Monday, October 25, 2004

Lech Lecha

"Change your place, change your luck" this phrase is at least as old as the talmud, which notes that Abraham was told to leave his land so that the decree of childlessness would be lifted from him. But why would God insist that Abraham need to leave everyone and everything he'd ever known to start a family?
Our portion starts with the verses

1 .And the Lord said to Abram, Get out from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you;
2. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing;
3. And I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you; and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.
In these verses we find a parallel of movement and blessing: there are five directions that Avram is given: 1. Go to yourself (as some rabbis understand "Lech Lecha" to mean) 2 from your land, 3.from your birthplace 4.from your father's house, 5. to a land I will show you. These directions are paralleled by the blessings: I will bless you; you shall be a blessing; I will bless those; who bless you; in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
What is this connection between movement and blessing?

The chasidic commentator the Sfat Emet says that the Torah uses the word הלך- the root from which לך comes- because human beings need to be movers, always going to the next spiritual rung. When a person doesn't move on, they get used to the way things are, and whatever the status quo is seems natural. He continues, "This sense of 'nature' hides the inner light. This is true ven of Torah and the mitzvot when we do them out of habit, they become normal, and we forget their inner meaning." Therefore we need to always seek out new understandings, and try to increase the mitzvot that we do. Anyone who stands still is not renewed, because they gets stuck in what is "natural," and can't see when God requires more of them.

Rabbeinu Bachya has a much more negative view of Avram's commandment to move out. He tells us that the reason God had to order Avram out of his native land was because Avram was like someone who stands in a filthy place and can't smell the stench. He says that the Torah's use of "לך לך(lamed- chaf lamed chaf) is related to the word לכלך-dirty- spelt the same way. A person who stands in a foul place gets used to the odor and can't smell it anymore. Similarly, Avram had to be ordered to leave his birthplace so that he wouldn't absorb the stink, and become like the people of the place here he was from.

A 19th century commentator, the Malbim, gives a less graphic and more psychological, but similiar, explanation. He notes that a person is influenced by the places he lives, by its environment, its customs and character traits - when I read this, I thought of, for example, "environment" might be like Cancer alley in Louisiana, where very poor people live downriver from a number of chemical plants and there are extremely high rates of cancer in certain towns. That's not a character trait, obviously, but the environment in which many people become ill certainly will affect the civic life of the area. Or an example of how a place influences traits might be how North Americans are known for being extremely personally fastidious about their bathing habits all over the world - obviously there are Americans who don't bathe every day, but the culture encourages the behavior. Thus Avravm had to leave because God didn't want him to continue to live in a place whose customs affected him adversely. He wouldn't be able to raise a family as Jews surrounded by the culture to which he was born.

But the Slonimer rebbe offered one of the most interesting suggestions. To him, Avram represents the nation of Israel, and says that the reason that Israel is blessed is because unlike the other nations, Israel isn't stuck to a place. He says that those peoples who are linked to a particular land get stuck in the physicality of their places, and only work toward the fulfilment of their physical needs. But Israel, because we are in galut - exile- are able to pursue the shekhina, God's presence. This is a stunning comment for a number of reasons - first of all, it flies in the face of that strain of Judaism which says that the highest goal is to settle in the land of Israel. To the contrary, it suggests that settling in Israel might distract us from our true goal - unity with God, through following the mitzvot. But it also suggests that galut, exile, itself is a positive thing, that it is through our movement, our הליכה - walking- that we will be blessed.

From these commentaries I suggest that there are five lessons, paralleling our blessings, that we can take away from Avram's call to leave his homeland.
First of all, sometimes you have to smack the bottle against the table a few times to get the top loose enough to get out what's on the inside. There's a midrash that suggests this idea: It says, "When God told Abraham 'Get out of your land and away from your birthplace,' what did Abraham resemble? A bottle of perfume with a tight fitting lid put into a corner so that its fragrance could not escape. As soon as it was movd from that place, its scent began to waft out. So God said to Abraham, 'Abraham, many good deeds are in you. Travel around from place to place, and the greatness of your name will become known in the world." -so that you may become a great nation. Getting a little shake up was necessary for Abraham to become the person he was. Staying at home, he could never have achieved the greatness of which he was capable.
Second, our culture forms us, but doesn't constrain us. While Rabbeinu Bachya compares the bad effects of the culture Avram lived in to a vile dirty place, we don't need to use such hyperbolic language. We all know that in secular culture, there are a lot of things that we as Jews can't agree with. In some ways, Judaism is the original counter culture. Avram had to physically leave in order to let this new culture take root, but we can "move" in a more metaphorical way.
This is because of the third point:
Avram was sent out of the land, not to be isolated from the rest of the world, but to bless it. "In you shall all the nations of the world be blessed." This does not suggest to me, someone hiding out in a self-made ghetto, hiding from the pernicious effects of other cultures, but rather the beginning of "A light unto the nations." We should be proudly different, that is, we should be "kadosh" in the sense not only of holy, but of th root it comes from which means "separate," -separate in the way we live our lives, living lives of holiness, choosing to make our physical needs serve our spiritual ones, and not the other way around.
Fourth, you can be be a blessing anywhere. Even in the land that Avram was sent out from, the Torah tells us that when Abram left חרן (Haran) among those he took with him were את-הנפש אשר-עשו בחרן "all the souls they made in Haran," which the rabbis understand to mean all those that Abraham and Sarah converted while they were there.Yes, even in that apparent cesspit that God drove them out from, there were people who joined them, and followed their example.

Finally, when you get a call, go. As the Sfat Emet reminds us, when we stay in one place - when we get used to the status quo- we can't see beyond "the way things are." We lose the ability to imagine other ways of doing things, and the light within those things we already do well dims, because it becomes just "natural."
Dropping everything to go somewhere new and start over is a big request - even from God. But the midrash tells us that until Avram made his way into the wider world, God was ruler only in heaven. We know this because Abraham would refer to when he was young by saying, "The Lord, God of heaven, who took me from my father's house (Gen 24:7)." but after he made his way into the world, he would say that God was sovereign over both heaven and earth (Gen 24:3) - such as when he told his servant Eliezer "I will make you swear by the Lord, God of heaven, and God of earth." If Avram had not gone out into the world, God would still be God, but perhaps even now we would not recognize God's greatness. We certainly still have a long way to go before we achieve the hopes that we state in the aleinu that כל בני-בשר -all flesh- will recognise God, but if, as Kurt Vonnegut says, we all "do one thing every day that scares us," we may be further along towards that goal of a better world to live in, one in which God is sovereign.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


One of my ravs once told me that the reason that Americans are rediscovering Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is because there's something about his struggle with depression that appeals to the modern American Jewish experience. I don't know if that's actually true, but it does seem to me that there is something about Reb Nachman that seems to be missing from modern American Jewish life. Reb N. himself clearly did struggle with depression, it should thus come as no surprise to us that the עקר (core) of his philosophy is that one should work to be joyful always.

There is, however, something a little counterintuitive about having to work to be joyful. Not that joy is so easy to come by; certainly, while many of us are content, or even happy, I wonder how often the average Jew experiences joy. Joy seems to me to be of a rather different order than these other things. It seems to me to be not just satisfaction and lack of negative feelings, but a certain unselfconsciousness in which happiness is expressed physically - especially in song, but also sometimes with just a powerful radiating feeling tht is comes out in gesture and speech, and sometimes dance, even if dance is just an extra little skip while walking.

American Judaism often feels to me mired in all kinds of much that prevents us from feeling the joy that is our heritage. First of all, there's the pseudo-religion of Holocaust. I've seen religious school curricula where the kids are started in elementary school, and the Holocaust is treated as the defining moment of Jewish history. I can't help but be appalled at this for any number of reasons: first becasue it assumes that the feelings of despair and pain have been unequalled by anyone anywhere, but also have been unequalled by our own history - and yet this isn't true. Judaism has struggled with tragedy many times before, not least in the destruction of the Temple. We struggled and wept and prayed and begged for God to return to us, or felt that there was no God - all the feelings that we had during the Holocaust, we have had before, and we triumphed over them, developed philosophies to deal with them, survived, and remained Jews. Eventually we returned to a religion that included God and joy, even while in exile. THe relentlessness of the Holocaustism, though, leaves many people with little reason to be Jewish than "not to give Hitler a victory." But if that's the only reason we have, we'd better pack up and move on, because a Judaism defined by Nazis is no longer Judaism.

One of the more unfortunate results of this kind of thinking was expressed by someone I know that anyone whom the Nazis called a Jew, we, too should consider a Jew, whether or not their mother is Jewish or they converted. But how is giving over to the Nazis the power to define us a victory? It does nothing other than deny that we had a history prior to their existence. It denies that we have something to give to the world, it denies our partnership with God, and replaces all those things with a kind of numb defiance. Judaism is not just surviving genocide -it is a powerful connection with the God who created all, and a unique love that molds every minute of our lives.

Part of the problem is that most of us don't know our own traditions - it is difficult to rejoice in a tradition that one only knows a very little part of - particularly when that tradition is one best experienced holistically. Kashrut doesn't make much sense without shabbat; shabbat is tough if you only light candles and say kiddush but don't refrain from work; Rosh Hashanah is bereft without Sukkot. But that's not it. That isn't the entire explanation: part of the problem is that Americans expect joy to come to us. We want to be transported with rapture without having to work for it. We want to go to the New Age store and buy some crystals and take them home and set up a little altar, and have the power of the universe come to us without having to do anything more about it. But that's not how it works, any more than I could win a gold in the Olympics without spending every day for years stretching and training, and cross-training and prcticing and failing, and trying again, and again, and again. With people watching. And taking the risk that when I fail someone will see it and laugh.

And that brings me to oatmeal. I know this isn't a very profound insght. I'm sure everyone who has ever had a child has had it, but this is my first, so what the heck. In watching my son take his first bits of solid food (such as it is, anyhow) I am reminded of how very hard he works. Babies seem to be very simple little creatures, and their smiles and giggles (or in the case of my son, their snorts and guffaws) seem like the purest most untutored joy. But I think that that's underestimating what babies really are. I watch him try to do things which for me are very simple, and for him very difficult, over and over, and get frustrated, and then try again until he manages to finally grab the little bird, or whatever. And it isn't that success makes him joyful. It's that he hasn't learned how to defend himself against the payoffs of hard work yet. I'm busy planning my next task when I finish the first one. He isn't. He doesn't know that he's going to have to do the same task over and over again, because he only got it by luck this time, but it doesn't matter. He can dance before the ark like King David, only there's no Michal to mock him - at least not yet- so he can be joyful whenever he isn't busy being involved in his task - or frustated as heck. And that's why getting oatmeal all over his face is so cute. Not because it's simple. Because it's hard.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004


When I was about eight, I was convinced that I used to be able to fly. I knew because I had vivid memories of being able to do it, and those memories were so specific and so clear that I was certain that they must have been true, however peculiar they were. In fact, it was their very peculiarity that convinced me: I had to go to a certain part of the hallway of our house - a rather average, and otherwise suburban ranch style Levitt one-story- and do a handstand. The hallway was not very long; at the far end, there was a dogleg to the third bedroom, which was mine, and at the near end, it was ninety-degrees bent toward the front door and an L-shaped coat closet, which made an excellent hiding place for hide-and-go-seek. As I walked down the hallway on my hands, if I went fast enough, I would levitate off the floor, and eventually really start flying around, albeit upside down. Of course, I had to be very careful, because if I fell over, I would drop to the floor on my head. It was the utter uselessness of being able to fly upside down that convinced me that this wasn't a dream.
At some point, though, I clearly lost the ability. I wasn't sure if it was because I couldn't do handstands anymore, or if the ability to fly in general had somehow evaporated. I even have a vague memory of once asking my mother a question which tangentially mentioned "back when I used to be able to fly."
When I started doing capoeira two years ago, and trying to learn how to do handstands, I started remembering that memory again. I still haven't mastered handstands, although if I ever get the opportunity to go back to playing capoeira again, I'll certainly make it a priority to learn. After all, what if I discover that I really can fly?

Sunday, October 10, 2004


OKay, the חגים (holidays) are over It's official (well. really it was official at the beginning of shabbat), the high holiday season is over. We have repented, the rains will, בעזרת השם (God willing), fall in Israel, and replenish the Kineret (at least a little), and maybe cool everyone's tempers down for a while. Not that I dislike them; actually I always have thought of the season of repentance as the culmination of the year, rather than its beginning ( both of which are true, in some respects), but it will be nice to go a full week and be able maybe even to catch up - or even better, get a little (I don't want to be too ambitious here, but I have my hopes) ahead.
The weirdest part - at least for me- was trying to figure out how to work in pumping milk while being up on the bima.
Who else has this problem? Maybe stage actors. Normal people can take a coffee break and go off to their closet or whatever, without anyone noticing. Now, maybe that was true for me too - after all, there are usually three rabbis including me (- obviously the stuff I was running was an exception, and I couldn't leave at all - had to figure out how to schedule around it, but luckily so far, I've managed to have only services that have been up to, but not over two and a half hours - sufficient that I can do before and after, and don't need to go during) , not to mention an assortment of cantors, so maybe when I sneak off, not a soul - other than the other rabbis who know where I'm going- notices, but it feels like there's a big blinking neon sign over my head flashing impertinent information as I skulk off.
On the other hand, I feel pretty priveleged that I can do this without anyone complaining. To the contrary, aside from the occasional comment in wonder about how strange modern life is - surely a sentiment with which it is difficult to disagree- I have been supported wholeheartedly, and I am very grateful for it.
Here would be a good place to ramble on for a while about the findings of the Conservative movement's study on gender and the rabbinate, but I think I'll hold off for another time.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

HOshanah Rabbah -not a sermon

So the last chol (non-holiday day) of Sukkot approaches. This holiday in which we honeymoon with God in a little beach-shack hideaway covered with a thatch roof and all, and what do we do on our last day before the big party begins and we celebrate finally getting to the end of that huge scroll... we take willow leaves and whack them on the ground until the fall apart. Not exactly the expected denouemont. And what is that anyway? If all those hoshannahs throughout sukkot where we march around singing hallel (praise) to martial tunes is really a war march, then are we beating our swords into plowshares? Or maybe the lulav is really a great big.... fertility symbol (hmmm, oval shaped citrus fruit, long tall palm branches, held together and waved back and forth in every - that is, six- direction) then if we beat the lulav on the ground, until it disintegrates, is that denying that we depend on the earth, and implying that we only depend upon God? Right, and then we wait for the rain to start to prove that we've been forgiven, since we've survived this extremely extended period of trepidation, waiting to see through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, whether or not God will take us back in love. The Honeymoon is on! Of course, here on the east coast, one has a somewhat anticlimactic feeling - especially in D.C where the swampy weather usually includes four days of rain per week. Post-sukkot rain isn't exactly a desperately awaited blessing. Still, maybe it will drive the bees away, so we can finally finish one of those outdoor meals.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Kol Nidre

Yom Kippur has two competing themes: we are sinners and we must afflict ourselves and repent; and: humans can become like angels – we wear white and put aside the needs of the body, like eating, bathing and sex. But actually, these two ideas are not opposed: they stem from the same root; our desire to rejoin with God as Beloved, to make ourselves worthy of the Great Love.
The Chassidic commentator, the Sfat Emet, said Yom Kippur is considered a foretaste of the world to come where there is no eating and drinking. Thus it is a day of true joy, for Israel, even though we aren't quite able to grasp that joy because we are still creatures of this world….Yom Kippur is a day of complete self-negation before God. The rabbis say on the verse (Jer. 17:13) “God is the hope – mikvah- of Israel.” That just as a mikvah purifies the ritually impure, so does God purify Israel. Just as a person has to enter the mikvah’s waters with the entire body, so does the entire self have to be negated before God.
In a sense, this seems completely bizarre – how could complete self-negation produce a day of great joy? But the truth is that Yom Kippur is preparation for the renewal of our wedding with God. The original wedding was at Sinai, which makes our anniversary Shavuot, but throughout the years, sometimes it’s not enough to just celebrate one’s anniversary. Sometimes we grow so used to one another, or tired of our usual ways that we feel a distance between us, and we have to work for reconciliation, for a new intimacy, and that, ultimately, is Sukkot, when we move back in together and relearn one another’s ways. But at Yom Kippur, we’re not there yet. We’re not ready. We have to prepare, and we prepare as if we were going to our wedding all over again. Just as the day before we marry we immerse ourselves in the mikvah, the ritual, living waters, to enter our new life joined together in purity, so do we do on Yom Kippur. In this case, it is our partner, God, who is the mikvah, and we immerse ourselves in God, in mikvat Yisrael, in hope, as we would in marriage, taking two individuals and making them one. What we don’t think about is that the reality is that we have always been one. Nothing in the world is separated from God, because the spark of God is in all that exists. But it takes a jolt to let us feel this secret in our bones. As on our wedding day, we fast, we leave behind the husks of our sins and become pure spirits, who are able to recognize our unity with God, our Beloved.
But fasting is not enough. Fasting is actually for when we are already prepared to celebrate and to be at one with God. Once we are fasting, we have already stepped into the realm of the neshama, the soul. But to get to that place, to cast off our own husks, we need the Yamim Noraim, the ten days of Awe and Terror, culminating with Kol Nidre before Yom Kippur even begins..
Kol Nidre is one of the more peculiar rituals of Jewish life. Dating back to sixteenth-century Spain, Kol Nidre is a declaration by which personal vows are cancelled. It was introduced into the liturgy despite the opposition of rabbinic authorities, and was repeatedly attacked in the course of time by many halakhists. In the nineteenth century it was actually expunged from the prayer-book by many communities of western Europe.
And there’s no surprise about why it has faced such ire from the rabbis; in its original form (still used by the Sephardic Jews) it was bad enough, absolving the vows of the past year, but in the form used by the Ashkenazim, it actually absolves Jews from vows in the upcoming year! Of course it was cited by non-Jews as evidence of the untrustworthiness of Jews. Say all you like about how Kol Nidre only affects vows between humans and God, and doesn’t affect at all those which concern other people; it looks suspicious, and inspires wariness.
But despite its looks, I believe that the people who have defended this custom for centuries have tapped into something important. In fact, Kol Nidre turns out to be liturgically integral to the mood of Yom Kippur, despite technically taking place before Yom Kippur begins.
Before sunset on the eve of the Day of Atonement, when the congregation has gathered in the synagogue, the Ark is opened and two rabbis, or two leading upstanding people in the community, take from it two Torah-scrolls. Then they take their places, one on each side of the Hazzan , and the three recite in concert a formula beginning with the words … "In the tribunal of heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God—blessed be He—and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with the transgressors."
These three individuals make up a beit din, a court, which has the power to release individuals from their vows. This practice is based on a passage from the pirkei de rab eliezer, that cites Shmot (Exodus) 17:10, that in the battle against Amalek, Moses went up to the top of a hill with Aaron and Khur, who supported Moshe’s hands as Moshe prayed to God for victory against Amalek. This is connected to Yom Kippur thematically as we enter the day prepared to do internal battle with our yetzer hara – our evil inclination, with which the great rabbi, Rav Solovitchik, identifies Amalek.
But what is Kol Nidre really? When we step before the beit din, the court, to be relieved of our vows, what we are really asking is to be untangled from words. Words are powerful – they are thought become action, and they are real, not just vapor that evaporates in a moment. Words are webs that bind us to one another, to the world, to the past and the future. This is not a bad thing; with words God created the universe – and us. Words, though, can also get in the way.
How many of us have spoken angry words to the people we love and regretted it later? Yet we find, somehow those words spoken in irritation bind us, we can’t get away from them. Now, personally, I’m a sulker. When I feel irritated, my response to my partner asking me if he can do anything is likely to be, “Leave me alone.” But that’s not what I really want. What I really want is to be coaxed out of my sulk and irritation with florid apologies and sweet words and extra attention. But once I say, “Leave me alone,” I’m bound to those words. Somehow I just can’t say, “I really want you to pay attention to me and be nice to me now.” And my partner is bound by those words, too. Once I say, “Leave me alone,” he has to leave me alone.
God, too, is bound by our bitter words. Through out the year, however much what we really want is God’s love and attention, somehow, we find a thousand ways to say to God, “Leave me alone.” And so what choice does God have? God seldom forces Herself on us. We usually have to choose God and ask God to be with us. And after a full year of hearing, “Leave me alone,” we have spun a web of words guaranteed to keep God away from us. That is why we need Kol Nidre. Kol Nidre doesn’t free us from our promises to other people, it only offers us an opportunity to take back all those “leave me alone”s that we threw at God. It is the chance to wipe the slate clean, so that on Yom Kippur, when we try to become fit to be God’s partner, God can take us back in love, our verbal wars as if they had never happened, our sulks over.
It is a risk to submit to Kol Nidre; to negate our words is to negate ourselves; to put aside our defenses, to be open to the risk of something new, of the untried and possibly disappointing. What if God doesn’t answer? What if our lover has become so tired of sparring with us that She’s gone to find someone new? But if we want intimacy, we have to put aside that thought and be willing to rebuild with a clean start, and risk being disappointed.
But I want to suggest something else, perhaps a bit heretical. God needs Kol Nidre too. Rav Soloveitchik on the Days of Awe cites a passage in the Talmud (Nedarim 66a) which says that if a person vows, “I will not marry this ugly person” and she was found to be beautiful, he is permitted to marry the woman, not because she was ugly and became beautiful, but because the vow was made in error.
Rav Soloveitchik cites a story from one of the kinot -lamnts- on Tishah B’av, in which Elijah came across a poor and dirty woman. He asked her who she was, and she told him “The congregation of Israel.” Elijah told her that she should wash herself off, and then she would be beautiful again.
How often can we hear, “Go away, Leave me alone,” over and over before we start to believe it? Every lie we tell, every word of disrespect to our teachers, every time we engage in gossip , every sin of speech – and Jews have as many words for verbal wrong as Eskimos have words for snow- is a way we tell God, “Go away, leave me alone,” even if what we want is for God to coax us back, to love us into giving up our flaws. But every time we sin through speech, we are taking a vow that we won’t turn to God, won’t say, “Come back, I love you and I want you here with me.”
God loves us, every wart and hiccup, but after we paint ourselves with mud and refuse, after we roll in sewage, after we spit at God and yell and cuss, even God grows tired and says, “I just can’t marry this person, they’re too ugly.” But after the Yamim Noraim, after we have cleaned ourselves and scrubbed off the sins of the year, God can see the glimmering underneath of beauty, then God can go to the beit din, and say, “I want to be released from my vow not to marry Israel. My vow was made in error, because I can see that she isn’t ugly, she’s beautiful – and I love her.” And the beit din sets God loose from God’s vow, and so on Yom Kippur, Israel can become beautiful like an angel, stripped on the body, only a radiating soul, and we can go off to the sukkah together.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Rabbi Al

Erev Rosh Hashanah

Erev Rosh Hashanah

In the Torah portion for the first day of RH, we begin with “And God remembered Sarah.”
As part of the haftarah as well, we read that after Hannah goes to pray, God remembered her.
For this first day of our holiday, both of the narratives that we read deal with women being given children, and being remembered by God.
It is curious that we find that the main story of Rosh Hashanah deals with women, and with God thinking of women, for so many of our central stories are about men – men and their sons, even, but on this day of great awe, of repentance and the beginning of the season of repentance, our new year begins with women, and their much desired child.

Why is this? The Torah says about Sarah that God pakad her, and for Hannah it says zechrah, but both mean that God took notice of them. We too, are beginning our year with hopes that God will remember us. And it is fitting that the model we hope that remembrance will be based upon is one of God remembering a woman- - for giving her a child- both of these women had been barren, and are given new hope for the future, that their houses will be built up. But we hope that God’s remembrance of the women will also reflect that the relationship between ourselves and God will be one of mercy, echoing the connection between rechem – womb, and rachamim – compassion, that God will look upon us as a mother does her child, especially a child long hoped for, and finally, after long desire, granted.

But there is another mother in our Torah portion, and we should not forget her, either. Hagar, who is turned out, with her son, into the wilderness, where she believes her son will die. The story here is structured somewhat oddly: it says that Hagar cried out (she lifted up her voice and wept). Then it says that God heard the voice of the youth – and the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What’s with you, Hagar, (Mah lach, Hagar?) -don’t fear because God has heard the voice of the youth where he is.”
How strange: Hagar cries out, and God’s messenger says that God has heard the youth’s voice. Could it be that here also is a message for RH? Like the call of the shofar, when Hagar cries, it is not only her own voice that God hears, but the voice of someone who cannot cry out for themself. On RH, we repent not only for ourselves, which, after all, we can do any time, but as a community. We take upon ourselves the task of crying out to God to save the community, not just to repent of our own deeds.

There are two lessons to be learned from these women: the first is that there are three models of longing and remembrance: there is Hannah’s model – the ideal. Hannah’s belief in God is strong, and when she is denied what she wants most, she goes and pours her heart out before God, so much so that the priest accuses her of being drunk. Perhaps, in a sense she is: drunk with God, like the Chasidim, whose relationships with God were very personal and intimate in a way we long for but far too seldom achieve today. In this mode, one Chasidic commentator, Reb Nachman, tells us that our relationship with God should be like that of a father and child - that like a child, we should simply demand –simply- what we want. But Hannah’s relationship isn’t a child tugging at your pantsleg saying “I’m hungry, feed me,” but rather like that of the child who comes crying to her mother because she has lost her doll and wants it found. The model of Hannah’s longing and God’s response is simple, direct and intimate –ask and receive.
Then there is Sarah: Sarah who is fiercely independent and yet has buried her desires so deeply that when messengers from God tell Abraham that she will get her desire, she laughs – perhaps there is a bit of bitterness about it – look at all that she has had to live through, and bury within her because of that desire, and then she laughs again when Isaac is born, because God has recognized her deepest desire without her ever being able to ask for it. Sarah’s nature is expressed in the name of her son Yitzchak – he will laugh- , whose laughter is at times simple, and at others, bitter. Sarah’s model of longing is bitterness and suppression – a longing no longer spoken, but answered anyway, through God’s grace, a face turned away from God.
And then there is Hagar: Hagar who before her is only pain. She sees before her only the possibility of death, and cries out – perhaps not even to God, perhaps only involuntarily, like someone who is physically hurt, as they experience that pain, and God answers her by addressing the source of her pain, without her knowing that she has asked for it. –So God couches Her answer in terms of answering Hagar’s son – even though it is really Hagar, and Hagar’s cry that is addressed. Hagar’s model is pure pain-in-the-moment, to the extent that she doesn’t even recognize that it is she who is in pain, and so God answers indirectly, but in a way that satisfies Hagar’s needs without putting her in the spotlight, so to speak.

The second lesson is to remind us of that of who asks God for mercy, God answers us all: Hannah is the model Jew. She goes to the Temple and prays before God –she is emotional, she is expressive, and she uses language which falls within the linguistic paradigms of prayer, the same kind of language that we find in psalms. Then there is Sarah – she has turned her back away – not that she refuses God, but she no longer counts on God to answer her deepest prayer, and finally there is Hagar, who is not a Jew at all, but a stranger. Not only that, but a stranger who has wronged Sarah, to the extent that Sarah cannot bear to have her around, nor her child, and has tried to expel her from her presence. Her prayer, too, is answered.

On Rosh Hashanah, we too, stand before God, crying out our longing and revealing our deepest desires. Some of us are that model Jew, Hannah, who can weep before God in the same ecstasy that the Chasidim had, knowing that our prayers will be answered, and our desires fulfilled. More of us are Sarah, who feel that our prayers have gone unanswered so long that there’s no chance that anyone will ever answer them. But most of us are
Hagar, we can’t even express ourselves well; inarticulate, we’ve wandered in, full of involuntary responses to the pains of our lives, with only the instinctive response to cry out. And so on the High Holidays every year, we wonder what on earth we’re doing here in these big packed shuls, and what everyone else is doing here in these big packed shuls. We no longer even can name the impulse that drives us here – is it guilt? sentiment? Or is it something else; perhaps it is our desire buried deep within us to call out in the hope that there will be a response.

And so we come here, to hear the sobbing voice of the shofar, crying out for us, crying like Hannah, like Sarah, like Hagar, as we rejoin for a moment of the year, the community, so that we can raise up our voice in a roar of sorrow and pain for the things that were not right this year, that we hope will change in the future, a great sobbing cry that lifts the hairs on our necks and rises up to God, so that our one voice can rouse the rachamim, the mercy of God, that God’s rechem, womb, will open for us, and will give birth to something new, a year of forgiveness, and hope and reconciliation. A year in which we can learn to cry out to God, and hear God cry out to us, as well. Perhaps this year, when God remembers us, we, too, will remember God.

Second Day sukkot

At the end of the Torah portion we read today it says in Vayikra 23: 42-43

42. You shall dwell in Sukkot seven days; all who are citizens in Israel shall live in Sukkot;
43. in order That your future generations will know that I caused the people of Israel to live in Sukkot, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

The talmud records a dispute among the rabbis about what these sukkot actually were: one Rabbi tells us, "They were real sukkot," but another says, no, these sukkot were actually the clouds of glory that followed the Israelits through the wilderness (Sifra Emor on Sukkah 2:a).
Although the sukkot being "real sukkot" initially seems to be a much more prosaic interpretation, the Chasidic commentator the Sfat Emet says that this is actually a reference to where the talmud explains, "Go out of your fixed dwelling and live in this temporary shelter," means that every Jew was given the freedom when we left Egypt not to be stuck in the ways of nature.
When the Torah says, "I caused the children of Israel to live in Sukkot when I brought them forth" it means that God implanted in the hearts of Israel the power to escape the prison of the body and nature, to dwell in this world as temporary visitors. -That is, just as the sukkot are temporary dwellings, we are in the world in "temporary dwellings" -our bodies- in the sense that we are not limited to living like animals, with no way of escaping the patterns of nature.
It seems to me that in a way, this is a major message of the entire Jewish calendar year. The secular world tells us that we must act in certain ways because "it's natural" - that can mean anything from, "It's the natural order of things to have the poweful rule over the weak." to becoming inured to the constant bombardment of highly sexualized messages that we get on billboards, television, movies and from magazines to internalizing the ridiculous gender roles that are so prevalent in our society. We're used to thinking of whatever the status quo is as natural - it's hard to think of the world we live in in truly revolutionary ways; yet that IS a message of Judaism.
The beginning of our year really begins with Pesach - the exodus fom Egypt, in which we recieve the most powerful message of all about revolution: God hears the cry of the oppressed, and enables us to overcome the so-called "natural order" when we hold the vision of God's ideal before us. The Torah is a set of rules for living that sets us free - not as our secular world understands freedom, "free to do whatever we want," but rather free to serve God. And truly, that is the most unnatural thing there is. Judaism is a revolutionary religion becasue it denies that we are bound to the world, to doing the same thing over and over again, that we cannot fulfil God's ideal for us.
Some religions deny the world entirely, proclaiming the body sinful - or even unreal- and humans mired in sin, so that the only way to escape is to deny this life, whether that means an afterlife or nirvana, but Judaism doesn't accept this view. Rather, within our sukkot - our frame of nature letting in nature- we strive towards perfection. That's why "Free to serve God" is a vision not of rights, but of responsibilities. That's a difficult vision to implement, because it requires moral agency of everyone. It means that there is no one who can say that a particular act is okay just because it doesn't affect anyone else. There is no such thing. You can never say, "Well, I'm only hurting myself, so I can do what I want." beause you're never only hurting yourself. When you hurt yourself, you hurt God, and you hurt the world, as well, which relies upon you to make it a place fit for God to dwell in.
Sukkot reminds us of that message. It is the natural order for some to have more than others; it is the natural order for the powerful to rule over the weak. But Sukkot is different. On Sukkot we live in fragile temporary dwellings - everyone, powerful and weak alike, and this reminds us of how very little difference there is -in reality- between the powerful and the weak. All of us live, ultimately, in the same fragile vessel of our body, and we survive in our fragile vessels by grace, not by our own power and will. At any moment, the wind can come and blow us over, and the most powerful among us can do nothing to prevent it. -I imagine that's a message particularly poignant to those living in hurricane land right now-
But despite our fragility, we do have choices. These delicate vessels are full of God's power. Like the kabbalists who imagined the universe as a vessel so full of God's power that they can't contain God, and shatter, spilling sparks throughout the universe, we too, are vessels full of God's power.
We need not settle for the the world as it is. The booths may be fragile, but they aren't - at their heart - natural. They are the beginnings of a new structure. That's why Sukkot is the culmination an conclusion of the High holidays. On Sukkot we return from the realm of the angels - we DO need to eat and drink and wash, we can't live every day as we do on Yom Kippur; but the realm of the Sukkah, the human world, is also God's creation. Its imperfections are a place for us to build. There's a story of a king who had a beautiful ruby. The king used to take it out and admire the ruby all the time - one day he noticed that the ruby was actually not perfect - it had an enormous flaw - a long thick fracture down its middle. He called jewelers from all over the world - all the best people, all the most skilled, and aked them to repair the flaw. They all told him what he asked was impossible, that flaws in gems are simply permanent, and there's nothing we can do about them. But finally, one day, a jeweler came to the palace and told the king: "I can fix the jewel." The king gave it to him, and the man spent several days locked up with the Ruby. When he came back, h handed the ruby to the king and bowed. The king took the ruby from his hand, and saw that the jeweler had carved a rose into the ruby, and from the long fracture in the stone, he had carved the stem, making the ruby even more beautiful than before.
A house that's not a house; a window that looks out both on this, our human world, and also the higher worlds: that is what a sukkah is. The Torah says " I caused the people of Israel to live in Sukkot, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt," The Sfat Emet added to his explanation a verse from Shmot, 'They traveled form Raamses to Sukkot (Ex. 12:37)'. The rabbis explain this verse by alluding to a verse elsewhere in Shmot, 'I have raised you up on eagles wings and brought you unto Me (Ex. 19:4)' -God gave them the power to be high above nature, complete with wings with which to fly to their father in Heaven."
Why build a building with no real ceiling? We are only permitted to put natural coverings on our roof, but we have to be able to see the sky through it. Why? We may think that the natural world limits us, but we can see the sky though it; it's open - when we recognise that God brings us out of Egypt into Sukkot, then we understand that God can raise us up, right through that natural covering, which in the end is rather flimsy. When we recognise our capacity for change, God will raise us up on Eagles wings, and we will build a new home, in which the world is a place of justice and beauty. Let us go and dwell inthe Sukkot, let us leave our ceilings open, and see the possibilities for change. May God's face shine through the roof upon us in blessing.