Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – October, 2011

I don’t need to expend a huge amount of effort to convince most of you that the synagogue experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not “fun.” Yet, you also understand that it is an important experience – otherwise, you would not come. As a narrow snapshot of Jewish life, the High Holiday experience is psychologically valuable, when done right. However, it is incomplete. Life is not just about the serious moments … it is also about the playful moments. A view of Jewish life that includes only Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is distorted towards the serious and heavy. I invite and encourage you to capture the other side of the emotional scale, the side of Sukkot and Simhat Torah. The singing, dancing, and eating of Simhat Torah are the antidote for the chanting and sitting (or standing and prostrating) of the earlier holidays.

Jews are an intellectual bunch. We tend to be excessively proud of educational accomplishments and the number of Jewish Nobel prize winners. Judaism values study. However, Judaism also values action. Judaism done right is more than an intellectual activity – it is a celebration of life. Simhat Torah provides balance. It is about Torah, but it is not intellectual. It is experiential. It is about using our bodies and our breath as in the Shabbat poem Nishmat kol chai, “The breath of all that lives praises you, Adonai our God” (page 334, Siddur Sim Shalom). From our limbs to our tongues, from our knees to our back, our songs, our lips, our eyes and heart – all join together to “laud, praise, extol, exalt, and sing [God’s] holiness and sovereignty.”

Sukkot breaks us out of our normal pattern of service and worship of God through primarily intellectual channels, to a more physical expression of our commitment to a Jewish life. We cannot fulfill the obligation to eat in the Sukkah by conceptualizing the role of the Sukkah in Jewish tradition, or discussing the historical context of its development. We can only do the mitzvah by putting our body into it, say a berakha, and eating something.

The physical labor I bring to building and decorating a Sukkah each year is as important to me as the money I give to Tzedakah or the time I spend in shul praying or studying. It is very easy in this world of offices, parking lots, highways, and cars, to forget the glory and power of the world around us. Our buildings are solid, our cars have powerful engines, and it is very easy to forget just how fragile we and our lives really are. All it takes is an earthquake a flood, a tsunami, a famine, or a hurricane to remind us of the power of nature. As I sit in a fragile Sukkah, open to the elements, I am very conscious of the physicality of my being. When I say shehehe’yanu on that first night, I am better able to appreciate the miracle of my existence because of the physical effort I put into constructing the Sukkah.

I wish you all a meaningful and joyous Yom Tov.

Sukkot and the Artprize Competition

Divre Harav – November, 2010 – Sukkot and the Artprize Competition

Part of the mission of Congregation Ahavas Israel is to be a resource for people who want to explore a Jewish path to God.   As a congregation, we have presented various educational outreach programs to teach members of the Christian community about Jewish holidays and rituals.   Our Passover Seder Experience has been a very successful outreach program, teaching church communities about the elements of an authentic Seder.  My sense is that most Christians have heard of Hanukkah and Yom Kippur, although they may not really know the significance of the holidays.  However, to most people outside of the Jewish community, Sukkot is completely unknown.  They don’t realize that holiday that their Bible calls the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths is still celebrated by the Jewish community in much the same way as it was thousands of years ago.

This past September, to raise Sukkot awareness, a competition called Sukkah City took place in New York.  Rules were published outlining how to build a Sukkah according to halakha.  Entries were submitted.  Twelve finalists were chosen by a panel of jurors.  The finalists were invited to build and display the sukkot in Union Square Park.  One winner was chosen by popular vote.  Does this remind you of a little competition we held here in Grand Rapids, called Artprize?  The organizers and funders of Sukkah city want to expand the competition to cities around the world next year.

During Sukkot, I, like many of you, enjoyed the Artprize competition.  I enjoyed walking around looking at the variety of pieces of art. At some point it occurred to me that Artprize would be a great opportunity to teach about Sukkot.

I am imagining a Sukkah decorated outside and inside with prose and poetry and pictures about the meaning of the Sukkah, the message of the Sukkah and by extension the message of Judaism.  It would be an exploration of homelessness and insecurity versus permanence and rootedness.  It would explore the roots of the American Thanksgiving, and the growing interest in food production and community supported agriculture.

I am not an artist, an engineer, or a carpenter.  This is not a project that I have the skills to coordinate.  I’m just tossing out the idea to see if anyone is up for designing a Sukkah and entering it into the Artprize competition next year.  I’m envisioning a small committee, sponsored by the synagogue, of a few people to design and build the structure, and a few people to create the messages on the walls.  If this is an idea that appeals to you, please contact me.  I will help you create an ad hoc committee to get started in preparation for next year’s Artprize.