVID-19 and around racial injustice is not distributed evenly, and calling for peace first means taking responsibility for delaying what many people need. So I and my clergy colleagues need to back that up with a commitment to stand up for those bearing the brunt nonetheless, and to make sure that peace is not an excuse to push off everything else indefinitely. A Sukkah that can stand for too long is no longer a kosher Sukkah. Already, the conflicts in our society that have pushed off the moral imperatives of our day give us much to repent for.
And if in this time of seeking peace any group is targeted for intimidation or worse, the Sukkat Shalom must shelter and protect them, and not trade them for a false peace. That could be us, by the way, who are targeted – Jews generally; members of our community who are people of color or LGBTQ+ or immigrants. People will stand by us if that happens and we need to stand up for others.
Shalom means lifting up the example of those leaders who embody a true solidarity. We need those models, especially in our political leaders. It has fallen too hard on local leaders to be the only figures of such solidarity.
Shalom means holding to account those who advocate policies we want but who are themselves divisive. It means asking those we know on the other side politically to do the same when they point the finger only our way.
So I will wear this kippah to show this commitment to Shalom. In this spirit I have been reaching out and will continue to do so – to fellow religious leaders in the area who are my longtime partners and my emerging ones, to leaders of groups I do not have relationships so deep with, to leaders of groups whose vulnerability I worry about. To members of this congregation whose commitments I respect and admire, to members of this congregation who express themselves politically with whom I am solidarity even though we do not have the same outlook on social questions of the day.
We will need in the coming months some backing off and cooling off, and some compromise, and those will be the right thing at times as long as we don’t mistake them for the truest Shalom. They will not last on their own. They haven’t until now. We have tried too long in America to find Shalom only by cooling off and compromising and pushing off until later.
But real Shalom is not avoidant and it is not shallow. It is not the lowest common denominator.
Peace comes only through people who are like the Etrog -- who probe their deeds and probe their Torah, who have both an inviting fragrance and a sharp flavor, who know that even a fruit that is beautiful has to be cultivated again and again.
The America we need will not come from violence, nor will it come from avoiding conflict. It will come in the period following a Sukkat Shalom, a dynamic and hard peace held up by those who will step forward and actively hold it.
I hope that my fears and preparations are overblown and not so needed – that the worst we have is unhappiness this month and next, not outright conflict – but the preparation is good no matter what. Though my words are solemn, I speak them in the same hope I taught on Rosh Hashanah: seeing myself and others step up in worthwhile action on behalf of people we care about, including you and others.
I shall keep wearing this kippah. As we turn to Yizkor (memorial prayers), I will reach to the example of ancestors who faced challenges as serious as the ones we do and pray that their merits will inspire and bless us, as we finally step out of Elul and Tishrei into the year it is our destiny to build for our country.
This is almost too good to be true: the beginning of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar this year coincided with opening day for Major League Baseball.
Usually around this time of year I show you this T-shirt based on an observation by Rabbi Morris Allen at my parents’ shul about the absolute parallels between the Jewish calendar and the baseball calendar.
In all other years, pitchers and catchers report to training camps around Tu Bishevat, and spring training games begin around Purim. Which is for us the start of a warmup period too, with planning and preparation for Pesach, which generally coincides with baseball’s Opening Day!
On the T-shirt this part of a typical year is what here is called the “dog days of summer”, and it lines up with Tisha B’Av, the fast commemorating the destruction of the Batei Mikdash (the two Temples). In baseball this kicks off a hot and hard period of time leading to the pennant races for spots in the playoffs and the World Series. The climactic moments of the season in September and October coincide with the month of Tishrei and the High Holy Days. (Well, they did before the expanded playoffs!)
This year, time and the seasons have been disrupted, and summer isn’t what summer usually is for many of us. Even baseball has this compressed season -- the whole cycle from Opening Day through the champshiop will take place in three months from now to the end of October. And for us, our season of teshuvah, of reflection and renewal, begins now with the week of Tisha B’Av and this Shabbat called Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision.
This week and this Shabbat kick off two months of reflection that lead toward the big games, so to speak, the High Holy Days, when we judge how the past year went and think about our destiny in the new year. We think about being in exile and coming home. We spend a month, well into October, with the holy days through Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
Like in baseball, there’s a lot this year packed into three months. But baseball’s new Opening Day, just invented out of whole cloth, can remind us that time in a ritual sense is something we construct as communities, to help us do what would otherwise seem infinite and overwhelming. Without the calendar rhythms and rituals, it would be harder to stop and take note of our blessings. Without them we couldn’t step out of everything that’s driving us, to tell stories of our past, stories of challenges and resilience, stories of difficulty and hope.
Without the calendar in particular, we could easily be overwhelmed by the demands of staying alive and getting by, in a world that is enormous and throws so much at us.
My teachers at the Seminary, Rabbi Neil Gillman and Rabbi Joe Lukinsky, taught us what calendars and rituals do for human communities. They are how we fight for some order out of chaos, and how we build actual power to push some of the chaos away. Think about how many of our rituals take place at the moments when darkness begins. Our candles on Friday night and Saturday night, when we fight off the darkness where danger might lurk -- we refuse to retreat, we insist on saying I am standing, we are standing. In Jewish ritual, we choose those night times for our most messianic dreams -- when we step into Shabbat, the Taste of the World to come; when we step out of Shabbat in the first darkness of the week and summon Eliyahu, the prophet who tells us when redemption will arrive for the whole world.
Think about how many of our rituals are sitting in circles, or nowadays rectangular circles around tables, singing -- creating strength, covalent bonds between us, a binding chemistry that draws out the power in each other that is more than the sum of all our parts.
Our genius as human beings is ritual and calendar. These allow us to pull blessing and strength and resilience and connection out of the chaos that could be the world. otherwise Rituals are supposed to help us face what we are afraid of and make it safer to be afraid and handle fears, together with each other, together with the wisdom of our ancestors. Rituals let us tell stories not just about the past but about the future, the crazy audacious stories of a world so much more perfect thatn our own.
Rituals aren’t life, and they aren’t the only thing religion is supposed to be. They are where we find the energy pods, the wisdom pods, and the connecting bonds that we need to go out and live. Rituals and holy days are not for themselves -- they are for life,as a whole and we need them so we can live in this challenging time.
This year, we especially need those rituals. We will use them and wring us much as we can out of them in this particular season of this particular year. We need to consciously bring more of the rituals and more of the calendar rhythm, from this Opening Day of the beginning of Av all through the whole holy day season, Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah. We need to use all of it, because there is so much chaos and so much overwhelm in our worlds. As individuals, as households, as parents and schoolchildren, as citizens.
I want to help us this year make use of all the time of these three months coming, especially starting with Elul at the next new moon. And I want to help us make use of rituals that we sometimes just do superficially.
The four weeks of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah should include four deliberate check-ins. Maybe you’ll set aside four times for yourself to sit and reflect. Or meet four times with a group of people online or in a yard, twice to look back and twice to talk about hopes for the new year. Or maybe you commit to just getting to know a group better within the congregation, or learning something that might be valuable for your new year from a Jewish source.
We will have the sweet apples and honey, so we can think about what is still sweet in our lives, what is fruitful, what has been generative this year that we forgot to notice. We can look at the seeds and think of what we planted, or who planted something inside us that has grown beautiful and nourishing to others. We can think about what might grow and what will be sweet even in this unique new year.
We have the shofar, blown every day of Elul and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We will think about the shevarim blasts, the brokenness of our world and the things that broke apart for us in our lives, and how we want to see them put together again. We will think about the t’ruah blasts, the scattered details of our lives as we have learned how to do each little thing again in a new way. We will think about the t’kiah gedolah, the clear calls we still believe in and still want to hear, the ways we are whole, the summons to where we want to be going.
We will have lakes and streams and oceans we can stand by, where we can toss away the things we badly want gone from our old year.
We will have the sukkah, the simple structure that challenges us to think about what protection is, what we really need in our material lives. By the time of Sukkot, we can hopefully think of ourselves as active builders of the new year.
All of these times and rituals will help us think about uncertainty and fears, and give us time to reflect and redirect -- and help us find the powers we still have, the wisdom we still have, the power and wisdom we can share with each other, all that power over the chaos of 2020 and 5780. Our rituals and our calendar will not be another demand added to an overwhelming list. They will make our lives easier, and help us turn our cries into songs.
We will have this new season through these months, from the new Opening Day we declare this week to the World Series of our holy days. One way or another -- together, online -- we will stand in circles as the sky becomes purple, and light our candles, and sing together, so we can live well in a new year.
A quick check in before the last Tishrei holy days:
I am incredibly proud of our congregation, Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua. Yesterday we hosted Imam Muhammad Musri from Orlando, who was visiting the nearby mosque in Lowell, for a talk on the basics of Islam. At least sixty congregants attended. People asked questions about the faith and there was the beginning of conversation about Islam in the world and the U.S. today, and the role of its leaders here. We plan to follow up, with a visit by me to the local mosques to talk about Judaism, and now we know the nearest imam so we can continue these conversations and build relationships.
Big thanks to the Southern New Hampshire Jewish Men's Club for hosting a (calm!) candidate forum today with Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Gov. Maggie Hassan, running for Senate; Rep. Ann McLane Kuster and Jim Lawrence, running for Congress; Executive Councillors Chris Sununu and Colin Van Ostern, running for Governor.
As moderator, I mostly asked questions submitted by the 100 or so people in attendance, plus a few of my own. I got a commitment from both Sen. Ayotte and Gov. Hassan to meet with me and Rev. Allison Palm of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua on Thursday, Nov. 10. One day to rest after the election, but only one. They will meet us together, regardless of who wins their election. At the end of an acrimonious election at the national level, after which large minorities may doubt the new president, we will be talking about how to get active Democrats and Republicans to move forward with the fact of a new president, and to reach out personally to people they know in the other party in order to change the divisive climate starting right away.
Posted at 09:37 AM in Calendar, Community Relations, Current Affairs, Election, Freedom, Health Care, High Holidays, Holidays, Inclusion, Interfaith Dialogue, Islam, Justice, Leadership, Rabbi, Sukkot, Taking Sides, Temple Beth Abraham, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur | Permalink | Comments (0)
Last night at our shul's Ritual Committee meeting, Larry Rubin read from a terrific Dvar Torah he found by Rabbi Oren Hayon from Dallas. Here's the link to the whole thing. Here is the beginning just below. My own page on Sukkot is here. Chag Sameach!
D'var Torah: Making Homelessness Our Home
September 28, 2009
by Oren J. Hayon
Like a giant tent spread atop three tall pillars that support it and give it shape, the Jewish year is held up by the Shalosh R'galim, the "three pilgrimage festivals." Pesach commemorates the joy of liberation and freedom, Shavuot acknowledges the power of God's word revealed in Torah, and Sukkot reminds Israel of nights spent in fragile huts during its wilderness sojourn.
Pesach and Shavuot celebrate spiritual fulfillment, times when God anticipated Israel's needs and acted bountifully and graciously to fulfill them. We were granted political and national fulfillment on Pesach, when we were led out of the painful grip of slavery. Atop Sinai, we were given the wisdom of Torah, and we celebrate its spiritual and intellectual fulfillment on Shavuot. But Sukkot, in contrast, does not celebrate substantive fulfillment at all. Instead, it acknowledges the insecurity and uncertainty of desert nights spent in frail temporary shelters.
Stranger still is this fact: each of the pilgrimage festivals has an alternate name which alludes to its purpose and religious symbolism. Pesach is called Z'man Cheiruteinu, "the Time of Our Freedom." Shavuot is called Z'man Matan Torateinu, "the Time of our Receiving Torah." And the name that tradition ascribes to Sukkot is Z'man Simchateinu, "the Time of Our Joy."
Might not this be a better title for some other holiday? What, after all, is so joyous about the memories of being homeless and directionless in the desert? Read more...
From Yom Kippur, when we put aside our material existence by fasting and spending so many hours in prayer, we move to Sukkot. Sukkot is by contrast a very earthy, material holiday. The Sukkah booth itself, obviously, and the plant material that makes up its roof. The Arba'ah Minim, Four Species as well -- the lulav (palm), the etrog (citron), the hadasim (myrtles), and the aravot (willows).
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 (think about what it sounds like when you shake the Four Species together). 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 hers, 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 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 be emerged, or that God released for Noah'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 has been a persistent metaphor in our tradition for God and for Torah. Water continues to be one of the most important matters of environmental scarcity on our planet today, and it continues to be in the center of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
If you are around Nashua, I'll be teaching more about Sukkot and water this Shabbat/Yom Tov morning in shul at Temple Beth Abraham. Hag Sameach!