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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Sukkot

SHABBAT HOL HAMOED SUKKOT
(5777)
THE SOUL
“The dust returns to the earth as it was; and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
(Ecclesiastes 12:7)
Synagogues throughout the world read the book of Ecclesiastes on the intermediate Sabbath of Sukkot. The book, which I believe is one of the most fascinating in the Bible, describes a search for the meaning of life. The Rabbis attributed the book to King Solomon, who in his old age grew cynical. The book begins with the famous phrase, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes. 1:2). Towards the end of the book King Solomon admits that life seems purposeless. In the end, the dust which is the body is put in the earth, while the spirit which is the soul returns to God.
This is one of the earliest sources that seems to indicate that we human beings have two parts. We have a body, made of physical stuff, which can often be corrupted. And we have a soul, made of spiritual stuff, which will someday return to God. I recite this verse at every funeral I perform, as I place Israeli earth on the casket. Of course, the verse does not speak of the soul, but simply the spirit or breath (literally wind) which God blew into the body, and which returns to God at death. Nonetheless, the idea that we are made of two parts is known by philosophers as dualism. There are two substances, body and soul, matter and spirit. They come together within us for a period of time, and then they are separated. The soul came from God and eventually returns to God.
Jews affirm this every morning in their prayers. “The soul that you gave me is pure. You created it, you formed it, you guard it within me. Someday you will take it from me. Then you will return it to me at some future time.” Yes, Jewish theology teaches that at death the soul leaves us, but someday it will be returned. The body and the soul will be reunited, at the time of the resurrection of the dead. These are fundamental Jewish beliefs. In fact, the Mishnah teaches that anyone who denies resurrection of the dead is in the Torah has no place in the World to Come.
I am about to lose my place in the World to Come. For I can say that the Torah never mentions resurrection of the dead. In fact, the Torah never mentions the soul at all. The idea that when we die our soul goes to heaven for judgment is not part of the Biblical view. When the Bible speaks of death, it talks of people sleeping with their fathers. If the soul goes anywhere, it goes to this underground place called sheol where souls sleep. The worst thing one can do to one of these sleeping souls is to disturb it by waking it up. This is what King Saul does to the sleeping soul of Samuel in the story of the witch of Endor (I Samuel chapter 28). Samuel condemns Saul for disturbing his eternal rest.
Most of us believe that we have a body and a soul. When we die our soul returns to God where it is judged, perhaps sent to heaven and perhaps sent to hell. Jews never accepted the idea of eternal damnation. In Judaism, the soul may go to Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden, the perfect paradise), or it may go to Gehinnom (literally, the valley of Hinom, where souls are punished for one year at most.) But, at least according to classical Judaism, the soul will some day come back and be reunited with the body. The soul exists only temporarily in the world to come, before returning to this world.
Where did these ideas come from? They are not in the Bible. Yet they are so prevalent in contemporary Judaism that we constantly speak about them in our prayers. The truth is that this body-soul dualism is not in the Bible, because it comes from the Greeks. In fact, it was Plato who conceived this idea. Plato envisioned a perfect unchanging world, the world of the forms. That is where the soul belongs. Plato also saw this physical world as changing and corrupt, a place where that soul is entrapped. But one day the soul will leave this world of decay and corruption, and return to that perfect place. The soul will have come home. Of course, Plato saw no value in resurrection, the soul coming back to this world. Why should it? The soul going to heaven is a Greek idea; the soul coming back to this world developed in Judaism. (see Daniel 12:2)
This Greek idea of the soul became a central tenet of Judaism (and Christianity and Islam). Meanwhile, when we say our Yizkor prayers on Shmini Atzeret and pray that the souls of our loved ones find rest in the Garden of Eden, know that we are expressing an idea that came from the Greeks rather than from the Bible.

SUKKOT
(5776)
THE MOON, THE ECLIPSE, AND THE FLOOD
“In that day, there shall be neither sunlight nor cold moonlight, but there shall be continuous day – only the Lord knows when – of neither day nor night, and there shall be light at eventide.” (Zechariah 14:6 – 7, haftarah of 1st Day Sukkot)
There is always a full moon on the first evening of Sukkot. In fact, since seven is a mystical number, the full moon of the seventh month is absolutely appropriate for our most joyous holiday. This year the full moon was particularly impressive, since the moon was unusually close to the earth, making it larger than usual. Such a moon is called a supermoon.
This year the first evening of Sukkot was also unusual, because there was a full lunar eclipse. The shadow of the earth fell across the moon, causing it to disappear from view. As the moon disappeared from view, I mentioned to my wife in jest, “What if it doesn’t come back?” Scientifically we know what causes eclipses and we certainly know the moon will shortly reappear. But I could understand the fear that ancients felt when the moon, or even the sun, disappear during an eclipse. And I can understand the power of the myths the ancients invented about the moon and the sun.
Let me share one of my favorite Jewish traditions. You can call it a myth. According to the Talmud (Hullin 60b), originally the sun and moon were equal in size and equally gave off light. The moon complained to God, “How can two kings wear one crown?” God replied, “You are right. Shrink.” So God shrunk the moon and arranged so that the moon would only reflect the light of the sun. But God felt guilty for shrinking the moon. Therefore each month on the Rosh Hodesh (the new moon), we bring a sin offering for God. God seeks atonement for the sin of shrinking the moon.
The Zohar takes off on this wonderful passage and gives it a gendered reading. The sun is not merely a heavenly body, but the masculine aspects of reality. The moon is not merely a heavenly body but the feminine aspects of reality. By shrinking the moon, God actually caused the feminine to be diminished and the masculine to dominate. This is made even more clear by the fact that the moon merely reflects sunlight. As the Zohar writes, “A woman is enhanced only together with her husband.” (Zohar I 20a) (A rather sexist statement, but we can hardly expect a thirteenth century document to reflect modern feminism.)
That brings me to the eclipse, something not mentioned in the Zohar. During a lunar eclipse the sun’s light is blocked by the earth. The moon goes dark. It is as if this feminine voice disappears altogether. But there was also serious flooding during and after the eclipse. Flooding symbolizes water out of control, water becoming chaos. It symbolizes the world when tohu v’vohu (chaos) reigned and the spirit of God hovered over the waters, before God said, “Let there be light.” It is the world mentioned in the book of Job, before God said, “Thus far you shall come and no further, and her shall your proud waves be stayed.” (Job 38:11) When the moon is blocked, when the feminine light of the universe does not shine, it is as if chaos once again reigns.
Fortunately, this is not the end of this mythical story. The Zohar does speak of a day in the future when the moon and the sun, the masculine and the feminine will become equal once again. God will restore the moon to her rightful place. There is a hint of this idea already in the haftarah we chanted on the first day of Sukkot. The prophet Zechariah teaches that the day will come when there will be neither sunlight nor the cold light of the moon, but one continuous light that shines all the time.
I have often taught that myths are stories created by a community that are not literally true but still reflect deep truths. Perhaps there is a deep truth to this myth. As a community we have allowed women’s voices to become diminished. For too many generations only the voices of men were heard. Sometimes the voices of women disappear altogether. But when that happens, chaos reigns. Today we have begun to hear the voices of both men and women equally. When that happens, the prophesy of Zechariah will come true, and a constant light will shine once again.

SUKKOT
(5775)
COMING BACK TO EARTH
“You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.” (Leviticus 23:42)
As I write this, we are preparing to step into the sukkah tonight and celebrate the festival of Sukkot. It seems like we just finished the fast of Yom Kippur. It is a curious fact of the Jewish calendar that we begin Sukkot just five days after Yom Kippur. Traditionalists will take the first step in building a sukkah immediately after Yom Kippur, before sitting down to a break fast meal. Why are these festivals so close together?
Allow me to make a suggestion. It is a suggestion that goes to the heart of one of the great intellectual debates in Western history. It is a debate between two great Greek philosophers Plato and his student Aristotle. In fact, the debate is symbolized by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael in a famous painting The School of Athens. The painting portrays many of the greatest Greek thinkers. At the center is the image of an older Plato pointing towards the heavens and a younger Aristotle pointing towards the ground. According to Plato, the greater reality is found in a spiritual world beyond this one, what he called the world of the forms. According to Aristotle, there is no world of the forms, only this real material world in which we live.
The history of Western thought has gone back and forth between these two ideas. (For a wonderful history of these ideas, read Arthur Herman’s book The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization. It is an easy fascinating read.) When we consider Western religions, particularly Christianity, Plato’s ideas seem to have won out. There is a perfect spiritual world beyond this one. The soul longs to return to heaven, the place from which it came. Whenever someone at a funeral says, “He or she is now in a better world,” they are not quoting the Bible. They are quoting Plato. It was the early Christian thinker Augustine who first combined the Bible and Plato, creating much of Christian theology.
There is a much more this worldly point of view, based on Aristotle’s thinking. Numerous Biblical scholars consider the Bible closer to this point of view. This view teaches that there is no heaven, or if there is, it is unknowable. What is important is life in this material world. This is the better world. This world is where the action is. Judaism does not speak about some other world. Actually, our liturgy contains a prayer for bodily resurrection of the dead, a chance to come back and continue our work in this world. We need to perfect this world as the Kingdom of God. Notice that the perfect world is not heaven but right here on earth.
So we have a great debate. It continues between philosophers and religious thinkers throughout Western civilization until this day. Is the ideal world some spiritual reality, as Plato taught? Or is the ideal world this material reality, where we live our day to day lives? This brings us to Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Yom Kippur is our most spiritual festival. We attempt to leave the physical world behind. We do not do the things that make us material creatures – eat, drink, bathe, have sex, wear comfortable shoes, or work. We wear white, the color that angels would wear. Many rabbis have taught that Yom Kippur is about recreating our own deaths, living in a spiritual world. By end of Yom Kippur, as we pray Neilah, I really feel that I have left this world behind. But Yom Kippur does not last forever. We must break the fast.
Five days later comes Sukkot, our most material festival. We leave our homes to eat, and some people actually live, in a little hut with branches on the roof. We are exposed to the elements. We wave four species of plants in every physical direction, and march around the synagogue with them. On the seventh day we bang willow branches against the furniture, literally causing leaves like tears to fall. We are material creatures. On Sukkot we come back to earth, to this material world. And we realize that our job is to perfect this material world as a Kingdom of God.
Sukkot is a powerful reminder. Life is not about some other world, making it to heaven. Rather life is about this world, creating heaven here on earth.

SUKKOT
(5774)
RETURN TO NATURE
“You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.” (Leviticus 23:42)
Yom Kippur is over. Sukkot is upon us. If I were responsible for putting a calendar together, I would have spaced the holidays more evenly throughout the year. We have barely recovered from the intense fasting and praying of Yom Kippur, and already we are building a sukkah and acquiring the four species. In fact, there is a tradition that even before breaking the fast, we put the first nail into the sukkah. How about some breathing room?
Allow me to suggest a reason why the festivals are so close together. Yom Kippur is our most spiritual holiday. We are far removed from the natural world. On Yom Kippur there is no eating, no drinking, no sex, no labor, no bathing, no comfortable shows, and no anointing with oil. We separate ourselves from the material world in which we live. We are almost like the angels above who live without any physical needs. Some say that Yom Kippur is the only day we pronounce the words out loud baruch shem kavod malchuto leolam vaed, “Blessed be the glorious name of His kingdom forever and ever,” because those are the words of angels. On Yom Kippur we are like angels, living in a spiritual world.
We cannot live in that spiritual world together. That is why Judaism has never countenanced the ascetic life or disappearing into a monastery. We need to come back to earth. So five days after Yom Kippur, we return to nature. Now we celebrate our most natural festival. We leave the comfort of our homes and eat all our meals in a temporary booth under the stars, with tree branches for a roof. We are exposed to the natural forces of wind and rain. In Florida I often worry about heat and certainly bugs on Sukkot; up North I used to worry about snow. We take four kinds of species – a citron, a palm branch, willow branches, and myrtle branches, and we wave them in all directions. We have entered the world of nature.
However, we do not stay in nature forever. We dwell in the Sukkah for seven days, but then we must come back indoors. We pray for rain for the winter. (I know that the summer is the rainy season in Florida; we are praying for rain for Israel.) Just as we cannot be spiritual beings forever, so we can simply live in nature forever. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau taught that children would be better off if they were raised in nature. According to Rousseau, society corrupts them. He would have loved stories like The Jungle Book or the Tarzan novels, that speak of a child brought up in the jungle. Virtue comes from living in nature.
Our tradition strongly disagrees with Rousseau. Nature may be beautiful and inspirational. But nature cannot teach us morality. Nature cannot teach us holiness. To be a human is to rise above our nature, to realize that we are more than animals. Animals follow their natural instincts. Humans must strive for holiness, rising above mere instinct. To be human is to overcome our nature and live on a higher plane.
So Yom Kippur sees us as living in a spiritual world, beyond nature. Sukkot sees us living in a material world, in the midst of nature. Judaism says that as humans we must live somewhere in between. We are more than animals; we are less than angels. If we have soared into the spiritual world on Yom Kippur, and come back to the material world on Sukkot, we are then ready to live the rest of the year somewhere in the middle. The holidays balance out each other. Together they teach us what it means to be human.

SUKKOT
(5773)
THE HUPPAH AND THE SUKKAH
“You shall dwell in booths seven days; all who are Israelites born shall dwell in booths.”
(Leviticus 23:42)
(The idea for this message came from my colleague Rabbi Michael Rascoe, who grew up in the synagogue where I used to serve in Pittsburgh.)
There are two occasions in Jewish life where Jews put up a temporary, symbolic home. At a Jewish wedding the bride and groom stand under a canopy, symbolic of the groom’s home. It has a roof but no sides. And on the festival of Sukkot we erect a temporary hut to eat our meals outside. (Some pious Jews actually live in the sukkah for the seven days of the festival, which is not an easy feat in the heat, humidity, and rain of south Florida.) The sukkah has walls, but the roof is made of branches that must be open enough to see the stars.
My daughter, who is getting married next year, has been looking at huppahs. Some are pretty but very simple. Some are more elaborate. She showed us one from a bridal magazine totally covered with flowers; to use such a huppah would cost enough to feed a florist’s family for half a year. For our own wedding my wife and I used the colorful tallis she had bought me as a gift. (I still wear that tallis each day at the weekday synagogue service.) Four family members held it up with four poles. It was simple and traditional. For my daughter we will probably seek something a little fancier, but much simpler than the floral extravaganza from the magazine.
When I perform a wedding, I always mention how a huppah is covered on top and open on the sides. This harks back to the tradition of Abraham and Sarah in the Bible, who had a tent open on all sides. They could see in every direction and welcome passersby and guests into their home. A huppah is always surrounded by the most important people in a couples’ life.
A sukkah on the other hand, must have walls. It is open to the heavens, with only a layer of branches to protect those inside from the elements. There must be more shade than sun from those branches. But if they are laid on so thick that one cannot see the stars, or that rain cannot get in, it stops being a sukkah and becomes a simple hut with a roof. The huppah is closed on the side but open to nature, and so it is open to God.
We have two temporary homes that become part of the ritual of Jewish life. One is open on the sides and closed on the top. This is symbolic of letting people in. One is closed on the sides and open, or somewhat open on the top. This is symbolic of letting God in. Thus we have a powerful message about the permanent homes in which we live.
Our home must be open to other human beings. One of the greatest mitzvoth of Judaism is called hachnasat orchim, opening one’s home for guests. I remember when I was at the seminary being invited to spend Shabbat with a very Orthodox family. Afterwards, before I could send them a card, I received a card from them. “Thank you for allowing us to do the mitzvah of bringing a guest into our home.” What a wonderful thought.
Our home must also be open to God. I think of the story of the little boy who spends a week with his grandparents while his parents are on vacation. His grandparents tell him to kiss the mezuzah, to say the sh’ma at bedtime, to say a blessing before the meal, to help bless Shabbat candles. These are constant reminders of God’s parents. When the parents come at the end of the week to pick up their son, the boy says, “Goodbye God. I am going home now. I am not going to see you anymore.”
The huppah and the sukkah are temporary homes with profound lessons for our permanent homes. Our homes must be open to other human beings. And our homes must be open to God.

SUKKOT
(5772)

BUILDING A SUKKAH
“You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.”
(Leviticus 23:42)
God gave me a number of wonderful skills. But I am sorry to say that building things is not one of them. I have met people who have built an entire house from scratch. I admire them. For me, putting up my sukkah in my backyard each year is enough of a challenge. But I did it, as I have almost every year since before I became a rabbi.
When Evelyn and I were much younger and living in Nyack, NY, we splurged and bought ourselves a pre-fab sukkah. It was made of metal poles and joints that screwed together with an Allen wrench. The walls were made of heavy canvas, perfect for autumn days in the North East. The schach (roof), which must be something that grows from the ground, were bamboo shoots. It all fit together easily. However, I have used the same pre-fab frame for 32 years; it has not aged well. The poles and joints are somewhat rusted and do not hold together as easily. But there are too many memories to change our sukkah now.
When we moved to Pittsburgh life became more complicated. We lived in a town house, in a complex of town homes and condos. All of our neighbors were non-Jewish. They were gracious to us. For example, when we moved in they changed their annual Christmas party to a Christmas-Hanukkah party. It was a very welcoming move. But how would they take to a sukkah on the common grounds.
We went ahead and built our sukkah. And we sent a note to all of our neighbors explaining what it was, quoting the Biblical source, and inviting them for dessert in the sukkah. Many joined us. For five years we continued that tradition. And each year one of my synagogue members brought me corn stalks from the country to put on the roof.
Then on the sixth year we received official notice from the management company. The board had voted that nobody could put up temporary holiday structures. Some people complained; they interpreted the new ruling as meaning they could not put up their Halloween decorations. We knew what they were talking about. That year we built a sukkah in a friend’s back yard. And the next year we moved to Florida.
Florida created challenges of its own. The wonderful canvas walls that kept us cozy in the Northeast were unbearable in the heat and humidity of Florida. Our Sukkah was like a steam bath. Something had to be done. A neighbor tried to give us screening instead of walls. But then we spoke to another neighbor, who had a business creating banners to fly behind airplanes. He told us that he could make walls for our sukkah out of fabric that would be perfect for the Florida heat. And what he made was amazing. We still use his walls; they actually breathe and let fresh air in. And for years we used for the roof the palm fronds cut from the Woodlands.
Florida still provides unique challenges. I will never forget the desperation of taking my sukkah down early and putting up hurricane shutters as Hurricane Wilma came our way. If the sukkah had been up for Wilma, our poles and walls would have blown away. More recently Jewish neighbors moved next door a couple of years ago. They told us that what convinced them to buy the house was living next to someone with a sukkah. They knew Jews would be welcomed into the neighborhood.
Our sukkah is now up once again. We struggled to get the metal poles to fit together and to tighten the screws. We returned to using bamboo for the roof, unrolling a long bamboo mat. I know that sometime soon we must buy a new pre-fab sukkah. But as long as I am physically able, I will go out into the backyard a few days after Yom Kippur and put up the temporary hut. What a wonderful way to celebrate the most joyous festival on the Jewish calendar.

SUKKOT
(5771)

GOD IS EVERYWHERE?
“We implore You O Lord, save us; we implore You O Lord, prosper us.”
Hallel (chanted each day of Sukkot)
Each day of Sukkot except Shabbat, I will take my lulav and etrog (the four species used on the festival) and wave them in six directions. Facing east, I will go east, south, west, north, up, and down. I will do the same with the children in our religious school and the teens in our youth group. And I will explain that we are doing this because God is everywhere.
At Sukkot we feel God’s presence in our midst more than any other festival. First, it is our most joyous festival. We eat our meals (and some sleep) in a flimsy hut with branches for a roof, exposed to the elements. We remember how we dwelt in booths as we wondered through the desert, with only God’s presence to protect us. Sukkot is the one true nature festival in Judaism. As we go out into nature, we sense God’s protecting presence. God is everywhere.
How different are the festivals that just passed – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. God is envisioned high up on a throne, looking down and passing judgment upon us. We are like sheep passing before Him. Just to drive the point home, in the many kaddish prayers we double the word le-aila – higher. Rather than say God is higher as we do the rest of the year, we say God is higher and higher. On the holidays God is a king and we mortals are mere dust. As we say in the most powerful High Holiday prayer untaneh tokef – “Our origin is dust and our end is dust. … But You, Sovereign of All, are the Living and Everlasting God.”
So which is it? Is God present everywhere, so close we can touch the divine? Or is God so lofty that we feel like dust in the divine presence? Is God immanent in everything, or is God transcendent beyond everything? The answer is yes – they are both true. On Yom Kippur we celebrate God’s transcendence. And on Sukkot, a mere five days later, we celebrate God’s immanence. No wonder the festivals are so close together.
But are any of these ideas really true? Is God truly everywhere, close to the touch? Does God really sit on a throne high up in the heavens? Do any of these phrases make any sense? For those of you who were here on kol nidre night, I spoke in my sermon about the twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He taught that the only statements we can speak about are statements that can be scientifically demonstrated. He went on to say, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Perhaps we should never speak about God at all.
I also mentioned in my sermon that Wittgenstein eventually rejected his own philosophy. In his later years he taught that we can and we need to talk about God. Such words are part of a language game, a shared language we humans have. And as long as we agree with each other as to the meaning of words, our words do not have to correspond to scientific truth.
When we humans speak of God, we use similes and metaphors. When we say that God sits on a throne writing in the Book of Life, we do not mean that literally. When we say God is everywhere, we do not mean God is physically present like air. When we sing “our Father, our King” we do not mean that God is literally a father and a king. And when I say at a funeral the twenty third Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” I do not mean that God literally stands out in the field holding a shepherd’s staff. We use poetic language when speaking about God, and such poetic language evokes certain emotions in us.
Similes and metaphors are not true or false. We cannot say anything true or false about God. Similes and metaphors either work or they do not work. The metaphor of God writing in a book works on the High Holidays is so powerful because we need to feel the emotion that we are being judged by the universe. And the metaphor of God being everywhere is so powerful on Sukkot because we need to feel God’s comforting presence.
Ultimately there is more than one kind of truth. There is scientific truth. And then there is religious truth. The festival of Sukkot teaches some profound religious truths. May you be joyous on our most joyous festival.

SUKKOT
(5770)
TWO TEMPORARY HOMES
This year I am performing a wedding immediately after the second day of Sukkot ends. Usually I do not mix joyous occasions, avoiding weddings during the days of Sukkot. But at times family issues necessitate weddings. I have not decided if I will set up the huppah inside the sukkah. But a wedding during Sukkot raises a fascinating insight I heard years ago from my colleague, Rabbi Michael Rascoe.
In Judaism there are two occasions where we set up a temporary or symbolic home. One we set up every year, the other we set up perhaps once or twice in a lifetime. During this festival, the sukkah has walls but no roof. The top of the sukkah must be open to the sky. We lay branches across the top, enough so that there is more shade than sun, but not so many that they block the stars. On Sukkot we are exposed to the elements.
On the other hand, the marriage canopy of huppah symbolizes the groom’s home. It must have a top, but it is open on all sides. Sometimes couples ask me if they can get married under a tree or out in a gazebo. I tell them that I still need a canopy. Very Orthodox Jews set up the canopy outside. While under the canopy you cannot see the stars; but you can see all your family and friends.
So we have two temporary homes in Judaism. One is open to the heavens. And one is open to other people. Together these two symbolic homes give a powerful message. Our homes must be open to God. And our homes must be open to other people.
Through the year most of us are fortunate to live in permanent homes with walls and a roof. (However sadly, there is Florida there are still people with holes in their roofs four years after Hurricane Wilma.) But those of us who are lucky enough to have a home ought to constantly ask those two question; how do I fill my home with other people and how do I fill my home with God’s presence?
When I was in Rabbinic School, I met a very Orthodox couple who invited me to spend Shabbat with them. It was one of my first experiences of a truly Orthodox Shabbat. Their son gave up his bedroom for me to sleep; he had to do that almost every week. When I returned to my dorm, I was preparing to write them a thank you note. Before I had a chance, a note arrived in my mailbox. “Thank you for allowing us to keep the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim having guests in our home.” I thought they were doing me a favor by inviting me; now I learned that I was doing them a favor.
How does one bring God into their home? There is the story about a couple who bring their grandson to stay with them while his parents are on vacation. They teach their grandson to guess the mezuzah when he enters the house, symbolizing God’s presence. They tell their grandson to say a blessing when he eats, and say the sh’ma when he lies down in bed at night. They teach their grandson the blessing over the candles, wine, and hallah for Friday night, again a reminder of God’s presence. After a week the boy is ready to go home to his parents. He calls out, “Goodbye God. I am going home now, I am not going to see you anymore.”
Sukkot is the perfect time to remind us to bring God into our homes. And a wedding is the perfect time to remind us to bring people into our homes. A wedding on Sukkot is a reminder that a home is more than a physical shelter, it is an important spiritual part of our lives.

HOL HAMOED SUKKOT
(5769)

RETURNING TO NATURE

“You shall live in booths seven days, all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.”
(Leviticus 23:42)

I made the following comments as part of my sermon on Kol Nidre evening. The sermons dealt with the journey into community.
“Suppose you want to connect with the ultimate reality. So you go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to the beach. You sit by yourself in the sand, far from any noise or distraction. You bring a book of poetry, or perhaps a cd with a favorite piece of music, and read or listen. The waves roll in and out. And soon you are having a marvelously spiritual experience. It is wonderful; I have had such experiences. But it is also lonely; you are facing ultimate reality alone.
Now let me share another answer. Suppose you want to connect with the ultimate reality. You look at the local schedule and see that at synagogue, Jews are gathering to welcome the Sabbath at 6 pm. You are not real familiar with the prayers but you join them. The words are in Hebrew but they feel very ancient. And even if you do not understand them, you know these same words have been said for thousands of years, that these same words are being said all over the world. Soon you find yourself singing along. At the end, you circle up with fellow Jews to say some blessings, share some wine and challah. Again, you are part of something bigger than yourself. You are facing ultimate reality as part of a community.
What is the difference between the two experiences? The former is what we call spiritual. The latter is what we call religious. Spiritual is an individual alone before God. Religious is being part of a community, joining with others to stand before God. Certainly religion ought to lead to spirituality. But for spirituality to lead to religion, you need a community. Spirituality is Moses climbing up a mountain by himself to commune with God forty days and forty nights. Religion is Moses sharing the wisdom he learned, the Ten Commandments, with 600,000 Jews gathered at the foot of the mountain.”
Jews traditionally have not found spirituality by themselves on the beach or on the top of a mountain. Rather they have found spirituality within a community, usually in a building, in an urban or suburban setting. It is true that according to the Talmud a synagogue must have windows? (Berochot 31a) This is based on the story of Daniel who went to pray at a spot where “his windows were open in his upper chamber” (Daniel 6:11). A synagogue must be a place to look outwards as well as inwards. But nature has not necessarily been a place of spirituality. On the contrary, the Bible sees the wilderness as an “empty, howling waste.” (Deuteronomy 32:10)
Having said that, I have had the wonderful experience of putting on tefillin and saying my morning prayers at the edge of the Grand Canyon. I have also done so from the top of Massada as the sun was rising over the Dead Sea. I see God’s presence in mountains and seashores. But I also suppose that if we are to see God in the beauty of nature, we must also see God in the cruelty of nature. Perhaps I should have prayed in Hawaii at the edge of the volcano after lava has destroyed some habitations, or in the ruins of a hurricane or tsunami. When these events occur I find God much more present in the rescuers than in the acts of nature themselves.
The book of Psalms teaches that “the heavens declare the glory of God the firmament shows His handiwork.” (Psalms 19:2) Nature can be glorious. But nature can also be extremely destructive. If we want to praise God for the beautiful sunrise, should we not also praise God for the mosquito?
God’s presence in nature is not necessarily clear. And yet, for one week a year we leave the comfort of our home and our synagogue and return to nature. We eat our meals in a little booth covered with branches. We hope that the wind does not knock over our sukkah and the rains stop long enough to enjoy our food. And we remember on the beautiful festival of Sukkot that we humans are also part of nature.

SUKKOT
(5767)

WILDERNESS REVISITED

“You shall dwell in booths seven days; all who are Israelites born shall dwell in booths; That your generations may know that I made the people of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”
(Leviticus 23:42-43)

If I had to create a new Jewish calendar, I would certainly lay the holidays out differently. It is extremely difficult to go from Yom Kippur to Sukkot a mere five days later. We go from a full day of fasting and prayer to setting up a temporary booth with branches on the roof for all our meals, acquiring four species to wave in every direction, and preparing food for our most joyous holidays. Why are these festivals so close together?
Allow me to suggest a reason that occurred to me after I wrote about the Jewish view towards nature and the wilderness last week. Last week I wrote that Judaism sometimes takes an anti-nature view, seeing the wilderness as a howling, scary, dangerous place. The Jewish role is to transform nature. Much of Judaism grew up in reaction to paganism, which saw nature as holy and filled with spirit. Judaism saw nature as God’s creation, and an imperfect creation at that. Our job as human beings is to transform nature, to perfect God’s creation. That is why modern Israel can brag about draining the swamps and building cities on sand dunes.
This vision of nature goes all the way back to early Rabbinic times. According to the Midrash (Tanhuma, parshat Tazria, perek 5), there is an exchange between the Roman general Turnisrufus and Rabbi Akiba. The general asks the rabbi which is superior, God’s creation or human creation. Akiba argues that human creation is superior, giving the example of circumcision. Circumcision proves that through human action we perfect the imperfect work of God. To the Greeks and Romans, the human body was perfect; imperfect babies were left to die. To the Jews, nature is here to be perfected, while a transcendent God stands outside nature.
On Yom Kippur, we Jews imitate the as closely as we can a God who exists beyond nature. We deny the material aspects of our being. We do not eat nor drink, have sexual relations or wash, anoint ourselves or wear comfortable leather shoes. We avoid any kind of work. For over twenty-four hours we live as angels, beyond the material. We connect with the spiritual part of ourselves, and the transcendent God who is beyond nature. Someone asked me what the weather was like outside on Yom Kippur day. I could not answer; I spent the entire day indoors in synagogue. Yom Kippur, with all its spiritual power, is an anti-nature festival.
Five days later we celebrate Sukkot, a holiday which is the precise opposite of Yom Kippur. We quite literally return to nature. We leave our homes and dwell in temporary huts, reminiscent of the huts we dwelt in while traveling across the wilderness. We eat our meals in the Sukkah; some very pious Jews even live there, open to the elements. We take four species, a palm frond, willow branches, myrtle branches, and an etrog, a lemon-like citrus fruit, and wave them in every direction. We show that God is everywhere, present in the physical world.
On Sukkot we notice the cycle of the moon. It is always full on the first night of Sukkot. The cycle of the moon reminds us of the ancient pagan cycles of time and renewal. We are commanded to be joyous, even if we do not feel joyous. Our emotions overrule our inner feelings. Sukkot is a true nature festival.
There is a message in this return to nature of Sukkot. God is not only transcendent, existing beyond the material world. God is also immanent, present in nature. Perhaps the ancient pagans did do something right in recognizing the divine presence in the natural world. Perhaps the modern interest in kabbala grows out of this sense that the material universe is God’s emanation and is literally contained in God.
On Yom Kippur God is transcendent – beyond nature. On Sukkot God is immanent – within nature. In Judaism, God is both. On Sukkot we celebrate the Jewish return to nature. In this age of environmental damage, the God of nature is a vital message the world needs to hear.

SUKKOT
(5766)
GROWING OLD
“Do not cast us out in our old age, when our strength fails, do not abandon us” (Yom Kippur Liturgy)

On the Shabbat in the middle of Sukkot we read the book of Ecclesiastes. Few books of the Bible are as pessimistic. To give a taste of this beautiful book, “Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What gains a man from all his labor at which he labors under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides for ever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to its place where it rises again. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north; it whirls around continually, and the wind returns again according to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; to the place from where the rivers come, there they return again. All things are full of weariness; man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-8)
According to Jewish tradition, King Solomon wrote this book in his old age. How different from the book Song of Songs, which he wrote in his youth. Song of Songs speaks of the joy and excitement of love. Ecclesiastes speaks of the vanity and hopelessness of life. We grow old, our bodies begin to wear down, we experience losses, and suddenly life is a “vanity of vanities.”
We live in a culture that celebrates youth. Billions of dollars are exchanged in ways to stay young, healthy, and good looking. We turn to everything from liposuction to hair dyes, makeovers to work outs. Celebrity magazines celebrate beautiful women and good looking men over forty and fifty. Our greatest fear is growing old. As a society, we truly pray the line from the Yom Kippur liturgy – “Do not cast us out in our old age, when our strength fails, do not abandon us.” We fear growing old. And too many of us, like King Solomon, become cynical and lose all sense of purpose as we face the ravages of old age.
Compare this fear of old age to a classical Midrash from Jewish tradition. When Abraham’s wife Sarah gave birth to Isaac, God made Isaac resemble Abraham so that no one would question paternity. In fact, the father and son looked so much alike that people used to confuse the two of them. Abraham was upset and cried out to God, “Make a distinction between the father and the son.” So God answered his prayer and gave him gray hair, making him look older. Now there was no question who was the father and who was the sun. Now people would know whom to honor.
From the point of view of Jewish tradition, old age is seen as a blessing. The elderly are worthy of honor. One prays to grow old. The Passover haggada speaks of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria who says “I was like a man of seventy and never understood why we tell the story of the exodus at night.” In truth, he was a young man when offered the position as head of the academy. He felt he was too young, but his wife convinced him to take the job. He woke the next day with white hair, looking like a man of seventy worthy of the position. In Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria’s eyes, old age was a blessing.
Why do we celebrate old age? It is not simply a question of considering the alternative. Rather, it is based on the belief that we humans have a body and a soul. Our bodies are material objects, and like all material objects, they wear down over time. We humans are not immune to the reality of entropy. If we are fortunate enough to live long enough, eventually our bodies will wear down. We can delay the inevitable through good health habits, but we can not avoid it altogether.
However, we also have souls. Some would even say that rather than being a body which contains a soul, each of us is a soul inhabiting a body. This gives us a very different perspective. Our essence, the most important part of our being, does not wear down with age. On the contrary, our souls grow with age. The more we learn, the more people we meet, the more of life we experience, the wiser our souls become. And it is never too late to keep growing our souls, to keep learning and experiencing more of life. That is the reason we honor old age. The body may be broken. But the soul has grown.
If we only focus on our bodies, on the material, we will see old age as “vanities of vanities.” That is the sadness of King Solomon. But if we focus on our souls, we can understand the verse from Proverbs, also written by King Solomon, “The glory of young men is their strength; and the beauty of old men is the grey head.” (Proverbs 20:29) Perhaps in our society that worships youth, it is time to see the beauty of the grey head.

SUKKOT
(5764)

AN OPEN HOME

I am honored to welcome to my sukkah the following distinguished guests: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David; Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, and Ruth.”
(Prayerbook Sim Shalom)

I want to share an eye opening experience from my Rabbinical school days living in Manhattan. I met a very Orthodox family who invited me to spend Shabbat in their home in Far Rockaway. As a single and a newcomer to New York, it was wonderful to spend a weekend with a family.
When I arrived, the family placed me in their oldest son’s bedroom. I told them that I did not want to replace him, and they explained, “When we bought this house, we made it clear to our children that they could each have their own bedroom during the week. On Shabbat, they would have to give up their privacy. Our bedrooms are reserved for guests every weekend.”
I spent a beautiful, very Orthodox Shabbat with the family. When I left, like too many young people, I was slow following up with a proper thank you note. Imagine my surprise when a note arrived in my mailbox a few days later. It was a thank you from the family, thanking me for giving them the opportunity to practice the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests into their home.
Our tradition has always taught an open door policy regarding our homes. Guests are welcome. The Sabbath and festivals are particularly worthy times to welcome people. On Passover, we open the door and call out, “all who are hungry come in and eat.” Later we open the door for a second time to welcome Elijah the prophet. Over the years my own family has welcomed to our seder everyone from a Christian evangelical to a professional football player and his wife.
The festival of Sukkot is particularly built around having guests. We eat our meals outside, in a sukkah, a flimsy booth with branches for a roof. According to Jewish tradition, each evening as we sit down we invite a different Biblical patriarch. In the ushpizin prayer, we invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Today, with new feminist sensitivity, many also welcome such matriarchs as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Deborah and Ruth.
An open sukkah filled with guests is a key part of the holiday celebration. One of my more fascinating experiences in Pittsburgh was inviting all my neighbors in our entirely non-Jewish condo for refreshments in our sukkah, and explaining what this temporary structure behind our townhouse was. (The condo association eventually passed a rule outlawing temporary religious structures, but we were able to delay passage of this rule with our annual invitations.)
Today we have built walls of privacy around our lives. Part of this is security. We live in unsafe times. We have deadbolts and alarm systems. We live in gated communities. We often do not know our neighbors, and have lost the sense of community and neighborhood that was part of our shared past.
This sense of privacy and erecting barriers has followed us from the home to the synagogue. More and more often, people tell me they want a private bar/bat mitzvah service, where honors and participation is limited to their invited guests, with a private kiddush following services. On our holiest days we make people purchase tickets and show identity before they can worship with us. A colleague of mine, a prominent local rabbi, was turned away from his own synagogue by security officers on Rosh Hashana because he was not carrying a ticket.
In our search for privacy and security, we have lost something valuable, opening our doors and welcoming guests. It is a deep part of our tradition, emphasized on Sukkot but practiced throughout the year. Walk into any good Orthodox synagogue for a Friday night service as a stranger, and invariably you will be invited for a Sabbath meal. It is a shame that we have lost that openness in the non-Orthodox world.
In our tradition, privacy was always balanced with openness. Welcoming guests, strangers, the hungry, those with nowhere to go, the elderly, new converts, college students, military personnel, and anybody else who may need an invite is central to the Torah vision of life. Sukkot is the perfect time to rediscover the ancient mitzvah of welcoming guests into our own lives. Who knows what wisdom we will learn from strangers at our Sabbath and holiday table.

SUKKOT
(5763)

MATERIAL THINGS

“You shall rejoice in thy feast.”
(Deuteronomy 16:14)

A hasid (a pious Jew) once traveled a great distance to visit with his rebbe (spiritual leader). The hasid came to his rebbe=s home and was amazed by what he saw. His rebbe was a great spiritual leader with followers throughout Europe. Yet he lived in a tiny home, with few pieces of furniture, not many clothes, and a minimum number of belongings.
The hasid said, “How can a man of such prominence live with so little?” The rebbe responded, “You traveled all this way, and all you have is a small suitcase. How can you live with so little?” The hasid responded, “I am on a trip and just passing through. This is all I need.” The rebbe calmly looked at him, “I am also just passing through!”
We live in a material culture. We long for things, big beautiful homes in nice neighborhoods, fancy cars, computers, stereos, electronic toys, a large wardrobe of nice clothes, homes full of goodies. And there is nothing wrong with enjoying nice things in life. In fact, on Sukkot we read the book of Ecclesiastes which contains the verse, “Go eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy, for your action was long ago approved by God. Let you clothes always be freshly washed and your head never lack ointment.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-8)
Material things can give us pleasure. There is no virtue in poverty and there is nothing wrong with enjoying nice things. However, there is a powerful lesson in the festival of Sukkot. Material things can not give us true joy.
On Sukkot we leave the material comfort of our home. We eat our meals in a little temporary hut with branches on for a roof. We are subject to the wind, the rain, the bugs, the heat. Many people literally move into the Sukkah, not only eating but sleeping outside. As I write this, I am worried if I can put up my Sukkah at all this year. They tell me a tropical storm is bearing down on Florida which may reach hurricane status by the weekend. How can I leave the comfort of my home?
On Sukkot we are also commanded to be joyous. In fact it is called in Hebrew the hag, the festival. We must rejoice even if our heart does not feel joyous. We must rejoice without all the material goodies which most of us find so vital to our lives. Once can be joyous without all the material comforts we cherish.
I read recently of a survey of people who had won the lottery. After the first shock and excitement of winning had worn off, after they had spent some of the money, the survey asked whether they had found happiness in their winnings. The results were not surprising. Those people who were happy with their lives before they won remained happy afterwards. And those people who were unhappy with their lives before they won remained unhappy afterwards. Perhaps these people had a few more luxuries. But the luxuries ultimately did not bring them happiness.
If material things were the key to happiness, then our movie stars, sports celebrities, rock idols, business tycoons, ought to be the happiest people in our society. Yet the tabloids bear witness that many suffer from drug and alcohol abuse, poor marriages and family estrangement, and a lack of fulfillment and meaning in their lives. They are often far less happy than the rest of us who lack their material resources.
In Jewish tradition, when a person dies he or she is buried in a shroud, a simple white garment with no pockets. This is symbolic that we cannot take our material things with us. We are only passing through. Ultimately joy must come not in what we acquire in life but what we accomplish in life. Sukkot teaches that we can be joyous in a fragile hut. Let us use this festival to find the true source of happiness in life.

HOL HAMOED SUKKOT
(5762)

HOW TO REJOICE

“You shall rejoice in your festival.”
(Deuteronomy 16:14)

This is a sad and difficult time in our nation. Yet as Jews we are in the middle of our most joyous festival, Sukkot (the feast of tabernacles), called z=man simhateinu, the time of our joy. We are commanded to be joyous. How can we possible heed a command to be joyous at this time.
The answer is to consider how a joyous person behaves. Then even if our heart is not there, we act as if we are joyous. We behave in a certain way, and the heart follows. If we can sing a little, dance a little, smile a little, clown around on Simchat Torah, the inner feeling will follow.
This is a profound teaching from our tradition. Actions come first, and inner feelings often follow actions. Motivational speakers often teach “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Cary Grant, the actor, once explained how he became such a romantic leading man. He said that he was an actor first, and by acting like a romantic leading man, he became a romantic leading man. Let me share a short section from my previous book God, Love, Sex, and Family. It speaks of acting loving even if we do not feel loving:
Here is one area where the Biblical outlook is at variance with contemporary values. In our contemporary world, the inner feeling comes before the behavior. One feels love in one’s heart, and then one acts in accordance with that love. I hear so often, “I don’t love them, it would be hypocritical to act as if I do.” In the Bible it is the other way around. We act or behave in a certain way, and the inner feelings of the heart come afterwards. When the Israelites received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, their immortal words were “We shall do and we shall understand.” (Exodus 24:7) First came the action, then the inner feeling. First comes the duty, then comes the love.
I use this insight frequently in my rabbinic counseling. I remember meeting with a mother and a son who were estranged and trying to rebuild a relationship. The mother complained that when the son saw her he refused to hug and kiss her as a son should do for a mother. The son said that he was angry at his mother and could not bring himself to kiss her. I told him to do it anyway, even if he did not feel like it.
In a similar situation, I recently sought the advice of a professional marriage counselor. “How do you rebuilt affection between a husband and wife when they do not feel affectionate.” His answer: “Tell them to act as if they feel affectionate. Hold hands even when they feel estranged. Kiss each other. The action may feel unnatural at first, but eventually the feeling will flow from it.” The correct action itself will eventually lead to the correct inner feeling.
As a society, we place great value on inner feelings. Nonethe¬less, ultimately love is manifested in action. Even the commandment “you shall love the Lord your God” is followed by a whole series of actions from teaching them to your children to binding them on your hands. (See Deuteronomy 6:5-9)
A bride and groom once came to see me to plan their wedding. I was surprised that the bride was not wearing a ring. The groom replied, “we feel our love in our heart. We do not need such artifi¬cial symbols to show our love.” Later in a private moment, the bride confided in me, “I know he loves me, but I wish he had bought me a ring.” She desires a commitment of action, not simply a profession of an inner feeling.
On this festival of Sukkot, let us act joyous. Hopefully the inner feeling will follow and joy will return to our lives.

SUKKOT
(5761)

TEMPORARY HOMES

“You shall dwell in booths seven days, all that are homeborn in Israel shall dwell in booths.”
(Leviticus 23:42)

When I ask potential converts what they find so attractive about Judaism, I usually hear about Jewish family and homelife. Jews have traditionally seen their homes as the center of their strength. The words of the pagan prophet Balaam have echoed through the ages, “How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, thy dwelling places O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)
Our homes are built on strong foundations. However, there are two different occasions in Jewish life when we leave the comfort of a permanent home and set up a temporary home. One is the sukkah, a temporary booth that serves as our symbolic (and for many Jews, real) home for the seven days of the festival. Then there is the huppah, the marriage canopy which serves as the temporary home of a bride and groom. Looking at the sukkah and the huppah, we can learn a powerful lesson about home life.
A sukkah, in order to be kosher, must have solid walls (at least 2 1/2). However, the ceiling is open to the skies. Branches are laid across the top so that there is more shade than sun, but never so many branches that rain cannot fall through. The sukkah is symbolized by solid walls and an open top.
A huppah on the other hand has a canopy across the top. The bride and groom must be standing under a tallit, a cloth, some solid floral arrangement, or some other covering. The sides of the huppah are open, welcoming friends and family. The huppah is symbolized by a solid top and open walls.
So we have two temporary homes in Jewish life, one with solid walls and an open top, one with open sides and a solid top. Together they give a message of what should be brought into a Jewish home.
The open top symbolizes the importance of bringing God’s presence into our homes. We feel that spiritual presence when there is a mezuzah on the front door, or preferably on all the doors. It continues when blessings are said before and after meals, candles are lit on the Sabbath and festivals, children are taught to say the sh’ma when they go to bed, and people treat one another as created in God’s image.
I have told the story of the little boy who goes to visit his grandparents for a week. They teach him to kiss the mezuzah as a reminder of God’s presence in the home, to say blessings and the sh’ma at night, to light the Shabbat candles. After a week he returns to his parents. He kisses his grandparents goodbye, touches the mezuzah one last time, and says, “Goodbye God, I am going home now. I am not going to see You anymore.”
The open sides symbolize the presence of family and friends in our homes. According to Jewish tradition, Abraham and Sarah, our father and mother, had a tent that was open on all sides. Every person who passed by was invited into the tent for refreshments and a visit. Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming guests into our home, became one of the major mitzvot of Judaism.
I will never forget an invitation to spend a Shabbat with a very Orthodox family. Their daughter had to give up her room so that I would have a place to stay. I told the family that I felt bad, and they responded, “We always have guests. She is used to it.” Afterwards I received a thank you note from them quicker than I was able to write one. “Thank you for allowing us to do the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests.” The sukkah and the huppah are temporary homes. They symbolize the message of a Jewish home – may it be filled with people and may it be filled with God’s presence.