Sukkot – Overcoming Depression with Joy

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks delivered a shiur in London, in honor of the launch of the Koren Machzor for Sukkot. Our shul is fortunate to have been gifted with this new edition and some of Rabbi Sacks’ words are pertinent specifically to the Shabbat that falls during the week of Sukkot.

It is customary among Ashkenazi congregations to read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) during this Shabbat of Sukkot. The connection of Kohelet to Sukkot is not readily evident, as Sukkot is known to be a time of joy, while Solomon explores the depressing notion of mortality throughout the book. Kohelet would be the last book one would expect to be chosen to accompany this festival of joy. It speaks of the futility of all our endeavours, the transience of all human accomplishments. It depicts our pursuit of even wisdom as meaningless. Why do we read this book at this time?

A deeper understanding certain elements of Kohelet, as well as a deeper understanding of Sukkot, reveal similarities between the two and enable us to appreciate why Kohelet was chosen to reflect the nature of the festival more than any other book.

Solomon, the author of this book, appears to have been embroiled in an existential crisis. He had everything material a human being could wish for. In the second chapter Solomon recounts everything he had accumulated. He had countless wealth and inestimable power. He had amassed property and developed gardens and orchards filled with all types of fruits. He had fashioned irrigation canals to supply entire forests with water. He had innumerable slaves and vast herds of livestock. He had achieved wisdom beyond what any human had ever thought possible. And his greatest accomplishment was the great Temple in Jerusalem which attracted visitors from near and far to witness its glory. And yet he found no meaning in any of it. He was depressed by the temporality of it all; he found no purpose since nothing under the sun had any permanence. Even those accomplishments which would outlast him Solomon would not be there to see. His fear of death, the one thing he could not conquer, had driven him to attempt and overcome his mortality in all of these ways and he found all these attempts to be futile. He could not prevail over death.

But Solomon did find his answer. Solomon ultimately overcame his obsession with death and this is reflected in his writings in Kohelet. The Hebrew word for joy is simcha. This word appears 16 times in the Torah. Once in each of the first four books of the Torah and 12 times in Deuteronomy. Yet in Kohelet, seen as a depressing narrative, the word appears 17 times, making joy a more prominent theme in Kohelet than it is in the Torah. Happiness is the one way through which Solomon found he could beat death. Rejoicing with the wife one loves, enjoying today and not thinking about tomorrow, all emphasized in the 9th chapter, those are the keys to this conquest. One has to live in the moment if one is to transcend the mortality of life.

And this is precisely the idea of Sukkot. We practice the idea of living in the moment thereby achieving the joy that defines Sukkot. The basic halachic definition of a Sukkah is that it is a temporary structure, here today and gone tomorrow. Like a human being in the temporary dwelling of a body, we step into the temporary structure of a Sukkah and embrace that temporality, thinking only about here and now, an oasis of joy surrounded by a tempest of trouble and heartache. This momentary joy is the one thing that is stronger than death, the lesson eventually discovered by Solomon. It is precisely through sitting in this rickety, windblown structure that our joy can become whole.

There is a famous dispute cited in the Talmud probing what the festival of Sukkot commemorates. “In order that your generations know that I made the children of Israel to sit in Sukkot when I took them out of Egypt.” (Leviticus 23:43) Rabbi Eliezer posits that the our Sukkah commemorates the clouds of glory which surrounded the Israelites throughout their sojourn in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva maintains that the Torah means it literally, and the Mitzvah of Sukkah dwelling commemorates the actual Sukkah structures in which our ancestors dwelled in the wilderness.

Both positions are problematic. If Rabbi Eliezer is correct, why does the Torah not simply say clouds? Why mask the true meaning if the reference is to the clouds of glory? And Rabbi Akiva’s position doesn’t fare much better. What significance is there to the fact that the Israelites dwelled in huts? Is there some miracle in that choice of abode? Even if there were some miracle in that, it is factually incorrect! The children of Israel livedĀ in tents, not huts. Balaam’s blessing articulates the beauty of the formation of tents of Israel’s settlements.

Rabbi Sacks explains that the discussion in the Talmud does not actually revolve around the dwellings of the children of Israel but the dwelling of God in the wilderness. Sukkah refers to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, over which a cloud constantly hovered. Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the Festival of Sukkot commemorates that cloud while Rabbi Akiva believes that Sukkot commemorates the structure of the Tabernacle. Both agree that it is not the dwellings of the children of Israel but the House of God in the Wilderness which we are commemorating.

Solomon tried to make permanent this House of God. He moved God’s dwelling from its “tent of meeting” to a permanent structure of cedar and stone. But God had never asked to be moved. When David informed the prophet Nathan that he intended to build a house for God Nathan had a prophecy from God. “Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day; I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (Second book of Samuel 7:5-7)

In the first half of Solomon’s life, as documented in Kohelet, Solomon thought death could be overcome by permanence. He was therefore troubled that the house of God was a temporary structure and he set out to correct this and established a permanent structure for God. Later in life Solomon came to realize that there is no permanence. the Temple he had built as a permanent home for God was destroyed twice. Yet the tent, the temporary house of God which all of our synagogues emulate, is timeless and indestructible. It is precisely the temporal which transcends mortality. It is the Sukkah that provides this environment, the perfect condition for rejoicing.


Vayelech – Shabbat Shuva

It is customary in the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to perform the ritual of Kaparot, involving a symbolic transfer of one’s guilt upon some valuable, either upon money, which is then donated to charity, or upon a hen or rooster, which is then slaughtered and given to the poor. The object of Kaparot, whether a sum of money, a fish or hen, is waved over one’s head while designating the object to take one’s place, assume one’s guilt and provide atonement.

The practice of Kaparot dates back many centuries and is considered of great importance and effect by the mystics. It is one of the more popular practices in Jewish life, possibly due to the mystique around the ritual. The waving of a chicken around one’s head generates significant interest, both from those who adamantly oppose the practice as well as Jews who fervently promote it. During the days before Yom Kippur street corners or empty lots in large Jewish communities are taken over by organizers of Kaparot. Stacks of chicken crates are delivered and lines of people form to purchase the live birds and perform the ritual. The “used” birds are set aside for slaughter and a shochet is engaged to dispatch them.

On the other side of the aisle there are many opposed to using chickens for this practice, either on halachic grounds or because of animal rights. Some scholars of note, namely the Rashba and Ramban, both of the 13th century, considered this practice to have pagan origins and therefore discouraged people from using chickens for Kaparot. Even Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Code of Jewish Law writes that this is “a foolish custom that one should avoid.” Nevertheless, the custom is well established and the practice continues today promoted by many religious Jews (not least opportunists who organize the business side and bring home a pretty penny from the venture).

Like the practice of Tashlich and the simanim of Rosh Hashana, Kaparot utilizes symbolism to engender awareness of a particular concept and encourage us to follow through in concrete ways. The notion of transferring one’s guilt – for which one may be liable for death – onto a chicken, and then watching that chicken slaughtered, could be a jarring experience. Its objective is to inspire real repentance and urge us to take stock of our direction in life and re-calibrate. From such a perspective it is similar to a sacrificial offering in the Temple, and this is one of the objections some scholars have for the practice – it too closely resembles a sacrifice.

The other element of kaparot, however, and the main purpose of the practice, is the charity element. Whether one waves money over one’s head and declares it one’s exchange and atonement, or whether one waves a chicken and makes the same proclamation, the proceeds go to feed the poor and fulfil the Mitzvah of charity. Charitable giving is one of the three powerful keys to achieving the atonement and betterment of self to which we aspire. During the Rosh Hashana prayers, and again on Yom Kippur, the three keys are mentioned – Repentance, Prayer and Charity, which serve to deflect bad decrees which are otherwise destined to befall us.

If we try and step into God’s shoes for a moment, and observe things from His perspective, we would see a world full of people in various stages of their life mission. Assuming we would have the computing capacity to instantly identify each of the billions of people on earth, and analyze their respective challenges and choices, we might be prone to judge people harshly. But we take a great deal of comfort from our tradition that God accounts for society’s delicate ecology. The events that occur to one person have ripple effects on all his or her relations and associated friends. This is an important idea, and it is promoted by one of the great scholars of ethics during the 19th century, Rabbi Yisrael of Salant. He makes the point that the single most effective tool for good judgment is being indispensable to others. The more one is intertwined with community and with other people generally, the more one uses one’s faculties and resources to contribute to others, the more impact one’s fate will have on others. Taken individually we might have less claim to prosperity and good health and all the other blessings we pursue and demand. But in the context of what we contribute to society the equation changes. If I use my resources to support worthy causes God will preserve those resources – not necessarily for my sake but for the sake of those who benefit from my good stewardship.

This is why charity is so fundamental a tool during this time. Of course it is the fulfilment of our mandate to share our God given resources, and that alone is a precious merit to call upon during this time. But it also helps widen our circle of influence and changes the algorithm God uses to decide our fate. Losing our faculties and resources would harm not only our individual self but all those who would be impacted by our inability to continue to share those resources.


Rosh Hashanah – Kiddush of Another Kind

The first Mitzvah commanded to the people of Israel as a nation was the Mitzvah of consecrating the new moon and establishing the new month thereby. While yet in Egypt this was transmitted to the nation, as the tracking of time is what enables the observance of all date-related events. No festival could be properly celebrated without having a calendar to determine the day of its observance, and no calendar could function without an established system for defining the month.

At first the determination of the new month was established by the high court on the basis of the testimony of those who had sighted the new moon. The judges of the court, expert in the astronomical orbit of the moon, would interrogate the witnesses to ensure what they had sighted was indeed the early crescent of the new moon, based on its position in the sky and the direction of the crescent. This system served the nation well from the Exodus through the most of the second commonwealth. Consecration of the month in this fashion is called kiddush al pi re’iyah, sanctification by means of observation.

With the end of the second commonwealth there was a weakening of the court’s authority and it was no longer possible to continue this method of consecrating the new month through witnesses. The calendar, however, could not be abandoned. The sages devised an alternative method of consecrating the month on the basis of astronomical calculations. Using their expertise of the moon’s pattern of orbit, its waxing and waning, these scholars developed a precise calendar projecting when each new month would occur far into the future. This method effectively replaced the former system of witnesses which, while being the Torah’s ideal manner of consecrating the month, was no longer viable. The calendar now was set in place by fixed calculations. The new month was now consecrated by means of calculation, kiddush al pi cheshbon.

Rabbi Norman Lamm portrays these two types of consecration, kiddush on the basis of sight and kiddush on the basis of calculation, as symbolic of the experience of Jewish life. At first, a full Jewish life could be experienced by immersion in society, whose values and rhythm reflected Torah lifestyle. Religious culture pulsated through the arteries of that society, enabling any Jew to live a full Jewish life even without attaining scholarship of the Torah’s texts and lore. A Jew’s life was consecrated, in other words, by means of observation, sight and experience. His life was consecrated through kiddush al pi re’iyah, just as the new moon was originally consecrated.

With the passage of time, however, Jewish life eroded and its values were supplanted by those of larger cultures invading the space and mind frames of Jewish civilization. It was insufficient to rely on absorption of religious values and truths from the surrounding atmosphere. The Jews were dispersed, the Temple, which had functioned as the center of spiritual life, was destroyed. Jews were now immersed in cultures vastly different to that which the Torah espoused. How were Jews to remain consecrated? How could they replace the former means of transmission of values and lifestyle?

An alternative means was utilized, a kiddush al pi cheshbon, a consecration on the basis of calculation. No longer could a Jew ignorant of Torah and its accompanying literature survive as a fully participating member of religious society. One had to be consecrated through the intellectual calculations found in the texts of the Talmud. The pursuit of study was the answer devised to provide attachment to the roots of Judaism formerly accessed merely by sight and observation. Parallel to the alternative means of consecrating the new moon, this consecration requires more personal investment. Remaining attached to the root of Judaism can no longer be taken for granted and is lost through laxity and ignorance of what the faith means.

Rabbi Lamm cites a Hassidic interpretation of a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot. Three things must be remembered in order that one be safe from sin. “Know what is above you, there is a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all of your deeds are written in a book.” The simple meaning of the Mishnah is that God is Omniscient and nothing escapes His attention. A Hassidic interpretation, however, takes away an entirely different message. Know what is above you – know what came before you. A seeing eye – a time when one had only to see and observe in order to absorb the values and and mores of a Torah mandated lifestyle. Even when that era passed it was still possible to gain from the listening ear – one could learn of the pervasive Jewish culture from those who had experienced it. Listening to the experiences of those who had been there is next best to seeing it oneself. But this era passed as well. In our time all our deeds are written in a book – the only way to preserve our character as Jews is to maintain close familiarity with the great literature written in the many volumes of Talmud and Jewish lore.


Nitzavim – Constant Change

In the first chapter of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 1:4) Solomon states: “A generation departs and a generation arrives and the earth survives forever.” I recently saw a unique interpretation cited by Rabbi Wein. This verse is most simply taken to address human mortality in the face of an unchanging world. People come and go but the universe prevails. It is also possible, however, to interpret the verse as teaching that the survival of the world is enabled by the constant renewal of its population. A generation departs and a generation arrives, thereby allowing the world to remain vital.

The destruction of a massive forest fire somehow leaves in its wake the seeds of even more lush and flourishing trees. The fall of an empire gives rise to other opportunities and makes room for other peoples and ideas to leave their mark on civilization. A revolution destroys one administration and societal framework but it is the energy mobilized by that movement which carries on and builds a stronger, more fair and equitable government.

We tend to see chaos as strictly negative; we lament the demise of organizations and entities which have long existed and have contributed so much to life in this world. And so we should. We are finite beings, our presence in the world spans only limited decades and we fear that decline spells the end. In the big picture, however, through the lens of an historian or from God’s perspective of even the present, everything is merely part of a larger process. The wheels of history grind exceedingly slow but they grind exceedingly fine, to quote Churchill. A Galaxy tablet and a clay tablet cannot coexist in a learning environment. One must give up its place to the other. It’s what allows the world to survive.

But the changes we initiate must always be grounded in the infinite and unchanging. There is plenty of room for innovation within the parameters of Torah values and without departing from ideals enshrined by our traditions. Judaism today thrives in context of modernity. The powers of modern technology have been harnessed to enhance the transmission of Torah rather than diminish it. From the 15th century printing press and throughout the industrial age every advancement has been embraced and utilized by Jewish leaders to enable Jews everywhere to be their best. Digital technology only increases the reach and potential of Torah fulfilment. In an age of accelerated change our values provide grounding for us, defining how it can be used and what its limits should be.

The Torah reading begins this week with the words “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord, your God, the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, all men of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 29:9) Despite all the tribulations of 40 years in the wilderness, despite having very few constants the people remain standing before God because they have been able to adapt, to evolve. And because they succeeded in accepting their circumstances the world could also continue to thrive.


Ki Tetze – Lost and Straying

One of the many Mitzvot appearing in Ki Tetze’s reading is the responsibility to return the lost property of another. The Torah instructs us also to pre-empt such a loss of another by being vigilant and thoughtful regarding any property that is in danger of becoming lost.

“If you see the ox of your brother or his sheep going astray you must not ignore them; you must return them to your brother. If your brother is not near you and you do not know him, then gather it inside your house, and it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it and you will return it to him.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-2)

The basic requirement apparent from the verses is to be observant of any item which might have gone missing from the possession of another. The Torah warns that we must not ignore it, and Rashi explains that one is forbidden from pretending one has not seen it in order to be free of responsibility for it. Rather, one must be proactive in assuming responsibility for it, even looking after a lost object for an extended period of time, until its owner is found.

While there are numerous details to the Mitzvah its basic gist is very clear: Returning a lost object is a sensible and logical obligation, a manifestation of property rights that others are obligated to uphold.

The commentaries apply this Mitzvah a bit further, taking it outside of the realm of our possessions. The Ohr Hachaim declares that the Mitzvah is equally applicable to people who are “lost.” If one perceives that another person has lost his or her way, and one can help steer one in the right direction, one has an obligation to do so and may not ignore the circumstances. This may even require a long term commitment, such as “gathering [him] into your home,” in order to help that person find his way back. More specifically, the Ohr Hachaim applies this to one who has lost his way spiritually. Another Jew, identifying that the other is straying from the path, has a duty to try and influence his return. Accordingly, the phrase ‘gather it inside your house,’ would refer to the house of study. It is incumbent upon each of us to help inspire our lost brethren to find their spiritual way home.

The Prophet Isaiah, in the section we read for the Haftarah on Yom Kippur, expresses our obligation to care for others as follows: “To the hungry you shall offer your bread, and the poverty stricken you shall bring home; when you see the naked you shall cover him; do not ignore the plight of your brethren.” (58:7)

Here too, we can read the verse as referring to the spiritual state of man. Our sages identify ‘bread” as Torah. In that context the hungry for bread are those who are spiritually malnourished. When the prophet delineates what the Lord wants from us, expressing sorrow over our failures, it is the disregard for the plight of our own brethren that strikes most poignantly. Not only what is physical lacking requires our care, but also the emotional needs and spiritual vacuum which we are in a position to help fill. The warm feeling of a full stomach, the security and comfort of a home, the protection and dignity afforded by a cloak – these are not exclusively physical, but equally applicable to the psychology of man. The warmth, security and dignity which we are admonished to provide to those lacking will not only fulfil the needs of those lacking but will also refine our own character into the person we are meant to be.

In a spiritual sense these elements are also necessary. Providing for another the warm feeling of belonging to a rich heritage, showing one the secure place he occupies in the home of our faith and cloaking him with the dignity of having purpose in life, those are key to the spiritual well-being of which the prophet is speaking. Since mankind is created by God and, endowed with a soul, begins life as a very spiritual being, bringing one back to a state of spiritual awareness fulfils the obligation of returning a lost item to its owner.


Shoftim – Extremely Moderate

A verse appears in this week’s Torah reading of Shoftim, which aptly describes Jewish tradition and religious authority as it has been transmitted through mainstream Jewish life for millennia. Most Jews who have remained loyal to that tradition will not find it peculiar in the least, but others might struggle with this concept in an age which gives unprecedented choice and independence to the individual.

“According to the instructions that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you act; you must not deviate from the matter that they tell you, right or left.” (Deuteronomy 17:11)

The Torah is addressing an instance where one has a doubt regarding the correct course of action, whether it relates to a ritual, a law, or a dispute with another Jew. One then ascends to the “place that the Lord, your God will choose,” and approach the “priests, and the judge who will be in those days” to clarify the matter under question. The following verse relates that one must heed the decision given by that judicial body or the authority and follow everything instructed. The verse then continues with the words cited above, warning that one must not deviate from those instructions, to the right or to the left.

It is not clear from the verses whether the matter dealt with, in which strict adherence to the religious authority is demanded, is confined to matters of halacha and religious import, or if they extend beyond that to any rulings issued by such authorities. In practice there is a spectrum of tradition, with some Jews following halachic guidance on every life matter and some who limit their interactions with religious authorities to matters of halacha.

Whatever the scope may be, the Torah demands no deviation from these instructions “to the right or the left.” Rashi cites the Midrash which interprets these words to mean that adherence is required even if the sages issue instructions that are empirically incorrect, even if they tell you that the right is left or that left is right!

A well known story occurred in Prague, during the time Rabbi Yechezkel Landau served as its rabbi. It was Passover and the rabbi received intelligence that some anti-Semitic bakers had devised a plan to harm the Jewish community. Knowing that immediately after Passover the Jews would flood the market to purchase bread, they planned to mix some poison into the dough to be sold on that day. The rabbi issued an edict that Passover must be observed for an additional day due to an error in the calendar. The entire Jewish community of Prague observed the restrictions of Passover for an additional day, averting the disaster of poisoned bread. Surely many Jews were scholars themselves and could very well have ignored the ruling of Rabbi Landau. Yet no one questioned his authority on this matter, which enabled the Jewish community to avoid the terrible effects of the bakers’ conspiracy.

There is another way to read this verse, to which I was enlightened by a colleague. Maimonides teaches that we must pursue a path of moderation in life, avoiding extremes in any direction. Maimonides calls this the golden path. He teaches that one must be measured in every area. Being extremely tight-fisted is inappropriate, for example, but excessive generosity can be equally harmful. This idea is expressed in our verse, demanding that we not veer to the right or the left. The Torah has no space for radicals on the right or the left. The Torah’s view is holistic, its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. There is always room for the “other” and we can ill afford to be driven by single-minded extremism in any direction.


Re’eh – Decisions by the Thousands

The opening words of Parshat Re’eh present the tension of life, the constant struggle we have in making correct and ethical choices. Research has shown that the average adult makes 35,000 decisions each day, the vast majority of those being instant and subconscious. The Torah here admonishes us and reminds us that there are good and bad choices, right and wrong, moral and immoral.

Rabbi A.J. Twerski, in his introduction to his commentary on The Path of the Just, cites the Talmudic statement in Eruvin 110b: Rabbi Yochanan teaches, had the Torah not been given, we still would have learned the value of modesty from the cat, the value of property rights from the ant, the value of fidelity from the dove, and appropriate sexual conduct from the rooster.

These animals have inherent traits from which we can glean lessons. Rashi explains that a cat retreats to a private place to relieve itself and it then covers the evidence. Ants store a great deal of food for the winter but the ants from one colony never take from the storehouse of another colony. Doves remain faithful and do not seek other mates, while roosters spread their wings as a way of coaxing and introducing their affection prior to mating.

Why, asks Rabbi Twerski, would we be drawn specifically to these animals to learn appropriate character traits? There are many other animals with opposite natures, animals with no regard for the food stores of another and no sense of fidelity or modesty. Might we just as well have learned to emulate those animals?

Rabbi Twerski explains, based on a verse in Ecclesiastes, that people have an innate sense of propriety, a Kantian notion of what is right and just, and we therefore would intuitively know which traits are appropriate to emulate and which are not. It would thus suffice to have just one creature which models a moral trait, and we would know to follow that example and not others.

While this seems to speak to the conscious decisions we make, the vast majority of our daily choices are not conscious. These choices are steered by ingrained habits and inculcated values as well as survival instincts. A person who puts greed and self-advancement first will, after a time, integrate those values to a point of self-definition. Myriad subconscious decisions automate from those values. Conversely, people who practice integrity and kindness, fostering habits of honesty and morality, will find their subconscious decisions guided by those characteristics and values.

At the end of the day, tens of thousands of daily decisions are formed and set into motion by our personal values and the habits we develop. Being conscious of that and taking action to define ourselves by moral positions and attitudes is nothing less than what the Torah demands from us. The true blessings and curses emanating from our choices are not the material benefits but the definition of self that they reflect.